Went live yesterday:
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.
It’s taken me a while to get this article together, partly because I am basically reviewing six different headphones in the same thread, and it took me some time to formulate my thoughts on how to best go about it. So, about 75% of the write-up will cover several excellent and relatively affordable examples, while the last little bit will focus on the models that stood out to me and that I’d recommend without hesitation.
My criteria for selection were simple: Find six or so headphones for sale on Amazon that qualified for Prime free shipping, were <$500, and that I’d never tried before. I came up with the following, in alphabetical order. All headphones were tested with portability in mind, using either my iPhone 7 and Audioquest Dragonfly Red, or the Onkyo DP-X1 digital player.
Meze 99 Classic–$309.00
A brief note about what I didn’t include: Any in-ear monitors, models with active noise-cancelling circuitry, or every model <$500 of every company (i.e. at the time of purchase the HiFiMan HE400S was the only model available at this price restriction, and the HE 400i is as of publishing time available for $499. One can’t have every model reviewed.)
I’ve owned the Beyerdynamic T70p headphones for about three or four years now; they were my first decent headphone purchase. I bought another pair strictly for the purposes of this comparison because I’ve had Larry Dale at www.headphile.com so drastically modify my current pair that they’re almost unrecognizable as a pair of Beyers. This unit has been very popular in recent years due to the great price point and its compatibility with mobile units (the p stands for portable and signifies that the resistance of the unit averages around 32 ohms, perfect for an iPhone or Android unit. Beyerdynamic makes an almost identical model for home use that has a 300 ohm resistance. The biggest pro to this headphone is that it’s extremely comfortable; the microfoam over-ear pads and the headband pad combined with the light weight of 330 grams make for a very easy listening experience. I found the sound to be very evenly balanced, and certainly the heft that the Dragonfly added was palpable but not a big deal if one were lacking a portable DAC/HPA. This headphone really does shine with any portable DAC/HPA, and I guess that’s becoming the norm, especially when using an iPhone 6 or older and the old 3.5mm jack with Apple’s substandard integrated DAC/HPA. Now with an iPhone 7 or newer, since the 3.5mm jack has been deleted, one either must buy the $30 lightning to 3.5mm adapter or go with the Apple CCK to dongle-DAC solution. For a total of $40 for the CCK cable and maybe $100 for the dongle-DAC, it’s worth it to me, but that’s for another story. The soft sided faux leather and foam case is very nice, and my old one has stood up well for the past three years. The one negative that I and another friend noticed is that the Beyer is a little on the harsh side with some bright trebles that may turn some off. I personally like them, and since the price has dropped to <$300 I think it’s one of the best buys on the market currently.
I was very excited to try the HiFiMan HE400s open back planar magnetic headphones. The Chinese company has produced not only one of the least expensive options in this sub-category, but has done so while nailing the sound. I was very impressed by how comfortable the headband was, and overall at 350 grams it did not feel heavy at all. The dimensions, are, however, what one would expect from an open planar, i.e. a little on the larger side. The foam ear cups are very comfortable, and I felt that the cables were more than adequate. In terms of sound, HiFiMan achieved and surpassed my expectations, delivering a wide-open soundstage and darn good detail retrieval. Compared to an equivalent closed-back model, the bass may have been somewhat lessened, but I have learned to sometimes accept this compromise with open back cans. A few minor quibbles: The metal portion of the headband looks rather wonky, but is still quite functional. I wasn’t also a huge fan of the silver paint, but again very minor issues in the grand scheme of things. For <$300, this is probably the market’s best open back planar magnetic.
Next up was the Meze 99 Classics. This new company out of Romania took the headphone world by storm by having some aesthetically beautiful cans, gold or silver trim with CNC’d wood cups, that combined with a great sound and came in at a great price point of around $300. I very much liked the included cable, especially since it’s detachable and replaceable. I felt replacing the cable did make a marginal improvement of the sound, but probably not the best rate of return on your own personal investment for a $300 headphone. The standard cable is all you’ll need, and comes with device controls if you want it. They’re nice and long, and easy to coil, which is great for both home and travel. The friction headband design and extremely light weight of 270 grams made for an absurdly easy listening experience, no head fatigue whatsoever. I’d describe the sound as very smooth, with good bass extension and decent 3D imaging. The case is a very slick affair that allows one to Velcro the cords within, and is a hard style that would stand up to jamming it into your overnight bag without crushing the cans. If you’re looking for a bit of an aesthetic statement piece while out and about that also has a killer sound, then the Meze is a very good choice.
The Sennheiser Momentum headphones are next up on the list. To cut to the chase, it probably isn’t fair to even include these in the comparison, because at $199 they’re the least expensive by 30%, which puts them in a different buyer’s category in my opinion, and to spend the extra money especially when compared to the forthcoming HD700 or any other headphone here is clearly worth it. This device suffered from a one-two punch of pretty uncomfortable feel and a truly dreadful sound. My readers know that I wouldn’t say that lightly, and I typically don’t like to publish overtly negative reviews, but I feel I must be honest about this one. In addition to them being uncomfortable, I thought they sounded like death warmed over. The bass was truly the worst lack-luster bleating noise that I’ve ever heard from an upmarket headphone. When doing an A-B using the 192 FLAC HDTracks version of Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround,” I was flabbergasted at how outgunned the Momentums were against the Meze 99 classics. Although the Meze cans are $100 more, after listening to the Momentums I feel that $199 is about $150 too much. I would only use this headphone if no other alternative existed. If you’re looking at this headphone or have already bought it based on the price, I would strongly recommend trying out the Meze offerings for the extra Benjamin. I know at this price point that a 33% jump is a big deal, but if it were me I’d continue to save up and skip the Momentums.
Next up is one of the best deals in the headphone world, the Sennheiser HD700. Like I said before, it just isn’t fair to Sennheiser to even mention these two headphones in the same sentence, as the latter is more than twice the price of the former. However, having listened to both, I don’t understand why they even bother producing the Momentums without bleeding some of their excellent technology downstream to the more entry-level product. Now, again, the HDs are about twice the price at $430, and are over-ear compared to the Momentum’s on-ear design, but the sound of the HD700 just so significantly outclasses its little sibling that I felt it was worth mentioning to readers that in this instance, double your money gets you a more than double improvement in build quality, comfort, and sound. In short, the tone of this headphone is among the best I’ve ever heard. Sennheiser clearly has the open back dynamic driver market figured out; these cans are so smooth and detailed that It’s hard to find a better over-ear dynamic driver monitor on the market today, and this has become my default recommendation in the sub $500 price range. Highly recommended.
Last, but certainly not least in the Sub $500 can shootout, comes the shining star, the Oppo PM-3. I initially wanted to try this headphone out for a myriad of reasons, chief among them being the myriad of glowing online reviews. It’s very unique in the $400 price point of an on-ear closed back planar magnetic design, and it folds flat with a great case, so I thought it would be perfect for travel. Boy, did I call this one, because friends, this headphone is one of the best products I’ve ever tried. First off, the build quality is top notch, with genuine leather ear pads and headband cover, beautiful metal frame, and the sound is just to-die-for. I’m hearing absolutely fantastic dynamics, instrument separation, and power, without being too harsh. Truly sublime.
Oppo is really onto something with the on-ear closed-back planar magnetic idea, and now I’m itching to try their upstream products, the PM2 and PM1, albeit in an open back configuration. In my humble opinion this is the absolute best deal on the headphone market today, and in trying to decide between the HD700 and the PM3, one is choosing between two world-class products, and nitpicking the questions 1) do I want open back (Sennheiser) vs closed back (Oppo), 2) over ear (Senn) vs on-ear (Oppo), 3) dynamic driver (Senn) vs planar mag (Oppo), and 4) size, the oppo being smaller and more suited for travel while the HD700 is primed for home use with its double-cabled ¼ inch plug. Either way one can’t go wrong with these two headphones, and I would say that if you could only choose one, it would be the Oppo. Otherwise, if you were flush with cash and wanted the Senns for home and the Oppos for travel, I believe it would be many years before you’d need to upgrade your headphones. Two strong products that I would recommend without hesitation.
The gents at Part-time Audiophile were gracious enough to publish a piece I wrote about inexpensive Roon endpoints. Take a look:
More shenanigans are afoot from your favorite mental patients Mike Moffatt and Jason Stoddard at Schiit Audio. The first installment of my two-part review covered the new Modi Multibit DAC, and now I’ll discuss the second part of my headphone kit, the Vali 2. This little bugger has to be one of the most inexpensive American-made tube hybrid headphone amps on the market right now. Retailing for $169 will put this within reach of the vast majority of audiophiles, and it’s not just a “for the money” product. This is the first legitimate audiophile-quality headphone amp I’ve owned that allows the user to easily tube-roll and try out different various vacuum tubes to more finely dial in your sonic tastes.
Let’s look at the specs a little. Frequency response is a standard 20Hz-20kHz. It puts out 1000 mW per channel at 32 Ohms, and 470 mW at 300 Ohms. See the Schiit Website for more details on power output. The unit is powered by a wall-wart switching power supply, both for the tube and bipolar components. The real news for tube-lovers is that Schiit claims this class-leading power supply provides 60 Volts on the plate. The tube-rolling in which one may partake with this device means you can get just as silly and mental as the Moffatt/Stoddard squad did when they made this little dude!
The Vali 2 comes stock with an NOS 6BZ7 tube. This is a nice even tube that works well in stock situations, insofar it gives one a reference sound once some burn-in has occurred. Schiit states that any tube that works in the in Lyr 2 and Mjolnir 2 is good to go on the Vali as well. Their non-exclusive list includes ECC88, 6922, 6DJ8, and 2492. In my first foray into tube-rolling with the Vali, I bought a few valves off Amazon (surprisingly good selection!) including an Electro-Harmonix 6922 as well as a Genalex Gold Lion ECC88. During this highly technical case control study, my listening chain was Apple Time Capsule NAS and MacBook Air running Roon, wifi’d to a Raspberry Pi 3/Hifiberry digi+ streamer, wired into the Modi Multibit with an Audioquest Cinnamon optical cable, RCA’d to the Vali 2, and almost exclusively using my modded Beyerdynamic T70ps (Converted to Darth Beyer by the inimitable Larry Dale at headphile.com, but that’s for another time.)
To get an idea of what the Vali 2 sounded like with the stock 6BZ7 tube, I fall back on the old trick of pulling up a track with which I’m intimately familiar. I also think it helps that the reader is as well; no purloined reel-to-reel original John Williams score to The Three Amigos here. So, being a child of the Eighties, I went with the iconic MTV track, Dire Straits “Money for Nothing” off Brothers in Arms. The intro of this song should be familiar to our dear readers; I know I’ve heard the damn song at least three hundred times. I am a HUGE Knopfler fan, as he basically taught me how to play guitar, but weirdly enough I don’t know how to play this one. He’s playing a Les Paul (while he was almost pathgnomonically known for using a Strat) and maybe that threw me off. That said, I know the melody and rhythm by heart. I can hear the reverb of the synth slowly build in volume, I can hear Sting whisper in the background “I want my MTV”, and then as it continues to build, the reverb and artificial sounds abruptly stop and one gets struck with Knopfler’s overdriven Les Paul mixed between bridge and neck pickups, using his signature fingerpicking style to blow us all away with such an iconic riff. I hate to steal a cool phrase from a weird dude, but this tube combo definitely has a “Wall of Sound” quality to it. The 60 Volts to the plate are clearly making a difference here, because the attenuator couldn’t go past about 40% without giving me hemotympanum and causing the dogs to call 911. All in all, the stock 6BZ7 tube works quite well with this amp. I’d recommend this tube for hard rock, grunge, or classic rock.
When rolling on the Electro-Harmonix 6922 (which by the way is an extremely easy plug-and-play scenario) I wanted to find music to match what I’ve heard is supposed to be a very smooth, clean and bright tube. I chose to listen to Donald Fagen’s excellent solo debut album, The Nightfly. Several of the tracks on this album complement the 6922 combo, but specifically the opening track “I.G.Y” really allows the EH tube to shine the way it should, really fleshing out mid-range with Fagen’s cool but quirky vocals, and allows Marcus Miller’s bass work to hold down the clef with its sharp chiseled weight. The soundstage on this particular tube struck me as quite nice, probably the nicest of the three. This tube would do quite well while listening to jazz or classical, where the smooth clean sound can prevail and the soundstage would assist the listener to really get some very cool instrument placement.
The last tube I tried out in the Vali 2 was the Genalex Gold Lion ECC88, again from Bezos et al. At $44.99, it was almost double what Jeff charged me for the EH, so I was in a confrontational mood when pushing this delicate but overly priced piece of audiophilia into its socket. I guess by now you know I’m a Rush freak, so I threw on “Subdivisions” from their excellent 1982 release Signals. The post-Moving Pictures albums can get a little lost in the fray sometimes, but I find this phase of their discography just as exciting, albeit even heavier on synth. The Gold Lion did a very stand-up job with Geddy Lee’s difficult bass work and kept it separated, not muddied up. Weirdly, as a guitarist, you’d think this song would put me in the pro-Lifeson camp and want to chuck the synths in the dumpster, but I have to say that the Gold Lion was able to breathe some life into a track I’ve heard hundreds of times.
Tube-rolling with the Vali 2 was a fun little experiment, and for audiophiles looking to get into this little micro-addiction this is a very easy place to start. For $169, you’re not likely to find another similar component built to such exacting standards; one wonders if Schiit runs in the red or is simply a money-laundering front for a Bond film Megalomaniac. Either way, you win, with inexpensive tubey goodness.