It’s easy to look back at 2020 and be bitter. I’ve struggled the past few weeks trying to articulate what many of us feel and how it has impacted not only this industry but the world around us. It has not been an easy year. Many of us know people who have died from COVID-19. I have nothing but respect for those on the front lines in local hospitals who have done their best, working tireless hours trying to save people. My two-week brush with COVID was a walk in the park in comparison. Being able to listen to music with products like the Clarus CODA, Audeze LCD-1, and Meze Audio 99 Classics was a godsend in this seemingly never-ending horror show.
Listening to music has been the best way to pass the time; those of us who are lucky enough to get paid to do this as a side gig when we’re not working the day job to pay the mortgage and tuition understand what I’m saying. I am grateful for the opportunity to educate readers and hopefully turn a few of you on to new music and stereo equipment that might make your life more enjoyable.
2020 has also made me less political; primarily because I have better things to do with my time and the idealism that I felt in my youth has been sheared away by the years spent living inside the Beltway and listening to the grifters who have taken advantage of the pandemic to enrich themselves and divide us more as a nation. Listening to Richter, Dolphy, or Dylan has far more value in this confusing time. At least to me.
It will also not surprise anyone who knows me that we have begun the long process (18 months) of making Aliyah to Israel; where I feel unshackled as both a creator and entrepreneur. Israel is where we belong. It is where I feel completely free to walk through Jerusalem’s 3,000 year-old streets or in the fields of the Kibbutz founded by my family in 1921 and finally feel at home.
My level of output will not diminish one iota. Our plan to expand the audience has a few layers to it which will include collaboration with some well-established channels in the personal audio, vinyl, and vintage/used categories. Brian and I are not getting any younger – but the people that we are beginning to work with bring a different perspective to consumer electronics, music, and film.
Don’t adjust your monitor if you see me reporting from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Dubai – there are some amazing things going on in the world of technology that we plan on bringing you directly from the people involved. I value the opportunity to meet audiophiles, tech developers, and music lovers in Israel, U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco, and hopefully help expand the base.
MENA is in a very important moment of normalization and transition which is going to impact the technology that we use to consume media in a huge way. There are a lot of talented engineers scattered throughout the region working on some great products that may not show up in 2021 but they are coming.
It has also been a year of spending a lot more quality time with my wife and children, and the friends that I have known (via Zoom) from my earliest days on the frozen parking lot in our little neighborhood in Toronto where we pretended to be Orr, Lemieux, Bossy, or Wayne.
We get together every month for dinner and hours of banter about music, movies, and life.
Six men from the same neighborhood who have taken very different journeys and who listen to very different music. We fight about that a lot. Music. And pizza. And why the Maple Leafs still suck.
All of this has made me realize that I have no right to feel bitter.
I am hopeful that 2021 will be a better year and that our best days are ahead of us.
Back to the subject at hand.
I mentioned in my previous post about the Clarus CODA that it was not the first cable manufacturer to take the plunge into the world of portable DAC/Headphone Amplifiers and that the category was quickly filling up with new models from Helm Audio and Zorloo that are smaller and more affordable.
The CODA is slightly larger than the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt but will easily fit in your pocket.
I wasn’t sold on the side-mounted volume buttons, but I’ve found myself using them when listening through my MacBook Pro. I can see it being an issue if you stick the CODA connected to a phone in your pants pocket and the buttons catch on the fabric while you move.
I hide my phone inside my jacket when outside and I’ve yet to have an issue so far. YMMV.
From Romania With Love…
Meze Audio is a tiny company based in Romania and I’ve enjoyed their range of headphones for many years. Their flagship Empyrean ($3,000) needs something more powerful like the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL MZ3 to really justify its price of admission so It’s not really something I would recommend with the CODA or DragonFly Cobalt.
Their 99 Classics headphones ($309/Walnut Gold) are ideal for the CODA as they are very easy to drive and have a warm tonal balance. The CODA is definitely leaner sounding than the DragonFly Cobalt which will make it a better match for headphones like the 99 Classics.
Max Richter’s “Richter: Opus 2020” from his new Beethoven: Opus 2020 release (Deutsche Grammophon, 24-bit/48kHz, Qobuz) is a slightly bright sounding track with a mixture of piano and strings that I’ve heard sound like a jumbled mess if the system can’t lock everything in place. The Meze headphones have been consistently good with piano tracks and they put sufficient weight behind each note with the CODA.
Switching to the Audeze LCD-1 open-back planar magnetic headphones, piano notes didn’t have the same degree of weight, but the soundstage was both wider and deeper. The LCD-1 lack the midrange punch of the 99 Classics which made me prefer the Romanian headphones with this track. It’s a more transparent presentation for sure, but the CODA/Audeze combination didn’t rattle the cage in the same way.
Switching to Dexter Gordon’s Go (Blue Note, 24-bit/192kHz, Qobuz) was a much better album for the Audeze/CODA combination; Gordon’s tenor sax had both bite and a lot of texture throughout.
The spaciousness of the LCD-1 with well-recorded jazz made me transition from Gordon to McCoy Tyner and finish with Stanley Turrentine’s The Complete Blue Hour Sessions (Blue Note Records, 16-bit/44.1kHz, Qobuz). If you want to hear the recording space – the Audeze headphones are superb.
The 99 Classics were even better with these albums as far as tone and bass impact are concerned, but the soundstage was more confined to the space inside your head. The CODA spread things out with the LCD-1, extending the soundstage to the left and right of my head and with greater transparency.
The DragonFly Cobalt worked better overall with the LCD-1 which need some added drive and low end control to come alive with electronica, rock, and pop. Some might prefer the transparency and spaciousness of the Audeze, but the 99 Classics do something very special with vocals that make me reach them 95% of the time.
The Clarus CODA is a relatively neutral sounding DAC with a slightly tipped up treble which was a plus with the 99 Classics. I’m not sure I would pair the CODA with any headphones that are already on the more analytical side.
Between the two DACs, the Cobalt had a warmer sounding midrange which benefitted vocals more when connected to the Audeze LCD-1 headphones. The CODA is better at detail retrieval and will be fantastic with any headphones that can reproduce a really wide and deep soundstage.
Which one is right for you?
The 99 Classics with the CODA would be my choice if you listen to a lot of bass heavy music. The CODA does a solid job keeping the Meze headphones under control in the lower registers.
The DragonFly Cobalt combined with the Audeze LCD-1 presented music in a more balanced way in that specific set-up. The LCD-1 are not bass monsters and they definitely need some help in that regard.
Audeze has created a very comfortable pair of open-back headphones that offer transparency, a huge soundstage, and excellent detail retrieval. They are very lightweight and I found them comfortable to wear for hours. The open-back design means that everyone around you can hear what you are listening to – something to think about if you will be commuting on the train with these.
2020 ends with two excellent and affordable portable DAC/Headphone Amplifiers that are ahead of the curve sonically.
Clarus has hit a dinger with the CODA. AudioQuest is still well ahead of the pack as far as market penetration is concerned, but this category is about to get very interesting if the Clarus CODA is just the tip of the iceberg.
Where to buy:
- Meze Audio 99 Classics (Walnut/Gold) – $309 at Amazon
- Audeze LCD-1 Headphones – $399 at Amazon
- Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC – $299 at Amazon
- Clarus CODA USB DAC – $300 (check dealer locator)