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On a sunny Sunday, I visited CanJam 2018 in central London. CanJam is an exhibition organised by Head-Fi, a US headphone forum and was held in the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel. This hotel is a very modern hotel close to where I worked many years ago when it was a roundabout of all things. The journey was eventful due to engineering work on the rail and tube and of course, the Bakerloo line has no air-conditioning. Phew, what a scorcher!

The hotel was a great place for the event and the whole of floor -3 was a magic cavern of headphones and head amps. For the more select guys, there was a quiet area on level -1 with some really great sounding headphones. As you might expect for a classy hotel in London prices were on the high side for food with a diet coke and a cake costing £6.  

CanJam is a unique headphone audio show with events in New York City, Singapore, Los Angeles, London, Denver, and Shanghai.


There were over 60 exhibitors in the main exhibition area and when I arrived not too many people. But the crowds were having a lie-in as they all started to turn up after lunch. There were a large number of non-UK companies but some big names did not attend such as Sennheiser.



Manley electronics were there with a new snazzy headphone amplifier and what a visual treat it was.  I chatted to the designer Zia Faruqi, whose English accent betrayed his origins. This piece of art is based on a human head with the volume control being the tongue sticking out at the base of the amp. It uses 2xECC81s (12AT7) and 4 xEL90s in either PP or single-ended mode with switching done on the fly. The input sensitivity and load can be changed to match a wide range of headphones. Volume is controlled by a round disc volume control on the front of the amplifier or via a remote.  Headphones are connected via XLR or 3.5mm jacks and there are a set of RCA outputs as the amp can work as a line stage.  As Manley also works in the PRO field the amp has Baxandall tone controls that can be switched out for purists. It even had variable feedback which made quite a difference to the sound.

I started listening through a set of Focal headphones and have to admit they were not to my taste. A quick switch and there was a glorious sound, warm, enveloping without that sharp in the head type of sound you get from some headphones. There was a great wealth of details but in a natural sound.  Changing to some livelier music and changing the feedback gave a much more dynamic sound that had great detail and a natural and fast sound.

A great looking product that has great sound, what else what you expect from Manley?

Also in the main hall Chord were demonstrating the new Hugo TT2 streamer/DAC and the Hugo M Upsampler. These products were launched at the show the previous day and were generating a lot of interest. They had three set up with the Hugo TT2 placed on top of the M Streamer as they are the same size. Having heard all the theory in a seminar by Rob Watts this was a chance to hear them. The first set up I tried had a set of Focal headphones and they were not for me. I tried a second set up and this sang. The soundstage was very 3D and probably the least ‘in your head’ sound I have heard through headphones, and I use Stax. As well as a large and enveloping soundstage the amount of detail was superb. This was a great sound. My only reservation was the sound was a little stark and I thought the decay of notes was not the best I have heard. But this was at a show with their choice of music and their headphones. Certainly, I heard enough to follow this up when I can.


Right having sampled a lot of headphones and amplifiers downstairs I was time to go to the exclusive boutique rooms upstairs and hear what can be done when the boundaries are pushed.

The first room to really impress me was the Meze room. In this room, they had demonstration pairs of the new Empyrean headphone. These headphones made an appearance at Munich but at CanJam it was developed enough to hear them. The Empyrean is the first headphones to feature an isodynamic hybrid array driver. The driver has two voice coils, one is a spiral coil and provides the mid and treble. The second coil is a switchback coil and occupies most of the space of the driver to get deep bass. Listening was a real surprise, the sound was incredibly natural, very 3D, with really deep real bass and an electrostatic-like attack. In fact, it sounded like a great cross of the best of electrostatic with the bass of dynamic headphones. The price was ‘between £2,500-£3,000 and when released in September is a headphone I would like to hear again. Certainly one of the best at the show.

A few doors away the enigmatic Dan Clark, founder and designer for Mr Speakers was in fine form with his new headphones, the Voce electrostatics. These electrostatics have a really large 88mm diaphragm for extended low-frequency output with a 2.4-micron driver, optimized for stability and resolution. They are driven by 580V head amplifiers and are therefore compatible with Stax-pro amplifiers. Mr Speaker was also demoing his Aeon and Ether headphones and certainly, the sound from them with the Trilogy amplifiers was sublime and a real highlight from the show. One of the better sounds there and not at a drop dead price either.


The Voce electrostatic with the Trilogy amplifier was exceptionally good. It had the real electrostatic sound with superb detail and a very natural tonal balance full of intense tonal colours and an ultra-powerful and fast bass. In fact, it was so good I would have made this the best sound at the show but there was one set up that was even better.  Whatever these two companies are doing they are really doing it right. I was not surprised by Trilogy as I had heard their amplifiers in a hifi setup, using Sonus Faber Guarneri speakers, which was the best and most natural sound at a previous Windsor Hifi Show, embarrassing some systems costing over £500K. Mr previous view of Mr Speakers headphones was they are good high-value headphones, not these headphones. They are state of the art.

Opposite Mr Speakers were Head amp whose Class A solid-state amplifier caught my attention and provided a very natural sound that was well worth listening to. But the sound of the show by some margin was:


the Blue Hawaii head amp. This two box stunner uses 4xEL34s,  with low noise JFET drivers. This amplifier not only looks the part its sound quality was er….rather good…(British understatement). The first surprise was the Mr Speakers Voce, to my ears, saw off the Stax 007 and 009 headphones in sound quality. I am a Stax fan but the Voce was better. Having done that comparo I just settled down and listened. The naturalness and solidity of the soundstage reminded me of the master tape. Yes, it was that good. If you like headphones and want one of the best there is, then this it. Do what you can to hear this beauty. And it can be made to work with 240V. Yes, it is expensive but not the priciest headphone set up at this exhibition and you would have to spend an awful lot of money on a full hifi set up to get anywhere near this level of sound quality. Think of over £500K, for under £10K.

Rob Watts Presentation on DAC Design

One of the highlights of the show was a presentation by Rob Watts on how to design a top quality DAC. I liked his approach and he got my attention from the off. DACs are not there to convert digital data into analogue they are there to reproduce the original analogue signal. If you do not think that way then you will not succeed in producing a top quality DAC. Interesting. He then talked about psychoacoustics and our perception of sound.  The ears provide a small percentage of what we hear and the brain does the processing. This combination allows us to hear a guitar in front of a band separated by 1 foot from 100 metres away.

He then challenged the generally accepted audibility of errors. Can we hear distortion at 70 dB below the signal level? How about 120 dB or 150 dB? Rob Watts says yes especially if it is modulated with the signal. And how sensitive are we to timing errors?

He said that most audio chip amplifiers are made to measurement specifications without listening tests. His approach is to reduce the errors/distortions and then hear if it makes a difference to the sound. If it does then he reduces it even further until he cannot hear a difference. 

So he designs by computer simulation, measurements and then confirms what he has done with listening tests. 

He then went through his observations of what makes a difference to the sound quality and at what levels they were no longer audible. The levels were incredibly low and as far as I know, no-one else is working at these incredibly low levels.

Of course, he spent a great deal of time talking about the filters used in digital audio and he was not very complementary about what others were doing. There are some older videos on You Tube where he describes his findings. At CanJam 2018 he provided his latest data and he was rather pleased that at long last he had managed to develop a 1,000,000 pole sinC filter, which provides 16-bit data perfectly.

 I found his newer look at measurements refreshing rather than the old THD, noise and frequency response to standards set in the 1960s.  Of course, all this theory would be nought if the product did not produce the goods.

What I heard from the Hugo Streamer and Upsampler means I MUST hear them at home.

Edited by George 47
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