Not long ago, I covered an obscure DAP out of China called the HiFi ET MA9. As you can read in that review - and I highly recommend you do before proceeding - I found that device to sound exceptional, despite a few minor quirks of the user interface. At around $860 the MA9 is certainly not cheap, but worthy of serious consideration for those looking to own a reference caliber DAP. The sound is just that good.
As a small company, I'm sure the maker realizes that not many people can afford to lay out the better part of a thousand dollars on a portable device. Also, there is some tough competition in that area, like the iBasso DX100 for example. The company seems to have taken this to heart and has launched a new player called the MA8
. At $500, it's still expensive, but significantly less so than its big brother, making it potentially attainable to a wider audience. The first difference between the two is the enclosure being changed to a copper-like hue, which kind of looks pink in pictures but in reality is metallic brownish/orange, and rather interesting to look at. The MA9 was available in dark green or black, so the two are not likely to be confused for one another.
A quick note - Rockbox support has been added for the MA9, which would make it an absolute beast of a player. As my review of that device indicates, the UI a bit simple and somewhat holds back the powerful hardware. Rockbox makes that complaint irrelevant. But I haven't been able to load it - apparently Windows XP or Vista are required, and all I have is Windows 7 or OSX. I assume the Rockbox support will quickly branch out to the MA8 as it mostly uses the same engine. I'm still working on finding someone who runs XP or Vista to flash my MA9 for me, so I'm in no rush.
Wood presentation box, black this time (the MA9 was rosewood), mostly the same accessories
The MA8 starts with the same platform as the MA9. That means the same all metal enclosure, same display, same processor and UI. There are some improvements in the UI though - the VU meter is far superior this time around, refreshing quickly which makes it dance with fluidity rather than jumping along at just a few frames per second as the MA9 did. There's also a choice of digital filter options for the DAC, which make small but worthwhile changes to the sound.
Inside, the same modular design continues, but with different cards installed for DAC and amp sections. The original DAC board was rather ambitious for a DAP, and used a pair of classic PCM1704 R2R chips. The MA8 shifts focus to a more modern design based around the PCM1792, the current top DAC chip from Texas Instruments. It keeps the PCM2707 USB input which allows it to function as a USB DAC when connected to a computer.
The amplifier board is also different. The MA9 used a more complex structure, with each channel getting an OPA627 with dual BUF634 output buffers. The MA8 goes simpler by using a pair of AD797 opamps (one per channel) with an AD8397 as a buffer. It still has roughly the same output levels as the MA9.
The dual battery design remains, meaning no rail splitter or DC-DC conversion required. One battery supplies the positive rail, the other supplies the negative, and you're all set. Battery life is fairly good for a device of this caliber and in fact seems somewhat improved over the MA9, by a small amount. I'm not sure why that would be.
Like the MA9, this unit has analog volume control as well as digital. The analog volume wheel, deeply sunken in to the chassis to avoid accidental cranking, is used for headphone listening only, with the digital control set to max. For line out, which has a dedicated jack on the side (confusingly placed underneath the volume knob, which doesn't interact with it), the user may want to trim volume digitally as needed, so digital control comes in handy. There is still no digital output on board, and the device is still limited to 16-bit/48kHz or less due to the processor.
Jumping right in, the MA8 sounds very different than the MA9. Gone is the ultra smooth, natural presentation, replaced by something more energetic and "high resolution". I'm not sure if I mean that in a derogatory way or not - but it's definitely different. MA9 was warm, and had exceptional bass, inviting mids, and smooth highs. MA8 could possibly be described as more neutral, but I'd also throw in the description "lit up" and "highly detailed". It's definitely a more modern sound that some people would prefer and others would not.
Interestingly, I'm not sure there really are more details to be had here. It's just the focus of the presentation that differs. I hear the same amount of plucking and fiddling from artists like Crooked Still and Abigail Washburn, but with the MA8 I'm really drawn to the leading edges which makes the detail more obvious. Same for horns, and actually most instruments now that I think about it. MA9 is more laid back with a macro-scale presentation, putting focus on the entire track rather than the individual components. But if I focus I can still hear just as much "stuff" happening here and there. In fact it seems more richly layered, like real music being played in the real world. The MA8 throws it in your face so it's more readily noticeable, and some people will clearly prefer that presentation. Personally I like the MA9 approach more.
The MA8 does sound good on a strictly technical level. It's got deep bass, great extension on the top end, and sounds mostly clear in the mids as well. The output impedance is low enough not to interact with even the most challenging multi-armature IEM, and the output is strong enough to drive most anything you'd want to lug with you (and even some decidedly non-portable cans as well). My chief complain is that the MA8 sounds somewhat bright and artificial at times. It does fine with reasonably smooth headphones such as VMODA M80 or 1964 Ears V3 (the latter being a particularly good match). But if I use something brighter such as the Cosmic Ears BA4, or Audio Technica W1000X, or even a JH13FP, things don't go as well. Low volumes are decent but as it climbs, grain and harshness start to show. I counteract this by using smooth and even potentially darker headphones - Heir Audio 8.A, Westone ES5, LCD-2. The MA8 drives planar headphones reasonably well - you probably wouldn't want this as your only source for LCD-2 or HE500, but in a pinch it sounds decent enough. HD650 is a better match - I actually enjoyed it very much, and the top end was far less bothersome than with the HD800. Notice anything about this trend? My preferences for the MA9 went in the exact opposite direction, where neutral to bright options sounded best. Here the tables have turned.
I ended up liking the MA9 over the MA8 for most music. The exception is classical, where I felt the MA8 did a different but roughly equal job. MA9 was better at showing the layers and depth in large orchestral works, but the MA8 had more pinpoint focus on solo piano and chamber music. I'd choose the player based on which headphones I was using, and in many cases I'd probably go MA8 over MA9. With other stuff like classic rock, metal, or various pop music, the MA9 suites my taste better than its little brother, at least most of the time.
At one point I had something of a good idea - what if it's the amp section letting down the DAC performance? I decided to stick with the line-out for a while, to see what I could figure out. And I'm glad I did - the line-out performance is quite good indeed, showing the headphone section to be something of a bottleneck for the DAC. Using budget portable amps like the TCG T-Box ($99) didn't really improve things - it merely shifted the issues to other areas. But something reasonably nice would show a definite improvement over the built in amp section. The Shonyun 306 ($180) for example, is not the best portable amp in the world, but it sounded far more listenable to my ears. I found it similarly clear and still slightly bright, but not annoyingly so. And it had more drive to work with difficult bigger cans. The Leckerton UHA-6S mkII ($279) sounded really good too - it showed off the grace of the DAC section which ends up being really quite nice overall. It's got a sense of fluidity that gets somewhat lost through the integrated amp, or maybe buried is the better word.
The line-out sound is good enough to where it isn't just for portable use. I paired it with a few desktop amps such as the NuForce HAP-100 and Firestone Bobby, and it was always enjoyable to hear. I'd say as a player it is easily in line with entry level CD players from NAD or the like. In fact I'd think one would need to pay $300+ for a new disc-based player that sounds this good, maybe as high as $400. I compared it directly to an old Denon DVD-2200 universal player which sold for roughly $600 a while back, and the MA8 was definitely the superior performer. It had more detail but was also more musically engaging, making the Denon sound a bit dull and veiled in comparison. The PCM1792 is a fantastic DAC chip to work with, and the design here seems well thought out - it's a shame the amp section lets it down to some degree. Fortunately the MA8 uses the same modular design as the MA9, meaning a different amp card could be swapped in rather easily. I have not yet had a chance to try the card from my MA9 but that would potentially make for a killer combo.
As I mentioned, one of the few menu differences from the MA9 is the ability to choose a digital filter. The digital filter is built in to the DAC chip itself, unlike the MA9 which uses the DF1704 dedicated external filter. We get the choice of "Sharp" or "Slow" which doesn't drastically change the sound but does impart a subtlety which makes it worth messing with. The Sharp filter is clear and detailed, with nice extension and air. It's a bit narrow sounding though, like a more direct presentation. The Slow filter is more open and has believable depth to it, but changes the highs to make them a touch less airy. Which is odd because a lot of times the more air, the better the soundstage. But not this time. Anyway, I ended up preferring the filter set to Slow and left it that way whether using the headphone jack or the line out. But it's nice to have options.
Just like the MA9, the MA8 offers USB DAC capability. Plug it in to PC (or probably a Mac but I didn't try) and it switches to USB mode, allowing playback through its line-out or headphone jack. I revisited USB and found that I actually enjoy it much more this time around as compared to the MA9. In that device, playing via USB made everything blurry and fuzzy. The PCM1792 must have far better jitter rejection than the PCM1704, because this time I can't tell a difference between USB and internal memory playback. I still don't know that this is the most useful feature in the world, but since the device already has a USB port for data then it might as well have this added feature too. Why not?
HiFi ET will never be a massive company. Their competition - HM801 and AK100 and DX100 and the like - is far more well known among headphone enthusiasts. And that's fine... just because others haven't heard of it, doesn't mean it can't deliver a rich experience. That's what HiFi ET aims for and on many accounts, it's what they achieve.
With the MA8, they aim to be more inclusive for people who can't afford a nearly $1K device. I am slightly disappointed by the amplifier section in the MA8, yet impressed by the rest of the device. As a player connected to external amplification, the MA8 is another story altogether - clear, extended, and mostly transparent, it represents a more modern Hi-Fi sound than the MA9, without overdoing it. If the company can tweak the amp section to better capture the character of the DAC without being too harsh, I think the MA8 would be a viable option for both home and portable use. As it stands, I have some reservations about giving it a clear recommendation. It's definitely one to watch though.