The Entry Level #5

Let me hear your body talk.
—Olivia Newton John

But first a confession: I'm not the hip young man you might like me to be (or the one I might like me to be). I'm actually sort of old-fashioned. While my taste in music is nearly as uninhibited and adventurous as that of anyone I know, I prefer to enjoy that music in ways far more restrained and much less modern. I think I would have been right at home in the 1950s, wearing Ray-Bans and Levi's, listening to (and loving, equally and deeply) the music of both Jack Scott and John Cage, and playing my records on a record player.

I heard from Kelli recently. She said something about moving all of her music into the clouds.


"Cloud music," she said.

"What music?"

"Oh, yeah—I forgot who I was talking to. Ha!" I could hear her blue eyes sparkling as she laughed.

"Very funny," I said. "But, seriously, what is it?"

"Cloud music? It's the way of the future . . ."

Kelli was not referring to Iannis Xenakis's Bohor I, which is playing as I type. Bohor I sounds like hundreds of chandeliers put into careful motion, swaying gently, and falling and falling and falling from a very high place to gradually come into contact with hundreds of pianos, their lids removed, so that the brass and glass of the chandeliers rattle and clash against the pianos' steel and copper strings. In the liner notes to my copy of the album (LP, Nonesuch H-71246), Xenakis discusses his brand of cloud music: "You start with a sound made up of many particles, then see how you can make it change imperceptibly, growing, changing, and developing, until an entirely new sound results." In the case of Bohor I, the listener is asked to surrender for almost 22 minutes as something at first soothing and seemingly innocuous grows in volume and intensity until it has transformed into something terrible and disturbing. The final sounds are thrilling, powerful, and maddening—just as I jump up to lower the volume, the piece comes to a sudden end.

Today's cloud music, as I fail to understand it, is a sort of music library without chairs, walls, or card catalogs, manageable by any of several portable music players or streaming audio devices, and accessible from anywhere in the world—or, potentially, the universe. I guess. (Aliens tapped into our Katy Perry Clouds are probably, like, "OMG, WTF is wrong with these humans?") Cloud music is also invisible, and takes up hardly any space at all. I'm pretty sure there's an app for it. And, as far as I'm concerned, cloud music is completely impossible to love.

Did I mention that I hate computers?

Hate is probably too strong a word. I don't necessarily hate computers the way Mikey Fremer hates computers. I just don't want a computer getting all cozy with my music. I don't see the need. (Jon Iverson and John Atkinson are shaking their heads in disgust.) For me, the question is not whether computer-based audio outperforms older, more traditional modes of music playback. I am much more interested in exploring what we humans actually need to survive and grow. Do we need computer-based audio? Does it nourish our minds, bodies, and souls? Are we even interested in being human anymore? I understand that high-resolution downloads are becoming more widely available and thus increasingly popular, and that technology is making it easier to set up a music server that will save time and space and deliver true high-quality sound with just a few clicks of the mouse. But why do I need that? And why would I want that when I've got fully functional limbs, live in a 300-square-foot apartment, love surrounding myself with beautiful objects, and dislike listening to music while commuting or running errands?

Head-Direct HiFiMan HM-602 portable music player
These thoughts swirled through my old-fashioned brain as I crossed Marin Boulevard, on my way to Shop-Rite, while listening to John Vanderslice's new album, White Wilderness (CD/LP, Dead Oceans DOC052), through the Head-Direct HiFiMan HM-602 portable music player ($439) and Klipsch S4i in-ear headphones ($99). The music was excellent. So was the sound.

The experience? Not so much.

Head-Direct's HiFiMan HM-602 is the second in a growing line of perfectionist-quality portable music players designed by Fang Bian, a 31-year-old audiophile and student of nanotechnology at the City University of New York's Hunter College. Bian's first HiFiMan design was the larger, heavier, more versatile HM-801 ($790; see my review). In building the HM-602, Fang sacrificed the '801's removable amplifier module, 15V rechargeable battery, and coaxial input, thus creating a smaller, more portable product. Much sleeker and less substantial than the '801, the HM-602 measures approximately 4" L by 2.5" W by 1" D and weighs just 7oz—it can rest comfortably in the palm of a hand or a coat's inner pocket.


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...



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.


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!


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,


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.