In retrospect, I’m glad I procrastinated.
I’d been using two portable players for listening to music when I go on the road: an iRiver SlimX450 CD/mp3 disc player I’ve had for about five years, and my Palm Pre for downloaded and ripped files. Both have limitations: less than perfect sound, and incompatibility with high-resolution digital music. Moreover, both need a bit of help when driving some headphones (I have both a pair of Etymotic Research ER-4 and hf2s), which means I have to pack the superb Headroom Cosmic Traveler ‘phone amp, which with battery pack can be a bit bulky.
After having read a consistent stream of “you won’t believe how good this player is” reviews of the HiFiMan HM-801 — from audiophiles, digiphiles and studio pros — I decided to take the plunge.
Let me get the sticker shock out of the way. It runs $790 plus shipping and can be ordered from head-direct.com, headphone.com, and a number of other online audio gadget retailers. The player reads music from SDHC cards, so plan on shelling out a little more money — I ordered three 8Gb cards from NewEgg.com.
Here’s the plain-English “spec sheet”: The HiFiMAN HM-801 is one of the the largest portable players around, measuring 4.5″ x 3″ x 1″ and weighing just under a pound. It supports a multitude of common file formats, including FLAC, WMA Lossless, WAV, APE, AAC, OGG, and MP3 — including 24-bit/96kHz FLAC format (more details below). In addition to the headphone output there is a dedicated line-level minijack output, allowing you to plug this bad boy into a stereo or home theater system. It also accepts a coax input (up to 96k sampling rate) and two USB sockets, one for data, the other if you want to use the HiFiMan as a DAC (up to 48kHz). One reason for the high price: the HiFiMAN uses the superb Burr-Brown PCM1704U digital-to-analog converter chipset, and the analog amplifier stage uses the premium Burr-Brown 627OPA and a professional-quality volume control. To top it off, the modular design allows tweaky-geeky types like me to swap out the op-amp board. The unit comes packaged in a storage case with a heavy-duty power supply/charger — a full charge of the player took about three hours.
So how does it sound?
First, I assembled some listening material:
- tracks from Reference Recordings’ full-resolution HRx releases of “Crown Imperial,” “Lincolnshire Posy,” and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and downsampled to 88.2k/24-bit;
- the superb Chandos SACD of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony conducted by Richard Hickox, ripping the DSD stereo layer to 96k 88.2k/24-bit, then upsampling to 96k/24bit .flac*;
- a few 96k/24-bit tape transfers I have done (including Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No.5 played by Joseph Schuster and pianist Friedrich Wührer, which is pending release), converted to .flac;
- about a dozen CDs, including a few of my “Unfair Demonstration Discs” and old favorites, ripped to 44.1k/16bit FLAC;
- and some recent downloads from Pristine Classics, including Mark Obert-Thorn’s splendid new transfer of the Furtwängler/Berlin Philharmonic Tchaikovsky Pathétique and the premiere recording of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, with the composer leading an exciting, raucous reading.
It didn’t take long for the superior sonic quality of the HiFiMan to make itself apparent with just headphones. I switched between my Etymotic ER-4 intraaural phones, vintage Grado RS-1 cans, and Denon AH-D500 sealed-back ‘phones on loan from a friend. The sound was clean, accurate, and completely unhyped. There was absolutely no sound of strain when playing some of the most challenging stuff I could throw at it, no matter which ‘phones I was using. The HiFiMan did a particularly good job at driving the Etymotics, which can be a problematic load for some players and usually require a headphone amp; the player ran a little bit hotter, and battery life was only about 5 hours as opposed to the 7 it usually yields on a full charge, but the sound was free of distortion and anomalies on the loudest and most bass-rich sources with the ER-4s.
I also used the HiFiMan as a D-to-A for files on my computer via the player’s USB input. Quality was equally inpressive: clean, unhyped sound with plenty of dynamics and unusually good sound on quieter material.
Similarly, when I used the line output to connect the HiFiMan to an upstate friend’s very simple stereo rig (Krell S300i integrated amp, Martin Logan Source speakers), the quality was astounding — as if there were no components between the data and the preamp. We unscientifically A-B compared the CD and 88.2/24k rip of “Elsa’s Procession” from Wagner’s Lohengrin on Reference Recording’s “Crown Imperial.” The enormous dynamics and frequency range of this track make it one of the most revealing stereo demonstration recordings I know of. The analog output of the vintage Sony ES CD player was stressed by the loudest passages toward the end, but not the HiFiMan (we concluded that it may well be an issue with the CD player’s analog output stage — not enough juice or accuracy to handle the music).
No, the HiFiMan is not for everybody, but if you want high-quality sound on the go, and have a good pair of headphones, this is the player to get. In fact, good as the Etymotics sounded, I’m now considering getting an even better pair of in-ear ‘phones. If you’re a working musician or music professional who needs a high-quality player and/or DAC for use in the office, in the studio, or on the road, you should take a good look at the HiFiMan. This player will spoil you.
And good news for those balking at the premium price: HiFiMan is about to unveil another player without all the bells and whistles, but with the same premium quality.
- FLAC — lossless VBR-44.1kHz and 24bit-96KHz
- APE — Fast, Normal, and High Mode
- AAC — 16K-320Kbps
- WMA — 8-355kbps
- OGG — Quality 0-Quality 10
- WAV — PCM,MS-ADPCM,IMA-ADPCM
- MP3(VBR) — 8-320Kbps
* In reply to a couple of inquiries: while I have access to DSD drives, readers and software at a friend’s studio, most recent SACD players can output either a DSD or LPCM stream. I set my Oppo BDP-83 to play the stereo DSD layer and output it as a PCM stream, which I piped to the optical out jack and captured on my PC using Sound Forge 10. Downside: you have to do it in realtime and split the file into separate tracks. Upside: fine-sounding 88.2k/24bit rips.