- Jul 22, 2011
I've personally wanted to see something like this for a long time now. As a techie, I've long been intrigued by the idea of these top of the line DAPs. They bring with them the promise of high level engineering that will make the most out of your files and headphones. I've primarily used my iPhone 4 as my main DAP for the last 4 years. I've found it extremely reliable and great sounding, with its nearly non-existent output impedance and a very flat signature. I've ventured into the land of audiophile DAPs before, with gear from companies like Hisound, Hifiman, Sony, and Sandisk. Time after time, I was disappointed. Not one of them sounded better than my iP4, and some of them sounded worse. Here's what I heard, and didn't hear: 1) I heard no "extra detail" from any of the DAPs...not even from the iPhone. 2) The iPhone was consistently the flattest of the bunch, with the exception of the Clip+ (which is a wonderful DAP as well). 3) The differences were rather small, and came mostly from the sound signature differences. 4) Things like noise levels, output impedance, and other issues are what make or break a DAP.
As such, I asked a few friends for loaners of their DAPs. They obliged, ergo this thread exists.
Included in this review are:
1) Sony ZX1
2) Hifiman HM901
3) Fiio X5
4) Studio V 3rd Anv
5) iPhone 4
6) iPod Classic 6th gen.
I'll be listening with the Aurisonics ASG-2, as it's the IEM I'm most intimately familiar with. It's equipped with the Tralucent silver/gold hybrid cable. What the Tralucent cable does is "un-color" the sound of the ASG-2 a bit, making it flatter from end to end. It also clears up the mid-bass, making sub-bass more apparent.
Before I begin, I just want to give a huge THANK YOU these members: soundbear, frankrondaniel, woodcans, and James & Joe from Fiio.
I chose about 100 of my favorite songs to listen with. I tried to make sure they were of the best mastering quality I could find. The songs are all in 320 kbps MP3 format. Some were in lossless FLAC, but I heard no difference between those and the resulting MP3 conversions from dbpoweramp. As such, I'm going with the MP3 files. I won't go through and list the tracks, but I may mention a few specifics in head to head comparisons.
I've volume matched all players as closely as I could, as volume is critical when comparing DAPs where the differences are FAR less pronounced than with headphones. The process of comparing involves me loading identical files on the players, then listening closely to small sections of the track. I have an A/B method that somewhat approximates the scientific method. If I think I hear something, I'll go back multiple times to ensure that it wasn't a fluke before noting it down.
This review will focus primarily on sound quality, but I'll probably have blurbs about the players when certain things stand out to me.
When listening, I'll be using my iPhone 4 as the baseline. Again, volume levels will be carefully matched by ear.
Hifiman HM901 (IEM Card)
Long considered as the main sheriff in town, the HM901 offers tremendous versatility with varying amp modules, including a balanced mode. The UI is also quite acceptable, though I've encountered a few freezes requiring me to reset the player by removing the battery.
The very first track I listened to with the HM-901 was Ben Howard's Everything, a favorite of mine. Switching back and forth with the iP4, the most noticeable thing is that the iP4 has slightly more forward upper mids, giving slightly better clarity and attack to notes. In exchange, the the HM-901 seems to have slightly more space between cues, as well maybe a wider stage. Note how I emphasized the "slightly"s.
So far, the iPhone appears to be keeping up with the grand daddy HM901...strange. As I go through more test tracks, these differences hold up. I arrive at Quarter Chicken Dark by Yo-Yo Ma on the Goat Rodeo Sessions album. I love this particular track because of the mixing of the highly textured cello mixed with the sweetness of the violin. I started with the iPhone 4, taking notes between in the area between 1:35 and 2:15, then switched to the HM-901 to compare how it presented bass texturing since it's been lauded in that area. Interestingly, The HM901 seems to present no advantage over the iPhone 4 in that regard, and the iP4 seems to have slightly sweeter and better separated violins.
Interesting. Next, I switch over to the...
Hisound Studio V 3rd Anv
The Studio V is my second encounter with Hisound, after my experience with the Rocoo BA. The Studio is a relatively small player that fits easily in the center of my palm, a rarity for audiophile DAPs (but its thickness rivals the HM901), and has a screen that belongs on the Sansa Clip+. SQ though is no slouch.
First up was Lose Yourself to Dance by Daft Punk on Random Access Memories. I obeyed the song, as I couldn't stop dancing until I finished A/B'ing. I hear the Studio V as having ever so slightly emphasized treble, which lifts the sound in a nice way. Certain details are more emphasized over the iP4 and HM-901, but SLIGHTLY is the key word here...all these details are still very present in the other players. The Studio is a tiny bit more holographic than the iP4 due to its slightly more spacious and separated sound. The bass line in the Studio was also surprisingly solid, keeping up with the iP4. I didn't expect that. I couldn't find anything that the iP4 necessarily did better than the Studio, as the differences held up in my other test tracks.
By far, the best music player experience in this lineup. Pictures really don't do the ZX1 justice, as it's one of the most beautiful devices these eyes have seen. The externals are as premium as they come, and the screen is gorgeous to use and look at. The player is run by a full version of Android, with a few Sony features added here and there. The ZX1 is fast AND smooth, and the animations are slick. Media organization is top notch, as is the entire UI. Essentially, the ZX1 is a pleasure to use.
One huge addition to the ZX1 is that Sony got it certified for the Google Play store. This opens up the ZX1 to many possibilities and features that are touted on certain DAPs. One in particular is the ability to use your home computer as a server to stream music files over WiFi. A quick search of the Play Store revealed multiple apps that had these capabilities. I tried a few with the ZX1 and I was impressed with the results.
For those interested, here are a couple of apps:
As for the sound, I've heard the ZX1 leans toward the bright end of the spectrum. Also, the ZX1's specs indicate that it's power output isn't nearly up to par with the competition. So I decided to test what effects, if any, its low power would have on sound. In my experience, the bass is the first to suffer as phones are underdriven...so I fired up James Blake's Limit to Your Love, as it would make the differences most obvious. Despite the lower specs, I could hear no dropoff in bass quantity, impact, or extension when going from the other DAPs to the ZX1. To test for separation, timbre, and other audiophile words, I queued up City and Colour's As Much As I Ever Could. The ZX1 is magnificent here...guitars are spot on, Dallas' voice is spot on, the sound stage is excellently separated, and I'm never missing any detail I know is in the song. On the other hand, the iPhone 4 is equally magnificent. What's interesting to me is that I don't find the ZX1 any brighter than my iP4. I listened to the same 1 minute passage back and forth for almost 10 minutes to be sure (4:20 to 5:24). It helps that I really like the songs I've chosen.
Last up is the...
Two microSD slots. Coaxial-out. Line out. Powerful internal amp. USB DAC (!). Top class components. Great build quality. DSD capabilities coming in near future (if you're into that kind of thing). A fantastic customer service team. What more could one want from a DAP?
Oh yeah, and it costs $350. Less than everything else in this lineup, even the iPhone.
I'd describe the sound of the X5 as neutral, with just a tinge of warmth to avoid any stridency anywhere in the FR. This results in a slightly laid back sound, but not one to be confused with darkness or bloat. It's remarkable to me how it can provide detail and plenty of shimmer/sparkle without ever going overboard. Additionally, that tinge of warmth imparts a sort of effortlessness to the sound that makes the small details shine more. For those familiar with photography, it's almost like reducing the exposure in Lightroom to let the small details in the highlights out more. Ultimately though, I'd prefer it to me a smidgen cooler in tone.
Versus my iP4, the X5 is slightly warmer and fleshed out. This makes the iP4 come off as slightly more detailed, but in reality the X5 still has all the cues there, just presented slightly differently. The iP4 has more attack on guitar strums and the like, but the X5 has slightly more forward vocals. This is with Rivers and Roads by The Head and the Heart. Up next was Easy Skanking Bob Marley's remastered Natural Mystic album. Again, the X5's slightly warmer tilt gave a more euphoric sound signature, with what seemed like more effortless separation. I love what the more forward lower mids and warmth do to Bob Marley's voice. Again, think lowering exposure in post-processing.
Here's an experiment for you. Hit Ctrl+F on this page in your browser (Command+F for you OSX people). Now, search for how may times I used the word slightly.
Yep, this was no mistake. The differences I heard amount to the change you'd hear when changing cables on a headphone or IEM, which is relatively little. It's amazing to me how little of a change in SQ you get from dropping big bucks on these DAPs. Diminishing returns are quite stark for me. Honestly, my Clip+ doesn't lose out on anything compared to my iPhone 4, which means....yeah. In my experience, DAPs lose favor by sins of commission, not omission. Things like high OI, high noise floor, severely skewed FR, etc. are what make a DAP poor in my eyes. The key for me comes down to the quality of one's headphones and the mastering of the tracks. This website is a useful tool in determining which albums are crappily mastered.
I've found my acceptance threshold to be a dynamic range no lower than around 6. And I really have to like the song.
One could make the argument that my findings are invalid because I used "compressed" MP3 files. I've even seen some say that it's a waste to get such DAPs and listen with MP3s. To this I say, a Veyron would still kick the **** out of a Prius even if the Bugatti was equipped with the most basic of tires. Even so, I've bought and converted numerous 24/192 albums to MP3, and I've yet to be able to pick out the MP3 from the parent 24/192 file in a listening test...even with my desktop gear.
The way I see it, the only two DAPs I'd get out of the ones I compared, are the ZX1 and X5. The X5 for its excellent SQ and features, or the ZX1 for the ridiculously smooth experience and Android store versatility.
There could also be another explanation for this...maybe the iPhone 4 is secretly a world class DAP after all, and Apple isn't the antichrist of the electronics world.
*I know I was supposed to include the iPod, but I figured my findings wouldn't be easily repeatable since I was amping it. It's also 3:30am, and I'm tired.
Thanks for reading!
I figured I should add this here as well:
Perhaps I should have been more clear. There was zero raw improvement from any of these sources over even my clip+ or ipod classic. Of course I know my view may not be popular, but I see absolutely no reason to drop anywhere close to what these players cost if SQ is the primary objective. If you want more driving power or different capabilities, then that's up to you how much those things are worth.
The minuscule differences I described had to do with the tuning of the devices, and how they affected things like detail perception. My files are carefully chosen and well mastered. "Hi-res" files mean nothing to me because I have MANY times bought and converted these mega lossless albums to 320 MP3, and I've never heard a difference, even from my desktop Sabre setup and HD600.
I am a musician. Music is my first love. I play 5 instruments. Last week I placed second in my school's talent show performing Rivers and Roads by The Head and The Heart with a few friends in a band. Again, the ASG-2 has the most resolving midrange I've heard, and the treble and bass are no slouch. Look at my profile to see that I don't make these assertions from thin air.
If a listener wants to evaluate gear superiority based on sound signature, then so be it. I'm not one of them. I consider all devices featured here equal in SQ.
There are very few things about my life that I would consider certainties. Skepticism is my natural reaction to information that is not founded in some sort of established fact. Amplifying this behavior is the last several years of post grad work that has bent my mind into doubting anything that isn't peer-reviewed and based in solid science. As a result, I'm quite reluctant to believe many things.
I'm also very quick to question my own actions and emotions. I often find myself in a retrospective state, wondering why I exploded at the jaywalker who nearly bloodied my windshield with his forehead, or to a lesser extent the Subway employee who forgot my oatmeal raisin cookies. My most fundamental internal struggle comes from the desire to reconcile the contrast between my faith that has been instilled in me since childhood and the struggle for significance when I know I my existence is simply a whisper in the evolutionary timeline that has extended billions of years before me, and will continue long past everything I know and love fades from memory.
There are only two things I know for sure. First, that I love my mother with all my heart and, secondly, music is the greatest gift I've received.
I've always had a love for music, as I believe most people do, but music has been for a fail-safe language for things I can't fully communicate verbally, from apologies, to playing John Mayer's Slow Dancing in a Burning Room to a significant other to end the relationship. My music library is comprised of songs that have been the soundtrack to my life, and it is as eclectic as I am: the Jamaican who has traveled much of the world and lived among people of different cultures, whose favorite band is Mumford and Sons, who enjoys cassoulet au canard as much as jerk chicken, and is as much photographer as I am pharmacist. However, I don't think I'd truly experienced music until I stumbled across the head-fi thread that led to my purchase of the Shure SE-215 years ago, followed by the Vsonic GR07. I remember laying in bed with the lights off, when the first few bars of Mumford and Sons' Sigh No More album started playing. I remember feeling the walls of the studio around me, the slow building of the music, the first lines of the song, followed by some of my favorite lines in song history...
Love; it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design, an alignment to cry
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be
I had heard this song a few times prior to this moment, but this was different. With my new earphones I felt like I was living the music, the addition of gear seemingly removing a thick shroud that previously prevented me from truly connecting to my music. After this I went on a mad rampage of rediscovering all my music, something I'm sure most of you can relate to. Vivaldi finally spoke to me, and Elvis seemed new again. I was firmly in honeymoon territory.
After a while I decided I wanted more, and that feeling never went away. Since then I've owned and extensively auditioned dozens of IEMs, headphones, and DAPs, some of the setups being the equivalent of a semester of my college tuition. Each successive "level" of gear I ascended to left me more critical of the one I just left. Treble that seemed sparkly to me before now appeared excessively peaky and grating. Bass that pounded excitement into my skull now appeared boomy and overshadowing of the midrange. However, I did gain an appreciation for critical listening and being able to pick out what I wanted in my listening experience.
In between the GR07 and where I am now, I went through quite a few phases and even more reviews. I've dedicated at least 1,000 hours to A/B'ing little 5 to 10 second song clips to check the differences between different IEMs, cables, DAPs, and amps. As colossal a waste of time as it may seem, it's allowed me to sharpen my ear and listen more carefully to the tiniest differences, and it's given me a good deal of confidence in my testing process.
So, before I speak about the AK320 I feel I should disclose a few things about the audio biases that I have acquired over these last 5 years since the night I fell in love with audio.
- Volume matching is everything when evaluating gear. Listening to one piece of gear at a louder volume immediately confers advantages in clarity, dynamics, sound stage, extension on both ends, and general PRaT.
- As a general rule, lossless is a waste of time and space. Years of transcoding FLAC to MP3 and A/b'ing the original with the conversion has convinced me of it. This, for me renders using FLAC PCM/DSD files as useless to me when testing. I simply find the best mastered version of the files I need, convert them to MP3 320 if necessary and delete the larger FLAC file. Further convincing me of this is the our very limited human hearing. Unless a million years of evolution happened since my birth, there's no human being alive who can hear past 30Khz, nor can the human body handle up to 16 bits of dynamic range without certain death. I've come to see "hi-res" as yet another audiophile marketing gimmick.
- I conducted a multi-DAP review a couple of years ago, where I compared the HM-901, ZX1, X5, Studio V, and Sansa Clip+ to my iPhone 4 and found absolutely zero significant difference at the time. matter of fact, the ZX1 and my iP4 were completely indistinguishable, not to say I could find a difference between the others worth making a serious note of. That experience left me severely disenchanted with DAPs in general. However, Astell and Kern products weren't available to me for testing at the time.
You can get an idea of my testing methodology here:
As I mentioned before, I extensively compared a few DAPs 2 years ago. At the time, the AK240 was Astell and Kern's flagship product, and I was raging against the pricing trends in personal audio. Since that time, the Ak380 has arrived, almost doubling the cost of the AK240.
Many have hailed the Ak380 as the ultimate DAP, but interestingly the paradigm is that its cheaper sibling, the AK 320 is every bit as good "when dealing with non-DSD files."
Because of my experiences with lossless and DSD files, I'm going to assume AK380 and AK320 are virtually identical sounding for my purposes.
I've been listening to the AK320 for over a month now, learning every little nuance of its sound profile. Next, I spent spent close to as much time comparing it to my other DAPs, primarily my iPhone 6S. My testing methodology for this sit down review has involved very meticulous volume matching. I queued up the same 5 second clip of the same file on all players to ensure the SPL leve was similar.
The IEM used was what I consider my endgame, the Aurisonics Rockets. I chose it specifically for several reasons. Of all the IEMs I've listened to (an incomplete list can be found in my profile), I've found the Rockets possess the most pinpoint imaging I've heard, the best timbre and tonality I've heard, the absolute best vocal reproduction I've come across and the driver is incredibly quick. I just can't fault this earphone. Also, it is slightly insensitive, so it should be a good driving challenge for a DAP.
I kept the track list short for the review as well, whittling my library down to tracks that would test very specific DAP qualities.
- Act 1: Largo al factotum. Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Performed by Jose Carbo. I chose this track because it's a classic example of great performances hampered by shoddy recording techniques. The classical music genre is rife with examples like this. It requires a good deal of power to squeeze out enough dynamic range from the tracks, especially if using less than sensitive phones.
- Reminder. Babel. Mumford and Sons. I chose this track specifically for the detail in the vocals, and the timbre of the simple background acoustic instruments.There's a little excerpt between 1:04 and 1:08, where he says "oh my love don't fade away." You can hear the little breaks in his voice where he sounds close to tears. It's little details like that which make the music experience more tactile, and is only accessible to gear that can extract it. I know the Rockets can, so I'm testing to see if the DAPs hinder the Rockets ability to pull the details.
- How. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats. Regina Spektor. This is a track for both details, tonality and imaging. It's a piano heavy track, with a little instrumental bits dispersed around the soundscape like the cello that plays simultaneously with the lower piano registers. Plus, Regina's voice is as emotive as ever.
- Groove [Binaural]. Explorations in Space and Time. Lenny White, Jamey Haddad, Mark Sherman. This is hands down my favorite track for testing soundstage and imaging, as well as instrumental timbre. I remember Jude making a video about this album years ago, and being amazed at the technology behind it. Since acquiring my Rockets, my appreciation for this album has grown exponentially. I'm literally surrounded by sound, while being able to virtually reach out and touch each instrument. So precise is the imaging. I wanted to use this track to test how each DAP throws out cues while preserving black space.
The testing method involved queuing shorts portions of each track, volume matching them across DAPs, then A/B'ing for differences in how the DAPs rendered the files. I set out with a null hypothesis that I would find no blind-testable differences, and then tried to disprove this null hypothesis. I did this for an average of 30 minutes per track.
I mainly tested between my iPhone 6S, and the AK320, and the end result was that I could not reliably differentiate the players. Again, this is the AK320 that should sound perfectly identical to the AK380 "with PCM files." I'll leave the conclusions to the readers, along with examples of tests done by others.
Thanks for reading.