Audiofly AF140 – Mini-Review

I’m sitting in bed today feeling decidedly lousy, but with the quandary of also having a pair of Audiofly’s new AF140 IEMs in my temporary possession for a review before I pass them on to another Head-Fi’er so I hope this mini-review can do justice to what I find to be a really enjoyable set of IEMs. Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that the brevity of my review or quantity / quality of photos reflects the quality or performance of the product in any way.

Before I get started, I’d like to thank the team at Audiofly and Billy from Noisy Motel for making this tour possible. I know that the AF140s have received some criticism so far which is always a risk during a tour, but I honestly believe that the criticism is misplaced and a result of personal tastes (which we are all completely entitled to) as opposed to a product design flaw. I believe the AF140s hits its brief as perfectly as the previously reviewed AF180s – it’s just that the brief in question isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. Read on to see if it might be for you…

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content on the way.

 

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Audiofly AF180

SAMSUNG CSCEver wondered what happens when you let musicians design an earphone? No, not branding exercises like Beats, Marley, or certain AKG models, but musicians having an actual say in the design and sound of the earphones – in fact  in this case it’s musicians owning and running the company making the earphones.

Well what you get is something practical, sexy, comfortable, and never-endingly enjoyable to listen to. Meet the AF180 from Audiofly…

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content on the way.

FIDUE A83

As I sit to write this review I have a confession to make. I had an assumption about these earphones before I received them and it made my initial impressions of them very confusing. You see, most hybrids on the market (IEMs using both dynamic drivers and balanced armatures) have lots of bass, sucked out mids and sharp, nasty treble. Many of them come close to the fun signatures that many of us are looking for, but none that I’ve heard in the crowded $200-$400 range are yet to achieve that signature without the curse of sizzling, snapping treble.

So when I heard about the upcoming A83 from FIDUE I got really excited. They have received excellent reviews for their A63, a mid-centric budget earphone, so I automatically thought that same warm, fun colouration would be added to the A83 along with the glorious bass of a well-tuned dynamic driver. When I eagerly unpacked the beautifully presented and engineered A83s I was in for a shock. “Where’s all the bass?” I thought, “And what’s with that treble!?” I was completely shocked and found it really hard to figure out what had gone wrong. Where was the fun, musical hybrid I was expecting? Was this another shouty hybrid, but this time without the bass chops?

Um… no.

I just made a really stupid assumption and I feel really silly now because I spent 3 weeks not appreciating the A83s for what they weren’t instead of realising what they are. Would you like to know what they actually are? Read on over at the new Passion for Sound site – it’s sexier and has lots of great new content coming!

 

Noble PR IEM

I find myself in the enviable position of having way too much gear to review at the moment thanks to a couple of purchases (Mr Speakers Mad Dogs and Shure SE846s) in addition to being included on some product tours for IEMs such as the Audiofly AF180s and these Noble PRs. I also have an upcoming review of the very interesting FIDUE A83s. For that reason I’m going to keep this review brief in words, but hopefully heavy on meaningful content. So here we go…

Overview

The Noble PR is one of 2 IEM models from Noble that include a switch on the IEM body that allows you to change the signature of the IEM on the fly. In the case of the PR, the options are a “Pure” sound (P) or a “Reference” sound (R). This is a first (as far as I know) because it is essentially two IEMs in one. For more detail, please take a look at the Noble website and while you’re there, do your eyes a favour and take a look at the “Wizard” range of universals – they are strikingly beautiful one-off, unique IEM designs that are incredibly affordable as a great sounding piece of artwork!

The only other specs I want to provide here are that these IEMs have two distinct impedances – approximately 240 ohm or 30 ohm depending on the mode.

By the way, before I continue I’d like to say thank you to Noble and Head-Fi’er, d marc0, for arranging this tour!! It’s a great initiative in the community to get people experiencing and talking about gear they might not otherwise try. Playing with the PRs has certainly got me very interested in Noble’s other products thanks to the great build quality and execution of the PR.

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content too.

 

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.

Planar Magnetic Comparison – HE-500 vs LCD-2

Most headphones on the market use a “traditional” driver technology referred to as dynamic drivers. These are much the same as the speakers you see in your stereo system or car with a cone of some sort driven by a coil of wire inside a magnet structure. In the past, planar magnetic technology was a fringe product in the headphone world, but over recent years this technology that was once nearly abandoned has enjoyed a resurgence to create some of the finest headphones on the planet. I’m going to talk about 2 of them here…

Audeze LCD-2

SAM_0151-4The LCD-2 was first released around 2010 and marked the first headphone from Audeze and the first really well-known planar magnetic headphone of the current generation. The LCD-2 has since undergone multiple revisions to tweak and improve on the sound and comfort. My pair are a December 2013 model which were made shortly before the most recent upgrade known as the Fazor. For the sake of comparisons to your tastes in music, the December 2013 version of the LCD-2 brings more treble energy and detail than its predecessors, but it’s still a warm / smooth sounding headphone compared with similarities to the HD650 (although I believe the LCD-2 is noticeably better than the HD650).

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!

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!

 

Fiio E12DIY Portable Amplifier

It’s kind of appropriate to be returning to review a new Fiio amplifier given that my very first portable amplifier was the Fiio E11. The E11 was a great starting amp for me, but the E12DIY is in a whole different league!

Overview

02230003The E12DIY is a special project from Fiio and is a limited editing offering for audio enthusiasts and tinkerers. The DIY is designed to let enthusiasts tweak the amp by changing op amps (more on that later), capacitors and resistors, but it begins life as a very capable portable amp even if you do nothing to modify it.

Because of the modifiable nature of the DIY, the specs provided (other than dimensions) are indicative and by no means fixed:

  • Dimensions:  124 x 65.5 x 14.5mm
  • Weight:  163g
  • Signal-to-Noise: 110dB
  • THD: 0.005%
  • Power: 600mW to 16 ohms

Inside the DIY’s box you’ll find a soft carry pouch, a hex key for opening the case, a tool for removing the op amps, a USB charging cable, 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect, rubber bands to attach the amp to your player, and a tin containing a variety of op amps, buffers, capacitors, resistors, and adapters.

Design & Features

The E12DIY is a relatively large amplifier, but it’s slim so total volume is similar to other portables like the Tralucent T1 – it’s just packed in a different shaped box. Personally, I figure that the moment you add an amp to a portable rig you’re choosing to sacrifice “pocketability” so they’re all going to be much the same overall once total size and weight are considered. Sure, there are tiny offerings out there like the Shozy Magic and Ray Samuels Mustang, but the majority of amps are similar in overall size and weight.

The E12DIY is a little heavier than other amps I’ve tried, partly due to its solid aluminium shell and partly due to its large battery. I imagine that the battery also partly defines the DIY’s form factor too, but the battery is a key part to the E12DIY’s performance so no complaints here.

The E12DIY is sold (if you can still find one) in either natural aluminium silver or in a gold finish that I haven’t seen “in the flesh”. Both colours differentiate the DIY from the standard E12 models which are black.

Connectivity & Controls

The E12DIY is nice and simple – 3.5mm input and output jacks (1 of each), a micro USB power socket, 2-position gain switch (high / low), and a volume knob that doubles as a power switch (zero volume = amplifier off). Unlike the standard E12 model, there is no bass boost switch or crossfeed circuit. According to comments I read somewhere from Fiio, the E12DIY was deliberately kept simple to allow more space for the best (simplest?) possible audio and power circuit designs and I believe it was a great choice.

Power

02230001Fiio struck a perfect balance with the design of the E12DIY by making it low-powered enough to drive sensitive OEMs, while also providing a high gain mode and plenty of power to drive much more challenging headphones.

The DIY pairs spectacularly with my Unique Melody Miracles, but is equally adept at powering my beyerdynamic T1s and Fischer Audio FA-011 LEs. That’s excellent versatility and means that the E12DIY could easily be the only portable amplifier you ever need to own. Of course, being a portable amp, it doesn’t quite replace a quality desktop, mains-powered amplifier, but is excellent for portable listening.

Something I really liked about Fiio’s provided set of buffers and op amps is that one of them (the LMH6321) is more focussed on high impedance loads (that’s Sennheisers and beyerdynamics mostly), while the other 2 are more general in operation. This means you can focus your amp to drive your exact headphone if you have a higher impedance model or you can keep it more versatile with the other buffer options. I should probably clarify though, that the other buffers still do a great job of driving high impedance ‘phones, it’s just that the LMH6321 is able to produce a little more oomph into higher impedance loads.

Sound Quality

Knowing that you can change the op amps and buffers in this amp, you’ve probably also surmised that the sound quality is variable as a result. Correct!

Because of the completely variable nature of the DIY’s staging and signature, I’m going to restrict this section to discussing the elements that remain consistent regardless of the chips used.

Noise Levels

In short? None!

01170025The E12DIY provides a completely black background with no noise or hash through any earphone or headphone I’ve tried with it. I did notice that using the BUF634 buffer introduced a potential for some noise to be picked up when I moved the interconnect and earphone plugs around inside the sockets (i.e. if I had the amp in my pocket and was walking), but I think this might have been a sign that I needed to re-seat the buffer by removing it and plugging it back in to ensure full contact in the socket. In any case, this was a situational issue while 95% of the time the amp was dead silent with this buffer and is 100% silent with my preferred LME49600 buffer, bur more on that later.

Back to discussing noise levels, the most noticeable benefit of a black background is that it allows every nuance, detail and texture of your music to be heard easily and clearly, but without having to over-emphasise anything. The E12DIY is able to deliver incredible clarity and detail while never sounding like it colours or enhances anything.

Channel Separation

Some years back I worked in car audio, designing and installing stereo systems. My focus was always sound quality and imaging, not necessarily sound pressure levels (i.e. ear-drum-rupturing volume). One of the tricks I often employed to create epic sound quality without spending too much money was to have separate amplifiers for each channel. For example, we’d use a 2 channel amp for the left side of the car (1 channel for the front and 1 channel for the rear) and a second 2 channel amp for the right side of the car. This kept each half of the stereo signal completely isolated so there was nearly zero crosstalk (only what occurred inside the car’s head unit). The term crosstalk refers to the sound from one channel bleeding slightly into the other channel and it has the ability to compress or completely kill the stereo image.

The reason I told that little story is because some amps do a better job than others at replicating this type of isolation of the 2 stereo channels. You can always tell when an amp does it well because the auditory image is always deep, beautifully defined, and engaging. The E12DIY does this extremely well! There are no crosstalk measurement published, but to my ears, the stereo channels are beautifully isolated and this is particularly true when using the OPA1611 op amps (2 mono op amps being used much like my 2 separate car amp analogy above).

Overall, the E12DIY’s ability to provide a “blank canvas” for the sound and to keep the stereo channels well isolated results in a wonderfully fun foundation with which to chop and change op amps and buffers to tailor the sound to your tastes and your gear while always maximising the performance of the components you install.

Op Amps and Buffers

I am a complete newbie when it comes to op amps and buffers, or at least I was when I bought the E12DIY. I would suggest that I have progressed from newb to beginner or amateur over the last few months, but am still far from an expert so what follows is a layman’s explanations of what I have discovered and learned with the chips supplied by Fiio and a few others I’ve bought myself.

Op Amps vs Buffers

02230012My layman’s understanding of op amps and buffers is that they are both very similar, but used differently. In my understanding, an op amp processes the incoming signal a bit like a pre-amp. The buffer then provides the gain (or voltage) to drive the signal into the headphones. To put it another way, the signal comes from your device (let’s say an iPod line out) and is first fed to the op amp which outputs an amplified signal. The amplified signal now needs power applied to allow it to effectively drive the headphones you’re using and this is the role of the buffer as I understand it.

As I said, I am still learning this area of audio and electronics, but I think of the op amp as a pre-amp of sorts and the buffer as the interface between the amplifier and headphones – the engine that drives the headphones according to the directions provided by the op amp.

If you know more about this topic and can clarify (or correct) my explanation, please feel free to share your knowledge with me and others via the comments section.

What Fiio Provides

The silver tin that comes with an E12DIY contains a selection of 4 op amps and 3 buffers. The op amps essentially offer different flavours of sound while the buffers offer a combination of flavouring, but also tailoring the power output to suit your chosen ‘phones.

The op amps provided are:

  • AD8620
  • OPA1611
  • OPA604
  • AD797

02230007I will hopefully be able to dedicate a whole post to the different sounds and flavours of various op amps in the near future, but my personal preference from these op amps is the OPA1611 which balances near-neutrality with a touch of bass warmth and lots of detail and clarity.

Until I can write in more detail about these op amps, there is some great discussion of different op amps scattered throughout the E12DIY thread over on Head-Fi.

The buffers provided are:

  • BUF634 (general)
  • LME49600 (general)
  • LMH6321 (more focussed towards powering high impedance headphones)

To my ears, the BUF634 and LME49600 provide different presentations of the sound with the BUF634 creating a more intimate, warmer presentation and the LME49600 feeling more spacious and transparent. The BUF634 might have a slight edge in the texture and weight of midrange, but I find myself preferring the LME49600 and the consensus (by a small majority) on Head-Fi points towards the LME49600 being the preferred buffer.

The LMH6321 presents sound quality that, overall, is almost on par with the LME49600, but it is able to provide greater power and therefore may perform even better than the LME49600 when paired with higher impedance headphones. THe LMH6321 is a bit of a specialist in that respect because it is less capable with lower impedance ‘phones than the other buffers. It still sounds great, but just not as great as the other two “generalist” buffers. If I were using the E12DIY solely with a headphone like the Sennheiser HD650 or beyer T1, the LMH6321 would likely get the nod.

Extra Adapters

In addition to the range of supplied chips, Fiio went one step further and provided all manner of adapters so you can try your own selection of op amps. The design of the E12DIY won’t allow for DIP-8 style op amps like the OPA2107, LM4562, or MUSES 01 (to name a few), but you can grind / file the inside of the case slightly to allow sufficient clearance if you’re brave enough. So far I’ve resisted this urge because I’m worried that it would require making the aluminium housing a bit too thin, but maybe I’ll get brave one day…

Back to the supplied adapters though. When you lift out the foam inside the tin full of op amps, there are a myriad of adapters stuck to the bottom of the foam (just using the 8 pin connectors pushed into holes in the foam). These adapters include options for both buffers and op amps including dual and mono varieties. It means you can have plenty of fun trying unusual, cheap, expensive, and exotic op amps to your heart’s content… so long as you’re happy to wield a soldering iron. No soldering is required with the stock provisions, but any op amps or buffers you buy yourself will either require soldering (for surface mount options) or filing / grinding (for DIP-8 options).

So far I have only tried an AD8599 which is the same op amp as used in the Tralucent T1 and while it’s magic in the T1, I preferred the OPA1611 in the DIY.

Summary & Wrap

01170026As I write this summary, there are probably a few new, retail units of the E12DIY in captivity so if you’ve read this far and it’s still close to April / May 2014 then you might want to get hunting for a remaining E12DIY at a dealer. For the price you pay you will not find a comparable package of sound quality, power and bespoke sound. It’s a sleek package of brushed aluminium that happens to perform somewhere in the range of twice it’s price point. In terms of transparency, neutrality and overall quality, the E12DIY will absolutely not disappoint the most demanding users as a portable amplifier and will be equally as much a bargain second hand (if you can find one) as new.

With the E12DIY, Fiio seem to have announced their arrival into making serious, headphone performance gear and have taken a step beyond their previous (excellent) mid-fi offerings. The recently released X5 portable media player is a further step in this direction and I’m looking forward to reviewing it in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

Atomic Floyd Super Darts

The Super Darts are a hybrid IEM from English manufacturer, Atomic Floyd. They boast some of the best build quality and bass quality I’ve ever seen and heard in an earphone, but were recently reviewed rather negatively by a local magazine publication. I was shocked to read the review and promptly asked Billy from Noisy Motel if I could have a lend of the Super Darts to review and to see if I had mis-perceived the Super Darts during my previous auditions. Despite being loaned the Super Darts there is no bias for me to write a favourable review.

Overview

  • Sensitivity:  100 dB
  • Frequency range:  5 – 25,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  16 ohms
  • Drivers:  1 x dynamic, 1 x balanced armature per earphone

The Super Darts retail for $299 (AUD) which places them firmly in the sweet spot for the many hybrid IEMs appearing on the market from companies such as Astrotec, Sony, and T-Peos to name a few. The hybrid trend is thriving at present because of the benefits of marrying the very bass-capable dynamic drivers with the more agile balanced armatures for mids and treble. I’ve previously reviewed the Astrotec AX60s which are a 3-driver hybrid that costs $100 more than the Super Darts so they provided a nice reference point for this review.

Design & Comfort

These are easily some of the sexiest IEMs I’ve ever seen and the fact that they’re made from metal and have a beautiful fabric-wrapped cable means that they feel as good as they look. They are built like a tank, but a tank made by Ferrari. Everything from the plug through the Y-split to the shells of the IEMs themselves are made of high quality materials and look and feel like they’re worth every cent of your $299.

Cable

SAMSUNG CSCThe cable is fabric wrapped up to the Y-split before being replaced by a hard-wearing red rubber to maintain the silver, black and red colour scheme of all Atomic Floyd products.

Incorporated into the left channel cable is a mic and remote control for Apple devices (it doesn’t work with any other brand of device I’ve tried including Windows and Android phones) and the mic housing is also made of metal and high quality rubber for the buttons. Everything about it feels high quality and long-lasting, but the placement leaves me wondering a little.

Using the Super Darts while wearing an open-neck business shirt, the microphone section was constantly SAMSUNG CSCcatching on my collar and soon drove me quite nuts. It also seems to be a little too high, sitting level with the adam’s apple in my neck. Although it’s probably a good placement for a microphone it is out of sight and in a position that will catch on a lot of clothing I think. Of course, some of this may also depend on your individual dimensions because we all have different length necks, ear heights, etc. It’s not a deal breaker, but I felt it was worthy of noting.

Accessories & Fit

TSAMSUNG CSChe Super Darts are supplied with a sparse selection of silicon tips – 3 sizes, but that’s fine because they are excellent tips offering great comfort and perform better with the Super Darts than any other tip I tried (including foam, Sony Hybrid, and Monster tips). The tips carry the black and red colour scheme as well so your IEMs will look extra bad ass with the provided accessories.

As well as tips, Atomic Floyd package in an airplane adapter and mini-jack (6.3mm) adapter. Both are gold-plated with red accents so they look good and they feel like they’re high quality too.

SAMSUNG CSCFinally, you also get a rubber clam style carry case which is basic, but very practical and one of the best carry cases I’ve seen for IEMs (from a practicality point of view).

Overall Comfort

The Super Darts are a very comfortable IEM. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I sometimes struggle with in-ear comfort because of relatively small ear canals. The small flange on the tip of the Super Darts is just enough to hold the tips securely in place, but puts no pressure on my ears allowing the Super Darts to almost feel weightless.

Despite being made of solid metal, the Darts aren’t heavy or bulky. They have some weight, but they remain comfortable even for long listening sessions. As previously mentioned, the supplied tips are excellent and definitely contribute to the overall comfort.

Sound Quality

The Super Darts are best described as a fun sounding IEM with a U-shaped frequency response. They have perhaps the best bass I have ever heard on an IEM  – admittedly I haven’t heard some of the beasts in the bass department like the SE846 and IE8, but for a $299 IEM to be SO impressive in the bass region is astonishing. Before I carry on about the bass though, let’s break down the sound as usual into some categories for consideration.

Bass

SAMSUNG CSCNo suprises here. I’ve just told you how exceptional these are here. The Super Darts are able to create rumble below the audible frequencies which is just amazing to me. They have a slight emphasis in the bass, but are not bloated at all. The bass is tight, punchy and full, but not soft or bloomy. Listening to Black Capricorn Day by Jamiroquai I was literally feeling sounds against my ear drums that I couldn’t hear. There are many tracks where I’ve flat-out stopped what I was doing to marvel at the bass from these tiny little bullets of sound.

Other than describing the bass from these as perfect, there’s not a lot more I can say and that’s not hyperbole. Imagine the best bass you could hear from an IEM and you’ll know what the Super Darts sound like in this region. Wow.

Of course, bass alone doesn’t make the perfect listening experience though so read on to see how they fare as we approach the higher frequencies.

Mids

The Super Darts’ U-shaped signature automatically means the midrange is going to be slightly pulled back in relation to the bass and treble, but to my ears the mids are still very good. There’s nice cohesion with all instruments and no signs of conflict between the dynamic driver and balanced armature where they share duties at the crossover point.

The mids are natural and clean overall. I’d probably describe them as neutral and accurate when considered in isolation. Yes, they sit behind the bass and treble in terms of overall emphasis, but the mids aren’t coloured in any way to my ears. There’s no lushness or cream added, but they also don’t get too dry or analytical with vocals – a nicely balanced approach.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCAnd it was going so well… OK, so it’s no a deal breaker, but the treble is going to be a love hate thing for some people.

The Super Darts skirt the fine line for me between being energetic and dynamic in their treble presentation versus straying into strident and “too hot” territory occasionally. They remind me of some of the beyerdynamic cans with the peaks in the upper treble around 9kHz. If I had to draw a comparison to a headphone, I would point to the beyerdynamic T90 which is just a little brighter than the T1.

Depending on your taste in signatures, your device, and your music choices, the Super Darts could be anywhere from the perfect earphone to an ear-shredding disaster (but the latter exaggeration would only be for those who swear by super dark setups like Sennheiser HD650s with uber warm amplifiers). For most people I think the Super Darts will be much like many of the high-end beyerdynamic headphones – really enjoyable for 90% of your music and just a bit uncomfortable for the 10% that’s mastered too hot or poorly and with harsh treble.

Staging & Imaging

I expected the treble profile of the Super Darts to make for some epic staging and imaging, but they aren’t quite as incredible as I hoped. They’re not bad by any stretch, but they’re probably just average. You wouldn’t pass these up because of their staging and imaging because they’re respectable and solid, but they aren’t world-beaters in this department either. Imaging is clear, well located and cohesive and the stage is moderate in size, extending from ear to ear and slightly forward. The stage is also nicely semi-circular too whereas some other IEMs sometimes create a centre section and side sections with nothing at the angles, but the Darts perform well in that regard.

Summary

So what does all this mean and would I buy a set of Super Darts?

If a friend asked me about the Super Darts I would highly recommend that they try them out. In other words I think very highly of these earphones, but also recognise that they won’t be for everyone. If you like a dynamic sound, epicly awesome bass and sparkly treble you will absolutely love these earphones. If you run screaming from anyone who says the word “treble” then you probably shouldn’t bother with the Super Darts, but everyone else should definitely give them a go and make sure you try a track with some bass – you won’t regret it!!

Just to clarify all of this for anyone on the fence, I am general a bit treble shy. I use tube amps to smooth out my heaphones and lean away from bright / analytical gear towards more musical and slightly warm presentations, but I still REALLY like the Super Darts. If I didn’t already own a set of custom Miracles I would buy the Super Darts in a heart beat. For my ears I would pair them with slightly warmer sources (the Fiio X3 and RWAK100 would both be great combos) and love every second of time spent with them. I’m almost tempted to buy a set of these just because they are such a sexy, high quality product.

 

Signature Acoustics C-12 IEMs

The C-12s are hand-made IEMs made from Indian company, Signature Acoustics. A newcomer to the scene, it seems Signature Acoustics is creating some differentiation by creating hand-made, wooden IEMs.

Overview

  • Driver:  8mm dynamic
  • Impedance: 18 ohms
  • Frequency:  17 – 20 kHz
  • Sensitivity:  102 dB

For around $60 (AUD) these are a budget earphone that performs very well for its price and are a little bit special due to their wooden construction. Of course, there’s more you’ll want to know than just that though so read on for all the details…

Design & Comfort

Cropped 1I’ve already mentioned that the C-12s are made of wood so I won’t harp on it. It is worth noting though that being handmade does mean there will be some minor variation from one unit to the next and the casings may not be 100% perfect. For example, you may be able to see in the image above that the groove around the earphone at the front of the photo is of varying width because the earphones haven’t been assembled perfectly. It seems to have no impact on the sound and is only noticeable if you look closely so I really don’t think this matters and it’s always nice to know that someone has personally put their care, attention and expertise into creating a product so I’m fine with the minor aesthetic imperfections. It’s also really nice having a beautifully crafted wooden Y-split complete with a slider so that earns points in my book.

Cropped 2In terms of comfort, the C-12 comes with a fairly basic range of silicon single-flange tips and the sound port is the same as the HiFiMan earphones so there are plenty of tips around that will fit the C-12s. My ears are fairly tricky to get a comfortable fit with when using a universal so it’s no surprise that the C-12s aren’t perfectly comfortable, but the Re-272s and Shure SE535s are the only universals I’ve found so far that were 100% comfortable so this is more about me than the C-12s. Overall, I would expect the C-12s to be as comfortable as the majority of other IEMs for most people. If you struggle to get a comfortable fit, these might not be for you, but if most earphones are OK for you there’s no reason to not consider the C-12s.

Supplied Accessories

In addition to the range of tips, the C-12s come with a beautiful brass storage case. I doubt you’d use it as a carry case because it’s really heavy, but it’s a really nice storage case to keep on a desk or in a draw with your earphones safe and sound. I wonder though if it’s a bit of a mismatch to have a fairly deluxe style container for a relatively budget IEM. Perhaps a cheaper case and some extra tips would be a better inclusion.

The other things provided with the C-12s are a lapel clip to hold the cable and 2 different sets of filters to tweak the sound to your personal preferences. I’ll discuss these in more detail below.

Sound Quality

The price tag of the C-12s might leave you expecting little, but there are various budget IEMs out there now offering great performance and the C-12 seems to be targeted at the same market. The overall signature of the C-12s is warm and smooth with a slight emphasis on bass. It’s an inoffensive sound and easy to enjoy, but let’s look more closely…

Treble

Cropped 6This is probably the weakest part of the C-12s signature. The treble is just a bit too rolled off and it leaves the overall sound feeling a bit murky and thick. The provided filters (the mesh you can see on top of one of the IEMs in the image to the right) allow you to tweak the sound, but none of them really open up the treble quite enough. It’s very hard to tell if the pre-fitted filters are the middle of the 3 or the most open. One set is definitely for a much darker sound, but the other is so similar to the pre-fitted ones that I had a hard time distinguishing the difference by the time I removed the IEMs, change filters and got them back in my ears.

In the end, what really matters is that there is no configuration of filters or tips that could produce quite enough treble extension to make these sound as open and detailed as they probably should. With no filter at all, the C-12s start to approach a better balance of treble energy, but I imagine just one small amount of ear-wax in a tiny driver like this could be curtains so I wouldn’t recommend filter-free use and only tried it myself for the briefest time to see what the starting signature is like. Doing so showed me that the C-12 probably started a little too dark before the filters were applied and it had nowhere to go. Had the starting sound included just a little more treble energy, these could have been really magic. As it is, despite the quoted 20kHz frequency peak, it sounds like there is fairly significant roll-off before about 16kHz and it leaves the C-12s lacking that little bit of air that would help them feel more spacious and alive.

I know I’ve just spent 2 paragraphs bemoaning the C-12s treble, but all is not lost. The treble that is present is of great quality – smooth and refined – and the relative lack of treble energy means there’s zero fatigue from the C-12s. For people who enjoy a laid-back listening experience, the C-12s are still worth considering so read on!

Mids

The C-12 offers a nice, creamy mid-range with plenty of detail and texture. It’s a little bit coloured and not entirely even across all mid-range frequencies, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. These aren’t IEMs you’d use for analysis or monitoring – they’re IEMs purely for relaxed listening to music.

Vocals are clear and present with good body whether it’s a male or female vocalist. Overall, the tonality of the mids is quite neutral the majority of the time with the exception of some slight upper bass bloat which can muddy the mid-range on some tracks, but this is more an exception than the rule. All-in-all I find the C-12’s mid-range enjoyable and a little seductive. I wonder if the wooden housing is the cause for the overall warmth and the nice timbre of most vocals and instrumental presentation.

Bass

The C-12s were clearly tuned to have a nice prominent bass with punch and presence, but not too much bloat. They’re not the final word in bass control, but the bass is really good for the most part. Bass lines sing through the music, you can feel some kick and thump in your ears and with a few exceptions (as mentioned above), the bass mostly stays in its own lane and doesn’t interfere with higher registers. There’s plenty of extension down deep and on some tracks, the depth and subtlety of the rumble I was hearing and feeling was really impressive.

Summary

Cropped 4If this is the first foray into earphones from Signature Acoustics (which I believe it might be) it’s an excellent start. They probably need to make a few adjustments (like starting with a brighter driver to put inside their beautiful, but warm sounding wooden shells), but this first effort is very well priced for its quality of build and sound.

I wouldn’t recommend this for people who enjoy bright, airy sounding ‘phones, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking for a well-priced, laid-back cruisy earphone with great bass. Think of the C-12 as a budget earphone representing something similar in overall signature to an LCD-2 or HD650 (not that it performs to the same level, but it has the same laid-back type of signature).

I’m keenly waiting to see what Signature Acoustics might offer up next because the value for money of the C-12 is excellent, their design is really nice, and the overall result is only a few adjustments from being a serious giant killer. To get a better sounding, but similarly voiced earphone you need to spend nearly twice as much on something like the thinksound TS01 so it’s a really good start from Signature Acoustics!