Everyone likes a good Fujiya Avic headphone show. But not everyone is in it for the geekiness. Some of us prefer the iPod shuffle to the giant pancake-sized audiophile stack. Some geeks are in it for the love, not the game. They're the type that hit up e-earphone after work, looking for something that makes their music sound good. They wear backpacks and button-down plaid tees, not office blazers and briefcases. Some of them may even ride bicycles. When or if they go bald, they shave, not comb.
And they go to events whose parties start in the loading dock and go up from there.
I'm both types of geek. I'm 34 and I shave. And, after e-earphone's shows, I dig curry and rasins; and craft, not piss beer.
Astell & Kern (iRiver)
Astell & Kern brought in a triangular bicycle (you know, like the letter 'A').
The new players had better channel separation than the triangucycle. And better headphone jacks.
But I've got to be honest here. My vote goes to the Mezzo HiFi-modded AK100, which is both smaller, and way less noisy from the headphone output than both the bicycle and the other AK units. It's the first player I've plugged sensitive earphones into and not had to adjust my ears to the shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhh of background noise. (Not that AK240 and AK120II are noisy; but the Mezzo HiFi version is so damn quiet, and pumps its Wolfson chip for all its worth. Classic and rocking.)
Of course, each new unit is faster, freezes less often, and plays pretty much any file type under the sun without question.
In a noisy, geek-hip place, it's hard to tell what's free of noise and what's not. But I'll wager that Ta-Q7 is a pretty well-made amp with a low noise floor. Its got a velvety-smooth thing going and looks damn good in a sexy robot sort of way. Low-mid frequency texture is amazing. And round the back, are speaker terminals for when you have friends over. I want one.
Crazily enough Monster Audio had something pretty cool on display. Well, Monster didn't actually make it. It's licensed from a company here in Japan. Anyway, it's pretty cool. It's both a hi-res audio interface and a party-mixer with a few pretty cool DJ functions thrown in. It is the Monster Go-DJ. I'm not a DJ, so I had trouble fumbling around all the functions of the sound pad and faux-vinyl scratcher, but next to me, a local DJ was all hot and bothered.
Rich sound, my friends, rich sound from the TH500RP. Evidently the release date is just around the corner. Though they didn't fit my ears well at all, the sound they spat was intimate, breathy, and full of the sweetest string detail. Bass was round, and focused on feel rather than blunt resolution. The transition from bass to mids was ultra smooth. A small amount of bloom in the upper midrange catches things up a bit, but oh well. It was perfect for jazz. In fact I didn't want to change to a different headphone afterward. Electronics? No. Jazz? Yes. Vocal? Hell yes.
What struck me most about the HAMT-1 headphones was their perfectly constructed fulcrums. Leica-smooth, lots of hand-detailed manufacturing, great logo. Swayed leather. Or, what felt like swayed. It felt good anyway. The pads slide in and out by friction. They are hand stitched. The HPA-1 amp is made from an extruded, milled block of aluminium. Very nice. The volume is clever, but it will grind against its niche when twisted at speed. It needs a stronger axel, or a smaller diameter wheel.
Oh, its sound? The headphones put out heavy, energetic mids. There's a bit of heat under the swayed that isn't your ears sweating. Pressure forward of that isn't too hot, but it does bring forward the high mid-high tones. It's u-shaped and the version I heard suffered a bit of suck out in the male vocal range. Bass is chalky rather than organic; in other words, opposite to the Fostex TH500RP.
The HPA-1 not a good earphone amp. Its gain is too aggressive. I could listen perfectly comfortably to the oroton e-Q7 at a volume setting of 0. Of course, at that setting, L/R channels werent' perfectly balanced. Hiss, too, was over the top. But for headphones, it seems to packs a punch. And it should, its maker told me it wasn't made for earphones. I was like, "Yeah, I know." We shook hands while he said that he had an earphone amp coming, too. "Cool," I said.
After trying on a gazillion earphones, the j-Phonics with the innards of a Prophonics-2Max custom blew me away. Damn, they are super-duper comfy. Literally, you don't feel like you are wearing an earphone at all. Got small ear bowls? Get this earphone. Don't like fat earphones? Get the j-Phonics. It is tiny and light and pretty durable. That said, it is built with the stage musician in mind. The great news is that you don't need an amp to bring out the best in your phones. Just about any old player or power pack will do the trick with room to spare. Do they sound good? Yes. But they don't sound as good for music reproduction as audiophile earphones in their price range.
The single dynamic driver prototype was okay. Its 13mm driver put out a lot of power. It also puts out quite a bit of upper midrange bloom, and lacked good instrument delineation. The great news is that the dual dynamic driver prototype rocked. Inside are a 10mm and 8mm driver, the larger handling lows, the smaller handling highs. Its sound was clear and contrasty. Vocal were well resolved, the stage was decently spread out, and there was a great sense of 3D space. Bass resolution was high. Ditto fun. I came away thinking, WOW! To be honest, I preferred it by a large margin to the Mentor. Let's just skip that one. The final earphone UM showed off was a new 12-driver monster. It was awesome. No effluvium from low overhead, great fit, smooth presentation and highly resolving. It wasn't a super duper fun earphone like the dual driver prototype was, but it was one that made me enjoy the finer, more delicate parts of my music. I loved it. Totally.
Each e-Earphone's porta-fes is more exciting than the last. More people, crazier booths, cuter race queens; the list goes endlessly on. Because it occupies a single, large floor, getting around is easy. The best part is that it is more laid back. Distributors and manufacturers go there to hobnob with the end user. They put on tees, not ties. Some of them may even be drunk. There are fewer annoying reporters and toadies. Ditto the crazy audiophiles that tote computer-sized portable systems.
It is the funner of the two large Tokyo headphone shows. I hope that as it gains traction among music lovers and manufacturers, that won't change.