Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Keeping it Simply Stellar, Shangling's M2s

Digital technology has come quite a long way in even the last 5 years. With advancements in small scale electronics manufacturing comes the allure of new found computing power. Which seems to invite the creation of a multitude of entry level products that can almost do it all! An as exciting as that is, I still find my self drawn back to my legacy products. Straight forward gear with only one basic function. They say the key to success is to keep it simple stupid. 

At only $150 the Shanling M2s amazingly gives us the best of both worlds, a device with a complex suite of connectivity options but a super simple physical user interface. An for some one like me, who already has such a large collection of gear the M2s fits in perfectly! It can do a lot, but it's most impressive function is it's primary function. That's not to say the M2S handles connectivity poorly, but rather the on board performance is at the level that I don't feel the need to try an improve it by feeding it either line out into a more robust amp, or digital out into a more robust DAC.

Here in the states you can purchase it via Amazon with the brown leather case bundled in. I'd also like to thank our friends over at Musicteck for allowing me the chance to demo and review the Shanling M2s. As always my thoughts and views expressed here are my own, an I haven't been reimbursed for them

Build & User Interface
The packing is clean, black cardboard with a hard foam insert to keep the DAP secure during shipment. Included is a little fabric bag, a charging cable and some screen protectors. My demo also came with the brown leather case, which added a little extra grip.  

Build quality is impressive, the 3 inch screen is easy to read even in direct sunlight. The placement of user interface buttons is absolutely stunning! This has to be one of the first DAPs I could easily and consistently operate with only a single hand. 
This little black wheel sits at the center of the interface, it's sensitivity is a little difficult to use at first though after a day or two I was able to master the use of half and full turns to speed up menu navigation. It's also used for volume controls, and operates smoother without as much responsiveness.

The power button is placed just above the control wheel, while it is a little small using the case makes it much more manageable.

The forward, play/pause and back buttons run parallel with the control wheel. The small size and button placement are what allow for super easy one handed operation. As I was able to operate the unit with either my left or right hand respectively. 

My only real gripe with the player is that the USB and 3.5mm output are on the bottom, I found my self operating it more upside down than right side up. The USB port it self is well built exhibiting very minimal cable play, the 3.5mm is much the same.
Graphic Interface:

Navigation between each of the different menu's is quick and painless, double clicking the power button takes you back first this lock screen then right back into the main menu. 

From here you can accesses your music library, the play and system settings sub menu's as well as get back to what's currently playing. 

A favorites option is available here, also rewinding a song works with a single press after 30 seconds or so, other wise if it'll switch to the previous track. I found holding the back button to be more consistent and often just as quick.
The volume control works without having the player on. How ever when your viewing the "now playing" screen it appears with a numeric value scale.
Output power: 130mW@32ohm
Frequency response: 20Hz--20kHz-0.2dB
THD+N: 0.003%A-weightingoutputing 500mV
SNR108dBA-weightingDynamic range: 108dB
Output impedance: 4.8Ω Sampling rate: 44.1kHz--192kHz
Supporting format: APE, FLAC, ALAC, WMA, AAC, OGG, MP3, WAV, AIFF, DSF, DIFF

Dimension: 53mm×14.5mm×85.6mm 
Net weight: about 100g Screen: 3 inches

During my time with the M2S I was tested it both stand alone and sourced from my mobile device. I did the majority of my listening with my Superlux HD 668B, now outfitted with Cosmos Velour Ear Pads for a more balanced frequency response.

Sadly I was unable to get the USB Drivers to configure for my Windows 8 laptop, so I was not able to listen from a Laptop/Desktop PC Source. However Bluetooth connectivity provided a convenient high quality output that, I was able to get to hook into my Windows 8 laptop. Thankfully I had no drop outs and only a marginal amount of added noise. 

Having the M2s tucked away powering my headphones sourced from my V20 was a convenient option, but honestly the M2s sounded best with hard cable connections. So I spent most of my time with it hard wired to external sources or it self, because of the unique button lay out I had no problems multi tasking with it. It's smaller size and simpler lay out actually make it a quicker more convenient to operate than my LG V20, seeing as I only need a single hand to take full advantage of the M2s functionality.  


The Shanling M2s offers an energetic natural sound signature that's very agreeable to a wide variety of headphones. Overall, I found it to be very linear throughout it's entire frequency response. Good extension from top to bottom with spacious and exciting imaging. While it wasn't deficient with micro detail, it did add a touch of emphasis to ambient noise which can often overshadow some more complex transients. Overall I enjoyed the energy that the M2S presents alongside a more natural warmth.

Bass Quality: 
       The M2s offers a very lean low end, while not lacking power or sub bass response there were times I wanted a little more body from it. Larger instruments, like the Double Bass had a more hollow tone than what I consider to be natural. Non the less, bass guitars, cellos, kick drums and synths were spot on. In fact while listening to the large opening drum in the Eagles live rendition of Hotel California, I found the bass to be very articulate. With plenty of authority an enough resolve to present the unique vibrato within the decay of each strike. 

Mid Range Purity:
    Equally beautiful and clear, the M2s does an excellent job retaining mid range purity. It has just a touch of extra decay and mid range emphasis. Enough to take the edge off something shouty like my Superlux HD 668B without detracting from it's tactility and excitement. Igor Levit's presentation of Aria struck me the most with the M2S, a lot of entry level range players either present to much decay and ring or too little and lack weight. With the M2s, I got just enough body on the mids to preserve the beautiful quality of each note as it decay'd without having any excessive ringing present. Something that not even my HM 601 does!!

   While only marginal, the M2S does have a touch of over emphasis and grain up top. While that emphasis does add some extra presence and energy, it also masks over some transient information and can create a very mild haze. Listening to Jazz felt the high hats had to much energy, to much tisssss as it were. It masked some of the energy of the percussion. Although, the added emphasis really helped resolve a touch more vibrato in bells and other small dense metal percussive instruments.

     That added emphasis up top does add emphasis to ambient noise and other macro details, which in turn does mask some more complex transient and micro detail. Additionally, the M2s had excellent macro dynamics but suffered smaller gradual volume changes. Going back to the live performance of Hotel California, the M2s didn't clearly resolve the gradual crescendo leading into the first verse. 

    Imaging was more spacious than I expected, sounds within the audible space moved quickly within it. The only fault of the M2S was a lack of a clearly defined rear channel and a tendency to sound a bit disjointed at times. The same quality that adds some excitement to the image it presents, can sometimes take away from the cohesiveness of that image. 

        I felt the M2s presented a good sense of time and changes within that domain. While it had a small touch of emphasis on the attack of instruments, that emphasis didn't diminish the decay or release of notes. It's just fast enough to be tactile without sounding almost "un-real."

Line Out Pairings & Impressions:
         Through out my listening time with the M2s I found my self most impressed with it's on board amp! Running the line out was un-impressive with products within  that $100 price range. In the end I always found my self preferring the very balanced presentation of it's on board head amp. Ideally, you shouldn't need use the line out to adjust to frequency response, but rather provide ample power for harder to drive headphones. 
Schiit's original Vali 1 is by far my favorite sub $100 tube amp period! That said... it did NOT pair well with the M2s. The frequency response is similar to what's on board the M2s, and while there's better transient response it also adds just enough warmth and decay to completely rob the M2s of it's tactility.  I was though, able to gain immediate improvements in imaging namely a more cohesive sound stage and the appearance of a well defined rear channel. Still in the end the experience wasn't very engaging and didn't hold my interest. 
The Shanling M2S's line out is a bit of a double edge'd sword, in that it scaled beautifully with my Pico Power. An only scales with more robust amps in the Mid Range price point of the market. Such as the HeadAmp Pico Power and my G1217 Project Ember II. In this case pairing it with these amp netted me only benefits with no immediate drawbacks or compromises. Though, it's a little far fetched to recommend a $400 amp for a $150 source. 

Ultimatly, I feel that owners of the M2S are going to love the DAP's built in amp, the only situation that the Line out is needed would be to pair with a harder to drive headphones that need more power. An frankly I like that, it's very cost effective as a consumer to purchase a product that is already at 100% without adding any additional components.   

Though how does the M2s compare to higher priced DAPs and portable DAC/Amps? 

     To answer that question I compared the LG V20's built in ESS Sabre DAC/Amp output to that of the M2s. Additionally I also compared the M2s to the Geek Out v2+. In each case, I used Neutron running on my Android as the interface, and compared the output of each hardware configuration. 
I've never been impressed with LG's Partnership with ESS Sabre, what should have been equivalent to entry level DAP or portable Dac/Amps, products around the $100 price point, has consistently proven to be worse. The M2S's out put was all around better in almost every aspect when compared to the V20's ESS Sabre output. The only advantage the V20 has was a tauter more defined bass. Other wise the LG v20 had a thinner mid range, an even harsher more accented top end, less micro dynamics, more emphasis on macro details alongside an even greater micro detail haze and by some miracle an even wider more spacious but disjointed sound stage. Ultimately the M2s dwarfed the V20 in terms of Audio Quality. Thankfully I can still enjoy the convenience and gambit of Neutron's DSP's settings via either a high quality wired connection or over blue tooth. Both of which offer an improvement over the wired output of my V20.  
I spoke earlier about how ludicrous I felt it was to pair up a $400 amp with a $150 DAP, given that at that price point there's some heavy competition. Well thankfully, I have just the competitor to put things in perspective! Sadly the M2S did not compare well in a head to head battle against the SE output of the Geek Out v2+. The V2+ had the edge in every metric I judge. A very literal and lateral upgrade to the M2S,  an frankly that's what I expect. Retailing for $499 the Geek Out v2+ is in an entirely different price bracket, an caters to a different customer base at that. 

How ever, an interesting comparison is how the M2S fed into the PicoPower compares to the Geek Out v2+.
The results were impressive, I didn't expect the M2s when amped through the Pico Power perform as well as it did. Honestly, the Pico Power/M2S combo had the most cohesive sound stage and best tonality. The M2s fed a beautifully natural mid range warmth into the Pico Power. The horns in Miles Davis so what were indescribably vivid, full with a from the body quality without losing some of the airy from the lips transients nor the echo of the room they played in! Feeding the Line Out into the Pico Power also  improved the micro detail and dynamics. Though the slight haze up top remained, the Pico Power allowed the distinct attack of the snare drum to shine through more vividly than before. 

Ultimately though, the Geek Out V2+ still had better resolve. Free from excessive emphasis up top with even more precise micro dynamics alongside a true to life presentation of complex transient information. All of this from the SE output of the Geek Out v2+, which is in reality a portable balanced Dac/Amp. Switching into the Balanced Output would undoubtedly push the imaging above that of the M2S ->PicoPower combo. 

That said, the M2s did astonishingly well as an analog source feeding into a more resolving amplifier.  It's also got the addition of Bluetooth connectivity, a fully function GUI, equalizer and media storage that the Geek Out v2+ doesn't offer. So price wise, it's quite competitive.
Truth be told, my various DAP reviews these days are all efforts to find a replacement for my previous go to recommendation, the Rockboxed Hifiman HM 601. I started with a 602 eventually sold it and wound up with another 601 years later that I still use as my daily driver. I enjoy the sound signature just that much, an rightly so. Compared to the Shanling M2s the HM 601 offers better micro detail and dynamics with a heavier more resolved low end without any emphasis up top. It also presents an intimate but extremely cohesive audible image. The only real draw back to the HM 601 is it's mellow organic sound can sometimes be a little romantic with headphones that share the same sound signature, and in the worse case scenario there is some audible mid range ringing. While both have some mid range emphasis and added decay, the HM 601 does very rarely over emphasis mid range frequencies. Interestingly, I didn't experience any apparent ringing throughout any of my listening sessions, in fact I was impressed with the level of both naturalness and polite tactility the M2s presented.  Still, all things considered the HM 601 is still one of the best sounding entry level DAPs in my book. Though it's flaws are becoming more and more obvious as it age's not so gracefully. The analog headphone out is rather noisy, so it doesn't like super efficient anything. Even worse it's not even that powerful, for now the line out is exceptionally clean and scales like a champion, but that amazing hardware is locked within it's chassis. The HM 601 does not function as a USB Dac, while the HM 602 does, you still need to find one. Even worse, neither of them work with Cellular devices as far as I know. So as much as I like how it sounds, the HM 601 isn't really practical recommendation these days. 

Finally, how does the M2S compare to the Cayin N3? While I don't have the N3 with me any longer, my impressions of it again'st my LG V20 and HM 601 are still logged. Bluetooth output from each is almost identical. I found no real discernible difference between the two. The biggest difference between the two is their function, with the Cayin N3 I actually really took advantage of the Bluetooth Dac/Amp functionality because of how much easier Neutron Music Players interface is to operate. The combined DSP settings I have in Neutron on top of the N3's digital filters allowed me to fine tune the sound for whatever headphones I was listening with. Without having to slog through the N3's exhaustive menu system.

On the flip side, the M2s doesn't have that level of fine tuning, but it undeniably simpler to operate all by itself. It has a slightly more natural sound and doesn't really need to be "fine tuned." I only need it and a pair of headphones to enjoy my music, where as with the N3 fine tuning was more of a necessity. Functionally the N3 is still the better jack of all trades, it's line out scales easier and it's digital filters allow you to dial in the sound that's best for you. If all you own is a pair of headphones, it's an excellent place to start as it's so much more than just a digital audio player. Where as the M2S is more impressive as a classic straight forward DAP, with the extra connectivity options as a bonus. So if your like me, and you have a couple of fully fledged desktop systems. The M2S makes for an excellent sounding, adaptable super easy to use on the go system.

      Shanling has a real winner here in my book, it has some extra functionality and convenience but what ultimately impressed me was it's function as classic Digital Audio Player. Frankly, I don't really use my HM 601 as much, the improvements in sound quality aren't really worth the added hassle and fuss honestly. The exceptional build and sound quality pair with a phenomenal user interface that is by far one of the easier to operate DAPs I've ever used. An it's that combination of superb sound and ease of use that set the Shanling M2s as a standard for entry level DAPs in my book! 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

iFi Audio's Micro iCan Special Edition

I've been hearing people sing praise's about iFi Audio for years. An for good reason, based out of London UK iFi Audio's has been know for it's excellent welcoming sound signature. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a hold of a demo unit directly though iFi Audio, my thoughts of it are my own and I have not been compensated for them. 

The iCan SE retails for $299 presently via Amazon, it's also stocked in a wide variety of brick and mortar locations as well. Be sure to support your local audio shops if your fortunate enough to have one! Here in Myrtle Beach, the nearest shop is three hours from me, so I'm stuck ordering most everything online. 

How is it built and packaged?

The including packing is subtle, clean, well thought out and colorful. The design is certainly retail shelf friendly, the colors pop and really draw your eye. The construction of the packing isn't too elaborate either, it's efficient,  light weight and attractive. 

The outer sleeve holds the inner box together, cradle inside is the amp on top with a spot for cables beneath it. 

The included inter-connectors and power cable are tucked away neatly beneath the amp it self. Divided by a semi-hard foam insert in which the amp itself is nestled into.

The included cables are very colorful, light weight with a nice bit resistance when plugging them in. 

What I found most unique about the operation of the iFi Micro iCan was that it lacked a power button! The Amp simply plugs in and runs, it's operational temperature stays cool despite being powered almost 24/7. Combine that with it's exceptionally low weight and sleek overall size, an you can confidently store your Micro iCan SE any where that's convenient! It's designed to fit into your space, requiring little to no fuss to get up and running.

Simplicity and efficiency in design carry over from the packing to the build and layout of the amp it self. All Inputs are placed on the rear, with outputs in the front. 

Each of the mechanical switches for the xBass and 3D settings are heavy with a satisfying solid action. Again, there is little to no play in any mechanical component of this amp! The volume knob is weighted well an rotates smoothly. I had no issues adjusting the volume as needed.

Each of the inputs and outs have a good smooth resistance and grip on the cables fed into them. Additionally 4 small plastic gain switches are located on the very bottom of the amp. They can be set for 3 different configurations, low, med and high gain. 

iFi Audio includes two analogue signal processing options, 3D for enhanced imaging and the xBass bass boost. The bass boost works as intended, when activated there is a marginal amount of noise added. I for the most part used the lower boost for EDM and some Drum n Bass tracks. It worked equally well with both tradtional dynamic and planar magnetic headphones. The 3D analogue signal processing settings worked spectacular with dynamic headphones, consistently creating a more spacious an defined image overall. My planar magnetic saw improvements irregularly, often times there was increased distortion, added noise and undesired changes to the frequency response. Though when it worked, it worked very well.

For the most part the iFi Micro iCan SE had a very black background, especially when fed a hot signal with the volume knob sitting between 9 and 5 o'clock. How ever, when set to either the minimum or maximum rotated position there was some audible interference, quite literally either TV or Radio. For reference, I don't have a TV or Radio receiver in my home but I do have two stations within a couple miles of me. 

As per the iFi Audio site, the operational specs for the Micro iCan are as followed;

How does it Sound?

Before moving forward please kindly take a moment to refresh your self on the meaning of terminology I use to describe sound. 

Overall I found the sound signature of the iFi Audio Micro iCan Special Edition to be;

  • Warm intimate and relaxed
    • Touch of added decay in the lows and mids
    • With a smooth top end
  • Adaptable
    • 3D ASP offers enhanced imaging, a more energetic top end and clearer macro detail when needed
    • The default circuit provides black background, slightly warmer sound and excellent micro detail 
iFi Audio's Tube State technology brings a very natural sound alongside the superior THD output of traditional solid state amplifiers. 

For the purpose of this review, I sourced the iFi Audio iCan Micro SE from my Audio GD NFB10ES2 which is it self fed via FooBar 2000 ASIO Out into my Schiit Etir. I've got Pagnea Audio Power Cables for my Dac and I'm using Blue Jean Cable's Coaxial and RCA interconnects. My listening impressions were done at an average of 85 dBs and all comparisons were level matched beforehand. 

Pairing the iCan SE is super easy! The ASP functions make minor enough adjustments to give the amp flexibility with a variety of sound signatures. I enjoyed my Nhoord Red V1 the most with the iCan SE.

The Nhoord Red v1 is a DIY Grado style headphone, it's sound is very similar to the Grado RS1i, as such it's my go to can for relaxed fun listening. As such, the two paired together well. Offering a very smooth beautiful organic sound. The Tube State iCan SE helped to alleviate some ringing in the mid range and some harshness up top for the Nhoord Red V1. I found the dynamics remained punchy and both ASP 1 and xBass 1 gave the Nhoord Red V1 a more spacious and balanced sound overall! Each of the ASP settings made a noticeable improvement to the sound of the Nhoord Red V1, and the noise introduced was very minimal if any. The 3D ASP Lvl 1 setting in particular really opened up the sound stage for me, giving me both gains in vertical space as well as front and rear space. The iCan SE was able to tackle and mitigate many of the Nhoord Red V1's weaknesses. 

I really love listening to the live rendition of Hotel California from the Hell Freeze's over album. Without the iCan SE, the Nhoord Red V1 compresses the very large sense of space I know the recording originates from, activating the 3D ASP Lvl 1 restores a great sense of front/rear depth. Putting the audience slightly behind and the guitars more so in front, creating a very real sense of 3D space! While retaining a good creamy slightly intimate presentation to the guitars. Using the xBass Lvl 1 also helped pull out a little more of the deeper lows from the big drum present during the intro. The only draw back was the bass guitar as then a little more forward than I personally like. 

Mid Range Dynamics headphones like the Nhoord Red V1 are were I feel the iCan SE shines the most! Many of these headphones have similar level's of resolve but differ vastly in sound signature and imaging abilities. The iFi Audio Micro iCan SE ASP settings make it easy to pair your favorite sound signature with more balanced imaging.  

With my ZMF Eikon I was impressed by how much more power I had to get it loud though I was less impressed with the quality of sound.  For starters the 3D ASP Lvl 1 was required, as with it off the sound stage was too intimate and compressed. Additionally the xBass ASP settings were noticeably nosier with the more resolving Eikon. Ultimately I feel the iCan SE sound signature was a poor match for the Eikon, as the relaxed sound of the amp didn't pair too well with the relaxed tilt of the headphone. Ultimately, while the tonality was wonderful the timbre was off and there was a noticeable lack of dynamics. 

Another LOUD but less than ideal combo. If you currently own an inefficient hard to drive planar magnetic like the HE 4 then iFi Audio iCan SE has the power to get loud but doesn't have a the response time necessary to preserve detail at the level I know the HE 4 can operate at, I'll get more in depth on that during my the comparison section. While it's tonally very pleasing, the sound lacked the detail and dynamic range I expect from my HE 4. But out of everything I own the iFi Micro iCan SE had the most head room! It got my HE 4 louder than anything else I own. Additionally, both the xBass and 3D ASP settings resulted most often in undesirable changes. 3D ASP Lvl 1 worked positively for about 1/10 songs. Most of the time it degraded the overall imaging for the HE 4 as opposed to improving it. 

The more efficient LCD XC pair'd beautifully with the iCan SE. The smoother warm sound of the iCan SE helped to tame the XC shouty mid range and sharper top end. Additionally the sheer power output of the iCan SE kept the lows very taut and lean. 

Listening to Miles Davis's So What I'm used to the XC presenting a very metallic sounding horn, with the iCan SE the mid range mellows out nicely, yielding an overall more natural sound. Again the 3D ASP Lvl 1 opens up the sound stage, adding a very real 3D sense of space. It adds a touch of vertical space to the horns and the double bass, while also adding some rear depth to the double bass. The 3D ASP also adds a bit of energy up top allowing the percussion and high hats to pop a little more, without the harshness I'm used to from the XC. I wasn't a fan of the xBass boost though, it softened an otherwise lean tactile bass. 

How does it compare?

For comparisons I have the amp section of my Audio GD NFB10ES2 and my Project Ember II. For every comparison I level matched the output of each amp within .1 dB using a pink noise mono track. 
So the big question I had when I heard about the iCan SE's "Tube State" Class A amplification stage was how does it compare to a tube amp? My Ember II is only a Hybrid Tube but even so it does have a big ole tube in it. 

The Ember II is my primary amp for the ZMF Eikon, a large part of why is how the 35R output changes the Eikon. With a lower output impedance the sound is very a little disjointed. The iCan SE's less than 1ohm output was no exception, compared to the Ember II, the iCan SE held back the ZMF Eikon's resolve, dynamics, tactility and beautiful timbre. Additionally the 3D ASP circuit created a artificially large but disjointed image and the xBass boost was just noisy. 

Moving to the HE 4, I found only 2 songs that benefited from the 3D ASP. In every other instance the Ember II presented a larger more cohesive 3D image. Additionally, the Ember II brings the HE 4 a more natural sense of warmth without losing to much of it's hyper aggressive sound. The Ember II sits in the middle, not as soft and smoother as the iCan SE while not as hard and exaggerated as the NFB10ES2. 

Compared to the Ember II the iCan SE had a slower more simplified decay and drier sound with the LCD XC. There was a lack of sweetness and naturalness. Though the macro detail was on par with both units! The Nhoord Red V1 did a little better, with the 3D ASP Lvl 1 I got a larger sound stage and more precise image with the iCan SE, how ever the Ember II resolved more micro detail and better defined the individual timbre of instruments. 

Sadly, the Tube State did not capture all of the magic of the real thing. But here's what it does do! It provides a good tube like sense of warmth that's consistent. The problem with tube amps are the tube's them selves. Each of the different tube types and models make small changes to frequency response and imaging, none of them make a night or day difference but fine tune the nuance of the amp they are pair'd with.  So even with recommendations, I had to roll around 7-8 different tubes within the same family before I found the combination that was magical for me. So, if you don't have the time to purchase, listen to, compare and document the sound of dozens of tubes. Than a tube amp may not be the best solution for you. I was fortunate to be able to work with vendors that offered me an exchange seeing as I was buying used, but I was still left with pouring upwards of almost 100 hours of combined listening and research before I found the tube that worked best for me. 

iFi Audio's Tube State technology as found in the iCan SE does offer a much more convenient way to enjoy the some of the magic found in tube amps without the hassle. 

Moving to the NFB 10ES2 the most obvious difference here is size! My NFB10ES2 is huge, so much so it's housed in my own little make shift wood shelf/box. It's a component you make a space for unlike the iFi Micro iCan which fits where ever you'd like it. So forgive the less than optimal picture! 

An important note, I have balanced cables for all of my headphones hence I compared the native balanced output of the NFB10ES2 to the Native SE Output of the iCan SE. I also have an OCC Copper 4pin XLR to 6.5mm Adapter, which I've found to be the most transparent cable choice for that inter-connector.  

To preface, the SE Output of the NFB10ES2 is HORRIBLE, in every instance the Single End Output of the iCan SE is noticeably improved over the SE output of my NFB10ES2. Again the NFB10ES2 functions best as a balanced head amp. 

Now starting with the bad, moving to the NFB10ES2 from the iCan SE with the HE 4 netted a noticeable improvement to almost all aspects of the sound. The harder to drive legacy planar really opened up with the more powerful and quicker output of the NFB10ES2. The smoother more balance tonality of the iCan SE with the HE 4 is not an acceptable compromise, given how soft, unresolved and slow the headphones sounds from it. Though while seldom, there were times were the 3D ASP function did improve the imaging. 

Moving to my more efficient LCD XC and Nhoord Red V1, each lacked both micro dynamics and some micro detail when pair'd with the iCan SE. The transition in Hotel California from a single guitar features an immediate eruption of applause from the crowd but the guitars them selves very gradually increase in volume. That complicated transition was simplified with the iCan SE. By the time the crowd settled down the guitars were louder, but you couldn't follow that gradual increase, the sheer noise of the crowd drowned out that change. With the NFB10ES2, the transition was resolved more clearly, you could appreciate the crowd and the gradual transition of the guitars. Additionally, with the NFB10ES2 I noticed when the guitar's reach their peak volume the crowd livens up even more so just before settling down. With 3D ASP level 1 the sound stage of each was very similar, with the iCan SE being marginally noiser. 

The NFB10ES2's has a harder presentation, sometimes this worked to it's advantage other times it worked against it. Like wise the iCan SE was softer, which at times was an advantage. There were times too when the softer but blacker presentation of the iCan SE resolved a bit more macro detail than the NFB10ES2 and other times the harder but more dynamic NFB10ES2 resolved more ambient noise. Ultimately I felt these differences were neither good nor bad in reference to fidelity. Just a difference in presentation. 

Finally the good! With both headphones, the loss of some tactility was an acceptable compromise for a much more balanced tonality. The LCD XC had a more natural mid range, especially obvious in the vocals and with horns. The Nhoord Red V1 was exceptionally more balanced and enjoyable with the iCan SE. With the 3D and xBass ASP set to level 1 the iCan SE replicated the sound-stage and sheer bass impact that the NFB10ES2 offers. Guitars in particular were creamier with the Nhoord Red V1/iCan SE combo. Ultimately the NFB10ES2 sounds a little harsh and exaggerated when pair'd with both my Nhoord Red V1 and the LCD XC. 

These two more efficient headphones pair'd very well with the iCan SE. It's only the harder to drive HE 4 that really benefited from the NFB10ES2 balanced design.  

In conclusion the iFi Audio iCan SE brings a warm tube like sound without the hassle of tubes them selves. While it doesn't offer the same level of sound quality as my Ember II pair'd with a 1944 Sylvania 6sn7 GT Tall Bottle White Label,  it's also more affordable at only $299 vs $450 respectively. It's flexibility, small footprint and competitive price point are the shining achievements of the iCan SE. The 3D ASP and xBass features allow you to make adjustments to how the amp operates, much the same way rolling different tubes does for a traditional tube amp. The difference is with the iCan SE you can customize the sound of your amp without any additional purchases, without having to power it down, carefully remove a hot fragile glass bottle and try your best not to break anything or burn your hands. 

iFi Audio's Micro iCan presents a very relaxing, powerful, stress free, instantly gratifying amp with a warm welcoming sound that you can easily adjust to what ever headphone your listening to. Mid Range Dynamics, headphones like the Grado SR 325, the Beyerdynamic DT 880, Sennhesier HD 600 and Audio Technica AD 900X are were I feel the iCan SE shines the most! Many of these headphones have similar level's of resolve but differ vastly in sound signature and imaging abilities. The iFi Audio Micro iCan SE ASP settings make it easy to pair your favorite sound signature with more balanced imaging, and if you happen to have a small collection they iCan SE can adapt and compliment each of them. That ease of ownership and out of the box flexibility make this a real gem to some one whose aim is to just enjoy their music. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Integration without Compromise - Chord's Hugo 2

Being able to integrate with existing solutions has become an important feature for me lately. Plug and play function with my LG V20 and laptop is a large part of why I purchased my Geek Out v2+. That same functionality is a large part of why I enjoyed the Cayin N3 as well. Keeping up with that theme is Chord's Hugo 2. Launched in the Spring of 2017, the transportable Hugo 2 offers an excellent mix of power and quality that is plug and play ready for mobile lifestyles!

Including the remote, the Chord Hugo 2 retails for $2,379. Purchases can be made via a local dealer in your area searchable via the Chord Website. However an little online digging and I found Audio46 as the only Amazon-Payment  capable vendor in my area. 

Furthermore, I want to thank both Chord and the members of Head-Fi who helped put this tour together, the following thoughts are my own and I was not compensated for them! 

What I like about the Hugo 2 build is the weight. It's heavier than it looks which makes me grip it a little tighter when I pick it up. For portable products I like something that has a solid in the hand feel. Super light, super thin, "air" products have never meshed well with me. I always feel like I'm going to lose or crush them. That sense of weight translates over into the implementation of the analog out puts. Each output had distinct grip on my cables with minimal wiggle and just the right amount of resistance when unplugging the cables. As I carried the Hugo 2 around my home during my listening impressions, the cables stayed put.

Chord's unique ball bearing buttons and roller-ball volume adjustment were memorable. While I was not a fan of how much play the individual ball buttons had, I did enjoyed the ease of motion from the volume ball. Unlike the ball bearing buttons, which rattle around when you interact with them, the volume ball had a smooth upward and downward motion. There was no excessive movement or resistance, adjustments to the volume were comfortable. Both minor and major adjustments to the volume were possible with the ball, and I never over shot my intended listening levels. The include remote had a good weight as well, each of the buttons had excellent resistance alongside an audible click.  I found my self more often using the remote than the top mounted buttons.

Aside from the noisy ball bearing buttons, the Hugo 2's USB inputs also proved less than ideal. In fact the entire left flank of the chassis on my demo unit suffered from obvious wear and tear or simply adequate build quality. The USB inputs for data and charge had far to much play in them, and there were visible gaps in the chassis around them.

Additionally, the demo unit I had operated at exceedingly hot to the touch temperatures. During the time I had it, I was unable to comfortably keep it on charge for the required 24 hours need to activate desktop mode. Seeing as it was a product I spent equal time with in my hands, as on my desk, I ran the unit almost exclusively on the battery. If I needed to charge it I was only comfortable charging and listening for 2 hours. Usage while charging beyond that 2 hour time frame resulted in the demo unit I had getting hot enough to leave a slightly darkened warm spot on my wood desk for around 20-30 minuets. Touching it wasn't painful, but hot enough to instill a sense of caution. Hence-forth my impressions Hugo 2 were completed from battery operation only. Running exclusive on battery power, I was able to achieve an average of about 7 hours of playback time. 

Functionality is straight forward on the Hugo 2, it accepts Optical, 3.5mm Coax, USB Mini Input and Blu-tooth digital in. It features 6.5mm, 3.5mm and L/R RCA analog output, functioning as a head Amp via a series of transistors in the DACs analog output stage and offering a fixed line out. While I noticed no change in the sound quality moving in-between the different analog outputs, the digital inputs each offered significant changes to the overall sound quality.

Specs of the Unit are as followed from Chord's Website:

Chipset: Chord Electronics custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA
Tap-length: 49,152
Pulse array: 10 element pulse array design
Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz +/- 0.2dB
Output stage: Class A
Output impedance: 0.025Ω
THD: <0 .0001="" 1khz="" 300="" 3v="" font="" rms="">
THD and noise at 3v RMS: 120dB at 1kHz 300ohms ‘A’ wighted (reference 5.3v)
Noise 2.6 uV ‘A’ weighted: No measurable noise floor modulation
Signal to noise ratio: 126dB ‘A’ Weighted
Channel separation: 135dB at 1kHz 300Ω
Power output @ 1kHz 1% THD: 94mW 300Ω
740mW 32Ω
1050mW 8Ω

With only the included hardware, I was able to test USB and Optical Inputs on the Hugo 2. While I do own a Digital Coax source, I did not have an RCA to 3.5mm digital Connector. Nor did Chord include an adapter from digital RCA  to 3.5mm Coax, honestly give the price I would have expected them to include ALL necessary digital inter-connectors.  Still, they were fortunate to ship the Charging cable with multiple regional cord adapters! 
Additionally, kindly take a moment to refresh your self on the meaning of terminology I use to describe sound, also please note that my Audio GD NFB10ES2/Hifiman HM901->PicoPower serve as my current reference point, as such I've grown accustom to a brighter sound signature from my Dac. 

As such, I found the overall sound quality signature of the Chord Hugo 2 to be;

  • Natural
    • Does not exaggerate  
    • Presents a strong from the body timbre
  • Excellent Micro Detail
    • Less ambient noise or lacking emphasis of macro detail
    • Cleaner more balanced transients and resolve of timbre
  • Smooth Dynamics
    • Micro dynamics are excellent
    • Macro dynamics are adequate
  • Black Background
    • Very little noise
  • Internal Amp has some mid range warmth/bloom
  • Softer relaxed presentation
  • Intimate imaging
    • Excellent depth and airy sound, with a slightly forward mid-range

This basic presentation does not change regardless of the digital input, what the digital inputs changed were the overall blackness of the background and the precision and size of the image as a whole. The worst digital input into the Hugo 2 was still phenomenally black compared to using the same input into my NFB10ES2.

Starting with Optical from my iRiver H140, I found this input to be atrocious, the highs were very hard and the imaging and resolve were hazy. If the world ends and all I have IS my iRiver H140... I'll be content but otherwise there's no situation in which this input is preferential.

USB Input was a BIG step up from Optical. Starting with USB Mobile, there were immediate gains in imaging and noise. USB Mobile presented a more clearly defined image presented again'st a blacker background which allowed transients to resolve more fully. Though USB Mobile still had some emphasis up top, not as bad as Optical but still not perfect. 

Moving to USB Desktop, I ran ASIO Output from Foobar 2000 into the Chord Hugo 2. The image as a whole was even sharper, there was even LESS noise than USB Mobile without the touch of emphasis up top. Which resulted in marginal improvements to the resolve of micro detail. 

With regards to the analog output, I did find the internal amp of the Hugo 2 had a touch of mid mange bloom to it, when testing it with an LCD XC, my HE 4 and my Nhoord Red V1. The Line Out was marginally cleaner, though the only benefit I found to using the line out was for more power or to pair your headphone with another amp for a better dampening factor. 

I actually enjoyed the LCD XC when pair'd with the Hugo 2. A lot of the LCD XC's weakness were compliment or masked over by the strength's of the Hugo 2. Though I was using a WyreWires Red Cable, as the lender who allowed me to barrow this didn't like the stock option and opt'd for me to hear his LCD XC with only  after market options! 

In particular when enjoying Igor Levit's Take on Aria, the Hugo 2 LCD XC pairing had an excellent mix of tactility and nuance for the piano piece, the more intimate sound of the Hugo 2 help'd give the LCD XC just a little more low body presence.  

In Miles Davis "So What" the often overly metallic presentation of the horns on the LCD XC, was more natural. A touch of warm vibrato in the horns especially became more apparent. The softer sound of the Hugo 2 pair'd beautifully with the amazing solid planar bass and cup resonance of the XC. In some tracks, I felt there was a lack of grip, but overall the Hugo 2 brought a much needed relaxing sound to what is other wise a very SHOUTY headphone. 

I was shocked at how well the Hugo 2 drove the HE 4 in particular! Ultimately though, the internal amp's lack of power combined with a softer presentation from the DAC it self robbed the HE 4 of the super exciting character I appreciate it for. Losses though in tactility, low end texture and speed were offset by gains in timbre and transient resolve. 

This pairing was by far my favorite! The Nhoord Red V1 is a DIY Grado style headphone. Featuring lower bass extension than a typical Grado. The overall sound of this can in particular is most similar to a Grado RS1i. That said, the headphone has a tendency to ring a little, the Hugo 2 presented both a beautiful warm mid range that DIDN'T have the ring I was used to! Overall for this Grado Style headphone, the combination was nothing but pleasant! More so than any of my current in house rigs sadly... 

Speaking of, I was very impressed with how the Hugo 2 paired with my ZMF Eikon and Garage 1217 Project Ember II. This was another really beautiful pairing I'd like to try and forget! 

Though the BEST sounding combination was from the Hugo 2 was with the Head Amp Pico-Power and my HE 4. The sound was harder, more exciting with the same improvements to timbre and resolve but without a lot of the exaggeration I'm used to! But the combined price of the two units, upwards of $2800 MSRP, makes a situation I doubt any one will realistically find them selves in 2017. As a hard to drive inefficient open back planar from 2011 is not a realistic portable headphone. In the last 6 years, there have been an influx of very efficient open backs as well as powerful portable products to pair them with. 

Finally, I took the time to compare the Hugo 2 to a few of my existing Rigs.

Starting with comparisons to my NFB 10ES2. For these comparisons I had the Hugo 2 fed via USB with ASIO Out, and my NFB10ES fed with Coax from a Schiit Etir fed with ASIO Out. 

In short, the Hugo 2 Dac section had every edge in it's presentation of timbre. Being very true and focused on the music it self, in contrast yo the NFB10ES2 had to much emphasis on macro detail it often simplified transients. By doing so it creates a great deal of excitement and energy, which when pair'd with it's more expansive sound stage is impressive... but ultimately a little distracting at times. The Hugo 2 was more intimate with a less exaggerated sound and a stronger focus on the music it self, macro detail took a big step back. The combination of a blacker output of the Hugo 2 and more intimate imagine result in micro detail taking a step forward! The only flaw of the Hugo 2 compared to the NFB10ES2 is it's more intimate imaging can be marginally less precise and it sounds very flat. The sound of the Hugo 2 presents minimal vertical space, where as the NFB10ES2 presents an image that has more room up top and down below and all around. In some cases it's closer to reality, though more often than not it sounds over defined. 

Moving to amplification, the NFB10ES2 only had an edge when more power was needed. So with the harder to drive HE 4 the NFB10ES2 presented a more consistent sound, where as the Hugo 2 while offering better timbre, because of the lack of power was also at times very hazy with it's imaging and presentation of the low end. The Hugo 2 lacked an accurate sense of time or speed with the HE 4 as well when compared to the NFB10ES2. Other wise, for dynamics and more efficient Planar's the Hugo 2 output was blacker with a less exaggerated more natural sound. 

I paired both the LCD XC and my Nhoord Red V1 with the balanced out of my LH Labs Geek Out v2+ for a comparison to the Hugo 2. 

Ultimately, while using the white filter on the Hugo 2 and the Green Filter on the GOV2+, I found the Hugo 2 to improve on every aspect of the GOV2+. The two shared a similar sound signature, but  the Geek Out V2+ sounds a bit noisy, cramped and exaggerated compared to the Hugo 2. The GOV2+ often simplified lot of transient information like the NFB10ES2, especially in comparison to the Hugo 2, which more clearly resolved audible textures such as the vibrato in the release of many of instruments. 

This comparison was a real eye opener for me, I haven't spent much time with my HM901 since I started working full time and haven't had a need for a transportable system that I can listen to. I'm either at home, or on my feet moving, a situation in which if I'm going to drop something I'd like it to be pretty cheap. Though I'm starting on my second degree here in a few days so I'll once again be in front of my laptop away from home for longer period's of time. A situation that's perfect for a transportable dac/amp combo! 

In terms of sound the HM901 [Vintage Filter] fed into the Pico Power traded blows with the Hugo 2. The HM901 Pico Power combo had more precise imaging, an equally black background, a smidge of emphasis on macro detail, is marginally less resolving of micro detail but had stronger more clearly defined dynamics and a better presentation of time. It's only flaw being that it can be a bit over sharpned, or over defined. The Hugo 2 while resolving micro detail better, presents more intimate imaging and sounds a touch romantic. It's not as dynamic, and doesn't adapt as quickly to changes in tempo either, very exciting passages of music lacked some energy in comparison to the HM 901 Pico Power combo, especially with Planars. While more natural sounding, it's sometimes a bit to relaxed in comparison to the HM 901 Pico Power combo. 

Ultimately different genres play better on one than the other, I grew up listening to a lot of live jazz bands. Listening with the HM901 Pico Power takes me back to my days sitting in the grass listening, the energy they presented and their ability to change and adapt around very unique time signatures always impressed me. The HM901 Pico Power combo embodies that energy, that excitement, that audible sense of speed. Where as on the flip side, my father owned a 12 String Gretsch guitar when I was a kid, listening to Chet Akins or any Spanish guitar Sonata's through the Hugo 2 reminded me of listening to my dad play at night before bed. The sense of intimacy and naturalness is very real, where as the HM901 Pico Power sounds a bit exaggerated with this genre and others like it. 

The real question I have now is how does the HM901 Pico Power compare to my NFB10ES2... that's one I'll have to explore that at a later date. 

Our last comparison is the NFB10ES vs the Hugo 2 when fed into my Project Ember II driving the ZMF Eikon. 

With the Hugo 2, the Ember II and ZMF Eikon were breathtaking to listen to. The Eikon's sound signature is music focused, with a black background, a solid low to mid range response and a tapered top end. It does an excellent job of resolving just enough macro detail to keep things interesting, but always places emphasis on the music, micro detail just pops with this combo! The Hugo 2's DAC output embodies much the same traits, minus the top end tapering. It was ultimately this combination that allowed me to grasp just how exaggerated my reference SABRE 9018 DAC really was. Still, moving from the stunningly beautiful sound of the Hugo 2 back to the more exaggerated NFB10ES2 did give the Eikon a bit more dynamic response with a larger more open sound stage at the expense of total resolution and clarity. Even worse there is a touch of noise on the analog output of the NFB10ES2, so listening above an average of 84 dBs I lose even more resolution. Thankfully, my reference listening level is 85 but still the lack of headroom on the NFB10ES2 get's annoying. 

For the price, I don't feel the Hugo 2's sound quality compares well to dedicated desktop solutions. It runs too hot and isn't priced competitively at $2379 MSRP. Though it's closer to and sometimes under $2000 if your comfortable buying second-hand from reputable sources. I feel it compares well to my own portable DAP solution, especially considering that 4 years ago I spent $1500 on a portable dedicated High-Fidelity Digital Audio Playback System.

Being my first Hi-Fi purchase I paid MSRP for my HM 901 back in 2014, an it too suffers from the same excessive play in it's buttons. Plus doesn't even have a remote, and not only that but it's limited to just playing music from the SD card loaded into it. While it fit my life style back then, it doesn't fit into my own an increasingly mobile life style now. The Hugo 2 can plug into my phone allowing me to listen to music, and still take phone calls without having to even remove my headphones. Even better, starting this year my cellular provider allows me to make and receive phone calls through my existing mobile number via a web app on my laptop. With the Hugo 2 and ASIO Output in FooBar 2000, I can be on campus and have access to my music library, have the flexibility to switch right into a YouTube video in my browser, watch and listen to material related to my course work, take a Skype call with my boss or a traditional call from my wife, without having to unplug anything. The Hugo 2 integrates into my life style with all of my existing tech, as opposed to a standalone DAP which serves as a separate system just for music. Thus isolating me from my other technology, forcing me to pick ONE system to listen to. Fortunately my Geek Out v2+ does the same, integrating with all of my Tech, but doesn't offer near the level of quality as the Hugo 2 or my HM901 PicoPower combo. Which means I have to compromise sound quality in exchange for flexibility and convince. In my eyes, based on how I live my life now and moving into the future the asking price for the Hugo 2 is validated. As it does more than my standalone DAP without compromising quality. 

In conclusion I can confidently recommend the Hugo 2 as a transportable solution. It's value is in it's portability, if your need a portable solution the Hugo 2 is an excellent choice. It's input flexibility, uncompromising phenomenally natural sound, well built included remote, and surprisingly powerful internal amp allow it to integrate into a variety of portable playback systems. It's a product that integrates well into the lifestyle of some one who's traveling often, either in the air or on the road. Student, working professional or in my case both, it's a one box solution that plugs right into what ever graphic interface your using and has plenty of power to drive most high-fidelity headphones. It's definitely a plug, play, sit back and enjoy experience. Presenting a happy union of convenience and superb sound quality!