Sunday, 26 July 2015

Honor AM12 Review

Honor AM12 Review

Thanks to Honor for the sample.

First Impressions:  The little box thing they come in, I rather like it.  It’s weird, weirdly different.  The plastic outer once I got it open, then you encounter the little boat shaped blob of rubber that the IEM’s are wrapped around.  Then on the keel there are the spare tips.  It’s weird but cool weird, I like it.  I don’t like that they don’t have a little case to keep them safe but if you want one eBay can supply one.  Plus I wonder how many people would actually use a case.  “oh I won’t spend more than £20 ‘cause they always break” well if you looked after the damn things they wouldn’t!!!   Anyway overall I’m liking them.  The packaging is funky and the IEM’s themselves look rather attractive.  Im a sucker for bare metal and I’m really liking the look of the translucent tips but with a blue core, so the blue kinda hints through.

In the ears and Susan Wong appears.  Hmm, not terrible, pleasant, for some stock buds that are pretty cheap I’m not being horrified.  Actually these are kinda pleasant.  Hmm, so not only look rather nice, they sound not bad either.  They are quite reasonably balanced too, no giganto bass smothering everything else.  Mids are clean and quite pronounced.  So much cheap stuff is so V shaped vocals just drown but these are quite credible.  So is Honor giving these out with all their phones?  If they aren’t I’m thinking they should.  Anyway, burn in time, let’s see what 100 hours with them can do.

N.B.  They did not like my normally used 3.5mm extension cable.  They didn’t match its internal connections so it’s possible that other things may not work either.  The down side to mic and controls.  They did however work just fine on everything else.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5, Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear, Iphone 5, Lumia 735 and Huawei P8.

Lows:  Nice.  Rather linear, it’s got a bit of a lower bass bump but it’s quite far from the upper mid/bass range.  Given their status as a cheap product I’d have expected much more bass with much more bloat.  They are even more so shunted downward than that of the Piston 3.  These are a little more svelte and articulate.  Speed wise they are close but I want to hand it to the AM12’s being subject to a little less in the way bloom they come to a halt quicker.  For me I personally like the style here a little bit more as the great big follow through oomph that the Pistons plough through with here is a little bit more dance like.  It’s still got lost of darkness but it’s more adept on its feet.  I’m so impressed with how nearing a mature sound these little things are coming.  A more polite, slightly one notey bass that gives you a taste of power but isn’t over shadowing.  It lets you know what’s there but isn’t ramming it down your throat.  I’m not super sure that a mainstream audience will be so pleased with the slight reservation of the bass.  In highly bassy tracks it doesn’t rip your face off.  It doesn’t really even try.  Its more impact and punch orientated but without very much aggression.

Quantitatively it’s only a little elevated.  It never really gives the impression that the bass is going to come roaring out at you and dominating.   Curiously its seems to love a double bass, and anytime a track with polite bass was playing, rich, a little dark yet a little detached.  There but something not quite there.  It never wants to completely fill the space.  I almost feel like there is some bass limiter that is preventing it from ever completely dominating.

Mids:  They are a little distanced back, it’s ever so slightly in a bit of a valley but its distance from the bass means it’s very clear.  A little on the creamy side, breathy hasn’t quite the air or detail levels to pull it off but for a low end products its pulling off an admirable level of maturity.  I found myself drawn to the like of Nora and Susan Wong.  Wong didn’t have the breathy air she should but with her so over distinct recordings seemed to have the pace that the EM12’s wanted to move at.  A little slow, little dark, little bit of cream and with that sense of relaxation.  I just kept finding that I was drawn to well recorded and well mastered stuff tonally.

They have bit of a W shape so the mids are reasonably pronounced compared to most low end stuff.  To stock rubbish they may initially be a bit more middy than many are used to but you get then very nicely clear vocals without them being over focused.  A little hint of reticence adds a bit of width to them and correspondingly a little more fullness. 

Highs:  There is a little lower treble / upper mids spike that meant crashes got a bit over energetic.  Never sharp but I did find I was never turning these up too loud.  Indeed I found stylistically I was always drawn to more simplistic, rhythmic, things that didn’t have anything in this band.  There isn’t an edge to it but it still was a bit much for me at times.  Otherwise the treble is rather tame.  It’s not anything like as warm as the Pistons but there is a little bit of warmth as you go up that begins to gloss over things a bit.  It’s a wise move to make.

Soundstage:  Moderate.  Above all the watch words of the AM12’s could be politeness and moderate in all things.  Scale isn’t much one way or the other.  A pleasantly sized room with a fair level of separation and placement.  It’s nicely pleasant.

Fit:  Great.  Not sure I love the stock tips, while they look super and I never had an issue, hmm just that straightish taper made me think they were gonna fall out.  They never did of course but I slapped on Comply’s anyway.  Oh and worn up or down both were problem free.

Comfort:  Great.  Never had any issues and their very mainstream shape should work well for just about everyone.

Aesthetics:  Lush.  I’m a bit of a sucker for transparent / translucent stuff.  The frosted cable and tips then toss in brushed metal buds…. Yeah they are seriously pretty.  I know looks are subjective but come on, for the price these must be the best looking things I know of.  Super pretty.

Microphonics:  It was pretty good, a bit of footfall as they are moderately sealed but no cable noise here.  Oh and unusually for a mic’d IEM no mic catching on my collars.  Some spark of inspiration over at Honor though to combine the Y-splitter and mic / controls into one.  Genius move if you ask me.

Amped/Unamped:  They were pretty good out of anything and while there was a pretty apparent improvement jumping to a way better amp, mostly in separation and upper end clarity it’s not something to kill yourself over.  Still I might be inclined to maybe try a baby FiiO, some would like the bass firming and the bass boost button I suspect.

Phone Use:  Tring first the Lumia 735, everything worked perfectly.  Play/pause/skip and the volume controls too.  The Iphone 5 however the volume controls did not, the PPS button did though.  Lastly seeing as it was an Honor and I have P8 I had to try them together.  Weirdly up popped on the phone that did I want to activate “Smart Headset Control.”  How nifty, it lets you configure the volume buttons to do different things with a double press.  How clever, Huawei really have some clever touches dotted about the place.  Oh and calls were just fine, both ends being clearly heard by the other.

Isolation:  Not bad.  It’s about normal for a dynamic so it’s the typical story.  Fine for out and about or on a bus but likely not your first choice for a Tube commute or flight.  Would do in a pinch but you know.  As ever though my warning, it will be easily enough to make to you not hear that bus that’s about to make you a road stain, so please do try to look with your eyes where you going.  A Darwin award isn’t something you want to be eligible for.

Cable:  Great.  Visually its lovely, texture wise it’s equally so and it’s nicely flexible.  The build quality and its sturdiness to the touch all seem superb.  The jack is a little metal thing and the Y-splitter is too, actually with its metal housing and white strain reliefs it’s rather nice in every way.

Build Quality:  As has been touched on, its top notch.  A cheap product it may be but Huawei are clearly trying to create a brand image for “Honor” and it follows that of its phones.  Solidly constructed, as good as any premium product but with a reduced price tag.  Can’t fault it at all.

Accessories:  Well you get the tips and that’s it.  You might count the rubber cable wrap thing from in the case but if your using that then you’d probably count the case too.  Not sure I’d use it thus but you could if you wanted.

Value:  £16 on Rainforest UK but……over on GearBest (my current fav Cathay based emporium) they are £8 or US$12!!!!  Holy **** that’s even less than the Piston3’s.  How do they even post them for that???? Are Honor maybe selling at a loss as a brand promotion?   At £16 they are still good value but at £8 they are just stupidly good.

Conclusion:  The Honor AM12 are nice.  They aren’t awesome or amazing or excel really at anything in particular.  Well that is until you count their value proposition.  They are acoustically so middling. Tonally, the acoustic ranges, the detail levels, the gently W shaped sound, there is just no where things stand out and grab your attention.  For reviewing them makes for a fairly unexciting read.  They are fairly unexciting earphones.  Not bad by any stretch but they don’t have anything in particular about them to capture the imagination.

However….. then you get to the value of them.  Even when you go head to head with the Piston 3’s, and how can you not put the two head to head, these are arguably as “good” but 20% cheaper.  Even at their UK price of £16 (US$25) they are still exceptionally good value.  They may not be the most amazing sound quality but wow, they sound good not just good enough and then toss in how fantastic they look, how nicely they are put together and that they have a mic and controls including volume controls!!!!!!!  I can’t decide if it’s the sign of things to come that Chinese phone companies are going to get into the earphone market in a big way or if the AM12 is just so Honor have something to bundle with their phones.  If it’s just to have something to bundle then it’s no great game changer but what if they are moving big time to earphones? 

The AM12, despite having a completely forgettable name is a little gem.  Nicely tonally balanced, nice clarity and detail levels.  Nicely capable bass.  Nicely clean vocals.  Moderately capable treble.  Looks, that I think are among the nicest out there.  Good solid construction.  Then the price that frankly feels like someone’s made a mistake.  As pleasantly a maturely balanced earphone as this with its looks just feels like it can’t quite be true and while it’s not the most exciting listen in the world it an incredible first attempt.  When Xiaomi did the same some time back its made waves and I if the AM12 is any indication then Honor might be about to come exploding on to the audio world.

Honor AM12 Quick Review

Honor AM12 Quick Review

Thanks to Honor for the sample.

Brief:  A disturbingly good first showing.

Price:  £16 officially but I found for £8

Specification:  Model: AM12, Color: White, Range of application: Mobile phone, Palmtop, MP3 or MP4, Compatibility: Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, HTC, Nokia, LG, Apple, Blackberry, Functions: Song Switch, Microphone, Volume Control, Earphones type: In-Ear, Headphone jack: 3.5mm, Frequency range: 12-24000Hz, Impedance: 32ohm, Sensitivity: 120dB, Cable length: 1.2m

Accessories:  You get 4 pairs of tips, you could also use the case and cable wrap innards as well if so inclined.

Build Quality:  Very nice.  The buds are metal, the Y splitter, mic and jack are too.  My eyes and fingers say they are impeccable, amazing given their cost.

Isolation:  It’s okay. Normal for a dynamic so adequate for out and about or on a bus.  Not Tube or long flight worthy but as ever, enough to get yourself run over if you don’t use your eyes.

Comfort/Fit:  Very good.  Not sure I loved the stock tips but they gave me no issues.  Just didn’t feel snug.  Slapped on Comply’s.  Just a case of shave in and done.

Aesthetics:  I really quite like them.  I’m a fan of bare metal and light translucent cables.  I like the little blue accents but I do feel an opportunity was missed.  If only they had made the right bud with a red ring rather than blue.  Still, they are attractive little things.

Sound:  Good.  They are rather polite and a little unexciting.   The bass is elevated as you would expect, it’s a bit more towards the middle bass ranges rather than the upper bass.  Trying to put a little distance between the bump and the mids.  That helps to keep the two from bleeding together and lets that bass bump play free.  Moderately quick and lively compared to other more bass bloomy and billowy things you oft see at this price range.  Comparatively rather a heavy, slow but impactful punch.  Mids are a touch behind that bass.  They are bit thick, bit creamy and so they don’t abound in clarity nor air.  Still their distance from the bass helps to be cleanly audible and unencumbered.  It’s very well suited to poppy, charty sorts of stuff.  “Selfie” is an explosive rip-roaring extravaganza with the lady’s dulcet vocals cleanly audible.  Treble is relatively back a little, it’s not the worlds most refined so it’s a wise decision.  Its extension is so so, on the whole it’s more about chiming in when it’s called to but it’s never in charge.  Cymbals and tambourines are background accompaniments.  Detail is more about giving you an impression without trying to, harshly trying to be edgy and then becoming brittle.  It’s competently balanced and composed.

Value:  Super.  I found them for £8 or US$12 from a source I trust, how do they even post them for that????  You get decent sound quality in a lovely bundle for negligible money.

Pro’s:   Lovely visually.  Cheap beyond cheap.  Pretty good sounding.

Con’s:  Given their price, nothing really.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Moto G 4G 1st edition Review

Moto G 4G 1st edition Review

First Impressions:  It had been quite some time since I had played with a non Nexus Android phone.  If I’m truly honest the reason I liked the idea of the Moto G 4G was in large part due to its reputation for being a rather Nexus like experience.  I wanted it to be a stock like, non rooted, no custom ROM’d, no tweeked anything.  The other aspect I was rather keen on was its size.  Its “just” a 4.5 inch screen which frankly is so much more hand friendly.  Given I once, back in the day, had a Dell Streak, the 5 inch phone back when 3.5 inches was the norm.  That thing was massive, just vast and I loved it.  Then I began to realise I couldn’t use it one handed and move at the same time.  Yes its screen was fantastic but it was just too big for me.  With all phones going that way I rather liked the idea of getting a hand sized phone.  That version 2 of the Moto G has grown to 5 inches makes me think that there may not be long to get a smaller phone.

Given it was bought some time ago I really have next to no recollection of opening the box up.  So let’s assume it was a wild and thrilling ride.  It’s a box, inside was a phone.

Hardware:  Spec wise it is the benchmark for a mid-range handset for some time now.  A Snapdragon 400, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage, it also has a micro SD card slot.  The screen is a 720p LCD.  Notable the Moto G and the Lumia 735 are almost identical hardware wise, only LCD vs AMOLED.  While I much prefer OLED screens the one on the Moto G is still pretty nice.  Its colours are good, its brightness is good and for all the huffing some might do about it only being 720p screen the thing is 4.5 inches.  720p is absolutely fine for the size.  It’s nice but all rather ordinary.  The 735, which I fear I’m going to keep harking back to feels sooooooooooooo much nicer.  The Moto G is fine.  It’s nice in the hand with its curved back, it’s comfortable to hold and makes things easy to reach. 

The hardware of the Moto G is, nice.  It’s fine, it’s pleasant, it’s a bit better than adequate.  I feel I’m damming it with faint praise.  The thing is good, it is, it’s why it sold in huge numbers and was the go to value Android phone.  A phone that isn’t just good for the money but good full stop.  Yeah but it’s not exciting a thing to have before you.  It’s just all a bit uneventful and bland.  Again, yes its specs are all rather positive but I just cannot get excited about the thing, I just can’t.  On paper however it’s all good.  The CPU is the highly competent Snapdragon 400, the 1GB of RAM that it can do 4G (I have the 4G version.)  They all add up to making a capable device that feels good to use, and it feels nice in the hand.

It’s just not exciting.

Audio Software:  Well, its Android so you have at least 400 billion music app’s to play with.  Of course I’m inclined to go right to Google Music since it’s got only my music there.  It does have a streaming all of the world’s music option if you pay but I’m just fine with only my own.  Actually for reviewing it’s much the preferred option.  My preferences aside, you name it and it’s available.  Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Blinkbox, Soundcloud etc etc etc. 

You can of course always go old school and put music on the device and/or on its removable micro SD card.  Officially it supports up to 32GB but you should be able to stick in a 64GB one too if you format it in FAT32.  Once on board your find that any format you can think of there will be an app available that can play it.  Hear that Microsoft, Apple??? Can play any format!

Audio Hardware:  I’m optimistic that it might have the same audio bits that the 735 had.  Since they are both Snapdragon 400’s.  What I most readily note right of is that the Moto G 4G hisses like a bag of snakes.  Bugger me you can hear the amp going on and off as you flick about.  Seriously noticeable.  That hopefully means they have tuned the amp inside for power so I’m note going to bash it yet.  Still if you hate hiss, sorry.

Lows:  Ooooooh.  Oh I think this may well be the same bits as was in the 735.  But the amp here is really set to blast you with power.  My god, there is some headroom for the volume too.  Right the bass, yes.  I’m impressed.  Since it’s a phone I pulled out the IE8’s, and kappow!!!  Woahh there is spades of power.  The IE8’s can shift some bass when you power them well and the little Moto G, I’m gobsmacked.  If feels like it’s the same as the 735 but with the amp power cranked up.  It vicious and potent.  Grippy, violently aggressive bass with oodles of savagery cloaked behind a layer of silk.  Bugger me, this is proper DAP good.  Wow.

Okay so its maybe not totally reaching as low as it should.  It might also a be a little more punch happy than to keep a smooth low, so it suggests its draining whatever little capacitor is on the amp but hey I’m nit picking.  It’s a phone, this is possibly the best phone I’ve used.  It’s just like the 735 but with the power cranked up. 

Mids:  There is an inclination towards being a little tonally cool.  Clarity gets a bump from that but it is at the expense of expressiveness.  They just aren’t capturing the soul of the vocalist, they haven’t the range to breathe.  Then I remember I’m using a phone.  Holy crap it’s good for a phone.  Sure they aren’t so creamily inclined, they just are a bit dead, gray, tasteless, not fully expressible.  Its like the vocalist just had to take their beloved pet to the vet for the last time.  They are going through the motions but a little piece of their soul has just died inside them.  Sure on paper they are giving their vocals vigour but they are somehow a little empty. 

Nevertheless, aside from maybe being in a slight dip overall the vocals are a little cool, little bit greyed but otherwise I’m greatly impressed with the energy, dynamics and detail they offer up.  Gosh it’s a beast of a little amp inside.

Highs:  Dazzlingly enthusiastic.  Sure I’d have to say a bit dry, bit cool and deep down a little bit soulless.  Still I’m in awe of the spectacle they can put on.  The amp has no problem launching the incredible IE8’s from one direction to the next in an instant.  Treble explodes across them with abandon then blinks back out of existence like the shattered remnants of a high energy proton-proton collision.  That brief moment of wonder while something new surges out of oblivion and in an instant it’s gone.  There is a reason I think the IE8 has one of the best treble of any IEM ever.  It can be awe inspiring when you throw power its way and the little Moto G is doing an astounding job.

I want to complain that it’s a bit brittle or over edgy, over hard but it’s not, not with the IE8.  Sure I’d bet with a pair of ER4’s I might say different but I can’t bring myself to try them.  Well I can justify trying the HF3, ahh and there’s that brittleness.  Still I’m impressed with how well they power the things.  Ety’s just love power, and they are still remarkably good.

Soundstage/Instrument Separation:  It’s passable.  On the IE8’s it was largish, when really it should have been vast.  The HF3 though isn’t teeny tiny, it’s powerful enough for them to sound a little full.   Again instrument separation is a bit middling.  The little amp may be wowing me but I think separation wise we’ve reached the limit of what its DAC can offer.

Battery Life:  Seeing as this isn’t my main phone it doesn’t get hard heavy use.  However it is in continuous data use, hangouts and skype are both logged in so it’s in moderate usage.  Still the battery life is quite good.  It stands up far better than my Nexus 5 (though what doesn’t) so I can get away with charging it every second or third day.  A third day would be tight, generally too tight for my liking but if you do forget to charge the thing one night, you should make it through to next day.

Build Quality:  Its fine.  Like the rest of the hardware it’s all fine.  No, really, it really is fine.  It’s just not anything special or exciting

UI:  I’d like to say thank you to Motorola for pretty much not pissing about with the standard Android UI.  Why on earth handset makers all feel the desperate not to “differentiate” their offerings I really don’t know.  Not that in theory having their own UI’s is a bad thing, it’s just that they tend to be very lazy about keeping it up to date.  What’s more, they seem to change things just for the sake of being different, not because they think they can do something better.  Thus we have a pleasant and clean UI that is stock like and Motorola kept its promise and has updated it to Lollipop.

In The Hand:  Where the 735 was angular the Moto G is very curved, curved at the corners, curved on the back and curved on the edges.  Its pedestrian dimensions too compared with most phones, yes its “only” a 4.5 inch screen, only.  However it’s just about perfect for my hands, its size, its rounded sides, its curved back all make it just sit nicely.  It’s comfortable to hold and comfortable to reach just about anywhere on screen.

Format Support: It’s Android.  You name it, it’ll play it.  So if you want to fill that micro SD card with music you can without having to care what format things are in.

Volume:  LOADS!!!!  The amp has been cranked for power, if you want to deafen yourself you can do it with this no prob. 

Accessories:  It doesn’t come with much, charger and USB cable and errr nothing.  However you can find plenty of things, cases, backs, backs with covers and what not all on ebay.  Just make sure you get for the right version. 

Speaker:  While the 2nd gen Moto G gets front facing speakers, this 1st gen one does not.  The speaker is, mildy adequate.  Firing up Netflix at max volume, could I hear The Good Wife?  Yes I could but not comfortably loud and certainly not loud enough that I could have put it on while I do anything else. 

Camera:  It’s a 5 MP on the back, 1.3MP on the front.  The camera works fine, it’ll take photos of whatever.  The front one is a bit so so.  Comparing to the Lumia 735, the Lumia gives the Moto a bit of a kicking here.  Its gets the job done but I can’t say I’m wildly impressed with it.

The Good:  There is a reason the Moto G has been since launch the go to, bargain Android handset.  It’s cheap, it’s pretty well spec’ed, it’s near stock and received updates, it’s got a developer base too.  Every aspect of it is not just good for the money really good.  It’s not a perfect device but there just isn’t any area where it sucks.  It’s pretty damn good in every way possible, it’s the all-round great value package.   So what’s the “Good” about it?  Well everything frankly.
The Bad:  Erm, I like OLED screens more than LCD?  There isn’t really anything bad about it.

Value:  Excellent.  You could maybe argue the 735 is “better” but there is no way you can say the G is poor value.  Not to mention that with the 3rd gen one coming soon the price has plummeted for remaining 1st gen 4G’s.

Conclusion:  It’s the all-round bundle that is great everywhere.  As a phone it’s great, its internals, CPU, RAM all are good.  In use it feels snappy mostly.  You could swap a flagship worth several times its price for this and not want to kill yourself.  It’s a genuinely good device, not just good for the money but just plain good.  Period.

Then to the audio, well whatever I suspect Qualcomm have paired with the Snapdragon 400, I like it.  It sounds very, very much like that of the 735 which I also loved.  The difference being that the G has waaaaaaaymore oomph behind it.  now I must confess I do not have a ROM that is a publicly certified one.  So maybe it isn’t compliant with the stupid French/EU loudness restriction.  Maybe that’s the difference, I really don’t know.  Either way the additional power available here is enough for the G to give the Lumia a kicking.  The cost is a bucket load of hiss but you don’t notice unless it’s in quiet passages.  Classical listeners will likely be irked by it but I wasn’t.

So, Moto G 4G it’s an awesome little package.  Great at everything and dirt cheap for what you get.  Its audio too is top notch for a phone putting vastly more expensive devices to shame (cough Iphone, cough.) it may not about with the warmth that some crave but I like a DAP to be clean and open.  Any warmth in the mix I like to come from the earphones so for me it’s a perfectly competent, capable DAP.  From a phone!!!

Moto G 4G 1st edition Quick Review

Moto G 4G 1st edition Quick Review

Brief:  Moto wonder bundle.

Price:  Launch was £150 though if you jump ASDA have them for £80

Accessories:  Erm just a cable and charger I think.  You know the rule, eBay for anything else you could want.

Build Quality:  It’s nice.  It’s nothing amazing, it feels nice in the hand.  Its nothing visually particularly great but it’s comfortable.  It’s pleasantly constructed.

Aesthetics:  It’s not ugly but it’s not exactly a looker either.  Its fine, bit mediocre and uninspiring.

As a Phone:  Superb.  it’s really very capable in every aspect you can think for it.  Screens nice, comfy to use, snappy, quick loading etc etc phoney stuff.  Calls were good too and so on and so forth.  I really couldn’t pick any faults with it.

Sound:  I was a little blown away. It’s clearly got the same DAC in there that the 735 had and I think the 635 did too.  It must be what comes with the Snapdragon 400.  Where this differs is that the power headroom is so much more.  Maybe it’s that I have a not officially released ROM but it’s got all that the 735 did but more oomph.  Sure you do get a bucket of hiss along for the ride, you don’t really notice it when music is on.  Well I don’t but I listen to very little classical.  Otherwise its powerful, light, rhythmic and potent.  Its mids are a touch soulless, something slightly vacant about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  A touch dry and cool, highly clean.  Liquidity suffers a bit but so what.  Highs are impressive as is the bass.  Both need power at the ends and the G seems to have it.  Bass will grab you by the cuff and thump you.  The treble with explode in a shower of dazzle.  Yeah it’s a bit cold and aggressive but it’s so impressive for a phone.  You pair this up with something like the IE8 or something like it and it’ll frankly kick the snot out of other phones.  This and the Iphone 5, the 5 sounds like it just had a bottle of Valium and put the heating on full.  It’s so slow and warm beside the G it’s embarrassing how much better and more vigorous this is.  Even with the HF3 the G was staggeringly capable.  So impressive for what is supposed to be a mid-range / budget phone.

Value:  Amazeballs.  Was great for £150, at £80 it’s just getting silly.  A bit old or not, its awesome value.

Pro’s:  Awesome phone.  Stupid cheap.  Awesome sounding.

Con’s:  Erm it’s aging so it won’t likely get updated past lollipop.  Don’t think will take 128GB SD cards.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Xiaomi Piston 3 Review

Xiaomi Piston 3 Review

Thanks to GearBest for the sample.

First Impressions:  Oh my word, there is some serious effort having gone into the box here.  Not that the box is actually important but in giving a first impression, wow!  The thing is so perfectly put in to its packaging.  So exquisitely perfectly fitting.  I am impressed.  Taking them out, unwrapping from their cable wrap thingy they just seem so achingly neatly wrapped.  You know there is no way they’ll ever go back in just the same.  Oh and look, the tip selection is hidden underneath.  Tips look plain unlike the Honor ones, though there’s a good chance I’ll just Comply’s on anyway.

In the ears they go and the clarity right off feels nice.  Hmm bit heavy on the warmth, gosh there is a quite a bit.  Lower vocal ranges are somewhat boosted in weight, heavy thick cloying.  Granted I did put the Krall woman’s “Wallflower” on which isn’t likely what they were made with in mind.  Swapping to Twenty One Pilots “Stressed Out” and the bass roars to life.  Mids pushed back a bit but the instrument separation feels super enhanced.  Weird.  Oh god there is a big dollop of bass there isn’t there.  Oh these are so tuned with bouncy pop in mind.  Lol, these are either going to boatload of fun or that bass is gonna kill me.  Hmm burn in time it is.

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

Lows:  There is a clear bump to the bass on these.  It’s quite a hefty bump but not so much it sounds particularly imbalanced.  Like something more “natural” but you’ve hit the bass boost button.  While these are a bit of a W shape with the bass uptick the biggest.  Actually it’s a little disjointed, there isn’t the mid/bass bump you’d expect from a bassy and cheap IEM.  Their bump is lower down so it really doesn’t interfere with the vocals in the slightest.  I’m kinda impressed, someone’s clearly done this deliberately and I think I’m little taken aback that what I think of as a “phone” company has actually put in some serious effort and someone clearly knows what they are doing.  (Note I haven’t heard the 2 but I’ve read it was considerably more bassy, too bassy.)  Here the bass it’s still large, not very much in the upper bass ranges but then rising before the lower ranges trail off.  It holds on quite well though and it certainly likes to move some air.  Slightly more bloomy than punchy though the more power you throw at it the more punchy it gets.  Personally I’m fine with that, out of a phone it’s a little more soft and dark.  Abundantly dark and rich.  It moves a bit much air for my tastes but it’s tonally lovely.  I like it much for vocally heavy, jazz type vocals, Nora, Erasures “Union Street” album are glorious, laboured and lingering, darkly swirling bass notes that drag out.

In more vigorously poppy stuff the bass ratchets it up in a fashion not unlike that of Sony where it does that punchy bloomy wallop.  Like being smacked in the face with a big heavy pillow.  There is that impact but it’s not hard, that slightly gentle initial impact but there is a lot of oomph behind it.

Mids:  To go with its little W shape, mids are very clear and unbothered by the elevated bass.  I’ve read the 2 had an issue here but the 3 is very clean vocally, much instrument separation.  For me I think this works nicely with the Erasure album and anything by Nora.  Still I suspect these are more charty destined IEM’s so firing up Now 89.  A little track skipping and settling on “Fireball” with its big pounding bassline the vocals are, well it’s not Shakespeare, still they are highly distinct and again it’s the instrument separation.  It’s really, really good on these. Vocals no matter how meh or muffled they are shine through with ease, even with that big, big bass pounding away.

Tonally they are a bit on the liquid and a fraction warm side.  Breathy they don’t really have in them but come on, they are so cheap I can’t see them normally ever meeting much outside pop.  They really excel at giving a cleanly cutting vocal despite the mountainous bass.

Highs:  Quantitatively they are a bitty behind the mids most of the time.   Thankfully most of the poppy things they will meet don’t really ever have much in the way of dazzling treble and that’s for the best.  While good for the money, the money is so little when the treble starts to dominate it does break up, gets too brittle and sharp for me.  They just don’t have the resolution to do them justice and when there is much else going on.  You stick to that blond girl singing about how fat she is, the 3 suits it well, rip roaring bottom end excellent mids and passable treble.

Soundstage:  Outstanding.  These sound huge for what I think of as el cheapo’s.  Dynamics always sound bigger than BA’s but these are really impressive.  Great sense of size, scale, power and then when you throw in the level of instrument separation.  They are so VERY distinctly and clearly defined.  That little bit of W magic, the bass sound off the stage with explosive power and vocals are bang up front.  So unencumbered by the bass, no midbass blending no matter how crappy the “music” I threw at it, no matter how appallingly bad the vocals they still sounded so cleanly distinct.  Impressive.

Fit:  Great.  They aren’t so universal looking at their predecessors but up or down they worked fine for me.  I wore up almost all the time and so long you swap the left and the right you’re good.  The mic did sit a bit high that way but I don’t care, wearing them up alleviates any tugging on the ear which I loathe.

Comfort:  Ditto with the fit.  In the ears they went and that was they.  I did opt to change the tips, not that there was anything wrong with the silicon’s but I like foams more and given the funny size, I think they might be the new T150 size, as is the Senn Momentum In-Ears.  So I didn’t have any but…… I had a Shure olive and a little bit of push and a twist later, boom!!!  Sure it was a little bit a squeeze getting it on there but I love olives.  They last so much longer that Comply’s do and I like the tapered smooth shape more.

Aesthetics:  From pics alone I’m inclined to say the 2 looked better than the 3.  Not that the 3 is ugly or anything but it’s a just a bit so so.  Plain, nondescript and a little uneventful.  Though of course they do look considerably more grown up than some of the 2’s like the gold one or the pink and crystal backed one.  These have a much more grown up sound and so they have dressed the part.

Microphonics:  Erm, none.  Granted I mostly wore up and with olives but even down there was not anything too bad.  Though down the mic will catch on a collar as they are want to do, but then they all tend to do that.  Not very much foot impact noise due to being fairly open.

Amped/Unamped:  The more power you throw at them the cleaner and harder they become.  While on paper that translated as “better” but given they shift a great deal of air I found my ears rathered them a little bit more tame.  That hint softer rather than powerful you get out of a weaker source.  I’d still be inclined to a cooler, crisper DAP as I found with the warm Iphone worm on warm gets a bit suffocating.  Not that I actually expect the Pistons to come into contact with powerful sources in the wild anyway.  They don’t particularly benefit from an amp anyway.

Phone Use:  It was a little bit odd.  The volume buttons didn’t work with the Iphone 5 or the Nexus 4 but were fine with the Nexus 5, Huawei P8 and the Lumia 735.  Don’t ask why or how because I don’t know either, I’m just reporting what did or did not work.  Otherwise everything was just as you’d expect and calls worked fine.  Not really a shocker seeing as they are made by a “phone” company.

Isolation:  A bit so so.  As dynamics you don’t expect tons and even with olives on these are obviously fairly well vented.  While that no doubt helps with their prolific bass response the trade is lower isolation.  With music it’ll easily drown out most out and about noise but I’m not sure I’d be so happy on a bus.  Yeah it’ll drown out everyone else but I fear you might end up being “that guy” blasting music out to the annoyance of others.  Maybe I’m being over cautious as they are still IEM’s but you know.  As ever, easily enough to get yourself run over with so please remember to use your eyes when out.

Cable:  Seems rather nice.  It’s all with a gentle weave coving that looks and feels nice, pretty flexible too.  Jack and Y splitter are both very nice too, metal I think.  It certainly looks and feels rather impressive for the money.

Build Quality:  Exemplary.  For a company that clearly puts so much into design it shows.  The build and finish on them is as good as anything you might see at several times the price.  Quadruple the price and you’d still be very pleased.  I think it’s clear that the time of thinking “Chinese” as not meaning good quality, is so well and truly over. 

Accessories:  You get 4 pairs of tips and I can’t decide if the case and cable wrap innards count as accessories or not.  They are of a size that you could certainly use them as such if you wanted.  Personally I hate cable wrap things but if you wanted you could just pull that out and use the case on its own.  Though there isn’t a fastener so it doesn’t really hold itself closed very well.  Still once more, for the money I can’t complain, if you want a proper case hit up ebay.

Value:  There really is no option but to say they represent quite spectacular value.  I mean, just under US$15 or a hair over £10 and that’s delivered.  I mean how do they even cover the postage costs never mind make a profit on the things????  Are Xiaomi maybe selling these at a loss to build up a bit of a brand name in the West?  I mean I know you can get somethings crazy cheap in the capitalist behemoth that is modern Cathay but even still, how???  So yeah why not buy a pair, they are so stupid cheap and remarkably good, I mean they genuinely sound good.  I’m sure these must be selling at a loss.

Conclusion:  Wow.  Yeah I know that Xiaomi have been getting some stellar commentary about the Pistons since their v1 launch and while I was interested, I wasn’t wildly so.  I mean they are el cheapo’s and even the most amazing el cheapo’s are still going to be a come down from most of the stuff I use.  Now they are a bit of a jump down for me, you know I have the Oppo PM-3’s two feet from me sitting and duh, they aren’t on the same planet sound quality wise.  Lol, I mean the total cost of the Piston 3’s wouldn’t cover the posting of the Oppo’s in their box, it likely wouldn’t buy you their case with or without postage too.  Yet the Piston’s in so many ways hold their own.  Not in an A/B’ing session but as I listen to them I am not wretching in horror.  You know I’m actually liking them.  Sure they are too bassy for me and they are bit over eager to move air low down but it’s good. 

In absolute term the bass is a really skilful blend of scale, exuberance, bloom and pith.  It works, it works with almost everything too.  Granted for aggressively bassed pop it’s too much for me.  Their inclination to wallop you with its soft impact but backed up power wore me out.  I was more at home with letting it roll and linger more rounded bass notes.  Thick, weighty, lingering and dark.  That plus the rich, focused vocal ranges really sang with the likes of Mr Buble.  It also glossed over the craply mastered treble in his tracks.  The 3 isn’t too forthright with the treble and given it hasn’t the skill to perfectly reproduce his scratchy cacophony of treble, it was more a gently warm wash of shimmer.  It’s really how you want poor treble to be glossed over making it highly forgiving of such things.

The bass.  I don’t know if it was my imagination but it seemed to grow as time went on.  I can’t tell if it was some weird burn in issue but I suspect that it was down to its vigorous air movement.  They raw amplitude of that movement doesn’t seem massive, it’s clearly well elevated of course but it seems to move so much air that the power feels stupendous.  That sound stage, that breadth, that scale, that vast abundant power.  It all grew tiring on my little ears.  Still I suspect the mainstream individual will adore that.  (A brief audition by a friend confirmed that adoration.)  You see I’m used to strictly hearing bass, not so much the feeling of that air movement on the rest of the ear so I believe that’s what Xiaomi have done here.  It’s potentially an incredibly skilful thing to do.

So, should you buy one?  Well let’s be clear these are nothing short of a miracle.  I mean I get that things for years have been getting ever cheaper.  Not so much “better” but the price for the same sort of quality has been getting battered downward.  Now I don’t know if Xiaomi simply see these as an accessory to their phones, so they don’t care if they make a penny on them.  Maybe that’s why they are so cheap?  Either way it feels like a value shift has just taken place.  I mean, they are built really nicely, they look alright, they sound really good, they come with a mic at seemingly no extra cost and then they come in priced as they are.  It just doesn’t add up.  How can Xiaomi and a retailer and the postal service used make a profit on these?  Is it a temporary introductory price they just haven’t mentioned?  It all just seems too good, I can’t help but feeling like there must be a catch somewhere that I’m missing.  It doesn’t seem like they can be so cheap and yet so good but they are.