TouchMyApps » Headphones All Things iPhone and iPad for those who like to Touch. iOS App reviews, News, New Apps, Price Drops and App Gone Free Wed, 03 Feb 2016 17:15:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sleek Audio SA7 inner earphones in Review Mon, 21 Oct 2013 00:28:04 +0000 This review is verbatim the one at Ω image. In case you are confused by all the ohmages and porridges, head to Ω’s about page. It’ll get better. Back when Cube, was rolling with Lorenzo in a Benzo, Sleek was polishing their chrome-trimmed SA6. Under da hood was a single ultra-wide band driver that laughed … Read more]]>

sleek-SA7 standing up

This review is verbatim the one at Ω image. In case you are confused by all the ohmages and porridges, head to Ω’s about page. It’ll get better.

Back when Cube, was rolling with Lorenzo in a Benzo, Sleek was polishing their chrome-trimmed SA6. Under da hood was a single ultra-wide band driver that laughed in the faces of the tubby competition. But times is changing. Sleek has doubled the SA6’s ultra-wide band armature count and dropped most of the chrome. Sleek’s hard core: the customisable VQ system, the coaxial detachable cable still roll with their shit off safety.


2 Year Limited Warranty
Speaker type: ultra-wide band balanced dual armature driver configuration
Variable Equalization (VQ) Tuning
Wireless Hybrid (wireless unit sold separately)
50” detachable/swivel cable
Frequency Response: 18 Hz.-20k Hz
DC Resistance: 25.4 ohms
Impedance: 50 ohms
Sensitivity: 115 dB/mW

3 Pairs of dual flange silicone ear tips
2 sets of Treble Tuning Tips
User’s Guide

SA7 Limited Edition 249,99$ USD


ohmage & porridge: customisation

The SA7′s VQ system does the same thing the SA6′s VQ system did. Except that metal eschews plastic wherever possible. Rubber gaskets and metal screw mounts keep treble and bass ports in place. Better tolerances and materials between earphone and VQ parts reap better sound.

Bass ports plug in at the back. Treble ports screw into the nose. Both seal their respective ports much better than before. Your choices are: flat and minus. The effects are rather stark, but never jarring.

Finally, the cable can also be exchanged- that is, if a viable third party option existed. Currently, the number of after-market cable producers working on Sleek’s otherwise excellent coaxial cables is close to damn all. Sincerely, I hope that number grows.

We will see why this matters in the section entitled build quality

ohmage & porridge: comfort and fit (C&F)

Like the ER4 and most of Final Audio Design’s earphones, the SA7 fits like a nail in the ear. But if you were Frakenstein’s monster (and let’s face it: most of us portable audiophiles are), the SA7 would be one of the more luxurious nails out there. It certainly betters the ER4 nail. Its angle of entry is comfortable and it’s soft silicon tips quite workable. Sensitive-eared people may take issue to the shallow umbrella silicon flanges. Their shallow fit can rub the ear canal the wrong way. Undead creatures borne of lightning and dressed in someone else’s skin may find Sleek’s umbrellas just dandy. Instead, I use Comply or Shure olive tips. I bother with third party pieces because the SA7 is worth the effort.

Because its body is triangular, the SA7 is easy to grip. Getting it in and out of the ear is spectacularly simple. But the freely rotatable coaxial cable tends to pop out when screwing the earphone into your ears, prompting bouts of plugging and unplugging, whence mechanical wear and tear is birthed.

The major plus to the freely rotating mount is that  the cable can be worn both over the ear and hung down like a traditional earbud. The SA7’s triangular prefers over-the-ear fit, but is right at home with a hung cable. The cable is a light and supple affair. It bends and writhes in the most comfortable of positions. Unfortunately, it also tends to harden after time, and fray. I’m on my second replacement.

ohmage: kitsch

Sleek Jony Ived away most of the SA6′s chrome. Thank Jobs. The new earphone shines less, and thanks to an abundance of metal, is far more robust than the SA6. More attention has been paid to items that ensure good fit and sound. Less bling affords the SA7 a truly sturdy design. And like FitEar, Sleek chose to go with a smart, indestructible and utilitarian Pelican storage box.

sleek-SA7 Pelican Case

ohmage & porridge: build quality

The Pelican will long outlast both you and your earphones. While the SA7′s reliance on metal and rubber elements is commendable, their are a few items of concern to the long-term investor.

The first is the cable. As hinted at above, it is awful. I said the same thing in my CT7 review. It is the same cheap cable used in the Sleek Audio SA1- a cable which I bemoaned even in a 55$ earphone. If you think I’m joking, try a Sleek Audio SA1 Google Search. The SA1 replacement cable shows up at the bottom of the FIRST PAGE!

The plug-side strain relief of my SA7 came apart mere days after I received the earphones. It also tends to harden faster than other cables I bag. I would enthusiastically take the ageing SM64 cable over the SA7 cable. Of course, Sleek’s coaxial connection is wondrous. It precedes today’s popular MMCX connection by years and is just as rotatable and secure. It is a simple wonder, however, that it has been yoked to such a dollar store bit of rubber.

The other bit that concerns is the the treble tips, and only for the reason that the grill came off my treble + tip while I removed a SHURE olive tip for cleaning.

Sleek Audio have assured me that I am one of only two customers to whom this has happened. (I wonder if the other customer was also a sensitive eared chap or chappette that tried millions of ear tips.) They also assure me there will be better cables coming- though it seems they are from third party manufacturers. While I hope that is true, it is imperative that Sleek start making a reliable cable for their earphones. Cable breakage has been a big problem since 2008.

The good news is that the cables are quite inexpensive. And besides being supple and light, they are probably the least microphonic of any production cable out there.

I’ve now used my CT7 for two years both on the pedal and on the bus, in weather both blistering hot and bitingly cold. The coaxial mount is still in great shape. But I’ve gone through three cables. I expect the SA7 to stand up similarly well.

ohmage & porridge: quality of finish

The SA7 is beefier than its predecessor. Both channels bulge quite like the calf muscles of a Greek god. The coaxial connection sits high like the like a exhaust pipe of a rally-ready VW Beetle. The treble port is its hood scoop. Vroom vroom! And while the paint job doesn’t quite rival Elite Detailing, it is more than adequate for the small area of an earphone.

Well done.

Small things like the treble port bore being off centre, indelible manufacturer smudges, excess glue at the seems- these things detract somewhat from Sleek’s muscular image, but not to a degree that ruins the earphone.

sleek-SA7 and cable


The Sleek Audio house sound is as muscular as its looks. It is fast, grippy, and serves precise, and sometimes heavy punches to the mid and low ranges. It is the perfect evolution of the SA6 sound. Both electronic and acoustic chimes sound freaking awesome. The overall signature is mid-focused but linear. Fast guitars are crunchy. Electronic bass is atmospheric. Female vocals are impressively clear and void of accent. Speed of attack and decay is good. And no matter which ports you plug or screw in, the SA7 will serve up aggressive mids.


Shiny mids are the Sleek way. The largest overall swell of shininess resides in the vocals and strings. Interestingly, vocals can also trend wispy. Adaptability to the idiosyncrasies of your music is one of the SA7′s biggest draws.

Bitey percussion keeps the edge in rock and roll, the live in folk.

No matter the ear piece you choose, the SA7 is never congested. That said, it presents details with softer inter-frequency contrast than, say, the Earsonics SM64. Its most resilient instruments are electronic chimes, horns, and high strings. Higher frequencies than that are slightly muted. Certainly you would not call them veiled, but no fan squeaky eaky sound could call the SA7 bright.

ohmage: space

The SA7′s sound stage is honest. It is energetically live and grippy, and at times, raw. It puts you in front of the stage. Floor standing monitors whip at your sweaty business face, the crowd nips at the party in the back. The focus is the music, not the crowd, or room acoustics, or your fabulous mullet. Details go wide, but never wrap around your head. Think IMAX, not VR headset.

ohmage: Bass vs mids

The SA7 keeps religious balance between bass and mids. The two breathe in and out with ease, never erring towards one or the other. Bass pressure is rather flat. Plus tips add more body, but sound pressure levels remain similar between frequencies.

The SA6 tended to boom, losing bass detail on heavy tracks. Not so the SA7. Even the most ferocious of lows are clean, level, and supportive. It is one of the most clean and speedy of any compact dual-driver earphone out there. It is a do-all signature that, day by day, grows on you. This quiescent cooperation of bass and mids is almost pastorally utopian- until you out the SA7 in fast rock and industrial. Aggression attends this gangsta just as well as peace and harmony do. Give it time. If you are coming from a more accented earphone, you will need to adapt. If you are coming from a truely neutral earphone, you will need to count to ten. When finally you acclimatise to the SA7’s goodness, goodbye. This sucker is addictive.

ohmage: Bass vs highs

Even with treble + filters plugging its nose, the SA7‘s high frequency sound pressure is slightly lower than mid and low sound pressure. The difference is slight but certain. Upper mids are shiny and bass is energetic. High hats decay a little too quickly; yet strangely, a ragnarok of violent Viking metal causes high hats to splash.

Upper mids have excellent body and edge. Guitars. Holy frack. Forget Ol’ John Denver (RIP). SA7 is all about strings. And Guitars. Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire. Bruce Springsteen. The Boss. Born in the freakin’ USA. These is rock through and through.

That said, the SA7 does American hip-hop quite well. It can’t hit duff duff lows, but the post-2001 tendency to mix medium-high pitched chimes into a rap is perfect for modern beats.

Trance: great. Classical: could use a bit more contrast between stage elements, but overall, good. Jazz: good unless you want more accent. I recommend the SA7 to fans of flat, semi-bright sound signatures. Bass pressure is strong but mids rule.

ohmage: drivability

Despite toting two balanced armature drivers, the SA7 is no harder to drive than your typical single driver earphone- unless of course, you are using a terrible source.

Interestingly, setting the volume slightly higher than usual yields the best sound. I listen to the SA7 about 3-5 decibels louder than I listen to other favourite earphones. It really does wake at slightly louder volumes.

ohmage & porridge: sensitivity

SA7 is as sensitive as its predecessors. It is one of the most sensitive earphones in my collection, very nearly matching terrible hissers like the Shure SE500 and Westone UM2. It outs hiss from every source I own. Among my favourite players, the iBasso DX50 hisses the most, the iPod nano 6g the least. My Sony players are downright obnoxious through this Sleek; HiSound’s Amp3Pro is unlistenable.

Earsonics’ recent turn to high resistance makes their top earphones the easiest to drive. I wish that Sleek will follow suit.

ohmage: isolation

Earlier in the year, I missed a train. I very nearly missed the departure time for a rather important shoot that day. The SA7 was in my ears and my iPod nano set to a volume of about 5. The Tsukuba express is a loud train. But the SA7 drowned it out completely. If you want to turn your back on everything around you, SA7 will do it. It isolates far more than most universal earphones. Study hall? Oh yes. Commuter train? You betcha. And here in Asia where coffee shops, malls, and every other public place are rife with annoyingly inane loudspeaker adverts and jingles, the SA7 is a miracle. Honestly, isolation was never something I absolutely craved until I came here.

My ergonomic favourite Grado GR8 doesn’t deliver enough. The SA7 is what is necessary to drown out the worst Asia has to offer.

At its current price of 249$, I expect it is flying off the shelves. And it should. It more than worth its asking price. It rocks aggression like it was 1999 but still purrs when more delicate genres hit the output circuts of your favourite source. An earphone this limber is seldom seen outside of expensive customs. If only Sleek replaced their cable with something realistic. That cable is Sleek’s Aftermath. No one knows why Sleek are still using such a chintzy piece of rubber and wire. The sooner they replace it, the better.

An earphone of this calibre deserves much, much better.

ohmage: 10

porridge: 5

This review is verbatim the one at Ω image. In case you are confused by all the ohmages and porridges, head to Ω’s about page. It’ll get better.

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Earsonics SM64 reviewed at ohm-image Wed, 09 Oct 2013 00:08:08 +0000 While the bulk of shiggy’s headphone and earphone reviews have moved to ohm-image, expect a few good reviews to come to TMA. Shiggy’s most recent review is of Earsonic’s SM64. Earsonics are a favourite here at TMA and the SM64 seems to be the hit of the SM line. Why? Shiggy has this to say: … Read more]]>


While the bulk of shiggy’s headphone and earphone reviews have moved to ohm-image, expect a few good reviews to come to TMA. Shiggy’s most recent review is of Earsonic’s SM64. Earsonics are a favourite here at TMA and the SM64 seems to be the hit of the SM line. Why? Shiggy has this to say:

The SM64 delivers not only crisp mids and highs, it serves up boiling, authoritative punches that roll through most of audible spectrum. Lower mids are fast up and down. They never tangle with bass. Kudos to kick drums, bass guitar, electronic kicks, and pretty much anything with a beat from there on down. Thruma thwaaaarck! goes lower bass. Thwacka thwacka! go upper mids. Speed is king.

Timeliness – while stereotypically not very French an asset – has a pigeonhole with an SM64-shaped aperture.

Timely and taut though it is, the SM64 stops far before it ever reaches the shrill, metallic highs that has ER4 lovers all agog. Some may take issue here. Metal-tipped responses can be hugely fun. But Earsonics are a musician-oriented company; and in Earsonics 2,0, equitability takes precedence over wow.

Fans of crispy crisp crisp will probably look elsewhere for their bacon. Similarly, fans of warm fuzzies may also have to turn elsewhere. With few outliers, the SM64 sounds rather flat – and certainly crisp – at the ear.

Crispness FTW!

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Forza Audio Works Cables – An Introduction Wed, 08 May 2013 13:59:05 +0000 Forza Audio Works is an up and coming cable manufacturer whose hardware is second to none. Forza has workmanship and quality control licked. Matthew, the man behind the brand is hard at work making pretty much every cable you would want. Bespoke No matter how formidable the catalogue, no manufacturer has everything. Matthew welcomes emails … Read more]]>


Forza Audio Works is an up and coming cable manufacturer whose hardware is second to none. Forza has workmanship and quality control licked. Matthew, the man behind the brand is hard at work making pretty much every cable you would want.

No matter how formidable the catalogue, no manufacturer has everything. Matthew welcomes emails and in no time will get you hooked up with what you need. You can specify your device, cable length, build materials, connector, and on and on. As long as you can dream it, chances are that Matthew can build it. Of course, the more outlandish you get, the more your little monster will set you back. Once in the hand, I don’t think you’ll mind. Not at all.

Matthew’s cables are made to withstand the tug of war your portable gear will be subjected to. They have ample anchoring inside and outside, each one is wrapped in shrink wrap and melted into place. Forza has a penchant for Neutrik, Switchcraft, and Furutech connectors so compatibility is always top notch. His RCA cables can also be made in 1877phono flavours, too. 1877phone parts are not quite as robust, but a little easier to tweak as parts loosen up over time.
Contrary to stoic Neutrik, 1877phono cables also look fab.

Soft Spoke
Matthew is a gentleman through and through. He carefully approaches his customers from a needs basis, making sure first and foremost that they and he are on the same page. I discovered Forza through a local headfi meet last year and immediately ordered a slew of cables. Matthew made sure that what I wanted was what he provided. And provide he did.

I listen to music in a variety of locations. When out and about, I tend to drop the amp in favour of portability. Matthew makes a variety of super small LOD cables that will help keep things in your pocket. His L-Shaped LOD with Neutrik connector is one of the best I’ve seen. Matthew isn’t interested in mere looks, though: he made sure it was angled correctly and would fit my amps.

He is also very excited about his new webpage (to be honest, so am I). He does all his own photos and modelling. His website is beautiful. Go ahead, peruse, and give him a shout.

iDevice and Beyond
Currently, Forza specialises in iDevice cables, headphone recabling, digital cables, and a host of interconnects. They make cables for everything, including Apples newest devices. (Now, I don’t for a moment believe that they are Apple approved, and I’d be buggered if they were; Forza is a one-man outfit, not a marketing behemoth.)

Below is Forza’s lightning LOD. I’ll be testing it in the next few weeks.


One area I’d love to see Forza enter is IEM cables. FitEar, Jerry Harvey, Westone and the rest of them have some good options already, but truly flexible, light aftermarket cables that are well made and sound good, are still hard to find.

The Marque
Forza’s unique braiding is as much their marque as is Matthew’s excellent product photography. Whether you purchase Claire or Copper, braiding is prominent. If not braiding, it is tightly fit flex cloth.

In the pretty world, Forza outdo any boutique cable in the same price category. That, and transparent marketing is what stands out most about Forza.

I’m not sure who she is, but Matthew has a thing for her. The cables I ordered are all Claire. Claire is massively braided and complex. She looks like an art-nouveau rendition of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her less expensive sibling, Copper, is more traditional and cute. After having extensively testing Claire, I’m pretty well sold on her.


Firstly, if you are looking to get the most performance from an iDevice, splitting the signal into an RCA is key. You will get better stereo performance from your device and very slightly less distortion. However, the line out on the iDevice while being good, isn’t great, no matter what cable you put up to it.

Tested back to back vs. ALO or Twisted Cables (my current benchmark), Forza’s cables perform in exactly the same league. Twisted Cables have at times outperformed their rivals in stereo separation, but Forza’s works are their equals in every respect. One thing that is certain: Forza’s products will not bottleneck your audio performance. They are transparent and present very little stress on your gear’s output circuitry.

Here is Forza Audio Works’ primary performance competitor, a great-sounding product from Twisted Cables.


If you are at home, ergonomics isn’t a big consideration, but for portable use, it is. One area where Twisted Cables stand head and shoulders above ALO is in the suppleness of their cables. They can twist and grind into any pocket or fit any large or small amp. Forza cables are only mildly less ergonomic. They don’t bend or stretch quite as well (due to the braid design) but they can be made to fit any portable quite easily.

While I have no reservations regarding Forza’s Cables, I do have this warning: any sort of braided cable will have more stress exerted on its connection parts than non-braided cables. Most high-end cables employ some sort of braiding. Braiding can help attain better stereo separation, but it needs to be handled with more care. So far, Forza’s works have been robust, but they won’t survive a war zone of constant twisting and grinding. In particular, small L-shaped micro LODs need to handled with care. My Twisted Cables micro LOD broke after half a year. The Forza is still going strong, but I don’t have faith that it will last forever.

Against other high-end braided/twisted offerings, Forza stand tall. Against cheap, massively lugged cables, however, they will probably piddle out first.
Forza offer a 2-year manufacturer’s guarantee on their products. If something goes wrong on the Forza side, you’re covered. That’s great for peace of mind.

Forza enter the market just as Apple’s connectors are changing shapes. Forza also make a lightning cable, but I’m still testing it. However, their traditional 30 pin cables and interconnects are smashing beauties that hold their own at their price points and represent a manufacturer dedicated to quality in every respect. From the first customer interaction to receipt of the final product, Matthew is a gentleman. His products, finely tuned, wonderfully designed, and laid out on his web site like a pro, speak for themselves.

Strong, well-made cables
Excellent performance
Great customer service
Choices galore

Braiding isn’t quite as strong as tubular cable

Here’s what Forza’s stuff looks like in use:


FAW-box FAW-card-connectors FAW-Claire-LOD-S FAW-Claire-RCA-LOD FAW-lightning FAW-mini-LOD-L Twisted-CablesRead more]]> 4
ALO Audio’s The International headphone amp/USB DAC in review Mon, 25 Feb 2013 07:28:46 +0000 It’s off to the races again. This time, ALO have suited up their youngest and most exciting audiophile offspring, The International. This amp features at 24/96kHz USB DAC, discrete analogue/digital sections, a powerful battery, extremely low noise floor, and the must-have feature of the decade: balanced input and output. With all that under the bonnet, … Read more]]>

ALO The International BW

It’s off to the races again. This time, ALO have suited up their youngest and most exciting audiophile offspring, The International. This amp features at 24/96kHz USB DAC, discrete analogue/digital sections, a powerful battery, extremely low noise floor, and the must-have feature of the decade: balanced input and output. With all that under the bonnet, you can be sure this youngster will turn heads as it swishes by.


Battery: 1600 mAh Lithium-Polymer
Dimensions: 71.5 mm x 85 mm x 25.5 mm
Battery Play Time: 14-16 hours (Amplifier) 8-10 Hours (Amplifier + DAC)
Battery Recharge Time: 3 hours
Frequency Response : +/- 1 dB:10-25,000 Hz
Colour: black or silver

Output Power – Balanced:
130 mW into 32 Ohms
200 mW into 50 Ohms
330 mW int 600 Ohms
660 mW into 300 Ohms
Input Impedance:

Output Power – Unbalanced:
130 mW into 32 Ohms
160 mW into 300 Ohms
200 mW into 50 Ohms
83 mW into 600 Ohms

Manufacturer: ALO Audio
Product: The International
Price: 599$

ALO The International accessories ALO The International box ALO The International BW-2 ALO The International BW ALO The International iphone ALO The International National

Build Quality
Every current-generation ALO portable amp is built like a tank. The International is no exception to that rule. It retains the essentials of The National: 2mm hex screws, a thick mounting chassis, and solid main board. Of course, The International also touts a fine 24/96kHz USB DAC, which is located on a 2nd main board( separate from the analogue section), as well as balanced input/output circuitry.

Chassis size has shrunk, but build quality has stayed the same. Inside, solder joints are robotically precise and the boards snap cleanly into their 9-pinned joint section. The battery clips into the main board. Presumably, it could be replaced by a dextrous user, however, it’s bum is glued to the bottom of the chassis, so it requires experience with a mechanic’s spatula and glue solvent. The volume pot follows the RX, incorporating tracking and power on/off functions into a single part.

Ergonomics and Polish
Every iterative ALO amp is better than its predecessor. The International bested the old RX with a hard-to-scratch matte chassis and perfectly spaced in/out panel. Later RX amps bested their predecessors with more secure connections and switches. The International finishes the tradition with a fiercely compact design that is packed with features while remaining simple to use.

The on/off lamp still shines demurely, equally ready for a bedside rig or a night out. Single-ended ins and outs are spaced far apart and are sunk modestly into the faceplate. Even ALO’s fattest pipe cables will work. Balanced ins and outs are split front to back. The volume pot is precisely aligned. The ALO logo reads horizontally when the amp is off; the arrow graphic between ‘ALO’ and ‘audio’ indicates where on the volume scale the amp is set. The International does all this without a blinding array of letters.

Understated and rational layouts are chief in ALO’s designs. What can’t be stated enough is how much smaller The International is than The National, and of course, The Continental. Normal-sized hands can completely cup ALO’s latest, while they would do no better than palming The National.

Inside, the main board is laid out in logical, clean lines. All parts are easy to read, and with the snap-in design of the analogue/digital boards, taking a greasy look at at any part is simple. As mentioned above, to remove the battery, you will need to use a solvent and a workman’s spatula on the chassis-side. Otherwise, no specialised tools are needed to access any part.

Passing over any part in the audio chain would be ingenuous. Chiefly, The International is ALO’s first portable DAC. (Of course, The amazing Pan Am sports a USB DAC as well, but primarily, it is a desktop amplifier.) Plug its USB port into a Mac or PC and your computer preferences will display “ALO(HD)Audio” rather than a generic label. No drivers are necessary.

Better yet, the DAC chip receives its power from the internal battery, not from a computer’s bus system. That means that it works directly on an iPad via the Camera Connection Kit, or on a jailbreaked iPhone or iPod touch without necessitating an external USB hub. To get iPhone and iPod touch devices working, you will need the 30-pin Camera Connection Kit, BigBoss Camera Connector app (99 cents), and iOS 5. I’ve not been able to get iOS 6 to work with BigBoss’s Camera Connector app and either version of Apple’s Camera Connection Kit with the iPhone or iPod touch. When/if support for the new devices are made available in BigBoss, I’ll update this section.

Currently, there are few DACs that work directly with iOS devices, mainly because they need more voltage than the iPad can supply. The International doesn’t stand alone, but it stands with the most poise among a rather small number of truly portable-friendly amp/DACs.

As you will notice, the International also sports balanced input and output. To enable balanced input, flip the switch the switch at the back from USB to the up arrow. No matter the input, either single ended or balanced can be used from the front panel. It’s automatic (cue Utada Hikaru’s early 2000 mega hit), and easy as pie. Single ended input takes precedence over balanced or USB. If you with to use either, unplug the singled ended bits.

Suffice it to say that I didn’t expect the diminutive The International to spit with such depth and power. It puts roughly the same amount of slam into high Ω headphones such as the DT800 600Ω as The National. Thus, it is perfectly home plugged into a HiFi.

Through the years, ALO have delivered amps with respectable to excellent headphone out performance. The Rx, for instance, remains a benchmark at TMA and other enthusiast publications. However, it tends to output more background noise than is comfortable for IEM use. Even The National outputs a slight bit more noise than many rivals. Still, both of those amps perform very well for an unbelievably wide range of headphones.

The International puts an end to the days of background noise. In fact, on low gain, background noise is lower than the IEM-specific hippo cricri and cricri+. Noise levels are similar to the iBasso T3D, an amp that I praise endlessly for IEM usage.

‘Zero’ volume corresponds to about 10 o’clock on the volume pot. There are about 45 minutes of play on the pot before sound comes in at 10:45. With ultra-sensitive earphones such as the Sleek Audio CT7, I feel comfortable listening to volume levels of up to 12 o’clock with older recordings, and 11:45 with newer recordings. In addition, there is no volume pot scratching and when turned on/off, the amp doesn’t thump loudly. Instead, there is a tiny audible blip, but nothing that hurts the ears, phones, or amp.

Essentially, users of sensitive IEMs will have roughly one to one and a quarter hour turns to enjoy their music, possibly more. (Remember, I listen to low volume levels.) That one and a quarter turn is also a reassuring ordeal. The volume pot doesn’t turn at the slightest nudge. It stays in position unless deliberately adjusted and therefore, is safe for blind pocket use.

The only amp in recent memory that gives that much control to sensitive earphones is the IEM-specific Headamp Pico Slim. The Pico Slim, however, has very little reserve when used with full-size headphones, and, it suffers to listener to quite an on/off power thump.

The International has no such constraints on its output. Where its low gain is a virtual playground for sensitive IEMs, its medium and high gain settings are all business. For most headphones, high gain is a mere academic setting. Even the DT880 600Ω gets plenty of volume on low gain, and on medium, a little more headroom. On high gain, only at a setting of 95% on the volume pot does The International show signs of fatigue. 90% will render strong dynamics and no hint of IMD.

Similarly, the medium-low Ω ES7 turns into a desktop speaker when plugged into The International. The amp’s circuitry begins to be troubled by compressed dynamics on high gain and set at 70%. After 75%, IMD makes it impossible to listen to. Of course, at such volume settings, the amp is simply too loud for any ear. Power doesn’t quite reach Pan Am levels, but it gets as close as a battery powered portable amp will.

In terms of actual resolution, for the most part The International plays hardball. It is most comfortable with headphones above 40Ω, and demonstrates absolutely no load at around 60Ω, but with low Ω earphones, as well, it shows strongly, delivering generally high levels of resolution. Multiple armature earphones MAY trip up The International on certain, bass-heavy tracks, but not enough to remove my recommendation for earphone use.

The International’s clear background renders strong dynamic punch and contrast between frequency bands. Here, again, it reminds me of The National – a National with less distortion and slightly clearer dynamics.  Both amps tend to drop stereo separation when confronted with hard-to-drive low Ω earphones like the Earsonics SM2, but maintain good dynamic control. Harmonic distortion takes a 1000% uptick when the SM2 is plugged in, but never flares into veiling audibility. Very few amps deliver distortion values of less than 3% when coupled with the SM2.

In fact, other than delivered resolution to the lowest Ω earphone, The International handily steps up to the Rx. Users of low Ω IEMs may notice some low frequency loss in some music, and maybe a slight heat to the upper midrange, but it’s nothing big. Overall, ALO nailed with the International.

On USB input
As with nearly all portable USB DACs I’ve come across, optimal performance is achieved via analogue input. It’s not necessarily that there is more noise in the USB signal, it’s that actual signal quality is poorer. It’s not an ALO thing – it’s generally a non-CENtrance thing. In the case of The International, USB input curtails dynamic range and stereo image the most. Background noise is still kept low, and is certainly lower than the output of most if not all computers, but it isn’t as silent or high quality as either of the analogue inputs.

On Balanced VS Unbalanced
Balanced allows more current to hit a set of transducers than an unbalanced signal. Even in 2013, there are only a few balanced portable sources out there. On the iDevice front, Cypher Labs’ CLAS DB works its magic, while on the desktop front, there are many options to choose from.

The International will take a single ended analogue signal and split it into correct phases for balanced output. It will also do the same thing to a USB input signal. Balanced signals run in and out similarly. Every signal will pass the same Burrbrown DRV134ua output amplifiers that convert single ended signals to balanced signals. From a performance perspective, the balanced signal splits phases wonderfully even if the original signal is single ended. The International does a phenomenal job.

Its balanced signal gains several decibels of dynamic range and, a lower noise floor, and more power to high Ω headphones.

NOTE: for balanced armature earphones, a balanced signal may sound like a great idea, but it is only really good if the earphone transducers are made specifically to accept balanced signals. If not, the earphone’s sound will alternate greatly from the manufacturer’s ideals. It’s not as simple as slapping on a balanced cable. Whether you like that sound or not isn’t up for question; what is is if you can live with its effects. With the exception of ALO’s FitEar 334 there are very few balanced armature IEMs that are designed for balanced signals. Dynamic driver earphones and headphones, however, are another story. Both are run splendidly via The International.

Sound in a Nutshell
The International boasts low distortion, high resolution, a very low noise floor and decent to good stereo separation. There is enough power in it to blow headphones and eardrums to oblivion and still retain a high quality signal. It’s like a better The National with the added plusses of a balanced audio circuit and USB DAC. In ALO’s line, it is the amp with the lowest background noise floor, and therefore, a killer accessory for IEM users. The fact that it packs a wallop of a punch with voltage and current hungry headphones, too, is a wonderful surprise. Way to go ALO.

RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect The International’s performance when connected to a specific set of output/input devices. They should not directly be compared to any other result. The input device is an Edirol FA-66. The output devices are: Earsonics SM2, Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, and Audio Technica ES7, which are connected in parallel to the output signal. All Tralucent T1 hardware tests will be posted in TMA’s forums. Source components are: Cypher Labs CLAS, an iPod nano 6G, and where noted, an iBasso DX100. Tests will appear in TMA’s forums.

Out and About
For its uses, The International is a small amp. It pockets friendlier than any ALO amp to date, employs a sturdy volume pot, and boasts excellent gain settings. It is fully recommended for all earphones/headphones you can throw at it whilst you sit on the train, bus, or walk about town. Thankfully, its matte casing isn’t easily scratched; simply wrapping it and your source with the included elastic bands is enough to safely keep things going all day. RF interference ins’t a big problem, either.

There’s no skimp in The International’s engineering regimen. This amp runs with the big boys while keeping up with IEM-specific midgets. Noise is stuffed way down and tracking errors are minimal. The plug-and-play simplicity of its fully battery-powered USB DAC means that it runs from pretty much any source, including iOS devices. If you’ve got 599$ waiting for the right piece of audio equipment, you likely won’t find a more comprehensive all-in-one deal than The International. There’s simply nothing The International can’t do – a fact that even ALO’s older siblings would be wise to note. Because what you are looking at is the amp, that, in capability-for-dollar values, simply runs circles around whatever’s out there.


- Excellent construction
- Extremely low noise floor
- Great resolution and power into high Ω headphones
- Good resolution for low Ω earphones
- Internal DAC’s power supplied by internal battery, NOT computer bus
- Excellent left/right tracking for all headphones
- Fully balanced in/out circuitry with measurably better performance

- Output resolution with low Ω earphones limited because of semi-high output Ω
- USB performance isn’t as good as line performance

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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音茶楽 Flat4-楓 Ocharaku Flat4-KAEDE earphone in review Thu, 14 Feb 2013 00:43:24 +0000 I have a hunch that Mr. Yamagishi, the former Sony headphone and speaker designer behind Ocharaku was drinking tea before he ever sipped into the idea of the Tornado Equaliser. That singular technology has since revolutionised the upgrade earphone market among price-conscious portable audiophiles in Japan. And with the introduction of Flat-4 SUI – and … Read more]]>

Ocharaku FLAT4-Kaede-iso

I have a hunch that Mr. Yamagishi, the former Sony headphone and speaker designer behind Ocharaku was drinking tea before he ever sipped into the idea of the Tornado Equaliser. That singular technology has since revolutionised the upgrade earphone market among price-conscious portable audiophiles in Japan. And with the introduction of Flat-4 SUI – and TE’s successor, TEE – in 2011, the technology has found itself in a new, better pot. Twin Equalised Elements (TEE) is the new leaf that Mr. Yamagishi turned over to create SUI and now KAEDE. If you’re interested in a few different views of KAEDE, check out Ω image’s KAEDE post.

Transducer: 010e002 Φ10 mm dynamic x 2 (per single channel)
Prime technology: Twin equalized element
Output sound pressure level: 104 dBSPL/mW
Frequency characteristics: 3.5 to 35 kHz
Max. input: 400 mW
Impedance: 18 Ω
Weight: About 17 g
Plug: Φ3.5 mm gold plating stereo mini-plug
Cable length: 1.2 m (type Y)
Accessories: Comply-foam ear tips T-200 size L (Size M is attached to the main unit.)
Wooden storage box, cloth, Instruction Manual & Guarantee

Japan, Tokyo, Setagaya Ku, Kyodo 2-17-2
Tel: 03-3428-5557

In early December, I visited Ocharaku. Mr. Yamagishi’s polite personality and eager explanations do wonders to his two foremost product lines: imported tea and luxurious hand-made earphones. I can’t wait to get the chance to go again. In fact, I’m queued up to purchase on of his modded Audio Technica CKM55 earphones.

Ocharaku FLAT4-Kaede-iso Ocharaku FLAT4-Kaede-plug-iso Ocharaku FLAT4-Kaede-split-Edit Ocharaku-FLAT4-KAEDE-box-cardboard Ocharaku-FLAT4-KAEDE-Box Ocharaku-FLAT4-KAEDE-Fit

Accessories and Package
With nothing more than a few comply tips and a royal blue cleaning cloth to adorn its bits, KAEDE comes somewhat thinly attired. But then again, what high-end earphone system ever comes surrounded by accessories? The prize is KAEDE, not the packed-in bits and nibbles. KAEDE comes in a delectable wooden tea box, that itself comes wrapped in a bit of fancy packboard. From the outset, the impression you get is one of careful, tense planning.

Fit and Isolation
I fear that many of my observations of Final Audio’s 1601 apply to KAEDE. Many, but not all. Unlike the 1601, KAEDE is light, and stays put no matter how you move your head. Similar to the 1601, however, is KAEDE’s somewhat awkward fit. It sticks out of the ears like Frankenstein bolts. Comply tips keep it secure, but there is no neck cinch, so the cable can get caught on this and that. Also, KAEDE is an open design. It lets in a bit of noise, but not enough to ruin a train ride. Its isolative properties are halfway between those of the 1601 with tips and an Audio Technica CK10 strapped with low density foamies. Whilst riding in to Akihabara and plugged into an iPod nano 6G, I had to raise the volume by 1/3 to 1/2 over my usual listening levels.

Usually, I drape earphone cables over my ears. Due to the angle at which KAEDE protrudes from the ear, over-ear cable draping is uncomfortable and precarious. Big ears? You’re in luck. Small ears? You’ll have to stick to wearing KAEDE straight down.

What isn’t precarious is the sound tube, which has a smaller diameter than another favourite of mine, ortofon’s e-Q5. Even people with small ear canals should comfortably be able to comfortably wear either KAEDE or SUI. Another plus is the soft angle at which the tube extends from the earphone body, which makes for comfortable wear.

Both Flat-4 earphones come with a quality 4-element cable. It is thick, malleable, and fairly resistant to body oils. It is similar in tensile strength to the excellent ortofon cable. Noise transfer is minimal, however, without a neck cinch, touch noise reaches the ear.

Inside the earphone, the cable is knotted. I’ve given it a few good tugs (don’t tell Mr. Yamagishi) and it held firm, but I don’t suggest doing it. Other than a small rubber o-ring, there is no stress relief at the earphone, the plug, or the y split. While KAEDE is meant for luxurious listening, and not for a beat ‘em up bout with the gals, it would behove Ocharaku to install more protection, especially in an expensive earphone like KAEDE.

Build Quality
Ocharaku’s earphones aren’t meant to be worn whilst exercising, or at a party. While sturdily made, they will break if subjected to the rigours of wind sprints on the back of your steel Marinoni in Canada’s yearly 70º temperature swings. (Ocharaku was designed by a Tokyoite, after all. Tokyo is a city that generally sees fewer than 25 degree swings from summer to winter.) Being fashioned in maple wood, KAEDE is even more susceptible to: rain, sweat, sun, corrosive acid, and kryptonite. Each earphone goes through a long curing process that hardens the wood and outer resin. The finish is beautiful, and damn it, it better stay that way.

Mr. Yamagishi is adamant that his upper level earphones are made in batches from the same base wood in order that as many sonic anomalies as possible may be avoided. Hence the limited edition status of KAEDE. There will be no more than 200 units made. Ever.

Don’t be fooled by your skepticism; KAEDE is worth every bit of attention it draws. And no, it doesn’t sound like your favourite balanced armature earphones. In particular, its sound is open, clear, and, at strange moments, prone to mush together a few details. But when it gets things right (and that is 95% of the time) it gets them so right that you’ll be scratching addendum after addendum in your Oxford under ‘perfect’, ‘just right’ and their ilk. It is that good.

While not engaging the outer ear at all, KAEDE (and SUI) maintain a multilayered, generally out-of-the-head sound. I almost hesitate to compare it with headphones of any format. Why? Because, if not for the bit of Comply fuzz squishing against your canals, the sound truly is out of the head. Speaker-like, if you will. That sound isn’t as 3D and sculpted as a good balanced armature. Pitted against a FitEar ToGo! 334, both Ocharaku earphones have some difficulty delineating the smallest details in lows and mids, but in a larger sense, the sound is open and extremely out of the head. You and I will be sipping Oolong tea on the sweaty shores of Mars’ largest surfing beach before the 334 catch up to the vastness of KAEDE’s sound. If the 334 casts a beach ball sized shadow of sound around your head, Ocharaku’s earphones fill a sonic shadow the size of a big box wrecking ball.


KAEDE’s bass is thick, organic, and detailed. It is the spiritual successor to Victor’s FX500. But where Victor’s hero could at times, resonate uncontrollably, Ocharaku’s flagship obviates transient crowding of any sort. At all times it is clear and emphatic. On one extreme, it precisely renders the opening seconds of Markuz Schulz’ Mainstage in audible puffs and yawns. At the other, it keeps pace with the trash trance of DJ Tïesto’s Kaleidoscope, never once stepping into the mids. Despite its strong presence, it never blooms nor bulges. Tangible detail on this level is only possible from high-end dynamic driver earphones, and among them, KAEDE retains the clearest image, bar none.

Mid to high bass impact generally, is excellent. A slight delay in the upper mid bass dampens my opinion only slightly. But combined with its tangible and detailed lows, KAEDE conveys a live rawness to most acoustic music. SUI’s bass is only slightly colder than KAEDE’s. Both are excellent.

Mids and Highs
Separation of bass from midrange melody elements is spot on. Only Inception’s dream within a dream within a dream concept can describe melodic depth in contemporary terms. The presentation is very much like a speaker setup. Positioning is incredible. Bass has an anchored position near the back of the ear near the neck. It never strays too far from that position. But it never ever mixes into any other frequency. Mids and highs swim around the head, sometimes drifting far, sometimes posing close to the ear.

Actually, it is this element that may pose the most problem to listeners. Because KAEDE’s mid frequency sound stage is so engulfing and contrasty, it takes time to adapt to. I’ve spoken with several users who, at first, wanted to return their KAEDE. After a few days, they warmed to KAEDE and now love it. Contrariwise, I fell in love right away. This earphone stuns with its truly out-of-head experience.

Go to a small venue concert. You will notice that the vocalist and all instruments are mic’d. They come in over the house, but in such small places, if the speakers are set to lower volume levels, you get music via the speakers, music via the stage, music via naked instruments and throats. Invariably, guitars and vocals are mic’d more strongly than drums and bass guitar is. Melody and vocals run to the forefront. Percussion can shimmer at the ear and guitar bumps into the middle of it all, eclipsed only by vocals. In an almost separate channel, bass nudges in. This multi-layered, live sound is what KAEDE is all about.

Let’s get back to frequency evaluations. In upper mids and lower treble, KAEDE remains strong, delineating each vector clearly, cleanly, and with verve. Unfortunately, in order to get this sound from a TEE earphone, KAEDE is your ticket. SUI lacks crisp edges along vocal lines, cymbals, guitar, percussion; the list goes on. While I appreciate SUI’s overall presentation, KAEDE can’t even be graded on the same scale. Still, especially fast beat-driven music may lose shape in the cavernous expanse KAEDE throws. It is the first time that a wide earphone has tripped me up with regards to trance music.

KAEDE’s high frequency extension is excellent and sound pressure stays high through the reaches of all treble-tipped instruments. SUI has a noticeable suckout.

Sound in a Nutshell
KAEDE’s sound is multilayered, deep, wide, and well extended. Apposed to each other in any recording, bass, mids, and treble stand out, sometimes quite aloof. Ocharaku’s flagship earphone tends to infuse edge into almost any music without being fatiguing. It’s not an over-active treble, it’s succinct layering. The price you pay is low isolation and unwieldy fit. If you can get by those two hurdles (and the price), there’s nothing really like it.

If you really really love minute detail in treble, the stuff only balanced armature earphones supply, I cannot recommend KAEDE. It has loads of detail, but most of that is shown off in contrasting each frequency channel in contrasty vectors. Minute details are present, but not magnified as they seem to be when spit out by balanced armature earphones. Yet, because KAEDE retains excellent control over its tangible sound signature, detail, as it applies to feeling and the sonorous movement of air, is there in spades. It’s just a different sort of detail. And I’ll be honest and say I dig it completely. If I had to live with one earphone, I would choose KAEDE in a heartbeat, despite losing some isolation.

Regarding Sensitivity
At 104dB both SUI and KAEDE are semi-sensitive earphones. They can detect noise from many sources, though at much lower volumes than the likes of FitEar’s earphones and certainly less than Sleek Audio’s CT7. Once music kicks in, noise isn’t a problem like it can be with other earphones. For this reason, noisy players like Sony’s Walkman and the first generation iPod shuffle are fully listenable with only minor annoyance.

Regarding Amping
Unless you have a source with a very high headphone output, or that is extremely underpowered, an amp isn’t necessary. Neither earphone pose too much a load on any modern headphone output. Mr. Yamagishi mentioned that he wanted people to enjoy music on any source. He didn’t design KAEDE or SUI as high end products to be fitted to high end gear. He designed them to sound great on anything. And they do. I would recommend not using an amp unless you are keen on a certain brand of sound the amp adds to the sound. In the majority of cases, you won’t get better sound by using an amp.

Out and About
As a semi-open earphone that rings in at over 700$, KAEDE isn’t ideal for use out in the Big Apple where a tech savvy thug could make it disappear in a New York minute. A few minutes’ chase and much muscle-flexing later, the KAEDE is back in your paws. But, the thug has sweated on it, and in his/her haste to outpace you, bashed it against walls and broken parking meters. The cable still looks good, but that beautiful maple exterior is pock-marked like old Luna. Bugger that. At least you can still slide your iPod into your pocket and string the KAEDE’s cable through your shirt. There’s plenty of slack there. After beating down a would-be crook, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. And there’s a new rawness in your music.

Flush the image of mass-marketed robot-assembled plastic speaker-filled nubs out of your head. You’ve entered boutique audio street. KAEDE is an extremely limited edition earphone. There are only 200 in the world. I got to sweat on one for three weeks. I only wish it was longer. The loving craftsmanship that went into it, the finely tuned sound, the awkward fit: each of these mark it in and out of its niche. This is not a thrown-together luxury product. It is quite possibly the world’s most realistic up-market earphone for audiophiles. Mr. Yamagishi got its sound, materials, and curing just right. It outperforms its direct competitors from Final Audio. Its only real fault is that for most people out there, it is impossible to get ahold of. Bugger. For you and me, Mr. Yamagishi’s got some great stuff cooking. Until then, count your pennies.


Excellent sound quality
Best in class performance
Swimmingly open
Luxurious finish
Excellent quality cable
Attractive box and tea case

So-so plug quality
No stress reliefs

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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Triad Audio L3 Headphone Amplifier in Review Fri, 08 Feb 2013 03:59:43 +0000 Triad Audio’s L3 is one of the biggest battery-powered carry-around headphone amps that TMA has gone over. The other, MST’s FiQuest, is a champion of customisation and performance. While not nearly as customisable as the FiQuest, the L3 commutes from HiFi component to road warrior with less hassle. It is also one of the handsomest … Read more]]>


Triad Audio’s L3 is one of the biggest battery-powered carry-around headphone amps that TMA has gone over. The other, MST’s FiQuest, is a champion of customisation and performance. While not nearly as customisable as the FiQuest, the L3 commutes from HiFi component to road warrior with less hassle. It is also one of the handsomest large amps this audio fool has seen.

Good question

Manufacturer: Triad Audio
Product: L3
Price: 800$

TriadAudio-L3 AD744K TriadAudio-L3 back TriadAudio-L3 battery TriadAudio-L3 DX100 iPod nano TriadAudio-L3 ins-outs TriadAudio-L3 logic bottom TriadAudio-L3 threads TriadAudio-L3-box TriadAudio-L3-front TriadAudio-L3-iso

Build Quality
I get the giddy lust for blood every time I hold something made of metal. Perhaps it’s this living in Japan where everything is made of plastic and stuffed behind endless shrouds of … plastic and more plastic. Perhaps its that a heavy chunk of aluminium or steel awakens the viking in me. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, the L3’s got me seeing red.


Its walls are are 5,5mm thick – so thick in fact, that the in/out ports must be sunk 3mm into its face. Ditto the DC port. The power and gain switches are the same part and securely grounded into the green board. They protrude from the case by 6,5mm, which isn’t a problem unless you tend to slam the back end of your amp on tables, tile floors, the sidewark. Don’t. You’ll snap off the switch or jack it into the amp – and break your tiles.

‘Round back, a single set of RCA jacks supplies the most logical input for a HiFi. They are the only somewhat flimsy part of the L3. It’s the wiggling they do when cables are plugged and unplugged. It’s like gripping the back of an Edirol FA-66 (the cheery unit I use to RMAA and SQ benchmark all the amps – for reference of course). It’s the feeling of a cram-all-in 250$ device. Perhaps I’m just mental wishing for an 800$ amp that feels its price in all its parts.

But apart from that, damn, it’s blood lust.

A 2mm H2,0 Allen keys will get you in. Triad fix the ends of the L3 with two Allen bolts per side. It reminds of like runaway skateboarding after having half-fastened your trucks to the board. Diagonally fasten two of four and you’re good to go. I still fasten my amps cross wise first. Except that Triad’s bolt threads are high quality, hardly prone to stripping. The other plus is that if you want to get in (to change the batteries, or just gape at the green real estate), you have only half the amount of screwing to do.

Bolts all counted for, I’d have to say that the L3 inspires a bit more confidence in me than does the FiQuest. The thicker walls should hold off more RF interference, and the bolt threads are better aligned. No stripping. Expect the L3 to survive many turns of your audio system.

Ergonomics and Polish
The best part of the L3 is the main board. It’s as well-labelled as the Vorzüge amps are. The batteries are rechargeable 9V batteries. If anything goes wrong, a quick fix shouldn’t be hard to pull off. Moving to the outside, we have a precise laser inscribed logo, controls, and, (egads) a serial number. The latter part must be a blessing to distributors and customers who want to know of which batch their L3 is part.

If you love to listen to music late at night, the L3 is your friend. Its blue LED can be seen in any light, but it isn’t too bright at night. You can’t use it as a torch to find the bathroom at midnight, or that dog shyte you swear you smell, but don’t have care to flip the electricity to find. Triad Audio’s implementation is near-perfect. Well done.

The volume and bass pots move smoothly and come off and on with a few twists of a 1,5mm H1,5 Allen key. They are, however, too close to each other for comfortable fiddling. Adjusting the bass without affecting the volume can be difficult. The biggest difficulty is in/out real estate. There is hardly any room at all. Two thick jacks will clog the in/out port and will frustrate that poor bass knob. To no end. The L3 is a LARGE amp, but has one of the most cramped front panels I’ve used. And, just like the FiQuest, the only headphone output is a 3,5mm stereo jack. There has to be a way to cramp some of the green board together to fit a 6,5mm jack. If you’re going to have to fuss with down-stepping headphone adapters anyway, RCA connection sort of loses its ribald lure.

At least the batteries have logos on them. That sort of makes up for the cramped face plate and the lack of a 6,3mm headphone jack.

It doesn’t make up for the up-side-down gain switch, which switches to high in the ‘down’ position, and low in the ‘up’ position, exactly opposite to the OFF/ON switch. It’s opposite’s week! The L3 is also the only amp in recent memory that crams in the headphone out right next to a pot of some sort, in this case, the bass pot. Even if you use the RCA input rather than the 3,5mm input, the front panel will feel cramped.

But remember, laser-engraved logo is precise, and you get Triad Audio labels on your batteries – you can’t forget that.

What the L3 loses in polish, it makes up in features – to an extent. While there are no sockets to switch out buffers and op-amps, the L3 does sport a powerful bass contour and a decent gain system. Oh yes, and an honest-to-god RCA input circuit. The latter is my favourite but I think fans of the ER4 and Audio Technica CK10 on the earphone end, and the T70, K701, and HD800 on the headphone end, will enjoy playing with the bass – that is, if they can reach it after plugging a headphone into the headphone output.

As a reviewer, I’m tickled by the bass ackwards design of the in/out ports, the on/off vs the gain, and the lack of a 6,3mm headphone jack, but sound-wise, the L3 strikes a deep chord in me. It deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it since its inception.

But performance isn’t only the art of expensive amps like the L3. We’ll come back to this in the conclusion.

The L3 begs to be mated to the Senn HD700 or 800 – with an adapter of course – and my favourite, the Beyer DT880 600Ω. Even when run on battery power, there is plenty of overhead for extreme volume levels. Battery power, of course, is cleaner than mains power. The only area that battery power alone may not be enough is when driving a headphone like the DT880 at max volume, max gain, and with the bass circuit fully open. Sizzle distortion is evident then, but plug into the mains and suddenly, there is enough current to keep the DT880 from popping. Of course, in order to get the L3 to perform poorly, you have to push it to levels that would induce immediate and permanent hearing impairment.

Otherwise, even at full volume, the signal is strong, spacious, and inviting.

At normal listening levels, the L3’s performance is gripping. If you tend to connect amps to any portable source except an iBasso DX100 or a Cypher Labs CLAS, the performance your system achieves will be source limited, not amp limited. The L3 pushes nearly reference levels of performance in almost every metric. Its one weakness is slightly above-average noise from the headphone output when listening to sensitive earphones. Noise levels are higher than the FiQuest and similar to the ALO Continental V2. If you use sensitive earphones, you may be annoyed by the noise. Headphones are never a problem at any gain/volume level.

RCA VS 3,5 Stereo Input
The L3 isn’t among the number of headphone amps with disparately performing inputs. Both RCA and stereo inputs perform identically. Volume levels are the same, as is stereo performance, distortion, and the lot. This is especially helpful for HiFi use because some amps are optimised for one input method over another.

Bass boost
The variable bass boost is incredibly detailed. At full tilt, it will push ~10,5dB of extra punch between its ON and OFF settings. Vorzüge’s bass circuit boosts the signal by about 15dB, which some may consider too much. 10,5dB only sounds ninny by comparison. In reality, it is macho, just not effusively so. Its range of effect is from 5 or so Hz, with a boost of around 10dB up to about 200Hz, where its effect is down to about 2dB. At 100Hz, the effect rings in around 3,5dB. In other words, the effect is most noticeable in bass and mid bass. If your music doesn’t hit 100Hz very often, the 3,5dB of extra amplification won’t really hit your music. But if your music packs lots of low notes, the effect is swarmy. I like it quite a bit.

Power Thump
I suggest turning the amp ON/OFF without earphones attached. Power thump is sharp and loud. Even with the 120Ω Grado GR8 plugged in, it is painful. Headphones of almost any variety exhibit a small thump, but nothing painful.

Out and About
The L3 isn’t a small amp. Not by any means. If you mean to carry it in your trousers, you will have to upgrade to your daddy’s pre-diet jeans. It measures 156mm long with all its knobs included, 132mm if you measure its chassis edge to edge. This amp is made for the desktop, the purse, or the camera bag, not your trousers. It never gets too warm, so even if you can cram it into your Uniqlo jeans, there’s no worry of frying your bearded twins. But, they complain about the loss of trouser real estate. Battery seems to last well enough to get through a day of work at a Western company, or about half a day at a Japanese company. If you work in Asia, just bring a recharger.

If you want something that will fit in your skinny’s and still perform on par with the L3 with all your earphones, check out Tralucent’s T1.

Sound In A Nutshell
There is nothing to complain about and much to laud. The L3 doesn’t quite reach the limits of 16 bit performance, but it comes close to achieving best-in-class performance. There’s no one area it gives up to the FiQuest, for example. Well, maybe signal noise. As long as you keep the bass boost off, there is nothing really to say other than: the L3 is pretty much wire-with-gain. It is absolutely clean, refreshing, wide, detailed; it renders very closely to the original signal.

If you are after performance and/or power, give the L3 a try. It is a very good performance-minded amp. If you are after hearing your amp’s defects, look elsewhere. Effortless rendering of what is in the recording is what the L3 does, nothing more.

RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect the L3’s performance when connected to a specific set of output/input devices. They should not directly be compared to any other result. The input device is an Edirol FA-66. The output devices are: Earsonics SM2, Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, and Audio Technica ES7, which are connected in parallel to the output signal. All Tralucent T1 hardware tests will be posted in TMA’s forums. Source components are: Cypher Labs CLAS, an iPod nano 6G, and where noted, an iBasso DX100.

This reviewer hasn’t heard or seen it all. The L3 has been on my radar for a long time. Gavin of Tralucent loaned it to me a looong time ago and expected a review back in 2012. It’s taken me a long time for many reasons. The L3 is a wonderful amp. It performs up to any snuff you choose, it is handsome, and generally, it is well-made. The niggles I have: cramped front, poor part labelling, mixy-do switches and swapped 3,5mm input/output orientation, are only severe because the L3 is a premium product. Price determines many things, but never in a premium product should price reveal design flaws. If you are an earphone user, the T1 is a far better choice. If you want the power for a HiFi system so you can blast your ears and headphones to oblivion, well, get a desktop system. A Pan Am will set you back less, get you similar or better high volume fidelity (though not performance), plus a DAC. The left over will get your a T1 for portability. As much as I admire the L3’s performance, it isn’t anything that a cheaper amp with the right (insane) current/voltage output can’t do. Triad, you are on the right trail. 800$ is a great site; polish the L3 so that it works like a premium product should and you’ll get my blessing.


Excellent performance
RCA and 3,5mm inputs
Well made
Graceful bass boost

No 6,3mm headphone jack?
In/Out orientation
Squished front face
Unlabelled interface controls
Up/Down swticheroo gain

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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Tralucent T1 portable headphone amp in review Tue, 08 Jan 2013 11:42:25 +0000 Tralucent Audio came out of nowhere. Their unique 1Plus2 earphone began stirring up Headfi a few months ago; other audio forums have followed suit. Startlingly less uproarious is their excellent T1 amplifier, a 250$ piece of aluminium, solder, and bolts, that thumbs its nose at many a +400$ amp. It’s a pretty little thing, sporting … Read more]]>

Tralucent Audio came out of nowhere. Their unique 1Plus2 earphone began stirring up Headfi a few months ago; other audio forums have followed suit. Startlingly less uproarious is their excellent T1 amplifier, a 250$ piece of aluminium, solder, and bolts, that thumbs its nose at many a +400$ amp. It’s a pretty little thing, sporting a black coat, thick walls, good ergonomics, and an audio drive
train that is as strong as it is resilient.

Spec is hard to come by. Check out Tralucent’s T1 webpage for details.

Manufacturer: Tralucent Audio
Product: Tralucent Audio T1 Portable Amplifier
Price: 229-250$ USD

tralucent-t1-accessories tralucent-t1-back tralucent-t1-DX100 tralucent-t1-front tralucent-t1-guts tralucent-t1-in-box tralucent-t1-iphone tralucent-t1-iso-back tralucent-t1-iso tralucent-t1-plug tralucent-t1-side

Build Quality
The T1‘s in and out ports are milled into solid aluminium walls 3-4 millimetres thick. The top and bottom halves of the casing come flanged for precise fit. All bolts sit flush with the exterior chassis. The only projecting parts are the on/off flick switch, which resides at the back, and the generous volume pot.

It’s chassis is refreshingly designed. It has its ups and downs. One of the downs is that there may be a tad less signal shielding in the T1 than some other similarly priced amps. Another is that the case itself, despite being so compact, and precisely fit, flexes. The reason is clear: the T1’s exoskeleton is composed of 4 main parts while most portable amps go with 3. More parts means more flex.

However, flex is limited, and will in no way effect its sound or function. In fact, if you need to get in and out of the case often, this design will prove to be a blessing. There’s no need to slide out the logic board to change the battery. Just lift off the top panel after removing 4 hex screws. Bob’s someone’s uncle.

The volume pot wobbles somewhat. You can fix that easily: remove the pot with the supplied Allen key, cut out a thin cardboard spacer, place it where the volume pot usually sits, then re-install the volume pot, making sure to push its base flush with the cardboard. Finish the cardboard with a hobby knife. If like me, you dislike imprecision in metal devices, this will cure you.

The volume pot itself rotates exceptionally smoothly and the on/off switch at the back will bust your nut before it busts from the chassis.

Ergonomics and Polish
Portable amps owe it to their users to be simple to use, supply adequate battery power, and go about doing music comfortably. In most of those benchmarks, the T1 excels.

Firstly, its use of milled ins and outs makes it easy to find the correct port, even in the dark. Aside from the volume pot and the on/off switch, nothing juts out to damage other audio equipment, tables, laptops, etc. Even the USB charge port is milled, making it more secure and easier to connect.

Tralucent’s choice of mini USB means that anything from laptops to iPad/iPhone chargers, to USB mains ports can charge the T1. Really, this amp is an ergonomic tour-de-force.

Perhaps most telling of Tralucent’s pursuit of perfect ergonomics is their use of a single size bolt for all hardware joints. That means the tending of only one Allen key. In the box are other goodies. Two elastic bands for fitting the T1 to a portable source, a quality interconnect cable, and a cheap USB/charging cable are included. All of that for under 250$ USD. Wow.

There are, however, two drawbacks to its design. The first is that the milled in/out ports comfortably accept jacks of up to Switchcraft size and no larger. As soon as you get fatter than that, getting a secure connection will be difficult if not impossible. The second problem is that the charging and on/off LEDs are too bright. Way too bright in fact. Vorzüge’s amps are worse, but next to them, the T1 has no rival. If you like to listen to music at night with your rig at your bed stand, you’ll get no sleep unless you’re Norwegian and used to 24 hours of light.

Eager to make a memorable entry, Tralucent brought to market one of the best designed amps in the price range. Simplicity is the name of the game, but so is thoroughness. Rather than stuffing in a hard-to-replace, soldered-in rechargeable battery, Tralucent packed in a 9V 650 mAh Lithium Polymer batter that can readily be found just about anywhere.

As mentioned above, getting to it is easy. Swapping is easy, too.

As we will see, the T1 is also a star performer. It has no gimmicks to hook you. Instead, it offers what I believe to be best-in-class output quality and timeless, ergonomic design.

As always, I tend to spend more time grading portable amps with portable earphones and headphones. The reasons are that portable earphones exert more stress on the output of an amp at reasonable listening volumes. Amps that exert control at all volumes (prior to danger zones) are the ones to watch.

Spoiler alert: keep your eyes peeled, the T1 is genius.

Firstly, I’ve discovered not a single transducer that exacts any notable strain on the output of the T1. This amp remains stable with every earphone and headphone I’ve thrown at it at all volumes levels from safe to borderline suicidal. Even the SM2, infamous as an amp-beater, stays well within the norms the T1 spits out when unloaded.

And those norms are on par in most respects with the best amps on the market. Sure, there is more power in the ALO National, and a digital volume pot on the ALO RX – the T1 has both beat in size, price, and performance for your dollar.

RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect the T1’s performance when connected to a specific set of output/input devices. They should not directly be compared to any other result. The input device is an Edirol FA-66. The output devices are: Earsonics SM2, Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, and Audio Technica ES10, which are connected in parallel to the output signal. All Tralucent T1 hardware tests will be posted in TMA’s forums.

Sound – Frequency Responose
Flat. Throw anything at it whirly knurly. If the SM2 can’t phase the T1, then likely nothing can. Low or high Ω headphones alike will enjoy absolutely clear and strong bass and treble lines. If it is in the recording, it will be in your ears. In terms of neutral frequency responses, the T1 is up there with or surpassing the ALO Rx, MST FiQuest, and Vorzüge, none of which come cheaper than 420$.

Sound – Dynamic Range and Distortion
In particular, the T1 suffers no artefacts in its dynamic range, no matter the earphone plugged in. In RMAA terms, it hovers at around 90dB whether loaded or unloaded, observing the practical limits of 16 bit audio. Considering how most modern music is heavily compressed due to the economics of the loudness war, the T1 likely outpaces your favourite recordings by a factor of 10 to 1.

Similarly, the signal to noise level is quite high. RMAA rates it at 85dB. This, too, remains level no matter the transducer. As you might imagine, square waves are rendered nearly perfectly, too, with very little ring. I’ve yet to find an amplifier that exhibits no ring. Unamped sources such as the AlgoRhythm Solo get away with perfection in every category, but in the end, they need an amp. The T1 is a great way to retain most of the performance of a high end source while keeping things small.

Sound – Stereo Image
Unlike the Rx, the T1 has a somewhat compressed stereo image. Typically, solid state amps push anywhere from 70-90dB unloaded. The T1 pushes 63dB from an iPod nano 6G. It’s not a good score, but it’s not a doomer either. Amps with very wide stereo images tend to sound crisp, clear, and oftentimes, scratchy. It is one of the pains we’ve had to come to live with when dealing with digital audio. In the case of the T1, sound is a bit more ‘analogue’ in that you get neither too great nor too little separation between channels. Intimacy is another term for it. Of course, greater stereo intimacy can also mean smaller soundstage. We’ll get to that later.

Sound – Volume Pot
While smooth and easy to control, the T1’s volume pot is somewhat finicky. Even at a base setting of ‘0’, music will leak into your ears. Good balance is achieved early on, but it comes with the rather steep price of a loud signal. Earphone users beware: the T1 may be too loud for you. For portable headphones and home headphones, it has no problems, whatsoever. Control issued across its volume range is incredible, especially with nervous headphones such as the Audio Technica ES7, which distorts quite easily at high volumes. The T1 takes care of it pish posh.

Sound – IMD
While I can recommend the T1 for almost every transducer out there, I’ve found a few instances of trouble, and all with the same headphone. Alas, it is my favourite portable, Audio Technica’s ES10 and ESW11LTD. Distortion rendered by these headphones comes off as a slight sheen and compactness across the sound field, but really only audibly affecting higher frequencies where your ears would be begging you to stop listening.

Fortunately, that sheen doesn’t sound bad. It’s just not there with any other headphone I’ve tested. IMD isn’t high enough to creak a single note. Overall, however, there are artefacts present that aren’t accounted for in the different design of the headphones themselves.

Sound – In a Nutshell
250$ nets you a very high-performing amplifier that, with very few provisos, pays homage to the gods of 16 bit audio just about as well as any amp I’ve come across. You get perfect frequency response no matter the earphone, and you attain to most of the tenets set forth in the practical limits of 16 bit audio whilst enjoying punch and power galore.

Hiss is well controlled and left/right balance is achieved early on. In short, the T1 exerts control. In most cases, it is transparent. With every headphone I’ve used, I’ve discovered a pleasant shine in the upper midrange. It’s the sort of shine that makes big, soulful music sound great. Think Vangelis, movie soundtracks, ballads, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nick Cave, The Carpenters, and modern vocal jazz – all certain heavenly matches. Like a 10% application of the DRAMA setting of Snapseed for iPad, the shine is minimal. But, for certain music, it makes a notable, and pleasurable, difference.

That’s not to say that classical, trance, and John Denver aren’t fit for the T1. The former and tweener might benefit from a bit more stereo separation, yes, but with the minimal shine the T1 gives them, they push out a strong, unique flavour. Those who like it, like it a lot. The latter I put there just for pun.

One thing you can’t overlook is the sheer amount of power the T1 dusts off. It’s almost ALO National grade. Even powering the the ES7 at 100% volume levels, nary a fleck of clipping distortion dusts the scene. In fact, at 100%, older recordings such as Chariots of Fire will split your skull before distortion really bothers. The T1 is smaller, cheaper and better resolving than most of its rivals. And, it has a low amount of background noise.

That brings me to usable volume levels.

On every one of my earphones, the loudest I will comfortably use the T1 is at the absolute lowest setting. The same goes for the ES7. The ES10 has a little more leeway, and the DT880 a great deal more. Still, I’ve yet to use a headphone that makes use of the back half of the volume pot. As the volume is crunched up too tightly, the back half is mostly wasted. It is, however, better than the Vorzüge volume pot, which reaches maximum potential at about 1 o’clock, prior to exhuming rough distortion.

Issues – Volume
Put simply, at base volumes, it is too loud for most modern earphones. Users of sensitive earphone users will be at pains to listen to their favourite music at comfortable volumes. As mentioned above, even the ES7 and sometimes, the ES10 are too loud at low volumes when fed from the line outputs of even weak players. And remember, even a volume setting of 0 still emits sound.

Add to that the ease with which the volume pot is manipulated and you could be in for quite a shock. Tralucent need to tone the gain WAY down on their amp and make the volume pot much more difficult to accidentally turn.

Issues – Milled Ports
I consider this a minor issue, but it may affect the craziest audiophiles out there. Fat plugs won’t plug all the way into the amp. That means you may have to leave your most expensive ALO cables home. Sad, but true.

Issues – Lamp Brightness
The T1 isn’t made for beside listening. Plugged into the mains, its rear red LED almost blinds in the dark. The front blue LED is even worse. Not quite bright enough to fry ants, still the T1’s LEDs tug at the tail sleeves of Vorzüge’s brightest amps, and ferociously at that.

While I take issue with three usability flare-ups, the Tralucent T1 is otherwise, a conceptually sound, well-engineered amp. In fact, it is one of the finest sounding amps at any price out there. Apart from a somewhat compressed stereo image (which may well be a design choice), it has no real flaws. It has the power of much larger and more expensive amps, the resolution of an ALO Rx, and the near silent background of a Vorzüge. Currently, the T1 sells for 229$ direct from Tralucent. It is an absolute steal. Carefully consider the above niggles. If you can cope with them, I heartily recommend the T1.




Best sound in class
Low signal noise
Great accessory set
User-replaceable battery
Great build quality

Volume gain too high
LEDs too bright
Milled ports may be too tight for large connection jacks

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

Read more]]> 2
iBasso DX100 Reference DAP in Review – Android to the rescue! Mon, 10 Dec 2012 07:14:58 +0000 Truly audiophiling an iPod touch is no mean feat. It takes no less than a Cypher Labs AlgoRhthym Solo DAC, and a Vorzüge or ALO Rx class headphone amp. Throw in some shielded interconnects and your’re done. But at what cost? The once slim touch is now a knobby and unholy hamburger of aluminium and … Read more]]>

Truly audiophiling an iPod touch is no mean feat. It takes no less than a Cypher Labs AlgoRhthym Solo DAC, and a Vorzüge or ALO Rx class headphone amp. Throw in some shielded interconnects and your’re done. But at what cost? The once slim touch is now a knobby and unholy hamburger of aluminium and winking LEDs. Personally, I’m tired of ordering sides with the main meal. The iBasso DX100 is a single-box solution that will outperform most if not all audio stacks without sacrificing much of what makes the iPod touch worthwhile.

And how pray tell were iBasso, an amplifier maker, able to retain most of what makes the iPod touch worthwhile? Android.

Power Source:Built-in 2000mAh 8.4V Li-polymer Battery pack or external power
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz +0.1/-0.25dB
Signal to Noise Ratio:-116dB
Crosstalk: 1KHz0dB > -100dB, 20KHz odB = -82dB
THD+N: 0.002%
IMD: 0.0034%
Gain and Output Power: 0dB=2V rms (125mW/32ohm)
+3dB = 2.8V rms (245mW/32ohm)
+8.5dB = 5.0V rms (83mW/300ohm)
Battery Life: 72Hours (stand-by) or 7Hours (play music)
Battery Charge Time: 4Hours
External Power supply: 12V DC
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 8~600Ω
Dimension: 2.83W x 4.65L x 0.93H (inch)
71.8W x 118L x 27.5H (mm)
Weight: 265g or 9.3oz

Main Features
- Android2.3 OS With Custom Audio Player Software
- Support up to 24Bit/192kHz Bit for Bit Decoding
- ES9018 32Bit DAC Chip
- Built-in +/-8.5V Headphone AMP
- 3.75″ Capacitive Touch Screen
- Up to 24Bit/192 Optical/Mini Coaxial Output
- 3.5mm Headphone Output, 6.3mm Headphone Output, and Line Out
- 256-Steps Digital Volume Control
- 64G Onboard Flash
- Support up to 32G External MicroSD
- 3-Setting Gain Switch
- SRC Function
- Slow Roll-off/ Sharp Roll-off Digital Filter
- Support Wifi, Bluetooth
- Solid Case Made of Magnesium Alloy and Aluminum Alloy
- Audio Formats Supported: APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, OGG, MP3
- Come With Micro USB Cable, Coaxial Cable, and AC Adapter
- One Year Warranty and Ten Years Free Labour

Manufacturer: iBasso
Product: iBasso DX100 Reference DAP
Price: 829$ USD

All about the DX100 at Headfi
Headfi hosts a wonderful FAQ for all potential and current DX100 owners. I recommend perusing it in order to enjoy your purchase to the utmost. 

iBasso-DX100-analogue-outs iBasso-DX100-box iBasso-DX100-close-up iBasso-DX100-in-box iBasso-DX100-iPhone iBasso-DX100-reference DAP iBasso-DX100-side

What’s in a DAC?
The DX100 sports what is the most hi-tech portable DAC. The ES9018 32bit DAC is a home-grade DAC. It’s mated to iBasso’s logic board and fed enough current to remain stable no matter the output load. Some pundits believe iBasso could have dealt with power fluctuations a bit better, but in the grand scheme of things, there isn’t a better DAC implementation among mass produced portable audio players.

Whether or not you think the ES9018 is overkill is up to you. iBasso’s inclusion of it – in a portable machine – is laudable. For 16 bit audio, its performance is topped by Cypher Labs’ CLAS. However, so few portable amplifiers even come close to the DX100’s output performance that the gains made by connecting your iDevice to an outboard DAC are moot.

UPDATE: I’ve been reminded that in order to get bit-for-bit output from the ES9018, you must use iBasso’s Music app, which as you will see, is sort of a shame.

Android 2,3
Considering that until very recently, Android 2,3 was on the majority of new Android devices, the DX100’s operating system isn’t exactly mouldy. Most apps run on 2,3 without hitch, though there are restrictions here and there – at least regarding the DX100.

First up is music apps. Several goodies including Songbird and Poweramp run, but with some issues. Both are leagues better than the stock Music app. The stock app is slow, lacks browse options and has only rudimentary playlist support. Gapless files have gaps, and the DX100‘s screen pops on and off at will, rendering every accidental nudge an input of some sort – often changing tracks, volume, or playlists.

But, what the DX100’s Music app lacks in polish, it makes up for in format support. Music app should have no problem with your library. In fact, out-of-box, the DX100 supports Apple’s proprietary lossless AAC encoder, ALAC, as well as the modern industry standard, AAC. in addition to the regulars. Naturally, it plays FLAC, OGG Vorbis, APE, MP3 and WAV. Next to the Colorfly C4‘s dictatorial list of supported files, format support offered by the DX100 is refreshingly progressive.

Music’s interface is pretty stark: play/pause, forward and reverse keys fall in below album previews and playlist controls. Scrobbling requires you to drag your finger over the playback indicator. Nothing indicates it is possible; I can picture some owners never dragging along the playback timeline, rather scrobbling by holding down the forward/reverse buttons. Labelling isn’t obviously a strong point for the DX100. But then again, the obviousness with which the iPod/Music app runs is hardly standard among audio players – even players designed for audiophiles.

UPDATED: My first recommendation is to download Songbird or Poweramp and forget the stock Music app – at least for overall utility. As stated above, bit perfect decoding is only possible via iBasso’s Musica app.

You can game on the DX100. Its internals aren’t the stuff of 3D dreams, but simple apps work. The mother of them all, Exult, the Ultima 7 reverse engine, eludes me. If I could get that to play, damn. Damn that would be good.

I’d expect it to drain the battery in no time flat, though.

Touch Screen
Like the iPod touch, it is capacitive, and generally, responsive. iBasso ship it with a thin screen protector that should keep most minor scratches away, but both it, and the screen, are made of softer, mark-friendly materials. The screen itself scratches easily and being thin, the protector isn’t completely up to the task of protecting the screen.

Unlike the iPod touch screen, the pixel layer sits way below the touch panel. Distance obfuscates the immediacy of interaction between finger and pixel. It’s understandable, however: the iPod touch has been around since 2007 and gone through five iterations, each better than the last. The DX100 is a first-generation device made with the precise goal of sounding as good as possible. Ostensibly, the customer for the DX100 is quite different to the iPod touch customer. The DX100 customer is after power, not polish. She wants the best sound, top quality outputs, and even better codec support. She is first an audiophile, a consumer second.

In that light, the DX100 screen is forgivable. But, in direct comparisons, it does no service to itself. In particular, its low resolution is heady with memories of 2008. Viewing angles, colour quality, and contrast, are much lower than the iPod touch. The average iPod touch customer would take one look at the DX100 price tag and pish paw the screen and size.

At first blush, iBasso’s player is massive. But, when juxtaposed with iPod audio rigs, it is much more wieldy. Remember, no cables are necessary. The only other audio equipment I’ve come across that does that trick is the MyST 1866, a well-meaning amp that has its own host of issues.

If you’re a hot-rodding audiophile who wants the absolute best, you will forgo the iPod’s internal DAC and add a CLAS. Plus an amp. Compared such a rig, the DX100 is tiny and elegant. Battery life between the two options isn’t too different. When it comes time to charge, you need only charge one device, not three.

When viewed in its proper context as an audio stack replacement, the DX100 has many size advantages.

Ease of use
For the most part, the DX100 is self-explanatory. Power goes on with a push of the power button. Hold it down for a few seconds to bring up the power off dialogue. Volume goes up and down via the rocker, and headphones are plugged into the corresponding 3,5mm or 6,3mm ports. Charging requires the use of the external power brick. The transfer of files requires a micro USB cable, or a micro SD card.

I’m not electrical engineer, so take this criticism with a grain of salt, but I wish the micro USB port could be replaced with the more common mini USB variant. In my house, there is only one micro USB cable, while I’ve got about six mini USB cables wriggling here and there. It’s scary. Lose that sucker and well, I’d have to go out and buy a new one. There’s enough room, so why didn’t iBasso utilise the more common connection?

Apart from that minor concern, the DX100 well designed. Firstly, it’s got Android under the bonnet. That means apps. It means books. It means movies. It means that truly, the DX100 is an iPod touch replacement. Competitors from Colorfly and Hifiman don’t offer such accoutrements.

Now, Android 2,3 isn’t exactly a new school release, and it isn’t as polished as the likes of jelly bean. But it gets the job done – certainly the job an audiophile wants. It plays music wonderfully. The major difficulty is that the processor isn’t being used brilliantly; that, or it isn’t powerful enough for Android 2,3. Things are slow. Booting up takes minutes, not seconds. Changing from playback to home and back again lags. Scrolling through albums, songs, playlists, etc., is laborious. Even with Go Launcher EX installed, it’s a dog.

There’s no cushy way to say it: the iBasso DX100 is infuriatingly slow.

Having played with many an iPod/amp combo in my tenure among the internet’s audiofoolery, I can say unequivocally: the DX100 trumps all iPod (or other player) and amp combinations. That is, full-size portable headphone amps like the above-mentioned Vorzüge and ALO Rx. The DX100’s biggest trump card is that its built-in amp and DAC are good enough not to necessitate external components.

Thus, no cables. It’s your headphones and the DX100. Plug and play. And Go. Single box solutions such as this mean one-handed operation. There’s no fiddling with volume pots and different output ports. iBasso didn’t pull any stupid tricks. There’s a volume rocker on the right hand side. It’s digital, so volume is balanced down to he zero setting. Digital connections and the charging port are cleanly arrayed on the top edge of the device, headphone and line outputs along the bottom.

The gain switch, which features three selectable positions, is on the bottom right edge. It stays out of the way and isn’t easily bumped. As large as it is and considering that it wasn’t made by Apple, it is a study in careful design.

In/Out Ports
As far as I’m concerned iBasso threw in the kitchen sink. The DX100 sports three quality 3,5mm outputs: coaxial, optical, and line. Line is very close to true line-level. Strangely, its output levels are controlled via the volume rocker. The good news is that because true line-level outputs can overrun weak input circuits of some sources, the variable volume line output of the DX100 plays well with just about every external amplifier.

On the digital end, both coaxial and optical connections come in portable flavour. Optical mini to toslink cables will get you up and moving with the majority of optical-sporting home DACs, while a stereo or mono 3,5 to RCA coaxial cable will get you up and running with everything else. The great news about 3,5mm coaxial is that you can connect lowly analogue cables and still get a digital signal out. True, over distance, you may lose signal quality; and if your cable isn’t shielded, you may get noise. A well-grounded analogue cable of a couple centimetres in length is all you really need to play nice with external portable DACs.

Probably in the next few years, optical outputs will go the way of the dodo. Coax is so much more stable. It is freer of electronic noise, and its connectors are readily found and easy to build yourself.

Apart from the full-size 6,3mm phone port along the bottom left edge of the DX100, all other outputs are ringed in plastic. While that sounds ‘cheap’, the good news is that grounding issues should be nil. The 6,3 jack, too, is sleeved by a plastic ring. Insulation is important, especially in areas that don’t use grounded power supplies. The DX100’s excellent ports alone are not enough to obviate ground loop issues, but they go a long way in eliminating possible annoyances.

The only issue with plastic ports is that they are more susceptible to internal/external damage. Had iBasso dressed each port in an insulated metal ring, I’d feel better. They didn’t and the reasons are understandable.

Battery life and heat
No audiophile player on the planet boasts good battery life. No, HiSound players don’t count. Colorfly’s C4 gets up to 8 hours of life, Hifiman players get up to 9. The DX100 does about the same. Hook up the audiophile essentials to your iPod/iPhone and you’ll achieve no better battery life. Dosh isn’t the only thing you part with for a the pristine audio afforded by players such as the DX100. Battery life is simply something you give up.

With 7-8 hours of playback, the DX100 does well. This audiophile would gladly give up the clunky Android interface for a home-brew OS if it meant better battery life. I’d also be happy for the DX100 to be rid of its touch screen. The other currency you exchange for the DX100’s high performance and sound quality is heat dissipation.

Heat isn’t an issue per se, but when under stress, the DX100 radiates as much heat as a high end portable amplifier. Think ALO Continental. On a warm day, it’s a mini boiler in your pocket. On a cold day, it’s something you want to fit in your mitt – unfortunately, it’s too large to be squeezed into all but Goliath’s gloves.

Sound – The Excellent Volume Circuit
Hidden in the spec is something that should perk the ears of many earphone enthusiasts: a 256 step volume control. Volume increments exponentially. At a volume level of 1, the level of increase mostly undetectable until in the teens. This means that owners of notoriously sensitive earphones such as Shure’s SE530 will have no volume issues at any level. On the other side of the equation, the DX100 funnels immense power and control into the likes of the DT880 600Ω.

This is the most significant indication that iBasso meant the DX100 to be a ground-up full support device. It isn’t meant for headphones or for earphones. It isn’t meant to drive loads of 600Ω or 8Ω. It is meant to drive them all.

And drive it does. Fluently.

Its headphone amplifier handles extremely sensitive earphones with pencil-thin loads that floor many dedicated headphone amps. And it does it with extremely low noise floors and perfect left/right channel balance.

Moving up on the scale, portable headphones are handled perfectly, the DX100’s exquisite volume rocker controlling all balance artefacts. This goes all the way up to 600Ω headphones. Unlike some headphone amps that sport largely unnecessary gain settings, the DX100’s switchable gain is perfectly mated to the volume circuit.

In low gain mode at a volume of 228/256 is powerful; for modern recordings, it borders on loud. Switching to high gain and it becomes almost painful. That is when paired with the Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω. At 256/256 at high volume, the DT880 exhibits field irrelevant IMD distortion. Older recordings remain 100% distortion free at any volume level. With the FitEar ToGo! 334, I keep volume between 120 and 180 and low gain.

The amp is powerful. And thanks to its exponential volume scale, inadvertently nudging the volume button up results in minute volume increments, saving your ears. In contrast, the iPhone’s volume increases at a perceptible linear growth. With certain earphones, even a single nudge is deafening.

This is the best implementation of a volume circuit I’ve ever seen in a portable device. Its major issue, however, is speed. Sometimes, the volume rocker won’t react. I’ve waited up to 8 seconds between the press of the down button and the corresponding change in volume. If music is too loud, unplug your earphones then change the volume. Don’t wait for the DX100 to respond.

RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect the DX100’s performance when connected to a specific set of output/input devices. They should not directly be compared to any other result. The input device is an Edirol FA-66. The output devices are: Earsonics SM2, Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, and Audio Technica ES10, which are connected parallel to the output signal. For the sake of comparison, ALO’s RX MKIII was connected to the DX100’s line output and tested with the same earphones.

Hardware tests were completed after three months of daily listening and firming up my opinions on the DX100’s sound. Hardware tests only reinforce my opinions.

RMAA and square wave results are hosted in the forums.

Sound – Square Waves and load
There is no stronger evidence that the DX100 stands on its own two feet than the flying colours it displays in all hardware tests. In all cases, it betters any Apple Device on the market. In fact, its headphone output betters most aftermarket portable amplifiers. Even ALO’s excellent RX3 isn’t able to keep up.

The sort of stereo image distortion evident in the playback of the Earsonics SM2 and the Audio Technica ES10 is extremely minimal. Most portable devices barely manage -50-65 dB of stereo separation via the SM2; the DX100 manages -83,6 dB. Typical readings for the ES10 tell a similar tale. As is common, the DT880 600Ω presents almost no load to the internal amplifier. The DX100 treats it as a straight wire. Even pushed to extreme volumes (where this test was performed), the internal amplifier pushes clean, distortion-free sound.

There is a slight amount of ringing in the range of 1kHz. For all real-use intents and purposes, it is inaudible.

Sound – Linearity
With the exception of stereo image, anomalies between loaded and unloaded signals are field irrelevant. No matter what you plug into the DX100, you will get the cleanest, most distortion-free sound possible in a portable source. The DX100 has no real competition in its price category. Loaded, it may have no competition at any price.

You may note the high frequency roll off of about 0,5dB. Unless you are a bat, it is inaudible.

Sound – Noise
There is next to zero noise in the signal. All electronics have output noise. Sensitive earphones will reveal more signal noise; insensitive earphones will reveal less. It’s as simple as that. There is a small amount of white noise audible when using earphones such as Shure’s SE530 and the FitEar ToGo! 334. Its level is similar to the noise of an iPhone 5 and therefore less than any current iPod nano or previous iPhones. At medium gain it is similar to an iPod nano. At high gain, it is still less than most Walkman models. Higher volume levels do not correspond to rising noise levels. Only when gain is raised does noise rise. Thanks to the logarithmic volume control, even the most sensitive earphones can be used at comfortable volumes.

Sound – Separation and Stereo Image
The DX100 particularly excels in casting an intense stereo image. It mostly struts its stuff with the likes of full-size headphones, but the precision and width of the stereo image it portrays even with sensitive earphones is phenomenal.

With full-size headphones, there are distinct channels into which instruments are funnelled. As is typical, percussion falls into the centre, its weight and texture hovering above the head, expanding beyond the ears. High hats and other high-frequency percussion fizzles and cracks at the edges of this channel. Each frequency is clearly delineated and unconfused. This image is mesmerisingly clear. I’m one of a die-hard breed that feels that for typical volumes and uses, you can’t really do better than the iPod touch; but here, the DX100 shoulders it out of the way.

Of particular note is the the definition of high and mid bass against the midrange, which are rendered clearer and in more detail than any competitor.

Sound – Digital? Analogue?
Gee whizz, Mickey, that question again? I’ll put it this way: the DX100 is by no means a soft, tubby sounding machine. It renders everything cleanly, in fine, exquisite detail. Noise never obscures the signal. Channel balance is perfect. Stereo image is so engulfing that at times, that I’ve sworn there were desktop speakers pointed at my head.

If cleanliness and quality are your primary concerns, the DX100 is your key. Grab it. Now. But if you tend to prefer mellifluousness to lucidity, pick something else. Or, add a portable amp. The DX100’s internal amp is better for most headphones than any portable amp. Compared back to back, it is clearer and more detailed. If you’re keen on audiophile style but don’t like absolute clarity and don’t want an amp, check out the competition from Colorfly or Hifiman.

The DX100 is decidedly digital sounding, but – and please mark my words – not in any negative connotation. It is extremely accurate, extremely detailed, suffering none of the stultifying effects typical to ‘digital sounding’ sources. Harshness, sibiliance, and superficiality simply to not apply to its excellent musical frame.

Sound – In a nutshell
Clarity, precision, width: three words that describe the DX100’s output infuse every song, every album, every listening moment. There is nothing that compares. iBasso’s output is linear and textured. It suffers no comparison, even against dedicated portable amplifiers. Volume balance between channels is perfect, and noise is minimal. This music lover recommends you to use the DX100 by itself. No amp required – that is, unless you are driving something like the K1000 or listen at deafening levels with the likes of the LCD-2.

Out and About
The DX100 is a large device. None of my jean pockets can fit both me and the DX100. It’s one or the other – and no matter how good the DX100 sounds, I prefer going out clothed from top to bottom. If your clothes are baggy, the DX100 will fit in. Alternatively, you can put it in a camera case, or one of those thief-friendly belt-wallets that Japanese geezers like to flop around Akihabara. Because it is large, the DX100 attracts attention, though not as much as a proper audio stack.

This is the best sound quality you can get for the money. No amp/DAC combo at any price will match it.

Issues – GUI Speed
Speed is certainly an issue for the DX100. Typical touch input instructions often take seconds to elicit visual or auditory responses. At times, even minute volume changes  If you are coming from an iPod touch, you will be amazed how long it takes to turn the DX100 on, how long it takes to load up a list of your favourite albums or songs. At times, you may wonder if it even caught your input. You will be frustrated.

Issues – ID3 Tags
My music is perfectly tagged and collated. Song order, album year, composer, artist – it’s all there. An iPhone or iPod never missteps. Players from Sony to Cowon to HiSound have myriad ID3 tag problems. Often, files play back in improper order. The DX100 has some issues with playback order no matter what I do with ID3 tags. The only foolproof method is to retitle every song with the corresponding track number preceding the song title.

Apps such as mp3 tag will help.

Issues – Build Quality
Despite sporting a largely metal exoskeleton and sky-high pricetag, the DX100 is completely outclassed by the iPod touch. Its screen scratches easily. The metal is thin and bends under slight pressure. One good drop and it will dent. If you are hard on devices, you might think about investing in a more modular system. You are bound to break the DX100.

Sadly, there are no competitors that come close to iPod touch levels of precision and build quality, at any price. The DX100 isn’t one. Neither is the Colorfly C4. Same with Hifiman models. Regarding audiophile players, precision build quality is inversely commensurate with every hundred dollars shelled out for an audio device.

Issues – micro-USB and power brick
A portable device should be able to charge via USB. Naturally, the DX100’s powerful guts suck a lot more electricity from the mains than an iPod touch does. But, so does the iPad, and it charges over USB. It takes time, yes, but nothing a few hours won’t fix. If you travel with the DX100, you have to take along the power brick. The battery cuts out after 8-10 hours of playback. You’ll never be far from an outlet.

The other half of this issue is the inclusion of a micro USB port rather than the more common mini USB port. All the cables from your cameras, mobile phones, iPod touch copies – not a one will work with the DX100. It’s not like the micro-USB port does anything special. It syncs at best; otherwise it merely transfers information. We’re not talking about a sophisticated Lightning or 30-pin port. Digital audio is pulled from the DX100 via dedicated SPDIF ports.

And of course, syncing the DX100 and copying music via the micro USB cable will NOT charge the battery.

Issues – headphone out ‘pop’
If you are a user of sensitive earphones, take note: the DX100 sometimes pops violently when its power button is nudged. This typically happens when the player is dozing between listening sessions. Since the DX100 responds slowly to any input, and takes minutes to boot up, turning it off isn’t an exciting option for the music lover whose work gets in the way of her favourite music. This wake up pop is violent and painful. It is also not good for your earphones. iBasso need to fix this.

Final thoughts
This review is too long, and too late. I’ve been working on it for three months. But, the more I get acquainted with the DX100, the more I feel there is to say. It’s a weakness on my part, not iBasso’s. Soundwise, it is a maven among girl scouts. One DX100 is all you need. It will feed your home system via its excellent DAC and industry standard output connections. And, when on the road, it will drive any sort of headphone/earphone you plug into it. Its performance is far and away above its competition. Its flaws: speed, imprecise build, the necessity of bringing a power brick with you all the time – are probably worth it for most audiophiles. After all, sound quality is king, isn’t it? And what a sound it is: extraordinarily detailed, wide, defined, and utterly addictive, there is nothing like it on the portable market. The DX100 obviates the necessity of an external DAC/amp combination. It is also cheaper and more ergonomic than strapping an iPod to a CLAS and external amp.

Cheaper, better sound, more ergonomic: if you can put up with its stutteringly slow interface, you are in for an undeniable treat.

Excellent sound
Perfect volume balance
Extremely low noise
High quality DAC
Unmatched output drive quality
Internal 64GB
One box solution
Good format support

Response time is awful
Build quality inferior to iPod touch
Inadvertent button presses
Micro USB and Power brick

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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FitEar ToGo! 111 – This is Trance Fri, 16 Nov 2012 01:33:36 +0000 Yesterday, I was asked by Musica Acoustics to shoot a new earphone, the FitEar ToGo! 111. The 111 is the ToGo! 334′s younger sibling. It was released sometime in the summer in Japan and has had very few legit sales channels abroad. This version is spread with a Musica Acoustics label. Evidently, Jaben have their … Read more]]>

Yesterday, I was asked by Musica Acoustics to shoot a new earphone, the FitEar ToGo! 111. The 111 is the ToGo! 334′s younger sibling. It was released sometime in the summer in Japan and has had very few legit sales channels abroad. This version is spread with a Musica Acoustics label. Evidently, Jaben have their own label. You can pick it up from Musica for 645$. From what I understand, it is the same as the regular ToGo! 111. Correct me if I’m wrong.

While setting up my studio I decided on some preparatory listening. And after the shoot (evidently I have to return these on Monday), I kept listening. I’ve now got about 7 hours and 9 albums on the 111, and I’m prepared to say:

This is Trance.

Bass is oh so tight, so beautifully fast. Mids are flat, staid, and never get in the way. Highs are extended, but not peaky. Space is wide, though not continentally so and separation is top notch for a single driver earphone. The 111 is an Etymotic ER4 done perfectly. There is no plastic resonance or thick overhang anywhere, no screech, no pain. Trancing out to the 111 is as refreshing as using shampoo for the first time after a week of canoeing in July. Refreshing.

It gets on splendidly with vocal, jazz, the piano works of Nick Cave, and surprisingly, with perfect fit, with Classified’s raps. Its bass, being lean and tight, isn’t fun enough for hard IDM artists such as Anodyne Industries, Kasunagi, or thick American hip hop. And, being sensitive, it picks up a good amount of hiss from any source.

But after quite a few hours, I am almost ready to dub the 111 my favourite single driver earphone. Almost. I’ll be reviewing my current favourite, the Grado GR8 next week. Bass is harder hitting with the Grado, and more organic, but apart from that, the better overall coherence and space of the 111 is plum ear estate. Not sure yet if I will or will not do a review. Prices need to come down first.

NOTE:  about the large and ugly watermark: TMA have been ripped off by verbatim copycats in China and Russia several times. Recently, however,, a Canadian website, ripped off the FitEar 334 main image from TMA by cropping out the discreetly placed watermark. I raged about it on Twitter, sent an angry email, and waited. They fixed it later by using FitEar’s image – exactly what they should have done in the first place. They had myriad legit pictures to use, but they deliberately chose to steal TouchMyApps’ image. Their action was not a mistake. They never replied to my email, never apologised, never acknowledged their wrong. I’ve heard nothing on Twitter, either. I don’t expect to. I will continue to shoot and review, but TMA will be more careful. We have to be: the internet is full of cheap-arse freeloading website scum like

FitEar-111-cable-earjoint FitEar-111-titianium FitEar-111-y-main FitEar-111-y-split FitEar-111-plugRead more]]> 8
Heir Audio 3.Ai and 4.Ai in Review Tue, 13 Nov 2012 16:37:49 +0000 Heir Audio’s youngest children have been thrust into the thick of a do-or-die competition. Custom earphone manufacturers are pounding with exceeding energy toward the lucrative – and showy – universal earphone market. I see no end in sight – and to be honest, that is a good thing. Technology handed down from top-flight customs is … Read more]]>

Heir Audio’s youngest children have been thrust into the thick of a do-or-die competition. Custom earphone manufacturers are pounding with exceeding energy toward the lucrative – and showy – universal earphone market. I see no end in sight – and to be honest, that is a good thing. Technology handed down from top-flight customs is good stuff. Heir Audio’s 3.Ai and 4.Ai carry the goods inherited from their more expensive, custom siblings.

• 3 Precision tuned Balanced Armature drivers.
• One Dedicated drivers for Low Frequency production
• One driver for Middle Frequency production
• One driver for High Frequency production
• Dual Bore Design
• Detachable cable
• Quality ear tips
Shell color: “Black Mamba”
Face Plate: Burl
299$ USD

• 4 Precision tuned Balanced Armature drivers.
• 2 Dedicated drivers for Low Frequency production
• One driver for Middle Frequency production
• One driver for High Frequency production
• Dual Bore Design
• Detachable cable
Quality ear tips
Shell color: “Black Mamba”
Face Plate: Burl
399$ USD

Heir Audio
Floor 10, Tower C, Chengdu International Commerce Building
136 Bin Jiang Dong Road, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Tel: +1 (805) 284-6443
Fax: +1 (619) 615-2105
Skype: brannanmason
Twitter: @heiraudio
Head-Fi: bangkokkid

Heir Audio
In all my dealings with Heir Audio, I’ve met the kindest, fastest of responses. Heir Audio stand behind their products and their services. No matter which product you choose, you are in for a treat. In that respect, they are top notch. Well done.

Accessories and package
Seasoned lurkers will realise by now that almost all custom and custom-ish earphones come similarly attired. Heir’s little ones come replete with branded Otter style box, detachable cables, ear pieces, and cleaning tool, is no exception to the rule. It’s just that after looking at what you get – and considering the price you get it for – the 3.Ai and 4.Ai embarrass other sub-400$ earphones.

Against other custom-ish earphones, too, Heir wiggle quite nicely. Neither FitEar nor Tralucent offer so many ear pieces. The carrying box looks and feels like an Otter box. Thank god it isn’t though: those things are impossible to open. It protects Heir’s littlest ones perfectly, but isn’t quite as smooth an operator as a Pelican box is.

Fit and isolation
If you can’t find perfect fit via the included earpieces, you are in a tough place in life. Heir include just about every size imaginable: single, dual, split flanges in sizes from tiny to large. The tips are hard, but not abrasive. They keep the earphones firmly in the ears, and block external noise extremely well.

Still, there are those, who, like me, prefer a gentler touch. Thankfully, the nozzle size accommodates the same tips used by the FitEar To Go! 334, ortofon eQ5 and eQ7, and many other wonderful earphones. I prefer the ortofon eQ5 tips. They are the most comfy single flanges I’ve found. If you live outside Japan (where they are readily found), you can pick up a pair at Musica Acoustics. If you live inside Japan, I suggest going to e-eearphone or checking out for best e-Q5 earpiece prices. I got mine from e-earphone.

The bodies of the 3.Ai and 4.Ai are so similar in size that without a glance at the back of each, you might mistake one for the other. They are tiny. In comparison to the FitEar To Go! 334, which boasts the same number of drivers, the 4.Ai is positively dwarfed. But comparing them is an ineluctable delight. For users who can’t cram the 334 into their ear holes, the 4.Ai is a safe bet. Barely larger than a regular earphone, both Heir Audio universals disappear in the ear by any practical comparison.

They lay flat enough that you can lay on your side with them in with very little discomfort. However, laying on your side will, in the long run, bend the contact pins. My recommendation is merely to rest assured that you could if you wanted to- But for the sake of your investment, don’t lay on your side.

The one standout issue is that neither earphone grasp earpieces as firmly as the ToGo! 334 does. I guarantee you will lose ear pieces. They will fall off the 3.Ai’s and 4.Ai’s sound tube flange. Heir Audio’s tooling isn’t perfect. FitEar’s tooling is: its sound tube of the 334 is as precise as a handmade earphone can be while the 3.Ai and 4.Ai look very much handmade. Both are hand made, but you can tell at the most cursory of glances that FitEar’s earphones command top prices. That human touch works wonders on tables and chairs, but where sound tubes and precise tooling are concerned, more effort needs to be paid to 100% repeatable form.

Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-bands Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-box Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-butt-detail Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-cables Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-fit Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-front Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-ipod Heir-Audio-3.Ai-4.Ai-plug

The cable
Heir chose to strap the 3.Ai and 4.Ai to a Westone/UE style cable. The good of it is that if the cable breaks, finding a replacement is simple as pie. There are numerous replacements out there. Most can be found for modest sums. Some can even be had for more than the price of Heir’s earphones.

Heir Audio also offer an upgrade cable. The Magnus 1 comes terminated in Neutrik and sports stronger contacts and lead pins than the stock cable does. Rather than three cable strands, it is separated into four. The Neutrik connector gets into and out of fiddly iPhone case earphone ports better than does the flat Westone/UE style connector. Both are L-shaped, and to be honest, similarly robust for casual use – that is, until you reach the terminals. Treated with kiddy gloves, the standard cable should last many years. However, I’ve broken two Westone-style cables. The Magnus 1 may be an expensive upgrade, but I have a lot more faith in its leads and connectors than I do in the standard version. Is it worth double the price of the standard cable’s replacement? Not sure, but it is a nice option to have.

Technically, its four strands should offer some sort of sonic gain, but I’ll be honest here and say I don’t hear it. Again, not being a dog (or a Sennheiser recording head), I’m at a disadvantage here. Audiophiles, you can duke it out in the forums of your favourite party website.

Build quality
Both the 3.Ai and 4.Ai are well-built earphones, easily toeing with the likes of similarly priced universal earphones. That is, of similarly priced earphones from the 2010-2011 era. Heir’s earphones come in rather thick acrylic housings. They are free of blemish and wrinkle and they should last for a long time. Still, I’d put Audio Technica’s CK100 ahead of them where housing quality is concerned. Like Audio Technica’s high-end earphones, Heir work with luxurious materials. Both the 3.Ai and 4.Ai are topped off with beautiful burl wood faceplates.

Heir built the pin ports flush to the housing. There is no structural support for the teeny tiny Westone/UE pins, and the plastic blocks that houses the copper tubes that connect with the cables are fused directly behind the faceplate with no lateral support to the pins. Either earphone comes with ovoid sound bores. This shouldn’t affect sound quality, but when the ineluctable question: “how’s it compare to the ToGo! 334?” comes up, it’s basically fit, finish, and build quality that comes up soonest in my mind. Sound is one thing, immediate visual targets are another. While there are no severe bubbles or finger prints inside Heir’s housing, the guts of the earphones (what you can see of them) dully reflect light as if they are blanketed lightly with dust and oil.

Those are hardly faults. After all, these earphones come at less than half the price of their nearest big-name competitor. But, as with all things, you get what you pay for.

Apart from the cable pins and unreinforced contact square, I commend Heir for what they have been able to accomplish at the price point. The x.Ai series is beautiful, functional, and while not even even with FitEar’s build quality, the benefits of hundreds of extra dollars in your pocket can’t be discarded.

The tale of the 3.Ai and 4.Ai is curious. The 3 bears 3 balanced armature drivers, split between low, mid, and high, while the 4 bears 4 balanced armature drivers split like this: low, low, mid, hi. Spec alone is cause to believe the 4 bares a plumper bottom. That isn’t the case. In all cases, it is leaner, more mature, and for music lovers who hold neutral sound signatures dear, more mellifluous. The 3.Ai has received surly attention at a number of forums – namely for the amount of bass it produces.

3.Ai is too bassy
Firstly, I’d like to dispel any such nonsense. The 3.Ai does have a healthy bit of oomph in its lower end, but it isn’t in what can honestly be called the low bass region. Its impact, which artfully fits genres such as hip-hop and pop, is actually situated in the higher bass regions. Don’t believe me? Fire up Markus Schulz’ Mainstage from the Progression album. Truly low-voiced earphones yawn ferociously in the opening seconds. The 3.Ai doesn’t really get going until the main beat fires up.

Pedantic but necessary. As ‘bass’ denotes the lowest pitch, the 3.Ai isn’t a bass monster. It is a creature that favours mid and upper bass. True bass monsters don’t expose themselves in just any genre. True bass monsters take special songs such as the above-mentioned Mainstage, to reveal themselves. The 3.Ai exposes itself at most corners.

That upper bass hits with medium speed. Its presentation is safely situated between the slow body of the ephemeral DDM and the low-riding but heavily textured FX500. It reacts faster than either, but isn’t instant. Both its attack and decay hang on for a fraction of a second longer than my favourite ortofon eQ5. This slight delay is great for medium-fast to slow musical genres. It’s not an earphone a seasoned listener would pair with trance. There is a slight stuffiness to the lower end that doesn’t resolve itself too well with the likes of fast electronic. Trance beginners, however, may love its well of low-end power. Move to slower IDM, hip-hop, pop, rock, etc., and it delights.

On bass and the 4.Ai
Where the 3.Ai is hefty, the 4.Ai is lean. Straightaway, I’ll recommend it for trance. Bass impact and attack are tuned to fast beats and swifter attack/decay response. Back to back with the 3.Ai, the 4.Ai may even sound thin. But after a few minutes, it feels right as rain. Bass detail and texture are medium. It lacks any sort of congestion.

Neither earphone outputs what could be called ‘organic’ or ‘textured’ bass. Detail and impact come when called for in the 4.Ai, but neither rise particularly high against the competition. Again, the 3.Ai’s upper bass impact is another matter. It won’t be forgotten soon. While fun, it is more of a mood-matching sound than a practical one. Fun is the name of the 3.Ai’s game.

Away from the bass
Apart from bass, the overall signature of both earphones is close. Both earphones are fun to listen to. Each belts out enough mid and high end detail to satisfy fans of ortofon’s eQ series, for instance, and goes a long way in assuaging the gripes ER4 users have about every single earphone out there.

Transitions are flawless. Extension is good, and sparkle isn’t hard to find. The 3.Ai’s bass, however, is so polarising.

Generally, both earphones excel at mid-high range clarity. For this reason, piano resonance, especially against female vocals is sumptuous. Both earphones are friendly with jazz, piano, vocal, and rock music. The taste is different between the two of course, but both work quite well within personal preferences. There does seem to be a bit less sparkle in the 4.Ai in the range of higher female vocals and violins than the ortofon eQ5. I wouldn’t call the 4.Ai perfectly flat. It seems to mimic more a Beyerdynamic DT990 frequency response: while presenting mids with space and detail, the dip in the upper vocal area is noticeable.

Since fit isn’t generally an issue, you don’t have to fiddle with ear pieces to get the best balance of sound stage, 3D image, and frequency response clarity. Sound stage is medium-wide. Generally, mids hover right around the ear canals, upper mids float somewhere behind the eyeballs, bass belts at the back of the skull, each well delineated, but the entire image is intimate rather than spacious – at least when comparing to FitEar’s To Go! 334. This is especially good for a majority of studio recordings. Whatever you put into your player comes out tight, controlled, and compelling.

Generally, instruments are well separated, rendered in their own space and clean in their frequency channel. For best effect, couple the 3.Ai and 4.Ai with the small chorals and bands. Vocals from the Cardigans, while neither part of a choral (nor any longer part of a band), are sent to the moon against the backdrop of guitars/effects, very well imaged. Of course, the hitch is that Persson’s voice loses some of its cuteness on the 4.Ai. Surprisingly, 3.Ai does a better job of sustaining the right frequencies for female vocals; at the same time, it belts out that idiosyncratic high bass. So while imaging and separation are good, in the range of higher female vocals, there may be a wee bit of dynamic compression against the surrounding instrument flora. Fortunately, the fault is overall, quite small.

Regarding sensitivity
Both earphones are reasonably sensitive. You can keep the volume low, obviating distortion from both your iPhone/iPod and/or headphone amplifier. Background noise does come through, but not quite as much as with the FitEar Private 333 and nowhere near what the Shure SE530 puts out. Poor quality headphone outputs will sound even poorer through Heir’s earphones. Be warned.

Get yourself a good source. If you’re in the Apple camp already, you can’t really go wrong today. Everything since 2008 has been as free from background noise as is possible this side of an iBasso DX100.

Regarding amping
Most earphones perform their best from low Ω output devices with enough current in their capacitors to keep up the bass and supply even frequency response. Heir’s earphones will cause lesser players to stumble. If you have a pre-2009 iPod/iPhone, a small iBasso T3D will do the trick. When strapped to an iPhone 4s very little distortion affects the signal. For the most part, the same goes for an iPod nano 6/7 and iPod touch 4G and their ilk. Heir did a good job with their crossovers so that you can keep your portable package simple, small, and relatively inexpensive. Personally, I find no real reason to add an amp unless your player is ancient or has an output impedance higher than 5Ω. iPhone 5 may be another story…

Out and about
The 3.Ai and 4.Ai are by far the most comfortable universal-cum-custom earphones I have tried. They fit any ear out there. Their slim, small bodies simply disappear. Heir’s wood finish looks great, too. The Westone-style cables are noise free. However, if you use a case with your iPhone, or an amp with a heavily recessed headphone jack you may not be able plug in either the stock or Magnus cable.

The Otter-esque carrying box is strong, but huge. When out and about, I use a soft-sided nylon zipper thing I picked up at Chapters circa 2004. The earphones are small, so they’ll fit in most small pouches. Pick one up.

Heir’s kids did it. They finished the race, and after all numbers are tallied, stand quite tall in a number of criteria. The 3.Ai is probably best bought by bassheads and the 4.Ai by people who prefer more linear musical reproduction. The accessory package for both earphones is great, and so is the price. At their respective price points, both earphones are a steal. There is nothing at all like them on the market. Nothing. The tradeoffs are fit and finish, neither of which stand up to current universal earphones in the same price range. Among expensive custom-cum-universals, their build quality may be outclassed, but when Heir’s x.Ai series comes at less than half the price, what can you say. That is, what can you say except: “I wonder what Heir could do for 600$?”

Heir Audio’s 3.Ai and 4.Ai are good kids. You can’t go wrong with either.

Price vs the competition
Beautiful burl faceplates
Selection of cables
High price/performance ratio
Excellent customer service

Build quality and fit/finish meet price expectations, but shoot no higher
Sound quality not quite same league as other custom-cum-universals

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

Read more]]> 2
MST FiQuest headphone amplifier and Cio MB DAC in Review Mon, 15 Oct 2012 03:40:37 +0000 Two years ago, boutique manufacturer MST rocked headfi by teaming up with iBasso to create what was arguably the highest quality portable amplifier on the market. Getting one required some patience as MST are a small outfit with a few employees. Their FiQuest, which has been upgraded in the year 2012, is better than ever. … Read more]]>

Two years ago, boutique manufacturer MST rocked headfi by teaming up with iBasso to create what was arguably the highest quality portable amplifier on the market. Getting one required some patience as MST are a small outfit with a few employees. Their FiQuest, which has been upgraded in the year 2012, is better than ever. In this review, TouchMyApps will be looking at two versions, plus a small optical DAC.

FiQuest-2012-ciomb-iphone FiQuest-2012-family-ES10 FiQuest-2012-iPhone-next FiQuest-2012-iPhone-top FiQuest-2012-powercontrol FiQuest-2012-volume

Build quality
As you can expect from a Japanese outfit, things are put on straight. The FiQuest is less a portable amp than it is a transportable all-in-one portable/desktop replacement amp. The FiQuests large battery keeps it humming for 7-10 hours depending on load and usage. Because of its size, and because of its designer, ergonomics – as they apply to a transportable amp – are very good. Point number one: the in and output ports (all metal affairs) are spaced perfectly. No matter how large your headphone and input cables are, they will fit. And the ports are anchored well into the board and into their niches on the amp’s faceplate.

MST use slide switches for bass and gain rathe than knobs or flick switches. Considering that the FiQuest is primarily a transportable amplifier (and ostensibly not subject to the same amount of bumping as small amps are), the slide switches may be overkill. Small amp makers should take note: flip switches are easier to break, MST chose right. And, overkill that protects one’s investment is always good. In fact, it’s excellent.

The on/off switch is a flip switch, but it is a shallow-trunked affair that is as likely to break as I am to get that pay rise I’ve been begging after for years. Good for the FiQuest, rotten for me.

The one item that bothered me two years ago bothers me still. It’s the thin-pitch bolts that fasten the front and back plates to the chassis. If you’re in the habit of frequently and haphazardly opening up your FiQuest, eventually you will strip the bolts. I guarantee it. So be careful. The FiQuest is a joy open and dink around with. In fact, it is so customisable that it almost begs you to dig and dig. Just make sure you use good tools and don’t cock your hands at hard angles.

Ergonomics and Polish
As I hinted at above, ergonomics are damn good. In fact, despite being such a beast, the FiQuest is quite simply one of the easiest to use amps. It’s not just the switch panel layout or the spacing of the in and output ports. It’s the heft, which balances easily in the hand, never too bottom nor too top heavy. And even at low volumes, great balance is achieved from the large, smooth volume pot.

This is the FiQuest I remember. And it is wonderful.

Charging functions are on the back, and again, implemented via slide switches. The power supply is chunky, but so is the male jack and pin on the FiQuest’s bum. You won’t break it. Again, small amp makers with chintzy plugs, take note. This is the way to ensure you have fewer hardware malfunctions.

Apart from that, though, MST’s amp really is a straightforward metal brick. Fitting it into the pocket of any trouser is not recommended. It is simply too big. While I find the array of in/out ports very good, I’d like the output to be 6,3mm, not 3,5mm. Ryuzoh said the FiQuest is primarily a portable amplifier – a fact I well understand – but so is the GoVibe Portatube+. A 6,3mm jack just simplifies the use of other headphones.

Next, neither gain nor bass settings are labelled. You have to find your own way with the FiQuest, or just listen to me. Right is start, left is end. MST are Japanese. Keep that in mind.

Late night Music fans, the lamp on the FiQuest will not brighten your room like the sun like Vorzüge’s amps do. As great as they are, the Vorzüge amps are in dire in need of circumlision (in case my language is too deep for you, that’s the combination of circumcision and light, meaning nothing less than circumcision of light. How’s that for professional writing?) MST’s lamps are understated, more so even than ALO’s masterpieces, if that were possible. And believe it or not it’s pink. Damn. And I thought MST had grown up.

I’ll start this off reiterating how good the FiQuest volume pot is. It is the best I’ve used among portable amps of any price. Balance is perfect. And because the FiQuest has three levels of gain, low really is low. If you are using this monster with earphones (and trust me, there is good reason to), you will have no problem achieving left/right balance. If you are using it with headphones that need either lots of voltage or stamina (which some people call current) you are in luck.

Just as it did two years ago, the n FiQuest features a bass boost. It’s understated just like it was back then. It amplifies up to ~3,5 decibels. You will hear it, but you won’t be blown out of your seat. You want to know its polar opposite? Vorzüge.

Gain settings are gregarious: 0dB, 9dB, and about 20dB. Medium and low gain settings enough for any headphone out there, and because they impact signal quality very little, are most recommended. High gain is like the 230km/h top speed limit on your minivan’s speedometer: it makes you look like a badass in front of your kid’s popular friends, but is best left untested.

Which brings me to sound.

Two years ago I had one reservation: IMD errors forced at loud volumes from low ohm earphones. MST rectified the issue in a hardware release. If you have the first or second or third batch, you might opt to send your amp to MST for a tune up.

Today’s models need nothing so much as a willing ear, and a thick wallet. Now, there are several models to choose from, each offering slightly different sound. I’m sure MST would argue with me on this point, but this is MST’s baby. I’m a hardened reviewer with calloused ears. Small differences faze me like a mosquito phases a space shuttle.

That said, I can definitely see that the different flavours will appeal to different users.

The Accuro-bat
While there is no such word, there is a gaggle of amps that follow what I feel is the purest audiophile dictum: neutrality. Among powerful portable amps, MST’s FiQuest is a strong fighter. Its signal is clean, lean, and never damns itself by stepping where it shouldn’t. While its size sets it apart, sound-wise, the FiQuest almost completely disappears.

But it’s not just signal neutrality and authority that advertise MST’s latest opus; its the FiQuest’s coy noise signature, and resolution. This amp is powerful enough to whip the Audeze LCD-2 into shape, yet gentle enough to handle a FitEar To Go! 334. Noise simply doesn’t enter into the FiQuest’s picture in the way it does MST’s desktop-replacement competition. And resolution is extremely high, yet somewhat cozy.

Even engaging gain and bass boost does very little to harm the signal. There is no deleterious noise anywhere. That said, of course you will have less background noise in an amp like a Pico Slim, but then again, target headphones for each device are completely different. Among desktop replacement amps, the FiQuest is the trump card, and I am impressed.

The midrange is full of springy energy. Acoustic guitars resonate with pure, fast attack; decay is speedy and frontal, displaying its meaty underbelly to the ear. On low and medium gain settings this presence is as clean as clean can be until the volume is pushed too high. If you need extra oomph, choosing the next gain setting is your best bet to retain the same fidelity. Again, I recommend low and medium gains.

Sound in a nutshell
MST employ neither low nor high pass filters in their amps. Their bass and gain circuits play kindly both with the most sensitive of earphones and voltage-hungry cans.

The FiQuest’s father, Ryuzoh, assured me that my favourite headphone, Beyerdynamic’s DT880, would require the best spec and best parts to sound best. The poor lad needn’t have worried. The DT880 is driven so well by any flavour of FiQuest that I simply have to chuckle at the semi-worried face he had before I put my recommendation behind the combination.

The only proviso is that if you are stupid enough to play your DT880 600Ω at ultra-high volumes when fed from weak sources, you should keep move the gain up rather than maxing volume on low gain. Overall, overhead is high; at normal to medium-high volume settings, every earphone/headphone performs without flaw. But when passing 90% on the volume pot in low gain and whilst under load, the FiQuest spits out moderate levels of distortion. The audible effects are debatable since at those volumes, your eardrums are likely to collapse rather than delightedly hammer away to your favourite tunes. But for the sake of pushing an honest review, I’ve got to say it.

The FiQuest is as powerful at full volume as the Centrance DACmini PX. Surprisingly, ALO Audio’s The Pan Am is quite a bit more powerful with the likes of the DT880 600Ω. Of course, the Pan Am doesn’t play as well with earphones like the FitEar To Go! 334. And, when I say ‘power’, don’t misinterpret it for ‘pleasure’. At those volume levels, it’s your headphones or ears that will be destroyed.

There is no way this side of hereditary hearing loss that anyone would need anything more than a FiQuest to drive their DT880 of any ohm rating and sensitivity to deafening levels. More impressive to me is that the sensitive TG334 is driven equally authoritatively.

That brings me to this conclusion: despite its general coy indifference to whatever is plugged into its output, the FiQuest delivers truly excellent resolution all the way along the frequency path. I know that its tight, smooth treble will gain fanatics. Its bass is surely in for the same fate.

The bass gain settings go up in baby steps: less than 3 dB on gain 1, and just over 3dB on gain 2. This maturity is borne of dedication. MST’s house sound is resolving with energetic midrange and excellent reach in both treble and bass. Bass holds more texture than treble, which, for a solid state amp, is intimate and forgiving. Sibilant earphones and sensitive ears may find the FiQuest’s grainless treble presentation indispensable. Indeed, this box is a powerful, portable alternative to a high-class valve amp.

Scaling with better sources
There’s no need to ask. Yes, the FiQuest amp is capable of meeting your system. Feeding it from an iPod or Walkman will reveal most of what it is capable of, but stepping up to a Cypher Labs CLAS or CD player will only reveal more. Herein lies a question: with such power and resolution and the ability to scale from source to source, why doesn’t the FiQuest have RCA inputs? I’d love to plunk it down in my HiFi system connected via RCA cables. Assuming that the analogue input section is implemented well, channel separation and noise should improve even further with RCA input over the current 3,5mm input.

But, the FiQuest is a portable amp. RCA inputs seem right out of place, don’t they?

Best headphones for the FiQuest
I’ve sung some pretty high praise for this amp. And overall, it deserves it. While the FiQuest plays no real favourites with regards to what is plugged into its output, take a look at it. It’s huge. And powerful. And looks like a skinned wireframe extrusion. It really fits a desktop better than it does a pocket or bag.

Medium-high headphones are close to perfect. There are no checks in my spirit warning me to suggest to LCD-2 and K701 headphone users to suggest a different amp. The FiQuest is about as good as it gets – that is, as long as you are using a strong line-level output and keep the volume below 80% and stay away from the high gain setting.

Sensitive high Ω headphones like the DT880 600Ω and the FiQuest are somewhat of a mixed bag when run from equipment like naked Apple iDevices. To avoid distortion, use a Cypher Labs CLAS and apply the gain settings liberally. But, that is only if you tend to listen to insanely loud volumes. At normal listening levels, the DT880 is an excellent friend to MST’s amps.

Ryuzoh plugs custom earphones into his FiQuest and hangs the stack from a cool leather belt at his side. He’s hardcore. I’m not. But I’ve met many hardcore portable audiophiles like him out there. For them, there may not be a better portable amp to connect to custom earphones when on the go and to power full-size headphones at home. The FiQuest has more power, more control, and a uniquely fine-tuned bass gain circuit that enhances the lows for any headphone out there than any rival in its class. The fact that it is done maturely is a testament to MST’s devotion to quality rather than quantity. In short, for custom IEMs and high-end universals, the FiQuest is perfect. If you are after the largest soundstage and super-detailed treble, there are slightly better options on the market. If you love the resolution of solid state amps, but sometimes find treble to sometimes be painful, take a look at the FiQuest.

The Cio MB DAC
How cute is this little box? Just like the one I tested a few years ago, this is a high-performance optical DAC that works well with a MacBook Pro, Go-DAP X, Go-DAP Unit 4.0, and Fostex HP-P1.

It’s tiny. It’s battery lasts for up to 10 hours. There are small optical cables on the market. Everything seems in order for it to take its place at the top of great portable systems -that is, except output volume.

Its line out is underpowered. Plugging it into a HiFi or external headphone amp will reveal less pressure than an iPod or iPhone. Indeed, it steps down more than 10 decibels from the output of an iPod line out.

But, its signature is lovely. There is very little interference that gets into and out of the box. The sound is laid back, smooth, hearkening back to CD players of old. Connected to the FiQuest, it makes you want to curl up with favourite jazz CDs and knock back a bottle of wine.

Is performance isn’t aimed at better-than-16-bit like the CLAS; rather, it exerts soft control over the entire gamut of metrics, toning here and prodding there until even the harshest recording sings in engaging, mellifluous accents. I recommend it for lovers of NOS parts, valves, and vinyl. It is a digital piece that injects a little analogue magic into a system.

On the flip side, if you gauge DACs by absolute resolution, no matter how brittle, the Cio MB isn’t for you. Stay with the CLAS.

Gain – unlike its mature bass settings, gain settings are aggressive. An approximate 9dB gain in medium position is quite a jump. The high gain performs like a proof-of-concept rather than a real feature. Sure, you’ll get loads of extra volume at high gain, but you’ll obviate some of what makes the FiQuest so special. Resolution remains high, but dynamic range is compressed slightly. Interestingly, the DT880 600Ω and FiQuest on high gain at any comfortable listening level remind me very much of the Pan Am. I love the Pan Am, but the two are very different beasts with very different audiences.

Volume DAC – the Cio MB is a wonderful product in a small, sturdy package. A battery-powered DAC is most welcome. But its output is quite low. Even an iPod outputs more SPL into a headphone amp. Paired with the FiQuest, you’ll have to bump gain quite high with headphones like the DT880 600Ω, and move the volume pot into somewhat dangerous territory.

Volume FiQuest – despite offering enough (in fact, more than enough) volume to any headphone out there, the FiQuest does so with less precision than it should. Maxing out any volume setting reveals more distortion than necessary. And of course, there is the maximum gain setting, which I feel is unnecessary. Features for the sake of features are sometimes better left out.

3,5mm only – this is a portable amp. Ryuzoh reiterated this many times in our conversations. It is a wonderful portable, but it can replace bulky mains amps, too, and works wonders for a large majority of full-size headphones. I know I am not the only one who wishes it came with a full-size 6,3mm stereo phono plug. This isn’t an issue; it’s an observation. But, it’s a pointed observation about an amp that deserves the full monty.

The FiQuest would be the perfect amp if it weren’t for its somewhat mild volume issues.

I actually published this review about a month ago, but for some reason left it private. Such tardiness is unpardonable. But in the meantime, I’ve had the chance to discover the Pan Am, another intriguing desktop replacement amp.

In terms of resolution, the two carry on in two very different ways; the Pan Am goes the way of warmth and intimacy, while generally, the FiQuest attacks from the perspective of resolution. Interestingly enough, the Pan Am’s absolute volume ceiling with hungry headphones such as the DT880 600Ω is quite a bit higher. At such volumes, it suffers comparatively less distortion, too.

But, the FiQuest is easier to finely tune, and runs the full gamut of headphones from the likes of custom earphones to the mighty DT880, better overall. But, because of my private publishing boner, I can add the following addendum:

The FiQuest is the 2nd most powerful portable amp I’ve used for full-size headphones.

MST run an uncompromising business. For just about every headphone out there, their amps are overkill – and that is a good thing. It’s better to start out from a position of strength. The FiQuest boasts excellent resolution and volume balance. And wonderful bass circuitry. Its lows and mids attack with energy and resolve with fine detail. Treble is ever so slightly forgiving. Indeed, this is an amp for custom earphones and high-end universals. It is an amp for high-end full-size headphones, too. MST have come a long way and despite a few polish niggles, deliver one of the best amps at any price.

Excellent resolution
Excellent volume balance
Lots of power
Good ergonomics
Taught, energetic sound

Unlabelled sound controls
Test-mode style 3rd gain setting

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

Read more]]> 4
Sony PHA-1 iDevice DAC and headphone amp in Review Tue, 09 Oct 2012 17:23:31 +0000 About two months ago, the particulars of the Sony PHA-1 were leaked to the internet. About the same time, I suffered the second of what would become three intense bouts with an active stomach ulcer. In my circles, both made news. I’d would have to set up endless appointments with doctors that would cancel trips, … Read more]]>

About two months ago, the particulars of the Sony PHA-1 were leaked to the internet. About the same time, I suffered the second of what would become three intense bouts with an active stomach ulcer. In my circles, both made news. I’d would have to set up endless appointments with doctors that would cancel trips, meals, would-be drunken stumbling along busy Japanese streets; more importantly, however, the world of high-end portable audio had hit the mainstream. Sony stepped into the ring.

Wolfson WM8740 DAC
Sampling rate: USB DAC input: 24bit/96kHz
Frequency response: 10Hz – 100kHz (analogue audio input)
Maximum output power: 175mW + 175mW (8Ω); 26mW + 26mW (300Ω)
Impedance range: 8Ω – 600Ω
Inputs: 3,5mm stereo plug, micro USB (PC), USB (iDevice)
Outputs: 3,5 stereo plug (TRS type)
Battery: 3,7V Lithium Ion
Charge time: ~4,5 hours
Playback time: ~10 hours (analogue input), ~5 hours (iPod, iPad, iPhone)

Price in Japan: ¥32.800 – 40.000¥ (~400$-520$)

Sony-PHA-1-box Sony-PHA-1-connectors Sony-PHA-1-dune-buggy-bottom Sony-PHA-1-dune-buggy-top Sony-PHA-1-iPhone4S-2 Sony-PHA-1-iPhone4S-top Sony-PHA-1-iPhone4S Sony-PHA-1-rear

Build Quality
I am the typical portable audiophile (aka marketing sucker). I’ve been a Sony user since the mid 1990s. Cassette Walkman, CD Walkman, MD Walkman, ATRAC Walkman, MP3 Walkman, plus various microphones and headphones. So when I say that I didn’t have a lot of faith that Sony could build something robust, take a look at my geek CV above. Apart from their microphones, which are veritable jewellery tanks, many Walkman products left a LOT to be desired next to the competition. Treating Sony stuff with kiddy gloves is something I got used to until their MP3 Walkmans, which were a good step up, but one that still didn’t match Apple by any stretch of the imagination.

But the PHA-1 is different. Gone are kludgy seams and paper-thin-and-easily-dent-able alloys of previous models. This machine is thoroughly designed to withstand the rigours of a portable’s life.

Check this:

Fenders around the volume pot and in/out ports, rubber guard rails, rear bumpers and countersunk screws. As far as I am aware, there is no other portable amplifier that has sports as many precautionary measures. It’s like Sony’s engineers got sick and tired of kitsch and decided finally, and at the very least, on top quality engineering.

Their one oversight is the USB input. The larger one sits too far into the case to receive support from the amp’s aluminium walls. I predict Sony will have to service a number of PHA-1 units for faulty and/or broken USB input. The micro USB port fairs a little better, sporting fingers that – just barely – wedge against the case for support. This oversight isn’t small. As the PHA-1 will primarily be used as an on-the-go DAC where primary input will be USB, it needs to be fortified against bumps and bruises that invariably will occur at the hands of purses, crowded trains, audiophile holsters, and over-large cables. This is failure one.

Apart from that – rather large nit – this amp is simply astonishing. Japan has long been praised for its machine precision (hell, in Japan machines build machines). Every seam, every groove, every angle is flush, tight, and proud. There is no flex in the case and no hint of rebellion anywhere. Even the rubber feet stay firm despite my most vigorous and violent attacks.

Ergonomics and Polish
This tight, flush, and proud build quality is fleshed out in perhaps the most polished of designs I’ve set eyes on. Sony thought of everything. Firstly (and tirelessly), I’ll start in on the rubber feet. The PHA-1 feet are a departure from the stick-on-warts that come with the amps of many other makers. Its feet are built into the chassis. They slip in on rails built into the outer case. These won’t go anywhere. They cover the top and bottom sides of the amp, making sure it won’t surreptitiously slip off a desk or out of a pocket. These are the PHA-1’s first line of defence.

The second, the massive front and rear fenders, is more obvious. Guarding against accidental volume increases and potentially fatal drops, these things have to be massive. They’re like a roll cage over a dune buggy, headgear on a teenager, a racing cage on a Polar Bottle. Hot damn! The volume pot moves effortlessly, and doubles as the on/off switch. It clicks into position at about 8:50 o’clock and runs to about 5:25 where there is a hard stop. There is no wobble, no off-axis spin, no grind. It is perfect. Turn it on to use the amp, and off to charge (when plugged in, that is).

Next to it, the input and output ports come in countersunk craters that accept large cables just as well as ALO’s fantastic The National and Continental amps do. You don’t have to turn the amp around to see whether or not it is charging. Both charge and power lamps are inoffensive. They are small and flush with the case.

Around the back, Sony array the digital inputs much like Qables do, even including a familiar input switch. ‘Audio In’ refers to the analogue input on the front of the amp; ‘Digital In’ refers to the two USB inputs. Again, the larger of the two is for iDevices, while the micro input is for Android devices and PCs.

Sony also include hooked elastic tongues to secure your source to the PHA-1. I had to dig into the manual for a hint at how to use them. The hooks bite into the PHA-1’s large shoulders, stretch across your iPhone, and across the amp to the other side, where again, they bite into the opposite shoulder. Brilliant. This design works great for securing your device in a holster, or on a desk. If you tend to use your amps from inside a pocket, you may want to consider using ALO’s excellent elastic bands instead, as the hooks may come undone (cue Duran Duran).

Even the packaging is a step up above the norm. Until now, portable amps and DACs have been the realm of fanatic audio makers who moonlight as customer survey designers. There are some exceptions, notably ALO who design simple and useful packaging and amps. On the other extreme, you have Jaben who haphazardly cram products into tight spaces and call it a day.

Sony are as Japanese as makers come. That means you get lots of packaging, plastic bags, instruction manuals – it’s a geek’s wet dream of reading material and openables. Yee haw. It also feels (for the first time) like the sort of package you’d see at a local ONOFF or Best Buy. Make of that what you will. Sony’s intention – I’m extrapolating here – is to have the PHA-1 in regular Jane stores catching the eye of regular Jane. It will be in retail stores all over, and in its font-happy package, innocuously blend into iDevice/PC peripheral fauna.

While esoteric, it doesn’t awe or confuse customers out of its periphery.

And while I’ve left the volume pot for last, it is by no mean least. It is the most precisely machined pot I’ve used, turning unctuously. Overall, there isn’t a portable amp unit that polishes up as nicely as Sony’s latest. If Leica decided on entering the amp business, they’d likely source from Sony.

A DAC merely converts your digital music into analogue signal. The PHA-1 can be used as a regular ‘ol headphone amp by plugging an analogue output into its AUDIO IN port. But, it really begs to be used digitally. Plug your computer into the micro USB port or your iDevice to the USB port, select the source on the rear of the unit, and play. It is an elegant solution in overcoming horrible computer audio, or augmenting your iDevice (or particular Android phone) with the clarity and power that only a good DAC/headphone amp can bring.

And Sony’s is a good DAC. It resolves music far better than your computer and, and in most categories, better than the best iDevice can at loud volumes. For all-out quality, the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm SOLO is still king (by a good margin), but requires an external amp. The PHA-1 spits forth great quality and culls requisite boxes to a minimum.

All you need is the PHA-1 and the PHA-1 is all you need.

Unlike the SOLO (a straight DAC with line and digital outputs) and Venturecraft’s Unit 4.0 and Go-DAP X, the PHA-1 is strictly for headphone use. Few serious users will seriously consider connecting it to downstream equipment. The only output is an amped headphone signal. It’s good, but it’s not what you want to (or can) hook up to your preamp or external DAC without attracting the ire of the audiophile gods.


The PHA-1 really is a simple device. It sports two digital inputs, accessible at the back via the two USB ports, and one analogue in, accessible from the front panel. This arrangement is perfect for a variety of devices. All your audio are belong to Sony.

Having the analogue input along the front makes the PHA-1 very simple to use for people who either don’t have a compatible device or don’t want to use the PHA-1‘s digital output. Of course, the main selling point of the PHA-1 is its DAC. Otherwise, the PHA-1 is merely a very expensive amp.

And, because it can be charged and used by USB devices, you never need to carry around another cable or adapter. That is a major plus. In fact, looking at the CLAS next to the Sony will make your ears itch.

Sony’s latest amp also features a solid gain switch that changes input by about 3 decibels. This is especially handy when you switch between various earphones and headphones.

Again, it lacks a line output of any sort. You can of course connect it to analogue inputs via an adapter of your choice, but it is possible that the output will carry some artefacts not found in a true line level output.

Perhaps the PHA-1′s most amazing feature – especially for earphone users – is its absolutely black background. Well, eliminating all hiss and dirt from an amped signal is impossible. But Sony got as close as possible to a squeaky clean signal. Compared even to the impressively pious GoVibe Vestamp’s headphone output, it is angelic. The only amp I’ve tried that even comes close is the Headamp Pico Slim, which is made expressly for earphones and in-ear monitors. Damn.

Which leads us to sound.

Sound Performance – the Good
Black background – I could rant and rave all evening about the PHA-1′s black background. It is not something I’m used to doing. Sony’s engineers are quite proud of their achievements – and they should be: for a long spell, earphones were getting easy-to-drive. Some, like the Grado GR8, even run over 100 Ω, presenting very little load to an amplifier. Bless the gods of the moving armature. But, in 2011, the resurgence in balanced armature earphones (fuelled in no small part by Sony) pushed sensitivity levels back up while upping effective load.

Such sensitive earphones can show noise in even the best of audio hardware- that is, until today. The PHA-1 is as dead silent as portable headphone amps get. There is nothing on my desk now, nor ever, that compared. I suspect there will not be a comparable amp for some time.

Hands down, I can recommend it for users of SHURE SE530, Westone UM2, Sleek Audio CT7, the FitEar Private 333, and so on.

Benevolent volume pot – The PHA-1 also has a volume pot that makes perfect use of its Stygian background. Even users of sensitive earphones will find the right volume without blasting their ears off. Effectively, usable volume travel of the pot is just about 100%, depending on your headphones/earphones and volume. I don’t suggest going that loud, however, as the PHA-1, despite its delicate tramplings, still packs a punch.

Distortion and resolution – Almost across the board, the PHA-1 performs like a champ. I’ve used a drove of different ‘phones with it and nary a skip nor a blip hits its signal. Generally, contrast between frequency bands is stunning. This amounts to one of the most coherent sound images I’ve heard, where the smallest of details turn out in the music. Thanks in no small part to its nearly noiseless headphone output, this dune buggy simply rolls over your tunes. Rendered in particular beauty and absolutely clean lines is a favourite, Mozart’s Symphony No. 42 in F. The PHA-1 is equally suited to faster paced recordings, but this brilliant composition stresses in its sometimes airy, sometimes busy passages how capable Sony’s amp/DAC really is.

Stereo separation – Generally speaking, the stereo image of any amp takes a hit when under load. The PHA-1, like many amps, finds the load of low Ω earphones/headphones restrictive. Among all of my earphones, I found the Grado GR8 to be the most suited. The difference between the PHA-1 loaded by the GR8 and by the Earsonics SM2, for example, isn’t so stark as it is eye-opening. When presented indifferent loads, its stereo image is capacious. I suggest throwing something like the Beyerdynamic DT880 250Ω or 600Ω at the PHA-1 like you would throw the Autobahn at a BMW M3. You’ll feel better for it.

Noise – As mentioned above, there is next to no background noise in the signal. Not only that, but the signal to noise ratio is very very high, reaching almost to the idealistic lofts of 16bit limits. With the right headphones/earphones, this, too, causes detail to simply shine.

Sound performance – the Not So Good
High Ω headphone output – While by no means a Sony problem alone, it is an annoying issue to endlessly drone on about in portable amplifiers that should target the hardest to drive earphones instead of the easiest. Amps that target easy to drive earphones end up in many cases performing no better than the device they are meant to augment.

Sony’s new XBA line is exquisite. It is also incredibly sensitive and boasts a couple low Ω models. In order to wrest the last iota of resolution from their earphones, Sony would need an output of less than 1 Ω. And, being that the PHA-1 comes with a battery and without hiss, it sure seems targeted toward IEM users. Suffice it to say that Sony provided all of the tools necessary to dredge every detail from your music, but forgot the bond. In practical terms, the impact isn’t huge, but what is via the DT880, a continent-sized soundstage, bristling with low and mid range resolution, erupts into a less extravagant island, brilliantly laid out, but lacking in breathing room. If you happen to have an earphone that trips up the PHA-1, get ready for vocals drift more toward the pianos and violins that bang heads with the guitars. Again, Sony’s implementation of the amp is pretty good. Most amps on the market to day do much worse.

There is also the issue of truncated high frequencies, which rears a mostly pardonable head when driving earphones like the Earsonics SM2. I found that with earphones of less than 40Ω, treble truncation is pretty common. Bass and midrange remain unaffected, as do noise levels and the contrast between frequencies.

Overall, there is very little to complain about; I pick nits only because as a reviewer, I am sort of expected to. What good would it do to heap praises only on a company like Sony? None, I’m sure. I’m also sure that Sony are listening intently to reviewers now. A little tweaking and the PHA-1 could be the best of its kind on the market. Thus, I’ll stick with the assertion: the output impedance is too high.

Sound Qualities
Now, thanks to the tanning I received from many years of using what I honestly consider inferior Sony MD players and Walkmans, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard first from the PHA-1. Not at all.

I always start my listening with sensitive earphones; its pathological and I won’t stand to be cured. Earphones the likes of the SM2, you see, draw out an amp’s weaknesses, and being the bastard – in the figurative sense – that I am, I like to start with the bad news. The problem is that if there is bad news, I don’t get the right impression from the get go. Well, the SM2 is the PHA-1’s nemesis, but still, it is handled fairly well, exercising control, dynamics, contrast, and spitting absolutely no noise from its transducers.

Assuming you have the magical combination of a plus-40Ω earphone/headphone, you are in for clarity, that for all its resolution and dynamics, is beautiful. In particular, the oft-smushed toms and snares of a drum kit are absolutely pristine. Dare I say ‘spacious’? I do.


The PHA-1 renders drums and the space between drums in cavernous syllables. It just takes the right output device. Even with earphones like the SM2, or the ‘nemesis’ as I like to call it, contrast and space between instruments remain tip top. It’s just that everything else is pulled in closer together.

I’ve been able to detect no low or high frequency roll offs, though, again, with the SM2, highs rise a couple of steps above where the should be. It’s addictive in its own right.

Best headphones for the PHA-1
I reckon that doubters will come out of the woodworks when I say that the DT880 600Ω truly is, with certain genres, a wonderful tool to pair with the PHA-1. Provisos exist for every maxim. Both the Sony and the Beyer come from detailed, highly-resolving parents. If your music is extremely energetic in the high registers, you might find that the pair excite excessively. Favourable genres are trance, IDM, and classical. But a finer pair is the timeless HD600 or HD580 (if you can get hands on a pair). Don’t be scared off by their high Ω and relatively low sensitivity ratings, these headphones are powered mightily by the PHA-1. For me, comfortable listening levels for the DT880 are on low gain at up to 3 o’clock, or high gain at 1 o’clock. Turning all the way to 5:25 renders no phase errors or other audible artefacts.

Fans of organic, but detailed sound will likely love the Victor FX700 and FX500 paired with the PHA-1. It’s a practical match: Sony delivering the controlled resolution, the Victor delivering the bass and tasteful texture to the music.

Another favourite is Sony’s own XBA-3SL. I’m also partial to the pairing of Grado’s GR8 or the Ortofon e-Q5 with the PHA-1, which offers the best of the both resolution and impact and PRAT.

As mentioned above, the rear iDevice USB port is flimsy. Sony aught to fortify the back of the case. As a portable audiophile, I can assure from first-hand experience, that portable amps take much more abuse than they should. Starting with a foolproof design makes all the difference in the world.

The last (and most tirelessly droned on about) is the high Ω headphone output. Sony: it’s not for me, it’s for you. Lower that output and suddenly, you have one of the highest if not the highest performing all-in-one unit on the market. Thank you!

After nearly 3500 words, there’s little left to say but “wow”. Sony’s first step into the ring is a decisive one. Without directly stepping on any of their competitor’s toes, they battle close and hard against the likes of Fostex, Cypher Labs, and Venturecraft. The PHA-1 has a better internal amp than the Venturecraft units do and its DAC has no ‘quirks’ to shift around. Apart from its high Ω headphone output, and my bloody stomach ulcer, all is pleasure and light. If only Sony would fix that output, I could pop in my favourite amp-killing earphones, guzzle some pain meds, and be off to glorious sleep. Until then, I’ll balance proper headphones from the ends of one of the finest all-in-one units on the market today. Sony, I love you.

No hiss
Incredible dynamic range
Generally great performance
Almost perfect build quality
Ergonomic to a tee
Easy to use

High Ω headphone output
Non-anchored iDevice USB socket

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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