The best of incoming audio tech
Over the last few years the world has gone audio mad. First headphones blew up, then wireless audio was the next big thing and now Hi-Res Audio has your music collection looking completely inadequate.
Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you a £1000 spend is in order just to prove you’re a real music fan. However, CES 2015 showed us there’s an awful lot of interesting stuff going on in the audio world.
From 3D-sound headphones for movies and gaming to next-generation streaming and speakers that float in the air, there’s a load of new tech to look out for this year.
SEE ALSO: 10 best tech innovations of CES 2015
3D Sound Labs Neoh Head-tracking headphones
We’ve been testing surround sound headphones for years now, but the Neoh set from 3D Sound Labs is something completely different. These headphones use head tracking, much like an Oculus Rift VR headset.
The idea is that while the surround sound DSP modelling is relatively conventional – offering around 25 virtual channels – when you turn your head the actual output will remain static. This should give you a much more convincing impression of the sound coming from around you, rather than through a pair of headphones.
As this is 3D Sound Labs rather than Sony, there’s no firm release date for these headphones yet, and they’re heading for a crowdfunding platform near you soon. Keep an eye out for it, as it’s where we’ll learn more about when they might arrive. We do know they’re pencilled in for a sub-$300 (£200 or more in reality) price, though, so you won’t need to re-mortgage the caravan to afford a pair.
3D sound for Oculus Rift
Move over, Neoh. Oculus VR showed off a new Oculus Rift prototype at CES 2015 that features integrated headphones offering 3D positional audio.
The headphones themselves don’t use loads of little speakers to emulate a surround system. Instead, like other surround headphones, it uses clever DSP to give you extra-dimensional positional effects while using pretty traditional headphone drivers.
It’s a natural addition to the VR headset that will take immersion to the next level. What’s next, integrated smell-o-vision?
Sadly the demo didn’t come with any extra info on when the retail version will come out.
Google Cast lets you Stream to speakers AirPlay-style
Perhaps the most important audio infrastructure change we heard about during CES 2015 was Google’s new Cast service for audio. Don’t get too wound up with the idea that this is something entirely tied to Chromecast, as it’s effectively Google’s alternative to Apple AirPlay.
Google Cast support will soon be built into wireless speakers, AV receivers and sound bars, and it’ll use a Wi-Fi connection to stream audio between your Android device and these other boxes. However, once your phone/tablet has directed the speaker toward a stream, it’ll do all the work itself, causing no further drain on your device’s battery: this is effectively how Chromecast operates.
Until now, Android users have had to use a form of DLNA to stream audio without using Bluetooth, and while it’s fine, it is a bit too fiddly for many people. It sounds like a simple software update won’t be enough to get existing wireless speakers up to speed with Cast, as Google says the first Cast-compatible speakers will go on sale in the first few months of 2015, and that chip-level support is needed.
It should see wireless audio move from being Bluetooth-obsessed to bring Wi-Fi support back in the spotlight, which has become less common in the last two years.
MQA audio – studio-quality digital music
MQA audio is a new digital format from one of the most highly-regarded hifi brands ever, Meridian Audio. It claims to be able to fit all the perceived information from a hi-res 24-bit/96KHz file into a 1Mbit stream, enabling more efficient hi-res audio streams than we've seen to date.
If hi-res is to be the future of streamed audio for more demanding music fans, MQA is going to be an important part of it. It's a whole new approach to the way digital music is encoded, but it can be delivered within a WAV, FLAC or ALAC file or stream.
At CES 2015 we learnt about a load more partnerships for MQA. Frontier Silicon, Media-Saturn Group, Onkyo, Pure and (of course) Meridian Audio are all on the list. We'll hear a lot more about MQA later in 2015.
Philips NC1L Lightning dock headphones
We told you USB headphones were coming and, guess what, they’re here. The Philips NC1L are likely to be among the very first mainstream headphones that plug directly into your phone over a digital connection, letting all the digital-to-analogue conversion work happen on the headphone side. These have a Lightning jack, designed for use with iPhones.
That means the signal as it reaches the headphones is, in theory, perfect.
Philips announced its first pair of Lightning headphones, the M2L, back in September, but this new model also gets noise cancelling. The NC1L makes even better use of the Lightning connection, using your phone's battery to power the feature. No more batteries, no more fuss – finally.
The noise cancellation uses a full four microphones to get you, fingers-crossed- Bose-matching ambient noise-busting. WIth a 24-bit DAC on-board, the sound should hopefully be pretty good, too.
We’ll have to wait to get our review sample to really find out, though.
Price: est. £299 (299 Euro)
DTS:X codec – primed for the 4K future
Announced just before CES 2015, DTS:X is a big deal for people who care about home cinema sound.
It’s the successor to DTS:HD, and should see DTS upscale its sound codec level to meet the 4K video that’s now all but the standard.
Of course, it’s also a response to Dolby Atmos, which is now available in many home cinema receivers and gets you highly accurate positional sound without needing a ridiculous number of speakers.
What does DTS:X offer? We don’t actually know yet. The main point of the announcement was to say DTS:X is coming in March. However, if it doesn’t set new standards we’ll be disappointed.
Sennheiser’s second-gen Momentum headphones
We loved the first-generation Sennheiser Momentum headphones. They’ve become an easy go-to recommendation for people after a stylish portable pair.
At CES 2015, Sennheiser announced a whole new range of Momentum models, a full 2.0 update. There are 2.0 versions of the standard and on-ear models, both in flavours designed for Android and iPhone users. The new versions now have a folding headband, making them all the more portable.
The series has also gone wireless, with cable-free editions of the on-ear and standard Momentum 2.0s costing £110-120 extra. Here’s the full price list:
Momentum 2.0: £269.99
Momentum 2.0 On-Ear: £169.99
Momentum 2.0 Wireless: £379.99
Momentum 2.0 On-Ear Wireless: £289.99
We’ll be back with reviews of these as soon as they’re available.
Axxess CE Air2 floating speaker
Winner of a CES 2015 Innovation award, the Axxess CE Air2 floating speakers are certainly among the most eye-catching gadgets at the show. Short of there being some new technology blasted from the future that we’ve not heard about, the Air2 speakers use magnetism to keep the speaker afloat.
The speaker itself then uses Bluetooth to get a signal from your phone or tablet.
Total gimmick? Well, Axxess CE says the floating design lets the speaker avoid wasting any energy energy pumping sound waves into hard surfaces. But, yes, it’s more-or-less a gimmick for style obsessed types keen on having the most eye-catching speaker in town.
With a $200 RRP it’s not devastatingly expensive, though. Still, with just a 1.75-inch driver and 3W amplifier, audiophiles won’t want to make it their go-to Bluetooth unit.
AKG N90Q auto-calibrating headphones
There have been an awful lot of headphone announcements at CES 2015. And one of the most dynamic is the AKG N90Q.
These headphones use AKG’s new TruTone system that calibrates the sound to suit your ears. It does this using two tiny mics that measure the frequency response of the cavern your ears create.
We’d be willing to dismiss this as a bit of a gimmick, but it comes from a range of headphones we have a lot of respect for. The N90Q are Quincy Jones headphones, cousins of the Q701, which we think are some of the best headphones you can get at the price (was £500, now £200).
These are also active noise-cancelling headphones with a closed design, making them suitable for use on public transport, unlike the open Q701. We don’t know how much they cost, but they have our attention.
The iPhone case that’s a DAC: HiFi Skyn
Calling the HiFi Skyn an iPhone case is a little bit misleading. It looks like an iPhone case with a conjoined twin attached to the bottom that’s about 1/3 the size of the phone itself.
However, HiFi Skyn really isn’t aimed at the normal iPhone user. It offers a DAC that circumvents the headphone jack, a headphone amp designed for pairs much more demanding than the average, and a battery that’ll power both the amp and your phone.
Given the tech involved, it’s not a bad package, size-wise. To put it into further context – there are plenty of audiophiles walking around with portable DACs or headphones amps literally tied to their phone or MP3 player with a rubber band.
The only other issue is that most of the headphones best suited to this sort of hardware are open-back, meaning they’re pretty useless for the commute even with a HiFi Skyn in tow. Oh well.
Sony NW-ZX2: the £1000 MP3 player
Think the MP3 player is dead? Even the king of MP3, Apple, thinks so, having killed off the iPod Classic.
However, Sony is riding the Hi-Res Audio wave like a pro, announcing a $1299 MP3 player that’s out to appeal to the hardcore audio crowd. It gets you 128GB storage, all the high-res codec support you’ll need, an integrated high-end headphone amp and upscaling for any naff old MP3s you have.
It’s on the large side and its 854 x 480-pixel screen/Android 4.2 hardware spec doesn’t get close to what you’d expect from a phone a fifth the price. But, wow, we’re glad and slightly amazed it exists.
Audeze’s cheapest headphones yet: the Audeze EL-8
Audeze makes some of the best headphones in the world. But they’re almost all terrifyingly expensive. The pair we reviewed recently, the LCD-X, costs £1400 and isn’t even the most expensive model it makes.
CES 2015 saw Audeze bring down its price floor a bit. The Audeze EL-8 uses the same planar technology as the company’s other sets, but cost a lot less. Sure, £600 is far more than many people are willing to spend on headphones, but this new model opens-up the range for headphone obsessives of slightly more ordinary means.
They’re designed for easier production, slimming down costs, and the EL-8 are also more portable than Audeze’s other models. We like. We like a lot.
Audio Technica PHA100
Our second DAC/headphone amp combo of CES 2015 is the Audio Technica PHA100. It’s more of a portable amp that’ll also double as desktop one, not to mention working pretty well as a hi-fi headphone amp when needed. You can switch the DAC section on and off using a switch on the side.
Primed for the wave of interest in Hi-Res Audio, the Audio Technica PHA100 is ready for DSD, which is more-or-less the pinnacle of digital music in quality terms.
We do think it’s a bit funny that Audio Technica recommends these for their MSR7 headphones, though – they're less than half the price of the PHA100.
Related: Best USB Headphone Amps Round-up
MartinLogan’s new flagship electrostatic speakers
Thinking about saving up for a deposit on a new house? Why not sack that off and get yourself a pair of MartinLogan Neolith speakers.
They mark a real design step up in MartinLogan’s electrostatic speakers. And these days, MartinLogan is pretty much the king of electrostatics.
Now used to this kind of speaker? The whole translucent area that makes up most of the front is a gigantic driver, made of an ultra-thin sheet of mylar.
Rather than just having a mid-range driver in the bottom half of the speaker like most other hybrid electrostatics, the Neolith use a large subwoofer that fills in the ultra-low frequencies the electrostatic driver can’t quite provide. The results will be, as you’d hope, breathtaking.