Here in the Dungeon, I'm challenged in every way to enjoy good music on any level possible. Almost all my equipment is still packed away in a storage unit awaiting the completion of my new home, and what little bits I've been able to access consists of my computer, a few assorted smallish DACs and headphones. And my best pair of phones were inadvertently boxed and placed in the farthest reaches of a 15-foot by 30-foot unit that is packed like sardines—it's impossible to access any equipment that's in there. A few weeks ago we realized that some of the accoutrements that we'd acquired for the new house had been mistakenly placed in storage, and retrieving them required about a half-day to carefully unpack and repack the first ten feet of the unit to get what was needed by the builder. And all my stereo equipment were among the first things to go into the unit—not that I have any space here to set up anything anyway!
So I've been mostly focusing on equipment that's more headphone-centric, and I've been very lucky to have gotten some really nice review opportunities over the last couple of months. That includes the subject of this review, the HIFIMAN SuperMini Digital Audio Player, which I've had here in the dungeon for a couple of weeks now. I also had the very great pleasure of taking the unit on a couple of relaxation-oriented trips during that period, as well, and so have had a relatively extensive opportunity to explore and enjoy the latest offering from HIFIMAN.
HIFIMAN is a Chinese-based company with a pretty substantial worldwide presence in the area of headphones and digital audio players; while they sell an impressive array of equipment at price points accessible to just about anyone, they're renowned by those "in-the-know" for their cost-no-object headphone designs. They also produce a selection of higher-end digital audio players; the SuperMini represents their first attempt at a "no-frills" and affordable hi-resolution DAP. The SuperMini retails at a very attractive $399 USD.
While the unit contains no internal storage, it does offer a micro-SD slot that will accept a card up to 256GB. Presented in a very solid and stylish milled aluminum case, the unit is sized significantly smaller than most cellphones and will fit in your pants or shirt pocket with ease, barely making you aware of its presence. The control buttons are very ergonomically placed and allow for very comfortable ease of use. The SuperMini ships with a surprisingly good pair of in-ear headphones that are fully balanced; the unit offers a 4.2 volt peak output, and will drive all but the most demanding headphones, including some of HIFIMAN's more esoteric planar models. Standard and balanced headphone jacks are supplied at the base of the unit. And here's the real icing—the SuperMini can give up to 22 hours of uninterrupted playback, while driving just about any headphone—that's gotta be pretty close to best-in-class for a high-resolution DAP. Oh, and the unit employs an advanced OLED display, which probably is also a first for a digital audio player.
The SuperMini will play just about any hi-res music format, including WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, and APE at any resolution, and DSD files via DSF and DFF at 1-bit, 2.8MHz (DSD 64). I can attest that the SuperMini indeed will playback WAV, FLAC, and DSD files absolutely effortlessly, with no pops, ticks, or substantial pauses between formats when changing on the fly—this is the only DAP I've had that didn't at least experience some kind of serious hiccup when changing between bit-rates and formats. Upon receiving the SuperMini, I scrounged around and located a 64GB microSD card that was lingering about the dungeon, inserted it into the unit and formatted it via the internal menu, then proceeded to load as many CD-and-hi-res files onto the card as I could possibly squeeze. After loading the music files onto the SD card, the SuperMini then performs a database update and recovers all the metadata from the files you've just added.
The day after receiving the SuperMini, my wife and I were ready to depart on a weekend trip to Knoxville, which would offer some down-time to allow some early impression listening as well as time for break-in for the SuperMini and supplied accessories. I thoroughly charged the unit via its supplied USB cable hooked to my computer prior to departing. At this point, I encountered what I considered a first serious issue—we'll touch on that in just a bit.
Because of my limited resources here in the dungeon, I only used three sets of headphones during the review: the excellent Audio Technica ATH-AD700s (they belong to my brother), a pair of Monoprice Hi-Fi Lightweights (shockingly good for $15), and the supplied, in-ear phones from HIFIMAN. The SuperMini had no problems driving any of them to ear-splitting levels; because I don't really do an extensive amount of headphone listening, I tried not to listen at what I felt were excessive levels—which would be really easy to do when a unit presents as much voltage drive as the SuperMini.
The Audio Technica 'phones are open-back, over-the-ear models that offer a smooth and balanced presentation of the music; while bass was deep and resounding through them, mids and highs seemed somewhat recessed at reasonable listening levels. But they were totally capable of pumping out the volume, and were perfect for orchestral, rock and metal that needed a little extra oomph. The Monoprice phones are an on-ear design, (see Steve Guttenberg's rave review over at CNET) and offered a bit more balanced sound presentation at all listening levels. They also offer the added bonus of being a sealed-back design, so that you can listen with other noise sources present in the room (wife watching TV) without much intrusion on your listening, while not bothering others (who might also be present) too much either.
But the real surprise came with the supplied HIFIMAN in-ear phones, which are essentially a throw-in—I seriously expected very little from them. I've owned a few pairs of earbuds in the past, but nothing that even really hinted at any kind of audiophile-quality sound. The first thing I noticed with the HIFIMAN phones was that it was very easy to raise the volume to an alarmingly high level, leaving my ears buzzing and ringing. HIFIMAN supplies choices of rubber inserts to tailor the fit of the phones to your ear canal, and by changing those I was able get greatly improved results. Within a very short time, I was able to gauge what was a more appropriate level that created no ill-effects and yet was really very enjoyable. The in-ear phones gave the music more of a sense of immediacy, and for me was much closer to the experience of listening to a good pair of high-efficiency monitor speakers. Within a couple of weeks (the review period thus far), and whether this is due to break-in for both the SuperMini and/or the in-ear phones, the sound through them became much more warm and liquid with very smooth and extended highs. Don't expect subterranean levels of bass, but the bass that is present gives the music the requisite level of realism. As is also my experience with digital audio players, the SuperMini sounds its absolute best when it's been warmed up by an hour or so of continuous use.
I own a lot of hi-res music files, but to be brutally honest, I mostly listen to rips of CDs; most of the music I love either isn't or probably will never be available in any hi-res format. And besides, I kind of like the PS Audio approach—I'd rather spend all my money on hardware that does a much better job of decoding the music I already have than spend a fortune on high-priced music files with limited proof of provenance and that offer me no guarantee of vastly improved sound. And I have no real problems with CDs—I think today's generation of DACs do a really great job of extracting much more music from those silver discs than anything in the past ever has. Unlike the rest of HIFIMAN's line of DAPs, there's not much information on what the DAC complement is inside the SuperMini, and it appears pretty much impossible to have a look under the hood. According to a statement on their website from Dr. Fang Bian, the driving force behind HIFIMAN, the development team for the SuperMini spent over a year with its hardware design and voicing to get the highest sound quality possible—which they claim is very close to that of their flagship DAP, the HM901. He describes the SuperMini's sound as "transparent, warm, sweet, and punchy"—it's all that, and much more!
The SuperMini's microprocessor employs single-thread processing; HIFIMAN claims that this is an essential function that helps give the DAP the kind of sound quality that rivals their more expensive offerings by lowering any jitter to microscopic levels. I like their thought process—I mean, I'm currently trying to minimize the presence of any computer (or computing) in my listening room, whether via software or any means possible. That single-thread processing, however, has led to the biggest point of contention with the marketing of the SuperMini thus far.
I didn't pick up on this right away; I was so exhilarated by the superb sound from the SuperMini that about a week passed by, and it was nothing but blue skies as far as I was concerned. Suddenly, there's this barrage of emails from HIFIMAN regarding their choice of single-thread processing and how they planned to deal with the SuperMini's inability to playback gapless files. Holy shite! I'd been so entranced by playback of song after song, mindlessly skipping from format to format, that I'd essentially neglected to playback anything that required gapless function. I quickly re-read all the recent communications from HIFIMAN, and soon found that I was pretty much more confused as far as what their ultimate intentions actually are.
I even spotted a rather lengthy rant online from John Darko, where he'd canceled his review of the SuperMini exactly for this reason—this got me into action, listening to a barrage of music from The Beatles White Album to Glenn Gould's Bach Goldberg Variations to just about any classical album I own. And the results were the same—I found that the SuperMini was indeed incapable of playback of gapless files—a trait it shares with the Fiio M3 player I reviewed earlier this year. The Fiio can only play CD-quality files, MP3s and the like, but at it's MSRP of about $60 USD—it becomes much easier to forgive and overlook playback omissions like gapless. At roughly one-eighth the cost of the HIFIMAN unit, I don't like it, but I can come much closer to understanding its omission. With a unit like the SuperMini—that plays all sorts of hi-resolution files and sells itself as an affordable alternative to much more expensive DAPs—it's less forgivable.
In fact, it's unconscionable—I'd basically forgotten how very important gapless playback is to my enjoyment of just about any genre of music. And what I want is to hear the performance: 1) as recorded; and 2) in the highest fidelity possible. I can't even begin to get any level of enjoyment from a DAP that truncates both the trailing and leading edge of gapless tracks—even the lowly MP3—also incapable of gapless playback—gives you the track in its entirety, just not without a brief gap in-between. Lack of gapless playback just absolutely kills the experience for me.
After spending almost a week on vacation in South Carolina with the SuperMini, I re-read all the emails and other statements posted on the HIFIMAN site directed at the problem, then I fired off an email to HIFIMAN to try and get to the bottom of the gapless debacle. Initially, they said that gapless wasn't possible due to the very single-thread processing that gives the SuperMini it's remarkable sound in the first place. Then, they issued a statement that a firmware update was available that fixed a lot of the problems that had been reported with the SuperMini, though not specifically mentioning the gapless problem. I performed the firmware update; still no gapless playback. I then received a communication from Ryne at HIFIMAN, letting me know that a firmware update would be issued by the end of the year that would fix the gapless problem. As soon as it's released, I'll do a follow-up to confirm whether the issue has actually been addressed.
As I mentioned earlier, I experienced another, very vexing problem with the SuperMini. When I charged the unit either with the included USB cable or with an appropriate wall charger, the SuperMini would be unresponsive to any attempt on my part to awaken it beyond its splash screen. The only way I could awaken it was by inserting a paperclip into the reset slot. At first, it appeared that the new firmware update had solved the problem, but since, it's back to the paper clip fix. On my trip home from the beach last week, I planned to chill in the back of Uncle Mike's Caddie and enjoy some good tunes (avoiding all gapless, of course). I charged the SuperMini overnight, and, of course, was unable to awaken it prior to heading home. Do you think I could put my hands on a paper clip anywhere? Of course not. I also mentioned this problem in an email to HIFIMAN, but if you're considering getting a SuperMini—don't go anywhere without a paper clip!
The HIFIMAN SuperMini offers a lot of what anyone looking for a DAP would have on their want list: great sound, maximum file compatibility, extended battery life—and the included in-ear headphones are remarkably good. The ability to drive even esoteric headphones to satisfying volume levels is an absolute bonus. And at the price point, it's a remarkable value. It's kind of hard to figure how a perfectionist company like HIFIMAN would release such a seemingly half-baked product that has the potential of being a giant-killer with at least getting the worst bugs out. Now of course, on the HIFIMAN website and in any official communications with HIFIMAN, they take great efforts to refer to the current firmware in the SuperMini as the "Beta" version. If that's actually the case, and they do fix the issues, I'll be happy to revisit the SuperMini at the point of its official release—it won't take very much fixing on their part to get it into the perfectionist column.
HIFIMAN SuperMini Digital Audio Player
all photos courtesy of HIFIMAN