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Hifiman HM-801 vs. iPod, Zune: A sound winner?

If you've already invested in a great set of headphones, it might be time to ditch your iPod or Zune for the Hifiman HM-801, the world's first audiophile-grade portable music player.

The HM-801. You gotta hear this thing. Head-Direct

Sure, iPods and Zunes can sound perfectly fine, but no one ever claimed they were bona fide portable high-end audio devices. Their "good enough" sound isn't entirely their fault: they're too small to house a battery potent enough to power a high-quality headphone amplifier and a high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz digital-to-analog converter.

The Hifiman High Fidelity Music Player HM-801 is the Hummer of portables; it's big enough to get the job done. It's 3 inches wide, 4.5 inches high, and 1 inch thick; that's about the size of an old Walkman cassette player from the 1980s. Hifiman doesn't say how much the HM-801 weighs, but it feels substantial.

If Apple wanted to build something as good or better, it could, but the potential market for something that sounds better than an iPod is probably insignificant, and certainly too small for Apple or Microsoft to bother with. They're too busy jamming more features into their players, and sound quality never makes the cut. Besides, the market demands ever cheaper products, and real quality is never cheap. so the HM-801 is downright pricey.

That's another way of saying it's aimed at the sort of music lover who's already invested in a set of top-of-the-line Etymotic, Grado, Klipsch, Monster, Shure, or Ultimate Ears headphones. If you have and you're using an iPod or Zune, you're not hearing all the sound quality you paid for with those headphones.

The HM-801 was conceived as an audiophile player, so non-sound-oriented features are pretty scarce. The HM-801 has a user removable headphone amplifier circuitboard/module that makes future upgrades easy as pie. Hifiman already has one such upgrade in the works, a $170 board specifically designed to maximize detail and resolution of high-end in-ear headphones. Looking inside the HM-801--it has removable panels--so you can see it features top quality components, like a Burr-Brown PCM1704U digital-to-analog converter and Burr-Brown OPA627 Op-Amp. This is a level of technology normally found in audiophile home componentry, and never before used in a portable music player.

Side view of connectivity options and switches. Head-Direct

A 14.8-volt lithium ion polymer battery takes up the bulk of the HM-801's internal space. The battery provides up to eight hours of playing time

Instead of a hard drive or flash memory, the HM-801 uses 32GB SDHC cards, which can store 20 24 bit-96 kHz FLAC "albums," or 50 CD quality albums. Obviously, you can bring a bunch of SD cards with you so capacity isn't an issue. The HM-801 also plays WAV, MP3, ACC, OGG, and APE files.

Connectivity runs to 3.5mm line-level and headphone outputs, and USB and mini coaxial digital inputs.

The HM-801's aluminum and steel case is coated with a black satiny Teflon-like material. It's a sexy looking beast, and the gold-plated metal control buttons are a nice styling touch. Menu navigation and controls are nowhere as intuitive as an iPod.

I listened to the HM-801 with a variety of headphones including the Monster Turbine Pro Copper, JH Audio JH13 Pro, Ultimate Ears UE 18, Etymotic ER4, and Sennheiser HD 580. As much as I love the Monster Turbine Pro Copper headphones, the JH-13 Pro and UE 18 are in another league, and while the difference between the Monster and the other two is audible over an iPod, the gap is huge with the HM-801.

Swapping between the HM-801 and my 15GB iPod while listening to WAV files the Hifiman totally clobbered the iPod. The Hifiman's muscular bass made the iPod sound feeble by comparison. The massive church organ on "Intervention" from Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible" rumbled more and the vocals were fleshed out on the Hifiman. The iPod couldn't communicate anything like the impact I heard from the HM-801. It's not even close, and the louder you play your tunes, the more you'll appreciate what the HM-801 can do.

The power was impressive, but it was the improved clarity and lower distortion that made the biggest difference, even while listening at lower and safer volume. The sound was just so much more like hearing live music. Ben Kweller's "Changing Horses" album is a ravishingly beautiful recording, the acoustic guitars sounded, well, so much more natural than you'll ever hear them on an iPod. The HM-801 revealed more of the reverberation and rippling echo effects coursing through Spoon's new "Transference" album.

Listening to a few high-resolution 24 bit/96 kHz sampled FLAC files the HM-801's proved its audiophile credentials were in order. The high-resolution files were more open, effortless and clear sounding. No iPod or Zune can play high-resolution files, so the HM-801's performance lead grows even wider.

All of my listening up to this point was at home in a quiet room; out on the noisy New York City streets and subway the HM-801's sonic advantages were much harder to hear. That's hardly its fault, but it does point out that sonic differences can evaporate in noisy environments.

Returning home I put the HM-801 to work as a desktop USB headphone amplifier, driving my Sennheiser HD 580 And Ultimate Ear UE 18 headphones. What a pleasure!

Audiophiles waiting for a super-sounding MP3 player should try out the Hifiman HM-801 ASAP. Granted, at $790 it's out of reach for a lot of people, but if you've already invested in a great set of headphones, the HM-801 will finally let you hear what you paid for. You don't have to take my word for it, the HM-801 is sold on the Head-Direct Web site with a 30-day money-back guarantee.