CES 2014: New Audiophile Headphones

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Oppo Digital PM-1

Brent Butterworth

Let's kick off my exhaustive coverage of new headphones at CES 2014 with a roundup of models intended for serious listening. Of course, that's a subjective judgment; my apologies to any company  who believes its new headphones belong in the audiophile category but doesn't find its product here.

My apologies also to any company featured here who'd prefer not to be associated with audiophiles.

Let's start with the new model that most impressed me, the Oppo Digital PM-1 planar magnetic headphone. Oppo's known for making the world's finest Blu-ray players, so I was surprised and impressed to see how serious it is about its new headphone.

The PM-1 is a clean-sheet design by Igor Levitsky, an engineering whiz best known for the work he's done on BG Radia's planar magnetic tower speakers, in conjunction with industrial designer David Waterman.

To improve sensitivity -- sometimes a problem for planar-magnetic headphones -- the PM-1's oval-shaped 85 x 69 mm driver has voice coil wires on both sides of the speaker diaphragm. I'd planned to meet with Levitsky and Oppo's Jason Liao for about 40 minutes, but our talk stretched to two hours as Levitsky relayed all the minute details of the research and fine-tuning he put into the PM-1.

The oval shape makes the PM-1 comfortably light. "It's not like strapping giant buckets to your head," Levitsky quipped. Unlike any other planar magnetic headphone I've seen, the PM-1 folds flat, like the Bose QC-15, so it can slip into a slim case for travel.

While the price of the PM-1 is projected at $1,000 to $1,200, Liao stressed that this is just Oppo's first effort, and that there will be "lots of opportunities to bring the cost down," as well as the possibility of on-ear and noise-cancelling models in the future.

Regardless, if I had to name the audio product at CES 2014 that most impressed me, this is it. In my brief listen, the PM-1 sounded extremely flat and uncolored. The soundstage was spacious, as expected from a planar magnetic 'phone, but it was spacious in a "real space" way, not in an exaggerated or fake way. Bravo!

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Oppo Digital HA-1 Amplifier

Brent Butterworth

I wasn't intending to cover headphone amps in this article, but the HA-1, co-developed with the PM-1, really deserves at least a brief mention. It's a fully balanced design, with separate amp circuits for the positive and negative halves of the audio signal, terminating in a balanced headphone output jack (with separate ground connections for left and right channels).

The HA-1 has a built-in USB DAC based on the ESS Sabre32 chip, and an analog preamp stage taken from Oppo's BDP-105 Blu-ray player. It also includes a Bluetooth receiver for convenience, and its front USB input works with Apple devices. A remote control is included.

The best part is the front screen, which can show a setup screen, VU (level) meters, or a real-time spectrum analyzer.

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HiFiMan HE-400i and HE-560

Brent Butterworth

HiFiMan's been the leader in relatively affordable large planar magnetic headphones for a few years now, based in large part on the success of the HE-400 and HE-500. The new $499 HE-400i and $899 HE-560 use a new planar magnetic driver design that makes the headphones much lighter and, according to HiFiMan, more transparent and spacious-sounding.

Every planar magnetic driver I've seen is a "sandwich" of two magnetized metal stators with a plastic diaphragm in between. When an audio signal passes through the wire voice coil that's applied to the plastic, the diaphragm moves forward and backward in the stators' magnetic field. The HE-400i and HE-560 differ in that they use just one stator per driver.

They also have a redesigned headband that's much more comfortable and functional than the rather crude one that previous HiFiMan over-ear headphones use, the result of HiFiMan consulting an industrial design firm. The HE-560 also features a teakwood driver enclosure, and it's far more sensitive than the company's top-of-the-line, notoriously hard-to-drive HE-6. In fact, I was able to get plenty of volume using the HE-560 with my Samsung phone.

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Spyder Moonlight Stereo

Brent Butterworth

There are a ton of junky, off-brand headphone at CES, so when I saw the Spyder brand's "rad" car audio-style graphics, I assumed it was just a bunch of plasticky junk. But then I saw some massive high-end speaker cables in the display and wondered what was up. Turns out the brand has some pretty decent-looking headphones. The Moonlight Stereo looks like it costs about $400 or $500, and in my quick listen, this large, closed-back dynamic headphone sounded great. But it's just $259. I'm trying to get a review sample.

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Music Hall Earspeaker Number One

Brent Butterworth

Music Hall's known for great budget audiophile gear such as the Marimba speakers I picked as one of the best audio products of 2013. Now it's considering a move into the hyper-competitive headphone biz, but based on the company's past record, I bet it'll do fine. "Earspeaker" is just a tentative name that Music Hall's Leland Leard seemed to kind of pick out of the air when I asked; when I reminded him that Cardas is already using that name, he was undaunted. According to Leard, the Earspeaker (or whatever) is the creation of a respected headphone engineer who "designs for a lot of other people." The earpices have metal backs and swivel left and right for a better fit.

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Philips Fidelio M1 Bluetooth

Brent Butterworth

Yeah, I know, anything with Bluetooth's almost inherently not an audiophile headphone, but considering how good the Fidelio L1 sounded when I reviewed it for Sound & Vision, let's make an exception in this case. The M1 looks a lot like the L1, and it's equipped with apt-X Bluetooth. Expect a price of $279 when the M1 ships next month.

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Stymax-Obravo HAMT-1 AMT Hybrid

Brent Butterworth

The HAMT-1 was definitely the most surprising headphone of CES 2014, at least from a technical standpoint. Each earpiece combines a conventional dynamic driver with an Air Motion Transformer (AMT) driver, a design that's won favor when used as a tweeter in speakers by Adam Audio, GoldenEar Technology, MartinLogan and others. I've wondered how an AMT driver could work in a headphone, considering that the planar magentic drivers in world-class headphones from Audeze and HiFiMan are sorta kinda similar in ways to AMT drivers. But while the construction and design of the HAMT-1 looked gorgeous, the voicing needs work -- to me, it sounds colored and somewhat muffled in the midrange. So the jury's still out on AMT in headphones ...

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Mozaex 7.1-Channel Headphone

Brent Butterworth

Yep, this headphone is actually capable of reproducing real 7.1-channel surround sound. The Mozaex headphone debuted in prototype form back at the 2012 CEDIA Expo, but it was huge, clunky and heavy back then. The new version is much, much sleeker; it actually feels kind of normal. Each earpiece incorporates five drivers: 40mm drivers for center, side surround and rear surround channels; a 50mm driver for the front channel; and a surface conduction speaker (similar to a tactile transducer) to provide a bit of bass shake. A dedicated amp/processor is included. Because this was the second-to-last booth I saw at CES 2014, and I was kind of dying to get on the road, I didn't have the presence of mind to ask the price.