When I wrote about my last visit to an audio show / meet, I started by praising the beautiful sunny autumn weekend, well, move forward a month or so to the Head-Fi London Meet last weekend and this was definitely not the case. It was tipping it down. However, it would take more than a bit of rain to stop me from getting my hands on the amazing array of headphones available to demo. Let’s not dwell on that though, whatever the weather London’s Hotel Russell was a great setting for a fantastic meeting of ‘headphiles’.
I must admit I do have a bit of a preconception about exhibitions and events, they are usually a bit dull and ‘networky’, however as soon as I walked through the lobby and into the head-fi suite, I was very surprised, pleasantly surprised in fact. I could immediately tell that there was a great, friendly atmosphere to this meet. It wasn’t an exhibition, or a show; meet was definitely the correct terminology to use. A meeting of headphone enthusiasts. There was no sales patter, no-one forcing you to try something you didn’t want to and there weren’t hundreds or flyers and free pens on offer.
There must have been around 20-30 tables set up, all stacked full of equipment, not just headphones as you might have expected but also amps, portable players and DACs.
Fig.2. Hotel Russell, London
The interesting thing about this meet was that the tables weren’t all used by manufacturers and distributors, there were many organised by Head-fi.org members showcasing their own personal (and impressive) set-ups. One of the best things about this type of meet is hearing about the products from the people who own and love them. You can start to understand what the products are really like, they will not hesitate in pointing out any downsides and they will certainly be honest about them.
So, what is head-fi.org? Head-Fi is an online forum for headphone and portable audio enthusiasts. It describes itself as the ‘web’s headquarters for discussing (and reading about) high-end personal audio and headphones’. The site was founded in 2001 by Detroit resident Jude Mansilla, and has since grown to be the world’s largest online headphone community. The ‘Headphone (full-size)’ thread alone currently has 2,237,575 posts, that gives you some idea of how big Head-fi has become.
That’s enough background information; let’s get down to the ‘cans’. The first table I approached (which was also the closest to the door) was manned by Custom Cable, they had 4 laptops set up (filled with FLAC files) and a range of different headphones to try at your leisure. I immediately went for the Bowers & Wilkins P7s which I have been eager to try since they were released a few weeks ago.
Fig.3. Bowers & Wilkins P7
The P7s are the big brother of the well received and popular P5s which have been around now for a few years. Whereas the P5 is an on-ear model mainly intended to be worn on-the-go, the P7 is intended for hi-fi use at home, and as such is larger and more expensive (£329.99 compared to the P5 price-tag of £249.99). As soon as I picked them up I could tell why there is a little more butter on the bread as they felt extremely well made and durable. When I put them on, they were highly comfortable and the pads covered my ears well.
Soundwise, the P7s are very warm; they manage deep bass well and integrate it nicely with a great mid-range. The soundstage provided by these cans is wide and revealing. They are very engaging headphones that’s for sure. It is definitely a step up in sound quality from the P5 and for the price they seem to be a bit of a steal to me. A good start to the meet I’d say.
Next I tried out the KEF M500 on-ear portables, they didn’t grab me like the P7s did, and I thought they lacked range. The deep bass was not handled as well as I had hoped and the highs were a little tinny at times. However they do look the part and were surprisingly comfortable, so although the sound wasn’t what I normally go for, I can see that these probably do have a solid place in the market.
Fig.4. – Sennheiser Momentum
Sennheisers next, I tried 3 of their best received sets; Momentum, HD700 and HD800. The Momentums is their answer to the B&W P5’s or the Beyerdynamic T51p, they are designed for portable use and are nice on the eyes. Often Sennheiser get a bit of stick for not being good to look at, it is clear they have made an effort to correct this with the Momentums. They have a well balanced, fast paced sound; they are not as clear as other options available but probably worth the £260 that they retail for. Next I tried the HD700 (£599 RRP) and HD800 (£999 RRP) models, now, hold on to your hats. From initial impressions (don’t forget that I have not been able to test these in-depth) I think I prefer the 700 to the 800. The 700s have many of the great properties of the 800 including an incredibly wide soundstage and strong isolation and imagery, however I found the HD700’s to be more exciting, the HD700s are vibrant and colourful whereas the HD800’s gave a more subtle warm sound. Unfortunately neither pair is a looker. They are also excessively large.
The next table I was drawn to was that of Head-fi member MrQ, who had his own personal set-up displayed. It was very impressive. He had a magnificent centrepiece in the form of a refurbished Pioneer SX-1980 amplifier from the 70’s. It was a joy to see.
Fig. 5. Refurbished Pioneer SX-1980 integrated amplifier
It was also on MrQ’s table that I tried out the two sets of headphones that stood out in particular to me from all at the show.
The first being the HiFiMAN HE-6, their flagship reference model. Like the majority of the HiFiMAN range, they feature a planar magnetic driver. They are completely black, with extremely large open-back cans, with big and very comfortable pads. The HE-6 gave exactly what I lean towards with headphones; they were extremely musical, very well balanced and give an airy sweet sound. Bass is subtle and managed well. The HE-6 are not cheap (£950.00) so you would expect them to be high level. I don’t think they disappoint. If I had a £1000 budget for new ‘phones, I would definitely choose the HE-6 over the HD800s.
Fig.6. HiFiMAN HE-6 Headphones
And finally the highlight of the show for me came when I was discussing the Fostex TH900s with MrQ, and I asked if he had ever tried the new MrSpeakers 3D printed TH900 mod, suddenly he looked very excited. ‘Alpha Dogs? Yes, there is a pair over there’ he then went over to Mark from Electromod’s table and to my excitement; he came back with a shiny new pair of the MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs. These are the headphones that Jude Mansilla recently called his ‘current reference in fully closed over-ear headphones’.
Fig.7. MrSpeakers Alpha Dog headphones
The Alpha Dogs use a 3D-printed internal lattice called ‘Sonic Vistas’ with the intention of getting an open-backed sound out of a closed back headphone. The accuracy they are able to achieve with the 3D printing manufacturing technique is greater than that of standard injection moulding, meaning they have been able to design a sonically-superior enclosure that would not have previously been possible to manufacture. Another interesting feature of the Alpha Dogs is that you are able to adjust the bass yourself using a screw in the ‘Very-Bass tuning port’.
Fig. 8. 3D printed lattice inside of the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog.
But enough about the design, what about the sound? The Alpha Dogs sound amazing. The imaging they give is truly vivid, colour floods from the cans to your ears like a tidal wave. They are powerful, very powerful. My main issue with the Fostex TH-900s when I have tried them has always been the highs, I never thought they sounded quite right, this is not the case with the Alpha Dogs, the highs are perfect.
Suddenly it was closing in on 4pm and the final raffle had begun, I was out of time. I’d managed to sniff out most the cans I really wanted to test though. It was great start to the meet with the P7s and a brilliant end with the Alpha Dogs. All in all it was a great day out, not like anything I had been to before; it was fascinating meeting so many people who really love portable audio. It shows that you don’t need to hire out the NEC and convince Sony and Beats to spend millions on developing huge stands to put on a brilliant event, you just need to club together the people who are truly interested in headphones and meet in a hotel suite on a rainy Saturday in October.
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