You know the Astell & Kern AK240 that Josh reviewed pretty favourably a couple of months back? Of course you do! Well one of the biggest impacts it has had on the market is how perception of value has changed for digital audio players, which I will refer to DAPs from now on. You see at first everyone moaned and there was uproar that a glorified music player is costing £2200, but then as if to contradict themselves, everyone still went ahead and bought, and too right, it is a great device. However, because of this, you now get players that are still not cheap with prices like £1500, boasting “Great” value. The Lotoo Paw Gold is one of them products. Now I am all for DAPs in this price range, even more so if they perform but I don’t feel they all need to make it obvious that they set out to be a AK240 killer, can’t they just be their own thing. The DAP market also currently shows no signs of stopping to grow, new players continue to show up all the time, but I would like to say that this shouldn’t stop your from grabbing one, some of the models on the market are pretty wowza and new models may be different but I don’t know how many more are going to be a great deal better although I do predict some more “flagships” on the horizon with some scary prices to boot.
So who is this Lotoo who have the nerve to just turn up out of nowhere and drop a £1500 DAP? Well Lotoo is a brand under Infomedia, based in China and who has been a major OEM company in pro audio devices since 1999, making recording devices from companies that you will have heard of such as Nagra. That being said this is still the first product from Infomedia’s Lotoo that is in this category although they are soon to be releasing the 5000, which will have a smaller price tag and also have some cool stuff like a balanced output. Regardless of how long they have been around it is still a pretty gutsy move from them.
Dayum the Paw Gold is a bling bling device and yes that is a 24 carat gold plated navigation wheel, power button and volume control and no it doesn’t make it sound any better but I am sure your paying for that in the price tag. I bet I sound a little bit sour about it and maybe that is because I am not a fan of things bright and boastful or maybe it is because I have always been someone who can justify paying an expense for something on a performance basis, I never got my Dad’s obsession with Rolex watches because your paying for a design and not a great functioning watch. Maybe people would want to pay extra for 24K gold plating on there Paw but give them the option, you can get 4 types of AK240 now at various price ranges but your not forced to get the more expensive stainless steel or gold painted version. Lotoo, can we have a Paw Standard without the gold and the extra expense that gold comes with?
Putting that little rant aside, for the rest of the player everything is of very high quality and your getting components with performance as a priority, this is what I am about and this is the sort of thing I can justify paying for. For the rest of the build and the bits that aren’t gold we have aircraft grade duralumin, the same material as used through out the AK240 and I love its feel there and I love its feel here. It is chunky, solid and not that I plan on letting it, I bet it can take a hit. The screen is sapphire glass, that’s what you get in the latest iPhone models and is used for its scratchproof properties.
The dimensions are 10.6x6x2.54cm making it actually smaller than I was expecting from pictures, it is about as wide and just taller than my original AK120 and the biggest difference is that it is deeper. In my hand though it sits perfect, it feels strong with some deal of weight to it (280g) and buttons seems to all be in the right place and easy to reach, especially if it is in your right hand because that is the side the volume control is. I will say that if you used to Astell & Kern devices you will find that the volume pot is turning the wrong way, you end up getting used to it does feel weird at first, me and Josh both found this although my Dad, whom has never been an AK user said it felt right for him. Here see what you think, with your thumb on top, you have to push it left to turn the volume up. Oh wait and as if to prove what I talk about later (nothing is easy to find), I have just stumbled across the ability so change which rotation does what, so now I have it the right way round, phew. The volume pot does have a nice stepped feel though and is sturdier than what the AK240 has; physical buttons also make a satisfying click.
The Technical Side:
Enough of what is happening on the outside though and lets have a peak inside. Using a single Burr Brown 1792 DAC chip, the Paw can handle pretty much all file formats natively, including PCM up too 384kHz (because I bet you have loads) and DSD up to 5.6mHz. It does all the PCM formats you want as well including FLAC, ALAC and WAV among many others. Memory wise it doesn’t have anything on board and instead you will need to invest in a SD card, full size and it supports anything up to 2TB (when they finally roll out). Rather smoothly as well it supports USB 3.0 for very fast transfers of music.
Acting as the headphone amplifier you have a pair of LME49600s, which are not slacking with a rated 500mw per channel into 32 ohms although they don’t give the power into other impedances. Handily as well we also have a low (+0dBu) and high (+15dBu) gain mode, helping with versatility on a range of different headphones/IEMs. You also can bypass the headphone amp section completely using its dedicated line level (+9dBu) output, if you plan on using it with an external amp. Having a line out is something I think is needed on a high end DAP and the only thing this is missing in terms of output is a digital one such as coaxial like iBasso, optical like Astell & Kern or even USB like my smartphone, the OnePlus One. Both outputs sit next to each other and are 3.5mm, all standard stuff.
It also includes a rather huge 6000mAh 3.7V li-polymer battery, which Lotoo claim can do 11 hours, which when that it includes DSD playback is pretty decent, especially compared to others like my PWAK120-B or even the AK240. Well you can set the battery indicator on the top right too display an estimation of how much play time is left, not only do I like this but I find it pretty handy and it is normally quite accurate. Well I have just given it a full charge and it has taken a guess at 12.5 hours, impressed? You betcha!
There are both pros and cons here. Using a Blackfin 514 DSP chip as the core processor this thing is lightning quick, 3 second start up, no lag when selecting DSD to play or to go through menus and that is great, my PWAK120-B which is based on an original generation 1 AK120, lags at every given possibility and is hella frustrating and while the AK240 is much better, it doesn’t feel as quick. This is very important and for those who like things with function at heart, then they will probably be over joyed with how this works, but then I have found a lot of frustration as well.
The overall look of the UI is very retro, it reminds me a bit of the Colorfly C4 and HiFi ET MA9 even if this is a little more advanced. It Is also obviously the offspring of a company who do recording devices as on the play back screen, along with all the data you have the left and right channels volume meters, which is quite cool.
Because of a lack of an English manual, you will be forgiven for over looking a lot of function, such as the button of the same name, well it is shortened to Fn but it means the same thing. Out of the box the button did jack but in the options you can actually select what it does, in my case I have it showing off album art, which this does do, but some people would never realize. That is not to say the album art screen is good because using it you will sacrifice much more useful information such as, say the name of the song…. No you can’t have that sort of data overlapping album art, that would be too much to ask….
All this being said it does have a lot of options and customization and you can really have the device working the way you like best. It even has some nifty little options such as adjusting the DSD gain, which always play a little bit quieter so it automatically increases the volume for its playback, I like the little touches such as this a lot. Lotoo have also taken EQ very seriously with the ATE and PMEQ options having a dedicated button. You have some present options and you can do your own EQ and while I can confirm they work and do what they say, I can’t say I like using EQ or have spent much time with these settings.
Finally I will talk about one other thing that really gets on my nerves and that is the fact you can only browse through the folders on your SD card, it doesn’t automatically sort your files under artist and album like you would expect. Even on the now playing screen you get 10-Through With You.flac. That I can live with though but since my folders aren’t all the neatest I struggle with the inability to just navigate the artists for example. You can thankfully just get a list of all songs and shuffle them, something the Colorfly C4 couldn’t do but when in random mode, if you actually select a song it will just pick another random file from that folder, the frustration.
The Gold Standard of Driving:
Being a DAP that can provide some hefty power you may find it strange that I want to talk about how it deals with IEMs and not hard to drive headphones. That’s because sadly why this is not near as hissy as the ALO RX MK3-B, it doesn’t have that non existence noise floor that something like the Vorzuge Pure or Leckerton UHA-760 have when it comes to sensitive custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs), most apparently the Vision Ears VE-6 where it is quite noticeable although we have said how notorious that is before. Fortunately with some less sensitive models such as the Custom Arts Harmony 8 Pro the background noise does die down almost completely and move out of the picture. You might think I am fussy but with DAPs I want perfect CIEM playback, which is what I use with DAPs the most.
But if the power is on hand why not put it too the test, I wont be wandering the streets with my Sennheiser HD800 but it can’t be a bad thing if it can do them justice. I used to talk about how something would manage with high impedance loads like the HD800 and then planar magnetics but I have noticed a real increased efficiency with planars these days, especially with the likes of the Oppo PM-2 and Audeze EL-8. Some are still real hard work though; the ZMF Blackwood comes to mind. I started with it and the HD800 and trust me; I know what these things are capable of. I used the help of the Nordost Heimdall2 cable, which has an adapter system that allows you to turn the 4 pin XLR termination in to a 3.5mm jack, with a little extension. I found I had to switch the Lotoo up to high gain, while I had kept it on low gain for all the IEM testing. Maybe to the un-initiated this could be seen as great but I find it nothing more than acceptable. You get the jist of the headphones signature, and plenty of volume with me listening at 52 of 75 but the biggest things I noticed were a lack of deep bass and depth/width of staging. The sound was still airy and detailed and for the Lotoo’s size, maybe it is doing a great job but with a dedicated desktop system at the same price, you could can much more bodied sound. Moving onto the Audeze EL-8 I found myself needing less volume, about 48 this time but I found some similar problems, not as big a sound and also less kick in the bass. Regardless of my nitpicking, this does do a better job with these headphones than any other DAP I have tried, including the AK240, which even running balanced, did not satisfy as much with the HD800, with less focus and agility.
Only with the ZMF Headphones, both the Blackwood and Vibro did I find things to become a little overwhelming for the Lotoo, but then that is the case for anything I have that is portable over than when balanced with the ALO RX MK3-B. So with versatility in mind and the use of the gain switch, the Lotoo is pretty good, managed an acceptable job with harder to driver headphones, while remaining pretty silent with my CIEMs, but without a complete focus on either, I am not sure it feels suited to any type, perfectly.
But Does it Sound Golden?
As players goes this instantly hit hard as having a darker sound signature, being a bit tame in the upper mids through the treble. Being someone whom is fairly used to the sound of the AK240, which is very neutral but hearty in the treble, it was quite a shocking difference in presentation and has taken a while for the transition. That being said, although it perhaps sounds less digital because of this, I do regularly find myself wanting more zing upwards bound from the upper mids and can just find it to be too conserved. Now while I find it darker it is not because any emphasis in the bass, which is present but not boosted and never warm either.
The presentation is a little soft and laid back as well, the AK240 has better dynamics and macro details and my PWAK120-B to Vorzuge Pure just crushes it in this regard. It also is not the widest, but its makes up for that nicely in depth, where I find it more impressive than any other DAP I have used, although, without the width, it doesn’t feel large, even if immersive.
Bass is very nice, with my only nitpick being I don’t find it to have absolute, sub zero depth, mainly with the less efficient stuff as I mentioned earlier but even with my IEMs, I have experienced more rumble from other sources. That being said, the region is well textured and rather sumptuous in decay, not quite warm as I said earlier but definitely more that way inclined than dry. Natural would be my way of best describing it. That is the way it is into the lower mids as well, never the most dynamic but smooth, present, detailed and open sounding, nothing has a cap on it.
It keeps most of these traits all the way up into the highest treble as well, which it has no problem extending too but I do just find it to no longer feel like it has free reign, it feels just a tad secure. That’s not to say the treble doesn’t come with a creamy complexion that is very easy on the ears and for those who find the AK240 digital sounding then you wont have that problem with the Lotoo but my preferences fall in the AK240 camp. I don’t say that because I like a digital sound, I say it because I like energy and sparkle in my treble, especially the type the AK240 delivers, which comes with out sibilance and fatigue. You also don’t get the greatest sense of clarity, because without doubt the upper mids are a bit chilled out.
All the above was done testing with PCM files, including high resolution FLAC up to 24/192 but PCM nonetheless and both me and Josh have been underwhelmed. Neither of us would go to say it is a bad sounding player, in fact we both agree that it is good, but I find myself itching for the dynamics, liveliness and even the odd bit of aggression from my PWAK120-B Vorzuge rig and Josh finds himself missing the treble presence, ultra clarity and width of his AK240.
A Silver Lining:
Does it matter that all the above was with PCM, well yes because without getting into a debate about what digital format is better, this thing comes into a league of its own in DSD. Sadly that may just be irrelevant because of DSDs annoyance to get hold of and greed when it comes to memory but if you are lucky enough to have a lot of DSD and want a DAP that can nail it then the Lotoo cant be overlooked, it still has the sonic traits I mentioned above but I just find myself a lot more drawn in, the width is much better and compliments the already epic depth, find everything hits a little harder and has a bit more soul. If your going to attempt to do DSD natively then it must be done right and Lotoo sure knew this going in.
I also love the line out; yes it is a true line livel output from a separate jack that comes straight for the DAC chip, unlike what the AK240 does by setting volume to max. It has impressed me into a range of gear from portable amps such as the Vorzuge Pure and Leckerton UHA760, which may seem like a more obvious use of the line out (great for adding some dynamics), all the way to in HiFi stereo systems. I actually plugged it into the Symphonic Line RG14 Edition which was hooked up to some Amphion Argon1 with Audiomica Rhod Reference Speaker cables and the signal it put out was very full, rich and detailed, and actually on the level of the Exogal Comet, a full sized DAC/pre, yes not bad going. With DSD it was actually even better.
I Have Talked Enough:
It is my job to be critical of something regardless of price but when a portable music player costs £1500, you have to truly evaluate it without rushing in and saying it is of any sort of grand value. This product has strong points but also some that are truly bad while overs are just a little bit annoying. The sound may not be up my street but will be as good as a DAP will ever get for some people and while I care a little less how powerful a DAP is, this certainly is the most hard to drive headphone suited out there, maybe at the cost of dead silence with the more sensitive CIEMs though. I honestly think Lotoo could have done a bit more at the price though and while it isn’t as expensive as the AK240, that is a product that is polished in every single area and at that I will leave you to make your mind up from here.