The Clueless Audiophile

Demystifying the 2-channel and head-fi audiophile world for the clueless among us

Category: Uncategorized (Page 2 of 2)

The Hi-Fi Skyn from CEntrance: A Review

      HiFi-Skyn-Sennheiser-Momentum-700

About eighteen months ago, the guys from CEntrance (the same group that brought you the wildly popular HiFI-M8 dual input/output DAC) started an IndieGoGo campaign for their next biggest and brightest idea, the Hi-Fi Skyn.  This device encases an iPhone and adds an audiophile-quality DAC, headphone amp and external battery, essentially turning one’s iPhone into a DAP.  The campaign was wildly successful, and CEntrance was able to add several upgrades to the device including a more powerful amp, various color options, and an upgraded DAC.  Needless to say, I was very eager to get my hands on one, especially since my crowdsourcing price was <$300 and it now retails for $399.99, approximately half  of the nearest standalone DAP.

         20141219171036-HS-colors-with-logo-and-tag1

Due to the inherent streamlining with Apple that this product required, CEntrance had some challenges to overcome with its integration, particularly with Apple’s in-house testing.  This resulted in some unavoidable delays in production and release.  Once it arrived, however, CEntrance lived up to its end of the bargain, and from an engineering standpoint alone the finished product is a remarkable testament to their dedication. 

The case is made from durable polycarbonate, and I ordered a standard black nonslip soft-touch finish. for my iPhone 6 (5, 6S, 6 plus, and iPod touch sizes are available as well.)  The product came very well packaged and was a snug and almost perfect fit for my device.  The DAC will decode PCM up to 32/384 and DSD128 from an AK4490 chip with two independent 1ps clocks.  The class A headphone amp provides a whopping 410 mW at 32 ohms.  The output impedance is approximately 1 ohm, with a frequency response of 20 Hz-90kHz, SNR at 110 db, with THD around 0.002%.  Probably the most innovating feature of the amp is a gain switch with three settings:  IEM, line-level, and over-ear.  This gives the device a quoted support of headphones ranging from 16 to 600 ohms, enough to power the vast majority of IEMs and persnickety over-ears.  The battery allowed nonstop play with my Beyers for about 8 ½ hours.

20150112102836-HS-Features-3

Setup is extremely easy; plug your iDevice, snap the cover on, select a gain option, plug in your monitors and go for it!  Am I forgetting something?  The most recent iOs will only support files up to 24/48, mp3, WAV, and ALAC but not FLAC, AIFF or DSD.  For hi res files a separate app is needed.  There are several options on the app store, but I automatically eliminated any selection that cost more than $9.99 or had in-app purchases, and then tried the top three downloads.  By far the most popular right now is the Onkyo HF player, which has also gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews online.  There has been a recent burst of other available apps; the other two that I have tried are relative newcomers, ELECOM and Kalliopeia.  (Update:  The bummer with these apps is that they don’t speak to each other, i.e. one has to duplicate copy files, so it’s best to choose one over the other for the long term.)

Once the Onkyo is installed, it’s pretty easy to drag and drop hi res files through the iTunes app.  It’s not iTunes per se; one has to hardwire the phone to the computer, open iTunes, sync the device, and open the device’s app list to drop music files into Onkyo HF.  The files show up as “documents and data” under the data bar at the bottom of the iTunes screen.  I happen to like Onkyo the best so far, but since this review is more about the hardware I’ll let you come up with your own opinion about apps and focus on the Hi-FI Skyn.

So:  How to describe the sound?  In my opinion, CEntrance has been –very- successful in designing an excellent DAC/HPA that operates seamlessly with an iPhone, both structurally and functionally.  Using the line-out with my heavily modded Beyer T70ps which average around 32 ohms, the dynamics and sound quality are excellent and a huge step up from the internal hardware.  With the IEM gain setting and driving a pair of custom fitted Shure SE535s, I was impressed at the amp’s ability to adapt to different loads.  Finally, in the vein of lessening variables, I borrowed a pair of Beyer T70s with an average impedance of 250 ohms and put the gain switch to high.  This setting really was the best of the three in my opinion, and were it not for the size of the Beyers I would use this mode exclusively for hi-fi on the go.  I’m anxious to see how this unit works with some smaller and more portable on-ear planar magnetics like the Oppo PM-3 but have not had a chance yet.  I suspect this would be an absolutely ideal balance between sound and size.  Combined with the extended battery life, it’s an absolute no-brainer for those looking to get into DAPs to start with this, especially if they have an extra iPhone lying around and want to breathe life back into it.

The best thing I can say about the Hi-fi Skyn is that I almost forget that it’s even there, and in that sense I believe CEntrance has succeeded beyond expectations in integrating an awesome sounding HPA/DAC with the smooth ergonomics that everyone has come to expect with an Apple product.  This is a real statement considering the difficulties that companies experience when it comes to Apple-approved product and accessory testing.  The main drawback that CEntrance faces at this point is the inherently fixed sizing of the Hi-FI Skyn versus how often Apple has turnover in its devices and dimensions.  There could come a point where the amount of time and resources a smaller company has to dedicate to a project like this could be outstripped by the Cupertino juggernaut’s relentless changes to one of the world’s ubiquitous accessories.  Until then, however, we’ve gained a worthy addition to the growing stable of iPhone-compatible HPA/DACs.

An Audiophile’s musings on the subjectivity of hi-fi

If I see the phrase “Jazz at the Pawnshop” one more time on the HDTracks search engine I will probably gouge out my eyes with a dull scalpel. It’s not that I don’t like the actual music presented on said album, but more that it seems a little flogged by our pursuit of “Hi-Res Downloads.”

MI0002807862

Here’s my question:  is an audiophile more likely to purchase album these days if it offers a hi-res format? My answer is complicated, but boils down to this: If one has even heard of HDTracks or similar download services then the selection bias has already been in place: Of course we think we need the hi-res format that is at least $10 to $15 more than a “normal res” format one would find on iTunes.

This brushes a critical question that we must all ask ourselves at some point: Can I tell the difference between a Redbook download and a hi-res download?

My answer is: Not really. If I was blinded, perhaps I’d choose the hi-res file maybe 60% of the time, which as far as I’m concerned is statistically insignificant. I’d want to see some major power in numbers on people picking hi-res over Redbook before declaring that it is definitively better.

News flash–This type of study has not been done to my knowledge. I think we’d all know if there was some sort of good data out there, because the gurus would have latched on to that by now.

What does this represent for us? For me, it really boils down to whether or not I’m willing to pay the difference between Redbook and hi-res. I’ve come to my own subjective decision that if it is one of my favorite albums and I listen to it frequently, then I’ll shell out the extra cash. Whether or not I can hear the difference is up for debate. All I can say is that with hi-res downloads and great hi-fi equipment, I’m hearing a superb positive difference over what I was used to hearing years ago.  Lately, I’ve really been into female vocal pop like Lorde and Tove Lo, as well as some old standards like Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and “Aja.” Knowing the whole album note by note and hearing it in a great recording does allows me to enjoy it even more than when I first heard it.

Through the years, i’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in various avocations such as playing acoustic guitar and drinking/brewing beer, as well as high fidelity audio.  These avocations hold a commonality with high fidelity audio in that it’s almost impossible to describe subjective perceptions in quality; so, i’ve become accustomed to participating in a world in which the subjective perspective is sometimes the only way in which to communicate. Describing what one hears or tastes can frequently become a bit of a stretch. This is particularly relevant when it comes to attempts to put on paper the different shades and flavors that we all can experience. What one person experiences with Red Spruce and Mahogany in an old Martin may be described as “woody” or “dry” or “fundamental.” It turns out that these phrases have absolutely no basis in actual commonality from person to person. What I might taste as “banana ester” in a great farmhouse saison may be just flowery words that have been put in my head by reading others’ opinion of that experience.

Of course, there are larger generalizations on which a majority of individuals can agree.  But there are just as many that break out the pitchforks and double blinded studies when the opinions are voiced.  I strive for delivery of useful information with minimal extraneous nonsense.

academia

The same goes for describing music, and more importantly for our purposes, hi-fi equipment.  When I read online perspectives trying to describe vacuum tube equipment as “warm” or “lush,” or digital recordings as cold and calculating, I tend to roll my proverbial eyes. To be perfectly honest, I think that some of this stuff is nonsense. I liken it to a desperate sommelier, attempting to validate his or her own existence. There is a place for differing and various perspectives when it comes to describing hi-fi audio equipment, no doubt. But if one has to have the meanings of adjectives described to them in order to understand from whence they’re coming, what’s the point? Listen for yourself and make up your own mind.

A Troglodyte’s foray into Roon

Let’s just get this right out of the way:  I am not an audiophile expert.  Those that possess decades-long careers in the music, engineering, and journalism business will know more after a week-long binge of huffing markers and cartridge toner than I ever will.

After the lingering effects of the five finger discount work Sharpie fumes have worn off, what I can claim is that I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last ten years working with personal digital audio, and have learned a lot.  I became a self-taught iTunes guru more out of necessity than fondness; and as I dimly recall, the first step down the rabbit hole was buying my first iPod in 2005 and taking all my CDs, then numbering approximately 500, and loading them onto the hard drive using the AAC encoder.

Then, about three years ago, when I moved to Florida, I had completed the transition to all Apple devices with a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad, etc, and was trying to use iTunes seamlessly with these devices.  The storage had gotten so much bigger and less expensive, I was ready to re-rip all my CDs to lossless files.  That was the beginning of “The Troubles.”

The real pain started with trying to get iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud to blend seamlessly.  No matter how many times Apple support tried to explain it to me on the phone, I could not get it to jive correct.  I even have conspiracy theory-level doubts that these two things were actually a different entity.  I even got as high as the VP of customer support at one point, and he basically agreed with me that something didn’t make sense.  This whole Wagnerian Cycle took several months of phone calls with The Apple support peeps. While Apple does support certain hi-res content, at the time it wouldn’t’ load hi-res files above a certain size into the cloud, which turned out to be the root of the problem and was eventually fixed with the release of Apple Music, which to my plebeian mind essentially merged these two services into a cleaner streaming entity.  More importantly, the cloud accepted larger hi-res files, although I cannot confirm what that maximum size/type file is.

Apple Music worked pretty well for a while, but I knew the source sound quality was not up to snuff to feed my moderately high priced system, so I tried Audirvana+ for a while.  I found it to be altogether acceptable, but honestly not worth the effort of trying to make it work; the rate of return on investment both time and monetarily was not showing up as significantly better sound quality over iTunes.  Additionally, I could never get it to work in sys-optimizer, in which is specifically prioritized the music chain, ostensibly to improve sound.

Roon

Enter Stage Left–> Roon 1.2.  I’ll try not to swoon in the style of Scarlet O’Hara watching Ashley Wilkes drop trou, but suffice it to say, I am hooked.  Marion Barry’s love affair with Snowy White pales in comparison.  So far in my experience with Roon 1.2, I have been thrilled to see so many modalities and options flowing in such a clean and seamless way, making the user interface just an absolute joy with which to work.

I did have a bafflingly ridiculous time trying to get my NAS folder mounted, and after some chicken bones, gourd-shaking, and chanting (You’re chanting, Ray: Satan is good, Satan is our pal, etc) it magically showed up.  The craziest thing was that I had no idea what I did differently.  The Roon guys were super-helpful and extended my free trial, and now that I have everything running smoothly I am almost guaranteed to buy the one-time $499 fee.  To me, that’s an excellent rate of return given my gnashing of teeth and trichotillomania that was “living and dying in 5/4 iTunes time.”  Even more oddly enough, when fooling around with a SonicOrbiter the next week, I had absolutely zero issues, but that’s an issue for another post.  Maybe the sacrifice of one of the ubiquitous Key West chickens gave me enough Juju to spar with the Roon “Grid” without being kicked off my Tron Bike.

 

Page 2 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén