The advent of digital audio seems to have meant a downgrading not just in the quality of the audio file, but in the expectations of those listening to it. Maybe that’s why I’ve asked Dr. Fang Bian, Founder and CEO of HFIMAN Corporation, to meet me at Mel’s Drive-In restaurant in SoCal, CA. Amidst a nostalgia where record players were once king, and where juke-box controls sit on the walls of booths quietly until some coins are dropped in, what better place to talk about how digital audio’s replaced analog. Or how it now sounds so bad in that ubiquitous player that pretty much everyone uses, the portable digital audio player.
Now Apple wasn’t the first to create a MP3 player (remember Creative Labs, anyone?), but they sure did push it into the forefront of the consumer’s mind. But along with the positives came the negatives: weak digital to analog converters that pretty much wreaked audio quality when compared to the original content being played through an amplifier and a pair of big, quality stereo speakers. Of course Apple hedged their bets by making their also-lousy earbuds a mainstay for those listening. The results have been a “dumbing” down of what is expected when playing tunes from a portable player, be it Apple or otherwise now.
That’s why I’m waiting for Dr. Bian at Mel’s — because his still-being-developed portable audio player is supposed to remedy all that. He comes in and sits down, we order and he pulls out a plastic box that looks a lot like a retro-type iPod, with controls on the front and side, a LCD screen and a knurled volume control indented at the top front (shades of toy walkie-talkie communicators from the 60’s). He says it’s called the HM-901, and what I’m looking at is not just another generation kick in the pants of models they’ve made before, but a top-end, take-no-prisoner’s portable audio system; one where what’s inside counts for a whole lot more than any cosmetic styling. But not having X-ray vision, I check out the weight of the HM-901 (minor), and note the compartment for the removable rechargeable battery on the backside. Dr. Bian points out, as his eyes nervously track the HM-901 as it bounces up and down in my palm, that a large battery is needed in order to power its components both efficiently and correctly.
Now HIFIMAN isn’t a big shop — but the advantage here is that there’s an attention to detail that mass producing tens of thousands of units can’t handle.
So what’s inside the HM-901is made by them and not pulled off some rack. By that I mean the operating system, which they’ve designed, and the inclusion of totally high-end components — for example, the DAC (digital to analog converter) isn’t some cheese, Jack. A USB cable will take care of transferring the digital files from a computer to the player, with the HM-901 handling pretty much any type of audio digital file format out there you’d have access to. We’re talking 240-bit here, not MP3 tinker toys,folks.
But rather than talking about what it’s supposed to sound like, I want to listen to what it sounds like. Dr. Bian gives me the choice of wearing one of their dynamic headphones or going whole-hog with their hoo-ha top end headphones model, which requires an amp to drive it. I go whole-hog, but to be fair, I did try try a “lower priced spread” model later that didn’t need all the extras to convey the sound..
What I found — trying to “taste” the audio on both an emotional as well as clinical level at the same time while the tunes recorded with high-resolution play into my ears: the HM-901 is less of a “portable” and more of a “music system.” I’m listening to orchestration, guitars, vocals — all of which have a “depth” to them that is both immersive and attractive. I’ll leave it to others to flip knobs on audio instrumentation and tell you about the waveform characteristics, me — I now what sounds good and the HM-901sounds good. Really good. Almost painfully so, because I know that you don’t get audiophile excellence for peanuts.
I ask Dr. Bian what is involved in bringing this to fruition. Here’s his response:
Step 1: Idea and blueprint – Fang.
Step 2: Basic research and discussion between Fang and engineers.
Step 3-1: Basic research of software – such as decoding and drivers. UI design.
Step 3-2: Industry design work: Industry design vendor, Fang, structure engineer and electronic engineer team.
Step 3-3: Structure engineer design structure and mold – working with mold venders.
Step 3-4: Demo electronic circuit and board.
Step 4-1: More coding work with improved digital board.
Step 4-2: Making mold.
Step 4-3: Analog board: Sound quality.
Step 5: System assembling 1st and bug locating.
Step 6: Repeat 3-4-5 steps
Step 7: Debugging and finalization.
Serves me right for asking…
Now me, I can’t see tossing a near-$1000 player in my pocket and tooling on foot with a crappy pair of earbuds on — you’ll need to up the game on what conveys the sound to your ears from the HM-901to make using it worthwhile. Heck, use it as part of a home theater system and laugh at those jokers trying to sell you one of those thousand dollar CD players (Dr. Bian says a dock for easier configuring with home systems should be coming soon). You can get spoiled real quick listening to the HM-901 — when I was done, I pulled out my iPhone, plugged in a reasonably high-end pair of earbuds I carry and started a high-rez tune playing. Ir didn’t sound bad –okay, in comparison it sounds really, really bad. Or should I say the HM-901 just sounds really, really good.
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.