Personal audio listening has become so popular that this year's CES had more headphone displays than I could keep track of. Everywhere I looked, some celebrity, musician, or surf company was sporting colorful headphones. More audiophile companies have gotten the picture that clean design and hi-fidelity don't have to be mutually exclusive, and I was pleased to find an array of high-end headphones that looked as good as they sounded.
Beyerdynamic of Germany displayed their new Custom One ($249.00) headphones. These headphones surround your ear fully in order to seal off outside noise. Each earcup also includes a 3 position adjustable bass vent that offers different levels of low frequency energy. I was able to take a quick listen, and found the bass vent to be suprisingly effective. These headphones made it easy to get the tone I wanted, and they isolated the CES show noise pretty well. The Custom One's don't have the built in mic for smartphones, but they do offer some custom color options. A spokesperson told me that custom graphics for the earcup pannels will be available soon.
French speaker manufacturer Focal showed off the Spirit One ($279.00) sealed headphones. Designed to be used with smartphones and directly compatible with iPhones, the Spirit One offers remote control functions on the headphone cable as well as the ability to answer calls with a built-in mic. Unfortunately, the headphones were enclosed in a case, so audiophiles could look but not demo. They certainly hit the style marks for modern urban headphones, and if their speakers are any sonic indication, an audition is a must.
Winning an Inovations award from CES this year was the Sennheiser IE 800 in-ear monitor ($999.95). I was able to meet the designer and thankfully get a clean pair to try out. Different size flanges come with these earbuds to ensure a correct fit, and luckily the ones provided fit snugly without causing any irritation. I dialed up some familiar tracks on the tablet and closed my eyes. The level of detail was quite good for an earbud, and the tonality was even with clean articulate bass. Depending on the seal achieved, bass was more extended than heard on other earbuds. If you must have in-ear monitors these are worth a test drive. Just remember, these are geared toward the audiophile. So, no making or recieving calls on your smartphone with these.
Since Sennheiser has been producing audiophile grade headphones for many years now, it comes as no surprise that they decided to build amplifiers to match their headphones' specifications. Even more, the soon to be released HDVD 800 (price TBD) comes complete with a built in USB DAC and high quality headphone amp. The HDVD 800 is suitable for driving several of Sennheisers' audiophile headphones including the Flagship HD-800 ($1499.95) open-ear headphones (pictured above). I slipped these large over-ear cans on, and for a moment the crowds at CES melted away and John Coltrane's Sax enveloped my ears. I was grinning and digging the full fleshed out organic sound, then I was rudely returned to reality when an eager show goer tapped me on the shoulder - waiting for a demo. The combo of Sennheiser headphones and their new amp/DAC was fun while it lasted. Being open-ear in design, the HD-800's are best suited for listening at home or in quiet environments.
Even if you don't have the room or time for a full stereo system, audiophile headphone listening is an option that can nourish your music needs without taking lots of space. Creating a desktop headphone rig or just upgrading your smartphone headphones can provide a more meaningful connection to your favorite artists. These first encounters at CES 2013 are a great starting point for a personal audio rig. Just remember, always audition before you buy.
(Images: Vahan Baladouni; linked to manufacturers above)