Shozy Alien Digital Audio Player

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

Overview

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

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

Sennheiser Urbanite XL Over-Ear Headphones

Overview

The Urbanite XL is a new addition to the Sennheiser range and was offered to me for review by Head-Fi user, White Lotus, as part of an Australian review tour made possible by Sennheiser so thank you to ‘Lotus’ and Sennheiser for making this possible.

I’m not sure what the plans are for the Urbanite (on ear) and Urbanite XL (over ear) models – they may be intended to replace the existing Momentum range or they may be intended to offer an alternate style of headphone and therefore be a completely separate line so I’ll review them without any direct comparison to the Momentum range.

Throughout this review I’ve been lazy and just typed “Urbanite” each time, but please know that I am always referring to the XL (over ear) model. I haven’t tried the on-ear model.

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

 

Thinksound On1 On-Ear Headphones

Thinksound is a company that’s focussed on sustainable and environmentally conscious headphones. In fact, they even offer a recycling program for headphones with a bonus if you recycle their headphones, but I doubt you’ll be doing that any time soon with the On1s – you’ll be hanging on to these puppies with everything you’ve got!

Overview

Thinksound’s On1 headphone is a foldable, portable, closed, on-ear design that retails for roughly $350 (AUD). In Australia you can buy them from Noisy Motel. A big thank you to Billy from Noisy Motel for putting me onto these gems – they continue to amaze me every time I listen to them!

  • Frequency response:  5 – 22,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  50 ohms
  • Drivers:  40mm dynamic
  • Cables:  4.5 feet (2 equal length cable options with / without phone mic and remote)

At $350, the On1s are competing with some outstanding competition from the likes of AKG, Sennheiser, Beats, Kef, Focal, and various other brands, but they more than hold their own with their sound and offer something unique with their striking timber finish.

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

Tralucent DacAmp One

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

Overview

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

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

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

Design and Features

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

Form Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battery Use & Charging

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

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

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

Supplied Accessories

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

DAC Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amp Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

DacAmp One with Various ‘Phones

Unique Melody Miracles

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

Beyerdynamic DT1350

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

Fischer Audio FA-011 Limited Edition

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

From here things get a little more interesting…

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

Audeze LCD 2

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

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

Summary

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

Fiio X5 Portable Hi-Res Music Player

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

 

iRiver AK100

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

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

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

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

So along came Red Wine Audio…

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

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

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

Design & Size

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

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

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

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

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

Capacity & Storage

Micro USB socket, MicroSD ports, Red Wine Audio badge

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

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

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

Interface & Usability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battery Life

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

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

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

Format Compatibility

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

Connectivity

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

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

Sound Quality

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

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

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

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

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

The Drawbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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…

AKG K420

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

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

Overview

K420 Box trans

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

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

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

Similar Options

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

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

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

Versatility

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

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

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

Design & Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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.

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.