Your rig is only as good as its weakest link’ is a quote that is often said in the audiophile communiy and I agree, what is the point in having a £1000 pair of headphones when your using some 128kbps AAC from your old beaten up old Nokia mobile phone. I think using good quality tracks is something down to the individual to sort out because that is just the case of ripping your CD’s so the next thing will be what we listen to out music from. Now people use all sorts of things these days, a latest favourite is to use an Android device like the Samsung Galaxy S3 with an external DAC and Amp, another would be to use an iDevice with the huge CLAS and a separate amp which makes one huge old rig and some just like to use a well regarded Digital Audio Players (DAP) such as a Cowon. And that is where we come in because now more and more we are seeing DAPs pop up on the market but not cheap iPod imitations but full on high end DAPs designed to one thing, play music at the best level. These come in all sizes and shapes but they all boast one thing, the very best internal, a great DAC board optimized for the best audio quality paired with an amplifier to get the very best from your headphones. I will begin by saying that some of these are very successful; I have reviewed the Altman Tera Player, a tiny robust DAP with no screen, that sounds amazing with its R-2R DAC and dead silent background and from other opinions about other devices like the iBasso DX100 and the HiFiMAN 801 it seems the success is not only with the Tera Player.
So from that it must be easy to gather that right now I will be about to review a new high end PMP, the HiFi-ET MA9 which intrigued because actually offers a little more than the normal. First lets just discuss how this come about and it was the gathering of three key audiophiles in 2010 with the vision too make a high end dap through what they saw as a lack of them. Over two year they continually designed the device choosing parts and building it and in September 2012 it was released with just 30 units. It is now sold in shops through China and Hong Kong in what I believe to be limited quantity and it is also for sale on eBay. It costs roughly £550 and you can get it in two colour options, black like I have or an army camo.
Tell Me More:
Where other pre mention high end DAPs like the Tera Player and DX100 may offer a great sound, you are stuck with the sound quality that is offered, there is no customization in regards to the sound, well that’s where this changes things. HiFi-ET likens this device to an SLR camera because with them you can change things like the lens and filters and with their device they use a similar concept. It is broken down in to three boards inside, one is the mother board and that is prefixed, not to be touched, but the second is a DAC board and the third and amplifier board. The DAC and amp board are however made to be taken out and put back in so in theory you would be able to have a range of amp and DAC boards that you could swap in and out of the MA9 to your hearts content depending on what earphones you plan on using or even your mood.
This is not by any means to say that they have stuck in a rubbish amp and DAC board and then plan on releasing a range of much more expensive ones and although they will be releasing more in the future with some already in prototype phase, they have not just stuck any old boards into the MA9.
The DAC board of the MA9 uses a DAC chip that you have likely heard of before as many will say that that this is one of the best. It is made by Burr-Brown and is the PCM1704, yes the very same DAC that is used in the HiFiMAN 801. This an R-2R ladder DAC but on further research I have found it may not actually be a good as it seems because for using the chip in a circuit board like the MA9 uses, they need a digital filter (in this case the Burr Brown DF1704). The only use of a digital filter normally is as a re-sampler for a 1 bit to make it the likes of 24 bit so I am not sure if it used to its full potential. Anyhow the DF1704 is a digital filter made specifically for the PCM-1704 and this makes me feel like I am worrying for nothing over the use of a digital filter. The I/V converter is a great op-amp, the OPA627 from Texas Instruments and the low pass filter is the LME49722 that is an amplifier dedicated for audio and has a THD+N of -0.00002% so not shabby! So all in all they have seemingly gone all out with the DAC board and it uses some very high quality audio parts. I also thought that I should add that it dies actually have a USB DAC chip on it (which I will go more into detail on later) which is the PCM2707.
The amp board follows suit and also uses some very high quality components. The op-amp that is used is the OPA627 and each one has a buffer of BUF634 on each channel. The OPA627 is currently used in some of the best amps on the market today with the likes of the Portaphile 627 using them (even if it is 4) and most DIYers choosing to use them in their amps.
So even if there was not to be new boards released for this, it should still be taken as a serious device because it already uses some of the best components with the PCM1704 DAC and OPA627 op-amps, this really is a serious device.
Ergonomics, Portability and Build:
This is a portable device and a portable device in my eyes is something you throw in your pocket and not be limited to where you take it. The smaller the better of course and we also do not want it weighing a tonne. Now the MA9 is a big old thing but while remaining in the realms of being portable. It may shadow an iPod classic in size and make anything smaller look puny but by the time I have stuck an amp with my iPod to make it usable it is actually almost or as big in size and if I was to make a rig with a CLAS and a separate amp then it would actually be a fair bit bigger than the MA9 which is not bad considering the MA9 uses end game audio dedicated amp and DAC boards. So although I do not think twice about taking it on the go I will say it is nearing the bigger side. The actual size measurements are 4.5 inches long, 2.5 inches wide and a whole inch deep. It is the depth that makes it a rather big device, as the width and length are not to out of the ordinary. Another thing I did find to be a slight problem is EMI. I have never come across this before in a player and only with amplifiers, normally cheaper ones but when I had this in my pocket with my iPhone 4 and received a text, I got a fair bit of interference that directly affected my listening experience. Hopefully this can be removed in the future with upgraded amp boards or even a slight adjustment but for now, it is worth noting. It is easy to remedy and just stick this in the other pocket as your smart phone so it is no deal breaker like it could be with an amp.
I stuck ergonomics up in the sub-heading because I thought I would say a little about this in particular. While most portable devices I have seem to sit beautifully into your hand, this does not. It is like a brick and the edges seem to stick into your hand. It is also very heavy and I think you could lift it for a work out, although roughly the same size, it weighed considerably more of my main used portable rig of a iPod Classic 120GB and GoVibe Vest Amp+. Button placement is good for everything on the front of the device as your thumb easily finds it and you can also easily find the volume control on the side so there are no faults here.
The build quality is nothing short of excellent. In the eBay description it says nondestructive and maybe that is a bad translation of something else or quite possibly it could be literal. The body is made completely out of metal (contributing to the huge weight) and all of the buttons are placed very nicely and with little space for something to go wrong. The back is screwed on with six mini screws and there is only the tiniest of space between the back plat and the main frame. I have already developed a few scratched on the back of mine, not from mistreatment but just from honest use but nothing that looks horrible. I would not say this is nondestructive by any means and you not going to catch me attacking it with a knife or throwing it on a floor but I do think it will cope very well with what general use may throw at it and I can see this by my side for many years to come.
I guess you could call it that, a chest. What I am talking about is the packaging of the MA9. It does not really come in a retail box like most portable players come in but something much more grand and also what I think a lot of Chinese audio products come in because my Tube Amp BL-2 has a similar packaging.
The chest is a large wooden case, 11 inches by 8 inches and sealed with a metal flip locking clasp. The insides are completely foam padded and the bottom has three cutouts in it. In one cut out you have the MA9 sitting inside the included pouch that is quite nice although in honesty I have never really found any use of it. You then have the USB cable that plugs into your computer to add music onto the MA9 and also use the device as a USB DAC. However you can not charge over USB, I guess it is not a powerful enough source, so you also get a mains plug which has hefty 18w, 9V power box in the middle which leads into the mini USB plug that goes into the device.
UI – It’s not quite Android….
With the current tech filled world we live in, I am going to be honest and say that I find the UI abysmal. I would rather what is offered on the original iPod and the lack of any future updates is also a huge negative.
You turn it on and get a jolty but quite pleasant animation of a power button with a blue ring loading around it and on first use, I was filled with a false hope. Once on you have a top bar like what you may have on a IOS device and on the top right hand corner you have to battery signs, one with a positive and one with a negative (the positive one is doing all the internal work and runs out quicker and the negative which hardly ever runs out is responsible for the screen, quite a clever little system) then left of that you have the a play sign when there is music playing, a pause when it is paused and nothing just after you have turned it one. Then moving along but still on the right is the digital volume you are one. Then on the left side you have whatever part of the UI you’re in. This does not mean a lot though because if you’re in the media library or on the home screen there will be nothing, if your in either internal flash or MicroSD it will say explorer, in System Settings you will get Setting and if your plugged into a computer by USB, USB mode.
Underneath that top bar are 4 headings; you have an Internal Flash, MicroSD Card, Media Lib and System Settings. Internal Flash and MicroSD Card are both operating explorer mode so function the same inside. By clicking the middle button you will get a list of all the files in either the 8GB flash memory of the MA9 or your micro SD card if your using one (which I am). Inside you can navigate the folder by clicking on them, go back with the return button or select a folder or file and click the menu button which gives you two options, exit which just lets you back to where you were or delete file which does as it says. You can also select a file to play it. Not to exciting at all.
Media Lib (why it does not say library is beyond me), is where all your music can come together…. You have Current Play at the top which takes you to the music player and shows you whatever is playing, you then have all music which is what it is, my favourite (you can assign favourites by going in all music and clicking the home button on a song and then choosing add to favourites option) and then MediaLib Update which just merges your internal flash and MicroSD into the All music folder. I should also mention that we have support of all the main formats of music compatible with the MA9 be it MP3, FLAC or WAV and there is many more options so a thumbs up there.
System Setting shows the only small amount of customization with in the UI. You have light time so you cam set how long you want the light to stay on, untouched before going off into standby. Desktop allows you to change the background skin from the preset black, to one of 7 other options involving some pretty sceneries I have a mountain. Although a nice touch, it is hardly a real customization option compared to what the likes of the DX100 offers but then it can boast any sort of things happening on its SCREEN over the Tera Player. Language is actually quite varied although I could not tell you what the other options are other Spanish, I of course have English and there is 8 in total. You can then assign an automatic shut down device if you wish and see the System Information.
If you plus in the mini USB cable and connect it to your computer, you are automatically greeted with two options. The first is USB mass storage which allows you to drag and drop files from your computer onto the MA9’s, 8GB hard drive. The second option allows you to use the MA9 as a USB DAC that is rather cool. You can use the line out to feed into a separate amp or use the headphone out and you obviously control the music from the computer but get the sound quality of the MA9, well sort of, you use its USB DAC and not the 1704 but you get the image. In either of these modes, when selected you get an image of a computer screen with a play button and a USB plug underneath. To get out of the mode you have to turn it off or pull the plug.
Lastly there is the UI of the music player. At the top you have the name of the file playing with the area it is found on the MA9. You then have a ‘visualizer’ or ‘frequency graph’ of the frequencies that takes a third of the screen and I do not even think it is that accurate, the bass always seem to be the completely dominant frequency and there never seems to be any treble which does not correspond with what I am hearing, I would say it is a waste of space. Underneath you have the time you are into the song, what song number it is out of how many and the total length of the song. You then have a bit of information about the playback in the bottom length that is flawed. It says the sampling rate, 44.1 for example and then a dash and then how many kbps the music is. If it is MP3 or low bit rate music it is fine and can display the 320 with ease but if WAV or FLAC it can not manage the 4 digits and you get something like ;42kbps, which is no use what so ever. You then have a back, play/pause and forward button that confirm is you hit the corresponding button and you then have what play mode your in. When in this view you can select the menu button to get two options, Repeat Mode which gives you a load of useless options like Once which stops playing music when the song is finished so you just select all and leave it there. You then have play mode that is either in order or shuffle.
Now although it is simple it lacks a lot and has obvious faults. It also lacks a lot, it is a £550 music player and it cannot even offer EQ of any sort, I am not an EQ user but is nice to have if I was to ever try something out and some people can not live without it. There is no album artwork that again is not something that is necessary but is a very nice thing and I like to have that and the same applies to no song, artist and album information on the menu. It just seems like they could clean thing up a little and just add a few more options, would it hurt to be able to have your own background skins for example or a simple EQ.
What does the MA9 have on it then? Well we have a 2.36 inch screen on the front with a home button, a back button and a circle with up, down and side arrows with a enter, on/off and pause play button in the middle. On the left side at the top we have an input for micro SD cards and a mini USB input. On the top we have the headphone out and the right side we have the line out and a volume switch. The line out is rather handy as we can then use this with an external amp if we wish and are for some reason not happy with the onboard one that is great. The volume switch on the side is different to what we have on board. On board we have the digital volume that always has an effect, even if we are using a line out or the MA9 has a USB DAC. It works as the DAC volume control. The switch on the side is the volume control of the amp and unfortunately you get no signal of how far it is turned.
The Oh So Sweet Sound Quality:
Let us finally move onto how this device sound because it may have all the fancy components but it still need to sound very good and let’s not forget it costs £550. I loaded the 8GB of flash memory up with majority of it being FLAC and WAV with only a couple of albums in MP3. I done the same with a 16GB micro SD and I had all the music in one place, the media library. For the entire review I am going to speak of this as it sounds from the headphone out, as I did not find a need for an amplifier even though I have tried it a few times. An early discovery was the flexibility of the MA9, it can handle anything I have thrown at it so well because it actually output more to higher impedances. So when I plug in my low impedance and very sensitive Lear LCM-5 CIEMs, other than EMI if near a smart phone, you get a dead silent background, nope, not a single bit of hiss. I can then move straight over to me Sennheiser HD580 with their 300 ohms of impedance and I can get them easily past too loud to listen to volumes and it sounds well driven, in fact beautifully driven.
The sound quality on this really is stellar; there is no denying that. I cannot see any signs of coloration in the sound; the bass is honest with little signs of roll off and a strong impact that is far from being over cooked. The midrange is extremely transparent and the micro detail is just amazing, outdoing what I get from my Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2 amplifier. Treble is well extended and detailed while soft and natural. Everything really is in place correctly and no frequencies feel lacking or in too much proportion. I do feel like the Tera Player was cleaner with a blacker background and generally more transparent but this has a better sub-bass as the Tera rolled of a bit early with my friend saying the sub-bass is non existent (he was exaggerating in my opinion but it still is worth being said). The Tera player also was only good for low impedance earphones. Soundstage oozes imaging over size with this device and with a pair of IEM that already have a good imaging ability like the LCM-5, Heir 4.Ai or HiFiMAN RE-400 you really are in for a treat. The sound is quite hard to go into deep detail with but is neutral, relaxed while drawing you into the music and oh so very honest.
The sound is honestly addicting and of all amps that I have paired with the iPod Classic that I have, none have matched the sound quality that this offers and I would be confident in saying that this is one of the best DAPs money can buy in terms of pure sound quality. However it may not be for everyone, as it will not offer the warmth that some amps do or the extreme brightness of others.
If I was going to point out some faults though it would be the odd bit of interference you get which does taint the if not dead silent back ground. The sound is perhaps on the slightly more laidback side. It has great speed but sometimes it just does not do some more lively songs justice. This is nit picking a bit to finely though because there has been little to no songs that I have though, hmmm, I would rather be on m iPod now or even my home use set up of Audioengine D1 to Objective 2. In pure sound quality the only portable device I have heard better is in fact the Tera Player but this is not far off and it wins clearly in value and overall use.
Lets Couple it Up with Some Headphones:
I thought I would pair it up with some of my current favourite headphones and see how synergy is.
I will start with this because this neutral CIEM itself and is very transparent and technically the best earphone I own. The paring is, well… just magnificent. The detail on offer is like nothing I have ever experience before in a earphone and I have moments of reminiscing the last time I used a HD800 out of a state of the art rig, yes it really is that good. The bass is also very good, with great sub bass texture and extremely fast mid-bass, maybe missing just a bit of decay but nothing horrible. The sound is full and linear and the midrange balance is uncanny with only the most gentle of tilts towards the high mids. This really is me just saying that I love this set up and is maybe the best I have ever experienced as far a portable rigs go.
Heir Audio 4.Ai:
If the Lear and MA9 is not the best portable rig that I have heard on the go then it would be the Heir 4.Ai and Tera Player which was just magic. The 4.Ai with the MA9 is not bad but I got better transparency and a smoother treble on the Tera. However the bass response is nicer with the MA9, in fact it very good because I do not feel like the 4.Ai is as warm as most other set ups which actually make sit sound very good indeed and more neutral. The treble is just a bit choppy here and sounds a bit odd and peaky the treble, not too far after the high mids.
This was not a set up I did not like that much. Some times it was very successful and I have never heard the Momentum sound as clear or detailed as with the MA9 but I do not think the warmth and carefree presentation is clearly captured with the MA9. I do however think that is you would be purchasing the MA9 you would be more interesting in pairing this with something that is a bit more linear in frequency response than the Momentum.
Getting the HD580 to a good volume is never really a problem, getting it too a volume and sounding great however normally is. I will say the background is not as silent as with lower impedance headphones and a bit of grain is present in the treble but the soundstage is broad and airy, the mids clear and transparent and the bass digging deep with great extension. I do prefer the sound out of a nice desktop set up such as a Violetric or Schiit DAC/amp combo but I could more than happily listen to this all day and can get a better sound out of my HD580 than my Objective 2 while being able to wander the house or sit on my settee. Cal me impressed, the size of this should not be taken for granted!
Although this is far from a perfect device, it does most things well and does sound great. The UI is annoying because it is so dated and lacks the very simple things like a clock and EQ. The fact that it already sounds great and will be able to be upgraded in the near future more than make sup for that and is very exciting and a great device to own because of the prospects of it getting better and better in the future. If you want a player with a very clean sound that is neutral and silent and you can not be bothered with all the upgrading amps and DACs for your iPod, then this is very much for you.