On 19 December 2009, I attended one of the most eye-opening meetings of my life: the Tokyo OFF Headphone Audio Meeting. While that is a rough translation of the actual event’s title is underwhelming, the current crop of small Japanese audio makers who peeked in is amazing. I have been smitten by the nearly perfect ALO Rx headphone amplifier, but what I heard at the meeting smashed most of my expectations in terms of what is possible in portable audio. Carrying an amp with an iPod can be annoying, but in my opinion, the jump in sound quality is worthwhile – very worthwhile. Matt MacBeth who designed the audio circuitry of the ALO Rx said in TMA interview that 2010 will be the year when portable audio overtakes home audio in terms of quality. In terms of price/performance, that certainly is possible, and in terms of possibility, that much is certainly true.
The OFF Meeting was attended by about 30 members of the community, most of whom had ties to audio manufacture; the rest were audio distributors, audiophiles, and accessory manufacturers. I tested no fewer than 8 portable amplifiers with my favourite FitEar Private 333, my favourite being the yet-unnamed mysterious amp. Currently, Headfi is being torn up with the newest portable amplifier from iBasso, the FiQuest. It is unwieldy, but its makers can tailor it for your headphones and needs. TMA will be reviewing it this winter.
Sadly, the amp which struck the most sonorous chord with me isn’t available for purchase, and from glances at its case, obviously prototype. Where looks fail, sound takes over. This amp powerfully drives IEMs, with incredible, highly resolved bass notes and smooth highs. There is the smallest amount of hiss and the current build has low-volume channel balance issues. That said, if this amp was up for sale, I would be first in line because its sound is the most well-rounded I have heard.
Portable audio manufacturers are also working on what may be the next craze: balanced amplifiers. I have heard a number of high-end balanced home amps with balanced headphones. Add power, weight and incredible speed to basically any headphone in balanced configuration for the best sound. Currently, it is a war out there with manufacturers up in arms over connector standards, but soon a victor will emerge and a new generation of portable audio will take to the streets.
The night ended as always does: the stacking of every portable amp in the room. Fortunately, nothing fell and my ALO Rx wasn’t damaged. What a night.