HiFiMAN HM-801 - The best portable audio player - mini-review and discussion
Jul 27, 2009 at 7:16 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 71


Headphoneus Supremus
Aug 10, 2003
I had the privilege of listening to this MP3 player for a very long time (probably close to two hours) at the recent NJ meet on the condition that I would post something in the meet thread about it. Frankly, though, I think this player is worth discussion among those who have heard it. I've read a lot of speculation and little actual reviewing, other than by Jude, whose review I will hold off on reading until I spit out my opinion (so I can assure you nothing has influenced my conclusions below).

I've had my iAudio X5L for many years now, and it's been great. I've always prided myself in owning an MP3 player that is blatantly ahead of the vast majority of MP3 players when it comes to sound quality. I remember comparing it to an iPod at one of the NYC meets a couple years ago and there was just literally no comparison. Last summer, when I got my new Klipsch Forte II speakers (really revealing), me and my dad loaded some CD's into our MP3 players and hooked them into my receiver for testing. He has the newer Creative Zen Vision:M. Bottom line, we listened on his, then plugged in mine and we were blown away. His remark was, "they sound like a completely different set of speakers." Bottom line, this is an established MP3 player with really good sound quality for what it is.

The HM-801 is a different beast entirely. It's thicker, much more advanced, has a much nicer screen and finish, humongous battery, USB capability (for the DAC), the ability to actually swap amp modules (each of which is larger than the current iPod nano itself), and most importantly, it doesn't sound like a portable MP3 player, it sounds more like a dedicated solid-state DAC/source.

At first, I compared using my trusty HF-1's with flat pads. These are my favorite headphones and I'm most familiar with them than any other headphone. Unfortunately, the meet was noisy and I couldn't exactly pick out the differences the way I normally would. Fang asked my opinion, and I said that honestly, it wasn't that much better for the price and the difference wasn't that great. He listened and remarked that it was hard to hear with my headphones because it was noisy. I asked him what I was supposed to hear, but he said he wasn't allowed to give me his opinion. I also only had about three of my MP3's loaded onto it, none of which were particularly good. He asked me to do an extended comparison, so I agreed to do so after lunch.

So, I ate lunch and came back and brought out my trusty RE0's, which are a great pair of IEM's when it comes to being ultra-revealing and detailed. Well, I was just floored by how obvious the differences were once I deadened the room noise with the IEM's.

I loaded five of my better-sounding MP3's of random genres into both players using his computer and cued them up, playing at the same time so I could switch between them without skipping a beat. I matched the levels closely for a little while, then zeroed both tracks and listened all the way through them, switching at random intervals. I kept the headphone jacks in a position where I could switch really fast, since your brain only retains 100% audio memory for about 3 seconds, then it starts to deviate.

Balance-wise, the two players are sorta similar but the iAudio's one flaw is that it's just a tiny bit bright. Most good equipment I've heard exposes this in some way. So yes, the sound is similar, but the balance is clearly better on the HiFiMAN. The bass is much, much better. It's deeper, there's more of it, and it's much more precise. The highs are more detailed, but more laid back than the iAudio. I'd say the balance on the HiFiMAN is pretty much as close to neutral or ideal as you can get. Certainly, the bass improvements I get from using my headphone amp with my iAudio are more than built in to the HiFiMAN, probably a result of the better amp module.

So what does the HiFiMAN do to the sound that the iAudio doesn't? The #1 difference between the HiFiMAN and everything else I've heard is that the HiFiMAN just pushes the instruments apart and away from you and gives each of them their own space to exist......literally...this isn't something that sounds obvious, but it's a night and day difference.

The first comparison I made was of a track off The Who's "Quadrophenia," which is one of their later and better-recorded albums, plus it's the remastered version, which really has some excellent fidelity and really good mastering, especially considering the time period (plus John Entwistle re-recorded the bass part on a 5-string, which is awesome). Anyway, I remember listening to Keith Moon's drumming. The toms and snare end up somewhere off to the left channel. On the HiFiMAN, I was just baffled by how each individual drum had a single origin, and a single precise sound that could be so, so easily picked out from the rest of the stuff going on. It sounded like the kind of 3D image I can only get from my speaker setup when I have my 0404 plugged into it. Each drum had its own position and the snap and tone of each drum was just perfect. In fact, it really just felt like I was sitting there listening into each recording room at the same time. The iAudio, on the other hand, just blatantly blurred everything together. The drums were there, but I just had a hard time picking them out... like they were being overprocessed or something. On the whole, the iAudio just sounds grainier and blurrier in terms of the audio image it presents...it's like the iAudio isn't even playing at the same sampling rate or bitrate, there's that much missing from it. All of this from an MP3 player that just blatantly outperforms every MP3 player I've ever compared it to. The problem is that the HiFiMAN is just that much better.

Now on the classical side of things, I remember listening to a track from one of my favorite CD's, "Pomp & Pipes". The difference here between the iAudio and the HiFiMAN was that the HiFiMAN showed you the room and the iAudio didn't. Again, I was just profoundly disturbed by how much musical information was missing when I listened to the iAudio compared to the HiFiMAN. The band was in your face with the iAudio and the decay of the notes were certainly there, but the HiFiMan just literally pushed the instruments apart and away from you. It felt like I was floating where the mics were and listening down onto the stage and hearing the placement of each instrument and how the room and instruments interacted. The room was audible. It's that invisible stop on the best organs in the world, after all.

Those are the two most obvious topics I'd like to cover, but the above are the most important. The HiFiMAN is a true high-fidelity MP3 player, the only one in its class, and people need to start listening to this thing because it's amazing, in my opinion. The only problem is that I can't afford to buy it. It's $600, after all. Still, it offers something that no other portable can.

Features I like:
1) Exchangeable amp modules with varying levels of amplification: This thing can drive the HD580's with authority with the more powerful amp in it. My player couldn't even think of that.
2) USB: Hook it into your computer, boom, it's a DAC. (also has coax in)
3) Analog volume control. I hate having to click my iAudio's stick up and down.

Features I don't like:
1) OK, so this thing is a gigantic brick.
2) The price is really significant.

Really, the last two things boil down to one thing: Do you want a serious audiophile tool or not? If you're serious about portable audio, you owe it to yourself to check this thing out.
Jul 27, 2009 at 7:35 PM Post #2 of 71
Jul 28, 2009 at 12:42 AM Post #4 of 71
Really glad to see a review of this. It seems that the amp module is completed, which causes me to think that the release is drawing near.

I still think it's tough to be objective when you've got the creator of the product hanging over your shoulder, even if there isn't any conscious or intentional pressure being placed. I don't get the impression that the reviewer was overly influenced by such considerations due to his candid skepticism upon first hearing the HiFiMan with the HF-1.

It was noted that the player is very large. I would love to see more pictures that offer perspective on it's relative size. I suspect it's much more ergonomic than most other portable solutions.

I'm curious to hear more about it's DAC component. I would love to hear how it compares with the dacmagic, pico, and other options that are under $500. If it offers a credible alternative to a separate home DAC, the $600 price becomes less of an issue, IMO.

I was worried that the amp module would be the weak point of the player. It sounds as though it's pretty good.

I would love to have a HiFiMan and the JH13 as my portable and home setup. A lot of folks are compulsive with their audio equipment upgrades and need for multiple setups. I'm not one of them. I think I'd be quite happy with a multi-purpose option like this that could be paired with high end customs.
Jul 28, 2009 at 12:52 AM Post #5 of 71
Most interesting.

I didn't enjoy my X5L that much. The sound signature was a too thick, syrupy, and excessively warm for my tastes. I am pleased to know that the HM-801 offers better instrument separation and (I'm extrapolating here) airiness. I felt those were two areas the X5L was also lacking in.
Jul 28, 2009 at 12:57 AM Post #6 of 71
The first of hopefully many reviews.

I'm waiting for someone to try some G1As, PK1s, or something of that sort with this. Seems like the built in amp would be perfect for some high resistance cans (er, caps).

Great review though.
Jul 28, 2009 at 1:16 AM Post #7 of 71
has anyone compared it to the D10+H120 combo? Im interested but if this turns out to be better, im going to have to sell some gear off.
Jul 28, 2009 at 1:47 AM Post #8 of 71
Yeah without an imod+amp or H120+D10 comparison, I still cannot make a decisions with regards to purchasing this. I mean I sure as hell hope it beats the lowly X5L so confirming what is to be expected doesn't really help much, I'm sorry to say.
Jul 28, 2009 at 1:59 AM Post #10 of 71
Thanks for the review!

I've been interested in the HM-801 for a while now. The possibility of a portable player with true high fidelity sound is quite interesting to me. If it lives up to its potential, it could mostly eliminate the need for cumbersome portable setups besides smaller setups with small amps like the Pico Slim or the Shadow. If the DAC section and amp sections are up to par compared to home DACs and amps, then the HM-801 can be a real bargain considering the small footprint and an integrated home and portable rig. Since the HM-801 seems to be nearing its released date, I'll be looking forward to more impressions.
Jul 28, 2009 at 2:55 AM Post #12 of 71
I admit that I've never heard the 140/D10 combo, then again, these meets seldom have a respectable portable gear section (NYC meets usually do a much better job). I wish I had such a thing to compare to, but maybe I can bribe some other guys from the NJ meet to post their impressions here as well.

I find it interesting that the X5L is considered "lowly" now. 3X0, I'm definitely baffled to hear that you think the X5L is warm, because to me, it's main flaw is that it's brighter than most. When I bought it, though, it was basically the best option available. I'm glad to hear that there's better options now, because though I love it as an MP3 player, it really sounds too bright through my Fortes, and yeah, the difference between the iPod and the X5L is akin to the difference between the X5L and the HiFiMAN, except the HiFiMAN really just leaves everything in the dust. Think iPod = Gremlin, X5L = Honda Civic, and HiFiMAN = Lambo. I love my X5L, though. It's given me many years of unamped happiness, and best of all, no idiotic software like iTunes to deal with. The HiFiMAN is the same way... no BS, plug it in and load your music onto it.

I didn't even think to take a picture of it next to the X5L...I'm an idiot. I'd say it's about 50% larger in all three dimensions. It's really a hefty device, but still so, so much better than dealing with a freaking iPod/DAC-Amp combo. I've never liked the idea of toting around two devices velcroed to each other.

Note that there are two amp modules that I got to try. One of them was a low-gain, one was a high-gain (which can be used with the HD580). I believe I was using the low-gain most of the time, since the volume pot started bottoming out using my RE0's on the high-gain one.

roy, Fang is a very even-headed guy. He never gives me his opinion unless I ask him, and even when I ask him, he usually asks me to draw my own conclusion. Like I said, the only thing he helped me do was identify the fact that we couldn't hear anything with the HF-1's because it was too noisy at that particular time. I try to be as fair as possible in my reviews, and if I felt he influenced my judgement, I would say so. This isn't even a true review since there's no comparable product. I'm just trying to throw this product out there and get some people to listen to it because I particularly liked it (my opinion)!

Hopefully Fang will roll out some eval units for some of our resident portable masters.
Jul 28, 2009 at 2:07 PM Post #13 of 71
Thanks for the review. Gonna want the whole FOTM on this thing, so let's hope for those eval units.

Re: size, I'm compulsive about making 1:1 paper models of devices. Left to right:
clip; amp3; hifiman; 3x jewel case. Of course, account for beveled edges on the hifiman.


Jul 28, 2009 at 2:31 PM Post #14 of 71
As I think very highly of Fang and his products, I would be very likely to pre-order the HiFiMan except for the stated battery life of only 7-8 hours.
That is sort of a deal-breaker for me, given the cost involved.
Jul 28, 2009 at 3:47 PM Post #15 of 71
I think he's eventually going to roll out some extra batteries you can bring along with you. 7-8 hours is a lot better than my deteriorated X5L does right now.

That white box looks pretty accurate, spahn_ranch. It actually is that big!

Users who are viewing this thread