There’s certainly no shortage of portable music players out there for those just looking to listen on the go with a basic pair of headphones, though until recently, those with high-end IEMs or full-size, difficult to drive cans have basically been out of luck. Strapping an amplifier
to the back of a mainstream music player was basically the only option, and that still left out quality D-to-A conversion and support for high-res audio. The Hifiman HM-801 – a fully integrated portable music player for audiophiles, was designed to solve this problem. Has Hifiman succeeded? Read on to find out.
The HM-801 was designed to provide the performance of a traditional high-end DAC and headphone amplifier in a compact package that can be used away from the wall socket. In order to meet these performance goals, some portability compromises were required. There’s just no getting around the fact that the HM-801 is, well, big. At 3 inches wide, 4.5 inches high, and 1 inch thick, it’s smaller than some of the earliest MP3 players such as the humongous original Creative Nomad Jukebox series, but by 2010 standards it’s a tank. The size is needed to hold the 14.8-volt lithium ion polymer battery
(itself larger than many portable players) which takes up more than a quarter of the HM-801’s body. The battery provides up to eight hours of playback, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider that it has to power the Burr-Brown OPA627 op-amp which drives the headphone amplifier and the Burr-Brown PCM1704U DAC. These are seriously high-end components, and they need lots of juice.
The first thing you notice when picking up the HM-801 is the heft. Much of this is due to the battery of course, but even with the bay empty the HM-801 still feels substantial. The case is made from aluminum and steel, and is finished in an attractive metallic black with a soft touch coating. The gold plated control buttons and switches generally have a quality feel and produce a satisfying “click” when engaged. The only letdown is the hold switch, which has a somewhat vague sliding action. A unique modular panel on the back of the case can be removed with the included screwdriver, allowing for alternate headphone amplifier cards to be installed should you wish to experiment.
My first challenge for the HM-801 was to see how it would compare to a traditional portable player known for good sound quality – my 32GB Cowon S9. The HM-801 has only a very small amount of internal storage and relies on SD cards to hold more than a few albums. The HM-801 supports both lossy (MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG) and lossless (APE, WMA, FLAC) formats and SD/SDHC cards up to 32GB. While using memory cards does add to the cost, it also means that the total amount of storage is only limited to the number of cards you want to carry with you.
In the areas of practicality and usability, the Cowon took the lead. It easily slips into a pants pocket, and moving through lists of albums and artists requires only a quick finger swipe on the capacitive touch screen. The HM-801’s bulk requires that it be carried in some type of case (small camera bags would work well for this task), and while the user interface is no worse than most other button based players I’ve used, it serves as a reminder why the ipod
and its rivals from Microsoft, Sony, and Cowon have moved on from buttons altogether.
It was when I began my listening tests that the HM-801 started to make sense. In order to give the Cowon’s limited amplifier a fighting chance to keep up, I used my 32 Ohm Beyerdynamic DT880 for the comparison testing. The Cowon can drive the 32 Ohm Beyer to a realistic and enjoyable volume, but it requires at least 70% of the available power to do so. Matching the volume by ear on the HM-801 on the other hand required perhaps 10% of its power reserves.
I started my testing with the Cowon’s EQ set to flat and all enhancements disabled. Listening to “Soldier Jane” from Beck’s “The Information”, the bass through the DT880 sounded lifeless and anemic, the mids were recessed, and the highs were pushed forward with a raggedy, unrefined edge. Switching to the HM-801 was a revelation. The DT880 is by no means the hardest hitting headphone out there, but the HM-801 brought out every ounce of its ability to deliver solid, deep bass that was perfectly in harmony with the rest of the spectrum. The midrange was natural, warm, and vibrant, with a pleasant, somewhat tube-like quality. The HM-801 was also far superior at separating individual instruments, and produced a much larger soundstage. The high-frequencies were delicate and slightly relaxed, but with no loss of detail or sense of veiling.
Switching back to the Cowon, I configured it with my preferred EQ and sound enhancement settings and was shocked out how unnatural all of that processing sounded when compared to the HM-801. The bass became bloated and muddy, and was completely detached from the higher frequencies, sounding like a poorly placed and configured subwoofer. Instruments blurred together into a fog, and the effort to reduce the excessive sharpness and glare of the high-frequencies just made them sound dull. Using the HM-801’s sound as a reference, I tried all manner of EQ and enhancement combinations, but there was no magic setting that could produce the dynamics, transparency, body, imaging, or just the sense of musical rightness
that the HM-801 delivered with ease. The HM-801’s support for 24-bit/96kHz FLAC files allowed me to listen to listen to Diana Krall’s “Quiet Nights” in high-res, while the Cowon was limited to the 16/44 version. This widened the performance gap even further, as the HM-801’s sound became even more open and effortless with 24/96 material.
It was much the same story with the rest of my reference tracks. Whether it was percussion, horns, acoustic guitars, or even large orchestral works, the HM-801 always produced a balanced, transparent sound with a warm and sweet nature that would make it the perfect all-day listening partner.
To test the HM-801’s abilities as a DAC, I connected it to my computer first via USB, and then to my soundcard’s S/Pdif output using the included RCA-to-mini adapter on the end of my Magnan digital cable. Due to some limitations of the hardware, the HM-801’s USB DAC implementation is less than ideal and is limited to 16/48 resolution. Compared to direct playback from the SD card, the soundstage over USB was reduced to a small degree, and there was a minor loss of the last degree of detail and resolution. Overall sonic performance was still very good though, and USB support is a very convenient feature to have for those traveling with netbooks or laptops which likely do not have coaxial digital outputs.
For desktop users, a soundcard is definitely the way to go as the S/Pdif input allows for the maximum 24/96 resolution and suffers none of the sonic limitations of the USB input. I switched back and forth several times between the SD card and the S/Pdif input, and while I thought I heard a slight
edge from the SD card, it’s possible that a custom digital cable terminated with a mini-plug would make the two methods indistinguishable.
The Wrap Up
It’s impossible not to be impressed with what Hifiman has achieved with the HM-801. It’s simply in a different league from any
mainstream portable music player on the market. While the Beyer DT880 is largely wasted on the Cowon S9, the HM-801 has the power and resolution to properly drive even the most demanding headphones, including the Beyer T1, Sennheiser HD800, Grado PS1000, and Ultrasone Edition 8.
Criticisms are few. While 24/96 files are fully supported, 24/88.2 files unfortunately are not. True gapless playback is also not supported, although the gaps between tracks are small enough that this wasn’t an issue for me. A more elegant, touch based interface would be an improvement, and a full-size ¼” headphone jack and RCA jack for the S/Pdif input would be ideal, although these would likely be impossible to implement without making the enclosure
Should you buy the HM-801? If you're looking for a travel partner for a modest pair of headphones, the smaller, more portable HM-601 or 602 players are available for considerably less than the 801's $790 asking price, and are probably better choices. For those with "FLAC or bust" bumper stickers and headphone budgets at least approaching the 4-figure range though, the HM-801 is a must listen.
Hifiman. Sold via Head-direct. Tel: (347) 475-7673. Fax: (718) 766-0560. Email: [email protected]
Windows 7 computer with HT Omega Claro+ sound card, Beyerdynamic DT880-32, Sony MDR-7509 headphones, Magnan cables.