iHiFi 812 V2
The market for high-quality portable DAP units is steadily growing. Go back a few years and most people around here were running an iPod with a line-out dock to a portable amp, or something similar. Since then we've seen the release of various HiFiMAN units, the Colorfly C4, various Studio and RoCoo models from HiSound, and now the iBasso DX100. We've also seen the relatively unknown QLS QA350 come out of nowhere and offer features that few could match (but also some significant trade-offs) at a really low price. All of these units promise better-than-iPod sound quality, including the ability to play FLAC and other formats as well as drive full size headphones properly. That sounds great but there are also downsides - high prices, larger size, shorter battery life, and of course a UI that can't hope to match that of an iDevice.
I've resisted the DX100 for now, opting to wait until it becomes more mature. My tolerance for bugs and even minor annoyances is far higher on a $900 unit than it is for something like the QA350 - which itself has plenty of drawbacks yet costs far less. I've got high hopes for the new HiFiMAN HM901 but that's still a ways off. So I picked up this mystery device to satisfy my curiosity for a while. Turns out it is actually rather nice in a simplistic sort of way. It seems to me that it appeals to the same target market as the QLS QA350 so I'll be comparing the two models quite often - even though they are technically unrelated as far as I can tell.
The iHiFi 812 is an audiophile DAP from an unknown (to me) company called XueLin Electronics based in Shenzhen China. It sells for around $299 on eBay from the established sellers - it can be had for a bit less from some others, but I'd stick with someone well known like wsz0304
Simple rundown of the external specs: a relatively chunky design measuring roughly 5" x 3" x 1", a 2.4" color LCD, 5 button control scheme, hardware on/off switch on the side, headphone out and line out, 8GB internal storage expandable via micro-SD cards, 7.4V lithium ion battery, high and low gain settings via DIP switch for each channel. The unit handles playback of FLAC, WAV, MP3, AAC, OGG, and WMA, with sample rate being limited to 48kHz (so no hi-res tracks unfortunately). It does have cue support but no gapless playback.
To examine highlights of the above info - the unit is smaller than the QA350, and roughly the same size and weight as an iPod Classic paried with a mid-sized portable amp. The screen is far larger than the QA350, and therefore it is easier to navigate and find your music. Battery life ranges from 10 to 15 hours depending on what type of files are played. This is about double the QA350. Battery is charged through a standard wall wart plug with a typical connection, which is far improved over the awkward charging system used by QLS. Where the QA350 required music to be loaded on the SD card manually, the 812 has a mini-USB jack so the internal memory or inserted microSD card is more easily accessed. Overall these are welcome improvements. It's not all good news though - the 812 doesn't have the remote control option, and more importantly it doesn't have a digital output. That's a major feature that I liked about the QA350 so I'm sad to not see it included here.
Size comparison with QA350
They are the same height/width, though this pic makes the 812 look thicker
RoCoo D Power Edition is way smaller
Leckerton UHA-6S mkII
Meizu MX 4-core
Clearly the Meizu or any similar smartphone has a lower profile
Add an amp to the mix and things are actually rather close
Moving on the the guts of the device: there appears to be an original 812 which packed a Cirrus CS4398 DAC chip. I still see those listed on eBay. The version I have is the iHiFi812V2, and it swaps the Cirrus DAC for a Wolfson model. It also seems to use some upgraded capacitors and other parts. I don't know if anyone even stocks the first model any longer or if the V2 is all that's available. You might double check when ordering if it matters to you. The original version had an odd connector for sending an I2S signal to an external DAC, which apparently was intended for the DIY crowd. It must not have been very popular because the V2 got rid of it.
In any case, the design is as follows: Rockchip RK2705A-B cpu, unknown amount of onboard memory from EtronTech, 8GB Micron branded NAND memory, Wolfson WM8740 DAC, Analog Devices AD1896 asynchronous sample rate converter, AD8672 opamp for low-pass conversion, AD8397ARDZ opamp for amplification, caps from Nichicon's Muse series, Panasonic, Sanyo, and Philips, and an Alps pot for volume. It's a competent mix of quality parts that seems well laid out, if a little difficult to access - the design is separated into two boards "sandwiched" together, and I could not get them apart. Perhaps some stray glue ended up where it shouldn't have, or maybe I'm getting weak/timid in my old age. I felt like if I pulled any harder I would break the connectors, even though they looked like they "should" have come apart quite easily. Since I like the unit, I placed a higher value on keeping the thing working rather than getting it open for pics. So my internal pictures will be limited to what is visible without separating those layers, and the rest of my pics will be stuff I found online.
Wolfson WM8740 DAC
Analog Devices AD1896 asynchronous sample rate converter
Analog Devices AD8397 for headphone out
2 layer design
The spring on the top right normally pushes against the case, to ensure proper ground
The culprit - I could not get these things apart!
Headphone and line out
Another reason the device wouldn't open for me!
A few more technical bits: all data is upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz by the ASRC chip before being passed to the DAC for conversion. Upsampling can't be disabled. The amp section has some respectable specs: 450mW into a 16 ohm load, 225mW into a 32 ohms, 99mW into 150 ohms, and 50mW into 300 ohms. That means it should be able to reasonably power most headphones out there save for the most stubborn models. Output impedance is less than 1 ohm so no impedance interactions take place even with multi-armature designs.
The usability of these types of devices is often a "make it or break it" type experience. The 812 comes across as competent but not amazing. It's useful in a similar way as the HiSound players or Sansa Clip with the stock firmware - one can find and play their music without issue, but don't ask for much in the way of extras.
On the plus side: navigation is really straight forward. Browsing is simply done by folders, and the screen is large enough where many folders show up on the list, unlike the Sansa Clip or HiSound players where only a few lines will fit. Adding a microSD card creates two separate places to browse for files. Since browsing is done by folder rather than by artist or album, this isn't too big of a problem. The "now playing" screen is decent as well, showing sample rate and bitrate as well as metadata (optional). And the 812, unlike the QA350, has functional fast forward and rewind. It is quick and easy to connect the unit via USB and just drag/drop folders to load it with music. Startup takes about 5 seconds which is fast compared to some devices. While there is a hardware power switch, holding down the center button for a few seconds is sort of a software on/off button. Resume play does work when using that method.
On the negative side: the screen looks kind of cheesy. See the pics to get an idea of what I'm talking about. The extra real estate is very much appreciated, but a lot of it seems wasted. It is in color but for the most part it could have just as well been black and white because color is not used much. Album art is not displayed even though it could be since there's plenty of room. Playlists are supported via cue but not available to be created on the fly. Basically what you have is a bare-bones, file browser type UI, and that's all. The EQ is about as good as the one on a stock Sansa Clip, meaning it is basically worthless. Metadata can be displayed but is not used for browsing by artist or genre. It also seemed to have issues with the tagging on some FLAC files (but this is a common issue found on plenty of other devices). To round out my list of complaints, there is a slight "thump" noise between tracks, or when powering off. It's not loud enough to hurt your ears or damage your IEMs, so this is just a minor annoyance. Oh, and before I forget - the unit arrived with a default setting of Chinese. It took me a lot of fiddling to get it into English mode. It would be helpful if they did that prior to shipping for English speaking countries.
It's hard to put the user experience into words so I took a lot of pics showing the device in action. Hopefully that helps.
Startup animation - the needle moves from left to right, and it takes just a few seconds
Select "music" and you get this menu. Resume play no longer works if the power switch was turned off.
All Music gets you a big list of tracks in alphabetical order
Selecting by folder
The "now playing" screen - note the unused space and lack of metadata
MP3 files never had issues with tagging
The overlay menu
EQ is not worth bothering with
There are some customization options, but not many. This freq chart animation is really choppy looking.
Another minor issue - by default, the player will be in single play mode where it stops after playing the selected track. To fix this, go to "repeat mode" and choose "all", which really means "play all the songs in this folder before stopping". Maybe it's a "lost in translation" sort of thing.
This is the gear I used for evaluating the 812:
IEMs: Heir Audio 4.A, 6.A LE, 8.A, Westone AC2, UM Merlin, Lear LCM-2b and LCM-5, Earproof Atom, Aurisonics AS-1b, 1964 Ears V3, Cosmic Ears Pure Plus and Flex Twin
Headphones: Sennheiser HD650, Lawton LA7000, Audio Technica W1000x, HiFiMAN HE400, Ultrasone Signature Pro, VMODA M80, late model Smeggy-built Thunderpants TP1
Portable amps: Leckerton UHA-6S mkII, TCG Tbox, Shonyun 306, Audinst AMP-HP
Home setup: Opera Consonance M10S tube integrated feeding a Woo Audio WEE transformer box driving Stax SR404LE
I used a CablePro Freedom series adapter to convert my 1/4" headphones to the 1/8" required by the 812.
HE400 with CablePro Earcandy cable
Lear LCM-5 custom IEMs
Ultrasone Signature Pro
In the interest of keeping this review relatively short, I'm going to be as brief as possible here - the 812 sounds quite good, and does what it's supposed to do in terms of powering difficult full sized headphones. The overall sound signature is neutral, with good extension on the low end. Highs are just slightly on the smoother side of neutral which is not strong enough to be intrusive - it's a very minor thing that falls into the category of "character" rather than "coloration". I was able to drive my sensitive CIEMs with practically zero hiss or background noise (the exception being that thump I mentioned prior), and I was also able to easily drive the HD650, HE400, and other full sized headphones to satisfactory levels. In a nutshell, the 812 performs admirably in terms of sound, doing everything I expected of it. I had been somewhat concerned about the ASRC feature because in some cases upsampling equates to brighter, edgier sound. But fortunately that isn't the case here.
Compared to the QA350, which I find to sound pretty darn good on its own, the 812 has the edge straight from the headphone jack. Rather, I should say the QA350 has the "edge" because it sounds slightly "edgy" in the highs compared to the smoother and more nuanced 812. I find the QA350 to be relatively smooth when used on its own, but comparisons with the 812 bring out this difference. I notice significantly more grain on the QLS unit, while the 812 is more transparent and clean sounding overall. It seems to be digging more information out the the music without being overbearing about it. I also notice deeper and more convincing bass extension - something I've heard people complain about on the QA350. Apparently QLS addressed this "issue" by releasing a V2 model, but I've heard some people complain that it actually goes overboard with too much bass emphasis. I've only experienced my original QLS model so I can't say for sure, but I can say that the 812 is very satisfying in that regard without being unbalanced.
Used as a player with an external amp, the 812 is also superior to the QA350. The difference is not quite as immediately obvious though. But when I use each unit to feed my highly revealing electrostatic setup, I can A/B them and quickly tell them apart. The 812 is just more convincingly "high end" sounding. While neither unit is as good as my reference sources, the 812 comes a little closer. Think of the QA350 as being a solid entry level CD player from a brand like NAD or Cambridge, while the 812 would be a step-up unit maybe one or two models higher in the lineup. This won't always make a difference depending on the associated equipment but with my Stax SR404LE I can definitely tell them apart.
For portable use, the 812 is good enough to the point where many portable amps don't give an improvement. Sure, adding the Shonyun 306 amp results in a more lively sound, but it isn't really better
... just different. Same story with the Audinst AMP-HP and TCG Tbox. In general it seems that most sub-$200 to $300 portable amps won't really improve the built-in amp stage. Adding my Leckerton UHA-6S mkII gives a subtle but noticeable boost in clarity and refinement. If this was my main home rig the improvement would be worth it; for portable use in noisy environments I wouldn't bother with the extra bulk. Keep in mind that the Leckerton is one of the best portables I've experienced
at any price; that the 812 comes relatively close is impressive.
The gain selection is a welcome option though I ended up leaving it on "low" most of the time. The lower setting still allows me to power such headphones as the W1000x, LA7000, Ultrasone Sig Pro, and VMODA M80 without issue, and still has enough control even for sensitive IEMs. I tended to keep the volume knob at around 50 to 60 percent for normal listening, maybe up to 75 percent for quiet recordings or when I really wanted to rock out. Even my planar magnetic headphones such as the HE400 and Thunderpants go fairly loud on the lower gain setting. The only headphones I found where I consistently wanted to use the higher gain are the Sennheiser HD650 and Thunderpants. Still, I'm glad the option is there, and it might come in more handy for other headphones (or for people who listen at louder volume than I do).
This leads me to my chief complaint about the 812 - no digital output. While the headphone out and line out sections are quite good, the lack of digital output is a real drawback compared to the QA350 which features both Toslink and coaxial SPDIF outputs. Those outputs seemed to be a major draw for that unit - how many other devices can do that? The 812, by omitting that feature, becomes "just another DAP". It's a good one, but it's not unique in the same way as the QA350, and that limits the appeal to some extent.
I notice that iHiFi has a new model coming out very soon called the 960
which does offer a digital output. It looks similar to the 812 as far as design, using the same chips for ASRC, DAC, and headphone amp. It looks to have some improved caps and a better system clock as well as a more refined exterior. It sells for around $430 - I can't really comment on the value of it other than to say my expectations rise corresponding with the price. For under $300, I'm willing to be more forgiving with the 812 than I would be with the 960. But I guess improved sound and a digital out might justify another $130 depending on the needs of the user.
The iHiFi 812 is at once an achievement and a missed opportunity. The UI, while somewhat clumsy, is certainly workable from a usability standpoint. And the unit plays most types of files, sounding great in the process. In those two aspects the 812 is far better than the QLS device that it seems to compete with. On the other hand, the lack of digital out is disappointing - how much more could that feature have added to the bottom line?
Ultimately the iHiFi812 is still a compelling product - provided one keeps their expectations in check. It may not have quite the appeal of the QA350 due to the lack of transport functionality but aside from that it does the job it set out to do. It's roughly the same size as something like an iPod Classic paired with a midsized portable amp and easily sounds as good as most of those. If you can deal with a lack of features like gapless playback or a usable EQ (considered extras by some, necessities by others), the 812 just might be your all-in-one solution.