The iPod is a phenomenon, and it has clearly elevated the state of the art of portable music players. But it's not a bona fide high-end device. It's good for what it is, but I've always been a bit frustrated by the iPod's inability to sound great with some of my favorite full-size headphones.
Earlier this year I reviewed the Hifiman HM-801, and dubbed it "the Hummer" of portable players. The HM-801 made my iPod sound feeble by comparison.
The HM-801 was conceived as an audiophile player, so non-sound-oriented features are scarce. Instead of a hard drive, 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 player retails for $790.
That's expensive, but the best stuff always is. The HM-801 is about to be joined by another Hifiman player, the HM-602. Priced at $439, it's a good deal more affordable, and smaller than the HM-801; it's just 2.4 by 4 by 1 inches. That's nearly the same size as an iPod Classic, but more than twice as thick.
I prefer the HM-801's bold styling, but the new player's ergonomics are better. Neither is as easy to use and navigate as an iPod, but I got the hang of the HM-602's functions in a few days. It also plays 32GB SDHC cards. Like the HM-801, the HM-602 plays 96-kHz sampled FLAC files, but reduces 24-bit resolution to 16 bit. It also plays WAV, MP3, ACC, OGG, and APE files. The new player has 16GB of built-in flash memory; the HM-801 has just 2GB.
The HM-602's connectivity includes a headphone jack, line-level output, USB data exchange, and a USB DAC input. That last one is especially cool; the HM-602 was also designed to work as a desktop USB headphone amplifier/digital-to-analog converter. Park it next to your computer and you've got yourself a nifty little USB headphone amp.
The HM-602's sound is better than the iPod Classic in terms of see-through transparency, bass weight, and dynamic clout. In short, it's a giant step closer to home hi-fi quality in a portable device. The HM-602 really shined with Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors and Monster Turbine Copper in-ear headphones.
Better yet, the HM-602's built-in amp is more muscular than the iPod's, and can drive full-size headphones, including Hifiman's terrific HE-5. That combination sounded sweet, and the HM-602 even drove my Sennheiser HD-580 headphones. Sure, iPods can play these headphones, but just barely. The HM-802 is even better than the HM-602 in that regard; the bigger model is definitely more powerful and dynamic sounding. But the HM-602 is just slightly more than half the price of the HM-801, and it delivers 80 percent of the sound quality.
If you crave better-than-iPod sound quality, you should check out the Hifiman HM-602.