Luxury&Precision L3 and L5 Pro
It’s not rare to see a quality product get overlooked by Head-Fi’ers, gear that then lies in wait until it’s discovered again. One of my recent finds is Luxury&Precision. I’d seen the name here and there but I never looked too closely. After spending some time with the L3 and L5 Pro I’m wondering how I’d omitted them until now.
The L5 Pro has a boxy design that’s comfortable in the hand. Its 3.5” capacitive touch screen is housed in a gunmetal colored, aluminum and magnesium alloy enclosure and is completed by a svelte wood backplate engraved with the company’s logo. It’s a distinguished demeanor. The placement of the physical buttons are well thought out, allowing for one-handed operation without looking at the display.
The L5 Pro reproduces music naturally, everything in its place. The sound is spacious and avoids the pitfall of coming across as artificial. The low end is medium-bodied with a moderately warm lean and accurate texture. The midrange is evenly blended and stays clear of becoming overly lush. Treble is clean and resolving yet shies away from sounding shrill or analytical. The L5 Pro is smooth without sacrificing detail; a winning combination.
Today the L5 Pro has a younger relative, the Luxury&Precision L3.
At first glance the L3’s chassis looks like the designers placed an L5 Pro on their photocopier and pressed “reduce.” Upon closer inspection the differences start to become apparent. Its smaller frame is left naked, showing the bare aluminum-magnesium housing, and the wooden backplate has been replaced with carbon fiber. The rear panel is no longer engraved but instead finished with screen printed logos. While I prefer the styling of the L5 Pro, the L3 doesn’t feel out of place standing alongside the more distinguished older sibling.
The differences go beyond aesthetics. The L3 has what my ears perceive as a mildly energetic signature compared next to the more natural presentation of the L5 Pro. Vocals have more presence and clarity and the lows less texture. It’s a leaner sound than the warmer voice of its big brother.
The L3 isn’t as dapper or refined as the L5 Pro, but like many younger siblings it’s has a few new tricks of its own. It boasts balanced output via dual DACs and amps, something the older, more expensive L5 Pro can’t. It also has a dead silent background so listeners can enjoy their sensitive headphones. The L5 Pro may be quiet, but the younger twin does it better.
The L3 and L5 Pro have extremely utilitarian interfaces. From the home screen the listener can scroll through tracks sorted by the song’s file name, artist or album. There’s also a file directory to browse through the files as they’re organized on the Micro SD card. Beyond that there’s a settings menu where EQ, visualizations and device settings can be adjusted and a Now Playing tab. That’s it. The UI is a clear case of function over form. To make controlling the players a little easier there’s two customizable physical buttons that the listener can configure.
One feature the L3 never learned picked up in school is variable gain. While the L5 Pro offers five gain settings, the L3 has no options to adjust. It must have been absent from class that day because the L3 was designed for sensitive IEMs rather than power-starved full-size headphones. While it isn’t a deal breaker, it would be nice to have, especially considering it’s a feature found in many DAPs the L3 considers rivals.
The L3 can be found hovering around $400 while the L5 Pro sits in the $800 range. Anyone looking for a DAP to pair with IEMs or those looking to work within a budget will probably lean towards the L3. Head-Fi’ers with a variety of headphones or those looking to get a more natural sound will find the L5 Pro more to their liking. No matter which sibling you choose the Luxury&Precision family will be ready to welcome you with open arms.
If I had to distill Sony’s personal audio mission in recent years, down to just one word, that word would be evolution.
Ongoing improvements, through successive product iterations, are happening throughout Sony’s entire range of personal audio offerings, from headphones to IEMs to DAPs. But the one product line that personifies this spirit of evolution, more than any other, is their PHA-series of portable DAC/amps. Since its debut in late 2014, the Sony PHA-3 has been steadily winning over the hearts and minds of Head-Fiers near and far, and it’s easy to see why.
Like the PHA-1 and PHA-2 before it, the PHA-3 sports impeccable build quality, remains impressively quiet with a pitch black background, is compatible with iOS devices, and drives most headphones with dexterity and authority via its low or high gain settings. And like the PHA-2, it’s also capable of high resolution audio, including single and double rate DSD.
To that, the PHA-3 adds an impressive list of new features that any discriminating Head-Fier would approve of wholeheartedly. The PHA-3’s DAC section has been upgraded to an ESS ES9018 from the Wolfson WM8740 found in the PHA-2. A new XMOS chip enables Sony’s DSEE HX digital signal processing algorithms to upscale lossy audio files. And yes, DSEE HX actually works. The PHA-3’s battery life now provides up to 28 hours of play time via analog input (i.e. using the PHA-3 as an amp). That’s 11 hours longer than a PHA-2, and 18 hours longer than a PHA-1. It also includes a new optical input for those who might not be keen on using USB. And finally, it is now capable of balanced drive via dual 3.5mm TRS jacks. It is this last feature that truly makes the PHA-3 an outstanding unit.
When a PHA-3 is paired with Sony’s MDR-Z7 headphone or Sony’s XBA-Z5 in-ear monitor - via optional Kimber Kable balanced cables - and you play high-resolution or DSD files through that signal chain, it becomes very clear that Sony voiced all of these components together as an ecosystem. The sound quality of such a rig is, in a word, exceptional. Playing through Michael Jackson’s Thriller album in single-rate DSD (available from Acoustic Sounds), we are rewarded with a balanced, detailed and dynamic presentation cast amidst an expansive soundstage.
That said, the PHA-3 does fall short of greatness in several respects. At $999 USD, the price can be a bit steep for some. This is especially true if one won’t also make the additional investment in an MDR-Z7 or XBA-Z5 (along with its respective Kimber Kable balanced upgrade cable) in order to take the PHA-3 to its fullest potential. Secondly, the PHA-3 won’t charge and play at the same time. By itself, this is not a dealbreaker. But taking into consideration that the PHA-3’s battery life is only 5-hours long when using its digital inputs (i.e. using the PHA-3 as a DAC+amp), and can take up to 15 hours to fully recharge, this amount of device down-time can be rather annoying. And finally, the PHA-3 can’t output balanced audio when you’re just using the analog input.
Nonetheless, the PHA-3 is a significant upgrade from the PHA-2. It advances the PHA-series by retaining the best that its progenitors had to offer, while introducing new and worthy features. And of course, as the cornerstone of a hi-res ecosystem, it sounds very, very good. Exceptionally good.
Someday, in the next evolution, I hope that Sony will release a PHA-4 that addresses all of the issues above. In the meantime, Sony has yet another winner on its hands with the PHA-3. I am enjoying it immensely - especially with an MDR-Z7 or an XBA-Z5 and their respective Kimber Kable accoutrements - and would happily recommend it as both a portable and a desktop DAC/amp.
FiiO X1 2nd Gen and FiiO A5
FiiO. Born for Music and Happy Since 2007. That's FiiO's slogan, and I love it. It makes me smile every time I read it printed on their boxes or on their website. It's a remarkably cheery motto for a company that takes audio so seriously--one of the companies in our industry that has most redefined value for the dollar.
FiiO doesn't try to push the boundaries of high-end audio, but they do try to put as much high-end audio into super-affordable products as they can, and they've become immensely popular in our community for all their enthusiasm, effort, engineering, and the resulting value.
FiiO's X1 2nd gen ultraportable digital audio player is one recent example. The X1 2nd gen supports up to 256GB of external storage via micro-SD, and can play high-res files up to 24-bit/192kHz. It has instant-on with a deep-sleep mode that allows up to 15 days of standby. The output connector serves as both headphone and line out; and the volume control is a digital potentiometer with 100 steps. The X1 2nd gen also has Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless streaming. It has a small but crisp display, and an intuitive user interface. Battery life is rated by FiiO at 12 hours with headphones, and 15 hours on Bluetooth. And, of course, most importantly, it sounds very good! All of this for $99.99 is insanely impressive.
FiiO also recently unveiled the new FiiO A5 portable amplifier, which is an upgrade of their much loved FiiO E12A. The new FiiO A5 uses the MUSES02 and LME49600 chips, and, versus its predecessor, has lower distortion, nearly double the output power, an 84% increase in peak output voltage, and a 32% increase in supply voltage. Even with all that power on tap, I was happy to plug my uber-sensitive FitEar MH334 custom into it and hear no self-noise at all in low-gain mode, and then to play music and hear Tedeschi Trucks Band with crystal clarity and punch.
The FiiO X1 2ng gen and the FiiO A5 (which also pair very well together, by the way) are just two examples of many that show how serious FiiO is about providing serious audio performance for budget-minded Head-Fi'ers. Born for Music and Happy Since 2007. Indeed!
Chord Electronics Mojo
When Chord came out with the Hugo, putting the latest of thirty-odd years of digital to analogue research by Rob Watts into a portable device, it sent Head-Fi into a frenzy of mixed reactions. Many people who bought one loved the sound, but less loved the weird design with a puzzling layout of unlabelled ports and switches. What is more, at around $2500 the price was in the territory of serious DACs and, not surprisingly, much was expected of it. What impresses me is that Rob Watts took ALL the feedback from customers and the forums and put it in the Mojo, and Chord made it far more affordable.
Whereas the Hugo had a rather confused layout, the Mojo is spot-on neat. Headphone jacks one one end, inputs on the other, and 3 buttons on one edge. Those buttons are freely rotating balls that glow with the colour of the LEDs underneath. The first, with a 2-second press powers up (or down) the unit, which happens with a very audible click, after which it glows with a colour indicating the sample rate of the input. The other two buttons, individually held down move the volume up or down, the LEDs beneath changing with the colours of the rainbow depending on volume level.
To account for sensitive IEM users, once the lowest volume has been reached, the “-“ volume button LED turns to brown and the other cycles through the colours once again for even lower volume levels. On the other end of the scale, the “+” button LED will cycle through a few more levels after the “-“ has reached white. Without knowing this at first it can be a bit off-putting, as light bleeding between the buttons sometimes makes it look as if the colours have gone all funny, but it is a good indicator once one remembers the colours of the rainbow and that the cycle is based upon that.
I could write a bucketload about the tech inside the Mojo, but it would be easier to visit Rob Watts’ profile and read his entire post history, as it is all in there, explained in detail. What matters to me more is that he has crammed his tech, which focuses immense computing power into a tiny box, the size of an original AK100 and is charging less than an AK100II would cost. If you have a smart phone you’re all set, otherwise pick your choice of DAP with optical or coax digital output, as all recent models should be able to feed the Mojo high-res or even DSD via optical or coax, depending on their capability and the availability of a suitable cable.
The powerful FPGA inside, along with the 500MW-capable amp generates 1.7W inside the small aluminium box that is the Mojo, causing it to get reasonably, but not excessively warm during use, and especially during charging. Between choosing long usage time and headphone driving ability, Rob Watts went for the latter, so the unit is good for about 7 hours of use before recharging is required, but it will handle full-sized headphones with aplomb. While the Hugo sounds a bit on the thin side for preference, the Mojo has been tuned to be a bit warmer-sounding.
The Mojo’s tuning has been most welcome with my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors (UERMs), the HE1000s, Ethers and HD800s, both of which the Mojo seems to be able to handle, if not at the capability of a top-of-the-line headphone amp. The HE1000s weren’t quite as dynamic out of the Mojo direct as they were out of my Studio Six, where their capabilities seem to come through. It was a closer call with my HD800s, but given that my source for the Studio Six is a Hugo, that is as much a credit to the Hugo as it might be a limitation versus what the Studio Six is capable of resolving. The Ethers were definitely more to my liking out of the Mojo, easily driven to a degree that I could forget I wasn’t listening to my main system.
With a number of great headphones available under $1000, and some top-of-the-line models, including IEMs on sale or second second-hand for that price too, it is readily possible with a Chord Mojo to set up what would have been a high-end portable rig a few years ago for less than $1500.
Have you ever have a plan backfire? I had such an experience recently. Not long ago, my friend Dave and I were talking about a new product that had been receiving a lot of attention on Head-Fi. We were both curious about it and, in the end, he finally decided to try one. Of course, I had encouraged his purchase because I wanted to hear it for myself. My intentions were to listen and then move on, my budget safe from releasing precious funds.
The plan failed. Spectacularly.
Within minutes of listening, I knew I had to have one. This was how I came to own the Chord Mojo.
The Mojo has one of the most engaging sound signatures I’ve heard, even when compared to products that demand an admission fee three and four times more. The presentation sets my toes tapping every single time, without fail. Perhaps it’s the crisp, clear treble, which brings resolution and detail without crossing into harsh and shrill territory. Maybe it’s the engaging vocals that are taking hold and keeping me glued to my chair. Or perhaps it is the Mojo’s command of the low end - firm, never sloppy and ready to deliver full-bodied bass at a moment’s notice. Each trait is strong enough to stand on its own, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Conceivably, the Mojo’s greatest strength lies in its flexibility. I use it as a portable DAC/amp connected to my phone, a desktop DAC/amp at the office, and a dedicated DAC at home. Never does the Mojo utter a single complaint.
How is this possible? In essence, the Mojo is a DAC with a variable line out, which means there’s no double-amping conflicts when mating it with a dedicated amplifier. Even though you’ll have no trouble using it with an amp, I found it’s simply not required in many situations. The Mojo has more than enough muscle to drive most full-size, power-hungry headphones with aplomb.
And it’s quiet. Astonishingly quiet. The Mojo’s background is silent enough for every sensitive IEM I’ve tried with it. Very few devices are able to perform so admirably with such a wide range of headphones. Well done, Chord. Well done.
One of my favorite pairings with the Mojo is the MrSpeakers ETHER Flow. There’s an almost unnatural synergy between the two; one that can best several full-size desktop systems. While the Mojo can’t quite push the ETHER Flow to their maximum potential (adding a high-quality dedicated amplifier is the only way to truly showcase the range of their ability), it’s dang close, and I’d be perfectly happy relying on the Mojo alone. In fact, I do.
The Chord Mojo is many things: a compact portable system, a home desktop system and a class-leading DAC.
All this for less than $600? Sold!
With its immense sonic performance and versatility, the Chord Mojo is a comprehensive all in one package that has the potential to replace both your home and portable setups, while at the same transforming your console gaming experience. The Mojo is desktop-capable and wholly portable; A Swiss army knife in all but name.
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RedJohn456 (Tamal Firoz)
Lotoo PAW 5000
Lotoo came to my, and most everyone else’s attention with the release of the PAW Gold and its gold-plated controls. Priced to compete with Astell&Kern’s AK240, its sound signature wooed many, even if the user interface wasn’t as slick as the Android-based ones on iRiver’s DAPs.
Just as FiiO has been storming the other end of the market with the X1, X3 and X5, Lotoo has made a solid entry into the space with the PAW 5000. Looking like a smaller version of the PAW Gold, the functionality is much the same with, much like the seemingly iPod-inspired FiiO designs, a scroll wheel and button.
For an inexpensive DAP, the PAW 5000 lists an impressive number of features: As well as the common line out and high/low gain switch, there is a high/low damping switch, Bluetooth output and a unique “Sport Mode” which allows the music to be slowed down or sped up by 20% to match, say, the rhythm of a jogger on a run.
Initial impressions of the DAP itself are of a small, neat and comfortably-designed unit that looks more like something a large brand name manufacturer would produce. Aluminium front and back covers surround a central plastic core and plastic buttons and switches make up the outside, excepting the power and play buttons which are metal. Buttons and switches are a little loose, but nothing that would raise any concern.
The screen is 1990’s style basic relative to what we are used to with smart phones nowadays, but does the job admirably. The interface chooses density of information over looking attractive. As the music plays back, I’m pretty sure every main setting, even including if you’re using the line out, is visible on some part of the screen, surrounding a pair of volume meters. The only exception is the Sport Mode, which overlays the meters with the music speed, ranging from 80-120%. If Sport Mode isn’t useful to you, the “Fn” button can be customised to other settings.
In usage and listening the PAW 5000 does pretty well for a DAP in its price range. Left switched off for a few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had only gone down a couple of percentage points. I put the PAW 5000 to the test with a variety of music from CD quality to high-res and the performance was very good. Even testing it with the demanding JH Audio Laylas, which have left some devices struggling, it had no trouble driving them out of the balanced output, the music coming through with good clarity and detail. To find out just how good the performance was with IEMs I compared using an ALO Audio Rx and Sound Potion Monolith as amps with the PAW 5000’s line out as the source. It took me a few songs to determine that the amps had a slightly more spacious presentation, with the PAW 5000 a bit more closed and congested-sounding. A very good result!
To test the Bluetooth I got out my pair of Pendulumic Stance S1+ headphones and went about connecting to them from the PAW 5000. After turning Bluetooth on in the menus pairing was fairly straight-foward with the PAW 5000 finding them immediately and, after scanning had finished, offering up a list of unpaired devices. Bringing up a regular CD-quality 44.1kHz song resulted in playback without issues, but to be sure, I tried a high-res track and that gave a burst of static before refusing to play. So if you’re looking to use the DAP with Bluetooth headphones sticking to CD quality tracks will be a necessity.
In a level-matched comparison with FiiO’s X5II, a back and forth between the two using my trusted Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors (UERMs) had the two DAPs neck and neck for sound quality. If there were differences, they were below the threshold for which it matters for a portable DAP. I tried the same comparison using the excellent single-dynamic DITA Audio The Truth IEMs with the same result.
The only disagreements I had with the PAW 5000 was that the onscreen volume indicator moves faster than the actual adjustment. Often I’d ramp up the volume further than intended thinking it wasn’t going up much, only to have it then become too loud. As well, the FiiO X5II has settings allowing some degree of control over what buttons will work when the screen is off. The PAW 5000 disables all buttons, requiring one to press the power button and then the play button to stop the music. Other than those, the PAW 5000 has a quite a range of useful settings, including such things as an SD speed test (to see if the SD card is fast enough for the DAP) and whether or not the power LED will “breath” when in use. There is also a dedicated button to access a bunch of EQ presets.
The PAW 5000 takes a single microSD card up to 128 GB in size, which can optionally be accessed by a built-in USB socket for maximum transfer speeds. The main advantage of the PAW 5000 is that it is relatively light and comfortably round-edged and can be used with Bluetooth headphones; and joggers after a DAP with a speed control will no doubt be delighted.
Detail retrieval is very good, especially when matched with more analytical sets; all my TWFK based IEMs were taken to a higher level (and even had their extra treble heat controlled down a bit more).
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Lotoo PAW Gold Diana Edition
Some of today’s best headphones require serious amplification to sound their best. These headphones come from names like Audeze, HIFIMAN, MrSpeakers, Sennheiser and more. Thanks to the growth of personal audio we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to buying a full-size amplifier. Look at the forums and you’ll find an endless number of desktop systems designed to drive the most demanding cans.
For many Head-Fi’ers it’s not possible to spend all day at home in front of their collection, so what can we do when we want to hit the road? We can’t pocket a hulking behemoth of an amp. Again, there’s no shortage of options available. Demand for high-powered, portable amplifiers is on the rise and manufacturers are responding at breakneck pace. Grab your amp of choice, slap it on the back of a DAP or smartphone and go.
Unfortunately not everyone is afforded the luxury of space and a thick portable stack just won’t do. Some of these music lovers own incredibly picky headphones. What are they to do? There hasn’t been many attempts at creating the perfect portable device for this crowd, but a recent partnership has emerged to tackle this very problem.
In partnership with JPS Labs, creator of the AB-1266 Abyss headphone, Intermedia introduced the Lotoo PAW Gold Diana edition. The original Lotoo PAW Gold has been with us for a couple of years now and many Head-Fi’ers have been extremely happy using it every day. They’ve praised the neutral sound presentation, the tank-esque construction and premium accents like sapphire crystal and 24K gold. The intelligent design doesn’t stop there. The Lotoo PAW Gold reads from full-size SD cards, allowing listeners to carry more music than a Micro SD.
Startup is jaw-droppingly quick. It supports native DSD and ISO audio files. It has a user-customizable hardware button; a keypad lock; a relaxing, “breathing” LED that rings the power button; a line out and an 11 hour battery. For many the Lotoo PAW Gold was the perfect device, but not for everyone. There were those who required even more power in their portable device, and now it’s finally here.
The Diana edition’s output is otherworldly. It’s the only player on the market I’m aware of that’s able to fully drive the Abyss. I’m not saying that it gets close or that it’s the best for its size, I’m telling you that it outperforms several dedicated desktop amps. I have no idea how they managed it, but it’s a remarkable achievement.
The Lotoo PAW Gold Diana edition retains the same design as the normal LPG. As a result, it has the same shortcomings. The unit is incredibly heavy for a DAP, lacks internal storage, uses a D/C barrel charger rather than the more common Micro USB and is only carried by a limited number of retailers. With exception to the charger, most of these downsides are negligible. The lack of Micro USB charging wouldn’t stop me from a purchase, but it’s always an annoyance toting around a dedicated wall wart.
Seeing as it’s a tweak to the normal LPG, you’d expect the Diana edition to possess a similar sound signature. It does. To my ears the sound is evenly balanced throughout the spectrum. It’s also incredibly resolving. The downside to presenting music this way is that the LPG doesn’t do as well with lower resolution files. If you’re bringing a library full of highly compressed mp3 files it may be time to buy some new high-res tunes for the catalog.
The Diana edition was able to tackle every single headphone I threw at it without trying. The Ether FLOW was open and resolving, the FitEar fitear was warm and textured, and even the humble Koss PortaPro left my jaw on the floor with its accuracy and detail. Every single pairing showcased the LPG Diana’s unimaginable chops. No matter what headphone the listener chooses, the LPG Diana delivers world-class sound.
You won’t find me cruising down the sidewalks of Novi, MI, touting a pair of Abyss and jamming away on the LPG Diana edition. The Abyss is far from my idea of portable, but it can certainly be a transportable headphone. I see owners of the Abyss, HD 800, LCD-4 and other flagship headphones pairing their pieces with the LPG Diana as they go out of town for a relaxing weekend or business trip. I imagine owners sitting at home in a den, listening without the need for a dedicated desktop system.
I can also see sensitive headphone owners quickly falling in love with Diana. There was absolutely zero noise with the Koss or FitEar, which means there’s no distractions from the music. I know IEM manufacturers who sing praises for the LPG. If it’s good enough for the IEM’s creators, it’s certainly good enough for me.
The Lotoo PAW Gold Diana edition provides something Head-Fi’ers may have previously thought out of reach - freedom. Freedom from a desktop amp, freedom from a portable stack, freedom to use any headphone in their stable. It isn’t the perfect solution for everyone, but for some I can imagine no greater device. It’s a masterpiece.