Beyerdynamic T1

Beyerdynamic are a well known name in the headphone industry and in the professional audio world. I have toyed with the idea of purchasing Beyers on many occasions, but never pulled the trigger… until now.

Specifications

  • Style:  Semi-open
  • Frequency response:  5 – 50,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  600 ohms
  • Nominal SPL:  102 dB

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.

 

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!

AKG K420

For a while now I’ve been looking for a good office headphone – something that I could take with me easily, not disturb others, but be able to hear what’s going on around me when needed. Oh, and it had to sound good, be easy to drive from a laptop or portable player and not be too expensive. It was quite a list to fill.

Ladies and gentlemen…. introducing the AKG K420 – perhaps the greatest budget, portable, open headphone around.

Overview

K420 Box trans

  • Frequency response:  13Hz – 27kHz
  • Input impedance:  32 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  125dB (SPL/V)
  • Cable length: 1m

The K420 is an open or semi-open style, folding, portable on-ear headphone. They come with a simple carry pouch and not much else, but that’s really all you need and it keeps them highly portable and light.

The simplicity of accessories and design also keeps the K420s at a great price point. At around AUD $70, they are a fairly low-price headphone in the scheme of things, but don’t let their price point fool you – they punch well above their weight.

Similar Options

When I went to buy the K420s, I had a few options on my shortlist:

  • AKG K420
  • Koss Portapro
  • Sennheiser PX100-II
  • Jays V-Jays
  • AIAIAI Tracks

All of these options are priced similarly and all have some good attributes going for them, but for me the K420s covered everything I needed without dropping the ball in any category and sounding the best overall (in my opinion)

Versatility

The AKG K420s sound great driven directly from a wide range of devices including:

  • Laptop
  • USB DAC (Audioquest Dragonfly)
  • iPod (5.5G runnin ROCKbox)
  • Tralucent T1 portable headphone amp
  • Cowon X7
  • Sony Xperia TX (android smartphone)

As you can see from this list – the K420s are happy with pretty much any source. This is partly due to their moderate impedance and their high sensitivity, but also due to the fact that they aren’t super-revealing audiophile headphones – they’re good quality, everyday listening headphones.

Design & Comfort

The K420s are designed with portability in mind and the 1m cord is proof.  The lightweight folding design makes them easy to take anywhere, but not at the expense of a quality, robust feel. I never get the sense that a wrong move could damage or break the K420s. They aren’t built like a tank, but they will stand up to normal portable use and treatment.

k_420_denim_3d_view_on_white_The headband has a nice, rubbery insert where it makes contact with your head and I’ve found no discomfort during extended listening. Once again, they don’t quite compare to my AD900s or HD650s in terms of comfort, but for a lightweight portable, they are perfectly comfortable.

The earpads are covered in soft foam and are large enough to cover the ear making them comfortable and easy to place on your ear – no problems here.

Now for the one design flaw which is a minor one, but potentially worth noting. When you fold the earpieces in for storage / transport, the strain reliefs (extra rubber sheathing over the cable) where the cables exit each earpiece can easily be bent and put under pressure. That might be exactly why the strain reliefs are as long as they are (for extra protection of the cable), but I always feel like I have to be very careful when folding and worry that this could be a long-term weakness of the K420s. Unfortunately, only time will tell…

The last point in the design section is the cable length which will be a plus for some and a minus for others. At 1m it’s quite short and AKG don’t provide an extension with the K420 so there’s no flexibility here. I find the 1m cable length to be ideal for working at my laptop and sitting with my phone / iPod, but some may yearn for just a touch more length – it’s a very personal thing based on where and how you use your headphones.

Sound

Overall, the sound from the K420s is engaging and fun, but keeps everything under control so there’s no fatigue from a bright top end or bloat from enhanced bass. All-in-all, the signature is slightly V-shaped meaning that the bass and treble are probably ever-so-slightly forward compared to the mid-range, but the mids don’t get lost which is great because the quality of the mids is fantastic.

Bass: Strong and impactful, but never bloated. Compared to the PX100-II, the bass was less prominent and switching between the two made the K420s seem a little light on bass at first, but further listening on their own showed a nice full bass with good depth and body.

The bass won’t blow you away and may not suit some hip-hop and electronic fans the way something like the PX100-II might, but the K420’s bass is very versatile and has surprising extension and impact when thrown some hip-hop or electronic. It has a nice warmth, quite good texture and sounds good with everything I’ve thrown at it. It has significantly more presence and body than something like the HiFiMAN Re-272, but keeps it clean and controlled.

Mids: I love good mids and the K420s manage to satisfy. Every now and then a track will make me stop and really listen to the smooth and liquid delivery of the K420’s midrange. The super-sweet mids seem dependent on the track being played, but they are always solid. Overall, the mids are solid around 85% of the time and hit a sweet spot on around 15% of the tracks I’ve tried – mostly when there’s a little less high frequency activity in the track.

Highs: The K420 has peaky highs. Without looking at a chart of the frequency response it’s hard to pick exactly what’s going on, but they can seem bright in one moment and smooth in another. Overall, the highs are always fine, but they are a little bit variable and err towards the brighter side. Thankfully the K420s don’t get fatiguing or harsh – probably because of the nice warmth provided at the bottom end to balance out the top end.

Although not super-resolving and transparent, the K420s have nice high end detail and keep things clean and clear enough to sound good with every style of music I’ve tried.

Presentation: The K420s create an adequate soundstage, but nothing exceptional. Instruments are well placed in the soundstage, but the size of that stage is quite limited and tight to the head. There is little to no forward projection of the sound which means that everything is crammed within the space between your ears, but it doesn’t sound too cluttered – just not spacious and holographic like some much higher priced headphones. Once again, for the price, the K420’s performance is at least up to expectations. In terms of staging it doesn’t outdo its price tag, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of these relatively budget headphones.

Summary

For a sub-$100 portable all-rounder I really don’t think you can beat the AKG K420. When viewed in perspective with their price, they are far ahead of most similarly priced options and will actually outperform some more expensive options too. Are they the last pair of headphones you’ll ever own? No. Are they a pair of headphones worth owning? Yes.