The Entry Level #5 Page 2

Overall, the HM-602 has a handsome, rather serious appearance: With its gold controls and its fine metallic finish, which at times seems a deep green and at others takes on a smoky charcoal, the HM-602, like its predecessor, exhibits an air of elegance and sophistication. And while the HM-801 proudly takes after Sony's famed Walkman—Fang Bian once owned every available model of the now-discontinued portable cassette player—the HM-602 much more closely resembles Apple's iPod Classic. On its front panel, below the 2" LCD screen, the HM-602 has a four-way control ring similar to the iPod's scroll wheel, and three sliding switches: Power, Hold (deactivates controls while music is playing), and DAP/USB.

The HM-602 is equipped with an inexpensive 5V, 1A power charger. On a full charge, the battery is good for about 10 hours of music, but be sure to keep the battery charged before any long listening session. As I discovered, the HM-602 doesn't shut down gracefully: One quiet afternoon, while casually listening to music, I was terrified by what sounded like a loud, violent siren announcing the end of the world. Fight-or-flight took over—I ran from the kitchen toward my bedroom, where the sound seemed to have originated. Once there, standing in the doorway between bedroom and listening room, I realized that the music had come to an end, and that the awful sound was actually coming from my speakers. I turned to the HiFiMan and noticed that its battery had run dry, thus causing the player to send out a death signal. Fang Bian might consider augmenting his player with some sort of soft mute to avoid any catastrophic damage to speakers—or to their owners.

According to Bian, the HM-602 is the first portable music player to use the Philips TDA-1543, a 1990s-vintage 16-bit DAC chip, which, he says, offers a sound similar to that of the Burr-Brown PCM1704 in the HM-801. For its amplifier section, the HM-602 uses a Burr-Brown OPA2107 op-amp. There's a headphone output, a 1/8" line input, a five-pin mini data exchange port for transferring music files from a computer, and a slot that accepts SD cards up to Class 4 32GB HDSD (cards not included). The HM-602 also offers 16GB of onboard memory for storing MP3, WAV, OGG, and 24-bit/96kHz FLAC files. Whereas the '801 boasts a modular amplifier design, the HM-602 has a High/Low Gain switch that allows the player to drive both high-sensitivity in-ear monitors and most full-size headphones. Finally, like the '801, the HM-602 has a USB DAC port, so that you can, you know, feed it data from a computer.

But I didn't do that. Instead, I primarily used the HiFiMan HM-602 as I do my iPod Nano: as a portable music player, and as a dedicated source in my main system. Over time, in both applications, the HiFiMan distinguished itself as the more engaging player, with enhanced bass weight and control; a more expansive soundstage; larger, more precisely placed images; and a richer, fuller overall sound. In direct comparisons, the iPod consistently sounded restricted and more mechanical, with less clarity and definition. Additionally, and most important, the HiFiMan exhibited a greater sensitivity to nuances of tonal color, enabling it to reveal deeper levels of musical meaning. Through the HiFiMan, music made more sense and was therefore more enjoyable and more enriching. Each time I went back to the HiFiMan, I suddenly felt more relaxed and more engaged. My body was talking to me, and it was saying, "This is right."

As I crossed Marin Boulevard, I was nearly hit by a speeding car. I hadn't heard it coming—the Klipsch S4i in-ear monitors were doing a fine job of blocking out external sounds. Once inside Shop-Rite, I untangled myself from the Klipsch's thin, flexible cable, pulled the monitors from my ears, and let loose a sigh of relief. With their patented oval eartips, the Klipsch S4is are the most comfortable in-ears I've ever tried, but I still don't like wearing them. I remain an over-the-ear kind of guy. I wrapped up the S4i's cord, shut down the HiFiMan, and bought ingredients for a meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts: Natalie and Nicole would be coming over later for dinner.

If all goes well, I thought, I might just get the girls to listen to some records!

Audioengine 5 powered loudspeaker
Back at home, between boiling potatoes and chopping onions, I connected my iPod Nano to the Audioengine 5 powered loudspeakers ($349/pair in satin black or high-gloss white; bamboo adds $100/pair). The sound was surprisingly good, and I must admit that it was nice to not have to worry about flipping records with fingertips smeared with ground beef. It was similarly nice to not have to think about which record to play next. The iPod's Genius mode did a fine job of that, at times unnerving me with its seemingly poetic, appropriately timed segues—going, for instance, from Ceramic Dog's "Digital Handshake" to Pens' "Networking" to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "More News from Nowhere," which goes:

Don't it make you feel sad,
Don't the blood rush to your feet
To think that everything you do today
Tomorrow is obsolete
Technology and women and little children, too
Don't it make you feel blue,
Don't it make you feel blue?

Tears flooded my eyes. Was the iPod talking to me? Probably not. I kept chopping onions.

The Audioengine 5 powered speakers come packed in attractive cloth drawstring bags, and include several convenient accessories: an AC power cable, miniplug interconnects in lengths of 2m (one pair) and 8" (two pairs), a single miniplug-to-RCA Y-cable, a 1m USB cable, and a 2m length of refreshingly simple 16AWG speaker cable. Each A5 cabinet is made of 25mm-thick MDF, measures 10" H by 7" W by 7.75" D, and houses a 20mm silk-dome tweeter and a 5" Kevlar woofer. The right speaker weighs 9 lbs; the left weighs a hefty 14 lbs—it contains a 50Wpc dual class-AB monolithic amplifier—and on its front baffle are a small blue power LED and a volume knob. On top of the left speaker is a 1/8" input jack and USB charge port for an iPod, while the rear panel has a second 1/8" input jack, a pair of line outs, small speaker connectors, an AC input, and a power switch. Directly in the center of the rear panel is an Aux AC outlet for use with Apple's Airport Express WiFi hub, so that you can, you know, stream music files from iTunes.

But I didn't do that. Instead, I used the Audioengine 5 in pretty much the way I would a traditional passive speaker. I initially placed the A5s where the PSB Alpha B1s had been: on 24"-high stands, secured by small globs of Blu-Tack, and exactly 27" from my room's sidewalls, 5' from the front wall, and 7' from my listening position. I was immediately struck by the A5s' outstanding spatial abilities: Images were precisely placed within an expansive soundstage and bloomed from a deep blackness, almost as if I were listening through headphones, but without the danger of being hit by oncoming traffic. In addition, I noted bass weight and control unlike any I'd ever heard in my room. I wondered if this exceptional low-frequency performance could be attributed to a special synergy between the A5s' internal amplifier and the speakers' Kevlar woofers. However, Audioengine's Dave Evans explained that the company put special emphasis first on the interaction between the A5's bass driver and the speaker cabinet: "The woofer and cabinet tuning took over a year, before the amp ever entered the picture. Then, we made sure that the amp put the final touches on pulling the most from the woofer/cabinet system."

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COMMENTS
WillWeber's picture

Hi Stephen,

A fun read. Glad you weren't run over; someday headphones will be illegal in public I suppose.

I think you oughta share that meatloaf recipe! You already gave part of it, and it is enticing, so come on...

Thanks

Will

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi Will.

I'm glad you enjoyed the column.

I promise I'll post the complete recipe as soon as I finish the Munich show report and get caught up with everything else.

lucien's picture

Hi Stephen,

For a total newbie system, I’m curious how you would compare the AudioEngine A5’s from last month with the NAD amp with PSB Alpha’s from this month’s column for a newbie looking for an entry level setup to play LP’s (with a separate phono stage) and an iPod in a small room at respectable “the kids are asleep” volumes. Cost is a huge consideration, and the A5’s are self-contained for the price of the NAD even before the speakers enter the picture. I figure in a couple years I’ll upgrade the whole setup again either way.

Any thoughts on comparing June and July’s columns for someone just looking to get in the game?

I really appreciate your choices of products and your style. It’s nice to dream about speakers that cost as much as the minivan I need to buy, but practical advice on something attainable is always welcome.

Cheers.

sgibson389's picture

Your review has me rethinking my notion that I need 30, 80 or more gigs of music with me. Looking at the models of mp3 players it seems to be going away from hard drive based players to memory card based players. Thanks for the good review, I will be considering the HiFiMan products.

SPACE CASE's picture

"This would be the best meatloaf the girls ever."  -S. Mejias

A rich morsel of accidental comedy.  But in all seriousness, I am in merely in the zygotic phase of my audiophilia and I have enjoyed the first 5 installments of your column- which I chain-read between tasks at work.  (I am the Logistics Manager at Musical Surroundings... perchance we shall cross paths at an expo in the not-too-distant) 

Maybe a completion of my chain-reading sesh will answer this, but what do you think are the best all-around speakers available for under $300?  (Zygotic, as previously stated.) You have spoken reverently enough about the Wharfedale Diamonds that I have given them the top seed at present. 

Hi five!

-Ryan

xkaapie's picture

Stephen, wonderful column, blog and insights on affordable Hifi!

You pose too many questions for us to ponder!

You are moved to tears by the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1

Addicted to the Audioengine 5's

Dancing to the Daytons!

Prisoner of the PSB!

It is wonderful and I agree 100% with you that there are so many affordable ways to listen to great music in today's world, so many possibilities for our hard earned dollars. The only problem is in todays Audio retailing world, there is no physical place out there in all of our cities to audition these wonderful choices all together at one time, THIS IS THE DILEMMA OF HIFI TODAY!!!!!!,

Could you be a pal, as you have heard all of these and let us know the answer to the following questions....... do the Wharfedale's trump the Audioengine5's????

Best regards,

Ari

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for the kind, thoughtful words.

Could you be a pal, as you have heard all of these and let us know the answer to the following questions....... do the Wharfedale's trump the Audioengine5's????

No, the Wharfedales don't trump the Audioengines, but neither do the Audioengines trump the Wharfedales. That's not a cop out. It's just that the two speakers are very different tools, offering different sets of strengths for different applications. In an ideal world, we'd be able to own both -- the powered Audioengines are obviously more versatile, can be used on smallish desktops or for computer and media applications; while the Wharfedales provide a real good taste of the nuance and sophistication provided by even the most expensive high-end loudspeakers. 

If you're looking for versatility, power, good sound, and fun, go for the Audioengines. If you're purely interested in sound quality, go for the Wharfedales.

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