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If you asked me to name a high-end headphone brand, I might think first of Audeze or HiFiMan. But ten years ago, I might have named Denon first. Much -- actually, almost everything -- in the headphone world has changed since then. Yet Denon has taken a relatively low-key approach to the hype-heavy headphone market. Even the company’s most elite current models were “soft launched,” posted on the company’s site with little fanfare. The AH-D7200 headphones ($999 USD) were introduced in December 2016, but I only found out about them when I stumbled upon them at CES in January.

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After seeing prototypes of the Cleer Next headphones at a couple of trade shows, I’d filed them into my “if it ever ships” mental folder and soon forgotten about them -- and thus missed the initial introduction of these last fall. Fortunately, Cleer had to send me a sample of its other headphones, the Flow noise-canceling model, for a measurement project and offered to throw in the Nexts, too. Considering that the company seems in the midst of a major ramp-up, I thought I’d give the Nexts a proper technical workup to see where this company’s starting from -- and I’m glad I did, because they’re among the more interesting audiophile headphones I’ve recently encountered.

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Reviewers' ChoiceWhen I first encountered Focal’s new Stellia closed-back headphones, I was exhausted and eager to hit the road. It was last month at CES 2019, in an early-morning, press-embargoed meeting scheduled right before my departure. Figuratively speaking, the imaginary sounds of my car calling out to me from the Mirage hotel parking lot drowned out most of Focal’s pitch. Regardless, I left with a review sample, and after living with the Stellias for a month, and soliciting the opinions of our usual listening panelists, I really don’t care what that original pitch was -- because I think my reaction to these headphones might be a little different from the way the company will position them.

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Sound: *******1/2
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I’m always skeptical when an audio company appropriates an unused but historic brand. In too many cases, the company simply slaps the brand onto whatever generic product it can scrounge up out of Shenzhen, with little effort at design or tuning. That’s why I was so surprised when I witnessed the rebirth of the KLH brand at the 2018 CEDIA Expo. The company’s new lines of speakers seemed innovative (for speakers, anyway) and well engineered. I was surprised again at CES 2019 when the company launched two headphone models -- one of them, the Ultimate Ones, clearly targeted at people stepping up from mass-market headphones. That’s a gutsy move for what’s really a completely new company.

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Four score and three years ago, Peter J. Walker brought forth, on the island of Great Britain, an audio company called S.P. Fidelity Sound Systems, which would later take the name Quad Electroacoustics. With its many successful products over the years -- especially the original ESL electrostatic loudspeaker (later nicknamed the ESL 57) and its derivatives -- it’s safe to say that Quad is one of the most venerable British hi-fi companies. But while in the past decade many traditional hi-fi brands have come out with headphone products, Quad’s only entry in that race has been a headphone amplifier, the PA-One. That changes with the subject of this review, the ERA-1: full-size, over-ear, open-backed headphones ($799 USD).

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Headphone enthusiasts differ from the traditional stereo enthusiasts in many ways, but the most extreme difference involves transducer sensitivity. While many stereo enthusiasts feel that the best sound is achieved by using low-powered amplifiers with high-sensitivity speakers, many headphone enthusiasts feel that the best sound is achieved using high-powered amplifiers with low-sensitivity headphones, such as the new HiFiMan HE6ses.

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