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Head-Fi.org › 2015 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Portable Amps Dacs Daps Page 2

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Portable Amps, DACs, & DAPs) (page 2)

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 Buying Guide

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Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo -dB

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Cypher Labs' AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is the next generation version of the popular AlgoRhythm Solo. The 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.)

TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC
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PRICE: $599
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URL: cypherlabs.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.

 

"Suffice it to say that I love the Theorem 720 DAC. Performance with medium-sensitivity headphones and low-sensitivity earphones is off the charts, besting even the ALO Rx MKIII for resolution and stereo imaging across the board. The DAC is near perfect, the interface is great and the ergonomics are pretty much spot on."

-shigzeo
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

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.

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

 

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.

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

 

Lotoo PAW 5000  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Digital audio player
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PRICE: $619.99
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URL: www.lotoo.cn

Written by Amos Barnett

 

Lotoo came to my, and most everyone else’s attention with the release of the PAW Gold and its gold-plated controls. Priced to compete with Astell&Kern’s AK240, its sound signature wooed many, even if the user interface wasn’t as slick as the Android-based ones on iRiver’s DAPs.

Just as FiiO has been storming the other end of the market with the X1, X3 and X5, Lotoo has made a solid entry into the space with the PAW 5000. Looking like a smaller version of the PAW Gold, the functionality is much the same with, much like the seemingly iPod-inspired FiiO designs, a scroll wheel and button.

For an inexpensive DAP, the PAW 5000 lists an impressive number of features: As well as the common line out and high/low gain switch, there is a high/low damping switch, Bluetooth output and a unique “Sport Mode” which allows the music to be slowed down or sped up by 20% to match, say, the rhythm of a jogger on a run.

Initial impressions of the DAP itself are of a small, neat and comfortably-designed unit that looks more like something a large brand name manufacturer would produce. Aluminium front and back covers surround a central plastic core and plastic buttons and switches make up the outside, excepting the power and play buttons which are metal. Buttons and switches are a little loose, but nothing that would raise any concern.

The screen is 1990’s style basic relative to what we are used to with smart phones nowadays, but does the job admirably. The interface chooses density of information over looking attractive. As the music plays back, I’m pretty sure every main setting, even including if you’re using the line out, is visible on some part of the screen, surrounding a pair of volume meters. The only exception is the Sport Mode, which overlays the meters with the music speed, ranging from 80-120%. If Sport Mode isn’t useful to you, the “Fn” button can be customised to other settings.

In usage and listening the PAW 5000 does pretty well for a DAP in its price range. Left switched off for a few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had only gone down a couple of percentage points. I put the PAW 5000 to the test with a variety of music from CD quality to high-res and the performance was very good. Even testing it with the demanding JH Audio Laylas, which have left some devices struggling, it had no trouble driving them out of the balanced output, the music coming through with good clarity and detail. To find out just how good the performance was with IEMs I compared using an ALO Audio Rx and Sound Potion Monolith as amps with the PAW 5000’s line out as the source. It took me a few songs to determine that the amps had a slightly more spacious presentation, with the PAW 5000 a bit more closed and congested-sounding. A very good result!

To test the Bluetooth I got out my pair of Pendulumic Stance S1+ headphones and went about connecting to them from the PAW 5000. After turning Bluetooth on in the menus pairing was fairly straight-foward with the PAW 5000 finding them immediately and, after scanning had finished, offering up a list of unpaired devices. Bringing up a regular CD-quality 44.1kHz song resulted in playback without issues, but to be sure, I tried a high-res track and that gave a burst of static before refusing to play. So if you’re looking to use the DAP with Bluetooth headphones sticking to CD quality tracks will be a necessity.

In a level-matched comparison with FiiO’s X5II, a back and forth between the two using my trusted Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors (UERMs) had the two DAPs neck and neck for sound quality. If there were differences, they were below the threshold for which it matters for a portable DAP. I tried the same comparison using the excellent single-dynamic DITA Audio The Truth IEMs with the same result.

The only disagreements I had with the PAW 5000 was that the onscreen volume indicator moves faster than the actual adjustment. Often I’d ramp up the volume further than intended thinking it wasn’t going up much, only to have it then become too loud. As well, the FiiO X5II has settings allowing some degree of control over what buttons will work when the screen is off. The PAW 5000 disables all buttons, requiring one to press the power button and then the play button to stop the music. Other than those, the PAW 5000 has a quite a range of useful settings, including such things as an SD speed test (to see if the SD card is fast enough for the DAP) and whether or not the power LED will “breath” when in use. There is also a dedicated button to access a bunch of EQ presets.

The PAW 5000 takes a single microSD card up to 128 GB in size, which can optionally be accessed by a built-in USB socket for maximum transfer speeds. The main advantage of the PAW 5000 is that it is relatively light and comfortably round-edged and can be used with Bluetooth headphones; and joggers after a DAP with a speed control will no doubt be delighted.

Fostex HP-V1

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I fully admit I'm a Fostex fan. They're like a corporate version of the intensely passionate Tokyo DIY portable audio scene, but with a lot of engineers and the facilities to productize what they dream up. While guys like me were lashing together stacks of airport-security-eyebrow-raising portable rigs, and wishing for a one-chassis version of it all, Fostex was, too--only they were able to develop and manufacture the wish with the Fostex HP-P1 (back in 2011). Well, it seems like more recently someone at Fostex was listening to his portable rig one day, and hankered for a shot of the kind of harmonic glow and richness that good tube gear can do so well, but didn't want to give up portability. Voila, the Fostex HP-V1 portable tube hybrid headphone amplifier!

 

The HP-V1 has a 6N16B-Q vacuum tube input stage, and a solid state opamp-based output stage. Inside are also custom Fostex large film and elecrolytic capacitors based on their work in loudspeaker engineering. Maximum rated output for the HP-V1 is 200mW into 32Ω, so there's enough to power most of what you're likely to use portably (but you can leave the inefficient HiFiMAN HE-6 at home). Though the HP-V1's specs don't give the specific output impedance, they do say that it's appropriate for use with headphones >16Ω. The rated runtime from its internal lithium-ion rechargeable battery is about 10 hours from a full charge, and while I haven't specifically measured that, it seems a reasonable estimate.

 

Because it runs rather warm, the HP-V1 is encased in a ventilated black metal chassis that looks a bit like the HP-P1's chassis, but in matte black, and with very cool vent slots and fins morphed in. In my opinion, it's a very attractive design, and feels well built. The HP-V1 weighs 390 grams (13.75 ounces), so while's no brick, it's no feather either.

 

Of course, the first headphone I tried the HP-V1 with was Fostex's own TH900, one of my favorite dynamic headphones. (The HP-V1 was being fed by the Chord Hugo.) And unquestionably, there's a beautiful mid-focused lushness, but without changing the TH900's overall tonal balance. Compared to the Chord Hugo directly from its headphone output, the HP-V1 is not as resolving overall, but sometimes I just have a taste for the a tube-induced sumptousness in the mids, and I'll take the occasional tradeoff of giving up a bit of overall resolution for that. The effect was the same with the Sennheiser HD800--also one of my favorite headphones, and one of my accuracy references--which I was happy to find the HP-V1 was able to drive to above moderate volume levels without any audible strain (it would likely go louder, but I wouldn't). In fact, from headphone to headphone, the HP-V1 was consistent in its abilities--although, to my ears, the HiFiMAN HE-6's inefficiency was simply too much of a problem, to my ears, and the romance wasn't present for that one.

 

As for in-ears, the HP-V1, in terms of its noise floor, is quiet--but not dead silent--with sensitive IEMs. Also, with sensitive IEMs, you will likely hear tube microphonics (ringgggg) when the amp is tapped on or jarred. Still, none of this is so problematic that you couldn't use in-ears with the HP-V1 in a pinch.

 

With the HP-V1, I have no real complaints. I know what it is, and I know what it isn't, and I use it accordingly. One thing I did notice is that when I flip mine upside down (and back again), I can feel what is probably the battery moving just a little bit. At the Tokyo Headphone Festival, the ones Fostex had at their exhibit were doing the same thing, and I don't think it's any reason to be concerned, but thought I should mention it.


I love the HP-V1. In the collection of portable amps we have here at Head-Fi HQ, it is certainly among the more unique ones. It's a little bit of sonic romance on-the-go. It sounds to me like what a portable headphone amp might sound like if Saul Marantz was still alive to design a portable headphone amp.

TYPE: Portable hybrid tube/solid state headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $500 to $600 (imported, estimated)
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com
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 2013, watch our Head-Fi TV episode about the CEntrance HiFi-M8.

 

"...power it has aplenty, presenting a wide and spacious sound through everything from low-impedance and low-sensitivity planers through to high-impedance HD-800s, with audio sourced from either a computer through its asyncronous USB input, or its second input, which at the time of purchase you have to choose either an iDevice-compatible USB socket or an optical digital input."

-Amos Barnett (Currawong)
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer

CEntrance Mini-M8  

I love CEntrance's HiFi-M8, but it's on the large side of a portable DAC/amp nowadays. Also, one of the tradeoffs of the HiFi-M8's ability to drive even the hardest-to-drive headphones is that though it is quiet (in terms of self-noise), it's not dead silent with my most sensitive in-ear monitors.

 

Enter the CEntrance Mini-M8. The Mini-M8 carries over almost every single thing I like the HiFi-M8 for, but with less weight, a smaller size, much longer battery life, DSD support, stepped volume control for perfect channel matching even at the lowest volume levels, and a noise floor low enough that my most sensitive in-ears can't reveal it to me.

 

When I'm on the go, I'm rarely in need of the brute force of a desktop amp, usually carrying in-ears, or over-ear headphones no harder than moderate in terms of power demands. In other words, overwhelmingly most of the time (for me), giving up a lot of the HiFi-M8's output power to gain all of those advantages is well worth it. Still, though, at 330mW per channel output in balanced mode, and 160mW per channel output in single-ended mode, the Mini-M8 still packs a solid punch.

 

In short, given my on-the-go lifestyle lately, the CEntrance Mini-M8 is everything I need from the HiFi-M8 and then some.

 

"Mini-M8 still offers incredible transparency, without any coloration. You'll hear all recording's details, all instruments, every notes and smallest nuances of sound"

-cleg (Paul Dmitryev)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable DAC/amp
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PRICE: $699.99
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URL: centrance.com
TYPE: Portable USB DAC and headphone amp
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PRICE: $249.99
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URL: www.arcam.co.uk

 

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.

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 entry in 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 is $549.00, 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 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.

 

"Still, this is one of the best, if not the best high-resolution portable amp out there for ALL your headphone needs. There are few portable amps that offer as much power as this Rx and yet are still able to control earphones just fine."

-shigzeo
Head-Fi Moderator/Member/Reviewer

 

"...for anyone needed, or just wanting, a very powerful portable amp, or if you are looking for a powerful balanced amp for both home and portable use, and either don’t want or cannot afford to have multiple different amps, the SR-71B is really an astounding product, and it’s hard to believe what it’s capable of doing. It certainly is in the very top echelon on portable amp performance, and in fact, in its shining application, actually redefines what portable amp performance means. Ray’s delivered the unthinkable."

-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

Astell&Kern AK100-II and AK120-II 

So you've been pining for the Astell & Kern AK240, but you just can't bring yourself (or perhaps can't convince your spouse to allow you) to make that 2500-buck stretch? Well, you're in luck, as long as you're willing to make a few sacrifices, as Astell & Kern released the completely re-designed second-generation AK100 and AK120, now called the AK100II and the AK120II.

 

Do you have to give up that gorgeously black no-noise background of the AK240? Nope. But you do give up a wee bit of power in either case. Thankfully, despite the decreased power output with these models (versus the AK240), both do have balanced outputs (like their flagship sibling). Do you have to give up the AK240's DSD decoding? Not entirely--you do give up native DSD decoding, as neither of the new models sports the additional XMOS processor that the AK240 has, so it's DSD-to-PCM-to-analog for you with these. Do you have to give up the AK240's awesome new user interface (UI)? Nope. But you do have to give up half the internal NAND storage with the AK120II (128GB), and three-quarters of it with the AK100II (64GB)--still, like the AK240, both allow up to 128GB of additional storage via their single micro-SD card slots. Do you give up the stunning cool, angular, sculpted design of the AK240? Yes. But these two new models still look very cool, albeit more conventional (which perhaps some of you would prefer anyway). The two less expensive models also feel solidly build, if not quite as ingot-like in the hand as the AK240. (The AK100II and AK120II sport aluminum chassis, the AK240's is made of duralumin.) Both of the new models also offer the MQS streaming that originated with the flagship AK240, and, again, for me that's huge.

 

In addition to the differences outlined above, the AK100II uses one CS4398 DAC chip, whereas the AK120II (like the AK240) uses two CS4398's. And, again, neither has the XMOS chip in the AK240. What's nice, though, is that even though neither of these units can natively decode DSD, they do convert DSD to PCM on the fly, so you can still have a seamless playback experience between file types that you get with the AK240.

 

As for their sound, I've only had them for a little while,at the time of this writing, but so far I'm very impressed with both of them. I'm not exactly sure what else the AK240 has going for it that I'm not seeing in the specs, but the flagship AK240 is, to my ears, a cut above both of its newer siblings, with a more detailed presentation, especially in terms of airiness and presence up top, and just more clarity throughout. I actually expected the AK120II to sonically have more in common with the AK240 than to the AK100II (because the AK120II and AK240 both have two CS4398 DAC chips, versus the single one in the AK100II), but I've found the newer models to have more in common with each other, with the AK120 edging it out just slightly for clarity. Still, they sound fantastic, and I could be happy with either if I hadn't already bought the AK240. This Astell & Kern family of players reminds me a bit of the Fostex TH600 and TH900 headphones--I'm perfectly happy with with the TH600 until I've got both headphones side by side (thankfully, I don't t often keep those headphones together).

 

Frankly, in terms of value, I think at $899 the AK100II is the best value of the three. It does most of what the AK240 does (including MQS streaming), at only a bit over 1/3 the price--keep in mind, though, that the AK100II's storage maxes out at 192GB with a 128GB micro-SD card (versus 256GB with the AK120II and 384GB with the AK240). If you absolutely must have 64GB more storage, and you're willing to pay the $1700 to get that (and a bit of a bump in performance), then the AK120II should be considered, which, though expensive, is still $800 less than the AK240.

 

With these three players, Astell & Kern is dominating the high-end hi-res portable music player market, and, if you have a chance to try one, you'll understand why.

 

 

"I think the AK100 II offers outstanding value as it rivals some of the better and more costly desktop rigs (with a standalone DAC and amplifier) that I’ve heard. Throw in the fact that you can carry up to 192Gb of your high-resolution music with you and you can use this DAP as a standalone USB DAC with your PC, it’s a real winner for those who are looking for great sound on the go."

-MacedonianHero
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable audio players 
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PRICE: $899.00 and $1699.00, respectively 
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URL: www.astellnkern.com
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.

 

"...it does the one important thing we all care about: Sound good. Using my Symphones Magnums, it provides a solid upgrade to the headphone out of my MacBook Pro with a very engaging and dynamic sound delivery."

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator / Member / Reviewer

Cozoy Aegis  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Amos Barnett

At the Tokyo headphone festival recently I met the guys from Cozoy in Hong Kong with whom I was discussing headphone EQing, as they had Head-Fi member and FiiO representative Joe Bloggs headphone EQ system, which I have long been curious to try. While I was talking to them, I tried out a new product they have in the works which plugs into a smart phone, iPhone or computer and plays back pretty much every format out there, from CD quality to high-res and DSD. That product did a remarkable job with my loaner JH Audio Laylas. While it isn’t quite ready yet, they did give me their Aegis amp/DAC to try.

Let me get this out of the way from the start: The Aegis is tiny. We’re talking three-sticks-of-gum small aluminium enclosure, only barely thicker than the 3.5mm headphone socket, inside of which is a full DAC/amp that can be connected via one of three USB connectors (A-micro, micro-to-micro or Lightning to micro) and play back music up to 24-bit 192k. On the amp side, given it is has to be powered by the phone and not cause your iPhone to complain about excessive power consumption, it is limited to 60mW of power output at 16 Ohms, and 35mW of power at 32 Ohms. No problem if you have a portable amp, but if your headphones are sensitive enough it may be enough on its own.

As I write this I’m using it with my iPhone and a Headamp Pico Power with a pair of MrSpeakers Ethers and the sound quality is surprisingly good. It is nicer sounding to me that my iPhone 6 by itself, which can be a bit bright and harsh. It is also does a good job with the Torque Audio t096z IEMs that I have written about elsewhere in the guide. It doesn’t bring out quite as much in the music as when I add an amp in the chain, in my case a Headamp Pico Power. Then, as a DAC it does very nicely. Given the Aegis is about as wide as the Pico Power and other amps are thick, I’m thinking this could make for a super neat DAC/amp combo to use with my iPhone.

At approximately US$295 at the current exchange rate, the price might be a bit steep for some, though it would make a neat gift. Where it will be best is for people who have a smart phone that is OTG connection-capable, or a netbook or notebook that want better sound than the in-built DAC/amp is capable of, especially with high-quality IEMs. Being so small though, you’ll have to make sure you don’t lose it!

TYPE: Portable DAC/amp 
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PRICE: $2,280.00 HKD
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URL: www.cozoyaudio.com

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, 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.

Portable Headphone Amps Designed for IEMs
TYPE: Portable headphone amplifiers
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PRICE: $399.00 (HeadAmp Pico Slim), $395.00 (Ray Samuels Audio Shadow, )$189.00 (JDS Labs C5), and $249.00 (JDS Labs C5D)
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URL: www.headamp.com, www.raysamuelsaudio.com, and www.jdslabs.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In-ear monitors (whether universal-fit or custom-fit) often have a couple of things in common: high sensitivity and a lot of 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 couple of new entries into this field of amps designed with IEMs in mind, and with stepped volume controls, is the JDS C5 and C5D, and the CEntrance Mini-M8. Check out the JDS Labs C5 and C5D in this Gift Guide by clicking here, and the CEntrance Mini-M8 by clicking here.

 

 

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

 

"Sound-wise the Pico Slim is typically HeadAmp: Nothing but the facts and no grain or harshness to speak of. "

-Amos Barnett (Currawong)
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer

FiiO X1  
TYPE: Portable digital audio player
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PRICE: $99.99
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URL: www.fiio.net/en/fiio

Excerpted from Brooko's review of the FiiO X1.

 

I’m a proud owner of the FiiO X5 – it’s been my go to DAP for some time now, with the only drawback being ultimate portability if I’m jogging, or just out and about wanting a really simple set-up. So when FiiO started talking about a new entry level DAP in the sub $100 market, and already knowing what they are capable of developing, I was immediately interested.

 

For only $99.99, the FiiO X1 provides a small form factor; great (neutral) sounding, but with body (not thin); good build quality; reasonable battery life; easy to use interface; good pairing with my main IEMs; and, if possible, the ability to drive both low impedance and (within reason) higher impedance cans without additional amping. It exceeded my expectations in many areas, and the rough edges should (hopefully) be solved with firmware updates.

 

The build quality of the X1, in my opinion, is incredible for a DAP in this price bracket, and a lot of thought has gone into the overall design. Its buttons have a nice tactile response, and are within easy reach. The scroll wheel flows nicely, and is easy to spin. The X1's screen has good resolution, and is relatively clear and easy to read. The X5's screen is more vibrant, but it's only evident to me when directly comparing them. Overall, the X1 is incredibly well made for $100.

 

In terms of the X1's user interface (UI) and usability, overall, the X1 is quite responsive--much better than the X5, and with very little lag. There can be slight delays on screen when moving from track to track (whilst playing), but overall I am extremely happy with the UI. I like that the X1's gapless play is seamless for me so far, with all my tested albums having worked well.

 

In order to test the X1’s performance with different formats, I took one of my Dylan albums (Infidels) originally purchased at 24/96, and transcoded the album into the following formats: 24/96 WAV, 24/96 FLAC, 24/192 FLAC, 24/96 ALAC, 24/96 AIFF, 16/44.1 MP3 (320 kbps), 16/96 aac (256), and 16/44.1 ogg. The X1 played them all admirably with no issues at all, except for a slight noise (clicking) when switching between some of the formats.

 

In terms of sound quality, the X1, in my opinion, sounds phenomenal for a $100 DAP. The X1 is quite a neutral sounding DAP, with maybe a slight touch of warmth, very similar to the X5. Where the X1 differs is that it has a very slightly thicker, or fuller overall sound compared to the X5. The X5 sounds comparatively cleaner, instruments sound more precise, with more space, but the X1 comes very close, especially considering its price.

 

The X1’s amp section is surprisingly good, able to drive IEMs, and also did a respectable job driving a more demanding headphone like the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600.

 

In terms battery life, I haven't yet tested the 12-hour claim by FiiO, but I have been routinely playing the X1 for seven to eight hours without issue. It also charges quickly (around three hours), and can be used while its charging.

 

In short, for $100 (plus the price of a micro SD card), the FiiO X1 is an incredibly well built and stylish DAP. It sounds extremely good, is very well sized for portability, has a really good UI, and has the flexibility and power to drive a wide variety of headphones.

 

I would unreservedly recommend this DAP to anyone looking for a low cost ultraportable solution. In my mind, the FiiO X1 is the bargain of 2014.

 

"What you will find is just a very solidly built DAP that has all the fundamentals covered and then priced very competitively, designed to fill in the breach between the cheap ‘mp3 players’ of old days and the expensive audiophiles players of today. That is where FiiO is breaking new ground with the X1."

-ClieOS
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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Comments (6)

So why do only A&K and Fiio only really feature in the DAPs ?
Woot HM901 crowd represent! 
no colourfly C4 then
no love for cowon here?
Xduoo x3 is missing and what about Cayin C5 or Topping NX1
Right as Zee Tso says, no COWON? It's supposed to use the best DAC in the world and it does not even have a mention?
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