Now there's a third option, in the form of the HiFiMan HM-801 Audio Player.
This is, without a doubt, the first audiophile-worthy portable digital audio player I've encountered in the past 13 years of covering portable audio technology. Sure, some players have had slightly better sound than the iPod, but none could really deliver sound the way sharp-eared audio purists desire. (We're talking about people who own gold-tipped connection cables and headphones that cost more than your laptop.)
But the HiFiMan delivers audio that even the snootiest sound snob will find little to gripe with. It does this with a first-of-its-kind preamp (swappable if there's another preamp your ears desire) and the support of not only standard formats (MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG), but multiple lossless formats (APE, WMA, FLAC). There's even 24-bit resolution and a 96-kHz sampling rate for FLAC files.
That means HiFiMan not only plays lossless files that sound as good as CDs but also 24-bit files that sound better than CDs, with much wider frequency and dynamic ranges. That equates to reproducing very high pitches (even ones outside the human hearing range, which some say colors the sound we can hear), and music with more gradations in volume that allow dynamic nuances to shine through.
See all Spring Test productsHiFiMan connects to your computer via USB (16-bit 48 kHz) or home stereo system with its digital coaxial input (16-bit 44.1 kHz or 24-bit 96 kHz). Bonus: It can double as an excellent home headphone amplifier through its Burr-Brown PCM1704U digital-to-analog converter.
Paired with high-quality headphones, the HiFiMan sounds better than an iPod Classic, reputedly the best-sounding model Apple makes, even when playing the same files. We perceived no hiss or distortion, backing up the strong audio specs (102-dB signal-to-noise ratio) and everything from deep bass frequencies to ultrahigh cymbals sounded clearer, punchier. Sonically, it's drastically better than the iPod in every conceivable way.
We squeezed just over seven hours out of the HiFiMan playing a combination MP3s, lossless files and 24-bit FLAC files. If that's not enough juice, you can pick up a spare battery for another $80. Also worth mentioning is the clean analog volume attenuator that allows smooth, precise control of sound.
Now the bad news: This thing costs $790. By audiophile standards that's a pittance but for the uninitiated that's plain crazy, especially for a rather homely device with a button-driven interface. Oh yeah, the device has no on-board memory hard drives cause too much audio interference so you'll have to supply your own SD cards to store your tunes. Forget about popping this monster in your pants either; at 4.4 x 3.1 x 1 inches, it's a bit too big for pockets. A velvet bag and a mini-briefcase come with it for transportation, but who wants to tote something around that qualifies as carry-on luggage?
But the most significant reason you might not want to drop nearly 800 bones on the HiFiMan is that your ears simply might not care enough. Sound quality is a game of decreasing returns, and some people don't get the same charge out of ultraclean, expansive, dynamic, crisp, properly imaged sound that audiophiles do.
But if you're willing to put up the cash and endure its design shortcomings, the HiFiMan's rich quality of sound will enrich the quality of your life.
WIRED Audiophile-pleasing deep, rich, clean sound. Pulls double duty as portable and home-stereo headphone solution. Walkman looks shout don't steal me." Modular components (amplifier, battery). Comes with screwdriver and schematics for alternate amp designs.
TIRED Barely portable large awkward chassis hard to carry. Menu and button configuration clearly traveled via flux capacitor from 2001. Only a small selection of 24-bit music is available for sale online. No docking station. You'll need high-quality headphones to enjoy the player's sounds.