Higher end DAPs are popping up more frequently these days. There's the HiFiMAN HM-801 and HM-60x series, the iBasso DX100, iRiver AK100, Colorfly C4, and then the lesser known Chinese releases like the QLS QA350, iHiFi812 and iHiFi960. Obviously the demand exists for these companies to produce something which (hopefully) performs better than a typical iPod or smartphone.
The HiFi ET MA9 ($860) is another entry in the premium segment, and is definitely closer to the iHiFi players in terms of being a small brand run by enthusiasts. They seem to just make gear they would want to listen to, rather than gear with mass market appeal - which seems like a respectable approach. I first heard of the MA9 around the same time as ClieOS posted about it HERE. As usual, ClieOS gives us a good amount of background info about the company and the product, so I definitely recommend reading that thread. There's also the manufacturer website HERE and the developer's blog HERE. There's also THIS document which unfortunately I couldn't figure out how to translate. Lots of measurements though, proving the company is not just tuning by ear. It seems the company calls itself Monster Audio in addition to HiFi ET.... it's a good thing they are based in China because I can think of a rather litigious company who dislikes people using the term "Monster" in their name.
The MA9 is an interesting design. It's a rather chunky player, along the lines of an HM-801. The entire enclosure seems constructed from a single piece of aluminum with the exception of the removable rear plate. Opening that allows access to the amp card and DAC card - both of which are modular. Reading the blog I linked to above, I hear mention of new DAC cards based on PCM1792 or ES9018, as well as a balanced Amp card. Others have done the modular amp thing but this is the first I've heard of a DAC section being swapped.
Rather than go on and on about technical specs, I figure it might be fun to have some visuals to assist. So here we go:
Here's that enclosure - very solidly built. The "super digital audio player" text seems a bit cheesy to me, bringing to mind some cheap "mp4 player" from eBay. That's a poor association since this thing is extremely high quality.
You can see by the front panel controls - operation is very straight forward. Transport controls are self explanatory. Then there's a back button and a menu button, and that's all you need.
Right side features the low profile volume slider (Alps brand) which does a great job of channel tracking at low volumes, and conveniently resists accidental adjustments in your pocket. The jack is for a line-out signal to feed an external amp. When doing so, the analog volume controller doesn't apply, but digital volume control is possible if needed (accessed via the "up" and "down" transport buttons).
Headphone jack, not pictured, is on the top.
Left side panel has a micro-SD slot to supplement the 8GB of onboard storage. I use a 32GB card and it works just fine.
USB port is dual purpose: the obvious use is for transferring files. Just drag and drop like a flash drive. The less-obvious function is to use it as a USB DAC - the MA9 has a PCM2707 USB receiver which allows it to plug and play with most any computer, no drivers needed. So in addition to being a portable DAP, this device can be a true USB DAC - very cool.
Rear panel - you can see the Monster Audio branding which must be what the letters in "MA9" refer to.
2.4 inch LCD at 320x240 resolution. I believe this unit runs the same software as the iHiFi 812 and 960, with some tweaking in the form of a new "skin". The menu is basically the same but as you can see, the "now playing" screen is more attractive. On the other hand, this VU meter display is the only option, and has a rather slow refresh rate. That makes it choppy and not very attractive. I would rather turn it off but there is no option to do so.
Aside from that complaint, the display works well enough. Sample rate and bit rate are displayed which is generally helpful, though bit rates higher than 999kbps cause it to run out of room. As with the iHiFi players, tagging is not really supported, so proper menu labeling is a must.
In the top right portion you'll notice not one but two battery life indicators. That's because the unit actually has dual batteries for positive and negative, which I'll explain later. Bottom line is whichever one is lower is the one that matters - one can be full but if the other drains then your listening is over for the moment.
Next to that is the number 32 which is part of the digital volume control. 32 is the max setting while 0 is completely muted. This device could drive a speaker amp directly through the line-out, effectively using digital volume control like a preamp. It's also just handy for gain matching in case your headphone amp prefers a lesser signal than the usual 2 Vrms.
Back panel removed, we can see some of the guts. On top is the amp section, on bottom is one of the two batteries (I removed the other already).
Battery - 8.4V, 1150mAh each.
Why two batteries? Simple really. Portable amps need positive and negative supply rails. Cheaper ones tend to use some type of rail splitter. Better designs use a DC-DC converter in the power supply to generate isolated positive and negative supply rails, avoiding virtual grounds and DC blocking capacitors in the signal path. That's a good way to go if you need to use a single battery. The MA9 avoids all that by using a separate battery for each rail. As mentioned above, the display keeps track of levels for each battery so you always know where you stand. I'm getting anywhere from 8-10 hours out of this unit depending on how I use it.
Used as a USB DAC, the device still draws battery power. This is both good and bad - bad in that it's a hassle to break out the large charging unit and recharge it every once in a while. But good in that it's got a battery power supply which is most certainly cleaner than USB power. It would be ideal if the batteries could charge over USB, but that would take a long time based on the battery specs.
Here we see the unit with both batteries removed. The amp section sort of lifts out on the one end, then pops free of the connection on the other. It's a well done connection and very easy to replace.
A closer look at the amp section - each channel gets an OPA627 augmented by dual BUF634s. See the above links for the output specs, which are not as high as I would have anticipated but still plenty powerful for all but the most demanding headphones. I measured output impedance at a very respectable 1.5 ohms meaning there should be no issues whatsoever with any headphones you want to drive.
Getting at the DAC section was far more difficult. I had to break this seal which presumably voided my warranty - an odd situation for a device claiming modular functionality.
There's not much to see on this side of the DAC board, so of course I had to keep going further.
This is the unit with amp and DAC boards removed. Underneath that lighter colored part must be the controls and the LCD - there's nothing exciting there, and I don't think it's intended to be accessed by the user anyway. So I stopped right there.
Here's the actual DAC board. It was extra tricky to get free thanks to the protruding volume wheel which seemed to "lock in" to the enclosure. Removal required more force than most users would be comfortable with. But I got it out without breaking anything (confirmed later when it all worked after being reassembled).
The DAC is based on dual PCM1704 chips which some consider among the best DACs in existence. Digital filter is the matching DF1704 which in this application runs at the default 8x oversampling setting. The DF1704 is capable of handling up to 24-bit/96kHz signals but the MA9 is limited to 16-bit/48kHz files due to the Rockchip processor being used. It's one of my few complaints about this unit, but not a dealbreaker.
I/V conversion is handled by an OPA627 for each channel. These feed into an LME49722 handling low-pass filtering. It's a well done design that, given the space considerations, should be tough to beat. The developer's blog mentioned possible future releases including one based on the ESS ES9018 as well as a lower cost unit using PCM1792 (which is the current top model from TI since the PCM1704 is "NRND" meaning essentially discontinued). I believe there was some talk about using that DAC board and calling the device MA8, selling for a lower price. But that's all through Chrom translate so you never know for sure.
Relays protect the outputs from any DC offset as well as the annoying "thump" on power up/power down. I can actually hear a very slight physical click from inside the device as the relays do their thing.
The Alps volume pot is surprisingly good - I have essentially perfect channel matching down to inaudible levels. And once again I have to mention the low profile - it's easy to catch a big volume knob in your pocket and crank it up way too loud. I've done it many times. This knob is immune from that problem.
So after all that, how does this thing sound? I'd have to say it sounds just like I expected based on the design. Anyone who has heard a competent PCM1704 based DAC will probably know what I mean. It's got a natural, slightly warm presentation that is very easy to listen to. It's free from any harshness or fatigue, to the point of potentially sounding rolled off depending on what headphones are used. Yet with the right match, the MA9 is well extended and accurate.
Bass reproduction on the MA9 is spectacularly good. Quite simply the best I've ever heard from a portable unit. My other DAPs include some good ones - iHiFi960 and 812v2, QLS QA350, Sansa Fuze, Clip+, Meizu MX 4-core... the MA9 beats them all in deep bass impact as well as realistic texture and tone. It's very impressive and reminds me of a mid-priced desktop setup more than a portable. Even a setup like my iHiFi960 plus Leckerton UHA-6S MkII portable amp does not have superior bass.
Mids on the MA9 are also very good. Somewhat thick and warm but not overly so, they really help bring out the best in your music and headphones. Each note seems to have more weight than usual which makes for a rich, dynamic listening experience. This sounds like coloration, which it is, but it's very subtle, and allows the MA9 to sound great with all types of music. Some DACs go too far in this area and don't sound all that appropriate with certain genres (think delicate chamber music, solo piano, acoustic singer-songwriter type stuff). The MA9 still sounds excellent with all of those, and obviously does "big" music - Metallica, Holst, Queen, Ozzy, Tower of Power - with aplomb.
Highs on the MA9 are a bit of a mixed bag - they are extremely well controlled, which leads to the impression that they might be overly dark. And with the wrong headphones, they are. It's like the Westone ES5 CIEM in DAP form... hard to explain, but if you've heard the ES5 you'll know exactly what I mean. The priority seems to be musicality and ease of listening rather than extreme sparkle. Some people will love this and some will hate it. I enjoy the iron-fisted grip they seem to have - even crappy recordings sound about as good as they ever will. Because of the somewhat muted highs, the MA9 isn't the most airy sounding presentation I've ever heard, but it does have great accuracy and a decently large soundstage overall.
Speaking of the ES5 - due to their similarity, the ES5 and the MA9 don't mix all that well. The result is a little too dark for my taste. Same goes for the Heir Audio 8.A, 1964 Ears V3, and probably any other warm and smooth IEM. Neutral to brighter IEMs sound fantastic though - Lear LCM-5, JH13 FreqPhase, Heir 4.A and 6.A LE, Sensaphonics 3MAX, Frogbeats C4, HiFiMAN RE-400.... these all sound great with the MA9.
If you go find reviews of the various Audio GD PCM1704 based DACs, you'll see a trend. From the DAC19 to the Reference series, most people describe them as follows: black background, superior imaging, rich textures, exceptional bass, very non-fatiguing and never harsh. All of these apply to the MA9 as well - is it the PCM1704 connection? Maybe. Probably. But counter-examples exist, such as the Yulong Sabre D18 which uses the ESS ES9018 chip yet sounds almost like a stereotypical R2R device. Go figure.
I tried my best to isolate the DAC and the amp sections to see if they have their own character. And it seems they do. Using line out from the DAC (thus bypassing the amp section) to feed a stand alone amp like my Icon Audio HP8 MkII, I hear the same smoothness and slight darkness that I do when using the headphone jack. This tells me the DAC section is the colored portion and the amp section is largely neutral. Obviously I have no way of bypassing the DAC to feed the amp directly, so this is the best I can do. If a later DAC and amp card makes its way into my unit I can certainly make another attempt.
USB performance is not quite up to the same levels as memory playback. It's pretty much indistinguishable through the headphone jack - which is fairly resolving but not the last word in accuracy compared to a desktop unit. If I feed something like the Icon HP8 or Violectric V200, I hear a minor change where USB is slightly blurry, less defined, less accurate. It's the old cliche of the mildly dirty window that appears transparent until you have it thoroughly cleaned. I blame the jitter-prone PCM2707 receiver for this - DF1704/PCM1704 is not known for jitter rejection, and memory playback is likely feeding a far more pure signal. Still, USB mode is a novel feature and definitely still useful in many situations.
I covered IEMs, but what about full size headphones? The MA9 is surprisingly capable when it comes to most big cans. I was able to comfortably drive the Audio Technica W1000X, Sennheiser HD600, Kenwood K1000, HiFiMAN HE-400, VMODA M80, and NuForce HP-800. These all sounded excellent straight from the headphone jack. Other headphones were somewhat less successful: the Thunderpants TP1 and Audeze LCD-2 were both pretty good but somewhat limited in volume. Not a big deal most of the time, but some classical and jazz recordings didn't have enough grunt for my taste. The AKG K701, a deceptively difficult to drive headphone, was actually really great in terms of tone. The darker signature and strong bass did it good. But it ran out of steam on more dynamic passages and sounded a bit hazy on complex material. Not terrible, mind you, just not the best I've heard it. And the 600 ohm Beyer T1 sounded rather dull, with nothing specifically to complain about but nothing worthy of a $1300 headphone either. But the T1 is a notoriously tricky headphone to get right - there's no shame in failing.
The MA9 seems like a direct competitor to the HiFiMAN HM-801. Unfortunately I don't have one of those handy to compare. The HM-901 is launching soon and I'll be sure to pick one up for review, but that doesn't really help us at the moment.
What I do have is the iHiFi960 which is an interesting comparison. These two couldn't be more different - R2R DAC versus Delta-Sigma. Native sample rate processing versus 192kHz upsampling via ASRC. All in one versus modular. The list of contrasts is long, yet they share common ground in the form of their Rockchip RK2705 CPU running similar user interfaces.
The 960 sells for nearly half the price of MA9, and offers more features like SPDIF output. It's clearly the better buy in that regard. If judged purely on sound quality I'd say it's more of a toss-up - the MA9 is smoother, more natural, with superior bass extension. It has a more warm and inviting tone, a richness that encourages long term listening. The 960, in comparison, sounds more open, with a wider soundstage. It has finer micro-detail, allowing for more analytical listening. It isn't a boring, dry sound at all - it's just more "modern hi-fi" than the MA9. I'd say overall the MA9 is more musically enjoyable while the 960 is more accurate. Your music, headphones, and personal preference in this area will determine which sounds better to you. I end up choosing the MA9 more often but I admit the price difference and feature set is very much tilted towards the 960.
The HiFi ET MA9 is a well designed product, using premium parts, with a sound to match. It's quite possibly the best sounding DAP I've ever experienced and can rival some desktop systems in the same price range. People who like this kind of sound will be absolutely thrilled with the audio quality it produces. In that respect it's a huge success for a small company of enthusiasts who worked on it for several years.
And yet - I'm not quite sure I can give it a universal recommendation. At $800+, it falls into the realm where I expect everything to be perfect. And it isn't. The lack of hi-res support, the somewhat cheesy VU meter, the lack of metadata, the absence of a digital output.... none of these by itself is a deal breaker, and each one has a fairly reasonable explanation. But when added up, they become potentially large enough to no longer warrant the expenditure. The iBasso DX100 is finally becoming a mature product thanks to firmware updates. The iHiFi960 is a feature packed unit that sounds great, for half the price of the MA9. And HiFiMAN's $999 HM-901 is just around the corner. For those reasons, I am somewhat reserved about the MA9.
Yes, it sounds fantastic, and would make many people happy to own it. Perhaps I would feel better if it was $100 or $200 cheaper. I don't know what the margins are but if that were possible it would really help. As it is, the company does go out of its way to create a premium experience for the end user, right down to the included rosewood storage case (think original Audeze LCD-2 case). Maybe if I was more aware of the future DAC/amp card releases, it would change my opinion. Having several options to choose from would go far towards making this a versatile device. All I can say at this point is that it's a very expensive product that does in fact sound exceptional. If you are willing to pay a premium for that last bit of performance, and value a natural, smooth sound, it's definitely worth a look.
Edited by project86 - 2/19/13 at 8:30am