Increasingly, the headphone world turns to Japan’s chaotic, heady festivals for the introduction of new products. There’s less red tape here. And a better entrenched geek culture.
Thousands of fans flock to see what hundreds of vendors and manufacturers have cooked up. Every year in May, headphone engines rev up. By October, they wind down again.
This May began on a Saturday, an eleventh, at 10:30 in the morning. I shewed late, having an article and a shoot to finish first. Even at 13:00 with only four and a half hours left, the floor of Stadium Place in Gaienmae teemed with expectant, sweating fans. #HPFES2013 had begun.
The FitEar booth was unreachable till about 15:00 when the crowd had gone to fill its collective stomach. Parterre is what drew them: the youngest universal sibling in the line of popular earphones represented thus far by F111 and ToGo!334.
“How many drivers does it have?” Asked a fan at the front of the queue. “It’s a secret,” smiled Mr. Suyama. And that was that.
Shure enclosed their newest three-way, four speaker unit SE846 earphone in the clearest of shells. The 10-layer low-pass filter can be seen as clear as day, the double unit bass driver and its accompanying mid and high boxes blink back at you with paparazzic clarity.
Someone will buy a Parterre. They will take it home, shine a powerful light at its body, and give a good approximation of what is inside. Another may actually dissect it. Under a reading lamp, any old pre-ojisan can tell that it sports at least two drivers.
FitEar’s queue burned into the next room for hours. And excited by the wait, by their peers, by the energy, queuers flooded the the booths around them. The most immediate beneficiaries: Pioneer, Sony, and Ultimate Ears, showed products both semi-new and semi-old.
Pioneer’s focus remains on the DJ while Ultimate Ears are thrusting into the home. Sony are attempting to proselytise the portable DAC and closed headphone markets. But we knew that already. Their products ran the news wires months ago. The smartest ones waited. Even if products were ready months ago, patient makers tweaked, marketed, and bided their time elsewise. Saturday was their day to explode on hapless, queuing headphone fans.
Seeing the headfi boys, snuffing up the sacrificial solder - someone was tweaking an Astell AK120, someone else was calibrating a wide angle lens - plus a few unexpected meetings kept me off the main drag for most of the day. Regrettably, I saw only a third of the show.
What I saw was pretty cool.
To fully capture what Fujiya Avic have put together would take an excited attendee three days. Maybe four. Most of the action took place on the 7th floor, but large booths and presentations went on from floors eight to ten. It was Disneyland without the kids and overpriced candy floss; it was CES sans those WTF booths. The silliest booth there was Kawasaki Special Printing Co. LTD., a company specialising in custom print jobs. IN this case, it's headphones. Their angle was simple: sexy anime.
Yep, cartoon babes loudly printed on your headphones.
In Japan, sonsy cartoon girls sell. This year’s Headphone Book sold out several times because of a bundled FitEar anime insert. Currently, one-offs create too much waste. And no printing job is perfect. Sending in a pair of Ultrasone ED8 for a tattoo of your favourite hentai heroine is still too risky. Kawasaki are confident, however, that their process will be improved. 2D boobs and blush are destined to be the wave of the future.
Ocharaku showed off Kuro. Damn. Ω will be doing a feature. Damn. Until then, I’ll just say this: if KAEDE was your thing but you couldn’t afford it or couldn’t nab one in time, Kuro might just fit your fancy. It does mine. ‘Donguri’ means acorn in Japanese. Despite autumn being acorn season, Ocharaku had it out for testing on Saturday. According to Mr. Yamagishi, donguri should be ripe for Fujiya’s October show.
Zionote, distributor of Smart Audio, M2Tech, Ubiquo, EXS and many others, have got an ace portable amp up their sleeves. It receives power from a single 9V cell. Its sole input comes from a 3,5mm stereo jack. The signal exits single-ended from a 3,5mm stereo port, or balanced from an ALO Audio-style port. Signal noise is very low, channel tracking is good. It’s tough to judge an amp’s performance at a loud show where your ears are stressed by everything from the excited “yatta’s” of drooling fans to smiling models with tawny suntans and pigtails. Whoopee. But, for the estimate price of 30.000¥, this mystery box is certainly exciting. Zionote’s CEO, Mr. Machida, says the current box is temporary. The final design will go on sale sometime in summer. He is also making a Shure-style coaxial cable for earphones that should fit anyone who has adopted the new standard. The bundle will be sold for 45.000¥.
Zionote also distribute Smart Audio’s USB interface/DAC/headphone amp. It spits out analogue signal from a 3,5mm headphone jack and from a pair of RCA ports. SPIDF is tossed from a toslink port. It is sold as a combo that comes complete with vibration-damping brass feet and a large magnetic dock. It will go on sale next week. I didn’t have time to test drive it, but I did get that curling feeling in my testicles that something fun was up. Smart Audio are based in Korea. Strangely, their new product is currently slated for sale in Japan only.
Oliospec run a typically noisy Japanese website but are banking heavily on fanless Windows 7 PCs. Models start at 100.000¥ and go up from there to taper off around 300.000¥. No matter what you choose, what you get is a noiseless, fanless, DSD/PCM converting PC for hosting true hi-res decoding. I think we will see fanless PCs take over from traditional component CD systems in the next few years.
On the way back to the dark corner where I dropped off my mate’s rucksack, I ran into Ryuzoh, the bloke behind MST Audio and one of the FiQuest engineers. He sported mafia business casual and newly-gelled hair. Still, while telling me about MST’s AK100/120 modifications, he asked quite seriously not to be pictured next to his handiwork. Ho hum. Ω is looking forward to comparing modified and unmodified versions of the player.
Finally, I demoed Centrance’s hifi M8, the near-legendary iDevice/PC USB DAC/headphone amp. Its amp section shares similarities with my favourite DACmini, but I’m willing to bet its output is even blacker. With selectable output impedance values, independent gain settings, and a mild equaliser at the back, it is the current do-all iDevice DAC/amp. The output impedance switch really works. Paired with the FitEar ToGo! 334, the high output value resulted in an audible drop in dynamic range. Particularly hit were the low notes, which felt muted. Switching the M8 to its lowest output value put back the goods. If you’re not into IEMs, the M8 is a champ with full-size headphones. On display was the awe-inspiring Audeze LCD-2. AT low gain, the M8 handled hard bass lines with nary a pop or warble despite its volume pot being set at a crowd-overcoming 80-90%. I set the volume pot down to less than half on medium and high gain settings. Michael Goodman has done an outstanding job. Though large, the M8 has a bag of tricks that may be unmatched even by the outstanding Cypher Labs CLAS DB plus your favourite amp. Sans proprietary connectors, it is the only iDevice DAC that is instantly accessible to both hobbyists and professionals alike.
Osaka will heat up with e-Earphone’s ポタフェス show at the end of this month. Ω will be there. But Tokyo really is where it’s at. Fujiya Avic show shave long set the bar. Each year it gets higher. Manufacturers know this. They wait, serving up their best to meet May and October deadlines. And I only managed to tour 1/6 of the show. I should have invested in a fast pass.
I arrived home tired, but happy, and shared leftover soup and and knäckebröd with my wife. She, too, had a long day: pilfering the secrets of pharmameds from around Japan and the world near Yurakucho station. While she’s studying to further her career, I’m dreaming of acorns.
When you’re flexing your inner geek, you can’t have it both ways.