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HiFiMAN HM-801 Portable Player / DAC Review: Part One of Two

post #1 of 622
Thread Starter 

Note: Head-Direct is in the process of changing its product brand to HiFiMAN.

Of our community of Members of the Trade (MOTs) and Sponsors, there's no doubt that Fang from Head-Direct has been one of the most interesting to me. First of all, years ago, he introduced himself to me to ask about Head-Fi.org sponsorship, and also to ask if it would be okay to approach some community members to audition a China-made, high-end, high-impedance earbud he was intending to sell. Straight away, I thought the guy was bonkers. Considering I'd never heard of this man and his company before, what of all of those qualities--China-made, expensive, high-impedance, earbud--would lead me to believe this was going to be a worthwhile venture?

That earbud was the Yuin PK-1, and, if you're a long-time member of this community, there's a good chance you know by now that, beginning with the PK-1, Fang (and his company Head-Direct) has shown an uncanny knack for knowing what many of us--sometimes unbeknownst even to ourselves until he shows us--will want or need. And, by the way, years later, that PK-1 remains the only standard form factor earbud I use regularly, as it sounds very good when driven by a high-quality portable headphone amplifier.

In addition to the PK series, there was the OK earphone series--another product I didn't get initially. Lesseeeee….an in-ear earphone that doesn't isolate from ambient noise much--really? Then, soon after the OK's release, one of my friends asked me if there was such a thing as an in-ear earphone that doesn't block out his officemates, as (a) standard form factor earbuds didn't tend to stay in his ears, (b) he needed something less conspicuous than over-ear headphones in his workplace, and (c) he needed to be able to hear when his co-workers were talking to him. Bingo. I now have my own OK-1, too, by the way.

Of course, Fang has also brought many other products to us, including a whole new line of full-size electrostatic headphones, a variety of amps and portable amps, other earphones and headphones, and more. Head-Direct has come a long way since first we met, but Fang isn't sitting still--when it comes to audio product ideas, he never seems to sit still.

The other endearing thing about Fang is how unabashedly proud he is to be Chinese. One day, a couple of years back, a rather large package arrived for me from Fang. Inside was a collection of plush toy versions of the Beijing Olympics cartoon mascots. When I inquired about why he sent it, the answer was simply that he was excited and proud that China was going to be hosting the Summer Olympics, and he wanted to share that spirit with me. I still look at those little toys from time to time, and can't help but smile. So proud to be Chinese is he that Fang is dedicated to proving to us that China-made audio products can be of high quality, be unique and innovative, and, most importantly, also be capable of high performance.

The HiFiMAN HM-801

I think it was around late spring last year when Fang contacted me with another product idea he was considering: A high-end portable digital music player. "High-end portable digital music player" alone sounds uninspiring; so my first thought was, "What is he intending to offer that my iPod with lossless files and a good line-out dock won't already do?" His answer floored me. Fang wanted to design a portable music player that stored music on removable media--namely, SD cards--and that had its own LCD user interface. Cool. He wanted it to be powered by a removable 15-volt lithium-polymer battery. Also cool. He wanted it to have a high-quality headphone amp module--"module" because he wanted to possibly be able to offer different headphone amp modules in the future, or possibly even offer the module specs publicly so that others can also do so. Cooler. He wanted the DAC section to be the best available portable DAC made, that could also easily and exceedingly serve as one's primary DAC on a desktop or main system--and he intended to do this with, among other things, PCM1704 DACs inside, and an output stage that includes OPA627's. Sick. And I mean "sick" in the that's insanely cool and unbelievable kind of way. (For those of you who don't know a thing about the PCM1704 or OPA627, just know that you'll typically see these parts used as bragging rights in high-end components, but rarely, if ever, in portable gear.)

(from left) The HiFiMAN HM-801, showing its removable 15-volt lithium-polymer battery; showing its modular headphone amplifier section bay.

At first, his intent for what would be the HM801 (as an outboard DAC) was to include just a coaxial input for the DAC. I strongly suggested the inclusion of a USB input--given the obviously growing popularity of computer audio--and Fang considered it. I told him it would be a cryin' shame to have the PCM1704's inside and not be able to feed them digital audio from USB. Fang considered it some more, and it wasn't long before he contacted me again to tell me that he had made the decision to include USB support, and, with that, I told him I'd be the first in line to buy one. He asked me if I thought it would sell well at a certain dollar amount he'd estimated the product would have to come in at. I told him "absolutely." He then said something like, "Good, because I want to sell it as a Head-Fi support project, like Grado's HF-1 headphone and Meier Audio's HeadFive and HeadSix headphone amps, with a portion of the proceeds going to Head-Fi." And thus was born Head-Direct's HiFiMAN HM-801--or at least the concept of it--and the fourth such support project in Head-Fi's history. (For a limited time, Fang is sending 10% of the sale price of each HiFiMAN HM801 to support Head-Fi.org.)

About three weeks ago, the concept of the HM-801 became very concrete for me when Fang told me he had a prototype to send me to evaluate/test/enjoy for a little while. This prototype contained the media player and DAC sections (the headphone amp module wasn't ready at the time). He wanted me to evaluate it as a self-contained media player by loading my own files on it and playing them directly through the analog line out to my headphone amps. He also wanted me to use it as both a coax-in DAC and a USB DAC, and he wanted me to compare it to my other sources, regardless of brand or price. For the last few weeks, I've been doing just that.

What do I think of the HiFiMAN HM801 prototype? Let's start with the compromises. To fit everything into a portable chassis the size of a Walkman, a couple of trade-offs had to be made: First, the analog line output is via a stereo mini jack. Also, the digital coax input is via a mono mini jack. Regarding both of these things, I have talked to Drew Baird from Moon Audio, and asked him to give the HM-801 a listen and look (once there's a finalized prototype or pre-produciton unit available to let him evaluate), so that he can design some cables--specifically, stereo-mini-to-RCA(x2) for analog, and RCA-to-mono-mini for digital--to complement the HM-801's physical and sonic characteristics, and to encourage its use as a desktop component, which it very deservedly should be (I'll get to that in just a bit). I will approach other cable-making Sponsors, too, to increase the availability of cable products designed to partner well with the HiFiMAN HM-801; and I'm sure the DIY and the DIY-MOTs (do-it-your-self-type members of the trade) will also take up the cause.

The analog-out via mini might be less of a concern to some than the digital-in via mini, due to the desire to ideally maintain 75-ohm characteristic impedance with a digital cable, which a miniplug obviously cannot do. This was only a mild concern for me. I say "mild," because most of our digital components input/output digital via RCA plugs/jacks; and RCA plugs/jacks (still the most popular digital connection types for outboard DACs in the audiophile world) have dimensions that do not meet 75-ohm characteristic impedance either, and yet a great many of us haven't let that stop us from successfully engaging those connections in our digital implementations and upgrades. (In fact, only one of my components--my Wadia 301--has an actual 75-ohm S/PDIF connecting point with its BNC jack.)

Given the minijack implementations, to evaluate the prototype, I used an i2Digital X-60 coaxial digital cable (fitted with a Radio Shack RCA-to-mini adapter to plug into the HM-801's coax input), which worked very well. On a theoretical level, this could, of course, improve further by eliminating the need for such an adapter, again, by offering custom cables optimized for the purpose. For analog out, I used a Cardas stereo-mini-RCA(x2) cable. Via these cables, the HM-801 seemed unhindered, in terms of performance, compared to other digital sources I had on hand. Simply put, after using the digital coax input of the HM-801, I am left with no concerns whatsoever about the minijack implementation, and I hope and expect that the custom cables for the HM-801 will do nothing but help to squeeze even more performance from it.

And about that performance: To the best of my knowledge, there is currently no other portable product like the HM-801 on the market. Keeping in mind that the heart of of the HM-801's DAC section contains the PCM1704 DACs (and its output section the OPA627's), you simply cannot compare an iPod to it--unless that iPod is docked in a Wadia iTransport, and that in turn is feeding digital to a phenomenal outboard DAC.

Because I haven't yet heard its headphone amp module, I don't exactly know how the HM-801 is going to sound as a self-contained, portable media player, although Fang seems to be pretty excited for me to hear the first headphone amp module very soon. I did, however, use its analog line-out to feed the TTVJ Portable Millett Hybrid Amp, Ray Samuels Audio Predator, and ALO Audio Double-Mini3 to get some idea of how it might perform on-the-go, and comparisons to my iPods were....well, let's just say that it would have been just as silly to compare my iPods to my GNS/Wadia-modded Wadia 301. Yes, the HM-801 very comfortably plays there.

In the time I had it, here are the setups I used it in:

  • Fed by my Wadia's digital output (BNC) via the i2Digital X-60, terminated on the other end by an RCA-mini adapter, to evaluate its performance as a coax-fed DAC for disc-spinning.
  • Fed by my MacBook Pro's USB out, to evaluate its performance as a USB DAC for computer audio with lossless files.
  • Playing from its own built-in flash memory and also from SD cards. (The largest SD card I had on hand was 8GB, but I'm going to pick up at least a couple 32GB SD cards, and/or several 16GB SD cards, depending on how the prices work out per GB.)
  • As an outboard DAC and self-contained media player, I tried the HM-801 with several portable amps, including the TTVJ Mini, Ray Samuels Audio Predator, and ALO Audio Double Mini-3.
  • As an outboard DAC and self-contained media player, I also used the HM-801 with the Luxman P-1 headphone amplifier and Ray Samuels Audio Apache (Rev. C) preamp/headphone amp to do quick comparisons between the HM-801 and the Wadia.
  • Headphones used: Sennheiser HD800, SHURE SRH840, Sennheiser HD600 (single-ended and balanced), Sennheiser HD650, Ultimate Ears UE-10 pro, and a few others.

One of my concerns with such a small chassis included susceptibility to noise as a result of tightly packing a power supply, receivers, and DAC stage so close together. Any such fears have been eliminated, however, as the HM-801 prototype had at least as low a noise floor (based on how I test for noise floor) as any digital component I had on hand, including my modded Wadia 301. In fact, the only source component on hand that had a lower noise floor was Lavry's DA11, the Lavry being quite possibly the quietest source component I've ever plugged into, and so a bit quieter than the HM-801. In short, the HM-801 prototype was very quiet when it should have been, and matched my modded Wadia's noise floor (to my ears) even when the HiFiMAN HM-801 was plugged into my MacBook Pro's USB jack.

Note: In case you're wondering how I evaluate noise floor by ear: I use sensitive custom IEMs plugged into the quietest solid state desktop amps on hand (set at their least noisy gain settings, to try to take the amp noise out of the equation as much as possible); I turn the volume all the way up (being sure the source component is indeed playing, but playing an all-bits-at-zero test track so that what it's playing is silent); and then I switch between source components, listening carefully. Is it a scope testing at unity gain across sources? Of course not. But doing this usually gets me audibly into the noise floor of most source components I've done this with (except the Lavry DA11, which seems to have a noise floor that's at least as low or lower than all of my amps on hand).

Though a zero-bits track proves the HM-801 quiet in the right ways, it is, of course, music that showcases the HM-801's sound, and that sound can be characterized as big, grand. I won't even qualify this one by saying it sounds big "for a small component," as it would sound so even if it was a full rack-width wide and clad in billet aluminum. In short, there is nothing about its sonic performance to suggest that the output I was listening to was coming out of anything portable, the dynamics as unrestrained as with my Wadia, both being dynamic equals to my ears. One of my tests of scale, both musically and emotionally, is Mahler's Symphony No. 8 (I was listening specifically to Bertini's Mahler 8 for this). Call me trite in my choice here, but M8's scale is undeniably huge, with matching dynamic range and drama--not to mention stacked assortments of instrument and vocal/choral variety--and has long been one of my favorite pieces of music of any genre; and the HiFiMAN HM801 delivers it every bit as potently as my modded Wadia, albeit with a different flavor (which I'm getting to now).

The preorder thread has already been posted, and can be found by clicking here.

post #2 of 622
Thread Starter 
(Space reserved for conclusion.)
post #3 of 622
As usual, another great review from the man. Thanks, Jude. Can't wait to try this out. Seems like a perfect pair size-wise with the iQube V2.
post #4 of 622
jude, thanks for the review. you said there is no other DAC like the hm-801, what about the B&O beosound 6? I dont know why but I feel they share some similarities.
post #5 of 622
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by ramintop View Post
jude, thanks for the review. you said there is no other DAC like the hm-801, what about the B&O beosound 6? I dont know why but I feel they share some similarities.
I haven't yet used that player, so I can't say for sure if it has the internal DAC quality of the HM-801--although I would guess that it does not, just given the rather extreme DAC choice made by Fang with the HM-801.

Also, I don't believe the BeoSound 6 can be used as an outboard coax or USB DAC, which is a major feature/benefit of the HM-801.
post #6 of 622
jude, wow nice I hope the price goes down a bit though. :/
post #7 of 622
Jude, will it be available at can jam for review? I mean the complete offering including the amp module. Sounds extrememly interesting and it is something that I have been looking for a long time.

Do you know if it will play HD track like those in the 24/96 domain? If so, that will definitely kill all digital music players on the market now.

We have the choice of many great portable amp available to us now, do you know if this thing has a lod to allow out board to an amp?

Is it a limited edition run, if so how many?

Since it is still in the developmental stage, may be we should pull the forum for suggestion for features. Thanks so much for insisting on the USB connestion. It definitely helps with notebook connection as most notebooks do not have optical out these days.

How about music format, what are the format it will support? And battery life? any built in equalizer?

Your description of the Dac sounds promising, were you able to compare the dac to that of the PICO or Predator?

Have you compare this to the imod/vcap combination?

From product spec:"DAC function: Coaxial (44.1kHz only) , USB DAC (up to 96kHz)" why is the coaxial had lower freq than the USB?

Can we have support for Apple lossless format?

Since we have some excellent portable DAC/AMP (ie pico/predator etc) available to us, do you think this thing HM-801 should focus on being the best digital music player first instead of being over ambitious and try to be the jack of all trade? I was really hoping to have a digital music player to come along that will play all level of resolution with an line out to a dac or amp. It is really the missing link in our hobby and industry--the source. We have so many excellent dac/amp/interconnect/headphones/iem to choose from, but the source, the source is missing.
post #8 of 622
Thank you for the review, can't wait for part2.
This is a revolutionary product indeed.
post #9 of 622
Thanks a lot for the write-up. Interesting unit indeed!
Can't wait for part two either...
post #10 of 622
I'm probably being dense here...but what can the HifiMan do that an H1xx with lossless and a quality DAC can't? The only benefit that seems obvious is that the HifiMan has the DAC inside without needing the extra component. However, portable DAC's are shrinking and revitalizing the old H1xx.

If this internal DAC was much better than say, an iBasso D10, than it would make sense. Also, in order to maintain this "one component" advantage, it would need to have one heck of an amp section to compete with the multitudes of third party portable amps out there.

I'm curious to see if the HifiMan's amp ends up as good as the DAC is reported to be.
post #11 of 622
Thanks for the review, Jude. It seems Hi-Fi finally welcomes its portable age with the arrival of HM-801.
post #12 of 622
What is the H1xx?
post #13 of 622
It means iriver H100 series.
post #14 of 622
very interesting; cant say i'll be an early adopter as there is many things that could need ironing, but definitely consider me an interested onlooker not so much the amp section, but the player. interested to see if it can actually best the Korg MR-1; which is a hard ask
post #15 of 622
Does it do gapless? Does it have an EQ or other sound enhancements (crossfeed, etc)? Does it have file/folder browsing, pan/balance, MSC transfer?
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