Thursday, 19 December 2013

JAYS a-JAYS Five Review

JAYS a-JAYS Five Review

Thanks to JAYS for the sample.

First Impressions:  Oh my god, I think there must be an abundance of stylist/engineers over in Sweden.  The packaging on these this are what I’ve come to expect from JAYS, by that I mean freaking amazing.  Oh god I hate you, it’s all just so perfectly put together!!!  Jesus Christ just take a look at the case they come with, oh my god!!!!!  JAYS you show up everyone else when it comes to that ever so Swedish stylised yet so elegantly functional look.  Not that I actually like the flat cable I see but I can’t deny how good it all looks.  Lol just omg that case!!!  You people have too many engineers.

So shoving the little beasts in my ears and I am pleasantly surprised.  I thought the previous a-JAYS were all big bass, warm and a bit soft.  These sound nothing like that.  I don’t get how Jays are naming things anymore.  These are nothing like what I’ve heard from them recently, way more balanced sounding and clearer, I like.

Source: Nexus 4, Nexus 5 FiiO E7/E9 combo and Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd anv.

Lows:  So you know how I mentioned these lack the bass of their namesakes; well they lack their soft and very warm nature.  That’s not a bad thing at all.  The bass here is actually very nice to behold.  It’s still a fraction on the warm and gentle but is so much taughter than its siblings.  The tonality is very nice too, with that tiny bit of warmth softening the egdes and no further.  Rather like a concrete floor with a nice carpet on it.  That layer of smooth, soft and luxuriating outer then just rock solid underneath.  It got a reasonable amount of potency too but again it’s not anything more than a hint in that direction.  It’s really all quite balanced and very middling in its behaviours.  Think balance, every attribute is good but it never pulls anything overly in any one direction.  Depth though could be a fraction better but I’m nit picking.

Quantity wise it’s a rather above even which is fantastic to see.  So many things aimed at the headset market are flabby bass cannons.  While these can go big when called upon to they don’t subject you an avalanche of messy and muddy lows.  The quality of these is more prominent than their quantity.  Still its rather oversized and in no way could be mistaken for the bass quantity being balanced, its really rather heavy.

Mids:  Vocally these like to harken back to their a-JAYS roots and go warm and more thick.  Thankfully it’s not overly so and the result is you get a lovely rich sound.  The air is a touch sucked out of things in comparison to things like the MA750.  If your after open, airy and floating vocals then the Five isn’t maybe the one.  I must confess I very much like it though, I do like a bit a girly and a piano strumming away and girly vocals sound rather lovely.  I might rather they were a bit more prominent as I find them to be a bit behind the bass and the highs.  Its only a slight V shape but its there.

Detail levels are nice, not great but you trade a little detail for that organic tone these have.  It’s not far from that Sony esq and very popular in the East sound where warm and organic are the order of the day.  Personally I’d rather it were a little more dry and open but they does play nice with devices that use more cold and dry sounding internals.

Highs:  Not an area where these shine but you’d probably be surprised if they did.  I’m sure you’ve picked up on that these have a fairly warm and “organic” sound to them.  Highs therefor a touch muted and softening.  This way not appeal to detail junkies but if you’re using not the greatest musical source or the very highest bit rates you’ll find these rather forgiving.  Lower bitrate MP3’s in particular really start to break up and get harsh in the highs.  These go a long way to make that much less offensive.  It still has the energy to make the like of Owl City’s very treble happy tracks sound fast and alive though.
Of course I went straight to the complys so that will have tamed the treble a touch too.

Soundstage:  Being a dynamic they have a good fullness to them.  Placement isn’t wildly pronounced but they offer a good sense of power and scale.  Width and depth are pretty reasonable too.

Fit:  Well these clearly would rather be worn down but did also work worn up for me.  With the silicon tips though they sat so shallow I didn’t find they kept a seal all the time.  With the foam tips that wasn’t an issue. 

Comfort:  Just fine, no issues.

Cable:  Well the cable is super pretty, it really is so nice to the eye and the hand.  However it’s a flat cable and worn down I just found they tugged at my ear because flat cables only bend in one direction.  I just don’t like flat cables.  Quality of it is very nice though.

Build:  JAYS really know how to put things together, the packaging, the IEM’s, the case!  All of them are things that you can tell have had some thought put into them.  Everything is plastic but it’s that rather tactile matte touch plastic.  Simply put the build quality is just lovely.

Microphonics:  Worn up none.  Worn down as they really are intended I got loads and there is no neck cinch to assist.  Again, I don’t like flat cables.

Phone Use:  They seemed a touch fussy on the Nexus 4, they had to be firmly inserted to work properly.  On the Nexus 5 they were just fine and seemed more comfortable.  Actually it all worked perfectly on the 5, volume buttons too! I couldn’t say the same for the N4.  What was really nice though I only just noticed is that if you hold the play/pause/skip button for a few seconds google now pops up.  Yes indeed that means you can leave your phone in your pocket and just ask it the time.

Amped/Unamped:  These didn’t seem to particularly love getting more power thrown at them.  The bass grew a bit but that’s not a big surprise.  They did like the N5 rather more acoustically than they did the warm FiiO combo.  Unsurprisingly these like pairing with a colder DAP which would be pretty common in phones which is what they are aimed at.

Isolation:  It’s a dynamic, it’s pretty closed so they do isolate reasonably well.  As I oft say, it’s fine for normal day to day usage but not I’d think the sort of thing for a daily Tube commute or long flight.  Naturally its still quite sufficient to drown out that bus that’s hurtling towards you that if you don’t look where you’re going the first you know of it will be it impacting your skull.

Accessories:  I have seen bigger selections but you are not likely to find prettier ones.  You get the standard assortment of tips (five pairs in this case) a shirt clip and that case.  It may just be plastic but I adore it visually.  Matte black plastic so effortlessly clean and elegant visually.  Personally I’d loose the cable wrap thing that comes inside but that’s up to you as it’s removable. 

Value:  Priced at £80, Euro 90, US$100 or SEK795 they have some pretty stiff competition.  So are these better sounding than a pair of RE-400’s?  No, they are not.  These aren’t trying to be the best sounding IEM’s ever though, they are aiming for a warm and rich sound and to pair up with your phone.  So much so there are three versions of the thing, one for Android (what I have here) one for Ios and lastly one for Windows phone.  Now I have no idea what the differences are between them so don’t ask.  If you, like many, have an Android (or I guess Windows too) phone then its nice to actually see volume controls included as so often makers just don’t bother to add the controls.  Now I change the volume a lot, you can’t do that with a touch screen in your pocket but now here you get a button.  So for me this would make using my phone as a source a possibility.  I can’t imagine I’m the only person out there who is thinking that.

Conclusion:  When I say JAYS tweeting about how well these went with the Nexus 5 I thought, care to test that?  Turns out they do play rather nicely together.  I can’t help but think that if google did a “Google store” in the way apple does a store then these would be one of the stocked and “approved” IEM’s sitting on the stand next to the Nexus 5.  They visually go well together, both have that same matte plastic, the controls work, yes even the volume and google now.  Then acoustically their pair up rather well too.  It is rather like they were made for each other and perhaps they were.  Isn’t that after all the aim of the Android, Windows and Ios versions of the Five’s?

The down side of all the attributes found in the Five is that it’s not the very best sound you’ll find at this price point.  However I fully realise that these are not an IEM destined to be paired with a single function source and by those that care about sound quality with all other considerations thrown out.  This is not a purist’s product, it’s not aimed at true audiophiles and so it compromises acoustically.  Being somewhat of an audiophile it’s hard to not mark it down for things it doesn’t do I want an IEM to do.

I am not the person that uses their phone to listen to music.  My phone has a meh dac and amp, its touchscreen, its battery would melt the way I use things and it’s got hardly any storage.  Oh god shock of horrors, I’d have to stream music!!!!  Google music only ever uses a max of 320k MP3’s so that’s an absolute ceiling.  I personally balk at all these things but I recognise I am not everyone.  Many friends do use their phone for music, they do just stream it be it Spotify or Google music.  They have no problem with it being touch screen and they have no issue with it slaughtering the battery.  Some of them though at my prodding do care a bit about the audio quality, they know that the buds that come a phone aren’t good and you can buy things that improve things lots.  It is to these people the a-JAYS Five is aimed. And I think it caters to their needs and wants pretty well.

The sound produced by these is good, they look quite wonderful and they cater to every one of these people that doesn’t use an Iphone.  That’s what 85% or so of smartphone sales?  Right now if you have a Windows phone or an Android phone you’re really limited in your offerings that come with a volume control, I think that it just happens to look so premium and sound rather good is icing in the cake.  Then to slap a cherry on there, there is an app that allows you to user define the button controls and actions.  I don’t know of anyone else that has so catered to the Android and Windows markets.  I find myself rather thinking if someone just bought and Nexus 5 and they use it for music then these would make a rather nice Christmas present.  They are a rather lovely all round package.

a-JAYS Five Quick Review

a-JAYS Five Quick Review

Thanks to JAYS for the sample.

Brief:  JAYS notice that there are phones not made by Apple.

Price:  £80, Euro 90, US$100 or SEK795

Specification:  Remote: Full feature Android remote, Driver: JAYS custom A5, Isolation: -40 dB @ 2 kHz, Sensitivity: 96 dB SPL @ 1 kHz, Impedance: 16 Ohm, Freq. resp.: 18 - 23 000 Hz, Microphone: MEMS Technology, Cable length:115 cm (45 in), Plug: 3.5 mm L-shaped (1/8 in)

Accessories:  5 pairs of tips, a shirt clip and a superb case.

Build Quality:  Excellent.  All matte plastic that is visually flawless.

Isolation:  Rather good for a dynamic but nothing exceptional.  As ever it’s still easily sufficient to turn you into a road stain if you aren’t looking where you’re going.  Not one for a long flight probably though.

Comfort/Fit:  Despite them clearly wanting to be worn down they were fine.  Really rather microphonic worn down though.

Aesthetics:  These I think are very nice looking.  All matte black (they do a white version too btw) they just look so premium.

Sound:  Good.  These are not the most exquisitely beautiful sounding IEM’s you’ll find but they do a pretty good job.  Acoustically they are rather more balanced than a-JAYS of old but they still have a rather warm and bass heavy sound.  It’s a popular sound signature too and it pairs nicely with cooler digital amps.  The sort you are likely to find in most phones along with not the most powerful amps in them too.  It’s made with phones in mind and this version is specifically looking at Android phones.  (They do an Ios and Windows version of these too.)  You’re not going to be feeding them 24/192k files anyway and your much more likely feeding them some middling bitrate MP3 with brittle and broken highs that these do a nice of job of being highly forgiving to.  The warm “organic” sound is easy on the ear.  The bass is pretty big on these so it should be a winner with those that like that sort, it’s not “Beats” comedy levels though.  Big, warm, with a bit of bounce.  Great for poppy stuff that Spotify likes to suggest you play and with the inline controls, including volume controls you can raise, lower, or skip to your hearts content.  Oh and you can even get an app from Jay’s that lets you customise what the buttons do.  One word of caution, not all androids play nice with the controls, older things don’t stick to the standard used and as I found the N4 is one of these.  All worked perfectly on my Nexus 5 though.

Value:  You pay a bit of a premium for how pretty these are, how nicely put together they are and that these have a real party trick.  Those android phone controls.  As an all-round package its very vice with a so far very rare ability that I’d think would be very welcomed by those who listen to music on their phone. 

Pro’s:   Beautiful, build quality, Android controls! (and windows and Ios in the other versions)

Con’s:  Tad over bassy, you pay for those controls and looks.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

TDK IE800 Quick Review

TDK IE800 Quick Review

Brief:  The cassette tape people do a dual dynamic IEM.

Price:  £57 at present but RRP £99

Specification:  Plug Type: 3.5mm gold-plated, Drive: 8mm + 5.8mm, Driver Type: Dual Dynamic, Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20,000 Hz, Sensitivity: 116bD / V, Impedance: 10 ohms @ 1kHz, Cord Length: 1.3m (4.2m)

Accessories:  Some tips and a nylon baggy.  All nothing over fancy.  A pair of Comply’s too and I’d suggest using them for treble softening.

Build Quality:  Well visually the buds look well-constructed but the cable feels very thin and flimsy. 

Isolation:  So so.  They are reasonable for a dynamic, good enough for normal out and about, on a bus etc etc. usage.  Not really one for a flight or Tube use.  Still sufficient to get you run over of course if you don’t look where you’re going.

Comfort/Fit:  Well these are clearly meant to be worn down but I hate that so I wore them up, it did sort of work too but you look stupid doing so.  Comfort worn up or down was good as they weigh nothing at all.  Fit was just a case of sticking in my ears and done.

Aesthetics:   You look stupid wearing them up but the beds themselves look nice.  I like the matte plastic look, it’s a change from glossy things.

Sound:  TREBLE!!!!!!!! There is no way to sugercoat this; they are simply all about the treble.  I assume that’s because they have a dual dynamic setup and to counter the expectation of being massively bass heavy they have swung rather the other way.  It’s a shame because the lows and mids are super good at their current price.  Bass is deep controlled and articulate.   Mids are clean, airy and nuanced.  Details levels the both are great too.  then you get the treble and while accomplished, my god there too much of it, it’s too energetic and exhausting.  My poor little ears can’t take it.  Oh god make it stop!  I found much track skipping occurred because the treble is just so over abundant and ear ravaging.  A real shame as its quality is good but the balance is much too high end focused.  Treble junkies though are sure to have found a new love. Its shame because I really liked the clarity of the mids and bass, both are most impressively quick and accurate for a dynamic, should these be retuned or heavily EQ’d they are really impressive.  However  I am quite treble sensitive and these are simply beyond what my ears can tolerate for any length of time.

Value:  Even at their RRP I I’d like these, with the massive caveat of you have to be happy with masses of treble.  Of maybe if you are a more mature person and haven’t the same treble sensitivity you once had these could be perfect.

Pro’s:   Superb quality and articulation.

Con’s:  The treble will make your ears bleed.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Firestone Audio GreenKey Review

Firestone Audio GreenKey Review

Thanks to Firestone Audio for the sample.

First Impressions:  Well the GreenKey looks just like its siblings and comes in the same box.  I still don’t get what the cap is for other than for aesthetic reasons.  Anyway what the green key does I’m rather interested in.  You see when I use my FiiO A1 for witching TV stuff I have to crank the volume rather a bit and I can hear interference.  I’m pretty sure it’s being generated by the computer as in my experience, Dell don’t tend to seem to shield things well.  (Granted I’ve still mostly used Dell’s for other reasons.)  Still the interference is at times annoying and hopefully the GreenKey will solve it.

Eagerly, I pull out the USB plug from the computer and add the GreenKey.  Nothing happens.  No sound.  Okay, well it is then going into a USB hub so maybe it needs to be after that.  Nope.  Okay lets just unplug it and go directly to the computer and the GreenKey.  Success!  But hold on, there is noise, a lot of noise.  Like when you don’t have an input plugged into anything and its picking up static form your fingers.  What?

I don’t know what the incompatibility is but the GreenKey does not like my FiiO E7/E9 to A1 set up.  I note that the GreenKey does specify it will not allow high current draw through it so I presume that’s got something to do with it.

Time to give other things a go then.  Since I have sitting next to me the Firestone Audio BlackKey it’s the obvious option.  So I plug it into the GreenKey and then that into an USB extension cable then into the computer.  The output from the BlackKey goes into 3.5mm to phono cable and into the back of the FiiO A1.  Like magic music appears.  Huzza!  Muting the music and cranking the volume there appears to be no digital noise. No cracks and buzzing.  Trying the same set up sans the GreenKey and it returns, woo hoo, clearly the GreenKey is doing something then.  It’s dead silent and I can turn the volume to full before a slight hiss appears.

So it would appear that the GreenKey does what it is supposed to, sometimes anyway.  I think it may be time to rip out all the cables and to start from scratch.  I would really rather it worked with the FiiO setup as it lives permanently on my desk.  So we have a clean start and suddenly seems to be working as they ought to and now I seem to be able to max out the volume with no extraneous noise appearing.  YEY!!!  So the GreenKey does what it says on the tin.  It’s a bit finicky about it but it works and it has to me made a difference. 

Value:  Its available for 59 Euro’s which just now is  £49.  So that seems a fair amount given the cost of things like the rather excellent BlackKey.  It’s really going to depend on what you already use, should you be using a very pricey DAC and find your getting some extraneous noise then the GreenKey may be just what you need to remove it.  If indeed the USB connection is the source of that noise.  £49 is a hell of a lot cheaper than buying a new computer.

Conclusion:  The GreenKey right from the get go is a pretty niche device.  It does what it claims to provide the USB socket is the source of the background noise you want rid of.  If that something that is causing you some real bother then it could be a very worthwhile upgrade for you.  For most people though I suspect it’s not going the best upgrade money spent.  I mean for my own use I rather wanted one to see if it would remove the irritating noise that was audible in my TV watching with the volume turned up high.  In music listening though with its greatly lower dynamic range didn’t need the volume turned up anything like as much and hence was to me inaudible.

Of course if your one of those people who loves upgrading everything and you already have an awesome DAC and amp and you are getting this sort of USB static and interference then it’s a vastly cheaper way to clean up the signal path than a new computer or DAC that might filter  it.  In grander audiophile setups £49 isn’t even new interconnect money and I would personally much sooner but the GreeKey than spend the same on an interconnect.

Firestone Audio BlackKey Review

Firestone Audio BlackKey Review

Thanks to Firestone Audio for the sample.

First Impressions:  Visually this thing looks just like the BlueKey I looked at previously, its peculiarly quirky pen cap is still there.  Not sure what you do with it practically but it’s fun.  Unlike the BlueKey the BlackKey is terminated with a rather more commonly useful 3.5mm jack.  Yes, that means you can just plug in a pair of headphones and you’re on your way.  The thing itself has no controls, no volume, no nothing but thats hardly an issue as you can just control the volume using windows.  (Same will apply to whatever OS you use) oh and this time windows auto installed the drivers. 

Acoustic first impressions, you’ll have to take with a pinch of salt as I’m using a new to me IEM but I am very happy with it.  I was concerned it might not be terribly powerful but it seems plenty potent.  Not sure it would suit massive headphones but it’s certainly doing a grand job with the IEM's I’m playing with today.  Bass especially seems to be really digging in deep.

Lows:  Right away my initial impressions proved correct.  The bass on the black key feels that bit more vigorous than it ought to be.  It’s solid and digs in with a slightly boosted depth.  It’s more the entertainer than it is purist device.  Tbh I think that fits its product category better anyway. The BlackKey is something you are meant to use with a laptop and to avoid its woeful hp out, you slap in this baby and away.  It’s a thrilling, entertaining and dynamic.  The bass likes to be a bit playful.  However at times with the big cans it felt a little like it wasn’t all quite so effortless as it was more with IEM’s.  Little IEM’s it had plenty of power behind it to sound truly authoritative.  Big cans like the HD515 and HD600 it was a bit more humpy.  Oddly the humpy was more noticeable on the 515 but then they don’t have the greatest depth to begin with.  On IEM’s though depth was good, a hint of that hump remained and it’s what gives the BlackKey a slight V shaped sound.  It’s more a party, enjoy yourself DAC than a ruler flat.  I like it’s fun and bouncy temperament.  It’s dynamic and lively across the board and that plays out with a very bouncy and playful bass line.

Mids:  A touch on the dry side.  They go for a slightly cool, airy and open sort of vocal.  Lots of that breathy sort of detail though the inverse aspects of that mean that smooth and liquidy vocals weren’t shining at their best.  Of course the dryer and more open sounds work particularly well in things where vocals aren’t hurled centre stage.  Predominantly I’m thinking pop stuff.  The hint of added air and dryness gives that bit of breathing room for vocals to get in there and come forth.  Dynamics wise the mids are the least dynamic aspect here.  The otherwise excellent dynamics here are quite pedestrian and ordinary.  Things such as Dido, breathy and dynamically contained do very well here.  Otherwise vocals that are supposed to get all shouty don’t really leap out you here.  Guitars twang rather cleanly though.

Highs:  Returning to the slightly V shaped sound I mentioned before; the highs here feel a bit over what they should.  They are crispy and clean with a dynamic eagerness to them.  They want to come out and play like a puppy.  Lively, energetic, bouncy and so eager to please.  It’s one of these amps that you’ll probably want to feel good quality tracks as the treble energy won’t soften any dross you feed it.  The dynamics again are a stand out trait.  So much range to play with here, it’s a really entertaining ride.  I do feel the extension might be fuller and more dragged out, the highs seem to want to have a peak to focus on and the long lingering decay I like seems to fade that bit faster than I’d rather it do.  Oh well.  I’d think so long as you don’t pair with something that has a coincident peak it’s not something you’ll notice much or object to.

In the Hand:  It’s a funky looking USB key drive.  It’s something that would get stuck in a pocket with ease for moving it.  The lid though, hmmm yes with the lid on it looks fine and it fits it well but I can’t help but think it’s just asking to be lost.  Otherwise it’s a nice little plastic rectangle with a translucent bit that glows.  Given it has no controls on it, you’re not actually going to touch it in use, so yeah it’s a nice flash drive really.

Build Quality:  Like all the Keys they all look and feel the same.  Light, solid (no creaking on squeezing) and glow when they are in operation.

Power:  While these would make very, very loud sounds, even with the HD600 I wasn’t really ever sending the windows volume slider above about 50%.  That said I felt they didn’t really have the current behind them to make the best of bigger headphones.  IEM’s all were driven fine but I know the HD600’s could do better.  It’s not like they sucked, I just know that a beefier amp can do more for them.  I mean it runs off a USB socket after all.  Volume though was never lacking on anything, not even close to lacking.  So when using do try to remember to turn the windows volume down or you’ll hurt your ears.

Transparency:  Rather good.  These did offer a bit of their own flavour to things so that’s got ta mark them down on transparency a bit but the dry and open character makes them feel very transparent.  Details feel very forward and clear.  It reminds me of the DA in offering that perhaps slightly over transparent sound where the contrast has been perhaps a little bumped up.  Such wide dynamics lend to that impression.

DAC:  One of the major points being the BlackKey is that it can decode high res files.  It can do up to 96kHz/24bit which should cover much of what’s about.  So if you’re one of the people who has a collection of such files, yey for you, this will play them back without your comp down mixing them.

Value:  I really rather like the value of this.  If I’m totally honest it’s probably the one I like most of all the Key range I’ve seen.  This is the one too I think not just I but most people would be likely to find of use to them.  It’s really a dinky little thing.  If you’re a road warrior then this, your laptop and a nice pair of earphones and your set.  You don’t even need to carry an additional cable to plug it into.  It goes right into the USB socket and that’s you done.  Acoustically it’s pretty good too and I’d wager with easily wipe the floor with any laptop hp out socket.  That its only £57 is a plus.  Its only potential down side is that it’s a one trick pony, it runs off a computer and that’s it.  No portable amp, no amping some other source you have either.

Conclusion:  Sonically I really like the BlackKey.  The only sill thing I didn’t was I kept finding myself instinctively reaching for the BlackKey to change the volume control.  That was easily the biggest negative I found and as negatives go, it’s pretty minor.  Overall it’s been a very positive experience I’ve had with the dinky little BlackKey.  Sure it’s not hugely subtle, it’s not particularly neutral sounding either.  Still I find I really don’t mind, a rather like its dynamic and slightly bombastic sound.  The V shaped acoustic signature rather works and I find I rather have enjoyed it.

Now I realise that for some the pursuit of a more acoustically perfect sound is desirable and in that case something like the FireyeDA may be more suitable.  The BlackKey isn’t really aiming for that pure and uncoloured sound.  It’s a bit a fun.  Don’t get me wrong it’s a huge quality jump up from the dross that laptops are normally blessed with but its focus is on you enjoying the music.  Having a good time rather than being a instrument to aid in the examination of the music.  Above all it’s been a really fun and enjoyable little doo dah to play with.  Feed it, fun bouncy music and I’d dare any one not find it effervescently and joyfully lively.

Firestone Audio BlackKey Quick Review

Firestone Audio BlackKey Quick Review

Thanks to Firestone Audio for the sample.

Brief:  A dinky, bouncy DAC/Amp to play with.

Price:  Normally 69 Euro but at present 55 Euro or about £46

Specifications:  Size: High 80.15mm x Width 20.4mm x Depth 18.1mm, Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz): +0.04dB, -0.32dB, Noise level: -94.0dB, Dynamic range: 93.7 dB, THD %: 0.0070%, Stereo crosstalk: -90.6 dB, Support to 96kHz/24Bit, USB Interface: (A type) to USB Interface, System required: Windows XP/Vista/7, MAC OSX and Linux, Connectivity: USB interface (A type), Analog output: 3.5mm headphone jack, Dimensions : 8 x 2 x 1,8 cm, Weight : 23 gram

Accessories:  Erm a lid, if that counts.

Aesthetics:  It looks just like the other Key’s but this one sort of dark grey.  Shame it’s the least attractive colour of them all as I think it’s one that will be the biggest seller and hence most seen.

Build:  Yeah, it’s fine.  Looks accurately put together.

Power:  Loads actually.  Seemed happy driving even the big cans and the volume can go make you deaf loud with ease.  Remember that or you’ll hurt yourself!

Sound:  Rather unflat.  These have a bit of a V shaped sound and they are more than a touch exuberantly dynamic in the attitude to music.  They love to fly all over the place and thrill you.  Soaring and sweeping, descending to nothing then to come crashing out of nowhere.  These like to party and have a playfully gay old time.  I can’t say it’s what I’d suggest if you’re after some frightfully carful and precise monitor but I suspect most people aren’t.  These then are a fabulous option to sidestep that crappy laptop headphone out socket and to give you some cheap acoustic thrills.  The detail levels are great but most of all it’s a dynamic thrill ride and while I might not want it to be all I ever heard again its very entertaining.  However this meant for me that mole relaxing music lacked that languid hint where notes seem to linger if not just halt for that briefest instant, where it wants to slow things and melt together.  The BlackKey wants everything to be open and dynamic.  One negative there is that it’s not subtle in the highs and if you pair with hard or gritty treble it’s not forgiving in the least

Value:  Super fun to use and for the sound quality / entertainment value it’s a steel.  It’s got a pretty narrow use case scenario, I mean it’s clearly meant to go in the side of a laptop but I think that’s a pretty big user base isn’t it?  That’s got to be a very large chunk of the world’s student population for a start.  Not sure its sound sig is study inducing but it’s certainly oodles of fun.

Pro’s:  Super dynamic and entertaining.  Prodigious bass impact.

Con’s:  It’s very excitable.  Treble takes no prisoners.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

FiiO X3 Review

FiiO X3 Review

Thanks to Advanced MP3 Player's (AMP3) for the loan.

First Impressions:  I note in the box there is a big red card that tells you to go update the firmware, then to go to head-fi.  So firmware duly updated to 2.05 and I think I may just skip the going to the head-fi page for the moment.  Though while I was on the FiiO website to get the new firmware I did cast an eye over the X3 page and noticed something.  The section detailing the internal DAC used.  It’s a WM8740, I’m sure you all know that means it’s a Wolfson but what was news to me is that Wolfson are based in England.  Shame on you FiiO for making such a school boy error.  Also in the box I note a card for HDtracks, the first I’ve seen a DAP that can playback high res files making an effort to direct people to place where you can find some.  And you get a discount too so bonus.  The X3 itself though is visually, erm well, no one’s going to mug you for it.  I can’t say I’m looking at the button arrangement and thinking this is going to be intuitive to use either.  The silicon case it arrived in too, it’s no looker but it should protect the thing from falls.

On to listening and I picked up the RE-600’s as they were on my desk.  The sound seems to be very fluid and a slight touch on the warm side.  I’d kinda expected warm as it’s a Wolfson inside but the 600 is warm so no snap judgements.  Feels very, very fluid. 

Screen:  Yeah it’s fine.  It’s in colour, it will display album art and it works.  However this is no Sony DAP screen.  I found its brightness was okay once I turned it up to max but it remains a screen that serves it purpose rather than one you long to look at.

Battery Life:  The spec says 10 hours, or with newer firmware more like 15.  That seems more apt to me.  In use I just got into the habit of sticking on charge after I used it but really if I wanted I could have probably gotten away with maybe every second or third day depending on use.

UI:  Hmm if there is one area the Far East has issues with its still making UI’s.  The button layout may look “trendy” being on a diagonal but it’s not instinctively intuitive to use.  You will get used to it easily enough but when you first pick it up you’ll have to think and randomly will press the wrong button.  Navigating menus too are odd.  Sometimes you select an option with the play/okay button and others you cycle through options with the volume up and down buttons.  Again you get used it but let’s just say Apple designers aren’t quaking in fear. 

N.B. you have to either manually tell the thing to update or set the “Update Lib” to auto to get it to fully recognise SD card changes.  Took me far too long to discover this and was only by asking in the forums.

In the Hand:  It feels quite nice.  It’s sturdily put together and seems reasonably good.  Like some other things I’m immediately thinking it’s very 80’s styling.  The corners are rounded but I would still not be inclined to put this in a pocket that also has my phone in it as I think the phone would lose that encounter.  I can’t say again I find the layout to be intuitive or fitting my thumb well.

Format Support:  Essentially it plays everything you can think of.  I do really mean everything too, even that most annoying of formats, ALAC.  Yes even Apples “were going to be awkward just because we can” format will work with the X3.  So that copy of things I keep in Itunes for use with the old Ipods will work with it, meaning I’d only need that one copy.  It will also do things like .ogg and .ape files which I’ve never actually seen anyone use.  Still, you’re more likely interested in the array of lossless formats.  FLAC, WMA, APE, WAV are all supported and in high res formats too, up to 192K/24bit for most. (see specs for exact details and I suspect they may change over time as firmware’s get updated)

Also, 64GB cards are supported

Connections:  The X3 is unlike most DAP’s is awash with sockets.  Okay so it’s obviously got a 3.5mm headphone out socket.  Standard fare so far, now on the bottom there is a micro USB socket, ostensibly for charging the thing but with the latest firmware it acts as a USB data in connection.  Also on the bottom is a 3.5mm line out socket.    Where things get more unusual is that on the top there is a digital coax out.  It’s got a 3.5mm jack socket so to got the coax connector there is an adapter in the box.  Personally I’d have preferred it were an optical over coax but it’s not like I’d personally ever use either.  Still it’s a really unusual addition and if you wanted to hook the X3 up to a proper amp and use it as your source you can.

Volume:  It goes to 60 I believe and even on low gain in never really pushed it out of the 20’s.  Its easily capable of going louder than I’m sure you would ever want.

Sound Quality:  This is going to be heart of things.  Acoustically the X3 follows what in my head I think of as the Chinese/Sony sound.  It’s going for that warm, smooth sound.  It’s not too far from the old traditional British HiFi sound too. Warm, rich mellow, a bit sedate etc etc.  quite unlike the more common American, crisper and harder.  In the speaker worlds anyway.  This DAP follows that warmer, richer softer, smoother sound lineage.  The first IEM I spent any time with it was the DN-1000 and I found them rather subdued.  Even the sprightly and crisp MA750i was tamed somewhat.  Not that either were unpleasant to hear, they both have smooth and sumptuously flowing mids.  The bass and highs though, well they didn’t have the spark and enthusiasm I’d have liked to see from those IEM’s.  Jumping then to the Senn IE8 and things rather change.  It’s a much more dramatic IEM with a very V shaped sound and to me it seems a much more lively pairing.  Actually the two make for a really very impressive pairing.

EQ’ing isn’t something I as a rule am a fan of, its pain reviewing things for one.  So I’m not going to go through each variation but go with sweepingly broad commentary.  Sooooo you get a slightly unusual EQ set up here in that its back to the old school bass and treble controls only.  You can bump either up or down in 10 notches in each direction.  If you have a look at the measurements at max the difference is pretty huge so you can really change things a lot!  10dB swings are simply massive.  So if you want to give it stupid huge bass then you can, I can’t say I was very drawn to, maybe a plus 2 or 3 for things like the RE-0 perhaps.  Any alterations were completely distortion free.

A really nice addition here is that you change the channel balance.  If you have some hearing damage as I know there are lots of people that do, you can alter the balance of the left and right channels to match up with your hearing.  Something you almost never see.

Lows:  Smooth and polite.  In its natural state the balance is a hint on the reticent side, it pairs well naturally with rather big and brash bassed things like the IE8 but otherwise it’s a touch maybe too polite.  It doesn’t love to do hard and punchy bass either, it’s not flabby but in aggressive tracks it doesn’t attack with the hardness it perhaps ought to.  Tonally its little warm and genteel.  The quantity in its natural state is a little bit light and reserved.  Of course you can adjust it all the way to stupid amounts if you like or reduce to almost nothing too. it’s a rather Sony like warm bass.

Mids:  This is really where it does its best.  It’s a somewhat mid centric DAP with that warm, smooth and liquidy ooziness that allow the best vocals to just flow.  Vocals all sound superb.  They really are first rate and if you’re a big fan of vocal heavy stuff thin this type of sound signature works just so very well.  It’s the same sort of thing Sony have done for years and I believe it it’s the primary reason that Wolfson has the reputation it does.  They have a signature sound and this is what you get here.  Warm and gorgeously sumptuous sounding music that just flows. 

Highs:  Super refined and smooth.  Rather like the mids they are all about the smooth and sumptuous flow of music.  Any abrasiveness or in your face detail junkies are probably not best served here.  The extension is rather good.  Tonally it’s a bit soft and genteel again, delicate and relaxed.  Of course you can really dial up the quantity levels too if you want but they will never really take on an edgy in your face hyper “clarity” that some like.  Of course if you’re using a very brittle and treble abundant IEM like the DBA-02 they do a good job of balancing.

Detail levels are very good if not always readily apparent.  The tonally warm nature of the X3 doesn’t hurl things at you in the way some other things might. 

DAC:  As of the last firmware update you can plug the X3 into a computer and use it a USB DAC.  So you’re basically getting a free DAC, so yey for that! 

Hiss:  Erm I can’t say I noticed any.

Accessories:  It comes with the aforementioned 3.5mm to coax adapter, a micro USB charging/data cable, a couple of screen protectors, a silicone case and an odd one.  It comes with a copy of “Dr. Chesky's Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show” in 192K/24bit.

Value:  It’s a FiiO and everything they have ever done has been of the very highest value.  The sound quality you get for the financial outlay is arguably better than you will find anywhere else.  They X3 sounds superb and you get the DAC functionality on top, you just can’t argue with that kind of value. 

Conclusion:  Like many things form the Far East there are positives and negatives.  The negatives here being the button layout and the UI.  I know neither things are the end of the world but I liked neither.  The thing isn’t much of a looker either.  However for lots of people with an audiophile inclination these are not exactly that important.  The X3 is cheap and sounds great.

The Sound quality here is really aiming toward that rich, warm, smooth, Wolfson sound that is so popular in audiophile land.  It’s a very tube like sound.  It has plenty of detail and nuance.  It’s a sumptuous sound that I’ve oft seen referred to as a more “organic” sound.  that warm and almost tubey sound that is so fervently loved in some circles.  If that includes you then this DAP is a real winner acoustically. 

Then FiiO throw in a free DAC into to the mix is somewhat we have come to expect from FiiO when it comes to value.  It elevates things to level others will have a hard time matching.  You simply can’t imagine the likes of Sony doing something like that.  Sure the trade-off is the UI is a bit meh and the button layout I don’t like but they are things you can push past pretty quickly.  It’s a great warm sounding DAP that doubles as a DAC and it can play every format you can think of.  That it then cost what it does is the real clincher, for an audiophile DAP/DAC for £160, hell yeah, that is stunning value.