CANJAM RMAF 2018 — The Quest for Gain

October 25, 2018 by

There was a great positive vibe at this gathering in Denver’s fairly remote Tech Center neighborhood. I’ve been attending hifi and audio shows for over 20 years and this was the best experience I’ve ever had. I met a lot of great people who were gracious, patient and generous with their time and knowledge.

There’s way more hands-on and ears-on experience in this setting than at a traditional hifi show. Personally, I was on a mission for GAIN, and CANJAM provided the perfect context for me to mix and match all kinds of headphones, ear buds/monitors, amplifiers and other processors. I got an opportunity to sample all kinds of music and take my time.

Full disclosure, I’m a classic rock and classic jazz fan. A firm, well-rounded thump is crucial to these styles of music – for rock it’s kick drum and bass, for jazz it’s acoustic bass and toms. Up to now I’ve only dreamed of a headphone experience that could deliver the requisite thump. Shit can get loud, but not enough air seems to be moving around to create the visceral sensation you get from a kick-ass pair of loudspeakers driven by some juicy Class A amplification.

Following are some stand-out products from manufacturers who really seem to understand the beauty of gain.

Swan Song Audio

White Swan headphone amp/DAC

Swan Song’s Tony Crocker (right) with the author

As a classic rock guy, the name of Tony Crocker’s company conjured sonic images in my head of Led Zeppelin records on the Swan Song label. But I started with some more laid-back singer/songwriter stuff from Tony’s hometown of Tulsa. Marc M. Cogman’s recording showed off the flexibility and effortless power of the White Swan. For jazz, I was working some Charles Mingus at this show. I really enjoyed the presence of his acoustic bass through this rig – it would come from nowhere and then step back into the shadows. I managed to sneak my phone onto the front end of this thing too, so I did hear my Zeppelin. A slight tweak of the volume knob brought some fury to “Communication Breakdown.” There was plenty of power and energy without having to push the volume past ear-splitting.

The White Swan is Tony’s base product, but the Black is clearly his pride and joy. “The difference is like moving up from a Corvette to a Ferrari. The Black Swan line can bring out more of the music and adjust the tonality in ways the White Swan cannot,” he explained. At $2900, the White Swan is plenty of bird for me.

Woo Audio

WA8 Eclipse headphone amp/DAC (valve)
WA11 Passport headphone amp/DAC (solid state)

Woo Audio WA11 Passport

For a totally different aesthetic, Jack Wu and his team have created some battery-powered headphone amp/DACs that look like something that just came in from the Cold War. Seriously, these things seem bullet-proof, and at 0.9 lbs and 2.4 lbs respectively they give you that confidence that gear that is heavy gives you.

My search for gain was over with either of these hogs. This was absolutely the best low-frequency response I found from any gear at any price at this show. The Passport ($1399) is all solid state and born from Wu’s desire to offer a smaller and lighter version of the Eclipse ($1799), which features valve amplification.

I was rocking a lot of metal through these things, as well as some EDM and about half of Mingus Ah Um, as well as Miles Davis and Tom Waits. My colleague had to roll back my volume dial as I was getting quite liberal with that knob. These things are super cool looking and the response across my range of preferred music styles was amazing. You have a lot of headroom with these amps, but an additional preamp may be useful for sound sculpting.

Raal-requisite

SR-1A Earfield monitor system

Scott Ray with the SR-1A headset

The SR-1A headphones, while not really about gain, were definitely the most exotic-looking device I encountered. A joint venture leveraging Raal’s ribbon transducer technology and Requisite’s expertise in high-end pro audio monitoring systems, this is the truest, most transparent headphone I experienced at the show.

Honestly, these really weren’t designed for the likes of me; the SR-1As are a full-blown pro audio portable monitoring system. Using this crazy headset along with the conversion box (which regulates the impedance) and the included cabling, sound engineers can essentially bring their mixing rigs with them into any studio. Like a pair of high-end Requisite studio monitors, the imaging and sound stage are unrivaled by any traditional headphone or in-ear monitor.

Scott Ray shared that they’re going to add some padding and a more refined finish so that the SR-1As don’t look so much like a torture device or some kind of cranial-sacral stimulator. Surprisingly, the headset is not as uncomfortable as it looks. Nothing actually sits over the ear, the earpieces sort of hover in space to create an extremely accurate near-field monitoring system. To find out more about what $3500 will buy you, contact Scott Ray on scott@sdrayassociates.com

In Closing

All of the exhibitors were running some kind of streaming front end (mostly Tidal) or some kind of iTunes or Roon library. Amps & Sound gets my honorable mention for actually rocking a fixed-disc front end – a vinyl turntable. There was nary a CD player to be found anywhere. We here at 360° Sound will see if we can do something about that…

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