audio

AIAIAI TMA-2

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I had thrown my money away by recycling most of my headphones, because the PU leather on the headbands were disintegrating and I couldn’t get them replaced. The rubber cable sheath on my ATH-AD900 also broke, which meant that I was effectively down to just my Grado, which isn’t really comfortable for long periods of listening.

I didn’t want to switch fully to IEMs either, because wearing them for long can be uncomfortable sometimes. So, having been previously intrigued by the modular nature of the AIAIAI TMA-2, I decided to go for them.

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Final Audio Design Heaven IV

FAD Heaven IVMy terrible camera skills and the use of my phone camera really doesn’t do the beauty of these things justice.

I learnt of the crazy gorgeous and niche-tuning Final Audio Design via Head-Fi.org, and I’ve lusted after these babies for a long while now. While I understand that FAD are more sound than design, you can’t run away from the fact that the stuff they make looks ridiculously beautiful.

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Ocharaku Donguri Raku [Koicha]

Ocharaku Donguri Raku KoichaThey say curiosity killed the cat. I don’t have a cat for it to kill, but it certainly mugged my bank account.

There’s something about Japanese boutique audio brands that really call out to me. The stuff they come up with is really quite unique, and they draw my attention like nobody’s business. Coupled with the fact that they are pretty exclusive to the domestic market, it makes them akin to collectors’ items.

Ocharaku first caught my attention with the Flat-4 Sui, which had a very interesting concept behind it. Then they had the Donguri, but as with the Flat-4, I felt my budget couldn’t handle that sort of cost for interest’s sake. But the Donguri Raku came along, and I was sold.

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Audio Technica ATH-MSR7

Audio Technica ATH-MSR7I have got to stop being seduced by gorgeous headphones with great sound and a relatively cheap price.

The Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 went on sale at Stereo for the month, and a hard case was offered along with it. I had already drooled over the beautiful gunmetal version, but the supposedly bright sound turned me off. But since I had time after my exams (and I needed to get my MacBook Pro fixed), I decided to pop by to have a listen.

Needless to say, I was sold.

My terrible photo-taking skills and phone camera don’t do the headphone any justice. It has a great build and aesthetics that seem very similar to the Sony MDR-1R, but is more metal than plastic which lends confidence. The extending arms feel very secure with each click, unlike my NAD VISO HP50s. But the clamping force is quite high however, and some stretching is required for comfort. The earpads are also a little stiffer than most, and less breathable. So comfort isn’t great, but it’s quite good nevertheless.

The accessories aren’t spectacular, but sufficient. Three(!) cables are provided, with two portable cables (one with a mic/remote) and a 3m home use cable. The source side plug is a little chunky, but that’s not entirely bad. The 3.5mm jack in the earcup is a little recessed, which can be problematic. A protein leather pouch is also included for storage, but that’s not going to provide much protection. The free hard case I got is far better.

The important thing is of course the sound, and boy have Audio Technica nailed this one. The bass is very punchy, with zero bloat into the midrange. There’s only the slightest bass lift to give it greater impact, but otherwise the bass is awfully clean. It definitely took me by surprise, given I had been expecting far less bass due to its supposed bright nature.

The treble is quite extended too, but crucially, I didn’t encounter any of the sibilance that others have heard. But while others have praised its slightly elevated treble levels for being pretty neutral and detailed, I found myself bowled over by the midrange and lower treble instead.

As with all Audio Technicas I’ve heard thus far, female vocals are just insanely seductive. With the MSR7, even male vocals are given a chance to shine with a neutral midrange that renders voices beautifully. The neutrality of the midrange also allows the music to breathe, and details hidden behind the warmth of other headphones pop out with the MSR7. Coupled with the punchy bass and well rendered treble that gives the MSR7 quite a bit of air, it made me rediscover my music in a big way. So much for liking warm, relaxed signatures.

It’s headphones like the MSR7 that make me question why high end audio is so costly. Law of diminishing returns, indeed.

Creative Sound Blaster E5

Creative Sound Blaster E5So recently, Creative has been pushing out a lot of new products, including the excellent Sound Blaster Roar. I was smitten by the Creative Sound Blaster X7 and its massive suite of features, but I already have the fantastic iFi DSD Micro, so I wasn’t in a rush to get another desktop amplifier. However, I was pretty excited to get my hands on the E5, their top-of-the-range portable DAC/Amp that costs a fraction of other flagship products in the audiophile world.

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Pendulumic Stance S1+

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I’ve never actually considered getting Bluetooth headphones until recently, when the idea of using Bluetooth on the move suddenly got really appealing. Given that my phone was pretty hefty in the battery department (at least, on my usage), running out of power was not really an issue. So I got searching, and my eyes kept landing on the Pendulumic Stance S1+.

It seemed that the general consensus on these headphones was that they were great, particularly for the price. At CES 2015, Sennheiser released wireless versions of their lovely Momentum line, and while they looked like a brilliant idea, the price was pegged at…US$500. Given that the Stance S1+ were cheaper by $300, and most other competitors were priced higher, it was a no brainer.

I didn’t actually expect to buy it so soon though. It was only because Jaben was running a small offer that I jumped on it. A quick audition didn’t just confirm the reviews of the headphones so far. They pretty much blew me away. Well, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but keeping in mind the price tag, the sound was ridiculously good. And the freedom of having no wires convinced me to pay up right then and there.

The build quality of the headphones were pretty good, and they felt nice and solid in the hands. The sliders to select the power modes and the audio modes could be more robust, but I can’t complain. The accessories were adequate, and I do like their presentation. It has a bit of a retro look about it, but that’s up my alley. With the simple, intuitive, volume/selection knob, I felt right at home putting them on my head.

The range for these is decent, at about 6-7 meters with a direct line of sight before it starts to get choppy. With my phone in my pocket, there are occasions when the signal drops a little, but it’s not enough to detract from music enjoyment. And the comfort is great, except for the usual trouble of hot ears in Singapore’s weather. That, and the earpads could stand to be a little deeper and larger; my ears brush the driver, and they aren’t the biggest pair around.

But sound is where the Stance S1+ truly excels. In comparison with my HP50, it has a thinner sound, with less bass (but still north of neutral) and more recessed mids giving an airier presentation to me. The treble stands out more than the HP50, likely because of the less intimate presentation of the midrange that brings out the treble. But the treble is not fatiguing, and the Stance S1+ is far from bright or harsh. It’s V-shaped signature is mild and provides a smooth and enjoyable listen. The HP50 is still better technically. No surprise, given their respective price tags, but the S1+ gave a decent fight.

The only major issue I see with the Stance S1+ is isolation. InnerFidelity touched on this in a review of Bluetooth headphones, but I only really felt the problem when I used it for my commute to school. The isolation is ridiculously poor, with every outside noise just about audible. I had to turn up my music, which doesn’t drown out outside noise until it’s at an unbearable volume. In a way, it’s good because I can actually keep track of my surroundings. But it’s difficult to enjoy the music at times. I would definitely recommend Pendulumic adding noise cancelling to their next model. Or just work on the isolation.

But despite the major issue of being poor for travel, I can’t help but feel that it’s a pretty good purchase. It has a great sound for its price and convenience, and hell, it’s designed by a Singaporean. Anything to feel proud about my own country, eh?

Creative SoundBlaster Roar

2014-12-26 02.33.49Well, I didn’t actually plan on buying this baby until I’ve spent my money on other audio equipment, but given the logistical issues in getting my favoured desktop monitors, plus my inherent desire to get my greedy mitts on new gadgets, I succumbed to desire and snagged this puppy during the SITEX ’14 promotional period.

It’s a portable Bluetooth speaker, but it’s also so much more than that. Of course, I barely use its actual function of listening to music given my growing array of headphones and IEMs, but it’s a great option when my ears protest the intrusions of IEMs, or the heat from headphones. Plus, it’s jam-packed with functions, and who doesn’t like something so versatile yet so cheap compared to its competitors?

That’s not to mention its very decent sound quality. Obviously it’s never going to compare to even the cheaper desktop monitors I had been eyeing, but it put out sound that rivalled my old Swan M10, which makes it a pretty decent side-grade in my opinion. It also has the nice SBX Studio package that allows me to tweak the sound to my liking (although I think it’s only for USB audio, not Bluetooth).

It also has a FAR smaller footprint than the Swan; ditto any other dedicated desktop speakers. I’ve occasionally found myself wanting more space on my desk; now that I have oodles of it, I’m already planning how to maximise its use for more audio stuff. There goes my money again…

Finally, it feels great to support a local company in Creative Labs, without having to compromise on my desire for decent audio equipment. It’s been years since I’ve heard people praise Creative for their general consumer audio products (the Creative Aurvana Live! being an exception), so it’s great to see their return to form with the new SoundBlaster series.

Audio Technica ATH-AD900X

ATH-AD900XI’ve been eyeing one of these for a very long time, so with the Japanese Yen falling to a 7-year low recently, and my birthday having just passed, I decided to give in to my impulses and bought it off Amazon Japan as a belated gift to myself. Amazing Japanese efficiency meant that my headphones hit Tenso’s warehouse within 2 days, and with a single day of processing, Tenso sent them out. Japan EMS took only 2 more days to deliver the package. With such speed and efficiency, coupled with the favourable exchange rate, I fear I might end up spending a lot more money than I planned for…

(Tenso is a forwarding service that comes well-recommended. A lot of Japanese companies sell their goods much cheaper in Japan, or have exclusives there. The only way for me to get my grubby hands on them is via such services.)

Even though shipping was just a smidgen expensive, the total cost didn’t even add up to half of what I would have paid in Singapore. Retail prices for Japanese electronics can get quite scary here, and while I won’t have warranty support, saving more than S$100(!!!) is worth it.

I’ve tried the ATH-A900X before, when auditioning for a pair of closed-back headphones. It was too bass-heavy for my tastes, and it was too heavy and the 3D-wing system couldn’t keep it on my head. Well, when I put its open-back brother on, it was a very different proposition. Being lighter than the A900X, the AD900X stayed on my head easily, the 3D-wing system very comfortable indeed. The earpads had big openings, albeit shallow, and it’s FAR more comfortable than either of my other headphones, the NAD VISO HP50 and the Grado SR80e.

I bought the AD900X having heard all sorts of reviews about how they had a big soundstage, sounding very airy and making female vocals shine. Taking off my SR80e and playing some female vocals, I couldn’t see the big fuss. A momentary flash of disappointment cut through me; I usually don’t like to buy things blind, preferring to audition first. The iDSD Micro was an exception because I was more enthralled by its functions than its quality, which I can barely discern without extensive A/B testing and focus.

I really should do some comparisons with my other headphones/IEMs to get a clearer picture of the AD900X’s strengths and weaknesses, but I couldn’t care less when my ears slowly adjusted to its sound signature. It is indeed quite airy and open, and string instruments like violins sound ridiculously gorgeous. Female highs sing with startling ease, shimmery and breath-taking. The treble sounds even more extended than my SR80e, but without any sibilance that I can detect. The bass is nothing to write home about though; it’s a little one-note, and thumps quite softly. The lower mids don’t stand out either, feeling a little sucked out and recessed. The focus on upper mids and lower treble is what Head-Fi agrees on as the Audio Technica house sound, and I couldn’t be happier to get a taste of it.

Buying these on a whim has certainly made me feel stupid for a short while. But now, as the music sings and my ears cry out in joy at the comfort, I can’t help but think that I’ve made the right choice in the end.

My wallet disagrees though…

iFi iDSD Micro

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Ever since I got embroiled in the audio game, I found myself trawling Head-Fi to find the best and most advanced audio equipment for my budget. I made tables and lists, trying to mark out the things that I think I would enjoy and I had the money to purchase. I even have a upgrade path for every item in the audio chain, from headphones to IEMs to DACs and DAPs.

My interest in the iFi iDSD Micro was born from the rave reviews that the iDAC, iCAN and other iFi Audio products garnered on Head-Fi. It was under consideration along with a dozen other DAC/Amp combos that I thought would serve as a good upgrade for my FiiO E10. Initially, I had planned for a smaller upgrade to the Audinst HUD-MX2, but I decided that it wasn’t worth spending $300 for a small upgrade when I could go bigger, and jump straight to my end-game gear.

The iDSD Micro might not seem very end-game for serious audiophiles, but given that I currently can’t tell much of a difference between the quality of music from my iDSD Micro and the FiiO E10 which it replaced, I think it’s pretty much the best option for me. Any further up, and I’ll only be wasting money for a sound upgrade I can’t even hear. Headphones give the largest portion of the colouration in any audio chain, and my money is better spent collecting headphones than DACs.

I normally stay cautious of new products, waiting anxiously for reviews before jumping on them. But the offer from Stereo that gave a free SR60e with the pre-order of the iDSD Micro was too hard to resist, especially since I wanted a Grado. So I went for it, and it wasn’t like there weren’t already reviews praising the iDSD Micro anyway. Thankfully I got it when I did, because the pre-order ended the next day, and the current offers are not my cup of tea.

When the iDSD Micro arrived, I was well chuffed with the build quality and the gorgeous looks. It’s not the most conventional of shapes, but it looks good and is surprisingly light. The accessories were aplenty, and with the advice to charge the battery for 24h (or until full), I got home and got to charging the thing.

It took less than 24h, which was only recommended as a precaution because not all chargers charge at the same rate. When the blue LED went off, I immediately replaced the FiiO E10 from my audio chain, fiddling with the Toslink cable I bought for the express purpose of using the 3.5mm optical out from my MacBook Pro, saving me a USB port.

My initial impressions were, as stated, a bit anticlimactic. I couldn’t really tell the difference between my FiiO and the iDSD Micro, which I surmised was due to A) only 320kbps tracks (although I don’t believe in the hi-res hype) and B) my non-audiophile ears. That said, the features of the iDSD Micro made the purchase very well worth the money I paid for it (all S$649 of it).

Firstly, with the bulky USB cable and iPurifier tech built in, the iDSD Micro didn’t suffer from the chronic EMI problems my FiiO E10, bless its little soul, had in abundance. The hissing was driving me mad a month into my purchase, and while I didn’t regret buying it, I certainly felt like I needed to upgrade just to get a clean, black background.

The numerous options on the iDSD Micro sold me easily. They had 3 gain stages, reportedly able to drive even the notoriously hard to drive HiFiMAN HE-6. While I don’t have anything that tough to drive, it’s nice to have that option. It has all the inputs you could want, and can switch between being a pre-amp or a RCA lineout. It has the XBass and 3D Holographic Sound technology that iFi is so proud of, and while I couldn’t really feel the difference of the XBass (being mostly sub bass), the 3D Holographic Sound definitely made a big (and great) impression.

The iDSD Micro even has switches for polarity and filters, the explanations flying over my head. But the most important thing to me was iEMatch, the built-in volume attenuator. With the FiiO E10, I had channel imbalance when using my UM Pro 30s, because the IEMs were just that sensitive and I couldn’t turn up the volume to get the channels balanced. When I auditioned the iCAN Nano as a potential portable amp upgrade, I didn’t even dare turn the knob or play any music, such was the humming volume when I turned it on.

But with the iEMatch, I could flick a switch and give even the UM Pro 30s some breathing room on the volume knob. And on top of all that, the thing is semi-portable, has a USB port for charging electronics with its 4,800mAh battery, and can do coaxial out, and has iPhone (with the Camera Connection Kit) and Android OTG support. Oh, and it has support for DSD up to some insane resolution, which I don’t care for (but is a major part of the marketing). It’s always good to future-proof, I suppose 😀

Everything else on my list of potential purchases seems to pale in comparison to the bevy of options that the iDSD Micro offered. I might not have the discerning ears to appreciate the craft in creating the iDSD Micro’s sound, but I can certainly appreciate the options they have added (after consulting Head-Fi members). My other options, such as the exorbitantly expensive CEntrance HiFi-M8 or the Geek Pulse (which is STILL under development despite crowd-funding promises) all seemed to have flaws that I couldn’t overlook.

A pity I didn’t wait a little longer though. Creative’s new line of Sound Blaster DAC/Amps look fantastic, and have a cheap price to boot. I can even support a Singaporean company without compromising on quality of products. The Creative X7 has speaker taps, AptX bluetooth (with NFC support), support for subwoofers, microphones for calls and recordings, and an entire suite of equalizers to adjust the sound. Also comes with easily replaceable op-amps, but that’s for the tinkerers and not me. Price? S$499. What a steal that is.

Oh well, I’m happy with what I have. I can support them by buying the well-regarded Sound Blaster Roar (a bluetooth speaker I have no need for, but definitely want to have) and the Creative E5 (the portable DAC/Amp that sits just below the X7 in Creative’s new range of DACs) for my portable use. And I might even get my next IEM upgrade with Advanced AcousticWerkes, a new Singaporean company that makes custom IEMs that apparently sound pretty competitive.

But for now, I’ll enjoy the sweet, sweet music from my new favourite toy. Huzzah!