The Future of Portable Music Players

The high fidelity audio player market, first started by Hifiman with the HM-801 for the stand alone player, and Cypher Labs with the CLAS has enjoyed a tremendous growth to the point where we really can’t ask for more options today. I still remember doing a review of several high quality sources three years ago, and thinking that it was great to have all that different options as an enthusiast.

I was a Mac guy when this all started. Despite my love for the sound of the HM-801, I’d still go back to my Ipod+portable amp stack as that’s where I have most of my music stored. When the CLAS was launched in 2011, I was thrilled as I finally got the option to bypass the lousy Ipod DAC with a real quality DAC (Read my review of it here). Then Fostex came out with their HP-P1 which adds an amplifier in addition to the external DAC. I think VentureCraft was next with GoDap 4.0. Then you have Sony with the PHA-1, Vmoda with the Vamp, Venture Craft with a ton of new portable DACs, ADL with the X1, CypherLabs with the Solo -R and dB, Centrance with the M8, Sony with the PHA-2, and latest to the addition is the CypherLabs with the Theorem.

At the other end, stand alone HiFi players have always had their own fanbase. Hifiman continued developing portable players such as the HM-60X series and the latest HM-902. QLS with their QA350 (and later QA550). Colorfly with the C4Ibasso the DX100 and the new DX50 (which I’m actually listening to right now — and also working on a review). Fiio with the X3. Charles Altmann with the Tera-Player. The biggest breakthrough, however, I have to give to iRiver who launched their Astell & Kern line of players last year. TALK ABOUT CHOICE!

The product update cycle is going to be crazy. Hot on the heels of the Centrance M8 is Sony’s PHA-2 and CypherLabs’ Theorem. I’m sure that Fostex is working on a successor to the HP-P1 as well. With the stand alone players, I don’t think anybody expected the AK120 to come out so fast to top off the AK100. Ibasso is also targeting the AK100 market very strongly with their DX50 which really is comparable to the AK100 in terms of design, build quality, and UI (bigger size screen too).

sony-pha2-DSF7665

Sony’s PHA-2 at IFA 2013.

 

Though they may not be the end word on portable music players sound quality (iRiver was unhappy with my review of the AK100), the AKs have got a lot of points right. Good design, modern 21st century touch screen UI, a true pocketable size, and most importantly they do give a good sound quality that’s clearly improved from the average smartphone or IPod quality. Despite my criticism of  the sound of the AK100, it’s still not stopping the AK100 and AK120 from becoming the best selling portable source on the Headfonia Store, and by quite a margin from 2nd place Fiio X3.

The question that I’m now asking is if there are still any benefits to having an iDevices DAC combo, except other than the fact that you can live conveniently in Apple’s ecosystem. The market has been flooded with these wonderful iDevices DACs but there is no denying that they do come out rather bulky when compared to the AK100 and even the larger AK120. And as far as sound quality is concerned, I’ve been listening to all these different devices and to a certain degree, within their own plus and minuses, they are all roughly comparable and the AK100 has plenty of SQ to take on the iDevices DACs.

It boils down to day to day usability. As nice as the portable DACs are, I always find a conundrum in trying to make them work for a truly mobile, daily solution. They simply don’t fit in your pocket and that’s a huge thing. Next, the mostly touch screen based iPhones and Android phones mean that you can’t use rubber bands the way you use them with iPods in the past (Double sided tapes work but they are messy). Not crucial points when talking to an enthusiast, but certainly a factor when you start to use them daily. On the other hand, the AK player have none of these issues. They are small, come with plenty of capacity, takes Apples ALAC as well as the more popular FLAC, and the built in amp is pretty good for the majority of headphones out there. When traveling with the AK100, I can fit the player and the IEM I use in a case that’s still smaller than the size of a Centrance M8 unit. I’m beginning to think that the Korean player may have created a player to conquer them all.

Over at the Headfonia Store, we sell both the AK100/AK120 solution as well as the i-Devices DACs solution from CypherLabs, Fostex, and Vmoda. We are selling the Ibasso DX50 and the Fiio X3, and should also be selling Centrance M8s, CypherLabs’ Theorems, and ADL X1s once we got our units in stock. I did ask the local Sony distributor for their PHA-1 but the local distributor sells it at such an expensive price, I’d rather have our customers try to get them direct from Japan or somewhere else.

We make roughly the same amount of margin on all these players, so I’m not writing this post to try to push the sales to a certain brand. I’ve listened to both the Fiio X3 and the Ibasso DX50 and in my opinion, both still fall short when compared to the average i-Devices player. Not so the AK100, as I’ve stated earlier, roughly offers comparable performance (source quality that is) with the majority of iDevices DACs out there. So, while I’m witnessing all these customers of ours making the choice for the AK players, I think it’s a phenomenon that I have to share with the readers. I know most of you don’t have a headphone enthusiast store where you live, and are mostly making your buying decision by what is posted on the Internet. Well, I’m just saying here that if the sound quality is comparable, would you still bother carrying around a triple stack of portable boxes just to have the conveninence of Apple’s ecosystem? Not to mention having to charge three separate devices every night (Ipod, DAC, Amp)?

I am not trying to start a movement to boycott i-Devices DACs, far from it. CypherLabs has been a very good sponsor to the site, and likewise I’m very close to the guys at Fostex. I’ve also known Michael Goodman at Centrance from wayback and I’m good friends with the distributors for ADL and Vmoda. What I’m trying to do here is to start a discussion by sharing the phenomenon that I’ve witnessed happening, at least in my local enthusiasts community.

AK-SENNHEISER_DSF7371

Sennheiser using the AK120 to demo their flagship IE800 at IFA 2013.

 

 

I shared these thoughts of mine to George who’s my good friend and is also into high quality portable sources. Now, he happens to have some solid arguments to why he is still using an Apple-based portable rig, and I thought it’d be good to share his arguments here just to make the article balanced. This is copy and pasted from our email conversation by the way.

 

GEORGE’S COMMENTS

Other factors do come into play and I have to acknowledge that. Some users loving the portability factor of the AKs and the sound quality do not mind re-ripping their music collection into high quality formats. Here we have to remember that in the early days of smaller capacity computers, early adopters with large CD collections didn’t have enough gigabytes to rip everything into lossless formats initially. On the other side of the coin are users with huge, and I mean huge collections, that they have built from early days and they don’t have the propensity or patience to re-rip everything. Not that they can anyway as some might have been illegal downloads at 128 Kbps of rare recordings. And let’s be honest, not everyone can hear the difference between 128 Kbps and take-your-pick lossless formats. Our hobby is filled with “audiophiles” who can hear things even a dog would struggle with. You know what I mean.

Though this is a music hardware and software website, I have to sidetrack and acknowledge that everyone has a ubiquitous phone, or two, nowadays and it is likely to be smartphones, filled with music. So perhaps for some users, they will always have their smartphone with them and if it’s an iPhone, adding a DAC amp is just simpler, especially if they use the phone a lot. The latest ADL X1 DAC amp is the thickness of two iPhone 4s but is so light it almost seems to be a dummy display set. However a user who does not use his phone that much might find the dedicated DAP route like the AKs simpler, though sometimes they also carry large Samsung phablets, defeating the point!

On a humorous note, just like car enthusiasts who love nurturing their 20 year old classics, perhaps some users do like “messing around with interconnect cables or having to watch the battery level on multiple devices”.

At this juncture, I have to pay homage to Apple’s “It Just Works” philosophy. Though the AKs have a good and effective OS for drag and drop, it is still not a patch on Apple’s seamless iTunes synchronization capabilities. There are diehard Apple users who are constantly tweaking their iTunes libraries to reflect changes in genre categorization, replacing some of their earlier songs to higher bit rates, even correcting spelling of song titles, changing album art, creating and refining playlists, etc. Like car enthusiasts, these people nurture their song libraries and love, absolutely love, the fact that whatever they change on iTunes is automatically changed on every single iDevice they own (via iCloud or the next time they sync). To them perhaps, the thought of using an AK120 dragging and dropping the new item and physically deleting the old item is oh-so-19th Century.

Or perhaps, in a reverse sense, size isn’t everything. Ability or inability to really discern better quality formats, the need for most people to still have a mobile phone with them at all times, the ease or difficulty of tweaking a library of songs, cost (everyone has a phone but it’s cheaper to add a DAC amp than an AK120), and so on, carry equal consideration.

So it may be as simple as this. If true portability or rather pocketability is your goal and you cherish and absolutely must have high quality on-the-road, then the AK120s of this world is the way to go. But if you are happy with your iDevice, and your CLAS Solo et al only moves from room to room and it hardly leaves your house (transportability rather than true portability) and you don’t have much commuting time and you don’t feel that it’s necessary to have the best possible high-fidelity when outside the house, that’s why you won’t be intrigued by an AK120, even if you can afford the price. A simple LOD out of an iPhone with a slim amp like a Headstage Arrow more than suffices for you.

 

Let the heated debates begin.

 

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  • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

    I think it’s important to note that the latest “i-devices” can also be used with android and pc besides mac, sure they’re not too portable but they are more then “I-devices”

  • voteforpedro

    This is good timing for me, because I recently jumped into mobile Hi-Fi and had some difficult choices to make. I have bought in the past 3 weeks:

    AK100
    ALO International DAC/amp
    Audez’e LCD-2 headphones
    ALO Signature 16 headphone cables with 2 different terminations (mini balanced for the ALO International and 1/4″ for a desktop ALO PanAm that I use at the office)
    JH Audio JH16 IEMs

    I had a difficult choice to stick with an iPod Classic 160gb and add 2 more devices, or just abandon ship and go with an AK100 with or without an external amp, depending on my mood. It all came down to being able to mix and match depending on how I wanted to travel. If I know I will have hours of time in a hotel room and don’t mind carrying extra stuff around, I will take the LCD-2, ALO International and music on my laptop computer. If on an airplane it might be the AK100 with JH16 IEM. If at home, it might be the LCD-2 or JH16 with the AK100/ALO International.

    So it all depends on how much I want to carry around.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Well, I use a Galaxy S4 which is a pretty full featured phone, but I’d still go by either the Altmann Tera or the AK100 for my portable rig. Sometimes paired to a simple portable like the Aedle VK-1, Fidelio L2, or the Senn PX100 (I’m a big fan), or a nice IEM like the Ocharakus, IE800, or the 1964Ears V6S.

      • Jonathan Yeung

        mike im getting a s4 also but for me, i wont put any music on it. i have my dx100 for that. my portable rig started with a simple ipod shuffle 1st gen and it stopped working. i moved to the ipod nano 6th gen, started to get into audio, so bought my first quality iem (etymotic research hf5, other than just using apple earbuds, now the hf5 is broken and thrown away, nostalgia…), maxed out the memory of the nano, gave it to my mom, moved to ipod classic 7th gen and a fiio e17 amp, gave that to my brother, and then finally decided to have the last upgrade and had a choice between adding dac/amp to ipod or a one box solution. finally i picked having a one box solution and went with the dx100 (first time in daps that i moved out from the ipod system) other than having clas+whatever amp or hpp1. i went with dx100 because of its ability to drive full sized (picked it over ak100 because of that, tera doesnt have a screen, so totally dealbreaker for me. the c4 seems to have bad UI and may be outdated because its pretty old. at the time, hm901 was delaying release and i got sick of following its news, also thought dx100 would be easier for me to use since its android and i had and still have android phone) and its one boxed so no lugging around double or triple stacks (this may not be true if i get a portable amp to go with it lol). however, the dx100 is pretty big just by itself. i also have problem trusting myself with bringing it outside since its an almost 1k dap so it kinda defeats the purpose of “portability”. however, its pretty nice for moving around in the house and desktop setups wont let you do that. i also like that the dx100 has 1/4 and 1/8 headphone outputs (which allows me to use it with full sized and iems without an external amp) and also has a 1/8 lineout output (which is nice because i can use the dx100 as a transport and a dac and would let me choose whatever amp i want), i find those features very useful myself.

        sorry for the super long post lol

        • D.r. Hilerio

          Same deal. I had a stack (iPod Classic + Fostex + Alo Continental) and found it too impractical for any sort of portable use, in- or outdoors. Also overkill for my main portable, the V-Moda M100.

          Tried other players with varying results: The HM601 (too slow), Sony Z series (can’t play FLAC), Fiio X3 (soundstage too small).

          I settled with a used, but still ridiculously expensive, DX100. Its internal amp is probably overkill for the M100, but the synergy is excellent and the musical detail is impressive. I like that the combination can double as a portable setup and adequately as a desktop solution, say, in an office.

          • Jonathan Yeung

            thank you for confirming that i made the right choice because i was seriously considering the fostex hpp1 before i finally decided all of a sudden to go for the dx100 instead. i have not tried the hm601 or the sony z series but have had a brief moment with the fiio x3, i wont comment on how it sounds since i listened to it less than 5 mins and did not use any of my gear or any music i was familiar with and i did not know what format the songs were in neither, so definitely not in a position to say anything useful but i wasnt really that impressed by it, to be honest… how does the ipod stack that you had compare to the dx100 in terms of sound?

            • D.r. Hilerio

              I found the ipod+HP-P1+Continental stack sounded very nice with the HD650 and DT770. But again not very portable. My go-to portable M100 sounded slow and tube-y on that stack and sounds more at home with the DX100. I’m loving the depth of soundstage and energy provided by the DX100+M100, which for mainstream music I’d take over many desktop set-ups.

              • Jonathan Yeung

                thanks for the impression… i thought i replied earlier but i guess i didnt…

          • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

            Nice. May want to look into the AK100. I think the amp has a good amount of headroom for the M100 and again, I’m always about the size.

            I won’t say that the sound is better, but I like it better than the Ibasso.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Nice Jonathan, lots of folks are happy with the DX100.

  • Mmet

    i prefer the one unite solution instead of th dual or triple boxes ……portables is meant to be portable…..

    i think high end portable audio players will become thinner and more affordable than now and it will be supplied with its in-ears or over-ears by default ….

    there will be a cooperation between the headphones manufacturers and portable audio player makers to achieve the best synergy between the player and headphones .. or at least there will be with every player a recommendation list of headphones and in ears which achieve best synergy

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think the manufacturers can include an in ear the way Apple includes an earbuds. However the majority of people would still go out and buy a better in ear.

  • Jerry

    Very nice blog article Mike, it raises some interesting points.

    To me, what makes high-end dedicated audio players less desirable than smartphones with good audio output is that they are very limited devices. With my Android smartphone, I can do a number of things besides playing back music in high quality. For example:
    -I can stream the music in my library to DLNA clients, even losslessly if the client supports this
    -I can stream music from my media server on my phone, even when I’m not in the same local network
    -I can listen to Spotify or other online music providers
    -I can use the phone as a remote for my media center computer
    -I can use Shazam or equivalent apps to identify a song that I’ve heard on the radio
    etc.

    All of these are activities that have become an integral part of my music-listening habits. I like the idea that my phone is the center of my media life – while it might not have enough space to hold my entire library, I can use it to access music from a large multitude of sources. I can also use it to have lossless playback on my hi-fi system at home, all without worrying about interconnects or even getting up from my couch. This is very important and I cannot imagine not having these conveniences after using them for the past 2 years or so.

    Since my phone is such an important part of my music-listening life, it seems redundant to me to get an additional, dedicated, device that I would have to lug around with me along with my phone. Not only that – I would also need to take the extra time to sync my libraries on both devices. While a dedicated high-quality PMP might indeed trump all smartphone in terms of sound quality, I find that it is too limited to really justify using such a device. Instead, if I really need to improve on the sound out of my smartphone, I can use a portable AMP/DAC to make that happen. This solution will also require for me to lug around two devices; however, at least I won’t have to sync libraries.

    Finally, I question the real point of having a high-definition player for PORTABLE use alone. When I am walking around, commuting on the bus or train, cycling or whatever other activity I might be having outside my home, there is just too much outside noise to really tell the difference between a compressed file, a lossless file or even a high-definition file. It just seems like a pointless endeavor to make this happen and surely, if I can only hear the benefits of lossless or high-definition audio in the confines of my home, I might as well just use my desktop amp over there.

    • George Lai

      Hear Hear. I would add that with a smartphone I am able to reply to your comment whilst listening to music at the same time.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Well written post, Jerry!

      I know that depending on who I talk to, there are still people who’d rather add a DAC to their phone. Personally I’d rather have two different devices to do that. I guess the fact that a lot of countries still don’t have services like spotify is also a big deal, as that seems to be the strong selling point for listening to music using a phone.

    • Jeffrey Coleman

      Great post Jerry, and great article Mike…

      I do wonder what Mike’s perspective would be if he were to write this
      just a month or two, or a year or two in the future. At least if some of the speculation
      come to fruition. The Apple rumors seem to suggest 24/96 support soon,
      now that IOS7 has been released. And with so many streaming options,
      having a music player that is not internet connected might be a deal
      breaker for some. Heck, even Apple is getting into that game with
      iTunes Radio. And now all devices running the new OS has access to
      using the camera connection kit to surrender USB audio to external DACs.

      I know most critics of Apple would immediately say “Why the baby steps?”
      and “Why not a hot rod DAP?” Well, the Apple ecosystem really isn’t
      about the fringe audiophile. We are just tagging along for the ride.

      I highly doubt anything Apple will be “audiophile”, but at least we have an option to squeeze more and more out of these devices…

      • Jerry

        Sony’s new ZX1 Walkman seems like a very good attempt at a dedicated DAP that has all of the streaming and PIM features that the ‘dumb’ high-end DAPs do not. It runs on Android so I’d expect XDA to improve it even further as time goes on. Obviously, Archos and Cowon also have such devices in their lineup, but they are rather old and do not offer the same high-rez features of the new lineup.

        Hopefully, Sony or another manufacturer will go back to the Walkman-phone model that Sony used to have for many years. Those were some good phones/PMPs, I still consider their Live With Walkman to be the best music-oriented smartphone around (and it even supports Jelly Bean). HTC also has their Beats Audio brand and those smartphones similarly have great sound quality (check out tests at gsm-arena).

        I am also very excited about this project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDAw7vW7H0c

        Think about it – you can build your own phone and if you want one that has a very high quality DAC/AMP section, just buy a premium block for that purpose.

  • dalethorn

    Portable devices and amps, if they’re very good quality, can sound good at home late at night when it’s very quiet. But go outdoors with them in the daytime and the ambient noise level not only blocks all of the fine detail, it makes soft passages inaudible in many music tracks. It just makes me wonder what people have in mind for portable use, and how they use it.

    • Jonathan Yeung

      what if they use ciems? will that solve the problem?

      • dalethorn

        A CIEM is a great idea if you can get exactly what you want. Isolation may or may not be perfect, but if I could make IEMs work for me that’s what I would get. Actually, a CIEM might be the ticket for me to solve the issue where off-the-shelf IEMs keep falling out. But anyway, I think getting a good fit and good quality sound is the first priority, and isolation comes second, although a CIEM might always be a good isolater (don’t know).

    • Izaak

      I’m not sure where you live, but where I am it is often more quiet outside than in, though even in a noisy environment, public transit for example, I would personally rather be listening to music than not, despite the background noise: background noise which can be mitigated substantially via high isolation IEMs.

      • dalethorn

        I use the best gear I have for portable use, since there are some situations where I may hear better detail. But what I wanted to point out about this is so customers don’t make the mistake of thinking they need to spend big to get superior sound outdoors. The percent of success that way is low, and from my past experience in over-spending, a word of caution may save someone some money.

    • Jeffrey Coleman

      Portable/transportable is all I own. I don’t have the personal budget for a home rig, plus desktop rig, plus portable rig. So, I want to get all out of it as I can, for the sake of my hobby…

      • dalethorn

        Yesterday and today I was walking around with the B&O H6 and a tiny 2gb iPod Shuffle, with 130 of my favorite jazz tracks on it, all 320k CBR MP3 I converted from WAV files. Nobody would believe how good that sounds unless they tried it themself. I’ve never heard better portable sound, so it’s probably the background noise factor.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think just because it’s a mobile device doesn’t mean you can’t listen to the fine details.

      A good custom IEM
      A good IEM with a good seal
      A good portable with a good seal

      And there are many relatively quiet locations. The average coffee shops I go to are relatively quiet.

      It’s also not always about listening to the smallest details in the sound. Things like ambiance, dynamic range, etc.

    • SallyMaeSusan

      Etymotic.

  • Johanes a.f

    Hi Mike, I read you work on a review of DX50, I hope you try DX50 paired to iBasso D12 (dual dac + amp) via coaxial. From what I read, this stack look like will be the competitor for AK120 (with cheap price).

    Cheers,
    Johanes

    • Audi Ar

      Hi audiofreakie , are u still selling u’r cardas iem ?

      • Johanes a.f

        Haha, not now buddy, I cancel to sell after 200 hour of burnin, its show the true sound, its dark but the detail, ambience and 3d sound are awesome. I like it than my Fitear 111 for vocal :). Few people report its sound like in ear version of LCD 2 and HD650.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      HI Johanes,
      I don’t have a D12 around, will try looking for it.

  • Audi Ar

    Woah , Nice review mike

    Can you compare Sony PHA-1 with RSA Intruder on sector Amp ?
    Last time I visited HF I didn’t trying the PHA-1

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thanks, Audi
      The PHA-1 amp is just okay, the Intruder is one of the best portables around today.

  • Jin Y

    I had my ipod video 30GB since 2006. It stores all my music and it has been full. I don’t want to delete the old songs for my new songs, because those old songs came from my previous PCs. I used to tangle between a affordable Hifi player like Fiio X3 or DX50 and iPod Classic. At last I still chose iPod for big capacity and the best UI though I do want to try a Hifi DAP.

    • Johanes a.f

      I iPod classic user before change to DX50, its farrrrr awayyyy in terms of sound quality, also it can play aiff and alac too, you must have one :)

    • dalethorn

      The video iPod should work great with a good amp using a short FiiO LOD cable, as long as the headphone impedance isn’t a mismatch for the old iPod.

  • Ciptadi Satyawirawan

    Hi Mike…. just wondering for jazz lovers which superluxe headphone do you reccomend?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I replied on your other question.

  • Ciptadi Satyawirawan

    Yeah Mike…. I thought in the previous subject i wrote on was to old for you to be noticed … do post ;) thanks

  • Jacob Smith

    You mean. . . very low-fi DAPs marketed as hi-fi?

    Lose the bricks and get real hi-fi DAP like a Cowon or something. . .

    Portability problem solved.

  • George Lai

    I just received 18 CDs from Amazon and re-ripped them as Apple Lossless onto iTunes, and deleted the old 128 Kbps songs off iTunes. Synced 2 iPod Classics, 1 iPod nano, 3 iPhones, 2 iPads. Just like that.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      just like that in 5 hours time? ;)

      • George Lai

        Less than 3 hours

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Pretty good. I hardly ever listen to my cds anymore, only in the living room

          • George Lai

            Actually I hardly buy CDs anymore. But when Amazon sells Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first 5 CDs for $20.98 how can I refuse? My iTunes songs from those CDs were only 128 Kbps.

    • dalethorn

      If I get CDs I rip to bit-perfect WAV files, then convert the WAVs to FLAC for backup, and also convert the WAVs to 320k CBR MP3s for portable use. If I get 256k tracks from iTunes, I convert them to WAV files, then process the WAVs as described above. The WAVs converted from iTunes tracks don’t improve the iTunes tracks’ resolution, but it does capture the total content of those tracks into a better format that has a longer survival probability than Apple’s format, and it has the potential to play better than Apple’s format on average, given a range of players and software.

      • George Lai

        Hello Dale. Wow I admire the care you take to rip those CDs into the various formats. However with 300 GB of music of which only 50 GB is ALAC, I won’t have the patience to do that. I’m sure you must be convinced of the quality improvements otherwise you won’t be doing that. I have 90% of my music on 2 iPod Classics, most of my 320 Kbps music on my iPhones and iPads for outdoor listening, and most of my 128 Kbps music on an old iPhone 3GS for gym.

        • dalethorn

          My total collection is 2000-plus tracks, since I rarely take the majority of tracks from an album. I evaluate nearly 100 tracks for every track I save, being careful to weed out the stuff I won’t listen to again, or tracks that don’t have a reference value. My relatively small collection has good coverage of nearly any genre, except certain foreign (to English) genres and most modern urban music. So by keeping my list down to essentials, I actually listen to most of my tracks repeatedly within a several-month period, and some of the tracks I use for testing I’ve played more than a thousand times each. I’m so familiar with certain tracks that have a wide range of frequencies and tones that when I get a new headphone and play those tracks, I get a very clear picture of the sound – signature, clarity, etc. – within a few minutes. All of my music fits the iPhone, iPad, iPods etc., so each device I have has the complete list. One benefit to my methodology is depth – when I do find a particularly good headphone and amp synergy, I dig into some of my most demanding music and explore the nuances of that music almost as if listening for the first time.

          • dalethorn

            The only place I have the FLAC format tracks is on the computers, but those also run Foobar2000 and desktop iTunes, feeding the Microstreamer and other DACs, which makes best sense to me insofar as my only detailed listening is late night at home, where the mini devices are less relevant. Coffee shops and other remote places don’t allow for hearing that detail, because I can’t sit back and close my eyes and totally ignore where I am away from home.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Well I really wouldn’t be listening to music from such a wide variety of devices anyway. Especially if the sound sucks. ;)

      • George Lai

        Though the sound would still be miles better than listening to riff raff yakking on their phones around you at the coffee shop, on public transport, etc. There was a time when you didn’t need music with you as there were no mobile phones.

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          I listen to so much headphones all the time that I somethings dont use any when in public just to hear some real noise and actual people talking? Strange world isnt it

          • George Lai

            It’s not that strange. If I’m in a quiet place like a park, or where the conversations are civil, or where it’s along the streets, I will also not wear headphones. But people with phones don’t realize that you don’t need to shout into a microphone, or that people don’t want to hear your Candy Crush game, etc. That’s when my headphones come out.

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

              I have that when people start talking French, which is quite a lot in Belgium :D

              • George Lai

                Oui

      • SallyMaeSusan

        “But up against lossless 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks coming out of an iPhone 5 with the same headphones, the AK100 sounds just a *little* better.”
        Jamie Lendino. PC Mag.

  • George Lai

    Mike, here’s the ideal solution from Astell & Kern. Their new AK10 is a 2.1″ square device that connects to iDevices using Lightning, and to Android, Mac and PC, and has a Wolfson chip and a built-in amp, with 11 hours playback. Maybe A&K recognizes that some people just prefer to use their iPhones and other smartphones as their playback device after all. See astellnkern.com

    • George Lai

      And in addition, it has play and next/previous track buttons that will work with an iPhone to boot. Wow.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Yes.. though I’ve yet to listen to it. At the same time I’m also getting ALO’s the Island which is a direct competitor.
      Frankly I’ve always leaned to the ALO sound more than the AK sound.

      • George Lai

        Although I wouldn’t call The Island a direct competitor because it cannot take the digital signal out of an iPhone. The AK10 competes with the ADL X1, HP-P1, PHA-1, etc.

      • Dave Ulrich

        The Island definitely has the ALO sound.

  • Anthony

    to me i have one reason to carry along my ak100 to malls and and thats pretty much have to do with battery, i heavily use my phones, and it drains battery like a mad men even when i am not using it for music. the ak100 alleviates this problem

    • George Lai

      The soon-to-be-launched AK10 could be a good solution too.

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        But it still runs on the phones battery

        • George Lai

          Not according to their website, Mike. It has 11 hours use when connected to an iPod

          • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

            Yeah but the smartphone battery drains faster than if you don’t use the smartphone for playing music.

            • George Lai

              Granted. Luckily I use two smartphones.

              • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                Haha can’t accept defeat ;)

                • George Lai

                  It’s not really that, Mike. The issue really is that with a large collection of music (40,592 songs), I need iTunes as the master archive for all of that and the sheer ease of synching that to a few iPods, iPads, and iPhones, is what dissuades me from alternative DAPs. We’ll agree to disagree?

                  • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                    Yeah I know, I was just kidding

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      You remind me why I don’t use my Samsung for playing music

  • Nick Tam

    Question:

    What if the only music I’ve ever had are all in FLAC?

    Do I even have to look both ways?

    Surely Apple’s “it just works” philosophy may have fallen short in the face of my massive FLAC library…

    Just saying.

    The last iDevice I’ve ever owned was a Rockboxed iPod Video which plays those FLACs

  • SallyMaeSusan

    “But up against lossless 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks coming out of an iPhone 5 with the same headphones, the AK100 sounds just a *little* better.”
    Jamie Lendino. PC Mag.

  • gangsta_gangsta_thug_killa

    The PHA-2 is amazing.

  • Ahmad Parapat

    I live in Indonesia, but work in middle east. the only good entertainment and relaxation when i work only listening music. I have Beyer DT 770 Pro AE and matrix mini portable. so for me “portable” not only when you on coffee shop, but to carry all this audiophile device from my home to my job site ( around 4000 miles). I still fine another solution and open for suggestion. because as you know beyer DT 770 Pro AE is very bulky when you put on hard case. i also must carry external hard disk since i always listening music through computer or laptop..

    • dalethorn

      The B&O H6 does not sound the same as the DT770ae, but it’s close enough with a solid bass and full treble (smoother than the 770 I think), and the overall quality excellent in sound and also the build quality. It’s not bulky and the earcups fold flat, and I carry it usually around my neck because it doesn’t interfere with anything that way, but I also have a small flat Grado carrycase (from England) that it fits into. And even though the case is small and flat, I can put 2 FiiO E07k amps into it with the headphone, or a small hard drive the size of the E07k, or a few of the 128 gb Lexar USB drives that are now less than $100.

      • Ahmad Parapat

        thank for the advise.. and what about the player ? is there any player that can be dac/amp through laptop also. because laptop that i used for work is Dell Latitude XFR.
        i want to try using ipod, but the issue it can play flac file.

        • dalethorn

          The FiiO X3 looks perfect. Can be a computer USB DAC/amp, plays many file types including FLAC. I am going to get one for myself.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Switch to custom IEMs if you want to save room

      • Ahmad Parapat

        i dont have any experience with IEM, and how about the sound quality ? compare to full size closed headphone..

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      So you need a new headphone?

      • Ahmad Parapat

        Maybe, now still found out how to buy new headphone but my wife not understand the price, hahahaa. I like the sound of DT770 Pro AE, with matrix mini portable sound superb. For me those combination are semi-portable ( good for small distance). By the way what’s your opinion about iPod + Sony PHA-1 ?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          The PHA-1, I have one that sounds good, clean and spacious. But I’ve also heard some that sounded congested and horrendous. Weird.

  • dieselmex

    Ok… I’m a little bit late on this, but just for the sake of taking it out of my chest, I’ll say this:
    We who grew with vinyl and open-reel decks, who used the Nakamichi 700 or 1000II as our “backup” and had MacIntoshes that weighed a ton wired to ESS “ufo-tweetered” speakers, who’ve been through Mylar Pioneer Headphones and Electrostatic KOSS ones… may have been through a lot! When the CD came out, my headphones told me there was something WRONG… and still is. Mostly everything sounded sooooo digital! I turned back to my Thorens turntable and connected my cans to a B&O solid state amp which I only used for the cans! So, years went by, and my first The Wall album was so faded it was painful to see. So I got a new one, still in vinyl and all. And I bought the SACD, too. And I bought a player capable of SACD. And… wow! This particular album started sounding not better but more nuanced, with some details I never “saw” in it. My cans have evolved too, now I’m hooked to my Grados or my Sennheisers. But the Grados are… well, beyond belief. Today, I got Dark SIde of the Moon in FLAC a the highest possible music reproduction of today. This was transferred from the original master tapes (that was the reason FLAC was invented for). And the A&K 100 delivered something absolutely new to me. With these huge 192/24 files there’s something I’ve been missing for decades. And that is what I call the purest experience on music outside of the studio or the live venue. It’s like being there. I can’t tell if the frequency response of the DAC’s inside the A&K are the most musical or not… I really can’t tell anything about the technology behind this beauty. The only thing I can say is this: if you try to compare the iPod or ANY other mp3-ALAC-whatever file name that is, at its most, CD quality, you are comparing your garden with Yellowstone. And I’m not kidding. I’ve seen the faces of people I “tested” with music they knew well in ultra hi-res and even the wee ones (12 to 14 years-old) experienced “goose bumps”, a different “emotion”, “awe”, total “bliss”, something “new”. And yes, they all asked why. I can’t tell the working principles of a dedicated high quality DAC from the ones of sewing buttons to a shirt, but all of us experienced “something” with our ears and hearts: a much more powerful and pure music than we’ve ever heard before.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Thank you for the contribution!

    • dalethorn

      Awesome post!!

  • Patrick

    Interesting article, owing a e17 and wondering about good portable music players like fiio x5 and the ak series and how they sound compared to “normal” players. My problem is also finding a good manufacturing for custom IEM, then I live in Switzerland and don’t know where to buy (‘f Course I researched in the web, but yeah…). Hope someone can help me out – Greetz

    • dalethorn

      It’s easy to hear the difference between the iPhone/iPod and the FiiO X3. The X5 should be even better, and the AK’s are lots better. But maybe the iPhone isn’t a regular player?

      • Patrick

        yeah that’s possible, listen often with ipod and samsung galaxy S5 and can hear a difference. Of course the files which are lossless and lossy (flac, alac and mp3) are important too for the feeling, but also custum IEM are also something wich makes me very curious – to keep it simple I want a good price/performance for my mobile setup. Maybe a fiio x3 or fiio e18 (S5) in combination with a custom slave IEM shure s535… Hope you can help me out ;) – Greetz

        • dalethorn

          The other guys here will help you I hope, especially with IEM’s. I will say that when playing a WAV file on the iPhone through an Apple-compatible DAC like the little Beyerdynamic A200p, the sound quality is obviously way above playing that WAV file through the iPhone’s DAC and amps. Whether using a phone etc. and a portable amp versus using just a player like the FiiO X5 – it’s mainly a matter of configuration preference.

          • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

            I prefer my S4 over the S4+A200P. Review this week!

            • George Lai

              I use my iPod sans AK10/A200p etc when driving my IEMs but when I want to let it rip, a little AK10/A200p goes a long long way.

              • Patrick

                okay sounds fine, btw. what IEMs are you using and the other mods as L., dalethorn and co? Haven’t found something remarkable yet.

                • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

                  Myself, Only customs from Ce and 1964

                  • Patrick

                    Thanks for the advise – 1964 and jhaudio looks pretty interesting (V6S I guess S stands for Stage right?) will probably go with V3 looks pretty balanced, but yeah gone check first my ear index ^^ – Greetz

            • Patrick

              How come L?

              • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

                it just sounded better straight from the S4 with the 1964 V6S