I've personally wanted to see something like this for a long time now. As a techie, I've long been intrigued by the idea of these top of the line DAPs. They bring with them the promise of high level engineering that will make the most out of your files and headphones. I've primarily used my iPhone 4 as my main DAP for the last 4 years. I've found it extremely reliable and great sounding, with its nearly non-existent output impedance and a very flat signature. I've ventured into the land of audiophile DAPs before, with gear from companies like Hisound, Hifiman, Sony, and Sandisk. Time after time, I was disappointed. Not one of them sounded better than my iP4, and some of them sounded worse. Here's what I heard, and didn't hear: 1) I heard no "extra detail" from any of the DAPs...not even from the iPhone. 2) The iPhone was consistently the flattest of the bunch, with the exception of the Clip+ (which is a wonderful DAP as well). 3) The differences were rather small, and came mostly from the sound signature differences. 4) Things like noise levels, output impedance, and other issues are what make or break a DAP.
As such, I asked a few friends for loaners of their DAPs. They obliged, ergo this thread exists.
Included in this review are:
1) Sony ZX1
2) Hifiman HM901
3) Fiio X5
4) Studio V 3rd Anv
5) iPhone 4
6) iPod Classic 6th gen.
I'll be listening with the Aurisonics ASG-2, as it's the IEM I'm most intimately familiar with. It's equipped with the Tralucent silver/gold hybrid cable. What the Tralucent cable does is "un-color" the sound of the ASG-2 a bit, making it flatter from end to end. It also clears up the mid-bass, making sub-bass more apparent.
Before I begin, I just want to give a huge THANK YOU these members: soundbear, frankrondaniel, woodcans, and James & Joe from Fiio.
I chose about 100 of my favorite songs to listen with. I tried to make sure they were of the best mastering quality I could find. The songs are all in 320 kbps MP3 format. Some were in lossless FLAC, but I heard no difference between those and the resulting MP3 conversions from dbpoweramp. As such, I'm going with the MP3 files. I won't go through and list the tracks, but I may mention a few specifics in head to head comparisons.
I've volume matched all players as closely as I could, as volume is critical when comparing DAPs where the differences are FAR less pronounced than with headphones. The process of comparing involves me loading identical files on the players, then listening closely to small sections of the track. I have an A/B method that somewhat approximates the scientific method. If I think I hear something, I'll go back multiple times to ensure that it wasn't a fluke before noting it down.
This review will focus primarily on sound quality, but I'll probably have blurbs about the players when certain things stand out to me.
When listening, I'll be using my iPhone 4 as the baseline. Again, volume levels will be carefully matched by ear.
Hifiman HM901 (IEM Card)
Long considered as the main sheriff in town, the HM901 offers tremendous versatility with varying amp modules, including a balanced mode. The UI is also quite acceptable, though I've encountered a few freezes requiring me to reset the player by removing the battery.
The very first track I listened to with the HM-901 was Ben Howard's Everything, a favorite of mine. Switching back and forth with the iP4, the most noticeable thing is that the iP4 has slightly more forward upper mids, giving slightly better clarity and attack to notes. In exchange, the the HM-901 seems to have slightly more space between cues, as well maybe a wider stage. Note how I emphasized the "slightly"s.
So far, the iPhone appears to be keeping up with the grand daddy HM901...strange. As I go through more test tracks, these differences hold up. I arrive at Quarter Chicken Dark by Yo-Yo Ma on the Goat Rodeo Sessions album. I love this particular track because of the mixing of the highly textured cello mixed with the sweetness of the violin. I started with the iPhone 4, taking notes between in the area between 1:35 and 2:15, then switched to the HM-901 to compare how it presented bass texturing since it's been lauded in that area. Interestingly, The HM901 seems to present no advantage over the iPhone 4 in that regard, and the iP4 seems to have slightly sweeter and better separated violins.
Interesting. Next, I switch over to the...
Hisound Studio V 3rd Anv
The Studio V is my second encounter with Hisound, after my experience with the Rocoo BA. The Studio is a relatively small player that fits easily in the center of my palm, a rarity for audiophile DAPs (but its thickness rivals the HM901), and has a screen that belongs on the Sansa Clip+. SQ though is no slouch.
First up was Lose Yourself to Dance by Daft Punk on Random Access Memories. I obeyed the song, as I couldn't stop dancing until I finished A/B'ing. I hear the Studio V as having ever so slightly emphasized treble, which lifts the sound in a nice way. Certain details are more emphasized over the iP4 and HM-901, but SLIGHTLY is the key word here...all these details are still very present in the other players. The Studio is a tiny bit more holographic than the iP4 due to its slightly more spacious and separated sound. The bass line in the Studio was also surprisingly solid, keeping up with the iP4. I didn't expect that. I couldn't find anything that the iP4 necessarily did better than the Studio, as the differences held up in my other test tracks.
By far, the best music player experience in this lineup. Pictures really don't do the ZX1 justice, as it's one of the most beautiful devices these eyes have seen. The externals are as premium as they come, and the screen is gorgeous to use and look at. The player is run by a full version of Android, with a few Sony features added here and there. The ZX1 is fast AND smooth, and the animations are slick. Media organization is top notch, as is the entire UI. Essentially, the ZX1 is a pleasure to use.
One huge addition to the ZX1 is that Sony got it certified for the Google Play store. This opens up the ZX1 to many possibilities and features that are touted on certain DAPs. One in particular is the ability to use your home computer as a server to stream music files over WiFi. A quick search of the Play Store revealed multiple apps that had these capabilities. I tried a few with the ZX1 and I was impressed with the results.
For those interested, here are a couple of apps:
As for the sound, I've heard the ZX1 leans toward the bright end of the spectrum. Also, the ZX1's specs indicate that it's power output isn't nearly up to par with the competition. So I decided to test what effects, if any, its low power would have on sound. In my experience, the bass is the first to suffer as phones are underdriven...so I fired up James Blake's Limit to Your Love, as it would make the differences most obvious. Despite the lower specs, I could hear no dropoff in bass quantity, impact, or extension when going from the other DAPs to the ZX1. To test for separation, timbre, and other audiophile words, I queued up City and Colour's As Much As I Ever Could. The ZX1 is magnificent here...guitars are spot on, Dallas' voice is spot on, the sound stage is excellently separated, and I'm never missing any detail I know is in the song. On the other hand, the iPhone 4 is equally magnificent. What's interesting to me is that I don't find the ZX1 any brighter than my iP4. I listened to the same 1 minute passage back and forth for almost 10 minutes to be sure (4:20 to 5:24). It helps that I really like the songs I've chosen.
Last up is the...
Two microSD slots. Coaxial-out. Line out. Powerful internal amp. USB DAC (!). Top class components. Great build quality. DSD capabilities coming in near future (if you're into that kind of thing). A fantastic customer service team. What more could one want from a DAP?
Oh yeah, and it costs $350. Less than everything else in this lineup, even the iPhone.
I'd describe the sound of the X5 as neutral, with just a tinge of warmth to avoid any stridency anywhere in the FR. This results in a slightly laid back sound, but not one to be confused with darkness or bloat. It's remarkable to me how it can provide detail and plenty of shimmer/sparkle without ever going overboard. Additionally, that tinge of warmth imparts a sort of effortlessness to the sound that makes the small details shine more. For those familiar with photography, it's almost like reducing the exposure in Lightroom to let the small details in the highlights out more. Ultimately though, I'd prefer it to me a smidgen cooler in tone.
Versus my iP4, the X5 is slightly warmer and fleshed out. This makes the iP4 come off as slightly more detailed, but in reality the X5 still has all the cues there, just presented slightly differently. The iP4 has more attack on guitar strums and the like, but the X5 has slightly more forward vocals. This is with Rivers and Roads by The Head and the Heart. Up next was Easy Skanking Bob Marley's remastered Natural Mystic album. Again, the X5's slightly warmer tilt gave a more euphoric sound signature, with what seemed like more effortless separation. I love what the more forward lower mids and warmth do to Bob Marley's voice. Again, think lowering exposure in post-processing.
Here's an experiment for you. Hit Ctrl+F on this page in your browser (Command+F for you OSX people). Now, search for how may times I used the word slightly.
Yep, this was no mistake. The differences I heard amount to the change you'd hear when changing cables on a headphone or IEM, which is relatively little. It's amazing to me how little of a change in SQ you get from dropping big bucks on these DAPs. Diminishing returns are quite stark for me. Honestly, my Clip+ doesn't lose out on anything compared to my iPhone 4, which means....yeah. In my experience, DAPs lose favor by sins of commission, not omission. Things like high OI, high noise floor, severely skewed FR, etc. are what make a DAP poor in my eyes. The key for me comes down to the quality of one's headphones and the mastering of the tracks. This website is a useful tool in determining which albums are crappily mastered.
I've found my acceptance threshold to be a dynamic range no lower than around 6. And I really have to like the song.
One could make the argument that my findings are invalid because I used "compressed" MP3 files. I've even seen some say that it's a waste to get such DAPs and listen with MP3s. To this I say, a Veyron would still kick the **** out of a Prius even if the Bugatti was equipped with the most basic of tires. Even so, I've bought and converted numerous 24/192 albums to MP3, and I've yet to be able to pick out the MP3 from the parent 24/192 file in a listening test...even with my desktop gear.
The way I see it, the only two DAPs I'd get out of the ones I compared, are the ZX1 and X5. The X5 for its excellent SQ and features, or the ZX1 for the ridiculously smooth experience and Android store versatility.
There could also be another explanation for this...maybe the iPhone 4 is secretly a world class DAP after all, and Apple isn't the antichrist of the electronics world.
*I know I was supposed to include the iPod, but I figured my findings wouldn't be easily repeatable since I was amping it. It's also 3:30am, and I'm tired.
Thanks for reading!
I figured I should add this here as well:
Perhaps I should have been more clear. There was zero raw improvement from any of these sources over even my clip+ or ipod classic. Of course I know my view may not be popular, but I see absolutely no reason to drop anywhere close to what these players cost if SQ is the primary objective. If you want more driving power or different capabilities, then that's up to you how much those things are worth.
The minuscule differences I described had to do with the tuning of the devices, and how they affected things like detail perception. My files are carefully chosen and well mastered. "Hi-res" files mean nothing to me because I have MANY times bought and converted these mega lossless albums to 320 MP3, and I've never heard a difference, even from my desktop Sabre setup and HD600.
I am a musician. Music is my first love. I play 5 instruments. Last week I placed second in my school's talent show performing Rivers and Roads by The Head and The Heart with a few friends in a band. Again, the ASG-2 has the most resolving midrange I've heard, and the treble and bass are no slouch. Look at my profile to see that I don't make these assertions from thin air.
If a listener wants to evaluate gear superiority based on sound signature, then so be it. I'm not one of them. I consider all devices featured here equal in SQ.
Edited by eke2k6 - 3/26/14 at 8:29am