You could almost feel the buzz in the air as you walked into CanJam SoCal 2022 last weekend. Jude Mansilla, Ethan Opolion, and Warren Chi were running around the two-day event looking more determined than ever to make this the biggest CanJam event so far — they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
CanJam SoCal is the most important headphone show in North America and even though it is part of a larger global effort to help grow the high-end headphone category, it is the event that every manufacturer wants to attend.
The Head-Fi community has been actively involved in these shows since inception and what started as local headphone events in SoCal, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta, has evolved into a series of trade shows in New York, Orange County, Singapore, and London.
Putting on one of these events requires months of planning; the COVID pandemic came very close to upsetting the entire apple cart after almost 5 years of explosive growth and outreach.
EIC Ian White attended CanJam New York 2020 which ended being the last hi-fi industry trade show for almost 18 months and remembers walking the show with Stereophile’s Herb Reichert, Adam Sohmer (Sohmer & Associates), and Jaclyn Inglis of Starscream Communications and thinking how ominous the lack of attendance felt; NYC and the rest of N. America had no idea that everything was coming to a frightening halt in less than a week.
CanJam NYC 2022 was a huge success earlier this year; the overall turnout was smaller in terms of vendors and attendees because of remaining travel restrictions and the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it was clear that Jude and Ethan were going forward into this new environment with a lot of enthusiasm and some justifiable concerns.
CanJam SoCal 2022 was a success even before it opened, but the overall attendance over the two days made it the most successful event so far and that’s great news for the industry.
The ballroom at the Irvine Marriott was packed with head-fi vendors that spilled out into adjoining conference rooms filled with portable audio gear, and many booths had long lines of eager attendees who even flew from other countries to listen to all of the state-of-the-art equipment.
It was impossible to listen to everything or even visit every single vendor, so our focus this year is going to be on some important new products that generated a lot of pre-show buzz.
You can also watch our CanJam post-show podcast for some expanded thoughts about the products, people, and trends that we picked up on.
There was a lot on our radar from the pre-release announcements. Products debuting at a U.S. show included the HiFiMAN Sundara Closed-Back, Dan Clark Audio Expanse, ZMF Caldera, Focal Utopia, dCS Lina, Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 DAP, Astell&Kern Odyssey IEMs, Shure SE846 Gen 2, and T+A Solitaire T.
What was rather obvious wandering around the show and speaking with attendees is that the interest in high-end headphones and portable audio equipment is only getting stronger.
The escalating price of admission is certainly a turn-off for some; who could imagine spending $4,000 on a pair of headphones or $10,000 on a desktop headphone system (headphones, DAC, amplifier, cables) in 2022 but that’s become the cost of doing business. It’s no wonder that $350 ANC wireless headphones and Dongle DACs have become so popular for a lot of younger and older listeners who can’t justify spending that amount of money on headphones.
We kvetch all the time about $30,000 loudspeakers and $3,000 power cords, but spending $10,000 on a headphone system raises more than a few eyebrows with a lot of people.
HiFiMAN Sundara Closed-Back Headphones
Building on the success of the budget-priced Sundara Open-Back headphones, HiFiMAN has introduced the Sundara Closed-Back headphone for $399.95 USD. The model name might be the same, but make no mistake — these are completely different sounding headphones and the drivers are not the same.
The new Sundara CBs benefit from stealth magnet technology first introduced in the Ayra, for a quarter of the price. Pair them with HiFiMAN’s EF400 Amplifier/DAC (as shown) and you’ll have a combo that will be tough to beat for under $1,000.
Meze Audio 109 Pro
Meze Audio is no longer just a small, bespoke headphone manufacturer based in a small college town in Romania. The Romanian company has become one of the premier brands in high-end audio offering state-of-the-art headphones and IEMs at various price points.
EIC Ian White has used the 99 Classics for almost 4 years and many of have had the opportunity to experience the LIRIC, Empyrean, and flagship ELITE headphones ($4,000) that are considered to be one of the top headphones in the world in 2022.
The new Meze Audio 109 Pro are not an open-back version of the 99 Classics but a completely new design with a different driver and the only similarity with the older and less expensive 99 Classics is the headband.
I had a quick listen while connected to the Ferrum ERCO + Hypsos stack ($3,590), and it was clear that the transparency, detail, and overall resolution was extremely impressive for a dynamic driver headphone at $799.95 USD. Our review sample is on it way to eCoustics Sr. Headphone Editor, William Jennings.
Shure SE846 Gen 2
The new Shure SE846 Gen 2 Sound Isolating Earphones debuted at CanJam, but we had the first review sample more than a month ago. The SE846 Gen 2 are still priced at $899 which is rather remarkable considering this was the price when they were launched 10 years ago. The Gen 2 is the same design but adds a brand new sonic signature filter (red) and new color options for 2022.
For a comprehensive look at the Shure SE846 Gen 2, check out our full review and podcast where we discuss the new model, forthcoming models, and the state of the headphone industry with Shure’s Product Managers and the team responsible for the engineering of the SE846 Gen 2 earphones.
T+A Solitaire T
When the T+A Solitaire T wireless noise-cancelling headphones are released this fall they’re likely to be the most expensive wireless ANC model on the market at around $1,800 USD. They certainly look and feel like very expensive wired headphones and are aiming to steal the narrative from the Mark Levinson No. 5909 in terms of price and performance. Emiko noted the T+A Solitaire T makes you feel like going from first-class to flying private.
The high-end wireless market is becoming a very competitive category with more models forthcoming (under NDA) from a number of manufacturers in Q4. Look for our Wireless Headphone Buying Guide in October before you make any decisions on what to buy this Christmas.
ZMF had their own room across from the main show floor, and it was consistently packed. I finally found a seat at a listening station on the last day and got to try out both the Atrium and brand-new Caldera Planar Magnetic models. Both were exceptional. The person I met next to me had been seated there for 3 hours trying to decide which he liked better.
The ZMF Caldera is so new they are not even on the company’s website yet. Look for them to be priced around $3,500 USD at launch.
The ZMF models work rather well with a wide range of amplifiers but they have excellent synergy with the ampsandsound headphone amplifiers and have become a very popular tandem.
We were lucky enough to publish the very first review of Astell&Kern’s new flagship DAP, the A&ultima SP3000. Our Senior Headphone Editor, William Jennings, had the exact unit just before it was sent back for use at CanJam SoCal 2022.
The $3,699.95 USD asking price had a few people shaking their heads, but our experience with it suggests that it might be the best DAP ever released by Astell&Kern and that puts the SP3000 in very elite company. You can read our exclusive in-depth full review here.
A&K x Empire Odyssey
Astell&Kern have teamed up with Empire Ears to create an IEM that’s specifically tuned for the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000. Of course it should work just fine with any high-end source. The combo will set you back $7,100, and is guaranteed to impress in both style and sound. Our review sample is forthcoming in October.
Dan Clark Audio Expanse
The Dan Clark Audio Expanse ($3,999) made their debut at CanJam SoCal 2022 and attendees waited (and waited) for the opportunity to listen to these impressive headphones.
They look like the open-back version of the Dan Clark Stealth, keeping the same ear cup design and headband style. While many other high-end headphones can feel like bricks on your head, both DCA models are quite comfortable and lightweight.
The openness and transparency of these headphones was rather beguiling and we can see why some shopping at the top end of the market have a hard time picking between the Expanse, Meze ELITE, and Audeze LCD-5.
The Audeze CRBN made their debut last year along with the LCD-5, but it was my first opportunity to experience an electrostatic headphone. The CRBN require a headphone amplifier designed specifically for an electrostatic headphone and it was not surprising to see them paired with the Linear Tube Audio Z10e Headphone Amplifier ($6,950.95 USD). LTA and Audeze have shown together for a number of years and the products demonstrate excellent synergy.
What struck me was the clarity and overall transparency of the sound. It’s been a few years since I’ve listened to a pair of MartinLogan loudspeakers but these were an incredible combination. The resolution and detail were state-of-the-art and it was one of the three best systems at the show. $11,000 for this one without a source or cables.
EIC Ian White, was given an early preview of the CRBN in 2021 and their unique origin story. A truly fascinating product.
Focal introduced their new flagship Utopia for $4,999.95 and the line to listen to them often stretched back 7-8 people deep. Since Focal’s booth was smartly positioned at the entrance, Utopia was one of the first things everyone saw and got to listen to. Brilliant strategy, because if you started there, Focal set an extremely high bar for everyone else.
The Utopia features a new driver and some changes to the industrial design, but they keep the look and feel of entire Focal headphone line-up. We’ll be testing these soon with the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition ($3,799), which delivers an all-in-one desktop solution for $8,800.
The only analog setup at CanJam was shown by Pro-Ject. The company known for their turntables introduced a fully balanced all-analog headphone system with their X2 B Turntable ($1,799), Sumiko Starling Cartridge ($1,799), Phono Box DS3 B ($799) and Head Box DS2 B ($599).
With record sales continuing their resurgence, I was somewhat surprised there weren’t other solutions for the vinyl domain? Credit to Pro-Ject for leading the way.
Chord makes a wide range of desktop and portable DAC/Headphone amplifiers including the Mojo 2 and Qutest (DAC only), but their CanJam SoCal 2022 table featured the mighty DAVE DAC/headphone amplifier/preamp that retails for almost $14,000 USD.
It might surprise some to learn that Chord have sold a considerable number of these DACs for headphone systems along with their Hugo M Scaler ($5,650) which takes the system without headphones or a source to nearly $20,000.
Listening to the Dan Clark Stealth headphones through the Chord stack was one of the most impressive demonstrations I have heard in a long time. There was an immersive quality to this system that other rigs at the show lacked in comparison; more detail, superior resolution, transparency, and a spaciousness to the sound that was almost hypnotic.
If $24,000 magically appears in my bank account, this would be the system that ends up on my desk for sure. The Chord/Dan Clark Audio system wasn’t even the most expensive system at the show, but it was certainly one of the best that I’ve ever heard.
One of the most expensive headphone rigs available is the dCS Lina. This $29,000 stack consists of three individual components; a Network DAC, Master Clock and Headphone Amplifier. Each can be used separately or all-together.
The key innovation from dCS is their Ring DAC technology, featuring proprietary ‘unitary weighted’ or ‘thermometer coded’ DAC architecture said to reduce distortion to vanishingly low levels.
Needless to say, the dCS Lina was certainly as impressive as the Chord stack but with a different tonal balance, and I rather liked having a network DAC that they developed as part of the entire system. Synergy is not just a marketing term when it comes to a trio of state-of-the-art equipment.
Who Wasn’t There?
The most notable of no-shows at any CanJam are the big three; Apple, Sony and Bose. None of them need CanJam, but I left wondering what could get more people interested in the premium headphone segment.
Almost everyone uses a headphone in some aspect of their daily life, whether at work, working out, or leisure. Only a tiny fraction opt to elevate their personal listening experience. As packed as CanJam was, could it be even bigger?
Apple alone likely sells more AirPods in a day than all of the vendors at CanJam combined sell in a year. That is telling.
Just how big is the headphone market and how much of it is being captured by Apple? According to Statista, it’s estimated to hit $17 Billion in 2022. Apple reported their “other” revenue topped $8 Billion in 2021, which includes AirPods, Apple Watch and the HomePod. So it’s probably safe to assume $6-7 Billion is generated from earphones and headphones — and that’s predicted to grow higher with the launch of AirPods Pro 2nd Gen.
Although CanJams have historically focused on the upper end of the market, why couldn’t they also include the more affordable side? Perhaps the people buying Skullcandy, JLab or 1More today, could soon be the people buying Audeze, HiFiMAN, or Meze Audio once they’ve been exposed to them.
You clearly can’t fault the show organizers, but that probably speaks to the broader divide between mainstream and high-end audio gear. I witnessed a lot of equipment getting sold, so why would any headphone company pass up sales?
One more thing…
Lastly, there is one more thing (as Steve Jobs used to say in his Apple Keynotes) that should be mentioned.
Despite Apple Music’s Spatial Audio push, it was surprising not to see a single spatial audio demo. What most people don’t yet realize is that spatial audio can be experienced with regular headphones. Audiophiles may eschew spatial audio releases now, but I can assure you it’s coming and will get better. If you don’t believe me I have one word why spatial audio cannot fail. Metaverse.
Granted, after losing over $71 billion over the past two weeks — Mark Zuckerberg was probably not in the mood to discuss the future of audio.
CanJam SoCal 2022 was a huge success. Watching so many people that excited about better sound quality with a willingness to spend is a great sign for the headphone segment.
There isn’t another hi-fi show on the planet (outside of the headphone show in Japan) that gives attendees the opportunity to listen to so many different pieces of equipment in the same room with their own music. It’s a tad chaotic but people are willing to wait for their turn and the conversations with those standing in line with us at multiple tables were always cordial and full of enthusiasm.
Congratulations to Ethan Opolion and Jude Mansilla, and the entire Head-Fi team for another fantastic CanJam.
Watch our video recap of CanJam which covers even more headphones and gear.
Don’t miss our previous headphone show coverage from T.H.E. Headphonium at The Home Entertainment Show, held in Long Beach, CA from June 10-12, 2022.