One thing you gotta thank Neil Young for? All the publicity around “sound quality”. It’s been so long since there’s been any serious public discussion of what our music could and should sound like, I think we (as a population) have forgotten that this used to be a passion for a very large number of people.
That crowd was fickle, no doubt. They jumped on the no-ticks, no-pops, instant fast-forward joy of the CD. But when the rest of us, seemingly overnight, (at least mentally) replaced our spinning silver discs with the joy of
stealing downloading MP3 encoded music, they did not queue up. When Apple stepped in, made it all cool, audiophiles still did not step up. Something, they said, was rotten in the state of Cupertino. Many audiophiles claimed that in the race for “cool” and “portable”, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. They were ignored. Mostly, they still are. MP3 playback on iPods is “good enough”, they say.
There are many that still doubt the entire “audiophile enterprise”, and the very term “audiophile” is now fringe enough that it evokes squirmy discomfort in the out-of-the-loop and outright derision amongst those that choose not to know better. Being an audiophile, today, is almost uncool enough to attract the interest of hipsters. I think that’s a loss.
Neil Young, love him or loathe him, is tilting at the “good enough” windmill. And I, for one, thank him for that. And even as articles on Xiph push the reasoned and theoretical side of the argument against Young’s crusade, the water is churning. People are talking. And more. Artists like Ryan Maguire have stepped into the discussion, making art out in the gaps.
Is the tide turning? How the hell would I know?
But what I see is more products flooding the market. Something, clearly, is afoot.
The Calyx M digital audio player is one of these (relative) newcomers to the portable audio segment. Like Young’s Pono, the M is not “just” an iPod wannabe, it plays file formats way beyond what the iPod natively supports, including files of up to 24bit/384kHz and double-rate DSD.
The screen is spectacular, a 4.65″ OLED (1280 x 720 pixels) panel that’s both easy and a pleasure to read. The casework is a bit simple, but I’m not exactly sure what you’d want here. Clearly, you could hope for something as visually interesting, like the offset trapezoid an Astell&Kern AK240 shows off, or you could opt for a more iPhone-like sleekness or something slick, like the newest Sony Walkman, the ZX2. Calyx, clearly, tipped over toward sleek, and given the screen’s overall real-estate, the result is perfectly acceptable, if not cutting-edge. The only
weird unusual thing on the brown/bronze case is the volume slider — a magnet holds the button onto the side of the case. Gimmicky, maybe, but it works really well; the slider is intuitive and it gives great tactile feedback. In fact, this is the best I’ve seen in this segment. For those of you seeking pants-pocket-portability, the slider means nothing to get hung up with and it’s a rare set of contortions that ends up with that slider dramatically changing position accidentally.
Internal storage is limited to 64G, which is probably fine for most of us. That is, most of us not into ultra-high resolution files. For us fetishists, there’s a single SD card slot for up to 256G of extra expansion room, with a separate slot for a 128G microSD card. That second microSD card slot is a nice touch, if a bit superfluous.
Given the size of the case and the price of the unit, I had expected some kind of wireless option, but no such luck. This is perhaps the single biggest weakness in the unit’s overall set of capabilities, if you ask me, and given Sony’s newest ZX2 Walkman includes WiFi and Bluetooth, you have to wonder why there’s no streaming.
On the power side, we’re looking at 1.25 volts, which is a bit low (2v is “standard”), but as to what that means in terms of mV output, I have no idea. Output impedance (that is, how likely it is to be able to drive low-impedance multi-armature IEMs, for example) is also a bit muddled — I’ve seen it cited as high as 3.3Ω and as low as less than .5Ω — which leads me to believe that there’s been some kind of revision. The interface does allow you to select the output impedance, but to all reports, this setting just boosts the output power.
File management from my Mac meant something other than the Finder. The M is invisible! The recommended route is to use the Android file transfer utility, but unlike with the Pono’s kludgy connection with JRiver, this always worked and worked flawlessly.
The user interface is excellent. If you’ve used something other than an iPod at some point in your life, it’ll take approximately 37 seconds to figure out how to make the M start barking. And compared to some of the other custom UI’s that I’ve seen on DAPs (take the first gen on the Astell&Kern, for example), the Calyx is the berries.
Sonically, the M is also different — in the best way. The Astell&Kern players, perhaps epitomized by their truly excellent AK240 player, are very linear. That is, matching the AK240 to a fulsome-sounding headphone, like the Audeze LCD-3 Fazor or any of the flagship custom in-ear monitors I reviewed last Fall, is a face-meltingly-awesome experience. UERM fans, or folks into Sennheiser or AKG (or any headphone that tends to present with a lean-ish or V-shaped contour), however, are going to lose their minds over the M.
This is not a cold, hyperreal-sounding player; the tone has a very agreeable warmth throughout the band. That is a very good thing. Bad recordings, happily, are not smoothed into homogenization; there’s plenty of detail, without it ever being overbearing or obnoxious. Bass and treble tend to depend on the headphone pairing, but I never had any issues matching — even with my pair of 16Ω Roxannes from JH Audio’s Siren Series (though, I did tend to turn the bass way down when I was using them with the M player as it got sloppy, and fast, when carrying anything extra — for more on that, check out the review).
I did have a concern around battery life. My AK240 can live in standby for several days without any serious issue, but it’s certainly not like my iPhone 6+ — that thing lasts forever. In contrast, the playback time on the M is measured at about 5 hours, and using 44.1kHz material, that’s probably about right. High-res material, though, seemed to eat into that. And failing to turn the unit off after use will always result in a promptly drained battery — there’s no battery-saver/auto-sleep feature, like in the other players I’ve used. Most of my trips tend to be short-distance (commuter jets, mostly up and down the US East Coast, so no more than 2 hours), so I tend not to notice. But on one particularly hairy coast-to-coast jag (thanks Delta), I was SOL before I finished the second of the three legs.
All this sounds like something of a mixed bag, but it’s not. The M is, in short, an excellent player. I can wish for a laundry list of features, or characteristics, or styling, or whatever — but in case I wasn’t clear, I didn’t design it. The designer, clearly, had only one thing principally in mind — and that’s sound quality. If there’s any other measure to judge this player on, I can’t think of it — because as far as that one criteria is concerned, Calyx nailed it.
Here’s the net-net — the Calyx M is a truly excellent-sounding player, and for the majority of my headphones, its non-fatiguing presentation will mean hours of pure escapism. In direct comparison to the AK240, the M player is warmer and fuller-sounding, while the AK240 has clearly better resolution and extension.
Compared to the AK120 II, the gap closes considerably, and I think the ultimate choice will come down to personal preference and particular headphone matching. For my taste, I’d lean toward the M and spend the difference on better headphones.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Sound Quality: 4 out of 5. This is one of the best-sounding DAPs on the market today, and is my new default recommendation for its sheer sonic excellence. No, seriously. It really is all that and a bag of chips.
- Features: 2 out of 5. I really think a player, at this price point, ought to include wireless functionality. Battery life could also use some work.
- Ease-of-use: 3 out of 5. The M is pretty simple to operate. Wish it had native file transfer support for Mac or Windows.
- Aesthetic: 3 out of 5. The giant touch screen is great, and the magnetic slider is too, and I like the overall build and shape. That said, the unit as a whole is kind of blocky, kind of bulky. Got big pockets?
- Value: 3 out of 5. $999 is not pocket-change for a DAP. The performance is quite high, however, and clearly bettering it means a significantly higher outlay.
Bottom line? Most highly recommended.