ROUND 2: HM-801 VS. PC
For my last test, the comparison was with the HM-801 versus the headphone output of my computer. Plugging into the HM-801's USB DAC activated a "USB DAC" screen with a laptop icon, with a thin sliver line connected to what looked to be a mouse but was presumably the cartoon avatar of the 801. Don't forget to flip the switches on the side of the 801 to USB and DAC.
Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" is a favorite, not least for its awesomeness, but also for its beautiful recording. The headphone output of the PC mushed the usually crystalline guitar. It's not that it sounded bad, it just had that subtle harshness that had me reaching to turn it down. The 801 sounded just that bit more realistic. The highs had a more rounded naturalness to them. The soundstage was more open, and there was more dynamic range. Where the iPod-to-801 difference was subtle, the PC-to-801 difference was significant. The HM-801, compared to the PC's headphone output, is just so much more pleasing and relaxing to listen to. Using the same scale as arbitrarily assigned above, the PC was a C-.
When it comes down to it, the HM-801 is unabashedly a niche product that offers some improvement in sound quality over your iPod, most notably in smoother highs and a slightly warmer, tighter bass. This comes at the expense of significantly decreased portability and user friendliness. I love quality audio — but even I would choose the convenience of an iPod in most circumstances.
The 801 makes a case for itself if you’re an audiophile who perhaps commutes on a train, and also wants access to high-quality audio at work. The immense storage space (presuming multiple SD cards) and the ability to function as a USB DAC means that for some, the HM-801’s cost and size will come in second and third to sound. If you listen to a lot of music over headphones from your computer's headphone jack, you should definitely check out this upgrade.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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