The HiFiMAN HM-801. Also in the photo: Sennheiser HD800 headphones, Wadia iTransport, Ray Samuels Audio Raptor headphone amplifier, Cardas mini-RCA-RCA cable.
NOTE: The HM-801 in the photo is a pre-production HM-801, although the review below is of a production version.
When it comes to audio gear, some folks place so much emphasis on individual bits and bobs inside of them that I'm inclined to say that it's often emphasis to a fault. With portable gear, however, the compromises made for the sake of portability and battery life are obvious, almost always involving very substantial trade-offs. When comparing portable gear to desktop gear, then, discussion of component choices can be exceedingly relevant. You simply can't use the best internal components for a piece of portable audio gear without making marked concessions not just to price, but also to portability and battery life. And so it took a bit of audio extremism, and some New York moxie, to come to the conclusion that using full-size component digital bits like PCM1704 DAC chips, and analog bobs like OPA627 opamps--not to mention a big honkin' battery to drive those components for around eight hours straight (and some old-school-Walkman-sized bodywork to wrap around all of it)--might actually appeal to enough audiophiles to make a go at it worthwhile.
That is exactly and amazingly what Fang from Head-Direct has done with the HiFiMAN HM-801 portable digital audio player / DAC (digital-to-analog converter). Make no mistake about it: developing and selling the HM-801 was a bold move, and the selection of those aforementioned parts (and the necessity to sacrifice ultra-portability to accommodate them) is certainly no minor part of that. Of course, the road to crash-and-burn failure is often paved with bold moves. The audacity in this case, however, was, in my opinion, very much a masterstroke.
At $790, the HM-801 is obviously on the very expensive side of portable audio gear. But portable digital audio gear (not to mention a lot of desktop digital gear) exists mostly in a world where internal parts are individually priced in pennies--and, on the high side, generally a buck or two. The HM-801, however, violently flouts this convention, using the aforementioned PCM1704 DAC chips, priced between $35.00 and $40.00 each (and it needs two of them). The PCM1704 is generally only found in high-end desktop DACs and disc spinners, many of these priced in the thousands of dollars. In the filter/buffer stage, two OPA627 opamps can be found, these generally priced between $25.00 to $35.00 each. So, even with bulk discounts, the price of just these four chips together exceeds the retail price of some entire portable DAPs (digital audio players).
Of course, these high-brow parts would mean little if they weren't used to great effect, and, here, they certainly are, the HM-801 sounding, to my ears, much more like a good full-sized component than something that can be used portably. As such, the HM-801 has earned its place with me as one of my favorite audio components in a long time--and it wouldn't surprise me if the passing years end up solidifying the HM-801 as one of my favorite audio components of all time.
Despite much discussion about the HM-801 here on Head-Fi in the year since its launch, the HM-801 still seems to be eliciting at least a bit of "huh?" from some you, and understandably so, given just how out of the ordinary it is. But, as happens with some of the other products Fang has brought us, for those whom the HM-801 is right for, there's little else (or nothing else) out there that'll serve the purpose; and I'm one of those that the HM-801 is like this for.
Let's start off with what it's not. Though portable, the HM-801 is not as small as any iPod (not even the first-generation one), or any other media players of that sort. If packing as small and light as possible is one of your primary concerns--if you want something you can comfortably slip in your pocket--the HM-801 earns a demerit or two...or five. It also doesn't have the battery life of today's common media players. If you're looking for 20 hours or more of music and video playing, the HM-801 isn't going to deliver that kind of play time (well, at least not without buying additional batteries to keep charged and handy). Oh, by the way, the HM-801 does not play videos anyway, so if video is high on your list, well...buy an Apple iPad (which can also be used with the HM-801, but more on that later). Through several firmware upgrades, the HM-801's user interface has certainly improved, but don't expect anything Apple-esque in this regard. The UI (user interace) is kludgy, and the buttons non-intuitive in their placements. Like anything else you use for long enough, familiarity eventually gets you past the quirky UI and controls, but you won't be handing it over to your buddy to check it out without some amount of instruction from you.
If all of this doesn't sound alluring yet, let me tell you what the HM-801 is; and, after I do, you may still not find it your cup of tea, but I think many of you will. What the HM-801 is to me is a solid desktop-DAC-sounding DAC that I can take with me places. It is good enough for me to use it at home or in my office in any of my desktop rigs, while plugged into wall power. But the value proposition leaps when that same sound can be taken with me, powered from the HM-801's battery--not tethered to a wall plug--with enough juice to get me through a day at the office (usually with a good amount of runtime to spare, the total playing time between seven and eight hours per charge). With its modular headphone amp section, the HM-801 becomes a potent DAC/amp component that happens to be totable. All that good stuff being what the HM-801 is, it has, for me, all but eclipsed those quirky things about it that I'm not crazy about (like the user interface).
With respect to the HM-801's headphone amp modularity: Fang has published the specifications of the module bay, so that other headphone amp manufacturers might create additional headphone amp modules. While no outside manufacturer has yet stepped up to the plate, there are currently two HiFiMAN amp modules available: the stock module, and a higher-end one called the GAME module. The HM-801's standard amplifier module has the ability to drive virtually every full-sized headphone I've run through it with ease. Save for my AKG K340 (which many desktop amps have difficult matching up with), the standard amp module has been well at home with even the Sennheiser HD600/650 (300 ohms nominal impedance), the new Sennheiser 5X8 series headphones (50 ohms), and the new beyerdynamic T5p (32 ohms nominal impedance), all of which it drives beautifully. One area in which the standard module falls a noticeable step behind the GAME module is in driving sensitive IEMs (in-ear monitors), where the standard module's gain is higher than ideal for many such headphones, that standard module's noise floor easier to delve into with the more sensitive IEMs. The optional ($169) GAME amp module is set at a lower gain than the standard amp module, and so, right away, the benefits of its use with IEMs is obvious.* With any of my IEMs (and I do have a slew of them here), the GAME-equipped HM-801 is silent, in terms of background noise. Maybe more important, the GAME module elevates the HM-801's sonics further, its compliment of opamps upgraded to the aforesaid OPA627's. I'll say more about the sound in a couple of paragraphs.
If you're an iPad user, and you have the Camera Connection Kit, the HM-801 is an outlandishly good choice for a portable amp/DAC partner for the Apple tablet. Why? Because it seems the USB-out of the Camera Connection Kit isn't fond of trying to provide power to devices that require USB bus power, which many USB devices are looking to draw from. The HM-801's beefy battery comes in handy here, fully satiating the HM-801's power-hungry sections without the need to drink (or even sip) from bus power, which, again, the Camera Connection kit provides little (if any) of.
(left to right) beyerdynamic T5p headphones, Apple iPad 3G 64GB, HiFiMAN HM-801 (with GAME amp module).
Since picking up an Apple iPad, this type of setup is where the HM-801 sees the most use with me. The headphones change, but the iPad / Camera Connection Kit / HM-801 stays the same.
But that bus power thing is secondary to the sound of this rig. And with lossless tracks and a good headphone at the tail-end of that setup--in my case, I've been mostly using an Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor, JH Audio JH16 Pro, Grado HF-2, beyerdynamic T5p, and Sennheiser HD598--the sound is, to my ears, a substantial improvement with the HM-801 doing the DAC'ing and amping (versus plugging any of those headphones directly into the iPad, which itself does a mildly admirable job of it). Actually, the sound out of that setup is more than simply better than a standalone iPad--it's desktop rig quality listening, to my ears. Seriously, the iPad / HM-801 combo, with a wide variety of headphones, has become one of my reference rigs (and one that's easy to take with me in a messenger bag or backpack), and I have no hesitation using it to evaluate the performance envelope of all but the harder-to-drive headphones I come across. Of course, if you want to use the HM-801 as your USB DAC/amp for your computer audio rig, using a desktop or laptop computer as the source, expect to at least be similarly wowed.
Consider also that the HM-801 has, in addition to the USB digital input, a coaxial digital (S/PDIF) input. Do you have old disc-spinners around that might benefit from having their DAC sections supplanted by what would probably be a superior-sounding outboard DAC? I do. Several. If you do, too, consider relegating these players to service as transports for the HM-801's DAC. I've done this with old Denon and Sony ES five-disc carousel players. In this age of computer audio, I don't do much disc-spinning anymore, but, when I do, the HM-801 breathes new high-end life into those old pieces. Unlike a desktop DAC, which isn't convenient to move from transport to transport, the HM-801's battery-powered portability allows it to easily serve as the DAC for however many transports you have. I've used it for the Sony SCD-C333ES, Denon DCM-370, a couple of even less expensive big-box-store-bought spinners, a netbook, my MacBook Pro, and my iPad. I know of no other battery-powered portable DAC that has this level of versatility, and certainly none with this amount of sonic horsepower on tap.
That is, of course, ultimately the thing that makes the HM-801 so special--how it sounds; and it's what the HM-801 finally outputs that makes its portability unique. The HM-801's tonal balance is on the warmer side, with a hint of bass bloom with most of the headphones I use with it; and treble on the smoother side (but still very detailed), which I'll take over stridency any day. (My ears are particularly sensitive to treble-related listening fatigue, and the HM-801 causes none of that.) Using its line-outs, I've found the HM-801 moves even closer to neutral, compared to its tonal balance directly from its headphone amp.
Like other high-end DACs and CD players, the HM-801 excels at conveying the body, the flesh, of image objects, as opposed to layered two-dimensional sheets of sound. Of course, you need tracks that actually do have corporeal images present in the first place. Two tracks I've been using in the last couple of years to start my gear evaluations with are Peggy Lee's "My Man" (a version that's a digital copy from the master tape), and George Winston's solo piano cover of Jim Morrison's a capella "Bird of Prey," both of these tracks introduced to me by On A Higher Note's very dapper Philip O'Hanlon (On A Higher Note distributes, among other brands, Luxman).
On the Peggy Lee track, through the HM-801, the magic starts with the drums that open up the song, the skins of which seem to completely jump off the drivers into a space that soon gets co-occupied by Ms. Lee's sultry singing and the rest of the band. Throughout most of the song, the tickled piano, though set well back and left in the recording, has a great (if subtle) presence and body, if you're playing it through a good system--otherwise, it's simply faint.
Through a so-so rig, "My Man" is a great oldie. Through the HM-801, it's a living, breathing performance that's so brimming with verve that it feels more than current--it feels now. I kid you not, after hundreds of listens, I still get goosebumps when I listen to this track through my better rigs, and that includes the HM-801 in various systems.
As a man obsessed with piano--my library with a disproportionate amount of focus on that instrument, across all genres--"Bird of Prey" captures the essence, range and fully body of a piano like few other recordings, and certainly among the best in this regard in my entire collection. The capture of Winston's piano is so complete, so present, so full of timbral detail, that even a sub-par rig can pass it through, still leaving enough piano intact to make for impressive listening. Through the HM-801, however, "Bird of Prey" has a life-like quality that is transcendent, with all the richness and timbre you'd expect to hear only if sitting next to Winston while he plays it.
That level of resolution has benefits that extend far beyond piano solos, as far as genres and scale go. If bluegrass is your thing, or if you decide to do all-out Mahler, the advantages of higher fidelity here will, of course, still apply. I listen to almost all kinds of music, and the HM-801 brings me closer to all of it, when compared to anything else portable I've ever used--and even compared to most desktop digital components I've used.
My above comments about its sound (unless otherwise noted) are with the HM-801 used as a self-contained portable player (with top-flight IEMs like the UE Reference Monitor and JH13 Pro); and also as the amp/DAC at the end of a computer audio setup. With its SD card slot, the HM-801 allows you to easily carry as much music as you're willing to, assuming you're willing to carry multiple SD cards. (I have several eight gigabyte SD cards that I keep lossless and 24/96 FLAC files on, but may spring for a few 32GB SD cards.) In my experience so far, in terms of sound quality, the HM-801 used this way is simply without portable peer.
To really understand how far the HM-801's DAC can get you, however, use it as an outboard DAC, piping its line-outs to your best desktop amp, and a top-flight set of headphones, like the Sennheiser HD800, beyerdynamic T1, etc., or a good loudspeaker system. Used this way, you realize fully just how good a DAC the HM-801 is. And when used this way, you can take my above comments about its sound, and step them up at least a notch or two. My use of the HM-801 is less often as a self-contained media player, sometimes as a DAC in a desktop system, and most commonly as a DAC/amp out of my MacBook Pro or iPad.
Is the HM-801 perfect? As I've already pointed out, no. It's expensive. Its user interface is far from ideal (which isn't a factor when using it as a DAC or DAC/amp). It doesn't set records in the battery life deparment. The digital coaxial input is a mini-jack type (not surprising, given the HM-801's size, but it does require an adapter). The line-out is also mini-jack only, which limits your interconnect choices (I currently use a Cardas mini-RCA-RCA cable). For a portable component, it's larger and heavier than what you're probably used to. (Although if you've been the type to carry a big portable rig--the kind made up of several components strapped together by rubber bands or Velcro straps--you might actually lose space and weight with the HM-801.) Though the HM-801 does support up to 24/96 playback when playing from the SD card slot, it doesn't fully support higher than 16/48 via USB or coax. (This hasn't been a problem for me, as almost all of my tracks are CD-standard 16/44.1.) On balance, I find the strikes-against to be far outweighed by the plethora of positive points in favor of the HM-801.
Simply put, most sane people would never have ventured to develop and release the HiFiMAN HM-801, as it's no mean feat to break the portable paradigm, expecting people to understand that it's not so much a portable player as a high-end digital desktop component that happens to be portable, and expecting them to recognize the value therein. Fang did it, though, and the result is as outlandish as the idea would suggest--and I mean that in the best possible way.
I'm going to adjust something I said earlier, as I can tell you for certain it won't take any more passing years to know this for sure: The HiFiMAN HM-801 is absolutely one of my favorite audio devices of all time; and, to the best of my knowledge, there's nothing out there quite like it.
NOTE: If you go to CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, October 15, 16, and 17, 2010, make sure to stop by the member rig area, where I'll demo the two tracks I mentioned above (in addition to whatever else you might want to listen to), through an iPad/HM-801 rig, so you can, in a manner of speaking, "hear my review" for yourself.
* Since I acquired the production-version HM-801, the standard amp module's gain has been reduced, to make it more compatible with IEMs. I have not heard this lower-gain version, so all of my comments about the standard module apply to the first version of it.
My first impressions of the pre-production HM-801 can be found at the following link:
Head-Direct is a long-time Sponsor of Head-Fi.org. (While this doesn't affect my opinion one bit, it should be mentioned, in case it affects your opinion of my opinion.)
The HM-801 can be purchased directly from Head-Direct at the following link: