A Summer Soundtrack: iFi, HTC and Superlux

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Don’t know about you, but I love listening to music. Not just the radio when driving or the occasional record. I start my day with music and one too many times I refuse to hit the bed just to enjoy another LP in the very late hours.

Now, there are two problems. I don’t like all kinds of music. Elevator music is not on my list. Nor is the music you get from the ferry boat’s awful speakers which transcends the limits of human patience and makes journeys last so d@mn loooong. There is another problem, too: how do you listen to music when you plan a long-term vacation? Moving the major rig is out of the question, it weights half a ton (literally). When I come down to my summer-house, I usually bring with me older pieces of equipment and DIY projects. For inside, they’ll do the trick, but the problem largely remains as not everyone has a summer-house and not all trips end up in one. I can imagine getting some funny faces from a hotel’s reception desk when they see me strolling in with a full stack of equipment for my long weekend. Worse than that, during summer vacations, everyone spends many, many hours out of the house, hotel or tent, so you need portability.

Nothing of all this is new and we all have a set of headphones or in ear monitors (IEM); worst case scenario would be the ones that come with the cell phone. But if you like me are used in listening to a decent good hi-fi rig, chances are you won’t be satisfied 100% by the cellphone’s IEM.

For this summer I used the following, and let me say this straight up, it’s an amazing combo for the money: HTC’s one M8 mini 2 feeding the iFi nano iDSD DAC and headphone amp, with a pair of Superlux 681 evo headphones.

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The mini 2 packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 Quad-core 1.2 GHz Cortex-A7 processor and runs on Android OS, v4.4.2 (KitKat). It also features 1GB of Ram, 16GB of internal memory and it is expandable up to 128 GB through a micro SD card slot. This feature is very important because you can easily load whatever music you want from your laptop without space limitations for the ultra-large DSD and hi-res PCM audio files.

This is important, because the iDSD DAC can play all sorts of audio formats, including quad rate DSD (11.2MHz) and DXD, thanks to the Burr Brown DAC chip that lies inside. Output is 80mW/16Ohm, 130mW/32Ohm, not bad for its small size and weight (163gr) especially considering the fact that it runs on Lithium batteries that outlast my HTC phone. Other interesting features are the precision analogue potentiometer, a pair of RCAs for analog output, and even an SPDIF RCA output that supports 24/192 PCM! All this will set you back less than $200 which makes it a bargain in my book any day of the week.

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If you intend to use on journeys which involve sea, sun and salty water spray, I doubt you would go out with your Sennheiser HD-800 or your precious Audeze headphones. Besides being expensive, most of the top-notch headphones require some very serious amplification and will not match the driving capabilities of the small iDSD nano. My choice of full size affordable cans is the Superlux 681 evo. Sensible enough to be driven even by the cellphone itself (98 dB SPL/1mW, rated impedance of 32 Ohm, 300mW max power handling) and featuring a 50mm driver, these plasticky over-the-ear headphones can be purchased for around $30. Sound-wise, they suffer a slight bump over the lower frequencies and sometimes give the impression of a slightly veiled sound, but considering the price, I find them to be a decent headphone and it seems like the chaps over at Head-Fi think pretty much the same.

The missing link of the chain is the software. Yes, because I spoke about DSD and hi res PCM files. Enter the USB Audio Player PRO (UAPP) software for Android, which will reproduce the entire libavcodec library (meaning wav/flac/ogg/mp3/aiff/aac/m4a/ape/etc files, even 24-bit or 32-bit). I found that only the .iso files were not supported and I threw everything at it, including some excellent 2L 24bit/352.8KHz pieces. It is important to check if your Android device supports USB host mode, in order to use an external dac/headphone amp through the micro USB connector, and you will also need a USB on the go (USB OTG) cable. Some very cheap ones can be purchased on ebay etc. Make sure the cables states USB OTG or you could end up with a useless piece of wire good only to charge your phone.

pic5During vacations I tend to listen less to classic music and shift over to pop, rock and jazz with a twist of latin stuff that blends with the local landscape. Speaking of which, may I suggest a few records? Parov Stelar from Austria has created what many consider the finest samples of electro swing in recent years, Belgian-Rwandan songwriter Stromae gave us the smashing album Racine Carrée  and music from Tom Baxter and The Lumineers completed my summer collection.

pic4How did the HTC/UAPP/iFi/Superlux combo perform? Amazingly well, smooth-sounding with good resolution. For a combined $250 budget, this was impossible to achieve only a few years back. The $250 does not include the HTC mini2, of course, but chances are you already have one a cell phone, don’t you? And in case your favorite fruit is a bitten apple, Onkyo offers a DSD capable app on the iTunes store.

This is where I would usually go a bit deeper on the sound of the combo, but all this was nothing more than a good excuse to make my friend Scot taste a slice of “ungracious envy” for the location on which I’ve spent my summer, Zakynthos Island in the Mediterranean sea. I have stitched some panoramic pics for you using Microsoft’s ICE free app, but better ones can be found in this Flicker link. Enjoy!

[Editor’s note: Yes, I am jealous but you are a mean, mean man.]

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Zakynthos isl

Zakynthos shipwreck

From Wikipedia