FiiO Mont Blanc E12A IEM Amplifier Review

Equipment used:

Headphones: Oppo PM-3, PM-2, HE-560, Aurisonics Harmony, UE900s, LZ-2A, Fiio EX1, RHA T20

Music used:

From Röyksopp to Amber Rubarth, Diana Krall to Apoptygma Berzerk, Tom Jones to Sphongle, Yello to Camouflage, mostly FLACs 24/96 or 16/44.1 – some mp3 320kbps, some AAC 256kbps, some DSD files Depending on headphone high or low gain – no EQ


Disclaimer: I received the Fiio E12a review unit from the local distributor of Fiio products. I have to return the unit, so there is no financial interest. I am not affiliated with Fiio or Though I really highly appreciate what these guys are doing for the audiophiles in the region!! Thank you so much for letting me test and review this amp.

When I review DAPs and amps I tend to use an input switcher and play the same song on both players, volume matched by ear and switch back and forth. Then I do some extensive listening with the unit and different headphones.   I owned a lot of Fiio products over the years, the X3, X5, E07K, E7, etc. and so far never had any serious issues with them.


Great design and build quality

Beautiful sound for IEMs and bigger headphones

Punchy bass

does one thing really good


None really

The Fiio E12a might be the only portable amp you will ever need. It provides plenty of power (though not too much to introduce hiss), you have an analogue bass boost that works really well. Plus handling this little beauty is a treat thanks

Now, the longer version:


Packaging & Accessories

You get a charging cable for USB, a 3.5mm to 3.5mm connection cable, 2 rubber bands to “stack” it with a digital audio player and a soft carry pouch.

Technical Highlights:

Type: portable Headphone AMP

Out-Put Impedance:<1 Ω

Output power: >420 mW (16 Ω/THD+N<1%)

Headphone Impedance Range: 16-300 Ω

Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz

Signal/Noise Ratio:  0.003%@1KHz

THD: <0.005% (1 kHz)(line out)

Dimension: 14.5mm (D) X 65,5mm (W) X 124mm (H)

Battery life: >20 Hrs

Charging Time: <3 h

Weight : 166g

Input: 3.5mm

Output: 3.5mm

Warranty: 1 year

Size comparisons



User Interface and Build Quality

The E12a is a portable amp and as such doesn’t have a whole lot going on. The most important dial is the combined on/off switch and volume dial. It feels very high quality and clicks on and off with a satisfying sound. It turns with the right amount of resistance not to accidentally turn it too much. The E12a feels very solid and high quality in your hand. It’s really surprisingly well build. Machined from a solid block of aluminum it does feel very apple-ish.

Next to the volume dial is the Gain switch. This is an important switch. While using IEMs you should leave it in the L (low) setting while using H (high gain) for larger headphones or hard to drive IEMs. Gain increases the voltage and volume level depending on the headphone so you can use the volume dial with more precision.

Next to that you will find the headphone output and the Line-In to feed music to the Fiio.

On the left side you find the micro USB charging port and the bass boost switch


Sound Quality Comparisons


The E12a is the “sort-of” successor of the Fiio E12. Differences between the two are: better components for a “darker, blacker” background (no hiss), new silver chassis, much larger battery and longer battery runtime and lower power specs.

While the E12 was a very powerful amp that could rival many desktop systems, the E12a is focussing on portability (and still has plenty of power). Though it might not be the best to drive your planar magnetic heavy weights anymore, it will drive close to everything you throw at it very satisfyingly.


So how does it sound?

Lovely low end punch, a lot of detail and a black, black, black background. It’s made for IEMs and it shows, even with the most sensitive IEMs with 8 Ohms – the E12a doesn’t show any hiss in low gain. It’s really done with a lot of care. Soundstage is good, depth and width are good for a portable amp and even for many desktop setups. If you have a Fiio X1, X3 or X5 adding this amp means you can drive a lot more headphones with you setup. The quality of the amp section of the E12a does beat the amp sections of these respective players. Just connect the line-out to the line-in on the E12a and enjoy the transformation.

The sound is organic and a touch on the warm side. Which is a good thing. The bass boost adds a lot of bass – depending on your headphones you might not need it, but it does add a lot of fun to some headphones.

Compared to E12

Main differences:

better components

darker background

larger battery

longer battery life

made for IEMs

lower power output

Even though the E12 has nearly twice the power in certain Ohm ranges, the E12a doesn’t give up easily. It still drives some of my planar magnetic headphones absolutely with ease. It finds it’s master in the HE560 and LCD2 with bass heavy tracks and quite high volume levels but hey, these are meant to be driven with a desktop amp. And as mentioned with normal listening levels even these sound great and there is only distortion when it’s getting very loud.


Rating 4 – 1/2 Stars                    8.6/10



best quality sound for the price range

organic sound and musical presentation

beautiful quality build

great bass boost functionality

slightly warm, engaging and fun presentation


size (not really)

battery eventually runs empty, haha

A great portable amp – for the money it will be hard to find anything comparable. Well done Fiio, this is going to be a classic.

I pitted it against the RSA “The Predator”, JDS Labs C5D and Cayin C5 and it held its ground beautifully. Much better than I imagined. For the current price of 669 AED this is a steal. Add this to your digital audio player and enjoy the improvement in sound – and drive all your headphone with this setup.

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Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO Headphones Review


If you’re in the market for audiophile-grade headphones, you’ve probably heard of Germany’s professional audio electronics manufacturer Beyerdynamic. In the business of handcrafting premium headphones since 1924, Beyerdynamic is synonymous with hi-fi audio and head-fi enthusiasts worldwide. It’s no surprise then, that when setting out to find a headphone that would deliver high-end performance free from the esoteric claims and sticker shock that have become commonplace in the world of audiophilia, Beyerdynamic’s offerings come highly recommended.

Sitting back to enjoy a great stereo system is my preferred listening experience, but due to the fact that I spend more time in a cube farm on a regular basis, headphones have become a must-have for me. The warm sonic signature and reasonable comforts of the closed-back Shure SRH840 professional monitoring headphones that I previously reviewed fill my at-work listening needs perfectly. But, that first step into “premium” headphone sound piqued my interest in acquiring a nice pair of cans for my late-night listening sessions at home.

What I wanted: Crisp, detailed highs; moody, full-bodied mids; punchy bass; a wide, airy soundstage, and comfort to boot. As usual, I started scouring the Internet in search of the perfect headphone that would deliver exceptional sound quality, comfort, value and performance. Thankfully, I found a pair to try before paralysis from analysis set in.


While several versions of the DT 990 exist, minor changes to the headband, driver housing, cable and packaging allow the same critical internals of the higher priced DT 990 versions (MRSP $430) to be used in the DT 990 PRO application at a lower price point, making it economically feasible for pro audio business purposes while giving consumers an affordable option for those that care less about aesthetics and more about getting the best sound per dollar.

“Sound You Can Rely On”

As described by Beyerdynamic, the DT 990 PRO is their “Professional acoustically open headphone for monitoring and studio applications.” And while the box claims these cans offer an “analytical sound,” I would argue that the frequency response provides just enough sizzle in the highs and a slight boost in the bass to make it a dynamic and enjoyable headphone to listen to. In short, the DT 990 PRO uses hand-made neodymium drivers nestled inside composite open-back driver housings that help these cans deliver a quick, transparent and surprisingly wide and airy soundstage.

For those of you that know me or have been following this blog, you know that I listen to a wide variety of music that includes jazz, blues, electronica, folk, hard rock/metal, reggae and more. Well, I’ve been nothing but surprised by how well the DT 990 PRO performs. Instruments have excellent separation; vocals are crisp and clean; cymbals and horns shimmer with a nice sense of realism; bass notes are consistently tight, fast and punchy without ever being “boomy” or bloated; and the mids, albeit slightly recessed sometimes due to the bass hump around 100 Hz, refrain from being muddied or dull. Overall, the DT 990 PRO presents a rich, full-bodied, engaging sound that centers the mind’s eye well.

A word of caution, however: As you’d expect with a headphone designed for studio monitoring and mastering, these cans are revealing—bad recordings and low bit-rate digital files will likely sound bright, edgy, unrefined and unpleasant, but pair them with good recordings and a nice source and these babies sing.

Do these need an amp? Not necessarily; the DT 990 PRO can get plenty loud on mobile devices and still sound good, but if you want the best performance with the lowest noise floor and greatest dynamics, a headphone amp is recommended.

Are they boomy? No. The bass does have some added emphasis compared to the DT 880 PRO, but it is still tight and accurate.

graphCompare (1)

Are they bright? They’re crisp and detailed, and if you’re sensitive to high frequencies they may come off as bright, but overall I’d say they manage to stay away from being harsh.


Should I get the DT 990, DT 880 or DT 770? That’s really up to you and your needs. The DT 990 is an open-back headphone—sound will leak, but you’ll have a wider soundstage and the presentation is dynamic. The DT 880 is a semi-open headphone specifically for reference monitoring—it has a more linear response that is very analytical compared to the DT 990 or DT 770. The DT 770 is a closed-back headphone that is pitchier than both the DT 990 and DT 770; the bass has greater emphasis, the mids are more recessed, and the highs jump more. The DT 990 PRO basically puts you between these “fun” and “analytical” headphones, leaving you with a dynamic compromise that seemingly performs well across all music genres.

“Superior Build Quality”

For those of you that are accident-prone, nearly all parts on the DT 990 PRO are replaceable, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it—these things are built for use.

Unboxing the DT 990 PRO, you’ll likely be struck with how light these cans are; including the 3-meter coiled cable (not detachable), these weigh in at 378 grams or 13.3 ounces on my scale. I’m not sure how that stacks up with other popular options on the market, but in relation to my Shure SRH840s, these sit significantly easier on my head… in fact, they’re hardly noticeable.

Beyerdynamic actually claims the weight reduction achieved in the composite driver housing lends a hand in creating the DT 990 PRO’s excellent sound quality. And while some may be struck by the light weight and composite driver housing as showing signs of weakness or lesser quality, the DT 990 PRO headphone simply saves much of its weight through its minimalist design and materials choices. The headphone is constructed from a spring steel headband wrapped in a slim, removable padding; the anodized aluminum forks are slim but decidedly solid; the composite driver housings, albeit flexy across the open back, are robust around the perimeter; and the velour ear cup pads are of good quality, free from loose seams, and the semi-soft pad conforms effortlessly to the head.


The Fit

Despite being a full-size circumaural (around-the-ear) headphone constructed of composite plastics, aluminum and steel, these cans are anything but bulky or heavy. In fact, the combination of their light weight, soft headband and cushy ear pads makes these an incredibly comfortable headphone to wear for hours at a time—I’ve even fallen asleep with them on several times.

While I have a relatively small oval head (21” circumference), I found the clamping tension to be just about right, maybe even a tiny touch loose for me. Still, the headphones manage to stay securely in place while moving/tilting the head and laying down, and I never experienced any fatigue or hotspots due to excessive pressure on the ears or head. Aside from the sensation of having two velour donuts circling my ears, it’s hard to tell that these are even being worn. My ears found plenty of room inside of the cups, and while the velour ear pads do absorb body heat quickly, the open-back design lets the headphone “breathe” just enough to keep the sweat at bay.

Overall, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headphone is a price-to-performance champ, delivering comfort, quality, and audiophile-grade sound at a price nearly every hi-fi enthusiast can afford.

Technical Specs

Headphone design: Open-back, circumaural (around-the-ear)

Headphone impedance: 250 ohms

Headphone frequency response: 5 – 35,000 Hz

Nominal SPL: 96 dB

Nominal THD: < 0.2%

Power handling: 100 mW

Cable & Plug: Coiled cable with gold-plated mini-jack plug (3.5 mm) and 1/4″ adapter

Net weight: 378 grams, w/ cable

Listening Setup

Amp: NAD C 326BEE

Source: Sony DVP-S9000ES SACD/DVD player

Interconnects: DH Labs Air Matrix

Power Cords: DH Labs Power Plus Reference AC (DIY)

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Sony STR-DN850 Review

Sony’s first amp of 2014 is an impressive and well-featured all-rounder at a great price

Our Verdict – 5 Stars


Big, immersive sound

Lots of detail


Strong stereo performance

Simple set up and operation

Lovely user interface


Can sound bright, so needs careful matching to get the best from it

Take a quick glance at the Sony STR-DN850, and you could easily mistake it for its 2013 predecessor.

From the outside, at least, it seems like very little has changed. Turn it on though, and you will see just how much difference a year can make.



Sony STR-DN850

Sony has gone back-to-basics with the ‘850, and in all the right ways. The once button-heavy remote is a more simple affair – its back panel is now even cleaner and easier to understand than before.

Its new user interface is one of the best we’ve come across on an AV receiver – well designed and easy to navigate thanks to its handy graphics.

The interface makes Sony’s set-up and configuration process a breeze too. Attach the auto-calibration mic and a series of rather upbeat musical tones sound, which makes a welcome difference to the aggressive snaps, crackles and pops we’ve heard from rival manufacturers.

It’s pretty quick to make its decisions, and they’re accurate too – we didn’t have to change any of its measurements, which are displayed nicely in a 3D graphic of your room and speaker set-up, helping you spot any obvious errors right away.


Sony STR-DN850

Network setup is in the same Easy Setup menu as the speakers, and is completed without issue.

The receiver picks up our wireless network quickly (although a wired LAN connection is available if you prefer), and we are just a password away from activation.

Once connected, we are alerted to a firmware update, which will force your receiver into a hibernated state for approximately 30-40 minutes.

We definitely recommend doing this immediately – your patience will be rewarded with the most stable and up-to-date experience for your amp.


Sony STR-DN850

When it comes to features, the ‘850 is no slouch. A 7.1 channel amp, it offers a few handy additions to its predecessor – including aptX Bluetooth, NFC connectivity for one-touch pairing and an MHL (mobile high-definition link) connection for playing back photos and video from MHL-compatible mobile devices.

Around the back, there are five HDMI inputs (one less than last year) with 4K upscaling and 3D/4K pass-through, plus one out.

Exactly the same as last year, you will get four sets of inputs for analogue audio and three for composite video, as well as one coaxial and two optical inputs.

There is a single USB input on the front for connecting portable devices and USB drives, which is compatible with files up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution.



Sony STR-DN850

We put on a Blu-ray of Gravity, and skip to the scene where Kowalski (George Clooney) and Stone (Sandra Bullock) are approaching the International Space Station (ISS) after debris has destroyed their space shuttle.

The ‘850 handles the dynamics of the foreboding soundtrack superbly here, building the sense of tension as they prepare to use the last of the thruster fuel to propel themselves towards the satellite.

As soon as they do, the soundtrack really kicks in, big and powerful, as does the pulsing sub, replicating Stone’s racing heartbeat with punch and agility.


Sony STR-DN850

The low-frequency weight on show here gives the whole scene solidity – a characteristic we found to be lacking in its predecessor.

The good news is it keeps the agility we loved from last year too; the ‘850 reacts quickly to changes in tempo to keep a good grip on rhythm.

We’ve no doubt there will be amps that sound more beefy but, at £400, the STR-DN850 offers a decent low-end kick for its price


Sony STR-DN850

Gravity is also a great test disc for sound placement, and the ‘850 impresses in that department too, demonstrating a wide soundfield and impressive handling of effects.

Sound is spread cohesively across our 7.1 set-up, with dialogue between Kowalski, Stone, Houston and Explorer placed with immersive precision, while there is power in the devastation and panic caused when the debris shower hits.

The detail on offer is notable too, with plenty of subtleties pulled out of the mix to bring depth and texture to equipment clunks, radio beeps and emotion-filled conversations.

Switch up to Thor: The Dark World and during the attack on Asgard, there are plenty of opportunities for the ‘850 to show what it’s made of.


Sony STR-DN850

Once the Kursed begin their assault on the Asgardian Castle, laser gunshots seemingly fly around the room from one speaker to another, while sword clashes have controlled zing and impact.

Some of this performance has to be attributed to lessons Sony has learned from some of the ‘850s’ higher-specified predecessors.

Its power amplifier circuit board has been modified to match that found on our 2013 Product of the Year, the STR-DN1040, using a glass epoxy resin material to improve sound quality and stability.


Sony STR-DN850

Localised analogue voltage regulators have also been introduced – a design found in the high-end ES series – which Sony says will deliver an improvement in noise levels and bring more purity and definition to low-frequency sounds.

From our time with the DN850, we can say it is a successful move.

Music Performance


Sony STR-DN850

Stereo performance is admirable for an AV receiver, doing a good job where many fail – particularly at this price.

Music has an impressive amount of rhythmic precision and detail, if it is a little bright. A bright recording can verge on the edge of uncomfortable at higher volumes, without careful pairing.

Opt to use the Dolby Pro Logic IIx mode and this will help, spreading the sound around your speakers and adding a little more weight that balances out any top-heavy tendencies.


Sony STR-DN850

It works well, although you will lose a hint of detail in the midrange as a result.

Whatever you choose, we’d recommend using the amp’s Pure Direct mode when listening to music – we found it adds just a touch more clarity.

As well as its AirPlay, DLNA and Bluetooth smarts, there are also a number of music streaming services built-in to the ‘850, including Sony’s own Music Unlimited service, Deezer and TuneIn Radio.


Sony STR-DN850

These are all accessible via the music services heading in the ‘Music’ menu or via Sony’s free Songpal app, where you can also access Spotify.

Music played over wi-fi or Bluetooth has a tendency to sound a little edgier and less detailed than CD recordings, but that’s the price for the convenience of music streaming.


The Sony STR-DN850 is among the first 2014 AV receivers we’ve seen and we are suitably impressed.

Well-featured, with a detailed and precise performance to match, it has taken on board the criticisms of last year’s model to make this the £400 amp to beat. We can’t wait to see what the rest of the range has to offer.

Overall Score – 5 Stars

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Bowers & Wilkins 684 S2 Loudspeakers Review

Say “B&W” to non-audiophile consumers and they’ll probably think you’re mispronouncing BMW, which might be one of the reasons Bowers & Wilkins now prefers to go by its full name. But say “B&W” to any audiophile, and he or she will likely know precisely what you’re talking about: a British loudspeaker manufacturer founded in 1966 by John Bowers and Peter Hayward, and at first named B&W Electronics. Over time, as B&W grew and evolved, it became one of the best-known speaker makers in high-end audio, and in recent years has branched out into all-in-one music systems and headphones.


I’m pretty familiar with B&W — from about 1986 to 1998, it was the only brand of speaker I owned: pairs of Matrix 1s, Matrix 802 Series 2s, and Matrix 3 Series 2s, in that order. That’s why, with the recent debut of the 680 models, the latest iteration of their 600 series (the line began in 1995 with models DM601 through DM604), I was eager to get a pair in to see what B&W is up to today. They sent me a pair of 684 S2 floorstanders, which retail for $1150 USD per pair. Above the 684 is a larger floorstander, the 683 S2 ($1650/pair); below it are the stand-mounted 685 S2 ($700/pair) and 686 S2 ($550/pair).


When I unboxed the 684 S2s, I was a bit surprised by their compactness. Each speaker measures 36.2”H x 6.3”W x 9.2”D, without the small wooden plinth (about 9.25”W x 1”H x 9.5”D) that bolts to its underside. Based on pictures I’d seen of the speaker prior to arrival, I expected something bigger. But after I got the pair set up and looked at them, I figured that B&W had gone small so that the speakers would fit more easily and discreetly into modern homes.


I wasn’t at all surprised by the high quality of the 684 S2’s MDF-based cabinet, which can only be had in Black Ash vinyl veneer. B&W has long been known for the exceptional finish work of all its products, as well as for excellent packaging and all the extras — the 684 S2 comes well protected inside its box, accompanied by rounded rubber footers and all-metal spikes, both of which screw into the plinth, for whatever kind of floor you might have, as well as an excellent manual for the 683 and 684 models. I also admired the well-thought-out grille, which is not only attractive but flexible and extremely durable. That last was important — during my listening tests I put them on and took them off repeatedly, sometimes roughly (a quick grab and pull!). Although the sound was better without the grilles, I replaced them from time to time to protect the drivers, as would most users.


The 684 S2’s plastic front baffle is designed to be sonically unobtrusive and visually attractive — it mounts over the driver frames and conceals unsightly bolts. Toward its top is what B&W calls a Decoupled Double Dome 1” aluminum tweeter, newly developed for and used in all of the 680 S2 models. According to B&W, a ring is added to the tweeter’s dome to push the natural resonance of aluminum well beyond the audioband; usually, that resonance is at a frequency within or undesirably close to the range of human hearing. The entire tweeter assembly is decoupled from the cabinet with a special mounting system designed to avoid the transfer of resonances to it, or vice versa. Below the tweeter are two 5” Kevlar-cone drivers with rubber surrounds. One of the benefits of Kevlar is that it can stop a bullet — something that’s obviously irrelevant when it comes to hi-fi. B&W uses it because, they say, it’s a choice material for “soaking up standing waves in a speaker cone.” Below the woofers is their version of a port, called a Flowport for the tiny dimples in its surface, which make it look like the surface of a golf ball and have the same function: to reduce air turbulence. Low on the rear panel are two pairs of binding posts, to facilitate biwiring or biamping. If, like me, you don’t want to go that route, the jumpers needed for single-wiring are already installed.


When I first saw the 684 S2’s three drivers, I assumed they were configured in a two-and-a-half- or three-way network, such that the bottommost driver wouldn’t hand off to the tweeter — partly because the two drivers are far away from each other, but particularly because B&W specifies a crossover frequency of 4kHz, which is quite high, and where the wavelengths of soundwaves are getting pretty short. But the 684 S2 is a two-way design: both woofers handle the same bandwidth of 45Hz-4kHz before the signal is crossed over to the tweeter. Suffice it to say, this piqued my interest — I wanted to hear how well these drivers’ outputs would blend.


According to B&W’s published specs, the end result of these three drivers working in unison is: a sensitivity of 87dB/2.83V/m; an overall frequency response of 45Hz-50kHz, -6dB; a “reference-axis” (presumably tweeter) frequency response of 72Hz-22kHz, +/-3dB, with the off-axis response remaining within 2dB across 60° horizontal and 10° vertical windows; harmonic distortion of less than 1%, 140Hz-22kHz (at 90dB output, measured at 1m); and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, with a minimum impedance of 4 ohms. Whew — that’s a mouthful.

System: extreme to sane

I originally used the 684 S2s in my reference system, which includes tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics: EMM Labs PRE2 preamp and DAC2X digital-to-analog converter, Simaudio Moon Evolution 870A or Hegel Music Systems H30 power amplifiers, etc. Those are extremely unlikely components to pair with a speaker costing only $1150/pair, and I did it mainly for convenience’s sake; the system was already set up, and it’s what I use for higher-priced speakers — and I wanted to at least hear how the 684 S2s would perform when given every opportunity to sound their best. But for the bulk of my listening I hooked up the 684 S2s to Hegel’s H80 integrated amplifier, which costs a sane $2000, puts out 80Wpc into 8 ohms (in short, enough), and includes a good DAC.


Whether the B&W 684 S2s were hooked up to my reference electronics or to the Hegel H80, my first impressions of their sound were mixed. I admired the cleanness and purity of the treble, but found it a bit too pronounced; the bass was full, robust, and quite deep, but also a little loose and indistinct; the midrange sounded smooth overall, but seemed a tad recessed in the upper mids, and in the lower mids was a touch chesty (a blurring, resonant sound) and hollow (think hands cupped around a mouth), particularly with certain performers. For example, Leonard Cohen’s deep, rich, close-miked voice in “Going Home,” from his Old Ideas (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Columbia), exacerbated the chestiness, while Sade Adu’s close-miked voice in the title track of Sade’s Soldier of Love (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music Entertainment/RCA Records) highlighted the hollowness. These recordings each hit certain frequencies that these speakers just didn’t like.


Yet there were aspects about which I need make no caveat: The 684 S2s’ spacious sound helped unveil wide, deep soundstages; the imaging was very solid, and this, in concert with the spaciousness, led me to believe that each speaker’s three drivers in a two-way network were having no trouble blending to sound as if they were one. And they were able to play very loud without congestion. When I played “Contact,” the raucous closing track of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Édition Studio Masters), at SPLs far beyond what I’d expect a pair of small, entry-level floorstanders to be able to produce, they held together just fine — they didn’t break up or distort, as like-priced speakers often do. Likewise, Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida,” from his 3.0 (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music Latin), sounded lively, clean, and surprisingly unrestrained, even when I cranked the volume way, way up.

Given the mixed results I’d initially heard, I did some subtle tweaking to attempt to keep the good and ditch the bad. First, since the 684 S2s’ bass was generous enough, I made sure not to place them any closer to the side and rear walls, as that would reinforce the low frequencies even more. But to reduce the treble level at the listening seat, I did reduce the toe-in; the tweeters were now aimed not directly at my ears, but out a little to each side. Next, I dispensed with the soft footers, screwed the spikes in tight, then gave a really hard push on the top of each speaker, so that the spikes pierced my carpeting and made contact with the floor, to give the 684 S2s the firmest footing. This usually reduces cabinet resonances, which results in the tightest bass and the cleanest midrange, all else being equal.


These small, simple tweaks yielded surprising benefits at no sonic cost. The bass tightened noticeably and, more surprising, now sounded a bit deeper — output down to almost 40Hz was apparent, which I consider very good for so small a speaker. The higher frequencies were still lively and clear, but no longer too forward, and never edged into “bright”; in fact, now that the 684 S2s were properly set up, I found their top-to-bottom balance quite pleasing overall, if still not perfectly neutral. The slight top-end attenuation also meant that the midrange sounded less recessed; in short, easier to hear. The increased physical stability made possible by the spikes also made the mids even smoother, which made most voices sound more natural and realistic, and pianos surprisingly clear. For example, Lang Lang’s performance of Satie’s “Gnossienne No.1,” from the soundtrack of the film The Painted Veil, was reproduced with dazzling clarity for a speaker at this price. The hollowness I’d heard in the Sade recording went away, but the spacious soundstaging of the original setup remained, as did the image solidity.

The only problem I couldn’t completely overcome was the chestiness in the lower midrange, which, once the 684 S2s were solidly spiked, was less obvious at quiet to normal listening levels, but still crept in when I played the music pretty loud. I’ve come to suspect that this is usually caused by an emphasis in the 200-300Hz range, though that’s just a guess. Whatever the cause, this was the 684 S2’s main weakness. You’ll need to listen to them with familiar music to see if it bothers you.


Other than that, I was impressed by what I heard, and found the B&W 684 S2 competitive with other models I know at or near its price. Although I liked the 684 S2’s overall tonal balance, it wasn’t as neutral a balance as those of, say, PSB’s Imagine T ($2200/pair) and KEF’s R500 ($2600/pair), which are similarly sized but more expensive floorstanders (I reviewed the KEFs, and have listened to the PSBs on many occasions), while still sounding very natural and quite involving. I also admired the fullness and depth of the 684 S2’s bass, which was certainly quite a bit more full and, ultimately, more satisfying than the bass of most speakers near this price that I’ve heard. Anyway, those speakers have tended to be small, stand-mounted minimonitors, so it’s no surprise that their bass is limited. Cambridge Audio’s Aero 2 ($550/pair), KEF’s LS50 ($1500/pair), and Monitor Audio’s GX50 ($1700/pair) are all quite accomplished-sounding small speakers for their prices, but none of them puts out much bass below 60Hz. And once I had the B&Ws positioned well, I admired their highs, which remained superclean even when I cranked the volume up high. In that regard, I would put the 684 S2’s sound quality up with that of the KEF LS50 and R500, the Monitor GX50, and the PSB Imagine T. B&W’s 680-series tweeter is that sweet.


With the 684 S2, Bowers & Wilkins has, true to form, shown that they still know how to produce products with excellent build quality, superb styling, and topnotch packaging. Absolutely no complaints there; in fact, I wish all companies could present their products as well as B&W does. However, the 684 S2s sounded a bit different from what I expected, and it took a bit of tweaking to get that sound to my liking. That done, I was rewarded with a spacious soundstage with very precise imaging; full, deep bass that belied the speaker’s modest driver complement and small cabinet size; a smooth midband; and crystal-clear highs that compared well with those of speakers costing quite a bit more. There was a downside — a chestiness in the lower midrange that was aggravated by certain tracks I used, particularly when played at high volumes. I was able to ameliorate this with tweaking, but couldn’t get rid of it entirely.

All told, B&W offers high value with the 684 S2 — the reason shoppers have long gravitated toward the company’s various 600 series. But I recommend that prospective buyers first listen to this new model with familiar music, to determine if it’s the right speaker for them.

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Marantz HD-DAC1 Review

Marantz is a company which managed to successfully penetrate the area of home cinema, receivers and modern streamers while preserving audiophile roots and an aura of exclusivity at the same time. It seems that they’ve found a recipe how to balance between the world of modern technologies and this what is proved, classic and desired by the lovers of high-quality sound. If you are interested in the gear from previous ages, and if you like internet profiles with vintage audio, you have surely seen loads of Marantz’s equipment there – beautiful amplifiers, tuners with backlit scales and oscilloscopes, CD players with massive trays and advanced optics, all in metal, wood and glass. No wonder that in times of omnipresent plastic a retro fashion came back, bringing stereo equipment to where it should be.

Many customers have come to realise that listening to music requires just two loudspeakers, not a dozen and three subwoofers. But what happens when we throw the latest chipsets into such a stylish box? Let’s say separate DAC with a few digital inputs and a headphone amplifier. Well, we get something like HD-DAC1 – one of the most expected devices that have seen the light of day in 2014. For the first time we saw the prototype at High End exhibition in Munich and even then it aroused a keen interest from the visitors and journalists from all over the world. Now one of the first produced pieces landed in our hands. Since we received it in the first instance, we had only a week to test it, so we went straight to business. Does the HD-DAC1 sound as good as it looks?


A modern DAC with retro styling. Tell me that’s not perfect…

Design and functionality

About design one can write concisely or at length. Let’s choose first option – the HD-DAC1 looks stunningly beautiful. I do not know if it’s thanks to the retro design or the case itself. I do not know a person, though, who would not like the new Marantz. Moreover, HD-DAC1 refers with its external look but also with its weight and robustness to the models from the golden era of audio equipment. I understood it instantly during taking the amplifier out of the box. With most devices of this type it’s okay to just grab them gently with one hand, and put them on a desk to strip it off wrap and foam. This time I would not make it. And it is even more worth emphasising since HD-DAC1 is essentially a headphone amplifier equipped with a digital-to-analog converter, not a big power amplifier designed to run hi-end loudspeakers. Theoretically it could be a plastic box with a few PCBs and a matchbox-sized transformer inside. But no – here we have a lot more. Not forgetting the case itself with a beautiful captivating front and details like a display contained in a round window or four robust feet, thanks to which the device does not slip even on glass surfaces.

Under that beautiful and massive outer jacket lurks a totally up-to-date device, what can be discovered by looking at the rear panel. First of all, we have here four digital inputs – two optical, one coaxial and one USB type B. Then we get to tne analogue input in a form of a 3.5 mm socket, connector for a remote control (HD-DAC1 has its own remote control) and two beautiful, widely spaced RCA analogue inputs. First output has a constant level, allowing to route the signal for example to an integrated amplifier or a receiver powering loudspeakers, while the second set of sockets gives variable signal output, so the HD-DAC1 can work directly with a power amp or active speakers. It is my guess that a dedicated amplifier, let’s say, HD-AMP1 is in a final phase of testing right now. But it is only my guessing based on what other companies do. At the rear one can find two-pin supply socket and copper screws, which are sort of Marantz’s signature. At the front we have two large knobs – an input selector and volume control. Apart from that we can find only a power switch, a USB type A port, a 6,3 mm headphone output and a button giving us access to a very simple menu. We can for example set three levels of amplification (which will be appreciated by the owners of headphones with a varied need for power), dim or turn off the LCD display and switch the auto-off feature. During the normal operation the display shows us the active input and the sample rate of the signal. Really cool and a very elegant at the same time.

When it comes to the connection and setting-up, such devices can be divided into two categories. The first one is an equipment which after plugging all cables in the right holes is practically fully operational. This is undoubtedly awesome but usually does not let us use all the DAC’s merits to the full playback of hi-res files. Devices requiring drivers installation and a few clicks to set up everything belong to the second category. For sure it calls for patience but allows to get much better results. HD-DAC1 should be placed in the second category. After plugging a USB cable into a computer, we will see only a message informing us about device installation failure. In order to do so, we have to download the drivers from the manufacturer’s website. Since we were one of the first people to test the new Marantz, drivers weren’t available yet. However, a distributor contacted the company and received an answer that we can download and install drivers for the NA-11S1 model. By the way, it is very interesting that we were recommended the usage of software for a streamer that costs three times as much as the reviewed device. Could their DAC section and the digital outputs be similar? All in all, it reflects well on the quality of the used parts.

I advise to carry out the software installation and device configuration according to comprehensive manuals published as PC Audio Whitepaper on the manufacturer’s website. I am not going to go into details but many varied parameters can be set here, including ASIO and WASAPI. There are screens describing the right setting for software like jRiver Media Center and Audirvana Player in order to get the best sound results. If you are a real geek, you will have a lot fun with that, but the effect should be worthwhile. You can also choose the third option – to install drivers and straight away go to listening, leaving all the fun with the options for a later time. In such case, HD-DAC1 will be ready to use in a couple of minutes after taking out of the box. Interestingly, in its documents Marantz pays attention to the digital cables’ quality and length, strongly recommending a purchase of solid and well shielded cables. Probably to prevent someone from getting an idea to connect DAC to a computer with a five meter cable from a printer.


Four digital inputs, one analog jack, two outputs with fixed or variable signal level and some control gadgets.

Sound performance

 HD-DAC1 is a very audiophile animal. Since the beginning a few priorities could be identified in its tone. First of all, this DAC tries to get to the ideal of high fidelity as close as possible. We are dealing here with a device which does not sweeten or make you bore, but tells the truth about headphones and recordings, and even goes a few steps further. When you connect it at home, install the drivers and turn something on for a heat-up, you will get a foretaste what one can achieve with this beautiful device. I am sure that combined with good headphones many audiophiles will start falling in love with Marantz, but I recommend to refrain from going into ruptures at that stage and wait till you would have worked a few days on cables and power supply and what is very important for such an advanced converter – software settings. That way, step by step one can get closer to the true picture of their favourite music, and the system, before our own eyes, starts to sound more dynamic, realistic and clear.

The situation was very like during the Hegel’s HD12 test. This DAC is a serious player that requires good complementary gear and will be hard on the recordings made very poorly. Marantz does not torment headphones but for sure shows all their advantages and disadvantages. Using earmuffs for a few dollars we can be sure to get to know more of the former ones. But if you connect even something like Sennheiser Urbanite XL or Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, you surely will enjoy a really good sound. Of course it would be preferable to jump on a hi-end shelf, nevertheless I would recommend to exercise caution during the selection of headphones even if we are going to spent a lot of money on them. Many of the headphones from that price range are geared to improve dynamics and clarity, and these are the features boosted by the HD-DAC1. With Sennheisers HD 700 one can get some kind of a magnifying glass which allows us to scan the recordings to the smallest detail, what in the long run does not suit everybody. But of course that is the magic of headphones – for a relatively small amount of money one can buy a few pairs of good headphones and change them according to the mood or music. With a converter as universal as the HD-DAC1 we are allowed to experiment. If I could imagine a perfect situation, I would pair the Marantz with Sennheisers HD 700 or 800 to scan recordings and something like Beyerdynamics T70 for a quieter, long distance listening.

In Marantz’s tone we can identify something which is well known to the owners of hi-end amplifiers by Arcam. This is some kind of lightness seen also as a quickness of response to impulses across the whole frequency range. It has nothing to do with preserving tonal balance. It is more about the air between the sounds and a sense of freedom. Even in most complicated electronic recordings, which are hard to follow for a human being, HD-DAC1 managed to be very calm. As if it wanted to let us know that it could cope with a tenfold whirl of sound. In its tone nothing was distorted or blurred. Bass strokes have got no influence on the midrange and high-frequency resolution. As if every sound appearing in the headphones had its own signal path. Through this, what’s interesting, music does not appear to take on nervous character, but quite the opposite. Hearing more we can be more relaxed and our brain does not look for sounds that should be there. It does not have to, because they are always there. Even using Beyerdynamics DT 990 PRO, which are neither hi-end headphones nor too expressive in terms of the soundstage, I took them off a few times to check if the loudspeakers standing next to me hadn’t been turned on. For a very long time I have not heard sound so saturated with air and three-dimensional.

When I connected the converter to the large system, the situation was just the same. Its tone reminded me of Primare DAC30 and it’s one of the best converters we had in our editorial office. HD-DAC1 proved itself both as a source connected to Naim XS series system and as a preamplifier working with Primare A60 power amp. Although it was not as good as three times more expensive PRE60, there was still nothing wrong with the sound. Actually, the only limitations to its performance is the quality of complementary equipment, software configuration or accessories such like USB-cables and power cord. Believe me or not, but HD-DAC1 reacts even to a change of a power cable so after a few test I stopped fooling around and plugged in the Cardas Clear Beyond. As far as headphones and software, everything will be up to the happy owner of the device. I believe that a purchaser of a such DAC will know well what to do with it or at least they will want to spent a few minutes to familiarise themselves with the manual and follow the guidelines. Results that can be achieved are worth the trouble.


Fot that kind of money, this looks like pure perfection. Even the transformer is hidden under a metal cover. Good work!

Build quality and technical parameters

Since the moment of taking Marantz out of the box it was known that we are dealing with a tough device but when you look under the hood you will be fully convinced about it. It is not so simple because getting to the inside demands real cunning and precision. The operation should start at the rear with unscrewing three copper screws holding the top cover. But it will not budge, so next we will have to remove the sides. Each of that shining panels is held in place by black screws which can be accessed by turning the converter upside down. We gently pull the little sides and push them into the direction of the front panel. They should elegantly click and show four additional screws holding the top in place. It is enough to push it back and gently raise and voila – we have Marantz’s insides handed on the plate. Well, not completely… The inside is filled to the brim with electronics. The PCBs are stacked vertically, horizontally and as you wish. Since a heavy transformer enclosed in a shielding can and a bank of capacitors are responsible for a power supply everything looks like a mariage between a good audiophile converter and an awesome receiver. Everything, of course, in a miniaturised version. The volume control is operated only by an analogue, motorised, blue Alps potentiometer. The CS4398 chipset is the heart of the converter, allowing it to handle 24 bit/192 kHz and DSD 2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz signals. The DAC is equipped with a jitter reducing system and double clock to increase the precision of playback. Thanks to the HDAM-SA2 modules the device has enough energy reserve to control the headphones with an impedance exceeding 600 ohms. If you use headphones measuring about 32 ohms in impedance, you are likely to get something like 800 mW of pure power. And this is a lot.

System configuration

Naim CD5 XS, Cardas Clear Light, Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, Sennheiser Urbanite XL, Jabra Revo, Beyerdynamic T70, B&W P5, Sennheiser HD 700, Audeze LCD-XC, Enerr AC Point One, Enerr Holograph, Cardas Clear Beyond, Ostoja T1.


Remote control for those who want to use the HD-DAC1 as a preamplifier as well.


Looking at Marantz one can have an impression that Japanese engineers designed a beautiful casing and then implanted a couple of elements from other devices. After a few days of listening I got an impression that the HD-DAC1 was meant to be something more from the beginning – an awesome headphone amplifier equipped with a hi-end converter and pre-amp, opening the way to build a fully fledged system. Price? Let me put it bluntly – looking at the pictures, parameters and equipment I was sure that Marantz will cost around €1500. At €799 it’s a bargain that would be foolish not to seize.


Technical data

Digital inputs: 2 x optical, coaxial, USB B, USB A

Analogue inputs: 3,5 mm

Analogue outputs: RCA (fixed), RCA (variable)

Headphone out: 6,3 mm

Frequency response: 2 Hz – 20 kH

S/N ratio: 106 dB

THD: <0.0012%

Dimensions (H/W/D): 9/25/29 cm

Weight: 5 kg

Price: €799

Manufacturer: Marantz

Editor’s rating

Overall                        9.2

Sound                          8

Functionality                9

Design                         10

Quality                         9

Price                            10

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Google Chromecast Audio Review

Google turns its hand to music streaming, with predictably impressive results

Our Verdict

Google breathes new (online) life into your old hi-fi


Brings online streaming to offline devices

Easy to use

Lovely design


No multi-room audio yet

Google knows a thing or two about streaming. You only have to look at the success of the Chromecast, which is now in its second generation. Now the company is turning its expertise to music streaming.

Meet the Google Chromecast Audio, designed to bring wireless streaming to your offline speakers and amplifiers.



What you get is a small disc the size of a Jaffa Cake. At first glance it is almost identical to the new ‘regular’ Chromecast, but the Chromecast Audio has tiny circular grooves to evoke the image of vinyl records – a bold statement of intent to supplant the black stuff, maybe?

There are two hard-wire connections: a microUSB port used purely for power, with a wall adapter included in the box, and a hybrid 3.5mm/digital optical output.

The premise here is essentially the same as the other Chromecasts. The device connects to your wi-fi network, streams directly from the internet and is controlled by smartphones, tablets and computers.

A key difference here is that the Chromecast Audio does not plug into an HDMI slot on the back of your TV, instead it plugs into your audio inputs: 3.5mm (cable included), RCA and optical.

That means you can bring web-based music to a host of existing but offline devices: active speakers, soundbars and integrated amplifiers, for example. It’s a neat way to expand the capabilities of your ‘dumb’ hi-fi system.


So where does the music come from? You’ll need a Cast-compatible app. There are many free and subscription options including Spotify, Deezer, Rdio, TuneIn Radio, NPR and Google Play Music. BBC Radio iPlayer is promised for the near future.

Sadly there’s no word on Tidal yet, but as for Apple Music, we’d eat our hefty Awards 2015 magazine if it ever cooperates. Apps aside, you can play or ‘mirror’ directly from any computer running a Chrome browser.

Ease of use


Setting up is a breeze. You use the excellent Chromecast app to speak to the Chromecast Audio, then tell it to log into your home’s wi-fi. The most complicated thing here is deciding on what to name your new toy. We settled on ‘Tiny Dancer’.

The Chromecast app is no longer just a set-up portal either. Now it also serves as a discovery tool: it lists all of the apps you have that are Cast-compatible, with the option to download others. It also lets you manage your network connection settings and, more importantly, your sound settings.

There is a ‘guest mode’, which lets other people control and play music on the Chromecast Audio without joining your home’s wi-fi. According to Google, this could lead to all manner of DJ battles in your living room.


There will be a multi-room mode, for those with several Chromecast Audio devices dotted around the house. Assuming you already have speakers in different rooms, attaching this little £30 dongle would be a cheap way to get them online and take the fight to the likes of Sonos.

The feature is not fully ready yet, but Google promises it will be made available with a future software update.

We connected our single unit to a number of devices: a stereo amp in a full hi-fi system, a micro system, a portable speaker and even a pair of headphones. They all worked flawlessly, with quick setup and a stable connection. We were listening within minutes, and changing tracks on our smartphone was as responsive as doing so on a physical remote control.

The Chromecast Audio’s wi-fi (802.11ac, 2.4 GHz/5 GHz) has a good range, thanks apparently to multiple internal antennae, but don’t expect it to work where you don’t normally get a signal. No wine cellars, then, but your garden or garage may be all right



Before you do any listening, we’d advise a quick dip into the settings. Activate the option for ‘high dynamic range’. Switched off by default, this stops the Chromecast Audio from really singing. If your set-up is half decent, it will really benefit from leaving it on.

How the Chromecast Audio sounds depends on what device you use it on and what service you’ve chosen. As a general rule, we’d say that you get a performance not far short of what you get when physically plugging in a device.

We took an old Denon D-M30 for a spin with both Chromecast Audio and a plugged-in LG G4, and the performance was broadly of a similar level.


Next we tried the Chromecast Audio with a B&W T7 Bluetooth speaker. That is somewhat redundant given the speaker’s built-in wireless capabilities, but Google is keen to stress that wi-fi has a huge advantage over Bluetooth, namely less compression.

The performance certainly reflects that assertion: the Chromecast Audio’s wi-fi sound offered noticeably greater detail and dynamism than we got over Bluetooth. Connecting over wi-fi also means your music doesn’t get interrupted by the sound of text messages and alerts, as it does when using Bluetooth.

The Chromecast Audio also saves you battery power, as your smartphone doesn’t actually handle any data.

Google has been tight-lipped about the technical specifics, but we do know the bitrates are dictated by what individual apps can do. That means Spotify, for example, has a maximum quality of 320kbps


The Chromecast Audio is a simple and slick device with one goal in mind: to bring wireless music streaming to systems that may be in need of updating, without having to replace all your existing kit. Google has definitely achieved that particular objective.

We are big fans of the original Google Chromecast, and we’re hugely excited to see that bag of streaming tricks being used for music.

In a world increasingly defined by the latest products, it is great to see something that rewards you for holding on to your existing equipment.

Our Rating: 5 Star


Bowers & Wilkins P5 Headphones review


They’re made by Bowers & Wilkins, of Zeppelin and Zeppelin Mini fame, so even before seeing them you expect the B&W P5 headphones to be something special. They’re also the company’s first foray into headphone manufacture, and though they’re a ‘Made for iPod’ and ‘Works with iPhone’ product, it doesn’t put a damper on our expectations ever since going ears-on with a pair at CES in January.


The clues are all there even before looking at the headphones themselves. For a start, Bowers & Wilkins are asking £250 for a pair of P5s, which is hardly pocket change. It’s a price point full of competition, too, be it from IEMs such as the Grado GR8 and SE530, or ‘real’ headphones of the Denon AH-D2000 or Grado SR325 variety.


And with all that in mind it’s still hard to look at the P5s and not think: “why yes, that is what £250-worth of audio equipment should look like. Everything that isn’t metal is leather. And not faux leather, but actual leather made from a sheep previously resident in New Zealand – vegans and the devoutly vegetarian will have to avoid these.

The choice of materials isn’t purely aesthetic. While the design is undeniably pleasing to look at, the use of metal for the headband and rear of the ear-cups provides durability that’s essential in a set of headphones that will be carried with your iPhone or iPod (or indeed any device with a headphone output). Moreover, while the sheep may have a thing or two to say about its use, it’s undeniable that leather is a beautifully comfortable material. It’s tactile in a way that synthetic materials simply cannot replicate – try though they might.


This beauty isn’t skin deep. The P5 headphones’ impeccable design extends inwards with details such as memory foam padding under the ear-cups’ leather skin. As a result, wearing the P5s is more akin to giving your ears a warm, leather-bound hug than anything else.

I’ve been wearing the P5s almost permanently for several days now, and I’ve yet to find them uncomfortable. Furthermore, I’ve had no problems with overheating despite the closed-back design and the large amount of leather pressing on my ears – an issue I’ve had with other headphones. Yes, Teufel AC 9050 PH, I’m talking about you.


Particularly inspired is the decision to make the ear cups detachable, held in place magnetically on small nibs. Should you damage one, or simply wear it out from over-use, you’ll only have to replace the cup itself – a cheaper proposition than buying a new pair of headphones.

Removing these cups also reveals another trick of the B&W P5 headphones. Under the right-hand cup you’ll find a serial number, which isn’t exactly exciting. Under the left-hand cup, however, is a 2.5mm jack, into which the headphones’ cable plugs. Two cables are provided with the P5 headphones. One has, as you’d expect, an in-line remote for use with your iPhone, iPod or even a Mac for that matter, with the second, predictably, eschewing any controls.


This might seem like an unnecessary addition, but it’s indicative of the thought that’s been put into creating these headphones. Plus, some MP3 players won’t work with headphones that also have a microphone built-in, with which the remote-less cable should work. So there!

As with so many recent Apple-orientated products the remote will only work fully with newer devices. As such, while the volume and play/pause control worked with my iPhone 3G, the microphone did not. I was able to use it to deliver Voice Control commands to my 64GB iPod touch, although why I would want to, except in the interests of testing, I cannot fathom.


It’s also worth mentioning that the cabling is quite thin, and feels by far the weakest point in the P5’s design. It’s not going to fall apart in your hands, but it does seem something of a let down when the attention to detail is so good in every other respect. There’s even a 3.5mm to 6.25mm adaptor thrown in, alongside a fabric carrying case, to round out the overall package.


Best of all, because the P5’s are so very comfortable, you tend to forget you’re wearing them and find yourself not listening to music through a pair of headphones, but instead listening just to your music. I should add here, too, that the closed-back design gives a reasonable level of noise isolation. These factors, as anyone with a modicum of knowledge will tell you, is exactly what you want from a good pair of headphones.

I’ve had plenty of time to establish that neither my iPhone nor my iPod touch is a particularly good source device for music. Apple may well provide a lossless codec, but even when using high quality IEMs such as the Grado GR8 I’d be kidding myself if I could say for certain that the difference between ALAC and a well-encoded 320kbps MP3 is always discernible. And yet, somehow, the B&W P5s make my iPod touch sound far better than it has any right to.

The low end is prominent, but without becoming overwhelming, which lends these headphones well to the likes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 or Mozart’s Requiem. Woodwinds and strings in particular have excellent, reverberating warmth of tone. You might argue that the bass is too strong, but at best that would be finicky verging on just plain wrong.


There’s superb mid-range clarity as well, with vocals ringing out particularly clearly and an impressive sense of separation between instruments. Topping this off is a crisp, refined high end and a spatial soundstage that never feels crowded. Furthermore, even at high listening volumes the P5’s aren’t fatiguing on the ears and there’s no trace of distortion.


What the high quality of the P5s mostly did, as do so many other high end IEMs and headphones, is remind you just how awful a source device an iPod touch or iPhone actually is. But make no mistake, if I had £250 to spend on a pair of headphones for my iPhone, it would be these I’d buy.



There’s no escaping the old maxim of garbage in garbage out, but the Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones make an iPod sound better than you have any right to expect, and for that they have to be applauded. However, they can only do so much with a substandard input and I can only hope that a set of proper audiophile grade headphones – or even IEMs – will find their way out of Bowers & Wilkins’ labs soon enough.

Overall Score               4 – 1/2 Stars

 Scores in Detail

 Value                            9

Sound Quality               9


Where to buy Bowers & Wilkins:


Sony MDR-7506 Headphones Review



THE GOOD Sony’s MDR-7506 closed-back, full-size headphones click with all music genres and are comfortable to wear for hours at a time. They sound excellent for their relatively modest price point.

THE BAD With a coiled, pro-style cable and lack of an inline remote/microphone, some will find the 7506s less mobile-friendly than more modern headphones.

THE BOTTOM LINE They’ve been around since 1991, but the Sony MDR-7506s are still great sounding — and fitting — headphones for less than $249.00NZD.


Design:             8

Features:          6

Sound:             9

Value:               10

Introduced way back in 1991, the Sony MDR-7506 has long been a favorite headphone of recording engineers and other sound professionals. The origins of its design date even further back, since the MDR-7506 is, in fact, a refresh of the Sony MDR-V6 that rolled out in 1985. Both models were designed for the pro market, but remain hugely popular with consumers.

While the two headphones have the same design and are very comfortable, they don’t sound identical. Both offer very well-balanced sound and excellent clarity for their modest price points — and both are great overall values. But the V6 makes a little more bass and sounds more laid-back and mellower while the 7506 is leaner with a more accentuated treble range, which makes it little crisper and livelier.

Design and features

Since the MDR-7506 has been in the Sony lineup for over 20 years, you don’t have to make any guesses about the design’s long-term durability. Some users claim the ear pads don’t last more than a few years, but the pads are user-replaceable and cost just $49.99NZD a pair.


The MDR-7506 looks nearly identical the MDR-V6.

That durability concern is hardly unique to the MDR-7506. Most similarly priced headphones’ pads won’t be around for the long haul, or the headphones will crap out long before the ear pads disintegrate. Some MDR-7506 owners noted the hinges break, and again, that’s not an uncommon malady for $249.00NZD headphones. But most owners have no complaints.

The headphones weigh 8 ounces, which is slightly lighter than average for a full-size headphone. The mostly plastic design doesn’t feel at all flimsy, and it helps that the outer ear cups are metal. Inside, you’ll find 40mm drivers, and the headphones have a 63-ohm rated impedance.


The headphones are very comfortable, and their earpads are replaceable.

The racetrack-shaped ear pads and headband aren’t as thickly padded as those of many new headphones, but since head-clamping pressure is moderate I found them comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. That should be the case for all headphones, and it’s downright essential for one designed for pro use.

The closed-back MDR-7506 blocks a good amount of external noise, and no one nearby will hear much sound escaping this headphone. Stretched out to the max, the coiled cable is about 10 feet long, and it’s permanently attached to the left ear cup.


The headphones’ lengthy — and somewhat weighty — coiled cord makes 7505s less ideally suited to mobile use.

The extralong cable lacks a mic or remote, so the MDR-7506 may not be ideal for use with phones or portable music players. The cable is terminated with a gold-plated 3.5mm plug; a screw-on 6.3mm adapter plug is included for use with home or pro gear.

If you’re looking for differences between this model and the MDR-V6, that model has a nickel-plated 3.5mm plug and 6.3mm adapter. Also, the MDR-V6’s connector housing is matte silver, while the MDR-7506’s is matte black.

I like that the MDR-7506’s “L” and “R” markings are color-coded and easy to see in dim light. A no-frills black vinyl carrying bag is included. The headphone comes with a 90-day warranty.



Listen to the MDR-7506 and you’ll know why it’s remained in the Sony lineup for 22 years. Nothing about the sound is out-of-place: the bass-midrange-treble balance is accurate, and every music genre sounds great. It’s no wonder so many professionals have relied on the MDR-7506 to record and mix music, radio, movies, and TV shows. Audiophiles on a tight budget will find a lot to love about this headphone.

The MDR-7506 sounded more open and less “canned” than the Noontec Zoro on-ear headphones. Switching between the two, the MDR-7506’s stereo imaging was broader, less stuck inside my head, and the Sony was more comfortable and provided better isolation from external noise. The Zoro’s treble detail is quite nice, but the MDR-7506 sounded more natural overall. The one area where the Zoro definitively trounced the MDR-7506 was volume capability; it could play a lot louder on my iPod Classic.


The included carrying pouch.

Impressed as I was with the MDR-7506, it made sense to next pit one of my favorite $300NZD headphones, the Audio Technica ATH M50, against the MDR-7506. The M50’s sound is richer and weightier in tonal balance. The MDR-7506 is thinner and brighter, which I didn’t like as much. The M50 is the better headphone, but it does cost nearly twice as much. (If you can afford it, it’s worth stepping up.)

Comparing the MDR-7506 with the MDR-V6 was interesting; anyone who claims these two lookalikes sound the same should have their hearing tested. First, the MDR-V6 makes more and fuller bass while MDR-7506 is leaner — vocals sound more immediate, and the treble range is accentuated. As noted, the MDR-V6 is comparatively laid-back and mellower, while the MDR-7506 crisper and livelier.


Aside from the fact that the MDR-7506 and the MDR-V6 have some drawbacks for mobile use — namely the long, coiled cord and lack of an integrated microphone for cell-phone calls — both headphones have aged extremely well and I’m glad Sony has let them be.

As noted, while the two models look nearly identical, they don’t sound identical. I can’t say they’re day-and-night opposites — the two headphones share a similar overall sound — but the differences are significant, so it’s just a matter of picking the one that matches your taste. I’d go for the MDR-V6 — I highly recommend it — but CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy, who edited this review, preferred the MDR-7506. And so did CNET editor Matthew Moskovciak.

In other words, these are two excellent headphones that offer distinct sonic differences. It’s less about which one is “better” and more about which sound you prefer. But if you value sound quality and comfort, both of these should be at the top of your list when you’re shopping for headphones under $250.00NZD

Where to buy Sony:

Denon DL-110 Cartridge Product Review

While delving through my stash of phono cartridges came across this Denon DL 110 high output phono cartridge. Can’t remember where this came from, but was new in box and never open. Oh well, remember fellow audiogon member Ed Kobesky had done a review on its big brother the Denon DL 160 and found that I agreed with him completely on the DL 160.

Denon Cartridge

Have owned many Denons in the past 47 years in the hobby such as the 103,103D,103S,103R as well as the DL160 and now the DL 110. It is very hard to fault the overall Denon line of phono cartridges and when it comes to price/performance ratio, nothing else even comes close to the sonic superioirty of the Denon line up. And that has held true for well over 30 years.

Denon DL-110 Item Display Image

With what we have in analog turntables and software today,with the vast majority of the used LPs to me it just doesn’t make sense to spend tons of dollars in this medium,for it is all limited to the source material that is available.

Some of the so called new 180 gram and 200 gram pressings are worse in quality than finding a pristine or good used example from years gone by. There have been very few so called audiophile pressings that are worth the money to buy and some are just horrid sonically. Beware of the new audiophile pressings most are not worth the money spent on them.


Same with the hardware, turntables over $1,000.00 generally won’t perform any better than a $500.00 table and much can be said of phono cartridges as well. In my opinion spending more than $400.00 in a phono cartridge is sheer lunacy. But it is your money and do spend it as you wish and remember the words of PT Barnum in doing so.


By any standard one would care to judge the venerable Denon DL 110 Moving Coil cartridge,one must agree that for its price point, this is a stellar phono cartridge,that his stood the test of time and continues to impress to this day. If memory serves me correct these broke onto the market in 1982 or so at about $125.00 retail for the DL 110 and now some 25 years later still in production and the retail price has gone up by $15.00 dollars to $140.00. Now thats value par excellence.


But none of the above would matter, if the DL 110 did not deliver the music. It does and has that wonderful Denon signature. The Denon DL 110 has a way of getting into the grooves and extracting the information contained therein with total authority. And when playing used vinyl there is hardly a better performer than the Denon DL 110, it will play vintage vinyl with aplomb, where other and more expensive phono cartridges just give up. Due to its diamond shape surface noise is all but non-existent. As well as several albums I have played that I thought had surface noise,when played by the Denon DL 110, that noise was gone!

Listed below are some of the Albums I used to audition or more precise to re-audition with the Denon DL 110.

Albums Are:

Bob James – Hands Down (Columbia FC 38067)

Hiroshima – Self Titled – (Arista MFSL1-525)

John Coltrane – Blue Train – (Blue Note BST 81577)

Wes Montgomery – Bumpin’ – (Verve V6-8625)

Rickie Lee Jones – Self Titled – (Warner BSK 3296)

Wynton Marsalis – Live Blues Alley – (Columbia PC2-40675)

Eric Gale – Forecast – (KUDU Records KU 11)(CTI Records)

Kenny Burrell & Grover Washington Jr – (Blue Note BT 85106)

Earl Klugh – Finger Painting – (Blue Note MFSL 1-025)

Larry Carlton – Friends – (Warner 23834-1)

Sadao Watanabe – Autumn Blow – (Inner City IC 6064

Doobie Brothers – Minute by Minute – (Warner BSK 3193)

Santana – Zebop – (Columbia FC37158)

Pat Metheny Group – American Garage – (ECM 1-1155)

Frederick Fennel – Cleveland Symphonic Winds – (Telarc 5038)

A few others were used as well, but this gives you the idea of the music used.

I am not going to go into a long narrative and blow by blow description of each album and the resulting findings. But make no mistake the Denon DL 110 played all the above with a verve to total musicality. Balance,tonality,attack,decay, were spot on. Great frequecy response and channel separation to die for.

Here is a product that truly delivers well over its price range and how Denon can keep producing this stellar performer for $140.00 is a mystery to me. But I am certainly glad that they can.

Specs Below:

Denon DL-110 Specifications:

Output: 1.6mV

Stylus: Special Elliptical Solid Diamond

Cantilever: Aluminum

Frequency Range: 20 to 45,000 Hz

Tracking Force: 1.5-2.1g

Weight: 4.8g

Found that in my rig a setting of 2 grams tracking force with 2 grams anti skate worked just fine and yielded the best results.

In phono cartridges of today, one can do far worse in not picking the Denon DL 110. In my opinion having been around as long as I have in the hobby, this is an Icon product, that not only has withstood the test of time, but continues to do so today.

So when your ready to jump off the snob bandwagon and start to really enjoy the music again, the Denon DL 110 or Denon DL 160 will be waiting for you. After all in the long run this hobby is about the music and not the gear and paranoia that surrounds this hobby.


My thanks to Ed Kobesky for his review on the Denon DL 160 which prompted this review on the Denon DL 110. If it had not been for that review may have put the DL 110 up for sale, instead of using the DL 110 and would have missed a very musical experience. This has been a very pleasant surprise and reaquaintance with the Denon DL 110. This is one cartridge I will just wear out, then get another DL 110.

Where to buy Denon:

Ultrasone Signature DJ Headphones Product Review


I can’t fault these headphones. As with all headphones, things like styling and fit are a personal thing, but the build quality, comfort and sound quality are unsurpassed for a DJ design. The sound has subtleties that you simply don’t get with cheaper headphones (and that means basically all other DJ headphones)! So these are really for use way beyond the DJ booth. If you’re considering one pair of headphones for production, DJing, and general use, and can’t afford to drop any balls as far as sound quality goes in any of these areas, the Ultrasone Signature DJs should be right up there on your list.


To the upper echelons of DJ headphones, where luxury models breathe the rarefied air and look down on the mid-range masses and the lower-end wannabes, has been added a new design: the Ultrasone Signature DJ. We’ve tested two pairs of Ultrasone headphones before (see our Ultrasone DJ1 review and our Ultrasone DJ1 Pro review), but these move it up to another level entirely.


In the box & first impressions:

Inside the rather large box is an equally large hard case in black with a white zip, bearing a smart “Signature” metal faceplate and with the “Ultrasone DJ” wording embossed. The plastic-moulded, velvet-effect inside contains cutouts for the headphones themselves and the supplied leads. There’s a standard 3m DJ headphones coiled cable with a gold-plated 1/4″ TRS plug, and a 1.5m braided, plastic-covered straight lead with an iPhone-compatible remote control / microphone (one button for the usual mute, voice control, call answering, transport etc controls, but no volume control). Both leads are of course detachable and interchangeable, and they screw into the headphones to stop them begin accidentally yanked out. There’s also the usual registration card and instructions.

The headphones themselves are closer in design to the Ultrasone DJ1 rather than the Ultrasone DJ1 Pro, which makes sense to me; the DJ1 is actually a more conventional design for DJs whereas the DJ1 Pro are kind of a dual-purpose model, good for studio use as well as DJing but maybe a bit big and loose to be the ideal DJ headphone.


However, whereas the DJ1 – excellent headphone though it is – is utilitarian (cable is not detachable, carry bag is insubstantial and offers little real protection, leather quality on headband and earcups is standard), none of these things can be said for the Signature DJ, which exhibits pure luxury in all of these areas.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that the basic construction of both is the same. In the same way that, say, Denon doesn’t make cheap DJ controllers, Ultrasone simply doesn’t make cheap headphones – any model is going to last you a long time.

However, the Signature DJ headphones do, as mentioned, take luxury to another level. They’re in two-tone white and black with silver decal, a look which may or may not be to your taste. But the second you pick them up you know they’ve had some money spent on them, before we ever get to the sound quality.

To start with, the leather is the softest I’ve ever felt – anywhere. Apparently it’s Ethiopian sheepskin, and has been chosen because it can absorb sweat without the leather corroding or becoming porous. Good news for small, sweaty clubs then. The full length of the headband is also padded and stitched up with the same leather.

Next, the earcups are backed with glass, again adding to the feel of quality when you pick them up, in the same way an iPhone feels nice when you pick it up. Finally, each set is individually numbered on the left headband coupling. Apart from that undeniable luxury, though, they’re what you’d expect from DJ ‘phones – adjustable, padded headband; strong couplings; “Y” attachment to deep, closed-back cups, which swivel (180 degrees vertically, 90 degrees horizontally forward).


In Use:

To start with, the Ultrasone Signature DJ headphones are comfortable to wear, at least for this type of headphone. They have brilliant acoustic insulation – mainly due to the fact that they hold quite tightly on your ears (similar to the DJ1s, and tighter than the DJ1 Pro). But comfort is not substantially compromised, which is due to the quality of the leather. Thus they achieve a good balance between comfort and acoustic isolation.

I am a fan of Ultrasone’s S-Logic technology, which all of its headphones have. The idea is that the drivers are positioned so the sound isn’t pumped directly into the ear, but fed naturally through the outer ear’s contours, for more “space” and a truer sound. I have no idea exactly how this works or even if I’ve described it hugely well, but stereo staging and overall realism are wonderful with all Ultrasone headphones, and that continues with these.

However, these take it all a stage further. They have a bassier frequency response (it’s claimed down to 5Hz which is crazy!), and the 50mm drivers deliver a blistering 115dB sound level. You wouldn’t want to listen to music that loud, but what it means it that they’re extremely sensitive, so deliver distortion free music at any realistic volume.


I tested them with two set-ups. Firstly, I used them on the Pioneer DDJ-SX controller for Serato DJ, which has a good 24-bit audio interface in it. The WAV of “Garden” by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (why can’t I get that song out of my head?) sounded the best I’ve ever heard it – bassy, clean, well staged, with massive presence and a real thump on the kick and bleeps. They’re extremely sensitive, so deliver distortion free music at any realistic volume.

Secondly, I plugged my iPhone in and played a 256kbps AAC – the Breakbot remix of Royksopp’s “Happy Up Here”. It sounded warmer, fuller and more engaging than I am used to hearing from the iPhone Music app, and the volume available to me was noticeably more than with other headphones. It also felt good having the background noise so effectively removed – I’m more used to my iPhone battling over the ambient sonics, something anyone who listens to music on the move will understand.

For DJing, they take a little getting used to when putting them on and taking them off, as they’re quite tight. You learn to pull them over your ears and swivel the earcups slightly forward as you release them onto your head. Once there, they hold firm. Of course, DJs spend a lot of time with their headphones around their necks, and these are big headphones, but because the earcups have that ready swivel vertically, once they’re round your neck the earcups naturally swivel downwards out of the way, so you don’t feel like you’ve got a neck brace on.


I can’t fault these headphones. As with all headphones, things like styling and fit are a personal thing, but the build quality, comfort and sound quality are unsurpassed for a DJ design.

The sound has subtleties that you simply don’t get with cheaper headphones (and that means basically all other DJ headphones)! So these are really for use way beyond the DJ booth. I do believe the S-Logic technology delivers the best stereo imagery of any headphone, but aside from that, it’s the clarity that stands out the most – bass that’s deep but not boomy or muddy, slightly muted mids (as befits a DJ headphone) but that are still clear, and crystal highs, with no harshness but no tail-off either.

If you’re considering one pair of headphones for production, DJing, and general use, and can’t afford to drop any balls as far as sound quality goes in any of these areas, the Ultrasone Signature DJs should be right up there on your list. The only issue with them would be that because they’re designed for DJing, the grip on your head is tight. Despite the lovely leather, I suspect after a few hours you’ll start to feel that.

Of course, they’re at a price that to most people will seem crazy expensive. That’s why I mentioned earlier on that their basic design shares much in common with much cheaper Ultrasone models, that still give you S-Logic and class-leading sound quality – so the choice is there.

But if you’re a pro DJ or aspiring to be one, who DJs five nights a week, who produces, who sorts his or her music out on the plane between gigs, and unwinds watching movies late at night with your ‘cans on – well, you may have your headphones on for many hours every single day.

In this situation you’ll very quickly learn the difference between very good and excellent, in all areas, and you’ll want something that is going to last you a long time and give you the best experience possible for all of that time. And if that’s important to you, and music is your life, not just your hobby – well, the Ultrasone Signature DJs are aimed in your direction.


Review Summary:

I can’t fault these headphones. As with all headphones, things like styling and fit are a personal thing, but the build quality, comfort and sound quality are unsurpassed for a DJ design. The sound has subtleties that you simply don’t get with cheaper headphones (and that means basically all other DJ headphones)! So these are really for use way beyond the DJ booth. If you’re considering one pair of headphones for production, DJing, and general use, and can’t afford to drop any balls as far as sound quality goes in any of these areas, the Ultrasone Signature DJs should be right up there on your list.

Rating: 5 Star

From: Ultrasone

Price NZD: $1795.00