A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 2 Astell&Kern AK100 II and AK120II

DAP2_AstellKern_Photo_Main

Astell & Kern AK100 II and AK120 II ($899 and $1699 respectively)
Near as I can tell, Astell & Kern is a made up name for the high-end division of veteran DAP firm iRiver. I don't mean that as any type of insult. Much like Honda did with Acura, Toyota with Lexus, and Nissan with Infiniti, sometimes it makes sense to carve out a unique sub-brand that embodies different principles. With this luxury re-framing, and the big budget of the mainstream ownership, these sub-brands can do very well for themselves when properly handled.

Such is the case with Astell & Kern (hereafter referred to as AK to save time) which has emerged as a sort of defacto representation of DAP luxury—for better or worse. AK has positioned itself as the leader in this market segment and the leader always takes the heat. Those who dismiss the notion of anything sounding better than a basic iPod will often point to AK products as evidence of an industry gone wrong. And on the flip side, those who fantasize about one day owning a top level DAP often dream of owning an AK product, much like generations of youngsters grew up with Lamborghini posters on their walls. Yes, there are other brands making expensive DAPs, but for many people AK is the brand to aspire to.

In my case, I must admit to having had a pretty rocky start with the brand. The original AK100 did absolutely nothing for me. I didn't really care for the sound, nor did I particularly love the design choices. I just couldn't see the appeal considering the price. I quietly wrote off AK as a brand I had little interest in. I was vaguely interested in the original AK120 but never got a chance to try it, and based on my experience with the AK100 I figured I probably wasn't missing much.

Then came the AK240. Holy smokes! It was, to my knowledge, the most expensive DAP in production at the time, but was just incredibly well done. I'll link again to Tyll's review as I think it sums up my initial thoughts nicely. As good as the AK240 might be, that price ($2499) remains a tough pill to swallow, putting it out of reach for a huge portion of enthusiasts. If only AK made a similar experience available at a lower cost...

Enter the AK100 II and AK120 II. This dynamic duo shares quite a bit with the AK240 but whittles the price down to potentially more accessible levels. The question is: does either model keep enough magic inside to make it worthwhile? While certainly more affordable, these devices are still not cheap by any means. So, how to they compare to the growing number of competitors out there? Let's find out. Note that I'm covering both models on this same page—they aren't different enough to warrant separate entries. I'll discuss where the AK120 II deviates from the AK100 II which is mainly in sound quality.

External Design
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Size comparison of the AK100 II (left) and AK120 II (right).

Both models are very handsome and quite similar in appearance. The AK120 II is slightly taller but has the same size display—the extra space is taken up by the area above the screen and presumably used by the more complex DAC and amp sections. Display on both is a 3.3" AMOLED at 800x480. It's a high quality screen though I wouldn't mind a bit more real estate. The volume wheel on the upper right hand side is very reminiscent of the one found on the AK240; this time around I actually find it more pleasant to use due to being a bit less recessed into the surrounding enclosure. It's got a very premium feel to it which, now that I think about it, pretty much describes the entire AK experience. On the left side we get a trio of transport buttons: play/pause, skip forward/fast forward, and skip back/rewind. Again, these feel excellent, exactly as they should for a premium device.

Comparing the original AK100 to the AK240 was a complete blowout; it was very obvious which model was top dog. With the redesigned AK100 and AK120 series II, it's not quite so easy to tell. The AK240 remains more flashy, more angular and unique, but the two lesser models have a certain charm of their own. I imagine some people may actually prefer the look due to its simplicity. If the AK240 is a dramatic Lamborghini, the lower models are stately Mercedes S-class sedans. Less exciting, sure, but not without their own charm. Pictures don't tell the whole story either, one has to interact with the device in hand to get a feel for the precision build. This is an area where few others can really compete; the Cayin is one of them, and perhaps the Sony ZX2 which I'll discuss in part three of this roundup. All the rest fall at least some distance behind, which may or may not matter to you based on your priorities.

Internal Design
Both of these models are based around the same DAC chip as seen in the AK240: the CS4398 from Cirrus Logic. The AK240 got two of them in dual mono configuration, as does the AK120 II, while the AK100 II drops down to a single chip in stereo mode. All three handle hi-res PCM and DSD64/DSD128, but only the AK240 does DSD in native form. The series II models both convert DSD to PCM during playback, which still sounds quite good to my ears.

AK uses what they call "A-amp" technology. Very little detail is given about what is actually involved in this amp design. I've read that the AK120 II has a more advanced amp section (which would make sense considering the increased size and price) though the exact differences are never really fleshed out. All I know for sure is the AK120 II is approximately 20% more powerful through both the single-ended and balanced headphone outputs.

Both models have a roughly 1 Ohm output impedance for the balanced connection, doubling to 2 Ohms on the single-ended jack. That means most headphones and even tricky IEMs should be fine, with a few exceptions when using the standard 3.5mm unbalanced output. This is a far cry from the disastrously-high 22 Ohm output impedance of the original AK100, and is exactly like what we find in the AK240.

User Interface
This is where AK really shines. The UI, based on Android but very customized, is a joy to use. It's intuitive in such a way that I found myself breezing through it right from the start. For those accustomed to using a smartphone for music playback, this UI will feel very familiar, where something like the Pono or Cayin might seem a bit primitive. I'm going to once again point to Tyll's AK240 review for more about the UI experience on that device as he captures my feelings well. A few bits have changed due to firmware updates but you get the idea.

While the UI is very good in general, there remain some things which could be improved upon. Playlist creation feels somewhat cumbersome, despite a recent firmware update which did bring improvements. That same firmware update gave me slowdowns on both my review loaners. Nothing drastic, just a hint of occasional sluggish behavior that had not previously existed. The update also replaced the "settings" button on the home screen, swapping in a "store" button which is unusable to me in the USA. This leads to options for Qobuz or Groovers+, where users in certain regions can purchase lossless music directly to the AK player. Those of us in other areas should be able to switch that button to some other function. AK already allows some level of customization for button placement so I'd like to see that go further.

I could go on but the bottom line is this: these little annoyances are something to complain about because the UI is generally so well done. It blows away most others, such that it makes these small issues stick out a lot more. So don't take all my griping the wrong way. This is still one area where the AK products maintain a clear advantage, and are likely to continue to do so as AK grows in popularity.

But as long as I'm complaining...I do have to say I'm a little disappointed that we still have not seen Tidal streaming integration show up. This has supposedly been in the works for quite some time, going back at least as far as December of last year, but as of now I have seen zero progress. This leaves Sony as the only ostensibly high-end portable manufacturer to offer that option. Say what you will about Tidal's marketing practices, but having 30 million lossless songs available for $20/month is an appealing prospect in my book. AK having access to Tidal would have been a big selling point in my opinion—the Aurender player I use in my reference setup got Tidal integration many months ago (brilliantly executed I might add). Aurender isn't some massive tech juggernaut like Apple or Asus, with limitless resources...they strike me as roughly similar in size to AK. So I don't see what the hold up is in this case.

Connectivity
The single-ended headphone jack can also double as a line-out—just activate that option in the menu. Technically it remains a headphone output jack which is simply locked to max volume via software. I'm sure someone, somewhere, is upset that there isn't a dedicated jack, but it really doesn't bother me all that much. Even with other devices sporting separate line-out jacks we aren't necessarily privy to the details of what happens along the signal path; some of them may not be as "separate" as you may think. This multi-function jack triples as an optical digital output when used with an adapter. As mentioned prior we also get a balanced headphone output using a 2.5mm jack, which is nice as it eliminates any chance of plugging into the wrong spot on accident. I've heard some reports of reliability issues on the 2.5mm jack but I have not had any trouble myself.

The AK devices, like the Cayin and Calyx and others, can be leashed to a computer and used as USB DAC. AK sells a very nice accessory called the PEM11 which fits both models (but not the AK240 which gets a dock of its own, the PEM12). The PEM11 became a permanent fixture on my desktop, its beefy USB plug neatly routed to the back of my desk and down to my PC tower. The AK devices can easily be inserted for home listening, then removed (now fully charged) for portable use. The dock is expensive at $249 but is designed and built to an impeccable standard: heavy aluminum parts, grippy rubber base, and a multi-stage tilt system with precise action. Remember, this is the whole luxury experience thing AK seems to be going for, where even the accessories are done to a very high standard and priced accordingly. Again, if cost is a concern, these might not be the best options for you.

AK is heavy on wireless connectivity. We get WiFi which can be used with AK's MQS software to stream from an existing library. We also get the newly added AK Connect feature which turns the device into a UPnP rendering point. This again means streaming from any number of other sources, allowing one to access a library much larger than what can be held on the DAP itself. The MQS functionality worked with the occasional hiccup, mainly when playing higher-res files. Which is odd as my network is easily up to the task. But the new AK Connect seems promising; its recent arrival via FW update means I haven't tested it exhaustively, but so far so good, even with 24/192 tracks.

Bluetooth is also on board which unfortunately doesn't perform very well in my experience. The SQ is mediocre and the range is abysmal compared to any smartphone I've ever tried. Sometimes I get dropouts from just a few feet away. I almost thought I had a defective unit until it happened the same on three different AK players. AK doesn't mention using any advanced CODEC like aptX which could help it sound better and maybe even improve the range. It's kind of embarrassing that the little $299 Sony A17 has these big bad AK players beat when it comes to Bluetooth. Not that I consider Bluetooth an essential function, but if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right. On the plus side, the optional Bluetooth remote did work without a hitch. So Bluetooth does work, just not very well for audio.

Lastly, storage. All AK models have microSD slots capable of handling 128GB, combined with generous internal storage—64GB for AK100 II, 128GB for AK120 II, and 256GB for AK240. These numbers seem appropriate to me. As usual, if/when microSD cards come out in larger formats, they should be supported here.

Battery
AK claims battery life of up to 14 hours. So far I have yet to reach anything of the sort. I suppose if I played mp3 files at low levels I might have a better chance. With CD quality FLAC at moderate volume I'm getting about 8 or 9 hours of use on either device. Which is roughly average for the DAPs I've reviewed so far. I've seen better, and I've seen worse, so I can't really complain much here. Interestingly the AK100 II has a slightly lower capacity battery (3150 mAh) than the AK120 II (3250 mAh), but I get pretty much identical results. I guess the dual DAC and more powerful amp stage even the playing field.

Sound Quality
As with the Pono, I again find myself conflicted in this category. On the one hand I absolutely loved the AK240 at first listen. It was, as Tyll described, "tonally neutral with a slight bias towards bright." A very resolving DAP with gobs of detail and very solid low-end reproduction. It had excellent soundstage and imaging too. I enjoyed it quite a bit during my initial listening. Let that be representative of the sound these AK players are capable of delivering.

The good news? The less expensive AK120 II seems to adequately capture everything the AK240 has to offer. Going back and forth, I'd say both models are pretty much indistinguishable. If not a perfect match then close enough to where it doesn't really matter in real world usage. Which makes sense considering the design similarities. AK240 should theoretically perform better with DSD files due to its native DSD support, while AK120 II requires an intermediate step for PCM conversion. In practice I found even this difference to be very small indeed. I thought I perhaps heard more transparency in reference tracks such as Eric Bibb's "Where the Green Grass Grows" from the Opus 3 DSD Showcase (DSD128 release). Just a hint more of that "open window" feeling. Thing is, I also enjoyed this track very much on the AK120 II, and only (maybe) heard slight differences while conducting direct and repeated comparisons, over and over again. I'm just not sure this "improvement" is really worth mentioning. Besides, in the real word, DSD generally makes up such a small percentage of our music libraries that I really don't consider this a significant draw for the AK240.

Let's examine the ramifications for a moment. The flagship AK240 goes for $2,499. The AK120 II is $1,699 and keeps up in just about every meaningful way. The question then becomes: is it worth the extra $800 to get native DSD support, a fancier enclosure with the carbon fiber accent around back, and an extra 128GB internal storage? In my mind the answer is a resounding "no". The AK120 II is thus on equal footing with its higher-end sibling while actually coming out ahead as a value proposition.

Whenever someone mentions "the good news" you know there's a downside approaching. Yep, that applies here as well. After extensive listening to the AK DAPs as well as top models from the other brands, I have to say I've changed my tune to some degree. Hey, it happens, even to us "experts". Where I used to hear the AK240 as being essentially the pinnacle of what I might want in terms of sound quality, I now hear it a bit differently. I'd describe it as a very "HiFi" sound—with all the baggage that entails. I still find it neutral to slightly bright, but that brightness has become more bothersome over time. I hear some glare in there, a sharpness that isn't always clear with all music but at times can spoil a perfectly good recording. To be clear, it's not grainy in the least. Rather, it's as if the device is trying too hard to tease out maximum detail, and in doing so becomes forced or strained to the point of causing fatigue. And that low-end reproduction which I once admired, while still solid and clean, just doesn't seem as natural as the Calyx M, the HiFiMAN HM-802, or the Cayin N6. Again, it just seems a little too deliberate, like someone pushed the "loudness" button on a vintage receiver. Fun? Sure, but not as convincing as it should be.

I have no doubt that many people will really enjoy this sound, as I initially did and Tyll presumably still does. These are the types of problems which bother some people way more than others, and they definitely aren't so clear without lots of direct comparison to other models. I know many happy AK users who probably think I'm crazy right about now. What can I say? If I had to choose based on sound alone, the AK120 II (and by extension the AK240) end up somewhere mid-pack in this roundup. Still, factor in that fantastic build, appearance, design, and slick UI, and I can see why so many folks can fully justify laying out the big money for these things. I have to reiterate—if you are in the market for an AK240, you should seriously consider saving the dough and grabbing an AK120 II instead. You're welcome.

How about the "baby" of the group, the AK100 II? The difference between models is once again $800, which is all the more significant as we get away from the multi-thousand dollar range. This is where it gets interesting for me—I actually find the least expensive model to be the most palatable for long-term listening. No, it isn't as impressive on first listen. It doesn't have the transient snap of its more ambitious siblings. The whole presentation is a little more loose. Softer, less immediate, with a corresponding reduction in spacial accuracy. And yet...it's not bad, not bad at all. I actually think I like it more under certain circumstances, depending on the headphones and music at play. The AK100 II is a little more forgiving, less "in your face" with its treble presentation. Still not to be confused with a Calyx or Pono, the AK100 II remains fairly neutral overall, while just a hair less forceful than its pricier siblings. This is generally more to my taste though I can see how people might disagree.

I do notice the mild decrease in amplification strength compared to the higher models. It's a non-issue when using IEMs where very little juice is required, and for home use I counteract the decrease by using balanced mode—the AK100 II balanced output (2 Vrms) is close enough to the AK120 II in single-ended mode (2.1 Vrms). Drew from Moon Audio sent over a 2.5mm to 4-pin XLR adapter for use with my balanced cans (thanks Drew!) and it levels the playing field between the two DAPs. The AK120 II goes up to 2.3 Vrms in balanced mode which I suppose could make a difference with some listeners. I think the $800 savings might be better spent on an external amp if maximum drive is desired. Balanced mode seems to be more spacious and have a better grip on the music, though I find the improvement less drastic than when going balanced on the Pono. Still, if you already have balanced headphones anyway, it's worth grabbing an adapter for home use.

AK also sells their own headphone called the AKT5p. It's a modified beyerdynamic T5p which is not a headphone I enjoy in the least...thankfully the AK version is substantially retuned and vastly more enjoyable. It comes terminated with a 2.5mm balanced connection for use with the AK DAPs (along with an adapter for standard 3.5mm jacks) and makes an pretty good pairing. The AK DAPs even have a preset EQ for the AKT5p—which is interesting if not perfect. Just another example of how AK tries to give us a wide ranging audio experience. They don't succeed on every level, but I appreciate the approach.

In the end, spending my own theoretical cash, I'd grab the baby AK100 II and call it a day. I could add the $250 USB dock, or add a nice external amp like a NuForce HA-200 for driving power hungry cans, and still come out hundreds of dollars under budget compared to the AK120 II. That makes the most sense to me given what I (eventually) heard from the higher models. Depending on your sensitivities, results may vary, so I suggest long-term listening to both the series II DAPs if the opportunity presents itself.

COMMENTS
Alexander Portnoy's picture

Great work, John.
This project will make a good basis upon which to judge the imminent release of Pioneer XDP-100R and the Geek Waves.

John Grandberg's picture
And yes, I suppose I could go on and on... I suspect next year will bring half a dozen (or more) significant releases. We'll see what happens and what I have time for.
ManiaC's picture

Questyle QP1R vs Luxury & Precision L5 Pro

John Grandberg's picture
the Questyle QP1R here and it's pretty great, certainly in the running for Wall of Fame. I tried the original L5 and it was terrible in build and UI, but the L5 Pro is all different so who knows.
Imusicman's picture

HiJohn, Ive read part 1 and part 2 with great interest and eagerly await part 3. Great review and exactly on point with this growing category. I have narrowed my choice for DAP down to the Questyle QP1R and Cayin N6 after discounting the Acoustic Research ARM2. Having spent time with both which would you recommend? Not sure if this swings it one way or the other but I have the opportunity to buy a demo N6 at £270

John Grandberg's picture
because I like them both. N6 has a significantly more powerful amp stage if you intend to use it with difficult full size cans. Some people might like its up/down/left/right control scheme better too. The Questyle can accommodate a far bigger library thanks to dual microSD slots. It also has slightly better battery life, is smaller, and has a more brilliant, detailed presentation - which may or may not be a good thing depending on your preferences. I'll go more into this in part 3 though.
Imusicman's picture

Thanks for getting back to me John. Much appreciated. There's definitely pros and cons to each player depending on what's important to the individual consumer. I have taken the plunge and ordered the QP1R which hopefully should be with me next week :-) Lets hope my leap of faith is rewarded as I haven't been able to find anyone local who is stocking it to give it a demo which is not ideal.

John Grandberg's picture
I'm listening to it right now, sounding quite nice with a 24/96 version of Paquito D'Rivera's Portraits of Cuba and the Noble Audio K10. It's not perfect - I'll get into the minor frustrations which you will no doubt notice on your own. But nothing I consider a dealbreaker. I do wish Questyle has better distribution though....
Imusicman's picture

Being a newbie to this hobby I am in the very early stages of my journey to find the holy grail of sonic perfection. I am starting from a relatively low base with my iPhone 5 so I am hopeful of larger gains initially but do expect less as my hardware base level improves and the differences become more subtle. If the QP1R fails to impress I will be looking to test out my suppliers returns policy or failing that stick it on eBay. Given the supply/demand situation I can see it selling PDQ so no drama either way.

silverarrows5's picture

Hi John,

How about the Marshall London Smartphone?

John Grandberg's picture
I'm just not sold on that one as being anything other than a lowish-spec phone with minor customization. I'd stick with the OnePlus or another more established phone if you don't want a dedicated DAP.
tony's picture

Well, this is just plain Brilliant. It's certainly the next thing I'll be concentrating on, I have a very good Main System and a equally useful Wireless Headphone System.

I travel extensively and would love a capable & portable "Source" device. I've seen your JA wandering around using an AK240 (I think) to carry his music to "Field" evaluate gear. I thought and still think his little device would give a useful result ( at least for my purposes and probably the vast World of Music lovers ).
A small LapTop is far to big but more affordable. How can a person get a Laptop's functionality in a portable ( shirt pocket ) package and how could a little device function properly with only a tiny screen? Plus, is there a little player offered by a supportive manufacturer?
So, it seems, you are working to reveal these things.

Philosophically, I think we music lovers strive to build our own "Music Hall Venues" to play the music we buy, own and enjoy!
These tiny Players take our personal Venue down to miniature sizes.

If JA's little AK240 is anything to go by, we are about to have our entire HighEnd music system in the "Palm of our Hands" ( except for our Box Speakers, of course ).
Now, if we can organize our music into little SD Memory Cards we might be able to have a Wallet with our entire collections.
This "Pipe Dream" has always seemed so "Distant Futuristic" in concept and nature but you seem to be revealing that it exists now.
I'm all Ears!
I'll be reading every word you have to say on this matter.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Thank You

Rillion's picture

Hi John,

It is great that you are doing this! Reviews like these of DAPs are to find. Even reviews of smartphones generally have very little intelligent commentary on sound quality if they mention it at all.

On the models that have so-so battery life, it would be nice if you could mention whether or not the device can continue running noise-free while charging. I have a 5V Anker battery pack that can add significant extra power.

John Grandberg's picture
I'll certainly check on this moving forward. I can confirm that the Consonance Suzanne works fine while charging in the dock, as do the AK devices, and also the Cayin. Obviously the OnePlus will (same as any phone) but I'll have to try it to confirm it doesn't add any detrimental noise or other issues. The only one I'm unsure about is the Pono so I'll give that a shot and report back.
Rillion's picture

Cool! Thanks!

echineko's picture

I was hoping to see it included, after you hinted it might be in Part 1. There's always part 3 I suppose, would be interesting to see it compared against the AK 240/380 as well :)

John Grandberg's picture
Sony took a while to send it my way, so I didn't have enough time to spend with it compared to these others. ZX2 is definitely in for part 3 though.
zeissiez's picture

Hi John,

I'm an expat based in China, over here I got the chance to audition various Chinese DAPs. To my surprise, many of them are actually very good sounding, and some of them more so than the A&K in sonic performance. I have heard the Cayin N6, Consonance, ibasso dx90, hm-901, Questyle QP1R, Lotoo Paw, Fiio X5 and many more. One brand that stood out is Luxury & Precision. Their L5, LP5 silver and gold edition are the best DAP I heard regardless of price. The entry level model L5 for example is clearly better than the N6 in sonic performance. Now the latest model L5 pro is said to be a much improved model over the previous 3 models. So I think it's good to include it in your reviews.

John Grandberg's picture

Thanks for the perspective. I've only had a chance to mess with the original L5 and it seemed like a prototype (it was a production model though) - poor build, terrible UI, only decent sound. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on the new stuff as it certainly does look improved.

I agree that Chinese DAPs can sound excellent. The HiFi ET MA9 was one of my favorites on sound, but less so on reliability, battery, and UI. Reliability is a big one for me.

whyeme's picture

Please please review the xduoo x3 when you do part 3. It uses the CS4398 DAC chip and Texas Instruments amp chips and sells for only USD110 inclusive of free shipping. Perhaps it could be a budget DAP shootout to get more youth into this hobby.

Cheers!

Bennyboy's picture

It's not a question of age, but of income. Not all of us are loaded enough to drop a grand here there and everywhere on this stuff.

John Grandberg's picture

That makes sense. However - a company saying "we want to appeal to a younger demographic" is a lot more PC than "We want to appeal to poor people" or "people with less disposable info". So you'll almost always see it framed as a "youth" thing.

But I agree, some of these are steep, and I'm glad there are some good options to be had for lower prices.

Bennyboy's picture

Some of these new 'high end' players are just daylight robbery.

I recently bought the Fiio X1 - cost me 95 quid and sounds ACE.

ashutoshp's picture

Thank you for your efforts in scaling the growing landscape of media players. TBH, I have little interest in media players myself mostly from a convenience perspective. But your smartphone inclusion got my curiosity.
Do you think the audio limitations apparently inherent in the smartphone are a DAC or an amp issue? In other words, the DAC is fine but the amount of power it can output is the major limiting factor. The reason I ask is because the choices in amps or amps+DACs are similarly vast and I am confused as to what would work best, an amplifier via the headphone out, or a DAC+amp via USB OTG/Lightning CCK?
Moreover, it seems that (cheaper) DAC+amp 2-in-1s usually trade-off DAC quality for amplifier capacity or vice-versa. If the smartphone DAC is fine then I can go for a high quality headphone amp rather than stick with a compromise, which I feel I'm currently making anyways with a smartphone/tablet. FYI, I only listening to streamed music from TiDAL on an LG G3 and iPad Air. Thanks in advance.

detlev24's picture

IMO there is no definite answer to your question since it depends very much, on which headphones you use. Generally, I would say the amplification circuit around the DAC is the bottleneck of most devices.

Since your question is directed to John, it might be useful for him to know the type(s) of headphones you use and the budget you plan to spend on such a device, since (audible) trade-offs do not necessarily need to be made.

Best regards

John Grandberg's picture

I basically see the amp section of a phone as being the weakest link - on a better phone, the DAC is pretty decent. Not as good as the better dedicated DAPs but good enough to be enjoyable nonetheless. The amp portion, though, is limited in terms of drive (and often output impedance as well) so it becomes the biggest issue.

Having said that, the market seems to focus more towards combo units. So I might go that route anyway. I've had more luck finding good combo units than straight amp-only portables.

The upgrade path will depend on what headphones are being used, as well as your intentions for portability. If "on the go" listening is a must then something small like the Resonessence Labs Herus should do the trick. I also really like the Oppo HA-2. If home use is the goal, you could go for a desktop setup, which then opens things up a little more for separate components.

ashutoshp's picture

I have the Hifiman HE-400i (home use), Sony's XBA-H1 and Ety's HF3 (outside use). Of these, the Etys don't seem to scale with more power but the other two definitely do. the Hifimans are actually too much for the phone, but not for the iPad even though they seem to get limited sometimes.
I was looking at a portable set up not only because of my need for mobility but I can then use it for bedtime listening with the Hifimans. My budget is $300 . I like a fast, clear, hard-hitting sound. But I hate boomy bass or tizzy treble (eg, DT880....ouch). The Sony XBA-H1s are quite boomy in the bass when played through the HP out of my phone but not at home with my desktop DAC/amp set up. The XBA-H1 is also why I started researching amps or amps/DACs like the HA-2 or Alo's new Rx (amp only I think).

detlev24's picture

You can try the two FiiO E12 amplifiers and see, if they suite your needs.

I have listened to the E12 on a HIFIMAN HE-500 (which needs more power than your HE-400i) and for such a small package, it sounded good at my listening levels and with the types of music, I listen (classical music, included). I switched "BASS: ON" but I did not use GAIN, since this made noise audible (you may not find it disturbing during playback, depending on the music genre) and with CROSSFEED, clarity suffered (the latter is useless, anyway - unless thoroughly matched to your headphones and music).

On the other hand, I do not recommend the E12 with IEM, since I had noise using UE TripleFi 10 but for a technical aspect, that was no surprise. For IEM, try the optimized E12A!

I think the HE-400i may sound great using an E12 and for IEM, the E12A could just do it.

detlev24's picture

If considering FiiO, also try the E12A on the HE-400i. Might need "GAIN: H" but depending on your taste, you could like it more.

An there is also a E12DIY around (with swappable op-amps, for different sound signatures), as alternative to the E12.^^

Long time listener's picture

I too would like to see a review of the two players above.

Also, just how well do these players compare to separates? For example, an iPod feeding an Algorhythm solo -R plus a Vorzuge Pure II amp? Do they come pretty close? Thanks

John Grandberg's picture

Both are to be included in part 3.

I personally think the better DAPs give up very little compared to separates. Obviously depends on the models in question... but the small improvement brought from lugging a big stack is typically not worth it (for me) compared to a quality DAP.

I might feel differently if I used the stack for home use with occasional portable listening. With big, difficult to drive cans, the dedicated amp could make a more significant difference.

zobel's picture

Been awhile since he has written anything. Thought he might offer a wrap-up on the last project. Hope he is feeling good.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Went to RMAF, I'll be posting the Big Sound 2015 wrap posts this week.
Broman's picture

I played with a OnePlusOne and thought it unexceptional compared to HTC One 9. The new phone I want to try is the LG V10 with ESS DAC. Thank you for including a phone in this survey. I go for long walks in cities and the less I carry the better.

John Grandberg's picture
I like the OnePlus One slightly better than the HTC One M8. Not sure about the latest HTC though. I already have an email in the LG about the V10, I've been keeping an eye on that since I first saw the ESS DAC (and headphone driver) being used. Not sure many big phone companies are actually willing to participate though, we'll see.
elfary's picture

If one take a look at gsmarena frequency plot of the OnePlusOne one can discern that output impedance it's headed to the 10 ohms range. (They measure with AKG headphones that have an impedance bump at the 50Hz).

Hence i was wondering what headphones have you used. I don't think balanced armatures earphones can play as nice on the OnePlus as they play on HTC, Apple or Samsung flagships.

In any case is nice to see smartphones tossed in since their ergonomy is killer.

Just my 0.02

John Grandberg's picture

I use a matched pair of resistors soldered to a Neutrik jack, rather than a headphone as dummy load. I'm fairly certain that my results are accurate for my particular OnePlus One. Can't speak for any silent revisions or manufacturing variability that could explain a different result, nor can I say GSM Arena didn't make some mistake somewhere. In my case I do enjoy IEMs with the OPO, with certain limitations of course. My UM Merlins (which drop into the single digit ohm range at some frequencies) are not a good match, but many other IEMs are.

It makes sense that performance would be on par with the top LG and Samsung models, as they tend to use very similar hardware.

I will say the HTC flagships seem to have the advantage driving full size headphones. More output voltage, more drive, more authority. I personally don't have much use for that but some people might.

elfary's picture

If i have to trust your measurements or gsmarena ones i'll go with yours i heartbeat. In gsmarena they so 't know very well what they are doing. An i know that on certain smartphones z changes from region to region (m8 had 9 ohms in the China market. In Europe it has just 1.

veggieboy2001's picture

This is a really comprehensive survey of DAPs...I'm looking forward to part 3. I'm currently researching a replacement for my Fiio X3 (1st gen) so this is timely indeed! Have you had any experience with Shanling? I've read some good things about both the M2 & M3 and I was hoping they were on your radar...there are so many people getting into the DAP game these days it's hard to keep up. Thanks for taking on this task...I'm excited to hear your final results!

Ranstedt's picture

Any idea when part 3 will be available?

I'm about to get my first great pair of headphones and would like a nice, not very expensive, DAP that has a very good price:quality ratio.

Thanks.

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