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Sunday, May 5, 2013

[Impression] HiSound Audio NOVA N3

Nova N3 is the latest generation of digital audio player from HiSound Audio (HSA). In the past, HSA had been relying mainly on the aging (and discontinued) SigmaTel’s SoC (System-on-Chip) as their main platform, and then adding a power amp section to boost up the sound quality. In the N series however, they seems to change to the RockChip solution for SoC, likely RKNano or something alike. With the change comes some positive surprises, but hidden within are still some of the old issues we have encountered in the past.

Frequency Response: 15Hz-25000Hz
SNR: >96dB
Output Power: 50mW
Memory: 16GB internal
Expansion: TF card slot (Class 4, up to 32GB)
Screen: 1.8 inches TFT color screen
Weight: 60g
Supported Formats: FLAC, MP3, WMA, WAV, APE (partial)
Battery Capacity: 400mAH Li-ion
Battery Life: 20 hours
Size: 93 x 42 x 8.5mm
MSRP: US$250

Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality

Still paper box packaging, but N3 looks much more ‘brand name’ than its predecessor models. Accessories include manuals, an USB cable as well as not one, but three pairs of good quality earphones. We’ll spend more time on the earphones later.

N3 looks quite impressive physically - full aluminium housing with capacitance touch panel control, engraved logo on the back and raised logo on the front. The Champaign gold is a little over-the-top but it is not cheesy. The TFT screen is low in resolution, but it is passable on an audio oriented player. Compared to Teclast X30 that shares most of the design elements, N3 does look positively classy. Then again, one would expect N3 to look good consider the price tag.


Overall it is easy enough to figure out most of the functions within 15 minutes of play. However, ID3 tag doesn’t really work so you will have to organize the music in a sensible way first to make navigation easy. I used Media Monkey since regardless of how I name mu music files on PC, it will sync to the device correctly named based on the ID3 tag. So everything will appear tidy on N3. But if you just drag and drop your music onto the player, it might not work out so well. Also, folders (and probably files) appear in the order they are copied into N3, further complicating the navigation. Again, that is where music managing software on the PC can help, since they usually automatically sync music based on album or artist name. I really don’t get why manufactures can’t develop firmware that can read things in sensible order. At least they could have read folder name in order. Hmmm.

While the firmware navigation isn’t perfect, it gets slightly messier because the capacitance touch pad doesn’t always register a touch correctly. Since it can’t tell a finger from other part of the skin (even over thin fabric), I have to engage the ‘hold’ key most of the time or put it in a case to avoid accidental operation. It is certainly a novelty to have touch panel and it adds to the cool factor of the player, but real button still have its relevance. Overall, I’ll still call it a plus, but it is cutting it close.
Another minor issue is the hold key. It is good additions since older HAS models don’t even have one, but the operation is not perfect. You can’t flip it on/off very fast or else the system might not register a flip.

All and all, the UI is functional but there are still minor bugs here and there. More bugfix are in order.

Hiss + Noise
Hiss and noise performance has always been a weakness of the company. By incorporating a stronger than average power amp section, hiss and noise inherent in the system is also getting amplified, making previous HSA models much less suitable for sensitive and hiss prone headphone. There are still some hiss and noise in N3, but much less compared to its older siblings, especially with the latest firmware (*so do make sure to update).

There some very minor noise when the brightness on the highest (3/3), but it quiets down in lower setting. There is also minor noise when accessing TF card, mainly when the player is trying to read the new / next song. These are however limited only to sensitive IEM (i.e. SE530 or low impedance CIEM). If the headphone you used is not particularly hiss prone or sensitive, noise is mostly inaudible.

It still isn’t perfect, but N3 is indeed a big leap in hiss and noise performance in HSA’s line-up.

Battery Life

Listed battery life is 20 hours. I never fully drained N3, but it does operate well over 10 hours in single charge.


Sound Quality
Not surprising, RMAA indicate that noise and dynamic performance are less than ideal. They are not terrible though, just enough to take notice of. There is bass roll-off under 100Hz, indicating the use of coupling caps. The cut-off frequency (-3dB) for a 16ohm load is around 45Hz while it improves to under 20Hz with a 150ohm load. Output impedance is a low 1.4ohm, which of course is quite good. Current output is sufficient to my usual 47ohm and 23.5ohm dummy load test. Since EQ is a big part of N3, the measurement is conducted under both ‘HiFi’ and ‘HAS V2’ EQ. More discussion on EQ later.

Specious and clean are the first two words that come to my mind when I listened to N3. Those are the areas that it out does more technically proficient Clip+ or Nano 7G, as well as its older sibling RoCoo-P and Teclast T51. Detail is better presented. Image is wider and subsequently, positioning is better as well. Almost like a surround sound effect but without any obvious coloration. Bass however has a weaker hit, probably the result of the minor bass roll-off. Mid doesn’t have a strong texture or sweetness but it isn’t very bland either. Because of the wider soundstage, everything is more laid back and relaxed, but not veil in any way. Overall, the cleanness reminds me of RoCoo-P, but with even better soundstage though not nearly the same level of power. Despite HSA’s claim that N3 has a very power amp section, I can’t really say it is more powerful than Clip+ or Nano 7G in any obviously way. In fact, the initial firmware seems to be particular low in total volume (though it has been raised in later firmware).

Just to be sure that my RMAA test isn't wrong: I measured the Rock EQ as contrast to show that HiFi, HSA V2.0 and WooDuo EQ don't change the FR curve.
One interesting feature in N3 is its EQ system, with a total of 10 setting: HiFi, HSA V2.0, Play FX, Rock, Pop, Classical, Bass, Jazz, User, and Wooduo. Play FX is the Microsoft ‘free’ EQ system that has been overly implemented on most Chinese DAPs and of course, under-performs most of the time. User EQ has a user adjustable 5 band EQ, in 60Hz, 300Hz, 1kHz, 3kHz, and 6kHz. Rock, Pop, Classical, Bass, as well as Jazz EQ are just the average, do-no-good stock EQ. The really interest bits are from HiFi, HSA V2.0 and WooDuo. A quick RMAA measurement reveals that neither of them actually alters the frequency response of N3, but they do affect volume. I am quite puzzled on whether it is just a gain change or there are some other factors in play (unfortunately RMAA isn’t good enough to reveal anything else). But what I do know is that HSA V2.0 and Wooduo setting, which are very similar, are the loudest and best sounding of all EQ (*loudness can make SQ better in perception, so they are interconnected factors). HiFi is the second loudest, while other setting is much quieter. Whether it is psychoacoustics effect or not is hard to determine since there is no easy way to A/B different EQ with just one N3 at hand. But as long as some of them sound good, I am not going to complain about it.

N3 (left) vs. Teclast X30 (right)

There was talk that N3 could possibly be Teclast X30 with the same hardware but better EQ. Though I never look inside a N3, I can almost certain that can’t be the case – unless HSA can really do magic in EQ or Teclast is just total incompetent in software, the SQ of the two devices are so far apart, no amount of software tuning can have made up the distance. So how good is N3? If I were to classify DAP in 5 categories based on only SQ: bad, half-decent, good, distinguished and great, I will place N3 in the ‘distinguished’ category with DAPs such as RoCoo-P, Teclast T51, and HifiMan HM602. Not perfect by any mean, they both have a sound that set them apart. To categorize them even further, I’ll probably rank them as follow: HM602 > T51 > N3 >= RoCoo-P. The part that really impresses me about the N3 is its surround sound like soundstage. If we were only talking about soundstage, it could very well be the best in class. On the other hand however, N3 also has the weakest body and impact among them. Almost like something is withholding the full force of the music.

One other issue is the millisecond ‘fade-in’ that happens on the beginning of each song. It is not a particularly noticeable issue on most music but tends to ruin the experience when music has a strong entry. Curious enough, X30 also has the same problem, which points to both using the same SoC and might have suffered from the same defect. Not really sure whether this is fixable via firmware or not, but it is the one thing I wish to see it gone if I can only change one thing on N3.

N3 comes with 3 pair of earphones, including PAA-1, Tabour, and Wooduo 2. Both PAA-1 and Tabour are entry models, price under US$30 each. As a mid-upper-end model, Wooduo 2 is around $130 a pair. Individually, all three models are fairly good for their price. They are not going to win award for best value or sounding, but definitely a great plus to the N3 package.

In Sum…

Overall, HiSound Audio has made a strong and positive change to their line-up. The new N3 has a sleeker and slimmer look, better control, larger screen, bigger on-board memory and less noisy than previous models. But it still has some of the old problems like (the lack of) ID3 tag reading and files organization. It is also less powerful, with strange fade-in issue and a quirky touch panel. It is like three steps forward and two steps back. The $250 price tag is a bit steep on its own but the three pairs of earphones really offset the value as a whole. I am glad to see HSA finally walks away from SigmaTel platform but the new system can still use some fine-tuning on the firmware to get the best out of it. As with my impression of RoCoo-P, I feel quite positive about N3, but it is not perfect – at least not yet.

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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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