New Headphones from the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

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10 Coolest New Headphones from the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

Woman wearing headphones
Monica Schipper / Contributor / Getty Images

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is the largest consumer audio show in North America. In addition to hosting an incredible assortment of high-end speakers, amps, turntables and digital audio sources, RMAF also includes CanJam, a hotel ballroom packed with displays of headphones and headphone amps -- every one of which is available for your listening pleasure.

Here are the 10 coolest headphones from the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, according to me.

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MrSpeakers Alpha Dog Headphone

MrSpeakers Alpha Dog headphone
Brent Butterworth

The MrSpeakers Alpha Dog was the only new headphone I heard at RMAF that might give the new Audezes a run for their money -- but at $599, it's a lot less money. Until now, MrSpeakers made its headphones simply by modifying Fostex professional headphones. A recent investment in 3D printers now gives the company a much more formidable set of capabilities.

The Alpha Dog still uses many Fostex components, but the 3D-printed enclosure is fabricated in MrSpeakers' San Diego factory. To add stiffness while retaining light weight, the enclosure has dual walls separated by an internal lattice -- something that would be prohibitively expensive if it were injection-molded. The complex design also incorporates an adjustable port that can be tuned with an inset screw for optimal bass response. It's coated with a five-layer automotive paint finish in a  beautiful dark maroon color.

I thought the Alpha Dog sounded exceptionally clean and uncolored, with a slight little bump in the bass to give it a just-right amount of kick. And it's as comfy as your favorite pillow.

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Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC Headphones

Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC

The new Audeze headphones shown above I've already covered in a preview post, but I wanted to share some listening impressions here. The $1,699 LCD-X (left and the $1,799 LCD-XC are not just slight reworkings of Audeze's universally praised LCD-3, they're complete reworkings, with new planar magnetic drivers the company says are +8 dB more efficient than the one in the LCD-3.

"We don't necessarily recommend it, but in a pinch, you could hook these straight up to your phone," a company spokesperson told me. The older models, in comparison, can't reach useful listening levels without the help of an external headphone amp.

In my brief listen, the open-back LCD-X sounded much like the LCD-3, but perhaps with an even more spacious sound and slightly better dynamics. The closed-back LCD-XC sounded much the same, although nowhere near as spacious as the LCD-X -- but of course, the closed back has the advantage of cutting out most of the hubbub around you.

Most important for me, though is that both models were far more comfortable for me than the LCD-3, which clamped my temples so hard I couldn't stand to wear it for long. All models in the Audeze line now have earpads that use lower-density, plusher foam; I purposely sat listening for about 10 minutes with the LCD-X to see if it would get uncomfy, but it didn't.

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Audioengine D3 USB DAC/Headphone Amp

Audioengine D3 USB DAC
Brent Butterworth

After the success Audioquest has enjoyed with its $249 DragonFly USB digital-to-analog converter/headphone amp, other companies are jumping in with similar products. It's an appealing concept: something the size of a USB memory stick that will substantially improve your computer's sound. At RMAF, Audioengine showed its upcoming DAC/amp, the $189 D3, which should be available in about six weeks.

The D3 incorporates a 24/96 DAC, a Texas Instruments amplifier chip, and a sturdy metal chassis. According to Audioengine's Brady Bargenquast, "We listened to a whole bunch of headphone amps and picked the one we liked the best."

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Beyerdynamic T51P Headphone

Beyerdynamic T51P headphone and A 20 amplifier
Brent Butterworth

The best new compact headphone I heard at RMAF was this sleek little set from Beyerdynamic. The $289 T51p updates the previous T50p with a higher-impedance 60-ohm driver, a better cable said to have less handling noise, more comfortable earpads and a headband with reduced clamping force. I thought it sounded incredibly detailed in the mids and highs. And for an on-ear, at least, it's super-comfortable.

In the photo above, the T51p's sitting atop Beyerdynamics' handsome new A 20 headphone amplifier. The $649 A 20 features dual 1/4-inch outputs and an all-metal chassis with no visible seams or fasteners.

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Carot One Headphone Amp

Carot One headphone amplifier
Brent Butterworrth

I don't know much about the Carot One, but I know I love it. This $699 mini-amp uses a single 6DJ8 tube and offers speaker outputs as well as a headphone jack, so you can use it for either. It offers analog and USB digital inputs, so it works with your computer or your old-school analog-output source devices.

According to Arnold Martinez of retailer Tweak Studio, the amp arrived from its Italian manufacturer without a specs page, so I rounded up some info about its predecessor from the web. Seems it uses a 15-watt-per-channel Class T amp (much like the affordable mini-amps from Lepai and Topping).

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Sony XBA-H3 and XBA-H1 Hybrid In-Ear Headphones

Sony XBA-H3 and XBA-H1 headphones
Brent Butterworth

Sony's had a big hit with its balanced-armature in-ear headphones. The $70 XBA-C10IP just beat out a field of 14 other headphones in a shootout I helped with for The Wirecutter. RMAF saw the launch of two new models that use hybrid technology, combining balanced armature drivers with the standard dynamic drivers used in most in-ear headphones. The idea is, you get the delicate highs of the balanced armatures with the powerful -- well, dynamics, and bass -- of the dynamic drivers.

The chunkier model you see above is the $349 XBA-H3, which has dual balanced armatures and a single dynamic driver. The smaller one is the $149 XBA-H1, with a single balanced armature and one dynamic. The former hits shelves in December, the latter in November.

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V-Moda XL Memory Cushions for the M-100

V-Moda M-100 ear pads
Brent Butterworth

The V-Moda Crossfade M-100 is hyper-popular among headphone enthusiasts and fashionistas. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who finds its embrace a tad too firm. The $20 XL Memory Cushions make the M-100 much more comfortable, thanks to their soft, thick memory foam.

"We spent almost a year working on this, because we didn't want to change the sonic signature of the M-100," V-Moda's Karl Detken told me. "But it does sound a little more spacious, because the pads place the drivers slightly further from your ears."

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Resonessence Labs Herus DSD DAC/Headphone Amp

Resonessence Labs Herus DAC/Headphone amp
Brent Butterworth

Direct Stream Digital -- the single-bit digital audio format Sony championed with the now-pretty-much-dead Super Audio CD format -- is getting new life thanks to digital downloads, which are now available on numerous sites. But most DSD-capable digital-to-analog converters (DACs) cost $1,000 and up. The Resonessence Labs Herus undercuts them by more than half, coming in at just $350.

Just plug the Herus via USB into a computer with DSD playback software, and you have high-res digital audio. You can plug headphones straight into the Herus's 1/4-inch headphone jack, or use an adapter to connect it to a stereo system. It's compatible with 64x and 128x DSD files, DXD files, and standard PCM files up to 24-bit/352-kilohertz resolution.

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JH Audio Roxanne In-Ear Headphones

JH Audio Roxanne in-ear headphones
Brent Butterworth

Guess how many drivers are in each earpiece of the new JH Audio Roxanne? Wrong. If you know something about headphones, you might have guessed four or six, but no -- it's 12. Yep, a dozen. Why so many? "It's the first in-ear headphone with response out past 20 kHz," JH audio founder Jerry Harvey told me. Harvey further explained that the impedance of the balanced armature drivers used in these kinds of headphones rises sharply when it nears 20 kHz, so by using lots of them in parallel, he was able to reduce the impedance and improve the treble response.

Each earpiece connects with a four-conductor cable, which gave JH the ability to add an in-line bass control, which Harvey said gives you a 15-dB range of adjustment. It also works with JH's FreqPhase headphone amps, which have an internal correction to eliminate phase distortion and thus achieve cleaner response and more natural spatiality.

The $1,599 Roxanne is available now in a custom-molded form (where molds of your ears are used to make perfectly fitted earpieces), and will be available in December in a universal-fit version that uses standard silicone ear tips. It's also available in the carbon-fiber version shown here, for $200 extra. "The carbon fiber has no effect on the sound, it's just for added sexiness," Harvey said.

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ALO Audio Island USB DAC/headphone amp

ALO Audio Island USB DAC/amp
Brent Butterworth

I don't know if the U.S. Army stocks milspec USB DAC/amps, but the $299 Island looks like it would fit the bill. The rugged aluminum mini-amp had no problem driving a pair of Audeze's not-very-sensitive LCD-2 planar-magnetic headphones to very high levels. The USB input takes signals with resolution up to 24/192, and a three-position gain switch lets you fine-tune the amp's output to suit your headphones. Of course, that big round knob on top is the volume control.

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Philips Fidelio L2 Headphone

Philips Fidelio L2 Headphone
Brent Butterworth

I know, I said "10 Cool Headphone Products," but the Audeze stuff doesn't count because I wrote about it before. So number 10 is the Philips Fidelio L2, a new 'n' improved version of the Fidelio L1, which I reviewed enthusiastically last year for Sound & Vision. The $299 L2 has a new driver design with increased sensitivity for better performance when playing from phones and tablets.

I can't recall exactly what the L1 sounded like, but my brief listen left me convinced that the L2's treble response is much more refined and detailed.