With AXPONA postponed again to 2022 and RMAF kaput forever, it was beyond important that CanJam SoCal 2021 happened. Almost essential. Ethan Opolion and Jude Mansilla deserve medals for making this happen.
CanJam SoCal is one of the stops on the CanJam Global Tour for headphone aficionados. This year’s event was held in Irvine, CA at the Irvine Marriott. With high-end audio shows in flux, this one went on despite a complete pull-out of all European manufacturers. Even still, there’s been a lot of headphone news as of late so there was still plenty to see and listen to.
The talk of the show, which coincidentally had the longest lines to listen, was Audeze’s LCD-5 planar magnetic open-back headphone which retails for $4,000. That’s right, no extra zero.
If you haven’t been following the high-end headphone space, you might be in for a shock. However, even at this price you can’t just plug them into your smartphone and expect them to sound good.
Planar magnetic headphones like the LCD-5, Meze Audio Elite, Dan Clark Stealth, and HiFiMAN Susvara require a lot power to sound like they should. You need to treat them like a pair of high-end loudspeakers in terms of power and source quality.
Brands at the show including Ampsandsound, iFi, and Headamp have a wide range of dedicated headphone amplifiers that truly elevate the sound quality of these headphones.
I tested complete headphone systems which topped the $10,000 price barrier. There are at least a handful of other $4,000+ headphones to consider from the likes of HiFiMAN, Focal, and Meze Audio just to name a few. Amps and accessories you’ll want to pair them with start at around $500.
I think we can all agree, most people — I mean 99% of people are never going to spend that much on headphone listening. But this show caters to the 1% who will. And that’s not a small number of people on a global level based on the success of the CanJam events held in Singapore, America, Great Britain, and China. Japan does it own thing and it’s even larger than these shows so it’s clear that the audience is there.
The Head-Fi community is entirely new to me; Eric Pye, Ian White, and W. Jennings are very passionate about personal audio and have been part of the community for many years and encouraged me to attend.
Having never been to other CanJam events, I can’t speak for the make-up of the crowd but the majority of show attendees over the weekend were male and much younger than the crowd I’ve seen at traditional audio shows.
Ian White and W. Jennings have been huge proponents of the CanJam events because they have a completely different vibe; male and female attendees who are younger and very passionate about listening to music through their favorite portable and desktop rigs.
It’s a completely fallacy that younger people don’t care about better sound quality. They were just never exposed to it with traditional two-channel high-end systems and grew up consuming music differently.
I met plenty of people at the show who have spent thousands of dollars on headphones, DACs, cables, and headphone amplifiers; many own 4-5 pairs of headphones and brought them along to listen to the amplifiers on display.
We live in a mobile world where people commute, travel, and live in smaller homes or apartments than the traditional N. American customer.
It’s easy to understand why the high-end headphone space has exploded and continues to grow at an incredible rate.
Are there too many brands to keep track of? Absolutely. CanJam SoCal 2021 was dramatically smaller than past shows because of the pandemic so it’s crazy to think that one could listen to dozens of new headphones and amplifiers at every show.
Missing from the show were a lot of affordable models, except ones shown by HiFiMAN and two new startups — VZR and AUSOUNDS. Only VZR had a spatial audio demo with their new Model One ($349) audiophile gaming headphone. Nothing from Dolby or Sony; the companies behind Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio, respectively. AUSOUNDS showed the only active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones, model AU-XT for $199, and the first planar-magnetic ANC headphone, coming soon for $399.
HiFIMAN showed some of the least expensive headphones from $149 and up. Even at $149, the HiFiMAN HE400SE are one of the best bargains in the headphone category, which we reviewed just last month.
HiFiMAN also has upgraded our favorite wireless headphone, the HiFiMAN Deva to HiFiMAN Deva Pro ($329). Look for our review in the coming months on that one.
HiFiMAN’s range of headphones extends up to $6000 for the Susvara, and there’s plenty of good ones in-between. The Ayra have just been updated for 2021, priced at $1600.
A new headphone technology to watch out for is called SoundID by Sonarworks. Headphones with SoundID are able to re-program their sonic signature based on your personal hearing preferences in combination with known characteristics of the headphone. It’s more than just EQ. I’m led to believe it’s dynamic as well as personalized calibration.
For headphones without SoundID built-in. The SoundID smartphone app accomplishes the same thing, but you have to listen through their app and use supported headphones within their database. Nonetheless, SoundID is very interesting technology that seems like it should become more widely available. For more information on SoundID, check out our 1More ColorBuds 2 wireless earbuds review, which is one of the first earphones with SoundID built-in.
In summary, it’s interesting to point out what wasn’t at CanJam. The most obvious to me was there was no future technology. No prototypes. Nothing to drool over.
Even current technology was absent. The very popular dongle DAC category was no where to be found.
Spatial audio was another no-show. Even though spatial audio tracks are now available on Apple Music, Amazon, Deezer and TIDAL, it seemed like a wasted opportunity not to showcase its capabilities.
In the future we expect headphones to include HRTF (Head-Related Transfer Functions). In other words head tracking that further improves upon the realism of the spatial audio experience, depending on which direction you face.
With the high-end headphone market sitting this one out, we’re expecting AR/VR gaming headphones to push this technology to the forefront; or Apple.
Who knows, maybe we’ll see it soon at the next CanJam in NYC, scheduled for February 26-27, 2022.
Enjoy some of our photos from CanJam SoCal 2021 on our Instagram.