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The best headphones in the world

The world's very best headphones were all gathered at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest held last week in Denver. Good sounds, indeed!

The new JH Audio custom-molded in-ear headphones and JH-3A headphone amplifier
JH Audio

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2011, held last week at the Denver Marriott Tech Center Hotel, not only showcased a vast array of high-end audio designs, there was a special headphone-oriented show within the show called CanJam. It was a fantastic opportunity to sample the world's best headphones and headphone amplifiers.

The energy in the CanJam ballroom was palpable. There's no doubt the headphone market is still expanding at a rapid rate, and anyone who spent some time listening to the latest crop of cutting-edge products had to come away from the experience shaken and stirred.

I've raved about the sound of JH Audio's custom-molded in-ear headphones before, but the company is about to introduce the world's first tri-amplified headphone system. It's called the JH-3A. The company's owner, Jerry Harvey started building in-ear monitor headphones for rock bands in 1995. He counts Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Aerosmith, Foreigner, and Linkin Park as customers. The amp was designed to be partnered with Harvey's JH16 Pro headphones that look much the same as the ones I've used for years. The JH-3A features separate amplifier channels to power the headphone's low-frequency, midrange, and high-frequency drivers.

The JH-3A has analog and digital inputs with up to 24-bit resolution and 192-kHz sampling rates. The amp features a digitally controlled variable bass output, so you can have flat or boosted bass response from the headphones. Production headphones are custom-molded to your ears for the perfect fit, but at the show I auditioned the system with universal fit headphones. The sound was more dynamic and "open" than I've ever heard from any in-ear headphone before. I will be getting my custom-molded headphones and the amp soon. I'll give a more detailed account of the sound in the full review. The JH16 and JH-3A Amp are sold together for $1,748.

V-Moda's Val Kolton Steve Guttenberg

V-Moda's Val Kolton showed me a prototype of a new headphone that should arrive early next year. I really loved it, which is a first for me. I've always admired V-Moda's style, but the sound left me cold. This new one had punchy, rock-solid bass and really clear sound. Kolton is an intense guy, and has put a lot of thought into sound and how it affects people. Kolton had another prototype of an upcoming design he didn't play for me, but the styling was absolutely brilliant. V-Moda is already a big deal, but it's going to be even bigger.

I've reviewed a number of planar magnetic headphones on this blog, but most of them are pretty expensive. Fostex has been making planars for years, and I got a chance to hear their headphones at CanJam. Priced at $150 or so they have that open and low distortion sound I associate with more expensive planar models.

The Ray Samuels Dark Star amplifier Steve Guttenberg

Ray Samuels just happened to have on hand the headphone that many consider the best ever made, the Sennheiser HE90 electrostatic. Sennheiser stopped making them years ago, so they're quite rare, and used ones in good condition sell for over $10,000. That headphone, driven by Samuels' new A10 amp ($6,500) was remarkable for what it didn't do. It didn't sound like a hi-fi; the music magically appeared between my ears. It sounds real. Another Samuels amp, the Dark Star ($2,995), made a notoriously difficult-to-drive headphone, the Hifiman HE-6, really come alive. Samuels also offers a wide selection of more affordable models, with prices starting at $295 for the Tomahawk portable amp.

Audeze has advanced the state of the art of planar magnetic headphone design yet again, with the LCD-3 ($1,945). I thought their recently revised LCD-2 was the best-sounding full-size headphone on the planet, but the LCD-3 is even better. It looks a lot like a LCD-2, but the new one uses a completely different driver. The supersoft lambskin leather pads felt great on my ears. The new headphone is "faster" and sounds clearer and cleaner. I'll review the LCD 3 in the coming months. I can't wait.

The Woo Audio 234 amplifier Woo Audio

Woo Audio unveiled their ultimate headphone amplifier, the 234 Mono, the world's first mono-block headphone amplifier (it uses separate amps for the right and left channels). The 120 pound amp was designed to work with a wide variety of tube types, to allow the owner to fine-tune the sound to their taste. I listened to the 234 with a set of Sennheiser HD 800 headphones, and was treated to the sweetest, richest, and most detailed sound ever heard from that model. The $10,000 amp is a magnificent work of industrial design, and it's handcrafted in NYC.

The AlO RX Mk.3 amp and Cypher DAC stack, with my iPod Steve Guttenberg

ALO Audio was demonstrating its high-end portable headphone amps, and I fell totally in love with their RX Mk. 3 amp and Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo digital-to-analog converter driving Audeze LCD-3 headphones. Strap the amp and DAC together, or to your iPod or iPhone and you'll get hypertransparent, audiophile sound quality in a truly portable package. Again, I'm hoping to get the amp and DAC for review.

If you want to sample all the best headphone gear for yourself, start planning to attend the CanJam 2012 in Denver next October.