Atomic Floyd Super Darts

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

Overview

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

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

Design & Comfort

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

Cable

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

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

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

Accessories & Fit

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

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

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

Overall Comfort

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

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

Sound Quality

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

Bass

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

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

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

Mids

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

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

Treble

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

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

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

Staging & Imaging

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

Summary

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

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

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

 

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Massive Portable Player Shootout

I’ve been using an iPod Video 80Gb (5.5 generation) for years now and have loved it, but my music collection continues to grow and I’m a fan of lossless audio (ALAC and FLAC) so it’s no longer large enough to hold all my tunes. I’m now at a major crossroads when it comes to finding the right combination of quality, capacity, and ease-of-use. There are a few options I’ve considered and I’ve been lucky enough to try all of them so I’m sharing the results here. I’d like to extend a massive thanks to Wing and the team at Minidisc.com.au for providing the Cowon J3 demo unit and outstanding customer service in my purchase of the Cowon X7 unit.

What’s Being Compared:

  • Apple iPod 80Gb (5.5 Generation) – middle of image
  • Apple iPod 160Gb (late 2009)  – top right of image
  • Cowon X7 160Gb – top left of image
  • Cowon J3 – bottom left of image
  • Sony 460 Series Walkman 4Gb – bottom right of image

If you’ve spotted the odd one out here (yes, the Walkman) and you’re wondering why I’m comparing a little 4Gb player to three hard-disk behemoths and a large-scale SD-based player, it’s purely thrown into the mix as a reference point to see how the expensive players compare to a relatively cheap option.

I’m comparing the players on 4 key factors:

  1. Sound quality (including power output)
  2. Size
  3. Interface & Ease of Use
  4. Customisation & Flexibility

Sound Quality

It’s very hard to conduct a subjective test of sound quality on audio sources because the only real way (short of complicated and expensive setups) is to keep switching your headphones or line-out cable from source to source. Because each of the player’s has a slightly different volume scale, it’s also hard to match the volume exactly and that can influence our perception of quality, too. I’ve done everything I can to minimise the impact of volume, delay between sources and personal preference. All players were tested with no sound “enhancements” (i.e. no BBE effects on Cowon products and no EQ or Sound Check on iPods). All testing was done using 320 kbps MP3 tracks to avoid any potential difference between ALAC and FLAC files. I used my Audio Technica AD900s, Ultrasone HFI-680s and HiFi Man Re0s with each player for a thorough sample.

The order of performance here is a little tricky, but essentially it’s:

First Place: Cowon X7 & J3 – Clean, rich sound with a massive open sound stage and all of the details perfectly presented. My only criticism of the Cowons is that they actually are a little under powered from a volume perspective. They have no trouble getting great sound quality out of the higher impedance HFI-680s and Re0s, but they are at more than 95% volume in order to create an energetic, exciting listening experience.

In addition to their naturally awesome sound quality, the Cowons offer the range of BBE features to further enhance your listening pleasure and although I normally steer clear of “sound enhancements”, the BBE suite is exceptional. The EQ settings are widely adjustable and powerful, the BBE bass boost seems to do a great job of boosting the bass without all the added distortion of many systems and the compressed music enhancement (MP Enhance) is quite effective at bringing the brilliance of lossless music back to a compressed track. Finally, the winning feature for me on the Cowons is their stereo enhancement (equivalent to crossfeed in RockBox). This feature replicates in your headphones the effect of listening to speakers. It’s a simple process and doesn’t mess with the source signal and sound quality, but does result in a beautifully focussed stereo image.

The only key sound quality feature missing (which could also be considered ease-of-use) is ReplayGain. The Cowons don’t normalise the volume for you meaning that you may have to regularly adjust your volume from track-to-track and that’s an issue when you try using the volume controls, but more on that later…

Second Place: iPod Video 5.5G – Solid, clean sound with good depth and good detail. The iPod Video is a great no-frills player. I’ve used it with RockBox and also the regular interface. Either way, the natural sound is great and it seems to have more oomph than other players (volume at 85-90% for higher impedance headphones).

The EQ on the iPod is horrid and introduces all kinds of distortion, but I don’t feel it needs equalising if you have decent headphones. It also lacks a quality volume levelling feature in its original Apple guise (RockBox fixes this). The iPods do have the Sound Check feature, but I find it fairly useless and have heard many reports of degraded sound quality from its use.

Third Place: iPod Classic & Sony Walkman (tied) – These players don’t sound the same, but it’s hard to split them based on their differing shortcomings. The iPod Classic lacks depth in the bass and has a touch of harshness at the high end combined with a lack of very high end detail. It also suffers from the same lack of sound enhancements as explained for the Classic (above).

The Walkman actually has an enjoyable sound for a cheap device (<$100), but it can’t match the others in terms of detail and soundstage. That said, the sound enhancements offered are quite good and quite effective. It’s a perfect exercise player for me (i.e. when I want fun sounding music that I’m not listening to for quality).

Size

I’m not comparing the Walkman here because this is about capacity. Very simply, the J3 is the smallest, but not by much. The iPod Classic is next, followed by the iPod Video and the Cowon X7 is easily the largest and quite bulky. All but the X7 could comfortably fit in a pocket, but the X7 would require a bag of some sort to carry around. It fits nicely in the palm when you’re using it, but the X7 is definitely a bit bigger than the alternatives. That said, if you want to match the sound quality of the X7 you’ll need to add an external amp to the iPods meaning that they just got a bunch bigger and have extra cables sticking out… I’ll be doing a post about the pros/cons of external amplifiers soon.

Interface & Ease of Use

The iPods are the easy winners here – that’s just what Apple do – make things easy. There is no doubt that the Apple interface and synchronisation protocols work well. My only complaints are the lack of effective volume normalisation and the restriction to ALAC as the lossless format. Having recently converted my entire library to FLAC, I really don’t want to have to undo it now. RockBox on the iPod Video allows the use of FLAC, but the Classic can’t use RockBox so it’s slightly more limited.

Another bonus for the iPods is the massive range of accessories available. Being able to drop your pod into a dock and have instant, remote controlled music is a great plus and something that no other player can offer without significant fiddling and expense.

The Walkman comes second because it just works. There are limited bells and whistles and the synchronisation with MediaMonkey was easy and painless. It can’t play lossless formats, but with 4Gb capacity and just-above-average sound quality, 320kbps MP3s are fine. The menus are easy and obvious and the buttons are easy to use and well-placed. Perhaps the best thing about the Walkman though is the SenseMe feature which scans your library and sorts them into mood-based groups. The system isn’t quite perfect (it put a slow song into an upbeat category), but it’s a great, quick playlist solution.

I’m a big believer in working with industrial design rather than fighting against it. If it doesn’t work how I initially expect, I take the time to understand it and learn it, but the Cowons are a long way behind in the ease of use category because of some crazy design decisions. Both players have the volume controls on the side down the bottom of the players. When you’re holding the players you’re fingers are nowhere near the buttons so it’s awkward to adjust the sound (and you need to because there’s no volume levelling).

The menus in the Cowons are quite good and you can access all the important settings direct from the “now playing” screen so this is a plus for the Cowons, but it doesn’t make up for the killer…

You can’t auto-sync playlists to a Cowon player!! That’s right, the Cowon X7 will hold 160Gb of your music, but it won’t let you easily transfer the playlists from MediaMonkey (or Winamp or WMP, etc.) to the player. When you do ask the media player to transfer the playlists, they appear in the X7 (or J3), but when you click on the playlist it says “no file”. I’m sure there’s a fix, but from everything I’ve read it’s a manual fix not an automated one – very frustrating and possibly a deal breaker for me.

Customisation & Flexibility

There are a bunch of custom interfaces for the Cowons and this makes them more customisable than the others. Combine this with their ability to sync with any system and play any type of sound or video and you’ve got a very flexible and customisable player.

The iPod Video can run RockBox and that gives it plenty of flexibility. I rate it only a fraction behind the Cowons because RockBox can be a bit unstable.

The Walkman and iPod Classic tie for 3rd place for different reasons. The Walkman can’t play lossless audio, but it can sync with lots of different systems. The iPod can play lossless audio, but only ALAC so they’re pretty even. The iPod might win by a hair thanks to its ability to play lossless and sync with MediaMonkey.

Summary

What’s the player of choice then? For a collection up to 80Gb, I think I’d take the iPod Video, but over 80Gb it has to be the Cowon. The sound from the iPod Classic just doesn’t cut it for this type of premium player. If you have a huge library and need a large capacity player, there’s a good chance you also appreciate the quality of good music.

I’ll be adding a line out adapter and portable amp to my iPod Classic in the near future and will be sure to report back on the results. In the meantime, I actually think the best answer is to have the Classic for dropping into a dock, using in the car, etc. and having the Cowon X7 (or J3 if you want a small pocket-sized option with killer sound) for mobile portable listening direct to headphones.

 

 

 

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB

This little beast is the Creative Digital Music Premium HD (in Australia). It’s also known as the X-Fi HD in other parts of the world. I’m going to call it the X-Fi HD for the rest of this post because it’s quicker and easier.

Creative designed this to match up with medium-high impedance audiophile headphones and I bought it to drive a set of Ultrasone HFI 680 headphones which are moderate impedance at 75 ohm and stretched the capabilities of my laptop.

My laptop is a Sony Vaio C-series with a Realtek HD onboard soundcard – not bad, but also not highly amplified. It drives my 35 ohm Audio-Technica AD900s quite well and is reasonable with my 64 ohm HiFi-Man Re0s, but it struggles mightily with the 680s.

Generally, the most obvious issue with high impedance headphones is a lack of volume, but that wasn’t where had trouble. My problems came in the form of sound quality. When auditioning the 680s I found the sound really flat and dull compared to other lower impedance headphones, but only when driven direct from the laptop. Adding an amplifier brought the 680s to life, but didn’t involve any increase in volume.

Adding the X-FI HD definitely had the desired effect. Most noticeably, the soundstage grew dramatically. Music sounds open and lively and all of the subtle details are beautifully present and clear. Basically, the only differences it makes are subtle. It doesn’t colour the sound or change it in any way, it just opens it up and lets it live.

The X-Fi HD is small and light – about 6″ x 4″ (at a guess – I haven’t measured it) and about 1 inch thick. The front has just two 6mm jacks (headphone and microphone) and a volume control. There’s a blue LED on the top at the front which shows when the X-FI is connected and when it’s muted (flashes). On the back is a mini USB socket for the data connection to your computer as well as optical in and out sockets as well as analogue lines out and in. There’s also an earth connection for turntable connections.

The software supplied with the X-Fi HD is comprehensive, but I can’t comment on its use because I’m not a fan of sound altering effects like stadium mode and jazz club mode, etc. They sound fairly convincing, but I prefer the sound to be reproduced exactly as it was recorded.

How it Performs

The X-Fi HD instantly transformed my listening experience subtly, but significantly. The soundstage got wider and the separation of sounds got better. That’s really it though. If you are using low bit rate audio (i.e. 256 kbps or less) then there’s probably not much point in buying this device, but if you’re listening to high quality audio with all of the original recording quality intact (i.e. original CDs, DVDs, or lossless audio) then the X-Fi HD could transform your computer into a top-notch source.

As a portable option for excellent, detailed and natural sound, the X-Fi HD is an awesome option for a little over $100 (in Australia). I’m not suggesting that it out-performs more expensive DACs and amplifiers, but for a low cost, portable option it will be hard to beat given that it also gives you the option to input other sources for high quality digital recording of vinyl, etc.

Some Specs

  • The X-Fi HD supports 24-bit 96Hz sound for both recording and playback.
  • Signal to noise ratio is 114dB (through headphone output)

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

Introduction & Context

As a music lover, I want to experience my music in its purest form. The true purest form is live performance, but we can’t always be at concerts so someone created recorded music. Then someone realised that you can’t take a record player or CD player wherever you go so they created compressed audio. There are many different compression formats including MP3, Microsoft’s WMA, Apple’s AAC, Sony’s ATRAC, and Ogg Vorbis. They all have different names and slightly different methods, but the overall concept is the same.

My aim in this series of posts is to explain what happens when you turn a CD into an MP3 or similar compressed format. In most cases, if you put a CD in your computer, PlayStation, Xbox, etc. and “rip” that music to a disc drive or portable music player, there’s a very good chance the music’s been compressed.

Just like it sounds, compressing music is all about squishing the same length of song into a smaller amount of data. A music track of about 3 minutes 30 seconds takes up between 20-30Mb as pure uncompressed audio. That same track can be compressed at “high” quality to about 7Mb. That’s a massive reduction, but you might be wondering what you’re losing to get the file to shrink by two thirds. Over the next few posts I’ll explain the process and the pros / cons of compression in a simple, real-world way so don’t worry if you’re not technically minded – you won’t need to be.

I should add that I’m not a fan of compressing music, but I recognise the need for it if we want portable music so the overall theme of these posts is to understand what you’re sacrificing when you choose compressed music. Once you know what you’re giving up, you can make an informed decision about what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to carry those extra songs. I hope the information is helpful and interesting.

Key Concepts

The Physics of Hearing: To understand the impact of compression you need to understand how we hear sound. The process begins with a sound source (like a musical instrument) that creates vibrations in the air.  These vibrations travel through the air until they hit our ears. Inside our ears is a thin layer of skin that we know as the ear drum. When the vibrations hit the ear drum, it is pushed around and vibrates in time with the incoming sound. Behind the ear drum are some small bones and our inner ear. The bones get pushed by the ear drum and they vibrate accordingly. As the bones vibrate, they continue to pass the vibrations to our inner ear. You can think of the bones in your ears like the string between two tin can telephones – they just carry a simple vibration.

The inner ear receives the vibrations next and the vibrations “tickle” a bunch of nerves which translate the vibration to a new type of signal for our brain. Don’t worry about the final signal to the brain though, just think about the vibrations until they hit the inner ear. These vibrations are chaotic. They aren’t clear and defined with separate little vibrations for the drums and another set of vibrations for the guitar and another set for the singer, etc. No, the vibrations all pile up and create a big mess of vibration.

A single, perfect note looks like this:

Sine Wave Graph

A graph of a perfect note

This type of vibration is impossible to create with a musical instrument (other than a synthesizer) or voice. Here’s the type of vibration created by instruments and voices:

Music Wave Graph

A graph of musical vibrations

Notice the mostly chaotic nature of the vibrations? There are definitely patterns there, but it’s a big mess of different vibrations. What this graph shows us is how our ear drum would move when receiving this music. The higher or lower each line is, the more our ear drum moves. Lines towards the top push our ear drum in. Lines towards the bottom pull our ear drum out. These movements are all tiny (if the music’s not too loud), but enough to send these crazy vibrations through to our ear nerves. The miracle of hearing is that our brain translates this crazy bunch of vibrations into beautiful melodies and harmonies.

Masking: The second key concept to understand is the concept of masking. Masking is the effect of a louder sound making it difficult to hear a quieter sound played at the exact same time. Think about having dinner in a busy restaurant. You might find it difficult to hear what your friends are saying because of the noise in the restaurant – that’s masking. The combined noise of everyone else’s conversations are masking the voice of your friend across the table.

When some clever bunnies wanted to create a way to store music on computers and iPods (or similar devices) they needed to take some data out of our music. The only data in our music is sound, so they had to find a way to take some sounds out of the music. Sounds tricky, yes? That’s where masking comes into play.

Studies showed that people don’t notice when certain individual sounds are removed from the overall musical landscape. In basic terms, if two sounds occur simultaneously, the quieter one can be removed and we don’t really notice. That’s a slight over-simplification, but it sums up the concept. There are very complex mathematical algorithms and formulas that help determine what sounds will and won’t be missed. I don’t even pretend to fully understand those algorithms so I won’t try to explain it. It also doesn’t really matter how the maths works because the key information to understand is that compression involves removing small pieces of the music that you won’t miss (in theory).

End of Part 1

That’s the end of the first section. Hopefully now you understand how we hear and how masking works. In Part 2 I’ll explain how that knowledge applies to compress sound and how it affects what we hear after the compression is done.