Pros: Digital outs! Very good sound quality as both DAC and amp, build quality
Cons: Somewhat cumbersome, user interface is workable but somewhat limited, still a minor pop on power up
I wrote at length about a quirky DAP from China called the iHiFi812v2 in THIS review. It's a great sounding unit with a few quirks that I can easily live with considering the positives it has. My biggest complaint - by far - has to do with the digital output, or more specifically the lack of digital ouput. I'm used to my QLS QA350 (another relatively obscure Chinese DAP) with coaxial and optical SPDIF outputs. Since the 812v2 looks very similar to the QA350, my brain just expects at least one digital out to be there, and gets disappointed when it isn't the case.
iHiFi quickly followed up the release of their 812 with a higher end model called the 960 ($430) . The 812 is still available so the 960 is intended to sell concurrently as a higher model in the lineup. It's got a lot of similarities but also some differences with its cheaper sibling, so I'll list the significant changes here:
*Better enclosure - 30% smaller, better built, and subjectively better looking too, though a bit heavier
*Glass covering the screen - I never found the exposed LCD of the 812 to be a problem but now that I see the 960 it is a welcome change
*Digital outputs - we get coaxial and optical outs this time around!
*More storage - the 960 comes standard with 16GB of onboard storage rather than 8GB for the 812, though both have a micro-SD slot meaning expansion is cheap and easy
*Improved internals - the 960 features a superior low phase noise TCXO system clock. It also uses a National Semiconductor LME49720 for low-pass filtering rather than the Analog Devices AD8672 in the 812, which is not a clear improvement based on specs alone but must have some benefit in the circuit for them to have made the change. The 960 is rated at 109dB SNR while the 812 was somewhere around 100dB SNR (which I remember but can't find a reference for at the moment)
*Superior packaging - the 960 arrives in a fancy leather storage box, and comes with a premium looking optical cable as well as a 1/8" to RCA adapter which facilitates both the line-out and the coaxial digital out ports
*The high/low gain adjustment from the 812 is not present on the 960
Aside from that it's the same device - same AD1896 ASRC chip for upconversion to 24/192, same Wolfson WM8740 DAC, same AD8397 output stage for the headphone section, same Rockchip RK2705A-B CPU. The user interface is identical which means it's fairly solid as a basic player but lacks extras such as a useful EQ or playlist management. Since many things are similar, this review will focus on the differences - please be sure to read my 812v2 review to get the proper background so you know where I'm coming from.
Finished with that? Good. Now back to what I was saying. The 960 simply looks and feels more like a polished consumer electronics device. The 812 is well built but comes across like more like a headphone amp than a DAP, which brings it that much farther removed from the experience I am used to with an iPad or other consumer electronics device. Little details make the difference - the feel of the aluminum, the tactile feedback of the buttons, and especially the volume knob - the 960 is recessed and deliberately harder to turn, meaning it is less likely to get accidentally cranked full blast while the unit is in a pocket. The knob is also larger in diameter meaning precise adjustment is easier. Again, nothing wrong with the 812, but the 960 looks and feels superior. Finally, I feel like the screen is better, though it could simply be an artifact of the glass covering. I felt like the 812 looked kind of cheesy for lack of a better term, and that could have simply been my reaction to seeing an exposed LCD which is not very common these days. It's proven surprisingly tough, but of course the 960 should be tougher with the added layer of protection.
I also notice a difference in terms of sound - not just sound quality, but operational noise. The 812, while having no issues with background noise or hiss, did have a "thump" when powering off and even when skipping tracks. It wasn't terrible but did serve as a small reminder that I wasn't using a really high end DAP. The 960 seems to reduce this issue to some extent, though not completely. Turn off thump is still present but less abrupt, and the noise between tracks is now minimal. I'd still like this to be completely eliminated but I'm satisfied with the improvement here.
The most important new feature, in my opinion, is the pair of digital outputs. That makes the device useful as a transport in a home system rather than solely a portable player. Apparently there was no room for actual coaxial and Toslink jacks so iHiFi instead uses a series of 1/8" jacks all in a row.
The jack on the right side is for headphones - simple enough. As expected, the volume control applies to this output (and only this output). When connecting headphones, make absolutely sure you don't use the wrong jack. That could be disastrous for your headphones and possibly your ears.
The middle jack is coaxial output and requires use of a 1/8" to RCA adapter. Normally those types of adapters lead to stereo red and white RCA connectors and such is the case with the bundled piece. Either red or white RCA jack can be used and both seem to pass the same digital signal. If I end up using this unit as a transport on a regular basis I'll probably get something like THIS instead because if not the spare RCA jack flopping around would drive me crazy. Worth noting is that the device uses a Pulse transformer for galvanic isolation of the coaxial output. Nice. Optical output by its very nature is already isolated and thus doesn't need any further hardware.
The left jack is a combination line and optical output. To use as a line-out, simply insert the included 1/8" to RCA adapter, then connect it to an external amp using an interconnect of your choice. This gives a 2 Vrms line out which is not subject to volume control by the 960. To tap optical output, use the bundled (and very fancy looking) 1/8" to optical cable and feed it into an external DAC. This cable is thick and several feet long so it works great at home but obviously isn't good for "on the go" situations. Since a lot of portable amp/DAC units exist on the market today, a short cable may be necessary for portable users.Sys Concept is a good source for that sort of thing, and prices start around $50 for an ultra-short cable.
Prior to receiving the 960, I had wondered what it would do for a digital output - would it be a native signal at 16-bit/44.1kHz or 16-bit/48kHz which is the limit of what the device will play? Or would the signal be sent after ASRC processing meaning it would be a 24/192 signal being sent to the external DAC? It actually turns out to be neither of those. As confirmed with multiple DACs I have handy that display bit depth and sample rate, the 960 puts out a 24-bit signal at the native sample rate of 44.1 or 48kHz depending on the recording. So for some reason it is padding the word lengths but not touching the sample rate. I have no clue why this would be happening based on what I understand of the hardware design. But I'm also not too concerned about it since the conversion from 16-bit to 24-bit simply involves padding with extra zeros and should not change the sound whatsoever - the DAC on the receiving end was probably going to add those zeros anyway.
Compared to the 812 - thinner...
...and shorter from front to back...
...and less wide, all by a small amount
I already discussed the sound signature of the 812 and the same general character applies to the 960 as well. The whole thing is relatively neutral yet slightly smooth up top, great bass extension, plenty of drive for most headphones (no HE-6 please!), and a nice black background. None of that has really changed much in the 960. Which is good because all of that was already on a high enough level to satisfy.
Where the 960 improves upon the 812 is in a few key areas: low end texture, micro-detail, and soundstage. I'll break these down piece by piece for further explanation.
First, low end texture. The 960 doesn't necessarily present lows as being any more prominent or impactful than the 812, nor does it extend lower. Which as I said is not really a problem - the 812 does those rather well already. What the 960 does do is increase the clarity of what's already there. I feel like I hear deeper into Gary Karr's "Amati" on the XCRD24 release of Super Double Bass, or for that matter the unknown (to me) bassist on Rahshaan Patterson's cover of the song Street Life, a track originally performed by The Crusaders (side note - the cover version is from the 1997 film Hoodlum - a mediocre film at best but a surprisingly good soundtrack if you like hip-hop and R&B - I found it for $.99 at a thrift store). It's not a huge difference but when listening with a headphone capable of great low-frequency accuracy, such as LCD-2 or Heir 6.A LE, I notice the improvement over the 812.
Next, micro-detail. Both iHiFi devices do a good job of portraying things like triangles or snare drums as having an initial strike followed by a vibration, which varies in tone and sustain from one instrument to the next. Better sources have the ability to clearly render the initial strike, as well as the resulting vibration, as two distinct events. At the same time, they can't sound completely disconnected - hard to explain, but it's one of those "I know it when I hear it" type of situations. This is not merely a percussion related phenomenon but carries over to every type of instrument you can think of, each having its own variation based on its physical design. Micro-detail also encompasses background events - a metronome ticking away, a singer licking their lips prior to making their vocal entrance, or the classic "guy quietly coughing a few rows back at a live performance". The 960 does a better job of maintaining the integrity of these details, portraying them in a more convincing manner. Again - the 812 is not bad at all, it just isn't as good as the 960.
Lastly, we come to soundstage. The 960 is a bit more spacious and open sounding, helping it more clearly recreate the performance space (either real or simulated in the studio). This assumes that type of information even exists in the recording which is increasingly rare in new recordings. This was most obvious when using the 960 via line out to one of my higher end amps - the built in amp is just resolving enough to give a small glimpse of this improvement, but my various high end amps show it more clearly. It became even more noticeable when listening through a speaker based system - whether using a desktop system like the Emotiva Airmotiv5 or Serene Audio Talisman, or using a living room setup like the Salk WOW1 or Sjofn Hifi (the clue) monitors, this spaciousness was easy to get used to. Going back to the 812 made things comparably flat and more closed in. But only briefly, until I got used to it again, at which point it became enjoyable once more.
I tend attribute all three of these improvements to the superior system clock on board. It's a similar improvement I hear when moving from the Yulong D100 to the D100 MKII, where the key change was an upgraded system clock. In that design, some other parts were tweaked to give it a slightly warmer tone. That isn't the case with the iHiFi units but the rest of it lines up pretty well as far as what the differences are.
These three aspects are not huge in the grand scheme of things. They all point to a sort of nebulous "more realistic" type of improvement that is easy to miss if one doesn't listen carefully for it on good associated gear. For that reason I would hesitate to call the 960 a big improvement over the 812. Honestly - for portable use (meaning less critical listening), based purely on the sound quality, I might not bother if that was the only difference. But of course there are other differences that shouldn't be overlooked.
As transport feeding the new Unique Melody Platform Pure 6 active CIEMs
Bundled Toslink cable - very nice but not good for portable use
I used the 960 as a transport with various DACs from higher priced to lower - Yulong Sabre D18, Matrix Cube, Anedio D2, Violectric V800, Resonessence Labs Concero, Audiotrak DR DAC2 DX, and probably a few more that I'm forgetting. I didn't notice any difference between the optical and coaxial outputs. I thought perhaps toslink would be inferior based on potentially higher jitter but I'm not hearing anything of the sort. The 960 makes a fantastic transport - easily as good as any of the $500-600 CD players I've heard, and honestly just a small distance behind my far more expensive Cambridge 840C. And why wouldn't it be? Battery power? Check. Galvanic isolation for the output? Yep. Low jitter, high accuracy TCXO clock? Affirmative. When you take away the spinning disc and associated hardware, things get a lot smaller without losing any quality.
I would happily recommend this unit for someone who does a lot of their listening at home - start by using it as an all-in-one device. It sounds great and can power most headphones with ease. Next, add a desktop amp, using the line-out which sounds like a good entry-level DAC. That would last a long time and possibly be all you would ever need. Down the road, if even further refinement was desired, upgrade to an external DAC and feed it with the 960 being used as transport. The device grows with you and I'm always a big fan of that sort of thing.
The 960 does pretty much everything the 812 does - either on par or possibly even better. I could be imagining things, but I feel like I'm getting slightly increased battery life - up from 10-12 hours to around 13 or 14 hours. But that can obviously change based on type of files being played, volume levels, and the type of connection being used.
The one thing missing from the 960 is the adjustable gain, which the 812 does have. As I mentioned in that review, the high gain option isn't necessary most of the time. I only use it with a few headphones - HD650, Thunderpants, and Beyer T1. But even those models sound perfectly fine with the 960 - most of the time. I did have a few instances of listening to some quietly done audiophile recording (usually classical or really old jazz) where I could have used a bit more gain. But on 90% of my music, this was not an issues. And with a large majority of my full sized headphones, the 960 has plenty of juice both in terms of drive and volume.
Just like the 812, the 960 is limited to recordings at 16-bit/48kHz or less. This was less of an issue with the 812 but I find it more annoying when using the 960. Since the device can send a digital signal out to an external DAC which then does the heavy lifting, it would be far more convenient to have at least 24/96 capabilities. I suspect this limitation comes from the Rockchip RK2705 SoC which looks to be an older and more basic unit than the current models. They don't list a datasheet on their website but I'm fairly certain this chip doesn't have enough power to handle hi-res material.
I also suspect the older Rockchip is to blame for the user interface being necessarily simplistic. It actually wouldn't bother me one bit if it remained simplistic but had a few minor tweaks. My biggest complaint has to do with the choice of "repeat" modes. We get the option for repeating a single track over and over. We get an option for playing a single track and then stopping. And then we get two options: "all" and "all repeat". I assumed "all" would play the files in the current folder and then stop, while "all repeat" would continuously play the entire list over and over. Actually they both repeat continually. There is no option that plays the album and then stops when finished. This is a minor annoyance but it bothers me because sometimes I like to fall asleep to music. There is an option to power down after a length of inactivity, but that won't help if the music continues to repeat indefinitely.
I have to clarify a bit - the UI here is very workable. It does what I need it to do for the most part, with just minor annoyances like the ones mentioned above. It's just that the hardware is so good, the software has become the limiting factor. I'd kill for a Rockbox port but the chances of that happening are practically non-existent.
Overall, the iHiFi960 is a very nice unit. I liked the 812 a lot but I love the 960. It sounds excellent, feels good in the hand, and is versatile enough to be used any number of ways. The question probably on your mind - is it worth the extra $130 over the 812? In my view it absolutely is.
The added 8GB of storage isn't worth a whole lot (maybe $10 these days via microSD card), but the digital outputs are invaluable in my opinion. There are very few portable players with digital outputs - which is odd considering how many portable amp/DAC units have popped up over the past few years. The thing about the 960 is that it sounds so good via the onboard DAC and amp, that I don't really feel the need to add anything else. My Leckerton UHA-6S MKII is still offers a slight improvement but not big enough to notice for the kind of listening I do on the go. Still, it's great to have the option to pair with a high end DAC at home.
Add in all the other little upgrades and I believe the 960 easily justifies the extra cost. I tend to be more picky with gear as the price increases but I'm happy to see a unit like this priced well under $500 rather than joining Colorfly, iBasso, and HiFiMAN in the "approaching $1,000" arena. I'm not saying the 960 necessarily matches those competitors (it might, I'd have to compare them directly), nor am I saying we don't have room on the market for a reference level DAP with a high price tag. But the 960 does offer a conceptually similar product for a lot less money. That's a success in my opinion.