One of the most critical elements of music is one we've covered in depth here. This of course is the last part of the chain, the device that converts the signal into sound. We have taken a look at many great headphones, a couple not-so-great headphones, and a couple sets of speakers. This will be a little bit different as this review is about an often neglected element: the Media Player. Specifically, the HiFiMan HM-601 Digital Audio Player.
The Digital Audio Player (DAP) is often neglected as being important in sound quality. Still, it can be something in the chain of devices that can directly impact the audio quality. HiFiMan has been making their flagship HM-801 now for a while but recently has unveiled its lower priced and smaller footprint DAPs, the HM-601 and HM-602.
Well, the HM-601 is certainly interesting. In a world of iPods with excellent design, ridiculous amounts of features, internet connectivity, and more… why would anybody buy the HM-601? The truth is, most people have no need for it. With your stock iPod headphones you wouldn't gain anything at all. If you actually want to listen to music instead of hear music, you will want the HM-601. And you'll want to use it with some good headphones.
The HM-601 is roughly the same size as my iPhone but much deeper, almost three times as thick. It features a small LCD, weighs almost half a pound, and feels built like a brick. Inside is 8GB of flash memory, a TDA1543, and a battery that provides for up to 10 hours of continuous playback. The ports DAP contains a SD card slot good for another 32 GB of music, a line-out, and a headphone-out port. It also came with a charger for some foreign country with an adapter for American wall sockets. This made it quite bulky– I hope HiFiMan comes out with a more compact charger similar to one for an iPhone without the necessity for another adapter. Finally, a mini-USB cable was provided allowing for transfer of music from your computer.
The sound quality of the HM-601 was quite impressive. It contains a very good amplifier with a high and low gain switch. The DAP was sufficient for driving Beyerdynamic DT880 headphones and perfect even with custom IEM from Ultimate Ears. The specific opamp is not revealed but it sounds great with a warm and slightly un-natural sound. Yes, it sounds great but is not the most accurate DAP ever. The HM-601 has a warm tone brightening up most songs. I found that the HM-601 was paired perfectly to my B&W P5 headphones as well as my Ultimate Ears UE-18 Pro headphones. In fact, I don't enjoy the sound of the UE-18 Pro much with my iPhone but with the HM-601 the sound is almost hypnotizing. The sound is best described as musical as every genre I threw at it sounded great.
The interface of the HM-601 was difficult to learn at first and seemed counterintuitive. For example, rather than going back and forth between menus by pressing right or left, you do it with up and down. It makes sense once you realize there are no skip buttons, but I kept finding myself doing the wrong thing. Additionally, the equalizer is not very good. It cripples high quality audio files by adding artifacts and inaccurate sound.
The reason you would buy a HM-601 is if you want to have a DAP that can drive all sorts of headphones in a relatively small package with ample storage space and the ability to play back high end FLAC files. The HM-601 did a great job with all "normal" files, ie. 44.1 khz / 16-bit files and did a great job with 48 khz / 24-bit files. 96 khz / 24-bit files exhibited some hiss due to downsampling. Your best bet is to downsample prior to uploading to the player.
I was overall extremely impressed with the HM-601. It has replaced my iPod as my favorite music player. Yes, it's bulkier and doesn't have a long battery life– something I hope the HiFiMan fixes, but it is the only player that can power my DT880 without an amp at good volumes and also handles FLAC with ease. It also makes my music sound great!