2018 Tokyo Spring FujiyaAvic Headphone Festival Report

This year’s show was a bit subdued due to being held at the start of Japan’s Golden Week holiday period, as well as because it’s a week before the Munich High End show. However while the show may be about the products, really it’s about the amazing people in the business and hobby and their efforts to make music listening enjoyable.
 
I’d not managed to get around to everyone I had wished. CEE TEE from Massdrop (previously Ultimate Ears) managed to make it to the show this time. We’d been planning to meet for years yet never managed to. You’ll see him, as well as Anakchan in many of the photos and videos.
 
Speaking of which, this is the first show that I shot entirely on an iPhone X. Back in 2011 when we first came, we were carrying around huge Nikon rigs to shoot everything. Now it is more efficient just to use a phone. Who’d have thought it!
 
The event was held in Nakano Sun Plaza, just outside central Tokyo. Despite plans to demolish and replace this ageing, albeit unique building, it is still standing. While people were lining up for concerts in the main hall, the Headphone Festival had taken over 5 floors of event rooms. If the show looks like it was held in a wedding banquet hall, it is because it was! Many of them! That makes for terrible lighting in some of them.
 

Stax

While two of the Stax old guard were present at the show, Kiyoshi Sasaki (now retired), and Kazuo Suzuki (the engineer in the SR009 interview) there were many new faces introducing the new SR-009S. With improvements to the diaphram material and overall design, it was possible to A/B the headphones out of a row of T8000s. This was the first time that the other amps (except the portable) were not on display. 
 
I plugged in my Hugo 2 and set the amp to bypass mode for a listen. The SR009S is more forward and more dynamic-sounding, and possibly a bit more sensitive as well. It was very much a feeling like everything had been tightened up. Now they sound like an electrostatic version of new Audio Technica ADX5000, which is a good thing, in case you were wondering. 
 
I didn’t try their portable amp as for portable electrostats there is now Shure’s KSE1200.

Octave

This BEAST of an amp from Germany was powering a pair of Susvaras. The local price is around $8k IIRC and using the Hugo 2 as the source (which the distributor put vibration dampers under) the amp did some good justice to the demanding planars.

E.A.R. Yoshino

A pleasant surprise was meeting Tim de Paravicini and his wife at the show.  For the unfamiliar, Tim is a 50-year legend of 2-channel audio, manufacturing some amazing amplifiers and other gear. His HP4 amp has stood the test of time, even as other manufacturers come and go with high-end amps. Listening with it is always amazing and no less this time. He has partnered with [???] to make his own pair of planar headphones. 
 
The headphones are unique in that the cups can be removed to make them open-backed. With the cups on, the sound was a bit closed-in straight out of the Hugo 2, but they were transformed by the HP4. The tuning is quite neutral though. At some point I plan to review these.
 
One unexpected surprise at his table was that he had a direct-from-master-tape set of Elvis outtakes. No processing, nothing! I knew Elvis was good, but hearing the output of the tapes direct it was amazing how well he could really sing and what he was capable of with his voice.

Meze

Anthony Meze and Pavlo Shymanovych of Rinaro Isodynamics were at the show to demonstrate the Empyrean. The drivers of these use two different types of traces, for different frequency ranges, with one section aimed at the ear canal for optimum results. While tonally a bit mellow, they were lovely sounding out of the Hugo 2 and great with my usual range of tracks that cover a range of genres. They had two types of earpads there, leather and cloth. The latter will be the standard, with the leather an option. Each gave the headphones a slightly different presentation. 
 
They were using amps from Re-Leaf, who hand-build ultra-high-end current-drive headphone DAC/amps. 

Oriolus

With all the IEMs at the show it was hard to keep track. CEE TEE tipped me off to check out Oriolus, of which I tried their new Reborn. With a dyanmic driver and 3BA drivers it was a very nice-sounding IEM with plenty of detail and a clear treble. 
 
They were also showing prototypes of a very chunky player with interchangeable DAC/amp modules. Yes, the huge modules contain both a DAC and amp. You can hear them talking about the details in the background of my show report video.  One of the modules has an ES9018-based DAC and tube amp!

DigiFi

In Japan, you can buy a monthly DigiFi magazine which includes a small kit for a DAC, amp, or headphone amp of some description. A series of modules hooks together and you can get cases to put them in and build a mini system. It’s a good way to learn about audio components. The magazine was selling some of their previous kits.
 

MASS-Kobo

MASS-Kobo’s 404 amp was a lovely little amp for driving HD800s, but it lacked the current for serious planars. So Masanori Masuda, who usually makes pro-audio equipment, produced the Model 406. It’s not cheap though. At around the $18,000 mark it has 3.8W and 32V output (!!!) which is enough to do a good job with HiFiMan’s Susvaras, which it drove nicely when I had a listen. Balanced input only though.

Timelord (Ultrasone, Chord, Pathos)

I gave Ultrasone’s Edition 15 a listen, and I think I might have to borrow a pair for review. While at 2,499 Euro they compete with a lot of other serious headphones, they are starting to sound a bit more competitive than some of their past models.

What really got me though was a new amp from Pathos. Check out the heatsinks! I didn’t audition it as I hadn’t brought any familiar headphones with me, and anyway, it’s just enough to look at!

At the end of the last day I grabbed the guys from Audio Technica and the new ADX5000 and tried it with the Blu 2 + DAVE combo and some binaural tracks. That was almost as amazing to experience as the Orpheus system next door in Sennheiser’s room.

Campfire Audio

Ken Ball, Caleb and team were on hand with the new Atlas and Comet IEMs, as well as the Cascade headphones.  The new models look as stunning as the pictures suggest, and despite the weightiness of the Atlas model, it sits in my ears comfortably. This time, instead of having a right-angle entry as the Vegas, the Atlas and Comet take advantage of the ability of the cable to swivel so you can wear the cable either straight down or around your ears.

They also have a new 4.4mm Pentaconn connector version of the cable.

The Atlas has a stunning sound with plenty of bass and a wonderful non-IEM-like treble. I’ll be posting a review of them soon.

Jaben Network (Phatlab, Elemental Amps)

Uncle Wilson was at the show and had a pair of old AKG K1000s being driven out of a pair of neat tube amps from Elemental Amps which can be run as a single or dual amps. With careful adjustment of the earpieces, I got some wonderful music out of the K1000s.

Re-Leaf

One of the most expensive devices at the show was the top-of-the-line Re-Leaf DAC/amp, the E1R. Re-Leaf don’t brand their amps anywhere on the outside, holding that their unique design speaks for itself. Certainly the futuristic look of the design is impossible to ignore, until you get fingerprints on it.

They had a new entry-level model at around the $5500 mark, the E3 hybrid which has both current mode and voltage mode outputs. It can be doubled up for extra power. The pair produced wonderful, fatigue free sound into a pair of HD800s.

YAXI Earpad

Dektoni were at the show, so it was something of a surprise to find that another company has been creating a range of after-market earpads as well, mainly for Fostex and Sony headphones, but including an upcoming model for the HD800. I had a quick listen with their HD800 pads and without comparison, the overall presentation was a bit better than I remember the stock HD800 sound to be, which usually has me wanting to switch to an aftermarket cable.

Korg NuTube

Korg had quite a demo of its NuTube, low-power tube replacement. Most of their display consisted of some interesting battery-powered kits. They also had what appeared to be a one-off amplifier and battery-powered analog filter (see the picture).

XI Audio

Xiao Qi, previously the marketing manager of Lotoo, left the company and has begun his own, XI Audio.  He had on display some battery-powered amps (EDC flashlight types will immediately recognise the batteries). He also had an R2R DAC on display. Yes, it uses a Soekris board.

The amp comes in SE and balanced versions and was being demoed with HD800s, with which it does a good job. I took up the challenge when it was suggested they were dead silent, as I had Andromedas in my bag. Indeed, apart from a minute amount of background beeping from something, there was no hiss to speak of at the same gain I’d driven the HD800s.  The DAC had a nice sound as well.

iFi Audio

The main crew of iFi were on hand to demonstrate the new Pro iDSD and the xCAN, a more powerful amp only version of the xDSD.  Uniquely it has Bluetooth input, but otherwise the only other inputs are analog.

Shure

When we were first checking out the show guide we thought someone had made a typo in putting that Shure was showing the KSE1200, not 1500. I guessed immediately that they’d made a version without the DAC and I was correct.  The tonal balance is still more K701 than anything, favouring acoustic music, ie: instruments and vocals and less interesting with anything that requires a good amount of bass kick, but the resolution is still fantastic. With 35dB of isolation that is good enough to use even on a plane.

I ran into Matt Engstrom of Shure towards the end of the show and he told me that in addition to removing the DAC, they had also changed the type of attenuator used in the KSE1200 as well.

ZMF

This was my first chance to try Zach’s headphones. The Atticus managed to provide a spacious sound with pleasant mids, despite an overall warm sound. The Eikon had lighter mids, but a more rolled-off low bass than the Atticus. Drums seemed to lack impact, but instruments were otherwise great.

The Auteur had better low bass and a better overall “warm” signature with slightly recessed mids. They reminded me quite a bit of the Aeon Flow Open.

Lotoo

I was asked to check out the Paw Gold Touch, which takes the popular Paw Gold and adds an Android interface. It is chunky, and takes an full-sized SD card. Unfortunately it wouldn’t read my ExFAT-formatted card (Why so many DAPs STILL have this problem I don’t understand) so I had to listen to a selection of jazz and other music they had on there with the Andromedas. The sound was very pleasant — clear, yet sweet.

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