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

Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs Also featuring...
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Type:   Digital audio player

 

Price:   $899 USD

 

URL:   http://www.questyleaudio.com

Written by Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

 

It was CanJam SoCal 2015 where I first learned the name Questyle, at that time a relative newcomer to the Head-Fi scene. They were at the show demonstrating their upcoming portable player set to launch in the following months. Given the number of exhibitors in attendance there was no shortage of DAPs at the event. One standout that caught my eye was the $899 QP1R. The looks were solid, the size was right, the price was reasonable and it boasted a veritable buffet of features.

I spent some time with the Questyle team, learning about the company’s beginnings and their new player. It was the Current Mode Amplification that first piqued my interest. This was a player that claimed to drive most anything from sensitive Westone IEMs to the power-lusting Audeze line. There was a auxiliary jack that could serve as a second headphone output, a fixed line out and a digital output. It had two MicroSD slots for expansion and modest built-in storage. It could play almost any high-res format, including native DSD. A promising start meant the only thing left was to try it for myself.

When the QP1R is first powered on it greets the user with an animated startup sequence - one lasting only a few seconds - and then quickly escorts them to the home screen. There’s no drawn-out waiting period like those found on some players. In today’s world of instant gratification it’s lovely to press power and be lost in the music moments later. Simply press play and the music is unleashed.

And that sound. That delightful sound.

Music playback is where the QP1R really hits above its price bracket. It sounds clean, detailed and resolving without becoming analytical. The low end is restrained and doesn’t run wild when a bass-heavy song starts rolling. The midrange is neither overly aggressive nor is it thick and syrupy. To my ears there’s a very balanced presentation to the QP1R and that means it plays nicely with many different headphones.

Initially I paired it with my MrSpeakers ETHER and later the ETHER Flow, both to great success. I’ve spent hours listening comfortably through an Echobox Finder X1 and the combo makes for a stellar, lightweight travel companion. The only times I’ve run into any semblance of noise or hiss have been when using highly sensitive IEMs. Most headphones won’t reveal any self noise from the QP1R.

I’ve had my unit since launch and the experience has improved since I first received mine. One of my earliest complaints with the unit was the direction of the volume control; it was inverted from my expectations. Based on the feedback Questyle was receiving, a new firmware was released which allowed the user to set their preferred direction. The company had also been receiving a steady stream of requests to use the QP1R as a DAC/amp. They later released another firmware build that added the functionality. I love when a company listens to owners’ feedback and strives to refine their products.

There are a few quirks here and there like an occasionally finicky scroll wheel, a recessed Micro USB slot which doesn’t play nicely with many cables and a rather uninspired UI, but I find these are minor issues I can overlook given everything the QP1R does well.

I stand fervently by my little portable. I take a minimalist approach when traveling and the compact gadget that can do the most with the least amount of compromise is king. In that regard the QP1R is truly a transcendent device.

 

Type:   Portable iDevice/Android DAC, USB DAC, battery pack, and headphone amplifier 

 

Price:   $400 USD

 

URL:   http://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 few 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 amplifier
 

Price:   $475 USD

 

URL:   http://www.headamp.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In the preorder thread for this amp on Head-Fi, HeadAmp promoted 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:   Digital audio players

 

Price:   $749 USD

 

URL:   http://www.luxuryprecision.net

Written by Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

 

It’s not rare to see a quality product get overlooked by Head-Fi’ers, gear that then lies in wait until it’s discovered again. One of my recent finds is Luxury&Precision. I’d seen the name here and there but I never looked too closely. After spending some time with the L3 and L5 Pro I’m wondering how I’d omitted them until now.

The L5 Pro has a boxy design that’s comfortable in the hand. Its 3.5” capacitive touch screen is housed in a gunmetal colored, aluminum and magnesium alloy enclosure and is completed by a svelte wood backplate engraved with the company’s logo. It’s a distinguished demeanor. The placement of the physical buttons are well thought out, allowing for one-handed operation without looking at the display.

The L5 Pro reproduces music naturally, everything in its place. The sound is spacious and avoids the pitfall of coming across as artificial. The low end is medium-bodied with a moderately warm lean and accurate texture. The midrange is evenly blended and stays clear of becoming overly lush. Treble is clean and resolving yet shies away from sounding shrill or analytical. The L5 Pro is smooth without sacrificing detail; a winning combination.

Today the L5 Pro has a younger relative, the Luxury&Precision L3.

At first glance the L3’s chassis looks like the designers placed an L5 Pro on their photocopier and pressed “reduce.” Upon closer inspection the differences start to become apparent. Its smaller frame is left naked, showing the bare aluminum-magnesium housing, and the wooden backplate has been replaced with carbon fiber. The rear panel is no longer engraved but instead finished with screen printed logos. While I prefer the styling of the L5 Pro, the L3 doesn’t feel out of place standing alongside the more distinguished older sibling.

The differences go beyond aesthetics. The L3 has what my ears perceive as a mildly energetic signature compared next to the more natural presentation of the L5 Pro. Vocals have more presence and clarity and the lows less texture. It’s a leaner sound than the warmer voice of its big brother.

The L3 isn’t as dapper or refined as the L5 Pro, but like many younger siblings it’s has a few new tricks of its own. It boasts balanced output via dual DACs and amps, something the older, more expensive L5 Pro can’t. It also has a dead silent background so listeners can enjoy their sensitive headphones. The L5 Pro may be quiet, but the younger twin does it better.

The L3 and L5 Pro have extremely utilitarian interfaces. From the home screen the listener can scroll through tracks sorted by the song’s file name, artist or album. There’s also a file directory to browse through the files as they’re organized on the Micro SD card. Beyond that there’s a settings menu where EQ, visualizations and device settings can be adjusted and a Now Playing tab. That’s it. The UI is a clear case of function over form. To make controlling the players a little easier there’s two customizable physical buttons that the listener can configure.

One feature the L3 never learned picked up in school is variable gain. While the L5 Pro offers five gain settings, the L3 has no options to adjust. It must have been absent from class that day because the L3 was designed for sensitive IEMs rather than power-starved full-size headphones. While it isn’t a deal breaker, it would be nice to have, especially considering it’s a feature found in many DAPs the L3 considers rivals.

The L3 can be found hovering around $400 while the L5 Pro sits in the $800 range. Anyone looking for a DAP to pair with IEMs or those looking to work within a budget will probably lean towards the L3. Head-Fi’ers with a variety of headphones or those looking to get a more natural sound will find the L5 Pro more to their liking. No matter which sibling you choose the Luxury&Precision family will be ready to welcome you with open arms.

 

 

 

 

Type:   Portible iDevice DAC

 

Price:   $399.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Some of the biggest news in this category is that Sony 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.

 

Type:   Portable iDevice/Walkman/USB DAC and headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $599.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Joining the Sony PHA-1 in March 2014 was the 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Portable iDevice/Walkman/USB DAC and balanced headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $999 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

If I had to distill Sony’s personal audio mission in recent years, down to just one word, that word would be evolution.

 

Ongoing improvements, through successive product iterations, are happening throughout Sony’s entire range of personal audio offerings, from headphones to IEMs to DAPs. But the one product line that personifies this spirit of evolution, more than any other, is their PHA-series of portable DAC/amps. Since its debut in late 2014, the Sony PHA-3 has been steadily winning over the hearts and minds of Head-Fiers near and far, and it’s easy to see why.

 

Like the PHA-1 and PHA-2 before it, the PHA-3 sports impeccable build quality, remains impressively quiet with a pitch black background, is compatible with iOS devices, and drives most headphones with dexterity and authority via its low or high gain settings. And like the PHA-2, it’s also capable of high resolution audio, including single and double rate DSD.

 

To that, the PHA-3 adds an impressive list of new features that any discriminating Head-Fier would approve of wholeheartedly. The PHA-3’s DAC section has been upgraded to an ESS ES9018 from the Wolfson WM8740 found in the PHA-2. A new XMOS chip enables Sony’s DSEE HX digital signal processing algorithms to upscale lossy audio files. And yes, DSEE HX actually works. The PHA-3’s battery life now provides up to 28 hours of play time via analog input (i.e. using the PHA-3 as an amp). That’s 11 hours longer than a PHA-2, and 18 hours longer than a PHA-1. It also includes a new optical input for those who might not be keen on using USB. And finally, it is now capable of balanced drive via dual 3.5mm TRS jacks. It is this last feature that truly makes the PHA-3 an outstanding unit.

 

When a PHA-3 is paired with Sony’s MDR-Z7 headphone or Sony’s XBA-Z5 in-ear monitor - via optional Kimber Kable balanced cables - and you play high-resolution or DSD files through that signal chain, it becomes very clear that Sony voiced all of these components together as an ecosystem. The sound quality of such a rig is, in a word, exceptional. Playing through Michael Jackson’s Thriller album in single-rate DSD (available from Acoustic Sounds), we are rewarded with a balanced, detailed and dynamic presentation cast amidst an expansive soundstage.

 

That said, the PHA-3 does fall short of greatness in several respects. At $999 USD, the price can be a bit steep for some. This is especially true if one won’t also make the additional investment in an MDR-Z7 or XBA-Z5 (along with its respective Kimber Kable balanced upgrade cable) in order to take the PHA-3 to its fullest potential. Secondly, the PHA-3 won’t charge and play at the same time. By itself, this is not a dealbreaker. But taking into consideration that the PHA-3’s battery life is only 5-hours long when using its digital inputs (i.e. using the PHA-3 as a DAC+amp), and can take up to 15 hours to fully recharge, this amount of device down-time can be rather annoying. And finally, the PHA-3 can’t output balanced audio when you’re just using the analog input.

 

Nonetheless, the PHA-3 is a significant upgrade from the PHA-2. It advances the PHA-series by retaining the best that its progenitors had to offer, while introducing new and worthy features. And of course, as the cornerstone of a hi-res ecosystem, it sounds very, very good. Exceptionally good.

 

Someday, in the next evolution, I hope that Sony will release a PHA-4 that addresses all of the issues above. In the meantime, Sony has yet another winner on its hands with the PHA-3. I am enjoying it immensely - especially with an MDR-Z7 or an XBA-Z5 and their respective Kimber Kable accoutrements - and would happily recommend it as both a portable and a desktop DAC/amp.

Type:   FiiO X1 2nd gen ultraportable digital audio player and FiiO A5 portable amplifier

 

Price:   $99.99 and $129.99, respectively

 

URL:   http://www.fiio.net

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

FiiO. Born for Music and Happy Since 2007. That's FiiO's slogan, and I love it. It makes me smile every time I read it printed on their boxes or on their website. It's a remarkably cheery motto for a company that takes audio so seriously--one of the companies in our industry that has most redefined value for the dollar.

FiiO doesn't try to push the boundaries of high-end audio, but they do try to put as much high-end audio into super-affordable products as they can, and they've become immensely popular in our community for all their enthusiasm, effort, engineering, and the resulting value.

FiiO's X1 2nd gen ultraportable digital audio player is one recent example. The X1 2nd gen supports up to 256GB of external storage via micro-SD, and can play high-res files up to 24-bit/192kHz. It has instant-on with a deep-sleep mode that allows up to 15 days of standby. The output connector serves as both headphone and line out; and the volume control is a digital potentiometer with 100 steps. The X1 2nd gen also has Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless streaming. It has a small but crisp display, and an intuitive user interface. Battery life is rated by FiiO at 12 hours with headphones, and 15 hours on Bluetooth. And, of course, most importantly, it sounds very good! All of this for $99.99 is insanely impressive.

FiiO also recently unveiled the new FiiO A5 portable amplifier, which is an upgrade of their much loved FiiO E12A. The new FiiO A5 uses the MUSES02 and LME49600 chips, and, versus its predecessor, has lower distortion, nearly double the output power, an 84% increase in peak output voltage, and a 32% increase in supply voltage. Even with all that power on tap, I was happy to plug my uber-sensitive FitEar MH334 custom into it and hear no self-noise at all in low-gain mode, and then to play music and hear Tedeschi Trucks Band with crystal clarity and punch.

The FiiO X1 2ng gen and the FiiO A5 (which also pair very well together, by the way) are just two examples of many that show how serious FiiO is about providing serious audio performance for budget-minded Head-Fi'ers. Born for Music and Happy Since 2007. Indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Portable DAC/amp

 

Price:   $599 USD

 

URL:   http://www.chordelectronics.co.uk

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

When Chord came out with the Hugo, putting the latest of thirty-odd years of digital to analogue research by Rob Watts into a portable device, it sent Head-Fi into a frenzy of mixed reactions. Many people who bought one loved the sound, but less loved the weird design with a puzzling layout of unlabelled ports and switches. What is more, at around $2500 the price was in the territory of serious DACs and, not surprisingly, much was expected of it. What impresses me is that Rob Watts took ALL the feedback from customers and the forums and put it in the Mojo, and Chord made it far more affordable.

Whereas the Hugo had a rather confused layout, the Mojo is spot-on neat. Headphone jacks one one end, inputs on the other, and 3 buttons on one edge. Those buttons are freely rotating balls that glow with the colour of the LEDs underneath. The first, with a 2-second press powers up (or down) the unit, which happens with a very audible click, after which it glows with a colour indicating the sample rate of the input. The other two buttons, individually held down move the volume up or down, the LEDs beneath changing with the colours of the rainbow depending on volume level.

To account for sensitive IEM users, once the lowest volume has been reached, the “-“ volume button LED turns to brown and the other cycles through the colours once again for even lower volume levels. On the other end of the scale, the “+” button LED will cycle through a few more levels after the “-“ has reached white. Without knowing this at first it can be a bit off-putting, as light bleeding between the buttons sometimes makes it look as if the colours have gone all funny, but it is a good indicator once one remembers the colours of the rainbow and that the cycle is based upon that.

I could write a bucketload about the tech inside the Mojo, but it would be easier to visit Rob Watts’ profile and read his entire post history, as it is all in there, explained in detail. What matters to me more is that he has crammed his tech, which focuses immense computing power into a tiny box, the size of an original AK100 and is charging less than an AK100II would cost. If you have a smart phone you’re all set, otherwise pick your choice of DAP with optical or coax digital output, as all recent models should be able to feed the Mojo high-res or even DSD via optical or coax, depending on their capability and the availability of a suitable cable.

The powerful FPGA inside, along with the 500MW-capable amp generates 1.7W inside the small aluminium box that is the Mojo, causing it to get reasonably, but not excessively warm during use, and especially during charging. Between choosing long usage time and headphone driving ability, Rob Watts went for the latter, so the unit is good for about 7 hours of use before recharging is required, but it will handle full-sized headphones with aplomb. While the Hugo sounds a bit on the thin side for preference, the Mojo has been tuned to be a bit warmer-sounding.

The Mojo’s tuning has been most welcome with my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors (UERMs), the HE1000s, Ethers and HD800s, both of which the Mojo seems to be able to handle, if not at the capability of a top-of-the-line headphone amp. The HE1000s weren’t quite as dynamic out of the Mojo direct as they were out of my Studio Six, where their capabilities seem to come through. It was a closer call with my HD800s, but given that my source for the Studio Six is a Hugo, that is as much a credit to the Hugo as it might be a limitation versus what the Studio Six is capable of resolving. The Ethers were definitely more to my liking out of the Mojo, easily driven to a degree that I could forget I wasn’t listening to my main system.

With a number of great headphones available under $1000, and some top-of-the-line models, including IEMs on sale or second second-hand for that price too, it is readily possible with a Chord Mojo to set up what would have been a high-end portable rig a few years ago for less than $1500.

 


 

Written by Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

 

Have you ever have a plan backfire? I had such an experience recently. Not long ago, my friend Dave and I were talking about a new product that had been receiving a lot of attention on Head-Fi. We were both curious about it and, in the end, he finally decided to try one. Of course, I had encouraged his purchase because I wanted to hear it for myself. My intentions were to listen and then move on, my budget safe from releasing precious funds.

The plan failed. Spectacularly.

Within minutes of listening, I knew I had to have one. This was how I came to own the Chord Mojo.

The Mojo has one of the most engaging sound signatures I’ve heard, even when compared to products that demand an admission fee three and four times more. The presentation sets my toes tapping every single time, without fail. Perhaps it’s the crisp, clear treble, which brings resolution and detail without crossing into harsh and shrill territory. Maybe it’s the engaging vocals that are taking hold and keeping me glued to my chair. Or perhaps it is the Mojo’s command of the low end - firm, never sloppy and ready to deliver full-bodied bass at a moment’s notice. Each trait is strong enough to stand on its own, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Conceivably, the Mojo’s greatest strength lies in its flexibility. I use it as a portable DAC/amp connected to my phone, a desktop DAC/amp at the office, and a dedicated DAC at home. Never does the Mojo utter a single complaint.

How is this possible? In essence, the Mojo is a DAC with a variable line out, which means there’s no double-amping conflicts when mating it with a dedicated amplifier. Even though you’ll have no trouble using it with an amp, I found it’s simply not required in many situations. The Mojo has more than enough muscle to drive most full-size, power-hungry headphones with aplomb.

And it’s quiet. Astonishingly quiet. The Mojo’s background is silent enough for every sensitive IEM I’ve tried with it. Very few devices are able to perform so admirably with such a wide range of headphones. Well done, Chord. Well done.

One of my favorite pairings with the Mojo is the MrSpeakers ETHER Flow. There’s an almost unnatural synergy between the two; one that can best several full-size desktop systems. While the Mojo can’t quite push the ETHER Flow to their maximum potential (adding a high-quality dedicated amplifier is the only way to truly showcase the range of their ability), it’s dang close, and I’d be perfectly happy relying on the Mojo alone. In fact, I do.

The Chord Mojo is many things: a compact portable system, a home desktop system and a class-leading DAC.

All this for less than $600? Sold!

 


 

"With its immense sonic performance and versatility, the Chord Mojo is a comprehensive all in one package that has the potential to replace both your home and portable setups, while at the same transforming your console gaming experience. The Mojo is desktop-capable and wholly portable; A Swiss army knife in all but name."

- RedJohn456 (Tamal Firoz)

Type:   Digital audio player

 

Price:   $2,499 USD

 

URL:   http://www.astellnkern.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Though we don't currently give out "Product Of The Year" awards, if we did, the Astell & Kern AK240 would certainly be one of the clear frontrunners. Bold in every way--from its feature set to its styling, to its steep price--the AK240 has redefined the hi-res portable music player market, and the demand for it (remarkable demand given the price) has made clear what many high-end portable audio enthusiasts market want in a player.

 

I think one of the many reasons for the AK240's success is that Astell & Kern made buying their flagship player very simple, the AK240 being devoid of options or variations--there is only one configuration available. Rather than offer different amp options, Astell & Kern chose what I consider to be an excellent amp section that's a solid set of compromises, with enough power to drive overwhelmingly most of the headphones that even diehard portable audio enthusiasts would consider using portably, yet with enough finesse and silence to drive even the most sensitive in-ear monitors with nary a hint of background noise. The AK240 also has a balanced-drive amp section that provides a little more oomph, and, to my ears, provides even better sonic performance.

 

With their first models--the original, first-gen AK100 and AK120, the latter of which was also a massive success--Astell & Kern has also shown that perhaps using touch screen controls is the best choice for an intuitive, efficient digital audio player user interface (UI). A touch screen can provide more direct access to functions and options that would be far less direct with just buttons, switches and dials.

 

And it's not just the better screen and other hardware, it's the AK240's improved software that also makes a world of difference. The AK240 underlying software, which represents Astell & Kern's first move to an Android-based system, was a huge step forward, even when compared to the already easy-to-use first-gen AK120. Search was added with the AK240, which I consider a critical function, especially with a device that can hold a maximum of 384GB of data (256GB NAND internally, plus a 128GB micro-SD card). Responsiveness to touch has been greatly improved, too. In fact, rather than simply describe how much better the UI is now, check out this video that shows the AK240's UI in action, closeup.

 

Like the first-generation Astell & Kern players, the AK240 supports up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM, but now uses two of Crystal's flagship CS4398 DAC chips (instead of the Wolfson WM8740 DAC chips in the previous ones). The AK240 now also natively supports DSD decoding (with its additional on-board XMOS chip), unlike the AK240's predecessors, which internally converted DSD to PCM, before conversion to analog. As with the other Astell & Kern players, the AK240 can also be used as a hi-res USB DAC/amp (but with native DSD support now), which furthers its appeal as an all-in-one, especially given its strong performance in that additional role. Also, like the first-gen models, the AK240's single-ended 3.5mm headphone output also serves as the analog line-out and the optical digital output.

 

While its maximum of 384GB of on-board storage (again, 256GB NAND internally, and up to 128GB more with a micro-SD card), the AK240 has more storage than any other portable music player I'm aware of. When you're storing huge hi-res music files, though, you can never have enough. One feature added to the AK240 that helps the user transcend storage limitations that I think is absolutely awesome (and that I use a lot) is the AK240's MQS Streaming feature, which provides connectivity to the AK240 through the network. I have two main computer audio systems (one at home, one at the office), each of which contain far more music than can be stored directly on any portable music player, including the AK240. Astell & Kern provides a free app called MQS Streaming Server that you install on a computer on your wi-fi network, and that allows the AK240 to losslessly stream music from your main systems--yes, including hi-res PCM and DSD. So now, at home and at the office, my AK240, with wi-fi streaming, has access to terabytes of music to play, not just the 384GB on the device itself. For me, to have wireless access to my entire< music collection (whether lossy MP3's, CD-quality rips, up to 24/192 PCM, and DSD) when I'm at home and at work is huge; so, again, I use MQS Streaming a lot.

 

By the way, another key benefit of wi-fi connectivity with the AK240 is OTA (over-the-air) system updates. In the time I've had the AK240, numerous updates and improvements have been released for it by Astell & Kern, who has been very proactive in terms of constantly improving it, and all of these firmware updates were available and installed via OTA updating, and are available to the user the moment Astell & Kern releases them. What's also nice--so that you don't have to keep searching for updates--is that the AK240 automatically checks for available firmware updates when it has a wi-fi connection, so you don't have to.

 

The AK240's chassis is hewn from a block of duralumin, machined and sculpted into a beautiful, angular form that is fantastic in the hand, particularly if you're controlling it right-handed, with the AK240 held in your left paw. It is also has a back panel constructed of genuine carbon fiber. No other digital player I've used so far comes close to the level of fit and finish--not to mention the remarkable vault-like solidity--of the AK240. If you've only seen the AK240 in photos, its odd angles can make it look larger (and stranger) than it is in real life. It's actually very compact, and, again, is drop-dead gorgeous, in real life. The AK240 comes with a form-fit, finely constructed Italian leather case by Buttero.

 

Now this brings me to one of my gripes with the AK240, and there are only a couple of those. I am not a fan of Astell & Kern's choice to use a 2.5mm jack for balanced output. While I haven't had any major issues with the 2.5mm balanced plugs yet, I find these plugs too tiny, and not exactly the most secure, durable plug for mobile use. I've found the 2.5mm plugs pop out with much less force than necessary to similarly dislodge the more standard (and substantially larger) 3.5mm mini plugs. I think some type of mini-XLR configuration would have been the more ideal choice.

 

My only other grumbles with the AK240 are its relatively short battery life when playing hi-res PCM and DSD files and the inability to install Android apps (even though it's Android-based). While I've seen close to ten hours of continuous playback time with MP3's and CD-quality files, I'm only getting around half that when playing back strictly hi-res PCM and DSD. This is somewhat understandable given the very compact size of the AK240 and the increased processing power needed to decode hi-res files, but, still, I'd like more juice, and would have gladly given up some of its compactness for more battery life. I normally carry portable battery chargers, and am at least thankful that the AK240 (as all of Astell & Kern's players) charges via a standard micro-USB jack.

 

As a frequent user of music streaming services--namely Beats Music (formerly MOG) and Spotify Premium--I wish I could install their apps on the AK240, as I can with the Sony Walkman NW-ZX1. Though the AK240's system software is Android-based, the OS implementation and software stack is very custom, and, unfortunately, rather closed.

 

As for its sound, the AK240 is, overall, the best all-in-one portable music player I've yet heard. While its sound and drive doesn't quite reach the level of something like Chord's Hugo, the AK240 is obviously the more complete mobile device, able to carry a large quantity of music on-board, and providing a fantastic user interface to access and control it all--a super-compact, true all-in-one portable system that requires no additional external transport, DAC, or amp. And, still, its sound is very much that of a high-end digital audio device, and, overall, the best, most versatile portable digital audio player I've yet heard. Its sound is highly resolving, very uncolored--neutral, but not dry. Soundstage and imaging with the AK240 is exceptional, not just for a portable audio player, but for any digital component--able to convincingly convey all dimensions and precise image placement with excellent recordings. With its balanced output, drive and imaging improve further, so contact your favorite cable maker to have your favorite on-the-go headphones outfitted with cables terminated to use the AK240's balanced output--you'll be thankful for it, and it'll certainly help you wrangle as much of the performance you paid $2500 to get.

 

Because of its extreme portability, the AK240 will probably be very commonly used with high-end, super-sensitive in-ear monitors. Like all Astell & Kern players I've used, the AK240--in terms of self-noise--is as quiet as a tomb. Even my most sensitive in-ears are unable to touch the AK240's noise floor, making it one of the quietest components I've used, portable or full-size, and that's a big deal to me.

 

Because I'm often on-the-go, the Astell & Kern AK240 has, since its release, been my most-used audio system. It's so good, so capable, so thorough, that I don't really think of it as a portable music player as I do an ultra-portable high-end transport/DAC/amp system. It has replaced my rubber-banded-together stacks of portable components, and is truly pocketable. It is expensive, yes. But, currently, there's nothing quite like it, which is why, even at $2500, it has been flying off dealer shelves just about as fast as Astell & Kern can manufacture them.


After having said all of this I want to say one more thing about the AK240--something I've not specifically seen stated about it before. One of the main reasons I use the Astell & Kern AK240 so dang much (other than the fact that it accompanies me everywhere I go) is because, regardless of format--256kbps MP3 or AAC, CD-quality 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/92, DSD, etc.--it just plays music, fuss-free. I can shuffle through my my music collection without worrying about what kind of file I'm playing--whether playing from internal storage or streaming via MQS Streaming, the AK240 can seamlessly bounce between (and natively decode) all formats, bit depths, sample rates, without needing any intervention, without even needing to look at it.  My music collection is all over the place with regard to file types and quality, and sometimes I just want to hit the "play" button and not worry about much else.

 


 

"Where the AK240 excels, I feel, is that as a complete self-contained package - sonics, capacity, usage, functionality, visual and feel aesthetics - the AK240 is a winner. It sits in one's pocket unobtrusively, it's basic functions are easily accessible with external buttons, it can function as a DAC/Amp with a notebook, it supports balanced headphones out, it supports line out, it has copious amount of storage, it can stream high quality music wirelessly, it even supports online download in countries where the service is available, and it doesn't sacrifice quality in doing all these things."

- AnakChan

 

Type:   Digital audio player

 

Price:   $299 USD

 

URL:   http://www.lotoo.cn

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

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.

Type:   Portable hybrid tube/solid state headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $499 USD

 

URL:   http://www.fostexinternational.com

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:   Digital audio player

 

Price:   $2399 USD

 

URL:   http://www.theevolutionofsound.com

Written by Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

 

Some of today’s best headphones require serious amplification to sound their best. These headphones come from names like Audeze, HIFIMAN, MrSpeakers, Sennheiser and more. Thanks to the growth of personal audio we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to buying a full-size amplifier. Look at the forums and you’ll find an endless number of desktop systems designed to drive the most demanding cans.

For many Head-Fi’ers it’s not possible to spend all day at home in front of their collection, so what can we do when we want to hit the road? We can’t pocket a hulking behemoth of an amp. Again, there’s no shortage of options available. Demand for high-powered, portable amplifiers is on the rise and manufacturers are responding at breakneck pace. Grab your amp of choice, slap it on the back of a DAP or smartphone and go.

Unfortunately not everyone is afforded the luxury of space and a thick portable stack just won’t do. Some of these music lovers own incredibly picky headphones. What are they to do? There hasn’t been many attempts at creating the perfect portable device for this crowd, but a recent partnership has emerged to tackle this very problem.

In partnership with JPS Labs, creator of the AB-1266 Abyss headphone, Intermedia introduced the Lotoo PAW Gold Diana edition. The original Lotoo PAW Gold has been with us for a couple of years now and many Head-Fi’ers have been extremely happy using it every day. They’ve praised the neutral sound presentation, the tank-esque construction and premium accents like sapphire crystal and 24K gold. The intelligent design doesn’t stop there. The Lotoo PAW Gold reads from full-size SD cards, allowing listeners to carry more music than a Micro SD.

Startup is jaw-droppingly quick. It supports native DSD and ISO audio files. It has a user-customizable hardware button; a keypad lock; a relaxing, “breathing” LED that rings the power button; a line out and an 11 hour battery. For many the Lotoo PAW Gold was the perfect device, but not for everyone. There were those who required even more power in their portable device, and now it’s finally here.

The Diana edition’s output is otherworldly. It’s the only player on the market I’m aware of that’s able to fully drive the Abyss. I’m not saying that it gets close or that it’s the best for its size, I’m telling you that it outperforms several dedicated desktop amps. I have no idea how they managed it, but it’s a remarkable achievement.

The Lotoo PAW Gold Diana edition retains the same design as the normal LPG. As a result, it has the same shortcomings. The unit is incredibly heavy for a DAP, lacks internal storage, uses a D/C barrel charger rather than the more common Micro USB and is only carried by a limited number of retailers. With exception to the charger, most of these downsides are negligible. The lack of Micro USB charging wouldn’t stop me from a purchase, but it’s always an annoyance toting around a dedicated wall wart.

Seeing as it’s a tweak to the normal LPG, you’d expect the Diana edition to possess a similar sound signature. It does. To my ears the sound is evenly balanced throughout the spectrum. It’s also incredibly resolving. The downside to presenting music this way is that the LPG doesn’t do as well with lower resolution files. If you’re bringing a library full of highly compressed mp3 files it may be time to buy some new high-res tunes for the catalog.

The Diana edition was able to tackle every single headphone I threw at it without trying. The Ether FLOW was open and resolving, the FitEar fitear was warm and textured, and even the humble Koss PortaPro left my jaw on the floor with its accuracy and detail. Every single pairing showcased the LPG Diana’s unimaginable chops. No matter what headphone the listener chooses, the LPG Diana delivers world-class sound.

You won’t find me cruising down the sidewalks of Novi, MI, touting a pair of Abyss and jamming away on the LPG Diana edition. The Abyss is far from my idea of portable, but it can certainly be a transportable headphone. I see owners of the Abyss, HD 800, LCD-4 and other flagship headphones pairing their pieces with the LPG Diana as they go out of town for a relaxing weekend or business trip. I imagine owners sitting at home in a den, listening without the need for a dedicated desktop system.

I can also see sensitive headphone owners quickly falling in love with Diana. There was absolutely zero noise with the Koss or FitEar, which means there’s no distractions from the music. I know IEM manufacturers who sing praises for the LPG. If it’s good enough for the IEM’s creators, it’s certainly good enough for me.

The Lotoo PAW Gold Diana edition provides something Head-Fi’ers may have previously thought out of reach - freedom. Freedom from a desktop amp, freedom from a portable stack, freedom to use any headphone in their stable. It isn’t the perfect solution for everyone, but for some I can imagine no greater device. It’s a masterpiece.

Type:   Portable DAC/headphone amp

 

Price:   $699.95 (XL4, CMB, and RSA versions), $599.95 (PRO version) 

 

URL:   http://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.

- Currawong

Type:   Portable DAC/amp

 

Price:   $699 USD

 

URL:   http://www.centrance.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Portable headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $799 USD

 

URL:   http://www.aloaudio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

Back in 2011 the big amp news was ALO Audio's new RXIIIB balanced portable amp and matching DAC. At the Tokyo headphone festival Ken was also showing the Continental, their first portable tube amp. I liked what I heard back then at the show from both amps, the Continental sounding spacious, while just a bit euphoric. 

Fast forward 5 years and the DAP market has exploded, high-quality IEMs and headphones have become more affordable, and Bluetooth is starting to come of age. Yet as much as manufacturers attempt to get more into smaller spaces inside phones, Ken, with help from Vinnie Rossie, has not stopped making good, old-school amps. The Continental V5 is one of those. 

Taking what they learned from the design of the 2015 Rx -- a high quality power supply and Texas Instruments venerable TI???? headphone amp, Vinnie has inserted a sub-minature tube in the gain stage and upped the overall output power for full-sized headphones, while keeping it inside a small case, quite a bit smaller than the older Continental models, and only a little larger than that of the Rx.

The result is an amp that sounds much bigger than it looks -- more like a miniature version of my Studio Six. With the HE1000 V2 and the Schiit Yggdrasil a surprisingly large sound with plenty of detail greeted me. That detail retrieval was easily sufficient to make out the difference between the capabilities of the various DAPs I have on hand, and was surprisingly not that far behind the full-size amps I have. Most of the time when listening through it, I'd forget I wasn't listening with the Studio Six.

There was a bit too much hiss to be ideal with ALO Audio's own Andromedas, even on low gain, but it was a great amp with dynamic driver IEMs that respond well to amplifier power and quality. While I haven't tested it yet, Ken reckoned that his new Vegas sound great out of the amp.

The big head-scratcher is where it is best used, as so many DAPs these days can do a good job powering everything from IEMs to full-sized headphones. To that end, the Continental V5 has optional, warmer-sounding tubes available, which can be easily swapped in. That might suit someone who has bought, say, an "audiophile" phone, such as the LG, or a lower-powered DAP such as the Soundaware M1, and wants an amp for full-sized headphones to go with it. This especially if one desires the addition of a bit of warm to the sound. 

While the days of big, rubber-banded, high-powered portable rigs are fading away, those people looking for a tube amp with desktop-level driving ability in a truly small package should check out ALO Audio's Continental V5.

Type:   Portable USB DAC and headphone amp 

 

Price:   $249.99 USD

 

URL:   http://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 changed 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 DAC/amp

 

Price:   $395 USD

 

URL:   http://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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Digital audio players

 

Price:   $899.00 and $1,699.00, respectively 

 

URL:   http://www.astellnkern.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 


 

" 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

Type:   Portable headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $239.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.cayin.cn

Written by Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

 

Budgets. I loathe budgets. Unfortunately, budgeting is part of everyday life for most of us. Music lovers want to stretch their dollar as far as possible, and manufacturers know that we’re often limited in what we can spend for amazing sound. As a result there’s been a flood of budget-conscious products coming to market, but with more and more choices available every year, it’s not easy to know where to start.

The Cayin C5 portable amplifier is a candidate with promise. It offers a solid list of features for a reasonable price. There’s high/low gain settings, a bass boost switch and it can be used to charge a portable device that’s running low on power. There’s even a version available with a built-in DAC. All this makes for a tempting combination.

The looks are where the C5 starts to stumble. It’s thin and easily stackable, but it doesn’t really try to be aesthetically appealing. The black metal body looks dated, and the volume knob continues that trend. There’s also a translucent brown cap on top. I have no idea if it serves any functional purpose. To my eyes the C5 is reminiscent of a medical device designed in the 1970s.

Of course we need to keep our expectations in check. This is a portable amplifier that doesn’t cost a king’s ransom and has a solid featureset. For the budget savvy, looks don’t necessarily factor into the equation. Those of us on a budget care primarily about two things: the sound and the price. At $129 it’s clear one criterion has been met, but what about the other?

Thankfully the bland exterior belies the C5’s more complex inner workings. There’s ample power to drive a considerable range of headphones. I’ve used the C5 to feed a pair of over-ear Sennheiser Momentums and the Massdrop x Fostex TH-X00, both yielding admirable results. There’s a bit of self noise that’s detectable during quieter pieces, but it disappears into the background during more lively tracks.

The C5 has a rich, warm sound that will appeal to many Head-Fi’ers. It’s an excellent combo for anyone who love the TH-X00. Those who demand more bass need only flip the bass boost switch and the bottom end thickens up. For my tastes the bass boost is too much, but I can think of several friends who would immediately adore it.

Most surprising is the C5’s spaciousness. It portrays a wide soundstage that I was not expecting given the asking price. Tracks that normally feel congested opened up and felt more like a concert. For me this plays well with lower quality recordings. I will forever love punk and ska music, but unfortunately a significant chunk of my library isn’t well-mastered. The C5 is a solid performer for these tracks.

My only complaint of any substance lies with the volume control; it’s too sensitive with efficient headphones. The TH-X00 is capable enough that it doesn’t require much to get loud, but a good amp can drive the planar magnetic drivers to their potential. To my ears it sounds best using the C5’s high gain, but then the volume dial’s range of play is frustratingly small.

Simple solution, use the C5 with less efficient headphones for best results.

In this handheld device we have a rich, luscious, spacious amplifier with variable gain, bass boost and charging capabilities wrapped up in a budget-friendly package. It’s far from the most attractive offering, but compromises had to be made somewhere. The Cayin C5 is a portable amp for music lovers with more sense than money. It won’t steal any titles from the best portables, but it knows how to play to its strengths and put up one heck of a fight. Budgets stand at the ready; a new challenger has arrived.

 

Type:   Portable DAC/amp

 

Price:   $2,280 HKD

 

URL:   http://www.cozoyaudio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

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:   USB DAC/headphone amp

 

Price:   $299.95 USD

 

URL:   http://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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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