Sunday, 22 May 2011

HiFiMAN HM-601 Review

HiFiMAN HM-601 Review


First Impressions: Nice box. Inside it’s a little Spartan but then so is the 601, I think most people will know that when they ordered it they are buying it not for the overall package but for how it sounds. Time wise it’s when I’ve just received the Sony NWZ-A846 so I think they are going to get their own comparison. (They in fact did, the Sony has gone back but I wrote it up when I still had it, I now don’t.)

Sound wise my first thoughts are that this really has cloned that “Sony sound” I’m sure any one that has heard a Sony knows what I’m talking about. Thick, bassy, a little middy then falling off and a spike in the treble. Still it is impressive. Now whether needed or not a bun in these will go.


Screen: This is undoubtedly one of the first things that you will notice. It’s a colour screen, yes but, erm it’s more functional than it is pretty. Why it’s actually colour I don’t know as it makes no real use of that fact and it’s really a pretty basic screen. It really reminds me a lot of my one time top of the like phones screen. Yep the Ericsson T68 when I first got it had an amazing screen. It came out in 2001. Still like I said the screen is totally functional just don’t think your going to be watching HD films on it, you won’t. Actually you can’t anyway as it doesn’t do video.


Battery Life: This was the first thing a friend wanted to know about when I mentioned I had the 601, she had heard it was just 8 hours and was horrified at the idea. I had to confirm that 8 hours seemed an entirely fair assessment. This is just not a player that you want to last you while you’re away for a week and not have to bring the charger because its battery life is like that of a modern smart phone. Cack. If you use this as your day to day player you will be finding a permanent plug point home for the charger as you’ll be using it every night. For me that wasn’t a problem but I cannot deny that on a couple of occasions I did have the battery on the 601 die on me, something I’ve rarely had on anything else.

UI: Erm, like the screen it uses it’s functional. Honestly as UI’s go I can’t say it’s my favourite in fact there are bits about it I don’t like at all. Like the shuffle function doesn’t seem to pick up all the songs on it so I found it to be unusable personally. Just picking out an album at a time was fine but really why must the on board flash and SD card be listed separately? It’s not like it’s a big problem but it was a niggle. Navigating once you were playing stuff though was fine, actually I quite liked the navigation back and forth and fast forwarding and stuff. It was a little odd using the up and down key to advance or go back and took a few days getting used to. Once I did though it was good. I also really very much liked the volume control wheel on top. If I had any complaints about the wheel it was its sensitivity, it wouldn’t take much of slip when adjusting to make yourself deaf. Overall it’s a very functional UI, simple but it works pretty well.


Volume: As I just mentioned the volume this thing can put out is stupendous. I’ve only ever used it on low gain and I don’t think it’s ever gone above 4 out of 10. Suck it France! If you have something that is a little hard to drive or quiet, like all old pre “Loudness War” stuff is then this will still be able to power out more than deafening levels. Honestly if anything it’s too loud.

Sound Quality: This is the bit your probably most want to read. In a word it’s excellent. I could sit here and moan about the sound signature because personally it wasn’t really perfectly suited to my tastes. It has a flavour or colouration that I am not a fan of in DAP’s and I did find that the treble spike while helping the treble pierce its thickness it annoyed me. It was a little gritty and ill refined that on very treble happy stuff irked me. I want refinement up top much more than I want sparkle. I found this particularly noticeable and unwelcome on HiFiMAN’s excellent RE-0, a notoriously treble happy and abundant IEM. I know it has spectacular treble and it just let me hear a little gritty roughness up top and lacked the truly stratospheric extension I know it has in it. So it sounds like I’m moaning right? Well I kind of am but that’s because I’m a picky, fussy perfectionist and the 601 simply isn’t perfect. What I’m pointing out to you is the bits it doesn’t do perfectly as honestly there isn’t very much. The failings I think it has in sound are down largely to its chosen sound signature which as I said I’m not a fan of. The “Sony sound” is one that I find always irks me up top with that spike and the corresponding fall off above it.


So now we have established I’m not a fan of its sound signature and what it brings in the highs what about elsewhere? Down low there is a great warmth and thickness, I’d perhaps go so far as to describe it a sumptuous and enveloping richness. It’s a very gentle smooth sound that is simply beautiful. When you pair it up to something colder like the RE-0 it gives it a gentility down low it lacked before and when paired with the more gentle RE-ZERO the lows became so smooth and sublime. They are excellent. Granted if you want hard hitting punch then it’s not really what the 601 is inclined to put out, it isn’t flabby in any way but it will ever so slightly soften the edge of the bass impact. If you want hard aggression then this probably isn’t what you should be dead set on. It’s not to say it can’t do punch, but it isn’t as aggressive or as fast as I want when listening to something notorious for it like the UE Triple.Fi 10. Stunning if you’re a big jazz fan though. Such smoothness and articulation out of a DAP is impressive.

Mids are very similar in tone and behaviour the lows, it’s all about the smooth and sultry richness. Marie Digby sounds utterly awesome out of the 601, injecting the tiniest touch of warmth and liquidity to her ever so slightly dry breathy voice. As DAP’s go it’s just excellent and effortless in its richness. For a sound signature that lends it’s to a thick, veiled almost muddy flavour the clarity is stunning. It so rich, emotive and evocative. If you ever want to kick back while on your daily commute and descend into a world a luxury and indulgent decadence then you really, really could listening to these. Actually does anyone remember the old Galaxy adverts? If not youtube is your friend.


If you really do want to play faster stuff then the 601 can do it much better than I thought it would on paper. Listening to a little Owl City on the IE8 it is rather bassy but the bass is quick and extremely well controlled. It impacts well and fades quickly. The treble too is near lightning fast and far more refined than I’d expect. While it may not be its forte the 601 is agile enough to easy keep pace with fast treble and punchy, deep lows. It’s pretty great in fact.

Over all the sound is tonally warm and indulgent but not really overly so. Given this nature it does have stunning clarity and even on something like the IE8 the detail of a song is all there, in fantastic detail if you listen out for it. It isn’t however always instantly apparent, the warmth is a little masking and offers a presentation that’s far more about smooth, relaxing enjoyment than it is about thrusting detail and nuances in your face. If you read my 601 / 846 comparison you’ll find that the 601 spanked the Sony on that front.

One thing I should note is that while the 601 doesn’t have any hiss what it does have is a little capacitor whine. Now it’s not noticeable when music’s playing and even then not with every IEM but it’s the first time I’ve ever come across it. I can’t say I was a fan of the idea but it never actually interfered with anything.


Format Support: Okay, confession time. I didn’t check any bar one, FLAC. Now it’s not just laziness (okay it’s mostly laziness) but I genuinely think anyone buying this isn’t going to want much else. Maybe some will want a 320k something but who isn’t going to be happy to file convert to whatever is required.

In The Hand: Firstly you’ll notice the 601 is pretty damn big. Visually this may be a bit much but actually holding in your hand I found it fit my hand very well. It actually gave me something to hold and the raised buttons made in pocket use absolutely not a problem. Its rounded edges too were a boon making feel very comfortable to hold in the hand. What I did notice while holding it (and I can’t decide if it’s a plus or a negative) is that the 601 doubles as a hand warmer. Oh hell it really does get warm to the touch which when the weather was really cold out I must say I actually really, really liked it. Now that it’s May and the weather has been glorious, not so much. I’ve never seen another player that does this and no idea just which component is doing it but if you use the 601 for a while it will get warm. I have no clue if this could prove to be a problem in very warm countries but it’s got to be a plus in crazy cold places.


Conclusion: I really can’t decide. Part of me loves bits about the 601 mostly its sound quality. Its sound signature is something I’m not a fan of, I personally want DAP’s to be neutral but not everyone does. Sony sells a lot and especially in the Far East a thicker, warmer sound does seem to be far more popular than is common in the West. If you are one of those people then I can tell you this takes that “Sony sound” and is just better. There is no two ways about it, it is just better. Of course you need good headphones to hear that difference. So while the sound quality here is fantastic not everything else is. The UI, screen, are all fine but really cont compare to some big brand stuff if those things matter to you.

One thing I feel deserves special mention is the styling. It’s very, very retro, and honestly it felt like something out of the early 90’s. If this was then I could easily see the 601 with a Sony label on it, oh so very easily. Since it isn’t however the 601 isn’t what I’d call a looker. It really isn’t a device you’re going to get mugged for. Its plastickyness really is a retro throwback too, not that it feels badly made, it doesn’t. It isn’t the weighty solid device that others produce, you may know why you bought this (its sound quality) but your friends will think your mad.

I feel as though I’m being a little negative about the 601 and I guess I am and that’s a shame. It really is a beautiful sounding player that’s designed for audiophiles. In this pursuit it makes a lot of compromises to aim for that perfect sound and for me I just didn’t mesh with its sound signature. This is where I feel I’m being unkind because I’m far more willing to overlook this in the Sony because it’s a mass market device that honestly I expected to not be very good. The HM-601 is a purest device and I can’t help but set the bar for it rather higher. For me it largely come back to that sound signature, it has a flavour and I don’t want any in a DAP, its why I have lots of IEM’s and I don’t want to have lots of DAP’s. If you however do want the sort of flavour the 601 has (ie if you’re a diehard Sony DAP fan) then you really ought to try out the 601. If Sony were to make a DAP and prioritize sound quality over everything else then I’m pretty confident this would be the player they would come up with.

The 601 while not my cup of tea is an excellent player, warmth, thickness, smooth sounding, it’s all there and it’s of a very high quality. I cannot stress that enough; it really is excellent at what it does. It just wasn’t the flavourless, transparent DAP I was hoping it would be.

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