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:
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.
Everyone’s favorite punny yet cost-conscious company is doing their Shtick again, creating extremely well-made American products at insanely low price points. That, oh by the way, have some of the most advanced software technology currently available to consumers, and outputting some of the best sound (not even for the money) that one can currently enjoy. They’ve done a fantastic job focusing on desktop head-fi products, from DACs, solid state amps, tube hybrid amps, and USB signal processors. In this two-part series, I’ll first be reviewing the Modi 2 Multibit DAC, and will then focus on the Vali 2 tube hybrid headphone amp.
Mike Moffatt and Jason Stoddard have made a pretty good name for themselves in the 2-channel high fidelity audio crowd by getting their company up and running through sheer will alone, and in the process creating some of the greatest new gear that us head-fi geeks have had the pleasure of hearing over the past few years. Their products are almost universally great, and almost absurdly underpriced. The fact that they are also benignly crazy and funny as hell just is a bonus as far as I’m concerned. When the Modi 2 Multibit DAC was released earlier this year, I eagerly purchased a unit, mainly so I could experience what all this multibit digital filter technology was all about. This “burrito” filter found in the Yggdrasil, Bifrost, and Gugnir DACs has now trickled down to their least expensive (and most physically diminutive) DAC in their lineup. Instead of sounding like a dumbass, I’ll let the experts from Schiit explain the benefits of multibit processing. From their press release:
“Modi Multibit is built on Schiit’s proprietary multibit DAC architecture, featuring Schiit’s unique closed-form digital filter on an Analog Devices SHARC DSP processor. For D/A conversion, it uses a medical/military grade, true multibit converter specified down to 1/2LSB linearity, the Analog Devices AD5547CRUZ.
“Multibit DACs differ from the vast majority of DACs in that they use true 16-20 bit D/A converters that can reproduce the exact level of every digital audio sample. Most DACs use inexpensive delta-sigma technology with a bit depth of only 1-5 bits to approximate the level of every digital audio sample, based on the values of the samples that precede and follow it.
“Modi Multibit smashes the price barrier in advanced multibit DACs. It is the most affordable multibit DAC built on a modern architecture—from any manufacturer, in any country in the world.”
So—on to specs and listener experience. The Modi 2 Multibit supports 16/44.1 to 24/192 via USB, 16/44.1 to 24/192 via Toslink/Optical and Coax, with 24/176 and 24/192 being NOS (non-oversampled.) Moffatt and Stoddard are vehemently anti-DSD, so don’t expect that support any time never. Not unexpectedly, it has three inputs on the back of the device, USB A, optical, and coax. There are standard RCA outputs on the back of the device. I used Schiit-provided individual RCA cables to feed the Vali 2 headphone amplifier, which I’ll review in part two of this post. The front of the device is a simple affair, with one button allowing selection between the three inputs.
I tried to keep the extraneous variables to a minimum when doing come critical listening. The signal path was Roon 1.2 on a MacBook Air and Time Capsule NAS to a Raspberry Pi 3, Audioquest Cinnamon optical cable to the Modi 2 Multibit. This fed the Vali 2 headphone amp which was feeding my MrSpeakers Ether Flows.
The first album I booted up on Roon to test the Schiit DAC was one of my favorite guitar records, an HDTracks 24/96 version of Ben Harper’s The Will to Live. Harper is a real disciple of the Weissenborn Hawaiian lap steel guitar, and his instrument carries a very distinctive sound, further differentiated by his amps and effects. The track “I Want to be Ready” is a great example of this. One can hear the metallic timbre of the steel strings interacting with what sounds like a ceramic slide. Perhaps I’m exhibiting confirmation bias, but this is a classic Koa Weissenborn tone to me. The reverb effect is reproduced in exacting detail, and clearly sounds better on this DAC than my previous desktop DAC. Its detail retrieval and quickness come to the forefront, and I felt the music was more full in the soundstage department. I can’t stress enough how this track emphasizes the interplay of the unusual acoustic guitar wood, steel strings, a non-metallic slide, and the reverb, and how that is brought into the forefront with this absolutely killer DAC.
In an attempt to see how well the DAC does with acoustic guitar ensemble music, I queued up my Redbook version of Avalon by Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge. There are many excellent tracks on this album, but the collective repertoire piece “Ginseng Sullivan” is a perfect cut to allow the DAC to shine. My blog readers know that I’m a big Critter fan, and that’s only due in part that he and I play the same guitar (I like to think that mine makes me sound like him!) and that his recording of an iconic Martin acoustic guitar was done so well on this album that it’s about as close to playing in person that I’m using it as one of my reference albums. Once again, this is a great modern recording of the classic dry, fundamental vintage Martin Mahogany sound (although I’ll be the first to admit that the older Martins get the less relevant the side/back woods become tonally in my humble opinion.) I can hear the chanticleer bells and simultaneous cutting of flatpicking these guitars, and the hard-driven Red Spruce tops can really handle a heavy-handed attack. Schiit’s DAC does not disappoint in any way shape or form in its ability to faithfully reproduce Lage and Eldridge’s superb work and giving it some real life.
In part two of this series, we’ll discuss the Vali 2 hybrid tube/solid state headphone amplifier from Schiit that I have paired with the wonderful Modi 2 Multibit. Schiit seems to be hitting on all cylinders right now, as this is a product I highly recommend.
Do you, my dear faithful reader, wonder why it is that I tend to review the equipment I’ve already bought? Well, one is a bullshit reason, and one not so much. The first is no one sends me free stuff for review. The second, slightly more sensible reason, is that I’ve already burned through a bunch of mediocre equipment and rejected it, and the remainder is stuff you’d actually want to buy. That is also in part why you don’t see a lot of overtly negative reviews. It pisses manufacturers off, and who really wants to read “This product sucks, don’t buy it”?
Thankfully, that won’t be a problem with the newest release from MrSpeakers, the Ether Flow. This open-back planar magnetic headphone is really at the pinnacle of head-fi technology, and I think you’ll agree. Dan Clark at MrSpeakers has really leapt on to the hi-fi stage over the past few years, first by heavily modding Fostex offerings with redesigned CNC’d closed backs, and then really getting into the guts of the drivers and wiring. The results, MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs, and AD Primes, sold like gangbusters. So, when Clark began to grow beyond modding dynamic drivers (albeit very successfully) he took a real leap of faith and began to envision a planar magnetic headphone completely redesigned from the ground up. Dubbed the Ether, these debuted in 2015 and came in both open and closed back designs. They were almost universally lauded with their great bass in the closed back form and the killer holographic soundstage in the open backs. Not one to rest on his laurels, Clark embarked on a major mid-cycle redesign of his flagship headphone, now dubbed the Ether Flow. The magnets inside the cup have now been redesigned using the latest generation in modeling software to maximize air flow around the magnets and minimize turbulence, therefore improving efficiency of the energy transferred to the diaphragm. Additionally, that diaphragm now sports V-Planar technology, which is best explained from direct website quotes:
“V-Planar technology addresses nonlinear driver motion by more deeply creasing the diaphragm to increase compliance. Much as pleats allow an accordion to expand and contract without stretching the fabric, the creases in the driver “open” slightly during larger excursions as illustrated in Figure 2. When the driver is processed, the resultant peaks and troughs are deep enough to maintain more of their physical structure even after the driver has been tensioned. Increasing driver compliance allows it to behave as a more idealized planar surface. With more of the driver surface in linear motion, V-Planar can not only push more air at low frequencies, but with greater acceleration also delivers better dynamics, high-end frequency response, and measurably lower distortion.”
I jumped at the chance to order these beautiful headphones once they were released into the US market. I initially planned on using them with some of my portable equipment, i.e. the Onkyo DAP or my iPhone/Dragonfly combo, so had originally ordered them with a 4 foot unbalanced 3.5mm “DUM” proprietary MrSpeakers cable. As my listening progressed over the next few weeks, however, I splurged and ordered 2.5 mm balanced and 4-pin XLR DUM cables so that I could use them with the Bal output on the Onkyo as well as the XLR output on my Vinnie Rossi LIO. Needless to say, it’s been a real party lately putting these cans through their paces.
In terms of ergonomics, these are some of the most comfortable headphones I’ve w0rn. Since they’re open back planar magnetics, they are a smidge heavier than their dynamic driver counterparts might be, but the absolutely ingenious leather headband and self-tightening Nitinol metal bands have make for about as a fatigue-free listening period as I could have hoped. The cans come with a very high quality plastic MrSpeakers case for travelling purposes.
It happens to be that I’m in a real Pink Floyd mood lately, so I initially fired up the Ether Flows to my iPhone/Dragonfly and queued up my FLAC 16/44.1 version of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” off Wish You Were Here. Ostensibly a send-off by Roger Waters and David Gilmour for former bandmate Syd Barrett, the opening track is an absolute magnum opus of Seventies atmospheric rock, and boy did the Ether Flows marry well with that. Listening to Roger Waters’ creepy laughing coming five feet from behind my left shoulder literally freaked me out until reality set in. The languishing but building guitar riffs had amazing detail, easily being picked out as Gilmour’s trademarked heavily compressed single coil Strat.
Moving on to the Onkyo as a source, I queued up the iconic Floyd album The Wall. This is one of my favorite reference albums, since I know the damn thing by heart. (How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat? Etc.) I chose to use the 2.5 balanced DUM cables this time around, and was not disappointed. The sound is absolutely enriched with layers and layers of soundstage; I can hear Waters change from thumb to plectrum on his excellent bass work, while Gilmour soars into his air guitar-worthy solos in seemingly effortless fashion. Those damned scary-ass taskmasters from the playground sound at least thirty feet behind my shoulders. By the time “Young Lust” has played in the background, we’re hearing “This is the United States calling are we reaching?” clear as day. Apparently he didn’t want to accept the collect charges.
Those of you who plan on using these headphones mainly in an in-house capacity with a desktop amp could be in for a real treat. I specifically ordered the 4 pin balanced XLR cables from MrSpeakers so I could try them on the LIO’s headphone amp. In a word, with Vinnie’s new tube preamp, the combination was just stunning. Holographic soundstages leapt from the speakers as if I had just sat down to the front row of my favorite venue. I did a lot of critical listening with some of my reference acoustic guitar music with this combo, and the Ether Flows absolutely shine in this capacity. Altan’s “Donal Agus Morag” from The First Ten Years made me feel as if I was sitting in a pub in my mum’s native Donegal, two pints of Guinness already done for, right in the middle of the band. A more contemporary acoustic guitar recording came from Andy McKee’s 2014 EP Dreamcatcher, the eponymous track. McKee’s absolutely cavernous Greenfield G4 jumbo guitar reverbs through the soundstage as if one were listening from inside the guitar. Do yourself a favor and try out this combo at your next show like RMAF or AXPONA.
Now, here’s the thing: For $1800 these headphones better make you a damn good cup of Starbucks in the morning. That being said, I think that it would take an absolutely phenomenal open back planar magnetic to replace these in my stable, and I can’t see that happening in the foreseeable future, and certainly not at this price point. I wanted a flagship open back planar magnetic, and that’s what it looks like I got. A very highly recommended product.
The market for digital audio players has gotten rather competitive lately, and rightly so. Some of the retail prices for these devices have frankly gotten out of control. While I suppose it’s true that an item is worth whatever someone will pay for it, I do think that the DAP is a great example of companies pushing the price envelope a bit too much. Astell&Kern is a great example of an extremely successful firm that has, by that success, created a paradigm shift by saying it’s ok to charge 1-3k for what amounts to an Android phone with a juiced amp/DAC. I’m not saying those devices aren’t great, merely pointing out that the profit margin may be a little too much for this humble servant to stomach. To that end, I began researching more affordable DAPs that met expectations in the features department.
Having been released at the beginning of the year, the Onkyo DP-X1 fits this bill perfectly. While the MSRP is higher, the device can be yours for $675 or less on Amazon. The list of features on this device belies its price; in fact, it may be more relevant to say what this device doesn’t do. It doesn’t act as a phone, but occupying that precious hardware space inside the case is some of the most sophisticated digital audio equipment you’re likely to find. In all other aspects, it functions just like your favorite Android device: email, web connectivity, open source downloadable apps from Google Play, calendar, contacts, Kindle, etc. Oh yeah, and it supports MQA. Boom. Name another device on the market that does all this for the price.
Let’s look at the details as it pertains to audio playback. The DP-X1 sports dual DACs and amps, and is therefore able to deliver a true balanced signal through its 2.5 mm output. The DAC chips are ESS Sabre ES9018K2Ms, and the amps are ESS Sabre 9601Ks. Onkyo has provided two options for balanced software playback, ACG (Active Control Ground) and BT. There’s some mumbo-jumbo on the Onkyo website about what exactly this means, but to dumb it down for clueless consumers like me, it apparently provides a more stable grounding for the output. Maybe my hearing isn’t what it used to be, but for me the settings were very close. Perhaps the former allowed a little broader soundstage. In addition to the 2.5mm bal output, there’s a standard 3.5mm unbalanced analog out for all your other headphone needs. The 2.5mm outputs at 150 mWx2 and the unbal at 150 mWx1. In terms of playback, the DP-X1 supports up ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, DSD up to 11.2, and the aforementioned MQA.
Onkyo’s software functionality is what you’d expect from a great Android device. This one runs 5.1.1, while not the newest OS still quite good in its features. As stated above, it has access to the Google Play store and all that entails, in addition to Android’s built-in melding with all things Google—Gmail, calendar, contacts, etc. Onkyo was very smart to use an essentially unaltered Android platform, because it offers a few apps that the lofty Atell&Kern devices still don’t, like Tidal. I suppose A&K’s concern with a fully open platform was people rooting and inadvertently bricking their device, which at that price point I get. But with a historically very respected firm like Onkyo, and at perhaps less than half the cost, one can get full access as well as access to any streaming platform your heart desires? That’s a no-brainer to me.
And wait, that’s not all. All you Roon fans out there, take notice. Downloading the Roon app onto the DP-X1 not only allows one to control the Roon Core from your handheld device, but also outputs through the device. So you can have access to your ENTIRE LIBRARY. I have 8000 lossless tracks on my NAS, and when I’m attached to the home wifi network, that means I can listen to whatever the hell I want, in fully glorious lossless playback. This is probably the coup de grace for me, and makes the Onkyo DAP part of my long-term stable.
Playback on the device can be achieved through several apps; I used both the pre-installed player as well as Onkyo’s other downloadable app, HF player (which I reviewed below and is currently in use on my iPhone as well.) Both these apps work pretty seamlessly, and unlike multiple apps on the iPhone, these share music and automatically see whatever you’ve dragged onto the DAP’s storage. They also share the pretty killer 16 band EQ function that allows up to 1000 different custom settings. Onkyo has paired with multiple musicians such as Scott Ian from Anthrax to provide preset EQ downloads, which work well for various types of music and provide for a little listener interaction with customization.
When using the device in unbalanced playback, Onkyo quotes a 16-hour battery life. I’ve personally found this to be a bit less, perhaps more like 10-12 hours. In balanced playback mode with the most hi-res DSD files, I can practically hear the battery meter drop like I was warming up the Death Star. I guess this is probably due more to the balanced headphone out than the files, but there you have it. When listening through balanced playback at home I’ve been plugging the device into its charger, and switching to a 3.5mm unbalanced cord when out and about.
When discussing file transfer onto the device, it helps to revisit some hardware specs. The device has 32GB of internal storage, with two micro SD card slots, supporting up to 200GB cards, for a total of 432GB. That’s a hell of a lot of storage, even for hi-res. I’ve found with various file formats and album sizes, it’s a good rule of thumb to assume each album will be about 1GB, so excluding OS and various apps, one should be able to get about 400 albums on the device. That’s more than enough that you’d have to recharge this sucker many times over before getting through the whole library, and that’s a good problem to have these days. Onkyo has also presumably one-upped A&K in this area as well by building obsolescence out of the device; with newer software upgrades I’m assuming one could put larger micro SD cards into the device. For now, I forked over the cost of 2 200GB cards so I could extend out to the maximum technology.
Let’s talk about the device’s sound for a bit. Overall, I was very pleased with this player’s clarity. I used it with four different monitors: Shure SE 535 IEMs, Beyer T70p mod, MrSpeakers Ether Flows, and Oppo PM-3s. The player has three different gain settings, all of which are pretty close. The device is extremely transparent, and I felt the soundstage was nice and wide, approaching my favorite hologram presentations. Using the open-back planar magnetic design and balanced output of the Ether Flows, the soundstage was fantastic, playing well to the design of the headphone. I felt bass was a little lacking with this setup, and was much improved with the closed-back planar magnetic Oppos. I’m sure the Ether Flow C would solve that, perhaps at the expense of such a wide soundstage. Either way, you will not be disappointed at the sound of this device. While the output power isn’t as high as some devices, I believe that certain manufacturers attempt to overcome shortcomings of their devices by upping the output and overpowering listeners. This device does not do that, and I feel that the soundstage really benefits in the detail retrieval and quickness departments.
The Onkyo DP-X1 is all you’d expect in a modern DAP in this price class. For me, there were several features that puts it head-and-shoulders above the competition: Dual balanced DACs and amps, MQA support, and an open platform that allows Tidal and Roon streaming. At a $675 price point, you’d be hard pressed to find a better DAP from a more reputable company. This device comes with my highest recommendation.
With Apple’s press release this week confirming the deletion of the 3.5mm analog jack on the iPhone 7, it is an eventuality that iPhone users will have to change their hifi hardware in the near future. The good news is that some of us audiophile geeks have long ago bypassed said jack by using the Lightning output with an adaptor cable and an external DAC/headphone amp such as the Audioquest Dragonfly, so in that sense Apple is trying to get ahead of the curve. We could discuss the hardware options ad infinitum, but there has been enough coverage about those workarounds. Additionally, there will be a wave of discussions over the next few days covering the brand spanking new AirPod ear buds or the new Lightning connector, but what I haven’t seen is much reference to the iPhone’s software options for hi-res music playback. We’ll be comparing three apps, all using the same hardware setup, i.e. Lightning jack to iPhone CCK adapter to Dragonfly Red to MrSpeakers Ether Flows. Let’s take a look.
There are a blooming number of options lately in the App Store; most of these don’t interest me because of in-app purchases or the initial cost of the app (let’s get past the fact that their relative cost is pennies on the dollar compared to the rest of my equipment, it’s the principle that matters.) By far the most popular and well-known is the Onkyo HF Player, and it’s the one I’ve been using most lately. The app is $9.99 USD, so I guess in the grand scheme of things that’s pretty reasonable given how much I use it compared to all the other junk apps on my phone and the amount of money invested in my other head-phi gear.
I automatically eliminated any selection that cost more than $9.99 and then tried the top three downloads. There’s 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.
All three of these apps have almost identical interfaces. They all sync with iTunes and will play any of your files. There’s a separate tab at the top right to switch to HD files, which need to be downloaded to the phone’s hard drive, unlike the synced iTunes files. 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 the corresponding app icon. The files show up as “documents and data” under the data bar at the bottom of the iTunes screen.
I actually had some difficulty getting the file transfers to occur with the Kalliopea and the ELECOM program; it took a few tries of getting it right before the files started showing up under the “HD” column. Once the files show up, there’s the standard “Songs/Albums/Artists/Genres” tabs at the bottom for arranging how you please. all three played PCM up to 384 kHz; the Kalliopeia does DSD 5.6 and DSD to PCM over DoP; the Onkyo does DSD up to 11.2 (wow! :0), while the ELECOM does not support DSD.
All three sound equally good; any aural differences are so subtle as for me to not be able to discern. There are only a few other minor changes between the three. Onkyo distances itself from the other two by one significant sonic bonus; a 16,000 band equalizer with custom artist support. The Onkyo also has specific plugins for its proprietary headphones and IEMs. Probably the biggest bummer comparing all three apps is that they don’t talk to each other, i.e. when you drop an HD file onto the Onkyo or Kalliopeia it won’t show up in the other HD folder. With files of this size that can turn into a major problem, and probably is a deal-killer for me in terms of keeping more than one app.
On the face of it, the Onkyo HF Player is the most easily recommended; the sound is great, it supports the highest DSD, and although the download and interfaces are ostensibly the same on all three, it seemed to work the most smoothly. This is an app you’ll definitely need to check out if you’re wanting to play hi-res files on the new iPhone 7 with Lightning and exernal DAC/HPAs.
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.
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.
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.
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