The Fostex HP-A4 fills a chasm between the Fostex HP-A3, a simple, bus-powered USB DAC, and the technology-packed powerhouse of a USB DAC/amp that is Fostex's flagship HP-A8C.
Like the HP-A3 (which I've carried around so much it looks like it's been through wars), the HP-A4 is USB bus-powered--that means no power adapter is needed. That's where the resemblance ends, though, because I think the HP-A4 is not so much an evolution of the HP-A3 as it is something aspiring to be like the HP-A8C--it even looks like a mini version of the HP-A8C.
The commonalities between it and the HP-A8C extend to the feature set, too, including support up to 24/192 (the HP-A8C supports up to 32/192), and support for DSD up to 5.6MHz!
Of course, being bus-powered, it doesn't have quite the power supply and power output that the HP-A8C has, the HP-A4's headphone-driving power topping out at a respectable 100mW into 32Ω, versus the HP-A8C's more monster 700mW into the same load.
But what it can do is a fairly good imitation of its flagship sibling (only up to its own limits, of course), yet can be thrown in a bag for trips to the library, coffee house, hotel, or extended layovers while traveling. At only 500g, it's very light weight--the HP-A8C's toroidal power transformer alone probably weighs more than the HP-A4.
I had a prototype HP-A4 here, and its performance was superb. No, it wasn't an HE-6-driving powerhouse. But just about every headphone I'd most likely want to use with it--like Fostex's own TH600 and TH900, Sony MDR-7520, Audeze LCD-X, and others--was driven with excellent results.
Like other Fostex DAC/amp products, the HP-A4 continues the tradition of a digital optical output (in addition to its USB and optical digital inputs). This allows me to use and try other DACs without having to swap out the HP-A4. It also allows me to pass optical digital to my favorite wireless headphones in the Sennheiser RS 220 and the Skullcandy PLYR 1.
I didn't have much chance while the prototype was here to use it as a DAC feeding other amps, but I'll give that a go once the production unit arrives here (which should be in the next week or so).
Fostex HP-A3, you served me well, and have the scars to prove it--but you're being replaced with the mini-HP-A8C called the HP-A4.
CEntrance HiFi-M8 and HiFi-M8 LX
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.
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 new 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.
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.
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.
"The Arcam rPAC is a very interesting unit, it packs Asynchronous USB, headphone out, no external power source, RCA fixed line out, stepped buttons, and good build in all the same unit which is farily compact at such a price... Good sound with a good build, wherever you go."
-Bowei Zhao (bowei006)
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 new AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is still an iDevice DAC. And it still has digital pass-through, with a coaxial digital output that allows you to pass the digital stream from your iDevice directly to another DAC, if, for example, you have a high-end desktop DAC you'd rather use when you're not on-the-go.
The "d" in -dB is for "DAC," as the AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is also a 24/192-capable USB DAC. The "B" is for "balanced," as the AlgoRhythm Solo -dB is now fully balanced (there's still a single-ended output for those without a balanced amp). Battery life is now up to 14 hours of play time. In other words, this -dB version is a major overhaul and upgrade of the AlgoRhythm Solo. (We discussed the original Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo in Episode 003 of Head-Fi TV.)
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.
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.
"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."
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've seen a lot of discussions about FiiO on Head-Fi in recent years. However, I’d somehow made it through to the early part of this year without ever having tried anything made by one of the brands taking Head-Fi by storm. Because one of the last things I need is another headphone amp, perhaps the FiiO collection--all of which is affordable, and some of which is super affordable--simply struck me as something I didn’t personally need in addition to all the more expensive, higher-end portable amps strewn about my home and office.
Fast forward to CES 2013, to a time when FiiO was already well established as an immensely popular brand on Head-Fi. I had a meeting with James Zhong of FiiO. It was just a casual meeting during which James introduced me to the FiiO line. As the meeting concluded, he gave me a FiiO E12 Mont Blanc portable headphone amp.
It was probably a few weeks after returning from CES that I finally charged the FiiO E12 up, and started using it. I started with its low-gain (+0 dB) setting, and plugged my most sensitive IEMs into the E12. Relative silence. I played music, and was treated with a wonderful sounding amp that had me double-checking it for Ray Samuels Audio or HeadAmp markings. I tried a few other headphones with it, and, with aplomb, the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc drove them all.
In its high-gain setting (+10 dB), the FiiO E12 was making easy work--and beautiful driving--of my Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, and my HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-500. And the HD 800? You bet. With the exception of a few portable amps by ALO Audio and Ray Samuels Audio, I’ve not had much luck with finding a portable that I liked with the HD 800. Until the E12, that is. Not only did the E12 drive the HD 800, its bass boost (with its emphasis peaking way down low) gave the HD 800 a kick up the fun scale--this is something I’ve also enjoyed with the ALO Audio Mk3-B that also has a bass boost circuit (a very nice adjustable one).
Okay, so the 130-buck E12 was inspiring some derring-do, and I reached for the HiFiMAN HE-6. And the hits just kept on coming. Bass boost with the HE-6? Try it, 'cause it's real fun.
How does the E12 compare to the best of my portables? My SR-71B from Ray Samuels Audio, for example, is still the more impressive, more hi-fi driver of the HE-6 and HD 800 (using its balanced output)--bigger soundstage, blacker background, more dynamic. But that SR-71B is $650.00. My HeadAmp Pico Slim is still the more impressive, purpose-built amp for my top-tier IEMs, but at $399.00. The FiiO E12 is a $129.00 steal of an amp that brings together some of the qualities of my favorite portable amps, in a very well-built, full-featured package. (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the E12 also has a crossfeed circuit!)
My only real quibble with the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc is some sensitivity to radio frequency interference. If I'm using my iPhone as a source, for example, I'll occasionally hear interference and hash through the E12. This is most noticeable with sensitive in-ears, and also with some sensitive over-ears. It hasn't been bad enough to prevent me from pairing it with my iPhone, but it's not something I'm experiencing with most of my other premium portables. Also, since James gave me this E12, FiiO has since modified the bass boost circuit, moving the peak from 20Hz to 50Hz, so your results with bass boost may be different than mine.
If you’re looking for a do-everything portable amp--something you can use with your IEMs and hard-to-drive over-ears alike--I’ve not used anything else I’d recommend more heartily at anything near the price of the FiiO E12.
I may have been late to the FiiO bandwagon, but I’m definitely on it now.
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 theHeadAmp Pico Slim($399.00), and theRay 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 byclicking here, and the CEntrance Mini-M8 byclicking 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."
My audio chain has been pretty stable of late, so while I've continued to watch the progress of "audiophile" high-res players, I haven't been tempted beyond mild curiosity. But when Fiio released the X5 at only $350.00 USD, I just had to compare it against my reference DAPs.
What I look for in a DAP is simple: good build quality; reasonable battery life; an easy-to-use interface; the ability to drive both a variety of headphones without additional amplification; and great (neutral) sound.
Did I get all of this with the X5? Mostly, yes!
Overall, the build on the X5 is excellent and on par with my expectations of a top-of-the-line DAP. The aluminium alloy casing, smart fit and finish, making the X5 feel more expensive than its suggested retail.
The X5's battery life is above average for its class. Fiio rates the battery life at around 10-12 hours, and my real world test from a fully-charged state managed to play for 11.5 hours before the X5 quit. A full charge from empty took only 4 hours.
Usability-wise, let me preface by saying that the X5's overall usability falls short of my benchmark (Apple). However, the interface is surprisingly good considering it's early firmware stage (v1.0). It could use some work, but it's quite usable, has plenty of features, and I believe it will get better with future firmware releases.
As a DAC, the X5 performed flawlessly with no recognisable dropouts or glitches, sounding indistinguishable from my NFB-12. Blind, I don't think I could have picked one from the other, making the Fiio X5 a desktop-quality DAC on-the-go for me.
The X5's amp section is likewise good. I tested it with a Sennheiser HD 600, Beyerdynamic DT880, Grado RS1, Shure SE535 and Dunu DN-1000. At no time did I feel any of the headphones were under-driven, or in any way lacking. It's not going to drive power-hungry orthos, or extremely high impedance cans, but it'll drive practically anything else. The X5 obviates the need for an additional amp.
The X5 sounds phenomenal. It has a very black background, with no hiss at all, even with sensitive IEMs like the Shure SE535. The tonal balance is essentially flat/neutral, with a slightly warmish tint so as to sound full-bodied but not dark. I am also very happy with the detail presentation, and overall sense of space, particularly when listening via my HD 600 and DT-880. I can't fault it - the X5 sounds fantastic - and I wouldn't change a thing.
Sony Walkman NW-ZX1
With all the hi-res-capable music players out there by the likes of HiFiMAN, Astell & Kern, FiiO, iBasso, Calyx, and others, the Walkman NWZ-ZX1 by electronics giant Sony sort of squeezes in, ironically, as a boutique entry in the space. This is no doubt helped along by the fact that the NWZ-ZX1 is not currently available in the U.S., and I've seen no signs of that changing.
Despite the fact that it's swimming in some seriously shark-infested competitive waters, Sony's current flagship Walkman makes up for its couple of key shortcomings with an excellent Android-based UI (user interface), and--unlike the Astell & Kern players--the ability to install standard Android apps, which allows me to stream music with Beats Music (formerly MOG) and Spotify Premium. For purposes of music discovery, being able to use streaming services is a big deal to me. Keep in mind, though, that the NWZ-ZX1 is not a mobile phone--though its four-inch 854 x 480 screen does make it look and feel a lot like one--so you'll need a wi-fi connection for streaming.
The Walkman ZX1 can play every music file type I've thrown at it so far, including (with a recent firmware update) DSD (DSD64). (I do believe its DSD playback is facilitated through conversion to PCM first.) Its battery life is rated at up to 32 hours of play time with 128kbps MP3 files. While that sounds very generous, I've found the Walkman ZX1's battery life when playing a mix of CD-quality and hi-res tracks (hi-res PCM and DSD) to be much shorter than that, and more comparable to (and maybe a bit longer than) the Astell & Kern AK240.
The Walkman NWZ-ZX1's machined aluminum chassis with its leather-like backside is beautiful--elegant, yet striking. The aluminum is finished in a combination of brushed and bead-blasted finishes, to emphasize the chassis' beautiful beveling. The very top edge of the Walkman ZX1 appears to be made of plastic--made to look like the brushed aluminum around it--which I would assume is to improve radio performance (a detail I wish Astell & Kern had considered for its metal-bodied players, whose wi-fi reach I've found can drop off quickly with distance).
One strange thing about the Walkman ZX1's design, however, is its... well... its butt. (That's what I call it anyway.) The ZX1's lower 1/3 is thicker than the top 2/3, all of it protruding (smoothly) out back. This bumped-out bit means the Walkman ZX1 sits awkwardly when you set it down on its back panel, seeming to lean away from you. It also means that Sony saw fit to include a spacer with the Walkman ZX1, so that it can lie flat on top of something else (like, for example, Sony's own PHA-1 and PHA-2 DAC/amps). Admittedly, this helps the Walkman ZX1 feel good in the hand, but I'd rather it was able to lie flat on its back panel without the spacer. Yes, my Walkman has a leather-clad butt.
One key thing on my wishlist for the Walkman ZX1 is expandable storage. It comes with 128GB of internal storage, and no slots for expansion. This might sound like a lot of storage to some, but if you're going to be taking advantage of its hi-res capabilities, 128GB can fill up fast.
The amp section in the Walkman ZX1 is digital (Sony calls it the "S-Master HX digital amplifier"), and, in terms of background noise, is dead silent (to my ears) with most of my headphones. However, some of my most sensitive in-ears will uncover a very faint background hiss--very faint--that is generally quieter than room noise, and never audible to me during music.
Overall, the Walkman NWZ-ZX1's sound siganture is detailed and punchy, and it has enough to drive to power every headphone I regularly use portably, up to and including the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog, which, in terms of sensitivity, is about as much headphone as the Walkman ZX1's digital amp can comfortably push. It fares better with the more sensitive OPPO PM-1, which is a headphone pairing for the ZX1 that I'm particularly fond of. Most of my Walkman use, though, has been with my JH Audio Roxanne (customs), FitEar MH334, and Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors. To my ears, the ZX1 does not quite reach the heights of fidelity and sound quality I'm getting from the Astell & Kern AK240, but, for its features and its price, the sound quality I get from the Walkman is excellent.
In terms of usability, though, the Walkman scores gigantic points by allowing for the installation of standard Android apps, which, again, allow me to use streaming music services with it, or even (as I've been doing) to watch FIFA World Cup football on it via ESPN's streaming app. And, right now, there are no other hi-res-capable portable music players at Head-Fi HQ that'll do that.
It's not surprising to me that, despite its quirks, the Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX1 has so many fans in our community. I certainly am one of them.
"The ZX1 definitely grabs my attention more easily as it's so clean cut, precise, and clinical... I'll use the ZX1 when I'm on the move to 'n fro work, walking around whilst shopping, or at the local Starbucks whilst escaping from paternal duties."
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."
Head-Fi Moderator / 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 recently announced 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, as they were just announced (and so they only very recently arrived), 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."
The first thing many people wanted when they heard about the Calyx M was an AK240-level device without the price tag. Good luck! But in all honesty, if there is another company (other than Sony) that might be capable of invading the market with something competent, it would be another Korean company. Having owned a Calyx DAC in the past, the DAC 24/192, I was curious to find out how their portable would fare, so when the CEO of Calyx introduced himself at the May 2014 headphone festival in Tokyo, I didn’t hesitate to ask for a loaner unit.
The first physical impressions I had of the unit is that it is big, relative to the other DACs I have on hand. If you saw the photos of each individually it is natural to assume that the AK240 is the largest, when it is actually the smallest overall, if a bit thicker than the M. Other than the very straight-forward design of the M compared to the X5 and AK240, the two most noticeable physical details that set themselves apart from the competition become quickly apparent on picking it up: The two memory card slots: one microSD and one SD, and the magnetic volume control. If you’re wondering whether you can take the volume control off, the answer is: Yes, you can. But the magnets are strong enough that if nobody had told you about the volume control being magnetic you probably wouldn’t notice.
The large screen is filled with an equally large, easy to read and beautiful Android-based custom user interface, which one navigates with swiping gestures. At present the user interface is somewhat laggy when swiping quickly at times and card scanning is somewhat slow, but Calyx are working steadily on not only improving the performance but adding features such as search. Regardless, what features are there, like easy re-ordering of songs and the Jukebox feature are good with most controls large and easy to tap.
Sound-wise too, the performance is very good, if a bit behind the AK240 and seems to be a bit “darker” in presentation. Music comes through cleanly with a wide soundstage whether using IEMs or full-sized headphones, for which the Calyx M is more than capable of driving. The Calyx M with the HD-800 and Audeze LCD-X, while not driving them with the authority of a desktop amp still managed to do a decent job with the sound, the main thing lacking was volume level on the tracks from David Chesky’s Open Your Ears album. The gain level was far better suited to IEMs.
Still, I’ve only had the Calyx M for a short while and I’m waiting for a firmware update that will add more features, including M4A support, allowing to try it with more music after which look for more discussion and a reviews.
Over the years, I've played with several models of high-end portable media players, but have always run back to my iPhone/iPod-based portable rigs. Why? User interface (UI). Apple's iOS is, by a wide margin, the most intuitive operating system I've ever used. Conversely, the UI's of the high-end portable media players I'd used up to now had my teeth gnashing, and my fingers doing Dance-Dance-Revolution-worthy boogying to do even the simplest things (like changing albums).
When Astell&Kern contacted me to try the AK100, I rather reluctantly agreed, assuming that I'd be walking into another UI morass. If it wasn't for Astell&Kern's iriver roots, I might have kindly rebuffed the chance, but I'm so glad I didn't. With its capacitive touch screen, physical volume knob, and a UI that is oodles better than any other high-end non-iOS media player I've used so far, the AK100 shocked me simply by being usable. That it also played my high-res files (up to 24-bit/192kHz), had a noise floor so low I couldn't detect it with my most sensitive headphones, and sounded insanely good with the first headphone I plugged into it (the Sennheiser IE 800), had me besotted with the diminutive music player straight away.
The touch screen on the AK100 and the AK120 (more on the AK120 later)--and the interfaces Astell&Kern designed to take advantage of it--are, in large part, what makes these players so easy to use. While it still falls short of the intuitiveness of an iPhone or iPod Touch, it's still easy to figure out and navigate around the moment you pick it up.
One big miss for me is the lack of search. With the ability to expand to 160GB to192GB of total storage (depending on which model you choose, with two 64GB micro-SD cards), the ability to search through that much music would be immensely helpful (as opposed to only navigating by artist, song, album, folder etc.). Given that both sound so dang good, the lack of search hasn't been a deal-killer for me, but I hope a future firmware update will add search to the AK100 and AK120. Speaking of firmware updates, Astell&Kern has been quite supportive with firmware updates for both models, so I expect they may only get better over time.
The Astell&Kern AK120 is the latest addition to the line--the flagship--and is just a touch larger than the AK100, but has dual-DAC architecture (two Wolfson WM8740 DACs versus one in the AK100), improved measured performance, more internal storage (64GB versus 32GB, but both also have two micro-SD card slots for expansion), and optical/USB external DAC functionality (the AK100 only offers optical external DAC functionality). Astell&Kern also went with a low (3-Ohm) output impedance with the AK120, which makes it even more versatile, in terms of the types of headphones it can drive.
And, yes, the AK120 does indeed sound better. It moves Astell&Kern ever closer to achieving a micro-sized all-in-one rig (high-res source, DAC, and amp) that approaches true high-end desktop rig functionality and performance--and one that is easy and intuitive to use, and one that fits in my pocket.
UPDATE: We will soon edit this guide listing to reflect this in more detail, but a recent firmware update for the AK120 enabled DSD support (in addition to the very complete file format support it already had). DSD in my pocket!
"I decided to try the Audeze LCD-3s with the AK100. Straight out of the headphone jack. And I am pleasantly surprised. The song is gloriously rendered by such a small DAP. Though it may not seem like the best way to portably listen with the LCD-3s, its still pretty impressive that the AK100 can drive these headphones."
When HiFiMAN released the HM-801, I was pumped--a high-end portable player with high-end internal DAC (PCM-1704)! Then I used it. As a portable player, I simply could not use it--its user interface was far too unintuitive, far too difficult. As I've described it before, I felt like my fingers were doing Dance Dance Revolution moves, even just to do simple tasks like changing albums. Because of this, the HM-801 founds its way into a single role with me (which it still has)--the occasional portable PCM-1704-based USB DAC.
A couple of years ago, when HiFiMAN told me they were coming out with a successor to the HM-801, I wasn't sure what to expect. The successor, they said--the HM-901--would have two ES9018 DAC chips inside (keep in mind, again, this is a portable device). And among many other features, it would also have a stepped attenuator as its volume control. It would, like the HM-801, offer the ability to switch out headphone amp modules to meet specific needs and headphone types, including a balanced drive module. It all sounded too complicated to me. And, again, my worries about user interface persisted.
Well, a couple of weeks ago, the HiFiMAN HM-901 finally arrived at Head-Fi HQ, and my fears have been put to rest. The user interface is a vast improvement over the HM-801. And the sound, from the default headphone amp module? It's the best sounding portable media player I've yet heard. I swapped the IEM amp module in, and tested it with some of my favorite in-ear monitors, and, again, the HM-901 continues to floor me with what's possible sonically from a portable device. (Swapping the module out is easy, too.)
The Astell & Kern AK120 still holds an advantage in terms of portability, practicality, USB DAC functionality, and ease of use, no doubt--and also in terms of battery life (14 hours versus the HM-901's nine hours). But the HM-901, to me, edges out the mighty little Astell & Kern in terms of sound quality as a portable player, and I haven't even experimented with its balanced drive amp module yet (which I have here, but haven't gotten to yet).
The HM-901--though a gigantic improvement in almost all respects over the HM-801--is still not the height of practicality. In my experience, however, it is (at the time of this writing) the current height of fidelity in currently available portable music players.
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 X1isthe 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."