I have been looking for the perfect portable setup for quite some time. When it finally seemed that USB audio from Android devices was on the horizon, I did some reading and ended up purchasing an iBasso D6 with the HiFlight Topkit. That sat, essentially unused, for the better part of a year while I waited impatiently for developers, manufacturers, and Google itself to make truly portable high-end audio a reality. (I choose not to do business with Apple.) When the Samsung Galaxy S3 came out and USB audio was confirmed, I ordered one immediately. As per my usual luck, the D6 was not compatible with Android devices, but more and more new products were coming out that were. I kept reading and looking, trying to figure out what might fill that niche of high-end sound from my phone. In the meantime, I picked up the Beyerdynamic T5p and Ultrasone Signature DJ, only to find that neither was my ideal fit for on-the-go listening-- and went back to my trusty Sennheiser IE8s.
In my quest for portable DAC/amp happiness, I've picked up an O2/ODAC combo, iBasso D-Zero, Apex Glacier, and a Leckerton UHA.6S Mk.II (which I actually don't have yet, long story). When the opportunity to pick up a Meier Audio PCSTEP as a discounted price in order to test it with an Android device, determine compatibility, and post my thoughts arose, I jumped on it. There weren't many reviews of the PCSTEP around, and I liked the descriptions I'd read about the general sound signature of Meier Audio gear. By coincidence, both the PCSTEP and Apex Glacier arrived on the same day-- foreshadowing this comparison.
To be completely honest, I came into this with the idea that the Apex Glacier might finally be the device I wanted. It checked nearly all my boxes-- ergonomically well-considered, highly thought-of among those in the know, ability to drive both IEMs and full-sized cans with relative ease, reasonable battery life, and a volume control that would guarantee no channel imbalance issues at low volumes (which I tend to prefer). When the amps came in, I immediately plugged in the Glacier and my IE8s and started listening while running around town and found the sound signature to be a bit different from what I'd expected from the (many) reviews I'd read. I didn't find that it made my IE8s much more lively and open (particularly in the treble) as I'd imagined it would. Granted, it was a brief listen, and under wildly unfavorable circumstances, but still-- the impression had been made. Later, while handling some similar tasks, I tried out the PCSTEP and was pretty impressed. Clean, clear, transparent-- it caught my attention in a positive way. So my bias ran from being slightly pro-Glacier to slightly pro-PCSTEP, and I entered this comparison knowing that given the fickle nature of auditory memory and the transient nature of my previous interactions, I actually knew almost nothing about the two amps.Disclaimer
: I communicated with Jan Meier via email when I purchased the amp, and he advised me to be completely honest in my evaluation. I've attempted to do so to the very best of my ability here. Additionally, insert any YMMV/IMO/JM2C/etc variant here you'd like, and keep in mind that I am in no way whatsoever any kind of expert or experienced reviewer. I'm just a guy who loves music and the gear that recreates it for me.Structural Note
: The notes and thoughts below may seem often scattershot and disconnected. This is because as I listened to the amps, I made notes to myself, which are essentially just copied and pasted below (with some organizational reworking and editing for spelling, etc). The other thoughts on the various elements of the two products came from my direct comparisons, from additional usage, and from my thoughts later on, sometimes hastily jotted down. Please excuse the lack of flow accordingly. Also, I've included some additional information at the end that might be of interest to some.Procedural NotesVolume Matching
: I do not have an SPL meter nor a way to scientifically correct for the loudness differences between the devices, so I simply played a Protest the Hero track I planned to use, got the volume where I wanted it, and played back a pink noise track at the same volume. I then attempted to match the volume by ear by playing the same track through both. When I switched from the DBA-02 MK.II to the T5p, I checked the volume again and briefly thought it might need adjustment, but eventually decided they were both very close in volume level. I tend to listen to music at pretty low levels. All listening on the PCSTEP was done on the lowest gain setting, and on whatever setting the amp arrived with on the Glacier. (I believe it was the lower gain setting on the Glacier, but have not checked this, and base this on nothing other than a guess, essentially).Comparison Methodology
: I would listen part of a track on one amp, and then switch and listen to either the same section, an overlapping section, or an immediately subsequent section on the other amp. I would usually write my impressions of the sound of both, but would sometimes listen to the first and the second before commenting on the differences. All specific sonic impressions were written while listening, not later. My observations here were compiled and distilled from those raw notes. While other songs (and parts of songs) were used for the comparison, the ones chosen below were those that I listened to critically, took notes on while listening, and felt provided an insight into the relative sounds of the devices.ComparisonsAesthetics and Build Quality
: While obviously subjective, I greatly preferred the looks of the Glacier in the pictures I saw prior to the arrival of both amps. Upon arrival, the gap narrowed, as I was impressed with the looks of both amps, but overall I found I still preferred the Glacier.
As far as the build was concerned, both felt reassuringly solid in the hand, although the smoother finish of the Glacier again impressed a bit more. While I cringe to think of dropping either of these, they both seem like they could survive a tumble reasonably unharmed.
I do need to mention that the mini-USB port on the PCSTEP was significantly more senstive to touch than the Glacier-- there were numerous times when a slight touch would cause the connection to break, and I tried it on two separate cables. When sitting on a desk, I rarely had the issue with the Meier, and never had it with the Glacier. (Other amps I've used seem to fall between the PCSTEP and Glacier in terms of sensitivity to movement in the USB port, with the Glacier being the best thus far).
While some have had issues with the printing rubbing off on the Glacier, mine arrived used (although I don't know how much) with no problems, and I experienced no problems with missing or degraded lettering during my usage. Nothing leads me to believe I will have any issues with the PCSTEP in this regard.
In regards to general usability, I should note that the PCSTEP makes a "whooshing" sound (typically in the right channel) when source is disconnected, and the Glacier does not. In my experience, some kind of noise on plugging and unplugging sources is not uncommon, but I appreciated its absence in the Glacier.
Originally, I was not particularly impressed with the PCSTEP using a 9V battery. But after having used it, I have to say that is not really a problem at all. While I have never listened to the Glacier long enough to drain it without recharging, the PCSTEP did a pretty fantastic job lasting an exceedingly long period of time with use by myself and my mother (also an audiophile) without hiccup. Overall, I like the idea of a rechargeable battery better in theory, but haven't run into any issues with either as far as powering them. Potential PCSTEP customers should note that according to the manual, you should put a battery in the device even if you don't plan to use it, as it will hold the door in place. This could be improved upon, obviously, but I don't find it to be a big deal at all.Ergonomics
: Overall, I definitely prefer the Glacier here. My particular use case is typically using one of my phones (Galaxy S3 on my personal line, HTC Droid DNA on my work line) as a source and IEMs (either the Sennheiser IE8, Klipsch X10, or Fischer DBA-02 Mk.II, depending on the day, but most often the IE8) for reproduction. Given that, the much slimmer form factor of the Glacier fits my mobile usage much better. I could rubberband either to my phone, but obviously the Glacier was markedly easier due to the advantage granted by its slimness. The PCSTEP was nice, however, in that it was significantly shorter than the S3 and DNA, meaning the USB cable did not stick out as far, and there was more flexibility in where to rubberband the device to the phone-- both of which were handy.
The volume control on the Glacier seems better fit for mobile use, as it is recessed, while the PCSTEP protrudes. I did not have any issues with either the PCSTEP or Glacier getting bumped or moved and changing volume on me. I found the light on the Glacier to be a good bit brighter than I prefer, but not obnoxiously so. The changing of colors to indicate the sound level, while clever, is not something I've found particularly useful.
While I understand the use of symbols rather than text on the PCSTEP to indicate which port is input and which is output, I would prefer either more clearly differentiated symbols (at a brief glance, the differences are not particularly apparent) or text for identification. The labelling on the Glacier was more useful to me.
As I received the Glacier secondhand, I don't feel comfortable comparing the two amps in terms of unboxing and accessories included, but I will say that while both came reasonably packaged, neither came with the OTG cable necessary to use them with an Android device. This is still pretty early on in the evolution of mobile audio, so these are understandable oversights, but companies like iBasso are already including such cables with their devices, and for those who are looking for an easier, more plug-and-play solution for use with their mobile devices, the inclusion of an OTG cable would be smart in my opinion. I should note that the Glacier takes a micro-USB input while the PCSTEP takes a mini-USB input. I don't find either of them to be superior to the other (I'll leave any potential issues there to those more knowledgeable than myself), but at this juncture it seems that of the few USB OTG cables available, more of them are mini-USB on the DAC side than micro. Take that for what it's worth.
Regarding volume control: channel balance with both was absolutely excellent, no complaints whatsoever. With no music playing, you can hear a very faint click when changing volume on the PCSTEP, but I don't see that as an issue at all (it makes a much more quiet sound than my W4S preamp does when changing the volume, for example). This was one of my major criteria for a portable device, as I'd had some issues with the lowest volume levels on the iBasso D6 while on the go and the Yulong D100 while at home. I apparently listen at very low levels, and both the PCSTEP and Glacier were perfect gentlemen here.Direct Comparisons
:Again, please keep in mind that these are my actual notes from listening between the two devices with as few changes to content as possible-- so please excuse both their brevity and, occasionally, levity.Scurrilous by Protest the HeroGlacier
(w/ DBA-02 Mk.II):
-Sound is a bit less sibilant, seems more natural
-Parts sound a bit more like a cohesive whole
-Bass lines less distinct
-Symbals do not float like they do w/ PCSTEP
-Smoother overall sound
-Slightly homogenized sound-- everything sounds a bit more like it comes from the same place
-Every time I switch between the amps, this one seems more immediately natural and likeable, and PCSTEP seems more aggressively clear and delineatedPCSTEP
(w/ DBA-02 Mk.II):
-Bass presence seems a bit light
-Bass texture pretty good
-Guitar texture and tone very good
-Overall clarity very good
-A touch more clear, more forward
-Treble more forward
-Symbals seem a bit disembodied, like they float above and slightly away from the music
-Sounds a bit more open in the upper frequencies, tilted upwards slightly?Worrisome Heart, 'Worrisome Heart' by Melody GardotGlacier
(w/ DBA-02 Mk.II):
-Vocals pushed back a half step, seem less "spotlit"
-Esses are slightly smoother
-A bit less detailed [Unable to reproduce this later].
-Easy to distinguish all the different parts of the music without much effort
-Vocals back in mix, closer to other instruments
-Reverb a bit less obvious, but still there
-Smoother overall sound, could understand if someone liked this presentation better, and it's a close call
-Timbre and tone seems a bit more natural, accurate (?), here
-Doesn't seem to highlight detail as much, but has equal or very nearly equal detail to PCSTEP
-Melody sounds absolutely amazing here
-1:52 mark on track 2 smoothes the sound so that it isn't sibliant, although it's close
-Again, smoother, slightly more rounded soundPCSTEP
(w/ DBA-02 Mk.II):
-Vocals seem a touch clearer, more forward
-A bit more 'present'
-Voice seems a lot bigger than other instruments
-Instruments better delineated
-More spacious, room-like feel
-I like this presentation better than the Glacier
-Can hear very light reverb
-T's and S's more pronounced, closer to sibilant (although not)
-Instruments better separated
-Crosses the line into sibilance occasionally on louder, harder vocal sounds (around 1:52ish in 'All That I Need is Love')Worrisome Heart, 'Love Me Like a River Does' by Melody GardotGlacier
(w/ Beyerdynamic T5p):
-Already amazing song, sounds great
-Sounds that might be sibilant on DBA-02 Mk.II aren't so here
-Piano sounds more natural than w/ DBA-02
-Further away from sibilant on esses
-Slightly warmer sound
(w/ Beyerdynamic T5p):
-Differences are a bit harder to spot than w/ DBA-02
-Esses are a bit closer to sibilant without crossing the line
-Seems a touch less warm than GlacierOther Music
(Steely Dan, Badbadnotgood, etc)Glacier
(w/ Beyerdynamic T5p):Brown Cow
by Steely Dan
-Sound is slightly tinny, a bit lower in volume than prev songs [Note: the "tinny" sound here I attribute wholly to the lowered volume and the low bass quantity on the T5p.]Earl
-Bass is more forward here by a touchPCSTEP
(w/ Beyerdynamic T5p):Brown Cow
by Steely Dan
-Bass maybe a touch more present?
-Reverb sounds like it's further away from vocals
-Overall too close to call, particularly given lower volume levelsEarl
-Bass not quite as impactful
-Slightly clearer, more treble-tipped?Summary
Overall, I believe the general differences in sound between the two can best be organized into a 'truth table' like so:
So which one do I plan on keeping? For the moment, I plan to completely wimp out and take the easy route-- I'm keeping them both. I don't doubt that at some point in the future I may decide that one of these (or another one altogether, at this point my desk is starting to get covered with these portable DAC/amp combos) checks all my boxes and makes the rest obsolete. But for now, I find a utility in both of these.
Overall, my impression of the PCSTEP is a device which does many, many things not just well, but exceedingly
well-- to the point that it may almost become a hindrance. The Glacier strikes me as a device that makes a series of wise tradeoffs, and while it is less neutral than the PCSTEP, it may actually make for a better portable unit, as an ultra-transparent "warts and all" presentation isn't going to meet everyone's needs while on the go, where critical listening is less likely to take place. This leads to a somewhat odd conclusion: for someone looking to get a single, high-quality amp for desktop and portable listening, the greater overall transparency and technical ability of the PCSTEP wins my recommendation. For someone wanting only high-end sound while on the go, I find the Glacier might well suit a broader range of headphones and IEMs due to its smoother, more palatable presentation. Needless to say, this was not what I expected going into this review.
Throughout the write-up, I have not referred to the price of either device up to this point. I wanted to focus on the actual value of the devices instead of their respective price points, as I feel that there are a fair number of products on the market whose price is not in line with its value, for better or for worse. But at this point, I have to mention that I've been comparing a $280 device with a $495 device-- and if you were able to figure that out from the impressions above, I congratulate you, because I don't know that there is a $215 difference in the sound afforded by these units. I don't feel that the Glacier is overpriced-- it brings a great deal to the table that the PCSTEP does not, particularly in the ergonomic and aesthetic departements and in some elements of the build quality, not to mention a few features we haven't talked about (24/96 playback, for example). But it is hard not to be pretty deeply impressed by the value proposition that the PCSTEP offers here-- it seems like it's not just a very good portable DAC/amp unit, but a very good DAC/amp period
. If this thing came in a sexier enclosure or had more marketing behind it, it would easily rocket to the top of the FOTM favorites around here.
Bottom line: these are both excellent devices. If you need a device designed with true pocket portability in mind that handles 24/96, the Glacier is a great unit. But if you can do without the improved ergonomics and extra features, you need to listen to the PCSTEP-- I don't doubt you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.Additional InformationEquipment Used
- Samsung Galaxy S3, US Version on Verizon, 4.1.1 firmware, rooted but no customizations to ROM
- Neutron Media Player, gapless playback, running as service, 'Preamp' selected, gain set at 0, no EQ applied
- Cable for PCSTEP: mini-to-micro USB OTG from eBay (here)
- Cables for Glacier: Monoprice USB (female) to Micro USB (male) OTG cable (here), and a retractable female USB to male micro USB standard cable (can't remember where this came from)
- Apex Glacier: $495 (Purchased my Glacier secondhand from another Head-Fier)
- Meier Audio PCSTEP: $280
- Beyerdynamic T5p
- Fischer DBA-02 Mk.II
: I am a music lover and gear whore, but certainly in no way a professional in any sense of the word when it comes to audio. I found that (in defiance of my expectations) my preference for sound runs to the clearest and most detailed sound available. I thought I would like whatever sounded the most 'alive' and somewhat feared 'clinical' or overly-resolving gear based on what I read, but thus far, it seems I'm enjoy the music more when it strikes me as more transparent to the source. I listen to an almost obnoxiously eccletic mix of music, but I most often listen to metal (specifically the more technical variants, typically, such as Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, Devin Townsend, Leprous, Between the Buried and Me, etc) and a variety of more beat-oriented music when I want to relax (Massive Attack, Atoms for Peace, How to Destroy Angels, Jose James, Puscifer, etc). Naturally, I listen to considerably more than that, but those are the genres I listen to most often. I don't listen to rap or pop very often, as I don't much enjoy them typically. I also LOVE classic rock, but don't listen to it at home much, as I hear it quite a bit at work. My speaker system at present looks like this: JRMC 18 on Windows 8 > [USB] > Yulong D100 > [XLR] > Wyred 4 Sound STP/SE > [XLR] > Wyred 4 Sound SX500 (x2) > [self-made speaker cables] > ATC SCM7 and AV123 X-Sub, and I think it sounds amazingly trasparent and enjoyable.Edited by Theogenes - 4/1/13 at 10:11pm