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!

Tralucent T1

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now, but it’s worked out better for everyone involved because I’ve had time to truly appreciate this little packet of awesomeness called the T1 from Tralucent Audio.

The T1 is a portable amplifier designed for use with various source units such as iPods, Walkmans, Cowon players, Sansa players, etc. The T1 is normally priced at $250 (US dollars I think) and is specially priced at $229 at the time of this blog post. That pricing places it below well-known and well-loved  amplifiers like the Graham Slee Voyager, Meier Audio Corda 2 Stepdance, and Pico Slim. I’m not going to do a direct comparison because I don’t currently have access to all of these models without blowing a lot of $$$, but can assure you that the T1 definitely holds its own in this company and many users of both the T1 and the amps listed above report preferences towards the T1.

Overview

T1 Full Kit

The T1 with its accessories

The specs of the T1 aren’t published on the website so I can’t give you exact measurements, but I can tell you that the power output is easily ample to drive full size cans like the Sennheiser HD650s and it has enough dynamic range and control to also work effectively at lower volumes with sensitive IEMs like the Shure SE535s and Unique Melody Miracles (or other sensitive customs)

The T1 comes with a nice array of pieces including:

  • High quality 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable (middle)
  • 2 elastic bands (grey and black)
  • A USB charging cable (bottom right)
  • A 9V rechargeable battery (not pictured)

T1 Front PanelThe design of the T1 is very simple. The front panel houses a volume knob, input socket (closest to the volume knob), output socket, and blue power LED to show you when the amplifier is switched on.

The back panel houses the red charging LED and the mini-USB socket used for charging. Although micro-USB is becoming more and more common, most people will likely T1 Back Panelstill have devices with both so finding a spare micro-USB cable (or ten) shouldn’t be too hard and of course there’s one provided in the box with the T1.

Size

E11 & T1 Piggyback

Fiio E11 (top) and Tralucent T1 (bottom)

The T1 is a compact portable amplifier, but is not quite as small as some others on the market. As you can see in this image, the footprint of the T1 is about the same as the Fiio E11, but the T1 is about twice as thick.

It’s easily worth the extra cost of real estate when compared to the sound of an amp like the E11 as the T1 far outperforms it’s slimmer cousin.

E11 & T1The overall dimensions of the T1 (not including the volume knob or switches) are: 88mm x 50mm x 21mm

The T1 fits really nicely behind my full-sized iPods. It makes it basically impossible to put the rig into your pocket, but the T1 + iPod bundle sits nicely in the hand without too much trouble.

Battery Life and Charging

The T1 reaches a full charge in a few hours using USB power and this charge lasts for ages. I’ve successfully used the T1 for about a week of normal use without charging. (That means using it on the 1 hour journey to and from work, plus some incidental listening.) It’s easy to expect it to cover any of your listening needs without interruptions for charging – full days of listening, days of commuting, listening while travelling, etc. I can’t see a fully charged battery failing to see you through in any circumstances.

You can also use the T1 while it’s connected to power. It uses a smart power system that will divert the USB power directly to the amplification circuit when plugged in so you can use it without draining the battery. When I tried this from my computer (which has noticeably  noisy USB ports), the amp was unlistenable due to the noise being conveyed. I have heard that the amp works better of mains-powered USB chargers, but haven’t tried this so can’t comment. For me, most listening with the T1 is away from a power source so it’s battery power all the way.

Sound Quality

Tralucent T1 trans“Finally!” you say.

Yes, this is what really matters and the T1 doesn’t disappoint.

Out of the box, the T1 is a little bit underwhelming. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t amaze…

…and that’s why god invented burning-in.

Burn-In

After an overnight burn-in (leaving it connected to headphones and my iPod on shuffle), the T1 grew into its skin and sounded wonderful.

The T1 continued to improve over the following days of use and reached its peak after a week or so of use. I’ve heard 200 hours suggested as the ideal burn-in period for the T1 to reach its full potential. This may be true, but it sounded great after just one night and steadily improved after that, but I wouldn’t wait until the 200 hour mark – just start enjoying it and let it improve.

The Finished Sound

Once burnt-in, the sound of the T1 is exceptional. It’s very neutral and uncoloured – giving you the music as it was recorded and without any significant emphasis.

The T1 reproduces outstanding bass and I was initially unsure if there was a very slight emphasis here or if it just did a better job than some of the other devices I was used to. After extended listening my belief is that it just does a great job of producing and controlling accurate bass reproduction*. It gets the best out of the headphones/earphones connected, but doesn’t seem to add anything to the source material. I haven’t heard bass added to any tracks that I know are light on bass.

*More on this in a later section about IEMs.

In addition to its brilliant bass reproduction, the other area of excellence for the T1 is its staging and transparency.

The T1 produces no audible hiss even at levels above normal listening volume. This means that the music comes at you from a completely blank backdrop and allows every subtle nuance of the recording to come through. The result is a compelling listening experience where there is a beautiful, big and deep stage created. All of the sounds are placed exactly where they should be and the space around each instrument and performer is clearly audible.

The thing I love most about the T1 is its ability to simply enhance the ability of your headphones or earphones in recreating the music. It doesn’t get involved in the reproduction, it just supports and drives your phones to perfection.

Full-Size Cans

0cb728f9_Sennheiser20HD650

I bought the T1 to drive my Shure SE535s, HiFi Man Re272s and Unique Melody Miracles, but I thought I’d also try it out with my HD650s.

The T1 does a great job with the 650s. It’s not able to recreate the dynamics and presence of a mains-powered desktop amp, but it still manages to make the HD650s sound great (subjectively, I’d say around 75-80% of their potential). The soundstage is good and reproduction across the frequency range remains accurate and enjoyable.

The T1 runs at around 40-50% volume to effectively drive the HD650s (depending on the input used).

IEMs

SE535 LE

The low impedance of many IEMs makes them a difficult proposition for many amplifiers and portable devices. A low impedance earphone is actually harder to control than high impedance headphones.

One of the measures used by many to determine the synergy between sources / amplifiers and headphones / earphones is the 1/8 rule. Basically, they want the impedance of the output from the device to be no more than 1/8 of the headphone’s / earphone’s impedance. I don’t know it the 1/8 rule is truly a good measure, but the key is there – the bigger the difference between the source and headphone impedance the better.

IEMs like the Shure SE535s and various customs have impedance around 16 ohms which is very low in the world of headphones. This means finding a source / amp with output impedance that’s very low and the T1 fits the bill.

The T1 has an output impedance of around 0.1-0.2 ohms so you can literally pair it with anything! (From an impedance matching perspective at least)

The result of this brilliantly low output impedance is the T1’s awesome control. The T1 has the ability to exert perfect control over the drivers in your IEMs and the result is punchy and powerful bass without any bloat. By removing bloat, the texture of the bass line can really shine and you get to experience the magic across the full frequency range of your music.

Summary

All-in-all, the Tralucent T1 is an amazing amplifier for the money. It’s not flashy or full of features, but instead offers a clean and open presentation of all your music with the ability to pair seamlessly and effectively with any of your earphones / headphones.

For the dollars you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that comes close to the T1 and it would be very easy to argue that you won’t beat it at almost any price point. Other more expensive portable amps are probably just as good as the T1, but it will be hard to find one that is head and shoulders above the T1 even for more money.

HiFiMan Re-272

OK, let’s get it out of the way… yes, the name “HiFiMan” doesn’t inspire confidence. So much so that a friend of mine refused to buy their products because the name sounded like a cheap knock-off brand. If you haven’t heard of HiFiMan before, don’t be put off by the name – it is a great brand that continues to pump out some amazingly priced products that outperform vastly more expensive products from other manufacturers.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

Bose IE2

There’s a lot of bad press from the “high-end” audio community towards Bose and although I would agree that Bose isn’t my choice for home music listening, they make brilliant home theatre systems that are near impossible to beat from a “bang-for-buck” and simplicity perspective.Bose IE2 earphones in their original packaging

That got me thinking, are their earphones and headphones really that bad? I’ve read a lot of hot debate on Head-Fi about Bose ear/headphones and didn’t know what to trust. A friend of mine who works for Bose was kind enough to share his IE2 earphones with me to test out.

Despite my friend working at Bose, I can assure you that this is an unbiased review. There are no strings attached and my single purpose on this blog is to share my impressions of different products and how enjoyable (or otherwise) they make our music.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

Fiio E11 – Portable Amplifier

I recently “upgraded” my portable music player from the 5.5G iPod Video 80Gb to the 7G iPod Classic 160Gb. The decision was purely one of storage capacity because the 5.5G iPod is widely considered the best sounding of Apple’s offerings. From the moment I tested my new Classic I clearly understood the love people hold for the 5.5G. The Classic has decent sound, but it’s a bit restricted at the extremities of both the bass and treble, and the sound is overall a bit 2-dimensional. To my ears, there is also a harshness to the sound at somewhere between 8kHz and 16kHz, but that could be an individual bias or preference towards a certain style of sound.

You can read more about my portable player experiences and testing here.

So, I quickly decided to explore external amplification and ended up playing with the Fiio E11.

The Fiio E11 retails for a very reasonable $70-80 and is available from most headphone outlets. It’s affordable, compact, light, flexible and powerful (for its size).

Overview

  • Maximum output power: 300mW @ 16ohm – 35mW @ 300 ohm
  • Size: 92.5x 54.2x 13.4mm
  • Signal-to-noise: 98dB
  • Battery life: >10 hours playback (reported, not personally tested)

As you can see from the picture, the E11 is very simple: an input socket, output socket, volume knob, and 2 switches (gain and bass boost). To me, simplicity is a good thing in an amp – I just want quality circuitry that takes a line out and increases its volume without messing with it and that’s exactly how the E11 works.

The E11 is a simple, in-line amplifier designed to have a 3.5mm headphone or line-out coming in and a pair of headphone coming out. That said, I personally wouldn’t bother using it from a headphone output most cases (unless I really needed more volume than my portable device could provide). The reason for this is that the E11, or any in-line amplifier, is only as good as the input signal and amplifying a crappy signal just results in loud, crappy sound.

So, I paired the E11 with a Fiio E9 line-out plug for the iPod and tested it using some 320kbps MP3 tracks.

Sound Quality

The sound quality of the E11 is very good. It’s not elite, but very good. It’s also got the potential to be very loud which is great because it means you can enjoy your music at a good volume while the E11 is just idling at maybe 30%, not straining itself at 95% power.

The soundstage from the E11 is open and 3-dimensional. It’s not as open and spacious as the sound from the Cowon X7, but it’s so far ahead of the stock iPod Classic output. Instrument placement is well defined and the undefinable sense of space is broad even if it’s not huge. Of course, there’s a chance that the iPod Classic’s DAC doesn’t process the sound as effectively as the Cowon’s so it’s possible the E11 is actually better than I’m crediting it. Either way, it’s a good amplifier and a major upgrade over most players’ headphone out quality.

The signature from the E11 is a little warm, but in no way soft or flabby. It’s detailed and clean, but has a nice smoothness to it. The bass is solid, but not forward and the top-end detail is still well-intact. All-in-all it’s a very enjoyable listen.

Note: Since posting this review, I have purchased the Shure SE535 LE in-ear monitors. Their extreme sensitivity has revealed some background hum from the E11. The E11 has a 98dB signal to noise ratio so be careful if buying this amp to use with earphones or headphones that have a sensitivity of more than 100dB SPL/mW.

Features

There are really only 2 features on the E11: a gain switch and an EQ switch (which is actually just a bass boost).

The gain switch changes the circuitry to suit high or low impedance (or high or low sensitivity) headphones. The sound isn’t massively louder on the high gain setting, but has extra energy to overcome the resistance of more difficult-to-drive headphones. I’m not an electronics expert, but I imagine it’s an adjustment to the output impedance to better complement the impedance of high impedance headphones. Suffice to say, it works effectively.

The EQ switch is interesting. According to the booklet, it’s a bass boost only, but the label on the E11 casing says “EQ”. It really is just a bass boost as far as I can hear. On setting 1 there is a very subtle increase in the mass of the bass (i.e. it just sounds fuller, not louder). On setting 2 it’s more obvious and starts to get a little bloated and flabby.

I’d read good things about the E11 bass boost setting and I have to agree that it’s very effective, but only on level 1 in my opinion. There are 3 settings: off, 1 and 2.

Other Stuff

The E11 comes in a small metal tin and is provided with:

  • A USB cable for charging (using a standard mini USB connection on the E11)
  • A 3.5mm to 3.5mm with right-angle plugs at each end for connection to a headphone out or line out
  • A Fiio rubber band that’s just the right size to go around an iPod and the E11 together

I had read about the volume knob being a bit fiddly to use and I tend to agree. When strapped to the back of an iPod, it’s basically impossible to move the volume control without sliding the E11 down so it protrudes past the bottom of the iPod (and line out plug if you’re using one). If you’re using a line out connection, the E11’s volume control will most likely be your only volume option because most line outs are fixed volume and can’t be changed on the player. This means that you might have to adjust the E11 volume regularly and will therefore need to keep the volume knob clear to access with 2 fingers. It’s a slight issue, but not a deal breaker.

Summary

Overall, the Fiio E11 is an amazing option as an affordable and highly portable headphone amp. Its sound quality is very good for its size and price, but remember that it can only be as good as the input quality. If you run the E11 from the headphone out of your player it will only ever sound like a louder version of your player. Run from a line out though, the E11 is great and definitely makes the iPod Classic a much more enjoyable player. It will do the same for any of the other iPods and iPhones too. It’s even a slight improvement over the very good iPod Video 5.5G.

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.

 

 

 

Ultrasone HFI-680

The Ultrasone HFI 680s sit squarely in the middle of the HFI range from Ultrasone. According to Ultrasone, they are the natural and balanced closed option in the HFI range. On either side is the HFI 580 (easier to drive and with a bigger bass punch) and the HFI 780 (also easier to drive and with a more dynamic sound designed for movies and gaming). For me, it was all about natural sound reproduction so after many auditions (thank you again to George and the team at Addicted to Audio) I chose the HFI 680s.

The HFI 680s are a closed headphone that isolate quite well from the outside world. With music playing, only loud sounds are noticeable and others around you won’t hear your tunes.

Out of the box, the 680s actually impressed me with their build quality. My initial impressions during auditioning weren’t great, but perhaps that’s because they weren’t new. Having appreciated the phones brand new, I am now more aware of the build quality, which is better than average, but mostly plastic. The headband has good flexibility and the phones fold up really nicely to fit inside a plush Ultrasone branded pouch that comes with them. There is a soft, pleather covered memory-foam pad under the headband which is quite comfortable for relatively long periods, but I find after about 1.5-2 hours I need to readjust where the pad is touching my head because of minor pressure pain. The pleather covered cups are very comfortable for long periods and clamping pressure is also fine. Of course, there’s some minor sweat build-up as a result of the pleather, but it’s the only way to get a good seal.

The 680s come with a 3m cable which is great for sitting in your favourite chair away from the stereo or TV, but it’s not so good for portable listening. A minor issue though that’s easily fixed with a velcro cable tidy.

The other inclusion in the package with the 680s is the Ultrasone demo disc. This disc is full of amazing recordings to hear what your headphones (Ultrasone or other brands) are capable of, but it’s mostly not music I would listen to for fun. That said it was fun to see how my new Ultrasones matched up against my existing phones and speakers.

Important note: this review is conducted using the 680s from an amplified source (in this case my Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD). They perform well from my iPod Video (5.5G), but struggled to have the same open, magical sound when driven by just my laptop. These headphones need a good source behind them so ensure that you test them thoroughly with your source player if it’s not amplified. Some portables will be fine while others will sound very ordinary through the 680s.

Quick Specs

Speaker Driver: 40mm

Frequency Range: 15 – 25,000 Hz

Impedance: 75 ohms (can be a bit tricky to drive for some portable devices and computers)

Bass

Attack: The attack from the 680s is excellent. They have great punch and good control. One of the benefits of high impedance headphones/speakers is improved control and the 680s definitely show this with their precision attack. My favourite bass test, “Take the Lord Along with You” by Wayman Tisdale had the 680s really dancing to all of the slap bass and they handled it beautifully with plenty of punch and feeling, but no real muddiness. On tracks with big, consistent bass, the 680s can start to sound a little bloated in comparison to more delicate headphones like the ATH-AD900s, but they are excellent bass performers for the dollars and make up for any slight looseness with their power and presence. While both the HFI-680s and AD900s have good bass attack (the AD900s slightly better controlled), the 680s come out sounding a fraction better here because of the extra punch behind the bass which I’ll discuss next.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Mass: The mass from the 680s is truly impressive. Your ears feel the bass just like your whole body would in a live concert. At times I fell like they overplay the bass just a fraction, but it’s fun and doesn’t detract from the quality of the sound. Listening to Also Saprach Zarathustra from the Ultrasone demo disc, the deep rumble from the pipe organ felt as good as it sounded, but some other tracks can get a bit uncomfortable because of the pressure created. It’s a double-edged sword. I love the feeling of the bass, but every now and then it gets a bit much. This is probably more a reflection of different recording and production values more than a fault of the headphones though so I’d still recommend the 680s for their overall bass style – it’s fun, lively and exciting.

Rating: 9 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The vocals and mids are rich and warm from the 680s. Not as warm as a headphone like the Shure SRH840, but still very cosy. The detail is there, but it’s a warm kind of detail. Very easy to listen to and never too forward.

Many closed headphones get a bit “canned” in the midrange. You can hear that you’re listening to a speaker in a cup, but the 680s avoid this completely. There’s no sense of that internal resonance and the sounds often extend beyond the physical boundaries of your head and ears.

Listening to Jette Torp’s voice in “Only a Woman’s Heart”, Joshua Redman’s sax in “Can a Good Thing Last Forever” and Ian Moss’ guitar and vocals in the acoustic version of “Thunderball”, all midrange instruments sounded realistic, beautifully present and silky smooth. The sound isn’t as airy as the AD900s I mentioned before, but it’s beautiful in it’s own way – smoother and a touch more mellow, but in no way lacking in detail or clarity.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Detail & Staging

I’m combining these 2 categories for this review because they are directly related in the case of the 680s and I believe it all comes down to the fact that they’re a closed headphone. The 680s have a very natural sound and that allows each individual instrument and texture in the music to play out the way it’s meant to. The detail they create is beautiful and lively. There could be just a fraction of masking created by the bass produced by the 680s, but if so it’s only minor. It could just be that they’re a little bit warmer and the fuller sound takes your attention elsewhere in the music (away from the top-end detail), but the simple fact that I can’t quite explain where the difference lies should give you a good idea that it’s very subtle and not a problem at all.

Ultrasone use a technique called S-Logic which directs the sound to your outer ear (the flappy bit) so it can enter your ear like live sounds do rather than being played directly into the ear canal. Whether it’s this technology or something else, the 680s are a very convincing closed headphone. The sounds often seem to be coming from somewhere beyond the side of your head and the imaging is outstanding. Closing your eyes with the 680s playing, you can easily picture where each instrument was being played and sometimes you can even pick the size and shape of the room or the crowd.

The only thing that holds the 680s back is a fractional lack of detail at the very top end and just a hint of harshness at times. In both cases I’m comparing the 680s to other options that excel in detail (like the AD900s) so, again, it’s a very minor issue. With the 680s, I hear 98% of all of the sounds in the music with harshness 5% of the time. With the AD900s I hear 99% of the sounds and experience harshness about 2% of the time. It’s a tiny difference and well worth the sacrifice for those times that I want extra bass or need to keep my music to myself.

Rating: 7 / 10

Overall

I did a lot of auditioning and listening before deciding on the HFI 680s and I can honestly say I haven’t experienced even a moment of buyer’s remorse. These headphones are another example of truly great value for money (they retail for around AUD $300). There are better headphones out there, but not for the price. Having listened to similar priced alternatives from Shure, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Beyer-Dynamic, the 680s came out clear winners.

Like many good headphones or speakers, they really shine (and I mean REALLY) when given a good source player and some good music. If you have an amp or a high quality output device like a full size iPod or hi-end player from companies like Cowon, HiFi Man, etc. you will really enjoy these headphones. To get better sound, you’ll be spending a lot more money!

I feel like I haven’t described enough about the sound of the 680s in this review, but, on reflection, I think that’s as much a testament to their balanced, natural sound as anything else. Nothing about the 680s stands out over anything else and that’s a good attribute for a set of headphones. They’re not exactly neutral, but they’re well balanced across the spectrum. The 680s are fun, exciting and realistic – everything you want with nothing you don’t.

Overall Rating: 7.5 / 10

A Simple Guide to Equalisers

Equalisers are an interesting topic. Many people will steer clear of them while others love the option to customise every song, album, pair of speakers or pair of headphones to their own personal tastes. To help you make an informed decision about whether to use an equaliser and how to use an equaliser, here are some key facts.

Impact on Sound Quality

Firstly, electronic equalisers like those in iTunes and in your iPod will generally reduce the quality of the sound. Depending on the headphones or speakers you’re using and depending on how loud you listen to the music, you may not notice the difference so don’t necessarily write off the use of an equaliser based on this fact – you need to decide based on the merits for and against. For some people, a slight reduction in quality might be worth the improvement to the overall tone of the sound. There are also some ways to use an equaliser that are less likely to impact on the sound quality – I’ll discuss these later.

The main reason that equalisers decrease sound quality is the power required to boost audio output by even a small amount. A 3dB increase to the sound (or selected frequency) actually takes double the power! This generally means that you’re pushing the limits of the in-built amplifier of your computer or portable player which leads to a thing called clipping. Without going into detail, clipping refers to the top of the sound wave being cut off because the amplifier doesn’t have the power to create it. It’s a little bit like accelerating in your car until the engine hits the redline and the power disappears, resulting in a rapid loss of performance and potential damage to the equipment.

To minimise the impact on sound quality, you can employ a technique that’s often referred to as subtractive equalising. All this means is that you drag the sliders down rather than push the sliders up – I’ll explain.

iTunes EQ

See the image on the right? That’s the standard iTunes equaliser panel and it’s typical of most EQ setups where the sliders are sitting in the middle at “0dB” meaning that there is no change to the standard amplification of each frequency. If you move a slider up by 1 “notch”, you’re increasing that frequency by 3dB and asking the amplifier to provide double the power at that frequency. The result is generally distortion around that frequency. It’s much easier to set an EQ by increasing the frequencies you want more of, but you’ve probably gathered that this will hurt the sound quality.

EQ settings from -12dB

Here’s the alternative: rather than increasing the frequencies you want more of, decrease all the rest! The simplest way to do this is to start by dragging all of your EQ sliders down to the bottom (-12dB). At this time you might need to turn up the master volume of your device to get the sound back to an enjoyable level, but this is fine because the master volume doesn’t decrease quality. Now you’re ready to adjust your EQ. Start using the sliders to increase the frequencies you need up to a maximum of 0dB. Avoid going above 0dB for any frequency because it will instantly decrease sound quality.

All sliders increased (Maximum 0dB)

Once you’ve got the sound the way you want it, try to increase the sliders so that the shape of your EQ stays the same, but so that the highest slider is right on 0dB (see the last EQ image).

Note: one slight issue you might face with this technique is a lack of maximum volume. If your headphones or speakers are hard to drive and you need nearly 100% volume to get the sound you want, this technique may lead to insufficient sound levels. If that’s the case, you might want to look into extra amplification or different headphones or speakers.

The final dilemma you might be facing is which slider to increase to get the sound you want. The next section should help…

What Does Each Frequency Change?

So you’ve opened your EQ settings and you’re ready to perfect the sound signature for your ears only, but where to start? Which slider to slide?

In the end, it’s all experimentation for the fine details, but here are some clues about where to start. (I’m using the iTunes frequency points as a reference to make it easy for comparison.) I’d recommend using the following information by listening to a range of tracks that you’re familiar with. See if you can identify what’s “missing” from the sound based on the descriptions below and then add a little at a time to see if it helps.

32 Hz – This is subwoofer territory – the bottom end of the bass range. As much as we all love it, sometimes it’s better to drop it out or leave it flat if your speakers can’t this depth of bass. Bass is difficult for amplifiers to sustain so you can give your amp some breathing room by dropping this away if you can’t hear it anyway.

64 Hz – This is the part of the bass that we feel as much as hear. This is a great frequency to boost if you want to feel a bit more bass vibration. Increasing this will give your music more kick at the bottom end.

125 Hz – This is musical bass. If you’re listening to melodic bass guitar riffs, this is where the action is. It’s a good frequency to increase to emphasise the musicality and accuracy in bass rather than the rumble or the mass of the bass.

250 Hz – Although there’s no simple definition of bass vs midrange vs treble, I think of 250 Hz as the crossover point between bass and midrange. At 250 Hz we’re starting to increase the bottom end of male vocals and the lower range of instruments like guitars. Beware though – increasing the midrange sliders can very quickly make your music sound muffled or “canned” (like it’s being played through a tin can”. I would rarely increase this frequency, but might consider reducing it slightly to open the sound up a bit and make it more “airy” and spacious.

500 Hz – Like 250 Hz, 500 Hz is the realm of muffled sound. It covers male vocals and the middle of instrumentation. It’s impact on most music is a sense of muffling – like you’ve covered everything in cotton wool.

1 kHz – This is the realm of vocals, instruments like guitars and saxophones and the snare drum. It can bring brightness to the midrange, but can also start making the sound a bit tinny.

2 kHz – Around 1 – 2 kHz is where we start venturing into the realm of treble. We’re still in the world of vocals and instruments here, but we’re getting towards the top-end so it’ll cause vocals to sound a bit more nasal and increase the perception of the texture of voices – things like breathiness and raspiness. It also can make sound very tinny.

4 kHz – This is the frequency that’s most prominent in sounds like “sh” and “ssssss”. It’s also a part of sounds like cymbal hits and the upper end of a snare drum’s sound. Adding emphasis to the 4 kHz range can very quickly make music harsh on the ears and unpleasant to listen to. That said, using it carefully can bring clarity and brightness to vocals and percussion.

8 kHz – This frequency is pure treble. This is what is most prominent if you turn the “treble” dial up. It influences the very upper end of sounds like “sh” and “ssss” and it has a major impact on percussion such as snares and cymbals. It is great to use to add brightness to the sound, but can also get uncomfortable if overused.

16 kHz – Given that 20 kHz is considered the upper end of human hearing, this is obviously the pointy end of the treble band. It mostly affects cymbals and similar sounds, but it also picks up the brightness and detail in the texture of certain instruments. For example, increasing the 16 kHz slider (and/or the 8 kHz slider to a degree) will enhance the sound of the plectrum hitting the strings of a strummed guitar. Like the 8 kHz slider, the 16 kHz slider is a great way to add brightness and tends to be more gentle on our ears. That’s not to say it’s not just as loud, but generally it doesn’t sound as harsh. Incidentally, 16 kHz is also at the end of the hearing range where we lose our hearing first so we might appreciate a slight boost to this area as we get older and lose our hearing.

I hope this has helped you to get more from your music collection, favourite speakers or portable player!

Quincy Jones AKG Q460 Review

As per my recent post “When Branding Meets Audio“, more often than not, musician-endorsed headphones seem to be below average quality. It seems almost safe to say that in the majority of cases, the musician branding is done to make up for crappy, mediocre headphones

Quincy Jones AKG Q460

I was hoping the Q460s would break this trend and they certainly look promising…

Straight out of the box, the Q460s look and feel great. They’re light, made of nice materials and have a great carry case that’s compact and solid. The package also includes 2 different cables – a really short, plain cable and a slightly longer one with volume controls for iPhones and certain iPods. The cables are bright green to match the Quincy Jones branding, but my headphones are the black version (as pictured).

When I first listened to these, I made the mistake of coming straight from my Audio Technica AD900s which have a very clean, balanced and lively sound. In comparison, the Q460s seemed muddy and lifeless, but that’s not entirely fair to them. Listening to them clean (i.e. having not listened to anything else for a while) is a different experience and while they’re not perfect, they’re not as bad as I first thought.

Quick Specs

Impedance:  30 Ω (portable player friendly)
Frequency Range:  8 Hz to 24 kHz
Max. Input Power:  30 mW

Bass

Attack: The attack from the Q460s is punchy, but not entirely sharp. I always use “Take the Lord Along with You” by Wayman Tisdale for this test because it’s a bass guitar instrumental with plenty of lively bass activity. The Q460s handled TTLAWY without too much trouble, but it’s not the best I’ve heard it sound.

Rating: 6 / 10

Mass: The mass of the bass in the Q460s is truly impressive. For a little pair of on-ear headphones, the bass is epic while still controlled. Listening to “Who Could It Be Now” by Luciano (feat. the Jungle Brothers), the bass is massive, but well placed. It doesn’t drown other frequencies, but gives you the full impact of the track. The bass output from these headphones is very realistic – they create the feeling as well as the sound so a smooth bass guitar not both sounds and feels right.

Rating: 8 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The mids and vocals are a mixed bag with the Q460. Certain vocals and instrumentals sound warm, rich and smooth, but some others sound a bit harsh and forced at the upper end of the midrange. Jamie Cullum’s “These Are the Days” is quite unpleasant (for a set of good headphones) because of the upper-end raspiness of his voice. The tone of his voice just seems too forced through these phones. Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy and Amy Winehouse also edge into this slightly harsh territory on the Q460s. On the other hand, “Tin Pan Alley” by Stevie Ray Vaughan is smooth and lush and sexy with Stevie’s guitar sounding as silky as ever, and Nas’ rapping on the Illmatic album sounds clean and punchy over the top of the beats behind him.

What this really means, is the the vocals and mids will sound great on some of your tracks, but may sound a bit edgy on others. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this is an area that can make the listening experience a little less than perfect.

Rating: 6 / 10

Detail

Detail isn’t the strong point of the Q460s. They’re not super sluggish, but they’re also not detailed. There are certain mid-range frequencies that really shine through and surprise with their clarity, but other sounds get lost in the mix. The Q460s are a smooth and rounded sound rather than an accurate detailed sound. That’s not to say it’s bad – some people will no doubt prefer it to the sharpness of more detailed phones, but for me it’s a tiny bit too smooth.

The top end frequencies are very subdued in the Q460s and some tracks really sound like they’re missing something – like there’s a hole. Interestingly, adding the standard treble boost equaliser on iTunes or iPods / iPhones brings an extra sparkle to the Q460s that makes them quite lovely. I don’t like having to use equalisers because it introduces noise and distorting into the sound and also means constantly changing settings if I change headphones, but if you were permanently using the Q460s with you computer or portable player, a permanent EQ setting can create a really enjoyable portable listening experience.

Side Note: where possible, if using EQs on electronic devices such as iTunes, iPods and iPhones try to create your EQ so that nothing is above the central line. In other words, if you wanted the 16kHz frequency 3 clicks louder, don’t raise it by 3, but drop everything else by 3 clicks. It makes EQ setting a bit more fiddly, but the sound quality will be better and will just mean turning up the master volume a tiny bit more.

Rating without EQ: 4.5 / 10

Rating with EQ: 6.5 / 10

Staging

Whenever I listen to closed cans, I expect a restricted soundstage. It’s a rarity to find closed cans that can create an open, wide soundstage. It is possible, however, to have good sound placement within the closed space created by closed cans.

The Q460s place the sounds quite well, but all of the placement occurs in a very tight area. The sounds are placed in a band that runs from one ear around the inside of the front of your head to the other ear. In other words, the stage is as wide as your head and has a narrow range of forward depth – it doesn’t really extend out in front of you very much, but it’s not bad as such. The sound placement is accurate and clear and instruments are clearly defined in most tracks even if they’re not spaced a long way apart. Listening to the “What is Hip” by Tower of Power (Sheffield Labs, Direct Plus! version), it sounded like all of the horns, rhythm, organ, vocals and guitars were crammed inside my head, but I never felt like anyone was on top of anyone else – and that’s a busy recording!

Rating: 5 / 10

Overall

At full price I think these headphones are a little pricey, but if you can pick them up on sale or second hand they could be a good option if you like your music smooth and lush with plenty of body in the bass. They’re a much better option than some of the alternatives like the Beats range by Dre so check them out before buying any other musician-branded headphones.

They’re comfortable, well made, look good (even in the green) and have a great, compact carry case.

I would recommend them for:  Hip-Hop / Rap, Electronica, some Rock (listen to them first), mellow Jazz

I wouldn’t recommend them for:  Acoustic, upbeat Jazz , Blues, Pop

Overall Rating: 5 / 10