Head-Fest 2007: Head-Fi Meets Silicon Valley

The Internet audio forum Head-Fi is one of the few places on the Web where you can hang out with truly passionate audiophiles and not come away despairing at the state of current public discourse. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Head-Fi's regional and national meets have that same sense of relaxed solidarity. But what always strikes me at these events, such as the national Head-Fest 2007 get-together in San Jose on April 21 and 22, is just how darned sociable Head-Fiers are, considering they are celebrating an activity that is so intensely solitary.

At it's core, I suspect, is the oil of the Internet. Long-distance relationships are built through long discussions and the meets have the air of high-school reunions. Well, perhaps just the good parts.

Jon Iverson and I attended the San Jose meet and had a ball. Since community is key at Head-Fi events, they have a dynamic missing at most hi-fi shows. At the center of the meet—and of the "big" room—are members' systems, many of them sporting multiple headphone amplifiers and sets of 'phones. Head-Fiers wander from set-up to set-up, sampling equipment they haven't heard before or models that are no longer current, but still have exalted status—you'd never know the AKG-1000s were out of production, judging by the number you run into at Head-Fests.

Then there's the DIY element. Many Head-Fiers, like Frank Cooter, bring headphone amps they have constructed themselves. Cooter's glorious Steampunk headphone amplifier sported superb casework, as well as a fabulously retro meter and gain knob. Inside, it was just well turned out, with masterfully crafted chassis, and of course, those glowing power tubes.

I wondered if Cooter was going to turn pro and HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens laughed. "Why would he? He probably already has a job—and now he has a great amp. Who needs the headaches?"

That brings us to the other component to a Head-Fest: the manufacturers. While the head-Fiers themselves are the center of a meet, manufacturers participate with support and demonstrations. Many of them came from the ranks of the Head-Fi movement, such as HeadAmp's Justin Wilson. Wilson, who says that 80% of his sales are generated directly from buzz created on Head-Fi, was showing his new portable amp, the AE-2, which was built like a tank and was chock full of interesting features. The power switch is a slider, minimizing the possibility that it will be switched on accidentally in your pockets, the gain switch is recessed, and it sports both a 3.5mm mini plug and robust RCA jacks. It was dead silent and seemed capable of driving anything this side of a dead short.

Pete Millet also came out of the DIY movement, where he is almost revered for his generosity, with his time, expertise, and intellectual property. He's a sharer. Together with Todd the Vinyl Junkie, Millet is now marketing the $459 TTVJ Millet Portable Hybrid—the world's first battery-powered tube headphone amplifier. The Millet Hybrid uses a tube gain stage, followed by a solid-state buffer. The subminiature vacuum tubes were designed for pre-transistor hearing aids and portable radios and draw around 15 milliwatts of power each, enabling the Millet Hybrid to run for up to 40 hours off its lithium-ion battery. It's a beaut.

Tubes are big at the fest, even tiny ones. Single Power's Mikhail Rotenberg was proud of his $1200 Mini, which is an order of magnitude smaller than his usual gear. Single Power is the Duesenberg of headphone amps—the gear is impeccably built, impressively powerful, and almost complete bespoke. While Rotenberg offers "models," he usually consults closely with customers, refining his designs to meet their needs.

The Mini is small, but it takes one honking power supply to drive it. Rotenberg's a big believer in the, ahem, power of a stable PS. He observes that the Mini puts out about 1W output, which means it can pretty much dominate (if not humiliate) any headphone out there.

HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsen was showing an apostatic product: a non-headphone amp called the Desktop ($895). "Most audiophiles don't realize it, but we've been building preamp outputs into our Desktop amps all along. Even I don't listen to headphones at my desk all day. Heck, no! I listen to speakers, too—and those crappy self-power computer speakers are an insult. So, I'm making a Desktop amp, using a class-D module and you can hang your headphones up, flip a switch on the Desktop pre, and listen to speakers when you need to." Hertsens was also demoing a desktop speaker stand with built-on headphone rest for that very purpose.

The ebullient Ray Samuels had a new portable headphone amp, the $295 Emmeline Tomahawk, which was even smaller than his Emmeline Hornet. What differentiates the new one, other than size? "It's designed to drive in-ear personal monitors," Ray said. "And, with two AAA batteries, it'll run for 8 hours a day for 48 days!" Fit'n'finish are, as usual for Ray, milspec.

Original Electronics had an impressively turned out amp in the Master (get it, Original Master). It looked sharp and had an external power supply the size of a brick. When I asked AAA Audio's Ping Gong what it cost, he thought I was asking about the headphones I was listening to. "They're pretty good for something so cheap," he said. How cheap? "I think they're about $350." I pointed to the Master—that's $350?

"Oh no, only $225." In looks, build, parts quality, and sound, the Original proves you can't judge an amp by its price tag.

Other bang for the buck gear with mouth-watering casework came from New York's Woo Audio, designed and run by brothers Zhi Dong and Jack Wu. Jon and I enjoyed the $450 NA3, single-ended class-A OTL amp a lot. Then we heard the $950 WA2, which is also SE, class-A, and OTL, but uses CA57, 6922, and 6X4s instead of the NA3's 6A57/6922 array. Whew—want one!

Empirical Audio's Steve Nugent thinks digital delivery via computer may be the future of audio and, if that's true, we better get busy making it sound good. Empirical has a line of black boxes that exploits I2S, "the native interface on most DAC chips," he said, to control jitter. He makes a Pace Car re-clocker ($1500 for 1 clock; $2000 for 2), which re-clocks I2S, totally separating the power supplies for input and output to achieve complete "galvanic isolation" between the computer and the audio system. He also demoed the $950 Off-Ramp Turbo 2 USB to S/PDIF coaxial converter and $950 Off-Ramp I2S USB to (you guessed it) I2S converter. The gear sounded good, looked impressive, and Nugent is a charismatic promoter of his ideas. I'd like to hear more of his stuff.

Headphone manufacturers were also in attendance. As I walked into the room, I spotted Ultimate Ears' Mike Dias. I asked what impressed him and he didn't hesitate. "Matt [Engstrom of Shure] has designed a new foam tip for the Shure in-ears. I am so jealous that we didn't think of that." You get that kind of mutual admiration among competitors at Head-Fi events.

Jon Iverson and Corrina Jones walked over to talk to Matt about them. The new "dark foam" tips are impressive. They're durable, too—and come in multiple sizes, including one Matt jokingly calls the "John Atkinson," saying our Editor's hard-to-fit ear canals got him thinking. They got Corrina, another hard-to-fit candidate, thinking, too—thinking about buying a pair of Shure SE 420s. Dark foam ear tips are available in S, M, L, and JA for $14/5 pairs.

Mike Dias had stuff to strut, too. Putting on his goofy teeth, he showed us Ultimate Ears' Concert Survival Kit. Since UE does so much business selling personal monitors to on-stage performers and ROH techs, it wanted a way to thank touring groups when they outfitted all hands with UE monitors. Enter the logo-ed hip flask and lighter. Pretty cool.

Even cooler was Mike's announcement that Altec is going to market two models of UE in-ear personal monitors under the name "Altec by UE." That means the $89 SnugFit 306 and the $129 SnugFit 336 may soon be as ubiquitously available as those noxious white earbuds. Pictured above in Mike's hand are the company's just released Triple.fi 10 Pro which sounded awesome.

Of course, the real thrill at Head-Fests is meeting folks. Jon and I spotted one of our hero audiophile celebrities, the EFF's Fred von Lohmann. Other celebrities spotted included mastering engineer extraordinaire Steve Hoffman, who gave a seminar on mastering recordings.

It was a great show. Tyll Hertsens had the final word: "Can you imagine any other part of the hi-fi market that has this much enthusiasm? Can you? There isn't one. Look at all these great systems!"