Alpha Design Labs X1 USB DAC-Headphone Amplifier

April 2014

ADL X1Furutech, a Japanese maker of audio accessories, has been on a tear lately through its Alpha Design Labs (ADL) brand. When I reviewed their Esprit USB DAC, in April 2013, I found it a great-sounding, versatile addition to a small home system. To supplement its home-audio USB DACs, ADL has also introduced a series of portable DACs and a pair of headphones. The subject of this review, the X1, is the smallest and newest DAC-headphone amp of the three in ADL’s line. At $479 USD, the X1 packs some high-end technology into its diminutive case.

Description

The ADL X1 is designed primarily for use with Apple devices -- not coincidentally, at 4.6”L x 2.7”W, it’s close to the size of an iPhone or iPod Touch. You could easily place it under an iPhone and bind them together with a couple of rubber bands. The X1 has a clean, classy appearance: brushed-aluminum face, rounded corners, and inset switches. The X1’s sides are finished in a rubbery material -- it won’t easily slip out of your hands. The only odd feature is the rotary volume control at the right of the faceplate -- the other switches can’t be inadvertently bumped, but the volume control, which doubles as an on/off switch, is vulnerable.

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NAD Viso HP20 Earphones

Viso HP20 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

April 2014

NAD Viso HP20To say that Paul Barton set the audio world on its ear when he introduced the PSB M4U 2, his first headphone design, wouldn’t be exaggerating. Before Barton created the M4U 2, he read all the research he could find about voicing headphones. This led him to design the M4U 2 with a response that, while somewhat idiosyncratic, made many other headphones suddenly sound a lot less good. Barton was attempting to better re-create the sound of real speakers in a real room, and according to most listeners, he succeeded. He called his new voicing RoomFeel.

Since then, Barton has incorporated RoomFeel into more headphones, including the PSB M4U 1 and the NAD Viso HP50, both of which have gotten rave reviews. Now he’s incorporated RoomFeel into a pair of earphones: NAD’s Viso HP20 ($169 USD).

The HP20 is obviously a serious effort, incorporating Barton’s voicing, elegant and rather macho-looking (for earphones, anyway) industrial design, and a machined-aluminum shell that encloses each 8mm dynamic driver. It’s available in black or silver finish.

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Audeze LCD-3 Headphones

LCD-3 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

March 2014

Reviewers' ChoiceAudeze LCD-3In Chicago last spring, at the 2013 Audio Expo North America (AXPONA), I browsed the demo tables of head-fi and desktop gear. I was especially interested in reference-level headphones, as I was looking to upgrade from my tried-and-true Sennheiser HD 650 ’phones. The genial Sankar Thiagasamudram, president and co-founder of Audeze, invited me to try both the Audeze LCD-2 ($1145 USD) and LCD-3 ($1945) headphones. Both models impressed me, but especially the LCD-3’s seemingly full-range sound with symphonic music. I’ve found that symphonic music is extremely difficult for any system to reproduce, let alone headphones. Sending to my ears a high-resolution recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6, the LCD-3s got the strings right -- not only the top notes of the violins, but also the midrange lushness of the cellos and the gravitas of the double basses in their lowest register. Not long afterward, I asked to review them.

Description

In contrast to conventional headphones, which use cones similar to the dynamic drivers found in most loudspeakers, the Audeze LCD-3s have planar-magnetic drivers. In this technology, instead of a voice coil, a circuit is directly printed on a thin diaphragm, with an array of magnets on either side. These diaphragms are far lighter than the cones in conventional headphones (e.g., my Sennheiser HD 650s). When the circuit is energized with an audio signal, the diaphragm’s interaction with the magnets produces an electromagnetic field that pulls and pushes the diaphragm back and forth, which rarefies and compresses the air to produce soundwaves. In theory, a planar driver can produce faster, more coherent sound than a cone because the diaphragm moves “as one” rather than, like a cone, beginning from the center outward, which makes cones more susceptible to breakup at higher frequencies. In addition, since the Audeze driver is so large, the excursion it needs to move a given amount of air is far less than a conventional cone would need -- which also, in theory, should result in less distortion.

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Sony XBA-H1 Earphones

XBA-H1 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

March 2014

Sony XBA-H1Reviewers' ChoiceHybrid earphones -- with one dynamic and one or more balanced-armature drivers -- seem like a great idea. You get the punch and power of a dynamic driver for the low frequencies, and the detail and delicacy of a balanced-armature driver (or two or three) for the midrange and treble. The best of both worlds! Great plan, huh?

Not so far, at least. Before I got Sony’s new XBA-H1 ($149 USD) into my ears, I’d tried three hybrids: the Audiofly AF78 ($209), the AKG K3003 ($1299), and the Scosche IEM856md ($249). Only the Audioflys struck me as a good buy, and I can’t say they were necessarily any better than the best conventional earphones in their price range.

Making a hybrid is tough. You’ve got to cram two differently shaped drivers and maybe a crossover circuit into a tiny enclosure that can slip into your ear canal, all without introducing acoustical obstacles that add ugly-sounding dips and peaks. But Sony’s one of the very few headphone manufacturers to make its own balanced-armature drivers (most others buy them from Knowles Acoustics), so it may know some things the competition doesn’t.

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Logitech Harmony Ultimate Universal Remote Control with Ultimate Hub

February 2014

Logitech UltimateLast March, I gave the Logitech Harmony Touch universal remote control a positive review, but noted some things that might be improved. Now comes the Harmony Ultimate, in which almost everything left unfinished in the Touch is resolved.

Description

Included with the Harmony Ultimate ($349.99 USD) are a Harmony Hub, two IR Mini Blasters, a charging station, a USB cable, two AC adapter cords, a start-up manual, and warranty information.

The Harmony Ultimate itself looks almost identical to the Touch; it’s the same size (7.25”L x 2.25”W x not quite 1” thick), though at 4.8 ounces it weighs slightly less than the Touch’s 5.7 ounces. The Ultimate looks just as sleek and gleaming, has the same buttons, and the icons for each Activity and device can still be customized. The battery is still not serviceable by the consumer; when it dies, the device dies.

There is, however, one big difference from the Touch: a bulge on the Harmony’s bottom, about 2” from the front end, that guides the hand forward so that the thumbs can more easily reach the hard buttons -- play, pause, skip, and record -- above the screen. I still need two hands.

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NuForce AVP-18 Surround-Sound Processor

February 2014

NuForce AVP-18NuForce, based in Fremont, California, is an interesting company for the audio enthusiast. They first staked their reputation on a patented class-D amplifier design with a switching power supply. Although pricey -- their cheapest monoblocks cost $2500 USD per pair -- they sounded as good as anything I’d heard. NuForce has since made inroads in almost all ranges of sound and price, as I found out when I reviewed their Icon uDAC-2 combo of headphone amp and DAC ($129). The company now has a bunch of models that are extremely affordable, including the DDA-100 Direct Digital amp ($549), which Roger Kanno favorably reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi.

Somewhat in the middle of the road, pricewise, is the subject of this review -- the AVP-18 surround-sound processor ($1095). NuForce has stripped down the feature set of the typically bloated audio/video receiver to provide a minimalist home-theater pre-pro that an audiophile can love.

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Sherwood R-807 Audio/Video Receiver

January 2014

Sherwood R-807In 2013, Sherwood, formerly Sherwood Electronic Laboratories Inc., celebrated its 60th anniversary -- a rare event in the home-audio industry. The company was founded in Chicago in 1953 to manufacture an amplifier designed by Ed Miller. Its first products were tuners, integrated amplifiers, and receivers with enamel front panels and knobs rather than the toggle switches typical of the era. And inside, of course, were vacuum tubes. By the early 1960s, Sherwood was supplying FM broadcasters with stereo multiplex equipment, and in the hi-fi era was responsible for a few “firsts” -- such as the first solid-state receiver (the 1005, in 1967), and the first FM tuner with a digital readout (the SEL-300). Like much of its competition, Sherwood had moved production to the Far East by the late 1970s. The company now makes stereo and audio/video receivers, iPod docks, wireless speakers, sound bars, tuners, turntables, and disc players. I was sent a sample of the newest of their 11 models of 7.1-channel A/V receivers, the R-807 ($450 USD).

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Boston Acoustics MC100 Blue Bluetooth Speaker

January 2014

Boston Acoustics MC100Boston Acoustics is known for making good-sounding speakers, and the MC100 Blue Bluetooth speaker ($149 USD) follows in that tradition. For better Bluetooth sound, it supports NFC pairing and the aptX codec, though it’s not, as its box proclaims, a “wireless Bluetooth speaker” -- it must be plugged into AC to function. That’s about the only nit I have to pick with Boston Acoustics, who are not alone in confusing this issue. We need to adopt language in which Bluetooth means the wireless connectivity of that proprietary audio-signal format, and wireless means a battery-powered product that can be used without being tethered to a wall socket.

That said, the MC100 Blue produces a quality of sound you wouldn’t expect from such a small device, and it looks stunning.

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Miniwatt n4 USB DAC-Headphone Amplifier

December 2013

Miniwatt n4Hong Kong-based Miniwatt burst onto the hi-fi scene in 2009 with a tiny integrated tube amplifier that produced a mere 2.5Wpc -- hence the company’s name. The next year brought a slightly more powerful (3.5W) model, the n3, which still had a footprint about the size of a CD jewel case. While some might scoff at such low power ratings, a few watts are all that are needed to drive a desktop audio system with speakers of moderate sensitivity. Of course, an amplifier requires a source, and if you’re focusing on a desktop system, a USB DAC is the obvious choice.

The Miniwatt n4 ($348 USD) is a 32-bit/192kHz-capable, asynchronous USB DAC with both a 1/8” headphone jack and a stereo line-level output on RCAs. It also includes a coaxial digital output, which allows it to be used as a USB-to-S/PDIF converter. Buttons on the front panel affect both the line out and headphone volumes, and plugging in a pair of headphones mutes the line output -- as it should.

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Mass Fidelity Relay DAC-Bluetooth Digital Converter

December 2013

Mass Fidelity RelayI hate wires! I hate buying them, I hate hooking them up, and I hate the restrictions they place on my audio system. No matter how neatly I try to organize and route them, most of the time they can’t be hidden. On the other hand, I understand a wire’s importance. Heck, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on cables because I wanted to improve the sound of my system.

Ever since my review of the Sonos Digital Music System, in 2007, I’ve known that wireless technology would one day replace some of these troubling wires. The convenience of the Sonos system was incredible to me. It gave me great flexibility of access to my music collection. The only problem was, it was very expensive, and it didn’t give me the sound quality I expected for all the money I spent.

In the six years since, audio has continued to embrace wireless technology, and one of the companies doing that while raising the level of sound quality per dollar spent is Mass Fidelity, founded in 2009 in Ontario, Canada. A “community of audiophiles, designers, and engineers who are united by their passion for music,” Mass Fidelity focuses its efforts on “intelligently facilitating the aggregation of all your digital music collections and sources, allowing you to engage your music in a friendly way across all the devices you use on a daily basis.” The subject of this review is their two-channel Relay Bluetooth receiver with built-in DAC ($249 USD), designed to work with any Bluetooth device that stores or streams music.

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