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2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Portable Devices)




iDevice DACs

These last couple of years we've seen the emergence and refinement of iDevice DAC products. These devices allow you to take the music digitally and uncompressed from your iPod, iPhone or iPad--thus, bypassing the iDevice's internal DAC circuitry--to allow the use of a higher-end DAC. In short, this renders the iDevice merely a transport, leaving the heavy lifting to more capable DACs.





The biggest news in this category is that Sony very recently entered the iDevice DAC field. Yes, you read that right--I said SONY. Their entry is called the Sony PHA-1 (around $650), and it's very clear Sony's not messin' around. The PHA-1 is one of the best built, and easily the best looking (to my eyes), portable amp or DAC I've ever seen.

And check this out: For the PHA-1, knowing people would need want to pair it with an iPod or iPhone, Sony built a rail into each side of the top panel to accept included silicone hooked bands (that hook into the rails). This eliminates the need to carry big rubber bands, or the need for Velcro strips. (And, in a nice touch, the top surface has two rubber strips running from front to back to help prevent scratches. Details, details!

The Sony PHA-1 is built to exacting standards, using (if I recall correctly) a six-layer 35μm-thick copper foil PCB, with tremendous attention paid to the layout of the analog and digital circuits, to minimize internal electrical noise interference. And much attention was paid to shielding to help minimize external interference. I mention all that only because, more than any other portable amp or amp/DAC, the PHA-1 seems impervious to noise, even when I'm using my radio-packed iPhone on top of it.

The Sony PHA-1 is also a 24/96-capable USB DAC! And it's amp? Two gain settings, and its black background, make it suitable even for my more sensitive IEMs. Its high-gain mode very nicely drives most of the headphones I bring with me.

Unfortunately, PHA-1's battery life is just 10 hours if you use its analog input, and only 5 hours in iDevice DAC mode. In USB DAC mode, it runs off USB bus power, and charges its battery. Also, the PHA-1 offers no digital pass-through.

As far as my portable rig roster goes, the Sony PHA-1 moved into first chair.







Cypher Labs' AlgoRhythm Solo -dB ($699), cypherlabs.com, is the next generation version of the popular AlgoRhythm Solo. The new AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is still an iDevice DAC. And it still has digital pass-through, with a coaxial digital output that allows you to pass the digital stream from your iDevice directly to another DAC, if, for example, you have a high-end desktop DAC you'd rather use when you're not on-the-go. 

The "d" in -dB is for "DAC," as the AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is also a 24/192-capable USB DAC. The "B" is for "balanced," as the AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is now fully balanced (there's still a single-ended output for those without a balanced amp). Battery life is now up to 14 hours of play time. In other words, this -dB version is a major overhaul and upgrade of the AlgoRhythm Solo. (We discussed the original Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo in Episode 003 of Head-Fi TV.)

“The Solo is without a doubt leaps and bounds ahead of anything out there that any of us have heard of. These guys have hit the nail squarely on the head.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Michael Lockwood (monotune)







The Fostex HP-P1 (around $650), fostexinternational.com, was released later last year, and has been a constantly sold-out hit. What makes the HP-P1 so popular is the fact that it does iDevice DAC duty, and it has a built-in headphone amp. With three gain settings, the amp is quite versatile, and can very nicely drive most headphones that you'd want to use portably. The single-unit portable iDevice DAC/amp combination has made the HP-P1, paired with a 160GB iPod, a frequent companion of mine. (We discussed the Fostex HP-P1 in Episode 011 of Head-Fi TV.)

“I reckon the HP-P1 is a great piece of kit, if not an amazing one. I reckon it hits its price almost exactly in terms of features, capability and sound quality.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer/administrator Amos Barnett (Currawong)







If you're still an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S user, and the idea of lashing two or three devices together to make a high-end portable rig strikes you as inelegant, then the new V-MODA VAMP ($650), www.V-MODA.com, is your answer. Custom-crafted to fit the iPhone 4 or 4S perfectly, a VAMP rig is about as elegant as a high-end portable headphone rig currently gets.

The VAMP is an iDevice DAC. It's an amp.

Like the AlgoRhythm Solo and HP-P1, the VAMP streams digital from your iPhone to its own DAC stage. From there, the VAMP's built-in headphone amp is able to drive both sensitive in-ears and more demanding over-ears, with two different gain settings and a low noise floor.

The VAMP also offers a mode called VQ, which alters the tonal balance to tighten bass and increase treble, as well as altering the imaging to give increased depth and width. (Personally, I never use VQ, and instead choose the VAMP's pure output--but you might like it with some of your headphones.)

If you have a higher-end desktop DAC you'd like to digitally feed with your iPhone's music, the VAMP (like the HP-P1) has a digital optical output.

To all of this, the VAMP's powerful 2200mAh lithium-ion battery offers the option to charge your iPhone, even while listening to the VAMP. If you're a frequent traveler, this feature alone can be a huge blessing.

So for audiophiles using iPhone 4/4S, the V-MODA VAMP is a DAC (with digital pass-through), amp, and phone charger, housed in a single unit--no rubber bands or Velcro needed. Graceful, chic, compact, elegant, and highly recommended.







High-End Portable Media Players/DACs (iDevice Alternatives)

If you're considering a non-iDevice option, and/or you're looking for another high-end portable audio option, consider two rather unique devices that have found a place with many Head-Fi'ers, the Colorfly C4 Pocket HiFi (around $800), www.colorfly.net, and the HiFiMAN HM-801 (around $790), www.head-direct.com.  Both of these devices have DAC sections built around DAC chips normally only seen on higher-end full-size digital components, the C4 using the Cirrus Logic CS4398 and CS8422, and the HM-801 using the PCM-1704.

The Colorfly C4 is, to my eyes, one of the coolest looking audio devices I've seen in a while, portable or otherwise. With what appears to be an aged-look bronze faceplate, an ALPS pro audio sliding volume control, and engraved black walnut wood sides and back, the C4 is straight-up steampunk. It is gorgeous.

With 32GB of built-in storage (also with a micro-SD expansion slot), the C4 can act as a standalone media player. The user interface is far from Apple iOS elegant, but it's usable. In portable media-player mode the C4 supports MP3 (32 kbps to 320 kbps), WMA (up to 24/192), APE (normal compression), and FLAC.

It can also be used as a DAC, or as a transport, as it's equipped with digital input and output, both via coaxial RCA. But, as a DAC, you are limited to the C4's built-in headphone output, as it does not have dedicated analog line-outs. The C4 should provide about seven hours of battery life.

As a portable media player, the HiFiMAN HM-801 only comes with 2GB of internal storage, but does have an SDHC slot for easy expansion. And if the Colorfly's user interface isn't iOS elegant, the HiFiMAN's is a bit further still. Whereas Apple's iOS user interface is a pleasure to use, neither of these players evokes a feeling of warm welcome as standalone players. I've owned the HM-801 since it was an early prototype, and I still hit the wrong buttons frequently when I'm using it as a portable player.

As a portable player, the HiFiMAN supports APE (fast, normal, high), AAC (16-320Kbps), FLAC lossless VBR (16-bit and 24-bit), WMA (8-355Kbps), OGG (0 to 10), WAV PCM (MS-ADPCM, IMA-ADPCM), MP3 (VBR, 8-320Kbps), so there's more flexibility for native format support with it than the C4.

Both the C4 and HM-801 have DAC component functionality, and, given my difficulties with their user interfaces as portable players, it's their DAC functions that most interest me. One use I've had for my HM-801 (and which I intend to similarly apply to the C4) is as a DAC for old disc spinners that might reasonably be called obsolete. (Again, both the HM-801 and C4 have coaxial digital inputs, the HM-801 via mini jack, and the C4 via RCA.)

The HM-801 has the added versatility of being able to be used as a USB DAC, which makes it a fantastic all-in-one amp/USB DAC coffee house rig.

As for their sound signatures, the HM-801 is a lusher sounding piece than the C4's more neutral presentation. (The C4 has equalizer settings, but I've not yet used them.) Both sound amazing, though, for what they are; and if you're patient with their user interface idiosyncrasies--and willing to pay the price for them--you're in for a treat.

"So how would I sum up the sound of HM801? ‘Effortless’ is the word that pops into my mind – not just effortless as a DAP, but like a good desktop source in miniature. In many occasions, I was totally immersed into the sound of HM801 that I can’t quite get from any other DAP. It is not a sound that I would describe as either analog or digital, but rather a good balance between..."

Head-Fi member Tai Ming Sow (ClieOS)







Newer, Easier-To-Use High-End Portable Media Players/DACs Coming

This year saw advances in high-end portable media players--and, thankfully, with monumental improvements to user interface (UI) design. iBasso released its new iBasso DX100 ($829), www.ibasso.com, which uses the Android OS and what looks to me like a very usable UI. The DX100 is built around the ESS ES9018 SABRE 32-bit DAC Chip. The handful of members on Head-Fi who've used the DX100 seem to be very enthusiastic about it. I had a chance to hear it briefly at a New York Head-Fi Meet last spring, and was impressed. I'm looking forward to trying the iBasso DX100 down the road.

I expect to see even more easier-to-use high-end digital players coming down the pike from other manufacturers, too, so stay tuned for those.



Comments (5)

I have a hm801, now the internal storage is 8gb
The DX100 has been out for nearly a year, and it only gets a little paragraph, with no detailed description, no review?! "Handful of members" ? Erm...
Jude mentioned hearing the DX100 at a NY meet. I was there. That DX100 had a lot of usage on it, so it was burned in, but it was the first firmware. Never updated. Things have changed since then audio wise and that may be why he didnt elaborate more.
iBasso should send Jude one with the 1.2.7 FW, on long loan for an in-depth review.
once again all these things are uber pricey. I started roaming head fi with a pretty LOW budget. It would be nice to see those Sub $200 devices thare are worth our while :3, non the less these are IDEAL gifts xD give it to a head fi er and they are GARUNTEED to freak out [in a happy way]
Head-Fi.org › Articles › 2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Portable Devices)