Welcome back to our ongoing coverage of CanJam SoCal 2023 thanks to our good friends at Noble Audio.
After a surprisingly delicious lunch of too much coffee, fish, and chips, I sat back in my bar chair and made a mental list of what I still needed to hear. The morning had been productive, and I had knocked over half my list. That still left a lot of ground to cover. I stood and headed back to the main floor, Downing the last of my coffee.
Drop + Grell
There was yet to be a price set for the new Alex Grell and Drop collaboration. There were a few preproduction models on hand; the design and sound are intriguing. Designed to place the sound field in a more natural position in front of the ears to improve timing and image placement, they sounded quite good, as is to be expected from Alex Grell. Grell has previously designed quite a few classic headphones for Sennheiser, and while these were preproduction units, they seem quite promising. I will attempt to get a pair when released.
I am a huge Audio-Technica fan. I own two of their top headphones and various mono and stereo phono cartridges. Exceptional audio quality is the norm, along with prices that fall below more boutique manufacturers due to the benefits of scale. I had long wanted to try the mid-range desktop hybrid headphone amplifier, and they had two listening stations with the amplifier and what I was told was a soon-to-be discontinued DAC. I own the closed-back ATH-AWKT ($1,899), so I tried the Audio-Technica AT-BHA100 ($999). The amplifier showed the clarity and resolution of these exquisite headphones and opened the already large sound stage more than the solid-state amps I usually pair it with at home.
Audio-Technica also had one of the 100 60th Anniversary hand-crafted and hand-lacquered ATH-W2022 ($9,000), which is sold out. It sounded terrific, detailed, and airy. The newcomer is the ATH-AWKG ($TBA). This closed-back beauty is crafted from 100-year-old aged wood sourced in Japan. It sounded very similar to the 60th Anniversary model. I heard some members of the Watercooler Head-fi thread trying to get the representatives from Audio-Technica to divulge the price and availability to no avail. All I know is I am very interested.
Woo Audio | Abyss Headphones | STAX
Smiling as I left the Audio-Technica display, I headed straight to the Austrian Audio display. The line to hear about this company’s products was deep. I ran into Michael Lang of Woo Audio, who gave the Austrian Audio reps European chocolate. I asked him what he thought of the company’s headphones, which a former AKG engineer designed, and he was enthusiastically positive. Michael headed back to work, and I followed him, telling Classy we would return to the Austrian Audio booth.
Heading into the Woo Audio room is as much of the feeling of coming home as I can get at an audio show. The 2nd generation of the Woo Audio WA7 is one of the first genuinely high-end pieces of gear I owned, and I have been visiting Woo Audio show exhibits since before CanJam was CanJam, just over a decade. I walked in and headed directly to an open seat in front of the WA23 Luna ($8,999). The headphones were the Abyss Dianna TC ($4,495), the source Woo Audio’s WDS-1 Reference DAC ($1,299), and the sound was sumptuous. It was just right, detailed yet organic. This combo has been a recent favorite of mine. After about 15 minutes of enjoyment, the seat next to me came open in front of the new items I came to try. The new Abyss Diana MR ($2,995) and the new Woo Audio Tube Mini Amplifier/DAC. This is a fantastic combination in a truly portable form factor. It isn’t as much a mobile system as a transportable one, but it is one the best combinations available for people who spend a lot of time in hotel rooms. The Abyss Diana MR also sounded great with my IBasso DX320 Edition X and seemed extremely comfortable, which has become increasingly important to me.
Classy and I traversed the main showroom floor again, heading towards the Ferrum Audio and Austrian Audio displays in the right rear. We came to the Empire Ears booth, and I decided to stop. I had a very positive experience earlier in the day with the Empire Ears Raven ($3,599) at the MusicTeck booth and wanted to tell the designer. I did, and we talked for a bit. I took the opportunity to listen again with the same favorable results. Low and top-end are both first-rate and amongst the best I have heard. The mid-range, while seeming slightly recessed under show conditions, is equally beautiful. The Empire Ears Raven is a stellar IEM.
We finally made it to the back of the show floor and, after a short wait, sat in front of the current full stack available from Ferrum Audio. Laid out left to right are the HYPSOS Linear/Switching Power System ($1,195), the WANDLA DAC ($2,795), and the OOR Headphone Amplifier ($1,995). The headphone chosen for the display was the Focal Utopia 2022 ($4,999). Whoever had saved the music on the Roon Server had great taste. I hit play on the new Dominque Fils-Aime album “Our Roots Run Deep”. As the first vocal notes doubling the acoustic bassline filled my ears, I settled back into my chair with a grin. After a few moments, I handed the headphones to Classy, who asked, “Who is that? It sounds amazing”. It wasn’t about the gear at that moment. It was just about sharing great-sounding music with the most important person in my life. For a moment, all the stress of covering the show disappeared, the exhaustion from lack of sleep slipped away, and we just passed the headphones back and forth, reveling in good music. Before I sat down, I had asked specifics about using the HYPSOS Power Supply and the WANDLA DAC; it was interesting, but as I stood up, none of it mattered anymore. The Ferrum Audio gear does what it is supposed to do and disappears, leaving you with your music.
Austrian Audio was started by engineers from the famous audio brand AKG, well known for their microphones and headphones in the professional audio market. When I was a neophyte, head-fier Warren Chi gifted me a set of AKG Q701 headphones. I loved them, especially on small combo Jazz and classical music, especially chamber and smaller ensembles. After I saw the CanJam SoCal 2023 teaser video and a quick perusal of the Austrian Audio website, I knew I needed to stop at the booth. Austrian Audio displayed two items: The Composer Premium Reference Headphone ($2,699) and the Full Score one Premium Headphone Amplifier ($1,599). As I started to listen, I was a little shocked. This headphone sounded nothing like the old AKG, with one exception. It had the clarity and detail of the AKG but was even more apparent if my memory serves. It also had drive, punch, and a bass extension that I just loved. The combination of headphones and amp is a winner.
A Chance Encounter
I glanced at my phone as I stood up from the Austrian Audio table. It was 3:30 PM, and as I needed to take a few photos of Gary Barker on the Ask the Reviewer panel, I headed out of the main auditorium. I found where the meetings were being held, and since I had a bit of time, Classy and I headed to the lounge area. I noticed Gary and went to say hello. He asked me to follow him to introduce me to a maker of one of the best headphones in the world. As we neared the table, he mentioned the headphone was the RAAL-Requisite SR1 ($3,000). I laughed and said I owned a pair; they were my reference headphones. At the table was Danny McKinney, whom I had met the year before at the Raal-Requisite booth. It was great to catch up and discuss our use of Amplifier and DAC pairings, personal favorites, and otherwise, with a headphone I am as passionate about as the US partner.
Realizing I only had a few minutes to snap the photos of Gary, I got up, found Classy, and we headed to the forum room and took a seat as Robb Watts of Chord Electronics finished up answering a few questions. Sitting in the chair, I found myself nodding off. The questions and answers were not dull; I was just exhausted. Lack of sleep and a packed day were catching up to me. As the Ask a Reviewer panel started, I snapped a few photos and checked into our room. Headphone.Guru and our sponsor Noble Audio were covering our room. After figuring out whose name it was under, we checked in and flopped on the bed. We needed to return home to get the kids off to school, so we set the alarm for midnight, turned on some Netflix, and rested.
In hindsight, covering CanJam in a day is possible, but only if you cut corners. The gear I have discussed is incredible, and I am thrilled I got to audition it. It was, however, only the tip of the iceberg. In-depth coverage over every table would have taken a week for one person, and I am glad I had a partner in Gary Alan Barker. Hopefully, we can shed a good light on what was available. Sadly, I missed out on the camaraderie integral to the CanJam experience. There were private listening sessions, lunches, and dinners with fellow headfiers, and just soaking up all the joy that accompanies a gathering of like-minded individuals having fun. I missed all of those, and my experience was lessened. If I had advice to would-be attendees, it would be to pick a few items you need to hear, do that, and then take advantage of all the personal time with the people who make this hobby so great.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of our CanJam SoCal 2023 coverage in Part 5.