Pros - In top four in SQ, beautiful design, nice screen, easy to use UI
Cons - Worthless battery life, missing basic UI functions - folder navigation and play all
Having listened to almost all top tier DAPs, the Calyx M has been frustrating to audition being relatively rare and absent from all audio shows and Head-Fi meets in the US that I have attended. Hearing/reading constant claims of top SQ, I knew that I needed to hear it, but doubted that it could be that good knowing that it utilizes a Sabre implementation which are bright and blaring in practice. With the prices coming down to a reasonable level, I took a chance on buying one to audition knowing that I would just sell it after my audition satisfied my curiosity. Well........ a week into my audition and I knew that there was no way that I would be selling the M. It just sounds too damn good!!!
Lets get this out of the way - there are 3 reason to never touch this DAP if you care about anything but SQ. My listening is typically random songs within a play list folder or just random listening through all music in my library with my eyes closed, the screen off, and a finger on the forward button. The M fights me tooth and nail on my listening style requiring huge amounts of effort to just listen to my music. Given the issues I almost gave up in the first week. Also, at first, I was not impressed with the SQ as I was too concerned about fighting the UI. I also needed to learn to turn down the volume to eliminate the Sabre blair as the volume is not needed like on most DAPs to be full sized and dynamic. It took me a bit to dial in my listening sessions to find the value as the rest just pissed me off. So here are the main three reasons not to buy this DAP:
Useless Battery Life: At less than 4 hours, the M doesn't even last my night time listening session without help. As such, I just keep it plugged into the wall with a long cord. The good news is that it seems to sound even more dynamic plugged in so I have overlooked this issue. I also have a USB battery pack that I can utilize, but that gets heavy and cumbersome - prefer the wall plug for my purposes.
No Folder Browsing: My MicroSD cards are mirrors of my playlists to allow me to play my folders like playlists without having to mess with the UI. Trying lots of DAPs, this has always been the easy work around to less than optimal UIs. But the Calyx M has no folder browsing option making this setup inoperable. How can any DAP not have folder browsing, that is just a basic requirement and a starting point for creating a UI. Even worse, the Calyx scans the cards every time it is started to rebuild the library taking additional time to start functioning.
No Play All: Ok, at least I have access to my music through my library. Or do I........ Turns out that the Calyx M will only play one song at a time. Choose any song through the songs list or by searching and it will play that song and stop. If you choose an album it will play those songs as a playlist, but that hardly supports my goal of random playing of various artists. Even worse, without access to my folders, I cannot see what is in my playlist folders to build my playlist requiring me to go to a computer to look it up. To listen in the fashion I like, this means I have to use the Calyx UI to build a play list one at a time which would take hours to replicate. It also has something called a jukebox that I can add all my library to one at a time which will finally allow me to play all songs randomly. Out of frustration, that is the course I chose and it took me three days of several hours a day to complete. Since I cannot see my folders, I will still be in trouble if I try to add music to my library in getting them into the jukebox as I will have to make a list of those songs and use the search function to find them one at a time to add. What a major pain in the ASS!!!!
Was it worth the hassle, YES!!! The SQ is very addictive, but I will get into that later. The DAP itself stands out vs. other DAPs in its design. Here are three reasons to love the Calyx M in addition to its awesome SQ:
Amp: No need for a stack with this puppy, the SQ rocks my HifiMan HEX without any need for an amp. This claim can only be made by the Paw Gold and the Sony WM1a/z and maybe the QP1R if you like its signature. This is a major accomplishment to have a desktop level experience in a DAP without the extra clutter.
Build: The Calyx M is a work of art that stands out as richer looking than the other DAPs on the market. While AK is the top dog in this area, they are different, but not better than the Calyx M build. Many might think that the M is the more expensive device when side by side with the AK lineup. The brown copper color is beautiful and rich looking without being flashy. The M is heavy and stout feeling for its size giving off the feeling of quality vs. the standard cheap, light, and flimsy we are accustomed to elsewhere - sorry Aune M2. The M is smaller than I thought it would be based on other reviews and is very comfortable in the hand. The rounded corners are nice to the touch.
Storage: This DAP sports 64GB internally and provide both a full SD and MicroSD card slot. That means we can have 800GB or so for a library. While my library is well over a TB, most is junk with all of my playlists coming in under well under the 800GB capacity.
Screen: The M has a very nice screen that stands out as unique in quality and UI color popping. This adds to the overall look of the build and plays well with the brown copper coloring. The M has the most usable screen that I have seen to date with the exception of the new Sony WM1a/z.
UI: While not perfect and requires a little attention at first to use, the UI is very easy to navigate and very colorful adding to the experience. Forgetting its weaknesses mentioned above, the M is as nice as the AK and the Sony UI which is saying a lot.
The Sound Quality
This is why I am not selling the M. It is like no other in its abilities/signature making it a keeper even when I get my Sony WM1A. My AK100ii will not be so lucky as it is easily outclassed by the Sony. So here are the key factors that define the Calyx M sound:
Black, Black, Black Background: The first comment I get from other listeners is how black the background is. It is so black that it is almost jarring. Starting a song feels like a failure until the music starts playing. Pauses sometimes sound as if the music stopped. Space between instruments are large voids of emptiness. I have never heard such a blackness in the background before, even on the highest end desktop setup that I have had the privilege to listen. This is the most unique feature of the SQ which enhances the rest of the value points. The details that pop on the M would be covered up without this blackness to frame them. The dynamics would be muted without the blackness from which they start.
Dynamics: This is another unique feature of the M that stands out. Big sound seems to come out of nowhere without warning. Most DAPs severely smear their dynamics where the M seems to have micro-dynamics individually with each instrument. Rather than a big increase in sound at a loud passage, you can hear the different levels of loudness/dynamics of each instrument and the boom seems to have space between. This is a very different experience that allows deep bass to boom while maintaining the delicacy of the symbols and its shimmer at the same time.
That Boom you Feel: While I wouldn't classify the M as a warm DAP, it is a warm DAP on a warm song and that bass goes booooooooom! The bass is detailed and delicate and deep and does not step at all on the mids. Even the symbols can have meat on them when called for. The blackness allows this by providing space between instruments. However, it is not all about the boom, it is the timbre and the texturing that comes through and gives you the shivers. A piano sounds like a piano and a bass guitar sounds like a bass guitar. You can feel the texture in the strings and feel the pluck. This is what draws you into the music and brings tears to your eyes.
Full Sized: Another unique aspect of the M is the full sized sound which is properly scaled and lifelike. The band sounds like they are in the room with you surrounding you with sound. This is not to say that the sound stage is small, this is to say that you are on the stage with the band with all the detail in your face. But this is a good sized stage that you have to walk around, not shoulder to shoulder. When the singer sings, they sound human, not tiny and distant. You can hear the breath and feel the emotional connection. I have only experienced this on total desktop setups before.
Voices: Voices both male and female are stand outs on the M. Whatever voodoo magic they are using, the voices are always forward on this device and singing directly to you. The voice timbre is excellent and really pushes deep detail.
Detailed: The blackness gets the song out of the way of the delicate details. The detail I hear is immense. Even the symbols have character. So given the blackness, the dynamics, the texturing and timbre, and full sized presentation, the result is a stunning natural sound. Yes, I am hearing things I have not heard before... blah, blah, blah - but also in a way I have not heard before. There may be some trick to the signature that makes these familiar songs feel different, but it is very much like listening to them for the first time again. This is what is so addictive.
If you cannot tell yet, I am digging this SQ. But how does it compare to all the others? Here is my opinion:
Sony WM1A/Z >= Paw Gold >= Calyx M > Aune M2 >>> AK380 > AK240/120 > AK100ii >= X7 >> Lower Tier including X5, DX90, QP1R, etc, etc.....
The AK380 scores low because of its extreme need for an external amp. It couldn't even run my CIEM properly without one. With an amp, it rises to the level of a $350 Aune M2 in SQ. However, the AK380 looks make my heart go pitter patter.
Now my disclaimer, please keep in mind that I do not have all these DAPs sitting in front of me to compare side by side. I am working off my memory and some detailed notes. I should also point out that these DAPs were often listened to in RMAF type environments which are less than ideal and for a limited time. Firmware may have improved these DAPs SQ as well. So feel free to ignore my opinion - it is just for fun.
I am still early in my review cycle and have only used my HEX, the LCD2, and HD700. While they all sound great, the HEX is a match made in heaven so I have just used it in awe. When my CIEMs get back from Hidition, I will update.
The issues with this DAP are horrendous. However, if you can hold your nose and work through the issues as I have your are rewarded with liquid gold SQ. To me it is worth the effort.
Now that the price has fallen to sub $500 used, it is a screaming deal. If only Calyx would update the UI for my two complaints, I would be a happy man and can live with the remaining battery issue. If Calyx can accomplish this SQ with a horrible Sabre chip, I can only imagine what they could do with my favorite AK4490 chip like in the AK380 or the Aune M2. Calyx... we are waiting!!!
Pros - Easy to use and attractive user interface. Great sound quality, close to AK240. Full-size SD cards can be used.
Cons - Quite large. Poor battery life. User interface is a bit slow and doesn't cache album art. DAC performance isn't as good. No folder browsing.
Thanks to Calyx for allowing Team Tokyo to borrow a unit for review.
Note: Version 0.6 and 0.95 of the software were originally used for this review. I've updated it to reflect performance with firmware 1.01.
The first thing many people wanted when they heard about the Calyx M was an AK240-level device without the price tag. Good luck! But in all honesty, if there is another company (other than Sony) that might be capable of invading the market with something competent, it would be another Korean company. Having owned a Calyx DAC in the past, the DAC 24/192, I was curious to find out how their portable would fare, so when the CEO of Calyx introduced himself at the May 2014 headphone festival in Tokyo, I didn’t hesitate to ask for a loaner unit.
The first physical impressions I had of the unit is that it is big, relative to the other DACs I have on hand. If you saw the photos of each individually it is natural to assume that the AK240 is the largest, when it is actually the smallest overall, if a bit thicker than the M. Other than the very straight-forward design of the M compared to the X5 and AK240, the two most noticeable physical details that set themselves apart from the competition become quickly apparent on picking it up: The two memory card slots: one microSD and one SD, and the magnetic volume control. If you’re wondering whether you can take the volume control off, the answer is: Yes, you can. But the magnets are strong enough that if nobody had told you about the volume control being magnetic you probably wouldn’t notice, as it is almost as difficult to remove as a non-screw-tightened volume knob would be.
The large screen is filled with an equally large, easy to read and beautiful Android-based custom user interface, which one navigates primarily by swiping left or write to get to the music and Jukebox feature respectively. Menus at the top access information and settings for one, and the currently selected album or playlist on the other. Centrally, of course, is a playback screen with the play/pause control overlaying the album art and quick access to repeat and shuffle available, along with track information. This makes the Calyx M’s user interface very quick to pick up and use.
The lock screen, which uses album art as the control to unlock it can be disabled in the settings, allowing the power button to switch on the screen and take one straight to the music playback controls.
At present the user interface stutters a little when swiping quickly, and quite severely lags during music playback if you try and swipe quickly. Card scanning can take a few minutes if you have a lot of music, but Calyx have been working steadily on not only improving the performance but adding features such as search. Features such as easy re-ordering of songs and the Jukebox feature are good with most controls large and easy to tap. However, the lack of folder browsing ability may be a show-stopper for some. Indeed it was a problem for me, as I have a separate folder of DSD files that I usually access but can't easily on the M.
Tapping and holding on a track, for example, brings up the options to get info, add it to the Jukebox or to a playlist or delete, for example, which is very handy. Likewise, Jukebox songs can be selected individually or in groups and new playlists created. Shifting off the necessity of creating playlists on my computer is definitely a bonus for me.
For different types of headphones, 3 different "Impedance Matching" settings, labelled "Low", "Mid" and "High" are included which change the volume profile. This has confused some people into thinking that they change the output impedance of the player and will sound different when all they are doing is adjusting the volume.
The main troublesome aspects of the user interface is that it badly needs an album art cache, as the album art has to be loaded from scratch every time the unit is switched on, though it doesn't take nearly as long as it did before 1.01. During very vigorous scrolling while playing back high-res music, I did manage to get the music to skip. There have also been complaints from users about battery life only lasting 4-5 hours of playback (3.5 hours with DSD and the screen off). However, Calyx are working steadily on improving the software, so I’d expect in time things to get better.
Sound-wise too, the performance is very good, if a bit behind the AK240 and seems to be a bit “darker” in presentation. Music comes through cleanly with a wide soundstage whether using IEMs or full-sized headphones, for which the Calyx M is more than capable of driving. The Calyx M with the HD-800 and Audeze LCD-X, while not driving them with the authority of a desktop amp still managed to do a good job with the sound, the main thing lacking was volume level on the tracks from David Chesky’s Open Your Ears album. The gain level was far better suited to IEMs. However, gain settings exist in the settings under “Impedance matching”. With version 0.95 of the software, putting the M on the highest setting improved the performance with the HD-800s compared to version 0.6.
At the request of some Head-Fiers, I compared the sound to my iPhone 5. Both with IEMs and full-sized headphones there was a distinct jump in both clarity and headphone drive with high-quality music. Compared to the AK240, the latter had the edge on detail, but to use the words of a fellow member, the Calyx sounds more "full-bodied" and was a better match with less bass-strong headphones. The M was a touch less smooth in the treble compared to the AK240 -- only in comparison however. I'm not sure if this might disappear with use as I've experience with other equipment that was new when I first received it. Using the single-ended output on the AK240 and firmware 1.01 on the Calyx it was very hard to make out any difference.
The biggest difference was going from the X5 to the Calyx with full-sized headphones. The X5 is very poor with high-impedance headphones at producing a wide stereo image, being far better suited to IEM usage. Going from there to other DAPs I feel the differences come down more to sonic preferences and features desired, as the Calyx doesn't have optical output, a dock, wireless update and streaming for example, nor as much internal storage as the AK240. Going a bit sideways in comparisons, the M sounds a bit more spacious, though not as "meaty" as the Aurender Flow. That makes me prefer the M, though at least one person I know feels the other way around.
The Calyx M can also be used as a DAC, though I did find the sound quality to be somewhat flatter-sounding and dull compared to using it as a DAP, with better USB cables and high quality external USB power improving things. Since USB isolators are quite inexpensive nowadays (eg: The Schiit Wyrd) the Calyx M can be readily used as a high-quality DAC or pseudo desktop solution.
Overall the main thing is that the Calyx M will be giving the iBasso DX100, AK100II and AK120II a good run for their money, if not quite, in my opinion, the AK240 (at least not on features). I do think in a year, if they keep up the steady improvements to the software, they’ll gain a lot of fans.