I have been on a bit of Digital Audio Player (DAP) hype recently as I think these are the best way to listen to music on the go even if I do always carry around a iPod Classic amp rig as well. This is actually not a new model and has been around for a while but it should not be ignored because of this. This is priced at £550 so is very close competitor too the iRiver AK100 and HiFi ET MA9 that I have recently reviewed but of course brings it own special and unique aspects to the table. The most noticeable is the steampunk brass and wood build it has and also the SP/DIF coaxial line in and out. It is sold in the UK by Item Audio who will also allow you to borrow it as well as their other products so you can see if it is for you or not, which is really handy as you may guess as getting try something is exactly what you want before you buy it!
Build and Design:
This thing looks so cool, I really love what it’s going for with the steam punk look and while I do like the much more modern and stylish Astell & Kern DAPs, this is my favourite in style. The brass on the front panel has a beautiful colouring to it and is not too shiny that it becomes bling bling. The front also has its unique volume slider that is a big chunky thing that makes a bold statement and is really a joy to use! The rest of the unit is made from North American Walnut and boy this looks amazing, maybe it is the perfect compliment to an Heir Audio IEM! The back has a hand engraved emblem on it and the little nuances in the wood are completely unique to every individual unit.
What is questionable is how good a choice the wood if as a durable material as it dents rather easy and I would also worry about it cracking. It also makes easy work of getting scuffs all on it and this is just from pocket use where I do not use the included pouch (which is also rather unpractical). The brass on the other hand is a great choice of material and remains very sturdy throughout my time spent with the colorfly.
Then there is the screen and this is a disappointment to me. It is covered in plastic and is unreal at picking up scratches from absolutely everything and also seems to get really dirty. This is odd as I do not even touch the screen and I have managed to keep touch screen devices such as the iPhone 4 for two years with no imperfections I am aware of and the same applies with my time spent with the likes of the AK100 and Cowon J3. I really think the screen could use a jump to the year 2013 with some gorilla glass for example, surely that’s not too big an ask!
The size is another factor that should be taken into consideration because it is rather large, especially when comparing to any of the iPod series, the Astell & Kern models and also most smartphones, in fact I even have a few iPod to amplifier rigs that are clearly smaller. What I am getting at here if you want an all in one solution that is smaller than carrying an iPod and an amp this may not be for you but this will be a lot easier to carry than an iPod rig if you have an external DAC as well. This is also a little bit bigger than my HiFi ET MA9 but much lighter and I have also found the HiFiMAN HM-801 and iBasso DX100 to be smaller. All this said, this is still portable and will fit in your pocket just about and is certainly portabl
First of all let’s talk about the internals of this. The DAC chip used is the Cirrus Logic CS4398. This has the ability to decode sampling rates all the way up to 192 kHz and I think this is very necessary, as it will allow you to use your entire audio collection without having to down sample. It also supports all the sampling rates up to 192 such as 88.2 and 176.4 that some DAC cannot do. It also has a jitter kill technology that leaves it with under 5ps of jitter that is very low; I am really impressed by this.
Next I want to talk about outputs and inputs. For headphone outputs we have to jacks, one is 3.5mm and the other 6.4mm and they are both designed for the headphones that normally have the corresponding jacks. The 6.4mm has a stronger output that works a lot better with harder to drive high impedance headphones and the smaller jack is less powerful intended for low impedance and sensitive headphones. However I ended up finding everything sounded better through the 6.4mm output even if it did mean you did not get use much of the volume slider. You then have the SP/DIF Coaxial jacks. One is an input and the other an output and they are both Gilt jacks so of great quality and they both support 24/196. As for the rest you have a mini USB for charging and adding files to the onboard 32 GB of memory that is not shabby and can be doubled with a 32 GB micro SD card (64 GB cards are compatibly if you format in FAT32).
Another thing that I find really interesting with this is that it up samples. It can up sample from 44.1 to 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192 kHz. These do not make the world in difference but they just seem to make everything a bit more resolved and I leave it on upsampling to 192, if the files are not already 192!
Lastly you also have an EQ button; there is only 5 other presets than the Normal (flat) EQ but it still lets you slight tune your music a bit and is better than the zero EQ offerings from the HiFi ET MA9. Personally I do not use EQ but it is still nice to see it present.
The user interface is the biggest fault in the C4 and that is not simply for the reason it is basic. The layout is primitive, not a lot of colours, just a simple list menu, and of, course no album artwork. However these are all things that I can deal with and not even kick up much of a fuss but the real thing that annoys me is how you make music selection. In the menu area you can customize a lot of things to do with the device where you can change audio output settings like the digital filter and if you have the SP/DIF working. You also have the playback settings such as just the intro of the music or shuffle; you know, just the usual stuff. However regardless of these settings you cannot just shuffle all the music on the device (what I like to do, rarely do I listen to an album at a time), the setting only works with in a folder. My music is all organized in albums so basically I can just shuffle with in an album and I find this really limiting. Another annoyance is the layout of the music menu is that they are not in alphabetical order and the order that you drag drop them to the player in and you also have all the other folders that come already on the player that have nothing to do with music in the music menu and just get in the way.
Perhaps this bit should belong in the build quality section but while the volume slider is a joy to use, the buttons that allow you to navigate the UI are not very responsive, sometimes requiring multiple clicks to get anywhere which really does drive me mad, in the world were everything is now so responsive.
While I can deal with a dated UI, I do struggle with the fact you cannot shuffle all music etc and have to constantly navigate all your files that are in completely a random order every time you want to switch to a new song.
The actual playback screen is shown below, a bit more information would be nice.
First of all I would like to say that I have found the coaxial output to be of beautiful quality. I have used it too feed my MyST PortaDAC in full 24/196 and the fantastic DAC/Amp sounds the best I have ever heard it, a nice step up to all three of other digital inputs it has (USB, Bluetooth and Optical). It sounds so much more resolving and smooth than the optical out of the AK100 for example, with the same file and I really liked the optical out of the AK100 as well. If it did not add the bulk I would actually use the PortaDAC full time with the C4 as I do prefer it sound ever so slightly to the headphone out, it is a bit warmer and more analog with slightly better showing of details but I would not say the PortaDAC is better in USB from my Nexus 7 than the stock C4 and the C4 really helps move it up a gear.
Lets get to the real nitty gritty of the C4 and that is the headphone out and all of this will be from the 6.35mm output with the odd time I used the 3.5mm was when the IEM was just to sensitive, as it just sounded better with everything I threw at it. The first big stand out I found was how open the soundstage was, of course when comparing to the AK100 and MA9. The player really has a sense of true airiness about it and combined with a earbud like the Blox ANV3 or Final Audio Design Piano Forte X-CC that have a HUGE soundstage as it is, you are treated to some of the best out of your head experiences you will ever get from something that sits in your ear.
With the FAD Piano Forte X-CC
One of Colorflys big claims with the C4 is that is the first player to be able to properly drive a 300 ohm headphone and what better a 300 ohm better to test this out with than the Sennheiser HD580. While it easily gets this beyond listenable volumes I cannot say it had the full sound I am used to with the HD580s or the powerful bass it cam normally output, yes the bass was there but just a bit too soft compared to when I drive it from my desktop set ups. That all being said the desktop set ups have components such as cables costing as much as the player itself so I am not expecting the Colorfly to live up to it and while I will not say it is near the best I have heard the HD580, you can get away with saying that the C4 does drive it and I can still enjoy its effort.
My biggest technical niggle with the C4 was the background noise. By no means it was loud but it was noticeable of not being as dark as the AK100, MA9 or Tera Player. I would not say it has hiss by any means just is not silent and at 550 pound I would like complete silence, especially since the AK100 could manage pitch black.
Bass on it is every so slightly soft with elements of warmth to it and although could do with a bit more power it is very smooth. I think the overall smoothness and warmth also comes from a relatively smooth and un-fatiguing treble. While this does leave the likes of the MA9 with more clarity it really does make it an more easy going listening experience that you can listen to for hours as well as it really neatly complimenting an IEM that might just have a bit too much treble such as the Rhapsodio R^2 or the Sony EX1000!
With the Rhapsodio R^2
In terms of detail and resolution levels this does very well. It is much more revealing that the likes of the iPod Classic and Cowon J3 along with everything else I have heard in that price range and I also think that it does slightly better than the AK100 in that respect but I think the C4 is slightly lacking compared to the MA9 and even more so next to the Tera Player.
I would overall categorize the C4 as slightly warm with smooth forgiving treble and rather dry mids that are not as lush as with other players. Detail levels are great and I would just wish that the background were a bit more silent.
This is without doubt the most exquisite DAP in the world with its design and it without doubt sounds good, as it should with the price tag. I think it clearly out does the problematic AK100 but things are a lot more tough in comparison with the MA9, the MA9 is slightly better in sound to my ears and has a analog line out while the C4 has its digital inputs and outputs that have proved very handy. I think this review and the MA9 one will help you make your decision there so I will leave that to you but I must say with some earphones, the synergy is just amazing and I have never looked back, if you have a Sony EX1000 or Rhapsodio R^2 for example, the sound is just drop dead awesome. Also if your are to buy this I would only go with Item Audio for great and honest service and can not recommend any one else as much in the UK.