People who say “never meet your heroes” must have shitty heroes.
I’m attending CanJam London this weekend — an event organized by the guys responsible for the Head-Fi audiophile community — and have met a person I greatly admire: Axel Grell. He’s Sennheiser’s chief headphone engineer, counting among his accomplishments the classic HD 600 and 650 and the newer HD 800 and 800 S. Before today, I was a fan of his work, but having met and talked to him, I’m now a fan of him as a human being too.
This is the charming thing about the headphones industry, the thing I don’t see elsewhere in consumer electronics. The engineers and designers of the best and most famed products are within reach for even casual fans to meet and interact with. If you love Fujifilm cameras (as most of the Verge staff do), you can’t just go to Photokina and expect Fujifilm’s senior design crew to be hanging out at the stand and fielding questions from event attendees. But that’s what you get at CanJam.
Last year at this same show, I met Dan Clark, the “Mister” of MrSpeakers. He’s the chief executive, operating, marketing, and financial officer of the tiny San Diego company. The very same person that fine-tunes the frequency response and chooses the materials and finishes of each headphone was available to talk to fans, not just privileged journalists. Having reviewed his Ether Flow headphones in the wake of last summer’s meeting, I can confirm that Clark knows what he’s doing — though pricey, I consider both the Ether Flow and Ether C Flow to be among the leading exemplars in their respective open and closed-back design categories.
V-Moda, the portable headphone manufacturer that claims 42 percent of DJs around the world now use its headphones, is represented at its CanJam stand this year by company founder Val Kolton. The long-haired Kolton embodies the occasional flamboyance of his headphones perfectly, but more than that, he exudes the passion of someone who lives and breathes headphones. That might be unimpressive to others — just as I might shrug my shoulders at an especially intricate Star Trek convention cosplay outfit — but for fellow enthusiasts for this category of device, meeting people like Val is a genuine pleasure. I delight in knowing that absolute, obsessive geeks are making the final product decisions about something I myself treat with geeky reverence.
This weekend has also given me a chance to hear from Rob Watts, the inventor of the excellent Chord Mojo digital-to-analog converter. I’m not going to pretend to understand much of the deeply nerdy electrical engineering Watts discussed during a seminar he hosted at CanJam, but being able to pick his brain on simpler matters (like, do USB cables make any difference? Watts says yes with other DACs, but not with the ones he’s designed, which are insensitive to jitter issues) and just getting his opinion on the state of headphone audio in general was both illuminating and gratifying.
My highlight of this year’s show, though, has been Axel Grell. If you want to put a face to the cliché of precision German engineering, it would be his. What I didn’t expect was that someone with his track record of benchmark-setting designs could be so approachable and so ardent about his subject matter. Grell doesn’t expect anyone to care about the intricacies of things like second-order distortion, but if you ask him with sincere interest, as I did, he’ll happily and patiently break it all down for you. It’s like learning about the challenges of smartphone antenna design from Jony Ive.
Having attended two spectacular car launches this week — one for the Audi A8 and the other for the Jaguar E-Pace — I’ve felt conscious of how exclusive my access to those events has been. CanJam, on the other hand, costs a very reasonable £15 ($20) for the two days in London and gives you access to everything that I could experience and everyone that I could meet. If you were quick to book, you might have also grabbed a slot to audition Sennheiser’s $55,000 HE1 Orpheus headphones. I’ve heard those twice so far and it’s been a special occasion each time. For the rest of my time at this year’s show, I want to hear more from HiFiMAN’s new $6,000 Susvara cans — because how often does anyone get the opportunity to wear $6,000 on their head?