If there's a hot trend in audio electronics, it's headphone amps. Seems like every manufacturer has come out with one in the last year, and headphone jacks are suddenly appearing on practically every new preamp. It was easy to observe this trend at the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver -- both in the hotel rooms where manufacturers were doing demos, and in the CanJam section where headphones were on display.
You might think that the world of stereo audio electronics would have settled down a long time ago, unlike home-theater audio electronics where almost every year brings a new gotta-have-it innovation that makes last year's products seem like flea-market junk. But the advent of PCM and DSD high-resolution audio, the popularity of Internet streaming (even among audiophiles), and the explosion of the headphone market have radically altered the form and function of the latest stereo gear -- and it was all on display at Denver's 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is actually a two-part show, sharing the Denver Tech Center Marriott with CanJam, an expo devoted entirely to headphones and related gear. CanJam is by far the best consumer show for headphones I've ever attended. Most of the major manufacturers show up. Well, at least the ones who focus on enthusiasts; you won't find Beats or Bose or Skullcandy.
Every Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is packed with cool new speakers ranging in price from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most of them are conventional passive speakers, so that's what I've focused on here. Occasionally a manufacturer or two works up the nerve to break with tradition and build amps (and maybe even digital signal processing) into the boxes. But by and large, audio enthusiasts still prefer to mix 'n' match their amps and speakers.
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