Month: November 2014

Hidizs AP100 DAP

The AP100 DAP (Digital Audio Player) is the initial offering from Chinese new-kid-on-the-block, Hidizs (which I have no idea how to pronounce), officially released at CES in January of this year.
It claims to be a ‘high fidelity audio player’ which are big words at the modest price of around USD300 . Let’s see if it lives up to Hidizs’ lofty ambitions.

I would like to thank Musica Acoustics for lending me this particular unit for review. You can find more information and purchase if from their website.
Tech specs and more information on the AP100 can be found on Hidizs’ website.

Package and Contents

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The AP100 comes nested in a series of stylish but understated cardboard boxes. There is no foam padding inside, but it seems sufficient to protect the player and other contents during transit.

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Hidizs really went all out with the included accessories, which I was pleasantly surprised to see. In addition to the multilingual manual, quick start guide and warranty card, you will receive:

  • A screen protector
  • A cleaning cloth
  • A 3.5mm interconnect cable
  • A  stereo 3.5mm to RCA cable (for use with the player’s coaxial input/output)

Basic earbuds are conspicuously excluded. I suppose Hidizs figured that they would likely be a meaningless inclusion for their target audience.

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My AP100 also came with a brown pleather case with a magnetic latch, which admittedly does feel a little cheap, but does not really intrude on day to day use and provides some degree of protection for the player

Design and Functionality

With the exception of the screen and plastic accents around the front control pad, the AP100’s body is constructed of a well machined and finished aluminium, giving it a very nice premium feel. It weighs in at 156g (according to the manufacturer), which is by no means heavy, but enough to make the player feel solid. Dimensions are 107 x 65.5 x 16.2mm, making it of greater girth than most other commercial DAPs, but it’s still small enough to comfortably fit inside most pockets. Carrying just the AP100 around was much more pleasant and manageable than my typical DAP + Amp setup (see photos below).

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Hidizs quotes the AP100’s battery as providing 10 hours of playback time. However, I feel that this is an absolute best case scenario. Typically listening at less than one quarter of the volume, I got about 8.5 hours out of a single full charge. I suppose this is about what you would expect given all the hardware they’ve jammed in there.

It really is amazing to see how much functionality Hidizs were able to jam into this player. It plays most audio formats (WAV, FLAC, WMA, OFF, AAC, APE and ALAC at bit depth/sample rate of up to 24 bit/192KHz), offers native line out and also has coaxial input/output, allowing you to send digital output to an external decoder or have the player receive digital input. There is 8GB of internal memory (approximately 7GB is actually available for storage) and support for up to 64GB MicroSDHC cards.

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The front panel features navigation/playback buttons, volume up and down buttons and the 2.4″ 320 x 240 resolution TFT screen (of decidedly meh quality).

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Up top, we have 3.5mm headphone out, line out and power/blank screen button.

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Down the bottom, you have 3.5mm coaxial in and out , MicroSD card slot and the USB charging/data transfer port. Unfortunately, the AP100 cannot be used as a USB DAC.

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The left side features buttons to cycle between bit depth/sample rate presets and sound EQ presets (which I found a little useless).

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The right side has a lock switch, which disables all other button presses when turned on.

Interface and Ease of Use

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The AP100’s UI might be described as ‘bare bones’. While I dislike the trend of many manufacturers providing silly and unnecessary features with their players like games and voice recorders, Hidizs appears to have taken the exact opposite approach and cut down the AP100’s software to be as simple as possible. Options are limited, however, navigation is quick and simple and responsive, with no lag or freezes as with my Sony F-series Walkman, using a far more complicated Android OS. I also never experienced any skips or stutters during playback as was occasionally the case with the Walkman.

My qualms with the AP100 really start when it comes to track browsing/navigation and playback display. The player makes no attempt to sort your library (e.g by artist, album, genre etc), relying on you to sort all your tracks appropriately through folder structure (track navigation is essentially done through a glorified file browser). Additionally, the browser does not read the tags of your files: it only displays the file name. I typically use a program like CDex to rip my CDs to FLAC, leave the default file name (usually something like 01- Audio Track 01.flac) and add the tag data and cover art. On the AP100, that left me with my albums looking like this:

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The “now playing” view also appears to be very picky with your files’ tags. For most of my files, it will show me the cover art, file name and sample depth/rate of the file as below.

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Nowhere – and I mean absolutely nowhere – can I check the song title, even in the song properties screen, which to me is just beyond silly.

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The player does actually display metadata for some songs (I’m not exactly sure why – perhaps it was the way they were tagged?) but in this case there is no way for you to view the cover art. You just can’t win with this thing…
The moral of the story is: if you’re going to buy this player, you should be very meticulous in naming the files in your music library.

There is also no way to create or edit playlists on the player, however, you can create a list of favourite songs, which I suppose is a bit similar.

The circular pad of playback buttons on the front of the AP100 double as your D-pad for navigating around the menus. They will only perform their marked function (e.g. play/pause, next track, fast forward etc) when in the “now playing” view. This means that they can’t be used to quickly perform track changes or pause playback etc. (unless of course you always make sure to leave it in “now playing” view) which could prove to be an annoyance to some.

I should note that the player does get a little warm during extended use, but never uncomfortably so.

Sound

I’m happy to say that the AP100 did deliver in the sound department – where it really matters.

Its overall sound is very ‘hi-fi’ – that is to say detailed, transparent and uncoloured. There is no particular emphasis on any frequency range: it all sounds very neutral and balanced. If you want sound that is in any way coloured or ‘augmented’, leave that to your amp or earphones.
Compared to my usual Sony NW-F806 + Tralucent T1 combo, the AP100 (using the 3.5mm headphone output) was able to deliver a more detailed sound with a noticeably wider and better separated soundstage. Colour me impressed!

In addition, the internal amplifier seems to have no problem driving sensitive IEMs like the Ortofon e-Q8s or Unique Melody Miracles and was also able to provide enough juice to drive my AKG K701s to decent volumes at less than half of the maximum setting. I would say that an amp is definitely not necessary to enjoy this DAP.

Closing Comments

When you consider that the AP100:

  • Delivers a clear, reference-style sound
  • Plays most file formats with support for high-res audio
  • Can drive both very sensitive and demanding earphones/headphones  and
  • Look decent

all while costing less than half than players like the Walkman ZX1 or AK100, this DAP is an amazing achievement for Hidizs, especially given that this is their very first offering to the market.

However, for that price, the sacrifices do have to come from somewhere. In the AP100’s case it is the interface and overall user experience, especially when dealing with song metadata.I imagine that if you were very diligent in naming all your music files correctly, you could mitigate this to the point where it is practical, but frankly I am too lazy to go through all that effort 🙂

The AP100 was designed to do one thing and one thing only: play music, of which it does an amazing job. As long as you aren’t expecting it to do any more than that, it won’t let you down.

Ortofon MHd-Q7 Amplifier

Released in 2013, the MHd-Q7 is Ortofon’s first portable amplifier.In true Ortofon style, it features beautifully  clean and minimalistic lines with solid build quality, but does the sound live up to its looks? Let’s find out.

Many thanks to Musica Acoustics for providing this unit for review. The MHd-Q7 is available from them currently for USD298 – you can find more information and purchase it here.

Package and Contents

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The MHd-Q7 comes in a plain cardboard box with closed-cell foam packing. Contents are minimal: you get the amp itself, 3.5mm interconnect and USB charging cable. Fair enough.

Design

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I have mentioned this before, but Ortofon really knows how to make a good looking product. The MHd-Q7 really feels high quality with its clean and stylish aluminium construction that has a smooth, pleasant-to-touch finish with absolutely no rough or jagged edges whatsoever. It weighs in at about 150g, which is enough to make it feel solid but not unnecessarily heavy.  I wish more amps looked and  felt this nice.
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The wonderfully minimalistic design extends to its functionality as well – no unnecessary switches or knobs here. All you get is the 3.5mm input and output jacks, volume knob, power and recharging indicator LEDs on the front and USB charging port on the back. I was quite impressed at the quality of the volume knob which also doubles as the power switch – it feels solid, giving very granular volume control and has a satisfying click when turning on or off.  Unlike my daily driver, the Tralucent Audio T1, I did not notice any channel imbalance whatsoever, nor any noise while adjusting the volume – absolutely brilliant!

Although it calls itself a ‘headphone amplifier’, you can tell that it was designed mainly for driving IEMs, which it can do to volumes that would be more than satisfactory (or safe) for most listeners. It, however, struggled to drive my K701s, which are 60 Ohm headphones (albeit quite inefficient)  – maxing out the volume achieved barely adequate volume levels for me. I don’t like the prospects of this amp driving your 300 Ohm Beyers or other high impedance phones.

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The MHd-Q7  measures 67mm wide by 84mm deep (including volume knob)  and  27mm high (as per the manual). This makes it unusually short, wide and deep compared to many other amps out there. This means that it will be quite difficult to stack it with some players such as my F-series Walkman as the widths do not line up  and the difference in length introduces problems with shorter     interconnects. This may make it an awkward choice for people looking for an amp to use on the go.

Battery life is decent, with a single full charge lasting about 20 hours (the manual quotes 18). You can also use the device while charging it – not being able to do this was a minor annoyance with the T1.

Sound

The MHd-Q7 produces a very smooth, analogue sound overall. I would not call it muddy, however, as it retains a high degree of clarity with a spacious presentation and excellent instrument separation. I would say that it wins out against the T1 in this respect.

Bass is more pronounced, yet with a soft and rounded quality to it. The T1 produces a tighter and more controlled lower end, however I did find that the MHd-Q7 had a more natural sounding timbre, especially for instruments like bass guitars and brass instruments.
Mids retain that signature Ortofon warmth and close presentation – vocals especially sound very intimate and smooth.The high end is less pronounced than that of the T1, so it does lack a little bit of sparkle. Instruments like high hats and cymbals also sound somewhat diminished in comparison.
All in all, I would say that the overall sound characteristics of this amp are close to that of the e-Q8, and tend to emphasise them when the two are used in combination.

Closing Comments

The Ortofon MHd-Q7 is a strange beast. Very handsome looks and solid feeling construction pair awkwardly with odd dimensions that hinder portable use, which it was supposedly designed for. I also take issue with it terming itself a ‘headphone amplifier’ when it struggles to drive much more than IEMs. Its sound is sweet and smooth and spacious: while not particularly my cup of tea, I can certainly appreciate the finesse with which it renders the music – there is not a hint of sluggishness to be found here.

If you’re a fan of vinyl-like sound and can make its peculiar form factor work for you, I think the MHd-Q7 is certainly worth your consideration.

Ortofon e-Q8

Released earlier this year, the e-Q8s are a pair of single balanced armature (BA) driver earphones which are the new flagship to Ortofon’s long stagnant IEM lineup.
I purchased mine not too long after their release in April 2014 for 36930 yen (approx. USD 350) and so at the time of writing have approximately six months of experience with them as my daily driver IEMs. I will be providing comparisons to their entry level model, the e-Q5, which I also own.
Tech specs are as follows and are quoted from the product manual:

Frequency Response: 10-20,000Hz
Impedance: 21 ohms +/- 25%
Max input: 20mW
Sensitivity: 115dB +/- 3dB 1KHz/1mW

Package and Contents

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The e-Q8 comes packaged very nicely. The external box is a very shiny silver cardboard, which contains a stiff, felt-lined box, almost like one you might receive from a jewelry store.It is certainly packaged like a premium product.
The contents are of course, the earphones themselves, a selection of different sized silicon tips and single pair of foam tips, spare filters, filter changing tool, carry case and instruction manual.

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I quite like the carry case. It is made of a leather or leather-like material that is pleasant to the touch. While it is only semi-hard and not as sturdy as say, a Westone Monitor Vault, it does provide a decent degree of padding while having a slim and stylish profile, almost like a business card case or small wallet. This makes it ideal for carrying in a bag or pocket.

Design

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The e-Q8s only come in a silver metal housing with rubberised white plastic accents – a minimalistic and in my opinion, very stylish design.Some, however, may prefer something more understated and less bling-tastic: these earphones make a statement. Those who like to keep their earphones in pristine condition will be warned that scratches do show easily on the highly reflective metal housing with use over time.

Their profile is rather long, similar to that of the e-Q7s, so they do stick out a bit from your ear during use. More about this below under the discussion on comfort.

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The cable is sheathed in white nylon from the right angled 3.5mm jack to the rubberised white Y-split,and from there on is your standard rubberised fare. This contrast struck me as an odd design choice and to me, makes the cable feel a little cheap.
In use, the cable is without a doubt the single worst part of this IEM. It tangles and kinks very easily (especially the more rigid nylon-sheathed part), easily picks up noise from your every movement in addition to being microphonic as anything and as if that weren’t enough, it isn’t removable either. Ortofon could really improve their IEMs by allowing users to change the cables out – this would be especially handy in cases where the earphone starts malfunctioning (e.g. losing a channel) due to poor contact between the earphone and the cable, as happened with my old e-Q5s.

Isolation and Comfort

Isolation from the default silicon tips was average. They did form a nice seal in my ear, however, the earphones proved to be somewhat easy to knock out of place due to their long profile, which makes them stick out my ears some distance.
I have also tried the e-Q8s with Sony Noise Isolation tips, which I had trouble fitting over the sound bores without stretching or tearing the tips, hence I decided not to use them. Monster gel tips were the exact opposite, often falling off the earphones from slight bumps or getting stuck in my ear when I tried to remove them. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Sound Quality

In a nutshell, the e-Q8s offer a sound that is fast, energetic and accurate without being nitpicky, anemic or otherwise offensive. I found that while they do well in a majority of genres, they appear to be tuned for a specific taste, as I shall explain below.

Bass

The e-Q8s happily possess both quality and quantity in this department. Bass is quick, snappy and relatively accurate. I say “relatively” as they do have a soft, rounded edge to them; they remind me of the bass on many Sennheiser products such as the IE800. This is not the territory of more analytic cans like the ATH-CK100PROs or K701s where drum beats have a clear, almost palpable outline. Bass hits with significant impact , however it is well controlled and is able to remain distinct from the mids and highs at basically all times. The one, perhaps fatal flaw is that it is (in comparison to other earphones at least) not very well extended, being mostly concentrated in the mid-bass. This was particularly evident when I was A/B testing with my Unique Melody Miracles. The quality of the bass is generally enough to make me forget about this deficiency in most songs, but I would not recommend the e-Q8s to those who really need that sub-bass rumble and/or are partial to electronic genres such as dubstep or house.

In comparison to the e-Q5s: The e-Q8s are head and shoulders above their little brothers in the lower ranges which are quicker, punchier and better separated in addition to being more plentiful. Drum beats are given an extra kick and bass guitars have that visceral growl, which really enhanced my enjoyment of most songs.

Mids

The mids are where it’s at with the e-Q8s. In terms of frequency response, they are quite mid-centric and boy do they get them right. They are particularly adept at rendering female vocals which sound very forward, clear, airy and silky smooth. This is perhaps emphasised by a bump in the upper mid range frequencies. I believe this is at least in part gives the e-Q8s their very energetic, euphoric sound.  Both male and female vocals as well as guitars have a visceral texture to them, which makes them quite engaging.

In comparison to the e-Q5s: The e-Q5s are close in their overall presentation of the midrange, but lack the finesse of the e-Q8s. Vocals lack that airy feel and are less fluid, in addition to not being as prominent.

Highs

The highs on these IEMs are competent, but not their strong suit. If anything I would say that they are there to complement the mids. They provide a sufficient level of sparkle with good, quick decay and never outstep their bounds by being sibilant, tinny or too hot, which I found was what ruined the ATH-CK100oPRO for me. They always retain that smooth quality that makes the e-Q8s easy to listen to for long periods without the sound becoming fatiguing.

 In comparison to the e-Q5s: The e-Q8s deliver a more sparkly and detailed top-end in comparison to the e-Q5s, however it may be the boosted treble that is contributing to the increase in perceived detail.

Staging and Instrument Separation

The soundstage on the e-Q8s is impressively wide, especially considering that they are running only one BA driver in each channel. However, it is not to the point of delivering a true ‘out of head’ experience. Instrument separation and positioning is also excellent, which aids in these earphones being easy to listen to, as it requires very little effort to hear into the mix.

In comparison to the e-Q5: The e-Q8s win out easily here, making the e-Q5s sound muddled and confused in faster songs, where they instruments can tend to sound flat or blended together.

Other Comments

For lack of a better place to put this comment, I will note here that the e-Q8s are quite sensitive and you will need to match them with an appropriate amp (i.e one with low output impedance) to get the most out of them. They sounded flat straight out of my Walkman NW-F806: soundstage was diminished and bass lacked sharpness and impact compared to the Tralucent Audio T1 or Ortofon MHd-Q7 amps.

Closing Comments

I have long had the problem of preferring an agile and energetic sound in my audio gear, which has often led me to gear like the AKG K701s which, although excellent for shorter listening sessions, does get become fatiguing after a while due mainly to its hotter treble. In terms of sound signature alone, the e-Q8s are a great solution to this issue, enabling long, enjoyable listening sessions with their euphoric but smooth sound, with the added benefit of their substantial and punchy lower end. However, they are of course far from perfect. I found the cable to be very disappointing, the earphones came out of my ears easily at times and the poor bass extension was an issue for some genres.

Ortofon know how to make a great looking and great sounding IEM, but as is, their user experience leaves something to be desired. Ah well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad…