High-end audio tends to over-promise and under-deliver, in my experience. This was my first CANJAM, and initially the SoCal 2018 event appeared to be more of the same. The ballroom at the JW Marriott in downtown LA reminded me more of a local comic-con than “the world’s premier headphone audio show.” But this intimate gathering quickly won me over. CANJAM SoCal was a fun and eclectic display of the latest headphone hifi and personal-audio tech, with something for everyone from industry pros to couch-locked audiophile wannabes.
The exhibit floor was smaller than most trade shows I’ve attended. But I soon learned that CANJAM is actually more like a comic-con. This is not about manufacturers showing off for dealers. The good folks at headfi.org have created an opportunity for personal audio heads to compare rigs, preview new gear and meet the designers of their favorite products.
I began at the Westone booth, listening to a variety of their in-ear studio monitors. The friendly representative was very helpful and I got a nice baseline listening experience from which to compare other products.
Next stop was Campfire Audio. Their rep gave me the rundown of specifications and I gave their Andromeda model in-ear phones a listen. They were great! I listened to a few Depeche Mode songs that I knew well and was impressed with how well I could hear the transients. Also superb mid-section clarity with a balanced low end. While the lower mid-section did sound a little colored around the 800kHz mark, they were overall a pretty balanced pair. This was probably my favorite product that I auditioned at the show. But at this point, I would like to admit that I do not have a golden ear and all of the jargon used in this paragraph was gleaned from the experience and education I received at CANJAM.
Next, I found myself at the Schiit (yes, rhymes with “wit”) booth trying out the Fulla 2 DAC/Amp. I put on the provided bulky studio monitor headphones and found a few Radiohead songs that I knew were mixed well and gave it a go. The Fulla 2 gave a nice warm diffusion of sound, but occasionally lacked brightness. To be fair, this is their entry model starting at $99. All of the Schiit products looked great, with LEDs and a minimalist silver and gray aesthetic reminiscent of the Fisher/Sony/Pioneer home hifi systems of yesteryear.
There were a lot of portable digital music players, which was intriguing. As the iPod and other dedicated music players have largely been replaced by smart phones, boutique manufacturers such as Astell & Kern have identified an opportunity to design their own unique players. Let me say that these are not pretty machines and the user interfaces leave quite a bit to be desired. That being said, the sound quality of many of these players is more than satisfactory. And compared to personal audio players of the recent past (Ayre Acoustics and Neil Young’s Pono player, Microsoft’s Zune) I consider them a big step in the right direction.
I left CANJAM with a good understanding of the personal/mobile hifi audio world and where this technology seems to be headed. Most of my interactions with reps were insightful and, for the most part, the products actually delivered on the promises. And, while I did not purchase anything, I was definitely tempted by the 10% show-only discount.
I’m glad I went and I’ll definitely consider checking CANJAM out again next year.