Entering The Parallel Audiophile Universe, Part I

Hall-oates-2

As I type this, I’m listening to Daryl Hall crooning Do What You Want, Be What You Are. He’s at the height of his vocal powers here, swooping seamlessly from an airy falsetto into the upper reaches of his muscular, soulful tenor. His voice has that sharpened, EQ’ed edge (not nearly as harsh as on Hall and Oates’ later recordings) that cuts through all the artificial reverb in the background. The bass guitar walks an inexorable, descending line, providing the bluesy foundation (now doubled by the strings) for what I like to call “God’s own chord progression.” And as I listen, I cannot help myself – I must bob my head in time to downbeat of each 3/4 measure. I’m sure I look like a weirdo, but I don’t care.

Where Am I?

Remarkably, I’m not at home in front of my stereo rig, feeling smug about my relatively budget minded system (especially the ANK Kit 1 and the  Spatial Hologram M4’s).

No – I’m sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. Daryl Hall and John Oates’ music has been compressed into a lossless FLAC file ripped on my laptop from a CD . It’s playing on an iBasso DX80 DAP (digital audio player) through a pair of Hifiman RE-600 IEM’s (in ear monitors).

Whoa! How did I get here?

Hi-Res

Over the past two years or so, I’ve downloaded a bunch of high-resolution music files from HDTracks.com but, as good as many of them sound, I found that I hadn’t been playing them all that much. Why not?

Those files live on the main drive of my ancient MacBook Pro laptop. In order to play them, I have to plug my laptop into my Musical Fidelity V-Link 192 USB-to-S/PDIF converter box, which in turn is plugged into my Musical Fidelity M1 DAC. Then I have to fire up a high-resolution music player application like Audirvana (which I like) or Amarra (which I rather dislike) in order to listen to those files.

At the end of a long workday when I just want to relax into some music, this usually feels like too much trouble. So those hi-resolution 1’s and 0’s have (metaphorically) been gathering dust on the laptop.

What about buying a cheap PC or a Mac Mini and creating a dedicated music server? One day I think I’ll take that plunge, but it’s not where my system (or household!) budget priorities are right now.

But lately, there’s emerged another way to enjoy those lossless files, for things have been on the move in the world of  portable, high resolution audio gear. Two discoveries got me to start paying attention…

I’d heard of Neil Young’s high-resolution Pono Player and Pono Music Store project and seen the ads (and slick magazine reviews) for the breathtakingly expensive high-res players from Astell & Kern. I’d never paid much attention to them, though, until a few months ago. I was wandering through Fry’s Electronics (geek heaven, and we’re lucky enough to have a brick and mortar Fry’s store in my town) and I happened to stumble upon a display featuring not only the Pono, but also a low priced, high-resolution portable player from a Chinese company I’d never heard of called Fiio. The design was cute and the price of the player (the X1) was under $100!

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The Cute Little Fiio X1 High Resolution DAP

This sent me sniffing around Amazon.com, where I discovered DAP’s (again, Digital Audio Players) from a plethora of brands that were new to me. Clearly, it was time to do some serious research on this whole DAP thing.

Phone Stack or Dedicated DAP?

Not so fast.

It was then that a promotional email from crowd funding web site Indiegogo caught my attention. It seemed that the established, high-end electronics manufacturer CEntrance was funding a portable DAC and self-powered (rechargeable) headphone amplifier combo called the DACportable. This four-inch long device promised to turn any smartphone or tablet into an audiophile quality, portable music server supporting file formats all the way up to DSD and capable of driving even full sized, high-impedance headphones. (Even compatibility with Apple’s iOS was promised.) Maybe I didn’t need a separate player. Maybe I needed what portable audiophile road warriors call a “stack:” a smart phone or iPod-like device tethered to a headphone amp and/or portable DAC.

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A “Stack”

Okay, this was unfamiliar territory for a portable audiophile newbie like me. Where could I get reliable advice?

If you dare to go down the portable audio audiophile rabbit hole, your first Internet destination will probably be…

Head-Fi.Org – Internet Center Of The Headphone Audiophile Universe

Where do I even begin to describe the wonders of Head-Fi?

In no particular order, here are some impressions:

  1. People on Head-fi are, as a whole, a friendlier and more patient bunch than the folks who hang out on Audio Asylum and some of the other audiophile discussion boards. There, I said it. Seriously, there seems to be a general understanding in the Headphone Universe that everyone hears differently, that some people are “bass heads,” others are “mid heads” and some cannot abide highs without extra sparkle. So you generally don’t have people who prefer different gear accusing each other of being deaf or having poor taste. Furthermore, I’ve yet to see anyone on Head-fi literally swearing at another forum user (as I did recently on a Facebook audio forum) for believing that cables make a difference in system sound. Oh, there’s the occasional kerfuffle over whether burn-in of IEM’s (in ear monitors) is real or not, but I’ve yet to see such a discussion turn truly ugly.
  2. People on Head-fi are just as astute and picky as they are on any home audio forum. They wax rhapsodic over “instrument separation,” “air,” “sound stage,” “timbre” and “black backgrounds.”
  3. Head-fi’er’s love to experiment. They swap cables and ear pads on their full size “cans” (i.e., headphones). They don’t go on ad infinitum about tube rolling on their amps but they do get pretty verbose around tip rolling, i.e., trying different brands of ear tips to tailor the response of their IEM’s.
  4. As a web site experience, Head-fi is excellent. Both its full and mobile sites are very full featured, including a badge that immediately alerts registered users of any new activity related to their membership. It’s a joy to use. Audiogon and AudioAsylum aren’t even close in user friendliness (although the equipment forums at Stevehoffman.tv are close).
  5. The regulars on Head-fi love to write reviews and the site makes it very easy to locate them. Many of the regular reviewers will be sent new products by the manufacturers in exchange for their opinions. Additionally, nearly every piece of gear has a dedicated “Impressions” thread.
  6. Many headphone and portable hi-fi manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, hang out on Head-fi and regularly respond to the queries of end users.
  7. Head-fi reaches an international audience of both newbies and serious headphone audiophiles, much more so than the “usual suspect” home audio forums.
  8. Spend enough time on Head-fi, see the enthsiasm of its denizens, and you get the distinct impression that this is where the motherlode of audio industry growth is to be found these days. Perhaps that’s why serious, old-line home audiophile brands like Focal, Cardas , PSB and NAD are also getting into the headphone game.

DAP It Is

For a number of reasons that I’ll get into in my next post, including feedback I got on this thread on Head-fi, I went with a standalone DAP, the iBasso DX80. I’ll have much more to say about its pros and cons in my next post.

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The iBasso DX80 DAP!

Never Fear…

This foray into portable audio does not mean I’m finished reviewing and exploring home audio gear. So, even if you’re not (yet) interested in portable hi-fi, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Until next time, be kind and enjoy your music!

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