THE PERFECT PORTABLE SET UP! (For me at least….) ***DISCLAIMER***These are my opinions. I always recommend you try everything for yourself and use YOUR ears to judge something before you purchase it.*** A little while ago I blogged about my Clip+ and how I was pleasantly surprised with the sound quality and even more pleased with the Rockbox option. After some listening to various combinations, I have settled on what I feel is my perfect portable set-up. What were the others? Well, I rather not focus on the others and simply wish to talk about what I feel is a winning portable set-up for me and perhaps for others. Here it is: Clip+ (Rockboxed using FLAC) -> UE Mini to Mini -> RSA Shadow -> UE-10’s As you can imagine, it’s extremely portable and best of all – it has world class sound. I tested the Clip+ with a few different amps and after much listening and going back and forth, I felt the RSA Shadow was a perfect match in terms of form factor and sound quality. The form factor can be appreciated most with pictures, so here you go (apologies for the bad pictures): http://i745.photobucket.com/albums/x...xAudio/003.jpg http://i745.photobucket.com/albums/x...xAudio/002.jpg http://i745.photobucket.com/albums/x...xAudio/001.jpg The sound quality is superb. I find it difficult to write precise terms describing what I hear. If I had to describe it in one word it would be….synergy. These two mate perfectly and the offspring is nothing but unadulterated musical bliss. Most amps tend to color the sound and that is accusation that RSA amps are guilty of. Either you like it or you don’t. Some amps are more clinical and likewise, either you like them or you don’t. However, this little amp doesn’t have that typical RSA house sound. Don’t ask me why but it doesn’t. It’s neither overly analytical nor clinical sounding. It’s what I would call a “Goldilocks sound”…it’s just right. I took some of my best demo music and transferred it over to the Clip+ in FLAC format and listened to my demo songs over and over. Some amps added certain things, others added nothing but volume and some were overly warm or veiled. In a food comparison, some amps over-cooked the sound, some didn’t cook it all, some warmed it up and some burned it. The Shadow seemed to get the perfect balance of seasoning to leave it juicy, moist and very appealing. The sound was just right for me. It had great balance, great soundstage with plenty of authority and finesse when called for. Here are some of the tracks I heard and what I listened for (all in FLAC format running in Rockbox with FLAT EQ and no crossfeed). The set-up was Rockboxed Clip+ -> mini to mini -> The Shadow -> UE-10’s: 1.Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al from the album “Graceland” This is a well known audiophile album. I was specifically listening to the Japanese first pressing CD. On this track, right after a solo, you can hear a band member count down right before a solo ends at around 2:13 to cue the rest of the band to come back in with the main theme. It’s very, very subtle and most people can’t even hear it. I have found that some equipment removes this low level detail. I could hear it loud and clear with this set-up. No muddy response or veiled effect. 2.Paul Simon – Homeless from the album “Graceland” This track is great for judging human vocals as well as soundstage and ambiance. The vocals came across with perfect tonality and soundstage – I can easily hear at least 4 different voices before Paul Simon joins in. Some gear can make some of the voices a bit too bassy. Others can make it too bright. Some just make it sound like a mess. The Clip+ and Shadow made it sound natural. The ambiance is tricky on this track for most systems because it will be obscured by hiss or noise. This track was recorded at Abbey Road and you should be able to hear the studio as well as the singers clearly spaced across the soundstage. I heard absolutely NO HISS and NO NOISE from the Clip+ or Shadow. Not too shabby at all, especially for such a tiny package. 3.Nat King Cole – Stardust from the DCC release of “Love Is The Thing” Nat’s voice sounded natural, the strings were airy but not stringent or overly bright. Just fantastic all around. 4.Danny Elfman – This is Halloween from the soundtrack “Nightmare Before Christmas” One of my favorite demo tracks and a real killer. So many voices, so many sound effect, great soundstage. Could such a tiny package handle it all. I was certain that if this set-up would fail, it would be with this track. I was extremely surprised to hear that it didn’t fail one bit. Every voice, sound effect and instrument kept it’s individual voice and never left the soundstage at all. Impressive. 5. Absolute Silence – custom demo track made by myself. Why silence? Well, I wanted to see if the Clip+ or Shadow added anything. Except for slight pop the Clip+ added when the track finished, it was completely dead silent for the entire duration of the track. This just confirmed my first noise test from track #2. This is something not many portable set-ups or even home rigs can accomplish. 6.Back – Solo Cello Suites from the Mercury Living Presence release feat. Janos Starker Usually when something gets in the way too much, the cello begins to sound like a weak bass. This is certainly not the case here. I could not only hear the cello as it should sound but low level details like Starker’s breathing could easily be heard as well. 7.Ella Fitzgerald – Sweet & Lovely from the album “Sings Sweet Songs For Swingers” It’s an old song from an old album but almost everything shines on this album, from Ella’s voice to the bass to the explosive notes from the band. The Clip+ and Shadow handled this complicated arrangement extremely well. The bass was full and not flabby, the horns sounded like horns and Ella’s voice was the epitome of smooth. The burst from the orchestra were fast and the transients sounded very lifelike and the delicate triangle was never buried within the song. 8.Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication & Scar Tissue from the album “Californication” I know these tracks very well. It’s the album I want the most in audiophile form yet never seem to get. These tracks were straight from the CD and they sounded loud, thin and plain bad. I could hear the clipping and the distortion was ever present. Normally this is a bad thing but in this case I know the Clip+ and The Shadow were reproducing the music (and bad mastering) faithfully. Horrendous…just the same as it sounds on my mastering rig. 9.Lady Gaga – Poker Face from the album “The Fame” Why Lady Gaga? Well, I think it’s a catchy song. It’s a demo song for me because of the pounding bass, it’s not overpowering or muddy and that should translate to you. Moreover, the wishy-washy cymbals should be clear, not bright or covered up by the synth. The Clip+ and Shadow did something interesting here. Everything was right on except for that wishy-washy cymbal. It somehow seemed to move forward in the soundstage and was clearer than before. Not a bad thing, just different. I’ll leave it at nine because that’s my lucky number. I went on to test other songs I have that are both retail and custom remasters I have done. In almost every situation, I was surprised how well this tinny combo sounded. I am sure people will argue that there are better amps out there and better DAP’s out there and that might be true. However, this combo is a match made in heaven for me. It sounds just right and I find it to be on the warm side of transparent. For anyone looking for a super small portable IEM rig with big sound, check out this combo out and see if that satisfies your hankering for great sound quality on the go. It has for me. So what now? Well, the sad truth is that I must return the Shadow to its rightful owner, a local head-fi’er who was nice enough to lend it to me for a long time. I hate to see it go but at least I now know what will mate well with my Clip+. Now I just have to save some money to buy one of these tiny but fantastic sounding amps. As always, your mileage may vary, but for me, this is a portable rig that I will cherish and keep for a long time to come.