Soundaware M1 Esther

Rating:
3.8/5,
  1. FUYU
    Professional - The Soundaware Esther M1Pro
    Written by FUYU
    Published Sep 24, 2016
    3.0/5,
    Pros - Superb SQ; Hardware; Design
    Cons - UI; Price
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    About me:
    My name is Noel aka. FUYU, I'm 19 years old and an avid lover for everything technical.
    While everything subjective, I like to explain in more rational enclosure with graphs and technical prowess. I care about facts and facts only, meaning no fancy 300$ cables and value by price-to performance.

    Preamble:

    Looking down at the vast landscape of Head-Fi and audio technology in general, I have noticed quite a few things over the past two years. Firstly, the crazy products, which sometimes defy common sense and secondly the people who are actually buying them. Now, I get that everyone is inclined on buying whatever they like, but it seems to me that people just don't know what they are using it for.
    Maybe it is out of jealously or just my rational senses kicking in, who knows. Out of pragmatism, I have imposed myself with a "don't spend more than 300€ on a singular product" rule, which to this day still remains. However, this also means that I have never fully owned a truly "High-Fi" product. Now today, I will look at the M1Pro from Soundaware. A 750$ DAP. In this review, I will ask following questions:
    1. What are the main differences between low and high-end DAPs
    2. What do you gain/sacrifies buying such a product
    3. How much difference is there in sound
    4. Would I buy the M1Pro, personally?

    For that reason I will thoroughly compare the M1Pro to the 100$ Xduoo X3. (review here)

    Enter M1Pro

    (This Product was sent to me for evaluation and reviewing purposes. I'm not affiliated with Soundaware in any way. Consider some inherent and subconcious bias in this review.)

    Official Esther Thread:
    http://www.head-fi.org/t/750875/soundaware-m1-pro-portable-player-with-proprietary-fpga-architecture-review-tour-started

    Specs:

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    Build and Accessories:

    Overall, you get the Esther, a USB cable + wall charger, a USB card reader, some stickers and the manual. I also got a 16Gb Samsung mSD card loaded with some sample music, although I'm not sure if the retail version comes with a card. In the review version, the wall charger is missing, although I got an extra coaxial cable as compensation. So keep that in mind. Another thing I found to be obscure was the lack of a case or pouch. While I can forgive this not being included with the Xduoo X3, I just cannot overlook the fact that it is missing here.

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    Build is excellent. The Esther is build out of a brushed aluminum casing from top to bottom. The texture feels quite pleasant without any blemishings or errors in production. With a weight of 175g and measurements of 115x55x15mm, it does feel quite substantial in my hands. The M1Pro tends to generate some heat when being used, although I never found this to annoying or hindering. However I don't recommend jogging or doing sports with the M1Pro. For obvious reasons.

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    I.O. is quite good. Soundaware’s offering has 11 buttons, which are all being distinct from each other, albeit somewhat cramped around the Play/Pause button. They feel slightly mushy while pressing down, though deterioration will not be an issue. The M1Pro features three 3.5mm (1/8’’) inputs adding flexibility for almost anyone. The bottom end features a Micro-USB port and a dual MicroSD slot. The dual SD-card slot is nice to have, though rather standard affair at this point.

    The M1Pro features an IPS screen with decent viewing angles and very good brightness-levels. Colour reproduction is superb, typical of an IPS. The Hardware aspect of the M1Pro is near flawless, as the battery run-time comes just short of around 9 hours, which is slightly above average and much better than a rockboxed Xduoo X3, for instance.

    User Interface:

    Soundaware took the leap and created a firmware (Linux based) from scratch. To me, this is the area where Soundaware has to makes some improvements. The UI is quite sub-par, but does show some potential along the way.

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    I’ll start off looking at the Options menu. While adequate for most, I found the amount of options to be lacking. It does have most fundamental stuff like Language (though only English and Chinese), Screen-brightness and various settings for sound (Gain, Roll-Off, et al.). However compared to the vast interface of Rockbox it comes of as disappointing at best. For instance, adding new tracks are not auto-compiled into the storage, but must be added via. The Scan Music option. Now, the M1Pro has no big fundamental errors, but various small quirks which add up hindering the overall experience. My biggest gripe was with the playing mode of the player. After selecting a track you are launched into the playing mode, which has all information displayed. The Layout does look weird, I might add. Pressing the DOWN button changes the play-mode and pressing UP will display the album-art in it’s full glory. Sadly, this nice looking album-art locks the rest of the options and only displays the Title and Artist.
    Not game-breaking per se, but it slows down the experience. And speaking of slow: Fast-Forward and rewinding is painfully slow. One second per 4.5 seconds of skipping. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to rewind constantly. I like certain parts of tracks for than others. Streamlining and improving responsiveness is my biggest advice to the guys over at Soundaware.

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    Sound-Impressions:

    Now here comes the best part. The Sound. On a technical level, the Soundaware is quite amazing.
    I personally use almost exclusively low-impedance In-Ears, which obviously the player has no issue running to their fullest potential. I have been using the High-Gain option for most of my testing, even with more sensitive gear. Hiss was never an issue, albeit noticeable at start-up or when plugging in some IEMs. What impressed me the most was the capability of driving some seriously big names.
    I plugged in my Fostex T50rp out of curiosity: And the results were nothing short of impressive. It had quite decent head-room remaining and sounded full-bodied. Same with the Sennheiser HD600.
    Both pairings were ideal, because of the more “neutral” signature. While my Xduoo X3 can drive both Headphones to audible levels, it lacks dynamics and sounded quite bad in comparison. Now, I am not running high-impedance headphones from a portable DAP anyway, but if you fancy the options, the Esther might be something to look at. I was more inclined on knowing, how both differentiated when paired with my IEM collection:

    The Soundaware M1Pro is warm sounding with good special capabilities, albeit not overly out of proportions. It reminded me of some older tube-amps I had listened to back in the day. Compared to the lower-priced competitor it does add some extra colouration to the sound, which I don’t really approve of. Extra dynamics were welcomed and overall sound more realistic to the more flat sounding X3.
    But I’m speaking of a difference of a mere percentile. I’d honestly invest into the X3 and a 650$ IEM, rather than a Soundaware M1Pro and a 100$ IEM. The former will prove significantly better sounding.
    I also tested some of the features, like roll-off and jitter, which I experimented with quite a bit. Unfortunatly, I cannot hear much of an audible difference. YMMV or course.

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    Final Thoughts:

    A 750$ DAP. For anyone, but the most audiophile people out there will sound ludicrous. Including myself. There is a reason why I don’t invest more than 300€ for a single product. Because the law of diminishing returns kicks in. And it seems to be even more evident, when looking at the vast landscape of DAPs. I still remember the PONO player and this infamous review. The Soundaware M1Pro is quite similar in that regard, although miles better (and 2x more expensive). For anyone looking at the best bang for your buck is obviously not welcomed here. But for anyone else with a 750$ budget, I can whole heartly recommend the Soundaware M1Pro. A spacious sounding TOTL DAP with almost endless power to boot.
      Brooko likes this.
  2. EagleWings
    A Smooth & Musical Device
    Written by EagleWings
    Published Sep 19, 2016
    3.5/5,
    Pros - Sound Quality, Musical, Soundstage, Very Clean Digital Out
    Cons - UI, and Button Layout
    INTRODUCTION:
    I received the Soundaware M1 Pro as part of the US Review Tour: 
     
    http://www.head-fi.org/t/816896/review-tour-for-soundaware-2016m1-m1pro-femto-dual-clocks-digital-player-with-proprietary-fpga-architecture
     
    Many thanks to Soundaware, for offering this wonderful opportunity to review their product. What follows is my honest review of the product.
     
    HARDWARE:
    The unit had a solid build with excellent finishes. UI interface itself was Ok. The responsiveness of the firmware is not great. It takes one to few seconds on certain actions to react. But the firmware itself was stable and reliable. I did not experience any crashes or hiccups or hang-ups in the matter of 2 weeks. The current theme is not great because of the color. Hopefully that and the responsiveness speed will be rectified in the upcoming FW updates. The volume and power buttons were a bit narrow and it was kind of quirky to use at times. The front buttons were fine and easy to use. But changing the layout of the D-pad to a typical circular d-pad would improve user experience further. In terms of battery, the unit lasted around 8-10 Hrs on a single charge.
     
    POWER AND HISS:
    The 2 IEMs I own, Sennheiser IE80 and Rhapsodio Galaxy have 16 Ohm impedance and are pretty sensitive at 125 dB and 112 dB respectively. The only source that these 2 IEMs don’t hiss is with my Fiio X3ii on Low Gain. On the M1 Pro these 2 IEms had a very feeble hiss, the same level I hear on the Mojo and Fiio X3ii on High Gain. The hiss level did not increase when I switched to Medium or High Gain settings on the M1 Pro. Rhapsodio Galaxy, although a sensitive IEM, loves a lot of power in the form of current to sound good. It sounds 6/10 on my iPhone/Macbook, 7/10 on the Fiio X3ii, 8.5/10 on the Chord Mojo. M1 Pro did not have any trouble driving it and so it sounded very good, so I would give it a 8.5/10.
     
    IEMS AND FILES USED:
    - Rhapsodio Galaxy and IE80
    - 320 kbps MP3 and 16/44 FLACs
     
    SOUND:
    M1 Pro is tuned for listening pleasure and it does exactly that. If you are looking for Reference/Analytical DAP, you may want to look into these 2 models offered by Soundware: M1 Pro Studio or M1 Vitality. Overall M1 pro has a slightly warm and smooth sound. It derives some of its warmth from the soft note articulation. Bass and treble had nice texture and airiness respectively. They are controlled though, to help with the pleasing listening experience. Mids were lush, but slightly laid back and lacks a bit of body than what I would call neutral. Soundstage was wide and the presentation as a whole was a little laid back and airy.
     
    Technical aspects such as imaging, separation, layering, detail retrieval are aspects that I consider it to be strengths of the M1 Pro. But the speed, transparency, resolution are not quite on the same level, which makes sense, as improving those areas would yield a more reference class sound. As a result of all this, M1 Pro is pretty forgiving. Sound quality as whole was excellent.
     
    M1 PRO vs MOJO:
    Both M1 Pro and the Mojo use FPGA technology for digital to analog conversion. But both players sound very different than they are similar. The only similarity being the warm sound, but even there, Mojo derives its warmth from the full bodied forward mids while M1 pro derives its warmth from the soft notes and controlled treble. Mojo has a narrow soundstage with an intimate presentation. M1 Pro has a wider soundstage and slightly laidback presentation. Mojo can portray depth consistently while M1 Pro can match the depth when it is in the track. M1 Pro has darker spaces between instruments. Separation, imaging and detail retrieval were pretty much the same on both the devices. But in terms of other technical aspects like the transparency, layering, resolution, Mojo had the advantage. And one area that Mojo was clearly ahead is the dynamics. Rhapsodio Galaxy can be bright and unforgiving sometimes and pairing it with M1 Pro was much more forgiving than the Mojo.
     
    AS A DIGITAL SOURCE FOR DACs:
    M1 PRO vs FIIO X3ii:
    I had heard claims that M1 Pro has a very clean Digital Section which makes it a very good Digital Source/Transport for DACs and was better than some of its counterparts in that respect. I was curious to find this out myself. So I compared M1 pro and the Fiio X3ii both acting as Digital Source for my Chord Mojo. It is a pretty fair test because both the devices use co-axial to output digital signal. And I heard it. M1 Pro was indeed better than the Fiio X3ii. M1 Pro was slightly cleaner, more open and more transparent than the Fiio X3ii.
     
    WHAT I LOVED ABOUT M1 PRO:
    - Overall Sound Quality
    - Detailed yet smooth sound
    - Soundstage
    - Build Quality
     
    AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT:
    - Wider side buttons and better front button lay out
    - UI (Theme and Responsiveness)
    - Mids could be a bit more forward
     
    RECOMMENDATION AND CONCLUSION:
    If you are in the market for a neutral-warm sounding player in the $750 range, I suggest you look into the M1 Pro. And if you already own a DAC that can take a coaxial input, the you have a double win. The Firmware, is not completely robust. But I heard that the company is working hard to getting it more refined with the future FW updates. If you own any energetic set of IEMs or Headphones and are looking for a source that might help tame the energy a bit, M1 Pro is a very easy recommendation. On the other hand if you have a laidback IEM/Headphone you may want to look into M1 Pro Studio or M1 Vitality versions.
     
      Currawong, Deftone, hqssui and 2 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. EagleWings
      Thanks. I am sure you'll like it if you like a smooth sound.
      EagleWings, Sep 20, 2016
    3. Adu
      Excelent review! I am wondering if M1 PRO have better coaxial output than Fiio X5 first gen.? 
      Adu, Apr 14, 2017
    4. EagleWings
      @Adu, thank you!! I have not owned or tried the Fiio X5. But I doubt it will have a better coaxial than the M1 Pro. Also something else I learnt very recently from a member here, is that there is a 'Pure Coaxial Mode' option in the settings menu of the M1 Pro, that will further improve the purity of the coaxial signal by cutting any current flow through any unnecessary circuits in the device. Too bad I didn't know about this option. It would have been nice to test it.
      EagleWings, Apr 16, 2017
  3. WCDchee
    Musical, yet oh so detailed
    Written by WCDchee
    Published Aug 22, 2016
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Musical, detailed sound
    Cons - UI and design could be improved, device runs hot
    Disclaimer: The M1Pro was provided to me by Linden of Soundaware for the purposes of this review. The following are my honest thoughts on this product.
    My experience with soundaware’s products goes back to when soundaware’s first DAPs, the Esther M1’s were first launched. They had a mid tier pricing, and I was very impressed with how they sounded. Having said that, the UI at that time was still a huge work in progress, and as such, my interest in the player sort of died down.
     
    I met Linden, the chief designer of soundaware, for the first time at Canjam Singapore. He immediately struck me as an extremely passionate, enthusiastic audio designer. Since then, I have been in some contact with him to learn more about his products and his audio philosophy.
     
    There are as of now, 3 versions of the M1 Esther.
     
    M1 Vitality: The Soundaware M1 Vitality was originally aimed at the younger crowd, with a more vivid, energetic, and detailed sound signature. The Vitality aimed to achieve a better sense of separation and soundstaging.
    M1 Analog: The Soundaware M1 Analog was designed, as the name suggests to have a warm, rich, smooth sound with a focus on musicality.
     
    Both of these versions, in my opinion, sounded very very good. The M1 Vitality was a little more to my liking with its more resolving, more transparent, and open sound. The Analog was, as the name suggested, extremely smooth and lush, very musical indeed.
     
    Having spoken to Linden, He expressed a slight dissatisfaction with stopping there. To him, while the Vitality achieved its aim of a more vivid, lively sound, it gave up a little bit of the naturalness he was looking for. With the analog, he felt that the smooth, rich sound could do with a little more resolution and transparency.
     
    Enter the Esther M1 Pro. The soundaware Esther M1 Pro is essentially the M1 Analog, with a couple of component upgrades, as well as a femto clock upgrade. The idea was to achieve the same level of musicality of the analog, but with the resolution and staging capabilities of the vitality edition. And I think he did it. Let’s take a small step back before we begin though.
     
    Build Quality, UI, and overall experience
    The Esther is a very well buit device. It has a milled CNC chassis. The overall design is very very simple. It is also not the prettiest of DAPs, but over the past few months of usage, I have come to appreciate the form factor of the esther. Save for a small handful of DAPs like the lower tier Fiios, the Lotoo Paw 5000, and perhaps the smaller AK players, most DAPs on the market are actually getting pretty big. Coming from an Iphone 5, most of these players were quite a bit larger than the device I was used to carrying.
     
    The UI of the Esther is a little bit of a mixed bag. It started off as being one of the most horrendous, most glitchy UI’s that I have ever seen in a DAP. However, it has gradually improved. Over the countless beta revisions, I am glad to report that the current latest version of the firmware is actually pretty stable, and is a huge, huge improvement from before.
     
    One issue with the Esther, however, is the heat that it generates. If it’s left in the open, it generally dissipates the heat quite well due to the aluminium chassis and the ventilation holes in the chassis. However, due to the Class AB amplifier design, it quickly warms up, getting pretty warm if used in your pocket or if stuffed in a bag. If this is an issue for you, then you might have to look elsewhere.
     
    Sound
    The M1 Pro is a generally warm, smooth, and musical sounding player. It is definitely among the warmer sources that I have heard. To give an idea of the level of warmth and the tonality of the M1 Pro, it is warmer than sources such as the Fiio X5, the Opus #1, and most of the AK players on the market such as the AK380, the AK320, as well as the older AK240 and AK120ii. Yes, it is a warm sounding player. It is however slightly less thick sounding than the Chord Mojo.
     
    Regardless of its signature, however, the M1 Pro is a highly resolving and detailed player. It isn’t the last word in resolution and transparency, but I think it actually lies somewhere up there, near the top of the pile. It isn’t as transparent or resolving as players like the Lotoo Paw Gold or the Questyle QP1R, but apart from that, it’s pretty might right up there. Due to its signature, however, details don’t stand out the way they do on some of the other players. It’s got a very smooth, gentle presentation, but the details are all there. They don’t jump right out at you, but you will find them if you’re looking.
    The M1 Pro has a very interesting presentation of its soundstage. It has a very forward and intimate sound, again, it is among the most forward sounding players that I have heard. A lot of people I know find the Mojo to be very forward and somewhat intimate sounding. The M1 Pro is even more so. Yet, despite its intimate and forward sound, it maintains a great sense of layering and separation. The stage is also uncharacteristically open sounding despite its intimate presentation. I would attribute this to the uncannily well-tuned staging and layering of the M1 Pro. While the vocals and the main instruments are very forward sounding, the instruments that are supposed to be far out are accurately so, and thus, maintaining the sense of space and openness in the stage.
     
    The M1 Pro has very smooth, gentle highs. Being a huge fan of dynamic drivers (which can tend to be a tad more peaky up top), the M1 Pro works very very well to smoothen these peaks. The highs are well extended and sparkly, and very detailed as well. If I had to nitpick, they could sometimes do with a little more sparkle and with a little more excitement. That said, I think the M1 Pro’s highs were deliberately tuned this way for a non-fatiguing, smooth and rich listening experience, and I must say that it works very well for the type of sound that the M1 Pro is going for.
     
    The midrange is very intimate, very rich and syrupy indeed. This might just be the first thing to stand out at you with the M1 Pro. Vocal presentations really come to life with the M1 Pro, and closing your eyes, it almost feels as if the singer is right in front of your eyes. Voices are thick, powerful, and soulful, holding so much emotion and body to them. Yet, it’s not just the voices with sound that way, guitars, violins, everything comes to life with a certain fullness and body to it.
     
    The bass of the M1 Pro is ever so slightly bloomy, full bodied, and has a nice, powerful slam to it. It digs deep and really gives a big bass presence to the sound. If you’re looking for a reference type, tight, quick and controlled bass, the M1 Pro is probably not going to give you that. That said, the M1 Pro’s bass is in no way loose or muddy, it just has a very slight boost and bloom to it that makes it oh-so-musical.
     
    The M1 Pro has it flaws, for sure. It is a coloured sounding player, no two ways about it. Yet, for what it aims to achieve, it does splendidly well. If I had a choice, I would like a tad more air, space, and openness. I would also like a little more excitement and sparkle. But that’s just me, and those are but preferences.
     
    Make no mistake, the M1 Pro is going to impose its character on whatever headphone or earphone you plug into it. You will hear a distinct smoothening out of the sound, you will hear a sudden richness and lushness, and immediate immediacy and intimacy. If a reference signature is what you’re going for, then the M1 Pro is probably not going to float your boat. But if you’re looking for a wonderfully engaging, warm and musical experience without giving up on resolution and transparency, the M1 Pro will not disappoint.
     
    I’ve come to the end of the review, but before I end off, I would just like to drop a little surprise for everyone who has taken the time to come to read this. Remember how I said that there were 3 models? Well, that’s not entirely true. There are actually 4 models, the fourth being the M1 Pro Studio edition. Wait a minute, studio? Yes, that’s right, for those of you looking for that reference sound with an emphasis on resolution and transparency, the Studio might just be what you’re looking for. In fact, it’s what I was looking for over the M1 Pro, a better sense of stage, resolution, transparency and air, more sparkly and exciting, and with a tighter, faster and more controlled sound.
     
    That said, the Studio edition is not currently available to the international market. It is currently only available to dealers who make a large enough special order of it, and to my understanding, China is the only market in the world with a distributor who has made such an order. Whether they have plans to release it in future, I really could not say for sure.
     
    PS: The M1 Pro works fantastic as a digital source for the mojo. Don’t ask me why, but try it out for yourself. It is, by a clear margin, the best I have heard the mojo in a portable setup. Those AK100/AK380 mojo pairings have nothing on it!
      puppyfi, hqssui and maxh22 like this.
    1. kza1
      kza1, Aug 22, 2016
  4. nmatheis
    Soundaware Esther Analog and M1PRO: Beautiful sound held back by quirky firmware
    Written by nmatheis
    Published Jan 24, 2016
    3.5/5,
    Pros - Beautiful warm sound. Small form factor. All-metal build. 2 mSD slots. L, M, H Gain options.
    Cons - Quirky UI. No gapless. Poor battery management. Output impedance.
    *** SEPTEMBER 2016 UPDATE: SOUNDAWARE M1PRO ***

    Thanks to Mary at Soundaware, I recently had the opportunity to audition the Soundaware Esther M1Pro. I thought it would make sense to update my original review of the Esther Analog since there are so many similarities. The user interface is identical to the original, so please refer to the main review below and watch the UI video I uploaded to get a good feel for how the M1Pro works. It's still a very basic user interface that lacks amenities found in DAPs from AK, Cayin, FiiO, iBasso, Shanling, etc. Despite that, it is ultimately quite useable. Maintaining a highly-organized music library is a must, as Esther relies on folder browsing. If you're a tag browser kind of person, please consider yourself forewarned!

     

    When it comes to playing music, I'm still missing gapless. I have a lot of albums that flow seamlessly from one song to the next, and the M1Pro (as with Esther Analog) leaves a noticeable gap. This can be overcome by conjoining songs into one track, but that's not a solution I'm interested in pursuing no matter the sound quality. I'm also still hearing the slight fade out as songs end that I don't get with other DAPs.

     

    Basic sound with my dynamic driver IEM and HE400 planar headphones is great. It's reminiscent of Esther Analog (again, please refer to the original review below) but with wider soundstage, tighter and more impactful bass, more prominent upper mids, and more shimmery highs. Very nice. This is a sound I could just sit an immerse myself in. However, the 10 Ohm output impedance is definitely altering frequency response for the multi-BA IEM I tested. My Campfire Audio Nova had noticeable decrease in bass and corresponding increase in upper mids. This made them sound leaner and more aggressive than with other DAPs I've used. Some might enjoy this, as it can make warmer multi-BA IEM sound more resolving. However, doing this by altering the overall frequency response doesn't allow one to enjoy the tuning the manufacturer intended. For this reason, this is something I hope can be resolved with future soundaware DAPs. In particular, I'm hoping the beautiful new MR2 DAP that's soon to be released will have a lower output impedance. Less than 1 Ohm would be ideal. 

     

    For comparison, I listened to the same tracks with various DAPs and ended up liking PAW Gold > M1 Pro > M1 Analog / Shanling M5 > Cayin N5. M1Pro is indeed one of the better DAPs I've had the pleasure to listen to, and at $6-700 puts the Lotoo PAW Gold to shame in the "bang for your buck" department. However I'd end up choosing Shanling M5 over either M1 for two main reasons. First, I don't want frequency response to be altered for my multi-BA IEM due to high output impedance. Second, I really need gapless to just work. In addition, the user interface on the Shanling M5 is one of the more bulletproof I've used in a Chinese DAP. 

     

    Regarding gain settings, low gain is sufficient for the various IEM I used. I was able to keep volume at high settings in low gain to try and make best use of the DAC as per Soundaware's recommendations. Only with my HE400 did I raise the gain setting up to high gain.

     

    One final point that needs mentioning is battery drain during sleep mode, which is much higher than I've seen with other DAPs. It's always shocking to listen in the evening and then come back the next morning and see 10% or more knocked off the battery percentage.

     

    From my experience with other DAPs, I'd think that a lot of what I find lacking in M1Pro could be resolved with FW updates. However, I'm not sure Soundaware has the bandwidth to fix everything, and there could be hardware limitations I'm not aware of. Ultimately, I'd say that potential buyers (as always) should read over the review, strongly consider whether the M1Pro meets all of your needs, and make an informed decision. If it were based solely on sound, I'd give the M1Pro a very strong recommendation. However, I'm primarily an IEM user and have several pairs of multi-BA IEM I like to use with DAPs, so the 10 Ohm output impedance would be a major factor in my personal decision making process as would the lack of gapless support.  


     


     

     

    INTRODUCTION

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again here. I've been very lucky to hear many great-sounding DAPs this year. This product category continues to explode at an increasing rate. Everyone's coming out of the woodwork to carve out their own space in the DAP market, and they want to get their product out quickly. Sometimes I fear they push out their product a bit too quickly. Today, I'm here to tell you about such a product, the Soundaware M2 Esther Analog. Amongst all the reviews I've written, I think this is the one I'm the most conflicted about. On the one hand, I'm in love with the sound. It's absolutely gorgeous. Warm, full, gentle and yet full of detail. I also like the build. It's a nice, small, lightweight all-metal design. On the other hand, there are some engineering choices from both hardware and software standpoints that let the Esther down. High output impedance, lack of gapless support, and very quirky battery management are some of the issues you'll contend with should you choose to use Esther Analog with the current firmware (V1.0.046). So I'll just say right now before I proceed with this review that Esther Analog, like the Aune M2 (LINK to review), is a reserved recommendation at this point in time. If the firmware issues I take issue with are resolved, I'll revisit this review and update my rating accordingly. And I'm very happy to tell you that Soundaware's representative on Head-Fi has been very receptive to my constructive criticism. Okay, enough of the introduction type stuff, let's get on with the show, shall we?
     
    Before we start, here's a bit of information about Soundaware from their website:
     
    SOUNDAWARE Audio Co. Ltd. is a high-tech company founded in 2011, located in the national high- tech development district of Nanjing, which is a famous historical and cultural city in China. 
     
    SOUNDAWARE is specialized in the design of chip, digital audio processing, audio power technology and operating system etc. Based on our strong background and rich experience in the field of high-fidelity audio playback, we have independently developed the FPGA logic, hardware architecture, schema etc. The whole architecture of high-fidelity digital audio playback has achieved the national patent. We are the only company who has the patent in China. Based on our patented high-fidelity digital audio playback technology, we apply the developed playback chips, modules, architecture to our products, which have excellent playback effects and have gained amazed reputation from the market.
     
    SOUNDAWARE is aimed at promoting high-fidelity streaming audio playback, providing advanced high-fidelity digital audio & video playback solutions and high fidelity home & portable products. Besides, customized leading chips, modules, and overall solutions are supplied to cooperated partners. We have built R&D cooperation relationship with internet company and chips manufactures.
     
    LINK to Soundaware's English website.
    LINK to Esther User Manual.
    LINK to "best practices" for squeezing the best sound out of Esther.
    LINK to the Soundaware Esther thread.
     
     
    DISCLAIMER

    I was provided the Esther Analog as a review loaner. There is no financial incentive from Soundaware for writing this review. I am in no way affiliated with Soundaware, and this is my honest opinion of the Esther Analog. I would like to thank Mary at Soundaware for providing a review loaner and also for her patience, as I've taken far longer with this review than I originally intended. Thanks for your understanding, Mary!
     
     
    ABOUT ME

    I'm a 43 year old father who loves music.  From electronic (Autechre, Boards of Canada) to modern/minimalist composition (John Cage, Philip Glass) to alternative rock (Flaming Lips, Radiohead) to jazz (John Coltrane and Miles Davis) to metal (Behemoth, King Diamond) to classic rock (Eagles, Rush), I listen to a wide variety of genres and artists. 
     
    My portable music journey started with the venerable Sony Cassette Walkman and then progressed to portable CD players, minidisc recorders (still have my Sharp DR7), and finally on to DAPs like the Rio Karma, iRiver IHP-1xx, iPod 5.5, iPhones, and the newer crop of DAPs from Fiio and iBasso. 
     
    I typically listen with IEMs from my ever-growing collection from budget to mid-fi. Less often, I grab a pair of full-size cans. While I've had the Soundaware Esther Analog, I've been lucky to also have some other great gear to test out. In addition to my HiFiMan HE400, I also got to try out the HiFiMan Edition X. For IEM, I've been testing out FLC8S (LINK to review) and the Empire Ears lineup. And of course, I've used my trusty VE Zen 2.0 earbuds (LINK to review). I do have a lot of other gear, though. You can always check my profile for a reasonably up to date gear list. 
     
    As with a lot of people my age, I've got some hearing issues. I've got mild tinnitus and suffer from allergies, which often affect hearing in my right ear. I'll admit it, I'm not blessed with a pair of golden ears. That said, I've been listening to portable gear for a long time and feel confident in assessing audio gear. I just wanted to be transparent up front. 
     
     
    SPECIFICATIONS 

    Specs.png

    PRICE: $557.49 shipped on Amazon (LINK)
     
     
    PACKAGING & ACCESSORIES

    As usual, I'll go over the packaging and accessories in pictorial fashion below
     
    Classy box
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-1.jpg
     
    Model Information
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-2.jpg

    As can be seen here, Esther comes in two versions: Analog and Vitality. Analog has a warm, full, smooth sound. Vitality is the more modern / conventional sound. Color choices are grey or white (Glacier).
     
    Opening the box
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-3.jpg

    The first thing you see when you open the box is the Warranty Card and an actual physical User Manual.
     
    Esther revealed
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-4.jpg

     
    Esther plus accessories
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-5.jpg

    In all, you get Esther, a USB cable + wall charger, and card reader. I also got a 16Gb Samsung mSD card loaded with some sample music, although I'm not sure if the retail version comes with a card. No big deal though, since we DAP fanatics have plenty of mSD cards around. Conspicuously missing is a case of any sort. As you'll see later, Esther is vented for cooling and I think this might be part of the reason there's no case. At least including a carry pouch would've nice. I've been using the FiiO HS7 semi-hard case to store Esther in during my evaluation period. I'd recommend something similar should you choose to purchase an Esther for yourself. Also conspicuously missing is a coaxial cable, which would be nice because Esther uses a different tip configuration than my other DAPs.
     
     
    BUILD & ERGONOMICS

    As usual, I'll go over the build and ergonomics in pictorial fashion below, pointing out what I like and what I think could be improved. 
     
    FRONT
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-6.jpg

    This is where most of the action is. Over on the left are the Return button at the top and the Menu button on the bottom. On the right are transport and menu navigation controls. At the top is the color screen. Like the FiiO X5 and X7, the screen isn't flush with the surface. I'd like to see this changed in future iterations, making it sleeker and less prone to accidental damage. Unless there's some practical reason I'm not aware of, I'd also recommend the front of the player be smooth instead of having a "terraced" finish on the left side by the Return and Menu buttons.
     
    The case is metal with good fit and finish. Buttons are placed perfectly, leaving absolutely no gaps. This adds to the feeling of quality. I like the button-driven operation but would recommend the transport control buttons were a bit more spread out. During blind operation, I did find myself pressing the wrong buttons occasionally as my fingers easily slid over the whole array.
     
    REAR
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-7.jpg

    The usual info is on the back. The "sinogram" near the bottom indicates that this is the Analog version. I like the chamfered edges, which make Esther very comfortable in your hand. 
     
    BOTTOM & TOP EDGES
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-13.jpg

    Top: From left to right, we see the Headphone Out, Line Out, and Coaxial Out. I'm no Coaxial Out expert, but I sure wish Soundaware included a coaxial cable with the appropriate configuration because this doesn't work with any of the coaxial cables that come with my other DAPs. Inconvenient!
     
    Bottom: Micro USB data + charging port on the left and 2 x mSD slots on the right with cover. While I really like this stacked mSD implementation because it saves space, it could use a better guidance system. The mSD cards can go in at an off-angle instead of just going in straight on. It's not that big of a deal, as all you do is have to reposition the mSD card. I just haven't run into this issue with other DAPs. The mSD slot cover is a bit floppy and comes out of place easier than I'd like. I prefer a bit more rigid cover like those on the FiiO X5 and Cayin N5. That said, the cover does its job. Not a major complaint. Just a couple minor nitpicks.
     
    RIGHT & LEFT EDGES
    SoundawareEstherAnalog-14.jpg

    Left: From top to bottom, there's the lock switch and some vent holes. Speaking of Lock Mode, it locks out all of the front buttons, leaving just the power / screen button and volume rocker active. So you can adjust he volume and get a quick peek at what's currently playing when in Lock Mode.
     
    Right: From top to bottom, there's the power / screen button, volume rocker, vent holes, and hard reset pinhole.
     
    Okay, your tour of Esther is compete. You've seen it all...
     
    What did I like? Well, the button layout is pretty good. The side buttons are where your thumb and index or middle finger will naturally rest. A quick shift over, and the buttons on the front face are easily accessible by your thumb. The volume rocker and power / screen button have a good solid click to them, meaning you're not likely to make accidental button presses. The fit and finish are nice as is the size, which reminds me of my iPhone 4s with an Otterbox case. Two mSD are much appreciated, as are dedicated HO, LO, and CO jacks.
     
    What could be improved? The front buttons are oddly shaped, a bit close together, and a bit mushy. You'll want to make good use out of the hold switch to ensure you're not skipping tracks accidentally when Esther is in your pocket or a bag. When you do have it locked, there's no way to skip tracks. You can only adjust the volume, activate / deactivate the screen, and power down Esther. It would be much appreciated if a long press on volume up / down allowed you to skip tracks like on some of the other DAPs I've tested. The printed text is very low contrast, so you'll have a hard time reading it in poor lighting or at off angles. I'm a big fan of high-contrast text and would suggest a change here. Luckily, you'll memorize the button layout pretty quickly, so you don't really need to look at the text very often anyway. And finally, some internal guides to ensure you don't insert mSD cards at an off angle would be appreciated.
     
     
    UNBOXING VIDEO
    [​IMG]

    That's probably the first unboxing video I shot, so please excuse the very rough production values.

     
     
    GUI / FIRMWARE

    Esther is Soundaware's first DAP. Instead of going the Ingenic route as Cayin, FiiO, and Shanling went, Soundaware decided to create their firmware from scratch. While this means they could tailor the firmware completely to suit their needs, it also means they had quite a challenge ahead of them. As pointed out in the introduction, this is the area where Soundaware needs to spend the most time improving Esther. I'll go over the various menus and point out some inconsistencies and odd choices as I go. Before moving forward, I will point out that Soundaware has been receptive to suggestions for improvement and has already started to incorporate some of these suggestions into their firmware. They've still got a ways to go, but at least they're started the journey!
     
    MAIN MENU: SETTINGS
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-Settings.jpg

    Esther's Main Menu is laid out horizontally, so you simply click the Back / Forward buttons to navigate through the various sub-menus. When you get to the one you want to dive into, you press the Play / Pause button to dive in. When you want to jump back up a level, you use the Return button. If you want to go back to the Main Menu, push the Menu button. Once you're in a list, you use the Up / Down buttons to move up / down one menu item at a time. The Back / Forward buttons act like Page Up / Down buttons in a list. This allows you to move up or down through lists with fewer button presses but does feel like a band-aid solution. Accelerated scrolling through lists by holding down the Up / Down buttons would be much appreciated. Once you're back to the Main Menu, one more press of the Menu button will take you to the Now Playing screen. Okay, I think we've covered navigation basics. It's all pretty easy to learn but could be further optimized to make the navigation process simpler.
     
    Getting back to the Settings Menu, you'll see a lot of familiar choices there. You'll also see some unfamiliar choices. For instance, PowerOff Options seems to be an area of confusion. I'll go over the PowerOff Options you'll want to use in the Battery section below. But for now, let's just say this isn't very straightforward and definitely needs to be optimized. Then there's Turntable Mode, which is actually a dedicated Digital Out mode that shuts down the analog circuitry to ensure the highest quality signal out of Coaxial Out. This is one of the areas I've been trying to help Soundaware, and we should see changes to more straightforward terminology in future firmware releases. 
     
    You'll notice in the two images on the right that the screen gets split between a sub-menu sidebar on the left and either icons or text on the right. This trend continues across all of Esther's menus and is a contentious choice in my opinion. I don't find that the icons add value, and the space would have been better utilized by making the list take over the entire width of the screen. This is especially true once we visit the Music Library menus, where the limited characters can get pretty annoying.
     
    At the top of the screen is the Topbar, which could be better utilized. Right now, you can't see any information about Play Mode, Volume, or Gain Setting in the Topbar. These should all fit, and I've made this suggestion to Soundaware. I'm hoping they strongly consider retooling the Topbar to provide more useful information at a glance for Esther owners.
     
    MAIN MENU: UPGRADE + ABOUT
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-UpgradeAbout.jpg

    These are pretty self-explanatory.
     
    MAIN MENU: PLAYING
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-8.jpg

    Again, pretty self-explanatory. This takes you to the Now Playing screen.
     
    MAIN MENU: RECENT LIST + FAVORITES
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-RecentsFaves.jpg

    The Recent List keeps a running record of albums / folders played so you can jump back to them quickly if you want to. I thought this was going to be a running record of songs, so seeing it populated with albums / folders surprised me. It's honestly not a feature I've used, so I'm agnostic about this. 
     
    Favorites is like an on-the-go playlist similar to what other DAPs give you. To add a song to the Favorites list, you simply press and hold the Menu button when that song is selected in a list or while in the Now Playing screen. A confirmation will pop-up that the song has been added to Favorites, which needs to be dismissed by pressing the Play / Pause button. I figured you'd be able to remove a song from the list by repeating the process, but it's not that easy. To remove a song, you have to navigate to it in the actual Favorites list and press and hold the Menu button. Again, a confirmation will pop-up that the song is now removed from the list. 
     
    IMPORTANT: There's no .m3u support, so this is all you get. If anything beyond this very basic playlist support is critical for you, Esther isn't your DAP.
     
    MAIN MENU: STORAGE
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-13.jpg

    This is where I spend most of my time because Esther has very rudimentary Tag-based browsing options.
     
    Storage Sub-Menus
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-Folders.jpg

    At the top level, Esther offers you a choice between SD0 and SD1. You can tell some pretty nerdy engineers programmed the GUI, because normal humans would've called these something site SD1 and SD2 or TF1 and TF2. Anyways, after you get done geeking out over that, you can see I've got the Artist as the next level. After that, I've got Albums arranged in order of the Year of release. Then I've got songs with a leading zero. This is a testing card, so it's not as hierarchical as my main cards, which would have another level of organization at the top-level (A-C, D-F, etc. folders). As mentioned earlier, navigating these is pretty straightforward. You navigate up / down using the Up / Down buttons, Page Up / Down using the Back / Forward buttons, and select using the Play / Pause buttons. Adding in a layer with A-C, D-F, etc. reduces the amount of Page Up / Down button presses you need to perform. In fact, individual letters (A, B, C, etc.) at the top level might be even better. That's up to you. Of course, accelerated scrolling would make the need for such meticulous organization less critical. Not sure if this ca be implemented, though.
     
    MAIN MENU: MUSIC LIBRARY
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-Library1.jpg

    I mentioned above that support for tag-based browsing is rudimentary. I'll go over that below. These options are mainly for those times you want to shuffle everything by one artist or all the music on the card.
     
    Music Library Sub-Menus 
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-Library2.jpg

    Album: This gives you an alphabetical list of all the albums you've got scanned into Esther's database. I can't ever envision using this.
     
    Genre: This has never worked for me with any of the three firmware releases I've tried. (And yes, my files do have Genre tags.)
     
    Artist: This is on the bottom row in the picture above. It gives you an alphabetical listing of all the Artists scanned into Esther's database. Then for each artist, you get a list of all the songs ordered by album. I tried to show that in the picture last two pictures on the bottom row, where you can see the first seven songs listed belong to the Insen album and then songs from the UTP album are listed next. Since Esther's database recognizes these tags, I suggested that they look into adding an Album layer here for more advanced tag-based browsing. You could always keep a "Play All" option at the top-level of each Artist listing to play an Artist-specific playlist.
     
    All Music: Pretty self-explanatory. And again, this is organized by album.
     
    So as I mentioned a couple times above, this is tag-based browsing is rudimentary right now. I want to make that clear. It doesn't bother me in the slightest because I rely primarily on folder-based browsing. I only use tag-based browsing to shuffle all songs when burning in new gear, so Esther's level of sophistication is just fine with me.
     
    MAIN MENU: NOW PLAYING SCREEN
    SoundawareEstherAnalogGUI-Playing.jpg

    Whew, we've finally made it to the Now Playing screen! Esther provides you with two options. On the left, you can see the more detailed Now Playing screen with and without album art. On the right, you can see the Simplified Now Playing screen, which fills the display with album art if you've got it. You toggle between these two screens by pressing the Up button. Pressing the Down button toggles between Play Modes - but only on the Detailed Now Playing screen.
     
    Detailed: I like it that there's a lot of information here, but the way that information is laid out makes poor use of screen real estate. For example, you can see the Transport Control icon (Play, Pause, Stop, FFWD, REW) at upper left in both the Topbar and in the screen itself. There's no good reason I can see for this redundancy. You can also see the Play Mode icon in the upper right of the screen but not in the Topbar. This is an odd choice that has implications in the Simplified Now Playing screen. In between these two icons on the screen, the Artist and Song information alternates. Right underneath that in the "vinyl" circle, you can see the Folder name. Then along the bottom, you can see a the bit-depth, resolution, file type, queue, time elapsed, and total time for the current song. If this were my GUI, I'd immediately get rid of the "vinyl" circle, remove the Transport Control icon, move the Play Mode icon to the Topbar, and split out the Artist, Album, and Song information int other separate lines that use the full width of the screen to maximize the amount of information you can see at a glance. I'd also add in Gain and Volume information to the Topbar. There's plenty of room and it's useful information, so why not.
     
    Simplified: Here you get a nice big view of any Album Art you've associated with your music files. Otherwise, you get a pretty empty screen. The really weird thing is that you can't change Play Modes while in this screen. Why, oh why would this be disabled? Sure, the icon isn't there, but the option shouldn't be disabled. This solidifies my thought that the Play Mode icon should be moved to the Topbar, and the ability to toggle between Play Mode options should be available in both display modes. This just makes sense. I'd also move the alternating song info text along the bottom to a semi-opaque strip near the top of the screen just under the Topbar. This would provide more width for the Artist, Album, and Song information. Finally, I'd drop in the bottom progress bar and file info from the Detailed Now Playing screen. 
     
    If all of those suggestions were in place, you'd now have a nice detailed look at all of the song information with or without Album Art. Without Album Art, you could use the screen real estate to spread out al the information and make the text a bit larger. This would make Esther a great choice for people with compromised vision. With Album Art, you'd get all the same information but the Artist, Album, and Song info would alternate scrolling just under the Topbar. It could also be just above the bottom progress bar area, but I like near the top better. Just my two cents. You'd also be able to toggle Play Modes with either display. Personally, I think that these changes would make Esther's GUI much better, and I've proposed them in the Esther thread. Seems like others like these suggestions, and I'm hoping that Soundaware will start to implement some of these changes soon. If they do, I would revisit this review and increase the rating.
     
    GUI VIDEO
    [​IMG]

    That's a video I shot awhile back. There has been a firmware update or two since then, but the basic functionality is the same.
     
    TO SUM UP
    Esther's GUI is pretty rudimentary, so be prepared for that going in. You're going to wind up using Folder Browsing, so make sure your music library is well-organized. Luckily, Soundaware knows this aspect of Esther needs improvement and is actively working to make it better. I'm hoping to revisit this review and increase the rating in the near future as the firmware matures.
     
     
    BATTERY LIFE & RELATED

    Battery life is okay. If you charge it and listen straight through with minimal fiddling around, you're going get about 8 hours of playback time. Here's the rub, Esther's battery management is unique and not in the good sense of the word. I know it's been a long time, but way up above I mentioned the PowerOff options. Okay, it's time to revisit that topic. So, can either set Esther to Power Off or Sleep. If it's Power Off, then no battery is consumed during your time away from listening to music but (and this is a big but) if it completely powers down you have to connect via USB to turn it back on. For you iPhone hackers out there, this is kind of like a tethered jailbreak. And booting back up from a completely powered down state is slow compared to the other DAPs I've used. Now if you set Esther to use the Sleep option, it shuts down and resumes quickly but uses power while it's sleeping. So you sleep Esther, come back awhile later, and see the battery indicator drop say from 75% to 65% as Esther takes stock of how much of a battery hit sleep was this time. Obviously none of this is optimal, and Soundaware knows that because users have given them feedback. Recent posts in the Esther thread indicate that Soundaware is currently working on improved battery management, and I hope they tackle this sooner rather than later.
     
    Optimal PowerOff Options
    1. Auto PowerOff = Never
    2. Smart PowerOff = 10, 20, or 30 minutes
    3. Power Key Setting = Long Press Sleep
     
    Even after setting these options, you'll need to make sure the battery doesn't get fully depleted. If it does, you'll need to plug into USB in order to reboot. My advice is to make sure you charge daily when you're actively using Esther. If you're not going to be using Esther for several days, do a complete shut down and remember that you'll need to plug into USB the next time you power on.
     
     
    USB DAC

    USB DAC? What USB DAC? Move right along, good sir!
     
     
    SOUND

    During my time with Esther, I've had the chance to play around with a lot of gear including the Empire Ears IEM lineupFLC 8S tunable triple hybrid IEMHiFiMan Edition X planar headphones, and VE Zen 2.0 earbuds. As usual, I listened mainly to classic rock, electronic, metal, and modern composition in AAC and FLAC formats. I also had the Chord Mojo and Soundaware M1 Esther Analog in for testing at the same time, so I put in some time switching off between these three sources and have some thoughts on what the strengths of each are. 
     
    Esther Analog has a very warm, full, lush sound with an enveloping but not overly large soundstage. Along with the Chord Mojo, Esther Analog turned out to be one of my favorite sounding portable sources in 2015. They both have a very natural sound that can make other sources sound exaggerated by comparison. But they do differ in the degree of warmth and fullness, with Mojo just tilting to the warm, full side and Esther Analog fully entrenched in the warm, full zone. I honestly haven't heard a DAP that sounds like this before and am entranced with most of the pairings I've used. 
     
    It hasn't been all roses, however. Esther Analog does have 10 Ohm Output Impedance, so pairing it with sensitive, low impedance multi-BA IEM can be a bit of a crap shoot. For instance, when pairing it with the Empire Ears lineup, Esther sounded very good with most of the IEM. However, when I reached the 8, 10, and 14 BA IEM, I started losing a lot of upper end detail. Cymbal crashes were buried, percussion lost crispness, etc. Luckily, these were the only cases I found where I had poor synergy, and I can't say for certain it's due to the 10 Ohm output impedance but that suspicion will always be there. Lowering the output impedance would help alleviate these concerns and is a recommendation for future DAPs from Soundaware. 
     
    With the lower BA count IEM, my hybrid IEM, my dynamic drivers, and my planars, I found Esther paired up very nicely. Probably my favorite pairing was with HiFiMan HE400. I don't own a tube amp, but after listening to this lush, warm DAP paired with HE400 I can certainly see why pairing them up with a warm tube amp is highly recommended. Esther brought out the mids and took the edge off the upper end peakiness, making my HE400 sing. So if you're looking for a good sound signature to pair with brighter cans, Esther might have just the sound you're  looking for. If you're using dark, warm cans to begin with, I'd look for a brighter DAP. 
     
    Here's a brief comparison with Aune M2 and Chord Mojo, two newer entries in the market I've listened to recently:
    1. Warmth: Esther Analog >> Mojo > M2
    2. Fullness: Esther Analog >> Mojo > M2
    3. Dynamics: M2 > Mojo ≃ Esther Analog
    4. Soundstage: M2 > Mojo ≃ Esther Analog
    5. 3D: Mojo ≃ Esther Analog > M2
    6. Bass: M2 > Mojo ≃ Esther Analog
    7. Mids: Esther Analog > Mojo > M2
    8. Treble: M2 > Mojo ≃ Esther Analog
     
     
    MISCELLANEOUS PLAYBACK-RELATED STUFF
    GAIN SETTINGS: Like my iBasso DX90, Esther has L, M, & H Gain settings. I really like this in a DAP, as it allow you to crank up the volume with whatever gear you're using and make best use of the DAC. For IEM, I'm able to push the volume up past 50% on Low Gain. with Zen 2.0 and HE400, I use Medium Gain at 70-100%.
     
    GAPLESS: Nope, no gapless. I tried different file types and all had a very noticeable gap between songs that should be seamless. I then tried CUE + FLAC. That didn't work, either. I listen to a fair amount of albums which have seamless transitions between songs, so this is pretty important to me. If Esther had positional breakpoint memory, I could overcome this by just ripping seamless albums as a single file. However, Esther resumes to the beginning of the last song you were playing, so I'd find myself being thrown back to the beginning of an album if I ripped to one file. Frustrating!
     
    FFWD/REW: Both of these operations are slow as molasses and lack any appreciable acceleration as you continue to hold dow the FFWD/REW button. Please fix!
     
    FADE (0.5 SECOND MUTE): Esther has an option called Fade, which is the absolute most confusing feature on Esther. From what I've gathered from chatting with Soundaware, the intent is to introduce a 0.5 second mute at the beginning of songs to help avoid crackles, pops, etc. when switching between songs with different resolution. The Chord Mojo has a similar feature. However, what I find is that with Fade ON, I don't get the 0.5 second mute - most of the time. Sometimes the 0.5 second mute does happen even though the songs have the same resolution. This was frustrating, so I switched to Fade OFF figuring this would solve the problem, Nope, now I get a 0.5 second mute at the beginning of each and every song. To give you an idea of what this does, try playing Rush's classic song Tom Sawyer. It's got an awesome drum hit that starts off the song. With Fade OFF, that drum hit is completely gone. I understand the rationale behind this feature, but I think it needs some attention to function properly. For now, just leave Esther set to Fade ON and hope for the best.
     
     
    Glamour Shot: Esther Analog + FLC8S
    FLC8S-12.jpg

     
     
    SUMMARY
    I started off this review stating that this is the most conflicted review I've written. I'm absolutely in love with Esther Analog's sound and praise it highly for that. Without a doubt, it's warm, full sound pushes all the right buttons for me. I also really like the overall form factor. The size is just right. Button placement is good. Two mSD sots are highly appreciated. There's a lot to like. However, the immature firmware needs improvement. Poorly thought out GUI, lack of gapless playback, limited tag support, poor battery management, and the oddly-implemented Fade feature make Esther a reserved recommendation. So, here I am wanting so very much to give Esther a 4.5 rating but can't bring myself to do it because of the firmware. I know that Soundaware is actively working to implement some of the improvements I've suggested throughout this review, and I'll revisit this review and revise my rating if / when improvements are made.
     
    One other thing to note is that I recognize that there are different types of DAP users. There are those who seek out the best possible sound, and damn the UI. They're able to forgive a hell of a lot of quirks. For those people, feel free to tack on an extra star because as long as you're looking for a beautiful full, warm sound I think you're going to love Esther Analog. Conversely, there are those DAP users who are looking for A&K or iPod level UI. For you guys, you might want to subtract a star because this is a boutique DAP and will never meet your expectations. I tried to write this review with more of a middle ground mindset and hope my rating reflects this.
     
    Keep an eye out for future Soundaware products. I've got the feeling their sophomore DAP is really going to be one to watch for!
     
    Thanks for taking the time to read this. Feel free to shoot me a PM if you've got any questions. 
     
    And finally, a big thanks to @soundaware for loaning me the Esther Analog to review, for patience as I've taken the time to really evaluate this DAP, and for openness as I've provided suggestions for improvement. I greatly appreciate this attitude and have enjoyed the experience immensely!
      Brooko, peter123, ozkan and 4 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Sonic Defender
      Sounds like a great DAP. Those fans of the ZX2 warm tonality might gravitate to the Esther.
      Sonic Defender, Jan 24, 2016
    3. howdy
      Great review, Extremely detailed.
      howdy, Jan 25, 2016
    4. ozkan
      Excellent review mate! :thumbsup::thumbsup:
      ozkan, Jan 25, 2016
  5. mrinspire
    The half star that I am substracted from full star, is for firmware improvement, the sound quality is top notch!
    Written by mrinspire
    Published Dec 12, 2015
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Analog sounding, comfortable sound to ears, powerful, user interface very nice
    Cons - The micro sd card slot need refinement. firmware need some polish
    P6870125_DxO-001.jpg The high performance portable digital audio player (DAP)’s market was crowded like never before. While some manufacturer started to bring insanely expensive DAP to the market, such as the Astell & Kern and Carlyx, me myself as a reviewer and audio enthusiast (audiophile) is really against the expensive DAPs, yeah I know Hi-Fi was and never will be cheap, but when a manufacturer charged more than USD1000 for a fancy DAP, it is nothing but crazy for me. However, I am not totally against the idea of DAP, my first serious audio gadget is a Creative Muvoo Mp3 Player (DAP) which only has 256mb internal memory, played only MP3 files format, with a black and white small screen and not as powerful, fancy like the DAPs currently on the market, I can’t deny the fact that listening to a DAP will let you move freely way more than a dedicated desktop system, not only that, you can listen to music literally every places, let it be when you are commuting, in the bus or in a library, with high performance DAP and some good IEM/headphone, you can carry lots of high quality music in your pocket. Personally I don’t listen to music when I am outside from my desktop, when I am outside I want to communicate with others and preserve hearing, not just inserting the headphones into my ears and isolated the world. Listening to music is a very serious matter for me.
    So when do I listen to DAPs? It is only when I am travelling and when I want to have some music before I am going to bed, keeping things simple is essential. I also forbid the idea that using portable headphone amplifier with portable setup, because to me, DAP should powerful enough and good enough to provide good sound on the go, especially when manufacturer already charged so much for their DAP, why still bother to add a heavy headphone amplifier to burden the portable setup, which in my opinion is totally against the idea of ‘portability’. To me, good DAPs should at least have reasonable good sound, simple user interface, good battery life and reasonable price, the DAP that I am going to write up a review today, scored excellently for all of these criteria.
    Soundaware Esther M1 Analog Edition (540USD)
    Normally I will not attracted by the latest DAPs in the market, but when I knew Soundaware is making one, I directly contacted their person in charge about this, in case you have missed it, I have reviewed their digital music transport, the D100 Pro before and like them very much. People outside of China might yet to notice Soundaware but inside of the China, Soundaware is very famous as a reputable Hi-Fi manufacturer, their product and their company philosophy are up to the best audio company in even the global market, they have consistently update their products’ features and sound quality through firmware updates, their products, those that I have encountered, never disappointed me from user perspective and the most important part, sound quality. They have some very respectable equipment and their Engineers, are all very experienced audiophiles too. They don’t just tuned by ears though, they have some of the very good measurement too if you are worrying about this.
    The Esther M1 Analog Edition (will be calling it as Esther at this review) is Soundaware first DAP in their line up, it is a high performance DAP that supports DSD files format and the 32 (Integer only) and 24 bits high resolution files format. As far as I know, DSD is the trend now in the audio market, every DAC/DAP not supporting DSD are not selling good as far as I concern. Personally, I do personally ‘collected’ some high resolution files of DSD and 24 bit (44.1, 88.1, 96 and 192kHz) music files, however most of my music files are in 16bit 44.1kHz format or I just simply played through Tidal Music Streaming services, to me recording and mixing are far more important than the bit rate. I won’t be doing a shootout nor blind test on the music files format, because for me 16 bit sounded good enough and not limiting me to enjoy my music at all, however the high resolution music to my ears do offers more on transparency, details and decays. How can I call this is a complete review without playing some high resolution music on the Esther?
    Esther didn’t excited me at first from the outlook of it, from the pictures I saw, it is very, erm, please forgive me to say this, low class and not well designed. However, luckily, I love how it looks when I am holding the real thing. The ergonomic is very well design, you can blindly operated the Esther, the control buttons are all very well positioned and logic, in contrast, I scratched my head every time when I am using the Fiio X3 (Fiio should fire the designer in my opinion), the screen is good too, can’t compare to our regular smartphone but it is good enough, screen contrast is good and vivid, I would wish the screen is bigger so that it will be able to display more information, but it is not a problem, normally I will just play an album, rarely touch the DAP after pressing the ‘Play’ key. Better is you can easily hold the Esther in hand, the ergonomic is really good. No, there is no touch screen but I don’t have a problem with that. As long as the user interface, sound quality and ergonomics are well taken care of.
    Build quality is Soundaware’s tradition, it is very solid and well built like a tank. The body will receive scratch if you abuse it, but everything is very well design, the screen is weirdly extrusive from the flat body though, which I am worrying will receive scratches easily if you are rude (It is well noted that currently there is no screen protector and casing for Esther yet, although Soundaware claimed they are making one now). Esther will be running little hot when playing music, so it is not advisable for you to put it inside your pocket when you are using it, charging the battery will exhibit a lot of heat too. Rest assured though, Soundaware has a lot of internal protection system to prevent it from over heat, it is important not to cover up the heat diffuser hole besides the DAP while in use too.
    Soundaware is very kind to provide two micro SD (TF) cards slot which is very convenience and personally think that all manufacturers should do this. The best, Soundaware has included one Samsung Evo 16GB micro SD card inside the package. However, I will need to mention that the card slot of Esther is not very well design, first, if you are not careful enough when you inserting the card, the card might mis-alligned and stuck in the Esther. And it is even worse when Soundaware didn’t mark clearly how should you insert the micro sd card (Direction), I am a little frustrated when I first inserting the micro SD card but now it is a very easy task for me. Oh yeah, a very useful and fast micro SD card reader is provided too, along with a very well built and famous Pisen 2.0A charger/micro USB cable are provided too.
    User Interface (Running version)
    The user interface is very simple, you don’t really have to read the instruction manual to operate it, the interface is straight forward and the button is indeed very convenience and easy to blind operate. The user interface is not perfect yet, first of all the screen is not showing that much information as I like, the track name etc cannot fully displayed, it is not because of the screen is small but it is because there are simply too many empty space that Soundaware is not properly utilize, a simple ‘so what’ can’t fully show on the screen, this is not a complicated problem though and can be easily fixed through firmware upgrade, which I believe Soundaware is working hard for it now (They are listening to the feedback of their customers). The theme while is good and classy, but I will prefer if Soundaware is able to provide few more option of themes. In my opinion, below is what I think Soundaware can still improve on:
    -          Adding more themes
    -          Utilize the empty space of the screen to display more information
    -          When you plug in the line out jack, the volume should automatically raise to 90 percent volume and automatically lowering the volume down to maybe 20 percent when you plug it out
    -          Volume should be displayed on top of the screen, the battery indicator is good wnough with the percentage (No need the bar type battery indicator anymore), it is quite confusing, sometimes I thought it was volume percentage
    -          The low and medium gain is practically useless, with IEM I need to turn the volume to 40 percent out of 100 (I think), with Sennheiser HD600 and T90 full size headphone though, the volume is about 60 percent, what is the point of low/medium gain mode?
    -          Charging percentage should be automatically show when you press button when charging mode, there is no way you know the battery percentage of it unless you turn it on while charging it
    -          The speed is not decent but good enough, some lag when I am adjusting the volume
    -          Sometimes it freeze, but for twice only according to my 2 weeks of usage, can be easily solved by pressing the reset button
    The interface in my opinion is good and simple enough, after Soundaware improve them through firmware update and they will bring it beyond good level. To me the excellent button layout and operation logic is the most important thing.
    Battery life is good, it is quoted 8 hours by Soundaware and my test result is very near, which is about 7 hours roughly with 94% of volume (As line out to my speaker system), so that isn’t bad at all.
    Sound Quality
    I have paired Soundaware Esther M1 Analog Version with Sennheiser HD700, Beyerdynamic T90, German Maestro GMP450, German Maestro GMP400, ZMF V1, Thinksound On Ear, Creative Aurvana Live! ,Thinksound Rain 2, Vsonic GR07, First Harmonic IEB6. Also, I used as line out to my simple speaker system too, oBravo AI25 integrated amplifier to my old Bose 205 Bookshelf Speaker.
    Sound quality is what made me love Esther the most, let’s call this love from the first sight.
    The sound characteristic and Soundaware’s tuning is very good and unique, the Esther, like its name, sounded really analog, there is no trace of ‘digital’ that you can smell from Esther no matter what headphone/IEM you feed into Esther. What is ‘Digital sound’ you asked? Digital sound is usually refer to harsh and sound that has no feeling in it, to my ears Apple Ipods and Iphones are very digital sounding, not necessarily a bad thing though for pop/R&B recording, but for Classical, Jazz, Folk, old recording etc digital sound can sounded really bad and inappropriate.
    Sound characteristic of Esther is very roomy and comfortable, I believe many will like how it sounded and no one will actually think it is bad sounding, the music from Esther are very comfortable to ears, no harsh nor forward, it has a good space and sense of air everywhere, not easily get fatigue even with long hours of listening. One can easily think it is relax sounding, I certainly will agree about this but this doesn’t mean that the treble has been washed out, the extension still good and you won’t be getting the ‘closed in’ feeling, it is an open and roomy presentation. The treble is very gentle and never harsh sounding, no, it is not veiled, it is just comfortably exist and present through Esther, do noted that I don’t really like audio equipment that are too dark sounding, for example I really enjoyed how the Sennheiser HD700, HD600 and Beyerdynamic T90 sounded which many found them to be bright. Soundaware really has did a good job on the tuning of the treble, it is a balanced presentation and everyone will like it aside from the treble-addict-fellows, don’t you worry about the detail level, it is highly detailed and you can easily spotted those details in an effortless/unforceful way.
    While the sound is balanced the sound signature is actually tilt a little towards warm sounding, not fatty warm and certainly not muffled warm too, it is slightly warm in a good way, and the sound is certainly quite lush and full but not in a bold way, it is hard to describe but it sounded ANALOG I can say. Midrange is very balanced and open, you can find a lot of details here too. It is flat like the treble and the bass, the bass in my opinion is good but not hard hitting and enough meaty as I would like (Maybe this characteristic is reserved for the Esther Vitality edition), but it is there for you to enjoy.
    Soundstage is open and layering enough, for the price and how small it is, it performed really well here. I actually use it as line out to my Teac HA-501 for a brief test and for sure the Teac performed considerably better (Price and size though) but it loses out some of the analog flavor like the internal amp of Esther, the best part of Esther is how it let you forget all of the technicalities of it and focus on just how great the music is. This is what made Esther outstanding in my opinion. I have listened hours daily without feeling fatigue with Esther line out to my speaker system, it is so enjoyable.
    It is perfect? No it is not. I found Esther lacking in transient response and dynamic, especially when I play the 24bit 44.1kHz The essential album by Michael Jackson, I found that I lost those grip that I usually have with my desktop setup. The speed is not fast too, so if you are not keen in these kind of music, Esther is really built for you. Also, the internal amplifier, while it is powerful enough to power up my full sized open can, but I don’t really like how they sounded, it seems like they are not enough speed and transient for them, to my ears it is not how they should sounded, do keep in mind that I am talking about the 150-300 ohm fellas, to me, it is still the best to stay with IEM and high/medium sensitivity headphones.
    Final Verdict
    I like Esther, I really is, and that is why I can’t stop myself from recommending it to all of you who like analog sound. Youngster might prefer digital sounding device because that is the sound that they used to since they growing up, but for those like us and the audiophiles, analog sounding is what we are like after all. I actually happened to have a Fiio X3 in my hand (My audiophiles buddy lending it to me), while the sound quality is good, it is just too sterile, analytical and cold sounding besides Esther, don’t even mention the sick control layout and miserable operation logic, however do keep in mind that the Fiio X3 is a very old and pass generation products while Esther is the latest in the market, I am sure Fiio has been improve from their first generation product. You shouldn’t missed Esther if you like analog sound.
     
    Where to buy?
    http://www.amazon.com/Soundaware-Esther-Portable-Lossless-Player/dp/B0196BKQHU
     
     
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      hqssui likes this.
    1. hqssui
      Excellent review. Thanks
      hqssui, Aug 8, 2016