Saturday, December 31, 2005

Audio-Technica ATH-ES7

The “Earsuit” range from Audio-Technica extends further with the ATH-ES7. Audio-Technica’s intention with the ES range is exactly what the name hints at… something smarter and more upmarket than the rest, offering refinement in design. The ATH-ES7 has mirror finish stainless steel earcups on a lightweight, low-profile design and was created to fold flat in your briefcase, Prada manbag or whatever it is you consider stylish work storage. The phone is available in black and white. The black is shown here.

If you search through this blog (which is a pain and one of the main reasons why I want to change now) you’ll see a somewhat lukewarm review for the ATH-ES5, it’s smaller, older sibling. While essentially a decent headphone, the ES5 offered no isolation and a very slow folding mechanism. The ES7 shares very little with the ES5 in terms of mechanical design and is a considerably larger headphone, but you can probably see that the two are related in terms of offering understated design uniqueness that seeks to stand out from the rest.

Although I complained about the mechanical properties of the design, there was no question that the ATH-ES5 was built to very high standards of quality. The same is true with the ATH-ES7. Build quality is top notch, and everything feels very "bespoke".

The pivot mechanism for the earcups feels very tightly put together with no wobble.

However the mirror finish, just like the iPods back is unfortunately a fingerprint and scratch magnet. No real scratches yet for this ES7, but it’s only a matter of time. It does ship with a cleaning cloth for the inevitable fingerprints.

The fantasy...

...And the reality after a day's worth of heavy use.

The headband adjusts on ratcheting twin steel heavy-gauge wires made of very tough steel, and there’s enough movement of the band as well as of the earcups for it to adjust to virtually any ear or head.

In terms of the overall look, it’s very smart and does justify it’s ‘Earsuit’ moniker. It’s comfy for a supra-aural design (on the ear) but it has a slightly ‘wide-shouldered’ look once on the head, which makes it look slightly goofier than it needed to, compared with some other more low-profile headphones.

The elastomer-covered, metre-long, compact 3.5mm plug-terminated cable is a carryover from the ES5, and they’re still as potentially delicate as the ES5’s cables were. There’s better strain relief at the earcups now, but I think if anything is going to break first on these phones it’ll definitely be the cable.

How’s the external noise isolation? Decent. Not anywhere near as good as the top performer in this range (the Sennheiser HD25-1), but on a par with or slightly inferior to most closed DJ phones. Sound leakage to the outside is minimal.

Quality earpads offer decent comfort for an 'on-ear' phone,
but not the greatest isolation.

The headphone is pretty easy to power from any portable. It's unlikely that you'll find much, apart from Sony's most heinously European-crippled machines perhaps, unable to drive these to a decent volume level. In terms of sound quality and treble / midrange response, the ATH-ES7 is quite similar to the more ubiquitous Sony MDR-V700DJ headphone. That means a relatively mild treble and a slightly prominent midrange. However the ATH-ES7 ups the bass ante from the MDR-V700DJ with much more ‘boom’, delivering real weight in the mid-bass (where the bass action normally occurs in pop/rock). I say ‘weight’ instead of ‘punch’ because the sonic response, rather like a low-cost subwoofer is a bit slow. The trebles in common with the Sony feels somewhat rough, lending some erroneous texture to the highs but the ES7 does offer a slight improvement in overall sound accuracy to the Sony. There is a noticeable case of ‘closed phone honk’, artificial-sounding sonic reflections caused by not overcoming design limitations in closed phones. To sum it up, the ES7 is basically a slightly more accurate Sony DJ-phone with added subwoofer.

Putting that in overall context, there are plenty of (even other closed) headphones around the $50~$100 mark which can get very close to or even beat these on a sound quality assessment, but perhaps no others which offer the sort of combination of an unfatiguing yet still relatively well defined sound plus the "wave o'bass". Am I impressed? Not as such. But the overall sound is actually quite pleasing for pop and rock use, and I can imagine many people being very happy with this sound.

The ATH-ES7 is a subtly blingtastic alternative for the more image-conscious who might be considering a higher-end portable headphone. Rather expensive for the level of performance offered as far as the full imported price goes, but nevertheless there are some definite plus points about these. If you love kicking out the beats and keeping it to yourself, then these might be just the phones for you with a powerful bass and usable, if not spectacular isolation. The image is distinctly cool and overall it’s not a bad headphone at all to spend your commutes with.

ATH-ES7 "Earsuit"
Manufacturer: Audio-Technica Japan
Impedance: 32 ohms
Efficiency: 100db/mw claimed (sounds higher, but that's perhaps because of the bass response)
Drivers: 42mm
Weight: 160g claimed
Freq. Response: 5 ~ 30,000hz claimed

Availability: Retail in selected Asian countries, import elsewhere using the shops below
Price: $150ish + shipping
Buy from Bluetin
Buy from Audiocubes

I was doing some idle searching in Bing, and came across this - apparently they're better at SEO than some. An interesting remix, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Hi guys, yes I'm still alive.

Still working on a replacement for this blog, but for now I'm trying to get some behind-the-scenes stuff sorted out.

Next Major Article
I and a fellow Head-Fi member are working on a comparison of unamped and amped configurations. Say you start with an Etymotic ER-6i and are looking to step up. You visit Head-Fi or other forums and they tell you that amping the ER-6i can work wonders. You get directed to Xin's website and learn about his new Supermini. Then someone else recommends the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi Pro as a step-up earphone. Which do you pick? Well that's exactly what we're about to establish. In the case of balanced-armature in-ear phones the choice of a more expensive earphone is not always as clear cut as it might be, since the drivers in use by all the main companies (Etymotic, Shure, Ultimate Ears, etc) are all pretty much the same in terms of capability. The difference is in the use of multiple drivers of differing size and the tuning of each driver. Amp or Upgrade? That's the question we'll be answering.

I've also got hold of a pair of the Audio-Technica ATH-ES7 headphones, which I'll be posting a short review soon.

Monday, November 14, 2005


Hey guys, I'm sorry about the lack of updates to the blog. The truth is that I've gone directly from being ill and dragging my feet on an otherwise simple in-ear review to too much gear to review! Multiple DAPs have hit the bangraman household, and the people who provide these to me must be satisfied first. Not to mention other things taking up my time. I'll pick out a choice article and re-do it for here fairly soon.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Logitech Bluetooth Headphones

I picked these up a while back as… well, they’re interesting, and usually that’s all that’s required for me to pick something up. I was not expecting a whole lot to be honest. My audio-based experiences of Bluetooth technology to date have not been, shall we say, stunning. The headphones retail for £99 in the UK and approximately $130 in the US.

The Logitech Bluetooth Headphones use the Bluetooth (duh) short-range digital transmission system to send audio to the headphone from the slightly bulky transmitter at a practical maximum of around 4 ~ 6m (12 ~ 18ft) range.

The headphones have built-in controls for volume, and the iPod-specific version also has track control / pause functions. As the iPod version has the remote socket built-in to the transmitter, it’s not compatible with non-iPod players nor the Nano / 5G. So I chose the regular “MP3” variety.

Charging up the non-replaceable Li-ion batteries in both headphone and transmitter takes around 3 hours, and pairing it is as simple as switching on the phones after the transmitter is on... and they’re ready to use.

I plug the transmitter into an iPod and am quite surprised at what comes out. It’s actually music as more or less it’s supposed to be played, not a frog chorus with the flu in an echo chamber!

The sound is comparable in general quality and tonal balance to the £30 Sennheiser PX100, although there is more 'enclosure honk', a sort of tin can effect overtone especially in the midrange. There’s a fairly solid bass, a mild top end and a midrange that doesn’t feel particularly boosted or recessed. Quite an agreeable tonal balance in general, but nowhere near a half-decent £99 wired headphone in terms of sound quality. Of course, I wasn't expecting that.

The Logitech phones compared to a Sony MDR-G74.

The general physical characteristic of the Logitech is comparable to other behind-the-neck headphones such as the Sony MDR-G74SL, only that it doesn’t fold. It’s the same sort of street style design, and unfortunately just as uncomfortable, tending to dig in at the top of the ear after a while. There’s also a convex curve to the phones where they meet the ear, and this means that placing of the phone on the ear is slightly more critical than your regular mini / street style phone. Shifting the phones around does create a change in the sound so it’s important to seat them properly. The increase in weight with the circuitry and batteries is definitely noticeable if you compare the Logitechs with a regular street style, but it's not a big deal when worn. The general lack of comfort though (like the Sonys) was more of a problem for me.

Charging the Logitech.

Battery life seems adequate for a commute. The maximum I’ve used the phones for between charges is 4 hours or so, although I'm sure they could have gone on longer (I haven't really tested the battery life). The claimed life is 8 hours on a charge. The phone and transmitter are charged by a ‘dual-head’ socketed AC charger.

Transmitter headphone jack positions

The transmitter is somewhat bulky, but it’s fairly lightweight. It also has a jack that locks into two different positions, so it works with a wide range of players. If the jack positioning isn’t optimal, there’s a low-profile extension cable supplied.

The range depends on whether there's anything between you and the transmitter. Either way, it's pretty clear whenyou're about to go out of range as the music starts breaking up... you get bursts of music with silence inbetween. Usually, I got about a 4m range with one plaster wall / wooden door inbetween.

In terms of sporting use, my jury’s out… although they’re stable while worn, the phones are noticeably heavier than a pair of lightweight earphones and even a pair of regular street styles, and sweat / Li-ion batteries can’t be a match made in heaven.

You certainly don’t get what you pay for in sonic terms, but what it does achieve is quite impressive. And as minor an inconvenience as it might seem to many, the lack of a cable is quite refreshing in use. It is a bit of a shame though that they chose to pattern the phones on an open, street-style chassis as it’s not particularly comfortable, and although open phones are safer for active use, I feel some isolation would have been nice for commuters in general.

Would you pay an effective 200% premium on top of a £30 headphone to get rid of the cable? If I was given a choice once again, probably not. But the wireless technology does work pretty well, and for some I would imagine the curiously satisfying sense of freedom is worth it.

Logitech Bluetooth Headphones: ~$130 (US), ~£99 (UK).

Product Link (Logitech USA)

I have a good excuse, honest...

So... some upcoming reviews have been delayed by the fact that I'm busy, and also because I've caught the flu. Not of the avian variety I hope.

Although I am still generally listening, my nose is blocked and my ears are 'clicky' so obviously any reliable listening evaluations are out for the time being. I'm organising my notes (or in my present condition: "urganising by dotes") on the JVC phones and will have it up fairly soon. It doesn't really warrant the build-up I've ended up giving it but anyhoo, it'll be finally up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On the way: JVC HA-FX55 in-ear phone review.

Initial opinions are that they seem a tiny bit less compromised than the MDR-EX71SL in certain sonic aspects, while in terms of bass they offer more of what people like about the EX71's (the amount)... and they're cheaper. Some ergonomic misses were apparent within a second of putting them on, but it's about the sound, innit? :p

Full review up soon.

FX55 on top, EX71 on bottom.
The silicone 'bungs' are actually slightly different in design, but they are very similar.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


My Nano took a couple of falls onto underground/subway train floors, both nice and gritty... and in one case, I accidentally gave the Nano a little kick, sending it grittily slithering across the floor to my dismay. Fortunately, although the superficial scratching was heavy I had no functional problems with it. I could still see the screen fine.

But you know... it's practically new and a rough Nano was clashing with my sense of well-being :p So I ordered the iCleaner Ultra Pro kit.

The Ultra Pro includes your regular scratch remover and a polish, as well as the cloths to do the polishing. It also includes a deep scratch remover / back cleaner, which I didn't need this time around as on both impacts the Nano landed face down.

So, 5 minutes of antiscratch and polish later, this is what I ended up with.

Not completely pristine, but the scratches have been reduced by perhaps 90%. If I put more elbow grease into it (and pehaps a tiny bit of that deep scratch remover) it would undoubtedly end up looking even better.

For what it is, the kit is of course somewhat overpriced... but if you don't have the time nor the inclination to hunt for the individual components by yourself, the iClean is a fantastic all-in-one scratch removal solution for your iPod.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Apple iPod Nano

The player on the right is the Sony D-555 portable CD player. Introduced in 1989, the 555 is considered 'legendary' in terms of sound quality and desirability. They still change hands regularly for the ~$400 mark.

The player on the left is Apple's latest...

...And for sound quality, it blows away the D-555.

I briefly abandoned the iPod Photo because I felt its audio performance was compromised compared to older versions (I ended up re-acquiring a 60Gb Photo recently, but primarily to use as a portable large disc/backup for my documents). It just didn't quite sound 'like an iPod' even with the Qualias, which were great with the 3G and the mono 4G. Sticking the Photo on the measuring rig revealed that various undesirable nasties were creeping into the sound even with a 70 ohm load, while the falloff remained uncured. On aggregate, it was no better than (and slightly worse than) many 'also-ran' players in terms of sound quality so I quietly put the Photo aside.

The Nano on the other hand is a sonic return to form for Apple. The most noticeable thing to anyone will be a significantly reduced bass falloff in comparison to previous hard-disk based iPods. The fall-off level is now favourably comparable to the iAudio X5, and the overall quality is a little higher with a more open, incisive sound than the X5, especially noticeable on the Qualia 010. The power of the headphone amp is on a par with other iPods... which probably makes the Nano the most powerful flash player in terms of being to drive more demanding or odd-load headphones.

I'm assuming everyone who reads this knows about how iPods work in general these days, so I'm not going into that. Suffice it to say the Nano works exactly like a full-sized iPod, with the exception of camera USB-OTG and the lack of a remote capability. The smaller control wheel takes a little while to get used to but once mastered works as well as the Mini/Photo wheels.

In conjunction with iTunes ease of loading in general, the HDD player-like loading time (unlike the majority of other flash players, especially Sony's dreadfully slow NW-Exxx OLED players) and Smart Playlisting, you can put a decent collection of tracks for that day's listening onto the Nano in next to no time.

Battery life tested with Apple Lossless (since I felt this is a player worthy to use that codec) is ~8 hours with an additional 15 minutes of backlight-on 'fiddling around' time. Not spectacular, but usable. I'll edit this article later if possible to relfect MP3/AAC tests. There's also negligible battery drain in standby mode.

There are lots of nice things about the look and feel of the Nano, but the display completes it. It is extremely crisp despite its small size, and like the Photo (and unlike most other colour-screen players) is visible in daylight without the backlight needing to be on. Photos are convincingly vivid on the screen, although the screen is a little too small to make out real details. Zoom would have been nice.

Unfortunately Outlook sync is still very flaky. I had a problem with syncing which I assumed was due to the complex nature of my email set-up but actually it turned out that a lot of people were having problems. If it's fixed, then it makes a passable appointment reminder and phonebook. The Screen Lock is a new feature which allows you to secure the iPod against other people using it. It's something which is handy if you do use it as a phonebook/calendar. But the feature isn't that practical to use since you have to turn it on manually.

Scratches? Yes... but I did drop mine a couple of times onto very gritty surfaces. The result is a network of fine scratches covering most of the front panel, but nothing that impedes my ability to use the player or appreciate the screen.

Overall, I think this could well be the best iPod yet. It sounds good (and even better with truly high-end headphones), retains everything that's good about the iPod and is incredibly portable. As a pure music player, the Nano is a great choice for those who want full mobility.

Addendum: 11/Oct
I forgot to add the bit about the EQ of the Nano, mainly because I rarely touch EQ on any of my portables. I'm not sure exactly what is taking Apple so long, but they have still yet to grasp the meaning of workable EQ. This is a problem that they've had for ages.

Applying EQ does screw up the sound quality in practically any portable I've had (even the "fabled" Rio Karma), and after a short time of enjoying the 'zing' put into the music by an initially optimum-sounding EQ curve, the loss in quality always leads me to put things back to flat... but there's no doubt that some people want to add that extra thing to the sound, regardless of quality. The problem is that many of the EQ curves on the iPod which heavily reinforces bass result in audible distortion, regardless of the headphones you have (i.e. higher-impedance phones aren't a cure).

Everyone else seem to be able to manage this, so you do have to wonder what is going on. Are the Apple engineers closet audiophile nanny-state'ers? Did they calculate by making 'bad' EQ settings unusable they would swing people towards actual sound quality? That would be a nice story but highly unlikely.

Friday, September 30, 2005

A false hiatus? No, time for an overhaul.

So... There have been a few posts during my so-called hiatus, but I'm REALLY quite busy over the next couple of months and while I'm away I'm definitely investigating what I can do to make the contents of this blog more accessible. It's now getting to the point where even I find articles slightly time consuming to find, and the whole initial point of this blog was not for promotion or related purposes but that I had easy access to my opinions of stuff, instead of being potentially lost in a relatively hard-to-search forum.

It's fair to say I've outgrown Blogger, which I have to say for what it allows you to do is truly a great service. It's becoming clear that I'll have to look towards moving away from it and setting up a dedicated site or something... but if it's on a dedicated site, there's quite a bit more I want to do.

It's all something I'll be looking into. As they say, I'll be back.

Queries, offers, brickbats, etc... you can reach me on Head-Fi Private Messaging as 'bangraman'.

(by the way, I am far from the only person on the Internet with that handle. I was beginning to get tired of questions about clearly other 'bangramen')

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Boil from the Past

The image may not register immediately with the coffee-centric Americans, but that's a kettle. I made this a while back, found this picture yesterday.

A META42 headphone amp was built inside it. The lid acted as a battery holder mount, so I could change cells by opening the kettle. The volume knob is just visible in the picture. I thought about adding a DC jack where the original cable existed, but never got around to it.

It was great to unearth on planes and long train journeys. The weird looks it got was highly amusing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What the fall-off sounds like

Here's a brief test for everyone who's thinking about buying the Cowon iAudio X5 and concerned about the fall-off effects of the Line Out... and wondering what it sounds like.

The music is from approximately 4:00 to 4:30 of the track "The Missed Symphony" of Infected Mushroom's Classical Mushroom (this is an amazon link) in 192K MP3. Well worth buying by the way if you have any interest in electronica. I've chosen this music because the effects of the falloff are most apparent in heavily beat-based music like this.

Both exerpts were recorded directly out of the X5 from the headphone socket (40 volume, all FX off, no EQ) and the Line Out socket on the subpack, going into a soundcard with a line-level input impedance.

Here's sample 1
Here's sample 2

Guess the Line Out with bass falloff (no need to post your guesses here though). It should be obvious... at least it is on the headphones/amps I use, but whether it bothers you is something according to your own tastes.

If you can't hear a difference, it's probably because your headphones /speakers have a boosted mid-bass response which is obscuring the differences in the lower bass regions, or that your phones / speakers aren't able to depict lower bass (either issue is not uncommon on lower-end consumer gear). In which case the falloff effect doesn't really disadvantage you in a practical context.

As you can hear either way though, the falloff-afflicted output doesn't sound noticeably more 'terrible' as some might whinge (too much time in RMAA, not enough time listening). But clearly it needs to be fixed because an EQ boost can't compensate for it, because all that would happen is that the EQ will boost up to the point of the falloff curve.

The track excerpt is not used with permission, although arguably speaking it falls within fair use. If anyone concerned has a problem with it, please drop me a private message at Head-Fi and I'll upload something else.
PS. The first sample is the line out.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Amping the iAudio X5

Amping is something that I don't do very often, but the performance of the iAudio X5 in relation to the monochrome iPods has me wishing to reach for the Porta Corda II rather more often than I would like.

The Meier-Audio Porta Corda II (now replaced by the Porta Corda III) is a generally high-performance portable amplifier. Because some elements of the signal passing through can be noticeably changed and sort of cleaned up by an amp, applying good amping to an underperforming player can sometimes have a bigger felt impact than amplifying a good one... although of course, amping a good player is the best solution!

When I had the iAudio M3, the X5's predecessor, I didn't really bother amping it as I felt the subpack assembly (a 'dongle' that fits without any means of retention on the underside of the M3) was too delicate to use for portable amping purposes. The X5 sticks to exactly the same arrangement and I still feel it's too delicate. However, I tried amping it this time around.

The X5 and subpack. Darn, that carry bag was dusty... :D

The X5 subpack connector and the iPod dock connector.

The problem I encountered is something that's already discussed a lot on the iAudio related forums. There is a bass fall-off, like the iPod's headphone out... only on the X5, you get a fall-off from both the headphone out and the Line Out.

The X5 headphone out's bass fall-off and other factors contribute to a sonic performance on aggregate on a par with, or maybe just slightly better than, the iPod Photo... which correspondingly has a lower audio performance than the monochrome iPods. So it's not bad at all, although it could be better.

However the Line Out fall-off is something that I've rarely seen on modern players. According to my measurements at the headphone side of the Porta Corda II amplifier (input impedance: 3.6kohms), it is registering a 4.5db falloff at 47hz, with a 1db falloff starting at 130hz. Plugging in the Porta Corda II amp into the headphone socket of the X5 however, turning the volume up to max and turning off all effects, I'm rewarded by a ruler-flat frequency response and significantly decreased distortion compared to the subpack line out... a very audible difference, I ought to say.

Both measurements were made at the headphone socket of the Porta Corda
at nominal listening levels, with a 32 ohm headphone in the chain.

Now, there are plusses and minuses to this. Firstly, as I said the subpack design hasn't changed, and in my opinion it is too fragile to use portably with a Line Out cable plugged in on a regular basis. So you could argue that there's no point in portable amping using the subpack... and this is true to an extent. However, using the subpack allows the use of a remote, which is very handy while using a portable amp.

The same falloff by the way happens with the optional dock.

Having said all that, even though the measurement looks pretty dire the Line Out is not a dead loss... it's still perfectly listenable as it were. Apart from the bass loss, there's nothing particularly crappy about the sound. It's just not as good as it should be given the performance of the headphone out when used in the same way. It just looks like lazy design or a component mis-spec that wasn't corrected for a long time (the X5 sub-pack uses the same PCB as the M3 sub-pack... so I'm assuming the components are the same, and the M3 had the same problem).

I must admit on the basis of problems like this, I'm having second thoughts about getting rid of the iRiver H320. The H320 definitely doesn't work as well in daily use and is a a bit of a huge tank in comparison, but it seems to be sonically and physically better sorted out. Sigh...

Click here to go to a later post about what the falloff sounds like

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Loading the iAudio X5.

So... I've been using the X5 for a while now, and after I decided to forego the iPod as my main player (mainly because I do, for my own uses, find the UMS and USBOTG capability quite handy), I've been trying to find ways to get the X5 to... er... work like the iPod. Heh.

I've not got further in the lack of album-based browsing when your folders are sorted by artists, but I have made some headway in getting music on and off the player in a managed way.

For the music management software, I've been using j.River Media Center. There are some counterintuitive aspects to this program, but on the whole it is easy to use, and more importantly extremely powerful as a management tool. In fact it's a lot more than that, since it can act as a Home Theater front end as well but it's strengths are in media management. Because you can rig it up (in fact, the default setting) to look like iTunes, there is no major culture shock in moving to it. I'd suggest you try the 30-day trial edition to get a feel of this package. It's one of the few that I thought really worth paying for when there's something like iTunes available for free.

One of the things that Media Center doesn't do is to auto-launch when you dock the iAudio. So I solved this by using Quickfind's Autoplay Repair, a tool which allows you to edit the Autoplay entries. I just set up Media Center to launch in there.

Next, I wanted to sync the podcasts I subscribe to. iPodder dumps your podcasts arranged by subfolders into whatever folder you nominate, so I just set up SyncToy as an Autoplay entry and set up the X5 to sync with the podcast folder.

Now, I'm quite pleased with the overall set-up.

iAudio X5, iPod 4G Photo and Sony HD5 without backlight

A requested pic:

All three players in subdued daylight with backlight off.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Sony MDR-J20 vs Sennheiser PX 10 : low cost ‘sports phones’

Today, I’m looking at two low-cost earphones intended for ‘active’ people. The Sony MDR-J20 “h.ear” and the Sennheiser PX10. In the UK, they sell for a typical £15 for the J20 and £19 for the PX10.

PX10 on the left, MDR-J20 on the right.

Both the J20 and the PX10 are ‘partially in the ear phones’. These take a regular earphone speaker and turns it 90 degrees so that part of the speaker assembly is almost inside the ear canal at an oblique angle when worn. Pioneered on the ‘Turbo’ Sony sports earphones more than a decade ago, this increases the stability of fit for active types, and also delivers more bass into the ear than loosely coupled regular earphones.

The Sennheiser PX10 is as far as I know a non-US product so you won’t see it over there, but think of it as a more secure, partially in the ear version of the MX earphones. However, the specs and the nature of the drivers in the PX10 seem unlike any of the MX series earphones despite being superficially similar, so I can only assume they are obtained from a separate source.

I used these mainly while out walking and also commuting. I trialled these exclusively out of the Sony NW-HD5 player. Well, I have to use it sometime ;) No additional EQ was used and the music ranged from classical, jazz, easy listening to rock and electronica.


The PX10 pictured next to the 15-year-old MDR-A10 'Turbo'

The PX10 is a headbanded ‘partially in the ear’phone, very much like the original ‘Turbo’ phones. The engineering is however in some ways a retrograde step to the ‘Turbo’. The lightweight all-plastic construction doesn’t provide enough ‘spring’ in the headband to exert sufficient pressure to give a solidly secure fit and contributes to a feeling of floppy fragility, and it doesn’t fold. Lookswise, it’s rather more sculptured than the ‘Turbo’ bringing the look up to date. And finally, it adds an additional feature which will undoubtedly come in handy for runners: An MX500-style sliding volume control just below the symmetrical Y-split in the cable. The slider control is however pretty on/off. There’s not a smooth transition in volume, rather a series of uneven steps of large cuts. I would expect that the precise behaviour of the volume control will vary in individual examples due to the cheapness of the sliding potentiometer. The 3.5mm mini plug is nickel plated.

Closeup of the MDR-J20 (Left side).

The Sony MDR-J20 is a slightly more imaginative take on the original ‘Turbo’. Instead of a headband, it uses earhooks to retain the phones in the ears. So it is compact and definitely easier to stow than the PX10. The look is very contemporary and well executed. They manage, thanks to the shape and the silver accent to be pretty discreet but a definite ‘style point’. The hooks successfully hold the J20 in place during most activities… but it is easier to pull these out than the PX10, due to the lack of a headband and also the shape of the part that goes inside the ear. The J20 adopts Sony’s common asymmetrical cable arrangement, with the cable for the right ear going behind the neck, joining the left cable on that side. The super-low-profile right angled 3.5mm plug is gold plated. The phone is available in silver/black as above and also white.

Both are subjectively equally comfortable to wear due to their light weight and the way they sit fairly unobtrusively in the ear. However the PX10 with a higher cable attachment point and the Y-split does allow the cable to be potentially more intrusive. The J20 works with bicycle helmets and other protective headgear, while the PX10 can do to a degree but is not comfortable when used in such a situation.

As with practically any earphone of this type, fit does control sound to a degree, although as said before with much less variability than regular style earphones. When hung lightly on the ear these give the best sound clarity. When pushed into the ear canal for a more secure fit, both phones become murkier (for the obvious reason that the start of the ear canal would ‘plug up’ the holes where the sound comes out of). The Sony’s exhibited far more potential degredation in this respect. For the purposes of sound quality measurement, the evaluations were made by sitting the phones at a point where they were securely fitting and would remain so, but exhibited the least impeded sound. Both phones had sufficiently high efficiency to be powered by the ~5mw/channel output of the Sony HD5. Neither provides isolation as such, but the Sony when pushed into the ear gave a more pronounced blocking of outside noise.

The PX10 is actually pretty well balanced sonically on the move when compared to many regular earphones, delivering a sound that lets you hear the full range of instruments properly despite a certain amount of outside noise. The Sony, thanks to a very similar fit delivers about the same overall sonic balance, but with a significantly increased ‘murky factor’ and a recessed treble.

In terms of sound quality, the Sennheiser definitively shines through. The Sony sounds like a slightly inferior version of the iPod earbuds… certainly non-fatiguing and not unlistenable by any means, but words like detail and clarity don’t exactly roll off the tongue when the J20’s are on the ear. However seated, bass was definitely present but with a significant degree of wooliness. Generally speaking, OK for ‘just listening’ but nothing impressive considering what some other £15 ~ £20 headphones can do. The PX10 fares notably better, exhibiting a sparklier sound and better accuracy along with a decent amount of snap and volume in the bass. Both phones managed a decent amount of ‘out of the head’ sound staging, keeping the ‘inside brain blob’ sonic claustrophobia that can happen with in-ear canalphones (and the resulting fatigue) at bay.

Spending ~£10 more on the Sennheiser PX100 headphones would result in better sound quality and superior sonic bang for the buck (although slightly less suitable for active use), although the PX10 does provide fairly stiff sonic competition for the £25 Sony MDR-G74SL Street Style headphones.

Both are more secure in fit than regular earphones, and both do provide a more balanced sound on the move. If you just want background music and just want something unobtrusive that stays in place while jogging or whatever, the Sony MDR-J20 is not a bad choice, especially as you can just wad it up for storage unlike the PX10. Subjectively speaking, the Sony also looks smarter on the head. However the Sennheiser is nearly as unobtrusive in actual use and a clearly better sounding item. A case of horses for courses...

Sennheiser PX10
Sony MDR-J20 (silver)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Sony HD5, iPod 4G Photo and iAudio X5 battery tests.

I posted fragments of this in three blog entries, but I've decided to tidy it up. And add a nice graph :D

I finally decided to run a 'sort of real-life' battery test of three players: The iPod Photo, the Sony NW-HD5 and the iAudio X5 (the standard X5, not the L).

The test is pretty simple. Charge it up, leave for 48 hours, then play back my test MP3 library which has a wide range of songs, the lowest being 128Kbits and the highest being 320. All effects off, all EQ off. The volume is adjusted to slightly louder than I would normally listen to on a pair of Sony MDR-V700DJ headphones. I also simulate some fiddling by 'using' (i.e. navigating without changing playback order) the player for about 10 seconds at a time for 10 times throughout the testing period. The backlight is enabled for at least 10 seconds after key presses on all players.

With a 21-hour stint until the batteries gave out, the HD5's amazing claimed battery life of 40 hours therefore is less amazing here, although it has still a major lead. It also had an advantage in the test... having no quick wake and no onboard clock, when you leave it there is no battery drain. Given those factors, a rather disappointing performance.

The iAudio X5 surprised with a conservative documented battery life, managing 14.5 hours when the claimed life was 14.

The iPod? It's an iPod, the 'up to 15 hour' life had to be a huge piece of fiction, right? Well... no. It turned in a 14.5-hour life in the test, identical to the iAudio. And this was the player most handicapped by the 48 hour leave test bit, because it wakes up immediately in normal use so doesn't actually switch itself off for a while.

Your real-life use will probably not match up to these examples and may be longer or shorter. It depends on the bitrate of the songs, how often you fiddle with the player, etc, but this test is a good indication of how these compare when on a level playing field. The other factor is the display. The Sony and iPod both have displays which are visible in daylight without the backlight (amazingly, the iPod's colour display is slightly clearer than the Sony HD5's monochrome display in daylight without the backlight) so in order to eke out more battery life, you can turn the backlight off if you're working / travelling in fairly brightly lit places. The iAudio has a display which is totally black without the backlight, so needs it on.

EDIT: 13th September 2005
As soon as I've ripped enough albums in ATRAC3+, I'll do the same test @ 192K on the HD5.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The blog is taking a hiatus

Sorry for leaving a few things up in the air but the blog is taking a break. I'm a little busy right now and hanging around the forums is taking up all my free online time.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Extravagant & Premium : Sony Qualia 010 & MDR-SA5000

How do they fare? Could I be bothered to write anything about it? Hmmm... Perhaps in the near future.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

iAudio X5 vs iRiver H320

The iRiver H320's relatively long in the tooth now and has been dropped or deeply discounted for clearance in some countries, but it does remain one of the few mini-Personal Video Players on the market. iRiver don't sell it as a video player, but it can play them back with the appropriate firmware. I've been carrying both around to compare them functionally for a while, and I've finally run the audio switch test in the same manner as the HD5. This time I used the Sennheiser PX200 as well as the Sony Qualia 010, and finally the Sony MDR-EX71SL in-earphones.

With the PX200 and even the Q010, it is very hard to tell the two apart. The X5 gives the impression of a better soundstage and an infinitessimally clearer sound, but in practical terms both players are pretty much neck and neck when it comes to sound quality. There are however definitely noticeable changes with the MDR-EX71. The X5 seems to suffer from the same low impedance bass fall-off as the iPod, and as such the amount of bass heard with something like the EX71 (16 ohms impedance) on the X5 is noticeably less than the iRiver H320, which has a response unaffected by impedance. Of course, you can EQ this up to your tastes and the fall-off does not seem to contribute greatly to additional distortion that can happen as a result of the fall-off.

Both have similar effects to screw up your sound ;) but the X5 packs a little more in it's armoury. The 5-band EQ is not there on the H320 (only bass/treble boost) and there are a couple of minor 'enhancement' options also not present on the H320. However in terms of the general level of adjustment available, the 5-band EQ is the only real advantage of the X5.

I think it's fair to say that the H320's sound quality is slightly worse but it's not worth worrying about the differences because they are so slight, and it does offer certain advantages as the H320 is less variable than the X5 in terms of behaviour with different phones. On balance, a tie but a slight nod in favour of the H320 for the lack of a bass loss with low impedance phones.

Both have video playback capability. And where it is 5 frames per second less on the H320 leading to a noticeably more jerky playback, the video is so much clearer on the H320, making use of the H320's much brighter, crisper, higher resolution screen. The X5 is blurred and murky in contrast although it has a noticeably higher framerate leading to smoother motion... but the motion advantage is not enough to overcome the fact that in comparison to the H320, the X5's movies look like... well, like shit. Using tools such as iRiverter, it is equally easy to convert videos for both, although the conversion process is not exactly quick. While I see the video playback on the H320 as a mere gimmick, the video playback on the X5 is a really bad gimmick.

The inferior screen of the X5 can present a detraction from viewing photos, but it has a very important edge: Zoom. It's not exactly lightning fast, but thanks to being able to get in close and pan around, you can obviously see more detail in the picture than the iRiver. Although it generated more errors in displaying some of my pictures, those which I was able to load were much better to look at on the X5 despite the crappier screen, especially as the iRiver H320 would sometimes put a border around the image which made it even smaller than the screen.

The X5 talks to a wider range of devices at a better speed than the iRiver. It makes it practically more usable to copy portions of your music library onto a self-powered flash player for example. Works a treat with my Mobiblu. The iRiver has many problems with OTG.

The X5 has on the go playlists, which allows you to queue up songs while away from a PC. The H320 does not. That's about the only major difference as far as playlisting is concerned... both have support for M3U playlists written onto the player.

Both tackled up to 320K MP3 and q9 Ogg in tests without any real problems. The FLAC support is something I haven't yet checked out on the X5, but it is said to be somewhat restricted in that it doesn't support the most efficiently compressed settings. The H320 can play back uncompressed WAV files, but not lossless. It is faster in starting to play tracks when they're manually selected. The H320 also has support for searching by ID3 tags, which is now quite workable through third party software like TDT. The X5 has no such ability although it is apparently planned by Cowon.

Both are very similar in terms of how to use it. The basic transport and menu controls are fairly easy to use but some other features require some scratching of the head in order to get them to work. The tiny joystick of the X5 is a handicap from an ergonomic point of view, while the H320's stiff buttons aren't that much better in terms of control but are much more comfortable to hold down while, say, fast forwarding. Both are USB Mass Storage players and are as such drag & drop when you connect them to a PC.

No contest here: While not smaller in length/width (in fact the H320 is slightly shorter), the X5 is significantly more svelte in the hand and also looks a lot thinner than the H320.

Both offer built-in Mics, and both offer line-in recording (in the case of the X5, with a 'subpack' attachment). Both are equally usable in this department, and both have similar problems with recording using the built-in mic in that the backlight cases a high pitched whining noise and also the hard disk spin-up/spin-down noise is very clearly recorded as well. Both players can support plug-in mics, but are much less effective than using a mic preamp. In terms of serious recording use, both are considerably inferior to Sony's Hi-MD machines.

The X5 is built as well as many other players such as the iPod or the Sony HD5, and features aluminium panels on the front and back. The back has moulded-in mini feet so that the panel doesn't get scratched as much and is a nice touch. However the H320, despite the lack of fancy metal bits is actually noticeably better built. One thing I have to say about iRiver's recent products, despite all the problems I have with their sometimes flaky firmware and software, is that they are really well built. Also, all the connections are built in to the H320. The power, USB and line in/out on the X5 are added via a separate 'subpack'. The connector for this is quite flimsy and the possibility of breakage is ever-present. The cradle is pretty much a necessity in my opinion for the X5, and it's the first thing I picked up.

The X5 offers a longer battery life, and also charges while connecting to the PC. The H320 does not connect to the PC automatically unless it is on when connected via USB, and is fussier about charging from USB.

RADIO: Not checked things out a lot in this respect, but once again, pretty comparable features and performance for the FM radio.

The X5 is a brand new product, and the H320 is one that's being obsoleted. The advantages that the X5 offers are On-the-go playlists, a 5-band EQ (boost only though), better photo viewing and better OTG support, a smaller size, better battery life with certain types of use, and faster navigation through a large library. That is counterbalanced by lack of tag support, truly crappy video, a considerably inferior screen, slightly worse build quality and a remote that noticeably affects sound quality.

Is that enough of an overall improvement compared to the downsides of the X5? Just about. If you do a lot with cameras, the X5 certainly makes a lot more sense. It is definitely an evolution, but the X5 is truly just an iAudio M3 (a machine released mid last year) with video, photo and OTG tacked on. I ultimately only need one of these players, and the fact that I spent AGES thinking about which to get rid of indicates how closely they are matched overall. I elected to rid myself of the H320, but it was a very close call.

All things said, I really did expect more somehow out of the iAudio. It's good, but the fact that it doesn't comprehensively outclass an outgoing product does raise some concern.

EDIT 19th August:
Regarding some comments in concerning the 'just an M3 with a few thingies tacked on'... I think I made it clearer elsewhere, but what I am referring to is that fact that the DAP (deliberate emphasis) features of the X5 have not moved on from the M3; a player with room for improvement in that regard.

By the way, I'll be reposting the results for the HD5 v X5 in a similar format to the above.

Monday, August 08, 2005

iAudio X5 vs Sony HD5 musings, part one

So I'm back home and while typing up some reports I was playing with the iAudio X5 versus the Sony HD5. I'm using the Audio-Technica ATH-W2002 to take my attention away slightly from the highs and lows and to concentrate more on the overall detail and presentation of these two players.

It's interesting listening to just two as opposed to the broader comparison I'm doing at the moment, because the sense of difference between each is amplified compared to when testing several. When you're evaluating lots of players, the point of focus necessarily becomes more diffuse. Whether one is more valid than the other, I can't say... so invariably when I have the opportunity, I'll do both types of tests.

So far I'm not finding the navigation of the loaded files that different between each machine, with the X5 being a tad more intuitive when working through the folder list to play a track. The X5 has a three or so second pause if you select tracks ad hoc from a variety of folders, while the Sony has few seconds delay for the artist/album list to show up. In an album however, both players can skip between tracks at more or less the same speed, although the X5 is more variable... cache algorithm differences undoubtedly. I can't ascribe any particular superiority in navigation to either player if you have them sorted how you want.

However the X5 does not have the ability to navigate based on tags, so there's an advantage for the Sony if you don't have your music organised the ways in which you may want to search. The X5 also does not have the initial search feature, or anything like it which allows you to work your way through all the songs quickly. In terms of finding what you want, the Sony is definitely more versatile.

As far as a precis of my opinion on the X5 goes (since I don't think I've talked about it before on the blog), I have to say I'm not exactly blown away although it is a highly capable machine. I'll leave it at that for the time being. Anyway, we'll get onto the usability issues of each player much later. For now, initial views on the sound.

I volume matched both players (basically just play the same sine wave back on both machines and use a VU meter to set the same volume with the headphone load inserted), and set them playing on the same album ripped in 320K MP3.

(A passive audio switch is used for testing. The switches are used once per track and the track repeated)

And I've turned to both to see if I have any EQ/FX on so many times that it's getting a bit ridiculous... as frankly, I'm still a bit doubtful that the Sony could be this much of an underachiever in a relative terms. The difference becomes all the more clearer when the musical passages get more complex.

In terms of the incisiveness of the sound and the effective overall detail it delivers, the X5 is definitely in a class above the HD5. It's not just a difference in the lows and the comparative wallowyness of the HD5 which affects this... the Sony just in general serves up a smooth yet relatively unresolved performance in comparison. The difference in the ability of the X5 to present sonic information is particularly present in the attack and decay of voices and stringed instruments and the consequent space inbetween notes, as well as the ability to separate them when multiple layers of such sounds are present. With the Sony, things seemed to be more jumbled up into a uniform middle ground. Definitely not unpleasant, but less capable.

As far as what you can do to the sound is concerned, things are pretty evenly balanced: The Mach3bass and BBE DSP effects of the X5 do genuinely pep up the sound albeit at some expense of sound quality, whereas the Sony has the "VPT Acoustic Engine" (aka "which version of listening out of a drainpipe would you like?"). The X5's EQ and DSP modes work in all codecs, while the Sony's only works when using ATRAC. When using MP3 the Sony only has treble and bass controls. When using ATRAC, Sony does however have a 6-band EQ with boost and cut, whereas the X5 has a 5-band EQ with boost only but with finer control over the level of adjustment. I don't like boost-only EQ because it is nowhere near as effective as having the ability to both take away as well as add.

No word on the Line Out tests as of yet as I haven't done it. Next up, the iRiver H320 joins the fray.

EDIT 11th / August:
I run another test for the HD5 vs X5 using the Sony MDR-EX71 earphones. As some of you may know, I'm not exactly a fan of these. Well designed from an ergonomic point of view and they are handy earphones, but poor quality sound and bloated lows make them only marginally recommendable. However, they are very popular and a test is merited with these.

The low impedance bass falloff of the X5 was definitely present with these 16 ohm phones. I have established that the falloff effect is a) not quite as pronounced as on the iPod and b) actually cleaned up the overall sound of the bloated EX71 a little!

For a test of sound quality with these phones, I tried two tests... a straight listening test as before, but also with a <80hz cut to remove variability of opinion based on the bass falloff. Although because of the poor quality of the MDR-EX71 sound it was necessarily harder to tell the X5 and the HD5 apart, I was still getting it right every time as to which was which.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

And Sony smells a bit more of that coffee.

Codec independence issues aside, Sony devices became more viable with the release of Sonicstage 3.2. ATRAC files can now be unencrypted and the new bitrates are welcome. 160~192K ATRAC3+ is pretty much the ideal blend of quality and storage efficiency.

The core sound quality of the HD5 still needs work (the 'HD5's got a secret' tweak alone is not what irked me... the lower sound quality is the kicker) but apart from that, for the more casual ad-hoc listener the NW-HD5 is now looking pretty good.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Thinking about a revamp

While hunting for new threads yesterday (I hate shopping), it occured to me that the blog is also up for a revamp. If anyone does read this and has thought "that could be better" I'd appreciate feedback.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Hyun Won mobiBLU DAH-1500

Is that a pool cue chalk? No, it's an MP3 player.

At 24mm cubed (under a cubic inch), Korean-based Hyun Won's mobiBLU DAH-1500 claims to be the world's smallest MP3 player. It probably is the world's smallest in terms of the features it offers. Just for sheer 'wowsers' factor the DAH-1500 has everything else beat, especially with the OLED display taking up one side of the 'dice'.

(DAH-1500 in supplied silicone 'crate case')

However, it's not all about looks. The specs are impressive too. Despite the diminutive size, the DAH-1500 is available with 256MB, 512MB and 1Gb of flash memory. I'm reviewing the 1Gb version. It will play MP3 from 8-320Kbps bitrates, and (unsecured) WMA files of 32-192Kbps. It has an FM radio with presets, is powered by an onboard rechargeable Li-Ion battery, and claimed weight is 12g. As posted on other sites and on my Maul mail scale, it actually weighs 18g.

The DAH-1500 is also available in a wide variety of colours, the availability of which may vary. I got the black by default, but the other colours look nice too.

Super-Easy Connectivity

After you get it home, the first thing you'll need to do is to load and charge it. Attaching the DAH-1500 to the PC is via an innovative USB connection. It's actually built into the headphone socket. So you have a special USB > 3.5mm jack cable that ships with the player. This charges and also connects the player. The DAH-1500 is a Universal Mass Storage device and therefore is recognised without drivers by most modern PC's. Should you still be clinging to Win98, Hyun Won supplies a CD with drivers. Charging takes around 3.5 hours, and the battery is rated for a mamimum of 17 hours.

Unexpectedly Usable
Press and hold the Play button and the player comes to life. The first thing you'll notice is the OLED display. This uses exactly the same type of display as the iRiver N10, albeit an abbreviated version. In direct daylight and generally while outside in bright weather the display is totally invisible, and is dimmer than the Sony flash player's OLED display. Indoors and at night, the display is very legible and is a nice blue.

What's shown on the display is limited, but thanks to a well-judged scrolling speed and response, it's surprisingly usable especially after you learn the menu layout... after which you only need to hang around to see the track names. The song title display can be switched to read ID3 tags and to show it in an album/artist/song format, or just to show the filename.

The transport controls are on the right hand side of the cube, and consists of a simple circular pad with the play/pause button in the middle, and +, fwd, -, rwd controls in clockwise order. The left hand side of the cube has the menu button and the hold/clock display button. Although the menu structure and user interface design is quite similar to the iRiver N10, the separation of controls like this into a logical 'cluster' makes it significantly easier to get to grips with.

Tracks are played either in an unsorted (i.e. order as loaded) or in alphanumeric filename order in any folder. So if you want albums to play in sequence you'll either have to drag them over in the correct order, or rename the tracks with the track number at the front. Repeat modes are available for per track, per folder and all tracks. Shuffle also allows for selection within a folder or all tracks.

The player does support resume play, and even when switching between radio and MP3 playback, it will start from where it left off. There's a sleep option to switch it off after a preset time, and the player even switches off automatically after a while if you unplug the headphones.

The DAH-1500 recognises nested folders, so unlike some Creative flash players you can put music more than one folder deep. It's therefore very drag & drop friendly. The navigation is easy enough, despite the chopped-off display. No real complaints at all in the User Interface implementation.

FM radio is as well implemented as any other flash player of this type. There's an autoscan option which is reasonably quick and does pick up stations quite well, although signal pickup is largely dependent on your earphones as the cable is used as the aerial. The DAH-1500 does not record FM.

Surprisingly Not Bad Sound
I didn't think it was really worthwhile reporting on this player with my reference headphones as the basis, so my opinions in this review comes primarily from my time using it with the Sennheiser PX200.

The surprising thing given it's size and concerns over the doubled-up USB socket/headphone jack is that it doesn't sound crappy. Not the best I've heard, but certainly not the worst. Not bad at all actually. The sound is pretty clean, and as dynamic as a headphone amp of this size can be. All-round resolution is decent, trebles are well represented without being brittle or over-bright, and while the bass is not lacking, it does not unnecessarily boost it unless you want.

All in all you won't be losing anything (if at all) in sound quality compared to the vast majority of the better flash players. I'll do a more detailed listening test later and post if there are any surprises or nasties lurking but so far, it seems to play everything I throw at it and handles them with aplomb. At this stage, I can't hand on heart say it's a standout in terms of sound quality, but it is definitely more than acceptable.

I had to try it with my one of my reference phones, the Stax Omega II.
Plenty of comedy value from a source smaller than the volume knob :)

The player has 5 preset EQ modes as well as a user-definable setting, although this is limited to controlling bass and treble. However, unusually in a player of this type you get the option of cutting bass and treble as well as boosting, with the controlling range being +/- 7db. As a result, you won't get the pounding bass of iRiver's UBass modes but the included modes are effective enough without entering overkill territory. All the presets are musically usable, which is I think a first in my experience.

The maximum headphone amp power is quoted to be 15mw into 16 ohms, but it feels like a lot less. As a result, it will not work well with power-hungry headphones, although even with a variety of phones there was no distortion when volume was pegged at full. But you're better served sticking to buds, canalphones or efficient portable phones in any case.

Track gaps are a fairly noticeable couple of seconds so may bother some, and it is probably enough to temporarily dampen the 'ambience' of an album in many cases. The player fast forwards and rewinds pretty quickly (about 1.5 minutes a second's worth after an initial slower startup, which is good) which is useful for skipping boring bits in Podcasts and mixes, but no sound is heard while doing so.

The DAH-1500 ships with a necklace-integrated headphone, which is not quite as clever as the similar solution on the iRiver N10, but nevertheless it does it's job. The phones aren't great, but they don't suck too badly either... just typical buds, nothing special. Thanks to the cuboid shape of the player however, it doesn't face the direction you want while on the neck as it keeps turning around, and it's sharp corners can bang your chest if you run around with it. The lanyard attachment point is a simple plastic loop so could be used with other neckbands.

The Catch?
You're saying... this can't be right! There must be a catch? Well yes, there is one major catch. Loading is pretty slow compared to many present-day USB 2.0 flash memory keys as it's a USB 1.1 device. However, the big surprise is that it's actually not very different in loading speed compared to the new Sony NW-E400/500 flash players, which are supposed to be USB 2.0. Battery life also falls short of the quoted maximum, but that's almost a given these days. ~14 hours was possible with low-bitrate Podcasts / my Internet radio recodings, with fairly minimal fiddling for volume and such. With varying degrees of fiddling, higher-bitrate MP3's and aftermarket phones, you can probably expect closer to 6~10 hours... but still, not bad.

In Closing
You expect something with such a small size usually to have a number of crippling compromises which prevent it being anything beyond a novelty toy which you tire of after a week's use. What surprises about the mobiBLU DAH-1500 is that remarkably few corners have been cut to achieve the size. The main cut corner is of course the display which had to be shortened over regular MP3 players, but the use of speedy text scrolling with a 'just right' speed at the 'Twice' mode means that it's very usable all the same. The USB1.1 transfer speed also turned out to be significantly less of a handicap compared to all but the Creative USB2.0 flash players (which are very fast to load).

Requested desktop picture of it with the Qualia 010... click for a larger one

Just don't lose the USB cable, and you'll find this a surprisingly daily-use friendly player.

Manufacturer Link: Mobiblu

Saturday, July 02, 2005

iTunes 4.9 with Podcast facility has told me...

... that all geeks talk like Kermit when they're in front of a mic.

Don't sit bolt upright when you're recording. Loosen up those lungs for christ's sake.

Edit: I admit this is a lame post, but so many people audioblogging or podcasting haven't figured out how to speak on-air. It only takes a listen to your podcast to realise what's wrong. That kermit voice from even regular-voiced people is due to nervousness or a 'stiffening up' when talking.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Logitech Mediaplay Mouse

(Credit: Logitech)

Why a mouse review on an audio blog? When it has transport controls of course :-) The Logitech Mediaplay Cordless mouse is, as it's nomenclature suggests, a wireless mouse designed for media playback.

The mouse is shaped like a sleek running shoe and is symmetrical in shape. It has the usual left/right mouse buttons as well as the forward/back buttons found in many aftermarket mice, but it also has a play/pause button, a ffwd/rwd button, and a volume button. There's also a button to start the media browser of your choice. The placing of the additional control buttons are very good, as they don't get in the way of regular mousing duties and are difficult to press by accident. The media buttons are backlit, so when you press any of the media buttons (not the regular mouse buttons) they light up with a blue glow.

Installation is simple. Install the drivers and software first, then connect the wireless receiver. The receiver is of the USB stick type, so it can be plugged straight into a laptop, but a desktop extender is also supplied. The software includes Logitech's take on a '10 foot' software (i.e. a media playback software which you can control/see from 10 feet away). It's usable and looks nice enough but I didn't really get into it much.

Getting the mouse to work was totally painless, as was configuring the buttons. However the configuration of the mouse is not totally freeform as the buttons all have a fairly narrow range of selectable roles. The media player you can start up by using the button is also limited to the players that the Logitech player recognises. On the test laptop it picked up Winamp, iTunes, PowerDVD, RealOne and Windows Media Player as controllable applications, but it did not pick up Foobar, Mediasource, Sonicstage, Rio Music Manager, Media Center and numerous others. I stuck to iTunes.

It's always the little things that makes a difference in life. The handiness of being able to move through my playlist and seek through long podcasts, then pause playback to take calls... all without my hand leaving the mouse gave me an oddly fulfilling sense of control. I know it's just a glorified basic remote, but it just made me happy. Yeah, I'm a sad, sad geek.

There's just one fly in the ointment for those of you using separate DACs via a coaxial or optical out from your PC. The mouse software only affects the master volume, which means that in some such set-ups the volume control will not work (the wave volume needs to change).

Apart from the transport controls, The mousey bits are also quite good. The mouse uses invisible light for sensing movement, so no bright lights will flash up under the mouse. Tracking is decent, scroll wheel response is good and the scroll wheel is the latest tilting type, which works well when wading through the mammoth Excel spreadsheets that I have to do on a regular basis. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the pivotless left/right mouse buttons which I think are stiffer than they need to be, but it's a minor gripe. No idea how long batteries last yet, but from my usual experience Logitech mice don't have spectacular life compared to many of Microsoft's recent efforts. So it's rather thoughtful of them to provide an on/off button on the bottom for when you're not using it for a while.

If you are an audio nut and you listen on your PC a lot, the Mediaplay mouse is very simple in execution yet surprisingly usable. I like it and while it's not one of those 'must have' things, I'd recommend you take a look the next time you're hunting for an aftermarket mouse.

Link: Logitech US Site

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Sennheiser HD215 headphones

(credit: Sennheiser)

The HD215 is part of Sennheiser's new line-up and is a mid-priced, closed circumaural headphone intended for casual, studio and DJ use.

It features fairly usual specifications for this type of headphone: 32 ohms nominal impedance, 12-22000hz frequency response range and 112db @ 1Vrms sensitivity. The single-sided coiled cable is detachable and is terminated with a low-profile stereo minijack at the headphone end, and a unimatch (3.5+6.5mm with a screw-on converter) plug. The cable is around 1m when normally coiled but will extend up to 3m. The DJ friendly part of the HD215 is that the right earcup swings 90 degrees either forwards or back.

The build quality is decent, the plastic is good quality throughout and there seems to be no obviously weak spots in the design. The HD215 continues the seeming tradition of the... um... 'special' look of some of Sennheiser's mid-priced headphones. While different from the 'head mounted spoiler' visuals of the HD280 Pro or 'seventies alien / bad hairband day' look of the HD497/HD212Pro, it does nevertheless look slightly odd when worn.

For transport and protection Sennheiser supplies a nice pleather drawstring pouch. Although reasonably light at 220g and good in isolation, portable use is not this phone's strong point as it's rather large and doesn't fold. But if you are walking down the street with one of these, it undoubtedly makes a statement. Quite what that statement would be, I'm not sure.

Sennheiser HD25-1, HD251 and Sony MDR-V700DJ

Sennheiser HD215 and Sony MDR-V700DJ in respective pouches

The HD215's earcups are fully circumaural and the headband has plenty of scope for adjustment. The noise isolation is good, cutting out decent amounts of outside noise, and sound leakage is a non-issue.

The phone is pretty comfortable and sits nicely on the head. The cups pivot slightly in all directions to account for variances in head shape, and overall adjustability is excellent for a wide variety of heads. The balance of the HD215 is good as the weight of the headphone isn't moved towards the top of the phone due to a heavy headband such as on the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. As a result it's very stable on the head.

Trebles can occasionally seem a little splashy, exhibiting a bit of 'cheap tin' in the sound but sibilance is well controlled. The midrange does not make a show of itself, but is well represented. The lows are very well articulated for a headphone of this price, but it is undoubtedly somewhat lean in the bass.

The sound of the HD215 reminds me a lot of the Sennheiser HD280. Even-tempered, good extension at both ends especially in the lows, pretty accurate... but a fairly flat and potentially 'uninteresting' frequency response, and a soundstage which is not hugely wide but nevertheless places instruments pretty accurately. While it is afflicted by some 'closed phone honk' (a resonance caused by the design limitations of making a closed phone) it's technically a competent headphone for the money.

From what I expected as a DJ-orientated phone, it turned out a lot less 'entertaining' than I presumed it would be. As a DJ-style / casual listening phone the HD215 could justifiably be accused of being a little flat, as it's very well-behaved and tonally quite neutral. However the HD215 does render very low bass much better than many other overtly DJ-style phones with boosted mid-bass. If you're listening to material that relies more on accurate reproduction with less emphasis on a euphonic sound, then you will probably like the HD215.

The neutral-ish sound does have distinct advantages for very long periods of listening. It's not overtly tipped up in the trebles and neither is it poundingly bassy, so it's an unfatiguing phone to listen to especially when combined with the decent comfort. It's very much a headphone you can stick on your head and forget about, so it might be a good choice for work if your environment allows you to listen to phones.

The low impedance and reasonable efficiency of the phone means that it can be powered from pretty much anything with a headphone socket. However the more powerful portables or a separate headphone amp will be more suitable to allow the full range of musical expression to be rendered by this phone. 'warm' sources with a boosted bass will undoubtedly liven up this phone a bit.

About these phones, Headroom has written "they do sound a bit too uneven for a strongly pleasureable listening session". Actually, the problem for some could be that as I've said above, they sound too even for a 'pleasurable listening session' (Sometimes I do wonder if Headroom's reviewers are all that experienced). But the HD215 works well in long listening sessions by 'getting out of your way'.

The pricing differences between Europe and US between the HD280 Pro, the nearest comparable headphone and this phone means that it's a much stronger recommendation in Europe. In the US, the HD280 may even be cheaper which makes it a better buy.

But on the whole the price is right, it's comfy and it's quite well built out of good quality materials. A polite sound which isn't overtly impressive on first listen means that it's not for everyone, but if you're a musical omnivore on a budget who needs isolation and values good accuracy over extraneous colouring in the sound, then it's worth a try.

Manufacturer link (UK site)
Headroom Link (US) Link (UK)