And Then There Were Two
Interesting ten (or was it thirteen?) days this has been. Currently priced at $399 USD and $249 USD (post-Indiegogo) respectively, these new compact DAPs are certainly interesting value propositions. Their main selling points are a small form factor and an extended battery life. In this sense, they are pretty successful! If this had been 2014, things would’ve been very smooth sailing for the Supermini and Megamini. However, with companies like AK descending into the entry-level market, it would be an understatement to say that the game has changed. There are expectations to meet on multiple fronts, in addition to sound quality – build and UI are some of the few that come to mind immediately. I will explore these factors and how they apply to the Supermini/Megamini in this review.
There’s an uncanny resemblance between the new DAPs and the HM700. Form factor wise, both the Supermini and Megamini have taken many visual cues from the HM700. Fortunately enough for users, the headphone jack is no longer inaptly placed on the side of the player’s body. Internally, little is known about the Supermini and Megamini. All that has been released is that the new players are using a lower power-consumption controller chip. This isn’t exactly a far cry from the SigmaTel STMP3700 used on the HM700, though the STMP3700 was a bit more powerful in the sense that it was a SoC, if such things are to be taken at face value. At any rate, the idea of pushing a non-dedicated chipset to its extremes remains. Point is, this isn’t an entirely new concept –and it is, to a certain extent, dated. With that in mind, let’s jump into the review and see how these two hold up.
The Supermini and Megamini were both provided directly from Hifiman for the purposes of this review. I had originally only expected to conduct a review for the former, but when I received the package I found the latter neatly stowed inside as well. I have had these for thirteen days, and the stipulated terms of the review included finishing this piece within a timeframe of ten days (yikes). Very tight schedule –and I apologize for taking a little longer (I was sick, and things slowed down a little). I won’t be keeping these units and will be sending them back to Hifiman post-review. I do reserve the rights to the media in this review, so drop me a line if you intend on reproducing any part of the writing, photography, or video in this review. Once again, thanks to Hifiman for offering me this unique opportunity!
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
The two DAPs came in a nondescript cardboard box, nicely padded and packaged. Opening the box, there were two smaller matte boxes for each of the players. The black one is for the Supermini and the white for the Megamini. Opening that will reveal the player encased behind a clear plastic screen. The included accessories vary from package to package, but there should be no real surprises here.
- Charging Cable
- Screen Protector (Supermini)
- Unnamed Earphones (Supermini)
- 1 x Spare tips/ Filters (Supermini)
I really feel that a 2.5mm AK TRRS to 3.5mm Hifiman TRRS adaptor should have been included for the Supermini. Seeing that most balanced earphones are terminated in the AK standard these days, I find sticking to a rare proprietary connection to be impractical. The Supermini also comes with a screen protector, but I found it unusable. The plastic is rough and striated, and there’s dust on the sticky side of the protector. Yes, this was before I even applied it. In addition to coming up with a better protector, it’d be nice if it came pre-installed.
The earphones on the Supermini are very good. They’re supposedly better than the RE-400 ($80 USD), but don’t currently have a name. I’m going to use the term organic here (SG Zepp Headfi’ers J ) . It’s a slightly warmer sounding earphone that still maintains a good level of detail retrieval and separation. Overall presentation can err on the slightly more intimate side, and treble articulation is only above-average compared to earphones like the ER4S. I don’t think I’ll be doing a dedicated review as I will be returning this player and the associated accessories. I do like this earphone! Only thing is…the accessories are few: one extra pair of tips and a couple of filters.
Let’s take a look at the overall package. I still think the earphones should be optional. This is because the Supermini is currently priced halfway between what I would consider entry and mid-range. From the entry level perspective, the Supermini would still be on the higher-side, and from the mid-range level, I think many will already have a pair of earphones to use with the DAP. But I did like the fact that out of the box I had a balanced earphone to use with the Hifiman standard –especially a good one too. Overall, the package is complete –but a couple more accessories would be nice too.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Build on the players is fairly minimalistic. As promised, both players come in with a fairly small footprint. I started to take for granted how easy it was to slip the Supermini into my pocket when I switched back to bulkier Opus#1/ DX50. The Supermini clocks in at 104.0 x 45.0 x 8.5mm, and the Megamini at 100.0 x 43.0 x 9.0mm. The build is metal on both and feels fairly good, though there are some slight changes in form factor between the two. The Supermini is black with rounded edges, and a three-button interface (forward, back, enter). There is back button offset slightly forwards and on the side of the unit. The Megamini on the other hand has all four buttons located on the front face. The latter configuration may not look as nice, but is more convenient than the former, as reaching for the back button is easier. One thing about the Megamini though is that it has some sharp edges – which I am not a fan of. Since there is no case, the edges make it uncomfortable in hand and pocket. Another curious point – when using the Megamini in the dark – the plastic volume and power buttons light up due to backscatter from the screen. Unintended but not altogether unwelcome. In summary, apart from some small quibbles, build quality on these players is good.
Now for some practical design considerations. We’ll start first with the Supermini. The balanced and SE jacks are right next to each other. The risk of having a user plug a SE earphone into the balanced jack is significant. Three things could’ve been done to remedy this: use another balanced standard, provide a cap to cover the unused port, or somehow move the outputs to different ends of the player. On that note – both SE and balanced are enabled at the same time. Moving forward, both players have basic screens. On the Supermini, it is quite obvious that the refresh rate on the screens appears to be rather low. This could either be a hardware or software concern (probably both), but a statement by a friend that I concur with is that the screen seems to be refreshing once per click. Between the two players – there is no internal storage.
Let’s talk UI. Apart from the highly average screen, I actually like the UI a lot. It works very well –I’ve used some seriously frustrating non-touch screen players that just don’t make sense (Hidizs I’m looking at you). The UI on the Supermini and Megamini on the other hand is intuitive and can be navigated with a learning of curve of approximately 30 seconds. The minimalistic white on black aesthetic on the Supermini looks particularly good in my opinion. The settings page is simple, and there are no major surprises here. Currently supported are five languages (Simplified/ Traditional Chinese, English, Japanese, and French).
However, there are some issues with the rest of the OS that need work. Let’s start with basic compatibility. Currently, only FAT-32 works with the Supermini. NTFS and exFAT both need to be rewritten. As is expected, reformatting will delete your library. A bit of a pain –but Hifiman has stated that it is working on the exFAT compatibility for future firmware updates. USB OTG isn’t supported either. You can choose to reformat your cards using the built in functionality -but strangely after a while the player stopped recognizing the card and asked me to reformat again. I was able to do a quick-fix by restarting the player, which mostly solved my issues. However, there’s been feedback that there are still further issues with higher capacity cards. Read speed is also really slow – it took me about 10 minutes to have my 64 GB Sandisk Ultra MicroSD read. Current computer interfacing is good. You can easily transfer files, as the player will show up on both Windows and Mac. It’s a nice change from having to use Android File Transfer on Mac (Opus#1).
Another thing to note – the timer on auto power-off doesn’t seem to care if music is playing or not, making the function unusable. Similarly annoying – the player seems to turn on when being charged, so take care to turn it off after unplugging it, otherwise coupled with the non-functional auto power-off you’ll find yourself running out of battery pretty quickly.
TECH AND SPECIFICATIONS
First off, I’d like to offer a shoutout to @Earfonia (Head-Fi). He’s an excellent reviewer (check out his work here). Through conversations I’ve gained much insight into audio evaluation and the technical aspects related to it. I’d also like to acknowledge the SG Head-Fi community, which is without a doubt a huge, organic body of knowledge –it’s definitely something that I’ve been very happy to be a part of.
Let’s start with a brief look at the Supermini/ Megamini. Both players are using some sort of controller chip with an integrated DAC. I’ve taken the liberty to do some online surfing – there are certainly interesting offerings equipped with 10-bit differential integrated DACs. I also found an interesting article regarding the possible use of ADC’s as DACs here. Some of the chips I saw do come with powerful ADC’s –so this might be a possibility to consider. I won’t be opening the player. I can’t claim to have the expertise or the confidence to do so without possible ruining the device (something I’d rather not do if I’m expected to use this for future comparisons). One SG Head-Fi’er did mention that perhaps the DSD could perhaps be handled without a dedicated DAC w/ higher-order filter. Rudimentary testing via REW SPL logging has shown that for DSD64 playback at 15 Volume w/ DN-2000 comes in at about 12.5 hours. This would indicate otherwise for the filter proposal. Another thing to note -both these players are susceptible to EMI! You will not be having these in the same pocket as your smartphone.
I’ve checked all of the supported file types for both the Supermini and the Megamini. Please see the chart below. The ability to handle 24/192 files is both curious and fairly impressive. Unsurprisingly, the players are unable to support either 32/384 PCM and DSD 128/256, and cannot downsample/convert to PCM. This indicates a probable lack of a dedicated sample rate converter. This is something to note if your library is comprised primarily of such material. I’ve tried loading in an M3U playlist, but the players do not recognize such files. Overall, compatibility with most standard file types is good but I am getting hit or miss performance with AIFF files. Also, it should be noted that playing unsupported APE file types will crash the player.
|16/44.1||✓||✓||✓||✓||Seems to work with some files and not others.||N/A|
|24/192||✓||✓||✓ (weird stutter)||X|
I’ve run some basic RMAA measurements on the players. RMAA results are only as good as the equipment used to perform the tests, and there has been a decent amount of coverage on its limitations and weaknesses. Consider it as a broad proof-reading of published technical specifications. Currently, I am using the Asus Xonar U7 w/ line-in mode. The ADC is a Cirrus Logic CS5361-KZZ that is capable of 24/192 w/ a 114 dB dynamic range. It uses a 5th order MBT Delta-Sigma Modulator, and attains low levels of noise and distortion. For those curious, the DAC is the equally capable CS4398-CZZ.
My RMAA results are affected by the line-in’s gain and the input voltage cap – 1 vrms (3.677 Vpp). @Earfonia has also explained to me that RMAA isn’t ideal for low voltage signals, such as those found on DAPs like these. In practice, I’ve been able to get some decent results out of this rig w/ past gear. Loopback testing on the rig itself indicates that performance-wise there are no glaring issues. There is perhaps argument in conducting an upgrade in the near future –though there are other equipment purchases that are in my mind more pressing. The Megamini has less output than the Supermini out of SE, and I would advise against trying to compare directly the two sets of numbers.
Here’s the Megamini RMAA.
Here’s the Megamini RMAA under various loads. No serious impedance mismatch – which is good news as the HM700 did have a casual 150 ohm impedance.
Here’s the Supermini RMAA. There seems to be steeper roll off based on the RMAA. Curious –certainly doesn’t sound as emphasized as the graph looks. But then again, extension isn’t a strength on either of these players. Anyways, a little something for consideration.
Similarly, no serious issues with the RMAA under various loads! This is good news.
Hifiman describes the Supermini as being “transparent, warm, sweet and punchy”. I do indeed find that the Supermini is an enjoyable, musical sounding DAP. Is it a critical listening DAP? Not to my ears, no. However, the combination of robust lower end, varying roll off, and moderate detail retrieval is actually fairly entertaining. In the following comparisons, I hope that you will be able to gain a better perspective on its performance. As for the Megamini, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Supermini due to its thinner sound and lack of detail. These two don’t make for a good sonic combination. I consider both of these to be in the ultra-portable category of players, not because they’re groundbreakingly slim, but because they’re not ridiculous to carry like most other “audiophile” players. I tested most of the gear in this review at my local store of choice – Zeppelin & Co.
Now let me preface my impressions and comments with observations. I suppose an “ideal” DAP isn’t supposed to alter FR reproduction (if such an ideal even exists). But different DAPs do sound different to me at least –I know some will state otherwise, in which case I do think the RMAAs above will be more informative and agreeable. So, where do these differences arise? In my limited experience, the RMAA will reveal immediate issues –especially impedance-related ones when a load is applied. This can then be followed by a general examination of THD, noise, and the like (though in most cases these aren’t too bad). Detail retrieval is also important, and without a doubt DACs and their implementation will play a part in this. Moving past this, we do arrive at an increasingly subjective aspect of evaluation (and arguably one of the more important ones too).
Before I close up this introduction I’ve got one last point to make. The differences in DAPs, when described in dedicated pieces such as reviews, may seem rather significant (and in some cases, they are). However, in day-to-day use the difference is small between decently performing products. Add in a printer or two and a noisy co-worker and you may not be able to hear a difference between a mid-range player and a ToTL offering. If you can still hear the differences in these conditions, more power to you (no sarcasm) –I know I can’t. Portable devices are not to be confused with “transportable” devices –portables still need to be assessed against a certain element of realistic use. Before anyone jumps, this does not mean that we should conduct all our testing in the subway –that’s similarly pointless. But boy would that make writing reviews easier.
The AK Junior is perhaps the Supermini’s most relevant competitor. Both share similar form factors (though the AK Junior is slightly larger), and are more or less targeted at the same audience. Neither player is perfect, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The Supermini has to its advantage an excellent battery life, native DSD64 support, and a balanced output. The AK Junior can only handle DSD64 via PCM conversion. It does have a 64 GB internal storage (and unofficially 128 GB support). In addition, it has a touch screen display and USB DAC functionality. The feature set of the Supermini is a bit more practical, while the AK feature set is reminiscent of higher end players. Battery life on the AK is weak in comparison to the Supermini –coming in at around 7-8 hours. Overall, I prefer the Supermini feature set.
Sonically, both have somewhat similar levels of sound quality, each with full-bodied, fairly robust signatures and moderate technical performance. In terms of detail retrieval –the AK Junior has the edge, weighing in with better soundstage and imaging. However, Supermini has better low-end impact, making for a more engaging and immediate sound. Midrange on Supermini is more rounded, and has a bit less energy. Upper-end articulation of the AK Junior is better. If Hifiman could make the earphones optional on the Supermini and drop the MSRP, the Supermini does have the potential to undercut the AK Jr. rather significantly. However, at its current pricing, there is no conclusive judgment to be delivered. Potential buyers will still have to gauge purchases based on which features they’d rather see in their players.
The Sony NW-A25 is yet another interesting comparison for the Supermini/ Megamini combination. I’ll be upfront –the Hifiman’s are a better option. There are many features on the NW-A25, such as DSEE HX, S-Master amplification, noise-cancelling, ClearAudio+, Bluetooth capability, 128 GB expansion support, 50-hour playtime, and even a radio. But here’s the thing – I don’t need half these features, and the sound just isn’t good.
Sonically, it is very clear that the Supermini is the better of the two players. I disabled most of the features on the A25, and here’s what I found. The Sony NW-A25 lacks in both detail retrieval and dynamics, and sounds incredibly flat and slightly congested. Throw in some annoying system sounds, and I think the NW-A25 is clearly out of the running. The Supermini simply does many things better. The NW-A25 is more comparable to the Megamini, but in my opinion the Megamini still does a far better job, and has a much higher build quality too (and less annoying UI) too.
Fiio X3 (2nd Gen)
I’ll preface this by saying that I haven’t always been the biggest fan of the Fiio DAP sound signature. While I do feel that detail retrieval, imaging, and soundstage of Fiio players is very nice, there’s a grain and slight lack of smoothness to it as well. That said, the Fiio X3 is a competent player, and it certainly provides very legitimate competition to the Supermini. To its advantage, the Supermini once again pulls in with better battery life and a less obtrusive form factor. Build quality is the same –both rely on physical buttons, though the X3 has a scroll wheel (if that’s your thing). There is no balanced output on the X3 either. However, the dedicated chipset is something to be aware of, and native DSD up to DSD128 is supported. The X3 also has USB DAC support, as well as a line out/ SPDIF coax out.
Sound wise, the X3 sounds clearer, more transparent, and generally more detailed. The dedicated chipset on the X3 definitely shows its strengths here. However, the Supermini does have a slightly more musical touch to it, and those looking for a smoother, warmer signature may enjoy the Supermini. I think the two players have very different focuses. The X3 attempts to bring dedicated DAP performance to a lower pricepoint, while the Supermini aims at combining design and performance into a more user-oriented, convenient package.
And I close this comparison by drawing the line at the DX50, where I feel the Supermini is no longer able to compete sound-wise. Another thing – balanced on the Supermini does indeed sound better. I found that it tightened up the sound, especially on the bass/ lower-mids. There is audible noise floor for both the players. Specifically, the Megamini sounds noisier than the Supermini for SE output.
The Hifiman Megamini and Supermini are certainly very compelling players. There’s definitely a case to be made for them as ultra-portable DAPs. I can tell you returning to my regular DAP brick wasn’t easy. In particular, the Supermini sounds pretty solid for what it is! I do hope that with future firmware updates and support, most of the existing firmware issues can be resolved. If you’re looking for a DAP with a slim form-factor and excellent battery life, then do keep your eyes open for the Hifiman Supermini/Megamini.