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

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

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

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Fostex HP-A4
TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $499
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

FiiO X5  
TYPE: Portable digital audio player
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PRICE: $349
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URL: www.fiio.net/en/fiio

Excerpted from Brooko's review of the FiiO X5.

 

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.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Astell&Kern AK120 is 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.

 

NOTE: a firmware update for the AK120 enabled DSD support (in addition to the very complete file format support it already had). DSD in my pocket!

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

 

 

ALO Audio Rx  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
TYPE: Portable amp
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PRICE: $299
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URL: www.aloaudio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

ALO Audio’s Rx series of amps have gone from strength to strength over the years. Starting out simply, with not much more than an opamp and culminating a few years ago with the powerful Rx MKIII balanced amp, Ken Ball has rebooted the Rx series with a dedicated IEM amp this time round. Housed in a nickel-plated case, at first glance it seems a bit large compared to competitors, but Ken explained that after testing a number of electronic volume controls and not being satisfied, he settled on a regular volume pot, necessitating a slightly larger than ideal case. Unlike the original Rx, the latest version includes a comprehensive power supply and a dedicated headphone amp chip from Texas Instruments. 

 

I first gave the Rx a run using my Chord Hugo as a source and the demanding JHAudio Laylas and, much to my pleasure, couldn’t make out any difference in sound quality — the Rx was effectively transparent. The same went for my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, RHA T20is and FitEar FitEars. What was most interesting with the Laylas is how the Rx seems to bring out the treble better than all the other amps and DAPs I’ve tried, from the AK240, Headamp Pico Power, Calyx M and others. At the other end of the spectrum, the bass came through precisely and cleanly, a touch more so than from amps. The benefits of dedicating an amp to a particular type of transducer has certainly paid off here. 

 

To top it off, ALO Audio includes a high quality micro-USB cable with the Rx, which not only be used for charging but with other USB DACs and DAPs. The Rx will play while charging, useful while listening at a computer. For high-end custom or universal IEM owners who are after a good amp, this is definitely one to check out. 

Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo -dB

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-shigzeo
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This amp has been a very impressive sounding amp so far, and I should have more to say about it down the road.

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

 

 

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

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

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

Another entry in the fully-balanced field is the Ray Samuels Audio F-35 Lightning. The Lightning is fully balanced, and only provides a balanced headphone output (but both single-ended and balanced inputs). This is a very purist approach, and is intended for those who know that having a full balanced headphone amp for portable use is exactly what they're looking for. The pricing for the F-35 Lightning is $549.00, under the SR-71B's pricing. While the F-35 lightning will have the same current output as the SR-71B, expect it to have about half of the insane 36.8V that the SR-71B can swing in balanced mode.

 

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

 

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

 

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

-shigzeo
Head-Fi Moderator/Member/Reviewer

 

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

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

Astell&Kern AK100-II and AK120-II 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

-MacedonianHero
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator / Member / Reviewer

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

 

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

LH Labs Geek Out 1000 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

LH Labs had been around long before they did their first crowdfunding campaign (mostly known by "LH Labs" then), but I think it's safe to say that it was their "Geek Out" campaign on Kickstarter that brought more attention to them then they'd ever had before it. As a consumer, I've had mixed success with participating as a funder, having been burned before by a couple of unfulfilled crowdfunded projects. Thankfully, though, the Geek Out campaign was not one of them, and it resulted in a very good USB bus-powered portable DAC/amp combo for me!

 

The Geek Out is available in a few different versions, differentiated by their maximum output power (100mW, 450mW, and 1000mW). I opted for the most powerful version (the Geek Out 1000), so that's the version this gift guide entry is specifically about--however, other than output power, I believe the feature sets are exactly the same on all three versions.

 

The Geek Out 1000 has some pretty crazy specifications for a device its size: it can decode up two 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and also DSD (I believe the Geek Out's DAC chip is the ESS9018). Its analog output is Class-A (so the Geek Out runs quite toasty). Its 3.5mm stereo line-out's output impedance is 47Ω, and its 3.5mm stereo headphone output's output impedance is a very low 0.47Ω, which I think a lot of diehard portable audiophiles will be thrilled to know. Both analog outputs are level-adjustable, using a 64-bit digital volume control. Again, the version I have has a maximum output of one watt (1000mW), which is impressively powerful, given the fact that the Geek Out is as small as it is, and entirely USB bus-powered.

 

Even though its quite powerful, the Geek Out 1000 still sounds excellent with my IEMs (in-ear monitors), though my more sensitive IEMs do touch its noise floor. I've since picked up the Geek Out IEM 100, which you'll find a separate Gift Guide entry for below.

 

Where the Geek Out 1000 sets itself apart is when you start using it to feed headphones that you'd normally reserve for your desktop rigs. Sennheiser HD 800? No problem. HiFiMAN HE-6? In a pinch, sure, why not? My favorite headphones with the Geek Out 1000 so far? Audeze LCD-X, the new HiFiMAN HE-560--and, surprisingly, the Abyss AB-1266, which the Geek Out 1000 pushes around with surprising authority (though with the big Abyss you're likely going to go higher on the Geek's volume settings than you're probably used to).

 

The Geek's sound signature, to my ears, is of the more detailed, borderline-analytical variety. Though not particularly forgiving, it's also not harsh. Probably owing to its robust power output, the Geek Out 1000 has a good, strong sense of drive. Relative to other small form factor USB bus-powered DAC/amp combos I've used, the Geek Out 1000, to my ears, is capable of the most, in terms of resolution and drive versatility. In this class of products, it is the one most able to serve as an all-in-one desktop rig alternative, and you'll find some people in the Head-Fi community using it as their main setup.

 

Since the previous Gift Guide update, LH Labs, via a firmware update, changed the purpose of the buttons on the side of the Geek Out. While I'm sure some may miss the volume controls they once represented, I am certainly not one of them. I never used the buttons for volume control, as explosive volume level jumps were common for me when using them. They've since changed what were the volume buttons into buttons that let you switch between a couple of digital filter settings. Given how much I couldn't stand the hardware volume implementation, I accept these button reassignments with joy. One unfortunate thing is that the firmware update did away with the "3D Awesomifier" function, which was LH Labs' version of crossfeed. I liked having this option, and will miss it.


Before I had the chance to hear the Geek Out 1000, I was worried that perhaps LH Labs's Kickstarter campaign (in terms of what kind of product they were promising) was a bit too ambitious, and perhaps too optimistic--I mean, they really pumped up what it was going to be capable of. I have to say, though, that I think it has in fact lived up to the campaign's promises, and the LH Labs Geek Out 1000 is one of the easiest $300 Head-Fi DAC/amp recommendations I can think of right now, in terms of sound quality, format versatility, and its ability to drive anything from some of my in-ears to the big Abyss.
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $299 
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URL: www.lhlabs.com
TYPE: Portable USB DAC, iDevice DAC, and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $479.00
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URL: www.adl-av.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

FiiO X1  

Excerpted from Brooko's review of the FiiO X1.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-ClieOS
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable digital audio player
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PRICE: $99.99
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URL: www.fiio.net/en/fiio
LH Labs Geek Out IEM100  
TYPE: Portable USB DAC/headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $289
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URL: www.lhlabs.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

As much as I'm a fan and user of the LH Labs Geek Out 1000, I am also an avid user of in-ear monitors, with several super-sensitive IEMs in my arsenal. Some of my moderately sensitive IEMs work quite well out of the Geek Out 1000, but some of the sensitive ones can dive headlong into the Geek Out 1000's noise floor.

 

I've been wishing for a more IEM-specific Geek Out, and was thrilled to pick up the LH Labs Geek Out IEM 100. With only 1/10 the nominal output of the Geek Out 1000, the Geek Out IEM 100 is far more suited for use with my super-sensitive in-ears, and it is significantly quieter (in terms of background noise) with these types of headphones.

 

Still, with 100mW of output, the Geek Out IEM 100 can power moderately sensitive over-ears, too, so opting for this model needn't be too limiting.

 

As for its sound signature, form factor, decoding ability, and functionality, read my Gift Guide entry for the LH Labs Geek Out 1000 (above), and all but the output power differences essentially apply to this IEM-specific model of the Geek Out, too.

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

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

Two of most popular designed-for-IEM portable headphone amps in the Head-Fi community are the HeadAmp Pico Slim ($399.00), and the Ray Samuels Audio Shadow ($395.00). These amps maintain perfect channel balance at any volume level, and virtually background-noise-free performance. Both of these portable amps accomplish this with the use of stepped volume controls and special attention to low circuit noise.   A couple of new entries into this field of amps designed with IEMs in mind, and with stepped volume controls, is the JDS C5 and C5D, and the CEntrance Mini-M8. Check out the JDS Labs C5 and C5D in this Gift Guide by clicking here, and the CEntrance Mini-M8 by clicking here.

 

 

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

 

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

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

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