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Nokia N9, N900, Iphone3GS Music player review and shootout

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 

Hi guys! i was asked by the folk at talk.maemo.org to make a review of the Nokia N9 standard music player, and so i did. After posting it, i was suggested to post it once again here at head-fi. It's my first review, so you are welcome to give me some feedback. I've just copied my review from http://talk.maemo.org/showthread.php?p=1102756#post1102756 .

 

This review is a walkthrough of the music players of the Nokia N900, iPhone 3GS and the Nokia N9 as well as comparison of critical points. Enjoy!!

I have used the following equipment:

 

Sources:

Nokia N900 (PR 1.3) – Standard player

Nokia N9 (PR_001) – Standard player

Iphone 3GS (iOS 4.3.5) – Standard player

 

Headphones:

Sennheiser HD595 50 Ω

Sennheiser HD800 (S/N 10XXX) 300Ω

 

Formats:

Apple Lossless

FLAC

 

Music

David Arnold – Dinner Jackets (Casino Royale)

Daft Punk – The Grid (Tron Legacy)

Gorillaz – Stylo (Plastic Beach)

Rammstein – Frühling in Paris (LiFAD)

Tchaikovsky (Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) – 1812 Ouverture (conclusion)

 

Music player overview

 

N900

The N900’s Music player is very intuitive. You can choose between artists, albums, genres, playlists and songs. The Hardware keyboard can be used for searching anywhere in the five categories just by starting typing. The “Now Playing” screen is very easy to navigate, with a big album artwork, and buttons for changing track, shuffle, repeat and volume control. You also have the option to switch between the current playlist and search in the current song. It also has the ability to enable the fm transmitter, which is pretty neat. There is a desktop widget for the basic controls, so that you don’t have to enter the full player when changing track.

The N900 can pretty much chew through anything you throw at it (if you have extra decoders support enables from the repositories). This test uses FLAC files for the N900, and it has no problems playing without a hassle. The phone however does have some hiccups when searching for tracks or albums. Sometimes you have to give it a second; otherwise it won’t be able to find anything.

To get music on the device you just plug it into the computer and drag and drop from the file manager. When a lot of music has been transferred it takes a couple of seconds to index everything.

The output voltage of the N900 is very high, which means that you’ll almost never have to turn the volume all the way up. When you turn the volume down the dynamic range seems to be going down as well. When you reach half volume the dynamics are full again. This is NOT an issue on every source I’ve tried, so it’s not just my ears. I haven’t researched its volume function, but if it’s just bit shifting to turn down volume, you’ll automatically lose some detail when turning the volume down (winamp, wmp, itunes does this I know). Unfortunately the N900 does not have gapless playback, which gives a small pause between tracks. This is especially annoying when listening to album, where the tracks are connected. It also lacks an equalizer as standard. When playing music while doing other tasks you sometimes get some stuttering. The N900 does not stop the music when you unplug your headphones unless you have a plugin installed, and that can lead to some nasty public transport scenarios. When the screen is turned off you are able to turn the volume up and down.

Due to the high output voltage the N900 does not fail when asked to feed the 300 Ω HD800. The bass of heavy-to-drive headphones is often an issue when using a source which lacks power. The Bass in ‘Dinner jackets’ is a contrabass which goes very low, without being “synthetic”. This is handled very well by the N900. You get enough punch, but without it being muddy. The synthetic bass of ‘The Grid’ is also handled very well. It’s a deep rumble in the background, which tends to just be a muddy rumble, but the HD800 and N900 combo handles it very well.

When using the HD595 the output voltage is not as important as when using the HD800. The sound quality is of course very different than that of the HD800. As this is NOT a review of the headphones, I’ll just skip it very fast. The N900 actually does not output much louder in the HD595 than in the HD800. The N900 (almost) utilizes the full potential of the HD595. A headphone amplifier opens a new world, but that’s an entirely different story.

All in all, the N900 is a very solid music player. The drawbacks are loss of quality at low listening levels, a bit slow search function, stuttering during load, and the lack of gapless playback and equalizer.

 

iPhone 3GS

I think that most people have tried the iPhone’s music player, and that everyone has their own opinion regarding it. I will, however try to describe it. The main screen has 5 different views: playlists, artists, songs videos and more. There is no album view, which I find a bit odd. You can, however find albums, when choosing artist, but still, that’s a kind of a detour. When playing, you have a big album cover art, and buttons for next, previous, back, current album and a volume slider. When out of the player you can double press the home button to get a mini control on the screen. From there you can skip tracks, pause and turn volume up and down.

Due to the fact that the iPhone is an apple device, you have to use itunes, unless you jailbreak it. This means that you cannot just drop and drag from a file manager, and it also has the disadvantage that you are locked to using either apple formats or mp3. Some find it nice, some don’t, I personally don’t like the fact that I’m tied to one computer, and one format, but some prefer that they only have to plug in their device, and then the new music pops in.

When using other programs while listening, I have not had any problems regarding stuttering in playback. This I probably due to the lack of multitasking, but it is indeed very nice that no stuttering occurs. Regarding equalizer, it is present, but not in the music player(!). You have to enter settings->iPod and from there choose one of the equalizers. It’s not the most convenient way of doing it, but it most certainly is better than not having anything at all, even though you can only choose between presets. The iPhone stops the music when you unplug your headphone as default. As in the N900 when the screen is turned off you are able to turn the volume up and down.

The output of the iPhone is pretty regular, not very loud, but not very silent either. When using the HD800 some of the bass disappears. I guess it’s because the bass requires more power than treble or midrange, and thus the lack of power punishes the bass. The “real” bass of ‘Dinner Jackets’ is much more silent than it should be (compared to reference). The synthetic bass of ‘The Grid’ also lacks some power. It’s not unclear, but it’s just not as powerful as it should be. When turning the volume down, the same problem as on the N900 occurs. The iPhone does however feature gapless playback, which is a great advantage when dealing with albums that are meant to be heard as one.

When using the HD595 the difference towards the N900 regarding sound quality is minimal. I was not really able to tell the difference when blind-testing. This is very good as it bring the sound quality on par with the N900.

The iPhone is a nice music player, but it does have some drawbacks: The itunes dependability, the difficult way to find the EQ, the low listening loss, and, if you are picky and do not use an amp, low power output when using high impedance headphones.

 

N9

The N9 chews through loads of formats like its sibling the N900. These tests are made using FLAC

The main screen of the N9 music player is quite like the others. In the top you have some albums (possibly most heard, I haven’t heard that much), and in the bottom you have the choice between artist, albums, songs, playlists and Ovi music. When choosing one of the mentioned, not counting Ovi music, you are taken to a scrollable list. In the top you can tap to search, or you can scroll, either normally, or letter wise in the side, as most people know it from iPhone. When you choose a song, it begins to play and takes you to the now playing screen. It features a big album art in the top, and buttons for changing track, pause, favourite, repeat, shuffle go back and info about the current song (bit rate, size and so on). When you favourite a song, it can be found in the favourites playlist. When no album art is present a big, very sharply coloured text simply writes the album name, where the cover art should have been. If you are in now playing mode, you can just swipe across the album art to change track. This enables track changing without having to look at the phone.

To get music on the phone you can either use Nokia link, or simply drag and drop using a file explorer. I had one problem, though. I thought I was meant to put the music in the ‘music’ folder. When I unplugged the phone and wanted to start listening, it couldn’t find any music. If you put the music in the content folder inside the music folder it is able to find it, but that was very strange I think. During search for tracks I didn’t find any hiccups or stuttering, and the results came up almost immediately (<0.5sec). When listening to a song in a long playlist, you also have the option to listen to that song’s album. If you unplug your headphones, the music stops playing. Unfortunately the standard player does not support gapless playback.

Regarding the sound quality, the output is not as loud as on the N900. As on the iPhone this affects the bass impact, when using HD800. In ‘The Grid’ the bass was a bit weaker than on the N900. In ‘Dinner Jackets’, however, the bass wasn’t lacking anything, unlike the iPhone. Besides the fact that the N900’s output was louder, the N9 was on par quality-wise. When turning the volume down, the device acted as the others as well. Until you turn on the Dolby Headphones in settings. Then the lover listening levels is not as bad is on the other two. I haven’t had the time to test movies with and without Dolby, but I suppose that the difference is bigger there. This review is made without the Dolby Headphones on, as it gave a very subtle, but unnatural sound, when listening at high levels. At low levels I would recommend it though.

The Ovi Music I am unfortunately unable to test, as it is not available in my country (Denmark), but it seems like an itunes kind of store.

With the HD595 the difference is, once again, close to non-existent, which makes it up to the different interfaces and features to determine a winner.

 

Other thoughts

Some of the tracks in the listing are not mentioned in the main part, and that is because the tracks I chose was where the largest differences were found. The more deep bass, the harder running high impedance headphones becomes.

The N9 is, like the two others a very good music player too. It settles in the middle of the two others with slightly better sound quality than the iPhone, and I bit lower maximum volume. On the other hand I haven’t experienced any hiccups whatsoever, which places it on par with the iPhone and on above the N900. In my opinion you can very well use the N9 as a music player unless you are very picky.

post #2 of 11

Thanks for doing this. The N9 is something I'm definitely interested in, and comparisons in sound quality are appreciated especially against the iPhone

post #3 of 11

Good to see thread regarding smartphones which as these days daps.

 

And for balanced armature iems users is kind of lottery choosing an smartphone. (Aside from iPhones whhere Low Output Impedance is granted).

 

So i hope to see smartphone subjective reviews both driving dynamic and balanced armature headphones.

post #4 of 11
Quote:
Originally Posted by aFo View Post

Thanks for doing this. The N9 is something I'm definitely interested in, and comparisons in sound quality are appreciated especially against the iPhone


 

Your Iphone 4 is more than sufficient as the 4g's DAC unit is actually lot better than the 3g/3gs era DACs.

 

As for my opinion to Bequeozx , a better choice of portable gear would be appreciated as I don't think many will be bring HD800s(at all) or HD595s(without amps). IEMs or low impedance headphones like ath SQ5/ES7 or beyerdynamic's dt235 would be a better comparison or otherwise, some form of amping.

 

However it is an interesting point to note that the N9 supports usb hosting and can be paired with suitable portable dacs which are inexpensive like the Fiio E7 or the up and coming E17(unknown release date). The iphone portable DACs are back breaking expensive in comparison, like that nuforce one, CLAS and the fostex HP-P1.


Edited by firev1 - 10/10/11 at 9:30am
post #5 of 11

Thanks for posting - this was a really interesting comparison to read.

post #6 of 11
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by firev1 View Post

 

Your Iphone 4 is more than sufficient as the 4g's DAC unit is actually lot better than the 3g/3gs era DACs.

 

As for my opinion to Bequeozx , a better choice of portable gear would be appreciated as I don't think many will be bring HD800s(at all) or HD595s(without amps). IEMs or low impedance headphones like ath SQ5/ES7 or beyerdynamic's dt235 would be a better comparison or otherwise, some form of amping.

 

However it is an interesting point to note that the N9 supports usb hosting and can be paired with suitable portable dacs which are inexpensive like the Fiio E7 or the up and coming E17(unknown release date). The iphone portable DACs are back breaking expensive in comparison, like that nuforce one, CLAS and the fostex HP-P1.



 

As i've written in the other forum, this is meant to be updated several times. A nokia N91 is on its way, and if more suggestions come, i'll look in to it. Unfortunately my last iem's dissappeared (i honestly dont know how :S), which makes it difficult to compare using these. However as you mention yourself, hi-tech equipment should be paired with a dedicated amp of some kind. As stated in the last section, the biggest difference between the three phones is actually the way the player handles the task, and not how the hardware performs (in ordinary peoples ears).

 

Then again, using a pair of reference iem's would probably stir things up again, BUT as i said, i wrote this review for the guys at talk maemo.org (in the audiophile aspect, regular people, most of them), which is why i did it as i did. The reason i drew the HD-800 was that the difference between the sound on the hd595 was almost nonexistant. This was also the reason i didn't post the review in here at first.

 

That said, if i come across a pair of iem's or something similarly portalble, i'll, try and pull them into it, and do a small rewrite for the more audiophile folks if i can!!

 

And of course, if anyone else has any questions or request, i'm open for suggestions!

post #7 of 11
hi bequezox! i'm a TMO forumer and posted a question in your thread over there. have you tried Yuin PK1 or PK2 for the N900, and the other two phones as well? i'm not so much of an audiophile but i'm looking for a decent pair of earbuds and those two are pretty highly regarded but they say amps are needed to better drive them. i use the N900 as my audio player and don't plan to invest in an amp any time soon so i need a review regarding the pairing of N900+Yuin.
and how's the N91 review? smily_headphones1.gif
post #8 of 11

Bequezox, you have reminded me of why i got the N900 in the first place - 32 gigabytes of onboard memory, plus another 8 or 16 on the mircoSDHC, means a lot of music, Especially at the bargain-basement price i paid for it. unfortunately, as good as the hardware is, the UI is just terrible, and the phone tends to stutter sometimes. Granted, even my Droid Incredible 2 with a 1ghz processor does the stuttering act once in a while, but PowerAMP is one heck of an audio player.

 

Looks like i'll have to fish out my N900 for testing tomorrow. I have a late 2009 model, bought new in 2011 from India that i've mothballed as a backup device. i'll be using it with the Sennheiser HD25-1 II 70 Ohm units.

 

However, right now I'm enjoying my early 2007 Cowon D2 that I have not used in over two years, and seriously, i don't think any Smartphone, be it an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy or anything from HTC (including the new Beats flavoured Phones on sale in the US) can even begin to approach the musicality and quality of a top-notch DAP.

post #9 of 11

How many people are using a smartphone paired with an HD800 as a portable solution? That just silly...confused.gif

post #10 of 11

Hi,

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bequezox View Post

All in all, the N900 is a very solid music player. The drawbacks are loss of quality at low listening levels, a bit slow search function, stuttering during load, and the lack of gapless playback and equalizer.

 

 

The bundled player in fact has these problems. However with N900 the most important part of it is community. And the community created lots of other players with more functions like for example equalizer. The players like Symphonie, Rhapsodie or SomePlayer for an instance. I also think these players output better sound quality than standard one.

 

There is one major problem with these players, and that is sound goes through PulseAudio, which does upsampling to 48kHz, and that makes high frequencies sound little blurred. But wait, N900 wouldn't be N900 if there was no solution for that. And one there is, which is bypass PulseAudio and play directly to DAC. Apparently this is easy to do with "pasuspender" tool and either with "mplayer" or "cmus" - both can be configured to use ALSA hardware device. When you do that sound is not resampled, and DAC's clock is set to exactly the rate required to play at 44.1kHz. Another thing is mixer, which can be controlled with "alsamixer" program. With this program you can choose which DAC to use and there is 3 per L/R channel to choose from, where one outputs to built-in speakers, and other two to headphones, where one of them bypasses mixer. There is master volume control (1.1dB per step) and I did not hear it influence SQ, so I think it's analog circuit after DAC.

 

You can also see these:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/460276/nokia-n900-has-anyone-tried-it/15#post_9363272

http://talk.maemo.org/showthread.php?t=83270

 

N900 still goes around $200...

 

I have a question to more advanced users:

Since N900 (as far as I can hear) give really good SQ, I would be afraid to buy DAC/amp for $100-200, because I have a feeling it might had been a downgrade.

What do you recon? Would I be right here? If so which DAC/amp would be same SQ level as N900 then?

post #11 of 11

I can see not many N900 fans here...

 

Over month ago I installed Rockbox, and it makes difference. One most visible is improved battery life - now I can listen to the music whole day without connecting charger. Another is sound quality, which IMHO is much better than one offered by standard Media Player on N900. Even my girlfriend who is far from having perfect ears, she says it's better, so it must be. I think it could be that standard player adds some extra effects (realized by DSP or NEON), but neither me nor my gf like these "effects". What we both found sounding nice was Rockbox with custom crossfeed turned on.

 

Here are my settings:

 

- Momentum

Crossfeed: ON, Direct Gain: -3dB, Cross Gain: -9dB, HF Attenuation: -12dB, HF Cutoff: 1800Hz, Bass: 0, Treble: 0, Volume: -3dB. 

 

- HD215

Crossfeed: OFF, Bass: +6dB, Treble: 0dB, Volume: -6dB

 

- HD570

Crossfeed: OFF, Bass: 0dB, Treble: -3dB, Volume: 0dB

 

- CX300-II

Crossfeed: OFF, Bass: -1dB, Treble: -1dB, Volume: 1dB

 

I listen mostly to Trance, Electro, Nightwish and Wagner. Haven't tried Wagner on Momentum yet though... since Trance got new dimension and I got addicted...

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