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 Fri, 17 Oct 2014 21:42:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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

Read more]]> 1
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

Read more]]> 6
ALO The National headphone amplifier in review – a new class Mon, 14 May 2012 00:59:42 +0000 After having created perfection in the Rx, ALO are free to experiment. Their first experiment, The Continental, is quite a hit, especially as it packs valves under the bonnet for a truly classical sort of listen. But as ALO explain, the use of limited valves means that the Continental has a shorter time on this … Read more]]>

Handsome and powerful - and compact

After having created perfection in the Rx, ALO are free to experiment. Their first experiment, The Continental, is quite a hit, especially as it packs valves under the bonnet for a truly classical sort of listen. But as ALO explain, the use of limited valves means that the Continental has a shorter time on this planet. Enter The National, an amp that they reckon is the answer to the Continental. I can tell you right now: The National is a single box that can fill the void of both portable and living room headphone amp.

Frequency response: +/- 1 dB:10-100,000 Hz
Maximum Output: 20 V Peak to Peak
THD+N: 0.004% @ 16V Peak to Peak out into 600
Broadband Noise: : < Input Impedance: 10KOhms
Maximum Input Level: 3.5VRMS
Channel Tracking: < +/- Battery life ~ 15-20 hours

ALO love big batteries

Build Quality
There’s hardly an amp out there that isn’t made of solid metal. Most are held together with iron or steel bolts and display their guts on green boards. The National is no different. Well, that is until you scratch the surface. (Still not sure if that pun was intentional or not.)

Every port, every bolt, every switch sits in countersunk wells. The only plastic nub on the amp is the high/low gain switch, which sits in a veritable castle of a well. Strong o-rings guard the in and out ports. So don’t worry. Fat, heavy headphone plugs can be used with abandon as this amp is a tank. The National is is mottled, invoking little fear of scratching.

The National’s logic board has a cut-out to fit a large battery. Hence, the battery rattles around a little in its niche. If the rattling annoys you, wrap the battery with a few thin elastic bands. (A braver man can steal his wife’s foundation sponge and force it in. I’m making no suggestions here.) The upside to this is that changing the battery is easy as it isn’t held on by unnecessary adhesives. Also, there is less chance of a bad battery frying nearby components.

The only feeble component is the 12V mains adapter whose male bits don’t securely fill the female bits. I broke my old Atari Lynx female bit with a real needle of a male bit. I was 13 years old.

The ALO is a grown-ups’ amp. Be a smart audiophile and charge your National in a safe place.

Ergonomics and polish
Before you plug in your headphones, glory in the wonderfully spaced in and out ports, the smooth volume pot, the mottled fascia. One-over The National over a few times. The font, by gods! worship it!

I only wish I were a better photographer than I am. The National is hands-down the handsomest portable headphone amp I’ve handled. No line is wasted, no item is out of place. No other amp compares.

This attention to detail is the best evidence I can find that ALO listen to and use the products they design. Let me try a little creative writing to illustrate how well thought-out The National is.

ALO’s Ken Ball is reading a mystery novel late at night on his iPhone. His wife sleeps beside him. Of course he has his favourite Ultrasone headphones plugged in. Peter, Paul and Mary are happily puffing away inside his eardrums. The novel just so happens to have been an iTunes gift, and contrary to the excited praise it received from the self-proclaimed mystery-loving friend who gifted it, it is a bore. After three mind-numbingly awful chapters, Ken shrugs his iPhone to his nightstand and and the room goes dark. But upset at wasting his time with the novel, he keeps The National on. He just needs more Peter, Paul and Mary. This Land is Your Land washes over him and he feels better. His wife happily snores beside him in a soft darkness till visions of the Magic Dragon overtake him. Not once does the glow from The National’s power lamp bother him.

Friends, this amp is great for use at a bedside. The lamp is lit just enough to tell you it is on, no more.

In short, I’m still trying to fault The National somewhere. I’ve taken it as a personal quest. The mains adapter isn’t enough. The battery rattle is fixed with a bit of foam. That beautiful font haunts my quest. Give me another sixty years, we’ll have a bedside chat at some hospice or another. I’ll be glad of the company.

Perfect ergonomics

The National is a headphone amplifier, plain and simple. If you want gimmicks, look elsewhere – that is, unless you consider polish a gimmick. From the build of the case to the shape of the logic board to the in and out ports, there is hardly an amp out there that is as ergonomically designed, or as useful for a wide variety of headphones and earphones. Right, there is that cute nubbin of a gain switch. Oh yes, and an easily-swappable battery. And sturdy casing. And excellent left-right balance from the volume pot.

And… and… and…

I’ll see you in sixty years.

Sound quality
Polish and build are great selling points, but in the end, one buys an amp for listening, not ogling. (In fact, I’m not even sure ears can ogle – mine sure can’t.)

If yours can, go ahead. The National sounds great. Indeed, it is one of a handful of amps at this price point is even trying to make itself heard. ALO aren’t playing Toyota, moving the steering wheel a centimetre and calling it a new model for ladies. They aren’t undercutting everyone else’s prices by stooping to the same level of shoddy build. And they’re not rolling off the treble for a ‘rich’, ‘warm’ sound. The National is made to different standards in both build and sound. And that sound is lush in the midrange, and bright and powerful.

High-voiced midrange instruments have a close, intimate sound – an intimacy that isn’t strictly speaking, natural, for solid state amplifiers. That intimacy isn’t a blur, though. There is ample spacing between instruments, just not Rx spacing. The warmth may be the product of a very slight time delay in high-voiced instruments, something that I will for lack of better vocabulary, call a high-range smear. That hint of delay is an part of a sound signature that is built somewhat off of a valve-amp blueprint. I think it will find itself very well thought of in the living room and when paired with achingly treble-tipped earphones.

Now let’s talk space.

There is a lot of it in the low frequencies, no matter the type of headphone it is paired with. It is clean and powerful and taught with lively positioning. Its image is 3D, not wall-of-sound, with a tendency to warm slightly ‘behind’ the ears. In terms of attack and power, The National is in a space much its own. Sub-bass is ever so slightly rolled off, but a powerful emphasis beyond 60Hz, especially when paired with headphones such as the Ultrasone DJ1Pro, is prodigious. Of course, we are talking minutely here. No self-respecting amp would sound that different to the original wave without an external EQ circuit, so the prodigy I refer to is mainly the incredible separation and definition in the low frequencies.

This space continues well into the middle mid tones where instruments thrive in their own space. It is only in the higher mid frequencies that any sort of artefacts appear. As mentioned way above, some of these artefacts are part of ALO’s design. The minute delay is a wonderful effect though hardly audible. It’s a happy shadow cast in most music.

Under heavy load, harmonic distortion artefacts appear, though not enough to cause displeasure. However, if you are a user of complex multi-armature earphones of very high sensitivity and swings to low Ω, you may find that complex orchestral pieces aren’t as articulate as you would like. For you, I would suggest the Rx, which is completely adroit no matter your earphone.

But all of that is esoteric talk. No amplifier sounds completely different to its siblings and competitors. The National doesn’t transform you music into something else. Its primary job: holding signal when driving large and small loads, it does well. And whilst that is going on, The National throws in a bit of its own flavour. Can you blame it?

Regarding driving capabilities, The National is more powerful than an amp its price should be. It generally upholds high quality signal when driving multi-armature earphones, and with voltage-hungry headphones, it sustains distortion-free signals even at intense volumes. I am a Beyerdynamic DT880 lover. My DT880 have 600Ω under their bonnets of mesh and steel. Plug them into an iPhone and older recordings are dead, soft, indistinct, and boring. Why? The iPhone hasn’t enough voltage to supply volume for an engaging listen.

With newer recordings, the DT880 can get to good volumes from an iPhone, some in fact, too loud. But, press those recordings to volumes of over 90% (which are necessary) and the iPhone’s in-built amp begins to distort. Not so The National. All the way till 95%, its signal is full, engaging, and fierce. Too fierce, in fact, for comfortable listening. I keep the volume pot at 60% or under in low gain with the DT880, and even at that seemingly tame volume level, I’m probably doing my ears no favours.

More impressive is the pairing of The National and Audio Technica’s ES10, a headphone that can easily cause phase distortion when paired with lesser amps and driven at loud volumes. Plug it into The National and suddenly I feel sorry for it. I can crank The National’s volume pot to 90, to 100% even, and only the faintest hint of sizzle comes from the drivers. It’s a tough life for a portable headphone.

What if you’ve got a nice home system? Or you have a Cypher Labs Agorhythm Solo, or a Fostex HP-P1? How bout a nice home CD player? You are in luck. The National scales up to higher input levels perfectly. Though it will power the DT880 to dangerous levels when fed by an iPhone, a proper line-level system allows The National to reveal even more power.

Charts Disclaimer
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance differences between the naked iPod touch 4G and the same iPod when paired with The National and ALO’s own line out cables. Since these measurements are taken with my equipment, they should not directly be compared measurement-to-measurement to other technical data taken with different equipment. The data represent the ability of the amplification circuit to drive headphones and speakers.

*UPDATE: true side-by-side comparisons will be uploaded this evening. Currently, that data is garbled and the only data available is The National paired with the Cypher Labs SOLO and strapped to the Earsonics SM2, a very difficult-to-drive earphone.

Loaded frequency response
Let’s get onto the boring, objective stuff. Firstly, I would like to tackle The National’s ability to deliver signal both under load and when driving basically nothing. In this case, ‘nothing’ would be something like the Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω that sucks voltage, but plays nice on amps because of its incredibly high Ω rating and low sensitivity, which induce basically no distortion except on the worst amps.

The National is hardly one of those. As mentioned above, it doesn’t reach the same level of performance as the Rx with all manner of headphones and earphones, but come on, it’s cheaper, and honestly, sounds better with the likes of the DT880. Part of the reason that it distorts with multiple balanced armature earphones is that its output impedance is higher. If an earphone drops below its output impedance when under load, The National will distort.

Just such a one is the Earsonics SM2, which remains the hardest driving universal earphone in my arsenal. As you can see, The National struggles a bit with the SM2. It does no such thing with the Sleek CT7 or the Audio Technica CK100, both multi-armature earphones with relatively low Ω ratings.

However, ‘struggle’ needs reference. RMAA indicates that under the strenuous load of the SM2, mean deviation is far less than a decibel, and exceeds 0,5dB only in the higher frequencies. Such small deviance may or may not be audible. I tend to take the stance that a deviation of around 3-5dB is the lower bounds for audibility.

In short, The National does its job well.

Loaded noise and dynamic range and distortion
Here The National begins to show some of its roots. ALO called on The National to “make the Continental last”. The Continental is a high-end valve amp that many audiophiles are clamouring for. The National, made of more readily available parts, is the answer to a limited Continental. Evidently, ALO had mind to design The National after the Continental – at least to some extent. Valve amps are known to be warmer, smoother, or more temperamental. Discerning audiophiles love valves, especially one unmentionable: distortion.

Let’s be honest here, the whole push forward in digital forged new, low-distortion paths. But since then, truly analogue signal pathways have abounded. Why? People love distortion. It’s warm, it’s fuzzy, and when done right, it can sound nice. Both loaded and unloaded National measurements prove the same thing: there is a small amount of distortion in the signal.

The National almost reaches 91dB of dynamic range. We all know that the dynamic range of 16-bit audio is 96dB, so the mark isn’t far off, but then again, I don’t think Ken was shooting for perfection, he was shooting for sublimation. Perfect benchmark performance is the realm of the Rx; The National is a product with a signature, not a signature product. I may have that backwards, but I don’t see how that matters. This is audiophilia anyway.

91dB of dynamic range gives a good indication in the levels of distortion you may expect from The National.

Loaded and unloaded stereo separation
Overall stereo separation is very good when plugged into most headphones. Again, complex multi-armature earphones cause congestion in the signal. The National favours the upper mids. There is more space and definition in mid range instruments than there is in bass and treble. That said, the difference between all three is small unless you are driving something like the Earsonics SM2. The DT880 600Ω throws no monkey wrenches at The National in any form and both low and mid frequencies are fully clear, detailed and wide.

In wintertime, I can think of no caveats to The National. It’s summer though, so I’ll shoot. It gets warm. I’ve got it in the front pocket of a pair of Asics running trousers. My right leg is sweating. Don’t worry, it’s not enough to burn you, but dear me, The National packs a heating unit in there, too!

I’ll need some company in the hospice. ALO have proved themselves again and I’ve no straws left. No niggles to pick. It its price range, The National is the best I’ve laid hands on. It is also the most interesting. ALO have taken a daring step by designing an amp that has a sound in a price bracket that is devoid of character. The product is almost limitless power for most headphones and ability to scale up with proper sources. In fact, if you were to plunk down 300$ on a single box and call it quits, my recommendation is to go with The National. It fulfils all your portable needs and doubles perfectly as a headphone home amp when fed by powerful sources.

ALO’s precision build and ergonomics are perfect, its sound nearly so, its polish, legendary. The National is defining a class all its own. And now, I must prepare for a long, hard vacation at the hospice. [To anyone, really] you’re welcome to keep me company.

App Summary
Title: ALO The National headphone amplifier Developer: ALO Audio
Reviewed Ver:  Silver Min OS Req: 4.3
Price: 299$-400$
  • extremely powerful output
  • wonderfully detailed, warm sound
  • best in-class built quality
  • oh God! that wonderful font and presentation
  • Price
  • not able to sustain perfect signal under hard loads of complex multi-armature earphones
  • battery wiggles
ALO-National-box ALO-National-CLAS ALO love big batteries ALO-National-in-box Handsome and powerful - and compact ALO-National-SM2-cross ALO-National-SM2-dynamics ALO-National-SM2-fr ALO-National-SM2-imd ALO-National-SM2-imdswept ALO-National-SM2-noise ALO-National-SM2-thd Perfect ergonomicsRead more]]> 3
Fischer Audio DBA-02 MKII in Review – Bittersweet Thu, 29 Mar 2012 13:54:37 +0000 Fischer Audio have updated their best-selling DBA-02. And what an update it is. The DBA-02 MKII is a delightful earphone replete with comfort and an accessory kit that is the envy of the earphone world. How about its sound, you ask? I’ll be singing praises soon enough. First, let’s yabber about WOWs. Package and accessories … Read more]]>

Fischer Audio have updated their best-selling DBA-02. And what an update it is. The DBA-02 MKII is a delightful earphone replete with comfort and an accessory kit that is the envy of the earphone world. How about its sound, you ask? I’ll be singing praises soon enough.

First, let’s yabber about WOWs.

Package and accessories
The first WOW for me came when I picked up the chunky DBA box. It’s cardboard, not plastic, but it’s not run-of-the-mill cardboard. In Star Wars terms, it’s a Corellian cruiser, not Princess Leia’s transport; or better yet, it’s an imperial Star Destroyer, but without the two weak testicles at the top. Depending on how bony your bum is, you can sit on box without crushing it. The importance here is twofold. First: it’s a great place to keep the myriad accessories. Second, when the audiophile gear buying urge gets you bad enough, you can even hide away an amp or two from your wife. Third (and most important): it is a breeze to open. I feel that I’ve not been tough enough on certain manufacturers. Some still insist on sealing their goods with hard, finger-cutting plastics that necessitate scissors, a medical degree, and the application of pressure and hurried calls to 911. Yes, I’ve actually bled after opening certain earphone boxes. Not with the DBA-02MKII.

Inside the box, you get a wonderfully small (and therefore practical) zippered carrying case. (It is semi-hard, and will keep your DBA-02 MKII safe and snug with enough room left for a backup pair of ear pieces, and have room enough left over for an iPod shuffle or Nano.) Then, there are dozens of ear pieces for you to play with. There are three sets of hybrid pieces – though, I should admit that calling them hybrid is unjust to true hybrids as they are merely silicon flanges with a bit of foam on the inside. Nevertheless, they fit well and isolate well. Then, there are triple flanges, transparent flanges, and still more: there are loads to choose from, and each one is comfortable. Finally, there are two ear-guides and a shirt clip to keep the DBA-02 MKII put.

Let’s start with the shirt clip.

What it’s all about, I don’t know. Why do I say this? For starters, it’s a bugger to get on the cable. I really want to fasten cable after the y-split, but no can do. And even when I get the bugger into position before the y split, it does almost nothing to keep the cable next to my body nor touch noise down. And I’m no fool. I graduated from York University (the audience roars with laughter). With a degree in English literature (they gasp for air, hammering their sides).

It was an honours degree. (Someone in the second row falls over from cardiac arrest.)

I’ll preface the next section merely by saying: the shirt clip is the first strike against the DBA-02 MKII’s ergonomics. It isn’t the last.

Build quality and cable
The DBA-02 MKII is well made. It’s housing is tough, comfortable, and compact. It won’t unnecessarily weigh down the cable, or easily snag on loose clothing. The plug is nicely relieved. It is either melted to the cable or stuck there with adhesive, reinforcing internal contacts. It is not, however, L-shaped, meaning it will be under more stress, particularly if you use it with a portable player. L-shaped plugs withstand drops and pressure much better. That said, my CK10, which I consider the best-made earphone in the world, has straight cable. It is still going strong after years of combined usage. All that is to say: the DBA-02 MKII is well made, certainly in its price range.

But the cable is rectangular, not round.

Yay, so it doesn’t tangle as badly as some other designs. Yay, flat cables generally are stronger singular products than round or twisted cables. Yay. And, it’s in style. Hell, even Final Audio use flat cables on their excellent FI-BA-SB earphone. Yay Bob. Flat cables by nature stress their internal wires more because weight isn’t evenly distributed. Wires on the outside of cable tend to get stretched more than inside wires do. That leads to shorts. I’ve seen it with the a-Jays FOUR, and Monster Beats Tour.

That said, the DBA-02 MKII cable is better than those two. It is more snug, and better relieved than either. I expect it to last much longer, too, but I don’t think it belongs in a flagship product.

Praises ahoy. At least as far as comfort goes. The tiny size of the DBA-02 MKII is a wonder-worker for both small and large ears alike. It is supremely comfortable. The DBA will fit into any ear, you’ve got my York University Honours degree on it…

The ear pieces are excellent and come in so many sizes that at least one is bound to fit perfectly in your ears. Even so, I take advantage of the small sound tube to fitfitting SHURE Olive hybrid foams or Comply tips that I use on the Westone 4.

My opinion sours, however, as the cable fits into the equation. Square are buggers to use.

Let me illustrate. The logo on the DBA suggests it is meant to be worn with the cable over the ear. Great. Most good earphones are made to be worn in the same way because it keeps the earphones in the ear, relieving stress from the earphone and cable connection, and thus eliminating grand portions of touch noise. However, if you are to wear the cable over the ear, you necessarily need a cable cinch to keep the cables from flapping all over. The DBA lacks one. Big omission. The combination of ear guides and shirt clip are not enough. The ear guides do not work well if you have glasses, and even without, may not keep the earphones in your ears anyway. As stated earlier, the shirt clip requires a master’s degree to operate.

In the end, I gave up wearing the cable over the ear. Even twirling the cable around itself didn’t work to keep the earphones in. Good news, though, wearing the DBA down is easy, and comfortable. Thread the cable through your shirt and Bob’s your uncle. He’s a loud one though, as that cable transfers a lot of touch noise to the ears no matter how careful you are.

Here’s where we get back to the WOWs. In 2010, I called Earsonics’ SM3 a Star Child. It still is. The DBA-02 MKII may well be another one. Its overall voice is similar, though more tipped to the treble and upper mids. In a similar vein, it is smooth, mostly flat, and detailed. Some people find the DBA-02 MKII to be extremely detailed. I don’t. Any more detailed and the DBA would fall flatly into the categorical demon, “analytical”. It isn’t though, and instead, allows for a smoothly detailed high range that is open well into the mid range. Lovely.

One thing iPod and iPhone users will notice instantly is that they don’t need much volume to hit very loud listening levels. The DBA is quite sensitive even at its middling sensitivity rating of 108dB. If you are careful with your ears, old records need just a minor volume bump to a third on iPhone 4‘s volume slider. Volume war records of the last twenty years need much much less. Because of this, you may be able to pick out background noise even from very clean sources like Apple’s new iDevices and high end headphone amplifiers. Fischer balance this sensitivity with a relatively thick-skinned 43 ohms, which is great for most portable sources. It allows players with high output impedances to retain resolution even in passages where low can disappear.

And works it does.

As long as you are not a basshead, the DBA-02 MKII will bring a smile to your face. The signal certainly does reach low, but does so with prejudice. Marcus Schultz’ Mainstage won’t roar in the background as it does when powered by lower voiced earphones like the Victor FX500 or my personal favourite, the Radius, but its overall balance is better. Low notes are round, firm, and decay in perfect time. In my opinion, they trump my favourite CK10 by their more natural timbre.

With a good fit, I can listen to the DBA for hours with no fatigue. That isn’t to say that this earphone isn’t detailed. You will hear details like a Madeleine Peyroux’s tongue click against her palettes and though you won’t be able to sense the shape of the guitar player’s thumb, there are loads of moments that can only be described as pornographic. Fortunately, they are soft porn. If you expect Etymotic exactness, you needn’t look here.

To some, this will be a blessing, to others, it will be a curse. Earlier, I compared the DBA to the Earsonics SM3. I promise you, it wasn’t ingenuous. Fischer’s flagship earphone is cooler sounding than the SM3, emphasising upper mids more than bass, but it is equally as smooth within a different metric. That is, bass and mids flow together perfectly, better than almost any earphone I’ve heard at any price.

(The biggest audio quality caveat with the DBA, however, is fit. In order for midrange detail and clarity to be milky and sweet, perfect fit is imperative. I found that pushing the stock ear tips in too far caused the midrange to be harsh, tinny; long term listening became uncomfortable. For my ears, the DBA sounds better with a shallow fit, or with Shure Olive ear pieces. Your mileage may vary.)

Getting on, high frequencies: cymbals in particular, decay quickly, and shimmer just enough. High frequencies are less grating than those of direct competitors, again trumping my beloved CK10. I think the dime will fall to heads for some, and tails for others, as even this great balance will for some be too bright. Again, I fall into the category of worshippers of this sound.

You may or may not fall into that group. Remember, thought the low-mid frequency transition is extremely smooth, high mids to ultra high frequencies are aggressive. If you don’t like bright earphones, you probably won’t love the DBA-02 MKII. If you do, however, you will find lots to love. Lots.

Fischer claim that the DBA-02 MKII reaches 24.000kHz. I don’t doubt that it can reach that high, but not without a LOT of fall off well before that mark. Obviously my ears aren’t sensitive to those levels, but they do a good job of categorising various earphones. To these ears, there appears to be less overall sound pressure in the extreme high frequencies than some of my other favourites.

And that is a good thing.

In summary, the DBA-02 MKII is a smooth sounding earphone aimed at midrange detail. Lows and highs are plentiful, but neither forefront. With good fit, you can enjoy wonderful vocals, strings, and percussion with the DBA-02 MKII. For trance listeners, there is good enough space and soundstage to keep you thumping in that imaginary universe, but not enough to cause you to get lost. Rockers, the wonderful transition between bass and mids is wonderful, with the promise of fast, pleasant cymbal decay. I cannot really recommend the DBA-02 MKII for hip hop lovers, however, as bass simply isn’t duffy enough. There is no driver wobble; too much kilter, really.

Out and about
With a long cable and great carrying case, the DBA-02 MKII should be the perfect walking/trekking/commuting earphone. But unless you can quiet the cable down, I guarantee you will be annoyed by its energy and touch noise. Still, the overall combination is good, and with the right tips, you can really push background noise out of your music. Again, Shure Olives are great for this.

What more can I say? Fischer have upgraded an instant classic. They have nearly perfected an already wonderful earphone. For listeners who love details but shy away from the sometimes screechy Etymotic ER4 and CK10, this is the earphone for you. It is smoother and more natural in its transitions from bass all the way to highs than the almighty SM3. Wow. But this level of natural perfection doesn’t come without its own set of caveats. Nope. You’ll have to put up with a rectangular cable that only a mother, or, judging by the sudden onslaught of such cables, hip music lovers who’ve never had anything better, could love. For me, it’s a bittersweet romance, and one good enough for a warm grab, though honestly, I’m dying for a kiss.

Grab It Rating - 4/5

Earphone Summary
Earphone: DBA-02 MKII Maker: Fischer Audio
Price: $178-220 USD
  • Perfect transitions
  • Great low and high extension
  • Wonderful accessory kit
  • Great fit
  • Stupid, noisy cable
  • No neck cinch
Read more]]> 4
Beyerdynamic T50p Manufaktur hitting the IFA; sporting sexy new leather Thu, 28 Jul 2011 12:42:40 +0000 Beyerdynamic have been kicking out new products at what amounts to breakneck speed. Their new flagship 32Ω ultraportable headphone, T50p, was released last year has quickly developed a strong following among music lovers. At the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) Berlin, from September 2-7 of this year, Beyer will unveil the T50p Manufaktur, a customisable version of the … Read more]]>

Beyerdynamic have been kicking out new products at what amounts to breakneck speed. Their new flagship 32Ω ultraportable headphone, T50p, was released last year has quickly developed a strong following among music lovers. At the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) Berlin, from September 2-7 of this year, Beyer will unveil the T50p Manufaktur, a customisable version of the T50p featuring hot colours and new materials. Their studio and professional line have offered Manufaktur options for years. (I’ve owned two Manufaktur DT880 headphones in my tenure as a music lover can say that without a doubt, Manufaktur is the way to go if you’ve got the wonga.)

No one has done this before; the T50p Manufaktur will be the first truly customisable headphone for portable music lovers. Now, I’m not holding my breath that Beyer will allow customers to choose Ω options, especially as the T50p is specifically targeted at portable music lovers who need sensitivity and isolation to hear the great Tesla acoustics.

Update: The standard T50p starts has an MSRP of 349$ US. The T50p Manufaktur will start at 420$ US.

Pics and press release after the gap:

Transmission type Wired
Headphone design (operating principle) Closed
Headphone impedance 32 ohms
Headphone frequency response 10 Hz – 23,000 Hz
Nominal sound pressure level 107 dB
Construction Supraaural (on-ear)
Cable & plug Straight connecting cable with mini-jack plug (3.5 mm) & ¼“ adapter (6.35 mm)
Net weight without packaging 174 g

Press Release

Farmingdale, NY, July 2011: What do the glove-like softness of buckskin, elegant stainless steel and the exclusive natural material of Nanai have in common? Combined they become headphones that touch all the senses. Both the look and the feel of the new T 50 p Manufaktur from beyerdynamic are unique. So unique that each model is one of a kind: the Heilbronn-based audio specialist produces the mobile headphones customized to customer order in the in-house headphone manufacturing plant.

In the process, there is a wide selection of colour and material combinations to choose from. Ear cups in trendy colours from cream-white to mauve and brown to olive green can be combined with leather covers on the headbands and the ear conches. Perforated buckskin, for example, is a reminder of times when automobile drivers still wore racing gloves and lends the headphones a charming retro-look. Those who like it more extravagant choose the salmon leather model: the exclusive material Nanai is also used in the fashion industry and stands out due to its characteristic structure. Its production was developed centuries ago by the East Siberian Nanai people and until today works in harmony with nature: salmon leather is 100 percent chromium-free tanned and free from allergens.

As of September, sound aesthetes can configure and order their desired models online ( The tried-and-true Tesla Technology from beyerdynamic ensures acoustic quality. With its high level of efficiency, it even helps low-output MP3 players such as the iPhone or iPad achieve higher volumes and an amazing richness of details. There’s a good reason why the T 50 p series version was honoured with the sought-after EISA Award last year as European mobile headphones of the year 2010/2011. Like these headphones, the Manufaktur version is also manufactured by hand in Heilbronn. The T 50 p Manufaktur is “Made in Germany” to the core.

The T 50 p Manufaktur headphones will be displayed for the first time at the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) in Berlin from 2 to 7 September 2011, Hall 1.2, Stand 115.

News-HP-Beyer-T50p-colours News-HP-Beyer-T50p-cuteyheadphones News-HP-Beyer-T50p-mauve News-HP-Beyer-T50p-brownRead more]]> 0
hippo box+ headphone amp in review – petty in pink Sat, 12 Feb 2011 02:55:24 +0000 Just slightly bigger than iBasso’s fabulous T3, hippo audio’s second self-branded portable headphone amp is a diminutive, but well-punctuated statement product. iBasso’s effects-be-damned neutral sound is damned in return as the box+ sways the portable audiophile with ‘rich’ sound, the sort made possible only through a Butterworth low pass filter: the sort of sound that … Read more]]>

Just slightly bigger than iBasso’s fabulous T3, hippo audio’s second self-branded portable headphone amp is a diminutive, but well-punctuated statement product. iBasso’s effects-be-damned neutral sound is damned in return as the box+ sways the portable audiophile with ‘rich’ sound, the sort made possible only through a Butterworth low pass filter: the sort of sound that has made Head-Direct’s Hifiman series famous.

I’m sorry, but I don’t have a box or any marketing literature, so I can’t write down manufacturer’s specs (which often don’t pan out anyway, so I’m not bothered too much).

Build Quality
Thanks to its solid aluminium chassis to its all-metal phone jacks, the Hippo+ looks and feels like a million dollars. Its tight frame is fastened by countersunk Phillips screws and military edges. This thing will outlast your iPod.

Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story? The hippo box, its predecessor, succinctly split amp functions between bum and face. Power and sound functions shared one side, while LED, in and out, shared the other. The hippo box+ bungs that up. Now, the in and out ports feed from opposite sides and the bass and gain functions are broken away from the USB jack. Splitting the ports between sides puts greater stress on line and earphone jacks, raising the possibility of cable breakage, not to mention ugly ergonomics.

Ergonomics and Polish
Don’t worry audiophiles: this amp performs well. You’ll be happy with its lushnessness and smoothicity. As a music-loving users, however, I am bummed by its design. The hippo box sucks to use and here’s why: it is bass-ackwards. As mentioned above, the In and Out ports are split up. If you like to use an amp with your iPhone, you’ll have to turn it ass-up, or find a long interconnect cable and raise the possibility of bending your headphone jack in the process. Players with headphone jacks positioned on top fair much better. And, since the amp is a perfectly symmetrical brick, blind operation, especially now that the headphone ports are split, is touchier and feelier than ever before.

The next WTF point is the audio function sliders themselves. Both work as advertised, bass gain beefing the signal by up to 5 decibels, and a decent ~5 dB raise in overall volume gain. Great. The problem is that neither bass nor gain is labelled. Which way is on? Which way is off? Every unit I’ve played with is lost. The low gain position is on the right and hi gain is on the left. Okay, so the bass function is probably the same, right? Nope. Bass goes the other way: OFF is left, ON is right.

Again, be careful not to bend your earphone jacks, which thanks to the split front-back in and out ports, is so easy to do. When both ports are on the front OR the back, it is easy to keep track of cable pressure. Wouldn’t it suck to buy a cute little amp only to find that after a little careless use, your favourite earphone’s cable broke? Smaller and lighter amps like the GoVibe Single, and Houdini Xin Supermicro, and the Pico Slim are examples of amps that work in this configuration because their body size isn’t as clumsy, and because they have volume pots.

The lack of volume pot on this amp is its main detractor. To change volumes, you have to adjust the sound level at the source, just like the Firestone Fireye I. But, unlike the Fireye I, the input and output jacks are on the opposite sides.

It’s not just ergonomics, though. Lack of volume pot spells certain sound nastiness for players with high amounts of noise in their signal.

The final insult to the hippo box+ skin deep: the website,, which is printed in bold, contrasty font, is a dead link. I’ve checked and rechecked. IE – dead; Safari – dead; Chrome – dead; Firefox – dead. It’s not a browser or web standards issue, it’s simply that the website doesn’t exist. I know that it is hippo’s second amp, and that the company is still new to the area, but the competition from Fiio, iBasso, and Firestone, just don’t make the same mistakes.

Up till now, I’ve offloaded a lot of negative stuff about the hippo box+. But that stops here – for the most part. As long as you can get past its clumsy interface, dead website, and shocking lack of a volume pot, you have a pretty decent headphone amp. It doesn’t so much amplify the signal; rather, it adds a meagre several decibels to the signal when the high gain position is selected. In other words, you won’t be using this to boost your power-hungry Beyerdynamic or Sennheiser headphones – much. The bass boost drops the signal volume by about a decibel, but raises the low frequencies up to a healthy five decibels. In low gain mode, the gain is more modest.

Both are clean and work as advertised – as long as you don’t expect earthquakes from your ears. If you want that, look no further than Graham Slee’s Voyager.

The battery seems to last a good while, but to be honest, I’ve not even tried to run it out – I simply need my iPod touch and can’t be bothered to hook earphones and cable up to it till the box+ runs out of juice. I’ve set it to run all night hooked up to my work craptop and come back in the morning to a still-healthy box+. Charging is a breeze thanks to the mini-USB connection that can be found anywhere and finishes up in just a couple of hours. It’s quick and painless.

Sound Quality
Here is where the hippo box+ recovers most of its losses. It isn’t an all out performer, but I don’t think that was hippo’s aim. All-out performers have no sound. They aim at neutralising the deleterious effects the poorly-implemented headphone outputs of some audio sources. They correct roll-off, lower distortion, and keep signal noise to a minimum. The hippo box+ does keep a well-tailored signal. It has no problem driving low ohm earphones, and when set to hi-gain mode, sustains great stereo image. But hippo graced (and I say this for the audiophiles out there) the box+ with a Butterworth high-frequency roll-off.

It’s not a load-induced problem. It exists in unloaded signals, too. It’s simply the sound that hippo want from the box+. Low pass filters are almost always immediately recognisable. My Hifiman and Teclast T51 have similar filters that I picked up on immediately through my great Westone 4 earphones. Performing hardware tests only confirmed my suspicions.

I like low-pass filters, and actually, use EQ apps like Equalizer and EQu to imitate with certain earphones and albums. There is nothing wrong with a low-pass filter – that is unless you want neutrality. Low pass filters are great if enjoy a smartly dulled high end.

The advantage of an outboard Butterworth is that you can enjoy it on any device. So, my bright iPod touch and HiSound AMP3 Pro smooth out pleasantly in the top end. Apple have never included a hardware EQ chip in the iPod/iPhone line. Using apps like EQu gets you great, tailored sound, but at the expense of battery life and some distortion of the signal. The hippo box+ does the grunt work for you – that is if you like it dark and strong.

The bass boost adds ample kick at the bottom. It isn’t as smoothly set as the FiQuest, but at 3-5 decibels, it is just enough to nicely complement the low-pass filter. It never distorts and retains a good, clean signal down to its lowest audible bounds.

The difference between high and low gain are pretty stark. Low gain is like training wheels. It feels safe, but in box+’s case, it is instable. High gain gives a cleaner, louder, more precise signal to your favourite earphones, bass boost enabled or not. Don’t ask me why. Since the volume difference between the two settings is very small anyway, I wonder why low gain even exists in this amp.

My final technical observation is another tick against the box+. Its noise floor is pretty low with moderate to low levels of hiss, but since there is no volume pot, you cannot control the noise of your source. Modern iPods are perfectly safe at any volume. They just don’t hiss. But other great players, like the Sony Walkman series, or wannabe’s like HiSound’s AMP3 Pro, Studio, and Rocco, force the hippo box+’s worst hand. When fed dirty, noisy signal, the box+ spits it out the way it came. There is no way to take advantage of the amp’s cleanly output without ruining your ears. If you listen to your AMP3 Pro 2 or iPod touch at 50% volume, you will listen to them plugged into the box+ at the same volume. The iPod will sound fine, but the AMP3 Pro 2, a player I always pair with an external amp, will hiss and howl. Noisy sources need signal attenuation. They should be set to spit out optimal signals and then attenuated by an external amp. Not possible with the box+.

Now, for the audiophiles: the box+ sounds dreamy. The flip of the bass and gain switches gives you the best results for: volume, signal quality, stereo image, and distortion. The hippo box+ also has a punchy dynamic range. Like the Hifiman, it plays the upper frequencies softly so you can relax with your music.

While I appreciate the Robin-Hood accuracy of the ALO Rx headphone amp, this warmer, milder box+ sound, is great. If you’d like it even cosier, flip the gain switch back down and enjoy less stereo separation and more coherence. Overall, this little amp does its audiophile job very well as long as it is plugged into the sort of audiophile that likes warm, relaxing signals.

Again, if you enjoy the Hifiman and Teclast T51, the box+ will put you there, but for a much, much milder price. And, if you pair it with your iPod or iPhone, you won’t have to sacrifice on the goodies that Apple have brought to the masses: gapless playback, low levels of hiss, good ID3tag support, album artwork, and much much more.

It’s hard to really recommend the hippo box+ unless you already have a great portable setup, or you are a casual listener. It is a good-sounding, if quirky amp. It maintains a Butterworth tailored frequency response that will pull at the heart-strings of emotional audiophiles and people that have trouble with sibilance.

For me, however, the reason this amp scores no better than a cautious TAP is that for its cost, the hippo box+ will cause you to scratch your head in wonder. What in hell were hippo thinking when they printed the absent website,, across their newest amp? How did they forget to label the bass and gain settings, especially as both actuate in different directions? For a 99$ market price, this is a bust. Even at’s 68$ price point, it is a hard to recommend against the competition from Fiio and Firestone.

Again and again, audiophiles prove why regular Johans need to be brought into the development phase.

Dear Hippo box+,

I really really want to recommend you: I believe in your cosy sound, and your wonderful size and build quality. But you’re bound by myriad developer blunders and oversights that besmirch your good intentions and optimistic MSRP.




  • Great build quality
  • Diminutive size
  • Soft, cosy sound
  • Conservative, but resolved bass settings


  • Ergonomawhuts?
  • Bass and gain settings not labelled
  • No volume pot
  • Little actual signal amping
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Nocs NS200 headset in Review – Deep ear action Tue, 01 Feb 2011 08:21:04 +0000 Nocs, a Swedish company out of… Sweden, have left a tasty impression in my ears this winter with the NS200 headset. While not flashy, the NS200 scores with lively sound and good headset implementation that impresses this Toucher with great audio performance, and a tasty remote control. Specifications Speaker: 8,6mm dynamic speaker Sensitivity: 95dB spl … Read more]]>

Nocs, a Swedish company out of… Sweden, have left a tasty impression in my ears this winter with the NS200 headset. While not flashy, the NS200 scores with lively sound and good headset implementation that impresses this Toucher with great audio performance, and a tasty remote control.

Speaker: 8,6mm dynamic speaker
Sensitivity: 95dB spl @ 1kHz
Impedance: 16Ω @ 1kHz
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz
Housing: machined aluminium
Warranty: 2 years

Fit and Package
I’ve got this itching suspicion that Swedish design is about the simple, the unassuming. Right, Jays’ matte black a-Jays and Frankenstein t-Jays and branded cables are about as unassuming as a surfing Santa Claus is, but the way Jays tip the scales against convention are just so clever. Nocs carry that tradition, but strip away some of the cleverness. What we get at the end is straight headset with no frills, but unlike a lot of competition from knock-knock Chinese companies, there are no stray hairs anywhere. Desirably understated. Honestly homely. How’s that?

Unwrapped, each piece comes in cute, individually vacuum-packed pouches (that I tore up immediately). There are four sets of ear tips, a flimsy carrying pouch, and a shirt clip. Simple but complete. A word about the pouch: I think it is some off-hand coin purse that Nocs discovered whilst on holiday in the Mediterranean. Not pretty, not protective, but at least it keeps your headset and its pieces in one place. Maximo’s iP-HS5 thimble holster absolutely trumps Nocs.

This design fits very well in the ear and isolates on par with other bullet-shaped earphones. Overall, it is quite a hit. It’s got a slightly narrow mouth that sinks pretty deep into the ear and stays lodged. You’ll not have to worry about the Nocs NS200 falling out. And low and behold, even though there is a microphone attached, you can thread the cable over your ear and still chat away! Nifty ergonomics, Nocs!

Build Quality and Cable
Overall, the Nocs is a well-built earphone, but it has one problem: its post-split cable. Prior to that, the cable is quite like a the q-Jays cable and as such, is strong, and pretty good at keeping crystallisation at bay. It’s not perfect, and terminates in a straight plug, the sort that I always shamefully harp on about. Again, straight plugs put more pressure on the headphone output of your iPod or iPhone, and can break more easily given the right pressure. Shame.

The housing is a bullet-proof ported aluminium nub that fits great and isolates pretty well. The stress reliefs going into it are pretty standard Chinese things that you’d see on the Mingo WM2, and work decently enough. But its inferior post-y-split cable is worrisome. It reminds me of my old Sony EX51 from like 10 years ago. Great earphone, but weak-ash cable that eventually fell apart. Unfortunately, it seems to be the trend these days. A lot of companies that had decent to good quality cables several years ago, are going cheap today. Jays a-Jays ONE TWO and THREE models are duds and a lot of other companies are going for nylon-sleeved cables that kink all over the place and explode in the ear with nasty microphonics.

Nocs’ earphone-end cable is soft, filled with air, and can tear with a pretty forceful wrenching motion. I don’t expect it to pose serious problems when used with care, but it is a liability that Nocs could have nipped by employing a similar cable all along the length of the wire. It’s a shame because the y-split is excellent, and the remote unit isn’t heavy handed, so a more decent cable could take a beating.

As a headset, the NS200 has a lot going for it. Firstly, it works as advertised, picks up voices clearly, and is easy to use. Secondly, it hangs perfectly below the lip, or if you tuck the cable over the ear, hides right outside the jawbone. Overall, Nocs did their homework and supplied a GREAT headset.

It works on my iPod touches, my iPad, and my tiny iPod shuffle 5G. If you don’t mind memorising a few tricks, the NS200 does the following without incident:
adjusts volume up and down
answers and ends calls
pauses/resumes playback
selects next track
selects previous track

It’s quite impressive to see such a slimline remote do all of that with no hitch. It’s made for iPod, iPad, and iPhone, so don’t expect villianous companies like Samsung and Nokia (that reverse cable polarity) to work all that well.

There is no denying the sensuality of the Nocs ns200 – that is, if you like a good, deep throb. Yeah, its 8,6 mm dynamic driver sits as perfectly as it can in its aluminium case. I mean, we aren’t fondling a hundred plus dollar earphone are we? Don’t expect miracles, but do expect brain-numbing bass without the flab. Want to kill your brain cells? Get the Sonomax. Want to enjoy mid and high range too? Get the NS200.

It is more accented than the Maximo headset and is ever so slightly more closed in, but it is a great sounding earphone.

In the sub 80$ world, getting brightness and bass in clean lines is hard. The NS200 walks on some long legs. Bass is absolutely controlled, but deep. It bangs around a good deal, but never massages into the mids. If you’re asking – yes, you can hear Markus Schulz’ Mainstage intro – a plate that not every earphone can serve up.

Kick drums and machines are taut and defined. While controlled, the low end isn’t all that open and free. You’ll get good separation with the NS200, but not easy breezy wind between the bass notes.

The midrange enjoys good space and pretty good focus so you can enjoy great guitar and vocals without fuss. I can’t find fault at all with the treble either, which extends up to and has plenty of focus. There is no sibilance either. Overall, it is like a slightly more congested earphone version of my personal favourite portable headphone, the Audio Technica ES10, and that is saying a lot.

It’s really quite amazing, actually. The bass on the NS200 is massive, but neither the midrange nor treble suffer at all. I’ve listened to everything with it now, and while I recommend dance, electronic, and hip hop, this earphone can do anything. If you had to choose between the similarly priced Nocs and Maximo on sound quality alone, I’d offer this advice: if you prefer balance, go with the Maximo. For everyone else, the Nocs is just so much more fun.

Finally, if you have a modern iPhone or iPod, you won’t need an amp unless you just want to kill your ears. The NS200 sounds fab from the headphone out and remains easy to drive on decent players like all of the ones mentioned in this review. It will hiss if you use a dirty source like a Sony Walkman MP3 player or the absolutely icky HiSound AMP3 Pro.

Out and about
So, the NS200 sounds great and works well. Unfortunately that’s perfect invitation for it to be taken outside and mingled with murderous city air and the dirty engines of busses, cars, and trains. It passes the isolation test, blocking the worst of the noise without requiring much extra volume. You may have to nudge the volume up a bit, though, as the NS200 doesn’t isolate quite as well as the Audio Technica CK100 and isn’t in the same league as the Earsonics SM3, but it slams a lot of the competition simply because its thin body and small nozzle can fit better in the ear.

What it doesn’t do that well is walk the walk. The good portion of its cable is noisy, reminding me of taking the Mingo WM2 around town. At least it’s got a shirt clip, but dear god, it can jigger in the ears a bit. It’s not an enjoyment killer as I’ve enjoyed it on the 4-hour commute to and from work, but you won’t forget it.

The cable is long enough to work for most people, but won’t stretch to the knees.

Apart from the wonderful Nuforce NE7M, there haven’t been any perfect iPhone headsets out there. The Maximo sounded great, but lost in overall implementation, and the excellent Phonak PFE really needed better construction and possibly, ergonomics. The Nocs NS200 plays right along with these. It isn’t perfect, but it sounds good, is styled for the on-the-low audiophile, and it works like a charm. For 79$, it is a better bargain than Apple’s headset, and leaves the nicest of tastes in my mouth. It’s too bad that Nocs couldn’t make a better cable, because this earphone is otherwise, a winner.

Price: 79$


  • sound
  • fit
  • isolation
  • great remote


  • upper cable sucks
  • pouch sucks

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Westone 4 earphones in Review Tue, 18 Jan 2011 16:19:13 +0000 Whether it’s Metallica, DJ Tiesto, Iggy Pop, Melody Gardot, or Aphex Twin belting around the spinning innards of your cassette player, it’s gonna sound fab from the Westone 4, and it’s not just that new product sheen either. No, it’s the fact that Westone nailed everything in this, the first universal earphone fitted with four … Read more]]>

Whether it’s Metallica, DJ Tiesto, Iggy Pop, Melody Gardot, or Aphex Twin belting around the spinning innards of your cassette player, it’s gonna sound fab from the Westone 4, and it’s not just that new product sheen either. No, it’s the fact that Westone nailed everything in this, the first universal earphone fitted with four speakers per side – a mean feat in any respectable dictionary.

Discuss the Westone 4 in our forums.

Sensitivity: 118dB @ 1mw
Impedance: 31Ω
Driver: 4 balanced armatures
Cable: twisted; separate volume control

Package and Fit
I’m actually typing this up on the airplane – the Westone 4′s are snuggly in my cabin-sick ears – and to be dangerously honest, I can’t for the life of me hear the safety announcements. The reason, my friends, is the same as it has been for yonks: Westone’s body style really gets into the ear canal to block a hell of a lot of noise – and is comfortable to boot. It sits flush against your concha and into your music hole and I reckon that some will even say that it is great for sleeping.

I’ve no complaints. The body is a bit oblong and simply dwarfs my personal favourite, the Audio Technica CK10, but overall, its ergonomics is hunky dory. Particularly comfortable are the Comply tips which melt in your music holes. For rubber lovers, Westone pack semi-hard transparent gumdrop-looking ones, flexible grey ones, and one set of triple flange sleeves. My mate loves the grey ones and I’ve heard tale that even the transparent ones are to some people’s liking. For my narrow, semi-short canals, neither fit, but the triple flanges work wonders. Folks, your mileage will vary and that is the particular reason that Westone have packed in such a rich assortment. Anyone will find a fit.

Aside from the fit pieces, you get an analogue impedance adapter that lowers the volume from loud sources, a decent nylon carrying pouch, a 6,3 to 3,5mm step down adapter, and a wax loop for clearing away your ears’ sticky icky that can build up to clog the sound tube. The package is a treat for, well, whose who will most love the Westone 4: music lovers.

Build Quality
Westone have never ever built bad stuff. I’ve railed on them for setting the now-standard plastic precedent among professional earphones. But I can’t fault them: no one creates anything better, not really. The Westone 4 is an excellent earphone that sort of bridges the excitement of the Westone 3 and the staid, smooth, and easy driving UM3x. I can see it used on stage, but I think that its larger customer base will use it out and about, with their favourite tunes on the bus, train, and on their favourite comfy chair.

That in mind, the Westone 4 has few betters in terms of build quality. Sure, the Audio Technica CK10 and CK100 have stronger cables, metal armour, and thicker plastic, but outside Japan, you’d have to sell your car to afford them. Apart from them and the sexy new Shure SE535, the Westone 4 is simply top in the consumer market.

The Westone twisted cable is easily the most iconic among high end earphones and has many copycats. As always, it is silent, strong, and resilient to deleterious sweat and body oil. The cable WILL harden over time but not for a good long while. And, thank the gods, it’s well anchored in the body of the earphone to avoid getting severed by sharp plastic edges. If you are persistent and begging for bankruptcy, I’m sure you could destroy Westone’s cable, but I’d suggest saving your pennies for more Comply tips. The cable is terminated in a right angle connector, slim enough to fit most iPhone and ipod cases, but sturdy. I’d pick the UM3x‘s boxy right angle connector in a prize fight, but only just.

The earphone body, too, is a winner – at least mostly. I’m not a big fan of its Klingon styling (sorry Westone), but I can’t help but praise the overall effect. The earphone is joined along perfectly met seams, and sports a strong cable anchor stress relief. Again apart from Audio Technica’s top CK series, there is nothing on the market that trumps Westone’s overall efforts in build quality.

Kudos, Westone.

So you probably didn’t spend 450$ just to secure a sturdy, well-accessorised kit, did you? There is other meat between Westone’s Klingon chops. Overall, this new model keeps in line with Westone’s excellence offerings while bridging the sound of the mid-centric UM3x and the Westone 3.

I’m not sure why, but this four-speaker earphone actually sounds tamer than its three-driver big brother. The Westone 3 punches more ferociously down low. It’s a fun earphone that accentuates the beat and punches the highs like its training for a fight. I like it, but after hours and hours of dizzying listening, I’ll admit that the four is an easier listen.

The 4 is, how shall we say it – beautifully realistic. It isn’t overly burly in the low end, and it isn’t too excited up top. Bass reaches low, but it never gets the attention that either the UM3x or the Westone 3 get. If your ears are good enough, you’ll get respectable doses of vibration, but real emphasis starts a bit higher, well after 100Hz or so. At the ear, for instance, the intro to Markus Schulz’ Mainstage (Progression album), which butterflies around the ear with bass-heavy earphones, whispers silently with the Westone 4. The rub of course, is that low bass simply isn’t presented with the same force that high bass is and that in order to really enjoy it, you’ll have to turn up the volume a couple of notches. On the other hand, low bass tends to warm overall sound up and some people consider that a bad thing. Personally, I’d love a bit more weight in the very low frequencies, but not anything else was sacrificed.

It might be an imaginative stretch to compare the Radius DDM to the Westone 4 – the former boasting linearly expressed bass that results in gobs of low end detail — but both earphones (despite technological differences) really sing in the lower midrange and higher bass. Of course, the Westone 4 isolates the world from your ears, so the little things really pop out.

What I’m speaking of – and I hope I say this right – is simply phenomenal reed instruments and percussion. The DDM’s best foot was the guitar; the Westone 4′s best foot has a couple more toes. Vocals are one toe. Both male and female vocals are wonderful, but low-voiced male vocals and husky female vocals shiver the knees. Obviously, we aren’t talking about trance anymore, are we?

No, Melody Gardot’s My One and Only Thrill, an excellent vocal/jazz album, for instance, settles comfortable into the mid-centric Westone 4 like good cheese with a few bottles of wine. Hand in hand with its emphasis, the midrange gives up a lot of details and places them superbly. In some ways, the more drastic juxtaposition of bass and treble in the Westone 3 draws music starkly, but the Westone 4 allows the midrange, and therefore, the main musical thrust, to breathe more freely. It sounds ‘natural’ for lack of a better term, rather than strident.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the Westone 3, but It doesn’t catch me the same way the Westone 4 and the UM3x do.

It seems apparent to me that Westone made conscious strides to tone both treble and bass presence down in the Westone 4. The 3 is intensely popular, but a lot of people took aims at its bulky bottom end and trippy top end. It’s true: where it counts, the 3 is pretty damn exciting. For some music, such excitement works like bubbly; for others, however, it works like a monkey wrench. The 4 sits right between the 3 and the UM3x, meaning that it is smooth in the middle and voiced for easy, but detailed listening.

You won’t get tired listening to the Westone 4. But you also won’t get much dose of comparative sound after 15 000Hz. The peak around 8 000Hz is smoother than the 3, but still sounds crisp. The 4 is less sibilance than the 3 and dare I say it, less congested. But in the end, I don’t really see the Westone 4 as an upgrade to the Westone 3 – it’s too different. Rather, it is like a tweaked UM3x, and that’s a good thing.

Out and about
As with all Westone earphones, there are zero problems for out and about use. The Westone twisted cable is dead silent, soft, and easy to use whilst on the go. Similarly, the body style isolates your music really well. You will be able to keep the volume low even on the airplane or bus. Of course, with this much isolation, even Rob Ford’s fatmobile will get the silent treatment.

The small right-angle connector is tip-top among consumer earphones and the overall construction should keep the Westone 4 jamming for a long time. It is an extension of what really is the perfect consumer earphone line.

My scalp starts to itch when I’ve nothing negative to say about an earphone. But in the Westone 4’s case, I’ll have to contend myself with scratching and scratching. Detailed, well made, well accessorised, and good sounding, it is an excellent earphone for the audiophile and the consumer alike. And where the 3 sort of splayed out wildly, chasing away some good-intentioned musicians, the 4 will probably find space in the ear of your favourite musician.

The only downside I see is that the 4 is an upgrade to the three. If you are in the habit of upgrading, this shiny bird will prey on your wallet. If however, the Romulans ravaged your home base and looted your stash of warbuds, you are in equal danger of parting with the better part of 500$.

HPR-Westone-4-back HPR-Westone-4-case HPR-Westone-4-fit HPR-Westone-4-front HPR-Westone-4-glamour HPR-Westone-4-naked HPR-Westone-4-package HPR-Westone-4-plug HPR-Westone-4-shabang HPR-Westone-4-split HPR-Westone-4-stress HPR-Westone-4-tips HPR-Westone-4-VC album-melody-gardot-my-one-and-only-thrillRead more]]> 20
Sensaphonics j-phonics earphone in review Fri, 17 Dec 2010 03:14:44 +0000 Who would have thought that Sensaphonics, the stodgiest custom earphone maker on the planet, would go universal? I didn’t, and I bet that Sensaphonics USA probably didn’t either. Nope, the j-phonics is a 100% Japanese product; it begins and ends in the land of the rising sun. Cool as that may be, cooler still is … Read more]]>

Who would have thought that Sensaphonics, the stodgiest custom earphone maker on the planet, would go universal? I didn’t, and I bet that Sensaphonics USA probably didn’t either. Nope, the j-phonics is a 100% Japanese product; it begins and ends in the land of the rising sun. Cool as that may be, cooler still is the fact that its guts are brilliantly tooled, reminding me of the excellently balanced Prophonics 2X-s custom monitor. But, rather than coming wrapped in medicinal silicon, the j-phonics comes packed in cute, coloured polycarbonate shells, new internal laminatation, and a new low[er] price.

Feel free to discuss the j-phonics in our forums?

Frequency response: 20-16,000 Hz
Driver type: Dual balanced armatures
Sensitivity at 1mW: 109dB
Cable length: user selectable: 95, 60, 45 cm
Plug type: user selectable: straight or l-shaped
Carrying Case: user selectable: Pelican Case 1010 or 1030

Package and Fit
The j-phonics does come at a rather high price, but it is supported by a good accessory kit. Sensaphonics Japan ditched the idea of cheap zippered cases and plastic pill boxes. Instead, they took the professional route and supplied a sturdy weatherproof Pelican case to protect your investment and their reputation.

Right, so the onus is on you and me now: it’s our job to keep the earphones in their Pelicans. I’m sure Sensaphonics could spare a few hundred yen to supply a smaller pocket-friendly carrying pouch, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.

6 or 8 (this number may change) pair of Comply tips in all manner of sizes come in the box and well, that is about it. There is no 3,5mm to 6,3mm step up adapter, and unless things change, no wax loop.

Fit, however, is perfect. The j-phonics lies completely flat in the outer ear where, for most people, it will be swallowed up and nearly invisible when viewed straight-on. It lies so flat, in fact, that you can sleep on your side comfortably. It fits similarly to the Westone 2, but lies even more comfortably in most ears. Really, the j-phonics is quite small; even in tiny ears, it should relax like a fat man in a hot tub. On stage or when out and about, the Comply tips keep the earphone in snug enough that you never lose seal no matter much you grind your jaw when rocking out at the mic. Ergonomically, the j-phonics is about as close to pragmatic perfection as is possible in a human design, even for glasses wearers.

Build Quality and Cable
Generally, I am against the use of 100% plastic outer shells in professional earphones. Thin plastic walls are susceptible to rupture and to delamination. But, thanks to the professional leader, Westone, many of today’s professional earphones are constructed more casually than their audiophile counterparts. Unfortunately, the Earsonics SM2 and SM3 fall into that camp, and to a lesser degree, so too, does the j-phonics.

The cable is well-anchored in its chassis, the plug is of high-quality, and the y-split is protected better than almost any earphone on the market, but the fact that this professional earphone is plastic is disappointing. Oh well, nothing is perfect. Thankfully, its polycarbonate exterior is glued well and shows no signs of twisting under pressure. Sensaphonics could improve their gluing a little. Currently, tiny gaps below the cable the cable’s entry into the earphone exist in certain samples. I hope that as production is ramped up, Sensaphonics will be able to create an even more solid shell. Even under fairly strenuous use, though, I expect its plastic case to hold up at least as well as its Westone counterparts and certainly better than Earsonics SM2 and SM3 to the stresses of tours, concerts, and rowdy listening sessions at neighbours’ houses.

While its plastic case may grind my nerves, its excellent cable settles them. Sensaphonics Japan let YOU choose your termination style. Musicians will probably chase after the right-angle plug, while consumers may head for the straight plug. I don’t have photographs of the straight plug at the moment, so you will just have to take my word for it: it is a high quality piece that should withstand a lot of abuse. Still, straight plugs are more susceptible to bending and to finding the wrong angles inside receivers and MP3 players when dropped. My suggestion is to stick with the right-angled plug.

From its termination to the y-split, the j-phonics cable oozes quality. Just like its Prophonics brothers, it is strong, thick, and tightly wound to ensure that it doesn’t snag on your accessories. Here again, it trumps Westone and Earsonics.

At the earphone, the cable disappears without a thick rubber sheath. Instead a heat shrink cable guide guards the cable against twisting and biting. The only notable area of concern is the cable surface. It is different to the silver Prophonics cables that can stand up to buckets of sweat and body oils like Gandalf to a daemon Balrog. The j-phonics cable won’t turn green or anything, but over time, will gently crystallise. It compares very favourably to Westone and Earsonics and I expect it to be much sturdier than either for prolonged stage use.

Who’s it for?
Before we bite into the gristle, let’s try to suss who this earphone is for. Considering its lack of marketing ‘flair’, its price, its manly Pelican Case, and its many user-selectable options, the j-phonics should be considered a professional item first, and an audiophile item second. It is aimed at performance as it applies to the road, and as it applies to musical performance. The j-phonics sounds great, but I don’t really see it catching on as well with audiophiles, or shall I say, market-speak suckers.

Unlike the Prophonics 2X-s Prophonics 2X-s, the j-phonics can be fitted into any band members’ ears for a comparative pittance. If you want art, add it yourself. If you want solid performance, relative cost effectiveness, and ease of use, choose the j-phonics.

Here’s the rub, though: the j-phonics is a better-sounding earphone for half the price of the Prophonics 2X-s. It starts at the low end, delivering clear, deep, and fast bass that its big silicon brother cannot deliver. The 2X-s sounds very good, but its deep chops can get violent from time to time. Treble can be its biggest bugger, though: at times, it strains the ears with grain, and bass has a tendency to throb a bit too much.

So why is it that the j-phonics is so perfectly smooth from top to bottom? And, how does it retain space and speed so well? I can only hazard that the polycarbonate case has the perfect combination of laminates in its sound tube. The drivers share a similar crossover, so it must come down to their placement. Anyway, get ready for smooth perfection.

I began my j-phonics journey with Boards of Canada, across the Trans Canada Highway. It’s hard to do Boards of Canada wrong; their music is slow enough that boomy bass and shrill highs don’t slaughter anything. But by the same cruel metric, it’s just hard to do their music perfect justice. I can imagine that perfect justice would be just a bit more bass, but apart from that, the j-phonics provides everything in the right amount.

The j-phonics’ bass is deep, clean, and resonant, but can’t be misconstrued as overbearing. Most of its detail comes from the mid-upper bass. In fact, there is a surprising amount of detail to be had between 30Hz and 60Hz, but after that, and until about 100Hz, the j-phonics enjoys a very sweet spot. Overall, it follows the Earsonics SM3 closely, staying back a pace or so in terms of bass dynamics, but not really in terms of bass slam. J-phonics bass is powerful and both earphones can punch very low without miss-stepping. In the low end, both are control freaks, but the SM3 is slightly more detailed and spacey.

Fun action-dance tunes such as Daft Punk’s One More Time, and Robot Rock are excellent sounding boards for the quality of bass speed and decay the j-phonics can produce. On the natural end, kick drums and bass guitar in Melody Gardot’s jazz are lush, warm, and detailed; but again, their presentation via the j-phonics trails the same on the SM3 slightly in overall detail.

Moving up to the midrange shows similar results. The j-phonics carries along in a straight line from bottom to top. Vocals and strings perfectly sound next to percussion, bass, and treble. Like the SM3, the midrange is large and flat. However, the j-phonics doesn’t inject as much lube into the mix. Consider the j-phonics like a good play at a merger of the Earsonics SM2 and SM3. It is certainly drier than the Westone UM3x. Overall, this results in a flat, neutral presentation. It works very well for classical, jazz, rock, and even trance.

In some ways, the latter, lesser genre is actually better through the j-phonics than it is through the SM3 or SM2. Trance calls for as little accent as possible. The j-phonics has a fraction less accent than the SM3 and doesn’t sacrifice high-end reach like the SM2 does.

So, where does the j-phonics miss against the SM3? I mean, the triple driver, triple crossover Star Child has to beat the hell out of a dually, right? Well, not really. Both are top-flight earphones. Where the SM3 wins is space: its soundstage is pretty legendary in certain circles and I’m not about to gainsay that for this wonderful little bugger. The j-phonics has an amazingly dynamic presentation between bass and treble, resulting in a wide soundstage, but the SM3 one-ups it. The SM3 is wider, yes, and sometimes more dynamic, but overall, I think the j-phonics is the better investment for a stage musician.

So, am I the SP or the MX?
The j-phonics comes in two models: SP and MX. SP is short for Stage Performance and MX short for Music Extreme. The latter is a funny moniker, especially considering that stodgy ol’ Sensaphonics coined it. But what the hell, it is a bit more ‘extreme’. The SP model is flatter with better perceived treble extension while the MX version has a slightly better expressed upper bass/lower midrange. The former is sparklier, the latter, more laid back.

My money is on the SP model unless you really really want to dull the top end a bit, but both models are close enough for rock’n roll. Both come in a range of colours, cable lengths, and terminations – the choice comes down to your preference. Accuracy is the realm of the SP and dynamics (to some extent) is the realm of the MX model, but I’d put more stock in the marketing than actual differences. I mean, isn’t it better to enjoy the music rather than split hairs over which earphone has a decibel more woof?

Out and About
Since the j-phonics was made for the musician and engineer, it holds up well to stress. The cable, earphone, and case are all of high quality. You can walk in plus thirty degree weather, slicking the cables with sweaty, oily detritus, or freeze them in minus twenty degree weather and expect the same results: a two-finger v-salute to adverse conditions. Westone’s and Audio Technica’s high-end cables can be slightly less microphonic, but only at first.

Since the j-phonics cable is less susceptible to crystallisation than Westone’s is (thanks to rubber guards), over time, it will prove to be less microphonic even though Westone’s wins the early races. And thanks to impeccable fit and ergonomics, there is very little wind noise generated at the body.

What the j-phonics doesn’t do well for out and about use is pack itself conveniently into a purse or pocket. The included Pelican could survive a metre-high drop to the pavement at Nevada highway speeds, but it won’t survive a fashion party. If you want discreet, you’ll have to spring for it yourself.

Remember, even the best-constructed earphones can still crap out. To keep the j-phonics for years, make sure to fold it up in their Pelican case, or find another good case for when they aren’t in your ears.

Remember that we are talking about Sensaphonics here. The j-phonics look like a cheap off-the-shelf earphone, but they perform like the finely-tuned Prophonics 2X-s. And, for like 400 bones, it’s a good thing too. For musicians and engineers, the j-phonics is a no-brainer. I’d even feel comfortable recommending them above every other universal stage monitor for ease of use and internal engineering, and for bands on a budget, above customs because with Comply tips, there are next to no hassles with fit and isolation.

Since the advent of the SM3, I feel that the universal earphone canvass has reached a level of maturity that puts a lot of pressure on more expensive customs. The j-phonics comfortably punches at the dollar bottom line with great performance and overall excellent build quality. Audiophiles, even you should love them, though I reckon you’ll be a bit more swayed by the SM3’s more lubed sound.

If, however, you can get past marketing speak, you will find that there is NO better professional monitor on the market now.

Pro list:
Perfect fit
Excellent sound
Best-in-class cable
Pelican case included

Con list:
Cable will crystallise
No extra cable sheath at earphone

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NOTE: The second earphone in comparison photos is the Westone 3. I chose this earphone because it is also piano black and because I didn’t have any other Westone earphone handy. Though the Westone 3 is an audiophile product, it shares cables with the UM2 and UM3x.

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Jays t-Jays THREE earphones in Review – satisfaction is slim! Fri, 03 Dec 2010 14:46:37 +0000 The t-Jays THREE is more Sennheiser than Sennheiser’s former flagship dynamic headphone, the HD650. If you like rich and smooth dark, you’ll fall in love with the t-Jays. Jays have three of them to tailor to your ear and your wallet. TMA has THREE for the skillet today. If you dig low profile, neutral, and … Read more]]>

The t-Jays THREE is more Sennheiser than Sennheiser’s former flagship dynamic headphone, the HD650. If you like rich and smooth dark, you’ll fall in love with the t-Jays. Jays have three of them to tailor to your ear and your wallet. TMA has THREE for the skillet today. If you dig low profile, neutral, and modular, again, Jays are the only horse in town and the t-Jays THREE is quite a ride.

Speaker: 10mm Dynamic Speaker
Sensitivity: 98dB @ 1kHz
Impedance: 16 Ohm @ 1kHz
Frequency Response: 15 Hz – 25 000 Hz
Cord length: 60 cm, TPE coated & Kevlar reinforced cables
Plug: straight, Gold-Plated Stereo Plug 3.5mm (1/8 in)

Package and Fit
The t-Jays THREE package is virtually identical to the new a-Jays case. It’s new, looks pretty, and is a bugger to open. The t-Jays earphones, however, are completely different to the a-Jays. The a-Jays is a cute button of an earphone that slides right into your ear with little difficulty in any position. The t-Jays is somewhat of a different beast. At first glance, you might suspect it to be a master of ergonomics. It can be. It fits well over the ear and, for the lucky portion of the population, it fits comfortably down. Bad fit is caused by the sharp casing design that can dig right into the ear. My wife, I, and one friend fall into that group – about half the people I’ve had try the t-Jays.

The neck cinch is a fiddly bit of plastic that can move up and down the cable at the slightest breeze. Overall, however, it does its job. As with all Jays earphones, there is a measure of microphonic noise that the t-Jays will never shake. But then, where would the world be without the quirks of Swedish design? The t-Jays cable also tangles easily thanks to its friction-fiend cable. That cable can grip onto any surface – a feature I reckon should be adopted for ice climbing.

Build Quality and Cable
Jays changed a lot of things with their new earphones. some for the good, and some for the not-so-good. The good things are very practical. The large 10mm driver makes for a stress-relaxing body. Unlike the tiny q-Jays or even the cute a-Jays, I am hardly ever tempted to grab at the cable when removing the earphones. Considering the fact that Jays’ cables don’t always have the last word when it comes to quality stress relieving and anchoring; I expect that there will be some trouble where the earphone meets the cable.

The extension cable is still a sturdy mixture of decent stress relief and very good contact points within the female portion, but the cable itself just isn’t as strong as it should be. I’ve chipped a few morsels from its hide by merely shoving it in its carrying case and can repeat this with other t-Jays. This is all thanks to its table tennis-grippy rubber surface that practically sticks to glass. The plastic case is a perfect place for the cable to rub and then catch. Negligent cramming can damage this cable’s soft exterior.

Overall, however, Jays have come a long way from the nubby, weakly supported q-Jays.

Here’s where Jays always recoup their mostly minor losses. The t-Jays is a keeper, especially for sulky musical genres and bright sources. It is warm, reasonably deep and well extended.

The t-Jays is accented with clean if not overly clear tones. The mid is lush and vocals, especially female vocals, are wonderful. In general, everything from guitars to piano is natural, if a bit dark. Even lower mid tones are clear free of echo artefacts despite the confined plastic case. Whereas the a-Jays THREE can get boomy, the t-Jays is controlled. There is only the faintest hint of mid-bass/lower mids echo.

The same midrange is decently detailed with lots of air. That isn’t to say that the t-Jays casts an immense shadow: space and separation of instruments is good, but the feeling of openness is the mainstay.

I’d take this over the Sennheiser IE8 any day. Its upper bass is much smoother and overall, the t-Jays isn’t as dark. In some ways, it is like an older Sennheiser HD600, doing all the same things as the 400$ headphone, but at a slower pace.

The final piece of good news is that the t-Jays isn’t overly sensitive and hissy. It won’t throw a fit when attached a Sony or an older iPod. Similarly, it performs well unamped, though users of the iPhone 3G and older iPods can enjoy better low end resolution and overall reduced distortion with a good headphone amp. Now, with darker, fuller sources such as the Hifiman HM601, synergy isn’t excellent, but the t-Jays THREE shines fine with my new favourite, the Go-DAP battery extension and headphone amp.

Because the t-Jays sits on the dark side of neutral, it sounds great with most music, even fast trance. The trick, which Jays nailed, is not to let the 10mm driver boom and break over every bass beat. They’ve done a fabulous job.

Out and about
Again, it needs to be stressed that the t-Jays is another departure from the Jays of old. Overall, the changes in housing size and cable stress reliefs are good, but the new, soft cable is a liability. It isn’t that much noisier, just weaker than almost all of its predecessors, especially when used in conjunction with the new plastic carrying case that just loves to carve notches in the cable.

The total cable length is a bit long, but Jays, in sticking with their guns, have a great compromise for those who want to strap their iPods to their arms, and those who want to keep them in their purses. Of course, for half of the population out there, the only option is to loop the cable over the ears in order to keep the earphones in the ear.

Finally, the t-Jays is a ported. Sound will leak in and out. Still, like the Final Audio FI-BA-SB and A1 models, it isn’t too much that you can’t enjoy the commute.

When relatively modest-priced earphone can scrunch its face up like the legendary HD600, it deserves props. The t-Jays is a good-sounding, good-looking at earphone, with a great accessory kit. If you like it long and dark, you’ll love the sound of this little gem. But, in my ‘seen it before’ eyes, the main problem: a rubbery, easily-notched cable, is a liability. Handle the t-Jays with kid gloves and you should be able to enjoy it for a long time – especially if keep care when using the carrying case.

If Jays can fix their the spat between their cable and their carrying case, they’ll have a true winner on their hands. Despite a few flaws, the Swedish rat, Poodoo, says Grab It!

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VentureCraft GoDAP in Review – audio and power for the people! Thu, 02 Dec 2010 16:10:07 +0000 Firstly, I’m not dead. Now with that out of the way: What do you get when you combine the audiophile heart of the iPhone with a juiced-up ad-hoc power supply? Or, perhaps I should ask it this way: what made VentureCraft, maker of car-mounted cameras and creative telegrams, shoot for the moon and create an … Read more]]>

Firstly, I’m not dead. Now with that out of the way:

What do you get when you combine the audiophile heart of the iPhone with a juiced-up ad-hoc power supply? Or, perhaps I should ask it this way: what made VentureCraft, maker of car-mounted cameras and creative telegrams, shoot for the moon and create an audiophile iPhone battery jacket? My guess is a pioneer spirit. VentureCraft are the first company to build such a combination. As off-beat as the GoDAP battery jacket and headphone amp combo unit may sound for a company like VentureCraft, it is certainly worth the raised eyebrows and facepalms. It’s just so ingenious and geekily disturbing that it’s worth a perfectly long review!

Feel free to discuss VentureCraft’s GoDAP in our forums.

Output Power: 300mW (16Ω)
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 95dB
Klirr Factor: <0.009% (10mW)
Frequency Response 10Hz – 120KHz
Impedance: 16Ω – 300Ω
Output Terminal: Headphone Output (3,5mm)

Battery Specifications
Battery Type: Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery
Capacity: 1450mAH

VentureCraft obviously made the GoDAP for the iPhone 3G and 3GS. Both fit snug as a bug in a rug, sliding smoothly into place. This perfect fit means that the 30-pin dock remains stress-free, something that no other line-out or sync dock can boast. Now, I borrowed iPhones for this review, but in the main, stuck it out with my iPod touch 2G. Of course, not made for the iPod, I had to add a whack load of electric tape and velcro. The end result? Nothing strikingly attractive, but a fine compromise that oozes my inner audiophile geek. This brings me to the major drawback with VentureCraft’s design: it can only be used perfectly with outgoing iPhone models. The next iteration is scheduled for Spring 2011, but again, for the iPhone 4, which will head out of Apple’s current product portfolio just a few months later.

What would be nice is VentureCraft made swappable plates that snapped into place at the base of the GoDAP so that any iPod/iPhone could be used comfortably. As it is, just about any 30-pin iPod/iPhone works – Hell, even the iPad works with an extension cable -, but each require creative workarounds.

The GoDAP is a fine enough unit that I would love to use it with my other iPods. Considering that audiophiles can forgo expensive and awkward third-party line out cables and get a great amp thrown in with battery power, the GoDAP is the most cost effective method to increasing sound enjoyment with an iPod or iPhone. In fact, when out with Nick Cave or The Cure, I simply can’t part with the GoDAP. Ho hum.

Build Quality
Overall, VentureCraft have struck a fine position between affordability and quality. The amp is sandwiched between a plastic sync butt and a cute control head in a metal case that doesn’t seem to pick up outside interference.

The headphone out port is metal and grips headphones firmly. The volume pot, too is metal. On the butt, ports for the speakers are cut so that you can get that call. Overall, the GoDAP is a well-made device despite creaking a bit here and there. Considering its competition (none at all), the GoDAP is riding very high.

VentureCraft packed their first iPhone accessory with another trump: iTunes sync. Plugging the mini USB into the GoDAP’s butt and switching to ‘sync’ allows your iPhone/iPod to download and sync with iTunes. Great, so this battery jacket/headphone amplifier is also an iPhone/iPod dock, you say? Yes, and it is pretty good at it, too. Actually, syncing from power accessories is vital considering that the 30-pin port is the most prone part of the iDevice.

As a battery pack
Most evidence points to Apple’s portable audiophile market shrinking. The iPod is no longer the market leader; iOS has replaced it. The iPod touch is as close to the old iPod as we get in this new age, and that market is driven not by music playback, but by apps. So, while the GoDAP may be a fine audiophile product, the fact that it has a decent battery packed in feels sort of like a backup plan.

As a battery jacket, it does thing well – enough. There are three settings selectable by the top-mounted translucent toggle: off, charge-i, and sync. OFF charges the GoDAP’s internal battery. Sync extends your iPhone’s battery and allows you to sync it with your computer. Charge expends the GoDAP’s battery to charge your iPhone.

Using sync or charge can extend your iPhone’s battery by up to ten hours of music and little less for video. Not bad, but considering that even my abused 2G iPod touch still gets over a day of music playback, it feels chintzy. The reason for this is that the GoDAP’s internal headphone amplifier is constantly engaged. In some ways, this limits the functionality of the unit. On the other hand, it proves that VentueCraft had the movie/music lover in mind when creating the GoDAP.

Ten hours is still a long time. You can get through several movies and more music than it took to split the skulls of zombie neighbours in Sean of the Dead. And, when the GoDAP finally gives up the ghost, your iPhone is still ready to go. Speaking of which, you should be able to extend your iPhone’s talk time by up to about 5 hours with the GoDAP attached.

The problem with using it as an add-on battery, of course, is that it is bulky. Thankfully, VentureCraft cut out a nice spot for the iPhone’s camera for high quality images.

As a headphone amp
Being an unerringly silly audiophile, the GoDAP’s integrated headphone amp intrigued me from the first. I constantly have my iPod connected to a computer downloading new music, or transferring notes, so battery life isn’t a problem for me.

What is a problem is my favourite earphones, the Audio Technica CK10, accurate little buggers that never leave my ears. Well, their linear playback combined with the neutral/accurate signature of the iPod doesn’t always make for friendly bedfellows. Rather, the two roll around a bit and discover that neither wants to give up the comfy pillow.

Enter the GoDAP headphone amplifier. While not overly warm, it certainly adds a wonderful sheen to certain parts of the audible spectrum. The lower midrange in particular, is smoother and more pleasing than the stock iPod sound particularly with accurate/sharp earphones like the CK10.

In fact, with a smooth flowing from under the bonnet, I’ve found that a lot of my old acoustic favourites – David Bowie, Iggy Pop, the Eagles, Van Halen, Duran Duran, The Cure, Depeche Mode (the list of embarrassing pre-emo music goes on), has taken centre stage. The iPod touch is a fine sounding device, but when vocals cut into the music, I often reach for another player.

Vocals and percussion are ‘better’ textured. Characteristic tinniness from the CK10 is traded for emotion and shoulder-shrugging groove. The changes aren’t entirely dramatic, though. But they are enough to bring me out of my trance (snigger snigger), which I think is a good thing – especially when talking with other audiophiles who, for some reason, are as stuffy as Olde English libraries about things like rock and jazz music.

No, we can go gaga googoo about age-old music on the bleedingest edge of portable technology. Technically, the GoDAP doesn’t outperform the internal iPhone/iPod touch amplifier, it just sounds ‘better’ for a number of genres. There is slightly more distortion in the signal and less stereo separation: no wonder it sounds great with acoustic music. With fast, deep genres such as trance and metal, the GoDAP stays sure-footed, but its midrange sweetness borders on too sweet. Not sappy, mind you, but just soft enough to wisp me out of my hard, metallic trance.

Hiss levels are just above that of an iPhone 3GS or iPod touch, which means that you can plug in just about any earphone without annoyance. And, if you have hungry monster headphones like my lovely Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, you’ll still be able to split your eardrums past 80dB at perfect definition through the frequency spectrum. Right, read below for a disclaimer on that front!

Now, VentureCraft have engineered the GoDAP with a high pass filter in the signal. It is not a load-induced signal roll off – it is an intentional high-pass filter. The net effect is that bass-monster headphones are tamed, slightly, and that bass-shy headphones enjoy new severity, though again, only slightly. My lovely Audio Technica ES7 is such an example. Its throaty nature is even and clean with the GoDAP, but can be a bit too intense with a stock iPod touch and sounds absolutely confused with the Hifiman. The purist in me hates the idea of a high pass filter, but the GoDAP implementation doesn’t degrade the signal, and in fact, mates lovelily with about 95% of the music I listen to.

Now, if VentureCraft hadn’t engineered the GoDAP with a built-in high pass filter, I’d be miffed. If it was a load-induced roll-off, I’d deride this ‘headphone amp’ as shortsighted, much like HiSound’s AMP3 Pro 2 portable headphone amp/music player. The truth is that the GoDAP has no more trouble driving a 16 ohm load than it has driving a 100 ohm load.

I suppose the proof is in the pudding, and since my Windows is broken, I’ll have to publish the RMAA results in a few days. Scientific tests aside, though, the GoDAP sounds fine – very fine. I don’t listen to a naked iPod touch anymore. The good ol’ midrange, perfect percussions, and smooth vocals are just so much more emotive. Like the iPod touch sound I do, but I relegate its use to hard electronic and trance. The GoDAP has me reliving my latter teenage years, and then the first couple years of university. Considering that I just ‘celebrated’ my 31st birthday, I consider that a good thing!

I’d love to award the GoDAP with a perfect kiss. It sounds great with a large variety of music and pairs well with my favourite headphones. It’s also helped put old purchases back in the listening queue. But, there are a few short sights that have gotten in the way. Namely, the fact that the iPhone 4 and a range of iPods can’t be used without a lot of brutal masking, and the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a way to use the GoDAP battery without the internal amp blazing away. Still, the GoDAP flies above all my expectations as a cost-saving, space-saving hybrid device. It will find a lot more use than other dedicated amps. All in all, the GoDAP is worth every single penny of its 199$ price.

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Firestone Audio Rubby and Libby in Review Thu, 21 Oct 2010 03:01:03 +0000 Firestone Audio have been making steady strides in desktop audio. To complement this year’s long, hot summer, they pushed out two hot amps: the Rubby power amp and the Libby headphone amplifier. Why they are such big news here at TMA is that both mains-powered amps also feature great USB/Optical/Coax and analogue audio inputs. If … Read more]]>

Firestone Audio have been making steady strides in desktop audio. To complement this year’s long, hot summer, they pushed out two hot amps: the Rubby power amp and the Libby headphone amplifier. Why they are such big news here at TMA is that both mains-powered amps also feature great USB/Optical/Coax and analogue audio inputs. If you can put two and two together, you’ve probably figured out that this means hi-res audio from the iPad through the Camera Connection Kit (CCK). Recently, I`ve forgone the whole computer thing in favour of just this combination. Still, both amps work great with computers, with external DAC`s, and with other Hifi gear. Nevertheless, TMA will keep the iPad slant in this review, but show just what can be done with these two desktop amps.

Build and Package
It has always been hard to fault Firestone Audio`s build quality. Generally, they package their products in high quality aluminium chassises, that if needs be, can be opened quite easily. Both the Rubby and Libby share the same heritage. Now, I don’t suggest grinding into Firestone`s amps with your favourite screw driver kit; you’ve got a two-year guarantee from Firestone, so if anything goes wrong, take your amp back to the dealer or ship it to them; everything`ll be as right as rain in no time.

And there is no way that either amp will be damaged in shipping as both amps come in rather bullet-proof packaging. They pack everything in hard pressure foam (if you order both at a time) and good ol’ fashioned styrofoam for the rest.

The Rubby comes with a pretty beefy power supply that will adapt from 100-240V and travel easily around the world with you. The Libby, on the other hand, transforms in-body and is available at only one voltage rating at a time. Planning on moving from Sweden to Canada anytime soon? You’ll have to get a new step-down external transformer. Firestone could have powered their unit from an external unit, or include a switching supply inside which would make moving a lot easier. I don`t know if the Libby`s background noise (read on) is a result of the power supply or not.

What they didn’t mistake is front-panel ergonomics. Their accessibility especially with regards to volume pots only seems to get better every iteration. The Rubby and Libby volume pots are as fun to play with as the amps are to listen to! Inputs and frequencies are selected on both amps via the front panel. If you have an iPad and a Camera Connection Kit, you’ll only be concerned about 16-bit USB input, and if you have a DDS i2s machine handy, 24-bit USB input. Bpth amps upconvert the signals, so the actual thumbing-around that you`ll need to do is very light.

Back-panel inputs are well thought-out, especially on the Rubby, which follows a logical switch array from power to analogue input. Both amps can be switched on blindly, but the Rubby’s nubby flip switch, which sticks out from the rear left like a proud nose, requires no reach-around. The Libby headphone amp is switched on a little less comfortably: you have to finger-walk past the IEC power cable to the on switch. It is a small complaint, but one that makes me wonder firstly why the two amps, that look so much alike, couldn’t have shared the same great ergonomics and external power supplies.

The other puzzling thing about Firestone’s amps is one of outputs. The Libby Headphone amp sports a decent analogue output, but the Rubby doesn’t. Typically, the power amp is the staple equipment in a lot of audio setups. Without an analogue or digital output of any sort, it can’t be used with Firestone’s own analogue headphone amplifiers, unless, that is, you bypass the Rubby power amp. This decision is downright naughty if you ask me. Right, the headphone amp, Libby, has an analogue output that connects nicely to the Rubby, but the logic seems backward, unless Firestone intend both amps as 100% stand-alone desktop systems.

Both Libby and Rubby (cute names, eh?) can take in analogue signals from RCA or XLR to power your speakers or headphones of choice. But, their mainstay components are their DAC chips. From coaxial, to optical, to USB, they’ve got their bases covered in both 16 and 24-bit word lengths. Only the Libby headphone amp is class-A biased, meaning that theoretically, it sounds better (and gets hotter). NOTE: USB is only good for 16-bit and up to 48kHz, strange since USB can easily handle 24-bit word lengths up to 96kHz (if you have a Mac).

Each bit and frequency setting is finger-selectable from the front panel, and after a lot of thumbing around, I’ve discovered that no matter the word-length of the original source, music will travel to your speaker of choice without hitch. Kudos for newbie music lovers as audio stuff can get tricky.

Mac users, you can connect USB or optical with no hitches. Windows users, you should be able to get buy with USB, though if you want to head up to 96K 24-bit, you may have to jump through a few hoops. The great thing is that both amps can be connected directly to the iPad via the Camera Connection Kit. Till now, we had to rely on iDevice-only DAC converters that had less value than either the Libby or Rubby. Now, thanks to Apple’s foresight, we’ve got way to connect our favourite music/movie/gaming devices to high end gear. Not to mention, the iPad’s understated grey looks great next to either equally understated Firestone amps.

I can’t stress how cool this is. I’ve used dedicated headphone amps before, and DAC’s, but the latter always get stuck in home systems or fed from computers. Now, plug the white nubby Camera Connection Kit into the end of your iPad, feed a USB cable to it, and you’re off. There is nothing simpler than taking your iPad and its CCK to a mate’s to play high-quality music. Now, the iPad’s USB out isn’t a full-fledged USB, making mains or battery-powered amps necessary. Of course, Rubby and Libby play fine.

Both amps sound purty, too, especially as they are liable to be targeted to desktop users who use headphones or sensitive speakers. Typical Firestone, both are high-resolution devices with good emphasis on all frequencies. That said, Firestone’s Libby and Rubby (yes, they share very similar output tendencies), aim for what I will call gritty sonics.

Both output powerful bass lines, enough to Hulk-smash bass weak headphones. It’s not, however, duffy, smooth bass. Both Rubby and Libby shoulder their way around low notes. They are clean and highly defined with slight bumps in the frequencies with sensitive headphones or speakers. While I carried the Rubby from speaker to speaker at local shops, the Libby got off well with my 64Ω Ultrasone DJ1Pro, but ultimately much better with my excellent 600Ω Beyerdynamic DT880 headphones.

The latter pairing is one of power and control. Even with the 600Ω monster, a turn to about 10:30 on the volume pot was more than enough for most music. 12:00 is right out of the equation with any headphone. Both amps` volume pots accelerate like teenage hormones to dangerous levels at the smallest of turns.

I found this funny and tested it by lowering the output of various sources. The volume pot is well-balanced, showing just slight variance between left and right, but after about 12 o’clock on the volume pot, volume increases slowly and distortion can creep in, though only mildly. Firestone should re-think their design and add a LOT more play in their volume pots. Now, if their amps are aimed at new-to-hifi users, this immediate ‘wow’ factor may impress its clientele who can value volume more than overall usability. But I say: more play in the volume pot would allow for easier left-right tuning, and less chance of accidentally blowing your speakers or headphones.

That is all to say that these amps output a LOT of power. The Rubby is certainly enough to power larger, less sensitive speakers, but I think its best target is the desktop where its boxy, powerful sound will give smaller speakers extra oomph.

I really appreciate Firestone’s emphasis on stereo image. Both amps supply wide separation in channels. The Libby is very much like a more powerful Fubar IV. Both amps brute-force their way around any headphone. At the bottom of the chassis, you can select the best output for your headphones, from 32Ω to 250Ω. Don’t let those numbers fool you though, as there is nothing wrong with hooking up a 600Ω load to the Libby: it’s got the power to blow up the DT880 600Ω.

Where it (and the Fubar IV) somewhat fail is when driving sensitive headphones. They drive them fine and output negligible distortion, but the signal can be hairy. Sensitive headphones from Grado to Ultrasone can reveal background noise. It’s not inordinate; rather, the fine grain dusts everything.  Anything over 120Ω reveals nothing but the blackest of black signals. Again, I see this amp used a LOT with 300-600Ω headphones where its power and brute force resolution are often-requested items.

The Rubby, however, has no such problem with noise. It was suggested that the Fubar IV could be upgraded by given a better power supply. Since it was outboard, it was a lot easier to do. The Libby has an on-board power supply which is kind of a bugger. Of course, it could just be a problem with the audio circuit amps such as the Woo Audio 3 and Einar Sound VC01i have better-behaved noise patterns.

So, while I would like to rave about both amps, I find enough to cringe over regardin the Libby. It is a fine amp, but it may need an internal makeover to lessen the noise, and an external makeover to conserve eardrums thanks to an over-active volume pot. Oddly enough, the Rubby power amp has no such issues with background noise and sounds great with sensitive speakers.

Both units hit positive price points: these are powerful amps coupled to excellent DAC’s, combinations that often cost much more. Neither USB input supports more than 44.1 16-bit audio, but their other inputs supply at least 96K and 24-bit word length. The Rubby comes away feeling like a more polished amp, but thanks to the lack of an analogue output, unfinished.

The Libby, as powerful as it is, has some unfortunate design decisions attached to it, namely the too-powerful volume pot and the constant grain that covers almost all sensitive headphones.

Firestone continue to hammer away at great price points. Both the Rubby and Libby perform in general terms above my expectations for their price and feature set, and I feel, are good investments. The Rubby is an impressive piece of for desktop audio and the Libby, more impressive from a feature standpoint, comes away as a less thought-out piece of equipment.

Firestone: add analogue/digital output to the Rubby and you’ll have a power amp/DAC that features in home systems, not just desktop systems. Do that and you’ll have a perfect KISS. The Libby needs an outboard power supply, a rethinking of the volume pot, and less noise in the signal. When you can do that, you’ll see a GRAB or a KISS.


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