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CanJam SoCal 2023 Show Report: A Changing of the Guard?

CanJam SoCal 2023 Collage

Momentum is key in any industry and after stumbling somewhat with a quiet CanJam Chicago 2023, show organizers focused on making CanJam SoCal 2023 the most successful one yet.

After the monumental success of CanJam NYC 2023 earlier this year which we still think was the best industry trade show in over a decade, Ethan Opolion and Jude Mansilla focused on attracting new blood to the show; which took place at the same time as one of the biggest Hi-Fi trade shows in the UK.

Ethan Opolion doesn’t like to overstate things but he was positively glowing (and exhausted) at the end of the day on Sunday. CanJam SoCal 2023 set a new attendance record in terms of attendees and exhibitors; attendance at the show in Orange Country increased by over 20% from 2022 and only missed CanJam NYC’s 2023 record attendance by 50 tickets.

Crowd at CanJam SoCal 2023
Crowd at CanJam SoCal 2023

When you factor in the weather, UK Hi-Fi Show, insane gas prices in California, and current state of the economy — almost surpassing the attendance of the New York City event which takes place in a hotel in the middle of Times Square is no small accomplishment.

93 exhibitors packed into the Irvine Marriott’s main ballroom with some spillover into adjacent rooms which did offer better and less chaotic listening conditions; Dan Clark Audio, dCS, ZMF, Meze Audio, and STAX took advantage of those rooms and were consistently packed throughout the weekend.

Heavy Hitters

Audeze, Focal, and Headphones.com locked up the largest booths by the entrance to the ballroom and were running at full tilt until the show came to an end on Sunday evening. The lines to listen to the various Naim/Focal and Audeze systems were extremely long and show attendees refused to walk away until they had the opportunity to do so.

Something else really caught our attention at CanJam SoCal 2023 and not just at the Focal/Naim booth.

Focal booth at CanJam SoCal 2023
Focal’s headphones attracted quite a number of women to their booth.

The Head-Fi community has always been rather diverse; both in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender.

But this was the first time we have ever seen this many young women at any high-end audio event and that needs to be a wake-up call for every manufacturer.

Women care just as much about music and the experience as men — it is the patronizing behavior on the part of male audiophiles that really turns them off.

They would not come to a high-end audio headphone show if they didn’t have a modicum of interest in regard to the topic; they just don’t obsess over every last technical aspect of the hobby or look down on others who might not know something.

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Highlights

Warwick Acoustics‘ walk-in sound cocoon also attracted huge lines which allowed attendees to experience their high-end systems in the best acoustic environment on the show floor.

Yamaha YH-5000SE Headphones and HA-L7A Headphone Amplifier at CanJam SoCal 2023
Yamaha YH-5000SE Headphones and HA-L7A Headphone Amplifier

Yamaha demonstrated its new HA-L7A flagship headphone amplifier and YH-5000SE headphones which add up to almost $9,000 USD as a system and there was a lot of interest in the combination.

When I took my turn with the combination, I was intrigued by the the DSP options but admittedly not blown away by the sonic performance considering the rather substantial price tag of the system.

In reflection, perhaps Sony’s DAP wasn’t complementary. This is one system that left me with more questions than answers and we will have to review the complete system before offering an in-depth assessment.

Heddphone Two Headphones at CanJam SoCal 2023
Heddphone Two

HEDD Audio also demonstrated its brand new HEDDphone Two and the consensus was extremely positive from the attendees that we spoke with.

HiFiMAN was so busy during the two-day show that we couldn’t get a spot at their table unless we were willing to wait for almost 30 minutes; Adam Sohmer flew into Orange County from New York to represent HiFiMAN and he remarked during the breakdown that he had never met so many female tech journalists at a high-end audio event like CanJam in all of the years he has worked in the space.

Considering his 30+ years as one of the leading public relations professionals in the industry, that’s something to take note of.

Market Share by Headphone Price Category

What’s really fascinating about the CanJam Series is that 99% of all headphones purchased are priced under $400 USD (according Sonarworks Headphone Sound Report 2023); which means that the remaining 1% of the market is shared by all of the audiophile headphone brands which exhibit at the CanJam events in New York City, Singapore, London, SoCal, Chicago, and Dallas.

In the U.S., Apple and Beats (which Apple owns) captures nearly 50% of the headphone market, followed by Bose, Samsung, Sony and JBL. None of them were at CanJam, nor would we expect them to be.

Considering the forecasted growth of the headphone market over the next decade, that does leave room for growth on the luxury side, but it also makes us wonder how much mainstream consumers actually care about this segment of the market.

The Rest of the Show

DROP + grell

Axel Grell holding prototype headphone at Drop booth at CanJam SoCal 2023
Axel Grell holding prototype headphone expected for final release this year.
Drop + Grell prototype headphone at CanJam SoCal 2023
Drop + Grell prototype headphone with forward mounted driver.

My first stop was with the people in the Drop booth, where famed headphone designer, Axel Grell (formerly of Sennheiser) was on-hand demonstrating a prototype of his newest headphone (yet to be named). Instead of traditional side mounted headphone drivers, Grell’s new headphone relocates the drivers towards the front and angles them back towards the ear inside the earcup.

This design really does shift the headphone listening experience in front of your head, which I rather liked. However, neither the design or tuning was finalized, so we’ll need to wait until we can review a production unit.

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Focal

Focal Bathys 2023 in Dune
Focal Bathys (2023 model in Dune colorway)

The new Focal Dune Bathys which features a rather interesting colorway was incredibly popular at the show; the original Bathys won our “Best Wireless Headphone” of 2022 and we have not listened to anything so far this year that would knock it into the second spot on the list. There are still 3 months to go and we have some interesting new products under review but these are the most popular high-end wireless headphones right now even at their price point.

Focal also had their luxury wired headphones on display driven by the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition Network Amplifier and there were long lines to experience all of their models which range from $999 USD to almost $5,000.

Audeze

Audeze MM-500 (left) and MM-100 (right) at CanJam SoCal 2023
Audeze MM-500 (left) and MM-100 (right)

Audeze was recently acquired by Sony Interactive Entertainment, but it was business as usual for them. We’ve covered many of their high-end models in the past, including the LCD-5, but it was their newest studio inspired headphone in collaboration with Manny Marroquin, the MM-100 that surprised me. Priced at only $399, I found it more comfortable than its larger, more expensive brother (MM-500 at $1,699) while giving up very little in sound quality. The MM-100 may have been the sleeper product of the show.

Audio-Technica

Audio-Technica ATH-W2022 (left) and ATH-AWKG (right) Closed-back Headphones at CanJam SoCal 2023
Audio-Technica ATH-W2022 (left) and ATH-AWKG (right) Closed-back Headphones

Audio-Technica is widely known for their low cost headphones, but I was afforded the opportunity to listen to two of their flagship models. The 60th Anniversary ATH-W2022 headphones were on display and this $9,000 USD model were one of the most beautiful looking headphones I’ve ever seen.

They are hand-painted in Japan and even at their asking price — all 100 pairs were sold. Audio-Technica brought one pair with them to the show for demonstration purposes and they were an extremely detailed and open sounding pair of dynamic closed-back headphones.

The second flagship model was crafted from 100 year-old aged wood sourced in Japan and offered a very similar presentation and tonal balance. The ATH-AWKG are a closed-back design (price and availability TBD) and extremely impressive headphones.

Austrian Audio

Austrian Audio The Composer Headphone with Full Score one Headphone Amplifier at CanJam SoCal 2023
Austrian Audio The Composer Headphone with Full Score one Headphone Amplifier

Austrian Audio was a company off my radar prior to attending. They brought their flagship headphone ($2,699) and amp combo ($1,699) with build quality that is off the charts. The all-metal casing and adjustability mechanisms looked and felt like a luxury headphone and we were told they make their custom drivers as well.

Interestingly, their demo used a Dongle DAC with their amplifier, which made me wonder how this combination would sound with a dedicated desktop DAC.

Punchy, crisp, and dynamic were all sonic characteristics that I would attribute to the combination and this is one brand we plan on reviewing when we can get some samples over to Will Jennings.

Meze Audio

Meze Audio 109 Pro Primal Open-back Headphones at CanJam SoCal 2023
Meze Audio 109 Pro Primal Open-back Headphones

Our friends from Romania had one of the busier booths at CanJam SoCal 2023 and there was a lot of interest in the 109 Pro Primal headphones that we just covered a few days before the show. EIC Ian White uses the standard 109 Pro headphones during his daily listening routine and there is no question that Antonio Meze and his team have come up with a rather unique looking finish for an additional $200 USD.

HiFiMAN

HiFiMan Arya Organic Open-back Headphones at CanJam SoCal 2023
HiFiMan Arya Organic Open-back Headphones

Despite not having a brand new headphone, HiFiMAN’s booth was consistently packed at the show. I’ve been extremely impressed with the Arya Stealth and the new Arya Organic which offer a darker and fuller sounding tonal balance.

In addition, attendees were also very interested in the reference Prelude headphone amplifier from recently acquired Goldenwave as well as the EF1000 DAC/Amplifier.

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Schiit Audio

Schiit Skoll, Midgard and Hel+

EIC Ian White was busy over the weekend digging for details on the three new components unveiled by Schiit Audio and we suspect that the most popular one might be the new Skoll phono preamplifier that was unveiled for $499.

There wasn’t a lot of information about the new Midgard headphone amplifier, but we did like the cleaner looking front panel (especially in black) and single-ended and balanced inputs/outputs. There is also a 4-pin XLR headphone output on the front panel. The amplifier may offer balanced inputs/outputs, but it is still a single-ended topology.

Schiit also introduced the new Hel+ that is an upgrade over the Hel 2 which was introduced in 2021; The Hel 2 added more inputs and outputs for console users, and included a unique A-to-D mic to facilitate call taking on the computer or console while listening to music or gaming.

Tip: Get more information about Schiit Audio’s Skoll, Midgard and Hel+

xMEMs & iFi

xMEMS IEMs with iFi Diablo X Headphone Amplifier
xMEMS IEMs with iFi Diablo X Headphone Amplifier

xMEMs is a new micro speaker technology that’s making its way into IEMS (in-ear monitors). It’s being pitched as a breakthrough technology “delivering a fiercely fast mechanical response…allowing for each sound to have its distinct place and separation within the audio landscape.”

The drawback is that xMEMS IEMs require a special voltage-driven amp, and can’t be connected to regular smartphones, dongles or amps. I got a brief listen paired with iFi’s Diablo X portable DAC/Amp and what I heard has sparked my curiosity to continue watching this technology. We plan on following up for a more in-depth listen.

Conclusion

With so many brands and components to experience, CanJam SoCal 2023 was indeed a success. There were so many boutique IEM brands, it would take another report to detail the dozens of models on display. I walked around and listened to some of models from FiiO and concur with both William Jennings and Ian White that they have one of the most impressive lineups of IEMs, headphones, DAPs, and Dongle DACs available at rather sensible prices. At just $299, their FT3 was a rather fun listen.

But do you know what still doesn’t create a lot of buzz with the hardcore Head-Fi crowd?

Spatial Audio and wireless headphones.

What’s strange about the lack of interest in the wireless headphone space at a show like this is that there are so many great options right now. The handful of wireless models I did come across included the Audio-Technica ATH-TWX9, Sennheiser Accentum, HiFiMAN Svanar, T+A Solitaire T and previously mentioned Focal Bathys.

Audeze Maxwell Gaming Headphones with Boom Mic
Audeze Maxwell Gaming Headphones with Boom Mic

The Audeze Maxwell Wireless Gaming Headphones feel like the the lone exception with the mainstream audience who have made gaming headsets 40% of Audeze’s business at this point. Now with Sony’s gaming division behind them we’d expect a much larger marketing push to attract millions of gamers to Audeze’s wireless headphones (and wired ones) moving forward.

Tip: The eCoustics booth at T.H.E. Show 2023 compared nearly a dozen wireless headphones. Our feedback from audiophiles wasn’t quite what we expected.

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DAPs and dongles were also hard to come by at the show, and despite the headphone category being all about portability, nearly all demonstrations were geared towards home desktop listening. That takes me back to my earlier point about CanJam being a show for the 1% of headphone buyers looking for the very best.

Consumers can spend $20,000 or more now on a desktop headphone system and whilst that might seem crazy to some — it feels downright affordable compared to some of the six-figure loudspeakers we have seen so far in 2023.

The next two or three years are going to be critical for the vertical and we expect to see some rather interesting innovation and also some thinning of the herd as well.

More Photos from CanJam SoCal 2023

Ampandsound Red October Personal Audio Tubed Integrated Amplifier with Audeze LCD-5 Headphones
Ampandsound Red October Personal Audio Tubed Integrated Amplifier with Audeze LCD-5 Headphones
EarMen ST-Amp at CanJam SoCal 2023
EarMen ST-Amp
ZMF Headphone Prototype at CanJam Socal 2022
ZMF headphone prototype
Austrian Audio Austrian Audio The Composer Headphone
Austrian Audio The Composer
Chord Mojo 2 portable DAC/Amp
Chord Mojo 2 portable DAC/Amp is much smaller than you’d think.
2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. ORT

    October 3, 2023 at 9:36 pm

    I had hoped to be able to go to this show one more time but was physically unable to do so. Dammit.

    “Skoll” reads Nordic but could also be thought of as smokeless tabacky for the inbred set, you know…”Jess a pinch ‘tween yore cheeks ‘n’ bunz”.

    “Sigh”…I have no idea what this one looks like but I would wager it looks like, well…like Schiit. In other words, fittingly plain and unassuming. Nice but not nearly Audrey Hepburn in cuffed jeans and plaid shirt. $400 is more than enough to expect it to look better than usual.

    I have no doubts as to its build quality and performance and it will sell, but unless I am wrong it will look like just like what I said it will look like. If’n I don’t have no need I best have a hellavu WANT.

    ORT

    • Ian White

      October 4, 2023 at 5:42 pm

      ORT,

      It’s a mid-sized box. Nothing fancy. We’re awaiting some updated photos so we can post my story.

      I care about the sound quality and especially how the balanced aspect works. The Pro-Ject X2B performs on another level if you use the balanced output into a high quality balanced phono stage. I tried both.

      IW

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