CanJam New York 2019: The Show in Review

Unlike stodgy audio fests, with their musty carpets and dim hotel rooms, CanJams have this open-air, brightly-lit marketplace ham-fest swap-meet flea-market vibe that draws me in and makes me feel happy.

My favorite thing about CanJams in New York is the anticipation and the feeling of riding the 7-train; first above ground – surveying a bleak February cityscape in Queens; then into a tunnel; emerging finally onto the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of Times Square. I get stoked for new products and old friends simply walking from the Marriot Marquis’ elevators and spying the crowd inside under those strange purple-lit crystal cloud chandeliers.

Taking it all in

JPS Labs

This year I started at the top (audio-wise) and visited Joe Skubinski (JPS Labs) to hear the new $3,995 USD Diana Phi which employ the same driver as the Abyss AB-1266 Phi in a lighter, more comfortable, more colorfully-fashionable, headset than its industrial-strength $4,995 USD big brother.

In my realm, the AB-1266 Phi is not only the most resolving, most natural-sounding, headphone I know – it is the finest transducer I have ever fed a signal to. Therefore, I wondered, how much 1266 was in the new Diana Phi? I listened to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way (44.1/16 FLAC TIDAL), and right away I knew the answer: a LOT! I use the AB-1266 Phi almost every day at home so I know its character well. The new Diana Phi got so much of the 1266’s there-ness and hyper-transparency; and felt so good on my head; that I had a difficult time thinking about anything except wondering, would any other headphone in this room beat this handsome headset?

When I removed the Diana, Joe S. whispered in my ear: “Herb, no one knows yet, not even Jude, but I’ve made a new better diaphragm for the AB-1266 Phi and today I am introducing it!” All snarky I said, “So does that mean you found a way to raise the price on the AB-1266 Phi?” “No.” He said, “No price change – but I changed the name to: AB-1266 TC; the TC stands for total consciousness!” (What is not to love about Abyss products?) If you ever wondered what deep inside the earth sounds like, or how quiet is outer space, you will need a pair of AB-1266 TCs for your explorations.

Woo Audio

Next, I needed a dose of Jack Wu’s sly smile. He was introducing Woo Audio’s latest in walkabout headphone amplifiers: the new WA11 Topaz headphone amplifier/DAC: which costs $1,399 USD, which is $400 less than the tubed WA8 Eclipse headphone amp/DAC that proceeded it. Even though I loved the WA8’s rich sound, and it looked ever-so-good sitting on my desk, I could never imagine myself actually carrying it while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. The new (shipping in March 2019) WA11, is a battery-powered, all transistor, fully-balanced class-A topology. It weighs only 413g, is only 24mm thick, and fits easily in my jeans or jacket pocket.

Besides the $2,995 USD Audeze LCD-MX4, I auditioned the WA11 with the unique $4,000 USD, LB Acoustic’s MySphere 3.1 headphones. These distinctly-modern-looking headphones are designed by former AKG engineer Heinz Renner and, like the legendary and high-coolosity AKG K-1000’s before them, the MySpheres float their planer-magnetic diaphragms off the ear. This ‘floating’ makes for an obvious good comfort-factor but requires some mechanical adjustment for proper bass and some extra time for adapting to their unique open sound. The WA11 drove both of these deluxe headphones to liquid smooth crème de la crème-level sounds. I walked out thinking I must review this product.


For my 22nd Gramophone Dreams column (in Stereophile), I compared Focal’s Utopia and Elear headphones to their (then) newly-introduced Clear and discovered: I preferred the relaxed resolution and comfort of the Clear to the harder sharper resolution of the beryllium-domed Utopia or the softer resolve of the aluminum-magnesium domed Elear. After my report, the Clear became my daily-driver reference headphones. (They are on my head as I type these words.)

At $2,999 USD Focal’s stylish new mocha and cognac finished Stellia uses the same M-shaped beryllium dome as the Utopia; and fits neatly (price-wise) between the $1,500 Clear and the $3,999 Utopia. Unlike its well-reviewed open-back sibling, the easy to drive (35-ohm/103dB/mW) Stellia is a closed-back design; which, should have made auditioning it easier (CanJams can be very noisy places) but it didn’t. The room was screaming loud and there was a line behind me clearing their throats and tapping their feet impatiently, so I listened only for a bit, but The Stellia seemed noticeably more resolved and precise than the Clear – with no loss of ease or naturalness.

Meze Audio

Everybody was talking about Meze Audio’s (relatively) new $3,000 USD Empyrean which I had not yet experienced so I stood in line to get my chance. While I waited, I looked around admiringly at the age-and-gender diversity of this year’s New York CanJam. I also did my best to remember all the good sounds I experienced from Meze’s much less expensive in-ear and “99-series” circumaural models – all of which looked as good as they sounded. When I sat down I realized, the open-backed over-ear Empryean take their previous high standard of elegant-looking to a much higher – more original - level. The Meze was driven by the equally impressive-looking Chord Dave DAC. Together they made audiophile favorites from Miles Davis and the Beach Boys sound just sweet enough, clean enough, and just plain lightning-fast enough to make it worth my wait. A new discovery.

Schiit Audio

Of all the exciting new product introductions, who or what could beat Schiit Audio’s much-discussed, but never actually heard, Sol Turntable? Today in its first “non-cosmetic” preview (Schiit says it will begin shipping around the end of March). Photos had not prepared me for the heft of its cast-aluminum spider-like plinth. Likewise, I was surprised to discover an 11” uni-pivot carbon-fiber tonearm with on-the-fly adjustable VTA and a heavy cast-aluminum platter. The Sol’s got analogue mojo – I could see that by how it squatted on the table. But I couldn’t figure why the on-off switch was nestled almost behind the uni-pivot tonearm and not on the stand-alone motor pod. To me it looked crazy good and played a single Blue Note black disc with impressive authority. The estimated price (without cartridge) is $799 USD.

Schiit has been one of my favorite American audio companies since its inception. Their extraordinary Asgard headphone amp and Bifrost Multibit DAC expanded and enlightened my views about both product categories. I have since reviewed Schiit’s $1,699 USD Ragnarok integrated amp and $2,399 Yggdrasil DAC for Stereophile. Both products performed at a level far exceeding their price class. Listening today, with Mr. Speaker Ether Flows, the new “improved – and cooler running” Ragnarok, reminded me how (8W into 32-ohms) reference-quality the Ragnarok’s headphone amp is. Throw in a pair of speakers (like KEF’s LS50), and you have a system of reasonable-cost and the highest-fidelity. One that should please forever.


Simply Nobody's picture

Looks like HR missed the RAAL ribbon headphones, which can be directly connected to the loudspeaker outputs of a power-amp/integrated-amp ....... Did they display those at the show? :-) ..........