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.