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 C4. Ibasso 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).
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.
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.
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.