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Soundaware M1 Esther

  1. Bansaku
    Soundaware Esther M1Pro and Analogue: Pure Music Bliss
    Written by Bansaku
    Published Dec 19, 2016
    Pros - Beautifully natural and transparent sound that is near perfection! Stunning design and build quality.
    Cons - Sadly the price is to high for my current budget...
    Soundaware Esther M1Pro and Analogue: Pure Music Bliss
    Portable music devices have been cemented into our daily lives for nearly 60 years. The cutting of the cord was born with the Regency TR-1 transistor radio, solidified with the Sony TPS-L2 Walkman, and perfected with the game changing Apple iPod. Nowadays, thanks to the advent of the Smart Phone, virtually everyone has the ability to enjoy their music anywhere and at any time. Gone are the days of the stand-alone music player, the all-in-one/always online/app driven/selfie taking smart device now rein supreme. While convenient as these devices are, there is a trade off to cramming in so much technology into an ever shrinking design; Jack of all trades, master of none. While the general user is seemingly willing to trade off overall quality with a mindset of “it’s good enough”, in the world of audio enthusiasts this approach simply will no do.
    The Soundaware Esther M1 line-up of portable digital audio players, or DAP, is the antithesis to todays smart-phones. With homage to the original Apple iPod, the Esther M1 embodies the philosophy of having the absolute best possible audiophile sound rivalling the quality of a stand-alone desktop solution wrapped up in a portable package no bigger than a standard deck of playing cards.
    Soundaware provided me with the Esther M1 analogue and M1Pro as part of the North American Review Tour. I was given 2 weeks to demo the units before I sent them off to the next member of the tour, and was in no way compensated for my words. This review is objective and honest, free of bias.
    About Me
    38 years old, I grew up in a family consisting of musicians, broadcaster/sound engineers, and amateur DJs, I always had a deep appreciation and understanding of both music and sound. I was further educated in this self interest after taking courses in both electronics and sound (Electro-Acousto aka The Path to Golden Ears). While I believe a listener’s preference in sound is subjective, the science behind it is not. I am not swayed by buzzwords, hype, trends, brand recognition, or big numbers on charts; I am the nemesis of the commissioned salesperson. Opinionated as I am, my words are not only objective but honest. I view all criticism as constructive, as long as it is sincere. 
    Headphones used in testing:
    PSB M4U 1 |  Meze 99 Classics | Grado SR60i | Polk Nu Voe | Shure SRH440 
    AKG - Q701 K240 Monitor 600Ohm  
    Sennheiser - HD 600 / HD 598 / Momentum
    1. Size: 115mm * 59mm, the thinnest thickness of 14mm, holding thickness about 15mm
    2. Weight: about 175g
    3. CS5398 DAC
    4. 6 Layer gold-plating PCB
    5. Ultra low noise crystal oscillator
    6. Dual Femtosecond FPGA Clocks (M1 Pro)
    7. Sampling rate: 32khz-192khz, DSD (SACD)
    8. Format: MP3, WMA, AAC, ALAC, M4A, CUE, WAV, FLAC, APE, ISO, DSF, DFF etc.
    9. Storage: TF * 2 (single maximum support 128GB, future support will be greater), NTFS, FAT format
    10. Playback time: normal listening about 9 hours
    11. Line Output: 1.4V RMS
    12. Coaxial output: 0.5V p-p, PCM & DSD (DOP)
    13. Screen: 2.4 inch high resolution Sharp IPS hard screen
    14. Distortion + Noise (headphone output): <= 0.002% (44.1khz, 1khz DS3)
    15. Dynamic ratio (headphone output):> = 110db.
    16. Background noise (headphone output): <=-130db.
    17. Amp analog output: 2.8V RMS highest, 97% volume output, distortion <= 0.003%, desktop class AB amp circuits, power output, third gear gain
    18. 16 - 300 Ohm recommended headphone impedance
    Simply by reading over the listed specifications, how can one not be utterly impressed! Of course, numbers tell only a small story, can be misleading, and may not be indicative of the units actual performance. Does the Esther M1 hold up to Soundaware’s claims? One word: Absolutely!
    The Package
    frontbox.jpg      sidebox.jpg
    As someone who has been in warehousing and manufacturing all my working life, I personally subscribe to the philosophy of ‘ It is telling of a company’s commitment to quality the moment the customer opens the box. ‘ and Soundaware recognizes and understands this way of thinking. Upon gazing at the Esther’s box, Soundaware truly make one feel like they have received a premium product. A nice faux leather burgundy skin is accented by gold leaf lettering, and the main unit and accessories sit nicely in place the in their sturdy slotted velvet lined box. Although not pictured, even the box’s lid has a rather thick foam pad lining to the underside, ensuring that nothing gets jostled inside the box. This was a nice change to what I am used to when unboxing, which usually amounts to plain white cardboard, plastic blisters, and packing foam held in place by plastic ties. 
    Inside the box Soundaware includes all accessories needed for complete functionality and compatibility. 
    accessories.jpg    skin.jpg
    - Esther M1 body
    - TF card
    - USB charging cable
    - Micro SD USB card reader
    - User manual
    - Rubber pad *
    - Paper with fast user manual
    * I did not receive with my review units
    What is interesting was that I received a couple extra goodies not listed. The first was a rather nice quality 3.5mm to RCA digital coaxial cable. This was not a standard pack-in. Given the quality of the cable and my need for one this was a pleasant surprise. The second unlisted item was a sheet containing a stick-on vinyl skin! Nice! Although I did not actually stick them on, their texture and quality of the adhesive seemed like they would both protect well while being rugged enough to not wear off. In all honesty, it was very very difficult for me, as a child of the 1980’s, to not go all G.I. Joe/Transformers and put the stickers on the Esther! I almost did, for the sake of science (and the review), but instead I found images from the user @shield that show what the M1 looks like all decked out in sticker goodness!
    stickersf.jpg stickersb.jpg
    As the saying goes, “ A picture speaks a thousand words. “, so I will leave all the describing to your eyes. 
      front2.jpg   back.jpg
    Overall, I found the design of the Esther M1 to be both functional and elegant. The unit is both small enough and light enough to carry around without feeling like their is a brick in my pocket. I actually appreciate the slightly beveled screen as well as raised face buttons that give a nice tactile feel, which in turn helps finding the orientation of the device. While out and about I had no trouble reaching into my pocket and easily changing finding the buttons to change track or raise the volume.
    The Sound
    The Esther M1 is a true class AB DAP. Making use of hand pickled boutique components, coupled with the very capable CS5398 DAC, the M1 faithfully reproduces the music with great detail and clarity without the often criticized sharpness that a class D device would typically produce. While the analogue sound smooths over the sharp peaks it does so without any loss of detail. For those who are familiar with tube amps and buffers, the M1 offers a very similar sound, but without any discernible colouration or distortion. I would describe it as standing on a hot beach in the tropics with a cool breeze blowing across your body, or for people such as myself that hail from the North, sitting in an outdoor hot tub in January. In other words, a perfect balance of warmth with the right amount of crispness.
    The sound.. what can I say about the sound… so many words in the English language to choose from! Smooth, liquid, detailed, expansive, warm yet crisp, highly resolving, emotion, engaging, musical bliss, pure uncoloured analogue perfection! I have purchased many portable digital audio players over the years ranging from expensive CD players, flash drive/ card based, CD-ROM and early HD models, cheap dollar store iPod wannabes, and every iteration of iPod/iPod touch. Last year I even spend a full day demoing FiiO and Sony DAPs and portable amps ranging from $99 to $600 CND, walking away empty handed as I felt their price and overall sound didn’t warrant an upgrade from my 6th Gen. iPod touch. Until the Esther M1, I never thought it was possible to produce such wonderful sound out of any portable device, especially one that rivals many high end desktop solutions!
    In terms of frequency response, the M1 does not add nor take away. To my ears, I would describe it as as flat as flat can get. It really is no different that what I hear out of my iPod and iPod touch, which is great as iDevices are known for their uncoloured, neutral output. Despite sharing a flat response, the differences end there; The M1 utterly destroys the iPod (and most everything else in it’s class) in terms of transparency and resolve! The M1 gives an excellent sense of scale and layering. It mattered not if I was listening to my Momentums or my HD 600, the M1’s ability to render the finer details was impressive! From the subtlest whispers of a choir, to the excitement of heavy metal transients, the M1’s grip on the sound was absolute!
    What really impressed me the perfectly black the background! As mentioned, I am no stranger to DAPs. It’s almost a given that a cheap throwaway player will undoubtedly produce a hiss, especially at higher volumes. What surprised me was just how noisy both my SoundBlaster E3 and iPods were! I thought both were pretty silent. I could not hear any discernible hiss at any volume level, even with my IEMs. That all changed when I played a ‘ digital pure black test track ‘ through all my devices and cranked the volume. I was shocked at what I heard, even on my iFi stack; Faint noise… Though under normal listening conditions I would not normally hear any noise, and would consider their backgrounds to be pretty black. Playing the same file with the M1 produced absolutely zero noise. It mattered not if the volume was 1 or 100, it was as if the device was powered off! Coloured me impressed! Now to be honest, I had never done this test before as I never knew such a test file existed until recently, so this was rather new to me. The revelation was a real eye opener! 
    I am not sure what more I can put to words. Unlike headphones, a DAP is supposed to sound only one way; Correct. There is no sense covering things like the finer details of the mids or the overall size of the soundstage as these points will change from headphone to headphone. All I can tell you is that the Esther M1 reproduces music with such authority, clarity, transparency, blackness, and emotion, it allows the listener to experience the finer details that make up each song and accomplishes what the artists set out to do; Touch the listener’s inner soul!
    M1Pro vs M1 Analogue
    The only difference between the Ether M1Pro and the M1 Analogue besides some higher quality capacitors is the Dual Femtosecond FPGA Clocks present in the former. This accounts for the $180 difference is price between the two, but is it really worth the added cost? Absolutely! While both devices share 95% of the internal circuitry, they don’t share 95% of the sound. Their sound is extremely close, including overall refinement, the M1Pro does possess greater overall transparency. A good analogy would be listening to the M1 Analogue would be akin to looking out through a perfectly transparent and flawless pane of glass, the type that bumbling dads and magpies crash into in a Windex commercial. The M1Pro would be like removing the glass all together, exposing the breeze and rays of sun. Listening to the M1 Analogue first, I was blown away with the sound I was hearing compared to my iPod (and to a lesser extent, my iFi stack). If that was the only unit I had I would be more than content with the sound. However, once I moved on to the M1Pro, there was simply no turning back. The layers of invisible grain were pulled away, exposing a greater sense of life and realism in the recordings. 
    Love it or hate it, the software of the Esther can be describes as to-the-point. It is a familiar design of basic contextual menus each containing sub-categories. If you have used an old iPod, you would feel quite at home using the M1’s interface. There is nothing fancy, no bling, no bells or whistles, just what is needed and nothing more. Personally, I absolutely love the interface. It’s simple, it doesn’t require a high learning curve nor does it overcomplicate, and most important very easy navigation.
    Moving from one category to the next and from within the contextual itself is easily done so using the track forward/back buttons and the up/down arrows, with the play/pause button being the ‘action’ button; To exit out of a category and go back one section is accomplished by hitting the ‘return arrow’ (the top left button with the half looped arrow). However if the user wishes to return back to the current playing song it is as easy as hitting ‘M’  button (which I assume means Menu/Music), and vice versa to return to the last used menu. I appreciate this feature as it alleviates the need to constantly back in and out of the menus one screen at a time. Overall, the navigation was snappy with no discernible delay. Controls were responsive, and thanks to the tactile feedback of the bottoms, easy to pull off.
    The pictures below show each category and sub category. They are all self explanatory, so much so that I will not be going over each individual one. If you have a basic understanding of your language, you will have absolutely no issues figuring out what each selection does. Kudos for Soundaware for making things very easy and straight forward to understand.
    about.jpg   list.jpg
    musiclib.jpg   playing.jpg  
    storage.jpg   upgrade.jpg  
    settings.jpg   settingssub.jpg
    settingssub2.jpg   dac.jpg  
    gain.jpg   sound.jpg  
    sound2.jpg   poweroff4.jpg
    poweroff3.jpg   poweroff.jpg
    File compatibility was as listed. No matter what file type I threw at the Esther, it played without a hitch. However, not all files are created equal! I did have some issues playing certain Apple Lossless files (ALAC). Depending on what programs were used to encode the file (i.e. iTunes vs XLD), some ALAC simply would not play. In fact, they would not only refuse to play, they would crash the M1 causing the unit to reboot! Besides, ALAC not playing, it seems depending on the file type, ID3 tags and album artwork refused to show. This mostly affects AIFF and WAVE files, with MP3 and certain FLAC displaying their tags and art correctly. Adding to this inconvenience, gapless tracks/albums were played with gaps. Not an issue really, more of an annoyance for some. Personally, the gap between tracks did not bother me nor distract from my listening experience as my gapless albums mostly consist of 4-5 very long songs.
    In terms of software stability, I found the Esther to be incredibly solid and reliable. While both the M1Pro and Analogue had a few snags along the way, it really was my own fault for pushing the device. Under normal listening sessions ranging from a few minutes to hours, not once did the Esther crash, hang, or reboot unexpectedly. It wasn’t until I was rapidly switching songs, all 24/96 or better, on random, that either of the M1’s crashed. From my experience with technology, in my enthusiast opinion, this wasn’t so much a problem with the software or hardware of the Esther, rather the quality of the supplied microSD card. It simply could not handle the data rate at which I was pushing, and as a result, the M1 couldn’t cope.
    One annoying issue I came across that I personally dislike is the fact that when the screen is powered off, one must double tap the controls, with a delay between taps, if one wishes to change tracks. The first tap is to essentially wake the screen, the second tap actually does what the user is wanting in the first place. I find this very annoying as habit has taught me that only one tap is needed for virtually every other digital music player I have used over the past 20 years. If there was one issue that I personally think needs addressing before all others, it is this. Granted, the device drains so little power with the screen on, it is just as easy to have the screen at a lower brightness and keep it set to always active. However, given that this is an odd behaviour it really should be remedied.
    Overall, I found the software/firmware of the Esther M1 to be quite satisfactory. Sure, there are a few snags and niggles, but what software doesn’t? Most of the issues could easily be resolved with a much needed firmware update, one that Soundaware is currently issuing to the reviewers on the tour. Unfortunately I received the update just as my time was up and needed to ship off the units too the next member on the list before I could install and test the new software. Regardless, if I were to purchase an Esther M1, I would personally be fine with the firmware if it was the same that was installed on my review units.
    Power Output
    Soundaware recommends using the M1 with headphones and IEMs ranging from 16 - 300 Ohms, which pretty much has everyone covered. Included in the software options is the ability to change the power output from Low, Medium, and High. After testing all three settings, I have come to the conclusion that the first two are not needed. The volume stepping is in 1% increments, so fine tuning the volume to match your headphone’s impedance is simple enough, negating the need for the lower settings all together. It mattered not if it was my Polk BA drivers, Apple EarPods, or my HD 600, high gain proved to work well providing proper amplification gain with no discernible hiss.
    The M1 provided enough power to drive every headphone in my inventory, including my 600 Ohm AKG 240 Monitors to satisfactory levels. However, the output impedance of the Ether is listed at 10 Ohms, far greater than what I am used to with my iPod touch (1.4 Ohms) and my iFi iCan micro SE (virtually 0 Ohms). This of course can cause issues in the form of frequency attenuation or distortion in lower impedance and sensitive headphones. While I don’t have any super sensitive headphones, my Polk Nue Voe would be the closest thing. Their sound signature is very warm, so I was concerned that the M1 would kill off some of the treble, and it did. Upon listening I could hear right away that what little sparkle and shine they did have was in fact diminished. Not to the point of gone all together, but enough to be noticeable. In regards to my full sized on-ear headphones, their performance was spot on, with no discernible changes in their overall frequency response. Essentially, they all sounded like they should. The M1 provided enough power to make them all sing, driving them to defining levels without distortion.
    However, there were two headphones to note due to their unexpected behaviour; The AKG Q701 (62 Ohm) and the PSB M4U 1 (32 Ohm). The Q701, having neutral bass, seemed to have lost a a dB  or two in it’s response. I wouldn’t call it thin sounding, but given the class AB design and overall warm analogue sound of the M1, I assumed that out of all my headphones, the Q701 would benefit more in the low end, but instead it softened it! In regards to my M4U 1, the exact opposite occurred! The PSBs have great bass extension that is north of neutral, and their control on the low end is masterfully done; No bloat, no strong internal resonance, as fast as greased lightening. No matter what type of bass boost I apply, I just can’t get any looseness out of the lower end what so ever! When listening to the PSB with the M1, it blew my mind how much of a lush increase in bass I was hearing! Detailed, controlled, layered, yet somehow the M1 gave them not only a harder slam, but a bit of analogue elastic-like looseness that made everything that much more enjoyable! This alone would sway my purchase towards an M1 over the competition! But like most headphones, and one’s own ears, YMMV!
    The Esther M1 provides the user with 3 different ways to connect the device via 3.5mm jacks: Headphones out, Line out, and Digital Coaxial out, all with jack detection. Headphone out is pretty self evident, so I won’t bother covering this. Line out works as it should, and sounds fantastic playing through my iCan micro SE! I must say whether it was M1—>iCan—>headphones or iDAC—>iCan—>headphones, the stand alone M1 gave my iFi stack a run for it’s money! The only issue I have with line out is that it is still dependant on volume. Soundaware recommends setting the volume to 90% for line out for most devices to prevent distortion. I can see the logic in this method as not all amplifiers have a consistent input voltage, so having the ability to fine tune to your device is a welcome addition. Personally, I would prefer it that the software automatically sets the volume to 90%, and lets the user fine tune after the fact.
    Digital Coaxial output works as expected. I had no issues by simply connecting the M1 to my Yamaha receiver, selecting the right input, and pressing play. What surprised me is that using the M1 as a transport device via coax produced a much cleaner, more transparent sound than connecting my Yamaha to my computer via TosLink. A good comparison would be a 1080P video playing through a Component Video cable vs an HDMI. The sound is much warmer, more lush, more natural texture and a nice smoothing over of the digital sharpness! In essence it became more natural to my ears, regardless of the fact that it was the AKM DAC inside the receiver doing the work and not the M1. I often have read that this is simply indicative of COAX vs TosLink, and now that I have experienced the difference first hand, call me a believer!
    Battery Performance
    Soundaware claims up to 9 hours of playback for normal listening. I can only conclude that “normal listening” refers to how one would go about using the M1 throughout their day at moderate volume levels with a pair of 32 Ohm headphones. My personal experience concurs with their claim. I was able to squeeze out 8-9 hours of playback playing only lossless AIFF ranging from the standard 16/44 to 24/192 with a few DSD albums thrown in the mix. What surprised me the most was the fact that whether the display was active or not the drain on the battery was virtually identical. Over the source of 4 hours I had the M1Pro and M1 Analogue playing side by side, one with the display active and the other not, and the results of the battery drain were within 5% of each other!  I guess you can say OLED FTW!
    While battery performance during playback was great, the M1 does have some quirks. Firstly, when in standby mode, the drain on the battery is substantial. With a full charge, the M1 in standby mode will drain the battery by 60% if left overnight! Of course one can remedy this by either plugging in the unit when not in use, a habit we all have become accustomed to thanks to our smart phones, or simply powering the device off. The second quirk is that Soundaware recommends you have the M1 attached via USB when powering on the device from a power down option, with the actual device warning you to do so when choosing the option from the menu. Honestly, I often forgot and had no issues powering on the M1 from a shutdown without the deice connected via USB.
    Priced at $520 for the Esther M1 Analogue and $700 for the Esther M1Pro, these DAP are not for the average consumer looking to simply “play music”, instead they are geared towards the audio enthusiast who wants an audiophile sound in a portable device. They way I tend to look at pricing vs needs can be compared to a commuter choosing to purchase a Kia rather than a Cadillac. Both vehicles will get you from point A to point B, the difference being one will get you there with total performance and comfort. Not everyone cares about lossless HighRez and DSD let alone paying out the cost of an average smartphone just to play music in which the latter does, and more. However, there are many out there who want the absolute best sound, and dropping $500+ to achieve this goal is not unreasonable; The Esther M1 are for these people.
    I must say, two weeks to demo the Esther M1Pro and analogue went by much too quickly. As the saying goes, “ Once you hear something, one can never un-hear it! “ and compared to my iPods, the Esther’s are the epitome of that statement. Simply put, I never thought it possible to squeeze so much audio goodness into such a small and attractive package. Despite some software quirks, I can not find a negative to say about either the M1Pro nor Analogue. Small and light weight, battery performance “as advertised”, simple and easy to use UI, and an absolutely gorgeous and amazing listening experience, Soundaware set the bar for what I look for in a DAP. It is unfortunate that given my current financial situation, by the time I can afford an Esther M1Pro or Analogue both will be antiquated, but I do thank Soundaware for giving me the opportunity to experience  not only what you have to offer, but redefine what I though was possible in a small and attractive device. I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone looking to experience the absolute best sound possible in a portable device where price is not an issue to look no further than the Soundaware Esther M1Pro or Analogue.
      Stahlreich and maxh22 like this.
  2. ambchang
    Great sound, untapped potential
    Written by ambchang
    Published Dec 6, 2016
    Pros - Great details, balanced, great sound stage
    Cons - Questionable usability

    Disclaimer:  I received the Soundaware Esther M1 and Esther M1 Pro for the duration of 1 week as part of a review tour for my honest opinion.
    I primarily used my iBasso iT03 during the listen, but also used my full aluminum magnum v4 build, modded Fostex T50-RP, and VE Monk.
    I compared this mostly to my xDuoo x3.
    Sound preference: 
    Over the years, I find that I tend to like sounds that border on the bright side, with clear mids and thump in the bass (not necessarily quantity, but that thump).  For reference, I loved the Tralucent 1P2, Hifiman HE6, and Stax SR007 (who doesn't?), but also found the JVC HA-FX850, Westone UM2, UM Mentor, UM MIracle to be phenomenal phones.  On the other hand, well reviewed phones like the JH audio Roxanne, Shure SE535, and Westone UM3RC are just not my cup of tea.
    Music used:
    I used a list of 58 songs for casual listening (all apple loseless), but focused on the following few tracks:
    1) Norah Jones – Don’t know why, Come away with me (For female vocals)
    2) Radiohead - National Anthem, Kid A (for pacing and bass response)
    3) Kid Rock – Bawitdaba, Devil without a cause (for poorly recorded music, especially the part when all those cymbals came in at the beginning)
    4) White Stripes – Black Math, Elephant (For distorted sounds)
    5) Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan (For pacing, rhythm, and spacing)
    6)  Snare Liftoff – Whiplash Soundtrack (for rhythm)

    What I look for:
    You can look at the many other reviews for photos, un-boxing, accessories, packaging, etc ... quite frankly, I don’t really care about those things.  A player can look like the hunchback of notre dame, it can come in a plastic bag, and it can come with bare accessories, but I wouldn’t care as long as:
    1)      It sounds great
    2)      It’s useable/intuitive
    I did not use any burn-in as I assumed that the units are well burned in before reaching me.  I spent 4 days with the M1, and another 3 days with the M1PRO.  I wanted to say that I went with the M1 first because I want to experience the base version before “moving up” to a higher model to notice the difference, but the truth is, the units were placed in the wrong box and I ended up with the M1 instead of the M1 Pro instead.  It worked out.
    I first loaded all the music I had from two 128GB microSD cards to try and see how well it handed large volumes of data.  It didn’t.  The reading took a long time (I had to leave it on overnight), and even then, only parts of the music was loaded into the database correctly.  I can still browse by file, but I can’t sort by Artist/Album/etc ....
    I then loaded my test music in a 1GB microSD card, and loaded that in the unit.  It still took a good minute or two despite the extremely small number of files.
    So my first thought is that the unit can use some stronger processing power to handle filing functionality.
    The player buttons were well laid out, and the buttons are intuitively laid out. The player is light, but is of a good size where I imagine it would fit into most people’s palms comfortably.  It appears to be solidly built, but the parts appear quite cheap (again, don’t really care as long as it lasts, which I can’t tell without owning the unit for months and months).
    The user interface is simple, and basic.  Functions are limited, but all the essentials are there.  I major grip I have with it is that if you do not turn off the unit, the battery drains quickly (gone overnight), but if you do turn on the unit, it no longer remembers where your last song stopped, and you had to start all over.
    Random play is odd in the sense that you had to choose the song you have to play first, and then the songs after the first song will be randomly chosen.  In other words, I can’t find a way to randomly play a playlist from the start.  It’s not a huge deal, but it’s just odd.
    Battery life is great once you figure out you have to turn the unit off.  It would last me a few days of continuously listening.  I didn’t time the battery life, but I estimate that it was easily 10 hours of listening time.
    Regrettably, I didn’t have the time to test the coaxial cable out, but I did manage to test out both the line out and the headphones.
    Finally, an issue I had with the player is that it doesn’t seem to support gapless playback.  It also appears that it cuts off the last split second of a track before moving onto a new one.

    What can I say?  This is simply a phenomenal player.  The sound is balanced, open, airy, great pace, and just smooth overall.  This applies to both the M1 and M1 PRO.
    Compared to my xDuoo x3 lined out to the Meier Audio Quickstep, the openness and the sound stage of the unit really shines through.  The highs are detailed without being harsh, the mids are smooth and well-rendered, and the bass is impactful without being over-bearing.  It is simply one of the best sounding DAPs I have ever heard (not that experienced, but still ...).  The sound itself most certain justifies their asking price.
    I find the improvement from the M1 to the M1 PRO to be more subtle than the improvement from the xDuoo x3 to the M1.  The clarity appears to improve, the pacing seems to be better, and there seems to be more clarity.  The changes are really subtle, and I am not going to pretend it may not be due to my preconceived expectations influencing the results.
    I also tried playing the lineout to my Meier Audio QuickStep, and I felt the sound to actually get worse.  The soundstage collapsed, the output just seems more lifeless.  Keep in mind that I have a very high regard for the QuickStep, I have cycled through my share of highly regarded mid-fi portable amps, and settled with the QuickStep, so it was a huge surprise that the internal amp of the M1 and M1PRO seems to be considerably better than the QuickStep.
    Sound-wise, I really have no doubt that this is a top notch player.  It really sounds superb, and I can listen to the player for days without fatigue, nor will I be bored with it.
    That said, my suggestion to Soundaware is to really look into the user interface, and either adopt Rockbox, an Android based interface, or improve on the current UI.  This player can easily play with the big boys if more attention is paid to the usability aspect.
      Stahlreich likes this.
  3. tassardar
    A Luxurious device with a Dated Design
    Written by tassardar
    Published Dec 6, 2016
    Pros - Wide Open sound, Musical, Detailed
    Cons - Dated Interface, Cant read a few file types, Weird Navigational Choices, Things may sound a little distant, Short battery life
    The Soundaware Esther M1Pro provides a immersive sound experience held down by its dated interface and firmware. Its like driving a luxury car with all its comfort but with a dated design and dashboard.
    I got this as part of the Esther Tour for Asia. Thanks to Soundaware and Mary for the chance to review this device.
    I received the M1Pro on a Saturday, with my SD card on hand and skipping the menu, I straight away plugged in my iha6/Abyss 1266 and selected a track from Distant Worlds "Liberi Fatali". The first thing that went into my mind was: Forget about reviewing it for now and just enjoy the music.
    The first impression of the device was great. It took me sometime to figure out the menus and select my track, but the sound from it through my Abyss was truly an experience. It sound big and wide. The perceived width of the sound was larger then my Hugo TT, which surrounds my head rather then just a wall infront. The instruments from Distant Worlds were detailed and well separated throughout the entire album, allowing me to focus on individual parts of the sound if I so want to. The bass to the little tinkles sounded balance, coherent yet separated surrounding me, like a little concert hall with a grand orchestra.
    Followed up with some vocals from Susan Wong using the KSE1500, it blew me away again with the smooth sound that surrounds your head. The soft touch to the voice that sounds a little distant but envelop you like a little room of its own. The benchmark of a great sound system to me is when it relaxes my whole body and put me to sleep. This player definitely delivers.
    With the First impression done, it was time to really look in-depth into its sound and do some comparison. 
    Firstly to my ears, the M1Pro seems to have a V shape type sound. Compared to my ZX2 or my TT, its vocals and mids seems a little more distant and softer. This probably contributed to the more diffused and smooth vocal sound. That said, if you are one for powerful voice, this probably won't satisfy you. However if you are into soft female vocals like me, this will delight you to the end of every track.
    The sound also lacks the power in the mid bass/mids. This is more apparent when comparing to TT. The sound lacks the final kick and energy that the Chord delivers but compared to like the ZX2, it isn't much different. 
    Treble did not have much impression on me other then being just the right amount, not overly bright and sparkly yet still prominent enough for the instruments that needed it.
    As noted in my first impression, the sound is wide and detail. In fact at the very start, it gave an impression of being wider then even the TT. However after some some cross comparison, its quite similar in sizing but there is a notable difference in placement and 3D feel of it. The Chord TT has more depth to it, like an additional axis to the sound placement. The M1Pro just felt spread around the head. This gave it great separation but feeling of a wall surrounding your rather then a open room. ZX2 felt really different in this context, with a more forward projection rather then around your head, kind of like a concert performing in front and you are sitting at a seat some distant away.
    If there was one thing I noted unique about this player sound is the impression of like a dream: wide, soft and smooth but lacks the precision and power. Definitely this is a preference of sound and to me its great.
    Now for the not so great part of the device.
    The firmware and navigation felt like it was from yesteryear. 
    Firstly, it could not read some form of M4A properly. The title appears but selecting it results in no playback. Luckily it did not crash and all i needed to do was press back a few times.
    Next is the screen is a little low resolution, for a player its fine but probably lacks the last mile of luxury feel which for example AK is really good and providing. Luckily the glass on top seems to be of a scratch proof grade and still looks great after a few reviewers (im the last on the tour).
    The menu has some quirkiness to it. After selecting a track and playing it, pressing back from the play screen will throw you back into the file explorer rather then the song selection list. with the display small and screen resolution low, alot of my tracks filename can't be read properly in the file explorer and I had to go out to the main menu and back into the song selection list to select the title.
    Putting a SD card in requires you to refresh manually else it wont appear in the song selection list though you can still get it through the file explorer till you refresh the system.
    Most of this other then the screen could be solved by some firmware update else I do hope in the next generation, something better could be done.
    Some other notes of this device:
    It comes with 2 SD slot which means plenty of space.
    There is a headphone out, line out and digital out (COAXIAL). The lineout though is quite soft, does present a slight improvement in sound. You will probably need an amp with a higher gain to work with it. 
    There is a switch to lock the buttons as they are too easy to be depressed. However this switch itself is too light and easily flicked when it catches on anything. Also the switch does not prevent the power button from being used, resulted in some accidental off and on.
    Battery life is rather short, it ends before my KSE1500. About 7-8hrs.
    It warms up in prolong usage. 
    Its built in amp is rather good. Better then my ZX2 using my H6 headphone. I did not go indepth as its not my preferred way of listening music this days.
    In summary:
    The sound is impressive if you are into the soft, smooth and dreamy like sound with wide soundstage. However it needs a interface improvement to really bridge the final mile to make it a truly great device.
    For me, I may actually get it as it represents a signature that I really liked with the songs I listen.
    And did I say it fits my KSE1500 perfectly ? 
      Stahlreich, Mikopan and maxh22 like this.
  4. chicken beer
    Smooth warm styled DAP with the HIGHEST level of sound quality in its class
    Written by chicken beer
    Published Nov 21, 2016
    Pros - Sound quality versus price, good size.
    Cons - Mostly in design (Mediocre to unacceptable battery life, power not strong for headphone out, cheap rubber sd card slot, UI is not "premium" etc).
    I would like to thank Soundware to give me a chance to try the Esther M1 Pro, and thanks to Mary for the arrangement and guides. It was a very pleasant experience to try the best DAP Soundaware has to offer, and in my opinion, this DAP deserves 5 stars, less some imperfections in the design. The score is not important, I will fully recommend this DAP.
    I have owned and many good DAPs over the last year, ranging from a Fiio X3 to AK120/AK120ii (owned) to Lotoo PAW gold (auditioned in a hifi-meeting in Chicago), not mentioning many other DAPs such as Fiio X5/X5ii, DX90 etc. 
    Equipments I used to make the scores:
    MrSpeakers Ether, Focal Elear, Senn HD600, ATH M50x, Grado SR80e
    Trinity Atlas with gunmetal and purple filters
    Sunrise SWD2, Gramo One, Creative Aurvana Air, VE Monk, MrZ Tomahawk
    Wolfson iPod Classic capacitor modded, ZTE Axon 7, AK120ii
    JDS CMOYbb, Lehmann Traveller
    Justin Timberlake/The 20/20 experience 16/88.1
    Eagles/Desperato, Hotel Cal 24/192
    Fish Leong (Chinese-pop)/Various songs, DSD
    Karajan-Beethoven Symphonies No.6, DSD
    In 2016, the cell phones already got very good. Many products on market are designed as accessories to improve the sound using mobile phones as a turntable. DAPs seem to get more and more redundant for many people as I see it. But limits in cell phones leave the market open for DAPs that can do the job by bringing superior on the road. 
    I regard the following factors important for a DAP to survive today:
    1. Not too awful for usage (for me, battery life on 900 kbps FLAC at a volume level to drive an ATH M50x at least 8 hours, which translates to 2 days of regular-to-frequent usage, UI control/button layout not too weird and buggy)
    2. Not too bulky (for me, dimensions size as large as an iPhone 6 less the thickness and no more)
    3. Offering superior sound (for me, at least my average ears want to hear a difference from sound of an iPhone 6)
    I am not a pro reviewer, but if I really were, such products won't be reviewed by me: the Colorfly C4 pro, or a QLS QA360, or as a Calyx M (no offends they are great.). Despite the fact they should sound really outstanding, they fail one or multiple of the factors I regard important, hence I won't be able to give them an objective review. 
    Not the case in Soundaware Esther M1 Pro.
    The M1 Pro sound awesome. In one word: Warm, smooth, relaxing sound with many details being presented delicately in terms of space and time (soundstage).
    Feature checkbox:
    1. Overall value that I regard after experiencing many hifi-gears: 8/10 (As reference, a Shure SE535 gets 6/10, a MrSpeakers Ether gets 7/10, a Fidelio X2 gets 8.75/10, just to better letting you know how I feel the value of this M1 Pro speaking of price and sound)
    They retail for ~$650, which means this is a high-end DAP. They indeed sound more relaxing and enjoyable than some other DAPs such as AK120ii that I tried in similar or slightly higher price classes.
    2. Battery life: 2/10 (changed the score if it helps)
    My battery test on the M1pro lasted 6 to 7 hours on FLAC. I wanted to be positive, but honestly, if the battery is 1 hour less than now, I won't even consider buying it.
    3. Soundstage: 8/10
    Soundstage is perfectly large, benefiting from the awesome hardware design. 
    4. Tonality: 9/10
    Many people will love the sound signature of this DAP, myself included. Very relaxing and very good.
    5. DAC module: 10/10
    Really detailed and powerful DAC. Maybe it is the FPGA calculation that drains the battery too fast, please improve efficiency if this is the case though.
    6. Amp module: 6/10
    Stacking with amps can improve vastly, meaning: 1) the stock amp module is not good enough 2) the LO port is clean and tonality is perfect.
    7. Size: 9/10
    Great size.
    8. Usability: 7/10
    Easy to use with compromises in UI and button layouts, but with compromisation
    9. Look: 7/10
    Does not look pretty, just not bad enough to hate. Rubber cover on the two micro SD slots really make the item look cheap if you look at it, unfortunately. Astell&Kern does a so much better job at making the look premium without too much investment IMO.
    10. Flaws in sound: none. Very relaxing, not fatiguing despite the massive amount of details that are given. This is a first-class sound to my ears.
    11. Build quality: 6/10 for my review product but I was promised the new products will be improved. If my review product's battery bag is not drifting inside the DAP, I would give it 9/10.
    Take home message:
    1. Warm, smooth, relaxing sound with many details being presented delicately in terms of space and time (soundstage).
    2. Battery life not good but not too bad. Design in UI and usability can be improved. I can use more power when driving some of my not-so-sensitive headphones. IEM's good, high-impedance earbuds barely. Really need to get to 80/100 for my ATH M50x to sound full, and 100/100 can make a HD600 sound quite good in quiet room, but I feel my HD600 is not driven well when listening to some of the classy symphonies, the details in there are not well presented enough... of course, a portable amp will do the job, but since this is a $650 DAP, I feel HD600 is something that should be considered as a target (to be driven well).
      Stahlreich likes this.
  5. lotech
    Overall musical, detailed sound
    Written by lotech
    Published Nov 17, 2016
    Pros - the sound, excellent build quality.
    Cons - UI needs work, Heat dissipation a possible issue.
    About Me;
    I'm a 63 year old mainframe computer geek. I won't claim the title of Audiophile but I've been involved with this
    hobby in a serious way since 1975. My musical tastes run to Classic Rock, Blues both traditional and modern english,
    a large smattering of jazz and vocals, and a smattering of electronica and classical.
    I have some tinitus probably from too many concerts and barotrauma caused by scuba diving, it masks at approx 15Khz.
    I was loaned the Soundaware Esther M1 Pro as part of Soundaware's Review Tour in return for my honest opinion.
    I do not benefit financially from this review, nor do I have any connection with Soundaware other than to act
    as an impartial reviewer.
    As this is a purely subjective review your experience with the Soundaware M1(PRO) will probably be different than
    The Soundaware Esther M1(PRO) currently retails for $658 US on Amazon.
    Tracks used specifically for this review:
    Bron-Yy-Aui                    Led Zepplin          Box set
    Hotel California                Eagles                Hell Freezes Over
    Blue Moon Revisited        Cowboy Junkies   Trinity Sessions
    Flamenco Sketches         Miles Davis          Kind of Blue
    Fat Man in the Bathtub    Little Feat            Waiting for Columbus
    Roundabout                    Yes                     Fragile (FLAC)
    The Islands                     Ralph McTell        Sand in Your Shoes    
    Autumn Leaves               Eva Cassidy         Live at Blues Alley
    River                              Joni Mitchell         Blue
    Somnium                       Rodrigo y Gabriela 9 Dead Alive
    Cello Concerto A minor Andante Tim Hugh   Bach (CPE):Cello Concertos
    Dog on a Chain              Emitt Rhodes        Rainbow Ends
    Some Nights                  Fun                      Some Nights            
    You Know I'm no good     Amy Winehouse   Back to Black
    Amy Amy Amy/Outro/     Amy Winehouse   Frank
    Tocatta & Fugue D minor Kevin Macleod      Classic Sampler (FLAC)
    Chan Chan                     Ry Cooder            Buena Vista Social Club
    Speak To Me                  Pink Floyd            Dark Side of the Moon (MFSL Gold Disk)

    The Esther M1 Pro comes in an attractive reddish brown box with just Eshter embossed on the lid in gold letters. There is nothing to
    hint at what lays inside. The back of the box is equally unadorned. Opening up the box, the M1 Pro sits underneath a viynl skine. The M1
    sits snuggly in a plastic well. Underneath the M1 are the instruction manual, a micro USB cable and a USB card reader. A small reset tool
    is also included. The review sample did not contain the 2A charger which comes with the unit if purchased. The review sample contained a
    3.5mm interconnect and a coax cable. There are also a user manual, warranty card, a 16gb micre SD card and TF card reader included in the

    The Esther M1 Pro is a small all metal unit measuring 115mm x 59mm x 15mm. The M1 Pro has a satisfying feel when held, it's weighty
    in a good way, feeling quite solid. The top front of the unit has a raised 2.4 inch screen below which are the control buttons. The M1
    Pro does not use a touch screen, all operation is done by using the buttons. On the left side are the Return button, and a main menu
    button. On the right side is a rather unusual cluster of buttons centered around the play/pause button. These are marked with arrows
    denoting up/down/left right and are used to scroll through the menus and control playback (FFWD, Back etc.)
    On the left side of the M1 Pro towards the top is the Lock Button, below this are a series of heat diffusion holes. On the right side
    at the top is the power on/off button below which is the volume control. Further down are another series of heat diffusion holes and the
    reset pin hole. On the bottom of the M1 Pro are the USB port and a covered slot for 2 mSD cards. The cover for the mSD slots is rubber
    and was the only part of the M1 Pro that didn't feel substantial. On the top of the M1 Pro are the three gold plated output jacks
    from left to right Headphone Out, Line Out and Coaxial Out.
    The back of the M1 Pro has the company name, model and some verbage at the bottom (CE certificatin symbol etc.)
    All edges of the M1 Pro are chamfered which makes for a comfortable feel when held.
    The Esther M1 Pro UI is fairly basic but provides all the necessary functions. The status bar on top has playing status, volume and gain
    setting (Low Med, or High), and Battery level.
    The main scrollable (left to right) Screens are Playing, List Manager, Storage, Music Library, Settings, Upgrade and About.  
    Playing shows status, Gain setting, battery life, Song Name, Directory Name, Mode, Sampling rate and music format. Using the up/down
    buttons allows one the cycle between sequential, repeat, repeat all, and random playing modes.
    The List Manager screen shows Favourites and Recent list (recently played).
    Settings has options for setting language, backlighting time, brightness, scan music, Digital Coaxial mode, Power on/off options,
    fade options, DAC option and Sound Options.
    Upgrade has two options Force Recovery and Firmware Upgrade.
    About shows firmware version, serial number, Total Capacity, Free Space and Contact us.
    I primarily set the M1 Pro to random play and let it go at that. Album art is nice but what I want is a unit that plays without
    stuttering, freezing or crashing. The M1 Pro UI did just that, it functioned as I expected and just got out of the way of my
    enjoying the music. While the UI is as I said basic Mary from Soundaware has stated that the UI is a work in progress and will be
    updated periodically.
    The only slight criticism I have of the whole screen/ui is that some of the icons are rather small (playing mode for example) and
    a bit difficult for my old tired eyes to see. There's a lot of real estate on the screen it would be good to increase the size of
    some of the icons.
    This is where it gets interesting. Soundaware states the M1(PRO) Analog sounds more like an analog system then a digital system.
    I'd have to agree with that assessement, there was no hint of digital harshness or excessive bright or brittle sound from the M1 Pro.
    One of the LPs that promised the best of the digital age is "Bop Till You Drop" by Ry Cooder. It was one of the first (if not the first)
    fully digital LP. And it sounded awful, I bought 2 copies and dragged my system back to my retailer as I was sure something was horribly
    wrong with my turntable/cartridge. Turns out it was the recording, the perfect DDD wasn't. Why am I telling you this? Because the digital
    verions of the LP were not much better, listenable but I always thought something was not quite right. When I played this on the M1(PRO)
    I was pleasantly suprized. I don't know if its the Femto Clock, the FPGA architecture or what but it was much more listenable to me.
    Soundstage was both wide and had good depth. Music on some of my other DAPs has a sense of width in the sound stage but not too much
    depth. With the M1(PRO) instruments were easily placed in the soundstage on recordings such as "Hotel California" from Hell Freezes Over
    by the Eagles. I experienced none of the blurring of instruments across the soundstage. The M1(Pro) was especially well suited to live
    recordings such as Trinity Sessions by Cowboy Junkies, or small venue live recordings such as Nightbird by Eva Cassidy.
    The M1(PRO) has a polite if not slightly recessed sound. The sound is definitely not V shaped but I'd say fairly flat across the musical
    spectrum. I do not have measurements nor instruments to verify this, it's purely conjecture. The M1(PRO) has good bass control and had no
    difficulty with deep (Sub) bass such as in Tocatta and Fugue in D minor. There was no smearing of bass across sub and mid bass. The M1
    (PRO) had smooth liquid sounding mids. The M1(PRO)was a wonder with female vocals, Eva Cassidy and Amy Winehouse never sounded more
    natural, and that's not to say it isn't good with male vocals. Highs were not quite as shimmering as on some players but had a much more
    natural sound.
    Poor recordings will continue to sound bad, the M1(PRO) isn't a miracle worker. Jamming with Edward by the Rolling Stones still sounds
    muddled and as if Mick Jagger is singing through tissues. Recordings that are overly bright still sound that way. An Equalizer option here
    would be welcome but the Esther M1(PRO) does not have option, perhaps in a later firmware upgrade we'll see that added.
    General Usage
    I used the M1(PRO) with my Westone UM30 PRO, Westone UM1, Yamaha HP1 and Sennheiser 414. I had no problem driving any of my IEMs or
    Headpones although none of them are particularly difficult to drive.
    One thing I noticed in daily usage is that the M1(PRO) runs fairly hot. The M1(PRO) has holes for heat dissipation however they're fairly
    small and are not that effective. When I carried the M1(PRO) either in a pocket or in a camera case on my belt the unit
    became quite warm, almost hot to the touch. I'd be concerned that with extended use without proper ventilation the unit could become hot
    enough to cause thermal damage.
    Battery usage was good but not spectacular, I got about 9 hours playing time before needing to recharge.
    For comparisons I used an Xduoo X3, iPod nano 7th version with and without a JDS labs cMoyBB amplifier, and iPhone 6s.
    All listening was done with volume being matched using a 440 hz tone and SPL meter.
    Xduoo X3.  
    All comparisons with the Xduoo were done on a rockboxed X3. The tone and pitch errors of the X3 running stock software
    is so noticible to me that it renders all comparisons as useless and the unit nearly unlistenable.
    The Xduoo and M1(PRO) both use the Cirrus Logic CS4938 Dac and there is a similarity in the sound of the two DAPS.
    Where the M1(PRO) really shines and outperforms the X3 is soundstaging. While the X3 has a good sense of width of the sound stage
    it is completely lacking in depth of sound stage. With the M1(PRO) the sound stage is much fuller and has a more realistic feel.
    With live recordings the sense of sound stage was realistic whether the recording was done in a small venue or a stadium.
    The M1(PRO) has a more polite presentation, the music isn't nearly as in your face as the X3. Bass had a little less slam and
    highs were a bit more refined. This in no way means the M1(PR0) was a less musical DAP, it felt much more realistic to my ears, with
    no real sense of one frequency emphasized over another. The M1(PR0) was better able to mine detail from the music than the X3, but at
    more than five times the price one would expect that. The UI of the X3 is minimal at best, there is no support for album art and is a
    purely text driven menu system. Again as I don't necessarily require pictures to enjoy my music this isn't an issue for me.
    Both the rockboxed X3 and the M1(PRO)'s UI allow me to listen to my music with a minimum of UI issues. The M1(PRO) UI is much more
    intuitive to use than the Rockbox UI and doesn't require a 200 page manual to use all it's features.
    iPod Nano.
    Comparing the M1(PRO) with the iPod running without amplication is like comparing my iPhone 6s with a circa 1995 Motorola flip phone,
    they both do essentially the same thing but my what a difference.
    by comparisson the little nano sounds thin with a lack of dynamics and general 'oomph'.
    With the nano and the cMoyBB amplifier things get a little closer. I get a general sense of more music and a more fleshed out
    sound stage. In terms of the DAC, there's no comparing the two units. The M1(PRO)is the clear cut winner here.
    I also listened to music through my iPhone and much like the iPod there was no comparison between the two units.
    Some listening was done using Westone's player ( same as the BBE player) and while I was able to boost bass performance and
    spread the sound out a bit it still fell well short of the M1(PRO) in almost all areas.
    M1(PRO) vs. Analog system.
    Since Soundaware market this as an analog sounding unit I decided just for kicks to insert the M1(PRO) into my main listening system.
    I substituted an amplifier that could handle Line In for my Bottlehead and Acurus amplification. Comparisons were done with an AR ES1
    turntable, Ortofon M20 FL cartridge, Transparent Cables throughout and Sonus Faber speakers.
    First comparison was Ry Cooder's Bop till You Drop. The M1(PRO) won this comparison hands down. Gone were the artifacts that bothered
    me so much about this album.
    On most of the tracks that I have on both LP and digital the M1(PRO) came fairly close to the LP version. Yes the M1(PRO) is quieter
    on almost all the songs, but there is something about the LP version that the M1(PRO) cannot duplicate. The LP was just more visceral
    to me, had more emotion or whatever it is in analog recordings that I prefer.
    That said the M1(PRO) would be an excellent source component in anyone's system. It held it's own quite nicely in my system. I especially
    liked the convenience of playing hours of music through the system without having to change LPs or CDs. One thing I have to note is
    that througout this and my other listening sessions I found myself getting lost in the music and forgetting I was supposed to be
    listening seriously and taking notes.
    The M1(PRO) is a very capable DAP that could still use some refinement around the UI. It is musical and well suited to all forms
    of music. The ability to use dual Micro SD cards is a big plus here, and hopefully the M1(PRO) will handle dual 200GB cards allowing
    one to carry approximately 1/2 a terabyte of music. That should handle anyones requirement for a portable library.
    I'm still a bit concerned about heat dissipation when the unit is carried in a pocket or case.
    Overall I enjoyed my time with the M1(PRO) and wouldn't have any reservations recommending it.
  6. OSiRiSsk
    M1Pro Esther : Strictly business
    Written by OSiRiSsk
    Published Nov 1, 2016
    Pros - intuitive UI, retro and compact design, overall SQ, stable FW
    Cons - no USB dac support, lack of features
    I am very thrilled to be writing this review as I was looking for some alternatives to my FiiO X7 DAP - there will be plenty of comparisons later on. M1 PRO is a very neat little DAP, and I'll try to explain why. However, you'll find out, that it's not the most perfect one. Then again - is there any?
    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Formalities[/color]
    Formality 1 - declaration
    Soundaware M1 PRO was borrowed to me by Soundaware company as part of the official european Review tour in exchange for my honest opinion.
    You'll see later on that I don't just praise this DAP as there are some clear flaws too.
    Formality 2 - spec
    Official M1 Pro specification by manufacturer
    I don't to pollute this review by listing all the formats it can play, just use the link above.
    Formality 3 - price
    You can buy it from amazon.com 658 $
    Penon Audio is resseling this for 759 $
    I haven't found any european re-seller which is really shame.
    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Packaging, Accessories[/color]
    M1Pro was delivered to me in a very nice red box. There was a feel of luxury to it. Following is the list of items included in the package:
     - M1Pro body
     - MicroSD card
     - USB charging cable
     - USB card reader
     - 3.5mm to RCA coaxial cable
     - user manual (two of those)
     - rubber pad 
    I am not sure whether everything is included in the retail unit as well, but it certainly can be handy to have USB card reader available out of the box. The content above was included in the review unit.


    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Design, usability, key features[/color]
    Before diving into the description of sound quality I'd like to mention few features which makes M1Pro really special.
    The first is definitely its design - for some it may look very old, but to me it gives special analog/retro feel which I really appreciate.
    The M1Pro is really compact as well - in comparison to my FiiO X7 it's almost tiny. It's very convenient for wearing it in the pocket.
    The display is rather small but I never struggled to see what was on there. 
    Another thing about its appearance are the physical buttons. These day it's common that your DAP will have touch screen, but not this one. This one will bring you back to the basics. With the small size and the physical button the navigation is very easy even with one hand.
    The buttons are very intuitive to use - after a while you will find out few little hacks and you will get used to it.
    The best thing? There is physical button for lock! Sweet baby jesus, I had no idea I needed this so badly. It's awesome. You can't appreciate it now - trust me, you will.
    physical buttons makes M1Pro very easy to operate with​
    The button of all buttons - physical lock!​


    Next I'd like to explicitly highlight the user interface of this DAP. I opened a few M1Pro reviews before, but didn't read them through completely, cause I didn't want to be biased. But all of them mentioned the UI in the cons section. I don't understand this at all. For me, the UI is one of the most biggest advantage of this device. It's extremely simple, almost primitive. But for me, in this context, the less means more. Why?
    Because the more features it will have, the bigger chance there will be bugs. If you've read the FiiO X7 thread you know that most of it is just users complaining about issues. With M1Pro I honestly haven't encountered any sort of UI of other glitch. Everything just works smoothly.
    Of course, you do not receive WiFi, bluetooth support. I think there is not even a support for a m3u and cue files. I don't really mind that at all. M1Pro simply gives me the possibility to focus on music and music only and takes away all the unnecessary features, which may be good to have, but at the end of the day, they are just distractions for me. For god sake, I don't even use the Music library menu - I simply play the music directly from the SD Card. This simply works the best for me.
    I understand there will be many people out there disagreeing there. There are DAPs out there, which offers many features, advanced UI, and still functions without issues  - but what are these? Maybe high end Astel and Kern models which costs triple the M1 price.
    I also understand that some people want as many features in their DAPs as possible - if this is the case, you may need to look for another player, as M1 focus on playing the music in its purest form, nothing else. No Tidal, no bluetooth, no playlists.
    After using FiiO X7 for almost a year, this is pleasant change to me. I was drawn to the X7 because of the rich feature list it offered.
    However it failed miserably on delivering these features - the player is just too unstable. M1Pro on the other hand, offers almost nothing extra besides playing the music, but it does it brilliantly without any hiccups or bugs. And isn't this what you want in your DAP in the first place?
    Another great thing about M1Pro is that it offers 2 slots for SD card - 2x128 GB. That's a huge plus, which not every player can offer you. Hopefully with the FW upgrade, they will be able to support 2x200 GB cards as well. I haven't tried the 200 GB card personally as I don't own any.
    Until now, M1Pro was a perfect player for me. Unfortunately there is a huge downside  - M1Pro doesn't have USB DAC functionality. For this price I find this unacceptable and in my eyes it significantly diminishes the value of the player. It's not a firmware issue unfortunately, there is simply no hardware support to it. Too bad..
    See this link for general usability (for some reason, it's been rotated, sry for that)
    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Battery[/color]
    Battery is the one odd thing about this player. It sort of behaves unexpectedly. I mean, you can't always rely on a fact how much percentage you have left because the percentage simply doesn't decrease linearly. 
    battery is odd little duck. Playing music with 0% battery? mkay!​


    I performed two tests:
    1.  How long does the battery last
    I have used Shure 535 with various files, mp3, FLAC and even HD flac during the playback. Volume was set to 50, gain was set to High.
    The battery lasted approximately 8h45min - it corresponds to what manufacturer claim on their website (they mention value of 9h).
    It's not a lot, but it's not so little either, so I am kind of indifferent towards the battery life. For me, it's definitely sufficient.
    Odd thing was that at 07:00 AM the batter was 29 %. At 08:13 the battery was all of a sudden 1%.  This is what I've meant when I said that the decrease in battery percentage is not always linear. I think the more you power-on/power-off the device, the more you drain battery, at least that's my personal experience. 
    1. How long does the charging take
    I used USB charger with 2A throughput. It took approximately 5h30 min. Again, the numbers were odd - the batter increase was quite steady, until 99 %. It got stuck for more than 30 min at this value.
    Also, Soundaware recommends that you have your device shut down during the charging period as it speeds up the whole process significantly.
    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Sound - quality, power, signature[/color]
    I definitely do not posses with  perfect hearing capabilities, so maybe I am not the best judge when it comes to these sort of things, but here is my experience. Also, whenever I am reading AMP/DAC/DAP sound quality descriptions I feel like most of the times the reviewer are describing the headphones he used and not the device it self, and I'd like to avoid this.
    While I've had the M1Pro I was mostly using it with my Shure 535, but also with Fidue A71. I also tried with couple of big cans - mainly Beyerdynamic T5p and Fostex T50RP MK III.
    When it comes to the quality, the first thing that struck me the most was the overall resolution and amount of detail. It's enormous. In a good way. I was used to this from my FiiO X7 and M1Pro is easily competing with it. I was trying to find some differences between the two - FiiO X7 and M1Pro so I could compare the internal DAC section because initially they sounded very similar to me. 
    For this I have used my Stax rig and fed the Stax SRM-3 amplifier from the line-out of the X7 and M1Pro respectively.
    After the test they still sound very similar, the only difference I could hear was that X7 had more warmth (AM2). Remember, this is still a very minor difference and I will admit to you straight away, that in a blind-test I'd most likely fail miserably when trying to guess which one is which.
    Comparing the DAC section of X7 vs M1Pro using my Stax rig​


    M1Pro was more neutral - but not in a boring way. The sound is still very full and engaging, keeping the details on a very high level.
    The one interesting thing I've noticed that with M1Pro I've almost never experienced the annoying sibilance which I experience much more frequently when using my Shure 535 with X7.
    When it comes to power, the Shure 535 are quite sensitive IEMs but I have to use High gain (M1Pro has three gains by the way - L/M/H) and volume around 45-50 (out of 100).
    For Beyerdynamic T5p I had to use around 60/100 volume, but it was driving them confidently.
    The biggest question mark was around Fostex T50RP mkIII which does not have high impedance at all, but due to their lower sensitivity they are considered fairly harder to drive. In the end, I had to push the M1Pro all the way to 85-90 volume in order to drive my Fostex sufficiently. It sounded really good - I usually drive them with my FiiO K5 amplifier which is much more powerful. With FiiO K5 my pair of Fostex sounds more "confident", but even M1Pro did a decent job. 
    Unfortunately I do not have any usual 300 ohms headphones, so couldn't test this aspect. For IEMs the M1Pro is certainly sufficient, and since it could drive even my pair of Fostex I'd say that it has plenty of power. Of course it can't compete with AM3 or AM5 of FiiO X7. 
    To sum up - except my pair of Fostex the M1Pro drove all my headphones to its fullest potential. Didn't flavour sound at all, as it provided extremely neutral, balanced, yet full and energetic sound keeping very high amount of details. This is definitely not a DAP for bassheads - there is not even equalizer. You should use suitable cans for bass, as M1Pro will not flavour the sound in any way.
    Shure 535 delivered fun and detailed signature, fostex had the rumbling bass just the way I remember it and T5p were extremely clear and detailed, just the way I know them.
    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Direct comparison with FiiO X7[/color]
    I've already mentioned FiiO X7 couple of times, but let's have it under one place. These two are completely different animals.
    X7 is android based player, which offers plethora of features and changeable amplifier section. While that is a great idea, X7 can't deliver
    to its fullest potential due to firmware issues which are not ironed out even after one year.
    M1Pro is stable in the first day after its release - mostly due to its lack of features and primitive UI. For me, that's a good thing though.
    M1Pro have second slot for SD card, which X7 doesn't have.
    Finally, X7 has USB DAC function which M1Pro doesn't have.
    The sound signature really depends on what amplifier you use with X7 - I've used AM2 which is slightly warmer than the M1Pro. I wouldn't say one is superior when it comes to SQ - they are simply different.
    I think these two are targeting completely different customer's base, so you should really pick based on your needs, as the differences are huge.
    M1Pro can't compete with my bunny on FiiO X7's background​
    M1Pro is really compact​


    [color=rgb(34, 34, 34)] Verdict[/color]
    You probably know by now that I am a huge fan of M1Pro - it offers neutral, detailed and full sound signature. It allows you to use 2 SD cards which allows you to take most of your music away with you. The battery life is average. The thing I like the most is the simplicity of its usage. The UI is almost primitive and offers very little features - for me that is a great thing as the risk of introduces bugs in the M1Pro firmware is much lower than in other DAPs on the market. Also, it gives me no distraction whatsoever so I can completely focus on the listening experience.
    The reason why I had to put lower score in the overall value of the product is because of missing USB DAC support. Otherwise, for all analog, retro fans out there, who just want to focus on your music, without anything standing in your way - look no further. M1Pro is your end stop.
    1. Bansaku
      Great review! I agree with your feelings on the UI; I think it's simplistically fantastic! And the sound...amazing!!!
      Bansaku, Nov 5, 2016
  7. Currawong
    The Soundaware M1 Analog and Pro are very pleasant to listen with, but are let down by lack of battery life, power and high output impedance.
    Written by Currawong
    Published Oct 31, 2016
    Pros - Great sound, button layout is intuitive, digital coax mode makes for a great transport.
    Cons - Lower power, short battery life, high output impedance, compromised UI.

    Video review (M1 Analog with beta firmware).​

    Danny from DITA Audio tipped me off that I should check out Soundaware's products so I contacted them and they provided me with a D100PRO music server and the M1 Esther "Analog" to test initially, the M1 Pro arriving sometime later as part of the review tour.
    From the outside, the M1 looks fairly unremarkable, with something of "yet another Chinese DAP" aesthetic. While I didn't appreciate the design visually, the curved layout of the buttons came to be handy when pressing them in a pocket or in the dark. I hope, however, that they'll follow FiiO's lead with the X5II and update the design to make it look more modern. 
    If the outside is not so pleasing, the internal design most definitely is, as the M1 uses an FPGA which Soundaware have programmed with their own user interface and digital programming. In addition to that, they have taken care to include separate power supplies for the analog and digital sections, as well as the headphone amp for the best sonic results. Additionally, the M1 can be set in Digital Coaxial mode where the analog components are deactivated for longer battery life as a transport. 
    The M1 itself comes in a few different versions. The first pair are the Analog and Vitality at $553. The Analog version is intended to sound like "an old CD player" with a more classic, warm sound, achieved through component and digital filter selection. The Vitality version has a more modern sound the focusses on being lively. The M1 Pro and M1 Studio are respectively versions of the Analog and Vitality that come with Femto clocks for better performance, and have a higher price tag of $748. 
    The M1, on the surface, doesn’t come across as a particularly remarkable DAP. It has a fairly simple user interface and controls and takes up to two micro-SD cards up to 128 GB in size, from which any common music file format, including DSD, can be played. The M1 will also read CUE sheets. Where the M1 is special is that it uses an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) programmed by Soundaware to decode digital files, and the CPU, digital DAC input, analogue DAC output, and analogue amplification all have separate power supplies inside the DAP for maximum sound fidelity.
    Soundaware_M1_Pro-D75_5837.jpg   Soundaware_M1_Pro-D75_5838-Edit.jpg
    Ergonomics-wise, I found the layout of buttons on the front to become quickly intuitive, the shapes and cut-outs easy to feel. I do wish they'd ditch the screen bulge as FiiO did with the X5II, however, as it detracts from the design. The top of the M1 has three ports, for headphones, line out and coax digital output respectively. Power and volume are on the right while a sliding button-lock is on the left. 
    The bottom has the micro-USB port and the two micro SD ports behind a rubber cover. Cards don't insert the same direction as the slots are clearly on either side of the circuit board and being quite recessed are hard to insert and remove, so much so that after un-locking a card I usually need tweezers to get it out.
    The basic, $553 model comes in two versions with different tuning. The Vitality version has a more neutral tuning, whereas the Analog version, which I was sent, is designed to sound like an old-school CD player. I’m guessing something like ones of the models that used old Phillips R2R chips was the inspiration, because the sound is quite warm, even more so than the Chord Mojo. Warm though it may be, it is possibly the nicest player I’ve ever listened with, excepting possibly the AK380 and the HiFiMan HM901 with balanced card. The M1 can also be used as a digital transport, with a coax digital output, or to an amp via the line out, which has a slightly low 1.4V output.
    The M1 Pro is an upgrade from the M1 Analogue and for $748 comes with Femto clocks for better performance. The M1 Studio is a similar upgrade from the Vitality model.
    Main Menu
    Music Library
    Browsing Music
    Browsing is done by artist, album, genre or by viewing all files. Scrolling down screen-by-screen can be done using the left and right controls, which is reasonably quick, whereas the up and down controls move an entry at a time. Annoyingly only about half the screen is used to show file names, something Soundaware admits was a bad decision from the start, but no doubt because Chinese file names use far fewer characters than do those in English and other languages. There is also quite a bit of vertical space wasted, so one screen only shows 5 files where it looks like it could comfortably fit 7. A redeeming feature is that the software is upgradable via downloadable firmware files, so there is a possibility that sometime in the future this will be rectified.
    I was in two minds whether or not to add the Soundaware M1 Esther to the gift guide, as the software is a bit temperamental, with issues such as the volume controls being slow to respond, the unit being more functionally limited than, say, a FiiO X5 or similar and there being a few software bugs remaining. I’ve noticed that a segment of Head-Fi members are quite happy to put up with a rather basic, and possibly even somewhat frustrating design if the sound quality meets their needs. 
    That is where this DAP got me: More than anything, the M1 Analog and M1 Pro make listening an absolutely wonderful experience. With all the headphones and IEMs I plugged into it, from my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, the Torque Audio t096z’s to MrSpeakers’ Ethers, it made listening an absolute joy. The warm signature takes away anything unpleasant from recordings, but doesn’t sacrifice detail in doing so. Many of the albums I like, from Patricia Barber, Elbow, Bill Evans and Beck have some harshness in the treble — whether from the recording or mastering I don’t know, and owning a revealing system, especially revealing IEMs, can highlight this. Not so with the M1, which makes all of it a pleasure to listen to instead. 
    The M1 even does a basically decent job driving full-sized headphones, managing to do well with MrSpeakers Ethers. However, with balanced armature IEMs the high output impedance can be troublesome. With ALO Audio's Andromedas there was a drop in mid-bass, which was fine with some of my more bass-heavy albums, but less pleasing with others. Plugging the M1 into a good amp, such as Sound Potion's Monolith, ALO Audio's Rx or Continental V5 as a source, things began to really shine. While not as spacious and detailed-sounding as, say, an AK380, the result was a sweet-sounding portable rig.
    Likewise, joy was to be had using the M1 as a source for one of the amps in my main system, such as the Studio Six or APEX Sangaku.
    Switching the M1 into Digital Coaxial mode and using it as a source to my Chord Mojo it made for a great-sounding rig. The Mojo, like the Hugo before it, seems to sound best when the transport is good and the M1 does a good job at that, distinctly better than the AK100 I had originally bought to use with it. However, to use it with the Mojo, I had to build a custom digital cable as the coax output uses the ring and sleeve of a 3.5mm plug, completely different to everything else out there.
    The other advantage to Digital Coax Mode is that the battery lasts much longer. One major downside to the M1 is that hardware sucks through the battery very fast. The first 10% seems to go quite quickly whereafter things slow down a bit, but the units becoming warm soon after power on hints at what is to come. I had to make sure I'd set a reasonable auto-power-off time as if I forgot, I'd have a flat battery on my hands the next time I went to switch on. 
    Battling off components, the M1 Analog seemed to be a bit behind in detail compared to the Mojo, if a bit more pleasant to listen with sometimes. Moving up to the M1 Pro, the music becomes slightly more clear, and that is where I was challenged to decide which I preferred, whether I was using high-end IEMs or full-sized headphones, the latter via an amp.
    Overall I feel the M1 is one of those designs that is almost there, but will likely have too many down sides for a lot of people. The compromised UI, high output impedance and short battery life despite low power output may just be too much. But for a few people who want a warmer and more pleasant sound and can live with the compromises, Soundaware is a very interesting company that makes an incredibly pleasing-sounding DAP.
    The M1 Analog was sent to me for review. The M1 Pro was part of the recent review tour.
      twister6, Hawaiibadboy and HiFiChris like this.
  8. Fabaaroan
    Written by Fabaaroan
    Published Oct 26, 2016
     Being a tester and owner of many digital portable players , I had to participate to the head-fi review tour for Soundaware, especially since all the players of the brand have interested me for some time now.
    Three players are proposed by Soundaware in its catalog, all of them the same size, but with a finish ? sound and  price quite different.
    In this review, I will only tell you about the lended player, that is to say the M1 pro, the most expensive of the brand.
    Here are its caracteristics.
    1. Size: 115mm * 59mm, the thinnest thickness of 14mm, holding thickness about 15mm
    2. Weight: about 175g
    3. Sampling rate: 32khz-192khz, DSD (SACD
    4. Format: MP3, WMA, AAC, ALAC, M4A, CUE, WAV, FLAC, APE, ISO, DSF, DFF etc.
    5. Storage: TF * 2 (single maximum support 128GB, future support will be greater), NTFS, FAT format
    6. Playback time: normal listening about 9 hours
    7. Line Output: 1.4V RMS
    8. Coaxial output: 0.5V p-p, PCM & DSD (DOP)
    9. Screen: 2.4 inch high resolution Sharp IPS hard screen
    10. Distortion + Noise (headphone output): <= 0.002% (44.1khz, 1khz DS3)
    11. Dynamic ratio (headphone output):> = 110db.
    12. Background noise (headphone output): <=-130db.
    13. Amp analog output: 2.8V RMS highest, 97% volume output, distortion <= 0.003%, desktop class AB amp circuits, power output, third gear gain
              Let's unpack !
    The M1pro comes in a good-quality brown packaging, accompanied by a charger, a USB cable and a small user manual. There are only the elements needed to use the M1 pro. A small cover, even made of fabric, would have been appreciated, or a coaxial cable or even any other cable allowing to use its line out.
    Now an eye at the M1pro's looks.
    The chassis made of brushed aluminium is directly convincing : it thus gives an impression of soundness and quality of the finishing of the product .
    This quality can also be found in the three jacks, which display no slack whatsoever, even when using a straight jack ( quite reassuring if you want to carry the player in your pocket ).
    These jacks are all on the upper edge.
    On the bottom of the device, there are the micro USB plug as well as two slots for micro SD cards.
    On the left edge, there is only the « hold » button whereas the « power » and « back and forward » ones are on the right side.
    Holes allowing the ventilation of the device are placed on these two panels.
    On the front, you will find the most useful control switches displayed in an original way : the switches « menu » and « back » are aligned on the left while the « play » button is encircled with the browsing controls on the right side.
    The screen is above and is slightly raised from the frame ( a few millimeters ).
    Introductions with the M1 pro being made, we can at last start the player and see its settings.
    Better say it first, the display is not really original and the UI is even extremely simple. I don't mind it at all being used to the QP1R or HM901S.
    You will find the settings : they give you access to the language choice, the colour of the screen, the ability to scan music, etc.
    There are also the upgrade (to modify the firmware ), the playing (direct access to the listened track), the recent list, the favorites (that is to say the playlist), the storage (access to the content of your two micro SD) and the music library.
    As for the track reading screen, you can choose between two displays thanks to the browsing button, one like a CD player, the other full screen. I preferred the full screen because it offers a very nice quality of display.
    By pushing the bottom selection button, you can choose different reading modes (shuffle, single , album..).
    When it comes to the battery life, it is supposed to be around ten hours, but I couldn't test it. What I can say is that I found the battery charging quite long ( compared to those of smartphones for example).
    Now let's talk about what really interest us : the sound !
    With this DAP, I only used iems : Campfire andromeda, Oriolus and SEM9.
    Right away I noted that the M1pro was offering an analogic approach of sound, with bass being present but not invasive. The finish is smooth with mediums and trebles perfectly defined.
    Mediums are particularly well-defined and sharp, so all the vocal nuances can be savoured.
    Trebles are well spread, allowing to lighten the sound stage.
    As far as the sound stage is concerned, the M1pro competes in the upper league : it conveys a great effect of deepness with a width allowing to well balance the whole, you feel like you're listening your music live !
    The proposed space is quite welcoming and it enables the listener to fully enjoy the resolution of this DAP. I found it much more acute than a Plenue 1 or a Hm901S.
    However, one will have to be most careful when choosing its intras to appreciate to the fullest the qualities of this player, since its acoustic impedance is high and can alter the rendering of BA iems like the Andromedas. Indeed, I felt that the mediums were sounding dry  (while it's one of their strenghts ).
    On the other hand, the Oriolus are a perfect match for the M1pro. This couple offers an approach of music that is smooth, languid, almost sensual with its extremely enveloping soundstage.
    A delight just to think about them together !
    With the SEM9, the finish may be too warm, these intras being already colored in the bass mediums and mediums. But they allow a rather fun and relaxing listening, so now it's up to you and your tastes...
    Let's compare with other DAPs...
    Compared to the LP3, the M1pro gives an obviously higher resolution (even though the LP3's finish is more neutral with nicely soft mediums ) and it is also much more dynamic than the LP3. This DAP however works equally with all iems and its price being different from the M1pro, leaves it a chance to exist on the market.
    I compared the M1pro to the HM901S with its balanced card. This player offers a finish even more analogic with a very nice resolution and more textured notes : everything seems more dense with it. The finish is more expressive, almost tangible, maybe even too warm for some.
    When using the Oriolus, I prefer the HM901S to the M1pro because of its realistic finish with gives a very nice feeling of 3D.
    And a last comparison with the Questyle. To me, this is the best player along with the HM901S. Directly compared to the M1pro, I think its global finish is more balanced : no frequency is crushing another one, everything is present in high resolution and, most important, with the best soundstage view. And the Questyle works very well with any iems.
    The M1pro doesn't prove unworthy, far from that. Even if it offers a good level of deepness, it suffers loss in terms of width and thus,globally speaking. Bass are maybe too present but to me, its main defect is in its outline with a too high impedance.
    To conclude, despite this problem of impedance, I did enjoy the 15 days spent with the M1pro.
    Even if its UI remains too simple for my taste, it works perfectly well ( not a glitch to report ) and reads all types of music formats.
    This player offers a high level of resolution and as a bonus, an analogic side which is quite pleasant. You can be sure never to get bored with it ! Music is living : listening to operas was a really wonderful experience with the M1pro for me thanks to its great effect of intensity.
    Careful though not to partner the M1pro with sensitive BA iems  : you should rather choose good hybrids and you will then perfectly enjoy the full potential of the sound qualities of this rather competitive-priced player.
    I hope you understood my first review in English and many thanks too Soundaware for the tour 
      Stahlreich and 1TrickPony like this.
  9. Deftone
    M1 Pro - Musical And Detailed
    Written by Deftone
    Published Oct 7, 2016
    Pros - Warm, Musical, Detailed, Airy, Build Quality.
    Cons - Bass Bloom, Emphasized Lower Treble, Mushy Button Feel, UI Bugs.
    The Esther M1 Pro was provided for free by Mary as part of the headfi tour in exchange for my review. Thank you Mary and the Soundaware team! 

    There are 3 versions of the Esther, M1 vitality - Vivid, detailed and energetic sound. M1 Analog - Rich, smooth, musical, warm and lush sound. M1 Pro - A combination of detail and musicality with added dual femto clocks.
    M1 Pro Specs                                                                                     M1 Pro Features 
    - Dual Femto Second Clocks                                                                - 9 Hour battery Life                                                                                                                  
    - FPGA                                                                                                  - 1 Micro SD Card Slot
    - 6 Layer Gold Plated PCB                                                                   - All Metal Build
    - Class AB Amp                                                                                    - Micro USB Slot Charge / Data Transfer
    - CS4398 Dac Chip                                                                              - 30 Hours Battery Life In Line Out Mode

    Box Contents - Music player. usb charging wall plug (not included in the review unit) usb cable, vinyl skin, 16gb SD card, usb charging cable, reset tool.
    Build Quality - All metal build with chamfered edges give it a nice quality feel in the hand and nice to look at. the screen protrudes from the rest of the body which i would of like to have seen be flush with the rest of the unit, the buttons on the side have a good tactile feel but the ones of the front (menu,return, up, down etc) have a loose and spongy feel when pressed down. I would have liked to see a better tactile feedback for all the buttons not just the ones on the side.
    Display and UI - The display on the M1 Pro is bright and clear with high resolution, the UI is easy to navigate with a simple but effective way to jump between options using left/right and then selecting by pressing the play/pause button. It shouldnt take very long to get used to the feel of the UI as it only took me an hour or two. The interface seemed to get a bit laggy if you press the return button a few times too quickly it will hang then finally go back after a 1-2 seconds, i wasnt sure if that was the squidgy feel of the buttons (not knowing if i pressed it correctly) or being used to very fast smartphones.
    Files Used - Flac 16-44 & 24-96 with no issues.

    Output Power - i dont have any iems that require a lot of power with the 50ohm pinnacle p1 needing the most, the m1 pro was able to drive the ones i have with no problems at all with me settling on around 60/100 on high gain.
    Sound - I havent used many dedicated music players before because i usually go down the amp/dac combo route, so if your looking for comparisons with this and other daps then im affraid this review wont be for you. With that said i will try my best to describe the sound.
    It is indeed a very warm and musical sounding player with great detail just like Soundaware describes it but i did find there to be some bloom in the bass that wasnt too bothersome but might be for others. the midrange is very open and clear with a good sense of space around instruments in the soundstage, upper mid / lower treble is slightly emphasized to my ears and could become aggressive and fatiguing with some iems (i think this could be something to do with the 10ohm output impedance) Upper treble is much better, well extended and shimmery. With the right iems it is a very nice immersive sound.
    Comparison with Chord Mojo
    Treble - although the m1 sounds more impressive at first i preferred the smoother treble of the mojo
    Mids - i like the mids of the m1 more than the mojo just because its more open sounding
    Bass - mojo wins again on this, effortless fast bass with no bloat or bloom
    Soundstage - draw, hard to choose between wide spacious sound of m1 or deep layered sound of mojo
    Detail - m1 seems to highlight detail more than mojo
    Transients - i prefer the extremely fast sound of the mojo but the m1 pro isnt too far behind.
    (IEMs used Pinnnacle P1 / Shure SE846)
    Conclusion - i think its a very nice player with an equally nice sound and i can see a lot of hard work went in to designing it but with its aggressive sound and the UI bugs its not for me. Also i think its priced a little too high in the market  at around $750 which could put many people off.
      Stahlreich, Currawong and soundaware like this.
    1. soundaware
      Great job!
      Did you use your phone connected with Mojo?
      Which IEM you used? You could share your experience matching with IEM.
      soundaware, Oct 8, 2016
    2. Deftone
      iems i used are mentioned  in the review, mojo was connected to a tablet when i did the comparison.
      Deftone, Oct 10, 2016
    3. Currawong
      The high output impedance of the DAP may have caused issues with the SE846, as it probably doesn't have a flat impedance curve.
      Currawong, Oct 29, 2016
  10. Jackpot77
    New wave sound in an old school chassis - the sonic "muscle car" of the mid-fi DAP landscape produces a beautiful sounding roar
    Written by Jackpot77
    Published Sep 26, 2016
    Pros - Great airy and defined sound, excellent detail and musicality, decent driving power
    Cons - Clunky looks, UI is simplistic and a little basic for something in this price bracket, no onboard EQ available
    Soundaware M1 Pro / “Esther”  – initial impressions
    I had the opportunity to listen to the Soundaware M1 Pro as part of the recent UK and North American tours that the company have been running via Head-Fi. I got to spend two weeks with the player in exchange for writing up my honest opinions in the forums here – before the thread popped up on Head-Fi, I will be honest and admit that Soundaware weren’t a company on my radar, and this is my first experience with their gear.
    About me: newly minted audiophile, late 30s, long time music fan and aspiring to be a reasonably inept drummer. Listen to at least 2 hours of music a day on my commute to work – prefer IEMs for out and about, and a large pair of headphones when I have the house to myself and a glass in my hand. Recently started converting my library to FLAC and 320kbps MP3, and do most of my other listening through Spotify or Tidal HiFi. I am a fan of rock, acoustic (apart from folk) and sarcasm. Oh yeah, and a small amount of electronica. Not a basshead, but I do love a sound with some body to it. My ideal tuning for most IEMs and headphones tends towards a musical and slightly dark presentation, although I am not treble sensitive in general. Please take all views expressed below with a pinch of salt – all my reviews are a work in progress based on my own perceptions and personal preferences, and your own ears may tell you a different story.
    Tech specs
    (from website)
    Unboxing / package contents
    The M1 Pro arrives in a dark maroon cardboard box with a square shape and a thick vinyl covered cardboard surface, with the model name (“Esther”) emblazoned on the front in gold print and the model name written on the side. The look of the box is unashamedly retro, looking like it might just as easily contain a bottle of men’s aftershave as a high-end dual femtosecond clock DAP. Opening up the box, the theme continues – the DAP is sat in a moulded plastic insert, with a “skin” style DAP cover, the instruction manual and a standard micro USB cable and USB card reader sitting in a separate cubbyhole nearby. A small “reset” pin like come with quite a few modern mobile phones completes the accessory layout – for the purposes of the review, Soundaware provided me with a sturdy 3.5mm interconnect and a coax cable, but I presume they won’t come as part of the standard accessory package. The overall vibe isn’t massively high end, but more functional – this certainly isn’t an “Apple standard” unboxing experience, but then again, who listens to cardboard after they get to the age of 6 anyway?
    Build quality and ergonomics
    The retro styling of the packaging continues with the DAP itself, with the M1 Pro sporting a boxy aluminium shape with a raised screen area and button controls on the front that remind me very much of my old Nintendo Gameboy (the original grey version). The model name is written in script on the front of the DAP, which is a nice touch. The DAP is reasonably light considering its all-metal build, without the feeling of solidity that some other DAPS I have tried in this bracket seem to exude. There are vent holes down each side, which adds to the feeling of airiness, as this is definitely a player that needs plenty of space for its internals, as under reasonable load with FLAC or 320kbps MP3, it tends to run HOT. There are a few stylistic touches to note, like the bevelled edges along all the sides and the three small grooves that add a bit of texture and grip to the front chassis, but overall, this feels like something that was designed by committee in the Eastern Europe of the late 90s, with a functional and “built to endure” design. In terms of actual use, the button placement along the front is logical and easy to use, with the standard power button and volume controls on the top right side, a screen lock tab on the left hand side and micro-USB and micro-SD slots along the bottom edge. One area that lets down the otherwise industrial design is the flimsy rubber cover for the dual micro-SD card slots. This feels fragile and can come loose of its own accord when the player is in your pocket, so would be a long time durability concern for me. Not that it will be a catastrophe for your micro-SD cards to be exposed to the environment, but in a player that is otherwise rock-solid, this seems like a strange solution. The top edge of the player is taken up with three 3.5mm ports – a normal headphone out, a line-out socket and a coax out for further compatibility. All three ports are practically flush with the side apart from a nice and solid looking gold trim on the edge of the socket, so these look like they will stand the test of time a lot better than the micro-SD flap.
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    Interface and usability
    The M1 Pro runs on a pretty basic proprietary UI, driven by the navigation buttons on the front panel. After the initial boot up animation, the player drops into the menu system, starting by default on the “Playing” option. You can scroll left or right to move through the various other functions (Storage, Music Library, Settings etc.), and a press of the central Play/Pause button takes you down a level. There are also physical buttons to one side of the main cluster to go back up a level in the menu structure (the looped arrow) and to go straight to the top of the menu tree (a small “M”). Once at the “bottom level” of any menu, the options are presented as a series of lists. No fancy icons or other graphics, just On and Off options for the various configurables like Coax out and other written options for the selectable gain and DAC roll-off options to give two notable examples.
    While functional and easy to navigate, this is a UI built to listen to, not to look at, and does leave the product feeling a little bit rough around the edges considering the pricetag. Other DAPs in a similar bracket like the Shanling M5 have UI systems quite similar in approach, but with enough smoothness and graphical “sparkle” to better fit the sound they produce.
    In terms of stability, the Esther was reasonably reliable in my fortnight with the DAP, although it did crash and reboot a handful of times, and fully locked up once requiring a proper hardware reset. In day to day use the DAP will do what you ask, and one of the benefits of the spartan user interface is that what it lacks in prettiness it definitely makes up for in speed, rolling through the various options with no lag or stutter.
    Indexing your micro SD cards (the M1 takes two) isn’t the fastest, and can occasionally throw a hissy fit with poorly tagged files. Being honest, it isn’t the slowest I’ve ever seen either, so shouldn’t be too much of an issue for all but the most impatient of users. Personally I tend to use DAPs with folder browsing, and as this is well supported on the M1 Pro, I rarely had to resort to my indexed or tagged menu options.
    In terms of stamina, the M1 Pro ekes out around 9-10 hours, which is pretty standard for a DAP in this class with a decent amp section. The amp does seem to suck current even when there is no music playing, however, so the DAP will lose charge pretty quickly in standby mode (and also run a little hot), so it is best to fully shut down each time you stop using the player otherwise you will quickly run out of juice in daily operation.
    Overall, a simple and usable UI which works quickly and does the basics well, but won’t win any design or innovation awards.
    Suggested improvements for the UI
    Considering the sound quality the M1 Pro is capable of, here are my suggestions for bringing the overall user experience more into line:
    ·       Improve stability – DAPs at this price bracket shouldn’t crash doing day to day admin tasks.
    ·       Allow onboard playlist generation – I can’t find a way to do it, and can’t see that the player actually supports pre-generated playlists either.
    ·       Implement a search function or alphabetised skipping in the main “Folder Menu” or “Artist / Album” screens. You can skip to the next “page” of artists or albums by using the right and left navigation buttons, but if you are looking for something in the middle of the alphabet on a particularly large card, this can certainly take more time than it needs to given that the display is only 5 lines deep.
    ·       Allow some form of EQ function – I know some higher end DAPs don’t offer this, but the option to have even a rudimentary ability to tune the sound more to your preferences if you wish seems to be a no brainer.
    ·       Implement gapless playback – this has become a mainstay of most modern user experiences with audio players, so the notable absence can be a little jarring.
    Sound quality
    Test gear:
    IEMs – Vibro Labs Aria, Fidue A83, Trinity Vyrus
    Headphones - Audioquest Nighthawks, Soundmagic P55 Vento (2nd Gen), Focal Spirit Professional
    Main test tracks (mainly 320kbps MP3 or FLAC)
    Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – S.O.B. / Wasting Time
    Blackberry Smoke – The Whipporwill (album)
    Slash – Shadow Life / Bad Rain (my reference tracks for bass impact and attack, guitar “crunch”)
    Slash & Beth Hart – Mother Maria (vocal tone)
    Sister Hazel – Hello, It’s Me (bass quantity and quality)
    Richie Kotzen – Come On Free (bass tone)
    Elvis – various
    Leon Bridges – Coming Home (album)
    Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (album) / Tron (various versions)
    Rodrigo y Gabriela – various
    Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A High Note
    Don Broco – Automatic
    Foy Vance – The Wild Swan
    General impressions on the sound signature
    The M1 Pro runs on Field Programmable Gate Array technology (FPGA for short), which is the same sort of configurable hardware setup that underpins the excellent Chord Mojo. I haven’t actually heard the Mojo, so I can’t say if the M1 Pro is anywhere near the level of accomplishment that the Mojo is reknowned for, but the setup does certainly provide the basis for an excellent sounding and musical player.
    The overall sound is quite spacious, with a dash of warmth and excellent imaging and separation, leading to an almost 3D presentation with my more capable IEMs. Soundstage is presented well, with good width and height. As with all DAPs, the M1 Pro won’t add too much extra to the IEM or headphone you are using to listen to it through if it isn’t in the mix somewhere already, so think of it more as a small addition to the signature of your cans rather than a radical redefining.
    Detail level is high, and more noticeable than the other DAP I have been listening to in this price bracket recently (the Shanling M5). Guitars and acoustic instruments are particularly well represented, with the warm but not overly thick or lush midrange accentuating the detail in this frequency band, allowing you to pick out individual guitar licks and chords from the soundscape with ease on the right gear. Paired with a detail monster IEM like the Vibro Labs Aria, this DAP shines an excellent spotlight on the inner working of the music without losing too much musicality, and staying on the side of the more “live” or musical presentation rather than taking a more analytical approach. Part of the “live” presentation relates to the spacing between the instruments – they feel well separated, with minimal background noise between them, which gives a great sense of spatial cues and a roundness to drum sounds that brings the music to life.
    Despite the high level of detail retrieval and accomplished imaging, this is still quite a laid back sounding DAP, with a slight smoothness to the end of notes (the decay) that stops the sound becoming too energetic. In terms of pairings, this pairs well with the sharper sounding items in my collection, sounding particularly good with the energetic and fizzy Trinity Vyrus on some of its more aggressive filters. The mixture of detail and smoothness also does very well extracting the emotion from vocals – playing “Whiskey and You” by Chris Stapleton from my usual test tracks, the extra “room sounds” and the realistic timbre of the singer’s voice really brings home just how accomplished the sound is, with the raw emotion and gravel in Stapleton’s voice really grabbing centre stage.
    My overall impression is of a detailed but musical soundscape, with good space between instruments and layers and a fluid and impressive sound signature that gets the most out of the equipment it is driving without too much unnecessary fuss or harshness. It’s a very good implementation by Soundaware, and while the looks and UI of the player can be queried at this price, the sound output quite simply cannot.
    Background noise / output power
    Using my Vibro Labs Aria as a guinea pig, any hiss produced is low to inaudible in general use. This isn’t quite as black a background as the Shanling M5 I have been listening to recently, but this should be quiet enough for all but the most sensitive of ears and IEMs. As for driving power, there are three user selectable gain settings (low, mid and high), and at high gain the M1 Pro puts out a reasonable if not awe-inspiring amount of juice. It drives my Audioquest Nighthawks and Focal Spirit Pros well, taking maximum advantage of the scalability of both to produce a strong and dynamic sound. I don’t have any really high impedance items in my current collection so I can’t test directly, but initial impressions and the listed maximum output of 2.8V seem to indicate the M1 Pro might struggle a little to drive something more difficult like the HD650 to its maximum headroom without a little bit of external help. This isn’t a major issue, however, as the line out is remarkably clean in terms of signal, playing very nicely with my Cayin C5 to produce a clean and strong output that should be able to power most things without too much effort.
    Overall, the player is well suited to drive low and mid impedance IEMs, leaving a good amount of headroom behind on my Vibro Aria and the A83, and doing a similar job as slightly higher output volume on the Nighthawks. Due to the fact my home computer setup is currently strewn all over the place, I wasn’t able to find time to put it all back together to test the coax or standalone DAC output unfortunately.
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    Storage and format support
    The M1 Pro is another in a line of recent players that don’t offer any internal storage, but it does make up for this by offering two micro-SD card slots, allowing for a maximum supported storage of 256Gb. I haven’t had any issues in practice using a 200Gb card, so it may be that the “official” capacity is revised at some point. Soundaware provide the usual array of low and high resolution filetype support, with no notable absentees.
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    Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (using Neutron Player) – this has been my “daily driver” for music playback until very recently. As stated in my comparison with the Opus #1 DAP on another recent review, I have been very happy with the sound output through my current gear, as it has a capable dual-DAC setup and half decent volume capabilities if you can get the non-European version. It also comes extremely close to my old Sony NWZ-A15 walkman in terms of baseline sound quality, with only the additional digital sound processing tweaks on the Walkman differentiating between them, so is a pretty good performer in the mobile bracket. Comparing it to the M1 Pro, the Soundaware is an audible notch or two higher in terms of quality, with a more realistic sense of timbre and space, and a crisper and more detailed presentation. The sound feels more rounded overall compared to the more flat and two dimensional sound the Z3C when compared directly – the Z3C has a perfectly adequate presentation using the Neutron Player software, so this difference is only apparent when pitting the two directly up against each other. The Sony crushes the M1 Pro in terms of battery life, with the M1 Pro being able to manage around 9 hours when not chewing through 24/192 files, compared to the runtime of 20-25 hours plus with the Z3C – whatever Sony put in the water over at their battery technology division is obviously showing no signs of wearing off just yet. The Z3C also scores highly on the UI in comparison to the M1 Pro – full Android OS and the ability to use multiple different players and streaming software make it another unfair fight in that category. Overall, the FPGA-driven sound of the M1 Pro is noticeably more refined and just plain better than the Z3C, but as with most things at this sort of level, the difference is not huge.
    Shanling M5 – I purchased the M5 as an “interim” DAP not long prior to the arrival of the M1 Pro on tour, so the impressions below are based on a few days comparative listening between the two devices, rather than a real in depth analysis due to the timeframes involved. In terms of build, the M5 is a solid metal build like the Soundaware, but exhibits a much more aesthetically pleasing build, with the solidity of the metal construction, the larger screen (still non-touch) and overall finish evoking a much higher price bracket product. The pricing between the two models is similar, with the Soundaware going for between $50 and $100 more on the stores I have checked at the moment. With regards to sound, both DAPs are reasonably evenly matched, with the Soundaware providing a slightly leaner overall sound, with more emphasis on the separation between instruments and overall detail. Neither player sounds overly dry or analytical, but the Soundaware gives a little more edge to my Multi-BA and hybrid IEMs, at the expense of a little bass in the lower end. At this level, both players are technically excellent, with the leanness I experienced in the sound comparing the Soundaware to the Shanling contributing to a perception of increased detail retrieval, even if that wasn’t actually the case. On the flip side, the Shanling provides a warmer and more intimate sound, suiting acoustic and live music slightly better to my ears. With regards to driving power, the internal amp in the M5 seems to be able to generate a fair bit more power output than the M1 Pro, being able to run most of my inventory at half power on low gain, compared to the Soundaware, which has had to be kicked into High Gain and pushed up to about 80% to get a full sound out of at least one of the over-ear headphones I tried it with. Another area where the Shanling clearly pulls ahead is UI – while the Soundaware shares most of the same tricks (different gain settings, USB DAC functionality etc), the Linux-based GUI on the Shanling feels more functional and responsive, and is more stable than the Soundaware, which has crashed a few times since I have had it, compared to the M5’s blemish free record so far. One final differentiator in favour of the M5 is the inclusion of a 10 band EQ, which the Soundaware model lacks. For the price, both are accomplished players, so if the UI and looks aren’t a consideration, then the choice will come down to whether you own a lot of low-OI headphones and are a fan of a leaner and more spacious presentation compared to the more intimate warmth of the M5.
    Cowon Plenue D​ - this arrived just as the M1 Pro was leaving, so this is more of an impression than an A/B comparison. The Plenue D is a much smaller and more ergonomic DAP, with a smaller footprint, approximately 8 to 10 times as much bettery power and a much slicker touch screen based UI. General impressions of the sound favour the M1 Pro as a step up in terms of overall clarity and finesse, with the Plenue D offering an engaging and fun sound with a decent level of detail but not quite as much refinement or mastery of space and soundstage as the M1 Pro on first listen. The Plenue D does have the benefit of an almost limitless amount of EQ options compared to the lack of any EQ on the M1Pro, and is far cheaper. Overall, two DAPs for differing purposes, with the Plenue winning on portability, battery power and ease of use/EQ tinkering without being too far away on the sound output, but the M1 Pro still having a noticeable edge on out and out sound quality.
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    Overall conclusion
    If ever there was an example of not judging a book by its cover, the Soundaware M1 Pro could write said book, the cover and the sleeve notes on it. Boxy and uninspiring industrial design and basic UI may give the initial impression of a low end player, but as soon as you plug in a decent set of cans and fire it up, the music that comes out of it is quite simply beautiful. This DAP reminds me of an old American muscle car in the modern era of Bugatti Veyrons and McLaren F1s – all angles, solid metal and simple clean power compared to the sleek lines and slick finish of the modern roadsters. There is something satisfying about the sound it produces that makes this a very enjoyable listen, and allows you to become absorbed in the music and the detail, without falling too far into analytica in the process. I have given it a four star rating overall – purely for sound, I would give this a 5, as in this price bracket I think this is a very impressive experience. If I was judging this on looks and usability (as well as power management), this would only rate a three, as while simple and intuitive, there is just a little too much polishing to be done for a product in this price range for me. As mentioned, I didn’t get the chance to use the pass-through DAC option, so the review and ratings are based without assessing that element of the player, just to be clear. Overall, if you have the money and are concentrating on pure sonics rather than the complete package, the M1 Pro definitely deserves to be considered against the other major names in its price bracket as a serious contender with a great sound.
    1. crabdog
      No EQ? wow..
      crabdog, Sep 26, 2016
    2. Bansaku
      Great review!
      Bansaku, Sep 26, 2016
    3. hqssui
      As always, excellent review. Thanks a lot
      hqssui, Sep 26, 2016