Pros: Lush warm analog-like sound with heavenly mids
Cons: Usability and compatibility with Mac's
Hifiman HM-601 + RE-272
Story and scope
After the Danish Head-fi meet, nc8000 (the father of our Danish Head-fi society) said Fang from Head-direct had given him a HM-601 + RE-272 to pass on to another head-fi’er who would write a review of the HM-601 together with the enclosed in-ear headphones, the RE-272. I volunteered because I thought it would be fun to compare it to the Hisoundaudio player described above.
I was told that a lot has already been said about the HM-602 and the HM-601. So I hope it makes more sense to compare the HM-601 to the Hisoundaudio Studio-I other than just writing a review on the HM-601 by itself - at least that was what I thought. People who are looking to buy the HM-601 will probably find better reviews than I am able to write. So maybe they will consider the Studio-I as an alternative after reading this?
I also have not read any other reviews of the HM-601 nor the RE-272. As I wrote above I was perfectly satisfied with my iPod and iPhone as portable sources so I have not had any interest in reading about other portable players. I won the Studio-I in a raffle and I was given the HM-601 for free in order to write a sincere review. nc8000 said that Fang (from Hifiman or is it Head-direct?) did not want to read or comment the review before it is being posted. I think that is a cool attitude. We can always discuss whether paid (with products) reviews on forums like these make any sense because most of those reviews will be positive. But when assessing these two products I can truly say I have no preferences to any of the products.
I own both units and I did not pay for any of them. So I am simply going to write what I think and not be biased in any way by what others think of the products. Now to the HM-601…
I wrote about the nice box the Studio-I DAP came in and the HiFiMAN leaves nothing behind. I think the HiFiMAN box gives an impression of a great product and one you want to unpack and start using. It is not just a cardboard box with a logo outside but also a well-designed box placing accessories nicely tucked away and showing the HM-601 in one side. Well done – I like it!
The build quality and ease of use
Compared to the Hisoundaudio the Hifiman feels like (and is) plastic vs. aluminum. It is not the same luxurious feeling at all. Also the buttons has a plastic sound and feel and it does not appeal to me at all when using the product. I could not figure out how to turn the product on in the beginning because the interface and boot-time is a bit slow.
I connected the HM-601 to my old MacBook Pro where all my music is stored in ALAC and AAC. I do know that it does not play ALAC but I would expect it to play AAC. I cannot confirm this from the head-direct webpage. During the file transfer the USB connection is lost spontaneously and the files are not transferred. I tried several times with the same result. I am simply not able to transfer music from my Mac. So that was a bad start for the HM-601.
I brought the HM-601 with me to my work where we have Windows PC’s. Here there were no problems connecting and transferring music. I did transfer some of my AAC files I had on the Hisoundaudio Studio’s memory. But the HM-601 did not even show the AAC files stores on the internal memory. I converted them to 320 kbps MP3 in iTunes and transferred the files again and now they did show up on the HM-601 and I could finally listen to some music. I know that ALAC files or 320 kbps AAC files converted to 320 kbps MP3 is double converted files and thus not the best sounding files but I only did this in order to get some files to the unit. This experience is breaking the deal for me with this product. Not being able to use it with my music on my laptop makes this product a no GO.
A little flaw I found in this product compared to the Hisoundaudio is that when I plug another source into the line out I can hear two sources playing at the same time, the music from the player itself and at the same time also from the source. On the Hisoundaudio the player automatically changes so that the unit works as an amplifier turning down it's own playback and letting me hear the music from the other source. Do not blame the HiFiMAN this. Why would anyone do that? Well, I did! And I just wondered why it mixes the two sources. It is simply just a bad user experience I can't help but to take notice of.
Also when shifting to the next track you have to use the down-arrow and up-arrow for previous track. Once you get used to this I can live with it but I do not think this is the logical way to navigate tracks during playback. This player does not speak my language and it has been outperformed by the way it is constructed and designed compared to the Studio-I.
I have been carrying the LISA III around for a long time when I had it. So I can live with all kinds of good and bad sides of a product if the sound justifies it so let’s see if the HM-601 can win me over when listening to it.
First thing I noticed when using the enclosed RE-272 a constant background noise is heard and the noise is changing when there is light in the display and changes again when the light turns off. The noise is low but audible and it is not at all acceptable in a product claiming to aim at the audiophile market. This might not be an issue for some people, but I know that some are more sensitive to background noise than I am so it has to be mentioned.
The difference between low gain and high gain is there but very subtle. I think it should be a bigger difference in order to drive headphones with higher impedance.
A lot has been said about the NOS DAC TDA1543 used in the Hifiman. I like the analog-like sound of the NOS DAC's. I have the cheap MUSE DAC with 4 pcs of the TDA1543 and I like the relaxed laidback analog-like sound and I find it very musically involving. It is a sound that does not cause listening fatigue in my ears even after long listening sessions. I do not want to describe the sound in details. More reviews can probably be found a lot of other places regarding the NOS DAC sound. But the NOS sound is a compromise if you are only looking for high resolution and microdetails in the music. On the other hand it offers listening pleasure and music played in a way that it sounds like it is played with real instruments.
I have tried HM-601 with HD650, SR325i, ER-4S and the RE-272 and they all sound great directly out of the HM-601. The best thing in the sound of the HM-601 and where it clearly beats the Studio-I is in the mids. The mids are so sweet and lush. The bass can be somewhat “boomy” when driving the HD650 and I think the bass lacks resolution and definition. But that is ok for a portable device driving HD650 but in all the other headphones I tried this player sounded absolutely great.
The ER-4S seems to be a great match for the HM-601. The detailed bright ER-4S sounds very balanced with the lush and warm HM-601. This combination is true listening pleasure to me and I find it much better than using the RE-272. All in all the RE-272 is not my cup of tea at all. They are too warm sounding to my ears. I am used to ER-4S so that is probably the reason why I find everything else too dark in comparison. I have to say that I enjoy listening to the Studio-I with their enclosed earbuds better than listening to the HM-601+RE-272. Does this mean that the RE-272 is a bad in-ear – maybe not. I just think it has too little resolution and as already mentioned too bass-focused.
I have tried to focus on the things I didn’t like form this player. But I have to say that even though the sound is not perfect and there are some compromises I still love the sound very much.