NAMM 2019 Headphone Highlights

If you have never heard of the SoCal event called NAMM 2019, fret not. The annual show-and-tell from the National Association of Musician Merchants in Anaheim California lays on the far fringes of audiophiledom. It is fairly big however, occupying more than one of the massive convention halls on site in Orange County with 115,000 attendees and 7,000 brands represented. That kind of size bodes well for the outskirts of personal audio, where the line starts to blur from the bifurcated pro & consumer manufacturers. For our intents here, that overlap bears the most fruit in the form of new product launches for IEMs, high-end customs, reference headphones and even a DAC or two. The focus of the show does remain a mish-mash of guitars, pedals, mics and assorted production gear. All of the big international headphone players take up shop, and there is usually a stimulating surprise or two if you can find it between the tightly packed parades of “up and coming” musicians looking for free sponsorship gear.

Things usually kick off with a dedicated press day on Wednesday. Previous years had a wide array of hifi-like releases, but 2019 was a bit slimmer than others. One standout however was the release of two new universal-fit IEMs from Sennheiser called the IE 400 Pro ($349 USD) and IE 500 Pro ($599 USD).

The two new earphones differ in a somewhat unique way. The 400 is marketed as a more flat, reference piece suitable for guitarists and instruments, whereas the 500 is a more dedicated IEM for vocalists in a stage performance setting. From the marketing side the pitch includes “more power and spatial cues” for the 500 but from a technical standpoint, the headphone is actually designed to handle more gain on stage to combat the sonic competition that runs wild while performing. As a constant champion for lower listening levels for ear conservation I cannot wholly endorse this, but I do think the notion is intriguing against the collective backdrop of IEM marketing options. There will be two color choices at launch, Smokey Black and Clear. The driver choice is a single 7mm dynamic, both use the same membrane material but surrounding structures are unique from there on out. Expect the IE 400 Pro and 500 Pro to hit the market starting in March.

The growing number of options for Audeze headphones continues to expand. From recent releases in gaming (Mobius), more efficient flagships (LCD-4z) to reimagined originals (LCD-2 Classic), the company has really fleshed out its audiophile-oriented wares for easy picking. The NAMM update came in the form of a limited-edition run for the closed-back LCD-XC wrapped in Alligator hide. Available in blue or grey, the LE XCs are born courtesy of a partnership with Paris-based leather goods maker Jean Rousseau. Most likely taking aim at collectors, the total pieces produced with the unique finish are limited to a fairly low 100 units and priced at $200 more than the stock LCD-XC ($1,799 USD). The LCD-XCs Limited Edition Alligator is currently available for order direct from the Audeze site and shipping now.

Ultimate Ears is constantly looking for easier ways to get custom IEMs into the hands of their customer base. One of the first to incorporate mold scanning, 3D printing and non-intrusive ear scanning, the OC company has a new trick up their sleeve to combat the immense travel, shipping and goo-intensive molding hurdle for consumers. In order to implement a do-your-own-impressions-at-home process, another new series of earphones had to be created to coincide with a mail-able impression kit. The UE CSX line offers similar driver configurations as the original PRO line, but with a smaller overall size and (most importantly) a shorter reach into the ear canal that ends after the first bend. This change will affect buyers in different ways, but the main differences leans toward a more locking fit and seal with the traditional UE Pro, and possibility more comfort for some with the CSX. I personally do have a pair of customs that have been shaved down to the first bend and they are by far the most comfortable pair in my collection. There also might be an argument for decreased fidelity due to the relative distance from the eardrum, but nothing was noticeable from my direct experience with that one pair… so take that observation with a grain of salt. The internal structure of headphones has also changed somewhat, now incorporating a more flexible tube system that fits in a smaller space than the rigid construction of earlier phase-conscious models. The other big difference between the two options is the reduced number of configurations launching with the CSX line, which is currently limited to the UE 5/7/11/18+. There are two missing models to that list which might peak enthusiast interest, the UE Reference Remastered and the new flagship UE Live.

The CSX kit is fairly straightforward, with a little help from the corresponding phone app. I went through the full process on the NAMM floor and it only took a few minutes with a trained professional helping me. The basics involve connecting a dongle wirelessly to your phone, then attaching two self-contained molds to the device’s endpoints. After that users stick the molds into their ears, press and hold slightly and then hit go on the app. The material in the molds heats up, conforms to the shape of your ears and then hardens. After that a few reference pictures get uploaded via the app and your done. Its quite ingenious really, considering the intrusiveness of the usual goop-and-cotton-dam process.

While the big IEM news out of the 64 Audio camp at last year’s NAMM was the announcement of the nine-driver hybrid Nathan East collaboration called N8 ($1,699 USD), this year saw some trickle down tech into the recent releases of the more entry-level models A3e ($699 USD) and now the A2e ($499 USD, up $100 from previous generation). Available in custom fits, the two least expensive earphones from 64 Audio are now blessed with even more marketing buzzwords, including LID (Linear Impedance Design) and a single bore design. The “Tia Bore” is now the standard for all earphones from the company, even if the model doesn’t contain the more expensive Tia treble driver. Also included on all three models is the Apex vent technology, which allows for pressure relief from the inherently sealed mechanics of in-ear listening. As one might expect, the new A2e is a 2-balanced armature IEM, with one balanced armature designated for highs and one for low/mids while the A3e is a three-way design with one driver for high, mid and low.

In a similar vein to 64 Audio’s N8 collaboration, Clear Tune Monitors also unveiled a “signature” IEM partnered with Aaron Speakers (drummer Usher/Ariana Grande). The AS-7 ($1,200 USD universal, $1,500 USD custom) is a nine balanced-armature configuration with a four-way crossover network. Similar to options from EchoBox, RHA and others, the AS-7 offers a removable filter system that lets you select more bass, more treble or a more neutral response – placed like a cap over a triple bore system of delivery. CTM is currently taking orders for spring delivery for the universal, custom orders shipping now.

It wouldn’t be a 2019 audio show without a mention of Bluetooth and its forward march to consume all that is headphone connectivity. Two companies at NAMM were hoping to spark joy over the release of their solution to the growing field of products in the space. The first came from Fostex with a modular option that wraps around the ear. Touted as a True Wireless product, the TM2 ($299 USD) includes a pair of six-mm dynamic drivers, but can be swapped out to fit nearly any IEM on the market. Connected to the water resistant battery appendage is a removable ear hook that supports MMCX and the two types of your standard two-prong CIEM jack. Tech specs include Bluetooth 5.0, AptX, 12 hours of playback and hidden on-board controls. Shure highlights were a little light compared to previous years, but they did have a new wireless cable with Bluetooth 5.0 and a dedicated headphone amplifier section that aims to squeeze out just a little more fidelity than the all-in onboard Bluetooth chip amps. The High Resolution Bluetooth 5 cable or (RMCE-BT2 for short) is available for purchase now for $150 USD.

One of the best little finds I came across on the show floor was a new take on hearing protection. There are endless possibilities when it comes to reducing volume for your music receptors, but few do it grace, and even less with any sort of style. My preference for maximum absorption is custom-molded full silicone. But the look and the resulting sound to my eardrum is far from perfect. Foam options rip out tons of treble and mids, but can look even worse and often have a hard time finding a proper seal. The Loop earplug ($29.99/pair) fits in your ear like a normal universal fit IEM, it even comes with a trio of both foam and silicone tips. The proposition is two-fold: 1) the earplug is something interesting to look at and 2) it promises 20dB of reduction with less distortion. The product claims to do this via the circular tube, which utilizes a small opening on the inner side of the ring and is “tuned” to stimulate the ear canal with its exact 2.7mm length interior channel. I got a chance to use the Loop on the noisy show floor and the results were interesting. Mids definitely received a decent cut, but some higher frequencies were not completely shaved away. It was possible to better hear the human voice in my experience (which is a big plus for talking to friends at loud concerts), although speaking did lack the natural girth from any mid presence. Without a proper A/B it isn’t fair to weigh-in on the clarity, but things from the receiving end did sound fairly good – even through a severely altered frequency response.

Overall the show was a little circumaural (around-the-ear) light in terms of new product announcements. Studio-flat references often bring interesting headphones to market, even if they are not targeted directly at the high-end enthusiast crowd. There just wasn’t as much from the big multi-product international manufacturers. The microphone business is starting to bear significant demand now that the streamer and podcast market is surging beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations, even from 10 years ago. However, it appears that the popularity of hybrid IEM design has taken a foothold in the minds of designers and the high barriers surrounding the custom IEM molding process might still come down. It both deepens the display case of choices and advances things forward for the audiophile on the move, even with the state of wireless looming overhead.

National Association of Musician Merchants