Pros: Refined sound, detailed smooth highs, very black background
Cons: Weak amplifier
First off a little about me.
I wouldn't say I am an audiophile as such, though a few of my non music loving friends would tend to disagree.
I merely love music and cannot stand poor audio. I know what I like in speakers/headphones.
That being said I may steer clear of as many audiophile terms as I can in this review,
Conditions/gear for this review:
A loud office building
A loud train on the commute
Unique Melody Mentor universal iems
Mr Speakers Mad Dog 3.2
An iPad mini retina 128gb
A HTC one m8
A fiio e18
And of course a beyerdynamic a200p that Beyer so graciously allowed me to trial and review.
Music used for this review is a mix of Chesky tracks, some flacs ranging from Nora Jones 24/192, daft punk 24/96 and even some system of a down 16/48.
I will also be using some 320 bit rate mp3s from various genres that I listen to on a daily basis.
Usually in such a review I would steer clear of mp3s etc however I see this as a portable solution that I am reviewing so in addition to critical reviewing with flacs I will review with the Kind of files a lot of people may pick up off iTunes or Google.play for their mobile device.
Ok so where to begin.
First off, this thing looks amazing. The build quality is stellar. Having owned an ak100 previously it was up to the standard I expected.
Looks aside however there are a few niggles in its design.
The volume wheel, though I understand what they were going for with the turn table design, is very hard to turn without the provided rubber pads. I know they are provided but design wise this seems like an afterthought (and takes away from the look of the device)
When using the provided leather cover the track control buttons can be quite hard to distinguish, not impossible however it does make for some adjustment time. With the case off this is a non issue.
Now this device is small. I am talking, take how small you expect it to be and halve its depth. It really is amazing what they can do in such a small package. This in mind however, it's form factor makes it almost awkward when sliding in and out of the pocket and when using the phone for browsing the internet or games as an example.
The design of the case would have me lean towards this not being meant to be in the pocket so much as on a belt etc while tethered to the phone in your pocket. This is also a great idea except it makes your headphone cable quite awkward if you are wearing a suit or he like.
I know the above is mostly nitpicking so take it for what you will.
To me when going portable, functionality is almost as important as sound... Almost.
The cables provided work as intended, though don't wow me, but honestly every are USB cables, I am over it.
I will break this into a few comparisons however firstly my overall thoughts on the sound.
The sound is crystal clear. I was truly impressed by the transparency of this little guy. In comparison to the AK100, it is all but as transparent. It is not coloured in any obvious way and portrays the music in a very musical, non analytical way, which I guess is a result of good implementation of the DAC Chip used.
The bass strong, however not "boosted". It is tight and detailed with no obvious bleed into the mids. It extends well and really compliments the Mentors in this regard.
The lower mids, though a little less prominent than the bass, are still detailed and never sound thin. This is a huge deal for me, as I tend to prefer a thicker (not muddy) sound to a thin, dry sound.
The vocals I found to be very detailed, being able to hear lips opening and nose breathing from vocalists wasn’t something I had heard on my mobile listening, so this was a pleasant addition to my listening experience.
I found the highs to be quite smooth. Very refined. Never sibilant. I know this has as much to do with the headphones/earphones presenting the music also, however I did not notice any negative impact on treble even when there were clearly more details presented than directly from an iPhone5s, HTC One M8, iPad Mini Retina or Fiio e18.
If I could attribute two words to the sound of the a200p they would be "refined" and "mature".
HTC One vs a200p:
When comparing the HTC One and the a200p, one instantly notices a smoother sound from the a200p. When going back and forth between the 2, the HTC sounds harsh. Almost offensively so. I understand one must adjust to the sound of one or another, but repeatedly, when switching back to the a200p, I was happily presented with a cleaner, more articulate sound with a airier wider sound stage, cleaner bass and breathtaking vocals. Output wise, both devices drive my Mentors to painful levels. With my MadDogs, after unlocking the volume limit, the a200p was slightly louder, however remained cleaner sounding right the way to the top.
iPhone 5s/iPad Mini retina vs a200p:
I have combined these comparisons because I believe the iPad and iPhone to sound very similar, however that the iPhone ever so slightly exceeds the iPad sound quality.
When comparing the iPhone and the a200p, while the difference wasn’t as clear as the HTC, it was obvious that the a200p is again more refined than the iPhone.
In this case however, it is better than the iPhone in every regard, but only slightly. The iPhone has more bass quantity, but less control/detail/texture. The mids are more recessed on the iPhone, and imo this is one of the clear wins of the a200p. The treble is much smoother on the a200p, but retains detail besting the iPhone. The iPhone can be shrill at higher listening levels/upper range, this is not present with the a200. To me another big win.
The soundstage is bigger and instrument separation is leaps and bounds ahead of the 2 mobile devices.
Volume output on the iPhone/iPad were noticeably lower than the a200p.
E18 vs a200p:
While these 2 devices share similar features (while the e18 only natively supports android), they are very different products.
The a200p is a much prettier/smaller device, however I would argue that the e18 is actually a more useful form factor. It slips into a pocket much easier, is easier to attach to a device and also doesn’t add complexity to using the device when in hand.
The controls of the e18 can be used through a trouser leg, volume, bass, gain, track change. All of it.
That being said, the a200p being used outside the pocket on a belt etc, the controls are equally as easy to reach.
Comparing the sound on these 2 is almost like comparing a Bentley to a Camaro.
It greatly depends what you want in a device.
Fantastic looking device
Firmware works seamlessly with android and apple devices
Refined sound, detailed, more neutral than the e18
Very black background for iem's
Seemingly endless Battery life
NO DETECTIBLE INTERFERENCE FROM MOBILE DEVICE
Weak amplifier (perfect for iem's however)
Awkward form factor if you intend to use the device it is tethered to.
All the inputs and outputs you could ever need
Can be used as a DAC, amp or both.
Good form factor for attaching to a phone
Gain and bass boost options if required
Hiss (even on my mad dogs)
Buggy firmware as best I can tell, mine actually goes haywire every time the phone roams.
HORRIBLE MOBILE INTERFERENCE.
Not neutral, bass centric sound.
Now I know I am not writing a review on the e18 but these are in comparison to the a200p and lets face it, the fiio is probably the closest competition to the a200 at this point in time.
If you are planning on using iem's, then my suggestion is the a200p hands down (if you can afford the extra $$). It has a darker back ground, a balanced sound with fantastic clear detail but remains musical at all times. I don’t believe the extra features of the e18 outweigh the difference in sound between the 2 devices.
The a200p has better sound staging, better instrument separation, better upper mids and vocals. The a200p almost makes the fiio sound dark.
HOWEVER if you are planning on using full sized headphones in your travels or you are a complete bass head then you have a tougher decision on your hands.
With my Mad Dogs, there are very few songs I don’t have the a200 at maximum volume to achieve a normal listening level.
All this said however, I have not had the impulse to use anything BUT the a200p over the past week that I have had it. In fact, I was disappointed to have to a/b it with alternative devices.
In closing, my advice, if you have a pair of iem's and you want to go mobile, it is hard to look past this device at its price point. Some people will argue it is too expensive, but you are imo essentially allowing your phone to sound like an ak100 (sans the impedance issues). Having the ability to have that sound quality, but still be able to use your music app of choice, stream if you like to, watch videos etc is worth the cost.
If however you are planning on running full sized cans, I would be setting some money aside for more powerful options in the HiFi m8.
If however you are poor, have a wife that cripples your audiophilism or are otherwise unable to save $350, then perhaps the e18 is an option for you.
Ciao for now.