Monday, 23 February 2015



Thanks to DUNU for the sample.

First Impressions: Nice ish box.  Hmm not a clue who the Ukrainian chap is they must be sponsoring, are Dunu big in Ukraine?  Anyway on to the little case and I’m slightly saddened.  It may be actually quite good but I loved the metal one Dunu used to do, sigh.  Hmmm while we’re at things I don’t get why are one type of tip are on the top and the rest hidden inside?  Weird but not important.

So shoving the things into my ears and oh my god!  If there was and IEM that had all of the drama, its these!!!  Oh my god they are so dazzling and V shaped, my god and so open.  I mean they are physically open but god they really sound it too.  Just vast, god these are reminding me of the IE8 the first time I heard it.  Oh lordy these things are just beastly!!!  Wow doesn’t begin to cover a first impression, just so beyond wow.   I know there is a little bit of me somewhere thinking oh god, how will my ears take to these long term but for the moment……. Just incredibly impressive first impression.  I think these are the anti ER4’s.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5.

Lows:  At first the bass will not be what you notice.  The uppers are more instantly apparent.  The bass though, not entirely unlike other higher end DUNU’s lulls you into a false sense of security.  It seems so calm and polite, maybe even reticent. Then you play something with massive, deep bass and it just explodes out of nowhere.  The Beautiful South’s “Your Father And I” positively roars out the low end.  It’s scaled so well and so open still.  It is never what I would think of being a bass heavy IEM though, the bass is clean and too open, that articulate open sound that lets the very bottom end trail off.  It sounds like the bass you might get on a good open backed headphone.  Most IEM’s are far nearer in style to a closed back headphone and if you’ve spend much time with both types, you probably prefer one over the other.  I like the more airy and cleaner presentation of open, you trade low end extension for that, which is a bargain I’m fine making.  Normally in IEM’s to get a more vigorous bass response they must be rather sealed and while that does “enhance” the bass it also slows and fattens it.  The TITAN 1 though is very atypically open sounding and it’s so odd to hear that in an IEM.  The result is you get cello or double bass, bass and not subwoofer bass.  Please don’t take that to mean the TITAN 1 can’t go low, its depth, thanks to that massive driver is incredibly deep for being open sounding.  It quite surpasses just about everything.

White I find its quality excellent and I am happy with its quantity it doesn’t like to stand up dominate.  It also really hasn’t in the heart to sound like electronic and artificial bass.  It constantly strives for a very open and string like or naturally produced low.  As such for pop and such it’s just too polite.  For acoustic stuff it’s very natural sounding bass pairs up super nicely.  Susan Wong’s 511 album sounds so beautifully open and relaxed, really quite tremendously open.

Mids:  Very much like the tonal flavour of the low end.  The take away attribute above all else its openness.  It’s really so very, very open, so alike a big open headphone.  Quantity wise though I do feel that mids are just fractionally behind the bass and quite a bit behind the uppermids/lower treble region.  Yes sadly at times these start heading towards sibilance and some metallic strikes were a little too hard and sharp for my delicate little ears.  Did it moderate my track choices?  Well a little bit.  For the most part it wasn’t a massive issue.

Turning back to more “acoustic” tracks and the openness these lend to the environment is really, really good.  It’s really so much more like an open set of circumauralls than I think any other IEM I’ve used.  Breathy vocals and strings all sound desperately natural and so very open.  Tori Amos’s “Pretty Good Year” is in every imaginable and possible way truly something to behold.  You can almost see the instruments in your mind, they are there, just right there, you know you could just reach out and touch them, they just sound so real.

Highs:  Shockingly, they are very open, bit dry with a very natural and open quality.  It does peak in the lower treble and verge towards sibilance that more than once got a little ear cutting for me.  It’s a bit unfortunate that as otherwise I very much liked what it had to offer and how it chooses to display it.  The air is simply fantastic for an IEM.  Sure I know that there are better trebles out there particularly in the highest frequency end, the TITAN 1 doesn’t quite have the finest accuracy or detail retrieval in the world, though its mighty fine for its price.  The airy quality it captures though, it is simply as good as can be had in an IEM and goes a very long way to create a more natural sense of environment around you. 

Quantity wise, I found there is a bit on the too much side for me.  They aren’t super bright but they do like to show off and they have that spike.  Every now and again it would leap out at me and while I very much enjoyed them over all there were certain tracks that I found myself reaching for the skip track button before they could really get going.  For most people it’s probably fine as I’m somewhat treble sensitive but just so you know, it’s there.  Oh and tracks with aggressive treble, badly mastered, rubbish bitrate etc etc I would skip if using these.  I must admit I did fire up the EQ in Itunes and hit treble reducer.

Soundstage:  Huuuuuuuggggggggeeeeeeeee!!!  If you thought the DN-2000 could show off scale and a grandly symphonic sense of vastness, there are even more, just more of everything.  It is frankly rather smile inducing and it’s clear that these have an openness that other IEM’s just do not.  Mind you it’s not quite an endless expanse like being outdoors but it is certainly massive.  Instrument separation is very nice and yet everything sounds VERY well integrated.  A single driver always helps with that one.  Instruments are all around you and a wonderful combination of feeling close enough that you could stretch out and touch them yet still give you that grand scale of an entire orchestra.

Fit:  Well I like to wear things up.  So I swapped the right and left ears (so the red, right, bud went in my left ear) and wore them up.  Instantly they fit me fine.  You’d think there might be an issue with their odd shape, but no not a one.  Wearing down in the right ears worked too but I hate wearing things down.

Comfort:  Ditto with the fit.  Yes they have a weird shape but absolutely zero issues with comfort up or down.  I mean I’m sure someone will have a problem with their shape but it wasn’t me.

Microphonics:  Up, zero.  Down, pretty much none as well.  There is a chin slider too so I can’t see anyone having a problem with microphonics.

Amped/Unamped:  You know what.  I liked these better out of my phone than I did more powerful sources.  The TITAN 1 is for me when powered well inclined to be desperately explicit up top and that lower treble spike they have just wasn’t happening anything like it does with the big DAP’s.  My fairly meh sounding output of my Nexus 5 was on the whole a rather more soft, wallowy affair.  The bass softened and flabbed up a bit, the mids fractional bumped up in quantity (well the highs and lows reduced but same difference) so I found my mid centric inclination was better catered to.  Then the big one, that treble.  Sure the phone still could make it spit out plenty and at volume it still got too much for my ears but it was that touch less irascible.  The TITAN 1 can be a hot headed mistress as when she gets upset she can really scream at you.  Oh, also I’d strongly suggest that you want, if you can, to partner these with a warm and more mellow source.

Isolation:  So far that massively open nature has been all positive.  The trade comes in here and while I don’t consider more isolation to mean the same as “better” it would be an issue for me.  One of the things I like about IEM’s is being able to shut out extraneous sounds but the TITAN 1’s are so open they block out very little.  It’s not quite as poor as buds but it’s not really that far from them either.  Great if you want to be able to still monitor your surroundings but for normal use, read commuting, it’s just not enough.  Well, it’s not enough for me that is.  I’m sure there are those out there that being open is a positive, acoustically you certainly get may benefits but the fact is, no matter how good these sound I would never pick these up to use outdoors or near other people.

Build Quality:  It’s a DUNU so you know it’s going to first rate.  You are not wrong, the cable though has added a little woven covering, the buds as ever are all metal as is the Y splitter and the jack is solid too.

Accessories:  Here I’m in a bit of two minds, DUNU always do a good bundle and they do here too.  Do I count 9 pairs of tips in there?  There is a shirt clip and a 6.25mm to 3.5mm adapter along with their standard cable wrap thingy attached to the cable.  Then on top of all that you get a little hard case.  DUNU seem really keen on trying out different case options so this time we get a hard black plastic one.  While it’s a clearly much more practical case than the giant yellow case from the 900 but…… I still really love the UE like, squareish metal case.  I know not everyone loves it but I do.  This black one, well it’s very functional and practical so I can’t fault it really.  I still like the metal one more though.

Value:  There seems to be a pretty wide price variety out there for the TITAN 1 at present.  Going by Amazon UK they are £90 and elsewhere I can find for $115.  Which I presume is US dollars even if the retailer is in Hong Kong otherwise that would make them £9.75 if its HK$.  So for sheer audio quality these are unsurprisingly super, super good value.  Detail levels are most excellent and their presentation scale is so very much impressive.  For an IEM to be so open sounding is a really impressive feat.  I’m not sure I could have these be the only IEM I own though. 

Conclusion:  So the TITAN 1’s aside from having an annoying to type name are a quite radical IEM.  DUNU I’d say do sort of have a house sound and certain characteristics that their IEM’s tend to share.  The TITAN 1’s though (aside from build) are unlike anything else I’ve heard from them.  Actually they are really unlike any other IEM that I can think of at present.  The level of airy openness is so very, very un IEM like.  It really is just so much more like a big pair of open cans.  If you have heard a few open and closed big head phones I’m sure you’ll know what I’m getting at.  They share certain characteristics.  For an IEM to be sharing those of much larger and open headphones is a fantastic achievement and I heartily congratulate the engineers over at DUNU.  Well done good sir’s, I doth my cap to thee.

I could maybe just shut up and leave it on that super high note.  Oh speaking of super high notes….. yeah the treble on the TITAN 1’s was really, really too much for me.  Its quality may be great but in the same way the world finest lemons may be good, it doesn’t mean I could eat one like one might an orange.  I know I’m rather more treble sensitive than most people so it’s not an issue for all.  Actually I’d be quite willing to bet |Joker| will absolutely love these.  For that matter I think anyone that likes a bit of brightness will fall in love with them too.  Me?  Not so much.  I know its super good but I needed that treble reducer EQ going on.

Then what about how the rest of it sounds.  The mids are good but they aren’t as abundant as I’d really have like them to have been.  Super good at airy and breathy vocals though, I mean seriously good, once you dial back the treble so you can get to them anyway.  Then we get the bass.  The bass could be the stand out best quality of the TITAN 1’s.  That open sounding bass I always find to be the most accurate tonally and the most agile.  Usually though opening things up means you really just can’t hit the lowest lows and so normally they trail off quite early.  With the big (by big, I mean massive by IEM standards) dynamic driver in there and being all so close to your ear the bass is epically deep and effortlessly agile.  The tonal nature of the bass is so very natural.  The quality is one of the very best IEM’s I think I’ve heard.  I mean it’s getting pretty much up to IE8 quality levels.  Seriously, seriously good quality bass.  It’s a smidge abundant but given its quality I’d happily swap some of that treble for more bass, though preferably more mids.

So should you buy one?  I, well, I don’t know.  Its great sounding, its staging is to die for, its bass is magnificent but the show stoppers for me are that treble and the dearth of isolation.  Neither of which are per say “faults.”  If you want to still keep an ear out for things around you, great.  If you’re a treble junkie, or you’re 80 then great, that treble could be just what you need.  Me though, na.  It’s something I’ll be certainly keeping in the collection but I can’t say I see me using it much in my normal life.  For sure it’s a stunning effort from DUNU and I’m really pleased to see such experimentation but it’s just not one that’s made for me as the target audience.

DUNU TITAN 1 Quick Review

DUNU TITAN 1 Quick Review

Thanks to DUNU for the sample.

Brief:  DUNU make an open backed IEM

Price:  £90 or I found for $115 (I presume that’s US$)

Specification:  Driver: 13mm Titanium Diaphragm Dynamic Driver, Impedance:16Ω, Sensitivity: 90+- 2dB, Reproduction Frequency: 20Hz-30kHz, Cable Length: 1.2m, Plug: 3.5mm Stereo Mini, Weight: 18g

Accessories:  All of the accessories.  9 pairs of tips, shirt clip, attached cable wrap thing, a 6.15mm to 3.5mm adapter and a hard little case.  Case is particularly functional.

Build Quality:  It’s a DUNU, they are always excellent and this is no exception.

Isolation:  Erm, more than buds but it’s probably the least isolating IEM I’ve encountered.

Comfort/Fit:  It’s got a funny shape but worked perfectly in my ears, worn up or down it was effortless and comfy.

Aesthetics:  Reasonably pretty I think.  I always like when makes do a little red and blue splash so you can tell the ears apart too. Pretty and practical in one.

Sound:  As big sounding as any IEM as ever done.  So much air and so much space, the symphonic sense of scale these can deliver is superb.  Close your eyes and you can practically feel an entire orchestra before you, so vast and yet so close it all feels just a hair out of arms reach.  Such immense space and air yet retain an intimacy that all sounds so natural.  Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” sounds like your there.  The big open driver gives you that air.  It also give you epically deep bass with oodles of agility like a big open can, can, yet due to being so close to your ear it doesn’t roll off.  It goes down to the point I think it’s my hearing that gives out.  The mids, are beautiful.  Airy open and delicately expressive.  Sadly it’s a bit behind the bass in quantity.  Then the treble, oh god they have airy and flighty treble like fairies dancing across the surface of a pond.  It’s however way too abundant for my ears and I needed the treble reducer EQ option and that was with comply’s on.  Treble junkies I’m sure will be falling over themselves to grab a pair but for me, they spike in the lower treble and edge towards sibilance.  That with the rest as they extend, my ears got very tired very quickly.  Combine that with being so open, so little isolating, that you naturally want to crank the volume.  My ears did not like that, just too much treble for me.

It’s awesome for soundstaging and for offering that big can, open backed flavour in IEM form.  DUNU are living up to the Unique in their name in that regard here.

Value:  Sound capabilities here for the money are excellent as DUNU’s normally are.  The issue is, treble quantity aside, these isolate so little and normally people pick IEM’s for outdoorsy use.  You want sounds blocked and these don’t really do that so it’s a bit of a queer duck.  I’d only really use these in doors alone, where I could just use proper big open cans.

Pro’s:   So vastly open.  Epic bass depth.  Dazzling treble.

Con’s:  Negligible isolation. Too much of that dazzling treble.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Signature Acoustics O-16 Review

Signature Acoustics O-16 Review

Thanks to Signature Acoustics for the sample.

First Impressions:  Hmm the box is like the sort of thing that used to come out of China a few years ago.  Fancy it is not.  Opening up though, still not fancy but I find the use a two tone green, firm and soft foam most pleasant.  It’s silly but that its green rather than black, seems so unusual and quirky in the most pleasing of ways.  The buds, hmm, not very interesting.  The case, while it’s nice to see something different I’m not sure I’m really sold on it visually.

So popping them in my ears.  Hmm.  It would seem to be a rather reserved and pedestrian affair.  Calm, collected and ever so polite on the ear.  It seems such a radical thing for a brand new brand, do something calm rather than go for the most bombastic sound they possibly could.  How very, very curious a thing to do.  45 min in and I must confess they are growing on me.  So pleasantly polite.  Burn in time.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5.

Lows:  If you a bass head looking for bass that will sock you in the jaw, this in not it.    On the surface of things the bass here is pretty pedestrian.  It’s not particularly deep, it doesn’t have huge punch, and it doesn’t wow you in any way.  It’s really actually a rather grown up affair.  It’s polite and restrained which I found lends itself most pleasingly to the likes of Julie London.  Competent, capable, quite smooth and easy on the ear.  No matter what I throw at it, even really bass heavy stuff never seems to rattle it, it just gets on with the job at hand and gives an aurally pleasant rendition.  You may be picking up that I’m not loving it, it’s not that it does anything wrong.  It really does absolutely nothing wrong, in the same way the crazy RE-252 did absolutely nothing wrong.  Like the aural equivalent of a perfectly pure glass of distilled water.  It is adding nothing of itself, no flavour, no excitement or dazzle. 

The up side to its bland flavour is that it turns its hand to any style with equal competency.  Nothing comes on and you think, oh no x y and z are totally wrong.  It does nothing wrong in the way that decent monitor should.  Musical purity untainted by its own flavour.

Mids:  If there is anywhere the 16 stands up a bit it’s in the mids.  It’s got what you could call a slightly sad smile acoustic signature.  The lows and highs trail off a bit and the mids stand up just a tad.  Once more I’d characterise this as a very mature, grown up sounding IEM.  It isn’t setting out to wow you or scream at you, it just does its thing and gets on with it.  Again I find myself thinking of that monitor like flavourless, pure sort of sound.  It doesn’t add warmth or dryness or particularly suit any type of vocals better than the other.  Its equally competent everything.  Guitars pluck nicely too but do have the hard edge of their twangs muted.  The 16 isn’t quite up to the greatest clarity and its monitor esq reproduction plays up to that easy, genteel on the ear presentation. 

Its mids are good, not amazing but highly competent and highly adept at turning their hand to any vocals you throw at them, be they excellent like Nora Jones or like those of that short blond thing in the charts just now.  The 16 is impeccably polite and even handed to them both.

Highs:  Polite.  They give you what you require to be aware of but they do trail away with no real edge or bight to them. I like that, there is nothing I find more unpleasant than brutal treble.  Directly compared to the GR06 and the treble is rather more sedate and laid back.  The detail levels are very similar but the 16 is the more relaxed about it.  You have to pay closer attention whereas the 6 is for willing to shove it in your face.  It makes for a much more polite presentation that can sound a little restrained.  It does liven up a bit if you crank the volume dial.  Actually I find in more lively, poppy bouncy tracks to make them better come to life you do want to crank that dial.  Though I find I enjoy the more laboured style of music on these.  Rufus Wainwrights “Rebel Prince” has a smattering of delicate high hat and cymbles running through it but the 16 likes to gently veil things up top.  It’s a very relaxing affair.

Soundstage:  These don’t seem to do so well in height but their width is very good and they can portray a good sense of distance out to either side of you.  Instrument separation is so so but the trade-off is the integration of the whole is seamlessly smooth.

Fit:  They worked just fine for my ears.  In the ears they went and it was all fine, up or down.

Comfort:  Same as with the fit.  They are a nice standard shape.  A little bit wide if you try to seat them deeply but unless your treating them like Ety’s then you’ll be absolutely fine I am sure.

Microphonics:  Wearing them up as I am want to do, they are fine.  No microphonics that way but wearing down I did get a little.  The cable liked to interact with collars.  It wasn’t a big issue though.

Amped/Unamped:  Actually, a really mixed bag.  Out of the E9 they tended towards being a bit heavy sounding.  Out of the little Shuffle they liked additional impedance and were rather clean sounding, bass a little diminished.  Out of the Nexus 5 they were lighter and crisper in the treble but lost an element of refinement.  Out of the Studio they got a bit more aggressive and took on a little bit more punch.  Basically they changed a bit with everything.  I think I liked the E9 and its more laboured approach better but I could well see the likes of the Nexus 5’s more lithe crispness being the more generally popular with consumers.  Lol it was actually kinda fun trying out different things and seeing the differences.

Isolation:  Not so much.  They are terrible but they are relatively open for an IEM so for me, I’d probably not pick these if you spend a lot of time commuting.  Sure with music going you’re probably going to be okay.  If you’re coming from buds then your love it.  If you are coming from a BA sealed IEM then not.  I could use for out and about in a pinch.  I wouldn’t pick for a flight or Tube commute unless I had nothing else.  Naturally when music’s playing its going to be enough not to hear that bus coming up behind you, look with your eyes people.

Build Quality:  Hmm it’s okay.  It’s all very light, despite this the cable feels though.  Its apparently some braided cable with a sheath over it and in the hand the cable feels very sturdy.  The down side to that is it’s a bit stiff and despite being out of the box for several weeks it still has the bends from where it was wrapped up.  The buds seem well put together and nicely finished if somewhat visually unassuming.

Accessories:  It’s a credible little bundle.  4 pairs of tips, a shirt clip and a little leather case thingy.  Its half baggy half case thing, it’s kinda weird but in a nice way.  It’s different.

Value:  I found these at the bizarre price of 3999.45 Rupee’s.  I didn’t even know there was a sub division of Rupees.  So, 4000 today seems to be £42 or US$64.  That makes them basically the same as the GR06.  Are these better value?  No not really.  They aren’t really any worse either, just different.  These are a nice, pleasant IEM with a nice price tag.

Conclusion:  The Signature Acoustics O-16 in a nice IEM.  I feel like this review is almost entirely made up of the words “nice” and “pleasant” both of which are highly apt.  In everything it has a go at it’s clearly rather competently capable.  It just doesn’t wow me, or grab my attention.  That isn’t a bad thing though.  As time has passed I find myself pleasantly enjoying the O-16’s.  They are the sort of IEM I could stick in my ears back in the days of studying and have Bach’s coral works play away all day long (oh how often did I stick on Psalm 51 and just let it repeat all day.)  I would play that when studying, it was music that I liked, it was smoothly serene and had zero abrasiveness.  It flowed across the ear and never jumped up demanding that you pay attention to it and nothing else. 

The O-16 I feel is rather like Bach’s Psalm 51.  Of which here is a tiny taster it won’t thrill nor excite you but I’d dare anyone to listen to it and tell me that it isn’t soothing and genteel on the ear.  That is what I feel the O-16 want to be too.  It’s maybe a bit on the thick side but does that “nicely pleasant” thing so well.  It’s not a thrill seeker or attention grabber.  If you insist it play vigorous pop then it will do it, pleasantly, nicely but I get the impression its heart really isn’t quite in it.  It will pick up some sprightliness if you whack up the volume dial, which you might be doing anyway to overcome external sounds.  Still I found myself drawn back again and again to Bach’s choral works. 

It’s the first time I’ve had something from Signature Acoustics come across my desk and in many ways it reminds me of several years back and some of the stuff coming out of china.  Good, capable, pleasant but not quite all that.  We all I think know how good the stuff coming out of china has become and I am very much looking forward to India giving them some competition.  Competition is almost always good for consumers and I think if the O-16 is a display of where Signature Acoustic’s is coming from then I think we are going to be seeing some great things from them.  The O-16 is in every way a nice IEM and I don’t doubt that soon they will be producing great IEM’s if this is where they are at already.

Signature Acoustics O-16 Quick Review

Signature Acoustics O-16 Quick Review

Thanks to Signature Acoustics for the sample.

Brief:  A pleasantly lovely IEM from India

Price:  4000 Rupee’s or about £42 or about US$64

Specification:  MODEL: Elements O-16 Live, Type: Open back, Driver: 8 mm (CCAW), Impedance: 17 Ohms @ 1Khz, Frequency: 12 to 22 Khz, Sensitivity: 102 dB, Total length: 1.2 mts (split length 28 cms), Channel Balance:  < 2.5% dB @ 1 Khz, Connector:  3.5mm Gold Plated Stereo Pin

Accessories:  Silicon Ear Tips (S,M,L), Earphone Filters, Shirt Clip, Leather Case

Build Quality:  Seems allrighty.  Buds are rather light but look nicely finished.  The cable feels sturdy but has quite a bit of cable memory.

Isolation:  Rather so so.  It’s got a big back vent that’s rather big and so these really are not big isolators at all.  Better than buds, sure but low by IEM standards.  Not one for flights or horrible commutes unless you like to be able to keep an ear out for things.  With music playing, you might hear that bus coming up behind you but maybe you won’t.  Eyes people!

Comfort/Fit:  Pretty nice.  I could wear them up or down effortlessly and was a simple shove in and done.  Which is how I like it to be.

Aesthetics:  Hmm I find the dark greyish offset with a bright coppery metallic right quite nice.  A little hint of flair but nothing too ostentatious.

Sound:  Nice.  Nice and pleasant are the key words for the O-16.  They are a highly unassuming and polite IEM.  They have no V shaped drama going on at all. They are actually a hint middy, their lows and highs are both the height of polite reticence.  I found they really were at their best on soothing tune’s, Bach’s choral works were eminently lovely.  Something I could happily slap on and let just melt away.  In fact any music of this nature I found made for a lovely pairing.  If you make them get a little bit more poppy and aggressive it will do as you ask but it still kept a faint air of politeness.  It was highly credible but then Diana Ross appears on them and they felt like they had come home.  The treble is missing a bit off the top and if forced to become abundant can get a little bit hard edged.  The bass if pushed becomes rather expansive but again its extension misses out a little.  Mids are pretty good, wide and air filled presentation.  Actually its sound staging is one of it best features, being so open they sound super open too and so very wide.  It’s really all quite lovely.

Value:  It price puts it head to head with the GR06.  The O-16 has such a grown up lovely sound but the 6 is the more versatile beast.  Much like its aural qualities, the O-16 is nicely pleasant value.

Pro’s:   Ever so grown up.  Polite.  Wonderful soundscape.

Con’s:  Cable memory. Meh isolation.  Not particularly exciting.

Friday, 6 February 2015

HiFiMAN HM-650 Review

HiFiMAN HM-650 Review

Thanks to HiFiMAN for the samples.

First Impressions:  The box looks big and for a premium product of this price I’m not notably impressed with it.  Inside and well yeah I’m not blown away.  The proper printed instruction book is nice, start at one side and it’s in English, start at the other and it’s Chinese, that I like.  The contents, err like could we maybe say somewhere what the “HD/Vintage” button does?  The player itself, well erm, err let’s just say its looks aren’t going to be giving Sony nightmares anytime soon.  The thing is not a looker.  I actually feel like I’ve entered a time machine and gone back to the 80’s.  This thing is as svelte as a brick.  In the hand too I can’t say I’m feeling the love, lol it’s practically comedic.  Anyway, we aren’t here to read about how fugly the thing is are we?

So, on seeing it I thought “oh damn, that thing had better sound F***ing amazing!”  Oh boys and girls, it so does!!!!!!!!!  It’s early, early days and I’ve so far only tried it with one IEM, the q-JAYS were on my desk and since HiFiMAN DAP’s are often warm, the coolness they offer should pair well.  Oh Christ do they pair well!!!  I’ve been playing with now for maybe an hour and a half and I’m thinking that this could potentially be my new DAP of choice for day to day use.  Hmm but the spec says 9 hour battery life, eek!  That could be a bit of a show stopper there. Right now though, I’m thinking it sounds good enough to pretty much overcome any obstacle.

Screen:  Well the screen is much better than the 601 had but err, well you won’t be amazed.  Of course this is an audio player so the screen isn’t very important; it gets the functional job of navigation done.  Any more would just be overkill and I would rather the money went into the audio components than a screen.  It’s not great out in the sun though, so it’s a bit hard to see but again it’s not something you’ll be doing much so how important is it?

Battery Life:  Lol, there is no way to be positive about this.  Coming from the Studio V 3rd Anv. with its insane 100 hour battery life, the rated life here is just 9 hours.  Yes 9 hours.  Granted the battery is user replaceable so you can bring spares, they are massive batteries though.  Sure for pretty much everyone 9 hours is going to get you through a day of use.  Maybe even two or three days.  So while it always got me through a day of use its very much a case of if you use when you get home you have to remember and stick in on charge. 

UI:  Once more I can really say it’s much nicer than that from the HM-601.  It’s really not terrible at all.  Of course its err, not really that great either.  It was easy enough to find what I wanted and to control things so it’s a general thumbs up for usability.  Just don’t expect it to be swish or pretty.

In the hand:  Well it’s a great big block of a DAP.  It’s a huge lump of plastic and while it has a certain heft to it there is nothing about it that says, I’m a premium fancy product.  The button layouts don’t really suit me either.  The volume control, fugly as it is, meant I couldn’t really control it with just my thumb like I can with everything else.  So that was annoying.  The track skip button was so near the bottom my thumb didn’t reach with ease either.  Frankly it’s just all a bit awkward.

Format Support:  Erm all of them I think.  MP3, ACC, WMA, OGG, APE, WAV, AIFF and the one we really care about, FLAC.  So that should pretty much cover everyone and every possibility.  Oh and it supports SDXC cards so that will take us upto 128GB cards.  (HiFiMAN don’t promise anything but I’d bet it will take larger cards too in the future.)

Connections:  Well it’s pretty Spartan.  On the top we have a standard 3.5mm headphone out socket and the only other connector we have is on the bottom.  The bottom one is a proprietary connector that is used for charging, line out and for placing in a dock.  While I do understand why this is the case I’m sorry HiFiMAN but WTF??? Are you seriously making us use a proprietary charging connector????????? Yeah if it had a million hours battery life I wouldn’t be so annoyed but why the hell did you not let it charge also with micro USB?  You know, the micro USB cables that are everywhere, on everything and everyone has in abundance.  No you went proprietary so that means you can only charge it in the one location you have left your charger (giant charger) or you have to cart it with you everywhere.  HiFiMAN I am very disappointed, get a V2 out and give it micro or even mini USB charging too, the 601 had it so why can’t the 650?

Volume:  Well the thing has a high and a low gain option, I don’t know why because even on low it can go insane loud.  Oddly the loud gain didn’t ramp up the volume much but with the big HD600’s running it did beef them up.   Anyway, I couldn’t put them past 6 out of 10 so should drive anything out there to more than loud enough for anyone.

Sound Quality:  Well you could say that so far this review hasn’t been very positive, this is where that changes.  The HM-650 is aimed at an audiophile crowd and so its primary attribute must therefore be its audio quality.  It does not disappoint.  The thing is F***ing awesome.  Oh god and this is just with the “Standard Amp” I mean holy crap!!!  The thing knows where its target audience is and it nails it like Luther to a Wurttemberg church door.  Oh god how much do I want to see what the other amp cards can do!!!

Trying it out with IEM after IEM and they all sound excellent.  There is a slight hint of mellowing and those who love the deepest and most punchy bass and the most aggressive highs too may not find it here.  It’s not that it really lacks in either direction, it’s not brutal about it.  My much loved Studio V is a much more open, dry and explicit DAP.  That is just how they are and neither is “better” than the other any more than coffee is “better” than tea, they are just different.  That said, the 650 is the more versatile of the two.  It with warm and soft IEM’s was a bit over soft but still pleasant and listenable.  The Studio with its brash enthusiasm if paired with things hyperactively aggressive then it can get quite wearing on the ears.

Looking back to its predecessor the 601, things get much more straight forward.  The 650 is just better.  No quotation marks, it is better.  Of course someone has every right to prefer the 601, with its even warmer and smoother sound but the 650 is very much technically superior. 

What about an assortment of IEM’s?  Well let’s give a bash with a bunch.  The SE530 was as ever beautiful and just made me want to launch into song constantly.  The treble was serene and delicate.  The lows could have had a bit more grunt down low though.   The TF10, it needs power to be its best and it was well driven here but it was surprisingly dark.  The bass was vigorous and deep.  Not the aggressive punch I’m used to.  The mids were more creamy than is typical too and the highs were detailed but unusually refined.  The IE8, the bass is fabulous.  A great big hump of party.  The mids somewhat thickened but still a great breadth.  Highs again were a little muted, a little more refined than sparkly, a shame because they sparkle like nothing else.  The UM3x, with its ever WWW shape.  Bass a little more rotund and its punch a bit diminished as I’d thought may happen.  The highs have the same slightly tamed feel.  Moving to the shimmery R3 and they pair up so lovely, neither really display aggressive movements but come from differing tonal styles.  The 650 warm and smooth, the R3 open and delicately shimmery.  It’s a lovely pairing.

Moving onto some of HiFiMAN’s own IEM’s, which are all rather excellent btw, starting with the RE-600.  Well it’s really good, shocking I know, but it pairs better than I thought, the bass could as I’ve seen elsewhere do with a tiny bit of bumping at the deepest depths but the highs are very nuanced.  Mids are a super tiny bit rich but scrumptious so who cares.   Then I found the RE-0, you remember it was the IEM that was once being sold for US$80.  Holy crap the two sound amazing together.  The 0 is a touch soulless but the 650 gives it just enough of a nudging and my god they really shine together.  It’s such a shame you can’t still get them new.  F*** me they all sound amazing actually.  The 272 is still probably the best IEM in the world, the 252 is almost as stunning and the 262 likewise are just mesmerising.  How the 262 ever retailed at just US$150 I have no idea.

Features:  The 650 offers the ability to swap out amp cards.  That way you can tailor and upgrade the sound quality to your hearts content.  Not havening any other here I cannot test how they sound but I would imagine they are all superb given how good the “standard” card sounds.  Then we have a relatively simple, high / low gain option.  Unusually high gain wasn’t vastly louder than low, it did seem to beef up the sound though, I’m not entirely sure what it was doing but in the end I mostly left it on high.  Naturally you can swap back and forth as you like.  Then we have a slider labelled “Vintage/HD.”  My thoughts when I first saw was WTF is that?  Seemingly HD is normal and Vintage ever so slightly mutes the far high end.  On paper you would think HD all the way but quite often, with cooler and brighter pairings I rather preferred the Vintage mode.  Its pretty subtle so don’t expect a huge change.  Last of all, we have the option, depending on your amp card, the ability to use a balanced output.  There aren’t many balanced IEMs out there but they do exist and if you have this might offer some additional appeal to you.

Lows:  Well it is a HiFiMAN and it is Wolfson powered so naturally that means that that there is a gently warmed tone to things.  Its ever so slight compared with the 601 as there is rather greater transparency here.  The bass is that ever so faintly reticent about being virulently explosive in a way that the Studio V is much less shy about.  The Wolfson sound tends towards that achingly beautiful and ever so faintly tamed.  Throw some wood winds or strings their way and that phenomenal lingering timing just draws you in and surrounds you in the most softly magical fantasy of sound.  Yes somewhere in your mind you may realise that it’s all a little euphonic but who cares????  Sweeping and genteel like a Bernini sculpture, the air and grace belies its marble undertone.  Oh yes it is truly lovely.

The anti to this beauteous sound is that, well the HM-650 isn’t quite all that convincing at doing aggressive and violent bass.  Even with the ever punchy TF10 in play the 650 always at that tinge of civility and silk to it.  Hey for me this is grand but if you are a thrill seeker looking for wildly exciting bass, this maybe isn’t it.

Mids:  What I wrote for the bass, yep that.  They are just simply to die for.  Even with the very so so mids of the TF10 these were so flowing and milky soft.  The dry raspy nature of the TF10 was really taken in hand and smoothed out.  Racing across to something far more middy like the RE-600 and this, hmm maybe makes for a tiny bit over bit milky in their presentation.  I tend to steer away from warm liquid DAP’s and warm liquid IEM’s as a pairing.  Though jumping to one of my dryer favourites, the lovely little q-JAYS and I’m a little blown away as to how well they pair up.  My god they are a jaw dropping combo.  The fabulously liquid presentation of the 650 and the open dryness of the q-JAYS complement each other perfectly.  Truly mids to die for.  So flawing yet so expressive they are just exactly how all mids should be.

The down side? Well if you pair with something very rich or liquid already it makes for a bit over creamy sound.  Not bad at all but that bit too creamy, lacks any edge and guitars in particular lack that twangy bight. 

Highs:  They are ever so slightly dampened as you tend to find from Wolfson things.  The detail level here is quite superb though.  Again I find it works best when you pair with something cooler as it allows the faintly shimmering detail to more stand forth and shine.  They are desperately nuanced and polite which is a joy for my ever treble delicate ears.  Even songs I know that I can find at times over bright, over aggressive and over bighty sound lovely.  I know I don’t need to tell you but these are very much deserving of a pairing that will allow for bucket loads of detail retrieval.

The negative is that the ever so gently reticent nature and the ever so slow roll off mean that if you want vigorous, aggressive splashy treble then you’re looking in the wrong place.  This is a sumptuously smooth shimmering top end, not at all aggressive.

Hiss:  I really can’t say I noticed any at all.  What I did notice was that every track skip or pause produced a little electronic couple of clicks while something engaged or disengaged.  It was rather noticeable as I track skip all the time but it wasn’t really a big problem.  I know it might really bother some but I wasn’t.

Accessories:  Well you don’t get a lot, but then it’s a DAP so what would you expect.  Naturally you get the charger, giant charger might I add.  A small issue, mine came with a European plug to 8 connector, since I’m in the UK where we have plugs that don’t feel like two glorified wires you stick in a socket, this meant the first thing I did was hit up ebay and buy a UK plugged cable.  Sure it’s a small issue but hey, it’s still an issue.  The other thing you get is a line out connector which frankly is stupid.  It’s nice you get it but surely the whole point of buying something like the 650 is because its great sounding so the idea of using it and hooking up an external amp, well hey maybe it’s just me.

Value:   Errr. So its US$449 or about £286.  You either want it or you don’t.  I mean it’s more than an Ipod touch 64GB and that’s before HMRC and parcelfarce take their cuts.  Oh and it comes with no storage so you need to buy that on top.  The thing is if you are even thinking about this verses an Ipod you have missed the point entirely.  This sounds exquisite and its one and only focus is audio quality.  Given how good I think it sounds however, I’d say you’re getting an absolute bargain.  You know, if buying a separate DAP that you could argue does nothing the phone you already have can do could be thought good “value.”

Conclusion:  Oh my there are so many problems with the HM-650 is not even funny.  I mean the thing is really fugly, oh it’s truly laugh at kinda fugly.  The battery, 9 hours I mean what is this, 1982???  On and after using for a bit you get why it’s so battery heavy.  HiFiMAN have thoughtfully included a hand warmer function.  Yes it’s great for those chilly winter morns, its little heating vents on the sides make your pocket all cosy and warm.  Seriously, it has heating vents it gets so warm.  Oh then the screen is meh, the UI is at best inoffensive and the controls are, shall we say ill-suited to my hands.  So clearly there are some issues with the 650.

The positive, yes there is just the one, is the primary function of an ostensibly single purpose device.  The HM-650 sounds just glorious.  In an age of convergence devices, mostly phones, where people are willing to give up quality for convenience the HM-650 say’s balls to that and does the inverse.  Convenience is all forsaken and audio quality is prioritised as it rightly should be in a dedicated DAP.  The result is that the thing is just amazing.  Sure it’s not aurally perfect, everything has a bit of a flavour and the 650 with its Wolfson yumminess produces a scummy gooey liquidy assemblage of aural joy.  Sure it’s a teeny bit warm, it’s a teeny bit mellow and it’s a teeny bit reticent.  So what, its sooooooooo scrummy and delicious sounding. 

Contextually the competition for the HM-650 is my long-time favourite, the Studio V 3rd Anv. and I can’t quite decide which I like better.  They pair with different things, the Studio being more neutral and clean, the 650 has a touch of liquid warmth.  Aurally they are both superb but if push comes to shove I think I’d give it to the 650.  (Well I would today but tomorrow it could be the Studio.)  It offers that euphonic, better than real life sound that is so mesmerising. However I don’t know if the 650 could be my daily driver. 

I really, really, really like how the 650 sounds.  This and the q-JAYS are such a captivating combo, truly a heavenly pairing.  Warm IEM’s, a bit less so, the RE-600 while lovely was a hint dull for me but I’d bet anyone buying the 650 has more than one IEM to pick up anyway.  Though I wonder how often I will pick up the 650 day to day.  It’s just so gorgeous sounding but that battery life is a sod and no micro USB charging (seriously HiFiMAN, SERIOUSLY!?!?!?) so you can’t get a sneaky charge in when in the office or wherever.  Then I go back to listening and all is instantly forgiven.  Oh god it sounds so lovely. Just keep in mind that the 650 is a true audiophile DAP and makes tons of compromises to make it happen.  It won’t be your head that picks the 650 but when your heart hears it, it’ll be the one making the decision to buy it.