Reviewing, by its very nature, is mostly a subjective process. However, there are more helpful questions than “Do I like this?”. Asking oneself “What does it sound like?”, “How does it compare to rivals?” and “Who will like this?” are ultimately what lead to proper insight.
But sometimes, no matter how good a product sounds or how probably universal its appeal, a single feature or design misstep can spoil the party. What we’re talking about here is dealbreakers.
“A deal breaker is ‘the catch’ that a particular individual cannot overlook and ultimately outweighs any redeeming quality the individual [product] may possess.”, says Urban Dictionary.
Nothing is perfect. Not everything is for everyone. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.
Here are three products that presented all fine and dandy until I hit upon (what I thought to be) an Achilles heel.
Calyx M player
Seungmok Yi first showed an early prototype of his Calyx M digital audio player at CES 2013. Renaming the Calyx Facebook page after a single product in the brand’s range gave the impression that Yi was forsaking his well-received DACs and amplifiers that had preceded it. Calyx was now a single egg in a single basket.
I first clapped ears on the Calyx M at May’s Fujiya-Avic headphone festival in Tokyo. The first thing that strikes you about the M is its size. It’s bigger and heavier than the Astell&Kern AK120 II.The M’s touch screen runs to almost 5 inches. On the other hand, at US$999 it’s also almost half the price. Early versions were plagued by glitch UI responsiveness – something I noticed when manhandling a pre-production unit in Tokyo. However, breaking the deal within a few minutes for this fella was the Calyx M’s volume slider. Apply light thumb pressure and it doesn’t budge. Apply more pressure and it jags higher. Sometimes much higher. The volume slider’s design makes it tricky to find more through evenly spaced increments when attenuating volume. Compared to the Astell&Kern rotary or Sony NWZ-ZX1 it felt downright agricultural. No deal.
UPDATE 19th December. Seungmok Yi responded to this post with the following: “Have you tried M with the latest firmware 1.01? This firmware raised the bar a lot. including better DAC alogorithm, finer/clearer volume control, time domain minimum phase filter and so on…Now M can be said a next generation…”
Further information: Calyx M
LH Labs Geek Out
This is no ordinary USB dongle DAC. It arrived with a crowdfunding bang at US$99 before seeing incidental raves from those who heard an early prototype at RMAF 2013. There’s no doubt the GeekOut’s one ballsy, heavily detailed sound. It shows plenty of attack and punch with a keen nose for the rhythmic clickety-clack of contemporary music. On SQ alone, it even earns its street price of US$299.
Through either of its two 3.5mm headphone output sockets, rated at 0.47 Ohms and 47 Ohms each, the top-flight 1000 model can pump up to 1w into one’s headphones – crikey! It is therefore capable of driving a broader range of ‘phones than the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2. The AudioQuest counters with lower price point, a more professional-feeling/looking fit/finish and a sound that’s not quite so shiny and brilliant. The Geek Out’s sound can best be described as all summer tan and polished teeth – very California. Rather than turning over every stone it sees, the Dragonfly concentrates on music a whole more so than revealing – and separating out – the component detail (which is how I hear the LH Labs DAC). For the money, the Geek Out’s sound is utterly superb.
One might ask why I decided not to formally review it. The answer is simple: heat. The output stage of the Geek Out runs in Class A which sees the metal case warm up pretty quickly – it gets hot. “How hot is hot?” you ask. Hot enough to find it annoying when using the side-mounted buttons when attenuating volume. Hot enough you wouldn’t want an inquisitive toddler to stumble upon it. Hot enough that if you left it connected to your computer’s USB port you’d probably leave the house carrying an (admittedly irrational) I-hope-the-house-doesn’t-burn-down feeling.
I’m sure there are many people out there who can easily look beyond the heat issue but I live in one of the warmest countries on earth where any additional warmth just isn’t welcome. Many Sydney-siding audiophiles pack away their tube amplifiers for summer, opting for cool running solid state from December to March. Perhaps the Geek Out 100 is for audiophiles living in the more temperate Hobart? Or the south island of New Zealand? But for this fella, with his aversion to a hot chassis resting on a wooden desk, the Geek Out 1000 is more miss than hit.
UPDATE 19th December. LH Labs’ Digital Marketing Manager Casey Hartwell responded with the following, “If the heat is the worst issue in your mind, I’d say we’re well ahead of the curve :-)”
Further information: LH Labs
No, not the player itself or its associated music download store but the marketing storm that ripped through the tech press throughout its mid-March launch and ensuing crowd-funding campaign. It’s terrific that Neil Young has used his star reach to start a conversation about sound quality and yes, that conversation matters, but to think that Pono was ever going to transform mainstream listening habits was quite the leap. As we say in Australia, “Tell ‘im he’s dreaming”. It’s all very well to have belief in your product and market it to the best of one’s abilities – that’s business – but Young’s aspirations went largely unchecked throughout the Kickstarter funding process which says as much about the media covering Pono as it does about Pono itself. Perhaps some commentators were too starstruck to really plug Young with some very valid questions:
Had mainstream listeners not already converged on a single device – a smartphone a running their preferred streaming service? If not, would people be prepared to carry a second device around for the sole purpose of music playback? Would the mainstream listener embrace a device whose Toblerone form factor made it difficult to pocket? Would our mainstreamer own headphones or a two-channel setup that would resolve the benefits of either a) hi-res content or b) the Pono player’s DAC and output stage?
At Kickstarter end, Young had clocked up over $6m in funding. Impressive in the context of the crowfunded sales model. Less so when you consider Apple sold 350 million iPods between 2001 launch and 2012. In 2012 alone Apple shifted 35 million units. In 2014, a mere 18000 folk sprung for a Pono player. 35 million vs. 18000. Which of those figures points to realizing an ambition of mainstream take up? I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the Pono player.
Time has since driven a wedge between the hype and the hardware and the hype. I took delivery of my very own Pono player not two days ago and initial impressions are extremely favourable. It sounds very good indeed, even in the context of its own US$399 retail pricepoint *and* especially when you also consider the escalating cost of Astell&Kern rivals. More thorough Pono coverage will land on this site soon enough but, I’m curious, how many Pono player owners do you know? How many of those were already fully across the audiophile message: that good sound matters. I’m willing to wager not many. The mainstream as whole is not interested in Pono and to have pretended otherwise shows just how out of touch with the man in the street Neil Young and co. are.
Why not bridge the gulf between audiophiles and non-audiophiles by first showing them how they can make their existing music collections sound better. That’s a nettle that the Sony NWZ-ZX1 fully grasps with its FULL cloud connectivity. Ditto Astell&Kern but to a lesser extent – connections to Tidal and Qobuz lossless streaming services has yet to arrive on their players. Once you get people listening realizing the full potential of CD-quality then they might consider dropping cash on a hi-res release. To expect folks to jump from $10/month for all-you-can-eat 320kbps MP3 to $25 per Pono music store download shows a lack of understanding of consumer behaviour. Pragmatism rules, idealism is for fools.
Further information: Pono
That’s not to say that any of these products are bad per se. As always, you should go find out for yourself. Not everything is for everyone.