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!

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Astrotec AX-60

There are 2 pieces of opening information required to help contextualise this review. Firstly, Astrotec may sound like a new name in the business, but they’ve actually been making headphones and earphones for many well-known brands for a long time and their standards of quality and build are very good.

The second thing to know is the difference between dynamic, balanced armature and hybrid design in-ear monitors (IEMs). These three types of earphone descriptors are based on the drivers (speakers) used inside the shell of the earphone. Dynamic drivers are very similar to what we’re used to seeing in full sized speakers. Balanced armatures (BAs) are a special driver originally designed for use in hearing aids. Hybrid refers to an IEM which combines both dynamic and BA drivers in the same shell to make a multi-driver IEM with the aim being to maximise on the benefits of each driver type and to circumvent the drawbacks of each driver. Sometimes it works a treat and sometimes it doesn’t…

Overview

Astrotec_AX60_S_large3The AX-60s are a 3 driver hybrid design using a dynamic driver for the bass (because this is where dynamics consistently out-perform regular BAs) and two BA drivers for the mid-range and treble. This makes sense because the BAs were originally designed to reproduce vocal frequencies in hearing aids so they tend to excel in the mid-range and treble areas.

  • Driver: 10mm Dynamic + Dual-Balanced Armature
  • Frequency response: 8 Hz – 28000 Hz
  • Sensitivity: 110 dB / 1mw (S.P.Lat 1KHz)
  • Impedance: 12 OHM
  • Cable: 1.2m +/-0.3m Galaxy cable
  • Connector: 3.5mm gold plated connector
  • Max input: 10 mW

Design & Comfort

The AX-60 shells are made entirely from aluminium which makes them look and feel very high quality. They feel like the premium product they’re meant to be. They are finished in dark grey or blue anodising which both look good.

I’m personally not a fan of the shape of the housing as I find they don’t sit particularly nicely in the ears, but they’re not uncomfortable – it just seems like they were designed on their own without consideration for how they might nestle into the ear of the listener. This doesn’t affect the comfort or listening experience in any way whatsoever, it’s just an aesthetic thing.

Cable

10110009The marketing info for the AX-60 claims that the cable is made using a range of special, high grade materials, but there’s no way to really know exactly what they are without pulling it apart (and I don’t think that would go down well when these are a loan pair for review).

What matters though is that the cable is supple and feels good. It’s terminated with a nice, slim but sturdy feeling metal headphone jack and the Y-split and cable cinch are made with the same metal and finish. The cable then is easily on par with the great look and feel of the housing materials and finish.

The cable connects to the housing with some rubber strain reliefs that look like they’re well up to the task of extended use, but the cables are non-detachable so for those who like to cable-tweak, this may not be the earphone for you.

Personally, I think an earphone with a high quality non-detachable cable (like the AX-60s and VSonic GR07s) is preferable to an earphone with a crappy quality detachable cable so to me the AX-60s are doing just fine in the cable department.

Accessories & Fit

When you open the AX-60 box you might think you’ve been duped because all you can see is a pair of earphones with the default silicon tips and a metal plate with some weird metal pieces screwed into it. Your first thought could easily be “Where’s the rest of it?”

Well don’t worry, the rest is hiding underneath the top layer of foam.

10110004Lifting up the top layer reveals the goodies below.

The AX-60s come with a nice metal tin which looks like it should contain mints or lollies, but instead holds a wide selection of tips including single and triple flange silicon options as well as foam tips similar to the Comply brand. There is also a pair of cable guides very similar to those supplied with the VSonic GR07s.

10110008I found the tip selection to be excellent, especially because the small size triple flanges actually fit me! That never happens so kudos to Astrotec for actually having truly small triple flanges rather than just medium and large like every other brand I’ve tried. The single flange silicon tips were also available in a nice range of sizes and are comfortable to use. I didn’t try the foam tips, but if you have any experience with Comply tips, these will be much the same.

In addition to the tin of tips, you’ll also find a nice little leather pouch for storing and carrying your AX-60s. The pouch looks and feels like it’s good quality, but I couldn’t say if it’s real leather or not (mainly because I don’t think it matters and didn’t take the time to work it out). What does matter is that it’s small, but appropriately sized for the earphones and would be a comfortable thing to carry around in your pocket.

Overall Comfort

The AX-60s are a comfortable earphone once you find the right tips and insertion methods, but I wouldn’t say they’re among the most comfortable I’ve used. To me they’re on par with the VSonic GR07 (I keep mentioning these, don’t I?) and other straight / barrel shaped IEMs I’ve tried. They don’t quite compare to the comfort of some of the more molded IEMs I’ve tried like the HiFiMan Re272 or  Shure SE535. Having said that, they’re not uncomfortable so if they sound as good as or better than the other slightly more molded earphones then I’d still choose these, but we’ll get to the sound shortly…

One final thing to mention is that these manage to cram a lot of technology into a small space and still manage to make it a comfortable earphone so that’s saying something. There aren’t a lot of hybrids around (but there are a few and the numbers are growing) and it seems to be a challenge to fit them into a good sized enclosure while maintaining both comfort and sound quality. For that reason alone, the AX-60s should be applauded.

Sound Quality

As always the sound is what matters.

With a hybrid earphone you expect 2 things: great bass courtesy of the dynamic driver and smooth, detailed mids and highs courtesy of the BA drivers. Let’s step through the frequencies to see how the AX-60s performed.

Bass

10110003Wow! The AX-60s have some great bass… depending on the filter.

When you first open the box you’ll see a metal plate which holds 4 filters (2 pairs). The 2 sets have slightly different sized mesh in them so when they’re screwed into the bore of the AX-60s, they change the sound significantly. With the open mesh the bass is a bit sloppy and slow to my ears. It’s impressive in its mass and weight, but just a bit too bloated. Changing to the finer mesh produces a very different (an impressive) bass experience.

With the finer mesh installed, the bass from the AX-60s is impactful and detailed. It’s not as fast as the bass from some other IEMs I’ve tried, but none of those have the body and impact of the AX-60s so it’s a slight trade-off. In terms of what I prefer, I think I would choose the AX-60 as my bass presentation of choice. It produces bass which is much more on par with a full-sized headphone or speaker and that lends an extra degree of toe-tapping fun to the listening experience.

Texture in the bass is good and it never bleeds into the mids so the overall listening experience is very clean and detailed despite the powerful bass. What’s extra impressive is how deep the bass goes. While I was writing this review, Hail Mary by 2pac came up in my playlist and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the deep rumble in the bass. Despite the deep, authoritative rumble coming from the AX-60s’ dynamic drivers, the bass always remained behind the rest of the track where it belongs.

Mid-range

I’ve heard some people suggest the mids of the AX-60s might be a little recessed, but I never felt like I wanted more. Certainly the treble and bass are prominent, but mid details don’t suffer and vocals are clear and present.

I love a BA mid-range. It has a certain texture and clarity that you rarely hear from a dynamic driver. Listening to acoustic guitars on the AX-60 you can hear and feel the strum on each string. Although not quite as refined as the Unique Melody Miracles (which cost more than 2x the price of the AX-60), the mids remind me a lot of the Miracles in terms of detail and texture. Overally, the AX-60s sound very different to the Miracles so I’m only talking about the mids here.

Vocals are clean and present. They’re also natural and without any tilt towards dryness or creaminess. In short, I really like the mids from the AX-60s!

Treble

Astrotec_AX60_large4OK, here’s where it gets a little tricky. As with many BA setups, the AX-60s can tend towards a bit harsh on some treble notes, but they are also very dependent on the tips you choose. I found that open tips (i.e. with wider and shorter sound tubes) were much smoother to listen to. Narrower tips like Sony Hybrids caused the treble to spike to uncomfortable levels on certain frequencies and really detracted from the listening experience. Of the tips I tried, I would recommend sticking to the stock single flange tips or possibly the foam tips (which I didn’t try, but have past experiences with similar tips).

Once you get the right tips on the AX-60s they really sing, but they are still bordering on bright. Interestingly, the thing they most remind me of is the Beyerdynamic T1 or T90 headphones. I’m not saying they’re as good as the T1s / T90s, but that their treble is reminiscent of the high end Beyers because of a spike around the 10kHz mark and can sound a bit harsh on certain tracks / sources. The thing with this type of treble spike is that it also seems to reveal information in the music that I don’t hear on ‘phones without such spikes.

To describe the treble from the AX-60s I’m going to focus on the sound with the finer mesh tips installed. The treble is clean, crisp and detailed, but slightly boosted compared to the mids. You could describe the AX-60s as having a slightly “V” shaped sound. It makes for a dynamic sound, but may be fatiguing to some people and is why the tip selection and source selection is important. There is also the importance of “brain burn-in” because I found once I got used to the sound I really enjoyed it and actually missed it when I returned to the Miracles.

Cymbals, percussion and consonants (in vocals) are present and defined, but jut slightly raspy at times. I think any shortcomings in the treble are really only noticeable because of the outstanding quality of the bass and mid-range, and that means that the treble is actually still very good. Where the bass and mid-range are well above standard for the price of the AX-60s, I think the treble maybe falls just a hair short of what I expect at this pricepoint. Don’t be discouraged though because one small issue doesn’t necessarily destroy the whole experience.

Staging & Imaging

10110013I absolutely love how these things image! They have a really spacious presentation that is beyond any other earphone I’ve tried, except possibly the Miracles. It’s not that they create a massive soundstage, although it’s larger than average for an IEM. Where the AX-60s excel is the space in between all the instruments. Every sound is separated and placed in the soundstage perfectly. None of the instruments blend together and all have their own space and character.

If I had to nit-pick regarding the staging and imaging it’d be to say that the instruments can sometimes sound like their on their own. A guitar in my left ear sounds like it was recorded separately from the rest of the music rather than being a coherent part of the whole picture. I think the AX-60s might place the mids just a bit too far forward in these cases, but it doesn’t happen often and can actually be quite fun and engaging to hear things presented differently. It’s not ideal for critical listening and accuracy, but it’s doesn’t detract from enjoyment and is all about how you use the earphones.

I mentioned the stage being spacious, but not huge. Just to clarfiy, the stage doesn’t extend very far forward, but has plenty of space from left to right and a reasonable sense of height for an IEM.

Summary

10110005The AX-60s aren’t a perfect IEM from a technical / accuracy standpoint, but they are brilliant fun and great value. They do everything very well and excel as a fun, dynamic listen. Don’t buy them if your goal is analytical accuracy, but definitely take a listen if you’re looking for an engaging musical experience with outstanding, but well-controlled bass (using the right filters of course)

At the time of writing, Noisy Motel, who lent me this loan pair, are selling the AX-60 for $399 (AUD). At that price, there are few other earphones I would choose over the AX-60 (if any). Others I would consider are the HiFiMan Re-400 which is cheaper, but will not even begin to match the bass performance of the AX-60. I also haven’t tried the new design of the HiFiMan earphones so don’t know if they would match the comfort I came to enjoy with the Re-272s and one of the reasons I loved the HiFiMan earphones.

Having owned other comparable earphones costing more and less than the AX-60s I can comfortably say that I would choose the AX-60s over the Shure SE535 Limited Edition, the VSonic GR07 MkII, and the Fischer DBA-02.

The AX-60s sit in an interesting spot in the market where they’re priced above some of the most popular IEM models, but less than high end IEMs and customs. For the money, I think they’re very good value as a venture into higher end sound without pricetag approaching $1000. They don’t match the performance of earphones approaching $1000, but I believe they are better value than the other earphones I’ve heard in the midrange $300-$500 range.

If you have a chance, take a listen to the AX-60s, but make sure you try them with an open-bore tip (i.e. not Sony Hybrids) and give them a bit of time to adjust to their dynamic sound if you’re coming from something more subdued. Oh, and don’t expect them to be an analytical, mastering earphone because they’re not. They are fun, exciting and enjoyable, and to me that makes for a great listen when I’m on the go. To me, these are the best earphone I’ve heard (under $400) to get my foot tapping and head bobbing.

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!

Unique Melody Miracles

The Unique Melody Miracles are a custom-moulded in-ear-monitor (or CIEM). There are many manufacturers making CIEMs – some cheaper, some more expensive. The Miracles are the top-of-the-line option from Unique Melody. I chose the Miracles after much research into these other options:

  • JH Audio JH13
  • JH Audio JH16
  • Heir 8.A

Deciding to buy custom in-ears is a big decision. They’re expensive (but completely worth it), take a while to make, require a trip to an audiologist, and have lower resale value due to their custom-moulded nature. There’s also the chance that they won’t fit properly the first time around. For any lover of music, custom IEMs are a very worthwhile investment, but one that you need to make knowing the process that awaits…

Overview

Miracle boxThe UM Miracles are a 6-driver, 3-way design meaning that they use a total of 6 individual speaker units (called balanced armatures) inside each earpiece. The 6 drivers are combined in a 3-way configuration meaning that they are paired up to produce bass, mid-range, and treble (2 per frequency range). They are designed to produce a fairly neutral sound (i.e. no specific emphasis on any frequency range). Specifications are:

  • Frequency range: 18 Hz – 19 kHz
  • Impedance: 15.9 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL

PresentationThey arrive in a beautiful package and with a hard case, metal warranty card, and glass cube paperweight. It’s an impressive presentation. Admittedly, I don’t think many people will find use for the paperweight, but it’s beautiful and you can always just leave it in the box. Mine’s serving as a weight on the base of my headphone stand so it’s both purposeful and beautiful. The Miracles are supplied with the same cable as most other CIEMs on the market, the Westone Epic cable. It’s thin and supple with a nice right-angled jack to connect to your source units. Although not a world-beater by any stretch, it’s a perfectly serviceable cable, but there may be some longevity issues due to it’s thin design from what I have heard.

The Process

Miracles0011 When you order any CIEMs there are a few steps to go through regardless of which brand and model you choose. For this part of the review, I am referring to all brands and models, not just the Miracles.

Design – decide on the colours and inserts you want for the tips, shells, and faceplates of your CIEMs. Most CIEM manufacturer sites have designer pages to help you choose. This is a big decision because once it’s done, you can’t change it without the time and expense of remoulding (basically having them remade f rom scratch). It’s a good idea to check around on forums and different manufacturers’ sites for images of CIEMs to see what looks good to you.

Impressions – next you’re off to the audiologist for them to take moulds of your ear canals and outer ear. This step takes about 30 minutes and is a little weird-feeling, but pretty straight forward.

Important note!!! When having your impressions taken, be sure to stay completely still and looking straight ahead (you might want to choose a spot on the wall to stare at for the whole time). Different companies recommend different mouth positions (i.e. open, closed, wide open, open & closed) so you may find variation in the instructions. Many audiologists will have bite blocks you can use to hold your mouth still in an open position. I found for the Miracles that a bit block around 1.5cm thick worked best.  Importantly, the audiologist may forget to instruct you thoroughly so make sure you remind yourself of the steps provided by your CIEM company and stick to them or it could be a painful wait as you send your brand new CIEMs back to be redone.

Waiting – Once you send your completed impressions / moulds to the CIEM manufacturer, you’re in for a bit of a wait. It varies between manufacturers, but is always multiple weeks. In some cases though it can extend out to 6+ weeks so be prepared. It is a long time to be waiting for something so special to you, but it’s completely worth it.

2012-12-07 16.34.22Receiving – The day does come eventually after what seems like forever. You open the packaging and excitedly try to put your new toys in your ears. Please note that a couple of things happen at this time:

  1. They feel weird, difficult and uncomfortable to put in at first – this passes as you get more practiced
  2. They feel weird and possibly a little uncomfortable even when they’re properly inserted – this will settle down in most cases. Allow a couple of weeks or at least some extended listening sessions for your ears to adjust to having a foreign object inside the canal
  3. There is a chance they won’t fit properly and that the seal will be incomplete or will break easily. Don’t decide immediately while everything feels new and strange. Let your ears get used to the sensation and fit before deciding to return them for a refit because it’s another big decision that may require another trip to the audiologist and another long wait.

Hopefully, they fit first time around and you can just get on with enjoying them! When they do fit, here’s what you can expect from the Miracles. From here on, I am talking only about the Miracles and your experiences with other CIEMs may vary dramatically depending on the brand and model.

Build Quality & Design

The Miracles are made by Unique Melody, one of the more prominent custom manufacturers in the market along with Ultimate Ears (UE), Heir Audio and JH Audio to name a few. The Miracles are beautifully made and well finished. There are a pair of tiny dimples in the faceplate of my left earpiece, but they’re only visible under the right lighting and at a certain angle so really not worth worrying about. All-in-all the Miracles arrive beautifully finished and without any bubbles, cracks, seams, or any other significant flaws in the acrylic. They feel sturdy and solid.

FacesAs you can see from the images, I chose to get red and blue shells (right and left respectively) with purple faceplates on both. I asked for the silver Unique Melody insert which is a free addition, and I had them keep the tips clear. There is absolutely no benefit with the clear tips and in hindsight I have no idea why I did this!? It’s not bad, but serves no purpose and doesn’t look any better – maybe I just wanted to maximise my customisation…

Metal tubeDepending on the colours chosen, you can see the wiring and drivers inside the shells as well as the small metal pipe in the bass tube (see image to right). This can be cool, but realistically there’s not a lot to see.

Other than seeing your choice of colours and inserts come to life, the design is quite straightforward. It’s an exact replica of the space inside your ear canal and outer ear moulded in acrylic and with a bunch of miniature drivers inside. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy achievement from Unique Melody – there’s a lot of design and technology built into a small space, but the end result is a solid, moulded piece of acrylic that’s deceptively simple on the outside.

Fit

Being custom moulded, the Miracles (or any CIEM) should fit beautifully and comfortably, but it’s possible that the moulds made by your audiologist could be imperfect. If that’s the case, you may have an experience like I did at first where the seal breaks on one (or both) sides during certain movements. For me, the seal on the right would break anytime I looked down (e.g. to read a book or look at my laptop), or if I tilted my head to the right (e.g. leaning against the wall of the train while trying to relax listening to music). It can be very off-putting and take you straight out of the music.

The good news is that a good mould will result in an incredibly comfortable CIEM. Now that they’re fixed and fitting properly, I can easily wear the Miracles for hours on end with no discomfort. Along with comfort, the perfect fit and seal means that, once the music is playing, the rest of the world disappears – isolation of sound is extreme. Loud sounds like alarms, announcements on trains / in airports are still audible, but background noise just ceases to exist.

Service

I’m writing this now so as not to leave a bad “after-taste” at the end of the review. The service I received from UM Australia (aka ACustoms) ranged from exceptional to really poor. Communication was inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate, and the first proposed solution to a fit issue I had resulted in a 4-5 week wait (from memory) with no joy at the end and another 6-7 week wait after that. I can’t speak to the reasons for the inconsistencies and there may be short-term issues, but it has definitely left me feeling like I won’t use their services again which is a shame because individually, everyone but 1 person I dealt with was really friendly and helpful in terms of their attitudes. It’s just a shame that their systems and processes seem to let down the overall experience. What makes it even more of a shame is how truly brilliant the product is. It’s a prestige, top-end item that fulfils all that it promises and deserves to be supported with an equivalent standard of customer service.

Sound

Shells & Tips - bottomIn the end this is what really matters and the Miracles do not disappoint! First impressions of these are that they deliver perfect sound across the entire frequency range. There’s plenty of detail without any fatiguing sibilance or harshness. There’s plenty of bass without any excess rumble or flab, and the midrange is solid and present without becoming thick and creamy or too dry and raspy.

Pairing

The Miracles, like most multiple balanced armature IEMs are a bit picky about the device they’re paired with. Combined with a great source with low output impedance (<1 ohm ideally), they really sing, but you may find a slight loss of bass and increase in top-end when used with non-ideal devices. For example, I find they don’t pair perfectly with my desktop amp (Audio-gd NFB-5.2), iPod, or mobile phone, but are great with my portable amp (Tralucent T1). I’m still undecided about how well they pair with my USB DAC, the AudioQuest Dragonfly because on paper they are a match, but I hear a little bit of harshness when paired directly with the Dragonfly (i.e. not via an amplifier).

Bass

The bass from the Miracles is a revelation. It’s solid, full and punchy – much more so than I ever expected from an earphone. The Miracles manage to be punchy and tight while also having all the body and rumble you could need unless you’re a major basshead. Of course, as I’ve already touched on, this will depend on the source driving them. A poor pairing will strip the bass out of the Miracles, but that’s on the source, not the Miracles. They are absolutely up to the task of producing any bass I’ve ever heard in a recording and I’m yet to be disappointed by them when paired with the right source.

Mids

Miracles0009The mids of the Miracles are subtle in a good way. With the stock cable (more on that later), the mids are well-placed and present, but not emphasised or forward like some high-end IEMs (e.g. Shure SE535). Vocals and instrumentals won’t jump out at you or get lost behind the rest of the music – they’re just there, right where they should be.

Those coming from very warm, lush earphones or headphones may find the Miracles a bit lean at first, but to me they are just beautifully balanced rather than lean or analytical.

Highs

The highs on the Miracles are quite surprising. There’s nice brightness and oodles of detail, but it never seems to get harsh. Even with poor recordings, the Miracle seems to present the music tastefully and never hacks up your eardrums with sibilance and harshness. Yes, they will absolutely shine a light on any shortcomings in the recording, but they’re not ruthless like other headphones I’ve tried.

Presentation

This is where the Miracles really shine. So far they do everything exactly as I expected, but it’s their presentation that really blows me away again and again.

Shells & Tips - sideThe Miracles manage to create a large, deep, and tall soundstage between your ears which stretches from ear to ear and from the top of your head down to your jaw. I am often blown away when I feel a guitar strumming in one ear – yes, I said feel, not hear. Somehow, they present not just sound, but texture and sensations which are rarely experienced when listening to earphones, let alone headphones.

Instrument placement is perfect – clean, separate, and unforced. You don’t have to think about where instruments are placed, you just know. The experience is similar to my first “wow” moment with the Shure SE535s and yet so much better. It’s like you can mentally walk around between the band members and explore the stage with them. It only gets better with a change of cable…

Summary (Part 1)

For around $1000 you expect a massive amount from these little nuggets of acrylic and I think you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed. Unless you have very specific tastes in sound signature (i.e. you like gobs of bass or an extremely lean, analytical experience) the Miracles should tick all the boxes.

If you’re buying them, be sure of a few things:

  1. You have the patience to wait
  2. You have a source or amp with <1 ohm output impedance
  3. You’re ready to disappear from the world for a while as you get completely absorbed in music you thought you already knew like the back of your hand

There are other great CIEMs out there, and the new JH13 packs some recent technology which may actually make it better than the Miracle while being comparable in sound signature so do your research before buying, but rest assured if you settle on the Miracles – they are an epic audio experience in a very small, extremely comfortable package.

Cable Changes

The detachable cable of the Miracles means that you can easily swap the stock cable for a massive range of custom options made of all different exotic metals and combinations. The socket used on the Miracles is common to most CIEM brands so it’s easy to find alternatives. Do be aware though that the Miracles use a recessed socket and not all cables will fit the recess even though they may use the same 2-pin design. Just double-check before laying down your dough.

Miracles0013So far I’ve tried a couple of different cables with the Miracles, a silver cable which I think was from Chris_Himself from Headphonelounge (on Head-Fi.org). I bought it second hand so I am not completely sure. The sound with the silver cable was good, but brightened the signature of the Miracles more than I like. Some people would love it, but it wasn’t for me.

I bought the silver cable while I was waiting for the beast pictured to the right. It’s the DHC Symbiote SE Litz from Double Helix Cables and it’s an amazing piece of cable engineering, so much so that I’ll be doing a dedicated review of it soon.

In terms of its impact on the sound, the Symbiote SE Litz delivers essentially the same signature as the stock cable, but somehow does everything better. Every sound is smoother, cleaner, fuller, more detailed and better. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t describe it any better. There’s no individual element of the sound which jumps out to me, but everything is undeniably better.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the impact those improvements have on the listening experience. After swapping to the DHC cable, I was listening to the same tracks I always have on my portable player (a selection of my favourites list of around 4000 tracks, all of which I know well) and noticed that I was listening to and hearing the lyrics of songs I’d never really paid attention to before.

It’s not like the DHC cable emphasised the midrange to make vocals more prominent – it just made everything so coherent and organic that it became like sitting at a live gig or recording session where all of the individual sounds came together perfectly and naturally making it easy to hear everything and take in the entire musical canvas.

The DHC cables require a significant outlay and there are a couple of pointers I’ll cover in the separate review (mainly the large size of the stock plug). They also have a long lead time because they’re handmade to order, but I am extremely comfortable recommending the Symbiote SE Litz cable with the Miracles as one of the most perfect pairings I’ve ever experienced. It won’t wow you upfront like the brightness and detail of silver cables might, but will continuously improve your listening experience and keep the Miracles silky, smooth, detailed, and incredible.

Summary (Part 2)

I’m really excited to continue using the Miracle + Symbiote combination and look forward to hearing my music in all new ways as I keep sifting through my collection. In future I’ll be trying some other CIEMs I think, but will be amazed to find anything more than subtle, incremental changes to performance. For now, I am comfortable saying that the Miracles + Symbiote are the greatest personal audio experience I have found so far (i.e. better than any headphones I’ve used as yet). The fact that you can take them anywhere you go is a massive bonus.

No doubt there are better products and combinations to be found out there, but I really can’t see it coming for the same money or less. If you’re looking to spend $1000-2000 on a great portable (or even home) earphone solution, these are a great option. The Miracles alone are around $1000 depending on the design options you choose and you can always choose to add the cable later for that extra little upgrade. The cable I bought was a big outlay, but worth every cent. Keep your eye out for the review…