Pros: Great resolution, highs and bass. Excellent sound stage. All in one solution which fits into my pocket quite nicely
Cons: Battery life is on the low side, volume knob dampening too light, slight unit rattle, useless case
Fostex HP-P1 mini first impressions:
I am moving from iPhone 4S playing lossless files + RSA Tomahawk + SE535LTD
Build quality good: is industry leading. It is solid, curvy, beautiful and integrates very well with an iPhone with the cut outs on the top. It just oozes quality. Think RSA build quality. It fits well into my jeans pocket as a unit surprisingly, so quite portable considering all it does.
Build quality bad: The unit rattles? erm well not really rattles but it's like the battery is free moving inside the unit or something? Not a huge problem or even a problem, just being pedantic. You have to purposely vigorously shake it to hear it. The volume knob is a bit big, and not as solid as I'd prefer. The dampening or resistance of the knob when turning it is very light and you feel like you can accidently bump it and turn it up/down, not that that has happened. But I have noticed that my ALO usb cable sticks out a lot and the volume knob is dwarfed by the ALO cable (The ALO cable sticks out way too far, it's not at all a "portable" cable... why can't anyone invent a really really short, low profile or even hard mount 90 deg to 90 deg USB cable? I might have to DIY) . A large 3.5mm plug such as those from Pailiccs or Viablue will dwarf the volume knob. Bottom line although it looks big and looks clumsy, in practice it's not actually a problem and probably better that it's big as everything else on that side of the Fostex is big too. Need more time to suss out if this is a problem in the long term or not
That case: what were they thinking? The Fostex is such an artwork of industrial design and then they want you to park it in a monstrosity of velcro and nylon straps! Sure I can see that it was designed to carry everything and sort of be useful, but in practice it makes the unit feel 2x bigger and annoying to use as you have to rip velcro everytime you want to access your ipod. I honestly gave it a good try, in the end I slipped the unit into a fake leather pouch. I think it will so fit into a leather case made for Garmin 5" GPSs or even something for a Nintendo DS. I've ordered some cases on fleebay and will update if anyone's interested.
Sound Quality: Left the best for last. At this early stage I can only give impressions on 4 things that stood out the most initially:
1) Bass. Let me start by saying the RSA Tomahawk is no slouch when it comes to bass, but the Fostex simply just has more of it! I attribute this to the P1 DAC compared with iPhone's DAC. There's more of it, it's more pronounced, it's deeper in some tracks compared to iPhone+ Tomahawk, but not muddy or droning. It's tight, defined, rounded at the edges. Pretty much the same as Tomahawk just more of it and deeper depth, possibly from higher resolution of the DAC.
2) Resolution. I honestly think the resolution difference in moving from iPhone+Tomahawk to Fostex is the same as moving from iPhone headphone out to Tomahawk! Yes this Fostex Dac has amazing resolution and resolves tracks very very well. It's a whole new level of clarity, background singers come to life, instrument separation is superb, quality of the notes are crisp and accurate. Nuances in some tracks are clean and clear. I don't feel it takes away from the musicality of tracks as the synergy overall is very good. It just sounds superb.
3) Soundstage: Filter 2 which is described as: 2: AKM’s newly developed digital filter called “minimum delay filter”. It accurately reproduces the original recorded sound without pre-echo. To me it enhances sound stage two fold. Flipping from 1 to 2 and back again on most tracks confirms that I like filter 2 much much more. Filter 1 sounds flat and 2D in comparison. Filter 2 is more forward, positions the music further into the darkness infront of you, but not to the point of "Grand Hall" setting on my home theatre receiver. It simply gives more air and depth. I dunno but to me it's a much more desirable. Need more time to suss out ultimately if it is better
4) High end shrill: This was one thing that bothered me a lot when I first got the Shure's. Let me try to describe it: On some tracks, the high end was very fatiguing, sometimes overbearing, best to be described as "shrill" or "shrieking" where high pitched spectrum was just compressed into one blob and pushed out, and made my ears uncomfortable to listen to those tracks for long periods. Maybe I am sensitive to high end frequency I don't know. Would make me wince sometimes it was that noticeable. I had a feeling this was to do with the iPhone DAC. It was noticeable enough for me to want to try the Fostex out and take the monetary risk. Well I am glad to say I was right! The Fostex resolves this upper frequency mish mash with accuracy and I no longer hear the high end shrill. It's made my music much more relaxed at any volume. I am SO glad this was the case and that it wasn't just me imagining this. Overall this "fix" alone was worth the money in my opinion.
Caveat: I have not tried the Fostex line out to the Tomahawk because I don't have a high quality mini to mini, but I am sure most of these issues that I list above have nothing to do with the Tomahawk itself. I feel that the Tomahawk will do a stellar job as an amplifier and was only held back by the source of iPhone 4S dac. So bottom line, if you have a good amp, just buy a CLAS and save money, that's if you don't mind carrying 3 units. But as a single package, the Fostex is unbeatable.
Hiss: Now I am allergic to background amp hiss. I break out in hives and start coughing. I cannot stand it and it's the first feature I look for in an amp. Unfortunately there is hiss with the HP-P1 on the SE535ltd's but I am happy to report it's acceptable. It's not as deep dark and silent like RSA Tomahawk, but on the lower gain setting it is just barely audible. If you turn the unit off and on, only then can you hear it. It is nowhere near as bad as the FiiO E11 which hiss sounds worst than the Fostex on highest gain setting. Turning the volume to any level does not increase hiss. It is acceptably low enough not to be an issue so I am pleased and relieved at that. I am itchy but have not broken out in hives...
Battery and charge: As per what the folks in the Fostex thread were talking about: http://www.head-fi.org/t/566026/fostex-hp-p1-portable-amplifier-and-dac-for-ipod-iphone-short-review-and-impressions-thread the Fostex plugged into power does not drain the iPhone. I've been listening for 4 hours now and my iPhone 4S battery has remained at 88% without dipping. This is a BIG BIG feature for me as it would be unacceptably inconvenient to have to stop half way during the day to charge the iPhone cause it's out of juice! What would have been great is having that final step of the Fostex charging the iphone too, that would be enormously advantageous. But so far because it "tops up" the iphone it's not a major issue for me.
Bad: 7 Hours is all you get which compared to the Tomahawk's 400 hours, it's miniscule. But then again 400 hours is ridiculous anyway but still, 14 or 20 hours would have been nice. Again not an issue for me because my commute is 45mins max between power plugs. I did notice that recharge time was long, even plugged into the wall socket rather than PC the HP-P1 still wants a longer than usual time to charge. Again, not a problem for me as it remains on power all day at work and when I get home. Pretty much I think it matches my Iphone 4S's battery life of a single day (heavy user) so I religiously charge my phone anyway.
Conclusion: I think as a single unit solution, THIS IS IT. I agree that a Fostex/CLAS + Ibasso DB2 + RSA SR-71B + Balanced phones would rip holes in the HP-P1 but then it should, it's 3 boxes compared to just 1. Even CLAS + SR-71B may be better than Fostex on it's own but then that's 2 boxes. My point is for one box solution it's awesomeness. Turn off the Fostex, the iphone recognises this and switches off music at same time, very nice and convenient feature that can't be done on 2 or 3 boxes.
I've said it before but I'll say it again: If (big IF) Ray Samuel's releases an iDevice integrated portable balanced DAC I will be forced to sell up and buy that and the SR-71B and recable my SE535LTD.
Value for Money: Since I purchased my Fostex for a STEAL of a price I can't be trusted with the value for money comment because in my case it was RIDICULOUSLY good value for money.
Music I listenned to for the review: Michael Jackson's HIStory, Queen 2011 Remastered Greatest Hits, Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, The Corrs Forgiven Not Forgotten, Bee Gees The Greatest Hits the Record, The Eagles Greatest Hits, Pink Floyd The Wall, Guns n Roses Greatest Hits, Live - Awake, Adele 21, Missy Higgins (all), Dolly Parton Treasures, Enya Greatest Hits, Kelly Clarkson Breakaway, Norah Jones Come away with me, ABBA Gold.
And now a quick review of the DIYMod + RSA Tomahawk vs Fostex HP-P1 (to answer my own question!)
I purchased a DIYMod based on a gen 5.5 ipod classic which comes with CF upgrade, using Blackgate caps (whatever they are?) from a member here on Head-Fi. I also have my iPhone 4S to compare to so I will do a 4 way review/impression
1) iPhone headphone plug
2) iPhone 4S + Tomahawk
3) DIY + Tomahawk
4) What I think about the three versus Fostex HP-P1
None of the equipment has been burnt in so I can only offer my first impressions. Sometimes I find this to be easier as it's what you notice right away before getting to used to a sound signature.
Tracks used: Micheal Jackson: Beat it, The Way You Make Me Feel. Norah Jones Come Away With Me. Fleetwood Mac Big Love (live), Tusk. Queen, We Will Rock You. Pink Floyd The Wall. The Corrs Erin Shore. Roxette Listen To Your Heart, It Must Have Been Love, amongst many others.
1) iPhone 4S on it's own
High pitched Shrill is present. Any powerful and "busy" set of high and loud volleys of high notes or vocals and it becomes a mish mash of high pitch shrieking. I truly believe this is the iPhone 4S DAC. Soundstage is the least of the 4 options. Small hall is the best I can describe it. It's not a convincing soundstage as it sounds too compact and closed. Resolution is lower, not as crisp, mids less defined, high end suffers alot and is a significant downgrade. Bass has is the biggest downgrade. It's muddier and less defined. There's less of it and the thump has less authority and body. Voices are not as convincing, being somewhere between your ears. In general the music sounds compact and closed. The iPhone does exhibit some hiss, after a track there is about 2-3 seconds of very very low but still audible hiss before IOS shuts off the DAC (I presume) and you hear an audible click after which is proceeded with absolute silence.
Good: After carrying the Fostex or Tomahawk along with the iPhone, you really appreciate just the phone on its own! So much less to carry! Acceptable performance considering it's a phone.
Bad: Worst option of the four reviewed here in terms of sound quality but still OK. Compact sound stage. High freq shrill.
2) iPhone 4S + Tomahawk
High pitch "shrill" is there, ever present in most tracks, probably worst than iPhone on it's own because it's now being amplified by the Tomahawk. Sound is more compact and not as forward as HP-P1. Instrument separation is still pretty impressive and resolution is pretty good too, all the nuances are present and audible. Acoustic guitar and cymbals are most impressive. Voice is intimate and close by, roughly positioned in front of your face. Sound stage is good, about a small concert hall sized. Bass is strong and thumping as it always has been without droning or muddiness: it's pretty tight. The Tomahawk is an impressive unit indeed. Hiss is not present at all, I can't tell difference between the Tomahawk being on or off. The iPhone hiss is still present but the Tomahawk is completely silent, deep and dark. Overall acceptable and quite enjoyable, if not for the high freq shrill. If it wasn't for the high freq shrill I'd end my audio journey with this set up because it is quite acceptable and enjoyable.
Good: Impressive considering it's a phone. Resolution is good, bass is good, mids are clear and well defined.
Bad: High end shrill, Tomahawk outclasses the iPhone so it's the weakest link
3) DIYMod + Tomahawk
Surprisingly good performance for a 6 yr old iPod! High Pitch shrill is still here. I feel it's worst than iPhone 4S + Tomahawk as cymbals and high frequency vocals are a mash of sound rather than metal cymbals. Vocalised "S's" become sort of a SHHH sound. There is an overall feeling that the DIYMod has a more analogue sound, not as clinical as iPhone 4S, quite like... a vinyl record actually but nearly as convincing. It almost sounds muddy. I have a turntable and Luxman 2 Channel amp hooked up to KEF floorstanders downstairs and I can't exactly say it's as convincing as that setup. It's almost "artificial". Resolution of cymbals and acoustic guitar is not as crisp as iPhone 4S. Everything else seems pretty much on Par with iPhone 4S. Instrument separation is still good, resolution is still high quality, able to hear the usual nuances present in the usual tracks. Bass is still thumping, tight and good quantity. Voices are about the same location, roughly in front of your face. Voices seem not to be as crisp and intimate however, I am used to clinical precision with voices so this might be my own ears. Sound stage to me sounds smaller than the iPhone 4S, only very slightly on some tracks. Hiss is about the same as iPhone 4S, basically nothing at all. Overal quite impressive and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would have.
Good: Overall a good sound, very little difference from the iPhone 4S which I feel is already pretty good. More analogue sounding, not as clinical
Bad: High end shrill still there, possibly worst than iPhone 4S in come cases. Transfer times from iTunes to gen 5.5 is on USB 1.0 so it's really really slow compared to iPhone 4S, twice or more slower to transfer same amount of songs. Lastly I would not carry a DIYMod on top of a iPhone 4S if I already have the iPhone 4S. This would mean carrying 3 devices which is unnecessary (unless you want to for some reason).
4) Fostex HP-P1 and iPhone 4S
Wow, after 3-4 hours on the other devices, we come round robin back to the Fostex. Yes it sounds the best of the four, noticeable straight away. It reaffirms the price of admission. Sound stage is large dark concert all, it's quite impressive and addictive. Voices are somewhere 20 or so rows of seats infront of you. Enya is just ETHEREAL! Some tracks give me goose bumps. Adele is superb on the Fostex. Instrument separation is superb and is leagues ahead. Mids are most impressive, precise, clean and highly detailed. Bass is very very impressive, thumping yet tight, deep depth. High freq shrill is completely eradicated, instead the Fostex accurately resolves strong high pitched "volleys" of sounds, making it less fatiguing. S's are S's and not SHH's. Hiss is just slightly more than scenario 1 or 2 but really it's quite acceptable. Overall the Fostex is the most enjoying to listen to off the lot, biases aside. I really feel the overall balance of the dac+amp combo is fantastic. If you are somewhat into this hobby, you owe it to yourself to demo one, it's that good. Leave your wallet at home though when you do!
In order of best to worst has to be:
1) Fostex HP-P1 - No shrill, massive and impressive sound stage. Overall it sounds very good!
2) iPhone 4S + Tomahawk - Only because I then don't have to carry an ipod as well as my phone, but mainly because I think there is very little difference between the DIYMod and iPhone 4S.
3) DIYMod + Tomahawk - look it is impressive but just can't overlook the shrill and slow transfer speeds. I am not sure I prefer a more analogue sound of the DIYMod, it's not convincing enough.
4) iPhone on it's own - No surprises
After 4 or so hours of swapping around and listening carefully I am convinced I've chosen the right rig. It's the most enjoyable and least fatiguing. It's convenient and a good one box solution.
Thanks for reading!