Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Sony NWZ-A846 vs. HiFiMAN HM-601

Since I know its going to be asked and I actually have both of them in my position at the same time but not for long. The Sony was only a loaner so it has to go back and I can’t justify keeping it any longer before the chaps at AMP3 come after me with torches and pitchforks.


Visually there really isn’t much to say about these that a picture doesn’t. The Sony looks drop dead gorgeous, if it were a woman it could be Natalie Portman. Sleek, elegant and beautiful. The 601 on the other hand would be more like Martina Navratilova, not ugly but more likely to be referred to as sturdy rather than pretty. The Sony too is actually a bit too thin though, it’s a little pointy edged and nothing to hold on the sides. The 601 is the opposite. It’s a big thick beast of a DAP with gently curved edges that actually means of the two the HiFiMAN feels much more natural to hold in your hand. Of course if you want to shove it in a pocket the Sony can disappear but the 601 offers a lot more bulk. There is no way you are going to slide it seamlessly into a tight jeans pocket.

The screen too is poles apart on these. The Sony is a stunning masterpiece of OLED gorgeousness. The 601 has a screen that while entirely functional is erm somewhat reminiscent of the screen that was on my old Ericsson T68. Top end stuff back in 2001. Still the 601 is functional but it and the screen on the Sony are in no way competition for each other.


Build Quality: I could go into length but it’s clear win for the Sony. It feels like a tiny sheet of glass on a sheet of aluminium. The HiFiMAN feels like a big lot of plastic not unlike Sony would have been producing in the early 80’s.

Hand Warming: Oh a clear win for the 601 here, I never once felt the Sony get warm while in use the 601 when in use would always get lovely and warm. Hey, the weathers been crap here and in all seriousness the hand warming has actually been really nice.

Battery Life: An easy win for the Sony, it claims 30 hours and I can believe it. The 601 claims about 8 and likewise I can believe that too. It’s enough for a day but the Sony you can get away with forgetting to charge it every day; you can’t really with the 601.


Volume: An issue that exists with the Sony in that it (in non Japanese ones) has been volume crippled..... erm I mean, erm “volume limited.” So if you have a pair of headphones that need more volume that the stock buds do then you could encounter problems. The Sony just can’t go that loud with quiet stuff especially if you listen to anything pre loudness wars. The 601 on the other hand, it has no problems in sending anything you want to beyond deafening levels. The volume dial goes to 10 and has a low and a high gain option. So far I’ve not gone beyond about 4.5 on low gain. I’m not saying it’s a killer fault for all on the Sony but people should know it is an issue and more importantly Sony deserves to be taken to task over it.

Format Support: I’m giving this a gigantic mixed bag. I want to say it’s a win for the 601 in that it can play lossless and FLAC. The thing is you’re not going to casually notice the difference between FLAC and WMA 320k. I say casually but there is a very good chance you would never be able to no matter what IEM’s you use. For most modern music crappy mastering and the loudness wars offer inferior quality to what 320k WMA can offer anyway. So while I want everything in lossless anyway because the crazy demands it I actually liked that the Sony forced me to lower things and as a result mean I could fit tons of stuff on it. So do you think that I’ll be down converting everything on my ipod the 320k AAC then? Will I buggery. Just putting it out there that no lossless isn’t all bad.

What’s also a pain is that on the 601 some flac files just don’t show up properly in the menuing system. It’s about as annoying as the Sony’s habit of not displaying album art on that uber pretty screen.


Sound Signature: Pretty much the same. Both are warm, thick and have a spike in the highs. It’s that quintessential Sony “house sound” and it’s one that has served it well in the popularity stakes. HiFiMAN have pretty much duplicated it wholesale.

Sound Quality: Having previously commented that the Sony varied greatly on what IEM was being used on it I asked a friend to pick a few IEM’s for me to A/B with both of the DAP’s and she came back with the Triple.Fi 10, the DBA-02 and the Sony EX500. I did enquire why them and I think subconsciously she picked stuff she had heard with other Sony DAP’s. Anyway so unless someone unannounced asks me to compare something else on twitter by the time this is done that’s all I’m doing. If you don’t like take it up with her who makes decisions for me.

Sony EX500


The EX500, something I’ve always found to be an incredibly warm, gentle sounding IEM actually I’ve often referred to it as being like a warm bath. So gentle, so relaxing and so very, very warm. I expected ridiculous overkill warmth but no. I guess it shouldn’t be such a surprise that a Sony DAP and a Sony IEM actually go together extremely well but it was. They go freakishly well together in fact. I know they aren’t fancy expensive earphones by Head-Fi standards buy the synergy here is utterly undeniable and I can’t help but feel they were made for each other. The reality is that they probably were made for each other. Listening back and forth the 601 is offering a more exposed sound but the Sony is offering such a more integrated sound. Instrument separation and imaging is better on the 846. The 601 is a little too raw and inorganic even if it is that little bit more detailed. It’s just not as enjoyable as the 846 and that’s a real surprise.

The more I listen it’s as though the Sony DAP has been told in advance all the faults and fallings of the EX500 and its doing all it can to work around them. The 601 on the other hard careers into them and hits the occasional aggressive high note and touch of sibilance. Sometimes you want that soft focus filter and I really feel torn between the two.

Eric Hutchinson “All Over Now” the 601 manages to add in some air but at the cost of making the song sound a little flat and gritty in the upper end. The lows are little to hard too and the softness that the 846 supplies there is just what’s needed. The 601 is giving the greater detail but it doesn’t have the same sense of timing and musicality that the 846 gives. I really feel like I’m rambling as there is just no clear winner. My brain is saying the 601 may be offering a technically more accomplished offering but my ears really don’t care. The 846 sound so much more natural with the EX500.

Kate Nash “Foundadtions.” This is asong that likes a dry airy set up and often is in danger of going sibilant. On the 601 it skits closer that it does on the 846 and once more im in a real quandary. The 601 is offering me a more resolving sound but the 846 just sounds more natural and complimentary. One differernce that is juite noticeable is that the 601 offors a much tighter punch and the bass notes here than the 846 does, again though for me i think the song works better with a little edge taken off that punch low end throught it. Frankly go toss a coin.

Abandon Kansas “I Wonder If It’s Me.” This is quite a treble happy song and the 601 feels like its beginning to stretsh its legs a little here. Comparing the two back and forth the 846 sound a little more soft, a little big mero genteile than is really wanted by the song. The splashy and edgey high end wants to be so and on the 846 that edge is taken off just little. It still sound really, very good but the 601 is the more accomplished.

Triple.Fi 10


Eric Hutchinson “All Over Now” Both DAP’s sound remarkably similar tonally but flicking back between them the 601 offers the more detailed sound. Frankly I don’t think either of them is doing the TF10 and its treble justice. The bass is too big and too soft on them both. Mids are clearer on the 601 and little too thick on the 846, again neither are doing the TF10 justice.

Kate Nash “Foundations.” Right off the mark there is much more a noticeable difference here than with Mr Hutchinson. This is a dry, airy song and on the Sony it’s just too tick and heavy sounding compared to the 601. The highs still aren’t quite what they ought to be but the song overall is so much cleaner sounding on the 601. I think the Sony may be beginning to show a little of its limitations, its aimed at the thicker heavier sound and struggles a little to do differently whereas the 601 feels much more confident doing so.

Abandon Kansas “I Wonder If It’s Me.” Hmm the TF10 really isn’t the best to go with the Sony at all. The song may have big bass but the treble should be shining through and it’s just not. Yeah you can hear it but the TF10 is famed for its spectacular treble abilities and here I’m hearing none of it. Over on the 601 I can’t say things are perfect but clearly they are better. Vocals are clear and the highs have a little life in them , not maybe like they should but a clear step up on the Sony. Why the TF10 hates them both I really don’t know but it does.



Eric Hutchinson “All Over Now” Hmm for a song that wants thick and rich I can’t deny that the 601 is the cleaner crisper of the two but the DBA has plenty of crispness and is bringing too much. The softer and gentler 846 is the one I think I prefer. The DBA is a pretty hard and aggressive IEM so I guess this was to be expected. The 601 is just a little too clean sounding for the song.

Kate Nash “Foundations.” Another one I’m torn about, the 601 is clearly the more resolving of the two but the DBA’s are so forward and aggressive the relative gentility of the 846 does have an appeal. The Sony sounds a little richer and more natural than the 601 does. You can’t beat a little synergy and the “WAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!” forwardness of the DBA’s makes me drawn to the softer Sony but the 601 is offering more detail. Both sound great.

Abandon Kansas “I Wonder If It’s Me.” A treble happy IEM and a treble happy song. Interestingly my expectation that the Sony might show itself up for being a bit too thick on the low end is totally wrong. If anything it’s a little lacking in the low end. The highs are very crisp and very clear as you would expect on the DBA. Swapping back and forth its going to be another win for the 601. It has better fullness to it and the separation it’s just plain better than what the Sony can muster. Don’t get me wrong the Sony and the DBA go together very well but the 601 sounds like an amped 846. The resolution is greater, the dynamic range feels more dynamic, sound separation is greater, the 601 is the 846 but better in all areas. Not a colossal amount but it’s quite noticeable. Here the Sony may be giving very good treble but the 601 is spectacular.

Conclusion: Having gone back and forward with several things and what I’ve come to realise is that if you’re not buying higher end then if you find something with good synergy with the Sony then it will sound great. If you take that same IEM and try it with the 601 then the 601 isn’t going to turn it into something an a different level but what it can offer is the ability to play back at a higher quality than the Sony can. It was pretty apparent with the DBA that the 601 was offering a far greater level of detail than the Sony. On the EX500 the difference really wasn’t there because the IEM couldn’t do any better. The DBA on the other hand let the 601 take its detail and run with it and the 846 just couldn’t keep up. Not that it was bad sounding but when it had the opportunity to shine the 601 just came across as being a properly amped Sony. Thing is the form factor of the two means while the 601 may sound like a better Sony it doesn’t look like it.

If you were only buying the Sony because the way it sounds then I could see people jumping to the 601. Thing is it’s allot bigger and let’s be honest it doesn’t look anything like as good. The world we live in a lot of people are not picking stuff biased on how they sound but on how they look and there the Sony is a huge winner. If sound is all that matters to you and you have a good quality IEM or headphone then 601 is just plain better.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Shure SE215 Quick Review

Shure SE215 Quick Review

Thanks to Advanced Headphones for the sample (AMP3’s sister site)

Brief: Shure responds to the competition in ass kicking style.

Price: US$100 or £90

Specification: Speaker type: Single Dynamic MicroDriver, Sensitivity (1 kHz): 107 dB SPL/mW, Impedance: 20 Ω, Frequency range: 22 Hz - 17,5 kHz, Cable length: 162 cm, Color: clear, black

Accessories: 6 pairs of tips, 3 olives and 3 “Flex” ones. Oh and it comes with a soft case too.

Build quality: Supreme, excellent cable that’s removable, jack feels uber sturdy, cable is flexible and the buds feel absolutely first class. Oh and 2 year warranty too.

Comfort/Fit: Well for a Shure it wasn’t that good. Not that it was actually uncomfortable but I’m used to them simply melting away and the 215 never really did. Fit was a little bothersome too with the new memory wire not really bending as much as I wanted resulting in the right side occasionally unhooking from my ear. If I pulled the slider it solved it but Shure is normally top of the class and the 215 is more in the top third.

Aesthetics: In pic’s the black just looks black but if you look at them up close they are translucent and it is very, very pretty. Not in a gaudy ostentatious way but I very much liked it. It looks much nicer in the flesh than in a photo.

Sound: It does not sound like a Shure. A Shure is supposed to sound like a monitor, a little dull, gentle and the ear and mid centric. Mid centric is what Shure does, right? If that’s what you want from these then you will be sorely disappointed as they are nothing like the SE210 they replace. Of course the 210 was regularly bashed for being boring and bass light (bass nonexistent to some.) If you were just coming into the word of higher end earphones or IEM’s then Shure with its famous name was an obvious choice and the 210 at near the bottom of the range was a good option right? Thing is compared to low end stuff that are usually bass monsters the 210 was a hell of a shock to most. So they get bought and then they go straight back, this won’t be happening with the SE215. It has a much, much bigger bass output than the 210 and moves a hell of a lot more air too. You feel it. Granted I missed the forward mids as this doesn’t have it, bass and mids are similar but the bass is bigger at times and the highs take a back stage but are still very well done. How Shure have done what they have done here at the price they have I really don’t know. I suggest reading the full review because I can’t fit it all in here but trust me; the SE215 is seriously ass kicking.

Value: If isolation, brand name and such mean nothing to you then its pretty good value. If they matter (and for me isolation does) then they are fantastic. Nothing does bass like this and isolates like this.

Pro’s: Name, Prodigious bass response, fantastic isolation and no driver flex or air pressure issues, warranty.

Con’s: Prodigious bass response, it doesn’t sound like a monitor or anything like its predecessor so I think a slightly misleading name, can get better sound for the money.

Shure SE215 Review

Shure SE215 Review

Thanks to Advanced Headphones for the sample (AMP3’s sister site)

First Impressions: The box is clearly much smaller than the old SE210 box but that’s hardly important. That I do notice and is more important is the case. Shure have decided to give the 215 the soft pouch like case rather than the hard oval one that came with the 210. I can see some preferring this move as the oval one is rather large but personally I would rather have the hard case. The buds themselves however look fab, these ones are in black but it’s not an opaque black, it’s translucent. So you can still see the innards and the driver enclosure in there. You won’t notice this from any distance but up close its tre pretty.

Oh also, no modular cable. I know you can now remove the cables and that’s a good thing but I’d still like the cable to be modular so I can add in phone adapters or the PTH device. (Seriously Shure, it’s a fantastic device but holy crap is it huge. Pretty please make a new smaller one, thanks)

First listen and they sound not bad. I’d been listening to the 210 before hand so I’d instantly hear the differences between them. From what I’d read id been expecting lots more bass but I can’t so I heard it, yes it moved more air but I was anticipating lots, lots more. Also I wasn’t picking up the Shure mids but they were right out the box and dynamic so maybe a little burn in will help them come out.


Source 1G iPod Shuffle with and without a 75 ohm adapter added

Lows: I had expected vast abundance from what I had read but that wasn’t exactly what I got. Now in comparison to the 210 they replace though there is a significant difference. The 210 was pretty famous for being bass light, certainly I don’t think that’s an accusation that shall be levelled at the 215 anytime soon. Having a listen to The Beautiful South’s “Your Father And I” the difference between the two is vast, truly vast. Big, abundant, powerful, air moving lows as only a dynamic really ever can do and the 215 does it masterfully. Honestly though I must say I’m disappointed. It’s not because there is anything wrong with the lows, far from it, it’s that Shure is offering something I can find all over the place. It feels as though Shure has decided to offer a “consumer” orientated sound and while that’s fine, it isn’t the “Shure House Sound.” God I moan a lot, is it maybe unfair of me to pick on Sure for that? It probably is.

So if we forget it’s a Shure then, the bass here is plentiful, well controlled, abundant and versatile. It has no problem doing deep and smooth or doing fast and punchy. It’s really very good at everything and because it’s sealed it really can impact with a ferocity that its price suggests it shouldn’t be able to. That it’s done by a big name brand too is surprising. It’s just not at all what I want from a Shure though.


Mids: For those who have read a few of my reviews will probably know I love mids, you nail them right (PL-50) and I’ll pretty much gush about how much I love it. This being a Shure you might think “oh well he’s going to just love it” and that’s what I’d expect too. But......... it just isn’t really a Shure. I want those upfront mids, clear and belting out above everything else and here they just don’t. Again I can’t say they do anything wrong because they don’t. But they are just so in line with everything else that I can’t help but feel cheated. Like being told you’re going to your favourite restaurant for dinner then find they have fired the chef and changed the menu. Sure the food is still good but not what it was you wanted and that’s how I feel here.

Okay, I’m going to try and be objective. Quantity wise, like I said they are pretty balanced and occasionally take second place behind the lows but that’s not often and is song dependant. Should you listen to something mid heavy then they are bathe clean and clear. Tonally they do ever so slightly tend towards the rich and liquid side of things. It is ever so slightly though. Zee Avi’s “I Am Me Once More” sounds fantastic but tonally you can tell she is getting shifted that little bit down and having a little air sucked out of the performance. It’s not terrible at all but if it’s entirely airy, light mids you want then the 215 maybe a touch thick for you. Artists like Kate Nash though may benefit slightly as she tends to be rather airy. Quality wise I really can’t fault or anything lacking either. The presentation though does obscure thing a tiny touch but that’s what thickness and richness does. I must admit if I wasn’t whining that the mids don’t stand out more that i really do enjoy them.


Highs: This is Shure traditional “problem area” in that they roll the highs off. I have never seen this as a problem of failing but an acoustic choice intended to aid in avoiding listening fatigue. If you are using Shures as monitors and your listening to them all day everyday then trust me, crisp exciting treble will ravage your ears. Since Shure has pretty much thrown the monitor notion out the window with these they aren’t locked into that. Also BA’s normally have trouble at the very top end, they just can’t extend far and again it’s better to roll them off before they crap out than to push them to the edge. Again this isn’t an issue as the 215 has a dynamic driver at its heart. Soooooooo are they treble happy? No. So it’s nice to see Shure haven’t totally about turned in tuning these, but there is a touch more treble than the 210 and it also stands out a little more because the mids are no longer out in front. The main improvement though is that dynamic drivers just deal with highs better than BA do. Dynamics can extent further, more easily and when they begin to lose it they do it gently and gradually become a smear. When Balanced Armature’s got pushed to far they break up in a gritty, edgy, coarse cacophony that is easily picked out. Dynamics just get increasingly less clear and fuzzy.

So how good are they? Good but not excellent. If you are a big lover of treble happy crispy crispiness then these are going to be the one for you. Frankly at this price point I really wouldn’t expect treble excellence and most certainly not with the low end that the 215 has. So Shure being an old hand an making IEM’s does what you have to do and rolls those highs off in a smooth and controlled fashion. It’s done with the skill of an old master getting just enough edge in the lower and mid treble range to let you know exactly what’s going on but they sloping away as the range rises to mask the things it cannot do. I think this is how it really ought to be done as nothing bothers me more than bright edgy treble getting gritty and harsh. Kudos here then. Still treble monsters these most certainly are not and you can get better treble without looking spectacularly hard.


Soundstage: Well much bigger than its elder sibling the 210 but middling more than large. All perfectly reasonable if you ask me but very much middling, to maybe slightly small. Still it’s not the upfront intimacy of the old 210 which I kinda liked. Separation is middlingly decent too, it not wowing me but then its richer, thicker sound isn’t likely to give vast instrument separation.

Fit: Hmm, you I have the 210 and the E3 (the one the 210 replaced) and for me fit has diminished with each step. Not a huge leap but it’s there; the memory wire in particular just would not get tight enough to stay on my right ear. Are my ears freakishly small? I think not. It’s not like they were terrible but the increase in the angle of the nozzle too wasn’t helping, seriously Shure, go back to the E3 enclosure.

Comfort: Much like the fit, it was okay but a slight step down from its predecessors, the nozzle angle is too high for me then the cable angle too aims itself back into my head rather than out in front round my ears. They never melted away. The quantity of air they move too was an issue, they being in a sealed enclosure I must say after listening all day I did find it a little tiring. Still this isn’t something that bothers most people.


Cable: Well it’s not modular and that’s all I can complain about. It’s an excellent cable and a clear step up from the one on the 210, this one is still thick but it’s very soft and flexible. Shure has also gone back to the right angled jack rather than the straight end found on the 0 ending ones. It too feels very solid and is all of the very highest build quality.

Microphonics: Erm none.

Amped/Unamped: All the usual differences but nothing that made me think oh wow. What however may make a big difference is that they are really quite insensitive. What I mean by that is if you want to make these go loud you had better not have a crappy weedy player crippled by the French and their stupid loudness law. Now my little 1G Shuffle could of course power these to stupendous levels of volume but it’s a pint sized marvel. So if you have a quiet player then you may want a little amp. Oh and adding impedance was welcomed by these too particularly in the highs but many players will have trouble powering that combo. Still adding an ety impedance adapter is my favourite enhancement.

Isolation: Here should be where I moan and bitch that it’s a dynamic so it should be vented blah blah blah. Don’t ask me how but these pull off the same trick that the Etymotic mc3/5 manage and stick a dynamic driver in place of a BA and yet you would never know it. No driver flex and no air pressure issues that bother me so. Accordingly they are perfectly sealed like all other Shure’s and they isolate just the same. Well maybe a touch less as they sit far more shallow than the 210 or the super deep E3. Still you really aren’t going to get better for isolation is general other than by moving to Etymotic. Its first class stuff and I’d be happy to fly wherever with a pair of these to hand.


Value: This is the make or break bit isn’t it, should you actually part with money for a pair. First off I’m going to say if you are looking for the Shure “House Sound” then don’t. These are not Shures, they just happen to have their name on them. However if you’re sitting looking for a big bass, good all rounder and that isolates then OMFG yes this is what you want. The isolation is great and no driver flex or air pressure issues, so for all intents it behaves like a BA till you listen to it. Nothing else can do this.

I was looking at some other things commented about these and there was a little surprise at where these have been priced and I must say I agree. In the last few years the Far East has been hammering big names like Shure (read my PL-50 review) and while this wasn’t exactly where I was expecting Shure to go they have priced these well below what I would expect from them. I expect the big name western company with the vast distribution network to charge a premium. That was always how it went, xyz is good sounding but for the same money you can getter something better from some company in the Far East you have never heard of. These you can buy in high street shops. While you can get as good a sound for the same money you really are paying no premium whatsoever for buying a premium name brand. I think Shure have priced this extremely aggressively and if you want its sound signature then it’s amazing value. Even more so if you value buying that premium trusted brand.


Conclusion: I find myself on one hand loving the 215, and thinking “oh holy crap Shure are on the war path with this one.” If you have read it in my PL-50 review where I gushed my enthusiasm all over the page for its lush midcentric Shure sound I had said it would decimate Shures low end sales. The 215 has gone for a completely different sound, no more midcentric sound, thin time they have gone for a radically more mainstream sound (which personally I don’t love) significantly cranking up the bass and dialling up the treble a touch too. It’s got a sound that will instantly be likable to most people and certainly much more so to the masses than the 210 was. The 210 was for so long the entry Shure so people would think “oooh I want something of quality, I’ve heard of Shure, I’ll get one of these.” They would buy it, then wretch in horror at the lack of forceful overpowering bass that their ears where so accustomed to hearing. There shalln’t be any of that here, I’m not saying they are bass monsters but they are much more bassy than most stuff in this quality range. That they have the fancy premium brand name too is just icing on the cake. Like I said in pure sound quality terms these are nothing special but these do have a couple of killer attributes.

The biggest reason to get these is that they manage the impossibly hard combination of bassy and isolating. Okay so it’s not hard to do, you just use multiple BA drivers and voila. Only trouble there is that tends not to be cheap so usually you get bassy dynamics than are reasonable costing but then they make isolation sacrifices and often have driver flex and air pressure trouble. Shure have managed to avoid all of those troubles and made something you just can’t get anywhere else. A big, bassy, dynamic that isolates very well and without issue. If you want big bass and isolation at this sort of price then there is no competition whatsoever for the 215. None. (If you think otherwise by all means please let me know.)


If we ignore for a moment that special attribute then on sound alone, the 215 is nothing special, it’s certainly very good sounding for the money but there are a few makes that can do just as well but they haven’t got a name yet. They aren’t found in high street shops, they don’t have that brand recognition, they don’t have the public confidence and presence that a company like Sure does. As a consumer you expect to pay a bit for that name on that’s a choice you make because you feel more confident, that name equals quality in your mind. Shure is a brand like that, it’s known for being a premium high end brand and as such I really would expect these to have a bit of that premium and I don’t think they do. They are priced very, very aggressively in my opinion. The bass and isolation is a killer combo in itself but the price and quality for a big brand name is going to steal some sales back from recent rivals.

So did I love the SE215? No, it was too bassy for me it. I feel it should have been given a completely new name as calling it SE215 makes it sound like it’s a tweaked SE210 which was just a tweaked E3 since renamed SCL3. Shure has a history of its updates being just tiny adjustments and that in not what we have in the SE215. It is nothing like its predecessor. It’s not really like anything actually. I’ve never heard a sealed, properly sealed IEM that can move air like it can. If you want a dynamic you have to at least vent it a tiny bit and even then you get tons of air pressure issues, those are just the rules. So if you want bass that’s sealed you have to use lots of drivers but even then they don’t move air like a dynamic can. The SE215 somehow manages to steal the attributes it wants and ignores what it doesn’t. It’s not playing fair and its competition, well I’m not sure it has any. Really if you want bassy, isolating and none of the pain it usually brings this is it, there is just nothing else like it. In fact I may have to ask if I can keep them!