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Oh, the Places You’ll Go! - What Happens When an Audiophile Leaves the House?

You’ll be seeing great sights! The past two years have been filled with lots of new experiences. I’ve moved out and now live on my own for the

5 months ago

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You’ll be seeing great sights!

The past two years have been filled with lots of new experiences. I’ve moved out and now live on my own for the first time. I’ve taken difficult courses and learned more than I could ever imagine. More excitingly, I’ve gone to public audiophile events—who knew those were a thing?!—and some private gatherings with friends.

I’m not much of a social person, but I do enjoy being around people in small doses. The anxiety used to be bad, but as I’ve grown, I feel more comfortable to take large steps like traveling on my own to faraway places.

The first stop was in the Midwest. I missed out on some of the earlier CanJams because of the pandemic, but in fairness to me... I also didn’t know they were a thing. I befriended some people online at the time, notably the writers Flux and Humble, and the opportunity to hold an event of our own appeared. I was really excited to get a chance with some headphones I had been eyeing for some time, and get exposed to all sorts of gear I wasn’t familiar with. Back then, I had only tried two DACs, a few amplifiers, and a handful of headphones. It was a wonderful time seeing all the live reactions and equipment experimentation, and I had some genuine interactions in person under the context of audio.

The next gathering was later in the year during the winter. Again in the Midwest but closer to home this time and much smaller. It was good to see those I knew in person again, and I also met Listener. It was during this event that I felt like I had grown and learned the most with connecting terminology to sound. I was short on time during the last meet, but this time I made sure to have ample time with each piece of gear, especially the ones I was considering getting for my own collection. It was during this time that I also learned just how much a DAC can change things, and became more interested with testing new ones out.

This February was CanJam NYC. One flight later from the Midwest and I was plopped down in a huge city I’ve never been to before. I’m local to Chicago, but NYC seemed much larger in size and density from the brief two days I spent in the area. This was a larger group, again meeting with the aforementioned writers as well as Kyle (and some non-writer audio people). It was an awesome experience that went by in a flash. We spent most of the time at CanJam, but held another meet at our AirBnB. For me this event was more rapid fire, and I tried a greater variety of gear than I anticipated.

The most recent event I went to was AXPONA in the spring. There I saw some familiar faces and heard a huge number of speaker systems in one day. Some of them were truly fantastic and eye opening with how far audio can really go. I still don’t have a lot of experience with speakers; I’ve only owned two pairs and I’m much more involved in the headphone side of things. However, it is something I look forward to exploring later in life when I have more space for a proper room.

You’ll be hearing great sounds!

Before getting into my impressions, there are a few things to keep in mind. I wasn't able to control for many variables at all for the public venues, so take what I say with a grain of salt. In a more controlled environment I'd be able to give a more detailed account of what I think of something. Also, this is a recollection and I’m working off of notes from the time of testing.

Local Meet #1 - July 2021

The first meet covered the big stuff that I always knew existed, but figured I’d never get a chance to hear. I was introduced to flagships like the Audeze LCD-4, Focal Utopia, and Hifiman Susvara, as well as the rare Hifiman HE-6. The LCD-4 has the best bass quality I’ve heard across planars, besides potentially the HE-6. Although there are variations across units, I still find it to have a pleasant enough timbre, and that combined with the “quick” sort of presentation that is imparted in the bass response makes it very enjoyable. The imaging rivals that of my beloved Sennheiser HD800S. I think one day it may find its way into my collection.

Among the other planars was the Susvara, which I thought was plenty detailed and resolving, but had a strange wall of sound like staging which was somewhat off putting to me. I found it hard to appreciate, especially knowing its price exceeds that of other flagships by a fair bit.

If I didn’t know anything before, I would assume the HE-6 was a dynamic driver headphone. Its capabilities as a planar magnetic headphone were surprising once I put them on; its bottomless, dynamic, slammin' bass made them a very engaging pair of headphones. I’ve floated the idea of ownership one day, but to be honest I’m still a little scared to drive stuff off of speaker taps like we did.

The most impressive and lasting experience from that event was hearing the combination of a Bricasti M1 Special Edition, Eddie Current Studio Tribute, and a pair of Sennheiser HD580 headphones. It was here that I reckoned with the scaling capabilities of Sennheiser’s 6x0 style headphones (HD650, HD600, HD580), and heard firsthand how far a good chain could take them. The decay and timbre were wonderful, making it seem like sounds were holographic, entering in effortlessly and leaving at infinity. Some people have gripes with a “three blob” kind of staging with these headphones, but at this level of source gear there were no blobs. The showing of dynamics was equally impressive, where it handled itself surprisingly well in more complex sequences. I knew before that my 6xx’s were a reliable benchmark from which to compare other headphones to, but upon hearing this combo… I was doomed. Since then I’ve owned five different “baffle“ types of 6x0 headphones, assembling an entourage of different flavors for me to choose from on my main stack. For those interested, I’m resting on a pair of black silk 650s, black silk 600s, and black paper 580s right now.

Local Meet #2 - December 2021


Now onto the winter meet. I knew about the Focal Utopia for a while, and earlier in my journey I figured it would be the eventual successor to my Sennheiser HD800S. I was primarily focused on the resolving capability of headphones back then, and I'd failed to really consider the importance of timbre and dynamics. Compared to the 800S, the Utopia easily bests them in bass performance and has a less plastic-like, somewhat darker frequency response. I find it comparatively falls behind regarding staging and imaging, but that’s okay as this quality compliments Utopia's more inviting and intimate kind of experience, while still having a similar level of detail. This is another one that I may find myself coveting.

It was during this meet that I had an epiphany, and some things just started to click and make sense. I learned more about how a stack's synergy with a headphone, like the Utopia for example, can shape things, and more specifically how qualities of a DAC can shine through a system. This was especially apparent when hearing speakers: we used a pair of ATC SCM19v2s and switched between a Dangerous Convert 2 and a Bricasti M1SE. The M1SE pulled ahead in resolving capabilities and the wow factor of imaging, but the DC2 really gave that impression of a “live” music experience with how forward and aggressive the tonality was. For additional context, I use a Prism Sound Callia as my main DAC, and I find in comparison that the DC2 is more aggressive, at times problematically so. On speakers, I have the impression that this explosiveness is generally a net benefit, however on headphones its just too much. If I have a speaker room in the future, this DAC would be great for it. Conversely, I hope in the future that I can own an M1SE for headphones.

CanJam New York City (CJNYC) 2022

Time for the big event in the big city. This one was fun being able to see just how populated the audiophile hobby really is. The Audeze booth was particularly stacked with gear, and I heard more of the LCD-5 as well as two DACs that piqued my interest. If there was one word to describe the LCD-5, it’d be linear; I feel that both the frequency response and presentation exist with no frills. The headphone follows the IEF/Harman (without a bass shelf) targets fairly well, and it shows in the no-nonsense type of tonality. The imaging and layering are very interesting to me, I find that it can cast instruments far behind others while remaining precise and coherent. It feels almost like the antithesis of a wall of sound approach.

These qualities were shared by one of the DACs I really admired at the booth, the Weiss DAC502. If I was able to get one for myself, I’d love to mess around with it on my custom Bottlehead Stereomour II using various tube combinations. The other DAC there was the Nagra HD DAC, which is basically an endgame for timbre. I loved how life-like Billie Eilish’s vocals sounded on a pair of Sennheiser HD580s, and it was pretty much solid in every other aspect which I would expect for the MSRP.

AXPONA 2022

AXPONA was on a different scale, both in venue and transducer size. Just like headphones, there were some systems that ranged from unremarkable to fantastic. Of the most noteworthy were the massive ATC SCM100ASLT towers which provided an incredibly visceral sound experience. Out of all the systems there, I think it nailed the tonality, and everything else sort of followed suit. These were practically one of the best in the show, and the only thing better would be a live performance. It was such a stark contrast to the previous few hours I spent wondering to myself, "Why are so many of these so honky sounding? Why do some systems sound completely dead and lacking in dynamics?".

Earlier I had the same sort of reactionary moment with the QLN Signature 5 loudspeakers on the Vinnie Rossi Brama integrated amplifier, where everything was a bit more immersive than before. While I found that the female vocals were good, they were a bit more shouty than I’d like, and male vocals had an unusual amount of rumble. These weren’t the only ones that stumbled. The Klipsch Jubilee speakers, while impressive in size and projecting what felt like human sized sound waves, were sort of nasally and compressed. It was really unfortunate since I felt that it had a nice sense of vocal presence, making vocals sound coherent and life-like.

Later on, I encountered the Joseph Audio Pearl 3 Graphene floorstanding loudspeakers which were really pleasing. I found it to be one of the most captivating systems I heard there, with dynamics that were arguably better than the ATC towers mentioned above. The transients were quick, and there was a pleasing amount of space created during quieter parts; drum rolls were particularly impressive, and I felt that these speakers held up to busy passages without any issues.

Another memorable system included the Bayz Audio Courante floorstanding loudspeakers which had a very strong vocal presence—practically dead center staring at you—while having decent dynamic control, though I recall strings sounding a bit blunted in their attack. This wasn’t the case with YG Acoustics Summit loudspeakers, wherein the layering of strings was truly captivating. I found the reverb good on impacts, but the bass was somewhat anemic. It was tricky to gauge the other qualities of these though, since every song was a string arrangement.

These events both public and private would not have been possible without the many people that organized things and showed up. I thank everyone for their time and support, which has allowed me to continue this journey into audio. Over these past two years, I've gained more knowledge and insight into analyzing and communicating my impressions of gear. Not only that, but I've also gained a lot of friends along the way without whom I feel the journey would have been more difficult and less enjoyable. This journey is far from over for me and my endgame is still out there; I look forward to where I'll be heading.

Claire

Published 5 months ago

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