A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 2

I spent the first several months of 2015 rounding up a batch of portable audio players, hoping to gain experience with a broad range and nominate one or more to the Wall of Fame. That turned out to be easier said than done—comments on my initial article opened the floodgates for more suggestions of DAPs I should be covering. Meanwhile, new stuff comes out at a feverish pace—I'm just trying to keep on top of it all. Right from the start I anticipated not being able to pack everything into one article. Little did I know I'd end up with three segments, totaling nearly twenty devices. That's a lot to cover, so let's get to it.

First things first: if you have not yet read part one, I strongly suggest you do so now. It will catch you up on the initial players I covered, and more importantly clue you in on my criteria for evaluating these devices. I feel strongly that there's more to these players than any single attribute, be it sound quality or aesthetics or whatever. So it's important to know exactly where I'm coming from with my categories. With only one exception, I've still got the lot of DAPs around from the initial article. So I am constantly going back to compare the new players directly as the new models show up in-house. You can imagine how time consuming this ends up being—I've been calling it "Little Sound 2015" to play off Tyll's Big Sound project. This time around I'll be covering the popular Astell&Kern AK100 II and AK120 II, the Suzanne from veteran Chinese firm Consonance, Neil Young's interesting Pono, and another popular Chinese model, the Cayin N6. I'm also throwing in a OnePlus One as an example of a reasonably high-end smartphone. How will it hold up? Do we even need to carry DAPs to get great sound on the go? We'll see.

Flip the page and we'll start with our first player.

COMMENTS
Alexander Portnoy's picture

Great work, John.
This project will make a good basis upon which to judge the imminent release of Pioneer XDP-100R and the Geek Waves.

John Grandberg's picture
And yes, I suppose I could go on and on... I suspect next year will bring half a dozen (or more) significant releases. We'll see what happens and what I have time for.
ManiaC's picture

Questyle QP1R vs Luxury & Precision L5 Pro

John Grandberg's picture
the Questyle QP1R here and it's pretty great, certainly in the running for Wall of Fame. I tried the original L5 and it was terrible in build and UI, but the L5 Pro is all different so who knows.
Imusicman's picture

HiJohn, Ive read part 1 and part 2 with great interest and eagerly await part 3. Great review and exactly on point with this growing category. I have narrowed my choice for DAP down to the Questyle QP1R and Cayin N6 after discounting the Acoustic Research ARM2. Having spent time with both which would you recommend? Not sure if this swings it one way or the other but I have the opportunity to buy a demo N6 at £270

John Grandberg's picture
because I like them both. N6 has a significantly more powerful amp stage if you intend to use it with difficult full size cans. Some people might like its up/down/left/right control scheme better too. The Questyle can accommodate a far bigger library thanks to dual microSD slots. It also has slightly better battery life, is smaller, and has a more brilliant, detailed presentation - which may or may not be a good thing depending on your preferences. I'll go more into this in part 3 though.
Imusicman's picture

Thanks for getting back to me John. Much appreciated. There's definitely pros and cons to each player depending on what's important to the individual consumer. I have taken the plunge and ordered the QP1R which hopefully should be with me next week :-) Lets hope my leap of faith is rewarded as I haven't been able to find anyone local who is stocking it to give it a demo which is not ideal.

John Grandberg's picture
I'm listening to it right now, sounding quite nice with a 24/96 version of Paquito D'Rivera's Portraits of Cuba and the Noble Audio K10. It's not perfect - I'll get into the minor frustrations which you will no doubt notice on your own. But nothing I consider a dealbreaker. I do wish Questyle has better distribution though....
Imusicman's picture

Being a newbie to this hobby I am in the very early stages of my journey to find the holy grail of sonic perfection. I am starting from a relatively low base with my iPhone 5 so I am hopeful of larger gains initially but do expect less as my hardware base level improves and the differences become more subtle. If the QP1R fails to impress I will be looking to test out my suppliers returns policy or failing that stick it on eBay. Given the supply/demand situation I can see it selling PDQ so no drama either way.

silverarrows5's picture

Hi John,

How about the Marshall London Smartphone?

John Grandberg's picture
I'm just not sold on that one as being anything other than a lowish-spec phone with minor customization. I'd stick with the OnePlus or another more established phone if you don't want a dedicated DAP.
tony's picture

Well, this is just plain Brilliant. It's certainly the next thing I'll be concentrating on, I have a very good Main System and a equally useful Wireless Headphone System.

I travel extensively and would love a capable & portable "Source" device. I've seen your JA wandering around using an AK240 (I think) to carry his music to "Field" evaluate gear. I thought and still think his little device would give a useful result ( at least for my purposes and probably the vast World of Music lovers ).
A small LapTop is far to big but more affordable. How can a person get a Laptop's functionality in a portable ( shirt pocket ) package and how could a little device function properly with only a tiny screen? Plus, is there a little player offered by a supportive manufacturer?
So, it seems, you are working to reveal these things.

Philosophically, I think we music lovers strive to build our own "Music Hall Venues" to play the music we buy, own and enjoy!
These tiny Players take our personal Venue down to miniature sizes.

If JA's little AK240 is anything to go by, we are about to have our entire HighEnd music system in the "Palm of our Hands" ( except for our Box Speakers, of course ).
Now, if we can organize our music into little SD Memory Cards we might be able to have a Wallet with our entire collections.
This "Pipe Dream" has always seemed so "Distant Futuristic" in concept and nature but you seem to be revealing that it exists now.
I'm all Ears!
I'll be reading every word you have to say on this matter.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Thank You

Rillion's picture

Hi John,

It is great that you are doing this! Reviews like these of DAPs are to find. Even reviews of smartphones generally have very little intelligent commentary on sound quality if they mention it at all.

On the models that have so-so battery life, it would be nice if you could mention whether or not the device can continue running noise-free while charging. I have a 5V Anker battery pack that can add significant extra power.

John Grandberg's picture
I'll certainly check on this moving forward. I can confirm that the Consonance Suzanne works fine while charging in the dock, as do the AK devices, and also the Cayin. Obviously the OnePlus will (same as any phone) but I'll have to try it to confirm it doesn't add any detrimental noise or other issues. The only one I'm unsure about is the Pono so I'll give that a shot and report back.
Rillion's picture

Cool! Thanks!

echineko's picture

I was hoping to see it included, after you hinted it might be in Part 1. There's always part 3 I suppose, would be interesting to see it compared against the AK 240/380 as well :)

John Grandberg's picture
Sony took a while to send it my way, so I didn't have enough time to spend with it compared to these others. ZX2 is definitely in for part 3 though.
zeissiez's picture

Hi John,

I'm an expat based in China, over here I got the chance to audition various Chinese DAPs. To my surprise, many of them are actually very good sounding, and some of them more so than the A&K in sonic performance. I have heard the Cayin N6, Consonance, ibasso dx90, hm-901, Questyle QP1R, Lotoo Paw, Fiio X5 and many more. One brand that stood out is Luxury & Precision. Their L5, LP5 silver and gold edition are the best DAP I heard regardless of price. The entry level model L5 for example is clearly better than the N6 in sonic performance. Now the latest model L5 pro is said to be a much improved model over the previous 3 models. So I think it's good to include it in your reviews.

John Grandberg's picture

Thanks for the perspective. I've only had a chance to mess with the original L5 and it seemed like a prototype (it was a production model though) - poor build, terrible UI, only decent sound. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on the new stuff as it certainly does look improved.

I agree that Chinese DAPs can sound excellent. The HiFi ET MA9 was one of my favorites on sound, but less so on reliability, battery, and UI. Reliability is a big one for me.

whyeme's picture

Please please review the xduoo x3 when you do part 3. It uses the CS4398 DAC chip and Texas Instruments amp chips and sells for only USD110 inclusive of free shipping. Perhaps it could be a budget DAP shootout to get more youth into this hobby.

Cheers!

Bennyboy's picture

It's not a question of age, but of income. Not all of us are loaded enough to drop a grand here there and everywhere on this stuff.

John Grandberg's picture

That makes sense. However - a company saying "we want to appeal to a younger demographic" is a lot more PC than "We want to appeal to poor people" or "people with less disposable info". So you'll almost always see it framed as a "youth" thing.

But I agree, some of these are steep, and I'm glad there are some good options to be had for lower prices.

Bennyboy's picture

Some of these new 'high end' players are just daylight robbery.

I recently bought the Fiio X1 - cost me 95 quid and sounds ACE.

ashutoshp's picture

Thank you for your efforts in scaling the growing landscape of media players. TBH, I have little interest in media players myself mostly from a convenience perspective. But your smartphone inclusion got my curiosity.
Do you think the audio limitations apparently inherent in the smartphone are a DAC or an amp issue? In other words, the DAC is fine but the amount of power it can output is the major limiting factor. The reason I ask is because the choices in amps or amps+DACs are similarly vast and I am confused as to what would work best, an amplifier via the headphone out, or a DAC+amp via USB OTG/Lightning CCK?
Moreover, it seems that (cheaper) DAC+amp 2-in-1s usually trade-off DAC quality for amplifier capacity or vice-versa. If the smartphone DAC is fine then I can go for a high quality headphone amp rather than stick with a compromise, which I feel I'm currently making anyways with a smartphone/tablet. FYI, I only listening to streamed music from TiDAL on an LG G3 and iPad Air. Thanks in advance.

detlev24's picture

IMO there is no definite answer to your question since it depends very much, on which headphones you use. Generally, I would say the amplification circuit around the DAC is the bottleneck of most devices.

Since your question is directed to John, it might be useful for him to know the type(s) of headphones you use and the budget you plan to spend on such a device, since (audible) trade-offs do not necessarily need to be made.

Best regards

John Grandberg's picture

I basically see the amp section of a phone as being the weakest link - on a better phone, the DAC is pretty decent. Not as good as the better dedicated DAPs but good enough to be enjoyable nonetheless. The amp portion, though, is limited in terms of drive (and often output impedance as well) so it becomes the biggest issue.

Having said that, the market seems to focus more towards combo units. So I might go that route anyway. I've had more luck finding good combo units than straight amp-only portables.

The upgrade path will depend on what headphones are being used, as well as your intentions for portability. If "on the go" listening is a must then something small like the Resonessence Labs Herus should do the trick. I also really like the Oppo HA-2. If home use is the goal, you could go for a desktop setup, which then opens things up a little more for separate components.

ashutoshp's picture

I have the Hifiman HE-400i (home use), Sony's XBA-H1 and Ety's HF3 (outside use). Of these, the Etys don't seem to scale with more power but the other two definitely do. the Hifimans are actually too much for the phone, but not for the iPad even though they seem to get limited sometimes.
I was looking at a portable set up not only because of my need for mobility but I can then use it for bedtime listening with the Hifimans. My budget is $300 . I like a fast, clear, hard-hitting sound. But I hate boomy bass or tizzy treble (eg, DT880....ouch). The Sony XBA-H1s are quite boomy in the bass when played through the HP out of my phone but not at home with my desktop DAC/amp set up. The XBA-H1 is also why I started researching amps or amps/DACs like the HA-2 or Alo's new Rx (amp only I think).

detlev24's picture

You can try the two FiiO E12 amplifiers and see, if they suite your needs.

I have listened to the E12 on a HIFIMAN HE-500 (which needs more power than your HE-400i) and for such a small package, it sounded good at my listening levels and with the types of music, I listen (classical music, included). I switched "BASS: ON" but I did not use GAIN, since this made noise audible (you may not find it disturbing during playback, depending on the music genre) and with CROSSFEED, clarity suffered (the latter is useless, anyway - unless thoroughly matched to your headphones and music).

On the other hand, I do not recommend the E12 with IEM, since I had noise using UE TripleFi 10 but for a technical aspect, that was no surprise. For IEM, try the optimized E12A!

I think the HE-400i may sound great using an E12 and for IEM, the E12A could just do it.

detlev24's picture

If considering FiiO, also try the E12A on the HE-400i. Might need "GAIN: H" but depending on your taste, you could like it more.

An there is also a E12DIY around (with swappable op-amps, for different sound signatures), as alternative to the E12.^^

Long time listener's picture

I too would like to see a review of the two players above.

Also, just how well do these players compare to separates? For example, an iPod feeding an Algorhythm solo -R plus a Vorzuge Pure II amp? Do they come pretty close? Thanks

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