Pros: Beautiful sound with 24/96 FLAC that no other portable can match
Cons: Short battery life, large size, small internal storage, no video
REVIEW of HM-801:
I've had a loaner 801 here for a week and a half, playing a multitude of 24/96 hi-res downloads and 16/44 FLAC or WAV files, and all I can say is that I've already emailed Fang that I want to buy this one to replace my iMod/Vcap dock.
I took it to Westone on Wednesday to try out their new ES5 demos which sounded wonderful with it (better balance, depth and out-of-head soundstage than my ES3X which I love). During our 2 hour listening session p0derh0und23 (Doug) agreed with me that the 801 with 24/96 FLAC sounds a little more realistic and spacious than my iMod rig using the same songs in 16 bit ALAC files. The HM-801 with 24/96 FLAC was also superior as a line-out source to my iPad with 16 bit lossless > iPad camera connection kit > iBasso D4 USB DAC line-out > Pico Slim, Protector and SR-001 mk2. Karl at Westone was also impressed with it as a source and amp.
We tried it with the 801's built-in amp, and with line-out into Pico Slim and RSA Protector - with stock earphone cables and balanced TWag cable (with SE adapter for Slim). And we even fed it into an Audiocats SuperFatCat ++ modded SR-001 Mk2 which everyone loved. The 801 internal amp was a great match with the ES5 demos, as well as my ES3X and some UM3X they had there. It's also one of my few portable amps that controls the bass well on my UE11pro and doesn't allow the mids to sound recessed. I love how it seems to get along with a wide variety of IEM that have very different sounds. Basically, it sounds very good and is easily on the level of these other top-tier portable amps.
Where the HM-801 really shines is with my 24/96 Linn.com and HDTracks.com downloads, where it has better micro-detail, ambience air and space, soundstage, depth and realism than these other sources and amps which are limited to 16/44 files and no higher. The differences are not huge but are readily appreciated with regular listening. What is more noticeable is how easily I'm immersed in the musical performance and forget about everything else around me more quickly. When I switch to 16 bit FLAC files and compare those to the 16 bit ALAC files on the iMod/portable Vcap dock or the iPad/DAC with an amp, the HM-801 has no trouble performing at a similar or higher level. And it's definitely more portable than my iMod/Vcaps/Amp or iPad/DAC/Amp. All at a lower price than those rigs which can't scale up with the higher resolution music files.
I haven't limited my listening to my custom IEM, but I've also listened to a variety of full size phones with the HM-801. With that I found the 801 is also a good match for my HD600, HD800, Grado HF-2, ESW10 and LA7000. It seems to have a little more power than most of my portable amps when driving full size phones, and with HD600 it comes very close to the power of the RSA Protector in balanced mode. With my HD800 I think the 801 beats the Protector with better synergy and beats the Slim with greater power output. I don't think many of my other portable amps have a the right sonic balance with my HD800, other than the Pico Slim which is underpowered for them, and my Amphora which is not really portable. However, the 801 does seem underpowered for the HE-5 LE orthodynamic phones, while the balanced Protector can drive them better (but not if single ended).
I also have tried the 801 briefly as a 16 bit USB DAC and found it to be very capable, although I don't think that the USB DAC sounds as good as listening to music on the SD card. I have not had a chance to try this particular 801 as a COAX input DAC, but I did get to spend a bit of time with it as a COAX DAC > EF1 > HE-5 at RMAF last fall and found it to do an excellent job in that roll.
With my 48 year old ears my hearing is strong to 12Khz but gone by 16Khz, and I can't hear the high-frequency roll-off that others have reported measuring elsewhere. But Doug and Karl at Westone didn't mention hearing any issues with treble roll-off detracting from the sound either. Some people have called the reported roll-off a "coloration", but the 801 sounds very transparent to me, and in my mind it doesn't change the sound of the instruments. It has a slightly warm and euphonic but NEVER dark sound signature. If you want to call that a coloration I guess that's fine with me, but it's certainly nothing that detracts from the performance, and if anything this euphonic flavor enhances my enjoyment. If everyone agrees that I like colored sound, then I must like colored sound if done the right way, and I am not alone. Give me something with a thin or bright coloration and it becomes fatiguing or irritating to me.
Now, lest some people think I am acting like a shill for Head-Direct, I will say that not everything is perfect with the HM-801. The power brick is bulkier than the 801 and really needs to be made smaller, especially when dealing with an 8 hour battery life that requires bringing the charger with you on trips. Also, when using it as a USB drive to copy music to the 801, the battery does not charge and instead it will run down if you leave it plugged in for a few hours to your computer - I found that out the hard way. I also had one glitch when I tried to switch from listening to music on the SD card to listening to the internal 2Gb memory, where the 801 stopped responding to button presses and didn't play music. Removing the SD memory card gave control back to me, and I could not get this glitch to repeat itself after that one time.
Then tonight I also found that with my most sensitive IEMs like Livewires T1 and ES3X that when accessing music on the SD Card with the volume turned all the way down I could hear some very quiet clicking or "woodpecker" noise when the battery is very low. I didn't notice this with a full battery or all the other times I was listening, although I probably was not paying enough attention the other times I used it, but this time I found it when I was checking for hiss at zero volume (which it does not have). This is only heard using the same IEM that reveal hiss in my ALO amphora at zero volume, and it was loudest with the T1, much quieter with the ES3X, almost gone with the UE11pro, and I could not hear it at all with my JH13Pro. I will charge the 801 overnight and listen for noise again tomorrow, to see if it is indeed related to battery level. Fortunately, only with the Livewires did I find it to be intrusive at very low listening levels.
For many months I've passed on buying the 801 because of it's size and lack of video. I have so much money invested in my iMod/Vcap rig, which I have owned for over 2 years, that I couldn't fathom spending more on another portable music rig. Interestingly, although my iMod can play video I have very few videos installed on it and use it almost entirely for music. And with a portable amp attached it's almost as bulky as the 801. So that takes away a few of my objections to switching rigs. My only remaining gripe is the lack of large internal storage space, as the 2Gb will only hold 2 hours of 24/96 music (but 20 hours of 320K MP3). I picked up a few 8gb SDHC cards for $17 each which will hold 7-8 hi-res 24/96 albums (about 8 hours) or 30-32 16/44 FLAC albums, and I'll start looking for a 32Gb SD card if I need something bigger.
I've read many posts where other people balk at the $800 price for a portable or transportable player. But you have to ask yourself how much is desktop quality sound worth when you want to take it with you? An iMod with portable LOD or portable Vcap dock and top-tier amp will set you back $1,000 - $1,500, depending on configuration. The HM-801 costs almost half what the iMod/Vcap rig cost (before buying SD cards), but it sounds just as good with 16 bit and better with 24 bit music. And it can double as a desktop DAC or computer DAC, which the iMod can't do.
So, my recommendation is that the HM-801 fits the bill perfectly for hi-res music on a portable rig that comes close to the sound of a desktop rig, which can also be used as a hi-res source if you do need to use an amp with more power for demanding headphones. If you really want something to watch movies on, the money you save over buying an iMod rig will buy you a nice iPod Touch or iPad in addition to the 801. For casual listening I can still use my Nano, iPhone or iPad, but for any serious listening the 801 is the best choice in a portable DAP that I have found so far (aside from using my Macbook Pro with DACport 24/96 DAC amp which can match the 801 performance if size doesn't matter).
* I rated the value at 4.0 because while $800 is a lot to spend on a portable rig, if you were to spend $500 on an iMod and $150-200 on a quality iMod LOD and $350-450 on a top tier amp then it makes the 801 look like a reasonable deal (even after adding in the cost of some SD cards).
* I rated audio quality a 5.0 vs other portables because I haven't heard a portable DAP yet that matches the performance. Vs desktop DACs it's line-out sound signature or tone reminds me of something like the Stello DA100 with a warm spacious sound, but I have not been able to compare them yet so I'll save that for later. I have compared the iMod rig that was used in this review to the Head Room Micro Stack + iRiver H140 in the past, and the performance was on a similar level with both. So I wold guess the 801 is at least on that level or higher, but in a much smaller package.
* I rated the design a 3.5 because I think the left right up down buttons could have been positioned better. and I often find myself going the wrong direction unless I rotate the unit 45 degrees so that the up and down are above each other and left right are lined up more horizontally. I also think the charger should not be so big or have such a proprietary plug where one cannot use a universal PSU or car charger. And the choices between USB data and USB audio inputs, the switch for internal SD vs external transport, and switch for usb or coax as the external transport could be confusing to hit the right combination. I would have put the USB audio input and coax input side by side with a switch to choose between them, and I would have kept the USB data port for loading music separate. I would have also made the USB port charge the 801 or at least not let the battery drain when plugged in via USB to copy music to it.
* I gave battery life a 2.5 for the short 8 hour life, where one comes to expect closer to 16-24 hours from a portable DAP. This is not an issue for someone using the 801 as their office or bedside music rig who keeps it plugged in all the time. This is basically a desktop DAC and amp running off a 9v battery, with all the expected current demands of a desktop rig. Remember the portable Headroom Micro DAC and Amp? The Stack sold for a similar price with similar battery life, and it was really a desktop DAC and amp gobbling down the battery.
* I gave user interface a 3.5 where it was easy to use but not as flexible or feature rich as Rockbox, which also offers more than the iPod software, nor is it as attractive as using a iPod Touch or iPad.
* I gave it an overall 4.5 rating because the sound quality outweighs the other ranks that could have dragged it down. The iMod with extended battery has double the battery life, more features like video, huge storage space, and decent size with a small amp like the Pico Slim, but the sound is very slightly below the 801 which would bring it down to a similar score.