Thursday, 13 December 2012

Sennheiser CX985 Review

Sennheiser CX985 Review

Thanks to Sennheiser for the sample

First impressions:  Hmm Sennheiser I see your box has opening instructions, I can’t say I have fond memories of trying to open the IE7’s box and feeling like a halfwit.  This thankfully isn’t so bad but may I suggest if you think your packaging requires instructions then you are making it overly engineered.  Once inside though there is again the hint of Sennhesier not knowing when to stop with the engineering.   Never in my life have I seen such a jack.  There isn’t going to be any mistaking this for a non-premium product as was a complaint I did see about the IE7 and 8.  They were frankly disturbingly light for something so expensive.  The CX985 are not light, there is metal all over the place and they are unmistakably premium.  They look like they are more aimed at the “I work in the city don’t you know” sort of person, not that there is anything wrong in that but let’s just say it makes me think that conspicuous opulence may be more of a concern to that crowd.  Still this is a Senn and over the years have made the occasional earphone, just one or two (err one or two hundred possibly, lol.) 

First listen and I’m casting the mind back a bit to the old CX95.  Not that I’ve heard it in a super long time but the highs and their grittiness stand in my mind.  Fingers crossed a burn in will alleviate much of that but what I do very much approve of is the sound stage.  It’s not really what I usually care about but Sennheiser can nail it like no other.  It’s great, not much other way to say it but Senn’s create an aural stage quite unlike anyone else.  Burn in time.

Source:  HM-601 and Hisoundaudio Rocoo BA mostly with some 1G Ipod Shuffle with 75 ohms added and a little Galaxy Nexus too.

Lows:  Given these are Senn’s you would expect there to be quite a lot and indeed there is.  How much however really depends as they have differingly designed tips to offer up more or a bit less.  This really is the most insanely over engineered product ever in the way only the Germans would do.  The tips come in three sizes but have either a magenta or while stalk.  The white ones are a bit shorter and this allows for a small air channel that is cut out of the IEM stem to breathe.  The Magenta ones give you much more of a seal and therefore give you bigger bass, more punchy too.  The isolation jumps up too but so does fit sensitivity and it gave me a little air pressure bother.  Nothing major but I really dislike that.  Jumping back to the white ones, the bass here is large but not vastly dominant as the highs are quite abundant too.  The bass for a dynamic is really quite taut and agile.  Senn are known for their bass and as you expect it’s very good, big and expansive yet it moves quick all the while seeming so effortlessly casual about it.  Put on something quick and punchy and it can do it, play something slow and lethargic and it will do just that too.  Depth is also good but not quite as good as I’d expect from a Senn at this price.  I did think this might be due to the much more closed nature of the CX985 than other higher end Sennheiser’s as too closed and too much deep down just gets wearing on the ear so it’s probably the right thing to do.

All in all I’d really say it’s first class all the way and as a bonus you can adjust its quantity from rather a lot to loads with tip selection.

Mids:  Much like as above, Senn are known for lots of great bass, often being great big V shaped sounding.  This means their mids tend to have a certain character, they are usually a bit on the dry and airy side and lacking in abundance compared to the lows and highs.  This is just how it is here.  The quality of the mids is superb however and despite their being recessed, they are beautifully open sounding and expressive.  Mika’s Studio Outtakes album is tremendously good on these.  Breathy, expressive, detailed and a wonderfully holographic feel.  They are mesmerizingly three dimensional; no one does this sort of sound staging like Sennheiser do.  They don’t have the scale of the IE7 or 8 but they have the same 3D like quality, if anything it’s a little more clearly defined than the huge but less crisp imaging of its siblings.  This is what shines about the mids, vocals don’t stand forward like I’d want but they have a quality to them that’s excellent and quite rare.  I just so wish they weren’t behind the bass and highs in quantity as they deserve to take centre stage. 

Also I must note that with a few songs they do skirt rather close to being sibilant.  They never really got outright ear stabby but enough that no high volume for those tracks.  And that was even with the warm HM-601. (Shakira in particular.)

Highs:  The traditional Senn abundance is back and it’s good but not quite good enough for its abundance if you ask me.  This is why I found I didn’t love the Studio 3rd anv with these.  It’s a brightish DAP and offers super crisp treble.  The CX985 want to give you clear and crisp treble too but it’s not quite up to the refinement I want to see if the treble is going to be abundant.  Nothing bothers me like edgy over crisp treble hurled at me.  The IE8 is equally abundant but it’s got just about the best treble of any IEM ever and the CX985 is aiming for the same sound signature but without quite the same skill.  It means for me it can’t quite pull it off and I found that both the HM-601 and Rocoo BA paired up much more nicely.  Also weirdly, my Galaxy Nexus sounded great with them.  Given its likely user, a phone seems like a realistic pairing for them and acoustically was really better than I’d have ever expected.  Particularly in the treble, the phone isn’t as capable as a good end DAP so the crisped edge on the CX985 didn’t become over sharp to the ear.  It just aided in clarity letting you notice details you otherwise wouldn’t have.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Senn designed the thing specifically to pair with smartphones and mainstream DAP’s.  (More than once I had to remind myself it did not have a mic on it.)

Soundstage:  It hasn’t the vastness of the IE7 and IE8 but it’s got if anything even better a holographic feel to it.  You really can’t help but notice it.  The imaging and placement has got to be about the best there is.  I’m not normally one to care much about sound staging as I don’t object to forward and in your head sounding things.  For something that is relatively closed and therefore isolating, it’s a marvel they do what they do.  The placement of vocals and different instruments feel soooooo crisply accurate in your mental map.  I have as of yet not heard anything as cleanly accurate at presenting a mental image like this, it’s just unbeatable.

Fit:  With the magenta tips I got a rather air tight seal, a little too tight for me so I found the white ones to be much more suitable.  I also got on well with the foamy pair that was included.  All round pretty much a case of stick in and done.   Oh and this was all wearing them up and over my ears as I pretty much loath wearing IEM’s down.  The legs on them worked perfectly well for this.  Naturally they were fine fit wise wearing down too.

Comfort:  Excellent.  I could wear these up with the slightest hint of anything less than perfect.  YMMV of course but they are fairly shallow sitting so should be alright for most.

Cable:  The cable itself is alright.  It’s very light, a little stiff, doesn’t tangle which is nice.  The bits that are more stand out and the Y splitter and the jack.  The Y splitter has a chin slider and a built in volume control.  I have not seen one of them in ages, not a phone control that alters the phones volume but a real hardware volume control!!!  As you expect it feels super solid and ultra-precision engineered.  Speaking of insane engineering, take a look at the jack on these.  Holy mother of god what is Senn up too!?!?!?!?  Is there some massive overabundance of engineers in Germany and Sennheiser has offered to employ them all?  It’s the most insanely over engineered jack I have ever seen.  It’s all machined metal and has a hinge in there too.  If nothing else, the jack screams premium product in a way I’ve never seen a jack do before!

Build:  If you didn’t pick up from the jack comments above then in short, its stellar.  When Senn moved into the high end IEM market with the IE range one of the complaints about the likes of the IE8 was that it felt fake.  I recall getting my IE7 and they were so light, they weighed of nothing.  The CX985 is a different product range and they have clearly wanted something that is unmistakably premium which if you didn’t hear the IE’s you may not necessarily think of them.  These are clearly meant to look and feel substantial.

Microphonics:  If you wear them down you get rather a lot, the chin slider of course helps greatly.  Still just wear then up and they are pretty much microphonics free.

Amped/Unamped:  Meh, negligible improvements from using a better amp.  If anything I felt they got along better with not so capable amps.  They really paired well with my Galaxy Nexus so these should play very well with your phone or any normal DAP.  I really wouldn’t bother with an additional amp it didn’t really add to them significantly.

Isolation:  These are variable in what tips you use.  Magenta isolated rather a lot for a dynamic, enough for any normal use and maybe even a short flight but I found the seal gave me a bit of air pressure issues in my ears.  I’ve rather sensitive ears so I rather preferred the white ones.  The isolation is still fine on them but a little reduced.  Fine for normal out and about stuff but I’d not really want for on a plane.  Still above the norm for a big bassed dynamic though and vastly more than the very, very open IE7 and IE8.  As ever easily enough to make you a road stain if you aren’t looking where you are going when you’re out, you won’t hear that bus until it impacts your skull.

Accessories:  You get seven pairs of tips, 3 pairs of white and magenta each plus a small foamy set.  An airline adapter, a case I’ll come back too and the coolest little shirt clip thing. Oh and the thing is metal btw!  Now I never wear shirts so I don’t care but it’s clear this product is aimed at those who do, so it makes perfect sense, why have I not seen one before (that I recall anyway.)  Now, back to that case.  It looks lovely; it really does, much like the one that came with the IE range looked lovely.  Unfortunately it sucks to use just like the IE ones.  Sennheiser would you please stop massively over engineering the cases, go look at the one DUNU offer, that’s what I’d like to see please.  The DUNU one is functional, looks fantastic and exudes quality, yours look lovey but are horrible if not impossible to use.

Note:  Crazy engineered tips that change the sound by closing off or not the venting port on the stem means that the range of normal tips you might like won’t fit.  I don’t know if all new Senns will be of this size in which case ebay will soon be flooded with them but atm “Sony hybrids” will do if you need but not perfect.

Value:  Looking for the price these seem quite rare in the wild yet but Amazon had them at £120. (appear to be US$160 on Amazon US) That to me seems like a pretty reasonable price and I’d been afraid they would be much, much more than that.  I am in two minds with these as I would probably think of myself as living in the audiophile camp.  I prioritise sound quality above everything else when it comes to what I’d want to buy and these have a bit of a premium on others.  Things like the RE-262 beat them and the GR07 is cheaper and for the same money I could have the IE7.  Now the IE7 is one of if not my favourite IEM, it’s much more to my tastes.  That said none of them have the premium feel to them like the CX985 does, it’s aimed I think at the “work in the City” types for whom sounding good is important but so is others knowing you have something of quality.  The hardware volume control too is really useful and if you’re a regular Tube commuter, it’s not like you have space to pull a DAP out and adjust the volume all the time.  And let’s be honest, all that use of metal looks impressive.  On sound alone, it’s not the greatest value but it’s a very compelling package that’s on offer.

Conclusion:  I have been a bit mixed about the CX985.  Things like its soundstage and imaging are really, really good but then it’s not something I’m usually fussed about.  The mids are really beautifully open but then stuck in the V shaped valley.  So I think it’s essentially a product that hasn’t been made with me in mind.  This means I’ve found it hard to become wildly enthused about and I suspect this may have come across in the review.  It’s not really deserved though as it’s a product that I think hasn’t set out to impress someone like me.  I like smooth, middy stuff and so for me the IE7 works much, much better.  The CX985 is aimed I think at a relatively normal chap, has a bit of disposable cash and wants something that is not only seen as a premium product (i.e. expensive) but that is actually a good product (cough, Beats, cough.)  So being somewhat of an audio snob I find the V shaped sound offered up not really what I think it ought to be, it’s a bit too populist and really I just miss the mids.  On so many occasions I found myself listening to these and really enjoying the vocals which are very good but being so disappointed they aren’t more tuned like the IE7.  The bass I could handle but the treble was a touch much for me, it’s too eager and too inclined to crispy edge harshness.  Again this greatly diminished when using my phone as a source and since I suspect the target market for this is more likely to use a phone than a high end dedicated DAP highlights it’s not aimed at me.

Trying to look objectively at the CX985 it’s really got a lot going for it.  The sound quality is very good.  The bass is full, rich and powerful but not overly so.  The highs offer plenty of readily noticeable detail.  The mids are open, clear and expressive.  If you like a V shaped sound it’s pretty impressive.  Its level of isolation is likewise good which is counter to its soundstage abilities.  Normally more isolation means a more in the head quality and it’s a very capable trade off here.  As I mentioned before the imaging and 3D feel these offer up is truly excellent, even beating the IE8 in its focus and precision. 

I have to think though that sound wasn’t Sennheiser’s only priority when making these.  They have clearly gone out of their way to make these look and feel premium.  I know it won’t come across in a photo but the box, like Senn do, is so over engineered and that card it’s made from feels more like steel.  You pick up and you know instantly that a hell of a lot of effort has gone into the box and a hell of a lot of money (for a box anyway) has been spent. What’s even better is this one was relatively easy to open too by Senn standards (IE7 and 8 box was deeply perplexing.)  Even the horrible case I didn’t like feels premium and looks lovely.  Though if I had to single one thing out, scratch that, two things, then it’s the jack and the shirt clip.  I’ve never seen anything like either of them from anyone else.  The jack especially is just insane!

I would hope if not expect that Canary Warf should be awash with these soon enough.  They have surely got to appeal to those reasonably healed who want an earphone that’s actually good and looks impressive too.  It looks like an item of substance and quality, and frankly it is both.  Sennheiser is probably the quintessential name when it comes to earphones and headphones; it has been around forever.  Its products are available everywhere too, who on head-fi hasn’t owed a pair of CX300’s or at least one other Sennheiser?  Their stuff is not only ubiquitous but on the whole are good sounding and well made.  The CX985 seems to be just what I’d expect from Sennheiser.  It is superbly engineered, sounds like a Senn, has a soundstage like only Senn seem to be able to do and is clearly a premium product deserving of its premium price tag. 

Something that would make for a rather lovely Christmas gift I’d bet too and I have no doubt Sennheiser will shift plenty of these once word gets out.

Sennheiser CX985 Quick Review

Sennheiser CX985 Quick Review

Thanks to Sennheiser for the sample

Brief:  Sennheiser proves it can out engineer everyone

Price:  £120 (or US$160 in the US)

Specification:  Frequency response 16 - 24000 Hz, Sound pressure level (SPL) 115 dB, Impedance 32 Ω, THD, total harmonic distortion < 0.1 %, Cable length 1.2 m, Weight 338g (note a lot of that weight is jack so you don’t notice it)

Accessories:  7 pairs of tips, plane adapter, case, cleaning bits and cool shirt clip.

Build Quality:  Nothing short of excellent, there is no finer manufactured IEM.

Isolation:  Depends on the tips.  Goes from pretty good for a dynamic to really good for a dynamic.  Neither is what I’d want for a long flight but both easily enough to get you run over if you’re not looking.

Comfort/Fit:  Great, no bother with either aspect even wearing them up.  The weight figure is misleading as lots of the weight is in the jack.  Also wearing up means the ear supports them rather than just the fit of then in your ear.  They sit shallow so should be comfy for all I’d think.

Aesthetics:  Quite impressive.  The use of metal looks not only pleasant but looks quality.  The metal volume control for instance, you can see this a premium product.  Very Teutonic.

Sound:  Pretty darn good.  Not the greatest you can find at the price but it’s no slouch.  It’s pretty V shaped so the mids lack in quantity but they are beautifully open sounding.  The bass is big, or really big if you use the magenta tips, but still taut.  The high are good but a little too edgy and crispy.  With a bright and really good DAP it was too much, so aim for warmer or weirdly my phone (galaxy Nexus) worked really well with it.  The highs were crisp but not abrasively so.  What shone though was the soundstage and imaging.  The soundstage was good but the imaging was alarmingly holographic!  Just outstandingly impressive and so clearly defined, even besting the IE8.  The 3D image they could create is probably the best and most clear I’ve heard in an IEM, really top class stuff.  Still it’s all pretty V shaped sounding so great for pop stuff but for big mid fans like myself its maybe not best suited even if its mids are very open and expressive, they are just too far back.

Value:  On sound alone good, I’d been afraid these would be much more expensive than they are.  They stand out more if you care that they feel and look so premium too.  These look like you’ve spent some cash on them and are insanely engineered.  The volume control and jack are just superb things to behold.

Pro’s:   These exude substance and quality.  Jack and Volume slider. Can change the bass with the different tips.

Con’s:  You pay for its premium feel, it’s pretty V shaped acoustically. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anniversary Edition Review

Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anniversary Edition Review

Thanks to Hisoundaudio for the sample.

First Impressions:  I now have to cast my mind back as I seem to have misplaced the written at the time one.  In short though there a bit of a mixture, I was unquestionably looking forward to the Studio coming and when it did was a little saddened by it being in silver and no more hyper brutal edges.  Okay so the edges thing is probably sensible and silver is fine too.  Honestly it could be edged with razor blades, be neon pink and covered in bedazzle beads, I’m not sure I’d care.  The original sounded quite amazing.  This as best I can tell, since I haven’t an original to AB, is even better.  Right now I hurt my ear a bit so I’ve been told no sticking things in my ears for a few days so I’m sitting with the HD600’s and the Studio is driving them.  Think about that for a bit. 

I have a 64gb SD card on its way to me and when it gets here it could be the end of the line for my Ipod and amp set up, this thing is just amazing.

Btw you may want to read my original Studio V review if you haven’t already.

Screen:  It’s the same as the original.  Its tiny, it’s OLED, its monochrome, it is shall we say very functional.  No colour and video watching here.  It will tell you what track your listening to but not a huge amount else, it’s a DAP not a PMP.

Battery Life:  Life its predecessor it’s stupendous.  They quote 80 hours and I have no reason to think for a second they are exaggerating.  It is epic.  I don’t know how they do it or what is going on but you can get away with charging this thing like once a week!!!!  That depends on how much you use it and stuff but my god, I know nothing else that just last so long.  Oh and I’m not exactly listening to things at whisper quiet level either in case that’s what you’re thinking.

UI:  If you are familiar with the UI as found on the other Hisoundaudio DAP’s its, erm, well it’s not the best.  It’s not the worst either but more than once I have turned it off instead of getting into the menu.  Honestly though I tend to just stick my DAP’s on shuffle and hit next a lot.  I don’t want to ever have to look at the screen when I’m using it.  So for me it was pretty much fine, it did what I wanted but if you want to constantly pick songs or albums, erm it might get annoying.  

In The Hand:  The new Studio is rather similar to the old one.  The primary difference is the new one has a somewhat rounded edges but make no mistake, it’s still quite the metal brick.  It’s flat, rectangular and in no way one of these new “oooh let’s make everything curved” things.  Nope it’s very 80’s angular and functional and I rather like that.  It’s still not a device I would like to share pocket space with say my phone.  My phone would lose that encounter I fear and so it’s one I’m going to make sure doesn’t happen.  It’s funny but despite its still brick like nature I find myself missing the brutal savagery of the old studio and its razor like edges.  Yes I’m aware that’s silly but it’s still true.  Not that of course my head thinks they should come back, this is somewhat more practical.  On the whole it’s a nice, weighty object that your never quite going to ever mistake for something Appley and delicate.

Format Support:  Well, I realise I should have checked this but I haven’t.  The manual says the same as the last Studio, it well also says a lot of rubbish too.  It seems to be a manual for several models of things and its mostly in Chinese anyway.  It does mention AAC but not bit rates so I’m going to assume 320k but not ALAC levels, urgh no I’m not I think that I’ll have to test.  Okay I have just tested, AAC (.m4a) it will do fine but ALAC files it won’t, shame but no big deal.  The format you’re going to use is FLAC.  If you’re thinking about buying this product it’s because you care about sound quality. 

I’m not sure if it should come under format support but the Studio can support 64GB cd cards if you format it to Fat32.  This means exFat will not work so if you’re running windows you shall have to use a partition editor of some kind to allow you to do this.  It’s not hard.

The Manual:  Erm I’m pretty sure it’s the exact same manual as the old Studio.  The manual is rubbish.  That said I’m not sure what you really need the manual for, it’s not a rocket ship you have before you.  Don’t worry, push some buttons and you’ll figure it out.

Sound Quality:  To say I rather liked the original Studio would be like saying the Titanic had a small mishap.  Now I don’t have the original Studio here to AB them and that’s a real shame because I can’t tell exactly what’s different, my memory says the new one is better but I can’t quantify just how much better.  The result though is that the Studio 3rd Anniversary edition is probably the best DAP I’ve ever come into contact with.  It is simply amazingly good sounding. 

The Studio 3rd just makes everything sound better, even things that I’ve never really looked at and thought they need more power behind them.  This is especially noticeable in the upper registers, treble is just tremendously detailed and everything.  I realise everything isn’t a terrible descriptive term so let me clarify, everything good, delicate, crisp, clean, shimmery, extended etc etc.  Yes this does it all.  I’m sitting with the Senn IE8’s just now and in my opinion it has some of the very best treble on an IEM despite it being more known for its bass.  The treble feels near endlessly extended and is so effortlessly detailed.  The Senn is in many ways an extravaganza yet here it seems so relaxed in how it goes about it.  Thunderous bass, the very sweetest soaring highs and so casually offered up.  Now you may think that makes for a very relaxed or lazy sound but no.  There is still ungodly levels of drama and thrills it’s just that it all somehow seems nothing is being taxed. 

Much the same is found when swapping over the UE TF10.  An IEM that needs some welly behind it to come alive.  Drive it poorly and they are just meh in spades, slap these two together and they soar.  Vocals become so spectacularly open and the treble moves like lightning.  You get the idea!   The TF10 is a real bitch to drive and the Studio 3rd does it all without batting an eye.  God even the UM3x sound just superb and it’s another real fussy bugger to drive.  The Studio 3rd is just making everything sound so astonishingly effortless.  Now I know the UM3x is a pain yet this is I think the best I’ve heard, certainly the most well integrated it’s been, and god help, its mid’s are really, really good here too!

Just the other day I had the RE-0 out and while I did at first wish there had been a bass boost button, no failing of the Studio, the 0 isn’t a bassy IEM.  The rest though, especially the treble is staggeringly, jaw dropping impressive for the money.  They seem to be going for US$80 now and while I grant they may not offer the most exciting listen they are acoustically near perfect.  Oh also the Studio has no trouble driving them to louder than anyone would ever want.  That was something many people have had issues with in the past.

Given the power they can put out how about at the other end of things?  Well I am generally much more an IEM person so things that are going to get special mention are the IE8, IE7, SE530 and the W4.  First comment it they all sound superb with the Studio 3rd.  Going to the W4 first since it was a special request.  I have not traditionally been a huge fan of Westone, they are good but rather expensive on this side of the Atlantic (W4 is circa £400 the IE8 is less than £200 yet they are at a very similar level.)  So the W4 isn’t the world’s most exciting IEM and I think it really should have been called the UM4 but with the studio 3rd they really come to life.  They have a bit of drama and enthusiasm.  They sound alive and they sound impossibly extended in both directions.  They keep the flat response but the dynamics they produce are enhanced and it’s all so nuanced.  Everything is in there, so effortlessly casual yet so quick.  I know that’s all a bit contradictory but sue me, it’s true nevertheless. 

Swapping to the SE530 (one of my fav’s btw.)  Starting with the negative, there is hiss, not a lot but it’s there.  It’s in most recordings anyway so I don’t see any problem myself, it’s not distracting.  So, the mid’s of course are just staggeringly beautiful as always and once more the extension at both ends is superb.  These aren’t treble monsters but what’s there is wonderfully detailed.  The bass too is just about perfect, some people complain about the 530 that its bass rolls off, it does not if driven well and here its stays superbly linear as it goes down.  It’s a sensitive IEM and known for its dynamics and with the Studio 3rd it flies.  The dynamics are outstanding particularly in vocals.  The tiniest inflection to most savage roar is there without a hint of dynamic compression.  They currently have me grinning like a Cheshire cat.

On to the IE8, another IEM I’m not a lover of, it’s a big leap coming from the 530 as they are just about opposites.  So gone are sumptuous mids, here we get a V shaped dry breathiness.  In exchange we get prolific bass that’s got to be just about the very best there is and likewise with the treble.  The bass is of course both massive and superb but what truly excels here is the treble.  The IE8 has in my opinion had some of the very best and most extended treble around and here it’s given the headroom to run free.  It’s essentially as good as treble gets on an IEM.  The high end subtlety and detail offered up is outstanding.  This hyper extended treble leads me on to the IE7 which is another of my favourites.  The 7 lacks the same detail and drama of the 8, it offers instead a beautifully rich sound but maybe doesn’t have the most effortless treble.  The Studio 3rd lets the dynamic driver in there stretch its legs and the 2 have a wonderful synergy, so much so I had to give them a mention.

So its powerful and it can go loud, well quite how powerful, how loud can it go?  Well I wasn’t about to try to find the limit as to how loud because it’s insane.  Having pulled out the big boys, the Sennheiser HD600’s and plugging them, all the while thinking it should be okay as other DAP’s have driven them fine.  The Studio though is just superb.  Particularly in the low end which requires more oomph to hit in the big open cans.  The bass is swift and agile with a very impressive level of impact for such a tiny DAP.  The level of detail all around is just all that you could possibly hope for or dream of.  This naturally means no crappy bit rates and no crappy mastering as the Studio isn’t going to do any of it any favours unless you use the most forgiving of headphones.  Why you would buy a world class DAP and then pair them with rubbish I can’t imagine.

The level of information and the detail, especially up top has a few times made me feel the Studio may be a tiny touch on the brighter side of things.  Mostly I’d simple say its utterly neutral but having spent much time with it and the big Senn’s it does make me shudder a little thinking what it may be like with the Grado 325i’s I once had.  That’s not really a pairing I think I should like to ever hear.  Hell I still find the HD600 a little on the lighter side of what I think I ideally like.  Obviously many people like a much brighter sound than I do so maybe this could be the perfect DAP for them with brighter headphones too.   It’s really about my only acoustic negative about the Studio 3rd.  If you are for whatever reason wedded to the idea of a bright IEM or headphone then the sound signature is not that of the Sony esq like the HM-601.  It has a beautiful, rich and enveloping sound.  The Studio is not that, it’s hyper open and explicit.  Every tiny nuance is there and articulated whether it’s beautiful or not and rich DAP’s cover up those imperfections like a soft focus filter.  This is more like slapping up the contrast setting; everything is more apparent and noticeable.  It’s not really that either is right or wrong any more than a photo is better or worse than a Van Gogh, they each are about different things a depending on what you want out of it either may be “better.”

The lack of an organic, natural, beauty though doesn’t mean for a second that I’ve found anything that the Studio can’t do.  Even things like Nora Jones who may like a bit of warmth added are still just mesmerizingly wondrous.  The degree of transparency is tremendous.  That it’s also so lighting fast means it seem to have zero trouble with the fastest paced music or the slowest, lingering notes.  Its pace and energy just seem to be so boundless.  The timing just is spot on if you ask me with each and everything I’ve thrown at it.

Lows:   They may not rattle your skull with their abundance, unless you’re using a really bass heavy headphone that is.  These don’t add any but they do enable things that need some extra power to go down to do just that.  The bass on everything was just rock solid, thoughtful and controlled.  Depth was stupidly good and really eeked out the best from even the hardest to drive things.  Not the warmest and softest bass though if that’s where your tastes are.  It’s what it should be, let the headphones introduce any softening or flavour if that’s what you want.

Mids:  Unlike many warm DAP’s there is no added thickness or warmth.  So as DAP’s go then there would have to be on the cooler, brighter side.  It’s more what I’d think of as being neutral.  There is nothing added other than possibly openness.  These do like to give soooooooo much space and the most open feel to vocals.  Guitars though twang with fantastic clarity.  The transparency is just flawless.

Highs:  Ever so extended and delicate yet positively abounding with detail.  There is maybe the slightest emphasis on the treble over the rest but the quality is such that it’s no problem.  I just maybe then wouldn’t pair this with anything super bright (Grado) as I could see that combo getting tiring rather quickly.  That’s about all I can fault.  Its freaking stunning that a little portable DAP sounds like this.

Hiss:  This wouldn’t normally get its own little section but it has been touted as one of the more significant differences between it and the original Studio.  So as much as I’d like to say there is no hiss that’s not true.  There is some but its slight, not that I ever really found it to be a bother on the old one.  I find if hiss ever bothers me it’s not the DAP it’s the song that has it recorded in there.  Go listen to “Somebody I Used To Know” if you want to hear hiss and want to see how infuriating it can be.  Honestly though, that the Studio 3rd did hiss a little was meaningless.  It was so low and if I wasn’t deliberately going out of my way to look for it id never have cared or probably noticed on many things.

Value:  Erm well, okay this is not a cheap product.  Its circa US$450 I did find on ebay too for £265 (note HMRC may want their slice too) and I’m not going to say its quantifiably 10 times better than a Clip+ or something like that.  So at this price does value matter, really, you get your money’s worth certainly in my opinion.  If you are looking too eek out the best sound quality you can on the go without carrying a bunch of things held together with bits of velcro and big elastic bands then this is it.  It sounds amazing, has staggering battery life and you don’t look like a suicide bomber carrying it.

Conclusion:  So did I like this product?  Hell’s yeah I did!  It’s simply a wonder, in every regard it’s just a wonder.  I don’t know what’s in the thing but I love how it sounds.  The battery life it has is staggering (I’m using that word too much) you could really get away with charging the thing once a week.  That it does that yet is so powerful is truly just bewildering.  Its rated at 80 hours so that’s like 3 and a bit days solid, clearly if you remember to turn it off that rather extends things which I did find once or twice I thought I had but I had not.  Normally that would bother me greatly as coming back to something you left of for a day by mistake would mean its dead, not here, yey! 

That seems to be the sum total issues with this DAP.  There is a little unpolished aspect here and there, the UI is not the most straight forward.  The Dap hasn’t always turned off when it says it has.  There just are things not quite perfect but I really didn’t care about any of them.  They are just not important to me.  Like the not turned off, I actually began to not bother turning it off because I couldn’t be bothered spending 30 seconds turning it back on while it rescans the SD card, then I have to set it back to shuffle.  Urgh the trauma!  The battery life is so good who cares if you leave it on pause in your pocket for 5 or 6 hours doing nothing.  Just how many if any at all DAP’s can you say that about?

In short this DAP is excellent.  It has truly tremendous transparency and extension.  The amp in it feels like it could power a small city and yet still handles the most sensitive IEM’s.  It is to date the best sounding DAP I have encountered and as such have bought a 64GB SD card for it.  It has in the time I have been playing with it become my default DAP to pick up in the morning.  There is just nothing it really can’t do unless you want a warm DAP.  I realise many do want that, Sony does that and they shift plenty and the HM-601 will cater to audiophiles wanting that richness.  For those looking for a neutral DAP then I’m not sure you can beat the Studio 3rd, it’s got real buttons, has stupendous battery life and sounds amazeballs good, with everything. The way this thing can drive big cans like the HD600 is lunacy, in days of old people were burned for less as I’m convinced there is some pact with the devil at work.

I love this DAP.   Anything it doesn’t quite do perfectly I’m more than willing to forgive.  What you get is an immensely great sounding DAP that has the most amazing battery life.  If you are looking for new DAP and anything like the same requirements as I do, i.e. sound quality and real buttons rather than a touch screen then for the love of all that’s holy you need to consider the Studio 3rd.  It really is the most amazing little thing.

Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anniversary Edition Quick Review

Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anniversary Edition Quick Review

Thanks to Hisoundaudio for the sample.

Brief:  Hisoundaudio updates the Studio V.

Price:  Circa US$450 or £265 (pre HMRC.)

Specification:  Good Question, I don’t know bar what’s up for the Studio V.

Accessories:  A US plugged USB power charger, a USB cable and a pair of the PAA-1 earphones. 

Build Quality:  Not as perfect as the sharp edged old one but it’s still essentially a block of machined aluminium.  You’re not going to break it short of hitting it with a sledge hammer.

UI:  It is still what I might call eccentric.  The central button is play, pause, menu and power on and off control.  You do get used to it pretty quickly but it’s weird and you will accidently turn it off trying to get to the menu now and then. 

In the Hand:  It’s less severe than its predecessor but it’s still an unyielding block.  No girly curves to fit the contours of your hand or any of that nonsense.  It’s right out of the Brutalism movement.  Still it bothered me not a jot and I really liked the easily felt buttons.  They are nicely pronounced and I had no trouble at all controlling the device while it resided in my pocket.  Never once did I accidently hit a button without meaning to.

Aesthetics:  So it’s in silver, hmm I think I liked black better but who cares.  This product is all about function, the bare metal just lends itself to that concept, pure and unfettered by such trivialities.  Think Corbusier.

Sound:  As good as I have ever encountered.  The amp it contains is horrifyingly good, the power it can unleash is incredible yet it has zero issue with the most sensitive IEM’s out there.  It is a near perfectly neutral sounding DAP with simply tremendous extension at both ends.  Lows on every headphone go on as far as I’ve ever heard them do so and the same for the highs.  Mids are spectacularly open and transparent too.  There may be a slight enhancement of the highs which I found meant it didn’t suit the brightest of IEM’s, but then I’m always treble sensitive.  The sound quality otherwise is pretty much flawless.   As open, transparent and dynamic as I’ve ever heard a DAP be, its gloriously and spectacularly good sounding. Its timing too is utterly impeccable.

Value:  Okay it’s not cheap but you get easily what you pay for.  It sounds tremendously good.

Pro’s:  Sound quality, battery life, sound quality, real buttons.

Con’s:  Erm, not sure there is any really.  The UI isn’t stellar.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Dunu Tai Chi (DN-19) Review

Dunu Tai Chi (DN-19) Review

Thanks to DUNU for the sample.

First Impressions:  On opening up the box its clear to see Dunu still know how to put probably the best accessory package together, just look at everything in there and they still do possibly the best IEM case you can get.  Note to everyone else, this is how you should do it!  Not that I’m saying a good accessory package is what matters most, it doesn’t but it lets you know there has been some thought and care taken.  The case especially, the little metal box is just first rate.  Opening everything up, what really catches the eye is the new cable these have, its bright silver with a transparent sheath which is a real departure from the norm.  Oh and it looks great, maybe not terribly subtle though. 

So sticking them in my ears and I like what I hear.  It really is a first impression and these come with the little filter do dahs and different tips to change the sound too apparently.  I’m just trying as they came out of the box so no “dampeners” and with the black tips.  It’s not hard to tell this is the best Dunu I’ve heard to date.  Burn in time.

Source: 1G Ipod Shuffle, HiFiMAN HM-601, FiiO E9 and Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd.

Lows:  Annoyingly this is a product that lets you change the sound so it basically demands you do everything twice, grrrr.  So with the black tips which seal tightly and no dampeners in place the bass gets bigger, weightier etc etc.  No I do not for one second think that anyone who buys these will regularly swap back and forth.  Of course you could but I just don’t see it happening.  You shall do what I did, play about a bit realise you like one more than the other and then stay there.  For me this was not the bassy setting.  Not that was anything wrong with it, it’s a preference thing and it has a bit much bass, vocals were a bit weighty and highs, while lovely, weren’t the most abundant.  The bass lighter set up was a much more natural and more neutral too.  It still had rather good depth but not quite to the same degree, it does tail away a bit sooner, just a little mind.  It’s really very good quality bass here, it’s really reminding me of long ago and playing with the GR07 for the first few times.  That beguiling “nothing to see here” calm then you slap on something bassy and RARRRR it just thunders out of nowhere.  This may not have just quite the same spectacular talent but its close.  It wouldn’t surprise me if it was the same driver in there
I’m not actually going to check the specs because I don’t actually ever care about specs but these are very nicely balanced.  Not too much power, not to hard and punchy and not too much bloom.  It’s that fine blend of everything in just enough of each to make you love it.  Still if you want a bass master this isn’t quite it, I found with no dampeners it a bit too large and a bit softer and a bit mid bassy.  The vocals felt unduly influenced.  Sure I’m nit picking but everything is getting so competitive you have to be.  Still sticking in the dampeners corrected this.  Personally I’d say keep them in and if you really need more bass get a bass boosting amp, keep the quite excellent quality. 

Mids:  Sans dampeners a bit over weighty but with I found them to be very, very good.  Voices just sing with near perfect neutrality.  They are coloured in seemingly anyway, maybe just the slightest hint lighter and brighter than they ought to but otherwise stunning.  If you can picture somewhere between the GR07 and the RE-0 then that’s what you get here.  Oh and in case you were unaware those two are both among the best IEM’s out there, not just for their price but in general.  Both get so much right, so little wrong but neither are quite perfect.  The Tai Chi is their acoustic love child, not quite the perfectly flat but lacking in drama of the 0 but not the full bodied authority of the 7.  It’s a very pleasant portrayal.  Vocals are all just superb sounding; they may be a touch on the cool, dry side, the opposite without the dampeners.  Still again it’s a real nit-pick, they are more or less in line with the bass and the highs (okay maybe a touch mid centric.)  Tonally they have so very little colouration.  They don’t quite manage every last drop of detail like the 0 can but the added distance they give offers a lovely acoustic type feel to many vocals.  A little added air never hurt anyone.  This works wonders too for guitars, Jack Johnson strumming away as he does sounds superb.  Okay so I’d maybe like to see a little bit more bight to a guitar string than these offer, again it feels like such a petty complaint.  Sans dampeners this does get more pronounced, yeah I wasn’t hugely loving without the dampeners was I?

Highs:  Perfect? No.  The bit they don’t quite get right even with the dampeners is that they don’t have quite the crispness to the high edges they ought to.  It should be a little crisper, cleaner and you know what, a cymbal struck hard should sound abrasive to the ears (not that I love that when it happens.)  Here it has a shade been softened.  While my delicate little ears really do like that, I recognise its not strictly super duper accurate.  So thats my complaint.  Everything else about the highs is just positive.  They extend wonderfully and the have just fantastic shimmer and decay.  It’s something only good dynamics can nail and these nail it.  The highs aren’t quite as good as the 0 but they are getting hell’a close.  Given they have been long lauded as pretty much the gold standard for treble for years this is praise, trust me.  Of course being so close to the best it does mean you’re going to come off poorly in the inevitable comparisons.  When you AB them these do come of poorly but you could argue that’s not fair and I’d think your right.  The 0 is all about the flat and perfect, it’s near flawless but it’s not what many want, it’s not exciting.  The 7 is much more of that and what I think we have is a nice compromise between the two.  Not quite as fun as the 7 and not quite as accurate as the 0.

Soundstage:  Fairly good, it’s more about giving a nice portrayal of distance than it is about creating an enveloping acoustic environment.  Distance with a good dash of air.  Instrument separation is nice too, not outstanding but really very nice.  Among the better at this price.  Also it really is a very well integrated sound

Fit:  These have a bit of an odd shape with the little sticky out bit for the dampeners and that when dampened it did worry me that this would make them overly sealed.  Maybe this is why Dunu tell you to use the grey tips if using the dampeners?  Seems about right to me and thankfully, no air pressure issues.  So was a nice, stick in and done experience.

Comfort:  Closely related to fit and again it’s about these little dampeners.  The design has them for some reason sticking out just where they want to stab my antitragus.  I found that with the ear guides on they wanted to sit at an angle that ensured they were always stabbing me.  They didn’t last long before getting removed.  It then wasn’t hard to fix, just rotating the bud a bit.  However it could be a problem for others I’m guessing at least someone.

Cable:  Drool worthy.  Not only do I think the cable looks super pretty it feels study and very high quality.  The Jack is super solid, the Y splitter too and it has a chin slider on there.  Oh and the now trademark Dunu cable tie thingy. 

Accessories:  Well there just isn’t anyone that does accessories better than Dunu.  The inclusion of 2 cases as well as a separate accessory case is unbeatable.  The accessory case is for the tips, dampeners, shirt clip and cleaning cloth!  Then you get the baggie type IEM case and the one I really like, the metal case.  It is clearly taking inspiration from the one that came with the old UE TF10 and its presently the best case out there.  I wish these things were available to buy separately as there simply is no better IEM case in my opinion.

Microphonics:  These pretty much demand wearing up so you’re not likely to get any, they come with a chin slider built in too so I’d be shocked if anyone had a problem with microphonics.

Amped/Unamped:  There were of course some differences but not a vast amount.  Things like the RE-0 demand a good amp behind them but the Tai Chi seemed quite happy with whatever I pared it with.  Adding impedance did make a nice little refinement to the highs but it did seem to affect poorly the instrument separation which was a little odd.  Ether way no massive changes taking place, sure an amp helped but optional.

Isolation:  Okay I don’t recall any differences when I was without dampeners but I’m not testing it.  So these are about standard for a dynamic now I think.  Enough for typical out and about things and enough for on a bus etc.  Hell you could maybe even get away with a short flight too but no trips to New Zealand.  As always, still enough to make you road kill if you don’t look where you’re going, you won’t hear that bus 10 feet behind you.

Value:  It’s hard to say exactly as these don’t seem to have hit retail yet as I can’t seem to find them outside ebay.  So going by ebay these are going at £84.50.  That makes them easily the most costly Dunu to date but these are also easily the best sounding Dunu’s to date too. Comparing the two I have been these can’t compete with the 0 and its crazy price but it you read post of when it dropped to US$100 you’ll see many loving them and just as many hating them.  I can’t imagine the same will happen to these, they are great sounding and greatly entertaining with the best all round package you could hope for.

Conclusion:  These are very good, there is no two ways about that.  As bang for buck goes these have to be pretty much in line with the GR07 in terms of value.  The issue is that they are cheaper and so not quite as good.  Okay so these have the ability to change the sound quite significantly with the tip and dampener change.  However I’m not convinced anyone is going to do that, you’ll pick the sound you prefer and run with it.  It may sound like I’m being a little down on the Tai Chi and I don’t mean to.  It is without a doubt the best DUNU I’ve heard.  It’s one of the best all rounder’s and it has probably the best accessory package I’ve seen.  It’s one of these things where if you’re going to have just one IEM then it’s a really compelling contender.  It’s a wonderfully enjoyable sound and is very capable.

The down side is it’s not just quite as acoustically capable as the GR07, its close though.  Still there is a good £20 difference between them and the accessory package with the Tai Chi is just outstanding.  That metal case DUNU offer is magnificent and everyone else in the industry needs to look toward DUNU in that regard.  The overall package is really what makes them consistently stand out.  When you factor the accessories in really makes the Tai Chi a great value proposition which just happens to excellent sounding and offer the option of two different sounds.  The thicker and weightier one or the thinner and more lively one that I preferred.  It’s almost like you’re getting two IEM’s for the price of one so in that regard it would make an excellent first quality IEM purchase for someone.

Consequently I really have to declare the Tai Chi to be one of the best value and best options for those people who are just going to have one IEM.  The versatility they offer in altering the sound means you can tune it to match you.  The quality of the sound is simply first rate at its price point.  The cable is quite the stunner and the case you get is likewise.  It is a hugely compelling bundle DUNU have put together, other companies would do well to look at these and start copying them!