CanMania at CAF

What I love most about the CanJam-CanMania world of headphones is, when I enter these rooms full of tables stacked with gear and cans; all laid out into individual listening stations; each with its own folding chair, DAC, amp, and headphones—all with table cloths and tangled wires—I am reminded of those ham radio meets I used to attend. Those tribal rooms were always alive with a collective vibe of discovery—just like here and now. CAF 2017's CanMania was no exception, and, exactly like those old hamfests, there are tubes everywhere.

And of course, the most hamfest-tubealistic of all is (as always) Justin Weber's Ampsandsound table. If he wasn't so young, I'd swear his father was a old radio guy. Justin lives and breaths tubes and tube amp design. And he is a spectacularly good designer. I spent a lot of time with his $1850 EL-34/6L6/KT88 Magwai speaker/headphone amp and, with every headphone I tried, it seemed like the top-of-the-top in headphone amp designs. It was clear and naturally flowing like an alert mountain stream.

Well, Justin appears to have taken his tube-design chops to the next higher level. His new, more ergonomically-advanced, $1995, Kensie Encore headphone amp/preamp uses a NOS (ca 1953) RCA 12SL7 as an input tube/voltage amplifier and a 1948 RCA 1626 as a output power tube.

I used the word "alert" above as an adjective and it applies even more here with the Kensie. I listened with both the wood-bodied, and ported, $1299, ZMF EiKon headphones and the latest Audeze LCD-2s ($999). The Kensie's single-ended zero-feedback, transformer-coupled sound is exceptional but difficult for me to describe. It is definitely open, clear, and natural—but still difficult to characterize. In my notes I wrote "strong-solid," "clear-solid," "transparent," and "forceful flow." Ampsandsound is top-of-the-top for sure.

At hamfests there are always some water-stained boxes filled with dusty tubes. It's an essential part of the radio-nerd aesthetic. There was none of that at the Wells Audio table. Everything here was shiny, exotic, clean, and expensive-looking. And all solid-state. Wells Audio, from Campbell, CA, makes amplifiers. Not just headphone amplifiers, like the $1699 Milo and the $15,000 Headtrip Reference described here, but floorspeaker amplifiers like the 150W "Majestic" integrated ($3599).

I sat and I talked with Wells Audio founder and chief designer, Jeff Wells, as he described his evolution from 9-to-5 corporate engineer to headphone-amp designer. When he finished his story, I picked up the JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones ($5500—and the most natural-sounding headphones I know) and connected them to the aforementioned Wells Audio "Headtrip Reference" headphone amplifier.

Then the LSD kicked in.

With high-quality headphones, I promise, there is no substitute for horsepower, and the Headtrip Reference delivers plenty: it provides 30dB of voltage gain; 50W of power into 8 ohms, 25W into 32-ohms, and 1.8W into 600-ohms. No question, with the Abyss, you could feel the power opening up, letting go, and releasing the music. Transparency and space were forever. And the quiet of death too.

Mr. Wells was using a $5300 Lampizator Model 4 DAC connected to the Headtrip with Dana Cables Lapis Lazuli interconnect ($1399). The Abyss were equipped with JPS Labs Super 3 balanced cables ($1100/m/pair). The amp and Lampizator were connected to the AC outlet via a Wells Audio "Looking Glass Reference" power conditioner interface ($6000).

"Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head, feed your head."

In the days of analogue yore, a "headamp" was a high-gain device used in front of a RIAA phonostage instead of a step-up transformer. Today it means a power amplifier for headphones and HeadAmp (the company) makes some of the very best including their classic GS-X Mk.2 ($2999–$3199), and the world-renowned "Blue Hawaii" electrostatic headphone amplifier ($5799–$6879).

Today, I experienced HeadAmp's snazzy-red GS-X Mk 2 via Audeze LCD-4s. I listened to John McEuen's rendition of "Excitable Boy" and Macy Gray's "I Tried" (I know both of these well as I attended both recording sessions.) I was taken aback by what I was experiencing—the quality and texture of the reproduction were unusual in a very taut but organic way. The music felt different than any I could remember. Surprisingly un-mechanical and clear, but not industrial clear. Clear but not dark. Transparent but not bright. Just—just right. I also know the LCD-4s very well, the GS-X not so well; but there was something else, something unusually not-hi-fi going on.

After about four songs, I stopped, and asked, "So what DAC are you using?" After that, my life changed radically, because that is when I discovered the Holo Audio "Spring" Level 3 DAC imported by Kitsune. The Spring Level 3 is a ladder (R2R) DAC in a copper chassis and costs only $2499. It may be operated in one of two modes; non-oversampling or via a chip-based oversampler. I listened via the former and what I heard made John McEuen and Macy Gray sound more there there than I am used to. The positioning of performers on the sound stage was ultra-precise. (Michael Lavorgna recently reviewed the Holo Audio DAC for our sister site

Clearly, the extreme quality of Kevin Gilmore's design for venerable GS-X Mk.2 JFET amp is a huge contributor to all the goodness I experienced. So were the transparent Audeze LCD-4 headphones. But neither of these (now classic) designs account for much if the DAC sucks. In concert, these three fine components made John & Macy sound extremely real—I wish everyone could hear what I heard.

Not to be upstaged or overlooked, I listened also to HeadAmp's new Gilmore Lite Mk.2. This stealthly handsome $499 amplifier uses the same circuit as HeadAmp's flagship GS-X Mk.2, and puts up to 1.5W (class-A) into dynamic or planar magnetic headphones. I auditioned the Gilmore Lite Mk2 via MrSpeaker's $1799 Either C Flow headphones; which cost more than three times the Gilmore Lite's price. The Lite delivered accurate tone, lively dynamics, and had a an easy manner.

The best thing about CanJam/CanMania type gatherings is the democracy of listening. Everybody can listen to everything—relatively peacefully and quickly—and under the same conditions. Best of all, everyone gets to pick what they want to listen to. Very often, I just connect my iPhone and AudioQuest Red USB DAC and play whatever music I am into at the moment. (Try that in the Oligarch Audio room!)

Periodic Audio is a relatively new company officiated by Ben Webster and Daniel Wiggins. They make three levels of reasonably priced in-ear headphones distinguished by the material used in their drivers: Magnesium ($99), Titanium ($199), and the flagship, Beryllium ($299). They also make the new $299 Nickel amplifier, which is smaller than a Zippo lighter, and supplies 3dB of gain, and 150mW into 50 ohms, 250mW into 32 ohms, and 270mW into 16 ohms. It is powered by a rechargeable 220 mAh battery.

Using the Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions' "Walking After Midnight" I compared Periodic's $299 Beryllium model to my $2000 HiFiMan RE2000 in-ear monitors. The RE2000s should have disgraced the Periodic flagship—but it did not. Of course the HiFiMan sounded better, but the Periodic in-ears showed instruments that were properly separated; voices sounded natural; and I could hear the famous tapping quite clearly. Bravo periodic.

I screwed up. I should have been all over iFi's stylish new $199 matt black and burnt orange "nano iDSD Black Label" headphone amp/DAC. Trust me, it is super good looking (sorry no photo), portable, and has a battery life of over 10 hours. It features a Burr-Brown DAC with DSD 256/DXD384/PCM384kHz and MQA. It can put 3.5 volts into a 600-ohm load and, did I mention it is really cool looking? You can see it at

The reason I neglected to pay attention and get a photo is, all I could see was iFi's retro "Stereo 50" integrated amplifier. Its wood case and champagne-tinted faceplate pushed a plethora of retro-buttons. I kept staring at it, while memories of all the vintage Marantz 7C preamps I repaired flew through my brain.

The Stereo 50 is a funny size; not big, not small; it weighs almost 13 lbs—but inside its real-wood case, it is packed with everything anyone could ask for: a 25Wpc, "mostly class-A," EL-84, stereo tube amplifier, full-on PCM, DSD, DXD digital, USB, coaxial, and optical inputs, as well as two line-level RCAs and a 3.5mm mini. And folks, this unique audio device costs only $1480!

They did not have the matching retro LS3.5 desktop speakers ($750/pair or $1999 when bundled with Stereo 50 as a package) that feature silk domes and paper cones, so I listened with headphones and realized that the high-transconductance charm of the EL-84 pentode works really well with headphones.