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CanJam NYC 2024 Highlights: Is $108,000 Too Much for a Headphone Amp?

High-end headphones and amps come in all shapes, sizes and prices at CanJam NYC 2024.

CanJam NYC 2024 Headphone Exhibitors on Show Floor

CanJam, the world’s largest headphone-only trade show, wrapped up its 2-day event in New York City last Sunday. From what I saw (and heard), it seems that the high end headphone market is alive and kicking. Held in the heart of Times Square at the Marriot Marquis, CanJam NYC 2024 provided the perfect opportunity for consumers to try out hundreds of different headphones, accessories, dongle DACs and amps before picking a favorite. And once they did, online headphone retailer Headphones.com was there to offer attendees a nice show-exclusive discount on many models.

According to Ethan Opolion of Head-Fi (the show organizer) CanJam NYC 2024 brought together 100 exhibitors and 3,000 attendees, a 20% increase over last year’s event. I wandered the aisles and hotel hallways checking out some cool headphones and headphone-related gear priced from under $300 all the way up to over $100,000. Here are a few things that caught my eye (and ears).

CanJam NYC 2024 exhibitor booths inside the Broadway Ballroom at the Marriot Marquis in midtown Manhattan.
Most of CanJam’s 100 exhibitors had booths inside the Broadway Ballroom at the Marriot Marquis in midtown Manhattan.

Audio-Technica’s $108,000 Tubed Headphone Amp, the HPA-KG NARU

Sounding as gorgeous as it looks, Audio-Technica’s HPA-KG NARU headphone amplifier/preamp ($108,000), flagship of the Narukami line, represents the company’s finest ever cost-no-object halo product. Adorned in rare kurogaki wood, the tube-powered amplifier and headphones represent some of the best – and certainly most expensive – personal sound reproduction money can buy. Kurogaki is a strain of Japanese black persimmon wood with striking wavy black patterns in the grain. This particular variation only comes up for auction every couple of years, and normally in small quantities.

Audio-Technica HPA-KG NARU tubed headphone amp is fashioned from rare Kurogaki wood.
Audio-Technica’s HPA-KG NARU tubed headphone amp is fashioned from rare Kurogaki wood.

Powered by four Takatsuki 300B power tubes, with ECC83S gold pin small-signal tubes, the HPA-KG NARU utilizes a dual-mono configuration with fully-balanced drive design. It offers both balanced 4.4 mm and standard 1/4-inch headphone jacks. In addition to its function as a headphone amplifier, the HPA-KG NARU can serve as a preamplifier for driving a separate power amp and speakers.

Audio-Technica's HPA-KG NARU tubed headphone amp closeup

The companion ATH-AWKG NARU closed-back dynamic headphones are included with purchase of the amplifier. Like the HPA-KG NARU, the headphones are handcrafted in Tokyo, Japan, from kurogaki wood with hand-applied lacquer finish to bring out the wood’s natural beauty. Each pair has been specially optimized for use with the HPA-KG NARU amplifier. You can buy the headphones separately (standard version) for $4,200/pair.

Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG Headphones
Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG Headphones

I listened to a selection of lossless music tracks from TIDAL. The system offered deep resonant bass, ultra-natural sounding male and female vocals and excellent overall musicality. The headphones fit comfortably and securely over my ears providing a nice little listening cocoon. I would have liked more time to experience the system with multiple genres of music but it certainly was impressive sounding on a first listen. Was it worth $108,000? For those with the means? Why not?

HiFiMAN EF499 ($299) and EF500 ($459) Desktop Headphone Amps

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Audio-Technica, HiFiMAN had their two new budget headphone amps on hand: the EF499 ($299) and the EF500 ($459). Either makes a great match for the company’s extensive line of planar magnetic headphones. The upright form factor lends itself well to desktop placement and they can double as headphone stands when not in active use. The company has defined itself as a capable provider of high quality audiophile headphones at relatively affordable price points. I listened to a pair of the company’s excellent Ananda Nano planar magnetic headphones ($599) powered by the less expensive model (EF499) and found that it had plenty of power and dynamics to drive the headphones to enjoyable listening levels.

HiFiMan EF499 DAC/headphone amp
At $299, HiFiMan’s EF499 DAC/headphone amp was one of the most affordable headphone amps at the show.

The budget-priced EF499 features a Philips R2R DAC (with HiFiMan tuning) and 4.35 Watts of output. The step-up EF500 features HiFiMan’s proprietary Hymalaya LE ladder DAC for improved overall musicality, enhanced channel separation and lower noise. The EF500 offers 4.5 Watts/channel output. Both units feature a 6.35mm (quarter inch) single-ended headphone output, XLR 4-pin balanced headphone output, RCA single-ended and XLR balanced line level stereo outputs. Both units include a coax digital input, USB-C, USB-B and an Ethernet port for connection to a home network.

HiFiMan EF1000 Amp and Susvara Headphones
At around $21,000, HiFiMan’s EF1000 Amp and Susvara Headphones combo almost seemed affordable compared to some of CanJam’s more extreme products.

Of course, HiFiMan also offers more pricey statement pieces like the EF1000 tubed headphone amp ($15,000) and highly rated reference Susvara open-back planar magnetic headphones ($5,999) which I also listened to at the show. Over the bustling show floor it was difficult to get a sense of what that system is truly capable of (open back headphones like a quiet environment), but it certainly sounded promising and felt extremely comfortable. Sadly, the company’s Shangri-La electrostatic headphones ($18,000 ala carte or $50,000 with matching tube power amp) were not on display at the HiFiMan booth, though I did later learn that dealer Mimic had a pair of the Shangri-Las at their booth. I have yet to give those a listen.

Metaxas & Sins – Modern Art Meets Personal Sound Reproduction

One exhibitor stood way out from the crowd visually: Metaxas & Sins. The company is known for their high-end home loudspeakers and amplifiers for audiophiles. While their gear offers top notch sound quality, it’s their visual design aesthetic that set their products apart. And their new line of headphone amplifiers is no exception.

Metaxas & Sins Marquis headphone amplifier
Metaxas & Sins Marquis headphone amplifier.

At CanJam NYC, the company showed off two new headphone amps: Marquis ($7,800) and Ethereal ($32,000). Not just another boring black or silver box, the Metaxas amplifiers are contained within milled aluminum sculptures. Marquis is housed in a metal skull wearing glasses while Ethereal is embodied within a solid aluminum female bust. While Marquis is a good match for planar magnetic or dynamic drivers, Ethereal is optimized for electrostatic headphones.

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Metaxas & Sins Ethereal electrostatic headphone amp
Metaxas & Sins Ethereal electrostatic headphone amp.

They sounded great too with Marquis feeding tunes to a pair of ZMF Caldera planar magnetic phones ($3,499) and Ethereal powering Audeze CRBN Electrostatic headphones ($4,500) on one and a pair of STAX SR-X9000 Electrostats ($6,199) on her sister. Ethereal’s optional stand ($3,000) is also made of aluminum and has wheels so she can accompany you around the house or be safely tucked away when company comes. Ethereal’s volume is adjusted by twisting the statue’s nipples. Lingerie is not included.

Sennheiser’s HE1 Electrostatic Headphones and Amplifier ($70,000)

Sennheiser had a good-sized booth at CanJam NYC 2024. And while there were rumours about potential new models being introduced, the company had nothing brand new to unveil at the show. They did have an assortment of their popular open and closed back over-ear headphones available to audition, including the HD600, HD650 and HD660s2. I recently acquired a pair of HD650s myself, a bit late to the party since they’ve been in production for over 20 years. And I can see (and hear) why they’ve been such a popular model for the headphone brand.

Sennheiser's HE1 electrostatic headphone system comes with a tube amp encased in Carrara marble.
Sennheiser’s HE1 electrostatic headphone system comes with a tube amp encased in Carrara marble.

In a private suite, Sennheiser was also offering listening sessions of the flagship HE1 electrostatic headphone system ($70,000). This system includes a gorgeous tube-powered amp carved from a solid block of Carrara marble and an exquisite pair of electrostatic headphones. You can read more about how this system is made as well as my own listening impressions in my Sennheiser factory tour coverage. I’ve also had a chance to listen to some upcoming models from the company and can say there are some exciting things on the horizon from Sennheiser.

Focal Bathys Dune and New ‘Phones Coming Soon

Focal had a busy booth at CanJam NYC with multiple pairs of wired and wireless headphones on display, including their flagship Utopia 2022 ($4999), which I’ve been impressed by previously. The company used sister brand Naim’s Uniti Atom Headphone Edition ($3,799) high performance streaming DAC/amp to drive their ‘phones to impressive effect. Several of the company’s high-end headphones (including the Utopia) were available to show-goers at a 20% discount.

Focal Bathys Wireless Headphones in Dune (left) and dark gray (right)
Focal Bathys Wireless ANC Headphones in Dune (left) and dark gray (right).

It was the first time I got to see the recently released Bathys “Dune,” which is a new finish option for the high performance Bluetooth headphones, sold exclusively at Headphones.com. A Focal rep told me that the release of these headphones and the new “Dune” movie was entirely coincidental. The Bathys (pronounced “Bat-EES”, not BATH-iss) is compatible with the Focal app’s new “Mimi” hearing test option. You can test your own hearing using the app and Focal headphones and the app will allow you to adjust the EQ curve to accomodate any hearing deficiencies in your specific ears. This concept is something I first experienced on a pair of PSB headphones at last year’s CanJam show and it offers some interesting opportunities for those who may have mild hearing impairment or whose hearing has deteriorated over the years.

20240309_132935-focal-booth-canjam-2024
Focal’s booth at CanJam NYC 2024 had a constant stream of visitors eager to check out the company’s high performance headphones.

I also got a private screening of some new Focal headphones coming later this year. I can’t reveal details yet but from a quick look and listen, I expect these new models will do very well for the brand and will expand their audience. Stay tuned for more details to come.

Mégane Montabonel, Focal Headphones Product Manager, was staffing the booth to answer questions about the company’s products and collect feedback from actual customers and users. “CanJam NYC is always a great show for us, and it keeps getting better,” said Mégane. “Being able to interact with our customers and learn from them is valuable for our brand. It also allows us to introduce our products with a face-to-face connection to a new audience.”

Meze Liric II – A Great Headphone Gets Even Better

Meze Audio had their brand new LIRIC 2nd generation closed back headphones ($1,999) available for audition, now with gorgeous new ebony wood earcups. While the improved Liric ‘phones are efficient enough that you can drive them directly with a phone, they really sing when paired with a powered dongle DAC or headphone amp. Low frequency response was extended and articulate, even on challenging bass-heavy EDM tracks like “Alive” by kx5/deadmau5. Vocals were warm and detailed while percussion, cymbals and hi-hats offered natural detail without any hint of shrillness or stridency.

pIS0uV7Q-Meze-Liric-II-Boylan
The Meze Audio Liric II put a smile (or at least a smirk) on this reporter’s face.

Alex Grigoras, Sound Engineer from Meze Audio, traveled all the way from Romania to be at the show. “Trade shows are the most valuable means of engaging with our community,” said Alex. “And CanJam New York was a prime example. During the busy weekend, we enjoyed sharing our new products, Liric 2 and Empyrean 2, along with all current models, including our flagship, Elite. We’re all bound by a shared passion for immersive sound experiences and a collective dedication to exploring the world of audio excellence together.”

20240309_123723-meze-liric-ii-closeup
The Meze Audio Liric II now comes in an elegant ebony wood finish.

There were dozens of other worthy products at the show, from in-ear-monitors to accessories to over-ear headphones from the budget to the extreme. These were but a few that caught our eyes and ears. If you’re in the market for a new pair of “cans,” check out CanJam’s web site for details on upcoming shows.

So would you pony up $2,000 for a pair of headphones? Or over $100K for an amplifier? As always, share your thoughts with us in the comments.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Asa

    March 15, 2024 at 8:07 pm

    I’d be interested to know what the sales data is on creating such high-end equipment for manufacturers. Do the relative lower-priced offerings in their line-up subsidize the higher priced items? What kind of sales numbers are we talking for a $4-10K pair of ‘cans’? $100K+ for speakers?

    I’m not their target market, but it is fascinating to see them push the envelope on what is possible at any $$$ for audio hardware. So-Cal is probably the closest CanJam to me, but still too far to travel for an already expensive hobby.

    To answer your questions: no, no. Funny how all these things are relative. To my friends who come over and see various pieces of audio/video equipment…they are like, wow, but to folks in the know, they’d be like, ya, solid, but have you seen/heard…to infinity and beyond.

    Thanks, as always, for the exposure to the Bugatti’s of the audio world.

    • Ian White

      March 16, 2024 at 6:56 pm

      Asa,

      $400 is the sweet spot for headphones. Audeze can’t keep their gaming headphones in stock. There is a market for very expensive headphones but it’s still niche and the companies that sell $2,000 to $5,000 headphones need to sell a lot of $400 to $600 headphones to keep the lights on.

      I think $100,000 headphone amplifiers are kinda off. I remember when Alex Cavalli launched his line-up many years ago of $3,000 to $5,000 headphone amplifier and thought…”who the F would pay that much for a headphone amplifier?”

      They were tremendous sounding and I think my ceiling would end there. Audio-Technica will certainly sell some of the amps. But I do think it’s funny that the headphones are $4,000 and the amplifier is 25 times the price of the cans.

      Just saying.

      Ian White

      • Asa

        March 16, 2024 at 11:08 pm

        Thanks for the reply, Ian. My ceiling for headphones would be about double that sweetspot. Everyone has different needs so we’re lucky to have so many options, even if some seem other-worldly.

        I also play guitar and it’s a similar thing for amps, guitars, pedals and everything that goes with it. There’s a good sweet spot of equipment that sounds great and still be able to pay the mortage.

        Side note: I’ve enjoyed “The Audiophile System Builder” series and seeing what’s workable at various price points. Keep it up, and thanks again.

  2. ORT

    March 17, 2024 at 3:46 am

    $108,000 in today’s money is roughly equivalent to $13,500 in 1970 dollars. Kinda sorta makes ya think, huh?

    We now return control of the thread to you. Until next time, at any time, when the control voice will take you to…The ORTer Limits!

    ORTson Welles

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