HUM Pervasion Digital Audio Player

I’ve created a quick video to start building some awareness of a new DAP I just bought. Come and check it out at the new Passion for Sound site. There’ll be a full review coming soon too, but only on the new site

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Shozy Alien Digital Audio Player

The Shozy Alien came to my attention a little while ago before it was released and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it ever since. The main reason for my excitement is that there have been a number of stripped-back, screenless players in the past (and present) that have excelled in sound quality because of their very simple designs – I was hoping the Alien would continue this trend, but at a much lower price.

Overview

Shozy AlienThe Alien is a well-priced (~$250 AUD), compact, screenless player that plays only WAV and FLAC files – no MP3, no AAC, just the two major lossless options. For some people that will be an instant turn-off, but others may realise that this dedication to limited formats means a possible emphasis on playing those formats flawlessly – that’s what I was hoping for.

To read the rest of this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound site – it’s sexier and will have more great content coming very soon!

Tralucent DacAmp One

The DacAmp One is a new entry into the portable audio market from relative newcomer, Tralucent. Subscribers to this blog who’ve been with me for a while may have read my reviews (and ongoing praise) of Tralucent’s previous portable device, the T1 amplifier. That amp, despite it’s simplicity, has a certain magic in its ability to be warm, detailed and spacious all at the same time so I was interested to hear what Voodoo Tralucent managed this time around…

Overview

The DacAmp One is a portable USB DAC and headphone amp similar (in concept) to products like the Fiio E17 and JDS Labs C5D, however, at a price of approximately $500 the DacAmp One sets itself apart from these and places itself in a bit of a gap in the market occupied only by the Pico Headamp. There are more expensive DAC/amp combos from the likes of Cypher Labs and plenty of cheaper options like those already mentioned, but the $500 mark is less crowded (at least in the Australian market).

  • Inputs:  mini USB, optical, 3.5mm stereo line-in
  • Outputs:  3.5mm stereo line-out, 3.5mm headphone out
  • Battery life:  around 30 hours (depending on the load and volume used)
  • Sample rates:  16 & 24-bit up to 96kHz (same for USB and optical)
  • Compatible impedances:  8 – 300 ohms
  • Output power: 190mW (95mW per channel)
  • Dimensions:  60mm x 115mm x 24mm (W x L x D) – length includes volume knob of roughly 12mm

On paper, the DacAmp One appears capable. There are no features or specs that jump off the page at me, but as you may have experienced in your own purchases and auditions, there is far more to a product than its specs and features – implementation is everything!

Design and Features

So the DacAmp One doesn’t appear to offer any unique features, but how are those features combined into a single package for portable audio pleasure?

Form Factor

SAM_0184-2The DacAmp One (DAO) is presented in a similar case to the Tralucent T1 except that the DacAmp One is slightly larger. Surprisingly though it seems lighter. This may be that it’s lighter than you expect for the size or maybe it is lighter than the T1. Either way, what matters is that it’s light for its quality of build and finish.

The DAO is very nicely finished and shows significant development in Tralucent’s quality of finish since the early days of the T1. It’s still a simple aluminium case with aluminium end caps attached by screws, but the case is now stamped with the Tralucent logo and the end caps are really nicely moulded and printed. The small toggle switches look and feel like quality items and the unit has an overall feel of sturdy, but well-finished ruggedness.

On the front of the DAO (from left to right) is the gain switch (high / low), headphone out, line in, and volume knob. Everything is well spaced and the recessed sockets are large enough to allow for even large 3.5mm jack housings to fit with no problems at all.

Moving to the back of the DAO things get a little more complicated…

SAM_0188-6From left to right again we have the line in / optical in port (this is a clever, dual function port like the ones used in the AK100), the mini USB port used for charging and USB DAC duties, the mode indicator light (more on that shortly), the mode switch and the power switch.

All of this seems straight forward, but the functionality of the lights for the mode indicator took a few moments to get my head around. The mode switch selects between DAC mode (either optical or USB) when down and charging mode when up. What threw me initially is that the blue DAC indicator light comes on even if the unit is switched off. You still have to power on the unit to hear anything though whether using the onboard amp for headphones or using the line out to a different amplifier. In fact, the power switch has to be on for your computer to even “see” the DAO as a DAC device. The blue DAC indicator light might be on, but the DAC circuitry is only active when the power switch is on.

Battery Use & Charging

To be fair to the DAO I wanted to allow plenty of burn-in time before judging its sound quality. When I first received the unit I set it up with my computer and a pair of headphones to run as both DAC and amp over night and into the next day. What I didn’t know is that the DAO runs on battery power exclusively meaning that even as a DAC it will chew through your battery and not be charging at the same time. The charging circuit is completely disconnected when running in DAC mode. This could well have been a deliberate decision to prevent any USB noise creeping into the sound, but it’s a shame that you need to then charge the DAO before taking it portable.

For example, imagine you commute with the DAO as your portable amp. You arrive at the office, plug your DAO into your computer to improve your office-based auditory experiences and then want to unplug the DAO to once again use it as your amp on the way home again. At some point in this process (perhaps on day 2 or 3 of this cycle) you are going to have to go without the DAO while you charge it because (as far as I can tell) it’s not taking any charge while you’re using it as a DAC.

On a positive note, the charge time is only 1.5 hours so you could always just switch to charge mode each day on your lunch break and continually keep the DAO topped up, but I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t charge in any way during use. I did try charging while using only the amp stage, but heard all kinds of noise coming from the USB circuit.

Supplied Accessories

SAM_0161-1The DacAmp One is packaged almost identically to the T1 amplifier which is a good thing because that means you’re getting everything you could possibly need: some rubber feet, a hex key to open the case and install the battery, a nice quality interconnect cable, 2 Tralucent rubber bands, a USB cable, and an optical adapter to connect standard optical leads to the 3.5mm port. There’s nothing flash here, but there doesn’t need to be – everything is exactly what you need at a good quality level and you’re not paying an excess for things you don’t need.

DAC Performance

 To test the DAC of the DacAmp One completely isolated from its amplifier, I ran the DAO in DAC mode with the line-out running to my Bottlehead Mainline. The Mainline has 2 inputs that are switchable on the fly so I can directly compare the DAO line-out with other options like the vastly more expensive desktop X-Sabre DAC and the built-in DAC of the Fiio X5.

As you might expect, the DacAmp One doesn’t compete with the X-Sabre, but you might be surprised that it took me a couple of tracks to hear the difference! I recently bought “The Union” by Elton John & Leon Russell so I’m listening to that album as I write this review. Foobar is driving the X-Sabre via its ASIO drivers while MediaMonkey is driving the DAO via WASAPI. Both are running in exclusive mode for the purest possible audio path.

11010045I started with the very simple track, “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” which is quite reminiscent of Elton John’s own “Candle in the Wind” – simple, slow and thoughtful. On a simple, stripped-back track I was honestly having trouble telling which DAC was which and started to worry that my X-Sabre was not the excellent DAC I believed it to be, however moving on to the next track, “Hey Ahab”, I soon heard the difference. With the more complex and multi-layered arrangement of “Hey Ahab”, I soon heard the X-Sabre stretch its legs and create a sense of space and depth that the DacAmp One just couldn’t match. Don’t get me wrong, a portable DAC shouldn’t be able to match the abilities of a desktop DAC that costs 3x as much.

What really stood out in this first test is the wonderful tonality from the DacAmp One. It is very, very close to neutral, but with just a hint of smoothness. I won’t go so far as saying warmth because that may overstate the delicate touch of musicality from the DacAmp One. For my tastes, the DacAmp One nails the signature perfectly – there’s no in-your-face, bleeding edge push for details at the expense of enjoyment, but there’s still plenty of detail, it’s just not emphasised to try and “wow” you and that’s great because that sort of approach leads quickly to fatigue and harshness.

With the DAO stacking up so well in tonality, but falling behind in terms of layering and spaciousness compared to the X-Sabre, I thought it was probably time to create a level playing field by comparing apples with pears as it were. If the DAO is a metaphorical apple and the X-Sabre is a metaphorical banana, the Fiio X5 is more like the DacAmp One and is my metaphorical pear in this comparison.

I struck a small quandary when comparing the DacAmp One and X5 because I didn’t have matching source cables. I’m using some nice Neotech RCA cables for the DAO, but had to handicap (out of necessity, not choice) the X5 with a decent quality 3.5mm to RCA cable I made myself, but it’s slightly inferior to the Neotech RCAs.

Predictably, the sound from the DAO reflected the improved cables with slightly better treble detail and sparkle, however, the X5 showed a clear edge once again in the sense of depth and layering created. To my ears, the DacAmp One DAC creates a stage that’s a bit flat. It’s as though spatial cues are not rendered as well in the DAO DAC as they are in some of the alternatives. There’s no doubt that the tonality and accuracy is exceptional across all frequencies, but the space and layering cues fall a little behind what I would like to hear from a $500 unit.

Amp Performance

The LED on the DacAmp One is not as blindingly bright as this image makes it look - gone are the days of lighting your bedroom at night with a Tralucent T1 on your bedside table

The LED on the DacAmp One is not as blindingly bright as this image makes it look – gone are the days of lighting your bedroom at night with a Tralucent amp on your bedside table

DacAmp One is a combined device – DAC and amp – so it’s important that you don’t make your decision based only on the DAC stage (unless that’s the only reason you’re considering buying it of course, but then I would suggest you should consider a dedicated DAC rather than any of the 2-in-1 options out there).

To isolate the amp stage in the DacAmp One I am using the X5 as my DAC (driven by MediaMonkey on my PC) and feeding the DacAmp One via the Fiio L16 high quality interconnect.

Similar to the DAC stage in the DAO, the amp stage is very clean with no significant emphasis on any frequencies, proving itself as an accurate, neutral and well-balanced device in all regards. Interestingly though, the amp stage presentation and staging is very similar to the DAC’s meaning that the soundstage is quite small and intimate with not a lot of layering and depth to speak of. I wouldn’t call it congested because there is good separation between each instrument and voice, but it all happens in quite a limited space that’s fairly heavily centred in the stage.

In comparison to the DAO, the X5’s onboard amp (still using the X5 as a DAC from the PC) is noticeably more open sounding and has slightly more treble energy (this is neither good or bad – just different and provided purely as an observation). Although I consider the X5’s onboard amp to be adequate, I don’t rate it as exceptional in comparison to dedicated offerings like Fiio’s own (and extraordinary) E12DIY. In other words, to my ears, the staging and presentation from the DacAmp One falls a bit short of my expectations from a $500 amp / DAC combo. As I hear it, it is bested by an all-in-one digital audio player that costs less and does more (i.e. stores your music in addition to decoding and amplifying).

DacAmp One with Various ‘Phones

Unique Melody Miracles

The DacAmp One is nicely powered for sensitive IEMs and provides plenty of range on the volume control in low gain mode. That’s often a challenge for portable amps that aim to drive both IEMs and full-size headphones so this is a big win for the DacAmp One.

Beyerdynamic DT1350

On low gain mode, the DacAmp One comfortably drives the DT1350s with plenty of play in the volume control so this it likely a good indication of how it will perform with many of the popular portable headphones on the market. Even in low gain mode you’ll have ample power for the majority of portable headphones.

Fischer Audio FA-011 Limited Edition

The Fischers are a relatively sensitive (98dB) headphone with moderate impedance (150 ohm) and once again are comfortably handled by the DAO even on low gain mode. In fact, it’s worth noting that this seems to be the sweet spot for the DacAmp One. While the X5’s onboard amp runs out of puff with the Fischers, the DAO seems to thrive. The sound is full, punchy and detailed with plenty of range still available on the volume control. The presentation is still a little flat, but the sound itself is wonderfully balanced across the full spectrum from bass to treble whereas the X5 starts to lack bass and volume output in low gain mode with the Fischers.

From here things get a little more interesting…

In theory, the DacAmp One should be able to drive the Audeze LCD 2s which need only 40mW to achieve 110dB (remembering that the DAO can supply 95mW per channel), but the LCD 2s pull quite a lot of current (up to 24mA for a 110dB peak). Most of my listening occurs at around 80dB which should be no problems so how will the DAO handle the LCD 2s at my normal listening volumes?

Audeze LCD 2

The LCD 2 pushes the limits of the low gain setting on the DacAmp One and had me second guessing whether to switch up to high gain or stick with low gain. To my ears, the sound is a bit compressed in high gain mode compared to low gain mode so I chose to stick with low gain using about 80-85% of the available volume to achieve perfect listening levels for my tastes. The good news is the LCD 2s were perfectly enjoyable from the DAO. I wouldn’t choose it over a dedicated desktop amp for the LCDs, but for portable use it’s definitely up to the task.

I didn’t bother trying the DAO extensively with the Beyerdynamic T1s because the DAO is rated up to 300 ohms. I’m not sure if that should actually prevent it from comfortably driving the T1s, but a brief listen proved to be easily acceptable (low gain mode onace again) even if the electronics of the DacAmp One aren’t specifically rated for a 600 ohm load like the T1s. It’s possible that the sound was a bit light in the bass, but I find that to be the case with most portable devices trying to drive the T1s.

Summary

I really like Tralucent as a brand and still don’t hesitate to recommend the T1 amplifier as a great option for a reasonably priced portable amplifier so I really wanted to love the DacAmp One. As it is though I’m left a little underwhelmed. It’s a nice looking and feeling product with outstanding plug-and-play compatibility, exceptional neutrality and good range in being able to drive everything from IEMs to full-size headphones with a definite sweet spot on higher impedance headphones, but it doesn’t quite reach that final 5% that takes good sound to great sound – namely the subtle spatial cues, textures and layering that leave you thinking “wow” every now and then. If it were priced a bit lower, I might feel differently, but for $500 I have a hard time identifying who this product is for and would likely recommend alternatives like the X5 as being more versatile (it’s a DAP in addition to amp and DAC), better sounding and cheaper.

Fiio X5 Portable Hi-Res Music Player

Fiio’s latest contribution to the world of sound and music came in the form of the X5 portable music player. Following on from the recent release of their limited edition portable amplifier, the E12DIY, the X5 is another statement from Fiio that they want to play at the high end of sound quality, even if the pricing is still only at the mid level (and for that we are thankful!)

Overview

  • Size:  67.6 x 114 x 15.6 mm
  • Weight:  195 g
  • Storage:  2 x micro SD (TF) card slots – max capacity 256Gb at time of launch
  • Line-out:  1.5 Vrms
  • Output impedance:  <0.26 ohms
  • Recommended headphone impedance:  16 – 300 ohms
  • Max output current:  >150 mA
  • Max output voltage:  8 V (peak-to-peak)
  • Battery life:  > 10 hours
  • Sample rates:  up to 192 kHz / 24 bit

There are plenty more specs available on the Fiio website (fiio.com.cn), but to me these are the key elements that show the general versatility of the X5. There are some further outstanding numbers such as crosstalk and signal-to-noise ratio, but there are different figures for the amped headphone out and the unamped line-out so I’ll let you look these up yourself to as not to overload everyone with numbers.

The X5 retails for around $400 and offers the same compatibility as other much more expensive players. However the question is whether it offers the same performance? I bought the X5 to replace my far more expensive RWAK100 so outstanding performance was a must and I haven’t been disappointed… for the most part.

To read the rest of the review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s plenty of great new content coming soon, but only on the new site. Hope to see you there!

 

iRiver AK100

I’ve called this review “iRiver AK100”, but it probably should be called the iRiver Astell & Kern Red Wine Audio RWAK100. I’l explain…

iRiver AK100 boxThe AK100 is originally designed by Korean electronics company, iRiver, in collaboration with Astell & Kern who seem to have appeared as experts in the hi-resolution / mastering quality sound space. Their site, www.astellnkern.com doesn’t really explain where their expertise comes from, but there’s no doubting that their influence has been positive on the sound quality from the AK100.

So where does the Red Wine Audio reference come from and the “RW” part of the model number (RWAK100)?

For some unknown reason, the designers of the AK100 decided to create a player with a 22ohm output impedance. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means; I’ll explain. Almost anyway you look at it, a device used to drive portable headphones and earphones needs to have an output impedance as close to zero as possible. Most of the best devices have output impedance <2 ohms so 22 is way out of the ball park. What it means is that the AK100 can sound completely different from one earphone to the next, particularly with high-end, multi-balanced armature earphones like custom IEMs (e.g. Unique Melody Miracles). As a portable player, there is no good reason to create a device that completely changes (not for the better) the sound of almost every earphone or portable headphone on the market.

So along came Red Wine Audio…

Red Wine Audio is an American company renowned for their audiophile devices and the all famous iMod modification to the Apple iPod. When Vinnie from RWA got a hold of the AK100, he identified a way to bypass the 22 ohm resistors and create an AK100 with <1 ohm output impedance. And so the RWAK100 was born.

There are other modifications available from different companies. All do the same thing essentially, but my experiences are with the RWA variant and my experiences with both the product and with Vinnie have been stellar!

For the rest of this review, I’ll refer to the AK100 unless specifically referring to the RWAK100. The only difference is the output impedance and this only effects the sound quality with low-impedance ‘phones.

Design & Size

iRiver AK100 unpackedThe AK100 is a quality product. From the moment you open the box you know you’re using a prestige device. The whole case is a combination of aluminium and glass and it feels very well-built. Little touches really show how special iRiver / A&K wanted the experience to be. For example, below the player in the box is a little booklet with a micro SD card containing a selection of hi-resolution (mastering quality sound) tracks. The booklet provides information about each of these tracks. It’s a lovely touch to help you enjoy the AK100 at its full potential straight out of the box.

Another nice touch is the screen protectors. When you first open the box, the AK100 has removable protectors on the front and back glass panels. When you peel these off, you find semi-permanent protectors already fitted to the glass surfaces to protect from scratching (the same as screen protectors on a mobile phone). It’s another really nice touch. iRiver also provides spare screen protectors, but you’ll only need them if the pre-fitted ones get really scratched.

In terms of size, the AK100 is deceptively small. I had no idea just how small it was until I had it in my hands. AK100 iPod Video & NanoHere are 2 pictures with an 80Gb iPod Video (5.5G) and iPod Nano to show you exactly how compact it is (apologies for the image quality).

As you can see, the AK100 is shorter than both players. It’s the same width as the iPod Video (same as current model iPod Classic) with the exception of the volume knob on the left which protrudes just a tiny amount. The AK100 is a little lighter than full size iPods, but heavier than small iPods like the Nano.

AK100 Ipod Video Nano sideThe second image shows the thickness of the 3 devices. Clearly the Nano is much thinner, but also has less capacity and nowhere near the sound quality of the AK100 (or larger iPods). Without measuring them, I think the Ak100 may be a hair thicker than the iPod Video which also means it’s about twice the thickness of the current iPod Classic.

Capacity & Storage

Micro USB socket, MicroSD ports, Red Wine Audio badge

Micro USB socket, Micro SD ports, Red Wine Audio badge

The AK100 contains built-in 32Gb flash memory for onboard music and system files, but also allows the addition of 2 micro SD cards via a slot on the base of the device. The official specifications say that the AK100 can support up to 32Gb micro SD cards, but larger cards do work if formatted to FAT32 (larger cards come pre-formatted using the exFAT system).

Memory cards are housed under the slider shown in the image to the left. They’re a little fiddly to get in and out, but it keeps the device clean and tidy with no protruding bumps (other than the volume knob) or open holes into the circuitry.

Interface & Usability

The user interface of the AK100 has taken some flack for not being as smooth and intuitive as Apple devices, but recent firmware updates (v1.33 and v2.01) have made strides in this area. The following information is based on the current firmware (v2.01)

Starting screenMost navigation is conducted via the touch screen which, although a little small, is responsive and simple. Navigation begins with the home screen seen to the right. It shows the current track with artwork and some simple thumbnails to access your library in a number of ways including MQS which takes you instantly to a listing of all hi-res tracks on the device (e.g. 96kHz / 24-bit and 192kHz / 24-bit recordings). There’s also a cog button in the top right corner to access device settings.

All-in-all the interface with the new firmware is simple and intuitive.

AK100 now playingWhen you’re playing a track, there are a few options for the display. You can have just the art showing or the art as a backdrop behind track information. This is changed just by touching the screen. You can also change how artwork is displayed with choices between fitting to the screen or filling the screen. My photos show my preferred setting of filling the screen.

Other options that are easily accessed from the “Now Playing” screen are:

  • 5-band equaliser
  • Gapless playback
  • Boost
  • Detailed track information
  • Shuffle or continuous play

AK100 hardware buttonsThere are hardware control buttons on the left side of the player (as you look at the screen) with buttons for skipping forwards and backwards as well as playing and pausing. Holding down the forward and back buttons acts triggers a seek function (i.e. fast-forward / rewind).

One final point about usability is the volume knob. It is designed to allow some movement. Some people don’t like this, but for me it feels fine and I like the implementation of the volume control overall. The knob has a notched feel as you turn it so you can clearly feel the increments. The increments are also very small so you can’t accidentally deafen yourself.

If you do want to raise or lower the volume quickly, you can use the touch screen for rapid, large changes. After turning the volume knob, a graphic appears on-screen which allows you to touch and drag an orange volume bar. It’s easy and responsive.

If you’re worried about bumping the volume knob in your pocket you can also select to lock the volume control when the screen is off so, to me, iRiver have covered volume control really nicely and in a unique way. It took a little while to get used to, but I really like the results.

Battery Life

Thank you to Head-Fi user, edmonem, for asking about battery life as I originally forgot to include this information!

The battery in the AK100 normally lasts in excess of 10 hours (and quite comfortably in excess). I’ve been a little conservative with this number because the battery life will vary based on your individual usage habits. Regular skipping of tracks, continuous high volume, keeping the screen on, etc. will all drain the battery faster. With normal listening at around 55-60% volume continuously nets me long 10+ hour playback times.

Just as some of the usage above will drain the battery, using an external amplifier can extend the battery life significantly by presenting a much easier load to the AK100. You may also find variation depending on the ratio of hi-res tracks to 44.1kHz /16-bit tracks (hi-res tracks use more battery).

Format Compatibility

The AK100 will play almost any file you can throw at it. Common supported formats include FLAC, WAV, MP3, WMA, OGG, APE, AIFF, ALAC, and AAC. Some users have been discussing the desire for DSD, but this is currently not supported. iRiver have mentioned the possibility of support in future firmware updates although it would convert the DSD for playback as opposed to direct playback without manipulation.

Connectivity

AK100 in / out portsThe AK100 can be connected directly to headphones via a 3.5mm jack (top of image), but this also doubles as an optical output. It also has an optical input to work as a DAC for other devices with optical out. There is talk that it will operate as a USB DAC in future (i.e. for use as an external soundcard / DAC with computers), but no timetable has been confirmed for this feature.

I’ve successfully used the AK100 with all outputs / inputs and they all work brilliantly. You can control the volume when using the headphone output (including when listening to the optical input), but the output is fixed level when using the optical out.

Sound Quality

Simply put, the AK100 is the best portable source I’ve heard so far and is actually up there with the best source units I’ve heard at all. It easily keeps pace with any of the dedicated sub-$1000 deskptop DAC / amp combinations I’ve heard and yet it’s in such a tiny package!

The sound from the AK100 is wonderfully smooth, but immensely detailed. Unfortunately, it’s output impedance issue (discussed earlier) means that its sound can vary dramatically when paired with the low impedance ‘phones. Using an amplifier completely negates this issue and can further enhance the quality of the sound (if it’s a good amp).

Because I wanted the freedom to use the AK100 with and without amping, I chose to get the Red Wine Audio mod. The sound signature and presentation hasn’t changed significantly, but it stays consistent no matter what I connect to it – low impedance IEMs right through to high impedance headphones.

The most impressive aspect to the AK100’s sound is its cohesive and organic presentation. There is amazing detail with plenty of separation between different sounds, but everything also still sounds like it fits together. I was recently able to test the AK100 alongside the HDP-R10 (Japanese version of iBasso DX100) and found that the HDP-R10 seemed to separate sounds more, but to the point that I actually found the whole presentation began to sound like a collection of parts, not a single organic whole. There’s no denying the resolution and clarity of the HDP-R10, but I personally preferred the natural presentation of the AK100.

Overall, the sound style of the AK100 is smooth and a touch warm, but not lacking in detail or clarity. It sounds great playing regular 16-bit / 44.1kHz tracks and then really sings with hi-res, 24-bit tracks at higher sampling rates. It’s one of those devices that can really help you rediscover your music and hear it in a whole new way.

The Drawbacks

There are a couple of things I haven’t mentioned yet, but think are important to note.

The AK100 currently doesn’t support playlists created by common media management software (namely “m3u” playlists) or CUE files which tell a player how to split a single FLAC file into its individual tracks. iRiver report that these features are highly requested and on the way, but at the time of writing they were not available.

Another minor gripe which occasionally becomes very frustrating is the scanning feature. Anytime you load new tracks onto the AK100 or insert a memory card, the AK100 needs to scan the files to create a database for navigation. This can take a long time, especially when you’ve just unplugged your AK100 from the computer and want to walk out the door ready to listen to music.

You can switch scanning to auto or manual so that it doesn’t delay your listening, but if you don’t scan, you can only access your music by browsing folders, not by artist, genre, track names, etc. Some people are fine with this, but I like to access via the database, not by file viewer.

iRiver keep reporting changes in the firmware to help speed up the process, but it still isn’t at a level that’s easily bearable. Hopefully they’ll find a fix in the future, but in the meantime I’ve learned to think ahead and allow scanning time before trying to use my AK100.

These drawbacks are minor concerns given the amazing sound quality and overall performance of the AK100. I wanted to share the full picture, but don’t be turned off. There’s no such thing as the perfect player (yet) that combines top quality sound with usability, playlist features, seamless interface, etc. In my opinion, the RWAK100 is as close as it gets so far and there’s the potential that all the drawbacks mentioned above will be recitified via firmware updates in the coming months.

Summary

iRiver AK100 unpackedIf you have around $600 to spend on a portable music player and you already have an amp, the AK100 is a great option! If you can spend a bit more, or don’t have an amp, I highly recommend the Red Wine Audio version, RWAK100.

Other players on the market offer different price points and features, but nothing quite matches the AK100’s combination of size, performance and price – it’s a brilliant player and has quickly become one of my most treasured audio devices!

Massive Portable Player Shootout

I’ve been using an iPod Video 80Gb (5.5 generation) for years now and have loved it, but my music collection continues to grow and I’m a fan of lossless audio (ALAC and FLAC) so it’s no longer large enough to hold all my tunes. I’m now at a major crossroads when it comes to finding the right combination of quality, capacity, and ease-of-use. There are a few options I’ve considered and I’ve been lucky enough to try all of them so I’m sharing the results here. I’d like to extend a massive thanks to Wing and the team at Minidisc.com.au for providing the Cowon J3 demo unit and outstanding customer service in my purchase of the Cowon X7 unit.

What’s Being Compared:

  • Apple iPod 80Gb (5.5 Generation) – middle of image
  • Apple iPod 160Gb (late 2009)  – top right of image
  • Cowon X7 160Gb – top left of image
  • Cowon J3 – bottom left of image
  • Sony 460 Series Walkman 4Gb – bottom right of image

If you’ve spotted the odd one out here (yes, the Walkman) and you’re wondering why I’m comparing a little 4Gb player to three hard-disk behemoths and a large-scale SD-based player, it’s purely thrown into the mix as a reference point to see how the expensive players compare to a relatively cheap option.

I’m comparing the players on 4 key factors:

  1. Sound quality (including power output)
  2. Size
  3. Interface & Ease of Use
  4. Customisation & Flexibility

Sound Quality

It’s very hard to conduct a subjective test of sound quality on audio sources because the only real way (short of complicated and expensive setups) is to keep switching your headphones or line-out cable from source to source. Because each of the player’s has a slightly different volume scale, it’s also hard to match the volume exactly and that can influence our perception of quality, too. I’ve done everything I can to minimise the impact of volume, delay between sources and personal preference. All players were tested with no sound “enhancements” (i.e. no BBE effects on Cowon products and no EQ or Sound Check on iPods). All testing was done using 320 kbps MP3 tracks to avoid any potential difference between ALAC and FLAC files. I used my Audio Technica AD900s, Ultrasone HFI-680s and HiFi Man Re0s with each player for a thorough sample.

The order of performance here is a little tricky, but essentially it’s:

First Place: Cowon X7 & J3 – Clean, rich sound with a massive open sound stage and all of the details perfectly presented. My only criticism of the Cowons is that they actually are a little under powered from a volume perspective. They have no trouble getting great sound quality out of the higher impedance HFI-680s and Re0s, but they are at more than 95% volume in order to create an energetic, exciting listening experience.

In addition to their naturally awesome sound quality, the Cowons offer the range of BBE features to further enhance your listening pleasure and although I normally steer clear of “sound enhancements”, the BBE suite is exceptional. The EQ settings are widely adjustable and powerful, the BBE bass boost seems to do a great job of boosting the bass without all the added distortion of many systems and the compressed music enhancement (MP Enhance) is quite effective at bringing the brilliance of lossless music back to a compressed track. Finally, the winning feature for me on the Cowons is their stereo enhancement (equivalent to crossfeed in RockBox). This feature replicates in your headphones the effect of listening to speakers. It’s a simple process and doesn’t mess with the source signal and sound quality, but does result in a beautifully focussed stereo image.

The only key sound quality feature missing (which could also be considered ease-of-use) is ReplayGain. The Cowons don’t normalise the volume for you meaning that you may have to regularly adjust your volume from track-to-track and that’s an issue when you try using the volume controls, but more on that later…

Second Place: iPod Video 5.5G – Solid, clean sound with good depth and good detail. The iPod Video is a great no-frills player. I’ve used it with RockBox and also the regular interface. Either way, the natural sound is great and it seems to have more oomph than other players (volume at 85-90% for higher impedance headphones).

The EQ on the iPod is horrid and introduces all kinds of distortion, but I don’t feel it needs equalising if you have decent headphones. It also lacks a quality volume levelling feature in its original Apple guise (RockBox fixes this). The iPods do have the Sound Check feature, but I find it fairly useless and have heard many reports of degraded sound quality from its use.

Third Place: iPod Classic & Sony Walkman (tied) – These players don’t sound the same, but it’s hard to split them based on their differing shortcomings. The iPod Classic lacks depth in the bass and has a touch of harshness at the high end combined with a lack of very high end detail. It also suffers from the same lack of sound enhancements as explained for the Classic (above).

The Walkman actually has an enjoyable sound for a cheap device (<$100), but it can’t match the others in terms of detail and soundstage. That said, the sound enhancements offered are quite good and quite effective. It’s a perfect exercise player for me (i.e. when I want fun sounding music that I’m not listening to for quality).

Size

I’m not comparing the Walkman here because this is about capacity. Very simply, the J3 is the smallest, but not by much. The iPod Classic is next, followed by the iPod Video and the Cowon X7 is easily the largest and quite bulky. All but the X7 could comfortably fit in a pocket, but the X7 would require a bag of some sort to carry around. It fits nicely in the palm when you’re using it, but the X7 is definitely a bit bigger than the alternatives. That said, if you want to match the sound quality of the X7 you’ll need to add an external amp to the iPods meaning that they just got a bunch bigger and have extra cables sticking out… I’ll be doing a post about the pros/cons of external amplifiers soon.

Interface & Ease of Use

The iPods are the easy winners here – that’s just what Apple do – make things easy. There is no doubt that the Apple interface and synchronisation protocols work well. My only complaints are the lack of effective volume normalisation and the restriction to ALAC as the lossless format. Having recently converted my entire library to FLAC, I really don’t want to have to undo it now. RockBox on the iPod Video allows the use of FLAC, but the Classic can’t use RockBox so it’s slightly more limited.

Another bonus for the iPods is the massive range of accessories available. Being able to drop your pod into a dock and have instant, remote controlled music is a great plus and something that no other player can offer without significant fiddling and expense.

The Walkman comes second because it just works. There are limited bells and whistles and the synchronisation with MediaMonkey was easy and painless. It can’t play lossless formats, but with 4Gb capacity and just-above-average sound quality, 320kbps MP3s are fine. The menus are easy and obvious and the buttons are easy to use and well-placed. Perhaps the best thing about the Walkman though is the SenseMe feature which scans your library and sorts them into mood-based groups. The system isn’t quite perfect (it put a slow song into an upbeat category), but it’s a great, quick playlist solution.

I’m a big believer in working with industrial design rather than fighting against it. If it doesn’t work how I initially expect, I take the time to understand it and learn it, but the Cowons are a long way behind in the ease of use category because of some crazy design decisions. Both players have the volume controls on the side down the bottom of the players. When you’re holding the players you’re fingers are nowhere near the buttons so it’s awkward to adjust the sound (and you need to because there’s no volume levelling).

The menus in the Cowons are quite good and you can access all the important settings direct from the “now playing” screen so this is a plus for the Cowons, but it doesn’t make up for the killer…

You can’t auto-sync playlists to a Cowon player!! That’s right, the Cowon X7 will hold 160Gb of your music, but it won’t let you easily transfer the playlists from MediaMonkey (or Winamp or WMP, etc.) to the player. When you do ask the media player to transfer the playlists, they appear in the X7 (or J3), but when you click on the playlist it says “no file”. I’m sure there’s a fix, but from everything I’ve read it’s a manual fix not an automated one – very frustrating and possibly a deal breaker for me.

Customisation & Flexibility

There are a bunch of custom interfaces for the Cowons and this makes them more customisable than the others. Combine this with their ability to sync with any system and play any type of sound or video and you’ve got a very flexible and customisable player.

The iPod Video can run RockBox and that gives it plenty of flexibility. I rate it only a fraction behind the Cowons because RockBox can be a bit unstable.

The Walkman and iPod Classic tie for 3rd place for different reasons. The Walkman can’t play lossless audio, but it can sync with lots of different systems. The iPod can play lossless audio, but only ALAC so they’re pretty even. The iPod might win by a hair thanks to its ability to play lossless and sync with MediaMonkey.

Summary

What’s the player of choice then? For a collection up to 80Gb, I think I’d take the iPod Video, but over 80Gb it has to be the Cowon. The sound from the iPod Classic just doesn’t cut it for this type of premium player. If you have a huge library and need a large capacity player, there’s a good chance you also appreciate the quality of good music.

I’ll be adding a line out adapter and portable amp to my iPod Classic in the near future and will be sure to report back on the results. In the meantime, I actually think the best answer is to have the Classic for dropping into a dock, using in the car, etc. and having the Cowon X7 (or J3 if you want a small pocket-sized option with killer sound) for mobile portable listening direct to headphones.