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No. 112 September 2013

An audiophile on holiday
HiFiMAN HM-901 | Cardas EM 5813 | AKG K3003 | Blade runner - AUDIOBOOK

Although they’re blurry and fragmented, I’ve got very vivid memories of taking walks with my parents by the Biała river in Bobowa, the town I lived in back then. The mountainous river is pretty small, with scenic river bends carved into the shores, constantly in a state of flux; wild and not easily accessible on some stretches. We had a place of our “own”, probably found by my father, in one of the river’s bends, with a “stony beach” on which my mother set up her lounge chair, and we laid out some blankets to sit on. Freshly-caught fish – mostly trout – sandwiches, and drinks, as well as my first attempts at swimming. And a radio. We always had our radio during these outings, at least as far as I can remember. The “Biwak” FM radio, manufactured by Unitra-Diora, stood beneath the lounge chair, always on, emitting the programs of the Polish Radio III “Trójka”. And it’s what I remember best. My wife’s radio-related memories are also interesting and equally important. In her case it was the “Dorota” model on which she listened to Summer with the radio programs that were broadcast only on LW. Both memories have that emotional factor and the form of the radio receiver in common – they were portable devices.

“Portable” meant something different in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then it meant a small, usually battery-powered, easily transported device that could play music in “field” conditions. Now the accent has moved towards “personal” – nobody plays their music aloud from their “transistor” anymore, because everyone wears headphones. Now it’s music “on the go” and “only for me”. The second aspect is related to miniaturization. Although it was also important back then, its scale is beyond comparison. Back then it was the Japanese manufacturers that led the pack, and the epitome of these changes was the 1979 release of the TPS-L2 portable cassette player, better known as the Walkman. Sony, it’s creator, at first didn’t put much weight to its name, and – as you can read at “Telix.pl” – sold it in the US under the name “Soundabout”, “Stowaway” in the UK, and “Freestyle” in Sweden (see HERE). Its size and weight (390 g) weren’t the only novelties – it was the first time in history that you could take your own cassettes and play them on the go. And that meant expanding your field of freedom. The “Discman” CD players were later created on the same principle in 1984, followed by the portable versions of Mini Disc players. Up to 1996, over 100,000,000 Walkman players were sold worldwide. In 2010 Sony stopped the production of cassette tapes and cassette tape players. That was only three years ago!

In the meantime, the Japanese manufacturers faced a growing competition that soon surpassed its masters and made they seem to be the imitators now. We’ll come back to that in a short while. Before that happened, a new computer-related generation of music lovers, fans, and occasional listeners came to power. The PC (and the Mac in the USA) became a user-friendly sound source – a file player, a music library, and a headphone amplifier in one. The basis for this revolution was the MP3 file encoding format that created a whole sub-group of devices – portable MP3 players.
MPEG-1/MPEG-2 Audio Layer 3, commonly known as the MP3, is a lossy compression algorithm that allows decreasing the size of audio files by ridding them of some information. This operation allowed to store much more music on a hard drive or Flash memory than what was possible with uncompressed files. Nowadays, 3 TB hard drives don’t particularly impress anyone, but back then, it was of utmost importance – the first iPod had 5 GB of storage memory, which was really impressive. The information reduction mentioned above works by “intelligently” or dynamically discarding certain sounds that are masked by others, limiting the range, combining multiple channels into one, etc. The codec decided which sound components were reduced. The user could decide about the level of compression, and hence the original file size reduction. The possible bitrates are 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 80, 96, 112, 128, 160, 192, 224, 256 and 320 kb/s, although only the highest values are used for audio purposes. While it soon turned out that even 320 kb/s doesn’t guarantee a CD quality comparable sound, it needs to be remembered that there is an immense amount of knowledge behind this format, and a huge research team of the German Fraunhofer Institute, which is its collective “father” (the AES conducted ABX tests, concluding there’re no differences between mp3 files and a CD – it’s complete rubbish as I’ve ran AB comparison tests many times, and even a 24/96 mp3 file, made from a master tape of the same parameters, sounds worse than a Compact Disc. Michael Calore’s article Why Neil Young hates MP3s - and what you can do about it in “Wired” magazine is worth a read – and the title speaks for itself).

Anyway – a demon was set out of its box. From 1991, which is when the first codec was presented, computer users used the goodies that the developing Internet had to offer and soon thereafter Internet piracy changed the entire music industry. The era of non-material media began, leading up to the situation we’re at now – the decline of physical formats, including the CD.
In 1997, six years after the birth of the MP3 format, SaeHan Information Systems was founded in Korea, and created the world’s first portable MP3 player, the MPMAN. Shortly afterwards, the whole company changed its name to that (Wikipedia says the company was created in 1998, while the company’s webpage states 1997, see HERE). This began a whole new era in music development and playback. From then on, the sight of people (young at first, now it’s every age group) with headphones on while they bike, stroll, sleep in a train, is something as natural as wearing a wrist-watch was back in the day. And, paradoxically, like watches, MP3 players were later replaced by cellphones, to be now followed by smartphones which combine all of these functions in one.

On October 23rd, 2001, Steve Jobs, the late owner and head of Apple, the promotion master who perfectly guessed people’s needs, capable of even creating their needs only to fulfill them later, presented the world with a device that was meant to change the thinking of the entire generation – the iPod. The device was only compatible with Mac computers, and was a digital music file player, although it could also be used as a portable external memory. The first model (Generation 1), called the “Walkman of the 21st century”, had a built-in 5 GB Toshiba hard drive and connected to a computer through a FireWire link. The player’s enormous success was due both to Apple’s brilliant advertising campaign, as well as its integration with Apple’s software and the iTunes store. In a short time many began to copy the idea, although nobody has ever been able to replicate Jobs’ success. His product was a sophisticated development, in terms of design and UI alike, of MPMAN’s idea, and it turned the world upside down. The following statistics shows the sheer scale of the sales: in the first three months of 2013, 12.7 million iPods were sold. Although there has been sales drop (compared to the first three months of 2012 where 15.4 million were sold; see HERE, and HERE) its still a good representation of the whole business impact. By the end of the year 2012, 375 million iPods and 365 million iPhones had been sold worldwide.

The iPod, and then the iPhone and iPad have become synonymous with modern thinking and good taste. You just had to own the white player. A whole new branch of industry developed around it, manufacturing iPod-compatible products – headphones, active speakers, docking stations, cables, amps and D/A converters.
After the initial euphoria, people sobered up a little. At least some did. Just like MP3 players, iPods played lossy files. Although a newer AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) codec was used, and it hurt the sound a little less than MP3 did at the same bitrate, it was still electronic “castration”. Two modifications became breakthroughs. The first was the possibility of playing uncompressed 16/44.1 music in the lossless WAV and ALAC formats. Although the latter’s full name is Advanced Lossless Audio Coding, which suggests lossless compression, Andrew Everard of “What Hi-fi? Sound and Vision” and “Gramophone” says that AIFF doesn’t compress anything and they’re files that take up almost as much space as WAVs (see HERE). The second most important innovation was enabling USB connection through a port at the bottom of the iPod. The latter change allowed for a significant improvement of sound through using external D/A converters. The basic flaw of these devices remains unchanged, though – they cannot handle files with a sampling frequency higher than 48 kHz.

HiFiMAN
HM-901 High Resolution Music Player
Portable hi-res audio file player

The iPod is a classic. It looks great and it’s intuitive to use. It’s not very big. But it’s got one flaw – it doesn’t sound too good. Although most users don’t seem to notice that, for anybody who cares about music in all of its aspects, including the sonic dimension, it’s a major obstacle. Ultimately what we aim for is getting music to sound like it would at a live performance, or the way it was recorded (these are the two camps of what audio’s objective should be). That’s why iPod-compatible external D/A converters and headphone amplifiers made such a splash amongst perfectionists. Apple’s player turned out to be capable of delivering really good sound. But for some, it was still not good enough. Another problem was the fact – as I’ve mentioned previously – that the iPod couldn’t play back hi-res files. This opened up a doorway for other manufacturers, including HiFiMAN, a US-based company that does its research and production in China.

The company was founded in 2007 by Mr. Fang Bian, and its name refers directly to the MPMAN players. It offers planar magnetostatic headphones and portable music players, including high-resolution ones. I’ve used headphones and file players with their logo for two years. The first player I got was the small HM-602 (see HERE), followed by a large, cumbersome HM-801, equipped with fantastic PCM1704 DAC chips. Their sound was very good, much better than from an iPod Classic 6.5. But they had their own issues, too. The first was their design – they were angular, ugly rectangle boxes with a rather user-unfriendly user interface. The HM-801, on the other hand, was just big. On the other hand, one of their advantages was their functionality – they could also work as D/A converters equipped with a USB port, and they accepted SD cards up to 32 GB. Additionally, the HM-801 accepts swappable headphone amplifier boards, including one with a balanced output.

While both were capable of file playback up to 24-bit and 96 kHz, they lacked 88.2 kHz sampling frequency, not to mention going higher than 96 kHz. For the last three years the manufacturer has been working on a 2nd generation player, which resulted in presenting the new HM-901 in January 2013. It’s still quite sizeable, although smaller than the HM-801. Its front panel has a similar size to the HM-602 and iPod, but the whole unit is much thicker. It is equipped with a medium-size color display screen, capable of displaying (unfortunately only fragments of) album artwork. The most important feature is that it’s capable of playing WAV and FLAC: 16/44.1, 16/48, 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176.4, 24/192, and additionally MP3, ALAC, AAC and AIFF: 16/44.1/ and 16/48. Its enclosure size results from the employed technology. Inside, we will find two quality Sabre ES9018 DAC chips, a 24/192 upsampler and a sophisticated headphone amplifier. The latter is swappable, just like in the case of its predecessor. The available amplifier cards include:

  • regular amp card with Burr Brown OPA8397
  • balanced amp card with four Burr Brown OPA627 and four BUF634
  • balanced card with two Burr Brown OPA8397
  • IEM card designed for In-Ear Monitors and a lower power output than the other
  • Mini Box ES card with two Burr Brown OPA627 and two Burr Brown OPA624
  • the card used previously with the HM-801.
What’s more, a miniature rotary potentiometer has been replaced with a proprietary stepped attenuator – a solution known from expensive, sophisticated standalone amplifiers and preamplifiers. The bottom panel sports a port connector, not compatible with the iPod, that comprises analog and S/PDIF digital outputs and S/PDIF input. The player comes with an appropriate adapter. In my opinion, a mini-jack line output would be welcome. The reason is that I used before the HM-801 with an external portable vacuum tube amplifier, The Continental from ALO, which has this type of input. The manufacturer announced a future upgrade to enable Wi-Fi transfer and to use the player as a Wi-Fi music server. The upgrade will most likely require sending the player to the manufacturer.

The player looks really cool. It has a somewhat retro-feel (this curled volume knob), is housed in a solid casings made of aluminum and plastic and a sensible LCD display. It shows the right amount of information – we know the signal sampling rate, its bit depth and bitrate. We will also read track names, but not ID tags. User interface is quite sensible and uses a round, although it has no chance of beating the iPod. Importantly, the HM-901 accepts SD memory up to 128 GB (including micro SD). Fully charged battery allows 6-7 hours of playback of hi-res files. A docking station is being developed and will be available. The player sells for 4,499 PLN in Poland.
Before we come to its sound, two problems need to be mentioned. The player currently doesn’t offer “gapless” playback mode. It also fades in tracks – the first second is a fade in. Both are quite irritating. The manufacturer has promised to change that but we don’t know when. I hope it will be soon. What I was interested in most, however, was its sound.
In order to assess what we get with the new HiFiMAN player, I set up a reference system comprising of my reference Ancient Audio Lektor AIR V-edition CD player, the Naim NDX network player with external XPS power supply and the Bakoon Product International HPA-21 headphone amplifier (see HERE). I also compared the new player with the HiFiMAN HM-801 with ALO Continental v1 and v3 external amplifiers and the iPod Classic G6.5 160 GB.

Coming over from the HM-602 to the much bigger and less portable HM-801 I got a much deeper, larger, and more resolving sound. Moving on to the HM-901 is a much bigger jump. I keep aside the new player’s 88.2 kHz and 192 kHz playback capability, which is and important but not key change. The sound of the new player from Mr. Bian resembles that of really expensive CD players and headphone amplifiers. It is very clear, resolving and open, being deep at the same time. It is never bright or clinical, even with the very demanding HE-6 headphones. Should anyone not feel fully satisfied, there is also a “Vintage” switch to decrease the treble level by 3 dB. I didn’t use it.

The player sounds very stable, i.e. it remains even with various headphone types, without dominating but rather “leading” them. We get a huge soundstage, which I could mostly appreciate with an audiobook of Blade Runner, with binaural sound effects. But even vintage mono recordings can gain something extra – the soundstage depth, if what I heard on the headphones can be called that, was fantastic. The sound was incredibly resolving. Differences between CD quality and hi-res files from the same album were significant, which doesn’t happen even with some full-size CD and file players. High resolution added some depth and breath, but also definition; the CD version sounded grey in comparison. I wouldn’t expect much in the bass extension department, at least not with the headphone amp board provided with the reviewed player. I auditioned all headphones I had at home and the situation was each time similar– bass depended on the headphone used, but even the Sennheiser HD800, capable of very low extension, didn’t sound with such momentum like when they are driven by an external headphone amp. Highly compressed recordings that hadn’t been improved during mastering had audible problems with emphasized upper midrange. The problem was not serious enough to give up listening, but it was there. The HM-801 proved better in this respect. Its sound was less resolving and not so spacey, but had a lower tonal balance, which masked problems with music material.

Mr. Bian says about his new music player that he sees an analogy between digital photography and portable audio. A standard camera does its job well, but it cannot be compared to a professional SLR. The iPod is the same – its sound is adequate to the people’s needs, but it cannot be compared to high-quality digital audio players. He continues to say that the HM-901 has been compared in so-called “blind auditions” to the best full-size components and had the upper hand in these comparisons.
I’ve got to say that I understand HiFiMAN’s owner’s point of view, and I also really like what the new player has to offer. But I’d be careful when comparing it to high-quality, full-size devices. Although its resolution and sound definition are above average, the scale, momentum, and “drama” I got with my reference system were much better. As in the case of Amphion ION speakers, you really need to put the device into correct context, or it will be pointless (see HERE). We’re talking about a portable audio player here, and that’s all. If that’s how we look at it, it’s one of the best in the world, and perhaps only the Astell&Kern AK120 from iRiver can compete with it. On what terms, and to what extent – I’ll try to answer that question soon. But for now, the HM-901 is the best portable audio player I’ve ever held in my hands.

Manufacturer: HiFiMAN
Price (in Poland): 4499 zł
Distribution in Poland: Rafko

PHILIP K. DICK
Blade Runner. Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Rebis, Audiobook


Director: Krzysztof Czeczot
Music: Wojtek Mazolewski & Pink Freud
Sound: Stereotyp Studio/Kamil Sajewicz
Sound format: MP3 Constant Bit Rate 160 kbps
Language: Polish

If a magazine is called “Enjoy The Music.com”, everything is clear. The idea is that music comes first, and the audio equipment that plays it back comes in second place. Although it’s more of a concept than a realistic paradigm change – it’s an audiophile magazine after all – I buy it. If a magazine is called “Stereophile”, “The Absolute Sound”, “Hi-Fi+”, “PositiveFeedback.com” or “High Fidelity”, you know straight away that they focus primarily on audio components for music reproduction.

The accent that is placed on one of the two sides is different from magazine to magazine. The very best ones are capable of combining the subjects of sound quality and music, i.e. the form and content. In the end, WHAT we listen to is equally important as what we use to PLAY IT or HOW we listen to it. I try to write about music as often as possible. In addition to music CDs there’s a whole other world of so-called audiobooks. Their immense popularity is somewhat of a surprise to me, especially since most of them are just books read by a voice actor, sometimes with some music or sound effects. They’ve replaced the once-popular radio plays or radio dramas, but they also brought along a whole new type of aesthetics. There’s no way around saying it – I don’t like this type of medium. Please don’t get me wrong, because it’s a great way of experiencing literature, especially in the car, but it has little in common with reading a book to me. It can be a great supplement, but it shouldn’t replace the very act of reading. That’s why I’m not in favor of the fact that radio dramas were replaced by audiobooks (see more about radio dramas HERE).

Despite these reservations, I’ve just bought my first audiobook. Why? Because it’s more like a several hours long radio play than a monotonous “read-out”. And because it’s the interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s novel I’ve been addicted to for many years. The edition, prepared by the Rebis Publishing House, is a multi-voice (dozens of actors!) project, an audio version of the novel Blade Runner. Do androids dream of electric sheep?, made famous by the movie Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott (1982) and with Harrison Ford playing Rick Deckard, the Blade Runner himself. A lot of money went into preparing the audiobook. The voice actors include many famous Polish names, such as Robert Więckiewicz as the narrator, Andrzej Chyra as Rick Deckard, Anna Dereszowska as Iran Deckard, Łukasz Simlat, Krzysztof Materna, Bartłomiej Topa, and many others. There was even a debut of Ivona, a Polish speech synthesizer as a clerk – perfect for the robotic pronunciation (bravo for the idea!).
But that’s not the most important thing; it’s a part of something bigger. The foundation is Wojtek Mazolewski and Pink Freud’s music, as well as ingeniously chosen sound effects. The sound was recorded binaurally, which is the best method of sound registration for headphones. In the past, it used to look like this: the sound was received by a stereo pair of earphones on a perfectly replicated dummy head, in its ear canals. The most famous dummy head is the KU 100 from Neumann. Recordings of this kind are not suitable for speaker playback, because they don’t contain the elements necessary for proper spatial localization (head-related transfer function - HRTF); they are irreplaceable when it comes to headphones, though.

There aren’t many recordings of this type anymore, because some kind of compromise has to be made if we also want to enable speaker playback. From time to time a miracle happens, though, and we get a perfect recording of this type. Please get yourself some recordings from Zenph that specializes in making transcriptions (so-called “re-performance”) of old recordings using a mechanical grand piano – on their SACD’s we get two versions: classic and binaural (e.g. the album Gould 1955 Goldberg Variations, Sony Classical). It’s also worth getting familiar with some new projects from Chesky, as they experiment with a technique they call Binaural+, in which recordings using special filters can also be listened to through headphones (see HERE).
The audiobook I’ve been talking about is a perfect example of how in the 21st, headphone-dominated century you can still prepare a nice radio play. Because that’s how I interpret what’s been made of Dick’s novel. The recording is really brilliant to listen to. The spatial effects make your heart skip a beat, even if you think you’ve heard them all. Some of them, particularly the human voices, sound like what you hear on the 99 album by Abraxas (now available as a gold CD – a must have!), most of them are completely new to me, however. The sound proportions and color are beautifully picked. In the narrator’s case I would’ve dropped some of the “throat” and used more “diaphragm”, lowering its tonality. But it doesn’t interfere with how pleasant it is to listen to. It might actually only be an encoding error. The album was recorded in a rather low-bitrate MP3 format, after all. It’s kind of a shame, because some of their hard work went to waste. I understand that the point was to make playback possible on any computer and car audio, but I think that adding a second disc (DVD, BD) or USB with a hi-res version with lossless material would’ve been appropriate. However, it was all an incredible surprise and absolute pleasure to me, as I didn’t know there are people with such great sonic sensitivity in Poland. Stereotyp Studio and Kamil Sajewicz, the director, are responsible for the sound effects – bravo, and respect! And one more thing – as I recommend this audiobook to all you readers I implore you: buy it, don’t download it. Its preparation was very costly and if the publisher sees no financial potential in it, they’ll never release anything else. And we need this sort of publishing more than ever before. And right now binaural recording has a chance of fulfilling its destiny – after all, there’s a pair of headphones in every house nowadays, right?

See: audioteka.pl

Cardas
EM 5813 Model 1
Golden Ratio Ear Speakers

The specialization of specialized audio manufacturers, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds, is a fact confirmed on a daily basis through user choices. Buying speakers, we first look for them at a speaker manufacturer, for electronics – we check out the brands famous for their electronics, and the same thing with cables. There are still manufacturers, however, that offer whole systems: Goldmund, Ancient Audio or Rega, to name a few. They have been and are a minority, though.
Since quite some time there has been a noticeable trend of companies broadening their range of activity – speaker manufacturers start offering electronics and cables, while “electronics” specialists make cables and speakers, too. It is most clearly visible on the example of headphones, though – nearly all manufacturers that were never associated with them now have some in their product lineup: KEF, PSB, Harman/Kardon, Bowers&Willkins, Focal, and others. What all of the above have in common is their basic specialization – speakers. Clearly the experience they’ve gained designing, producing and applying speaker drivers can also be used while making headphones. But it doesn’t have to be that way – headphones are also wires and cables: the connector cable and transducer coil. And who else but cable manufacturers knows more about those? For example, the American Cardas?

The company has been making cables from 1987, using a “golden ratio” in their products, and in January this year, at an exhibition in Las Vegas, they presented two earphone models – a slightly cheaper Model 1, and a more expensive, and more refined Model 2. Both are concealed under the name EM 5813, where EM stands for Ear Mirror. Their creation process took a very long time, and that’s because George Cardas, the company’s owner, approached the topic with a very fresh attitude – he filled pre-made “frames” with his own ideas. Like he said, he built prototypes, measured them, listened to them, improved them, then measured, listened and improved some more, and so forth. The product of this research is a pair of earphones that are meant to resemble a human ear as closely as possible, but mirrored. Instead of Mylar that the standard membranes are usually made of, the EM 5813 uses an ultra-thin material called polyethylene naphthalate (PEN); the membrane has the diameter of 11.5 mm. The housing has been made of a beautifully-finished copper-colored alloy. The alloys, made according to Cardas’s needs, have been imported from Germany and the USA, and the remaining parts are from China. The membrane is an exception, as it’s custom-made in Japan. The earphones use a Clear Light cable. The connector cable is thick and quite stiff – it’s probably the heaviest cable I’ve ever come across in earphones. They look beautiful.

The sound of these earphones cannot be mistaken with anything else. The bass is what gives it a unique flavor (to clarify – the manufacturer just introduced special acoustic filters that reduce the amount of bass – they are placed on the drivers. They’ll definitely come in handy, although the model’s particular sonic characteristics is what makes it special for me; the choice is up to the user, though, which the manufacturer deserves to be praised for!). In absolute categories, there is a lot of it, and the treble is withdrawn. And that’s regardless of the used sound source, so it’s not because of some impedance mismatch. You can hear that this is precisely what the manufacturer was going for. Never ever will a recording sound aggressive and unpleasant or shallow and thin. Quite unexpectedly, this is beneficial to the midrange. When listening to new recordings, such as Random Access Memories by Daft Punk (16/44.1 rip, 24/96 download) and Electric Music by OMD (16/44.1 rip), or some of Yes’s older albums, available now as 24/192 files from HDTracks, the vocals and guitars would always come to the foreground. A slightly emphasized upper midrange of these recordings, shown exactly that way by the HiFiMAN player which I used for most of my auditions (though not only – the review was also conducted using my reference headphone amplifier, the Bakoon HPA-21), was present, but smooth. So was the bass – strong, full, but with a rounded attack, equally soft as the rest of the range. It’s really surprising how non-audiophile (as in, “human”) the earphones from a strictly audiophile-oriented manufacturer can sound. I perfectly understand those who are frustrated with constant chasing of perfection at all costs, and notice the loss of the “spirit” of music, as if relying on its “letter” was meant to solve it all. The Cardas earphones are pleasant to listen to and give a lot of satisfaction. They are neither resolving nor selective and have a clearly defined tonal balance, far from “neutral”. Despite that I spent many comfortable hours with them, without any clear need to switch to something else. The only problem, to me, was the rather heavy cable – but I’ve mentioned that already. A wonderful finish, and a great pair of well-presented headphones. They’re very effective and will sound loud with any music player, including smartphones (I’ve tried them with the Samsung Galaxy S II). The great volume control in the HiFiMAN player worked really well with these earphones – even at the lowest volumes there were no problems with channel balance. And when using a classic potentiometer it one of them would almost certainly be quieter.

Manufacturer: Cardas Audio
Price (in Poland): 1450 zł
Distribution in Poland: Voice

AKG
K3003
Reference Class 3-Way Earphones

If you want something better, you’ll have to pay more. And reach for a product – you can’t escape this – from a specialist. The Austrian company AKG, currently owned by Harman International, specializes in microphones and headphones, and has offered a model packed tight with technology and more ambitious than most other internal headphones. It’s a three-way build, with a hybrid system – one dynamic driver and two “dual balanced armature”. The dynamic driver handles the low frequencies, while the two others upper midrange and the top. Their mass has been chosen so that they don’t need electric filters, and the crossover happens mechanically, which means the absence of phase shifting. The earphones have a metal housing, a thin – but durable – cable to which you can attach a volume controller and phone microphone. You can also correct the K3003’s sound. For that purpose, you get a full set of acoustic filters that you attach onto the headphone drivers, where they meet your ear canal. The ones available are “Bass Boost”, “Reference Sound” and “High Boost”. Although the earphones came pre-assembled with the middle one, I quickly replaced the filter for the bass booster. While this shifted the tonal balance slightly to the lower frequencies, the sound had a larger volume and reminded me much more of what can be heard from the very best headphones – the dynamic HD800 from Sennheiser and the HE-6 magnetostats from HiFiMAN. The AKG’s finish is fantastic, on the same level as Cardas’. The details are even better – from a small, leather (“eco-leather”) headphone box, to the extras. You can see what you pay for. Or not – in the end, they’re just tiny earphones that cost way more than “full-size”, pimped-out headphones. The decision depends on how you view things, their value, and whether you prefer uniqueness and timelessness over affordability – each perspective, as long as it’s honest, is equally valid. For me, the AKG is a masterwork and an object of desire.

It would be that way regardless of how they sounded. Their design, finish and packaging is an example of high art. But it so happens that they’re the best earphones I know, and by a long shot. Their sound is very focused and full. The tonal balance is nearly the same as that of large headphones. But most importantly, they have a unique, absolutely incredible resolution and fantastic selectivity. None of the elements overshadows the others, they don’t fight, but rather complement one another. The bass goes down very low but is well-focused and has great definition. The presentation is spacious and free of distortion. It’s difficult to point out something that should be improved. And only connecting to my reference amplifier the HiFiMAN magnetostats or top Sennheisers puts it back into proportion. The former are even more resolving and differentiate the treble better. The sound of drum cymbals, as well as the sound of trumpet, for example, is more “lively”, more dynamic, and thus more natural. On the other hand, the Sennheisers show a larger volume of sound better define the lowest bass. What the AKG was able to achieve in this department was impressive, but – in the end – it could be better. And the volume and dynamics are where the only noteworthy differences lie. But if you take into account the fact that you’re talking about earphones, it all bleaks out, rubs off and doesn’t matter anymore – literally. When connected to a high-quality portable player, such as the HiFiMAN HM-901 or – even better – a portable headphone amp, such as the ALO Audio The Continental v3, they will be the travel/holiday companion of your dreams. A pricey one, but nothing comes free in life. You’ve just got to decide whether you’re willing to pay this much for this and that. The AKG K3003 will be one of the best choices of your life, as long as you have the possibility and the desire of something truly from the top shelf.

Manufacturer: AKG
Price (in Poland): 4199 zł
Distribution in Poland: RBC

EN ROUTE

I’ll admit, I haven’t listened to anything over the summer vacations for the past few years. I also listen to the radio while out in town much more rarely than I used to. When I’m on holiday, I rest, much like when I’m not doing any auditions. A few hours a day, everyday, in front of my speakers with large headphones on my head is completely sufficient. I know, however, that many “High Fidelity” readers do the exact opposite – they spend most time with headphones on while they’re en route somewhere. Good – it’s great that we’re different. All of the products I present are intended for them. I chose them on purpose, with the intention of showing what modern technology has to offer. And we’ve never been this spoiled before. Music file players, headphone pre-amps and headphones themselves – there are more of them now than ever before. You can get lost in it, even more so since among the extraordinary products there are a lot of mediocre ones, and even some complete garbage. And as J.R. Isidore, a character in Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner says, “kipple reproduces itself so one needs to fight the kipple”. We’ll never win with it, but we can introduce some order into our own, private, personal space. The HiFiMAN HM-901, the Cardas EM 5813 and the AKG K3003 do that “cleansing” job. They order the world aesthetically, both as the works of industrial design, and as portals to another, better world – the world of music.

As I’ve said before, you don’t have to spend 10,000 zlotys to be able to enjoy portable audio. You can start your adventure with portable audio using a smartphone and a pair of good headphones. The Cardas earphones do this job really well, as they don’t let you get annoyed, yet they supply you with high quality sound focused on the bass and midrange. And they’ll look great. The next step is up to the user – it can be swapping the headphones for the AKG, or purchasing a music player. The simplest choice will be the iPod Classic. But if you want something truly high-end, you’ll have to consider something like the HiFiMAN, or the Astell&Kern AK120. There’s no other way. It’ll get more serious, and heavier than your phone – these players aren’t that small. And you can go even further. If you use your portable audio not while you run/travel, but more stationary, you should consider a headphone amplifier of that sort – there’s an abundance of them. I’ve been using The Continental amp for the past two years. It’s sold by ALO Audio (incidentally, it’s manufactured by Syngergy HiFi that we know very well). I started with the V1, now I’ve got the V3. It’s an amp that uses a miniature Thomson 611 vacuum tube in the output, small and useful – the size of the HM-901. We connect our music player’s line out connector to the amp, and plug our headphones into the amplifier. What we get is a much deeper, more powerful and better-controlled sound. No portable player is capable of doing that. Its price (in the USA): $529.
You want more? – Here you go: you can take full-sized HiFiMAN headphones with you, such as the HE-500 or HE-400. They have a special box for their transport, the HiFiMAN Travel Case, which costs 159 PLN. This way you’ll get a portable, high-end audio system, which isn’t very portable at all, anymore. But that’s the paradox of perfectionistic audio, the audio we’re interested in – bigger usually means better.

„HiFiStatement.net” and „High Fidelity”

I’ve mentioned it in last month’s editorial, but it’s time to elaborate. Starting on August 1st, 2013, the German magazine “HiFiStatement.net” and “High Fidelity” have established a fixed cooperation in terms of joint projects and politics and exchange of materials. Select reviews and interviews that are currently available in HF will be available in German from now on, and select original material that has been published in German – available to Polish and English speakers. We’ll begin with an interview with Masaki Ashizawa, the head of Kondo (Audio Note Japan), conducted by Jürgen Saile.

“HiFiStatement.net” is a relatively new project, but its lead by a veteran of the audio world, Dirk Sommer. I met him years ago as the editor-in-chief of “Image HiFi”, a printed magazine. He’d been already combining editorial work with his second passion – sound production. And very particular sound, at that. Dirk is an enthusiast of analogue technology and all of his work is registered on an analogue tape, and released on vinyl. Many fantastic titles have been released under “Image HiFi” label, including re-editions of Bert Kaempfert (the “Forty-Five” series) and a special test disc, Vinyl Essentials. We’ve found out about the problems on the German publishing market from the interview I’ve conducted with Cai Brockmann, the current editor of “FIDELITY”, and previously… Dirk’s work colleague from “Image HiFi” (see HERE). But because I had this opportunity, I asked Dirk – the source – personally, and the answer can be found in the interview I conducted with him, published in this issue of “High Fidelity”. Dirk is still an active sound producer, aside from leading his magazine, and also a publisher from now on. As he left “Image...” he founded his own record label, Sommelier Du Son. I’ve received Inga Rumpf’s album White Horses from him. An unbelievable recording and some great music! The double album has been released on 180 g vinyl as part of a series dubbed the Triple A Series, which speaks for itself. We have a few things planned together with Dirk, and we’ll see what comes of them, but I’ve got a positive attitude towards it. We’re living in very interesting times indeed!

“High Fidelity” cooperates with the following magazines:
„6moons.com”, „EnjoyTheMusic.com”, „Positive-Feedback.com” and „HiFiStatement.net”
We’re the only Polish audio magazine which is also released in English.


About Us

We cooperate

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Our reviewers regularly contribute to  “Enjoy the Music.com”, “Positive-Feedback.com”“HiFiStatement.net”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

"High Fidelity" is an online magazine, i.e. it is only published on the web. For the last few years it has been published both in Polish and in English. Thanks to our English section, the magazine has now a worldwide reach - statistics show that we have readers from almost every country in the world.

Once a year, we prepare a printed edition of one of reviews published online. This unique, limited collector's edition is given to the visitors of the Audio Show in Warsaw, Poland, held in November of each year.

For years, "High Fidelity" has been cooperating with other audio magazines, including “Enjoy the Music.com” and “Positive-Feedback.com” in the U.S. and “HiFiStatement.net”  in Germany. Our reviews have also been published by “6moons.com”.

You can contact any of our contributors by clicking his email address on our CONTACT  page.

enjoythemusic linia positive-feedback linia hifistatement linia

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE TESTED DEVICES ARE MADE USING THE EQUIPMENT OF THE COMPANY



Digital camera:
Canon EOS 5D MkIII

Lenses:
EF-16-35/L II USM
EF 100 mm 1:2.8 L IS USM


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