Welcome back to our ongoing coverage of CanJam SoCal 2022 which not only had the largest attendance of any CanJam, but also the most vendors, which means that we will have several more reports before we are done. We would like to extend special thanks to our good friend Walter Liederman of Underwood HiFi, https://underwoodhifi.com, the best place to find high-end audio at affordable prices, for his generous support in sponsoring our show coverage.
“Well, they say the sky’s the limit
And to me that’s really true, ah
But, my friend, you have seen nothin’
Just wait ’til I get through“
~ From “Bad” by Michael Jackson
I didn’t head into CanJam SoCal 2022 with plans of writing an article. I was approached about halfway through by my dear friend Frank Iacone inquiring if I might want to write again. I had actually been thinking about it in the recent weeks and said I would give it a shot. Headphone.guru is a proud sponsor of CanJam SoCal 2022 so I immediately felt underprepared. That evening over dinner in my hotel room I tried to formulate a new plan. In the end, I decided it was too late and decided to complete what I started. The following isn’t a comprehensive show report but it is my experience at the largest CanJam so far!
I had spent weeks looking through the list of exhibitors on the CanJam SoCal thread on Head-fi.org meticulously planning my list of auditions. Evaluating my systems, the desktop rig, the big headphone rig, and my portable one to see where I thought I could make improvements. I read reviews and looked at what retailers carried and might be bringing, all to put together a list of 10 products I thought I needed to audition.
The show preview video arrived the Monday before the show and as I watched I looked at my audition list on the post-it stuck to my desk mat. At each announcement, my mouth slowly dropped open as I realized months of internal debate in the form of a post-it note was now mostly obsolete. In the next few days as one manufacturer after another announced products debuting at that weekend’s show, I still had certain things from my hitlist to see but now 5 new items were added. Making sure you can audition 15 things is hard when the floor is as busy as a CanJam can be, maybe even impossible so I marked a few items as maybe as I finished up work the Thursday before the show.
Friday was a travel day for my girlfriend and I, the Sunday of the show was also my birthday so we had planned the trip as a getaway for us as well. We took a series of Metrolink trains from Lancaster to Tustin then Ubered over to the hotel. I have always liked taking the train for trips as it is less stressful than driving in and around the LA area and this trip was no exception. Check-in was easy and after getting settled my girl and I had an excellent dinner in the Hotel lounge along with some live music then headed to bed sort of early as I needed to meet members of “The Watercooler” Head-fi thread at 9 am.
I met with my Head-Fi associates in the hotel’s lounge the morning of the first day of the show. It is amazing how shared interests and months or years of online conversation make meeting in person an easy extension of the virtual comradery. After getting my Watercooler name tag we talked for almost an hour about what excited us about the show, what gear we were honing in on, and trading gear we had brought. The Watercooler is an IEM focused thread so there was already quite the buzz about the Noble Viking Ragnar and the Astell and Kern and Empire Ears collaboration; the Odyssey. Digital audio players that had just been announced like the Astell and Kern SP3000 and the Hiby RS8 were also focused on over breakfast. The minute hand of my watch clicked quickly toward the 10 a.m. opening time though, in reality, CanJam had already started as soon as I had sat at the breakfast table with newfound friends sharing our passion for personal audio.
I headed toward the entrance after getting my girlfriend Classy from the room. I wanted to share the excitement of the beginning of the day with her and a bit more of my hobby. The line moved very quickly due to optimizations by the organizers, including Warren Chi who I greeted as we got our wristbands. Warren is a longtime friend with whom I had written at audio360.org with before he went on to help Ethan Opolion create what we now know as CanJam Global. It was great to see both of these gentlemen as I hadn’t had the pleasure since 2019.
Entering the double doors onto the event floor you basically ran right into the Focal booth. The display was already buzzing with activity. People were at every listening station, but as I started to pass by on my traditional counterclockwise reconnaissance pass of the event, someone stepped away from a station. The station contained none other than the new Focal Utopia 2022 ($4,999) fed sound by a complete dCS Lina stack ($29,150). Both of these were on my audition list separately and as a system. I placed the headphones over my ears and was stunned. Playing was Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, the title track from the 1987 album that won a Grammy for best engineering – Non-Classical. It is a great test track with panning synth percussion, textured synth bass, horn stabs, and layered vocals over Synclavier and funk guitar that can truly test a system’s capability. I have heard this song thousands of times since I was 13 and I heard it at least 30 more times over the weekend as almost every booth had it available and I had it on my DAP as well. I had found my theme song for the weekend! The Focal dCS combo brought the song to life, with deep impactful bass and beautiful texture to the layered vocals. Both are great products and an exceptional pairing.
Continuing widdershins around the show I took note of the locations of all the main items on my list until finally, I made it back to the front entrance. I ran into Warren again and we headed outside to catch up a bit. I come to these events as much for the friendships I have made and will make as I do for the gear, so I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation which drifted toward gear at the mention of ZMF and the newer gear I hadn’t heard. Warren said, “Let’s go see what Zach’s up to!”
The ZMF room was totally packed with wall-to-wall people and tons of absolutely gorgeous headphones. I am always amazed at seeing ZMF Headphones in person as photos just do not do them justice. I am not saying they photograph badly, they definitely do not, but in person, they are something to behold. After waiting patiently, I got the chance to audition the ZMF Headphones Caldera ($3,499.99), ZMF Headphones Atrium (2,499.99), and the ZMF Headphones Auteur Classic ($1,499.99) through the Cayin HA-300B MK II (3,799.99). Each of these headphones, though different, are truly special, as is the amplifier. The Caldera was a show highlight for me with the beautiful midrange you expect from a ZMF dynamic headphone and the speedy bass and full range resolution of a planar. Zach knocked it out of the park with this one!
Walking back toward the next table I wanted to explore, I noticed the Pro-Ject Audio display. A turntable at a Head-Fi event always grabs my attention as I love listening to vinyl on my main headphone rig at the house. The fully balanced Pro-Ject Audio X2 B turntable ($1,799) and Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box S3 B phono preamp ($499) fed the Pro-Ject Audio Head Box DS2 B ($799) delivering a beautiful sound. It was exceedingly quiet, especially in an environment full of EMI from cell phones and WI-FI signals. Balanced signal delivery may be the future for turntables as Moving coil cartridges are already balanced by design. I was impressed.
Turning around I saw the Raal Requisite display. Their SR1a true ribbon head speaker is my reference headphone. The forums are full of accounts of what heights this headphone reaches when it is driven directly by the company’s VM-1a tube amplifier. This is one of the displays that didn’t have Michael Jackson’s “Bad” but they did have some tracks by Mark Knopfler, Diana Krall, and Daft Punk that I knew well and told me what I needed to know. This is the best I have heard these headphones. Bass was neutral but fast and textured with actual impact, the midrange gorgeous and wonderfully layered, and the highs were pristine but not harsh as can be the case with some amplification on these headphones. Spatial detail and imaging were out of this world. I turned to my girlfriend and said, “This is the next purchase!” I asked Raal Requisite Co-founder Danny McKinney about the new cables for the headphones I had read about and found out I was listening through the prototype of the new Star-8 pure Silver cable. Cables for this headphone are actually very important due to the ultra-low resistance required and this amp and cable combo were leaving my mouth hanging open in awe. As the DAC in use at the table is the RME ADI-2 FS which I own and have used extensively with the SR1a the differences in what I heard were down to the amplification and the cable. While expensive ($6,900) the Raal Requisite VM-1a is truly the pinnacle of performance with the Raal Requisite True Ribbon Earfield Monitors to my ears.
While at the booth I tried the new Raal Requisite CA-1A which is a traditional Circum-Aural headphone. It didn’t grab me as much as my reference but it is a steal at its price point ($2,000) for sure and I can definitely see myself buying it for the extra bass extension and the different presentation the design brings.
As I walked away from the Raal Requisite booth I felt a sense of completion. I knew the direction I was taking my setup at home. I decided it was time for lunch, so Classy and I went for a walk in the beautiful Irvine sunshine coming across a food court of sorts where we grabbed some great fish and chips. After we returned to our room I worked on a plan for the afternoon.
Classy remained in our room to deal with some things happening back at home as I headed down the 8 floors to the show. I made a beeline to the back-right corner of the floor to the LTA booth and I sat down in front of the Z10e ($6,950). This is basically a 12-watt tube integrated amplifier with both standard headphone and electrostatic headphone connections, but “basic” it isn’t. I wasn’t able to get a good wi-fi connection so realizing that the USB cable was USB C I connected my Hiby R2 to the Denefrips Pontus DAC and scrolled to my weekend reference, “Bad”. I had chosen the Audeze LCD-X ($1,199) to get a reference point as I have owned that headphone for 5 years. From the opening horn stabs, I knew this was something special. There was a clarity and drive with a deep low end and a mid-range to die for. Switching to the Dan Clark Audio VOCE ($3,299.99) all of the previous impressions remained along with the speed and transient response that electrostats are famous for. This amplifier deserves all the accolades it has received, of that, I am certain. As a system, the Denefrips Pontus, LTA Z10e, and Dan Clark Audio VOCE is among the very best I have heard. I spent some time here listening to various of my favorite tracks. Standouts on this system were John Williams’ “The Flight to Neverland“, Tool’s “Chocolate Chip Trip“, and Yosi Horikawa’s “Crossing“.
Dan Clark Audio was now definitely on my mind so I headed off the main floor and out to the private room Dan was sharing with Headamp. After a short wait, a space opened up in front of a Chord Electronics Hugo TT 2 and M Scaler combo. Plugged into the TT2 were both the Dan Clark Audio STEALTH ($3,999.99) and the Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE ($3,999.99). Both of these proved to be amazing. The STEALTH is the best closed-back headphone to my ears while the EXPANSE is just what its name implies an expansive huge sound that takes one’s breath away. To me, they seem tonally correct and imply all the texture that makes music playback almost tangible. The aesthetics and comfort of these headphones are first-rate, they are, to me, two of the most comfortable and eye-pleasing head-worn audio devices on the market.
I had one more over-ear headphone on my audition list, well two by one company. I headed over to the Warwick Acoustics’ soundproof booth and waited in line. Finally, I got in and sat down in front of the Asperio. To say this $32,000 system, and it is a complete system, blew me away is an understatement. Designed as an uncompromising tool for mixing and mastering, all the detail and beauty of music are presented. Nothing left to chance, the system even comes with USB and ethernet cables designed for the system. For anyone looking for a buy-and-be-done experience, this is worthy of an audition as is its younger sibling the Bravura ($5,995 – silver).
It was now time to switch gears. Over the past 12 months, I have become more and more drawn to IEMs. Some of this has to do with the fact that there are a ton of technological advances being made in the IEM space, but a lot of it comes down to two words: isolation and comfort. Like a lot of us, I now work from home and home is full of distractions and noise. We have 5 or more people in the house most of the time along with 4 dogs and 2 parakeets! It’s loud a lot of the time. The noise is the happy buzz of children and pets for the most part but it doesn’t allow for great listening for most of the day on my reference rig which includes the most open of open headphones the Raal Requisite SR1a. Also, I need to be able to go from background music while working to video conferences and keep out the noise. While I have always liked IEMs, they have now become a necessity. The combination of extreme isolation and light weight makes them the perfect work weapon and I have them in my ears 5 to 8 hours a day Monday through Friday. I had a long list of TOTL (top-of-the-line) IEMs and Digital Audio Players to audition so I headed to the booth that had the lion’s share of them; MusicTeck.
The MusicTeck booth was slammed. It was this way the entire weekend, but the crew manning it were professional and accommodating. I was given a seat on the vendor side of the table and started listening to one thing after the other. First, I got out my Aroma Audio Thunder and Hiby R2 /Chord Mojo 2 combination and set a baseline for my ears. For the next hour, I would listen to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” a dozen times or more as I first cycled through Digital Audio Players, the Hiby RS2 ($479), Luxury and Precision P6 Pro ($3,899) and LP6 ($4,499), and Lotoo PAW Gold Touch Ti ($3,699). These are all great players but from that group, I fell in love with the P6 Pro. It just sounded like music so I used it to audition the following IEMs; The Noble Audio Viking Ragnar ($4,000), Elysian Acoustic Labs Annihilator (TBA), Oriolus Traillii ($6,599), Aroma Audio Jewel ($5,130), and the Jomo Audio GT600 Grand Tourer ($3,499). Every one of these TOTL IEMs was simply amazing. They were different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways but I can see why people love them all so much. Of this group, the Noble Audio Viking Ragnar was my personal favorite for its beautiful mid-range and extended but sweet highs, and fast and controlled bass which was more realistic than boosted to my ears. However, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them!
Sliding one table to the left I was now at the Unique Melody (UM) booth. I own the UM Mest MkII and love it so I was excited to hear the others. I pulled out my personal Mest MkII and player again setting a baseline. I then auditioned the Mest Indigo ($3,519), the brand-new Multiverse Mentor ($4,999), and the Mason FuSang ($4,588). I actually liked all of them. They have different sound signatures across the various lines with the Mest line being detail and imaging focused while the Mason line seemed more focused on the mid-range. The Multiverse Mentor was low to mid-range focused though its highs were still extended. I can see having them all as complimentary sets rotating them based on what you are listening to or mood.
Also, at the UM booth was a prototype of the new TOTL R2R Digital Audio Player from Hiby, the RS8 (TBA). This thing attempts to check all the boxes and, in my opinion, succeeds! It is an Open Android R2R DAC with a bunch of sound shaping options and plays PCM, DSD, and MQA. It also sounds downright awesome while looking amazing in a titanium shell.
As I walked towards the front, I ran into Russ who is a longtime friend, and after a quick hug we caught up as we hadn’t really spoken since 2019. Russ is the proud owner of a pair of ampsandsound horn speakers and is a huge vinyl junkie. We talked about life and records and Dolby Atmos He said rolling cartridges on the turntable was a wonderful way to experience different music much the same as I had thought about doing it with the Unique Melody lineup. After a much too short conversation and talking about meeting up and the upcoming Porcupine Tree concert, we were both attending, we parted ways.
On my way to the Astell&Kern room, I ran into Frank Iacone and we wandered to the seating area in the middle of the show floor and had a great conversation catching up on a lot of life. A ton of things had transpired over the previous years since we had last had a good conversation. Time slipped away as Frank asked me to consider writing again and I said I would give it shot.
I got up and quickly made my way to the A&K room to try out the new Digital Audio Player the Astell&ultima SP3000 ($3,699) and the IEM collaboration with Empire Ears, the Odyssey ($3,399). I listened to the DAP with my Aroma Audio Thunder first, it was crystal clear and dynamic with a beautiful sound stage. Michael Jackson’s “Bad” sounded great. I exchanged my Thunder for the Empire Ears Odyssey and things got even better in some regards. The definition of instruments and their imaging got crisper and the bass became more textured and involving. The electrostatic drivers and bone conduction seemed to bring more resolution and clarity to the entire frequency range while the bass was punchy and tactile. Easily my favorite IEM of the weekend I decided after playing it from my own rig to make sure of what I was hearing.
There was very little time left in the day so I quickly stopped by the Woo Audio and Abyss Headphone room to say hello to Michael Lang. Michael and I had been the first two to review the SPL Phonitor 2 for the headphone audiophile community. That process of tag team reviewing was enjoyable and I love seeing what he is up to. It doesn’t hurt either that Woo makes some of the most beautiful amplifiers in the headphone world, both sonically and aesthetically. I especially like the look of the brand new WA23 LUNA ($8,999) Single-ended 2A3 tube amplifier, which was being fed sound by the dCS Lina DAC. I would need to come back the next day.
6 PM. The end of the day and I had pretty much handled what I needed to for my own checklist but now I had a show to cover as well, I was pondering this as I returned to the room ordered some tacos, and got the 411 on what was happening at home.
Stay tuned for Day 2 and further coverage coming soon thanks to our good friends at Underwood HiFi, https://underwoodhifi.com, home of the best deals in high-end audio.