The Biz: Show Report – TAA International Hi-End Hi-Fi Show

The TAA International Hi-End Hi-Fi Show is a large annual audiophile exhibit organized by the Taiwan Audio Association.

Held this past weekend at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, the show is hi-fi heavy in the traditional sense, so it’s mostly about the KEFs, the Focals, and the Magicos of the world. However, for the past few years headphones and portables have slowly made their way into the show and now have a lasting presence.

Despite its not being as high profile as shows such as the Munich Hi-End Show, CES, etc. the TAA show happens to be the one show I can attend with regularity, so for one day only, CYMBACAVUM becomes Stereophile and TAS (hah!). Coverage won’t be limited to just portables, but will still concentrate on them.

FiiO

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The local distributor for FiiO was on hand to display the current line of FiiO products, including the newly-released E11K and E10K.

The budget-minded X1 DAP was kept under wraps, but I was given a sneak preview of the prototype unit (but not allowed to photograph). For a prototype, the UI is relatively fluid and borrows heavily from that of the X5 (makes sense, considering the button/wheel layout of the unit takes after its big brother).

No word yet on the E17K or X7 flagship DAP.

HiFiMAN

IMG_0520_FangBian_miniDr. Fang Bian, founder of HiFiMAN Electronics, was in attendance to promote the new HE-560. I managed the opportunity to chat with the man for a bit regarding his sonic philosophy, as well as his hopes and expectations for the company in the future.

Having lived on the eastern seaboard of the US for a period of his life, Dr. Bian stated that his basic outlook on music was to replicate the experience of listening to a live concert sitting at the center of the 10th row of the Lincoln Center. He was particular about choosing  that very spot, as he noted that the Lincoln Center manages a very different listening experience across every seat, while other concert halls, such as Carnegie Hall, have better acoustic treatment and are able to bring a more consistent sound to more listeners.

So, it is with this very particular seat in the Lincoln Center that Fang strives for in every single HiFiMAN product. Whether it’s their third generation planar magnetic headphone like their HE-560, or the RE-600, they’re all voiced with that Lincoln Center 10th row in mind.

Dr. Bian conceded that in-ears are inherently a compromise, as they have difficulties expressing directional cues that manifest into the brain’s interaural time differences, but stressed that experience in subjective tuning would be the main differentiator in different in-ear designs. Proud of the sound tuning of HiFiMAN’s products, Fang had no problem touting the sonic strengths of his products, but admitted that HiFiMAN had a long way to go with regard to improving build quality and industrial design.

Regarding future products, while they’re concentrating on promoting their new generation planar magnetic headphones, they do have lots of stuff in the works, including a flagship in-ear product that slots above the RE-600, a budget product below the RE-400, and the successor to the Jade electrostatic headphones. On the DAP side of things, while the HM-650 is not slated to be released in Asia, they are working on a brand new series of DAPs that have completely new casings.

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Dr. Bian did also hint at an upcoming collaboration between HiFiMAN and Unique Melody, but remained tight-lipped on the details.

Astell&Kern

The local distributor for iRiver products displayed Astell&Kern’s new generation of digital audio players, the AK100-II, AK120-II, and AK240.

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The Android-based UI now utilized across all three of Astell&Kern’s models is growing on me; compared to the one championed by Cowon in its P1 (read quick thoughts here), the one in the Calyx M, or even the FiiO X5’s UI, the Astell&Kern operating system seems simple and intuitive, able to be used by any person, young or old. It has minor niggles, such as the lack of swiping to go backwards in a menu, but is in general very easy to use and all controls are essentially accessible at a flick of the thumb.

I took a quick listen to both the AK100-II and the AK120-II; if you feel the Astell&Kern user experience resonates with your preferences, the AK100-II might be a good choice. It offers a slightly thinner, less balmy sound than the thicker, warmer AK120-II (and even the older AK120), but is a relatively neutral source and can do anything its predecessor can, all the while being a much more usable device that is able to drive things properly.

The AK120-II is more of an acquired taste. It is the most distinctively colored unit that Astell&Kern has released; traditionally, iRiver has voiced its high-end units to be relatively neutral, but AK120-II is clearly on the warmer side of things, and thus loses out on the feel of transparency that its older and more expensive sibling, the AK240, possesses — despite having a plethora of shared internals. Make a direct comparison against the AK240, and anyone should be able to hear the subjective difference. The two share a similar voicing and seem to deliver power similarly, but the AK240 possesses cleaner delineation across each and every note, whilst remaining less brittle and glassy than the AK100-II.

A shared inconvenience of all the Astell&Kern units is the microSD card slot. Having just clipped my nails the night before, I found it impossible to slip my TF card into their spring-loaded slots and had to ask an un-manicured attendant to insert and remove my card. While it’s easy to say that almost all TF card slots are difficult to insert/remove, it seems illogical that $1000+ audio products still manage to feature such an inconvenience.

Astell&Kern has made quite a few missteps in evolving its luxury audio brand image, but has remained popular because of the audiophile consumer’s spendthrift ways. The UI is one of the few aspects of its players that redeems it in my eyes. From the way things appear, its operating system is on par with that of the Sony Android Walkman line (read about the NWZ-F886, and the NWZ-ZX1), and in some ways it’s better because of its simplicity.

Alpha Design Labs (Furutech)

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Furutech’s in-house product development unit Alpha Design Labs (ADL) was on hand inside Furutech’s room to show off its many cables, as well as its DAC units (which I didn’t listen to because I’ve already done so in other settings and don’t really care for them).

They also had their headphones and IEMs on display. The dual dynamic EH008 has been sparsely publicized, but it it’s probably aptly named. “EH” would basically how I’d characterize it — it sounded kind of average for the price. It had elevated bass, not quite up to basshead levels, but definitely elevated. Warm overall tonality. All a bit unremarkable, to be honest.

Skip this one.

Ranko Acoustics

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The supplier of OCC cables and audio connectors, as well as partner to Tralucent Audio, has been prepping for the Astell&Kern balanced onslaught by releasing the REP-500 4P, a 2.5 mm TRRS plug. I bought one on the spot to prepare for the balanced revolution (okay, not really).

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Most notable was the display of the RIE-800, a small-sized hybrid IEM. From the internals, it looked to have a single ED-sized BA, as well as a self-contained dynamic micro-driver likely sized between 5.8-6 mm. With controlled bass, relatively clear mids, and a warmish overall tonality, I thought the unit sounded decent and if the price is right, it could be a nice model to get. The size is perfect and should fit most ears well. Ranko doesn’t usually sell direct, though, so perhaps Tralucent will offer its version of the RIE-800 some time soon.

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