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.

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