CanJam NYC 2023 Recap – No Surprises

CanJam NYC is always held in the Times Square Marriott Marquee, a fantastic and spacious venue.
CanJam NYC is always held in the Times Square Marriott Marquee, a fantastic and spacious venue.

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This year’s CanJam NYC allowed me to experience how the industry has changed. There were a few differences – and many similarities.

The way I typically write about headphones is business-like and professional, with the expectations of a potential buyer foregrounded and my thoughts backgrounded (to whatever extent possible). My duty is first to the reader and then to myself.

But since this is an impressions post, and I am supposed to express my feelings on CanJam NYC, I will abandon that notion for this article. These are my impressions: they are only my own, and you should not take them as authoritative in any way.

After all, how you listen to gear at these conventions isn’t how we listen at home.

At home, I try to understand what “ownership” would be like. I take each product and sit with it for an extended time, at least a few weeks, sometimes a few months, and then I sit down and write a review.

In this case, I have 10-20 minutes to form an opinion of each piece of gear. That’s very different!


Audeze is not my favorite headphone manufacturer, though that’s not because of anything they did wrong. I simply don’t fully dig the tuning of their old flagship, the LCD-2, and everything they’ve done after that seems to proceed in essentially the same lineage.

When I tried the LCD-4 a few years back, I was impressed by their resolution and warm, enveloping nature, but I still felt they weren’t necessarily for me.

I’m not sure if I’d still feel that way today.

But one thing that I can say for sure is that the LCD-5 are an absolute treat. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with them, but the little time I did spend with them was truly special, to be sure. They have such a creamy sound, with perfect treble extension.

Listening to my tunes on the LCD-5 was like taking a bite of a perfectly constructed chocolate cake. Everything was there in the right measure, and there was nothing unpleasant happening. The textures were all sweet and smooth – the listening experience was like something from Heaven.

The bass was rich, textured, smooth, and impactful; the midrange was liquid and supple; the treble extended, airy, and presented without a hint of etch or unpleasantness.

The overall tonal tilt was warm, but not too warm – the excellent treble extension completely stripped away the gauzy bluntness of Audeze’s cheaper products.

I totally understand what people see in these headphones. Sonically, the LCD-5 are luxurious beyond belief. It’s just that I don’t prefer to luxuriate in my music – I prefer something that brings out the rough edges a little more.

While the LCD-5 are not to my personal taste, I recognize their utter mastery within the market.

Meanwhile, the Audeze CRBN are everything the LCD-5 were not. They are an electrostat, and sound like one – ethereal and light, but also shouty and lacking in impact through the bass and lower mids.

It’s very exciting that Audeze has entered the electrostatic market, but I can’t say that the CRBN sounded quite good enough for the price to me. I’d like to hear them in better conditions to make definitive statements about the resolution, but overall they sounded cold and etched to me.

Dan Clark Audio

Dan Clark Audio, or DCA, has the dubious honor of being the only company I can think of where the price seems inversely proportional to the products’ sound quality.

They were showing off three sets at this year’s CanJam: the relatively affordable Stealth and Expanse, and the TOTL electrostats the Corina.

It may be somewhat revealing to know that upon listening to the Expanse and the Stealth, I thought they were successors to the more affordable Aeon series headphones. They are not: these headphones cost around USD$4,000.

I was surprised. I enjoyed the Expanse, which were tonally very nice, with a touch of warmth, and an overall even tuning. But when it came to dynamics, I found them lacking: they sounded closed, over-damped, and lacking in any sense of “open-ness.”

Drums didn’t have much impact. This is the consequence of tuning via the liberal application of damping materials: the dynamics and soundstage are not the same level of Hifiman planars of the equivalent price.

If these were more reasonably priced, under USD$1,000, I could see past these flaws. For USD$4,000, forget about it – I know some people like these models from Dan Clark Audio, but they’re not for me.

The Stealth – that is, the closed-back model from the same series as the Expanse – are colder and even less dynamic.

This one gets a “thumbs-sideways” from me – none of the closed-back planars I’ve heard have been particularly dynamic, so it’s not like I can say this is necessarily a bad example of the form factor.

But does a closed-back planar need to exist in the first place? It certainly seems like the driver architecture doesn’t exactly lend itself to a closed-back enclosure.

Then, there’s the Corina. At first, I was pleasantly surprised – but then I A/B tested them against the Stax SR-X9000, and any idea I had that they could measure up to the Stax was busted.

Tonally, they’re not too bad, although the top end is a little artificially bright. But they just sound closed-in and dull next to the Stax, as if the Stax portrays a living world and the DCA headphones portray a dead one.

This roughly corresponds to my impressions of the Voce next to the SR-009. The Corina almost certainly outperform the Voce, but I think DCA needs to go back to the drawing board to understand how their competitors’ electrostats sound so much better. (IMO: less damping.)


I didn’t check out everything Hifiman had on display, but I tried the Sundara Closed and the Audivina.

Both look absolutely ridiculous, with wooden earcups that look like they were carved from an Ikea table leg. But, OK, leaving that aside, it’s neat that Hifiman is making closed-back planar headphones now.

I only listened to the Sundara Closed briefly, but from what I heard, they were absolutely awful. They sounded completely dead, lifeless, and choked. The tonality was very dark, with boxy, mids and recessed treble. I felt like I peeked into a dark room and saw something I shouldn’t. I’m not sure how these got released.

Meanwhile, the Audivina were actually a reasonable-sounding pair of headphones. But that’s about where I’m prepared to stop. The frequency response was inoffensive – not too bright, not too dark, just about right, with average treble extension and a midrange that sounds just OK. Nothing was too timbrally off.

But when I compared them with the HE1000SE, I couldn’t deny that there was something missing with the Audivina.

If you’ve ever owned a pair of planar-magnetic headphones, then you’ll know that placing your hands over the outside of the headphones drastically changes both the tonal balance and the dynamics / overall sense of openness of the headphones.

Well, if you can imagine putting your hands over the sides of the Sundara or the Arya, the Audivina sound essentially like that, except with better tuning.

The Audivina are certainly well-tuned, with a coherent sound signature. They’re only marred by their lack of dynamics and resolution, which doesn’t make them sound bad, but makes them a thoroughly unimpressive pair of headphones that don’t deserve their high price.

RAAL Requisite

Though the SR-1a were hailed for a while as the epic continuation of the legend that began with the AKG K1000, once a significant number of people got headtime with them, they kind of dropped out of the limelight. It had issues: the bass was distorted and weak, and the overall tuning was cold.

But my visit this year confirmed something to me: the RAAL SR-1a sound really cool, if only in a novelty sort of way. Instruments genuinely sound “out-of-head,” and the resolution throughout the midrange and treble is very good.

I know why a lot of people don’t get this pair of headphones. It’s certainly not a “for everyday use” pair of cans – they make demands on the listener, both in terms of what genre you feed them and in how the listener is to interpret the music they’re hearing.

But that soundstage, and that level of clarity and transparency, are something that I find addictive. If only I could afford a pair.

Anyway, I understand what they were showing off this year was the SR-1b. Aside from some slight visual tweaks and a new cable, the new product is identical to the SR-1a. I still found it a highly compelling product that’s worthy of props for doing the previously unthinkable.

I can’t say the same about the CA-1a.

First of all, the stiff foam earpads are awful when it comes to both comfort and style. I’m all for unusual styling choices, and I love when products don’t pander to the sensibilities of car interior designers. One of my favorite headphone designs is the Stax Lambda series.

But even I can tell that nobody wants to put earpads that feel like they’re made of foam packing material on their head.

All would be forgiven if they sounded good. Maybe it was that they were being underpowered by the Schiit Jotunheim-R amplifiers they were paired with, but the pair of CA-1a that I heard did not deliver.

First, the midrange tuning was not great – with sucked-out lower mids, and a presence peak that seemed to be more in the 1-2kHz range rather than the proper 3kHz range, the sound was shouty and unpleasant, especially in the noisy atmosphere of CanJam. The midrange sounded recessed and forward at the same time – ick!

Meanwhile, the bass was much louder than the SR-1b, and beyond that, I couldn’t tell much. It sounded loud and, I suppose, fairly tight. It was honestly a bit difficult to get over the midrange tuning, so I didn’t spend very much time with the CA-1a. Now that I’ve looked at their measurements, they confirm my impressions. Not recommended.


Sennheiser’s big reveal, right before CanJam NYC, was the HD660S2. This pair of headphones continued the legacy of the HD660S, with a new driver (the HD660S2 brings it back to 300 Ohms of impedance from the HD660S 150), a new tuning, and a new outlook on life.

Thankfully, Sennheiser provided a pair of HD600 for me to test alongside the HD660S2, saving me the trouble of bringing my HD580s from home.

The good news is the new Sennheisers have powerful, textured, prominent bass – yes, that includes sub-bass.

Users have always lamented the bass ability of the HD600 and co., and to an extent, they deserved it. Compared to better-extended headphones, the HD600 bass can sound a little tubby. But that’s kind of par for the course for a pair of mid-fi dynamic headphones.

In comparison, the HD660S2 really bring the bass – it is deep, textured, and tight. Unfortunately, they sacrifice just about everything else the HD6x0 series have going for it to get there.

Compared to previous HD6x0 headphones, the HD660S2 are a very dark pair of headphones, with a big recession in the upper midrange, leading to a peak in the upper treble. It’s a pair of V-shaped HD6x0, which is kind of a disturbing proposition to me.

The result? You lose a lot of detail in the upper mids, and the balanced, natural, transparent feel of the HD600/650 midrange is lost. They simply feel less detailed in comparison.

It’s not that the HD660S2 have no place in the market – they certainly do, and many who were put off by the HD600’s “polite” and bass-light sound may find the HD660S2 better positioned to make them want to get up and dance. After all, the HD600 still exist as a product.

Perhaps many were expecting Sennheiser to make a cheaper version of the ZMF Auteur or the Aurorus Audio Borealis. The HD660S2 are not that, but I do have to respect the direction they’ve gone with the series. I’m just not sure it should cost twice as much as the HD600.


Stax’s big product for the convention was the SR-X9000, which aren’t new, but many people (including myself) haven’t yet gotten a chance to listen to them.

I compared them to the SR-007 – Mk1 and Mk2 – and found that the new Stax are better tuned and perhaps take the edge in raw technical ability, but I still prefer the SR-007 overall.

In an environment like CanJam, anyone who says they could discern a difference in resolution between the SR-007 and the SR-X9000 is lying to you or themselves. There is just too much noise to hear minute differences in resolution in that environment. Go home and try it there.

But the timbre between the two was clearly different – with the SR-007 having their characteristic thick, lush, rounded midrange and the SR-X9000 taking a comparatively dryer tack. But the SR-X9000 aren’t like the SR-009S – they are, in contrast with every other Stax product out there, timbrally correct, or at least a very dry variation on timbral correctness.

Instruments generally sound like they’re supposed to. I was struck when listening to an orchestral recording by just how correct everything sounded. While the SR-007, with their 1kHz driver resonance (don’t kid yourselves, Stax mafia, you know it’s there), sounded slightly closed-in, the SR-X9000 sounded totally realistic.

But with anything close-miked, like singer-songwriter fare, I would take the SR-007 a million times out of ten. The SR-007, with their thickened midrange, sound much more “real” than the SR-X9000, which sounded unpleasantly dry in comparison.

In addition, the SR-X9000 (to my ears) have a slight resonance at 3kHz, which does not rear its head very often, but when it does can make voices and other instruments with a peak in tonal balance toward the vocal presence region sound a little hot.

If you prefer the SR-009 to the SR-007, bow down because your new king is here.

If you strongly prefer the SR-007 to the SR-009, you may still choose the SR-007 over the SR-X9000, albeit to a lesser degree.

But Stax should at least be congratulated on one thing: finally making a pair of headphones with a relatively neutrally tuned midrange. That isn’t something we’ve seen from them yet, so this is exciting for those Stax fans who prioritize frequency response (whoever you are).


In fact, this year’s CanJam gave me my first-ever opportunity to try ZMF headphones. I was coming in with high expectations since so many audiophile friends rave about ZMF models.

When it comes to the craftsmanship and the way the headphones feel in your hands, they fully live up to the hype. These headphones feel very solidly built and have a definite visual appeal that not many other headphone brands can claim.

Typically, the wood of a headphone is either a thin veneer (as with Hifiman – what’s the point?) or something vaguely reminiscent of a bedpost. ZMF operates with comparatively high standards: their headphones are beautiful.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try everything on offer – I only got extended audition time with the Atrium, Verite, and Caldera. I didn’t quite have the requisite familiarity with ZMF pads to know which pads I was trying them with.

Of these, the pair I “clicked” with the most was the Caldera. As ZMF’s first manufactured-in-house planar-magnetic pair of headphones, they brought a slightly different sound to the mix without abandoning the ZMF house sound altogether.

In other words, they brought the warmth, creaminess, and resonance that ZMF is known for, while the slightly fast transient response of the planar drivers lent it an unfatiguing quality.

Perhaps they lose the dynamics war compared to the Verite, the nearest-priced competitor within ZMF’s lineup. Still, they are quite a comfortable listen (despite some slight emphasis in the upper midrange).

The Atrium were also a winner. Although their treble extension, level of immediacy, and imaging were less virtuosic than the Caldera and Verite, I found that they had the most natural frequency response and were the best “all-rounder” of the bunch.

Meanwhile, I was slightly disappointed with the Verite. They are a pair of “flavor cans” whose frequency response deviates too far from neutral to be usable for all possible genres.

They were perfect for rock music and other music involving guitars, with the 5k lower-treble peak lending bite and attack to the guitar sounds that made everything sound quite lovely and engaging.

But the 5k peak also brings with it a sort of biting brassiness that affected other recordings quite negatively. For example, when I put on a recording of Mahler’s 9th symphony, the trumpets in the climactic point of the first movement almost sounded like nails on a chalkboard, as their natural frequency emphasis naturally coincided with that of the Verites.

Unfortunately, this rendered orchestral recordings near impossible to listen to on the Verite, which disqualifies them as a pair of cans for me personally, though that won’t be the case for everyone, and this may be rectifiable through pad-rolling.

I was also happy to get a chance to talk to Zach Mehrbach himself, who offered some insight into his tuning process. I enjoyed hearing about the careful balance of scientific work and audible impressions. Listening to his thoughts, it made complete sense to me that ZMF has taken off the way it has.

Various IEMs

If there’s anything that has changed in the industry, it’s that the IEM market has drastically expanded. There were new manufacturers on display and a bevy of exciting new options that were the talk of the town.

Unfortunately, I don’t care for the listening experience I get from IEMs, many of which are quite impressive, but none are very comfortable for me since I have somewhat oddly-shaped ears.

Still, toward the end of the convention, I accepted some recommendations for “best-in-show” IEMs from a few trusted sources. All were high-cost (ranging from some USD$1000 to above USD$6000), and most were hybrids.

The Elysian Annihilator were impressive. With a Foster dynamic driver along with 4 BAs and 2 ESTs, I found they hit a very good combination of power in the bass with a lush, creamy midrange and treble.

What I was really on the hunt for, though, were a pair of IEMs that could really handle classical music, and for this purpose, the Annihilator fell somewhat short, with a slightly withdrawn timbre and a darkened midrange. This tuning works well for many genres, but classical struck me as a bit unnatural-sounding.

The Oriolus Traillii were probably my favorite of those I tried. I preferred the forward upper midrange of this pair of IEMs over the Annihilator’s tuning choices.

However, the hybrid arrangement resulted in a detachment between the bass and the midrange. It seemed like the bass presence region and lower midrange were slightly scooped out to provide greater clarity, which somewhat affected the timbre of piano and acoustic bass.

I also noticed a slight issue in the mid-treble, but it wasn’t severe enough to greatly impact my listening.

The UM Multiverse Mentor were highly recommended to me, but I wasn’t a huge fan. The music’s pacing felt slightly slow or even plodding to me with these, and it felt like they lacked sparkle and brilliance (not that I demand a bright sound signature to be happy, but it felt below the necessary level).

The Campfire Audio Trifecta were a bit odd. An exhibitor (not from Campfire, for what it’s worth) recommended them to me based on my expressed preferences, lending me his personal pair to try out, but most of my trusted sources didn’t like them much.

I didn’t hate them, but I found the hybrid arrangement (3 dynamic drivers – very interesting) was handled awkwardly, with some grainy detachment in the upper midrange and lower treble. It’s common for hybrid IEMs to experience trouble in this region, but of course, it should be avoided.

In addition, I found the timbre with the Trifecta a bit “solid” – not very open-sounding.


This was my first CanJam since I worked the 64 Audio booth in 2020 and the first time I had the freedom to walk the floor. I learned quite a bit, including some lessons for my next CanJam.

I believe in experiencing things with an open mind and giving myself a long window to come to conclusions about products.

The experience of trying a product at a show is much different from the experience of trying it at home.

As a result, I’m reluctant to come to any conclusions about the “winners” and “losers” of CanJam NYC 2023. I’ll treasure the experience for the people I met and the interactions I had.

But there was no big upset for me – that is to say, the Stax SR-007 is still my favorite pair of headphones, even after trying various ZMFs and the new Stax SR-X9000. (This may change in the future, though!)

Overall, I’m thankful that I got the chance to go. See you all next year!

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