Review: HiFiMAN HM-601 vs. Hisoundaudio Studio-I
Attending head-fi meets has always been a joy to me. We have had 8 Bi-annual head-fi meets in Denmark over the last years and I have only missed one of them so far. I have been at a great European meet in Berlin and it was a joy as well. One of the greatest things are when the meet ends and a raffle is being held over products given to the community from sponsors. This year I was lucky enough to win the first price: a Hisoundaudio Studio-I digital music player.
A video teaser with the product:
Hisoundaudio Studio-I and the PAA-1 earbuds
This product was completely new to me. To be honest I have never regarded any digital audio player that much since I have only been using Apple products since 1998. So using other players than my iPods or iPhones has never really crossed my mind. I have been satisfied with the Apple sound, which got a lot better in the iPhone 4 line out - not headphone out - compared to the iPod 5G. I find that with some earphones like the new Beyerdynamic MMX 101 I hear a constant background hiss from the headphone out. This is not heard when using my Etymotic ER-4S. But that is another story.
I use my i-products with a LOD connecting to my LISA III (which has been sold and replaced as my primary desktop by the Meier Concerto), my iQube or the RSA P-51 Mustang. I am writing this to let you know where I come from and it will be my reference when commenting on these two other portable audio players in regards to build quality, ease of use and sound quality.
I did not know of the existence of neither the Chinese company Hisoundaudio producing the Studio-I nor the product itself before this meet. So I was in a state of curious expectation and happy to win this and I did not know what to expect from the product at all. I still have not read a single review or test of this product so I hope my impressions are not biased any way. Well, happily I brought it home and started playing with it and it has truly impressed me in several ways - here is why:
First of all the product was wrapped up nicely in the sort of box you normally see expensive watches or jewelry being delivered in. It came with USB cable, charger and earbuds - yes white earbuds! My first thought was that this was just waste and probably another cheap Chinese Apple first-generation-earbud copy. But I was so wrong in making such quick judgment in this case - more on this later. So for my first impression I think the packaging shows that Hisoundaudio considers this to be a luxury item and not just another MP3-player. Well done!
Build quality and ease of use
The Studio-I itself is clearly a piece of hardware someone deliberately has been pouring a lot of thought into designing. When reading the - not so well designed - website of Hisoundaudio the designers thought the reader can get a great introduction to this product.
Quote from the Hisoundaudio website: “Much thought has been given to the build quality too, the case is CNC carved, using block fine aluminium alloy, this makes it very tough and practically scratch resistant, ideal for the outdoor user.”
I have to say that the learning curve of this product is a bit steep for an all time stupid iPod user. But only having a Chinese user guide forced me to simply play around in the menus for a while and once I found out that holding the center button brings you to the main menu it was actually pretty easy to use the unit. The display does not offer high-resolution cover art nor any color graphics. Just plain simple text and the info you need during playback. Only one thing sometimes irritates me and that is that when the product is playing and the display has gone dark in order to save battery, you cannot control the unit, for instance skip track or adjust the volume. You have to "wake up" the display first which is simply done by pressing any button. This cause quiet a few extra button presses with my use pattern. In the settings menu there is an option to change the display-up time from 10 to 30 seconds. But even 30 seconds it too short when listening to music and skipping tracks once in a while. It is a minor thing but still being a nerd when it comes to usability I thought I would mention it and it makes the product feel unresponsive sometimes - even though it is not. The buttons themselves also feels a little quirky but they do function each time and it is easy to navigate (skip track, adjust volume or fast-forward by holding the button) the unit blindfolded or with a hand in the pocket, which is just as good as any iPods in this regard.
The Studio-I has a headphone out on top side by side with a line-in for using the unit as an amplifier for external sources. Both are mini jack sockets. In the middle on top there is a reset button. I do not know exactly what the reset button does since I have only tried it one time. I think it just restarts the unit and maybe sets it to factory settings? It does not delete the music stored on the unit.
In the bottom there is a micro SD card slot, which I have not used. I simply do not have any micro SD cards at the moment. The Mini USB port for placing music files on the unit is next to the micro SD slot. A pale blue light indicates that the unit is on. The light indicator is a great idea since the display is as I mentioned off most of the time.
The build quality of this product is truly sturdy and feels great in its one-piece aluminum and the back is a high gloss glass - nicely done. I do not think that the hard edges is the perfect choice for a product you are supposed to have in your pocket but the small size makes it possible to keep the player in your pocket without too much annoyance.
Impressive battery life
It is Thursday evening as I am writing this. The unit I have has been playing since Sunday afternoon - with NO pause! I got it at the meet Saturday and started playing with it Sunday afternoon. I thought I should give the included earbuds at least two days of break in before listening to them so I let the unit play during the night time. Yesterday - Wednesday night - I listened to the unit for a few hours and now it is Thursday evening as I am writing this. I am at a hotel at a conference and I thought I could use the free time at the hotel at night to do some music listening and testing. I actually thought that I did turn it off last night when I packed my stuff but tonight when I took it out of my bag the unit was still playing. This is more than 100 hours and counting!!! There is still 1 block out of 4 left in the battery indicator. This is truly amazing. I do not know of any products of this kind, which can compete with this.
First of all there is no noise in this unit. I hear no background noise during music payback or when I use the product as an amplifier through the line in. I have been listening to the Studio-I with my HD650, SR325i, Etymotic ER-4S and the PAA-1 it came with. I have used FLAC or 320 kbps AAC files. It drives all of these headphones with ease even the HD650 sounds very good directly from the player.
With SR325i there is plenty of slam and punch but it lacks some clarity and definition compared to iPhone-->iQube. I know this might not be a fair comparison but still there is a difference, just to put things in the right perspective. Still, it drives the SR325i with ease and the resolution is great. The pairing with SR325i sounds great and it could easily become one of my portable rigs to bring with me when I am travelling and for transport.
It also drives the HD650 to sound great – but not world class. The bright sounding Studio-I is great for the HD650 in the bass and treble. But still the mids is not forward enough for my taste. But that is also the only thing I wish it would do better for a portable player like this. Mids are done better with the HM-601 driving the HD650. Even though the HD650 + Studio-I is not able to bring the mids as forward as I like it certainly still sounds great and the bass goes deep.
When using the Etymotic ER-4S the sound from the HM-601 suits the Etymotics better because the MH-601’s sound is on the warm and lush side. Still the Studio-I is able to send some of the soundstage outside the head and has a wider soundstage than the HM-601.
One thing I need to point out is that when I use the enclosed earbuds PAA-1 with the Studio-I it sounds surprisingly great. Even though the only experiences I have with earbuds are the Bang & Olufsen A8 and the Apple earbuds I was positively surprised by the PAA-1. Especially the Apple earbuds are no comparisons to the PAA-1 at all. The definition in the mids and treble is acceptable when listening to these is great. Only the bass is less tight and does not have the same definition as in the B&O A8.
Hifiman HM-601 + RE-272
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.
To me there is no doubt. Between these two players the Hisoundaudio Studio-I is the winner and my favorite between the two simply because of its usability and design and the mere fact that I can use it with my Mac. I am not sure if I do something wrong since I cannot establish a USB connection to the HM-601 from my MacBook Pro but I have tried different cables and with another Mac Mini we have in the house – same result.
The killer battery life in the Studio-I is also a major sales point for me. The built-in amplifier in the Studio-I makes, the way it drives full size cans like SR325i and my ER-4S somewhat better than the HM-601, the simple user interface and that it plays AAC files, which I have not been able to do on the HM-601 are all parameters that makes the Studio-I the winner and HM-601 a No-Go for me. The Hisoundaudio impresses me in most ways and it will compete with my iPhone 4 as my portable music player and amplifier to bring everywhere.
When comparing the sound only, I do like the HM-601 just a little bit better. These are two very good portable music players both of them and they each do a lot of things perfectly. None of them has any real flaws in the sound and still they are both a compromise. With the Studio-I you will not get the mids as lush and forward and with the HM-601 the NOS DAC architecture you get great mids but some of the treble is missing and the resolution might not be what you want. But still when it comes to sound alone I do like both of them very much but the HM-601 wins by a hair margin.
The Studio-I is clearly brighter sounding than the HM-601. Compared to the HM-601 I would say that the Studio-I is a neutral player with greater resolution and has better treble extension. It does not add any coloration to the sound and I like it very much with most of my headphones.
But I have to say that all the negative experiences I have had with the HM-601 taken in consideration, the sound of the HM-601 would have to be WAY better than the Hisoundaudio Studio-I in order for me to justify living with all those side effects. And it is not way better. So I am guessing that the Studio-I will be the player I reach for daily for transport and travelling.