A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 1 Sony NWZ-A17

DAPsurvey1_Photo_SonyA17Main

Sony NWZ-A17
Sony was a major player in portable audio back in the day, having essentially invented the category with their Walkman cassette player in 1979. They had a long, successful run as the top dog in their field, and along the way we got excellent portable players for various media including cassette, compact disc, and MiniDisc. Somewhere along the way Sony lost their dominance—by the time "MP3 player" was a term most people understood, Sony was no longer the defacto kingpin in the category. It didn't help that they did some obnoxious things like push their own proprietary formats—Memory Stick for storage and ATRAC as a lossy compression algorithm. The hardware was still good, but no longer did grabbing a Sony guarantee category-leading performance.

Following their steady decline from dominance, Sony has been trying to re-introduce the name "Walkman". They've actually been at it for a while—there were Walkman branded Sony Ericsson cell phones for those of you old enough to remember that era. The most recent push to revive the Walkman name was the NWZ-ZX1 which launched in late 2013—a $700 Android-based music player with the form factor of a smartphone. Sony already has a sequel out, dubbed ZX2, and I'll try to include it in part two of this article. For now I'll be discussing the ZX1's little brother, the $299 NWZ-A17.

DAPsurvey1_Photo_A17MSizeCompare

Size comparison of the A17 on top of the Calix M.

External Design
Aside from the Sansa Clip family, Sony's A17 is the most compact device in this roundup, by no small margin. It's just a bit larger than the original iPod Nano circa 2005 if that brings back any memories. Sony chose an interesting mix of metals on the front panel and plastic on the rear—it looks quite nice yet somehow feels a little cheap to the touch at times. Still, the plastic seems strong enough, and certainly helps maintain the light weight. The display is well done, having merely adequate resolution but great contrast and viewing angles. Buttons have a logical layout with a quality feel when pressed. Aside from the slightly disappointing plastic surfaces, Sony did a good job here.

Internal Design
The A17 is based around a proprietary Sony platform which they term "S Master." Less advanced versions of this technology have appeared in various Sony gear over the past few years, such as the older X and Z series DAPs, some of their tablets, and even a few Vaio laptops. The A17 gets the latest and greatest "HX" version as originally appearing in the more expensive NW-ZX1. You can read more about it here, here, and here. The resulting system is similar to what NuForce did with their DDA-100 integrated amp—Sony has their own version of a PWM amplification stage with no intermediate digital to analog conversion step involved. As such there is no actual DAC chip from the likes of Wolfson or Cirrus Logic, and the headphones are driven directly from the S Master chip itself with no further amplification stage required. The A17 handles material up to 24-bit/192kHz. It does not play DSD which is a little odd considering that format is Sony's baby.... I suspect this limitation has to do with processing power, or lack thereof.

User Interface
I really like what Sony did with the A17 user interface. It strikes a great balance between function and simplicity, offering all the essential features I want in a well laid out fashion. I felt right at home the very first time I used it, and within a few hours I was practically a power user. Even with a large amount of sound tweaking options, it's all very accessible. Other DAP makers should take note as Sony really nailed it here.

With everything being done so well, I only have two minor complaints to point out. First, the home screen is somewhat busy. I wish it could be customized to eliminate the icons I don't normally use. A minor thing I suppose, but I'm spoiled by the flexibility of Rockbox. More problematic is the somewhat limited playlist support. A17 handles existing playlists I imported with my music, but doesn't do much for creating new ones on the fly. We do get the "bookmark" function which acts as a dynamic playlist of sorts, similar to the "go list" from the Sansa players. We get 5 different "lists" to work with so I have one for classical, one for jazz, one for more aggressive music, etc. This works well enough for me though it only supports adding by song, not by album, so I could see it being frustrating for some people.

Connectivity
In addition to the 64GB worth of on board storage, Sony had the wisdom to allow for expandable memory, and thankfully they've gotten past their obsession with the proprietary Memory Stick format. That means MicroSD expansion for an easy 192GB (including the internal 64GB) at the moment and more in the near future as larger cards inevitably drop in price.

Unfortunately Sony chose a proprietary connector rather than MicroUSB, so charging and data transfer must be done using the bundled cable. There does exist a very small market for compatible accessories but it's not at all robust. Fiio's L5 line-out cable is around $10 and allows for adding an external amp, which can be useful with more difficult to drive headphones—the A17 output voltage is extremely low though, so care in choosing an external amp is essential. Sony's own WMC-NWH10 cable (~$40) gives a USB output which can feed certain portable DAC/amp devices such as the Oppo HA-2 or Sony's own PHA-1A (which I believe comes bundled with that same cable). That's certainly better than nothing, but nowhere near as broadly connectable as some others in this collection. The price we pay for compact size I suppose.

The A17 does include high quality aptX Bluetooth which helps alleviate the situation a tad. I'm sure Sony would prefer users pair it with their MDR-1RBT headphone—those are on the Wall of Fame already, and a recent update adds aptX to the mix...so it may sound even better these days. I don't have a pair of those but I did have good results using several other aptX enabled headphones and even some Bluetooth speakers. I'm a little surprised at how often I used this feature and how much I enjoyed having the option—none of the others in this article offer Bluetooth so it's something to consider. There's also a radio tuner which again is not common among the higher end DAPs.

Battery
The A17 has by far the best battery life here. Where several others might struggle to last the week if used for one hour per day, the A17 could happily last all month under those conditions. Activating the various sound enhancement features, using Bluetooth, or playing hi-res files causes a decrease but we're still talking 25+ hours of play time. Apparently using Sony's digital out cable puts the A17 in "data transfer mode" and cuts battery life to a mere 8 hours or so. Again, I think the main draw of the device is using it alone with easier to drive headphones or IEMs, so that issue doesn't bother me specifically, though it does seem rather unnecessary overall.

Sound Quality
As the smallest "premium" device here, and the one with the best battery life, you'd think something, somewhere, would have to give. And it does. Simply put, the A17 is a great little DAP with pleasing sound quality but rather limited drive capability. It does an excellent job with in-ear monitors and can do easy to drive headphones nearly as well. Grados, most Audio Technicas, V-MODA, Sennheiser Momentum, beyerdynamic T51p, etc, are all driven with plenty of authority and volume. Basically any headphone designed for portable use will probably be fine. The sound signature is neutral and clear, with a particularly well defined treble section. It isn't overly rich or thick so those looking for a warm coloration should look elsewhere. The far more expensive ZX1 may have the slight edge in a few areas, but honestly it's not immediately noticeable. I had to spend quite some time going back and forth before I could nail down any improvement in the flagship device. This speaks well for the little A17—packing nearly all of that quality into a smaller and more affordable product is a big win as far as I'm concerned. It feels quite at home in this collection, even along side others going for double (HiFiMAN) or triple (Calyx) the price.

The potential downside? That parity disappears when driving anything remotely difficult. Planar magnetic headphones such as the LCD-2 or HE500 are barely listenable in terms of volume levels, and nowhere near their peak in quality. AKG's K7XX sounds thin and a bit shouty. High impedance models from Sennheiser and beyerdynamic just don't have the dynamics or the impact they normally would, and they don't get very loud either. In short, the A17 is definitely NOT intended to replace your desktop amp. There's just not enough juice for anything beyond a simple load.... which seems perfectly fine considering the size and intended use. As long as you know this going in, there should be no disappointments.

The roughly three and a half ohm output impedance is just low enough to squeak by with most headphones, save for those picky IEMs which demand one ohm or lower. It's the same story with hiss—most headphones and IEMs are fine, but I was able to find a few instances where I could hear some hiss in the background. Typically not enough to hear once the music begins. Engaging any of Sony's sound enhancement options makes hiss more obvious, though it's still not an issue with the majority of headphones.

Speaking of sound enhancements—I don't usually bother due to the poor implementations in most devices. The A17 is an exception and I could see some of the options actually being desirable at times. "Clear Audio+" sounds terrible to me, like a typical DSP enhancement, but "DSEE HX" actually seems to improve the sound by a small degree—without fundamentally changing it or being too obvious. It's actually one of the best features of Sony's HAP-Z1ES music server which Kal Rubinson favorably reviewed last year. Sony describes the process in fancy terms, claiming it "accurately expands the audio signal bit-depth, in real time, to near high-resolution sound quality" among other things. Sounds like upsampling to me, which I've learned to take on a case by case basis as far as actual improvements go. In this instance it does seem to help by a small amount. We also get Clear Bass which can be fun to play with on some music, as well as VPT (surround) and Dynamic Normalizer which don't do much for me. Lastly, a reasonably well done custom EQ option is available if that floats your boat. None of this is mandatory but I gotta admit Sony does much better here than most of the competition. For those purists who want to stick with the "regular sound", rest assured that's still a very good choice.

COMMENTS
castleofargh's picture

cool to see something about DAPs.
I usually whine a lot when reading reviews as they always are too nice with the devices, forgetting to tell about the shameful side of a device. well I must say, this time the practical reports felt spot on for the stuff I own or could try(and I really don't say that often).

I also wondered about the hm802 not getting much love. it's too big for me, I'd rather have smaller and use an amp when necessary, but it seemed like a pretty good product.

John Grandberg's picture
If everyone writes fawning reviews and leaves out all the disappointing aspects, how will the companies making these DAPs ever learn?
Dopaminer's picture

Great review so far; really looking forward to Part II. I think you should reconsider your iBasso stance and include the DX90. Judging by the headfi threads, the DX50 and DX90 have been the `gateway` daps for many audiophiles who transitioned from smart phones or ipods, and then subsequently `moved up` to higher priced (sometimes MUCH higher priced) daps like AK240, etc. The DX50 and DX90 are highly relevant in any comparison, especially the DX90 with its power and dual sabre dacs, and its huge following.
d

John Grandberg's picture
I have to admit, I'm still sore at iBasso for blowing out my $750 set of CIEMs with their stupid volume bug. You're totally right about their relevance, but I'm just not sure I'm "there" yet.
tony's picture

Thank you for explaining the differences in all these players.

I'm reading and trying to imagine each player vs. my iMac/Schiit system.

Does anyone offer an iMac in shirt pocket size?

Anyway, nice bit of work here.

Tyll, Joker, Katz and Grandberg make a pretty strong group of journalists.

Tony in Michigan

potterpastor's picture

Tremendous survey so far! I love my Sansa Clip and my Sansa Clip+. By the way, I prefer the sound quality of the original Sansa Clip over the 2nd gen Sansa Clip +, but the original clip doesn't have a slot for micro sd cards.

John Grandberg's picture
I haven't had an original Clip in ages. No memory expansion = no go for me. But it's interesting that you like it more for SQ. I know they switched to a newer AMS SoC for the Clip+ and newer models, so I can see how it might be a little different. Personally I recall them sounding the same but I can't say I spent a lot of time comparing.
potterpastor's picture

The Sansa clip firmware is really sluggish and slow. It takes hours and hours to refresh the media every time you intentionally or accidentally move the microSD card. It is just not feasible.

You didn't review the iPod touch fifth-generation, but it probably is the best of all the players. It is so easy and fast to load music, and it sounds great.

Impulse's picture

I've been using a Clip Zip for running for a few years now, along with a pair of MEElec M6. Tempted to swap them for my Xiaomi Pistons but I like the fit of the M6 a lot when it comes to being active.

I used to take along the Zip when traveling but my Nexus 5 doesn't really burn thru battery much while playing music. I'm usually sending it via Bluetooth anyway to a Sony MW600 receiver (and my V-Moda XS or Ety IEM).

That's one category of devices I'd love you guys to survey, ClieOS tested some of the Sony/Samsung BT receivers on Head-Fi a while ago but it was not an exhaustive review. I feel like they kill two birds with one stone...

It takes the burden of output (DAC and amplification) off your phone or tablet, while also cutting down on wires, particularly when used with something like the XS with removable cables you can swap for short ones.

Impulse's picture

A BT receiver lets you enjoy the headphones you already have with a minimum of wires without getting pricey dedicated BT cans or a compromised set...

It's not something I use at home, at all, because I know BT is ultimately a bottleneck to what my cans are capable of (never mind my Asgard 2); but it's ultra convenient on the go...

As much as Tyll complains about how cramming batteries and BT electronics into a pair of cans tends to hurt their design you'd think these things would've come up in the conversation a few times.

John Grandberg's picture
I have a Noble BTS on the way, hoping it accomplishes just what you mention. From a design perspective it looks like just what the doctor ordered for a smartphone with high output impedance or just generally lazy sound quality. We'll see.
Impulse's picture

Looks kinda pricey compared to some of Sony's BT receivers with comparable battery life AND a display for track info, caller ID, etc... But if the sound quality is a cut above the rest it might very well be worth a look.

I'm definitely looking forward to your take on it. I don't particularly need the display on my Sony anymore since my smart watch accomplishes the same function. Being BT 4.0 that Noble unit might get better battery life than advertised with BT4.0 compatible phones.

I've heard great AptX BT devices as well as awful ones, not putting much stock that, the standard SBC codec seems decent enough if a device uses the highest bitrate... I've wondered whether AptX is more efficient but, no one tests for that kinda thing.

John Grandberg's picture

We'll see. The sub-1 ohm output impedance is promising. You don't typically see that spec on gear from other brands.

Which Sony model do you use?

Impulse's picture

I'm using a Sony MW600, pretty old unit, I think it's discontinued now but still widely available at close to it's original price. I believe they replaced it with the MW1 but that seems discounted too, not sure if the SBH5x models are their most current or what.

I get pretty good battery life out of it tho (over 7hrs still after a few years), I remember comparing it to my Clip Zip with my Ety hf3 but it's been a while... Now I'm curious to do so again.

Ended up settling on it basically based off Amazon reviews, a couple positive comments about it or the MW1 on Head-Fi, and just the fact that it looked better than a similar unit by LG. It's hard to find detailed specs like output impedance or DAC used, much less anyone that has more than one of these things for comparative purposes.

ManiaC's picture

Please if you can add Cayin N6 and Fiio X3 2-nd generation.

John Grandberg's picture
I have the Cayin N6 here now, as well as QLS QA360. Both are worth talking about. Should be able to get the Consonance Suzanne as well, but I'm not sure if the Questyle QP1 will be done in time.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
Yeah, but by the time the Questyle comes out you'll have a lot of great experience to evaluate it with. Thanks, John, great work here.
tony's picture

Another Wiki type of reference work.

You guys keep hitting home runs.

This portable comparison is doing Tons of work for me and probably for everyone else.

I'd buy a plane ticket to see a Seminar with all four of you lads.

You 4 are becoming a "Top Gear" type of experience, you might be able to do a weekly show ( remote kind of thing, like that TV guy does ). Betcha you'd be getting a huge following.

Tony in Michigan

elfary's picture

iPhone 6 output impedance is 2.3 ohms. Check your facts (or measurements).

tony's picture

Nice catch here elfary,

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
And so did Ken Rockwell on his site. He got 3.18 ohms on the 6+, and I got a bit higher than that. Within margin of error/unit to unit variability I suppose. The point stands that it's pretty good as-is, but not perfect - there is some improvement to be found with a lower output impedance, when using certain IEMs.
Stefraki's picture

Have been increasingly falling in love with my Pono. Functionally speaking, it's very silly in several aspects... sound quality-to-price ratio? It's amazing.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in Part 2.
ednaz's picture

It's difficult in these online shopping days to do good research on your own. When I decided I wanted to step up from the iDevices, I couldn't find anyplace where I could listen to 2 or 3 alternatives with the IEMs and headphones I own. As fraught with argument as an exercise like this can be, it's a necessary tool (unless someone wants to order four or five units and sell off the ones they don't like.)

I agree on your assessment of the Fiio X5 sound, that's agreement from someone who enjoys listening to the device. But I think it's a problem with some earphones, but not at all with others. With my Westone ES5, it's edgy metallic for sure. But with other earphones or headphones - Xiaomi Piston 2, Ety custom sleeved, ACS T1 CIEMs, my AKG Quincy Jones portable headphones - it's not noticeable at all.

That's where the YMMV comes in - really seems to me that in a lot of cases you need to look at DAP/headphone combinations. Which makes for a combinatorial nightmare. Still, with good roundup reviews like this, and knowledge of your own headphones, it's possible to get to happy.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I absolutely enjoyed this first collective look at DAPs.
Thank you very much John for compiling your thoughts and sharing them with the innerfidelity gang.

I share @ManiaC's interest in the Fiio X3ii as its been getting some pretty great buzz on other audio sites. However im guessing its sound quality wouldnt exceed the X5 and we have your review for that one.

Keep up the great work and keep sharing your thoughts and reviews. We headphone fans love our electronic toys..having more DAP reviews and wall-o-fame entries are a perfect fit for this site!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

PS: What about adding Zunes, Archos Jukeboxes, Creative NOMADs, Diamond Rios, or the audiophile-standard-setting coby usb player!?

tnelson's picture

I'd be interested to know more about the target users of dedicated DAPs with higher SQ than iPhones and other smartphones. I honestly am curious about this issue…I understand wanting the best possible source for an environment in which you can discern SQ clearly and maybe wanting a physically small personal source that can be moved from quiet listening site to site (home, office, etc).

However, I am skeptical that benefits of a high-SQ DAP can be heard if used as a portable player. On streets, planes, cars, in coffee shops…there's no way I'd be able to hear an enhancement beyond my iPhone, regardless of how good the source or IEMs. Too much isolation or noise-cancellation can be dangerous on the street, so there's always going to be ambient noise.

I would still need my phone for streaming (or lossless downloaded) TIDAL, internet radio, plus all the non-audio smartphone functions. Why carry another device? It would be interesting to evaluate a current iPhone and Android phone among the DAPs being compared for SQ, for folks like me who are skeptical about the audible benefits of carrying a second audio device. Doesn't fit my lifestyle, but what is the target listening market for these?

John Grandberg's picture
I definitely agree that any benefit is lost in a noisy environment. That almost goes without saying. But each situation is different - two people commuting to work might have vastly different ambient noise situations. One might not be a good candidate for anything beyond a phone and decent IEMs, the other might be well served by a nice DAP and higher-end IEM. So you have to examine your own scenario and go from there.
On Song Audio's picture

Hi I am the U.S. representative for the M. Please keep in mind that the M can play while plugged into a 5 volt USB supply. The 4 to 5 hour battery life applies when a power outlet is not within reach.

Laistrogian's picture

I'm wondering if it's possible to do measurement for these DAPs. While I can understand why some people would want to by DAPs, something like A&K240 comes across me as being "unnecessary."

You could call me objectivist or something like that but for me it's still physics, if the numbers are the same they should sound the same.

SixChannel's picture

2 years ago I settled on a Samsung Galaxy because it 1)has a true FM radio, 2)has open architecture for music player and 3)allows me to peruse the innumerable internet stations. Although I see FM a lesser draw these days, opening up to the internet swung the deal for me. The only unfortunate part is that the amplifying stage isn't the best for my big cans, but I fixed it by strapping it to an amp.

elfary's picture

BTW complete measurements for iPhone and some boutique daps can be found at:

http://headphoniaks.com/blog/

Skilled guy with pro gear. Source measurements seldom get better than this (unless nwavguy comes back from hereafter).

It would be nice to give a shot to an iPhone 5s/6. Superb iem drivers in my book.

veggieboy2001's picture

...thank you John! Really well thought out and enjoyable.

If you can get your hands on one, I'd love it if you can try one of the LH Labs Geek Wave DAPs...They put a lot of work into them with their indiegogo campaign, I'd enjoy hearing your take.

some links if you haven't seen/heard of it:

http://www.digitaltrends.com/music/says-mp3-players-dead-geek-wave-killi...

http://www.digitalaudioreview.net/2014/07/lh-labs-crowdfunds-1m-for-geek...

John Grandberg's picture

I can't say I'm a fan of their marketing practices... the gear well end up being very nice, but the circus act surrounding it is another matter entirely.

I would be rather upset if I was a backer on some prior offering, still waiting for delivery, watching announcements for new models keep popping up.

I'm happy to evaluate a final product once it becomes available. Until then I see no point in discussing renderings or specs or prototypes.

veggieboy2001's picture

I'm much more interested in the end result...the "marketing practices" are nothing but smoke & mirrors...I can't say I (totaly) blame them for trying to get a "buzz", but I thought they were closer to a "final" production model. Thanks for the response, (and the reviews!)

elfary's picture

John,

Even if we are nitpicking here... you can trust me: iPhone 6 is 2.3 and it is identical as that of iPhone 5s.

Ftr iPhone 6 Plus does not sound nor measure identical to iPhone 6.

In any case given the ubiquity and convience of iPhones it would be nice to read you opinion about how it does stack against competition.

A few weeks back a former musician blindtested a bunch of guys (Pono/iPhone 6) and great majority chose iPhone. Bottom line is do not understimate iPhone headphone outs just because they are too mainstream.

John Grandberg's picture

I find it difficult because Apple seems to change each time. I remember the iPhone 4 was around 1 ohm, the 4S was double that, the original iPhone 5 was well over 3 ohms... perhaps my mistake was thinking the 6 and 6+ were identical.

I do think iPhone/iPad sound quite good in general (which I mentioned in the article), and only a select few Android phones can match them.

echineko's picture

I've just been thinking of upgrading my current Sony NWZ ZX1, and was actually looking up most of the DAPs listed here. Looking forward for part 2 and your overall conclusion on these :)

elfary's picture

Android handsets have come a long way in the last few years but output power is usally on the dire zone(seldom it goes past 0.5 Volts with no load). Only HTC and Meizu seem to strive for more serious voltage.

Still UI glitches, interference and hiccups are a common place in the Android marketplace whereas Apple is pretty much a bugless experience audio wise (As long as its volt suffices to your earphones). And UI and ergonomy are beyond what words can convey.

ashutoshp's picture

Great review John as, always. I would love to hear your opinion on the sound quality of a DAP vs. that from a smartphone streaming digital audio via USB to a portable DAC/amp like oppo's HA-2 (eg, Lightning for iDevices and USB OTG for Android)? Recent updates to Android and Apple devices allow compatibility with a lot more external DAC/amps than ever before.
Despite the benefits, I can't seem to justify buying music anymore considering the streaming (TiDAL) options available. I come from a generation where we had no option but to buy music CDs, which was a 50:50 option, at best, so I ended up having so much junk in my collection that I fell on my knees when I first heard of streaming. I have little desire for a DAP and and I have even less patience for clunky user interfaces. I could be wrong but it seems the ones with the good interfaces are either extremely expensive (Sony and A&K) or lack 'juice' (I'm looking at you Sony).

bikermanlax's picture

I've come to the same conclusion as John on the use of an amp with the X5. I'm using a Alo MKIIB w/ great results. My "sorta porta" set up.

My go to recommendation for a newcomer is the Sansa Clip, you can't go wrong with that one.

Agree that the X3 (2nd gen) should be thrown into the next review.

BadEars's picture

With all of the hype around the Pono player, I was dissapointed that it didn't make it into the round up... If only as an A-B compare or post script.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in part 2. I didn't receive it soon enough to make it fit here but don't worry, its coming.
jk47's picture

thank you for this review. i look forward to the next installment. some other daps i'd love to see included are:

1. the dx90 - i understand your annoyance with ibasso for making you an unwilling beta tester for the dx50, but the dx90 is the dap i use along with a lot of other head-fi members. it is thus a useful reference for comparison for a lot of your readers.

2. i'd like to second the inclusion of the cayin n6. this dap has generated an enthusiastic thread at head-fi and members there are lauding it highly. its price is such that if it is really as good as its owners say, it would be an incredibly great value, price/performance piece of equipment.

3. the lotoo paw - almost as expensive as the ak240. of course there are diminishing returns with increases in price, but how does it compare with the ak240, and with daps a rung or two down - the new hifiman 901s, the calyx, the cayin? is there really much extra value in reaching up into the stratosphere to purchase a $2000-$2500 dap?

4. if it's out in time, the soundaware esther. similarly, if it's out in time, the geekwave.

in all these reviews, i'm really interested both in the absolute quality of the sound, but also in the price/performance of the sq. that's part of my interest in hoping you include the dx90 - think it's quite high on the price/performance measure.

lastly, whatever you include, i'd like to applaud you doing this kind of round up. most of us do not have the opportunity to audition equipment, and rely on the impressions of others to make a purchase as a leap of faith. people who've already spent their money on something have a tendency to praise it highly, justifying the money they've already spent. thus, these deliberately comparative reviews are especially helpful.

John Grandberg's picture

Thanks for the post! Let's see:

1) I'll consider it, still mad at them though.

2) I have the N6 here now, So far so good, it's pretty impressive.

3) I'll shoot them an email and see if I can get my hands on the PAW. It would have to be blindingly impressive to justify the price.

4) Doubtful, but we'll see.

jk47's picture

oh yeah, i forgot the acoustic research ar-m2. these things are coming so fast you could make it a whole career. ;-)

julian67's picture

The "Clip Zip" in the images is not a Clip Zip, it's a Clip Sport - different hardware and fairly horrible even by budget standards.

The "Fuse" should be called a Fuze, and I think that is a Fuze v2, not the original Fuze. It is obsolete. There was a newer model with different hardware (much better in fact), the Fuze + or Plus. That is also obsolete.

The AMS based players (Clip, Clip+, Clip Zip and Fuze v1 and v2) all play back with a pitch error. This is audible, though a lot of people won't notice. In any case I don't think I'm alone in thinking that playing music back at the wrong speed and pitch is something of a disqualification. Rockbox firmware fixes this on the Clip, Clip+,Clip Zip, Fuze v1 and v2. The Fuze+ doesn't have this error (as mentioned it's different hardware). The Clip Sport supposedly sounds bad enough that a pitch error is the least of its problems, though I haven't heard one myself.

John Grandberg's picture

Yep, I didn't explain my pics well enough and Tyll just took a stab at the labels when he posted this. Will have to get it fixed. That yellow one is indeed a Sport which, as I mention in the article, is not recommended at all.

The Fuze shown is definitely the original. I don't recommend the Fuze+ and made that clear in the write-up. I also did explain how Fuze is discontinued but easily found all over the place.

The pitch error has been overstated imho. Many DAPs have slight pitch errors, it's just a question of magnitude. The original Clip had an error of more than 1% which should have been somewhat obvious to certain listeners. On the Clip+ it was down to ~.25% which equates to playing 440Hz as 441Hz, or 90 beats per minute as 90.2 beats per minute. I seriously doubt most people could actually notice it. Rockbox fixes it altogether, and the Clip Zip never had it in the first place.

julian67's picture

You're right, the Clip Zip didn't have the pitch error.

see stuff.caudec.net/rmaa

However it's worth pointing out that the pitch error was not discovered by measurements. It was noticed by people listening and the measurements followed as part of the verification and diagnosis.

As well as being difficult to live with for anyone with ears silver, golden or better (ha ha) it is impossible to live with for anyone wanting to keep time to the playback.

Not playing the music back at correct speed/pitch is not a small failing or just an esoteric complaint. It's an audible error in an audio playback device! Core function much?

The Clip Sport and Fuze+ do have hardware that is different from the AMS Sansas but they do not share the same hardware with each other - totally different in fact. They probably should not be dismissed as though somehow comparable or similar.

The Fuze+ is excellent. For example it offers more dynamic range, lower noise, lower distortion, lower crosstalk than the AMS Sansas. It does actually sound very, very good too! A forum member at anythingbutipod did RMAA tests on the Fuze+ and several other players (including Clip+, iPod Classic with and without Line Out Dock, and others), loaded and unloaded, and the Fuze+ is very good performer objectively and in terms of pushing play and enjoying the music.

I have owned a Clip+, A Fuze v2 and currently have a Fuze+ (and a few other players as well) and imo the Fuze+ is the best sounding Sansa player so far (also has huge battery life between 25 and 30 something hours in Rockbox). The Sansa UI is pretty but horrible to use. Fortunately Rockbox transforms it into a highly usable device.

OK I'll stop picking now.

Nice article btw!

julian67's picture

sorry, the link to caudec is in wrong place - should be in para 5, it's the RMAA tests.

julian67's picture

..of the Sansa players the only one which *maybe* sounds better than my Galaxy Note II (GT-N7105) smartphone is the Fuze+.

The others all have too annoying a collection of hisses, squeaks, clicks and all the usual EMI noise. The Note 2 is dead black silent even with sensitive IEMs, measures well, has low output impedance, and sounds great.

I really doubt that any budget player these days can outperform a premium smartphone, whether that's an iPhone or a top flight Android device. Cheap smartphones have crummy sound but the good ones really are good.

I use mine on 4G and VPN to home and so I have my entire lossless collection (over 1600 albums which is over 500GB inc scanned artwork) available anywhere I have a connection. I can't do that with a Sansa.

John Grandberg's picture

My recollection of the pitch issue is that users first noticed it with the original Clip. That model was roughly 20 cents off, which should be audible for some or even most users if they listen carefully. The Clip+ and Fuze brought that error down to roughly 4 cents which is certainly bumping up against the threshold of audibility. People knew about it from the earlier and more egregious version - had it not been for the larger error on the first Clip, the later instances may well never have been discovered. As for timing, the Clip+ and friends have a speed difference of roughly 1.5 seconds for a 10 minute track, or .2 beats per minute. Short of using it for metronome duty, that's rather difficult to detect.

As you say, it's a non-issue when using Rockbox.

For the Fuze+, I tried it when it first came out, and found it shockingly bad. They took arguably the best scroll-wheel concept around and scrapped it in favor of a touch panel, because touch panels were becoming popular.... in smartphones. Never mind that their panel was completely unresponsive, and their menu actually a big step backwards compared to what came before. But hey, TOUCH PANEL!!!

The launch unit I tried was also a step down in SQ. I heard the same from many friends and forum dwellers at the time, and even some "civilian" tech review sites who don't normally concern themselves with such things. It was "mushy" sounding and had significant hiss with IEMs, where my other Sansa gear has none. My Clip+ abd Clip Zips don't have any of the clicks or other noise you mention so I can't account for that. Perhaps it varies from unit to unit.

No Rockbox port yet existed so I wrote the Fuze+ off as unusable and moved on. If a later Sansa FW update and/or Rockbox ended up improving the sound, I obviously missed it. Wouldn't surprise me as they had nowhere to go but up.

As for the smartphones, I totally agree the Note series is excellent, as are many other top models. But the "average" Android phone is still lacking. I've got about a dozen here (long story) and maybe 4 out of that lot sound great, the rest are all seriously flawed in one way or another. Talk about clicks and pops and EMI issues.... yep, I hear it on many of those phones.

julian67's picture

Yes, Rockbox on the Fuze+ is transformative. I'd suggest it makes revisiting product well worth while and quite an eye opener...or should that be an ear opener? You can now configure the sensitivity of the touchpad areas and make the damn thing behave like any sensible person might expect. Another benefit of the player over the AMS versions is that it has more processing power and RAM and so it does a much better job of running a database and the pictureflow plug-in.

All official Sansa firmwares for the Fuze+ are ess aich eye tee, don't waste a minute on them.

I know I'm not alone in experiencing an unwelcome assortment of unwanted noises on the AMS Sansas (and I've owned more than one!). It's even noted as a known problem on the Rockbox wiki. Some people never notice it, or else they have players which don't exhibit the fault. To my mind known inconsistent build or component quality is not a positive selling point but it seems that getting a good one inoculates one to this strange and curmudgeonly point of view. he he he.

John Grandberg's picture
You've convinced me, I'll hunt one down and give it a try. I see lots of refurbs available which doesn't inspire confidence about Sansa's QA process, but I suppose the same could be said for the large quantities of Apple refurbs too.... so maybe it doesn't mean much in the end.
purk's picture

Thanks for a great and very comprehensive review!

When you conduct a review on the Pono, please make sure to utilize its balanced output for optimum sound quality. I do like the Pono in SE but the balanced output is considerably better in all counts. Please also add the Sony NW-ZX2 to the list as well.

John Grandberg's picture

Have a balanced adapter that Tyll sent over, not sure the brand but it's very well built.

I am still patiently waiting on Sony's PR people for a ZX2.

julian67's picture

I bought my Fuze+ 8GB as a refurb for about £20. It was as new with no faults. The seller at the time was Sansa's official agent for refurbs and had many thousands available at low prices. I got the impression that lots of these returns must be due to the terrible UI/touchpad experience because this kind of hardware is intrinsically reliable and with no moving parts is pretty difficult to damage short of immersing it or attacking it.

Anyway I hope you like it! Try a recent rockbox daily as the last official release was in 2013 and lots of stuff changed a lot since then, especially on new and "unstable" ports.

John Grandberg's picture
They appear to go for around $50 for the 8GB model these days, so I'll snag one ASAP. Supposedly a 16GB model exists but I can't find one anywhere. Expandable memory makes these distinctions irrelevant anyway.
julian67's picture

The 16GB models were always expensive even as refurbs and as you say the microSD slot makes 8GB here or there irrelevant. Also the flash memory in Sansa players has very slow write speeds so paying a premium for even more of it would not get good value. A Class 10 microSDHC card is ideal in these. 128GB cards work fine if formatted from exFAT to FAT32 (you'll probably have to change the partition type as well). I found the Fuze+ with Rockbox easily copes with a 128GB card containing hundreds of flac albums, both in database and file browser usage.

Jayhawklaw's picture

Great article. I love comparisons. I wish all publications did them. Dare I ask, do you have a guesstimate as to when part two will be published? I'm in the market for a DAP that plays High Res files and no one close to where I live carries all three of the one's I'm considering, but you've reviewed two of the three already and I bet you'll include the other in part two. I bet you'll give me more and others to consider to boot. I don't know whether to thank you or curse you for that.

John Grandberg's picture
Best I can say is "soon" and apologize for being vague. The format is set, the explanations for each category are already explained so no need to rehash that. It's just a matter of getting the appropriate amount of listening in and then going from there. Some of the DAPs I've had for a while so I already have a handle on them, but others just barely arrived. So we'll see.
Jayhawklaw's picture

Hopefully (fingers crossed) the new Astell & Kern AK Jr. will be included.

John Grandberg's picture

I mentioned in the article this is a fast moving segment... it will be hard to keep up with these newly announced models. I think the important thing is to establish a baseline with the main stuff, including a Wall of Fame. That will give us a lay of the land for any future individual reviews to be judged against. Kinda like what we did with custom IEMs.

So far I have enough to expand to three articles (instead of two as originally planned) and that's before adding the newest stuff like AK jr.

Wilderbeast's picture

This site is turning into a useful resource - thanks guys.

I'd like to see the Cowon Plenue P1 included too!

I'm interested to see if there really is a difference between the AK120ii and the AK240. They have the same amp and dac but a very different price.

Akmax57's picture

Has anyone tried the Sony player with the Sennheiser Urbanites? Seems like the warm tonality of the Urbanites and its recessed treble that Tyll had noted, might be a nice match for the Sony and its slightly upper frequency tilt.

The Federalist's picture

Hey John this is a really great review.
Especially since this is an issue I am confronting right now. Whether to retire for good and all my iPod and move to a more upscale portable source like the AK100 V2 AKJR, Pono, or Geek Wave etc.

I actually think a fair number of readers, like myself, would want to use these types of devices as a portable transport that can be connected to an external amp/dac, whether in desktop or portable configuration.

The fact that many OEM's included a digital line out on their devices indicates that they saw this as a likely/possible use of their device as well.

I understand that with the number of devices involved you can't include comments on sound quality in all the different connectivity options like how the X5 or Sony or Calyx sound when externally amped, or when DA conversion is done externally.

But I was curious if in your own listening if you've used any of these as a transport using external converter/ amps and if the sound quality deltas between a high end and lower end (i.e. AK120/240 or Calyx vs. iPod or Sansa Fuse) are less dramatic or disappear if they are used in this capacity.

Any insight would be welcome... and kudos for this review series... The DAP market has been growing stronger and reemerging for a couple few years now (since Apple started neglecting the iPod) and this is the first in depth look at the current state of the art... Good on ya for doing this.

BW

John Grandberg's picture

What you've got there is really two issues - DAPs used as transport, and DAPs used with line out.

Easiest issue first: the differences are fairly easy to spot when using line out to a nice external amp. First off, just getting a true line out with proper voltage is half the battle. That alone separates the more serious contenders from their pedestrian counterparts. Not saying you can't use a portable amp with a Clip Zip in a pinch, but with a reasonably nice desktop amp you'll notice its shortcomings. With an AK100 II, or Pono, or X5, the superior internal DAC quality is noticeable imho. Not sure I'd jump all the way to AK240 just to use it feeding a desktop amp though - it has to make sense for use on the go, and the home use is a sort of bonus in my eyes.

Now, for transport duty, digital out to a DAC, the differences are far smaller. The X5 is the cheapest one I've used to give an easily accessible SPDIF signal (the Sony A17 doesn't make it easy for us), and it works quite well. Depending on the DAC involved, you can do a little better, but the difference is not massive. Then again, choosing the X5 means you are stuck with that interface, so again it's all relative to the larger experience. Keep in mind some models like the Calyx don't have digital out.

The Federalist's picture

That tells me what I need to know... I've been trying to convince myself that I can ditch my iOS devices and my computer completely by buying an AK100 II that would become my full scale source. I could use it as a transportable er umm.. transport. I can plug into my optical input on my dac at work, it'll handle portable duties on the train, and I can plug it in to SPDIF at my home system as well... My entire library travels with me and sounds outstanding anywhere I go.

But I don't know that I need all that yet... May find a jumping off point that is in a bit shallower territory than Astell & Kern... Maybe Cowon J3 or Fiio X3 to start. To see how well a DAP transport integrates and to see how often I reach for it.

Either way this is a great angle you are taking with the review/ roundup... This market is obviously re-emerging with all these new devices hitting the market...

Respect,

BW

mobbaddict's picture

Like someone else suggested, it would be nice to add some RMAA measurements to those surveys, it would make them more in line with your flawless headphones reviews.

Besides would you care to explain your procedure for these tests? Did you rely solely on your memory or did you make direct comparisons between DAPs? And would you consider doing blind tests as well?

I'm sorry for being so boring but I always take subjective impressions with a pinch of salt when it comes to sources, I believe we always tend to overestimate the actual differences. Last audiophile DAP I bought was a Nationite s:flo2, and it was no better than my current Samsung smartphone in direct comparison.

John Grandberg's picture

I've messed with RMAA extensively and found it interesting but also contradictory. After trying various configurations and getting different results with each test rig, I came to the tentative conclusion that I just wasn't comfortable with the results as saying anything definitive about the gear being reviewed. If this was my own blog I might pick a test rig and run with it - at least the results could be compared with my own prior measurements on the same rig. But next to Tyll's impeccable measurements the whole thing seemed amateurish (at best) and I'm not comfortable putting any stock in it. I may revisit the idea in the future.

My procedure is a combination of extended listening and real-world use along with numerous direct A/B comparisons, level matched but not blind. I feel this best approximates the experience of actual users. I know some people will have issues with my approach and I'm fine with that.

I do agree that the differences are not always as clear as reviewers would have us believe, and I hope never overstate things in my own articles. When I describe the character of these DAPs I hope I make it clear enough that in most cases it's a fairly subtle thing. And as you'll see in my next article, a good smartphone can in fact be a viable alternative in many cases.

Gegliosch's picture

Hi, I'm looking forward to the second part since you posted this. It's been a while - are you still gonna write it?

John Grandberg's picture
Almost done with it, hoping to post within a few weeks. It's taking forever for various reasons but I'll get there. Then on to part 3!
lugh_lampfhota's picture

I purchased my NWZ-A17 a couple of weeks ago and promptly purchased a 128GB microSD for additional memory. I was immediately disappointed when I realized that my Windows 8.1 computer could either see the walkman or the card, but not both. I tried every format option without success.

I contacted Sony support who stated that they weren't very familiar with the device, but after some research, they advised that I could only use the walkman or the card, not both. And further they stated that storing music on the card was not permissible.

If anyone has another experience I'd enjoy hearing about it.

Lugh

John Grandberg's picture
I sent the A17 back already but I'm almost positive mine didn't act that way. It integrated the library using tracks from internal memory and the microSD. I could browse by artist or album etc and it would all show up on the same list. If I recall correctly it did keep them separate when browsing by folder, which sort of makes sense if you think about it. I use Windows 7 though so that could be a factor.
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