I have the ongoing pleasure of writing for Mr. Stone, and this is my latest installment about value propositions in the audiophile and guitar market.
I have the ongoing pleasure of writing for Mr. Stone, and this is my latest installment about value propositions in the audiophile and guitar market.
According to a press release earlier this week, Roon and Google have come to an agreement to make Chromecast devices Roon-Capable. Take a wander over to https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2018/07/06/roon-expands-its-connected-devices-to-include-chromecast/
and take a look. Also be prepared to read my review of the juiced GCA with hardline ethernet and high end toslink cable compared to a homebuilt Raspberry Pi with similar specs. The results may surprise you.
I’ve been persistently impressed with Dan Clark’s relatively meteoric rise in the Head-Fi world over the past few years. He translated modding Fostex cans into his wildly popular Mad Dog and Alpha Prime headphones. Then came the introduction of planar magnetic technology for this San Diego-based firm, with the Ether, Ether Flow, and Ether Flow C. These products, while considerably more expensive than the original MrSpeakers offerings, began making waves in the industry almost from the get-go and started racking up awards and accolades rapidly. Clark’s newest offering, the Aeon Flow, is priced at $799 and is offered in both closed and open back configuration. It’s the perfect set of phones for those looking for a bit higher than entry level into the intoxicating world of closed-back planar magnetics.
When I started shopping for a pair of up-market open-back planar magnetics, I ended up with the MrSpeakers Ether Flow after demoing HiFiMan and Audeze products. After 18 months, I’ve been very pleased with the wide soundstage, excellent bass, detail retrieval, and lack of fatigue. The only real bummer for me was that the open-back configuration tended to annoy my wife when she was attempting to sleep and I was listening in bed. The obvious solution was their closed-back Ether Flow, but I wanted something a little different and perhaps smaller. Imagine my unexpected pleasure upon discovering the impending release of the Aeon Flow, a slightly smaller and less expensive offering from MrSpeakers, using the proprietary V-Planar and Truflow technology first debuted in the Ether Flow, and offered in closed-back carbon fiber.
Upon arrival, the packaging was everything I’ve come to expect from an upscale company like MrSpeakers. There is an external box with a hardshell case for the cans themselves. In addition to included detachable cables with a combo 3.5- ¼’ plug, there are also several ear cup inserts that are meant to change the buffering characteristics; more on that later. Suffice it to say, the packaging and case are very high quality and will protect your investment for years to come.
The ear cups are elliptical or tear-drop in shape, and despite being slightly smaller than the Ether Flow, I was profoundly happy with the comfort level that these cans afforded even after several-hour listening periods. The build quality is excellent, with some design elements being carried over from The Ether Flow, such as the extremely comfortable leather headband and the Nytinol metal spring/frames that provide clamping force to the cans. They are easily adjustable and are rarely too tight. One thing that has changed is the suspension swivels that attach the cups to the headband; they are slightly more streamlined than the Ether Flow and while they may have been instituted as a cost-saving measure, they in no way give off that vibe. They seem very slick, high quality, and super functional.
After about forty hours of break-in and many more hours with the Ether Flows, I feel I have a pretty good grasp on MrSpeakers’ house sound, and the Aeon Flow has its feet firmly in this camp, with excellent detail retrieval, separation, soundstage, and killer bass. My main listening rigs for this review were an Onkyo DP-X1, MQA capable, running Roon, a MacBook Air running Roon Core to Audioquest Dragonfly Red (also MQA capable), and Roon Core to Bryston BDP-Pi streamer to Schiit Jotunheim DAC/Amp to ¼’ cable to Aeon Flows.
I wanted to rely on a few old standard albums with which I was intimately familiar for this review, and the first thing that popped up in the Roon queue was Winton Marsalis Standard Time Vol 1. Initially released in 1987 and something I had on CD for many years, but recently had downloaded a DSD64 version from HDTracks.com and was itching to try it out. To me, this album is a modern Jazz classic, and does not get nearly the praise it deserves. While listening to the opening track, a reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” I was instantly hooked by the drum lead-in by Jeff Watts. Marsalis’s muted trumpet starts the melody, and Marcus Roberts’ piano drops chords in the background like no other. The Aeon Flow could deliver all this in stark detail, but without any real harshness. The resolution was good enough to hear the valves opening and closing on Winton’s trumpet.
The second record I tested out was the newly released MQA version of John Coltrane’s 1961 classic My Favorite Things. At the height of his quartet’s musical prowess, he put together a group of musicians that were synergistic on a level not to be seen again for a long time. McCoy Tyner’s vamping over Elvin Jones driving beats and Steve Davis’ bass (Jimmy Garrison had not joined the quartet yet) enabled Coltrane to delve into the wall of sound as he had never before, and for me it represented a pinnacle of his melodic/free form performance stage. The Aeon Flow handled itself on this challenging recording with aplomb, easily parsing out the wide soundstage and remarkable bass (even with the closed back configuration.)
Lastly, I ran the Aeon Flow through its paces with one of my favorite prog-rock albums, Fragile by Yes. The radio-friendly hit and opening track “Roundabout” was a joy to listen to, especially the nylon string acoustic intro as well as the extensive organ solo towards the end of the piece. What really stood out to me when listening to the album was the other hit track, “Long Distance Runaround,” in which I heard studio sound that had evaded me from prior listenings, a slow build-up breathing into the mic by Jon Anderson. These speakers are very detailed, and I was impressed to say the least.
In regards to the aforementioned ear inserts which the company states may change the sound profile, I haven’t found such major differences, but will keep you posted on that on a further update.
I don’t have very much to critique the Aeon Flows at this point: They’re cool looking, they fit the bill for me as closed back planar magnetics from a company I trust, they were comfortable for hours-long listening sessions, and at a retail price of under $800 (less than half of the Ether Flows) I can honestly say I’m a happy camper and I think these will be in my collection for the long haul. Highly recommended.
Full disclosure: At one point in my life, I looked at the toys of my upbringing, and saw stamped into the proprietary markings “Made in Taiwan” or “Made in Hong Kong”, or “Made in China,” and perhaps been unfairly biased against these products. This stems from a long-held cultural misconception that “Gosh-Darn American Made” or “Made in Germany by pious monks” somehow meant higher quality. In the shadow of World War II, it took the longest time for Japanese car makers to prove to the Western public that their product was just as well made or more so than the European or American alternative.
This all sounds vaguely small-minded, but the fact of the matter is that I had to become a free-thinking adult that challenged his own misconceptions to accept modern products being made in China as real contenders in the audiophile market. I’m prefacing this review with this extended Mea Culpa to help open customer’s eyes to the insanely great product modern Chinese companies are making these days, in the post British Colonial/Integrated Hong Kong/free market pseudocapitalism economy that currently drives the most populated country in the world. Look no further to HiFiMan as an incredible success story of a Chinese company that has swiftly commanded respect of the worldwide audiophile community.
It is with this verbose prologue that I lead you to a product I essentially tripped across, the Cayin N5ii DAP. I was having a problem at work being able to keep my iPhone with me to accept calls away from my desk while still coming back and having the tunes keep me company through a tough day. I felt I needed a DAP to connect to the Audioengine HD3 Bluetooth speakers I splurged on for my work desk, and really didn’t want to tether my iPhone since I was using that to communicate for work purposes. What about an Android-based DAP that wouldn’t cost me a kidney?
My search criteria were very complicated—search Amazon for DAPs <$500, and start whittling the choices based on features, ergonomics, and gut reaction. One of the best DAPS on the market, the Onkyo DP-X1, was ruled out from the start since I already own it, love it, and don’t want it anywhere near work. I had to find something that was slightly less expensive to justify owning two DAPS.
This is where the Cayin N5ii stepped into save me from my misery. Some of you may have heard of Cayin from their extremely well received tube-based headphone amplifiers. I suspect they fly under the radar in the US but are probably venerated in Asia due to reasonable prices with great sound. Turns out they’re not only good at tube amplification, but also personal audio.
The N5ii is rather compact, 115 mm x 57 mm x 15 mm, weighing 150g. Carrying in-pocket is slightly thicker than an iPhone but not more compact, like a deck of cards. The device runs on the Android 5.1 platform, and is very user-friendly. Other relevant specs include an ESS 9018K2M DAC chip, dual 2.5 and 3.5 mm headphone jacks, and micro sd card slots supporting two 400 gb cards, (WOW!) as well as 32gb of internal storage. In addition, the device supports WiFi, DLNA, and various third party applications through download from the Google Play arena. N5ii supports 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n WiFi. Other great features include access to DropBox music, or access NAS-stored music files through Samba/DLNA.
On the output side, the N5ii provides 150 mW @ 32ohms from the 3.5mm jack, while the balanced 2.5 mm jack provides 250 mW @ 32ohms. The DAP will decode PCM up to 64 bit/384 kHz PCM and DSD 256, and supports practically every file known to man, including Apple’s proprietary AAC and ALAC.
Just about every tech-spec of this new DAP is a huge bonus for me as a consumer, but there’s one very simple feature that I think should become the new norm for Android or any non-Apple device—the USB-C power/data cord. Its connection is most importantly non-directional as compared to a micro-USB plug, and there are no metal tangs to become loose after many pluggings and unpluggings. It also seats deeper than the micro USB, and in my anecdotal experience is much more sturdy and resistant to lateral stress that would progressively weaken the connection.
How, do you then ask, is the sound, darn it!?!? You’ve been reading this whole schlemiel and haven’t gotten to hear my thoughts on whether it can reproduce decent music. I felt that the ESS DAC handled itself very well and provided a very well balanced sound that was inherently musical, full of detail, with a great soundstage. I felt it was –very- close to the Onkyo DP-X1 in terms of overall sound quality. At this price point it’s the best DAP I’ve heard. All listening was done through one of my three main sets of headphones, the Oppo PM-3, MrSpeakers Ether flow, the Sennheiser HD700, and Moon Audio aftermarket cables.
This DAP fit many requirements for me: External micro SD card slots, flexible Android OS, great price, and great sound. Are these 800 words of confirmation bias? Perhaps. That being said, it’s not a lie that this is a great little DAP. I justify the possibility of confirmation bias by stating that I am an independent blogger and have never accepted a piece of equipment from a manufacturer just for the sake of review (Let’s face it, I’m a minnow in a mighty sea of whales.) Either way, I highly recommend this product for anyone shopping in the $300-$500 range.
Again, apologies for the delay in decent writing, but with two full time jobs, wife, two toddlers etc it’s hard to keep up.
In addition to the aforementioned, keep on the lookout for reviews of the Bryston BDP 3 network streamer, and the new Cayin N5ii DAP.
Going forward, you’ll see some more analog hardware and software, perhaps some reviews of newly garnered LPs. I hope you’ll follow me along in my adventures!
I’m so sorry it’s been almost a year since I updated the site, but the good news is that I’ve got a bunch of nascent ideas and concrete info to share with you guys.
When you have two toddlers age 2 and 3.5, life gets in the way and since I hold down two full-time jobs and am trying to help my saintly wife to manage the household, anything not involving eat/sleep/work/kids falls by the wayside quickly.
Then came the hurricane.
We were in the direct path of the Category 4 Hurricane Irma here in Key West, and were incredibly fortunate overall; just some trees down and a slow-down of our continued renovations of our new house. The old house was so old, we did the math and realized it had been through at least four Cat 4 storms over the past 120 years, so while the yard was a wreck, the old clapboard structure fared very well, presumably due to its inherent leakiness, who knows.
Either way we dodged a bullet and our house was basically fine.
Coming up will be a mildly truncated account of how I finished the in-home cable and internet wiring of the new one-story concrete ranch structure. We’ll discuss hardwiring Cat6 ethernet, running coax for cable, and setting up the home network with modem/router/wifi hotspots, and additionally adding Amazon Alexa for voice control to the Nest thermostats and smoke detectors.
The much-awaited sequel has been published on AudiophileReview.com:
Steven Stone from AudiophileReview.com and The Absolute Sound was kind enough to publish an article I wrote about the sometimes strange confluences of aural recall and tube rolling. This will be a two-part piece. Here’s the link to part one:
My family has grown exponentially in the past three years, with two sons under the age of three, two in-laws under the same roof, and three large dogs. The house we bought when we first moved to Florida no longer can contain this circus, so my wife and I started shopping and finally bought a new house at the end of October. The place is an absolute wreck cosmetically, but sound structurally, and is in a great neighborhood. I thought this was the perfect opportunity for a complete overhaul of the electrical system in the house since all the sheetrock was getting ripped off, and perhaps document the process of taking a 1950s-mid-century modern Florida CBS ranch and turning it into the ultimate “Smart” home on as little a budget as possible.
There were a few reasons that we chose this house. First, it was a one-story concrete house in good structural shape outside of the flood zone. The one-story thing with kids will make our lives infinitely easier, and we have old decrepit dogs that won’t have to climb stairs anymore. Plus, since it needed to be totally gutted from an aesthetic standpoint, it was going to give me the opportunity to start from scratch with my master plan to combine a smart home with a killer audiophile room. I also made the conscious decision to separate the TV room from the listening room (heretofore referred to as Lounge), as I’ve learned over the past few years that at least in my case, mixing those two systems can result in a recipe for disaster. So, the TV and the 2-channel stereo will be in different rooms.
I’ll give you a basic run-down of the 2-channel audio system and what will be in the lounge. My speakers are Joseph Audio Pulsars, powered by a Vinnie Rossi LIO modular power supply/tube preamp/phono preamp/DAC/MOSFET amp. My analogue signal is a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon with Ortofon 2M cartridge. My digital signal is a Mac Mini and Time Capsule NAS running Roon to various endpoints.
As for the “Smart Home” system, I decided to go with Amazon Alexa products, including a few Echo Dots, The Nest smart thermostat, Nest security cameras, and Nest Smoke/Carbon Monoxide detectors. I’m also hoping to integrate a Control4 Lighting system, but that remains to be seen.
So this won’t devolve into a personal blog but remain firmly focused on audiophilia, I’ll try to document in stages over the next six months how I set up the perfect smart home without spending a bundle. (I’ve already bought the 2-channel audio stuff so let’s not count that here!)
After closing on the house on October 20th, we spent about eight weeks gutting it to the studs and planning the plumbing, windows, moving walls, kitchen, etc. Once all the sheetrock was down and I discussed with the electrician, I elected to run RG56 coaxial cable and Cat6 Ethernet cable to each room in the house. We have very spotty wifi reception in my current house, and this way the kids can either use wifi or set up an Ethernet router in each of their rooms should they choose. Plus, when bought in bulk, 1000 feet of Cat6 cable was <$125 on Amazon, and I ran almost all of it to each of the four bedrooms, lounge, and living room. Having the sheetrock ripped off enabled me to save some money and run the cables myself. I’ve run plenty of coax in my life, and have the specialty tools to crimp terminals correctly, but have never done this with Ethernet, so that will be a learning curve at some point in the next few weeks.
I have run all the signal cables to a central location which will be in a bedroom closet with nice open access to shelves that I will use for the Network Attached Storage, Ethernet Switches, Modem/Router, and a power supply. One of the sage pieces of advice I can give others in advance is to color-code the wires going to each room (I did mine with zip ties.) I’m hoping that will make for a more pleasurable hook-up experience.
The big picture will involve the two-channel audio system running through Roon and running various Roon endpoints through the house. I will also be using the Echo Dots sent to some aptX Bluetooth enabled devices for ambient music, good for parties or background listening when I don’t want to go to the trouble of booting up Roon and selecting a playlist etc.
Stay tuned on the next part of the project, which will be capping the signal cables and building the “Brains” cabinet with NAS, Ethernet switches, Router/Modem, and power supply.
Page 1 of 2
New article on Steven Stone’s audiophilereview.com
August 16, 2018
Google Chromecast devices now Roon Ready
July 8, 2018
MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Review: A fluid epiphany into affordable Planar Mag
June 27, 2018
New article on Steven Stone’s AudiophileReview.com
June 1, 2018
The Manchurian Candidate–A review of the Cayin N5ii DAP
May 15, 2018