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Digital Audio (FLAC/MP3/etc) Players (DAPs) item created by Nankai, May 10, 2010
Pros - Amazing Sound!, External SD Card Slot, User Removable Amplifier, 24/96khz support.
Cons - Poor Battery Life, Clunky Footprint, Fingerprint and Scratch Magnet, Glitchy User Interface.
Disclaimer: This review is just a reflection of my opinions and experience.
Modular Design: Modular Amplifier Bay (Named GanQi Bay) and 14.8 volt Lithium Polymer Battery Bay
Memory: SDHC Card
DAC function: Coaxial (44.1kHz, 96 kHz) , USB DAC (16bit, 48kHz)
DAC Chip: Burr-Brown PCM1704U-K (for Player, Coaxial and USB) ; Op-Amp: OPA627
Size: 114 mm *78mm * 25.5 mm or 4.49 * 3.07 * 1.00 Inch
Output: Headphone out; Line out
Exchangeable Module Battery Life : 7 to 8 hours (Depending upon which Modular Amplifier board is mounted)
Contents in Packaging:
110v AC to 18v 2000mA charger
The Hifiman HM-801 has a very basic and straight to the point UI. With a very small color LCD display and 5 circular buttons located beside it, immediately you get the idea that this player isn't about modern day bells and whistles typically found in the latest Cowon player or Apple iPod Touch. The HM-801 also has 4 buttons at the top of the unit. The 4 buttons are the power button, skip back or reverse button, skip forward or fast forward button and the play and pause button for quick and easy accessibility to your music without having to look at the screen. Alongside the screen, are the "at first" awkwardly presented 5 buttons that are responsible for navigating through the HM-801's UI. The top 2 buttons are the back and forward buttons. They allow you to leave a menu screen or advance further into the menu. The single button in the menu is your "select" button. This button confirms a selection. The bottom 2 buttons are the up and down buttons which navigates the selector up or down. Like I said before, at first they're a bit awkward, but after awhile they become second nature and you will fly through the UI. The UI isn't without flaws though. There isn't a "search" option and the overall response time of the buttons and the menu is sluggish. There are several bugs such as the device sometimes freezing to the point where the battery needs to be completely removed and placed back in. You select a song and a completely different song begins to play. You're scrolling down the list of your songs and the device begins to play a song randomly. These are very small problems that don't hinder the ability to use the device, but they're still problems that I hope get fixed down the road.
Adding music to the HM-801 is very simple. Either plug the SDHC card directly into your computer and copy the music files over or plug the HM-801 up to your computer via a USB cable and also have access to the built in 2gb's of storage for upgrading the firmware or music storage. The HM-801 also acts as a USB or Coaxial based DAC. Personally, I found the sound quality to slightly suffer when doing this ( haven't tried coaxial), but it still outperforms the sound quality out of my laptop's 3.5mm headphone out. Surprisingly, there is a 5 band equalizer in the HM-801's UI though it has done more harm than good in my opinion.
The UI for the HM-801 can be upgraded to the Rockbox firmware which allows the HM-801 to finally have gapless support as well as a bunch of new features. As of now, the Rockbox firmware for the HM-801 is in a very un-stable form and the support to improve it's stability doesn't seem to be growing unfortunately...
Despite being manufactured by a small company in China, the build quality is very good. It's not as good as say something as mass produced as an iPod, but it doesn't look like it will fall apart on it's own over time. Even though it's essentially a "brick", it's a sleek looking brick in my opinion. The shiny back metal with the gold accents really give it a serious look. If you've grown up using Walkmans, you'll grow to appreciate the HM-801 aesthetically even more. The main gripes that I have with the HM-801 in terms of the build is that it's both a finger print and scratch magnet thanks to the type of material used for the exterior. The scratches aren't easily noticeable in normal lighting, but when you take it under intense light such as outside, the scratches really begin to show themselves and annoy you. Also, the gold paint on buttons will wear off over time.
With such power hungry components jammed into this thing such as the PCM1074UK and OPA627 chips, the battery must be able to deliver a lot of voltage and current. The HM-801's battery life is rated at around 7-8 hours. I get roughly the same times too. This player needs to be strapped down by it's charger every night if you're planning to frequently use it during the day. Purchasing another battery can extend the potential time you have with the HM-801 to 14-16 hours. Also, I wanted to note, the HM-801 itself warms up during music playback and warms up a bit further during charging. The AC charger also gets warm too which is expected of any charger giving out so much power in DC. The HM-801 will not charge via a USB cable simply because of the low power output, but surprisingly, the menu can still be navigated with only power from a USB cable. No music will play from a USB cable though.
With everything else aside, we approach the most important aspect of the player, the sound quality. The only thing I've used to listen to this player was my Westone ES5's. The amplifier module inside this unit is the Standard v2 amp. I did not use any external portable or desktop amplifiers with the HM-801 during this review. The majority of my music is FLAC with about 30% of it being 256-320kbps MP3. The portable mp3 player I will be comparing the HM-801 to is the iPod Touch 3G.
The HM-801 has a warm, euphoric and spacious sound. To those who prefer a more accurate and linear presentation, this player may not be your cup of tea. Compared to my iPod, the iPod has more lively and energetic sound mainly due to the lack of lower and upper treble roll off. This is just frequency response alone. As we step out away from that and approach detail retrieval capabilities, texturing, soundstage and realism, the iPod simply cannot hold a candle. The iPod sounds hazy, muddy, cold and lifeless compared to the HM-801. I never thought muddy and cold could be associated with each other when describing sound, but the iPod changed my assumptions.
The HM-801's bass is very bold and powerful. Not, overly so, but enough to add a nice foundation to your music. I can much more easily hear different bass notes as they simultaneously play. The bass extension far exceeds my iPod which made me think my Westone ES5's just didn't have the extension capabilities I expected. Plugged into the HM-801, my Westone ES5's pumps out bass that I would seriously expect from a full size dynamic driver headphone. With such a present and authoritative bass, the rest of the music is surprisingly left unharmed. The bass not only hits harder, but with a more sharper and tighter focus behind every hit. This is a result of the higher power output that the HM-801 can easily supply. The iPod's bass punch isn't terribly bloated or boomy, but it's just not as vivid and focused as the HM-801. The HM-801 has no mid-bass bloat, just a nicely presented, linear bass presentation that will sure bring out the best in your subwoofer.
There seems to be a slight forwardness to the midrange presentation of the HM-801. Surprisingly, it doesn't make it too fatiguing since the Westone ES5 themselves too have a forward midrange. Vocals on the HM-801 have such a natural weight and presence to them I cannot find in the iPod. It's easy to just sit back and admire the instruments through the HM-801 while through the iPod, I become analytic and pin-point every flaw, mainly vocal sibilance. The vocals through the iPod have a lifeless and sucked out presentation that really hurts the musical enjoyment for me. The coherence between the lower midrange and upper midrange is also poor on the iPod. When the vocalist pronounces anything that is likely to cause sibilance, the actual sibilant note seems to be higher in db than the lower harmonic notes. Through the same song, with the HM-801, the voices sound a lot more smoother, vivid and realistic. Guitars have such a beautiful presence and the overall power behind every instrument is easily felt. Due to the HM-801's improved midrange clarity, even though I'm less critical/analytical while listening to the HM-801, I can understand what the vocalist are saying a lot easier than through my iPod.
Smooth, precise and natural is the words I'd use to describe the HM-801's treble. The iPod has more emphasis here, which in my opinion, gives it that hazy, cold and lifeless sound. Some may call it the "digital" sound. At first, this sound is exciting, but after a while, it becomes fatiguing. The HM-801 has gotten a lot of hate because of it's treble roll off. It's okay that you want the most accurate source according to graph sheets, but in terms of musical enjoyment and realism, neutral isn't the sound you most likely want. Though the HM-801 has less treble energy than the iPod, it still manages to produce a larger soundstage with a more detailed and fine tuned imaging. Every note carries a convincing weight and presence that is non-existent with the iPod. The sense of ambiance is absolutely breathtaking with the HM-801 along with an even darker background than the iPod. Simply put, the treble and overall sound from the HM-801 is just effortless.
The Hifiman HM-801 isn't the end be it all audiophile DAP. It still has it's share of flaws that keeps it from being #1 just like any other mp3 player. To some, this player may seem like a giant waste of money or a marketing scam. In my opinion, if you love music, have high end IEM's or portable headphones and want to upgrade your portable source, take a more in-depth look at the HM-801. The HM-801 is an exceptionally great sounding DAP with a powerful built in amplifier that can drive a wide range of full sized headphones to a respectable degree and a legendary built in DAC that is highly regarded as one of the best DAC's ever created. I'm glad I took the dive and bought this DAP.
Pros - Beautiful sound with 24/96 FLAC that no other portable can match
Cons - Short battery life, large size, small internal storage, no video
REVIEW of HM-801:
I've had a loaner 801 here for a week and a half, playing a multitude of 24/96 hi-res downloads and 16/44 FLAC or WAV files, and all I can say is that I've already emailed Fang that I want to buy this one to replace my iMod/Vcap dock.
I took it to Westone on Wednesday to try out their new ES5 demos which sounded wonderful with it (better balance, depth and out-of-head soundstage than my ES3X which I love). During our 2 hour listening session p0derh0und23 (Doug) agreed with me that the 801 with 24/96 FLAC sounds a little more realistic and spacious than my iMod rig using the same songs in 16 bit ALAC files. The HM-801 with 24/96 FLAC was also superior as a line-out source to my iPad with 16 bit lossless > iPad camera connection kit > iBasso D4 USB DAC line-out > Pico Slim, Protector and SR-001 mk2. Karl at Westone was also impressed with it as a source and amp.
We tried it with the 801's built-in amp, and with line-out into Pico Slim and RSA Protector - with stock earphone cables and balanced TWag cable (with SE adapter for Slim). And we even fed it into an Audiocats SuperFatCat ++ modded SR-001 Mk2 which everyone loved. The 801 internal amp was a great match with the ES5 demos, as well as my ES3X and some UM3X they had there. It's also one of my few portable amps that controls the bass well on my UE11pro and doesn't allow the mids to sound recessed. I love how it seems to get along with a wide variety of IEM that have very different sounds. Basically, it sounds very good and is easily on the level of these other top-tier portable amps.
Where the HM-801 really shines is with my 24/96 Linn.com and HDTracks.com downloads, where it has better micro-detail, ambience air and space, soundstage, depth and realism than these other sources and amps which are limited to 16/44 files and no higher. The differences are not huge but are readily appreciated with regular listening. What is more noticeable is how easily I'm immersed in the musical performance and forget about everything else around me more quickly. When I switch to 16 bit FLAC files and compare those to the 16 bit ALAC files on the iMod/portable Vcap dock or the iPad/DAC with an amp, the HM-801 has no trouble performing at a similar or higher level. And it's definitely more portable than my iMod/Vcaps/Amp or iPad/DAC/Amp. All at a lower price than those rigs which can't scale up with the higher resolution music files.
I haven't limited my listening to my custom IEM, but I've also listened to a variety of full size phones with the HM-801. With that I found the 801 is also a good match for my HD600, HD800, Grado HF-2, ESW10 and LA7000. It seems to have a little more power than most of my portable amps when driving full size phones, and with HD600 it comes very close to the power of the RSA Protector in balanced mode. With my HD800 I think the 801 beats the Protector with better synergy and beats the Slim with greater power output. I don't think many of my other portable amps have a the right sonic balance with my HD800, other than the Pico Slim which is underpowered for them, and my Amphora which is not really portable. However, the 801 does seem underpowered for the HE-5 LE orthodynamic phones, while the balanced Protector can drive them better (but not if single ended).
I also have tried the 801 briefly as a 16 bit USB DAC and found it to be very capable, although I don't think that the USB DAC sounds as good as listening to music on the SD card. I have not had a chance to try this particular 801 as a COAX input DAC, but I did get to spend a bit of time with it as a COAX DAC > EF1 > HE-5 at RMAF last fall and found it to do an excellent job in that roll.
With my 48 year old ears my hearing is strong to 12Khz but gone by 16Khz, and I can't hear the high-frequency roll-off that others have reported measuring elsewhere. But Doug and Karl at Westone didn't mention hearing any issues with treble roll-off detracting from the sound either. Some people have called the reported roll-off a "coloration", but the 801 sounds very transparent to me, and in my mind it doesn't change the sound of the instruments. It has a slightly warm and euphonic but NEVER dark sound signature. If you want to call that a coloration I guess that's fine with me, but it's certainly nothing that detracts from the performance, and if anything this euphonic flavor enhances my enjoyment. If everyone agrees that I like colored sound, then I must like colored sound if done the right way, and I am not alone. Give me something with a thin or bright coloration and it becomes fatiguing or irritating to me.
Now, lest some people think I am acting like a shill for Head-Direct, I will say that not everything is perfect with the HM-801. The power brick is bulkier than the 801 and really needs to be made smaller, especially when dealing with an 8 hour battery life that requires bringing the charger with you on trips. Also, when using it as a USB drive to copy music to the 801, the battery does not charge and instead it will run down if you leave it plugged in for a few hours to your computer - I found that out the hard way. I also had one glitch when I tried to switch from listening to music on the SD card to listening to the internal 2Gb memory, where the 801 stopped responding to button presses and didn't play music. Removing the SD memory card gave control back to me, and I could not get this glitch to repeat itself after that one time.
Then tonight I also found that with my most sensitive IEMs like Livewires T1 and ES3X that when accessing music on the SD Card with the volume turned all the way down I could hear some very quiet clicking or "woodpecker" noise when the battery is very low. I didn't notice this with a full battery or all the other times I was listening, although I probably was not paying enough attention the other times I used it, but this time I found it when I was checking for hiss at zero volume (which it does not have). This is only heard using the same IEM that reveal hiss in my ALO amphora at zero volume, and it was loudest with the T1, much quieter with the ES3X, almost gone with the UE11pro, and I could not hear it at all with my JH13Pro. I will charge the 801 overnight and listen for noise again tomorrow, to see if it is indeed related to battery level. Fortunately, only with the Livewires did I find it to be intrusive at very low listening levels.
For many months I've passed on buying the 801 because of it's size and lack of video. I have so much money invested in my iMod/Vcap rig, which I have owned for over 2 years, that I couldn't fathom spending more on another portable music rig. Interestingly, although my iMod can play video I have very few videos installed on it and use it almost entirely for music. And with a portable amp attached it's almost as bulky as the 801. So that takes away a few of my objections to switching rigs. My only remaining gripe is the lack of large internal storage space, as the 2Gb will only hold 2 hours of 24/96 music (but 20 hours of 320K MP3). I picked up a few 8gb SDHC cards for $17 each which will hold 7-8 hi-res 24/96 albums (about 8 hours) or 30-32 16/44 FLAC albums, and I'll start looking for a 32Gb SD card if I need something bigger.
I've read many posts where other people balk at the $800 price for a portable or transportable player. But you have to ask yourself how much is desktop quality sound worth when you want to take it with you? An iMod with portable LOD or portable Vcap dock and top-tier amp will set you back $1,000 - $1,500, depending on configuration. The HM-801 costs almost half what the iMod/Vcap rig cost (before buying SD cards), but it sounds just as good with 16 bit and better with 24 bit music. And it can double as a desktop DAC or computer DAC, which the iMod can't do.
So, my recommendation is that the HM-801 fits the bill perfectly for hi-res music on a portable rig that comes close to the sound of a desktop rig, which can also be used as a hi-res source if you do need to use an amp with more power for demanding headphones. If you really want something to watch movies on, the money you save over buying an iMod rig will buy you a nice iPod Touch or iPad in addition to the 801. For casual listening I can still use my Nano, iPhone or iPad, but for any serious listening the 801 is the best choice in a portable DAP that I have found so far (aside from using my Macbook Pro with DACport 24/96 DAC amp which can match the 801 performance if size doesn't matter).
* I rated the value at 4.0 because while $800 is a lot to spend on a portable rig, if you were to spend $500 on an iMod and $150-200 on a quality iMod LOD and $350-450 on a top tier amp then it makes the 801 look like a reasonable deal (even after adding in the cost of some SD cards).
* I rated audio quality a 5.0 vs other portables because I haven't heard a portable DAP yet that matches the performance. Vs desktop DACs it's line-out sound signature or tone reminds me of something like the Stello DA100 with a warm spacious sound, but I have not been able to compare them yet so I'll save that for later. I have compared the iMod rig that was used in this review to the Head Room Micro Stack + iRiver H140 in the past, and the performance was on a similar level with both. So I wold guess the 801 is at least on that level or higher, but in a much smaller package.
* I rated the design a 3.5 because I think the left right up down buttons could have been positioned better. and I often find myself going the wrong direction unless I rotate the unit 45 degrees so that the up and down are above each other and left right are lined up more horizontally. I also think the charger should not be so big or have such a proprietary plug where one cannot use a universal PSU or car charger. And the choices between USB data and USB audio inputs, the switch for internal SD vs external transport, and switch for usb or coax as the external transport could be confusing to hit the right combination. I would have put the USB audio input and coax input side by side with a switch to choose between them, and I would have kept the USB data port for loading music separate. I would have also made the USB port charge the 801 or at least not let the battery drain when plugged in via USB to copy music to it.
* I gave battery life a 2.5 for the short 8 hour life, where one comes to expect closer to 16-24 hours from a portable DAP. This is not an issue for someone using the 801 as their office or bedside music rig who keeps it plugged in all the time. This is basically a desktop DAC and amp running off a 9v battery, with all the expected current demands of a desktop rig. Remember the portable Headroom Micro DAC and Amp? The Stack sold for a similar price with similar battery life, and it was really a desktop DAC and amp gobbling down the battery.
* I gave user interface a 3.5 where it was easy to use but not as flexible or feature rich as Rockbox, which also offers more than the iPod software, nor is it as attractive as using a iPod Touch or iPad.
* I gave it an overall 4.5 rating because the sound quality outweighs the other ranks that could have dragged it down. The iMod with extended battery has double the battery life, more features like video, huge storage space, and decent size with a small amp like the Pico Slim, but the sound is very slightly below the 801 which would bring it down to a similar score.