TouchMyApps » audiophile http://www.touchmyapps.com All Things iPhone and iPad for those who like to Touch. iOS App reviews, News, New Apps, Price Drops and App Gone Free Thu, 20 Nov 2014 21:22:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.7.5 Forza Audio Works Cables – An Introduction http://www.touchmyapps.com/2013/05/08/forza-audio-works-cables-an-introduction/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2013/05/08/forza-audio-works-cables-an-introduction/#comments Wed, 08 May 2013 13:59:05 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=72556 Forza Audio Works is an up and coming cable manufacturer whose hardware is second to none. Forza has workmanship and quality control licked. Matthew, the man behind the brand is hard at work making pretty much every cable you would want. Bespoke No matter how formidable the catalogue, no manufacturer has everything. Matthew welcomes emails … Read more]]>

FAW-Claire-RCA-LOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAW-lightning

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

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

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

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

FAW-Claire-LOD-S

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

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

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

Twisted-Cables

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

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

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

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

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

Cons
Braiding isn’t quite as strong as tubular cable

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

ALO-Pan-AM-forza-alo

FAW-box FAW-card-connectors FAW-Claire-LOD-S FAW-Claire-RCA-LOD FAW-lightning FAW-mini-LOD-L Twisted-CablesRead more]]>
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ALO Audio’s The International headphone amp/USB DAC in review http://www.touchmyapps.com/2013/02/25/alo-audios-the-international-headphone-ampusb-dac-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2013/02/25/alo-audios-the-international-headphone-ampusb-dac-in-review/#comments Mon, 25 Feb 2013 07:28:46 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=71996 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.

Specifications

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:
10KOhms

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.

Features
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.

Sound
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.

Conclusion
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.

kiss-icon

Pros:
- 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

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

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

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iBasso DX100 Reference DAP in Review – Android to the rescue! http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/12/10/ibasso-dx100-reference-dap-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/12/10/ibasso-dx100-reference-dap-in-review/#comments Mon, 10 Dec 2012 07:14:58 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=71267 Truly audiophiling an iPod touch is no mean feat. It takes no less than a Cypher Labs AlgoRhthym Solo DAC, and a Vorzüge or ALO Rx class headphone amp. Throw in some shielded interconnects and your’re done. But at what cost? The once slim touch is now a knobby and unholy hamburger of aluminium and … Read more]]>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And drive it does. Fluently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RMAA and square wave results are hosted in the forums.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apps such as mp3 tag will help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sony PHA-1 iDevice DAC and headphone amp in Review http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/10/09/sony-pha-1-idevice-dac-and-headphone-amp-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/10/09/sony-pha-1-idevice-dac-and-headphone-amp-in-review/#comments Tue, 09 Oct 2012 17:23:31 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=70203 About two months ago, the particulars of the Sony PHA-1 were leaked to the internet. About the same time, I suffered the second of what would become three intense bouts with an active stomach ulcer. In my circles, both made news. I’d would have to set up endless appointments with doctors that would cancel trips, … Read more]]>

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us to sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spacious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONS
High Ω headphone output
Non-anchored iDevice USB socket

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

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ALO the Pan Am Headphone amplifier/DAC in Review http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/10/04/alo-the-pan-am-headphone-amplifierdac-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/10/04/alo-the-pan-am-headphone-amplifierdac-in-review/#comments Thu, 04 Oct 2012 16:46:11 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=70137 After an evening of Ghostbusters, it’s hard to want anything more than a date with the Sigourney Weaver of 1991. Keymaster? That’s me. Hell yeah! But, returning to my desk, I am met by another comedy great – or the likeness of one. Indeed, Bender lives on in ALO’s Pan Am, a wonderfully competent full-size … Read more]]>

After an evening of Ghostbusters, it’s hard to want anything more than a date with the Sigourney Weaver of 1991. Keymaster? That’s me. Hell yeah! But, returning to my desk, I am met by another comedy great – or the likeness of one. Indeed, Bender lives on in ALO’s Pan Am, a wonderfully competent full-size headphone amplifier/USB DAC that just happens to, like Bender, enjoy galavanting around different spaces.

Specifications
Expansive Sound Stage
Great Bass Response and Extended Highs.
Frequency Response 40Hz-30KHz +/- 1dB

16/24 bit Resolutions supported
8/16/32/44.1/48/96 KHz sampling rates supported
Wolfson Digital to Analog Converter Chip

ALO don’t supply a bevy of spec, but in reality, they don’t need to. If their amp works, it works. And, it like crossing dematerialiser beams, the Pan Am ‘cleans up’ exactly where it needs to. In fact, it is one of the most powerful desktop amps in its size category.

Contact ALO
If you’re pining for the Pan Am, hit up ALO Audio. They’re out on the west side of the USA in beautiful Oregon. Here are their contact details:

1810 SE 10th Ave. Unit B
Portland, OR 97214
USA

http://www.aloaudio.com
Phone: (971) 279-4357

You can also check out their new blog, which is a great mix of audiophile and music foolery. And is very fun to read. In fact, every aspect of their current website is ordered quite precisely: reviews are prominent, new products are well shot and come up quickly. Ordering and interacting with their website is a delight – an experience not unlike Apple’s homepage.

But let’s get onto the review.

ALO-Audio-Pan-Am-Bender-face ALO-Pan-AM-back ALO-Pan-AM-ballasts ALO-Pan-AM-box-set ALO-Pan-AM-covers ALO-Pan-AM-ES10 ALO-Pan-AM-forza-alo ALO-Pan-AM-front-ports ALO-Pan-AM-rear-ports ALO-Pan-AM-Valves-top ALO-Pan-AM-valves

Build Quality
If you’ve been following TouchMyApps headphone reviews, you know that ALO have featured prominently in 2012. ALO are simply on a winning streak: they make quality products that by and large, have no competition. It would be a shame to leave any potential ALO podium empty.

Enter the Pan Am. This amp handles, looks, and feels very much like either The National or The Continental. It shares the same volume pot, gain and power switches, very similar face plates and input/output ports (though this time, the a 6,3mm jack made the cut). And, in terms of footprint, the Pan Am is just three millimetres longer than The National and about twice the volume.

Its aluminium case is the same sturdy chunk. If you’re out and about with the Pan Am and things get ugly down at the bank, you could crack some would-be robber’s skull with it. Good riddance.

It stacks perfectly with its accessories: Gateway and Passport, each of which come with their own power connectors that mate to the Pan Am in with almost uncanny precision. Horizontal channels are dug into the top of each unit; their inverses run along the bottom. They fit together like a set of well-loved Legos.

The front and back plates of the Gateway and Passport rise flush with the extruded aluminium chassis so that when mounted, the Pan Am (or other accessory) doesn’t slip. Genius.

‘Round the back, ALO have fitted RCA, 3,5 stereo mini, and USB inputs. The input selector looks exactly like the volume pot; the familiar 12V input sinks into the other side. You have seen this before.

The 61J valves sit firmly in shallow-seated. They are easily rolled (trust me, you will have fun with this). And, in the case of radio or other interference, you can cap the valves with the included aluminium gowns.

Overall, this design is very well thought-out. That said, handle the RCA jacks with care. They aren’t bolted onto the case; constant pushing and pulling could damage their contacts. The only other nit to pick is the 12V mains and battery leads, which bumble around a little in their ports. Again, just play nice and you will have no problems.

Ergonomics and Polish
Forget Industrial. The Pan Am pushes the cute angle. It’s an amp for today’s up-and-coming audiophile (and fans of yesterday’s scifi cartoons). It looks great on a desk or near the TV, and with its tote bag, on your hip. I can picture a young music-loving chap at Starbucks or Juleno, balancing a pair of Grados on his head, the Pan Am feeding his ears. I could imagine his love interest next to him with a pair of Grados on his/her head, sharing the 2nd output – I could except that only one output works at a time. Bugger, love bugs.

Dates and, okay, RCAs aside, the Pan Am is a rocking unit. The ins, the outs, the volume, the gain, and the input switch are all intelligently designed. Even getting into and out of the amp (if you like to dismantle your stuff) is easy. Ditto Gateway. Ditto Passport.

Maybe more than foolproof, the Pan Am is all-inclusive. You can even buy quality ALO cables for it, rig it all up, and merely attach headphones. (By the way, you can also buy Audeze LCD-2 from ALO…)

From desktop to floor to train to bag to deck to tent to tray to the pit of hell, this amp will go with you.

Forza Audioworks RCA cables and ALO 3,5mm and USB

Features
You already know this thing works as a DAC and an amp. You also know that you can get the upgraded power supply (Gateway) and the battery (Passport) for the it. The Passport will give you a good 8-10 hours of battery life, so your work day, or your play day are pretty much covered.

It is also my number 1 recommended accessory. It completes its main product like no other accessory can. That is, from ALO and from the competition. It’s simple: the Pan Am and the Passport were made for each other.It turns your desktop amp into a walkabout amp. Amazing.

The included DAC works in both 16 and 24 bit word length and supports up to 96 KHz resolution audio when fed by USB. Unfortunately, the Pan Am’s DAC draws its power from USB and uses too much power for iDevices to run it. No BigBoss CameraConnector trickery will get your iDevice to play nice with any but the analogue inputs of the Pan Am. Of course, if you plug the DAC into a powered USB bridge, then you can use its DAC with your favourite device.

Sound impressions
For this portion of the review, my impressions will, in the main, be based on listening impressions taken with the Beyerdynamic DT880, and here and there, with the LCD-2 and HD600. Here goes…

Space (or is it bass?) is the first thing that gets me – it got Bender, too, many times, but that’s another story. The Pan Am’s linear stereo image carves my favourite recordings into deliberate chords and lines. Via rather spacious-sounding headphones such as the DT880, powerful and detailed bass drives music. It corrals mids and highs between its pillars while never stepping on its own – rather heavy – feet. Interestingly, songs like Paul Oakenfold/Ice Cube’s ‘Get Em Up’ weather the Oregonian sound rather well.

Hip hop fusion is one thing. Smoother genres are even more interesting. The Pan Am’s bass comes across dryer than bass in the Porta Tube+, but is ever so much more PRAT-full. It yawns over Boards of Canada’s methodic chasms while preserving detail and space. Paucity afflicts no frequency.

Bass drives, mids steer, and highs check the road for bends and roadkill. The delicacy with which each presents itself in creating a lucid whole is perfect (as in complete). And yet, behind – or perhaps I should say over – everything is a light layer of fuzz. It’s not pulled tight into smothering corners or stuffy. It’s just comfy. Still, while I consider this fuzz to be characteristic of valve amps, there are do’s and don’ts to fuzz. If that fuzz bunks up the midrange, something is off. If it fuzes bass or treble, something is off. Typically, my sources are flat, and since I am rather more of a solid state fan than I am a valve fan, I forget the pleasures that a little fuzz can bring. Fuzz a la the Pan Am is like Japanese sansho pepper: citrusy, spicy, but light, and good in everything but pudding. It won’t make you cough, or stop up your favourite music, not matter the speed.

That said, There are a few genres that may may prefer a different flavour. One is speed metal. The other is speed trance. Simply put, these two genres prefer solid state and impeccable performance to atmosphere and spice. Only solid state can deliver that.

Genres that have grown on me (and flown through the Pan Am) are Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), vocal and instrumental jazz, and hip hop. Overly technical genres such as trance and symphonic music do sound wonderful paired with the Pan Am, but then, I feel that listening styles change, too. One doesn’t relax the same way to classical as one does to Faithless or MC Solaar or even Classified, where slumped as you are in your sofa, your foot is pumping away on your carpet.

Mids and highs present themselves in much the same way: melodic, realistically detailed, and up front. Musical stage focus narrows mostly between the ears and projects forward as if what you were hearing came from a stage about a half a metre in front of your eyes. That is cozy. It’s not cozy in quite the same way the Continental is, but in comparison to the expansive musical stage of the ALO Rx, for example, it is intimate. A lesser amp would be drowned by the intimacy. The Pan Am’s linear separation of channels along the frequency plane strengthens the dynamics.

As does the lack of ringing. As long as you have the right headphones fastened to your ears, resolution isn’t impeded by internal stop. Typical to all valve-based amps of any price, overall resolution falls well below the bounds of 16-bit audio. But, then again valves aren’t primarily about resolution. They are about power. This amp supplies current and voltage by the bushel as long as the output headphones are high Ω.

In which case, you get that lovely, smooth, but heavy-footed low bass.

And that, friends, is the grease that lubes this robot. Bass, like or hate the word, as gentle as it is pronounced, is the Pan Am’s drivetrain. And I love it.

Sound performance
The Pan Am is duly impressive. Noise levels are low enough to use with sensitive earphones, and left/right balance is a cinch for all but the most sensitive earphones on the market. Take for instance the Heir Audio 3 & 4.Ai models, which can show up noise in an iPhone 4. When paired with the Passport, there is little to no noise through their sensitive transducers. Ditto FitEar ToGo! 334. And the Grado GR8. Quite an amazing feat.

The included wall wort, on the other hand, exhibits some noise, but, generally, it isn’t bothersome.

All of that said, the Pan Am is most suitably mated to cans of more than 60Ω. It prefers headphones whose efficiency rating is 86-106dB. It all depends on what headphone you are using, though, and even on the valve set you plug in. Whatever set you use, favourites such as the Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, the Audeze LCD-2 and 3, and a slew of Sennheiser’s top headphones will sound just perfect. HD600/650/700/800. Done, done, done, and done.

With the above headphones, the Pan Am’s full character gets the chance to play. That character is an interesting mix of ALO’s house sound. Partly governed by the wilder, warmer Continental lineage, partly governed by the controlled, detailed sound of The National, the Pan Am pays homage to its older siblings at every turn.

By ‘play’, I mean that the Pan Am goes ‘boom!’ in the lower bass. That is, if it is paired with high Ω headphones. Headphones of over 300Ω, or otherwise insensitive headphones show almost no load to the amp and therefore go ‘boom!’ the most. It is a pleasant, but noticeable upturn in the range of 20Hz to about 100Hz. Earphones, on the other hand, are the complete opposite. Whether low or high Ω, super-sensitive or not, you will get massive bass drop off. The best pair for the Pan Am is the Etymotic ER4s which suffers the least bass drop off.

Gain on the Pan Am is semi-aggressive, the difference between low and high being roughly 6dB. The great news is that if you bump it accidentally, you won’t bust your ear drums even if you have sensitive earphones plugged in. But, gain is implemented almost perfectly to reflect the limits of what the Pan Am is able to deliver. And folks, it delivers a LOT.

Power here needs to be redefined. The Pan Am delivers power to low-sensitivity, high Ω headphones that belies its price/size/Bender face. Even when fed from the comparatively weak line out of an iPod touch, the DT880 600Ω are completely rocked out. I say this with some sickness in my stomach because I forced my Beybies (get it?) through horrible trials. I maxed out the volume. On high gain. Ouch.

What they gave back was nothing short of astonishing. No phase errors. No crackling. Through the Pan Am, the DT880 600Ω perform like desktop speakers, not headphones. Damn. Of course, at such volumes, my ears would break. For the few short minutes I tortured my Beybies, I stayed safely away from my headphones. I had to. There was simply too much volume. And it wasn’t just a lot of volume, it was high quality volume. Absolutely no distortion. The more expensive (and larger) Centrance DACmini isn’t capable of delivering such power to the same headphones. No way.

For its part, the Audeze LCD-2 is put in its place. It simply can’t overcome the powerful little Pan Am. With new recordings I generally listen to the DT880 at about 9:40 – 11:00 on the volume pot. THe Audeze LCD-2 hovered near that mark. That’s low gain. My ES10 hovers about 5 minutes past the minimum setting. Earphones work well with 2-5 minutes thanks to the excellent volume pot balance.

Stereo separation is quite typical of valve amplifiers, topping out at about 65dB. What’s nice is its rather flat curve. Bass, mids, and highs, each, are tidy. Some valve amps lump bass and low mids together in what amounts to ‘warmth’ and ‘intimacy’ at best, and ‘muddy’ at worst. Assuming you are using high Ω headphones, the Pan Am glides through left/right separation. Unnecessary channel bleed never occurs. Of course, as a valve amp, stereo image is closer than it is in a typical solid state amplifier.

Distortion is one of the specialties of a valve amp and the Pan Am doesn’t disappoint. Depending on what valve set you use, distortion ranges from moderate to high, but the effect isn’t gamey. I’ve found that the Pan Am really straddles the mid ground between the tight sound of The National and the looser sound of the Continental. Its warmth is cued toward smoothness rather than atmosphere. In this regard, it reminds me a little of the Porta Tube+.

Output impedance is obviously rather high. I have not measured it though, as I have not yet invested in a multimeter. Headphones like the DT880 250 or 600 present themselves essentially as no load while headphones like the Audio Technica ES7 present medium loads. Obviously, the Pan Am is most comfortable with the DT880, though headphones with similar spec to the ES7 still sound great. Considering its size, and that it has cute valves poking through the top, the Pan Am is obviously geared toward full-size headphones and desktop listening. The Pan Am is quickly becoming a favourite of mine when paired with the DT880. But, when using earphones, I am left with one thought: where’s the bass? The image isn’t congested, which is a blessing. Generally congesting comes from channel bleed and the collapse of the high midrange in the face of an overbearing bass. Well, with earphones, bass collapses. What’s left is midrange and an interesting and chaotic high range shelf. Shame. Since there is so little noise and since the output is already almost perfectly balanced at low volumes, I wish that this amp had the low Ω output of the Porta Tube+. It would be the perfect do-it-all amp.

If you would like to read more about the performance of the Pan Am, head to our forums where RMAA benchmarks and square waves have been uploaded. (NOTE: these will be uploaded in the next 24 hours.)

On the valves
I’ve not decided on a favourite valve set yet. Each offers plusses and minuses. The Chinese set offers higher output volume, decent stability with low Ω earphones, and a certain ‘wild’ character that is half the fun of valve amps. Think Woo Audio 3. The German valve set is more laid back and at its best with high Ω headphones. Overall, it probably performs the worst, but is nice to listen to. The Russian valve set really rides the line between the Chinese and German sets. It has the same excellent left/right balance of the Chinese set and sports a more laid back, performance-by-the-numbers sound. But, like the Siemens set, it is less susceptible to outside outside interference. Overall, its performance is best across the board. Looking over the last month, I can say firmly that I’ve used the Russian valves most often.

Ahem, the Russian set may be my favourite.

Issues
Unfortunately, there are a few issues with the Pan Am. First and foremost to an iDevice user is that Jailbreaked or no, no iDevice can currently power the DAC. If you want to keep the Pan Am and its companions small, the best you can do is a netbook. But, that’s almost par for the course. About half the USB DAC units I try require too much power from the USB port. Ho hum.

1. Interference from external mains sources can be intense when using low Ω headphones and earphones. Particularly, interference comes into play when using the Pan Am around laptops. Typing away, your palms and your lappy’s keyboard will form a small electric circuit, causing a small ground loop even when connected to the Passport. The Pan Am will hum. Humming is ameliorated by keeping your hands away from mains-sucking devices.

The front plate also conducts electricity, so if you have a habit of cuddling your amps, you’ll have to adapt. The good news is that this ground loop is inaudible via high Ω headphones such as the DT880, HD600 and LCD-2, and nearly so via headphones such as the Audio Technica ES10.

2. USB input quality isn’t the best. I think that most of us are used to USB DACs that under-perform, particularly in portable amps. Perhaps it’s the proximity of the DAC and the power input, I don’t know. If I were big into USB audio, I’d probably consider this an Achilles heel to what is otherwise a very fine amplifier.

3. High Ω output is an issue that is finally making it to the lips of the regular Joe and Joeette at Headfi, particularly as it applies to portable headphone amplifiers. Portable headphone amplifiers need to be able to power very difficult to drive multiple armature earphones. If their output impedance is too high, they can’t supply enough current to sustain clean, non-distortive signals at any volume. Well, the Pan Am isn’t able to drive those earphones very well at all. It does an overall good/decent job with the likes of the ES7 and ES10 and maxes its performance with headphones in the same class as the DT880/HD600/LCD-2. But earphones aren’t its forte.

Why I write this issue last is that it is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the Pan Am is a desktop amp. It isn’t meant to be pushed into a pocket (though it may fit into a purse). Generally, it won’t be paired with the likes of the Earsonics SM2. It will be paired with headphones that actually sound good with it. So, while I wish ALO had implemented a lower Ω output, I don’t think it’s necessary for the current design. What it means is that owners of low Ω headphones will not hear the Pan Am in all its glory. And that is a shame.

Conclusion
I’ve seldom been this excited about a headphone amp. I can’t even follow up the last sentence with “once you’ve seen one-” for one simple reason: I’ve never seen a headphone amp like the Pan Am. It is part portable, part desktop, all modular, and as powerful as hell. I almost expect it to walk off my desk and guzzle down a case of Grand Kirin, yelling “kiss my shiny metal ass!” punching a hole in this shoddy Japanese apartment on its way out. It’s an amp that the competition won’t forget. Nor will its customers. Stack it, pack it, snap it together. Plug it in and take it out. As long as you have the right headphones, the Pan Am is the most clever sub 1000$ amplifier out there, bar none. Its few issues aren’t small, but they are overshadowed by a fantastic feature set that overall, screams: “Grab my shiny metal ass!”

PROS
Compact
Stackable
Easy to use
Goes with you
Extremely powerful output
Modular
Rollable valves

CONS
Interference
Case conductivity
High output impedance
So-so USB DAC performance and not iDevice compatible

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

Read more]]>
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Etymotic delivers Awareness app to Android and iOS http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/09/04/etymotic-delivers-awareness-app-to-android-and-ios/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/09/04/etymotic-delivers-awareness-app-to-android-and-ios/#comments Tue, 04 Sep 2012 08:44:35 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=69657 Audiophiles are already aware of Etymotic, the company that single-handedly invented the world of inner earphones. Their ER4 series revolutionised portable audio before you were born. I can think of no other name to which my silly bicycle hat is tipped to more often. God bless you Etymotic. Well, their rather well-known app collaboration with … Read more]]>

Audiophiles are already aware of Etymotic, the company that single-handedly invented the world of inner earphones. Their ER4 series revolutionised portable audio before you were born. I can think of no other name to which my silly bicycle hat is tipped to more often. God bless you Etymotic. Well, their rather well-known app collaboration with Essensy, Awareness, has finally made it to Android, too. Awareness allows you to hear what’s around you no matter that you’re plugged into some of the best noise-isolating earphones in the world. Etymotic have always been about hearing safety. Awareness uses the microphones in their hf3 and mc3 headsets to filter in the important stuff: announcements, safety alerts, etc., so that you can enjoy your music in safety.

Awareness has been available on iOS for a while, but it’s great to see Android getting some love (especially since I’ve become an iBasso DX100 owner). Evidently, you don’t have to be plugged into 4,1 Ice Cream Sandwich to use the functionality, either. (God knows you are damned lucky if you can get 4,1 working on your system.) Now, I don’t have either earphone to test Awareness in iOS or Android, but damn it, it doesn’t matter. Someone will. Enjoy your music in safety, people.

Press stuff after the jump

IFA, Berlin, 4th September 2012 – Etymotic Research, an innovator in hearing wellness solutions, today will debut StreetSonics!® for Etymotic, an app made for Android hf2-an and mc2-an noise-isolating headsets and earphones. The StreetSonics! for Etymotic app lets consumers experience high noise isolation and exceptional sound quality and still be completely aware of their surroundings.  Etymotic is showcasing the hf2-an and mc2-an headsets and earphones, enhanced with StreetSonics! for Etymotic at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Fair, IFA Berlin, Germany.

StreetSonics! is part of the AWARENESS! for Etymotic app family and is designed to work with legacy Android (pre 4.1 OS – Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich) smartphones. The app “listens” to a user’s surroundings and allows the user to mix outside sounds directly into the earphones at a level of their choice. Existing users of Etymotic earphones can check compatibility, register for an unlock code (www.etymotic.com/awareness) and download the StreetSonics! for Etymotic app via the Google Play App Store in mid-September.

UK-based audio app specialist Essency Ltd. developed the new StreetSonics! for Etymotic App specifically for legacy Android (Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich OS) smartphones.  StreetSonics! for Etymotic is based on Essency’s award-winning Awareness!® The Headphone App for iPhone.  The AWARENESS! app was originally available for Etymotic hf3 and mc3 headsets and earphones, designed for use with Apple products. Now, Etymotic makes it possible for owners of legacy Android smartphones (pre 4.1 OS) to program their noise-isolating headsets as well.

By putting control in smartphone users’ hands, StreetSonics! allows listeners to change sound level settings and to hear the world around them as they workout in the gym, jog, ride a bike outdoors, watch TV or a movie, relax at the coffee shop, await a boarding call at the airport, or listen to a podcast while watching kids at the playground.

“Until now, noise isolation meant tuning out,” said Mark Karnes, managing director of consumer products at Etymotic. “When we launched AWARENESS! for Apple devices last year, we brought programmable noise isolation to market for the first time, changing the way people listen to music.  Now, we are able to bring that same experience to millions of legacy Android smartphone devices in time for Christmas.”

Pricing and availability
hf2 at £129.95 and mc2 at £79.95 are in stock now at an authorized dealer, see the Etymotic dealer locator for a dealer or online retailer near you. http://www.etymotic.com/dealerlocator

About Essency
Formed in 2009, UK developer Essency specialises in cutting-edge audio apps for mobile devices, designed to make headphone use safer & more convenient. Essency apps are available for all Apple iOS devices and now for Android. Versions for Windows Phone, Blackberry, PC and Mac will follow. Please visit www.essency.co.uk.

About Etymotic
Etymotic Research is leading the way through all of its company initiatives to educate, advocate, protect, enhance and provide enjoyment of the listening experience for consumers at all ages and stages of life. For more information about Etymotic its hearing wellness mission and its products, please visit www.etymotic.com.

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MyST 1866 Wireless DAC and headphone amp for your iPhone http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/09/03/myst-1866-wireless-dac-and-headphone-amp-for-your-iphone/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/09/03/myst-1866-wireless-dac-and-headphone-amp-for-your-iphone/#comments Tue, 04 Sep 2012 04:51:34 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=69630 Last month, Musica Acoustics had me photograph their new MyST 1866, a portable DAC unit from MyCroft that Dimitri was very excited about. The lad is almost always lost for words about cool new things, so I patted him on the shoulder and took the unit to my office. I shot the thing. I turned … Read more]]>

Last month, Musica Acoustics had me photograph their new MyST 1866, a portable DAC unit from MyCroft that Dimitri was very excited about. The lad is almost always lost for words about cool new things, so I patted him on the shoulder and took the unit to my office. I shot the thing. I turned it on and off. I listened to it. Then I emailed Dimitri and threatened a review.

A DAC like no other
The MyST 1866 isn’t like any other amp/DAC combo out there. Some of the usual stuff got stuffed in: line output, USB input, and a good headphone out. Today, most portable ‘DAC’ units merely convert USB digital signals to analogue. If you’ve got something smaller than a netbook, or if you have a dedicated DAC like the AlgoRythm Solo or Venturecraft Unit 4.0, you’re stuck.

The 1866 is different. There are NO analogue inputs, so you can’t just connect your iPhone/iPod/iPad LOD and have at it. Instead, the following inputs bristle from the back: USB, coaxial (3,5mm mono or stereo jack), and toslink (optical). Somewhere in the front is an antenna, and get this, a Bluetooth receiver.

Yes, Bluetooth.

It does sound a bit gimmicky, and it probably is, but let me explain it this way: with Bluetooth input, you no longer need cables to connect your iPhone/iPod touch to your amp/DAC. Evidently, the unit I photographed is a prototype. Its edges are rough, its rear case doesn’t fit flush with a USB cable so the thing comes unplugged from a computer with the slightest nudge. I’ve been told this will be fixed. It had better.

Why?

Because this unit is damn fine sounding and unique. If it weren’t for the aluminium, it would look like an excited Twinkie. But the real deal here (honestly) is that you can forgo the cables. Bluetooth isn’t just a gimmick.

I tested this out on the train for many hours. Typically, to enjoy a portable amp and my music, I have to strap my iPhone to an amp with ALO’s rubber bands, or broccoli elastics. It’s not hard, but after 1,5 hours of nudging and old men fondling my bump, it gets hard to keep an amp AND an iPhone up. The MyST 1866 makes things easier because it can stay in the pocket while your iPhone stays in your hand. Headphones, then, plug into the MyST, and you look less the geek, and more ready to defend yourself from concupiscent gaffers.

At least, that is the theory anyway.

Currently, the prototype allows about 20cm of distance between your iPhone and it before its Bluetooth signal gives out. In other words, an 1866 in your pocket will mean that your iPhone will have to stay near your junk, which isn’t comfortable. The problem, it seems, is that the prototype’s antenna isn’t finished. I’ve been told that the new version will have better antenna with a stronger signal. Good.

I don’t have much information apart from that. Spec list is brief: AD1866 16-bit DAC, 24-bit receiver, and some other stuff. Musica Acoustics have this written:

Digital input is received by a 24/192 chip and decoded by the famous AD1866 multi bit DAC. The circuit is laid out in an R2R ladder for the utmost in precision and sound quality. It doesn’t get better than this. This is the world’s first 4-source portable digital-to-analogue-converter to combine optical, coaxial and USB with bluetooth.

I’m no engineer, but countless hours slaving over potential purchases and simple hobby research has led me to the conclusion that R2R ladders can be more accurate in DACs than some other resistor implementations – and I’m all for that. How that pans out in the end, however, isn’t at the DAC’s sole behest.

In actual use
Apart from the short distances with which Bluetooth can be used to connect to a computer, iPhone, iPod touch, or Android device, things are mostly peachy. Of course, that pesky back plate keeps USB from jacking in securely, but if you are at a desk, and actually listening to a pair of headphones, that isn’t a bother. Still, MyST MUST move the back plate back. There is no excuse for USB jacks to fall out.

Coaxial and toslink connections work flawlessly. Selecting any input source is easy: just click the button on the front panel. A light will flash under the input source until connected. The only other controls are volume pot and the stubby on/off switch.

Devices I’ve used with it are:

  • MacBook Pro
  • iPhone 4/s (bluetooth)
  • iPod touch 4G (bluetooth)
  • iPad 1G (bluetooth)
  • iPhone and AlgoRythm SOLO (via coaxial RCA to 3,5mm)
  • Colorfly C4 Pro (via coaxial RCA to 3,5mm)
  • iBasso DX100 (via coaxial 3,5mm to 3,5mm)
With the exception of some strange phase errors on the Colorfly C4, and the aforementioned bluetooth antenna difficulties, each input worked flawlessly. Flawlessly. I’ve never used such a compact device that does everything. I was impressed from first listen and still am impressed. Unfortunately, I can confirm that the iPad will NOT work with the 1866 if used via camera connection kit. The 1866 uses too much voltage. If you are keen to use it in USB mode with your iPad, you will need either an external battery-powered USB hub, or a mains-powered USB hub. That, or spring opt for Bluetooth or spring for an AlgoRythm SOLO.
Many of you may wonder about the choice of 3,5mm mono/stereo jack to carry the coaxial signal. Don’t. It’s great. If you’re sick of expensive aftermarket cables, coax may be your ticket for small and relatively inexpensive ICs. You can even use an analogue cable if you want. Yup, that 3,5mm you’re using to connect your Fiio to your Cowon player will work. Some cables will work better than others, of course, and a real coaxial cable will be better than a typical 3,5mm stereo cable, but the difference isn’t as night and day as you’d guess.
I spent 15$ on parts to make my own 3,5mm-3,5mm coax cable for the 1866, but my ALO mini-mini works almost as well. So does my cheapo from Jaben. Go figure.
Battery
USB or not, DAC-laden amps really suck down battery. The 1866 is no different. I reckon my best streak was about 8 hours, but on average, 7 or so was what I managed to get. That’s not bad at all, but it’s not groundbreaking. My SOLO gets about the same battery life, and my DX100 is no better. Using Bluetooth or plugging your iPod/iPhone/iPad into a SOLO will drain the source battery faster, too. It’s just one of those tradeoffs you get with discreet external components. Assessing its worth to you is your job.

Signal quality
Frenchbat of Headfi said it best “the tracking is flawless” (or something like that). The 1866′s internal gain is set low enough that sensitive earphones can be used without turning the volume up too far to achieve balance between left/right channels. There is some volume mismatch between channels, but it is remedied quickly. If you are using Bluetooth input, you can adjust output level from the iPhone to further balance the signal. If you are using the 1866 with a computer or an Apple Airport Express-type device, you can adjust output levels from software. None of my sources allow that luxury via coaxial.

Similarly, the noise floor is rather low. It’s not completely silent, but it’s in line with or below the vast majority of amps out there. For reference, an iPhone 4s has less noise, an ALO The National has more. Suffice it to say that most IEM users, unless they are using extremely sensitive earphones such as the Shure SE530/5, will probably enjoy the relatively silent background of the 1866.

What keen-eared music lovers will discover is a sound that is softer, more relaxing than some DAC units. That may come from the AD1866, which seems to have a low-pass filter applied in its extreme high frequencies. Of course, to really hear its effects, you earphones have to be capable of hitting highs, and your music has to have information in the highs to be rolled off.

The MyST 1866 passed the Frenchbat test, which, I assure you, isn’t chicken soup. In the same day, I saw him tear through another amp that I was keen on, but we found common ground in the Vorzuge amps, though he wasn’t as keen as I am on the ALO The National. Ho hum.

Output impedance
I’ve not tested this yet, and will probably refrain until I have a production model in my hand (if that happens). What I can say is this: if your earphones drop down below 8Ω at any place when playing back music, the MyST will lose some resolution. It’s nothing like what the Graham Slee Voyager suffers, but it may be audible under some circumstances and with certain earphones.

My reference low Ω beast, the Earsonics SM2, did a small number on the MyST 1866′s frequency response, but it is a beast. With the FitEar To Go! 334, you might also hear a difference, that being small reductions in bass, a slight smear in upper mids, and more compression in soundstage versus, say, an iBasso DX100. With an iPhone 4s, the difference is less pronounced.

Moving to the likes of an Audio Technica CK10 or Grado GR8 or similar high Ω earphone and you won’t hear the differences. The 1866 runs those earphones fine. Headphones are almost all equal. I’ve encountered no headphone that isn’t fully driven by the 1866. That said, output voltage isn’t as high as some desktop amps. The National will best it for delivering fidelity at extreme volumes.

The internal amp is obviously geared towards portable headphones and higher Ω earphones, though it sounds great through low Ω earphones as well. If you’re absolutely set to make a stack, the MyST 1866 has a good line out that is entirely separated from the analogue amp stage.

Pricing
When Dimitri asked me to photograph this amp, he was unsure of pricing. I was told it might be around 600$. A few years ago 600$ seemed incredible. Today, many portable units tip the scales around that price. The MyST, which has even more functionality, and evidently is made by hand in an aircraft assembly plant, is considerably more expensive. Dimitri’s webpage shows a pre-order price of 899$ and a full retail price of 999$. Yikes says me.

In Japan, that translates to something like 85.000 yen. Even at that price, the MyST 1866 generated a LOT of interest at the headphone festival. I have a feeling that international portable audiophiles are comparative misers to their Japanese counterparts. Partly this could be because we spend (you, not me) less time on the train, packed in with hundreds of other bodies and grabby old men. Japanese audiophiles spend everything on their portable systems. I’ve seen a number of FitEar To Go! 334 out in the wild. And even an AKG K3003. Both earphones tip the scales at over 1300$. Amazing.

You will know if the MyST 1866 is for you or not. The truth about me is that as much as I appreciate its innovative technology and Twinkie good looks, I’m just not its market. But, the tech idiot in me loves it. And, the smooth, soft, and powerful sound is something I like, especially paired with my GR8 and DT880. To each her own.

I’m quite sure that Musica Acoustics will be joined by other dealers soon enough as this product – as a technological wonder, and an audiophile machine - is exciting. One thing I’m quite sure of is that this is probably the most expensive portable audiophile unit of any kind to connect to an iPhone. If nothing else, that should generate a LOT of interest.

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

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FitEar To Go! 334 earphone in Review – nonpareil http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/07/18/fitear-to-go-334-earphone-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/07/18/fitear-to-go-334-earphone-in-review/#comments Thu, 19 Jul 2012 01:37:53 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=69049 Zip, ziiiip, wiiiiii, a mosquito. Chuka chuka chuka katakatatata, the Tsukuba Express plowing back to Akihabara. Click click click, my evil shoe-wearing neighbours on the eighth floor dancing up a spell. Summer’s heat amplifies each sound. So does after-work debauchery. So does Arcade Fire. And Markus Schulz’ Progression, Vibrasphere’s Lungs of Life, etc. and so … Read more]]>

Zip, ziiiip, wiiiiii, a mosquito. Chuka chuka chuka katakatatata, the Tsukuba Express plowing back to Akihabara. Click click click, my evil shoe-wearing neighbours on the eighth floor dancing up a spell. Summer’s heat amplifies each sound. So does after-work debauchery. So does Arcade Fire. And Markus Schulz’ Progression, Vibrasphere’s Lungs of Life, etc. and so on. Especially at the wee hours of 0:00 to 5:00. I get on fine after that. There goes my sleep. And whereas sometimes, screwing earphones into my ears helps me zone out and catch some zzz’s, screwing in the fabulous, new FitEar To Go! 334 zones me in, like never before. Hello Music!

It’s nice to meet you, I’m shigzeo, zombie.

Specifications
Quadruple (4) balanced armature drivers
3 way / 3 unit / 4 driver (334)
Low 1 / Mid 1 Low 2 / High 1
Two prong detachable cable
Pelican 1010 hard case
Soft carrying pouch
Cleaning brush
4 sets of ear tips
12 month limited guarantee

You can find the To Go! 334 here:
Musica Acoustics
ALO audio
Price Japan

Introduction
Several weeks ago I spent the better part of an hour at the Ginza FitEar office soaking up as much technical info as my feeble brain could imbibe. Ginza is a nice place to stroll after work, but honestly, its ramen sucks. It’s a godsend that around the corner you can get your teeth drilled and your ear holes plugged by the world’s most classy earphone maker, FitEar.

Mr. Suyama came out of the lift wearing his patent smile and a blue collared shirt. Around his neck was a 5000¥ cable snapped into his own custom earphones. I didn’t see what sort of machine was driving them. I bet it was an iPhone. I will also be willing to wager that he was listening to Karizma’s Cuba or Barry Manillow’s Copacabana.

I follow FitEar on twitter.

Upstairs is a drum set, several comfy chairs situated in front of a wonderful collection of HiFi equipment, headphones, speakers, and of course, music. It’s spinning on CD’s, vinyl, and ticking away inside computer hard disks. I didn’t ask how much music he’s got, but I’ll make another bet: if anyone’s music collection tops mine, it’s Mr. Suyama’s.

But we didn’t go upstairs this time. I was on a tight schedule. (My wife was waiting at Denny’s, and their kimchi is awful – I had to rescue her.) Mr. Suyama sat down, brought out my To Go! 334, smiled, and answered every question I asked, and most of the ones I didn’t.

He did this on small sheets of paper, carefully mapping out the 334′s driver array, explaining why titanium was chosen for the treble tube, waxing in gory detail how each driver is basically hand painted into the housing. This ensures that the earphone body is as slim as possible, and eliminates driver rattle.

You’ll be forgiven if you think the To Go! 334 (here on dubbed the TG334) is just a custom-cum universal earphone bent primarily, on maximum profits and distribution area. The j-Phonics was inspiring, but we are talking about two completely different levels of workmanship here. It’s true that the TG334 utilises the same innards as the fabulous MH334, FitEar’s first custom earphone to be tweaked by master engineer, Mitsuharu Harada. And what a feat it is. Its speakers are precisely machined and fitted into their housing with 100% repeatable results despite the entire assembly being done by hand. It suffers no concessions against the custom earphone that precedes it. That is, unless you really wanted to squeeze goo into your ears holes.

Regarding profits and distribution, you’d partially be correct. Custom earphones are buggers to work overseas from a central plant, especially if your outfit is moonlighting as a dental laboratory. The TG334′s universal package allows the FitEar lab to assemble and ship more units than its custom sibling. Distributors are springing up around the globe, and music lovers are discovering the sound of what once was the most hidden treasure in the vast sea of custom earphones. But since the TG334 is essentially an MH334, you’d also be incorrect in assuming it’s all about numbers. The difference in end user cost is substantial.

Had I been Mr. Suyama, I’d have smirked down at the skinny, semi-balding lout sitting before me. Mr. Suyama waived such nonsense. He is nice. I’m not. You sort of have to be nice to be a dentist in this modern world of lawsuits and litigation. And that is the fulcrum of this essay – sleepless nights aside, that is.

Accessories and Package
FitEar are ever pragmatic. What comes with your TG334 is an indestructible Pelican 1010 hard carrying case, a soft toss-pouch, four pair of silicon ear pieces, a shirt clip, and a cable. For the buying price, it’s an ascetic package, to be sure, but then again, who can argue with discipline?

Well, I suppose that for 1400$, you might be forgiven for expecting a life-size poster of Mr. Suyama, a set of false teeth, and a bowl of bad ramen to boot. The TG334′s price is well hung. It nuzzles its tusks in your common sense every time John Denver bleats on about West Virginia.

But, if you are reading this review, you probably don’t care too much about that. And again, you’d be forgiven.

Fit and Isolation
Bigger than the price difference between the MH334 and the TG334 is the difference in fit between the two. The stark truth is that the TG334′s fit won’t be for everyone. Case in point one: my wife. She is blessed with wide ear holes, but her concha is tiny. She was very kind to pose for this review’s fit photos, and probably deserves an expensive ice cream. (Note: photos to appear this evening, Japan time.)

Because the TG334 houses four full-size drivers, and makes room for three bandwidth-optimised sound bores, it is large. And heavy. It is solid acrylic. TG should stand for ‘The Gargantuan’. I’ll admit, however, that ‘To Go!’ sounds more appealing. By the way, so is the TG334′s sound.

Generally, female ears are smaller than male ears. I’ve been told that mine are wasted on me. I should be a boxer. I don’t get it. I suppose that means they are small. But – and my wife can confirm this – I’m male. With the bad: shaving, strange growths of hair, snoring, a tendency sweat, a growing forehead, and a predilection for bathroom humour, comes the good: enough room even in those small ears for the TG334. Barely.

For me, the TG334 rubs cartilage on every side. I have to tilt it slightly forward for complete comfort. Fortunately, there are no sharp edges anywhere to grind against ears. Me and the TG get alone fine.

People with enough ear real estate will be able to tip the earphone back and forth with nary a wince. In fact, men: I reckon almost every one of our kind will be able to take the entire 334 in. God bless us.

The TG334 doesn’t lie completely flat in the ear. Remember, it isn’t a custom earphone. There will be gaps. To a degree, that will affect isolation. I say to a degree, because the TG334 has the uncanny ability to cancel the outside. It is also quite sensitive. The combination means that you can keep the volume on your source low.

For instance, modern albums such as Marcus Schulz’ Progression will be perfectly comfortable at a setting of 150 on an iBasso DX100, or -42 dB on a rockboxed Sansa Clip, or about three clicks from the bottom on an iPhone 4s. That is at a loud cafe. In an airplane, I might bump those settings up one or two notches. Maybe.

Suffice it to say that the TG334′s sensitivity and isolation tag team noise into the ropes.

The Cable
Contrary to the Private series, the TG utilises a twisted cable sheathed in low friction heat shrink. It is terminated by a slim Oyaide 3,5mm stereo jack and sports pragmatic stress reliefs. One, a clear bit of flexible plastic, is at the jack. The other, sprouting memory wire, is at the earphone.

I wear glasses and am not a big fan of memory wire, but FitEar’s choice works much better than the stiff stuff that much of the competition uses. There are only minor scuffles behind my ears, ending usually, with my glasses getting the upper hand. Thank god. I suspect that Mr. Suyama had everything to say about that. He also wears glasses.

The TG series cable makes much less noise and tangles less than the Private series cable does. Corollary: I find no need at all for the shirt clip, though I’m sure someone will be glad of it.

The Oyaide end complements the same wonderful clip and pin set that is used by the Japanese police force at the opposite end. The pins are polarised: no way to accidentally plug them in the wrong way. Both sides wear coloured dots that line up with the earphone body. The right is black, the left is red. And in case you are colour blind, or habitually unplug your earphones in the dark, there is a raised bump on the right side to guide you.

FitEar have done all the hard work. It’s your blessed duty to enjoy.

Build Quality
I could write exceptional and be done with it, but I’m not that clever. So here goes:

Remember back when Japanese camera companies competed against the world? They made blocks of metal and glass that exceeded the rigid build quality of their German counterparts, and beat them for price. They were hand built of the finest materials. I have several, the oldest of which, a Canon P, was born almost sixty years ago and is mated to several lenses from the same period. It shames the modern scraps of composite,  alloy, and silicon to no end. My Nikon D200, a camera more than fifty years younger, at least still takes product photos. Barely. I predict its demise next year.

While the TG334 signals FitEar’s entry into larger production, FitEar don’t Toyotafy their products by copying and cheapifying. FitEar define quality build in the custom-cum universal earphone world.

Case in point: the sound bores. Unlike UE, Westone, and even Sensaphonics Japan, FitEar’s universal maximises discreet channels for each frequency. Bass and mids spit from their own niches and circle the central treble tube. They are carved into wide half-donut bores of acrylic, not soft plastic. The effect is precise timbre in every frequency. There is no equal.

Titanium
Fully metal earphones such as Final Audio’s high end Piano Forte line certainly crams in more metal than the TG. But when overall sound quality metrics are gauged, it falls flat in comparison.

The TG334 is made for performance. Absolute performance. Hence the full size drivers. Hence the acrylic donut bores. Hence the treble tube made of titanium. Titanium? you ask? So did I.

As FitEar is jointed to Mr. Suyama’s dental laboratory, titanium isn’t hard to come by. At first, it didn’t strike Mr. Suyama to use it, though. Being a perfectionist can work both for and against  you, a fact Mr. Suyama is well acquainted with. Sometimes you just don’t see the obvious when it’s in front of you as you are too focused on completion. FitEar went through many designs. They went through the do-it-Private like phase where each frequency channel would be forced through a slim circular tube. They went through the UE phase that combined one or more channel frequencies into a single tube. They went through many other phases.

But something was off.

Eventually, Mr. Suyama’s father suggested titanium. FitEar technicians were intimately familiar with working the metal, and had the tools necessary. What followed is the current design. It’s no conceit. Employing titanium in the centre channel allows sound tube walls to be thinner than they would have been in acrylic.

Titanium also proved to have less affect on high frequencies, allowing the most natural acoustic reproduction of music possible. Again, I’d have been smirking through the entire meeting.

Acrylic isn’t to be tossed aside, though.

Thin titanium, ineptly captured by a reverse-mounted 35/2 Nikkor Ai

Wall to wall acrylic
Earsonics employ a similar tactic to FitEar, though go about it differently. FitEar lacquer each driver into place until the housing moulds into its final shape. It isn’t printed around a hollow cavity, nor filled with gel. The rigidity of wall to wall acrylic ensures the drivers stay put. Let’s face it, with multiple drivers and complex crossover boards, it becomes necessary to take strict methods in the construction of an earphone of this level to ensure low distortion.

There are several side effects to this. The first is that the TG334 is many times heavier than the competition’s universal earphones are. Its weight even rivals or surpasses most if not all custom earphones. The second side effect is corollary to the time and expertise necessary in creating such an earphone. The effect is cost.

I’m here to tell you it is worth it.

Sound
By and large, the TG334 disappears more than any earphone I’ve heard. There is so little accent in any frequency that I feel justified in stating the trite. Here goes: I’m hearing my music again, for the first time.

Hence the sleepless nights. Hence the zombie behind this iPad, typing, typing away.

3D / instrument separation
Let’s start with this old audiophile trope. Really, this word gets passed around so much, I swear we music lovers are all gamers, topographic mappers, or architects. I promise you, too few of us capable of the last two.

But, I’ll throw this word around anyway. 3D presentation, or the spatial positioning of instruments within the sound field, is the TG334′s most triumphant forte.

I think you, too, will agree. Speaking of the devil, let’s look at U2′s Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of for a moment. It’s a simple song, but one with very distinct layers that I haven’t really paid attention to before, precisely, because I didn’t have the TG334. While my writing isn’t good enough to describe the positioning of each, your imaginations may be. Picture Bono’s whiny vocals, Mullen’s percussion, and The Edge’s melody as three ribbons. Via the TG334, each is distinct, practically carved into the song. There is no mistaking anything. Indeed, individual instruments are so precisely placed that at first, I experienced some sensory overload.

This sense of 3D could be said to be more vertical than it is horizontal, expanding upward, and out. Each frequency doggedly, ferociously guards its own channel.

Overall emphasis in this array favours mid frequencies where instrument layers are most distinct. Bono and the edge win out here, but only in the location of central pressure. There is absolutely no bleed between frequency channels, no obvious preference or emphasis for any one. Forget orgasmic, via the TG334, music is mesmeric. There are so many layers spit from Mr. Suyama’s latest multi-armature earphone, so much depth, that one gets lost, completely and utterly.

I tend to listen to music as I work. You’re probably thinking I don’t get much done. I do, but with music blasting in my boxer’s ears, I reckon I get less done than most. Whatever. You’re free not to follow my example. I find that grating and boomy earphones don’t allow me to concentrate, so I tend to listen to relatively flat earphones – all rounders you could say. By and large, the 334 is flat (we’ll get there later), and should be great for semi-concentrated listening. It can be, but it isn’t immediately good.

At first, its damned 3D placement is too captivating. Waiting a few weeks, as I have, should do ya. Yes, you can get to it. Also, keeping the volume rather low will help. Emphasis on low and high frequencies, as well as apparent detail retrieval go up with higher volume levels. If it’s work time, keep the volume low. That, my friends will solve some of the TG334′s incredible sound.

Soundstage
I have a feeling this may be a somewhat controversial section. With such well delineated instruments, shouldn’t the TG334 have the widest of soundstages? I’d think so. But, to my mesmerised ears, it doesn’t. Its sound stage is incredibly detailed, well placed, but more intimate than some earphones. Indeed, it sounds perfectly like a custom earphone.

If the musical stage thrown by TG334 was spherical, it would be a slightly large basketball. High frequencies tend to bounce around above the ear, mids, especially vocals, bob up and down between your ears, and at times hop up to your frontal lobe. Bass hits often at the back of the head or neck. Percussion pops out from behind the jaw to wrap around the ears.

That is, until you pull the earphones out just enough to maintain a seal. Suddenly, you are playing with a larger ball. This is the case with every earphone. TheTG334, however, is especially prone to change with fit. Push it in too far, and you have thick, almost congested sound.

Here’s why. As the earphone is pressed far into the ear, the silicon flange smothers the large sound tube. Some of the mesmeric instrument separation is lost. Sound stage is compressed. When loosely situated in the ear, bass and lower mids lose some volume impact. Suddenly, there is a small abundance of treble. Psychoacoustic effect? Wide soundstage.

Still, no matter how it is situated, the TG334 won’t cast the shadow of an open dynamic earphone. It will cast simply the most perfectly situated musical stage you’ve ever heard. And that, my friends is something that it does with particular, enviable talent.

I would encourage the brave among you to check out as many well-recorded binaural recordings as you can. Just make sure you are sitting on a stable, safe object.

So, what about the bass?
I agree with bassheads: if you were to carve it from the gestalt of a musical composition, there isn’t a more important frequency. You’ve got that PRAT, that hole-filling oomph, that vital throb. Bass is the heart of music. But, there is no all-important frequency to the TG334. Bass is ultra detailed, extremely well-controlled, severalised. Decay is fast, but not not dry, nor boring. There is a loving hanging-on for the briefest of moments at the back end of a low note. You could call it emotion. But that may be going too far. Remember, the TG334 has almost no accent.

In many ways, it reminds me of the bass produced by ortofon’s excellent e-Q5, only more distinct. It has slightly more edge than the JH13-Pro, and perhaps a smidgen less overall quantity.

Clean, driving, somewhat edgy, and yet not afraid to delicately smear it where it counts, it is pure rock and roll. It is as at home with Tiamat as it is with Arcade Fire, but I have a feeling that has less to do with bass as it does with perfect musical gestalt. In the same vein, this presentation mates to trance and classical like a frog on a finger in May – there’s no romance more absorbing.

Extreme lows, those of Marcus Schulz’ Mainstage, are easily discernible from very low volumes. However, through the TG334, Mainstage doesn’t yawn with the feckless volume of a 1980′s horror movie as it does with at the behest of an Atrio or the FX500, but it certainly growls. The difference in decibels would be about 5-10 depending on fit.

If you are looking for an organic bass sound, you will still probably have to look up something like the Victor FX-500. From lows to highs, TG334 is decidedly armature: fast, detailed, and ultra precise. However, thanks its incredible delineation from midrange frequencies, and the mesmeric sense of space from low to high, I feel that a number of dynamic-only fans will fall in love for a genre of earphone they otherwise may not have have.

‘Ow ’bout the highs and mids
I will bunch these together for the simple reason that these two gel with an energy – sometimes overlapping – that is studded with detail and texture. The TG334 is the king of strings and percussion. There is just so much detail to devour. Every string has two audible edges, one that builds up as energy is impressed into it, and one where it is released. Both are clear as a bell.

Highs and mids are also utterly inseparable. Spatially, mids and vocals are bunched more in the centre of the head than highs and lows are, so it is easier to concentrate on them. There may be a temptation to call the TG334 mid-centric. It isn’t – not from the stand point of frequency response. Here’s where we got back to the argument for dubbing this particular earphone ‘flat’.

Mid tones benefit the most from the mesmeric instrument separation. There are few genres that will not drown you in it. You will easily pick small groups or even single violins from larger bodies. The slightest of nicks a drumstick makes on the rim, the wet sounds a tongue makes, the rub of a finger over steel strings – it’s all there in gory detail.

High mids and lower high frequencies are all attack and decay. Sibilance is null, though with bad fit, you will get an abundance of treble. With perfect fit, you will find no genre too fast or demanding.

As mentioned above, the TG334′s commercial progenitor is the MH334, an earphone tuned by the famous Mr. Harada. Mr. Harada obviously prefers cleanliness to dripping sensuality. This has some negative impact when it comes to certain higher-voiced female vocals, which, at times, can sound thin.

In particular, Christine, in The Original Canadian Cast recording of Phantom of the Opera, sings with a little less pertinent edge than she does from an ER4s, for instance, or even my beloved CK10. I tend to prefer a little more edge in high female vocals. But that is just me. Reading Head-Fi, I have a feeling I’m in the minority.

To amp or not to amp?
When I originally reviewed the FitEar Private 333, I waxed lyrical about its fun, yet overall neutral sound. The 333 is more forward than the TG334 is, but only barely. It is also harder to drive, but only barely.

The TG334 is efficient, not as prone to hiss as the 333 is, and doesn’t seem to dive down as many Ω as the 333 does when it runs into upper mids and high frequencies. An iPhone 4s or an iPod touch 4G or a clip+ alone are enough to do it.

I don’t feel that an amp is necessary at all. In fact, it is possible that the amp you use will handle the TG334 worse than your iPhone does. Keep that in mind. If you have something like an ALO Rx, a VorzAMP, or an iBasso T3D, then use it – it will better your iPhone in some small, key areas, but don’t go out of your way to buy a new amp just to enjoy your new earphone.

There is plenty of resolution there for you.

Now, if you are using an older iPod touch, say 2G, or 1G, or a Cowon, or a Sony player, you WILL lose a LOT of resolution in mid upper mids and gain a lot of distortion. Those players simply aren’t up to snuff. A small amp may help. Or, a Sansa Clip.

Out and About
Aside from its size, there is nothing daunting about using the TG334 in public. It does stick out from the ear quite a bit, and is heavy, but it handles itself well. When you find perfect fit, isolation is excellent, and for the most part, there is no wearing fatigue. Similarly, the cable is excellent. It is resisting this awful Japanese summer perfectly. I see no signs of sweat or body oil induced crystallisation. None.

The only thing to think about is the termination of the cable. The long straight plug should be handled with care. It fits into narrow headphone outputs, but it puts more stress on the cable and output than an l-shaped cable does. Here, the Private series comes out on top.

Conclusion
I feel strongly that no other earphone manufacturer is as involved in the lives of audiophiles as FitEar are. FitEar started making earphones for enthusiasts, experimenting and tweaking endlessly. They’ve found perfection in their tweaking. It’s heavy, and black and made of solid acrylic and sports a titanium tube. It’s 3D presentation of instruments and balance of frequencies is nonpareil.

It is however, expensive. If you were looking for a custom earphone, you now have a universal option that in many ways betters a custom earphone. Fit, of course, is extremely important. Pay attention to it and you will have possibly the best earphone on the planet. But having the best is difficult. Sleepless nights ensue. The zombie is outed. And the zombie absolutely loves his To Go! 334.

App Summary
Title: FitEar To Go! 334 Developer: FitEar
Reviewed Ver: To Go! 334
Price: 1300-1500$
  • Best 3D detail of any earphone
  • Exceptionally neutral
  • Excellent isolation
  • Stunning build quality
  • Use of high quality materials
  • Made in Japan
  • heavy
  • finicky fit
  • sparsely accessorised
FitEar-ToGo334-accessories FitEar-ToGo334-banner FitEar-ToGo334-ear-pieces FitEar-ToGo334-iPhone FitEar-ToGo334-pelican FitEar-ToGo334-pins FitEar-ToGo334-stress FitEar-ToGo334-titanium

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

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Vorzüge VorzAMPpure and VorzAMPduo headphone amps in Review – There’s none more black http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/06/28/vorzuge-vorzamppure-and-vorzampduo-headphone-amps-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/06/28/vorzuge-vorzamppure-and-vorzampduo-headphone-amps-in-review/#comments Thu, 28 Jun 2012 08:08:57 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=68801 Okay, apes, it’s time to toss bones to the firmament. It’s time to beat on your mates and rip sinews from the teeth of angry panthers. Evolution’s catching us up again. This time, however, it’s the Germans, not Americans, who are pressing us to the edge of the audiophile solar system. The eponymous VorzAMP has … Read more]]>

Okay, apes, it’s time to toss bones to the firmament. It’s time to beat on your mates and rip sinews from the teeth of angry panthers. Evolution’s catching us up again. This time, however, it’s the Germans, not Americans, who are pressing us to the edge of the audiophile solar system. The eponymous VorzAMP has its sights and prices set high, and has been the cause of an infatuated uproar among Japanese audiophiles for quite a turn. I think you will agree with them that you don’t need a Discovery-sized headphone amp to blast off toward Jupiter. The lovely fräulein, VorzAMP, is beautiful to hold, behold, and listen to.

Specifications
Models: VorzAMPpure VorzAMPduo
Price: (USD $) pure 430 duo 520
EQ: pure no, duo yes
Silver Solder with Gold Compound
Gold Plated PCB YES
Top Grade Metal Film Resistors
Top Grade Metallic Capacitors
RoHS (Environment Friendly, Free from Hazardous Chemical)
Play Time [hours]: pure 30, duo 26
Size [mm] – slim design 83 x 66 x 18 83 x 66 x 18
Weight [g] – light weight design (with batteries): pure 100 (140), duo 110 (150)

Included in the box
VorzAmp™ (Headphone Amplifier)
VorzKabel™ (20cm long)
Set of Li-ion batteries (2x1000mAh)
Protective pouch
USB Power Adapter (100AC to 230AC)
Mini USB to USB Cable (Charging from Computer)
Documentation

Today’s review centres on both amps. The difference between the two is the EQduo EQ system, which only the VorzAMPduo has. The two amps are very similar, but have different target users. The pure user probably doesn’t care so much about boosting frequency bands. He or she loves his/her earphones as they are, but wants a bit more power. The duo user is out for power and the utmost in EQ pleasure. And the EQduo does offer that.

Build quality
Attention to detail is a German trait that has endlessly been copied, and in some ways, improved upon through the ages. I think that Vorzüge have proved that it’s not a wholly copiable trait. Every VorzAMP comes with four back screws and four front screws, and usually a two bolts in the volume pot. Blah blah blah. We’ve seen it before. But Vorzüge’s take on this ubiquitous design is simple: countersink everything, miniaturize everything, label the parts that matter. Each screw sits in its own niche, as does the EQduo’s switches, the on/off switch, and the in/out jacks. The volume knob is secured by two bolts which are driven precisely into an aluminium trunk, leaving nary a dimple or a pimple. Beautiful.

As sure as Bob is somebody’s uncle, the VorzAMP is the most solid amp I’ve ever mishandled. And trust me, I do my best to mishandle what I review. If I could throw the GoVibe VestAmp+ or Hippo box+ through a wall, I could throw the VorzAMP through the Vestamp. And evidently, the paint might not even scratch.

That is because the VorzAMP is blessed with a special epoxy that is treated at especially high temperatures. The overall effect is a highly scratch-resistant surface, and a veritable blackness that could even extinguish Satan’s candle. While I’ve yet to scratch mine, I’ve smeared it with the touchy-feely finger prints of a true admirer.

The overall effect of the VorzAMP is one of stunning beauty and workmanship. Of course, no beauty is unharassed by caveat. While anyone would be floored by the absolute precision with which each screw is driven into its metal chassis, if one wants to undo those screws, one will find that utter precision in construction needs utter precision in deconstruction. Behind the beautiful epoxy, is a beautifully laid out and labelled amp made of expensive parts and dipped in that audiophile ambrosia that we commonly dub gold. But laying it all bare is a labour of love, not lust. Merely screwing around will damage parts. My suggestion for eager screwers is to first, twiddle the volume pot off. Then you can move to that succulent body. Remember, the VorzAMP is a lady.

The above caveat deepens to a cavern-eat as I consider the included T5 hex key, a scornfully wicked tool that Vorzüge reckon is good enough for their lady. It isn’t. It will bend and warp under the pressure of a good twist, possibly stripping the head of a bolt, or in utter embarrassment, strip itself. Vorzüge should know better than to include such a chintzy, teenage tool in seduction of a lady. If you want to get in and out of the VorzAMP for any reason, man up. Wine and dine VorzAMP with a real tool, not a freebie.

Caveats aside, the VorzAMP is a work of art.

Ergonomics and Polish
Perhaps its those 88 million people cramped between the Alps and the Baltic Sea that has Vorzüge engineers chasing down every last spare millimetre. Fresh from its vacuum blister, the VorzAMPduo’s black matte sucks in light, and never lets it out again. It has me humming ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ while confidently prodding the lady’s lush blackness with broken fingernails.

Maybe I’m clinging to the obtuse assumption that my essays make sense on their own. Perhaps I just need more whisky. Or less. Gulp. But if you haven’t gotten a glimpse of my thesis for this next section, then I’ll take another sip.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve not used a portable amp of the same size that at any price exudes this much polish. Sure, Vorzüge’s display box loses to the Americans. And the logo is the unladylike amalgamation of Star Wars and the 90′s. But let me reiterate what I’ve not yet properly said: the VorzAMP isn’t just a pretty face; it’s also a kick arse piece of engineering. It fits in a front pocket (barely), doesn’t scratch easily, can be operated blind, holds battery life for almost 30 hours, and has the most beautifully labelled circuit board I’ve ever seen. Those insides and the attention to outer detail shame GoVibe by hundreds of dollars, and honestly, ALO can’t hold a candle to it. A brief comparo with ALO’s The National is disgustingly one-sided. A quick look at the VorzAMP’s circuit board reveals rows of precisely labelled and soldered components, and the the most calculated use of space in its class. The Germans have used every square centimetre perfectly. Which points to its intended uses.

The VorzAMP is a portable amp. The IN/OUT ports are spaced closely together – close enough, in fact, that massive in/out jacks won’t work. I’ve had no problem using ALO fatties next to each other, but fatter than that and you will risk damaging the amp or the plugs.

Actually, there is one instance of severe over engineering: the on/off lamp. Gee whiz, Sunny Cooper! It’s enough to blind a bat. My first flick of the switch foretold how I’d use the VorzAMP: as a flashlight, handtorch, keyfinder, dust pointer, etc., and so on. It is far too bright to use at night on a bedside. Hell, it causes eyes to squint in bright light, too. Shame, too, because the VorzAMP is a great size for a bedside rig.

Indeed, it is a great size…

Features
The VorzAMPpure and VorzAMPduo are twins fräuleins with different personalities. The pure is Snow White, singing and dancing, and never straying from the two. She sounds lovely. The duo probably came out second, and has an attitude for it. She loves to rock out, and headbang, and grind in the club. She’s the one I’d recommend for hip-hop lovers, or those people who cling to prude earphones such as the Etymotic ER4, and don’t mind a bit of a romp.

The EQduo is powerful. It is also the only feature between the two. It boosts bass to the tune of 15dB, and treble to the tune of about 9dB. Powerful.

Another thing to note: even after a full day of play, the VorzAMP doesn’t get hot. Maybe a degree here or there goes up, but really, this thing is perfectly cool for the pocket-stuffer.

Sound
VorzAMP is small enough to nestle smoothly into a pair of tight jeans, even connected to a nano 7G (okay, so that isn’t a big package (not at all what she said)), but compared to the sound you get, it is a hard idea to swallow. So much sound from such a small box is incredible.

But moments fade. Eventually my prodding had to come to something and that something was wonderful. I plugged my trusty (and dirty and old) Audio Technica CK10 into the outport, my iPod nano 7G (brand new) into the import, lit up the amp, and dropped my lower lip. Why?

Check it.

Blessed bass
At my inaugural listen, the first word that popped from my grinning teeth was ‘BAAAAASSSSSSSS’. That’s long for ‘bass’, and how long it is. And that was because I flipped the EQduo switch straightway. If you get the VorzAMPduo, I suggest toggling that badboy – it’s worth it. But let’s talk about the Vorzüge’s amp stock bass sound first. Without being a monster, VorzAMP bass is effortless steps back and forth to and from the midrange. It is detailed, open, and describes great width. It is never strained. In truth, it has a slow roll off about 1 decibel at 30Hz. Whether that is audible or not is up to debate. What stands at the forefront is detail, and precision. If that impression of precision comes from the slow roll off in the lower bass registers, I’ll eat someone’s hat. I tend to believe it is from the rather wide separation of left and right channels described by the VorzAMP and low harmonic distortion in the signal.

Whoever is responsible for it deserves a good, long kiss. Subjectively, the VorzAMP basslines are about as sonorous as basslines get.

It pairs brilliantly with all sorts of earphones, but I tend to find the best match in semi detailed, neutral earphones such as the Audio Technica CK10. Why? Detailed earphones simply bring out the lovely detail in the signal, especially in the bass region, which has traditionally been glossed over by audiophiles as a non-detailed part of the spectrum. But let’s move on.

The truth about the VorzAMP is that there is another slow roll off in the high frequencies. It is of the same type, about 1 decibel, and I’d argue whether it is audible or not. I had a headfi meet last week here in Tokyo, and most of the members loved the VorzAMP highs. The same thing goes for Japanese audiophiles. Most people love the extension and smoothness. Some call it effortlessness. I agree. Highs in some ways are a little less detailed than lows, eschewing channel separation for presentation. Again, highs are sonorous, smooth, and well extended. In some ways, the VorzAMP mimics the high frequency energy and lushness of the GoVibe Porta Tube+ (an even more expensive amp), though it is subjectively more ‘liquid’.

But let’s get back to the moment I hit the EQduo switch…

My jaw hit the floor. Fortunately, I had the sense to pick it up again. It is not polite to stand like that on the train. Neither is the EQduo’s bass. It registers at about 15dB over the stock response. Within its band of influence, it is more powerful than the Digizoid zO2. Transformative is the only apt adjective I can think of that describes its response. And miracle of all miracles, it isn’t flubby. It won’t flatten out in distortion, nor run amuck on signal quality.

Then, there is the treble EQ boost. Neither are polite, but the treble is the less straight. It induces some sibilance and a small amount of background noise, but otherwise, does as advertised, and boosts treble response by around 6dB. Either switch drop the baseline output by about 3dB. It’s a fair game to play, as with such intense effect, distortion could easily enter into the signal. But Vorzüge obviously know when enough is enough. Honestly, I don’t think I could handle more than 15dB on the low end.

Remember, when engaging EQ circuits, only the portions of the signal that are affected by EQ will be raised. If there is no information in the EQ band, then flicking the EQ switch will have no affect on the music.

Remember the excellent Graham Slee Voyager? Well, the VorzAMP EQduo system its next incarnation. It is both more fun, and more academic than the Voyager. Similar levels of polish are noted here, though I find the Slee more dryer in its presentation. It also doesn’t even come close to powering multi armature IEM earphones as efficiently as does the Vorzüge VorzAMP. Seeing as how the VorzAMPduo and pure are tiny amps, it is no surprise; Vorzüge’s aim seems to be portable. I think they’ll be damned if they don’t make the absolute best in class amps for the portable audiophile and I’ll be damned if I can argue against them. But to be honest, I would rather plug my DT880 into the Voyager than the VorzAMP. Synergy or whatnot, the dryness of the Voyager is gin to these ears.

The most detailed frequency is the mid-upper lows through to higher mid frequencies. Fans of just about any genre will find a hard time getting a more suitable amp for their pocket pleasure. I had one or two symphony lovers tell me they wished for a bit more instrument separation for large ensembles. They may be right here. Distortion, while very low, rings slightly. Hence, perhaps, the smooth, though well extended highs. Remember, too, that instrument separation is hard to poinpoint. For some, it comes with more treble emphasis. Flip the treble swtich and you’ll get it and the ‘detail’ you’ve been craving. The VorzAMPduo will be your last amp. For others, it comes from 100% clean signals. In which case, I’d have to recommend ALO’s Rx, or another, larger amp, the O2.

Finally, background noise is minimal, but not perfectly black. It is a little less than the Porta Tube+, which itself is minimal. You will be able to detect it with sensitive earphones, but since the noise never fluctuates, it isn’t bothersome.

The VorzAMP is about smooth extension and nonpareil bass-mid detail. I fall into the camp that loves the VorzAMP’s strengths. Let’s move on.

Sound in a nutshell
Before I get ahead of myself, I should probably summarise. The VorzAMP sound is contained within three distinct elements: slight roll offs at extreme ends of the spectrum, an extremely detailed, yet calm bass response, and, with the VorzAMPduo, a low Ω output that suffers very little at the hand of multi-armature earphones. And, if you’ve chosen the VorzAMPduo, a hard-hitting EQ circuit packs a punch when your headphones don’t. Neither amp is excitable. The sibilance-scared audiophile take note: the VorzAMP doesn’t excite recorded sibilance in any way (that is, until you flip the treble switch up).

A few golden-eared Japanese colleagues consider Vorz highs to be the most sonorous of any battery powered amp. Really, it comes down to that point. We all know that difference in signal ‘sound’ between amps is always very small, but when you are splitting hairs, the VorzAMP is one of the most sonorously smooth, yet detailed amps around.

Which leads me to my next point.

Scaling with better sources
While the iPod touch 4G does a good job of feeding the VorzAMP, the Cypher Labs Algorhythm SOLO does much better. Nearly every metric jumps up several levels of clarity. Still, the VorzAMP retains its signature smoothness while gaining what some audiophiles may argue as better treble extension.

The VorzAMP works equally well for home amps, but of course, it is built for the portable music lover: input and output spaced closely together, light, and a rapidly ramping volume pot. I could be happy using the VorzAMP at home, but I feel its place is best served in a pocket or near a desktop rig.

Best headphones for the VorzAMP
What headphones is the VorzAMP suited for? Simple, really. Anything except for the most sensitive of IEM earphones. And, unless you really want to cause your ears to bleed, full size 300-600Ω headphones such as the DT880 600Ω. The latter I comfortably use at what would equate to 10-11 o’clock on the volume pot, or just less than 50% of a complete turn. Yes, the output is powerful.

Output power doesn’t stand up to ALO’s The National, but few portable amps are able to make your ears bleed with full size headphones quite like it. The Vorzüge amps are able to hit about 80% of the volume pot before audible sizzle distortion is emitted from headphones like the DT880 600Ω. That volume is already too loud for me, but I am sure that some people actually listen to those levels. So, for comfortable and safe listening levels, the VorzAMP is more than adequate for the mighty DT880, but for levels that border on the dangerous, the VorzAMP won’t cut it.

Earphones have plenty of volume (we’ll get to that later) and are driven almost perfectly in every case. Whatever output transducer you are plugged into will rejoice.

For the DT880 600Ω, I listen at about 10-12 o’clock on the volume pot.
For the CK10, I listen to about 7:30 to 8 o’clock on the volume pot.
For the ES10, I listen to about 7:30 to 9 o’clock on the volume pot
For the Sleek Audio CT7 and the Audio Technica CK100, I listen to about 7 to 8 o’clock on the volume pot.

As you can see, volume scales up rapidly.

Which leads me into my first issue with the VorzAMP:

Issue #1: gain
The number one issue with the VorzAMPs is the sensitivity of the internal gain circuitry. The unit I’m enjoying here is part of a third batch. It is mostly free from gain problems, but not entirely. The first one or two batches had extremely aggressive gains. Many audiophiles at a recent meet in Tokyo loved the amp, but said that with sensitive custom earphones, the volume was too loud. You might be thinking: “Just turn the volume down”. You’d be right, except that by turning the volume pot down to near zero, channel imbalance rears its head. That means that one side is louder than the other. The only way to fix that is by raising the volume. And that hurts.

The last batch features a gain that is lowered by several decibels, enough to make sensitive IEMs usable. It is now similar to ALO’s The National. In orther words, more than usable, but not ideal for IEM users.

Even when using my Audio Technica ES10 headphones, I sometimes find the lowest volume to be higher than I’d like. But that is just sometimes.

Issue #2: lamp
This isn’t a sound issue, and for some, it will be a non-issue. Pictures don’t do justice, but that damn circle is as bright as the sun. You won’t be using this amp as a beside rig except as a divorcee. Even in broad daylight it is a burning aperture of light. I hope that Vorzüge can tone it down.

For instance, the CK10 can pick out a bit of background noise. The CT7 multiply that noise by about 2. The treble switch does that again. This leads me into the 2nd slight misstep of this amp: gain. It is simply too high for the volume pot, for the output power, and for sustained voltage.

Performance (NOTE: coming soon)
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance of the Vorzüge VorzAMP driving a Beyerdynamic DT880 and Earsonics SM2. 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 the above headphones and no load only.

What’s my opinion?
Well, Vorzüge’s amps come at a hefty penny, something to the tune of 400-700$ depending on which model you order and which part of the world you live in. They arent’ small investments. But evolution is about big returns on big sacrifices. So is love. Battery life is great. The engineering is top notch. The amp itself is small, perfect for most pockets. It’s much shorter, but a bit chunkier than an iPhone, and perfectly made. Sound is wonderful. You won’t forget it. And that’s the crux of it isn’t it? Vorzüge’s first products are stunning achievements. Unfortunately for me, I have other products to review. More unfortunate for those products is that I’ve reviewed the VorzAMPs first. Comparisons don’t lie. I wish I had met the VorzAMP in Secondary School and be lead through a passionate university love affair that would end in two sets of lips muttering ‘I do’. Later on, we’d argue the finer points of gain and the densely packed front panel. But we’d still be in a quagmire of love.

Because, you see, once you go black…

App Summary
Title: Vorzüge VorzAMP Developer: Vorzüge
Reviewed Ver: VorzAMPpure, VorzAMPduo
Price: 430-700$
  • Lush, detailed sound
  • Low noise floor
  • Germany precision
  • Complete accessory package
  • Perfect size for on-the-go
  • Aggressive gain
  • Lamp too bright
  • Maybe not for purists
VorzAMP-box VorzAMP-DT1350 VorzAMP-fridge VorzAMP-frontback VorzAMP-frontfront VorzAMP-iPhone-iPodnano VorzAMP-iPt4G-ministack VorzAMP-mainaccessories VorzAMP-Vorz-National-Portat-stack VorzAMP-Vorz-National-Portat VorzAMP-window

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

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GoVibe Porta Tube+ valve headphone amp/DAC in Review – beautiful in blue http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/06/16/govibe-porta-tube-valve-headphone-ampdac-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/06/16/govibe-porta-tube-valve-headphone-ampdac-in-review/#comments Sun, 17 Jun 2012 05:14:53 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=68606 There’s nothing wrong with cheap. I eat cheap. I wear cheap. I make cheap jokes. And for the longest time, Jaben shipped mainly cheap amps to my cohort: the masses, God bless ‘em. But Jaben have gotten off that kick. They’ll ring the charity bells in another season. Today is the day of the Porta … Read more]]>

There’s nothing wrong with cheap. I eat cheap. I wear cheap. I make cheap jokes. And for the longest time, Jaben shipped mainly cheap amps to my cohort: the masses, God bless ‘em. But Jaben have gotten off that kick. They’ll ring the charity bells in another season. Today is the day of the Porta Tube+ valve headphone amp/DAC for your iPad/Mac, a delightful machine for bourgeois ears, and sound fit for a king.

The name of that kingdom? GoVibe.

Specifications
24/96kHz upsampling DAC CIRRUS CS4398-CZZ (24/192kHz)http://html.alldatasheet.com/html-pdf/114869/CIRRUS/CS4398-CZZ/219/1/CS4398-CZZ.html
Vavle: 72 6N16B-Q
USB controller: Texas Instruments TIASIO20B
7-10 hours of battery life
Amazing sound

Typical of Jaben products, you have to poke around yourself where specs are concerned. You might find what you are looking for. You might not. There is NO documentation. You have no idea what DAC a Jaben product uses. Ditto the op-amps. Ditto the Porta Tube/+ valve. Ditto practically everything. It’s very much like buying a 1990 Hyundai car full of Yugo or Toyota parts – only the dealer knows. The good news is that the Porta Tube/+ packs a good bunch of parts that makThe other good news is that Jaben haven’t laid out a list of impossible spec. A lot of amp makers give spec that lists like 120dB dynamic range etc. Pooooooosh! No way. Won’t happen when supplying a signal, especially under load.

Before we get too far, remember Jaben’s Vestamp, also a GoVibe. GoVibe is Jaben’s hi end brand, and performance wise, it plays to that branding. There are lots of gotchas otherwise, but most are worth it in the end.

Build Quality
Once you’ve seen one aluminium amp you’ve seen them all. Jaben follow the crowd here. Yep, there are four screws on the front and on the back, and one buried in the volume pot. The logic board slides between two corrugated shelves and is piggybacked by a three-cell rechargeable battery.

The input and output ports are anchored strongly to the board and extrude their necks through three nicely sunk holes. The power switch is in good shape: stubby and metal and dressed in a shiny turtleneck.

A total of 28 breathing holes open to the world, half on top and half on bottom. As the insides get warm, these are absolutely necessary. That warmth is a few degrees above The National headphone amp. On a cold day, it’s a feeble heating brick. On a hot day, it’s feels like puberty all over again. At the very least, you know it’s working.

The Porta Tube’s one gotcha is its gain hardware, which is hidden behind those eight screws and a hundred or so cumulative twists. Adjusting it isn’t difficult. All you need is smooth tweezers or a small screwdriver to remove the jumpers to their adjacent slots. Each channel can be adjusted individually. Easy breezy beautiful. But, to get that far, you have break open the four screws on the front plate, then do the back, and nudge the logic board out. Hence the hundreds twists. Before you get far, a cop’s warning on the back may hinder your progress. “Warning: shock hazard do not open”, it says. Blink blink. Welcome back Jaben. How I’ve missed your pranks. If you’re a TMA reader, you may remember the Hippo box+ fake website prank. Or the prank of the funnilly backwards labelled bass and gain switches. Ah, Jaben, you certainly like a laugh.

Pop the jumpers into the forward position and you are in high gain mode

For some, it may not be funny. A few weekend warriors may abandon their screwdrivers at the back panel. Which is a shame. The Porta Tube and Tube+ have lots of power. Lots, especially, if you’re an IEM user, you’ll want to make sure that gain is set to low. The final problem is that the gain switches aren’t labelled. If you have a modicum of electronics wisdom, you can probably suss the gain by tracing the printed circuits. If not, I’ll tell you how it goes.

With both jumpers removed, the gain is high. With jumpers moved into the ‘forward’ position – that is: moved toward the front of the amp – the gain is set to high. All other positions are low. You can set gain independently for left or right. Works great if one ear is better than another. Aside from the rear cover prank, there’s no reason to take out frustrations on the Porta Tube. In all other realities, it is a wonderful amp, wonderful, and deserves its lime light.

How’s the volume pot work? you may ask. Wonderfully. It is silky smooth and easy to grab. The volume notch is perfect for indicating where things are, even in the dark.

Ergonomics and Polish
I’m not sure TMA’s pictures do justice to the Porta Tube+. It is beautiful. The blue chosen for casing is brilliant against the silver trim and the blue LED looks like such a match as you’d not see this side of a gin and tonic. The LED isn’t too bright, but late at night in your dark room, you may want to cover the front of the Porta Tube+ with tape, or a bad myster novel, or something.

Here's the box that this 700$ piece of audio equipment comes in

In many ways, beauty is skin deep. I’m looking for a 700$ product that screams 700$. I’m looking for engraving, or a nice font, or countersunk bolt ports, for hardened steel screws. I don’t want to see the fingerprints of factory workers on the logic board or scuff marks on the face plate. I don’t want to see a warning not to open the back plate when opening it is the only way to access the gain switches. Those are part and parcel of the GoVibe Porta Tube+ experience. You have to decide whether or not it is worth it to you.

But with the ticks and tacks, come some plusses, too. Again, the volume pot is perfectly smooth. The in and out ports are spaced wonderfully for oversized headphone jacks and interconnects. Another plus is the addition of two headphone outports. They come in parallel, so you can use the Porta Tube evenly with two of the same headphone with no volume discrepancies. You won’t phase the Porta Tube or Porta Tube+. Its innards may not have the last word to say on polish, but holistically, the Porta Tube+ is eloquent.

Features
You’ve got 7-10 hours of battery life, parallel 6,3 and 3,5 mm jacks, internal charging, and a hidden gain switch at your disposal. The Porta Tube and Porta Tube+ do what they should and don’t disappoint. The 700$ you lay down for the Porta tube buys you a workhorse. As long as you don’t need balanced output, or need an electrostatic amp, the Porta Tube and Porta Tube+ are absolutely made for your headphones, no matter the sensitivity, no matter the Ω.

The + version sports a USB DAC that upsamples to 192kHz from its native 24/96. If you listen to music from your computer, this is a killer feature. It bests The National for the simple reason that there is less noise at all points on the volume pot, and it has more voltage than the VestAmp+ going into the output ports to keep your headphones from distorting even at ear-killing volumes. Be forewarned and be careful: the Porta Tube is loud.

Sound quality
The first time I heard the Porta Tube, I was in a curry restaurant in Shinjuku. I had my trusty Sleek Audio CT7 in my ears and disbelief written on my brows. I approached the 3,5mm jack with a hand that had plugged hundreds of headphones into dozens of amps. Years ago, I would have shook with eagerness. That day, however, was just another day, another amp. I approached the Tube+ as I do every other amp: and test first for background noise. My fingers sunk the headphone jack in and made sure the volume all the way down. They flipped the power switch on. No noise. They raised the volume to what I assumed would be a comfortable listening level. No noise. They mashed the volume pot to the end. Noise finally piddled out, but so barely, I assumed it was the curry.

That was January.

Nearly five months later, with a unit from Jaben on my desk, and with my windows shut, I am even more impressed. The Porta Tube+ is almost as noiseless as an amp of its output power gets. The difference between noise at the zero position and noise at the 100% position is tiny. In fact, at 100%, the Porta Tube+ outputs less noise than The National does at about 25%. Impressive indeed.

There are many IEM oriented amps that exhibit less noise than the Porta Tube+, but few can also serve distortion free signal at ear-splitting volumes to headphones such as the DT880 600Ω.

The importance here can’t be glossed over. IEM users have a hard time. With the exception of the polishes turds made by HiSound, and a many would-be respectable Walkman units from Sony’s lineup, all portable MP3 players will have less noise in their signal pathways than portable amps meant to upgrade the sound. The Porta Tube+ is no different in a general sense, but specifically, its noise at highest volume settings is astoundingly low. Which, despite its insane power, is the most important reason I can recommend it even for IEM users.

Here in Japan, quite a few crazy audiophiles plug the Porta Tube+ into their stack, which is a combination of several audio bricks such as the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo or Fostex HP-P1, an external DAC, amp, and maybe even a signal splitter.

Noise isn’t the end of the story, however. Extension is the other, and presentation. The Porta Tube series has wonderful, bright, full-bodied mids and highs. It is one of the best, most articulate amps I’ve heard in any format. When I say bright, I don’t mean grating, or sibilant. I mean clear as a bell, and highly resolved. Instrument separation is good, especially in mid and high frequencies, but better situated to play back small band recordings than symphonies. You can pick instrument from instrument no matter the headphone, but there is a bit of decay in the mid range and low frequencies. That decay, coupled with typical valve-induced distortion, warms up the signal.

On one hand, I’d describe the GoVibe as energetic and bright, and on the other, I’d call it intimate. It’s an interesting blend of two very musical properties that makes the GoVibe Porta Tube intoxicating.

Regarding brightness, perhaps it is best described as an articulate high frequency even in the face of warm valve distortion. No matter the earphone, no matter the headphone that I plug into it, what greets me back is beautiful. I think by now it should be obvious that I dislike signals that curtail high frequencies. I’m very particular about my highs. The Porta Tube+ one of a few special amps that drives perfect transition from mids to highs. The lay and play of cymbals to percussion in Massive Attack’s I Spy, is delicate and real. Imaging is precise, but directed from front of the head, wrapping slowly around, and back, but not too far. The end result is one of sitting in front of two well-placed speakers in a medium sized room. Focus is definitely at the drivers, but nuances from the walls and furniture sneak in relaxingly and naturally.

Again, I think that typical valve-type harmonic distortion, and a centrally concentrated bass output are the happy culprits. The end result is utterly smooth, slightly warm, but wonderfully extended output. Grado users, there is enough low Ω power to drive your phones perfectly, and in your quest for on-stage performance, the Porta Tube is probably a perfect guide. Users like me who love the wide, expressive DT880 headphone are in for another treat. The sometimes tweaky highs of said headphone are tame, lusher than they are through another amp, or from a stereo system. Fortunately, the Porta Tube+ isn’t too tubey.

The Wood Audio WA3+ is about the most tubey headphone amp I’ve heard in my 20 years as a silly audiophile. Its intimacy is wonderful, but comes at a price: I’d not use it with half the headphones I own. The Porta Tube is different completely, but retains the warmth of a good valve amp.

Let’s get back to the music. Protection’s title song, Protection, fronts mid-bass heavy lines, simple machine drums and almost comatose female vocals. The following tracks step in similarly but add male vocals, and even deeper basslines. Slow, full-bodies female vocals, the likes which jazz and massive attack produce, are absolutely magical. Is it the aforementioned decay? If it is, the explanation is too simplistic. Whatever the fact, DT880 and Porta Tube, or CK10 and Porta Tube, even the K701 and Porta Tube bring out all the lustre that’s there somewhere, in the recording.

The above are headphones with some high end bite. Middle-voiced headphones such as the Sennheiser HD650, HD600, Fischer Audio FA-002W are what I would consider second-tier combination phones for the Porta Tube. Keep in mind that the Porta Tube has no lack of detail in the high frequencies. But, it is slightly warmer than the typical solid state amplifier, be that distortion, or decay, I’ve no firm answer. It pairs well with the above headphones, but will emphasise some of their dark, nurturing characteristics.

An amp this intoxicating deserves a good audition with your favourite headphones. Spend a few minutes, or a few hours, and you’ll probably walk away with a new blue pretty under your arm and a significantly lighter wallet. It’s worth the price.

Charts Disclaimer
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance differences between the Porta Tube+ fed by the iPod touch and driving a Beyerdynamic DT880 and Earsonics SM2. 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.

Frequency Response
The Porta Tube/+ has no problem delivering high levels of  resolution to any headphone. Even the SM2, which concoct all sorts of distortion for lesser amps, do nothing to phase the Porta Tube. You will notice, that there is small fall off in the low and high frequencies both. That is part of the original signal, and not load effect. Small levels such as exhibited by the Porta Tube (~1,5 dB) are probably not audible unless you are a dog.

Loaded noise and dynamic range
The Porta Tube+ manages 90,5 dB of dynamic range, 6dB less than CD quality. It also manages -90,5 dB of noise, making it a very clean source, but not quite up to CD quality. Then again, this amp is a valve amp. Part of it s allure is its atypical distortion and noise images.

Distortion
Here’s one of the reasons to get a valve amp. For your money, you get stable, comforting distortion that varies little from source to source. That distortion is often called warm, or comforting. I can agree with both adjectives, but not in the same way I agreed with them for the Woo Audio 3. The GoVibe Porta tube is a more solid, typical sounding amp than the WA3. Distortion is much less for input and output, but still, there is ring, and lovely smear here and there. Both IMD and THD measure high, as they should from valves.

Scaling
The Porta Tube+ follows the same rule that the VestAmp+ does: USB input will have the lowest signal gain. Line input from portable sources will be more powerful than USB. Home sources, or excellent portable sources such as the AlgoRhythm Solo will be loudest and clearest, driving the Porta Tube+ as well as can be.

This amp scales up very well. Strong sources and low gain induce very little phase error in phones like the DT880 600Ω. High gain introduces more, but those phase errors are coming at extremely high and dangerous volumes, volumes that no one should ever listen to. Suffice it to say that the Porta Tube has gobs of power. Like the ALO National, it is ready to replace many a home amp with no problem.

As a DAC
I’m not a big fan of USB-only DAC’s though they seem to be en vogue in the last few years. One of the reasons is that the implementation of USB DAC units aren’t as good as their line-in counterparts. Indeed, the Porta Tube+ performs best via line in, sporting better stereo separation, a lower noise floor, and better dynamic range.

But, it works wonderfully with a computer, too. I’ve not noticed any nasty USB noise in the signal, and the Porta Tube+ is fully plug-and-play, immediately recognised by my MacBook Pro. The output is considerably lower in USB mode than when driven from home-level sources, which is good news for IEM users. And, despite the output is lower, there is plenty of volume for every headphone I’ve plugged into it.

An interesting thing is that the USB input and the line input work simultaneously, meaning a running line in and music playing via USB will run through the headphone output of the Porta Tube+ concurrently. Remember to keep your different sources unplugged when you want to listen to either USB or line in.

Using with iPad
Use of the Porta Tube+ as a USB DAC for the iPad can be done, but it isn’t see-through easy. The iPad’s USB output doesn’t have the voltage to run the DAC unit in the Porta Tube+, which isn’t run on battery power. To run the DAC, you will have to use the included mains adapter and plug the iPad into the camera connection kit, and the Porta Tube+ into that. It works immediately and sounds as good as as always. It just isn’t portable.

Considering that the Porta Tube+ is a desktop/home worthy unit, there is no problem. But, users who want the cleanliness of pure battery driven signals won’t get it with the iPad. Netbooks, on the other hand, can make use of the Porta Tube+ DAC without the mains.

Use as a portable amp
Let’s face it, the Porta Tube/+ is an amp that tips the scales heavily. It is large, hot, and relatively weighty. Still, there are cargo jeans, and amp bags, and slings. The fact that it carries a battery that is good for 7-10 hours means that you can have most of a day’s work and commute buttoned up by one device. And since there is comparatively very little background noise and the volume pot is well balanced, it works wonders for sensitive earphones.

In fact, whilst driving the SM2, there is no more distortion or IMD than there is whilst driving the DT880. The signal sounds the same no matter what is plugged in. This is very seldom achieved by any amplifier. You could say the Porta Tube+ has no preferences of output earphones. Quite a feat.

For portable audio, I can’t recommend the Porta Tube enough for those willing to tote the extra weight.

Conclusion
Despite staunch competition from ALO and Vorzüge, the Porta Tube+ is my favorite sounding portable amp. Its lively, intimate sound is perfect for most headphones, and when paired with bright, detail-oriented headphones, it calmly takes control. Jaben won’t win any unboxing video championship, but that is obviously not their goal. With singular purpose, they have created a truly world-class headphone amp/DAC that I expect will wow discerning audiophiles the world over.

 

App Summary
Title: GoVibe Porta Tube+ headphone amplifier/USB DAC Developer: Jaben
Reviewed Ver: Porta Tube + Min OS Req: 4.3
Price: Porta Tube: 650$

Porta Tube+ 750$  

  • extremely powerful output
  • wonderfully detailed, warm sound
  • No preferences for earphones
  • Beautiful colours
  • Scales well with better equipment
  • Half arsed workmanship
  • cop warnings
  • No spec, accessories, literature

 

 

PortaTube-accessories PortaTube-back Here's the box that this 700$ piece of audio equipment comes in PortaTube-front PortaTube-glowing-led PortaTube-iPhone PortaTube-iPhone2 Pop the jumpers into the forward position and you are in high gain mode PortaTube-national PortaTube-valve-view PortaTube-USB-dr PortaTube-USB-fr PortaTube-USB-imd PortaTube-USB-ns PortaTube-USB-thd PortaTube-Comparo-dr PortaTube-Comparo-fr PortaTube-Comparo-ns PortaTube-Comparo-thd

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

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Ortofon eQ5 earphones in Review – an earphone for all time http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/06/11/ortofon-eq5-earphones-in-review/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/06/11/ortofon-eq5-earphones-in-review/#comments Mon, 11 Jun 2012 08:52:46 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=68450 I hated dolling out a mere GRAB to the Ortofon eQ7. But good build quality, acceesories, and sound alone didn’t do the trick. It could have been easier to wear, and the cable could have been a LOT better. It could have been the eQ5. Specifications Audio Engine: Balanced armature driver Frequency Response: 10-20kHz +/-3db … Read more]]>

I hated dolling out a mere GRAB to the Ortofon eQ7. But good build quality, acceesories, and sound alone didn’t do the trick. It could have been easier to wear, and the cable could have been a LOT better. It could have been the eQ5.

Specifications
Audio Engine: Balanced armature driver
Frequency Response: 10-20kHz +/-3db
Sensitivity at 1kHz: 118db SPL for 1.0mw input
Impedance: 40 ohm
Maximum Rated Input Power: 5.0mw
Weight: 15.9g
Cable: 1.2m, straight
Accessories: 3 pairs of silicone ear tips (S/M/L), 1 pair of Comply foam tips, 4 replacement filters, 2 replacement filter rings, filter replacement tool
Available colors: black, red, silver

The eQ5 sports a very similar driver to the eQ7, a speaker designed and made in Japan by Yashima corp. It rocks. I’d call it a hybrid. Yashima call it a moving armature. The moving part is the killing stroke. The armature is the thud on the back of the head to ensure mortality. It’s got all the cleanliness of a balanced armature earphone and most of the tactile feedback of a dynamic driver. It’s got heaps of love from TMA.

Package and accessories
Unlike its older brother, the eQ5 comes minimally packed. Inside the tiny cardboard box is an aluminium cannister. Inside that are the earphones and their accessory package. As written above, you get just four ear pieces, three in silicon and one pair of Comply foam tips.

The good news about the ear pieces is that they are comfortable. The rubber is soft and easy on the ears. The Comply tips are of course among the softest ear tips in the world. Personally, I find the Comply tips to be a strange combination for the clean and agile sound of the eQ5. My ear canals are on the tight side. They squish the Comply too much and the sound gets muddled. But that’s just my ears. Yours might behave better.

Like the eQ7, the eQ5 comes with replaceable filters and a filter tool. The filters are tiny o rings that are easy to lose. A slight sigh after a bad day of work will send them flying around the room if they’re not in their bag. My advice is this: keep them in their bag till you need them. I’ve been using the eQ5 for about 2 months day in, day out, and have never needed to change them. Knock on wood.

You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned a case of any sort. There isn’t any, unless you consider having your eQ5′s knocking about in the aluminium cannister. I don’t. You get what I’ve listed above. Which is a shame because the eQ5 is an expensive and beautiful earphone. It needs some protection when not in the ear. I suggest getting a small synthetic wallet from somewhere. I keep mine in a strangely supple keyholding pouch. Wonderful.

Build quality and cable
The eQ7 was a well-made product, just too full of oversight to draw a better final rating from me. The eQ5 is a second generation product from the same Ortofon. It is excellent in almost every metric. Take for instance the earphone body, a milled aluminium bullet. Like its predecessor, it will withstand a car crash, a small bomb, the collision of worlds, perhaps even recess at the local kindergarten.

Trailing from its bum is a very nice cable. Finally. The eQ7 might have been a kiss had it had a good cable. Ortofon did away with the textile weave that made the eQ7 cable look pretty and ruined it for portable use because of horrible microphonic touch noise. The eQ5 uses a soft, but strong cable that delivers very little microphonic touch noise to the ear. It is light and not easy to tangle. In fact, it is one of the best cables I’ve ever used on any earphone. At any price. Maybe Audio Technica’s CK100/CK10 best it. Maybe. The only thing it lacks is a neck cinch to keep the cable together above the y-split, that or a shirt clip. Actually, it could do with an extra layer of insulation after the y split. It is possitively anerexic. Regardint the lack of neck cinch, I do the following: twist the cable about six times to achieve an approximation of a cinch. It works. The cable comes together just below my chin. It just doesn’t look as good.

Finally, cable supports: stress relief, insulation, and y-split, are somewhat mixed. I imagine every earphone lover will notice first that the eQ5 lacks a rubber sheath coming out of the earphone. Instead, the eQ5′s sphincter is lined with about 1mm of rubber. Ah, smooth! This keeps sharp aluminium edges from cutting the cable. I think it is adequate. It doesn’t look strong, but let’s be honest here: most stress relieving sleeves are rubbish. Ones that look strong often place the cable under worse threat from harsh wearing angles. There are few that are worth their hype. So, while initially I felt run over by the lack of a stress relief at the earphone, months later, I feel it is unnecessary. Inside the capsule, the cable is properly knotted and anchored. Could Ortofon have done better? Maybe, but I’ve no complains now.

There is also no stress relief at the y-split. Again, I’m not worried by this. The cable is soft and will withstand thousands of snags and twists. Again, after the y-split, the cable does deserve some more insulation. Stress relief finally comes at the plug. It is soft and flexible and not about to break. Like its older brother, however, the plug is terminated with a straight relief. That means of course that it is under greater stress as it will suffer to be bent more often than an L-shaped cable.

Fit
Earplug meets bullet. That’s it. If you can fit those two hand-in-hand in your imagining, you can get what it’s like to have the eQ5 in ear. Because the eQ5 lacks a stress relief and sports a cable that bursts out of its arse, it is as easy to fit as any earbud ever has been. No squeezing or pulling of the earlobe is necessary. Just plug it in like you would a cable into the mains. Phfiiit!

There are no disadvantages to this design. There are disadvantes to the shape of the earphone, however. The front flange is short, and supported by a thick base. People with small ear canals may find fit uncomfortable or impossible. My ear holes are middle/small sized and manage barely. I’d hate to miss out on the eQ5 sound just because of how God made me.

Another accolade that Ortofon deserve is the lay of the cable. Since it juts out from the eQ5′s bum and then hangs down, it barely touches the face. This not only helps keep microphonic noises down, it also keeps face oil and sweat from the cable. Again, the cable is well designed and seems to resist the deletorious effects of body oils, but still, keeping it away from your face is a good idea.

If you can get the earphone into your ears, you are in for a treat. Since it is light and sports great ear pieces, it is comfortable for long listening sessions. I’ve spend up to six hours a day with these in my ears and have nothing but praises to sing at the end of the day.

As for how you should hang the cable, I think the most natural way is straight down from the ear, not over the ear. The eQ5 fits best with the body angled down. Hanging the cable over the ear will mess with this fit. There are people who use it over the ear with no issues, however. Whatever floats your boat.

Sound
The eQ5 is the most enjoyable earphone I’ve used in years. It bests my favourite CK10 in ways that are almost sexual, and makes me laugh at days I spend pining for custom earphones. Yes, it’s that good.

The eQ5 does bass perfectly. One could reckon it’s a well-tuned dynamic headphone. Yes, headphone. The eQ5 renders natural bass with incredible definition. Its focus is pretty flat with low notes, with no apparent mid or low bass hump, and a gradual decline into the midrange. What’s magical about it is its tactile qualities that aren’t natural in armature earphones. Last night, my wife first plugged these into her ears. What she said was: lots of bass. That morning, she had tried another favourite of mine, the Grado GR8. The much prefers the Ortofon. I can’t say I blame her.

Bass is rendered with wonderful space, and a little warmth. Typical of armature earphones, there is no congestion. Decay is fast, but not perfectly spic-and-span, leaving room for some intimacy. Perhaps that is why I’ve warmed so much to the eQ5. Absolute resolution-heads may prefer something like the CK10 or Audeo PFE. I would imagine that most people, however, would enjoy the more organic sound of the eQ5. It isn’t as organic, say, as the Earsonics SM3, but it is close, and in some ways, cleaner. Decay in no way impacts instrument separation.

From the very lowest voiced insturment, frequency bands stay where they should, and within each band, plenty of detail bleeds straight to the ear. High and mid frequencies are the most clearly voiced. Bass decay accounts for a slightly warmer presentation. But each resounds with clarity that few earphones can muster. An earphone that may be able to topple the clarity of the eQ5 is Fischer Audio’s DBA-02 MKII, which some bass roll off in the low registers, making for a more prominent mid range. Both are clear, but the DBA is lusher. Soundwise, you could consider the eQ5 a flatter, easier to tame Earsonics SM2. The DBA-02 is the SM3′s baby brother.

This clarity lends to a charismatic nature. The eQ5 meets your music. It also meets your EQ. If you feel that one frequency needs a boost, go ahead. There are few earphones that respond as well to EQing as the eQ5… Hmmm. A bump in the lower registers results in incredible gains in bass volume without losing definition, and without introducing artefacts. The same goes for high frequencies and mids.

Speaking of mids, whether it is Ortofon or Yashima that’s to blame, it doesn’t matter. The mids have detail, yes, but a lot of force. From the high ends of the bass notes to the lower end of treble, mids are strong, well-voiced, and detailed. What you get is powerful horns and brass and crystal clear vocals, no matter the gender, along with space enough for complicated musical sets. Perhaps you will get more detail from a perfectly created

The eQ5 isn’t an emotional earphone like the DBA-02 or SM3 can be. Don’t even get me started about Mingo. But, it is honest and detailed, and clearly has its feet in the bass that my ears miss when listening to their favourite CK10′s. Before I get onto amplification, etc., I want to make clear one thing: I’ve talked a lot about bass in this review, but I need to correlate my excitement with my a truth. The eQ5 won’t satisfy bass heads. It has gobs of bass for a ‘neutral’ voiced earphone. Remember, I’m comparing it with the CK10 and DBA-02 on the mild end, and the SM3 on the upper end. What it has it flaunts, but it doesn’t output head-numbing quantities of bass.

Compared to the eQ7. Most of what I said in the eQ7 remains true for the eQ5, however, I have been able to get better fit with the eQ5. Perhaps for this reason, bass response seems better and treble less scratchy. Soundwise, I was astounded by the eQ5 where the eQ7 merely left me smiling.

Amping and background noise
The eQ5 is also sensitive. It’s not on the same level as a FitEar 333 where even the air emits background noise. But, you will be able to hear background noise from your player or amp. It’s not excessive, but it’s enough to make me suggest you keep crap like HiSound AMP3′s and older Sony players in a dark drawer. That said, you won’t need an amp. The eQ5 can trip up players like the above mentioned AMP3 Pro and older players such as Cowon D2, iPod touch 1G, iPod 5G, etc., but the tripping is minimal. While the driver is rated for 40Ω, it seems to dip down quite far when under stress. And considering bass output (note the proviso above), I can’t blame it. That single driver is doing such a clear and powerful job that it must drop to stressful levels under load.

Players with output impedances of 32Ω will struggle with the eQ5. Same with amps. Your player will probably do perfectly if its output is good for 8Ω or less.

Out and about
If it weren’t for the lack of neck cinch, the eQ5 would get accolades in this section, too. As it is, it misses out by the barest of fractions. At 1,2m, the soft cable is about perfect for pocket-play. It is a bit too short for a purse, but then again, I’m giving up on carrying one.

Finally, if only Ortofon included a carrying case, the eQ5 would be perfect. Already it seals out quite a bit of noise, not on the level of the CK100 or SM3, but certainly on par with the best earphones that use similar flange-to-ear tip construction. There can be a little wind howling when worn in strong winds, but nothing too scary. It’s not like the eQ5 is made for exercise anyway.

Conclusion
The eQ5 is the perfect earphone for someone who enjoys a neutral presentation with balanced frequencies, but plenty of oomph in the bottom end. It is clear and never trips up anywhere, presenting itself with a slight bias to bass. It’s my type of earphone. If you love clear, wide, and somewhat muscly sound, the eQ5 could be your type of earphone, too. What makes me frown is the omission of a neck cinch and a carrying case. The latter really eats at me. This is a 250-300$ earphone. It deserves better. But all in all, there is too little to fault. The eQ5 is perhaps the most pleasurable earphone I’ve reviewed at TouchMyApps at any price.

I would like to thank Dimitri from Musica Acoustics for loaning the eQ5 for nearly four months! The problem is that I don’t want to give it back!

App Summary
Title: eQ5 earphone Developer: Ortofon Japan
Reviewed Ver:  black Min OS Req: 4.3.0
Price: 350-300$
  • Generally good fit
  • Quality construction
  • Excellent sound
  • Wonderful cable
  • Easy to drive – no amp needed
  • No stress sleeve on earphone cable
  • Accessories? What accessories?
eQ5-accessories eQ5-cable-plug eQ5-flange-mouth eQ5-in-case eQ5-stress eQ5-box eQ5-iphone eQ5-fit

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

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Audiophile Friday #1: Cypher Labs Algorhythm SOLO vs Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 – Digital Output http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/05/18/cypher-labs-algorhythm-solo-vs-venturecraft-go-dap-unit-4-0-digital-output/ http://www.touchmyapps.com/2012/05/18/cypher-labs-algorhythm-solo-vs-venturecraft-go-dap-unit-4-0-digital-output/#comments Sat, 19 May 2012 05:22:45 +0000 http://www.touchmyapps.com/?p=68176 Last week I half-arsedly introduced two accessories made specifically for the iDevice audiophile, the Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 and the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo. Both are able and willing to replace larger, more expensive and decidedly untransportable HiFi gear, but only one is worthy of doing so. What’s important Each decodes information internally, outputting high … Read more]]>

Last week I half-arsedly introduced two accessories made specifically for the iDevice audiophile, the Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 and the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo. Both are able and willing to replace larger, more expensive and decidedly untransportable HiFi gear, but only one is worthy of doing so.

What’s important
Each decodes information internally, outputting high quality analogue signals. But, neither stops there. Venturecraft’s Unit 4.0 spits out SPDIF over a 3,5mm optical connection. It also protects your iPhone, charges it, and syncs it via a cheap and ubiquitous a mini-USB cable. Remember the original Go-DAP? This is its younger, more capable sibling.

The Solo won’t charge your battery nor protect your iPhone. It’s actually sort of beastly to lug around. But, its glory isn’t its general utility. Its glory is its sound and signal quality. Since it doesn’t harness an internal headphone amp, it spits analogue signal at line-level and SPDIF digital signal over coaxial. It pairs perfectly with the likes of the ALO The National and ALO Rx and many other headphone amps.

Hallelujah.

Why digital?
For years, we’ve had access to the rather high-quality line outputs of the iDevice. Via 30-pin cables, we’ve been able to hook up high quality portable amps, recording devices, microphones, and sync cables. Then came the Wadia iTransport, a device that sat on your desktop and allowed your iDevice to spit out digital signal to an external DAC. Now, there is a host of such devices.

They why of digital is fairly easy to decipher in a single word: accuracy. While analogue signals sound great, they are prone to distortion, jitter, noise, and theoretically degrade via poor quality cables.

Digital has its own host of problems, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip them. The music in your iPod/iPhone is 100% digital. The aim of both the Go-DAP and the SOLO is to keep that signal digital. The Cirrus Logic chips in the iPhone/iPod do a fine job of converting digital signals to analogue, but they can be bettered by external converters.

In the case of the SOLO, they are completely outclassed.

The effects
Here’s where the argument rights itself a bit. Since the iDevice already does a fine job of converting digital to analogue, DAC virgins and indeed DAC party girls and guys may not immediately realise the effects. What you pay for is the last few iotas of quality, not a revolution.

However, if you pair your iPhone with the proper outboard amps, you can get both demonstrable and measurable improvement.

Balanced
Digital signals from both the Go-DAP and the SOLO can be split into balanced signals given the right outboard DAC. Balanced signals in turn, can be read by the proper amp, and plugged into the proper headphone. Balanced headphones are few and far between simply because most require rewiring. Some headphones such as new AKG and Sennheiser models can be paired up with high quality balanced cables without surgery. Some IEMs can, too, but IEM topology, whose balanced armature crossovers are meant to operate differently. Some may indeed be better balanced, but among those that sport passive crossovers, I’ve yet to discover one that retains its original magic.

Single driver headphones are another matter all together. The rather thrifty Einar balanced amp provided more power to the DT880 and better left to right stereo separation. The effect was immediately recognisable at matched volume levels.

If you want to get into the more powerful, higher-end world of balanced headphones or speakers, but want to stay portable, either the Go-DAP Unit 4.0 or the SOLO is your ticket.

Signal tests
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance differences between the Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 and the Cypher Labs Algorhythm SOLO. 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.

Frequency response
As you can see, the SOLO is flawless. In digital, there is zero deviation from RMAA’s benchmark. You cannot do better.

SOLO: win

The Venturecraft Unit 4.0 takes a different approach to playback, which is to roll off the highs from just after 1000Hz. It is an extreme approach that isn’t the effect of load. Unloaded, in both digital and analogue, the Unit 4.0 is unable to sustain anything resembling a proper signal. Because audio is subjective, such a result isn’t a disaster. Many audio makers add their own signature to sound. Personally, I enjoy the sound very much, especially with the likes of the DT880, which are bright to begin with. However, a digital signal should be as close to the original signal as possible, and in this case, it isn’t.

Go-DAP: fail

Noise levels
Again, the SOLO sweeps the test. Its noise levels top actually surpass the limits of 16-bit audio at -97,9 decibels. You won’t find better performance in any portable device, and even in home units, higher scores are probably not discernable. When spitting out analogue, noise creeps in and averages -93,1 decibels, again a damn fine score.

SOLO: win

The Unit 4.0 fairs well at -94,2 in digital. It doesn’t break the 16-bit barrier, but the difference in digital signals between the two is negligible when feeding outboard DAC units. In analogue, the Unit 4.0 falls to -87,3 decibels. Again, it is a respectable score, but not necessarily so when considering that the iDevice is able to sustain loaded levels up to -91 decibels.

Go-DAP: win

Dynamic Range
Again, the SOLO exceeds the bounds of 16-bit audio at +96,7 decibels. One wonders how it would fair if playing back higher resolution material. The DAC is capable of it, but the iPhone isn’t.

SOLO: win

The Go-DAP still isn’t putting its strong foot forward. At an averaged +63,3 decibels, it puts out the dynamic range of an iPod under heavy load. It actually sounds decent here though, quite excellent for recordings that are heavy on binaural material and harsher sounds.

Go-DAP: fail

THD IMD and noise
If there was a more violent trounce party, I don’t know what it is. The SOLO isn’t able to manage the bounds of 16-bit audio for THD+noise, but it does deliver very high quality signal.

SOLO: win

The Go-DAP sprouts IMD errors from its digital ports like the Titanic spouted water into the Atlantic Ocean. Its analogue output fairs much better, managing merely the worst output score I’ve tested thus far. The digital output is simple astonishing.

Go-DAP: fail

Stereo separation
Here, both units perform well within the bounds of my expectation. I’ve found that the original RMAA signal played end to end from other digital outputs never deviates from around -50dB at worst. Why, I can’t tell you, but: both units perform horribly here.

SOLO: fail
Go-DAP: fail

Digital output was flawless. This is the analogue wave.

Square waves
Analogue: both units perform well here, with slight ringing in the high frequencies the sort of low frequency responses you would typically see in high quality analogue devices. Ringing is minimal, though, again, the SOLO outperforms the Go-DAP Unit 4.0. I would suggest that the differences that favour the SOLO aren’t discernible.

Digital: both units perform well, but the SOLO is less plagued by ringing. The Unit 4.0 shows slight, though almost imperceptible ringing in both signal extremes.

SOLO: win
Go-DAP: win

NOTE: Take note of the shape and size of the ringing portion. The Square waves are drawn by Sound Studio when recorded in/out via Edirol FA-66. The software doesn’t allow for 100% scale comparisons.

Summary
As you can see, the SOLO ran digital circles around the Unit 4.0 in just about every test. Add to that a cleaner analogue signal, and you have a truly pocketable reference level system. Of course, the SOLO necessitates the use of external cables, amps, and a lot more money. It exceeds the bounds of 16-bit in every test but one: stereo separation, and creates a perfect square wave. In its singular purpose, it is nonpareil.

The Unit 4.0 is an amazing device. It charges. It protects. It amps. It spits digital. But, apart from its incredible ability to recharge your iDevice, it does so with a lot of strain. Since it is heavy, a fall to the floor will likely damage it. Its amp is fun, and loud, but has more signal noise and distortion than any iDevice does. Its digital signal is a wonderful accessory that adds functionality to your HiFi, but it isn’t nearly up to the same quality as the SOLO is.

If Venturecraft can fix this with a firmware update, or simply by choosing a more stable DAC, they should do so. For now, SPDIF output seems at best a lazy implementation.

Of course the Go-DAP costs less, charges and syncs syncs, and keeps cables out of the way. There is none like it. And, in case you want to ditch the charging features, Venturecraft have just introduced their next project, the X which acts as a DAC and amp for your iPhone and your computer. Again, it is the first of its kind. Get ready for myriad copycats.

On the Go
This light-hearted audiophile would choose the Go-DAP simply because it charges and has fewer parts to break. Cables are buggers. The SOLO practically requires a case of some sort to keep everything together. And, when packed with an amp, headphones, and all the interconnects you need, it looks like a bomb.

Still, both have their fans. I saw heaps of SOLO stacks at the recent Fujiya-AVIC headphone festival. People use them. People enjoy them. And those people are audiophiles that demand the utmost quality from their portable listening rigs.

Both units work with just about every recent iDevice. The SOLO is just that much more compatible. I’ve had a bugger of a time getting an iPod touch 4G working with the Unit 4.0. The SOLO worked with every 30-pin iDevice I plugged it to.

The Cypher Labs National stack – not an easy carry

Why iDevice and external DAC?
Here’s a question I’m sure is asked by many audiophiles who look at devices such as the iBasso DX100, HiFiman, Colorfly C4, etc, and suffer indecision. The simple answer is this: if your music requires gapless playback, perfect navigation, few to no firmware issues, better battery life, and almost no build quality concerns, stick with Apple.

If you want the absolute best, you will have to purchase external DACs/amp for these players anyway. Of course, if you hate Apple, you are probably not reading this article anyway.

I throw music onto my iDevices via iTunes drag and drop. I don’t want to make CUE sheets, worry about WAV compatibility, or poor battery life. I don’t suffer players that can’t play back gapless files. Since I demand that music plays back as simply in my device the same as it does from a CD, there is only Apple.

Conclusion
After nearly 2000 words, my conclusion is very simple, but it hinges on you. If you value compactness and have an iPhone 4/s, there is NO other choice than the Go-DAP Unit 4.0. You still get digital output and fun/powerful sound plus all the other features. The Go-DAP Unit 4.0 is a great device. But, its compromises in output signal quality are severe.

Between the two, the SOLO is the only choice for reference-quality sound. But it gives up is portability. It also requires you to invest in outboard audio components. But then again, you knew that, and you were prepared to invest. To you, only one thing matters: signal quality.

While this seems a lopsided comparison, it is the only sort that is possible. Venturecraft chose to attack all angles, Cypher Labs chose to tackle one. Audio-wise, only one nailed it. That is the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm SOLO.

Cypher Labs
Cypher Labs LLC

4260 Galewood St. Suite B
Lake Oswego, OR 97035
sales@cypherlabs.com
USA

Venturecraft
Umeda 1-2-2-1400
Kita-ku, Osaka-shi
Osaka 530-0001
Japan
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