Sunday, January 31, 2010

[REVIEW] Sherwood SE-777

First, I want to thanks Uncle Wilson @ Jaben for the review sample. SE-777 is available at Soundcat for $79 and Jaben if you ask.

Being Sherwood first attempt to the IEM market, I am glad that they didn't go to the usual / easier rebadging route but rather choose to design a new IEM on their own - even more surprising is that SE-777 actually sounds rather well consider it is priced in the most competitive section of them all - the sub$100 IEM market.

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Spec
Driver: Balanced Armature
Noise Isolation: -26dB
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz
Impedance: 53 ohm
Sensitivity: 105dB SPL/mW @ 1kHz
Cable: 1.2m
Weight: 31g
3.5mm gold plated mini plug.

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Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
SE-777 is very well packed, very classy in fact. The box opens in the middle and reveal both the IEM and the hardcase at the same time, as if you are opening an expensive gift. It is a fairly complicated paper box to put together yet it is simple and straightforward to open, which makes it standing apart from many other all-too-typical design.

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Inside the box, there are the IEM itself, three pair of single flange silicone eartips, one pair of bi-flange, a simple manual, and a hardcase. Though the included items are fairly standard accessories these days, they are all really well made. The only complaint I have is the overall length of the single flange eartips. They do feel solid to me, but they are a bit short. The problem is that the unusually large earpeice and the short eartips are simply a bad combo. To fit the eartips properly, I have to push the housing deeper than I usually would, and as a result feel quite uncomfortable when the earpieces are pressing against my ears. The solution is quite simple - I used some Sony Hybrid clone eartips instead of the stock single flange and now the earpieces sit at the right distance which won't irritate me anymore.

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The earpieces are fully metal with black and white anodized aluminum and in a sense, a bit unconventional in design. Beside a little bit heavier and larger than typical earpieces (especially since SE-777 is a balanced armatured based IEM), it feels very solid and have a class of its own. The design of the Y-splitter with a small metal logo certainly adds more points to the overall design. One of the place where you can see how well the build quality is the filter. Though it is a glued on filter like many other IEM, it just looks seamless. It would have been great if Sherwood includes a few replacement filters in the package as well, but luckily the filter material doesn't seem to be easily contaminated.

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I am not sure whether it is due to the design or perhaps the material, but SE-777 has one of the least microphonics cable even when wearing in hanging / not-over-the-ear style. It is so quiet that I think it is almost as good as some over-the-ear IEM. There is no sound transmitted by the cable even when I am actively rubbing the cable. Isolation is decent, slightly better than average and good for daily use, but not enough to handle very loud noise.

In sum, despites a few minor issues here and there, SE-777 still proves to be a really well made IEM.

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Sound Quality
As always, SE-777 has been given a 50hrs+ burn-in before the review. The rounded shape of the earpieces is a bit intriguing to say the least. My speculation is that it employs a rounded balanced armature driver, much like those found on s-JAY and PL-50. In a way, SE-777 shares some common characteristic with s-JAYS and PL-50: the same kind of warmness in the sound, but SE-777 simply brings it to the next level of performance.

The overall sound signature is very warm and fairly musical, with a full sounding mid and bass. Treble is clean, very well extended but smooth, capable of showing a good degree of fine detail yet it is not the highlight of the sound. Mid is warm and full, slightly forward with a sweet vocal. Bass is also warm and bigger than average body, but slightly slower than expected (more dynamic-like) and do not have a very strong impact, not quite a bass monster and roll off at near 20Hz yet a very good performance (both quality and quantity wise) as far as BA based IEM is concerned. Soundstage is average due to the slightly forward mid, but there is still a good sense of airiness in it.

The Magic Combo
Generally I won't recommend pairing an easy-to-drive IEM with an portable amp unless the source can really benefit from a better amplification. In this case however, I do feel there is a very special synergy that can't be ignored - a synergy so well that it lifts the performance of SE-777 to the next level. I am taking about pairing SE-777 with Linearossa W1, which I have reviewed here.

W1 has an unique sound signature of it own which I find to be good when paired with a warm sounding IEM. In this case, it gives SE-777 an extra wide soundstage without taking away its warm, lovely mid. It also brings out more detail, making the overall sound much more balanced. The real question is, does the combo worths doubling the price of SE-777? At least for me, I think the combination has more than enough performance to rival many of the sub-$200 IEM option out there.

Conclusion
SE-777's warm and musical sound is fairly fatigue-less and non-aggressive, well suited for music lover who spend long hours on their IEM. If anything else, SE-777 is a fine example of how well the sub-$100 IEM has evolved with performance reaching / invading the next price range, and perhaps even beyond that. It is simply a superbly made IEM that out performs its asking price.

A quick sum up can be found here.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Maximo 7 series

The announcement of  the new Maximo iM790 / iM795 at CES somewhat slipped out of my attention. It is a late news now but not totally irrelevant since they won't hit the market till April. Maximo has been known to make great value IEM and the new 7 series already got itself a CES's Best-of-Show Award from iLounge this year for its tunable-sound design. Hopefully by late March I will be able to grab an early review sample, so stay tuned.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Born from Storm and Cyclone

The company that brought us the Cyclone IEM and Storm amp now operates under a new brand name called 'ECCI'. Today, they will be releasing 2 new IEM, PR100 and PR200,  in China under the new brand. Hopefully I will review them both in a couple of weeks. Also with the launching of new IEM is the announcement of PR1 Pro discontinuance, which is one of their more popular IEM in forum like Head-fi.

I was told ECCI is now looking for oversea dealer and distributor. If you are interested, try to get in touch with them.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

FiiO E7... user manual.

With its releasing date getting closer and closer, I got the permission from FiiO to show you guys what is cooking with in E7, their upcoming portable amp + DAC, with its user manual. While we have seen sample picture of it outer beauty, I am sure those of who have an interest in entry class portable amp will find this user manual well worth reading.

Here are the main features:

  • USB audio decoding and output for PC, functioning as a high quality external USB soundcard*;
  • Texas Instruments‟ PCM2706 serves as USB receiver. For better sound quality, a Wolfson WM8740 serves as digital-to-analog convertor (DAC), pairing with a high performance operational amplifier from ADI for the DAC circuit;
  • Build-in headphone amplifier utilizing Texas Instruments‟ OPA2338 and TPA6130A as pre- and power-amp for high performance, good resolution, low distortion, and powerful output;
  • Standard 3.5mm stereo line-in jack for portable amplification with conventional audio source;
  • Dual 3.5mm headphone output jack. Convenient design makes it easy to share music between two listeners;
  • World‟s first portable headphone amplifier with dual colors OLED display;
  • Easy to use digital volume control function with great precision and channel balance;
  • Build-in EQ for 3 levels of Bass Boost;
  • Build-in rechargeable 1050 mAH Li-ion battery for 80 hours of continuous operation**;
  • Specialized dock for connecting E9*** to experience an even higher performance;
  • Quality anodized aluminum satin finish case design, small and compact, ideal to be wrapped together with digital audio player;
  • User selectable USB charging function to help prolong battery lifespan and lower distortion from power supply circuit;
  • User definable startup volume memory and maximum volume limiter to protect user from hearing damage due to loud volume;
  • Automatic keylock feature;
  • User definable sleep timer function and total runtime display****.
* This model supports driverless plug and play on Windows XP, Windows 2000, Vista, Windows 7, and various Mac OS.
** Full battery charge via computer USB port after 200 minutes and capable of 80 hours of continuous operation, tested under laboratory condition for evaluative purpose only.
*** E9 is a desktop amplifier with greater output, better performance and an integrated E7 specified dock connector. With the dock, E7 can easily establish a line-out connection with E9 and transform both together into a high performance desktop amp with USB decoding function, capable of PC connection and recharging functions, etc.
**** Total system runtime will accumulate from the first use. It will be reset to zero after either reset button is pressed, reloading default setting, or when the battery depleted.
Download the full manual here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

[Impression] Ultra-Protable Amp: iBasso T3D and Linearoasa W1

For this impression, I am mainly using s:flo2 line-out listening to high bitrate mp3 or wma on Head-Direct RE0, Ortofon e-Q7, and Sherwood SE777.

iBasso T3D
Max Output: 120mW Stereo
SNR -98dB
Gain selectable: 0dB / +3dB / +8dB / + 10dB
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.0015% @ 1kHz/0dB
Input: 3.5mm jack
Output: 3.5mm jack
Output impedance: 8-300 Ohm
Frequency Response: 20Hz-100Khz +/- 0.5 dB
Supply: Li-Polymer Rechargeable battery
Battery Estimated Life: 38hrs
Size: 64.5*37*10 mm
Weight: 28g


T3D comes with a small box, about 2/3 the size of T4's box.


Accessories include USB power adapter, USB cable, mini-to-mini cable, small leather pouch and a simple manual.


T3D (left) and T4 side by side.


The difference in volume pot. T3D uses a rocker since it has digital controlled volume.


The new back metal housing feels much better than the old housing. The marking is lasered on so they won't get scratched off like the old silk painted marking.


I don't really want to show the internal but the 'dirty' PCB is a bit downer for me. It doesn't affect the functionality though.

T3D vs. T4
I had listened to both the T3 and T3D before I made the decision to pick one of them, and I couldn't really tell them apart based on the gears I used (Nationite s:flo2 /T51 and Ortofon e-Q7) at that time. I concluded that whatever differences the two of them do have is not likely going to be obvious enough to bother me. The main factor of getting T3D instead of T3 is simple because of the digital volume control, which shouldn't suffer any imbalance issue - especially consider I am a fairly dedicated IEM user and I do find T4's imbalance just a tad higher than I like.

In comparison, T4 has a warmer and mellower sound signature. Bass impact is good and the mid is fuller, but treble rolls off a bit at the top and makes it less detail and lack transparency. T3D doesn't sound much like T4. It has a very crisp, well extended treble, slightly leaner yet still well bodied mid and a little better bass impact. It is cleaner, more transparent overall but there is still a sense of warmness. T3D also has a faster speed, which I feel just a tad too fast and doesn't give the best emphasis on the bass body, making bass feels a tiny bit sterile when compared to T4. Soundstage wise, T4 is more forward but has a better lateral expansion. T3D has better depth but not as wide.

One of the major improvement on T3D is its RF interference rejection. While T4 can pick up very loud noise when close to a cellphone (within 6 inches), T3D is almost fully silenced till it is with in 1 or 2 inches - not to mention that the noise is very low.

Overall I find T3D as a worthy upgrade from T4 if size is a concern or when you are considering b/w the two. If you are looking for a major SQ improvement from T4, I think you might want to look beyond T3D.

Linearossa W1
Output Level: 1.5Vpp
Distortion at max-out: 0.3%
Input: 3.5mm jack
Output: 3.5mm jack
Output impedance: 16-600 Ohm
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz +/- 0.5 dB
Background Noise: not present
Supply: 1 x AAA battery ( Normal or Rechargeable)
Battery Estimated Life: 12hrs
Size: 65*47*19 mm
Weight: 45g


W1 comes with a nice soft pouch.


The housing is in fact fully plastic, though I really love the look and feel of it.


Power switch, volume pot and headphone-out. No LED of any sort in order to cut down distortion and noise.


Line-in.


Battery compartment. There is no distinct up or down side really.


Gonna love AAA battery.


T3D and W1.


More comparison shot.

W1
W1 is unique in many ways. In first listen, I thought it shares a rather cold, very much uncolored sound signature like the Go-Vibes Derringer. With further listen I changed my mind and thought it has some T4 characteristic in its sound. Now that I think more of it, W1 really isn't quite like any other ultra-portable that I have.

W1 has better treble extension than T4, but not quite reaching the level of T3D's aggressiveness in presenting detail. Mid is not quite as forward as T3D or T4 but it is not recessed. Bass isn't quite as impactful nor as abundance as T3D or T4, but rather more neutral and slow. There seems to be some distinct smoothness in W1 presentation that takes away any emphasis in the music and makes it more mellow. In fact, the same mellowness can be detected throughout the whole frequency range and yet it doesn't feel particularly slow to me as I would to T4. One thing that W1 is very good at is its lateral soundstage. It sounds like there is a Dolby surround sound decoder trying to fill every inches from left to right within the lateral soundstage and actually doing a fairly good job at it.

This 'fullness' in soundstage and the smoothness in presentation do make W1 sounds less 'correct' and not quite transparent, but much more musical. It is a special flavor that makes me want to reach back to W1 more than T3D even though I got them both at the same time. I also notice W1 has extremely good synergy with more mid and bass centric IEM, such as Ortofon e-Q7, UM2 and my newly acquired Sherwood SE777. The combination of W1 and SE777 actually transcends both onto an entirely new level of sound that is very different from each of them individually, but I will leave that part of the discussion later to my SE777 review.

As far as RF interference rejection is concern, I think W1 is quite good consider it is in a plastic housing. It does pick up RF noise almost as far as T4, but less in quantity and doesn't 'pop' like T4, making it a lot more tolerable. Obviously I still won't recommend placing W1 next to a cellphone.

Sum-up
Technically speaking T3D is perhaps better sounding than W1, but it is expected as there is an US$45 price difference b/w them (T3D is $135 and W1 is $90) - not that I feel the SQ difference is $45 apart. When I first listened to W1 pairing with SE777, it actually did make me feel slightly regret about buying T3D just a few hours before from another store. While T3D is well worth the money for both its SQ and build quality, I do feel W1 is a really great sub$100 deal.

I will be getting a sample of the new FiiO E7 with in next 2 weeks so hopefully I can give them another comparison then. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Return of the J(edi)H Audio.

I know exactly how some of you might feel when you read this news: What is going wrong with the manufacturers these days? No disrespect to UE or JH Audio, but I'll have to say the number games really need to stop (or at least slow down a little bit). Did anyone care to really discuss why more drivers make for a better IEM, or should we just have to swallow down the more-is-better theory without ever questioning its validity? So we finally reach the quantity-is-the-new-quality phase of industry development? Anyway, I am sure you are not here for my little rant, so lets move on to the actual news.

JH Audio just announced their new flagship, the JH16 Pro, featuring 8 drivers per side with double dual lows, single dual mid, single dual high. It will cost you around US$1150.

With so many exciting news lately, I am really begin to feel bore already... seriously.

Ultimate Ears: The Empire Strikes BACK!!!


Even since UE 11 Pro was announced at mid~late 2007, it had been crowned the title of best-custom-IEM, saw its designer Jerry Harvey left the company, Logitech's acquisition, and most important of all, being challenged by Westone and JH audio (which is Jerry's new company) for the title for being the best-of-the-best. If anything, UE has being fairly quiet about their new flagship - but now we finally get to know about it, the UE 18 Pro, featuring 6 drivers each side to answer back the challenger which is JH 13 Pro (and what's with all the number, really?). Oh, it is only US$1350 by the way. Read the spec here.


On a side news, UE also announced the UE 1 Pro at the same time. It is designed specific for musician who only want to use a side-monitor - either left or right side, but not both. UE squeezes both side of the dual drivers into just one side of the mold (and you get to choose which side you want it to be), which means there are 4 drivers, 2 of each channel with in one mold (but it is mono any way, since they are all in the same side). Price? US$450. Read the spec here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sensaphonics: Softness in Three.


Being fairly absent in the custom monitor market for the last few years, Sensaphonics finally announced a new flagship IEM yesterday called 3MAX, claiming it to be the first ever 3 transducers custom even made in soft silicone mold (as opposite to the hard acrylic mold everyone else is using). Through it is 3 BA per side, the 3MAX is still a 2 ways IEM with one treble driver and two mid-bass drivers. However, as Sensaphonics President and founder Michael Santucci said, "It’s not how many drivers you can fit into an earphone – it’s how accurate they sound.." Now don't get too excited just yet, this baby would probably cost you about $1k in pocket change.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

CES 2010 Roundup (and another SDA)!!!

All in all, I have to conclude CES 2010 to be fairly disappointing for IEM, or even headphone users in general. We didn't get to see any major release, but given the situation of weak economy I guess it is only natural to assume many manufacturers simply do not want to throw money into R&D at the moment. So instead of seeing flood of IEM and earbuds announced like last year CES 2009, we have only 3 and a half this year.

First, and possibly the more important of them all, is Etymotic announcement of new moving coil (dynamic) based IEM, the MC3 and MC5, coupled with the new hf3 and etyBLU3, iPod / iPhone friendly IEM.

Second is the announcement of Shure new 'old' flagship, the SE535 and SE425. Basically they are the same SE530 and SE420 with removable, replaceable cable. I think Shure finally getting tired of all the complains about the cracking cable.

Last is Sennheiser announcement of the new series of earbuds and IEM. including MX980, MX880, and quite a few others. Check them out here.

So what about the 'half' announcement? It is not really CES2010 related, but Peter @ JAYS just post an interesting preview photo of their upcoming t-JAY which should hits the market in Spring. So far no detail yet, but those of you who love JAYS products should keep your eyes opened.


I want to take the chance to announce a new Sonic Diamond Award winner. This time, it is the MEElectronics' newly updated Ai-M9 with transparent cable. The original M9 with black cable is already an fantastic IEM at its price range, but the new M9 has improved on its build quality and and makes it an irresistible deal at $20. Check out my review of the original M9 here, and you can grab a new M9 over at MEElectronics.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

[REVIEW] Nationite s:flo²

First of all, I want to thanks Raz @ MP4Nation.net for the review sample.

To be clear, 'nationite' is brand of MP4Nation.net. There are tons and tons of portable players and brands in China nowadays, but it is Raz's intention to rebrand some of the more well-made player and introduce them to the international market. While it is no denying that most of the Chinese players are not nearly as good as their foreign competitors, the market is moving forward rapidly especially in the lower~mid end section. They are slowly shifting from a pure low-price strategy to a more performance orientated mindset. The s:flo² (a.k.a. T51), like its elder brother the s:flo/T50, is manufactured by Teclast, one of the bigger domestic MP3 / MP4 manufacturer in China. Even since it was announced, T51 is marketed toward the audiophile community with its 'five cores' ads (five cores refer to the RockChip based processor, dual DAC chips and two opamps, one for the headphone amp section and one for the line-out section).



Before the actual review, I would urge those of you who are really into the detail of s:flo² to check out this thread by maderin1 on MP4Nation's forum. It pretty much covers most of the generally operation / navigation aspects of the player with all the pros and cons of the player listed. While I will touch on some of the same topic, I don't want to go into great length to repeat what he has written down (especially since he already did a wonderful job at it). My review will be focusing more on the sound quality of the player, more or less from a portable orientated audiophile's POV. Also, those of you who wish to see a video review can check out this thread by brycewi on MP4Nation.





Spec
"Five Cores" - RockChip RK2806 based solution, dual WM8740 DAC, Phillips UDA1308 (a.k.a NXP TDA1308) for headphone-out, and TI OPA2604 for line-out.
Flash memory - 8GB and 16GB
3.5inches 24bits MVP-TFT based capacitive touch screen, 320x240 resolution *¹.
Two independent 3.5mm jacks for headphone-out and line-out
Film coupling caps
MicroSD slot
Video: AVI, RMVB, MKV.
Audio: MP3, WMA, FLAC.
ID3 tag and album art support *²
Microsoft PlayFX EQ system
Firmware Upgradable
Mini USB jack
Li-ion rechargeable battery (8~10 hours battery life)
Dimension: 111mm(L) x 63mm(W) x 13.5mm(H)
Weight: 133.5g *³

*1 - As quoted from manual, but I believe it is actually 480x320.
*2 - Limited ID3 tag and album art support due to firmware issue.
*3 - For comparison, iPod nano4 is about 36.5g and Sansa Fuze is 58g.




Build Quality and Accessories

s:flo² on top of the included 'Mofi' soft pouch, next to the included cable clip.


The back-side of the player. Note that the printing is different from Teclast T51


From left to right: 3.5mm headphone-out, 3.5mm line-out (green), update hole (function unknown), potentiometer based volume control, mini USB jack.


Left side of the player: Reset hole and MicroSD slot (insert in up-side-down fashion).


Inside the box, you will find the player and most its accessories in another compartment: am USB cable, stock earbud, a simple manual, soft pouch and an USB charger. The charger outputs higher 1.5A 5VDC instead of the more common sub-1A. It is not that normal USB charger won't charge s:flo², but the high power demand of the player means the battery will take a long time to charge from a low output USB port.

The build quality is excellent. Beside the front panel, the entire casing of the player is metal. There is no screw hole of any kind which suggests that opening the player up probably requires some serious prying, not that you should do that. If you read the spec, you will know this player is not small or light in any way. It doesn't feel especially heavy at hand but the metal housing is a little slippery (or smooth, depends on how you look at it) so a firm grip is requited.



In a way, the metal housing serves as heat sink since the heat generated by the player is actually fairly noticeable. On a hot 28~30°C day in the tropic, you can expect the player, when put inside a confined space such as pocket or the included soft pouch, to be close to 40°C on the front panel and 37°C on the back (and 37°C is body temperature btw). It won't burn you, but it will be a bit uncomfortable / strange for the first few times. The reason for the heat is likely a combined effect from the high power demand on the battery, stepping up voltage and the high output of the opamps, so it is no way to avoid it totally. I don't find it especially bothering unless it is on a very hot day. On a cold day or an open environment, the heat is barely noticeable.



The screen on the player is a nice 3.5 inches MVP type TFT screen (MVP = Multi-domain Vertical Alignment). The color is very vivid (24bits) and the viewing angle is excellent. Small portable player usually have uneven washout viewing angle - for example, nano4's bottom and left viewing angle begin to washout at 30° but top and right angle doesn't washout at all. The screen on s:flo² begin to lose a tiny bit of color balance at 30° and becomes slightly more noticeable at at 45°, but it never really washout even at close to 90° unless you are viewing a very high contrast video clip.

One thing I especially like is the use of potentiometer as volume control. Generally speaking it is very common to have unbalance issue on low volume when it comes to small potentiometer, but the good news is I didn't detect any unbalance until the lowest 1~5 degree, and that's on my most sensitive IEM.

As a pure audio player, s:flo² is a little too big and heavy in my taste. I would probably be happier with a player 1/3 smaller in size and weight and has no touch screen at all. But given that it is not designed purely as an audio player (hey it does video and picture too), I have to said Teclast has accomplished a lot in T51 / s:flo². It is not perfect - but enough for me to want to carry it around.

Navigation
There is only one physical switch on the player, which is the center button with the little red dot (and it will flash when operating). The center button is for on/off (about 10 seconds press), reactivating the screen and returning to the main menu. When the screen is on, the capacitive touch screen is on as well (vise versa). There is no physical 'hold' or 'lock' key of any kind, so you will have to set the screen auto-off timing to a shorter time if you want to turn-off the screen.

The touch screen is fairly responsive, but it is capacitive type so using a stylus is out of the question. You will have to use your finger to do the navigation. It will take some time to get used to since the screen is not really that accurate on registering the whole finger tip and sometime it selects the next-in-line instead of what you want.


Startup screen on s:flo² v1.2 firmware.

Overall the navigation is passable, which is somewhat the reality of most Chinese MP3 /MP4 player out there. Some menu items can probably be reorganized to more linear / less confusing fashion, but nothing an user can't get used to. The player doesn't really read ID3 tag that well on mp3 files, even worst on wma and flac. It displays files names instead of song names, and some time it doesn't even know how to read properly tagged files. Album art only works well up with music to certain file size. Playlist is a bit clumsy to use, no advance features like gapless. The only good news is the EQ, including the Microsoft PlayFX, is fairly good (but flac files has trouble working with EQ) - not that you really need the EQ, but we will leave the SQ discussion to the next section. The font on default interface looks pixelated, which is an result of using ugly font when designing the firmware - but you can 'mod' the firmware a bit to adapt different theme, if you are handy with photoshop.

So, if you are looking for a sleek and intuitive player similar to iPod, look elsewhere; If you are more geeky and willing to compromise for what s:flo² can offer in SQ, then the rough (but functional) firmware isn't really that bad at all. Just prepare to use it as a simple MSC (mass storage class) device and you will be fine - that is, browse folder and play music in it, no 'genius' what so ever.

The good news is, Teclast is still actively developing the firmware for their T51, which works as the same for s:flo² except for the minor things like startup / shutdown screen. I am actually using the T51 v2 firmware now and it works slightly smoother than the original s:flo² v1.2 firmware.

Note that there are reports of freezing under normal operation that required reset to recover, but since I didn't face any freezing so far, except some minor USB problem on firmware v1.2 (mainly my Vista PC doesn't eject it properly), probably due to a bug that has been fixed on firmware v2.

Again, for more detail on navigation, do refer back to maderin1's thread of 'S:Flo² / T51 :: Reviews, tips, tricks downloads and more' on MP4Nation.net.


Main menu (style 1) on s:flo² v1.2 firmware.

Battery Life
I didn't have the time to do a real battery draining test but I have use my s:flo² enough to estimate a rough battery life. With my music, which are mainly 320kbps mp3 files, I can get between 6~7 hrs of playtime. If you use low bitrate files, I would expect a close to or excess 8 hrs battery life. If you use FLAC and FLAC only, do expect less playtime.

Strange that I feel video playback seems to eat battery slower than music playback. With battery draining so fast in music playback, I would imagine an 1~2hrs video playback might be its max (proportionally speaking), but in fact I have played a full length 1.5hrs movie clip and battery is only half drained. I didn't investigate into the detail of battery draining pattern, but it is a fair guess that different format will drain battery differently, just like music playback. Another fair guess will be that the RockChip processor has some special optimized playback design to minimize power usage on video. In any case, I can't say this is a bad thing at all.

Video / Photo / Sound Quality
Video playback is smooth and in good quality. I tested full length DVD definition movies on avi, rmvb and mkv format and they all played fine. Through the screen resolution is limited to only 480x320, I didn't find any noticeable pixelation or lag during normal playback, fast forward/backward, or dragging the progress bar. It is however a little difficult to drag the progress bar to a precise point using finger tip. The easier way is to drag the bar to a close enough point then use the fast-forward/backward button to reach the destination. One small flaw about the movie playback is that it doesn't keep track of where you quit the movie so you have to restart every time.


Movie is fairly enjoyable because of the vivid color and smooth playback.

Photo viewer is decent on jpeg files. There is an one level zoom which allows you to drag the image around for closeup. I haven't tested any other kind format since a dedicated digital photo frame, which is uber cheap nowadays, can do a better job on displaying photos. It is nice to have a photo viewer on such a nice looking screen, but it is more of a amusement than a necessity.


Music playback UI.

Let talk about the headphone-out first. It is based on the Phillips UDA1308 opamp, fed by a dual Wolfson WM8740 DAC (which is a little overkill in a portable player). Phillips has sort of developed a reputation among the Chinese for making good sounding opamp for portable player, which is likely the reason why its opamp was chosen for the headphone-out (HO). Putting the technology aside, the headphone-out is clean and powerful - not just being able to drive a headphone loud, but actually has enough current reserve to give some slightly more demanding headphone a full swing around. The HO isn’t as cold and dry sounding as my nano4, nor is it as warm as my Sansa Fuze. It is more in between, cold and analytical but no dry. It also has an excellent extension at both end of the frequency response, presenting crisp detail and impactful bass.

It is no doubt to me that s:flo² has a better HO than both my Fuze and Nano4. In fact, the HO is so well that it is capable of matching most $100 portable amp IMO. I gave a quick comparison between the HO and my iBasso T4 on s:flo² line-out (which outputs independent from the HO) using my RE0. To my surprise, T4 isn't better than the HO. T4 is warmer and slightly fuller on the bottom end, but s:flo² LO has better detail, separation, and soundstage. My new Linearossa W1 is on par / slightly better compared to the HO, and only with the new T3D (which is noticeably better than T4) that I can say in definite that it is better than s:flo² LO, but only in a small margin that I am not sure it will justify the extra price tag. So what does this means? It means I don't think you really need to be bother with adding any entry to mid class portable amp to s:flo² as far as price/performance ratio is concern. I seriously doubt any sub$150 portable amp will give you a very satisfying return in term of improvement without your own mod and significant improvement on the amp itself. It is just not worth the effort.

Now let’s talk about the line-out (LO). It is just as clean, if not cleaner than the HO signal. As mentioned, you shouldn't be bothering with a lower class portable amp. The signal is so clean it really shines with a good amp. I was lucky enough to play around with a demo set of Graham Slee Voyager driving a rare pair (in this part of the world) of JVC HP-DX1000 woody fed by s:flo² LO and the result is quite amazing as far as a portable setup is concern. I tried a well burnt-in RSA Tomahawk along with the W1 and T3D at the same time and immediately I can notice the lack of adequate driving power and refinement in all of them. But given the fact that none of them are meant to drive big can, it is understandable why they can't keep to with the Voyager. The easy access of the 3.5mm jack and the use of firm caps as coupling caps are also major plus side of s:flo² LO. All you need is a decent mini-to-mini interconnecting cable and you are cooking!

One of the thing you want to take note is the noise floor (electrical hiss) rises noticeably when you are playing music and have the screen turns on at the same time. If you are using sensitive headphone, you can pick up the electrical noise in low volume when your music is on quiet passage (but not much when music is playing) or when you turn the volume to minimum. The noise is unaffected by the volume and only present when the screen is on. Teclast tech support has explained that the noise is generated by the voltage step up circuit needed to drive the screen, which is why the noise will stop once the screen is off. The good news is the noise is to confine mainly to the headphone-out, and only slightly significant during music playback with very sensitive headphone. I didn't detect much noise on the video playback. Since the screen is auto-off in default (with selectable timing), this issue should be minimum unless you want the screen to be on all the time and waste a great deal of battery life that isn't much to begin with.

By the way, don't bother with low bitrate music as well. I think 192kbps is really the minimum of the minimum here. You will be better off with 256kbps and better. I did compare 320kbps mp3 files with Flac, and I can notice a very tiny bit of upper detail being missing from the 320kbps files which is usually unnoticeable on my Fuze. But consider that it is only a minimum lose in SQ, easier operation and a big saving on file size and battery life, using 320kbps is more reasonable and justifiable IMO.

Overall I have to say s:flo² is really quite a good /great/ sounding player in the sub-$200 range. Sure you can get a new a nano5 for around the same price range with all the sleek and trendy 'cool' factor, but s:flo² is hard to beat when it comes to SQ.

Conclusion
Again, as repeated multiple times in the review: Do not buy s:flo² if you are looking for an easy-to-go, light, sleek, trendy, multi-function portable player with camera support. Only consider s:flo² / T51 for what it does best: music playback, and in this case, better than average in its price range.

There are still room for improvements, mainly on the firmware and a better battery life. Beyond that, I think it is more than capable of replacing my Fuze + LOD + T4 as my main probable player from now on. One last thing: get yourself a good headphone before getting the s:flo². It puts a smile on your face.

Nationite s:flo² is available at MP4Nation.net. Price are about US$140 for 8GB and US$180 for 16GB models.

Disclaimer: All trademarks and logos in the website belong to their respective owners. Beside getting free review samples, I don't work for or get paid by anyone to write anything on this website, or anywhere else in that matter. Also, free review samples are never sold for any financial gain. I do buy gears and review them, but for simplicity you (the reader) should always assume what I review is free sample in nature (and thus comes with all the bias). The website does have Google Ads and Amazon Associates enabled (which I have no direct control over their content) - though I don't write review for a living, nor does the ads generates enough money to cover my breakfast (in fact, not even one breakfast per week). Listening to music and playing with audio gears are purely hobby for me. In short, I am just an audiophiles who happens to have his own blog. Not a journalist who happens to be an audiophile. Oh, and excuse my writing as I am not a native English speaker and can't afford a proofreader. Also, just because I don't write in a negative tone doesn't mean I don't write down the negative aspect of a gear. Please read them carefully. Last but not least, please note that this site uses cookies to track visitors' number and page view.

Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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