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2013 Head-Fi Winter Gift Guide (Portable Amps, DACs, & DAPs)

Introduction
Over-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Headphones
Wireless Headphones
Gaming Headphones
Exercise Headphones
Cables & Accessories
Desktop Amps & DACs
Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
Ultra-High-End Headphones (Summit-Fi)
Desktop & Portable Speakers
Head-Fi Meets
Music
Head-Fi 2013 Winter Gift Guide
Fostex HP-A4

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Fostex HP-A4 fills a chasm between the Fostex HP-A3, a simple, bus-powered USB DAC, and the technology-packed powerhouse of a USB DAC/amp that is Fostex's flagship HP-A8C.

 

Like the HP-A3 (which I've carried around so much it looks like it's been through wars), the HP-A4 is USB bus-powered--that means no power adapter is needed. That's where the resemblance ends, though, because I think the HP-A4 is not so much an evolution of the HP-A3 as it is something aspiring to be like the HP-A8C--it even looks like a mini version of the HP-A8C.

 

The commonalities between it and the HP-A8C extend to the feature set, too, including support up to 24/192 (the HP-A8C supports up to 32/192), and support for DSD up to 5.6MHz!

 

Of course, being bus-powered, it doesn't have quite the power supply and power output that the HP-A8C has, the HP-A4's headphone-driving power topping out at a respectable 100mW into 32Ω, versus the HP-A8C's more monster 700mW into the same load.

 

But what it can do is a fairly good imitation of its flagship sibling (only up to its own limits, of course), yet can be thrown in a bag for trips to the library, coffee house, hotel, or extended layovers while traveling. At only 500g, it's very light weight--the HP-A8C's toroidal power transformer alone probably weighs more than the HP-A4.

 

I had a prototype HP-A4 here, and its performance was superb. No, it wasn't an HE-6-driving powerhouse. But just about every headphone I'd most likely want to use with it--like Fostex's own TH600 and TH900, Sony MDR-7520, Audeze LCD-X, and others--was driven with excellent results.

 

Like other Fostex DAC/amp products, the HP-A4 continues the tradition of a digital optical output (in addition to its USB and optical digital inputs). This allows me to use and try other DACs without having to swap out the HP-A4. It also allows me to pass optical digital to my favorite wireless headphones in the Sennheiser RS 220 and the Skullcandy PLYR 1.

 

I didn't have much chance while the prototype was here to use it as a DAC feeding other amps, but I'll give that a go once the production unit arrives here (which should be in the next week or so).

 

Fostex HP-A3, you served me well, and have the scars to prove it--but you're being replaced with the mini-HP-A8C called the HP-A4.

 

TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $499
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

ALO Audio Rx MK3-B, Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B and F-35 Lightning

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It seems there are infinite choices now, when it comes to portable headphone amplifiers. For driving even hard-to-drive full-sized headphone, we've seen over the last few years an increase in fully balanced headphone amplifiers. ALO Audio's Rx MK3-B ($649), www.aloaudio.com, is a fully-balanced, portable beast of an amp, and the first to challenge the Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B ($650), www.raysamuelsaudio.com, in terms of the ability to authoritatively drive any dynamic headphone, up to and including the HiFiMAN HE-6.

 

In addition to its revealing sound signature, and having a lot of driving power for a portable amp, the Rx MK3-B adds a very well implemented bass control. I don't know the exact specs of this bass control yet, but it is effective and refined (and great for giving thinner-sounding headphones more low-frequency body), and without an effect on precious midrange. Though the SR-71B doesn't provide any tone adjustments, it does seem to me to have more driving power, and a lower noise floor, than the Rx MK3-B.

 

Another new entry to the fully-balanced field is the Ray Samuels Audio F-35 Lightning. The Lightning is fully balanced, and only provides a balanced headphone output (but both single-ended and balanced inputs). This is a very purist approach, and is intended for those who know that having a full balanced headphone amp for portable use is exactly what they're looking for. The pricing for the F-35 Lightning hasn't yet been announced, but expect it to come in well under the SR-71B's pricing. While the F-35 lightning will have the same current output as the SR-71B, expect it to have about half of the insane 36.8V that the SR-71B can swing in balanced mode.

 

I already have the F-35 Lightning here, and it is enough to drive all of my dynamic and planar headphones. And while it can even drive the HiFiMAN HE-6 to moderate levels (certainly loud enough for me), you should strongly consider stepping up to the SR-71B if you're looking to be portably driving the HE-6 (or the Abyss AB-1266) most of the time.

 

I use and love all of these balanced portable amps, and find their performance comparable to a lot of very good desktop headphone amps.

 

"The power of [the Rx MK3] is unbelievable. I think one should take full advantage of it with full-sized cans; especially the hard-to-drive ones."

-AnakChan
Head-Fi Moderator/Member/Reviewer

 

"I tested [the SR-71B] balanced source – balanced amp - balanced headphone, and in that application it was really amazing. I tested it SE source – balanced amp – balanced headphone, and again, amazingly good performance. In these two modes, it’s a special amplifier. I couldn’t believe what it was able to deliver with the very-hard-to-drive HifiMan HE-6."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Balanced portable headphone amps
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PRICE: $649.00 (Rx MK3-B), $650.00 (SR-71B), $549.00 (F-35)
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URL: www.aloaudio.com and www.raysamuelsaudio.com

 

TYPE: Portable amp/DAC
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PRICE: $395 
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URL: www.practicaldevices.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Practical Devices' XM6, is one of my go-to portable amp/USB DAC combos. Its list of features is almost too long to list here, but includes adjustable crossfeed, bass boost, treble boost, output impedance adjustment, adjustable gain, media control dial, and more. The USB DAC section is also very good for something of this size (I ordered the Wolfson WM8741 upgrade option). We discussed the Practical Devices XM6 in Episode 002 of Head-Fi TV.)

 

"I am very impressed that James at Practical Devices was able to take a great Amp/DAC and make it even better. The XM6 easily surpasses its predecessors and adds a couple of new features that provide even more potential."

-HK_sends
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In a search for more good affordable portable amps, I picked up the Hippo Cricri ($128) from Jaben in Singapore. The Cricri is a diminutive, lightweight headphone amp with a built-in rechargeable battery (good for up to 30 hours per charge). The Cricri is clad in a scratch-resistant chassis, and feels very well built for its size, and for the price. For an amp so affordable, I was surprised to find it equipped with a bass boost circuit, as well as adjustable gain.

 

If you're looking for an amp to lash to your phone, you may want to skip the Cricri, as I've found it's rather susceptible to radio noise and interference when lashed to my phones. It has, however, worked perfectly fine with my iPod Touch, which is what it's rubber-banded to now.

 

The sound signature of the Cricri as a straight amp (with no bass boost applied) is detailed, and better than I expected from this little $128 pocket amp. For me, though, where I've had fun is playing with the Cricri's bass boost switch, trying it with headphones that I sometimes wish had a bit more body. The AKG K 550, for example, is a headphone I have fun listening to out of the Cricri with its bass-boost activated, as is the Shure SRH440. If you're looking for an affordable portable amp, put the Cricri on your list to consider. If you're looking for the same, and have some headphones you think would benefit from its bass boost, then definitely give the Hippo Cricri a look.

TYPE: Portable headphone amp
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PRICE: $98.00
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URL: jaben.net

 


TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: Around $200 
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URL: www.audioquest.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Is it possible that something the size of a USB thumb drive can be mentioned in the company of the other DAC/amps in this section? If it's the AudioQuest Dragonfly, then, yes, absolutely. That something so small checks off as many audiophile buzzwords as it does is pretty amazing. ESS Sabre DAC? Check. Supports up to 24/96? Check. Asynchronous USB transfer? By Gordon Rankin, no less--so check. 64-step analog stepped volume control? Check. And it's quiet enough (in terms of noise floor) to drive most of my in-ear monitors in relative silence, yet also has the oomph to drive many of my over-ears, too.

 

One thing that's not audiophile about the Dragonfly is its price. $249. This one's already shaken up the audiophile DAC scene since its release last year, catalyzing the development and release of several diminutive high-res DAC/amp competitors in the past year, though I believe the Dragonfly remains the smallest of this new breed.

 

Of course, because it's so small, expect some limitations (also faced by its newer competitors). Its only input is USB. Its only output is analog via a mini jack (3.5mm). And though I think it keeps good company with the full-size DACs in this section, it doesn't, to my ears, have the ultimate resolution that DACs like the DA11, HP-A8C, STEREO192-DSD or DAC-100 have--again, though, neither do the others I've used of its type.

 

Even in consideration of its new rivals, the Dragonfly remains the most pocketable, so it's the easiest to take along. Also, because it plugs right in like a USB thumb drive, no cables at all (other than for output) are needed to use it. Think of what this means when you're staring at that tiny tray table in coach class seating. It means you can use the Dragonfly even there, with the most minimal muss and fuss--and I do, so I speak from experience.

 

Though its competitors are starting to offer greater versatility and a couple more bells and whistles, the Dragonfly's form factor still keeps it at the top of my list for this class of product. Given how tiny it is, the Dragonfly's sonic performance is simply staggering.

 

"Back before I joined Head-Fi I was using headphones straight out of the headphone port of whatever Mac I owned at any one time. I do wish the Dragonfly had been available, as it would have suited me perfectly. I reckon with a pair of basically good headphones, such as V-MODA M80s or one of the numerous offerings around the $200-300 mark, this would a be a great Head-Fi starter kit."

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In the preorder thread for this amp on Head-Fi, HeadAmp promotes the 18V (2x9V) Pico Power as the "recommended [portable] amp for the hardest to drive headphones." I'll confirm it'll drive the difficult stuff well, yes.

 

However, to me, one of the most impressive tests for an amp designed to drive some of the hardest-to-drive headphones on the market is to plug one of the most sensitive headphones I've got into it to see what happens. In its low-gain mode, with one of my most sensitive custom in-ears, the Pico Power is dead quiet. Turning the volume up as slowly as I can with this IEM plugged into the Pico Power reveals, to my ears, channel matching even at the lowest possible volume setting. That makes for outstanding versatility, because it'll do that, yet driving the tough stuff is just a click away.

 

Like all HeadAmp amps I've used, the fit and finish of the custom-machined chassis on the Pico Power is meticulous.

 

This amp only arrived shortly before the time of this writing, but it has been a very impressive sounding amp so far, and I should have more to say about it down the road.

TYPE: Portable amplifier
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PRICE: $475.00 
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URL: www.headamp.com

 


TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299.00
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URL: www.meridian-audio.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

To say I was fired up when I found out Meridian would be entering our space would be an understatement. There are few names in digital audio that command the reverence that Meridian does. I still remember the old Meridian 508.24 CD player very fondly, and have been a fan of just about everything Meridian's made that I've heard.

 

Meridian's direct appeal for the attention (and the moola) of Head-Fi'ers comes in the form of the Meridian Explorer, a 24-bit/192kHz-capable USB DAC and headphone amp that's about the size of a BIC lighter. Entering a segment popularized by AudioQuest's Dragonfly, Meridian chose to add a few more bells and whistles to turn ears and eyes toward its entrant.

 

First of all, the Explorer goes a step further than the Dragonfly, in terms of supported sample rates, going to up 24-bit/192kHz, versus the Dragonfly's 24-bit/96kHz. The Explorer also provides more output versatility, with a dedicated analog line out that's combined with a mini-Toslink optical output, in addition to the Explorer's dedicated headphone output. (The Toslink output downsamples 192kHz and 176.4kHz to 96kHz and 88.2kHz, respectively.)

 

In terms of sound, I give a slight edge to the Explorer over the Dragonfly, with its smoother presentation, and its ability to support my highest resolution recordings (with a driver on Windows, and without the need for a driver on Mac). Headphone-driving versatility is very similar to the Dragonfly, with a relatively black background for even very sensitive IEMs, but yet with enough drive to power most of my over-ear headphones.

 

The Explorer has a beautifully finished extruded aluminum outer shell with molded plastic endcaps and a rubberized flat bottom surface; and it's assembled by hand at Meridian's UK headquarters. Its sample rate indicator is, in my opinion, more intuitive than the Dragonfly's color-coded one--one light means 44.1kHz/48kHz; two lights means 88.2kHz/96kHz; and all three being lit indicates an incoming sample rate of 176.4kHz/192kHz.

 

Because the Dragonfly is the smallest of the bunch, it's still the one I tend to tote around the most. That said, I have to give the Explorer the edge in versatility, and the slight edge in sound quality. It's also now the first DAC I turn to when I want 24-bit/192kHz support on the go.

 

The Explorer is a fantastic first foray by Meridian into the world of headphone audio. Welcome to the world of Head-Fi, Meridian! Please do stick around.


Portable Headphone Amps Designed for IEMs

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In-ear monitors (whether universal-fit or custom-fit) often have a couple of things in common: high sensitivity and good isolation from ambient noise. This presents an interesting challenge to those devices driving them.

 

Whether an external headphone amplifier or the built-in headphone output of your digital audio player (be it a dedicated portable media player or smartphone), many IEMs will quickly reveal any noise in the audio chain, as well as any channel imbalance (especially at the lowest part of the volume range).

 

Two of most popular designed-for-IEM portable headphone amps in the Head-Fi community are the HeadAmp Pico Slim ($399.00), and the Ray Samuels Audio Shadow ($395.00). These amps maintain perfect channel balance at any volume level, and virtually background-noise-free performance. Both of these portable amps accomplish this with the use of stepped volume controls and special attention to low circuit noise.

 

A newer entry into this field is the Apex HiFi Audio Glacier ($495.00), which replaces the popular TTVJ Slim (that had appeared in previous editions of this buying guide). The Glacier is even slimmer than its predecessor, comes in a much nicer chassis, has an improved power supply, and a tremendously improved USB DAC that is 24-bit/96kHz capable.

 

Though all of these amps are particularly adept at driving IEMs, they can drive a lot of over-ear headphones nicely, too.

 

"If you listen at low volume levels with sensitive headphones and iems, the Pico Slim is the best there is, and I've tried a few in my search."

-aamefford
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

"The Glacier has one of the best refined micro details I ever heard from a portable amp."

-turokrocks
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable headphone amplifiers
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PRICE: $399.00 (HeadAmp Pico Slim), $395.00 (Ray Samuels Audio Shadow), and $495.00 (Apex HiFi Audio Glacier)
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URL: www.headamp.com, www.raysamuelsaudio.com, and www.ttvjaudio.com

TYPE: Portable headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $129.99
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URL: fiio.com.cn

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I've seen a lot of discussions about FiiO on Head-Fi in recent years. However, I’d somehow made it through to the early part of this year without ever having tried anything made by one of the brands taking Head-Fi by storm. Because one of the last things I need is another headphone amp, perhaps the FiiO collection--all of which is affordable, and some of which is super affordable--simply struck me as something I didn’t personally need in addition to all the more expensive, higher-end portable amps strewn about my home and office.

 

Fast forward to CES 2013, to a time when FiiO was already well established as an immensely popular brand on Head-Fi. I had a meeting with James Zhong of FiiO. It was just a casual meeting during which James introduced me to the FiiO line. As the meeting concluded, he gave me a FiiO E12 Mont Blanc portable headphone amp.

 

It was probably a few weeks after returning from CES that I finally charged the FiiO E12 up, and started using it. I started with its low-gain (+0 dB) setting, and plugged my most sensitive IEMs into the E12. Relative silence. I played music, and was treated with a wonderful sounding amp that had me double-checking it for Ray Samuels Audio or HeadAmp markings. I tried a few other headphones with it, and, with aplomb, the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc drove them all.

 

In its high-gain setting (+10 dB), the FiiO E12 was making easy work--and beautiful driving--of my Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, and my HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-500. And the HD 800? You bet. With the exception of a few portable amps by ALO Audio and Ray Samuels Audio, I’ve not had much luck with finding a portable that I liked with the HD 800. Until the E12, that is. Not only did the E12 drive the HD 800, its bass boost (with its emphasis peaking way down low) gave the HD 800 a kick up the fun scale--this is something I’ve also enjoyed with the ALO Audio Mk3-B that also has a bass boost circuit (a very nice adjustable one).

 

Okay, so the 130-buck E12 was inspiring some derring-do, and I reached for the HiFiMAN HE-6. And the hits just kept on coming. Bass boost with the HE-6? Try it, 'cause it's real fun.

 

How does the E12 compare to the best of my portables? My SR-71B from Ray Samuels Audio, for example, is still the more impressive, more hi-fi driver of the HE-6 and HD 800 (using its balanced output)--bigger soundstage, blacker background, more dynamic. But that SR-71B is $650.00. My HeadAmp Pico Slim is still the more impressive, purpose-built amp for my top-tier IEMs, but at $399.00. The FiiO E12 is a $129.00 steal of an amp that brings together some of the qualities of my favorite portable amps, in a very well-built, full-featured package. (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the E12 also has a crossfeed circuit!)

 

My only real quibble with the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc is some sensitivity to radio frequency interference. If I'm using my iPhone as a source, for example, I'll occasionally hear interference and hash through the E12. This is most noticeable with sensitive in-ears, and also with some sensitive over-ears. It hasn't been bad enough to prevent me from pairing it with my iPhone, but it's not something I'm experiencing with most of my other premium portables. Also, since James gave me this E12, FiiO has since modified the bass boost circuit, moving the peak from 20Hz to 50Hz, so your results with bass boost may be different than mine.

 

If you’re looking for a do-everything portable amp--something you can use with your IEMs and hard-to-drive over-ears alike--I’ve not used anything else I’d recommend more heartily at anything near the price of the FiiO E12.

 

I may have been late to the FiiO bandwagon, but I’m definitely on it now.

 

"The FiiO E12 Mont Blanc is a realization of FiiO enginuity yet again. They managed to put out a product at such a low price with good hardware and sound."

-Bowei Zhao (bowei006)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The DACport is an ultra-portable Class-A headphone amp and USB DAC, powered entirely by USB bus power. About the size of a partially smoked Double Toro cigar, the diminutive DACport yielded one of the lowest (if not the lowest) jitter measurement ever published in a Stereophile review (that I can recall anyway, and I've been reading Stereophile for a long time)--amazing.

 

I've heard the DACport on many occasions, and it's a wonderful piece, and is certainly unique in its form factor. And with the 2012 price drop to $299.95 (down from $399.95), my recommendation of the DACport only intensified.

 

"Overall the DACport seems to be solid and well made 24/96 USB portable computer DAC, with excellent sound that matches or beats other $450-500 DAC/amps, although with fewer features or options. At $399 I would call it a must buy, especially for those who want to take it with them and their laptops and not have to worry about plugging it into the grid. It also makes the perfect "sit on the back deck and watch the sunset" music rig for me, once it gets warmer outside."

-Larry Ganz (HeadphoneAddict)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299.95
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URL: www.centrance.com

 


ALO Audio Island
TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299
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URL: www.aloaudio.com

Coming soon...


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Back when I was still spinning CD's to play music, UK outfit Arcam made some of my favorite reasonably priced disc spinners. As for most of you, time's have change over here, and I pretty much only spin CD's nowadays to rip 'em. With the rPAC, Arcam has reentered my life with no moving parts.

 

The Arcam rPAC is a lovely little USB DAC/amp device powered only by USB power, so no additional power cords or adapters are needed. It's 24-bit/96kHz capable, and its USB implementation is asynchronous mode. Outputs include a headphone output on the front (of course), and RCA stereo outputs out back. Volume is adjusted with two buttons atop the rPAC, and in fine increments.

 

I use the rPAC solely from its headphone out, and it's a very nice piece for driving everything from my sensitive in-ear monitors to many of my favorite reasonable-to-drive over-ears. It doesn't, however, have the drive, the authority, to drive (to my satisfaction anyway) my more challenging headphones.

 

The rPAC's sound signature is quite neutral, and just revealing enough to keep "polite" out of the pool of adjectives I'd draw from to describe it.

 

Because it's powered only from USB bus, and because of its very small footprint, I've classified the Arcam rPAC under our portable category. However, with its metal chassis, it has a nice heft to it; and its flat, rubberized base keeps it put; so my use of the rPAC is more along the lines of a desktop DAC/amp that just happens to be pint-sized. I usually keep it at one of my desks on which space is always at a premium. I have also taken it with me on a couple of trips, to serve as my hotel desk DAC/amp.

 

The rPAC is simple and versatile, sounds excellent, and has been a wonderful way to reconnect me with Arcam, one of my favorite audio brands.

TYPE: Portable USB DAC and headphone amp
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PRICE: $249.99
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URL: www.arcam.co.uk

 


ALO Audio International
TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $599
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URL: www.aloaudio.com

Coming soon...


iDevice DACs

These last few 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.

 

CEntrance HiFi-M8 and HiFi-M8 LX
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $699.95 (XL4, CMB, and RSA versions), $599.95 (PRO version)
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URL: www.centrance.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It has an excellent CEntrance-designed 24/192 DAC in it that I can use with a variety of portable source devices, or with a computer. It has three output impedance settings you can select from (1Ω, 2Ω and 11Ω) which allows me to evaluate how different output impedance levels might impact a headphone sonically. It has three gain levels, the lowest of which is quiet enough to drive my sensitive in-ears; the highest of which has enough gusto to drive the HiFiMAN HE-6. It has both single-ended and balanced headphone outputs, and (depending on which model you choose) an optical digital output that allows me to engage still other DACs. It has extremely well implemented adjustable bass and treble controls. And it's portable, and provides over six hours of battery life.

 

Yes, everything I described above is portable. It's not just an audiophile's dream device for portable listening pleasure, it's an audio reviewer's fantasy as the centerpiece of a reviewing rig that can go anywhere.

 

To find out more about why the remarkable CEntrance HiFi-M8 is one of my favorite audio components of the year, watch our Head-Fi TV episode about the CEntrance HiFi-M8.

 


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The biggest news in this category is that Sony recently entered the iDevice DAC field. Yes, you read that right--I said SONY. Their entry is called the Sony PHA-1 (around $600), 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.

With one of the best industrial designs in the segment, Sony quality, and wonderful sound, I strongly recommend you check out the Sony PHA-1.

 

"The Sony PHA-1 with its flexible number of uses, amazingly well thought out design, and good sound, fulfills a role as a strong contender as a mid tier idevice DAC/amp with a great price, or any DAC/amp for that matter, and I would absolutely recommend it."

-Cotnijoe
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC
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PRICE: $399.99 
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URL: www.sony.com

 


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Expected to join the Sony PHA-1 in March 2014 is the newly announced Sony PHA-2. The PHA-2 offers several improvements versus its older sibling, the new PHA-2's DAC supports up to 24-bit/192kHz (versus the PHA-1's 24/96). The PHA-2 also supports DSD 2.8/5.6MHz! (The PHA-1 doesn't support DSD.) The PHA-2's battery is rated for 17 hours using analog input, or 6.5 hours with the digital inputs (versus the PHA-1's 10 hours and five hours, respectively).

 

The Sony PHA-2 just arrived before the time of this writing, so please pay attention to this space for a more complete, updated entry soon.

 

 

TYPE: Portable iDevice/Walkman/USB DAC and headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $599.99 
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URL: www.sony.com

 


TYPE: Portable USB/iDevice DAC and headphone amp
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PRICE: $799
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URL: www.cypherlabs.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Cypher Labs was the first company to make a high-end portable DAC for iDevices, with their AlgoRhythm Solo a few years back. They've improved their AlgoRhythm line since then, including a fully-balanced model called the AlgoRhythm -dB that includes 24/192 USB DAC functionality. Then, earlier this year, Cypher Labs released a very cool product that took the best of their previous products, and added an onboard balanced headphone amplifier, and a high-capacity rechargeable lithium-polymer battery that can run for over 18 hours, and actually charge your iDevice while it's being used.

 

The Cypher Labs Theorem 720 DAC is a marvel of a device for an audiophile who travels a lot.

 

To learn more about it, make sure to watch our Head-Fi TV episode about the Cypher Labs Theorem 720 DAC.


TYPE: Portable USB DAC, iDevice DAC, and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $479.00
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URL: www.adl-av.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Japanese manufacturer Furutech is a well-known name in the hi-fi world, makers of audio accessories and cabling. Furutech is perhaps most popular for their high-end audio connectors and power connectors, which can be found terminating the ends of many high-end cabling products, even by other manufacturers. And now they’ve entered the world of Head-Fi with their Alpha Design Labs (ADL) brand.

 

In addition their own new headphone (the H118, which we didn’t receive in time to make it into this edition of the guide), ADL recently released a very cool portable, all-in-one, USB DAC / iDevice DAC / headphone amp combo piece called the ADL X1.

 

Sporting the ESS ES9023 24-bit/192kHz DAC with an XMOS controller supporting asynchronous mode USB, the ADL is a compelling and versatile portable DAC/amp solution for computer audio. The X1 supports sample rates up to 192kHz, including 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz. On the X1’s top panel are six LEDs that clearly indicate the current sample rate. In USB DAC mode, the rear headphone output also serves as an analog line out, and an optical digital output (yes, there are two headphone outputs). The optical digital output will deliver the USB source signal up to 24-bit/192kHz. Flip a switch, and the ADL X1 can also serve as an iDevice DAC, which is very cool.

 

This brings me to a couple of gripes I have with the X1. First of all, the optical output does not work when you’re using an iDevice as the digital source. I use the Fostex HP-P1’s optical output, for example, to pass iDevice digital audio to other external DACs that couldn’t otherwise support digital directly from iPhones, iPods and iPads, and would’ve been nice if the ADL X1 allowed for that, too. Also, the X1 headphone output’s noise floor is a bit too high for use with my most sensitive IEMs.

 

I’ve only had the ADL X1 for a short time, but, overall, my first impressions are good. The X1’s sound is on the smoother side, but with enough detail to encourage the pulling out of my high-res music from HDtracks.com. As a headphone driver, I’ve found the ADL X1 to be best matched with my over-ear headphones that benefit from amping, but that don’t require heaps of power--headphones like the Sennheiser HD 598, Sony MDR-7520, with headphones like the Audeze LCD-2 and HiFiMAN HE-400 also within its reach. The HiFiMAN HE-6 is well beyond the X1’s comfort zone, but can be driven quietly, if need be.

 

I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with the ADL X1, and hope to have more to say in the next update to the gift guide.


Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo -dB
TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC
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PRICE: $599
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URL: cypherlabs.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Cypher Labs' AlgoRhythm Solo -dB 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."

-monotune
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Fostex HP-P1 was released in 2011, 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"

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC
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PRICE: Around $600 
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

 


 

TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC/amp for iPhone 4 and 4S
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PRICE: $650
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URL: www.v-moda.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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 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.


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

V-MODA's Val Kolton travels. A lot. He's also an audiophile who happens to own a headphone company (V-MODA). He wanted to be able to listen to high-end audio wherever he went, and figured other people did, too. Since so many people use their smartphones as their portable music players, he wanted a solution built around the smartphone. A couple of years ago, he started with the V-MODA VAMP, built solely for the iPhone 4/4S, and he wanted his next one to be more universal--a more versatile VAMP. THE VAMP VERZA.

 

Made in Japan, the V-MODA VAMP VERZA is a portable iDevice/Android DAC and headphone amplifier. It is also a USB DAC, and a USB battery charger (which I'll get to in just a minute). Instead of being designed for just one specific phone model, Kolton wanted the VAMP VERZA to be able to be strapped to, and used with, any iOS or Android phone. For an even more bespoke look, Kolton even designed optional metal phone cases that could be specially mounted to the Vamp Verza. Starting with the most popular phones at the time--the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3--V-MODA released the stylish, protective METALLO cases, which could be easily slide-mounted to the VAMP VERZA with the V-MODA VERZADOCK. V-MODA is planning to release even more METALLO cases to accommodate additional, newer phone models. (See a video that shows how the VAMP VERZA / METALLO / VERZADOCK system works by clicking here.)

 

To provide for DAC functionality with both iOS and Android devices, the VAMP VERZA is equipped with two separate DAC circuits, built around both Burr-Brown and AKM DACs. The headphone amplifier outputs 150mW per channel in USB and Android DAC modes, and 130mW per channel in iOS DAC mode, so there's ample power for any headphones you're likely to take with you. The amp also has two different gain settings, the lower of the two with a quiet enough noise floor to use even my most sensitive IEMs with. The VAMP VERZA's six-layer PCB helps with resistance to interference, which is important when you've got a radio-enabled device like a phone strapped right to it. The VAMP VERZA also has an optical output, so that you can pass digital audio to another external DAC, when desired.

 

There's still one more trick up the VAMP VERZA's sleeve--the USB battery pack functionality I mentioned a minute ago. Like Kolton, I have occasion to travel quite a bit. For years I've carried portable USB battery chargers that I can use to keep my USB-chargeable devices (like my phones) charged and ready at all times. I always chuckle at airports when I see the suits running to power outlets to get even a few desperate minutes of charge energy into their battery-depleted phones. Kolton also carried portable battery chargers, but would occasionally forget them (which I know, because I gave him one of mine on a business trip once). But he--like most of us--never forgets his phones. The VAMP VERZA has the ability--with its 2200mAh battery--to serve as a USB battery charger--I even charge my iPhone 4S while I'm listening to it through the VAMP VERZA.

 

Yes, the VAMP VERZA is ridiculously feature-packed, but fortunately it's not at the expense of its performance as the power center of a portable rig. Sonically, the V-MODA VAMP VERZA is a big improvement over plugging directly into my phone, especially when I'm using some of my favorite on-the-go over-ear headphones, like the V-MODA M-100, Sennheiser MOMENTUM, Sony MDR-7520 and others. Like my other good portable rigs, the VAMP VERZA brings me closer to the performance of a good desktop rig, and is my current favorite portable amp/DAC for all its sound and all its functionality, and how, like no other single amp before it, it fits into my mobile lifestyle.

TYPE: Portable iDevice/Android DAC, USB DAC, battery pack, and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $598.00
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URL: www.v-moda.com

 


Portable Media Players

TYPE: Portable audio player
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PRICE: $999 
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URL: www.hifiman.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

When HiFiMAN released the HM-801, I was pumped--a high-end portable player with high-end internal DAC (PCM-1704)! Then I used it. As a portable player, I simply could not use it--its user interface was far too unintuitive, far too difficult. As I've described it before, I felt like my fingers were doing Dance Dance Revolution moves, even just to do simple tasks like changing albums. Because of this, the HM-801 founds its way into a single role with me (which it still has)--the occasional portable PCM-1704-based USB DAC.

 

A couple of years ago, when HiFiMAN told me they were coming out with a successor to the HM-801, I wasn't sure what to expect. The successor, they said--the HM-901--would have two ES9018 DAC chips inside (keep in mind, again, this is a portable device). And among many other features, it would also have a stepped attenuator as its volume control. It would, like the HM-801, offer the ability to switch out headphone amp modules to meet specific needs and headphone types, including a balanced drive module. It all sounded too complicated to me. And, again, my worries about user interface persisted.

 

Well, a couple of weeks ago, the HiFiMAN HM-901 finally arrived at Head-Fi HQ, and my fears have been put to rest. The user interface is a vast improvement over the HM-801. And the sound, from the default headphone amp module? It's the best sounding portable media player I've yet heard. I swapped the IEM amp module in, and tested it with some of my favorite in-ear monitors, and, again, the HM-901 continues to floor me with what's possible sonically from a portable device. (Swapping the module out is easy, too.)

 

The Astell & Kern AK120 still holds an advantage in terms of portability, practicality, USB DAC functionality, and ease of use, no doubt--and also in terms of battery life (14 hours versus the HM-901's nine hours). But the HM-901, to me, edges out the mighty little Astell & Kern in terms of sound quality as a portable player, and I haven't even experimented with its balanced drive amp module yet (which I have here, but haven't gotten to yet).

 

The HM-901--though a gigantic improvement in almost all respects over the HM-801--is still not the height of practicality. In my experience, however, it is (at the time of this writing) the current height of fidelity in currently available portable music players.


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Over the years, I've played with several models of high-end portable media players, but have always run back to my iPhone/iPod-based portable rigs. Why? User interface (UI). Apple's iOS is, by a wide margin, the most intuitive operating system I've ever used. Conversely, the UI's of the high-end portable media players I'd used up to now had my teeth gnashing, and my fingers doing Dance-Dance-Revolution-worthy boogying to do even the simplest things (like changing albums).

 

When Astell&Kern contacted me to try the AK100, I rather reluctantly agreed, assuming that I'd be walking into another UI morass. If it wasn't for Astell&Kern's iriver roots, I might have kindly rebuffed the chance, but I'm so glad I didn't. With its capacitive touch screen, physical volume knob, and a UI that is oodles better than any other high-end non-iOS media player I've used so far, the AK100 shocked me simply by being usable. That it also played my high-res files (up to 24-bit/192kHz), had a noise floor so low I couldn't detect it with my most sensitive headphones, and sounded insanely good with the first headphone I plugged into it (the Sennheiser IE 800), had me besotted with the diminutive music player straight away.

 

The touch screen on the AK100 and the AK120 (more on the AK120 later)--and the interfaces Astell&Kern designed to take advantage of it--are, in large part, what makes these players so easy to use. While it still falls short of the intuitiveness of an iPhone or iPod Touch, it's still easy to figure out and navigate around the moment you pick it up.

 

One big miss for me is the lack of search. With the ability to expand to 160GB to192GB of total storage (depending on which model you choose, with two 64GB micro-SD cards), the ability to search through that much music would be immensely helpful (as opposed to only navigating by artist, song, album, folder etc.). Given that both sound so dang good, the lack of search hasn't been a deal-killer for me, but I hope a future firmware update will add search to the AK100 and AK120. Speaking of firmware updates, Astell&Kern has been quite supportive with firmware updates for both models, so I expect they may only get better over time.

 

The Astell&Kern AK120 is the latest addition to the line--the flagship--and is just a touch larger than the AK100, but has dual-DAC architecture (two Wolfson WM8740 DACs versus one in the AK100), improved measured performance, more internal storage (64GB versus 32GB, but both also have two micro-SD card slots for expansion), and optical/USB external DAC functionality (the AK100 only offers optical external DAC functionality). Astell&Kern also went with a low (3-Ohm) output impedance with the AK120, which makes it even more versatile, in terms of the types of headphones it can drive.

 

And, yes, the AK120 does indeed sound better. It moves Astell&Kern ever closer to achieving a micro-sized all-in-one rig (high-res source, DAC, and amp) that approaches true high-end desktop rig functionality and performance--and one that is easy and intuitive to use, and one that fits in my pocket.

 

UPDATE: We will soon edit this guide listing to reflect this in more detail, but a recent firmware update for the AK120 enabled DSD support (in addition to the very complete file format support it already had). DSD in my pocket!

 

"I decided to try the Audeze LCD-3s with the AK100. Straight out of the headphone jack. And I am pleasantly surprised. The song is gloriously rendered by such a small DAP. Though it may not seem like the best way to portably listen with the LCD-3s, its still pretty impressive that the AK100 can drive these headphones."

-VisceriousZERO
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: High-resolution portable digital music players
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PRICE: $699.00 and $1299.00, respectively
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URL: www.astellnkern.com

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

"HM801 is on another level of its own, certain beyond what HM602 or s:flo2 can conjure in every possible way. As the original big daddy in the HifiMan line-up, it really makes me feel like it has spared no expense or cut any corner on bringing the best possible sound out of a DAP."

-ClieOS
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable music player
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PRICE: Around $800 and $749, respectively
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URL: www.colorfly.net and www.head-direct.com

 

 


TYPE: Portable audio player 
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PRICE: $829
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URL: www.ibasso.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Recent years have seen 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 (11)

No DX50 or X3?!
Some of the prices are a bit outdated. Are the MSRP required? Like the dragonfly is no longer 249 and the PHA-1 is definitely not more than the PHA-2 in price.
Hi Cotnijoe, yes, MSRPs are the best way to go.  The reason for this is to give people a fixed price by which they can reliably procure the item.
 
Please remember that "street" prices fluctuate depending on time of year, sales, region, etc.  For example, many of the good deals we find on Amazon (here in the U.S.) are not available to people outside of the U.S.  Even our Canadian brethren, as close as they are, are often unable to take advantage of many Amazon deals.
 
That was just one example, but you get the idea.  The MSRP represents the one price by which EVERYONE can acquire the item(s)... directly from the manufacturer if need be.  :)
Very nice compilation..
But seriously.... No X3 or DX50??
Shouldn't value count too? Especially in a "buying" guide
Excellent selections! SO glad the CEntrance HiFi-M8, ADL X-1, and DACport made it!!  Keep up the great work.
Great article from what i've read so far. Hey if any of the editors have a little time look into Fiio's new DAP's.
just an update, but the AK100 also supports USB DAC function and DSD playback.
Great info, what an awesome read. But if I may add a suggestion, perhaps throw one or two more entry level AMP/DAC combos into the mix. Such as the FiiO e07k and e17, and the iBasso D-zero. While these cannot compete with most of this equipment in terms of sound quality, their price and formfactor advantages warrant their admission to this guide, IMO.
 
Thanks again for the guide, I learned a lot!
i agree with the previous comment. Fiio among others has put out some very good components at more reasonable prices. While not 'high end' they are superior for their price range and good value.
Hi! great guide in general terms, but i'm wondering why Fiio X3 DAP is not included. According to some reviews and comments at Head fi, it has great sound and features for the price (I recently bought it, and i'm pleased...)
It came out in 2012..that might be why.
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