HiFiMAN HM-650 Review

HiFiMAN HM-650 Review

Thanks to HiFiMAN for the samples.

First Impressions:  The box looks big and for a premium product of this price I’m not notably impressed with it.  Inside and well yeah I’m not blown away.  The proper printed instruction book is nice, start at one side and it’s in English, start at the other and it’s Chinese, that I like.  The contents, err like could we maybe say somewhere what the “HD/Vintage” button does?  The player itself, well erm, err let’s just say its looks aren’t going to be giving Sony nightmares anytime soon.  The thing is not a looker.  I actually feel like I’ve entered a time machine and gone back to the 80’s.  This thing is as svelte as a brick.  In the hand too I can’t say I’m feeling the love, lol it’s practically comedic.  Anyway, we aren’t here to read about how fugly the thing is are we?

So, on seeing it I thought “oh damn, that thing had better sound F***ing amazing!”  Oh boys and girls, it so does!!!!!!!!!  It’s early, early days and I’ve so far only tried it with one IEM, the q-JAYS were on my desk and since HiFiMAN DAP’s are often warm, the coolness they offer should pair well.  Oh Christ do they pair well!!!  I’ve been playing with now for maybe an hour and a half and I’m thinking that this could potentially be my new DAP of choice for day to day use.  Hmm but the spec says 9 hour battery life, eek!  That could be a bit of a show stopper there. Right now though, I’m thinking it sounds good enough to pretty much overcome any obstacle.

Screen:  Well the screen is much better than the 601 had but err, well you won’t be amazed.  Of course this is an audio player so the screen isn’t very important; it gets the functional job of navigation done.  Any more would just be overkill and I would rather the money went into the audio components than a screen.  It’s not great out in the sun though, so it’s a bit hard to see but again it’s not something you’ll be doing much so how important is it?

Battery Life:  Lol, there is no way to be positive about this.  Coming from the Studio V 3rd Anv. with its insane 100 hour battery life, the rated life here is just 9 hours.  Yes 9 hours.  Granted the battery is user replaceable so you can bring spares, they are massive batteries though.  Sure for pretty much everyone 9 hours is going to get you through a day of use.  Maybe even two or three days.  So while it always got me through a day of use its very much a case of if you use when you get home you have to remember and stick in on charge.

UI:  Once more I can really say it’s much nicer than that from the HM-601.  It’s really not terrible at all.  Of course its err, not really that great either.  It was easy enough to find what I wanted and to control things so it’s a general thumbs up for usability.  Just don’t expect it to be swish or pretty.

In the hand:  Well it’s a great big block of a DAP.  It’s a huge lump of plastic and while it has a certain heft to it there is nothing about it that says, I’m a premium fancy product.  The button layouts don’t really suit me either.  The volume control, fugly as it is, meant I couldn’t really control it with just my thumb like I can with everything else.  So that was annoying.  The track skip button was so near the bottom my thumb didn’t reach with ease either.  Frankly it’s just all a bit awkward.

Format Support:  Erm all of them I think.  MP3, ACC, WMA, OGG, APE, WAV, AIFF and the one we really care about, FLAC.  So that should pretty much cover everyone and every possibility.  Oh and it supports SDXC cards so that will take us upto 128GB cards.  (HiFiMAN don’t promise anything but I’d bet it will take larger cards too in the future.)

Connections:  Well it’s pretty Spartan.  On the top we have a standard 3.5mm headphone out socket and the only other connector we have is on the bottom.  The bottom one is a proprietary connector that is used for charging, line out and for placing in a dock.  While I do understand why this is the case I’m sorry HiFiMAN but WTF??? Are you seriously making us use a proprietary charging connector????????? Yeah if it had a million hours battery life I wouldn’t be so annoyed but why the hell did you not let it charge also with micro USB?  You know, the micro USB cables that are everywhere, on everything and everyone has in abundance.  No you went proprietary so that means you can only charge it in the one location you have left your charger (giant charger) or you have to cart it with you everywhere.  HiFiMAN I am very disappointed, get a V2 out and give it micro or even mini USB charging too, the 601 had it so why can’t the 650?

Volume:  Well the thing has a high and a low gain option, I don’t know why because even on low it can go insane loud.  Oddly the loud gain didn’t ramp up the volume much but with the big HD600’s running it did beef them up.   Anyway, I couldn’t put them past 6 out of 10 so should drive anything out there to more than loud enough for anyone.

Sound Quality:  Well you could say that so far this review hasn’t been very positive, this is where that changes.  The HM-650 is aimed at an audiophile crowd and so its primary attribute must therefore be its audio quality.  It does not disappoint.  The thing is F***ing awesome.  Oh god and this is just with the “Standard Amp” I mean holy crap!!!  The thing knows where its target audience is and it nails it like Luther to a Wurttemberg church door.  Oh god how much do I want to see what the other amp cards can do!!!

Trying it out with IEM after IEM and they all sound excellent.  There is a slight hint of mellowing and those who love the deepest and most punchy bass and the most aggressive highs too may not find it here.  It’s not that it really lacks in either direction, it’s not brutal about it.  My much loved Studio V is a much more open, dry and explicit DAP.  That is just how they are and neither is “better” than the other any more than coffee is “better” than tea, they are just different.  That said, the 650 is the more versatile of the two.  It with warm and soft IEM’s was a bit over soft but still pleasant and listenable.  The Studio with its brash enthusiasm if paired with things hyperactively aggressive then it can get quite wearing on the ears.

Looking back to its predecessor the 601, things get much more straight forward.  The 650 is just better.  No quotation marks, it is better.  Of course someone has every right to prefer the 601, with its even warmer and smoother sound but the 650 is very much technically superior.

What about an assortment of IEM’s?  Well let’s give a bash with a bunch.  The SE530 was as ever beautiful and just made me want to launch into song constantly.  The treble was serene and delicate.  The lows could have had a bit more grunt down low though.   The TF10, it needs power to be its best and it was well driven here but it was surprisingly dark.  The bass was vigorous and deep.  Not the aggressive punch I’m used to.  The mids were more creamy than is typical too and the highs were detailed but unusually refined.  The IE8, the bass is fabulous.  A great big hump of party.  The mids somewhat thickened but still a great breadth.  Highs again were a little muted, a little more refined than sparkly, a shame because they sparkle like nothing else.  The UM3x, with its ever WWW shape.  Bass a little more rotund and its punch a bit diminished as I’d thought may happen.  The highs have the same slightly tamed feel.  Moving to the shimmery R3 and they pair up so lovely, neither really display aggressive movements but come from differing tonal styles.  The 650 warm and smooth, the R3 open and delicately shimmery.  It’s a lovely pairing.

Moving onto some of HiFiMAN’s own IEM’s, which are all rather excellent btw, starting with the RE-600.  Well it’s really good, shocking I know, but it pairs better than I thought, the bass could as I’ve seen elsewhere do with a tiny bit of bumping at the deepest depths but the highs are very nuanced.  Mids are a super tiny bit rich but scrumptious so who cares.   Then I found the RE-0, you remember it was the IEM that was once being sold for US$80.  Holy crap the two sound amazing together.  The 0 is a touch soulless but the 650 gives it just enough of a nudging and my god they really shine together.  It’s such a shame you can’t still get them new.  F*** me they all sound amazing actually.  The 272 is still probably the best IEM in the world, the 252 is almost as stunning and the 262 likewise are just mesmerising.  How the 262 ever retailed at just US$150 I have no idea.

Features:  The 650 offers the ability to swap out amp cards.  That way you can tailor and upgrade the sound quality to your hearts content.  Not havening any other here I cannot test how they sound but I would imagine they are all superb given how good the “standard” card sounds.  Then we have a relatively simple, high / low gain option.  Unusually high gain wasn’t vastly louder than low, it did seem to beef up the sound though, I’m not entirely sure what it was doing but in the end I mostly left it on high.  Naturally you can swap back and forth as you like.  Then we have a slider labelled “Vintage/HD.”  My thoughts when I first saw was WTF is that?  Seemingly HD is normal and Vintage ever so slightly mutes the far high end.  On paper you would think HD all the way but quite often, with cooler and brighter pairings I rather preferred the Vintage mode.  Its pretty subtle so don’t expect a huge change.  Last of all, we have the option, depending on your amp card, the ability to use a balanced output.  There aren’t many balanced IEMs out there but they do exist and if you have this might offer some additional appeal to you.

Lows:  Well it is a HiFiMAN and it is Wolfson powered so naturally that means that that there is a gently warmed tone to things.  Its ever so slight compared with the 601 as there is rather greater transparency here.  The bass is that ever so faintly reticent about being virulently explosive in a way that the Studio V is much less shy about.  The Wolfson sound tends towards that achingly beautiful and ever so faintly tamed.  Throw some wood winds or strings their way and that phenomenal lingering timing just draws you in and surrounds you in the most softly magical fantasy of sound.  Yes somewhere in your mind you may realise that it’s all a little euphonic but who cares????  Sweeping and genteel like a Bernini sculpture, the air and grace belies its marble undertone.  Oh yes it is truly lovely.

The anti to this beauteous sound is that, well the HM-650 isn’t quite all that convincing at doing aggressive and violent bass.  Even with the ever punchy TF10 in play the 650 always at that tinge of civility and silk to it.  Hey for me this is grand but if you are a thrill seeker looking for wildly exciting bass, this maybe isn’t it.

Mids:  What I wrote for the bass, yep that.  They are just simply to die for.  Even with the very so so mids of the TF10 these were so flowing and milky soft.  The dry raspy nature of the TF10 was really taken in hand and smoothed out.  Racing across to something far more middy like the RE-600 and this, hmm maybe makes for a tiny bit over bit milky in their presentation.  I tend to steer away from warm liquid DAP’s and warm liquid IEM’s as a pairing.  Though jumping to one of my dryer favourites, the lovely little q-JAYS and I’m a little blown away as to how well they pair up.  My god they are a jaw dropping combo.  The fabulously liquid presentation of the 650 and the open dryness of the q-JAYS complement each other perfectly.  Truly mids to die for.  So flawing yet so expressive they are just exactly how all mids should be.

The down side? Well if you pair with something very rich or liquid already it makes for a bit over creamy sound.  Not bad at all but that bit too creamy, lacks any edge and guitars in particular lack that twangy bight.

Highs:  They are ever so slightly dampened as you tend to find from Wolfson things.  The detail level here is quite superb though.  Again I find it works best when you pair with something cooler as it allows the faintly shimmering detail to more stand forth and shine.  They are desperately nuanced and polite which is a joy for my ever treble delicate ears.  Even songs I know that I can find at times over bright, over aggressive and over bighty sound lovely.  I know I don’t need to tell you but these are very much deserving of a pairing that will allow for bucket loads of detail retrieval.

The negative is that the ever so gently reticent nature and the ever so slow roll off mean that if you want vigorous, aggressive splashy treble then you’re looking in the wrong place.  This is a sumptuously smooth shimmering top end, not at all aggressive.

Hiss:  I really can’t say I noticed any at all.  What I did notice was that every track skip or pause produced a little electronic couple of clicks while something engaged or disengaged.  It was rather noticeable as I track skip all the time but it wasn’t really a big problem.  I know it might really bother some but I wasn’t.

Accessories:  Well you don’t get a lot, but then it’s a DAP so what would you expect.  Naturally you get the charger, giant charger might I add.  A small issue, mine came with a European plug to 8 connector, since I’m in the UK where we have plugs that don’t feel like two glorified wires you stick in a socket, this meant the first thing I did was hit up ebay and buy a UK plugged cable.  Sure it’s a small issue but hey, it’s still an issue.  The other thing you get is a line out connector which frankly is stupid.  It’s nice you get it but surely the whole point of buying something like the 650 is because its great sounding so the idea of using it and hooking up an external amp, well hey maybe it’s just me.

Value:   Errr. So its US$449 or about £286.  You either want it or you don’t.  I mean it’s more than an Ipod touch 64GB and that’s before HMRC and parcelfarce take their cuts.  Oh and it comes with no storage so you need to buy that on top.  The thing is if you are even thinking about this verses an Ipod you have missed the point entirely.  This sounds exquisite and its one and only focus is audio quality.  Given how good I think it sounds however, I’d say you’re getting an absolute bargain.  You know, if buying a separate DAP that you could argue does nothing the phone you already have can do could be thought good “value.”

Conclusion:  Oh my there are so many problems with the HM-650 is not even funny.  I mean the thing is really fugly, oh it’s truly laugh at kinda fugly.  The battery, 9 hours I mean what is this, 1982???  On and after using for a bit you get why it’s so battery heavy.  HiFiMAN have thoughtfully included a hand warmer function.  Yes it’s great for those chilly winter morns, its little heating vents on the sides make your pocket all cosy and warm.  Seriously, it has heating vents it gets so warm.  Oh then the screen is meh, the UI is at best inoffensive and the controls are, shall we say ill-suited to my hands.  So clearly there are some issues with the 650.

The positive, yes there is just the one, is the primary function of an ostensibly single purpose device.  The HM-650 sounds just glorious.  In an age of convergence devices, mostly phones, where people are willing to give up quality for convenience the HM-650 say’s balls to that and does the inverse.  Convenience is all forsaken and audio quality is prioritised as it rightly should be in a dedicated DAP.  The result is that the thing is just amazing.  Sure it’s not aurally perfect, everything has a bit of a flavour and the 650 with its Wolfson yumminess produces a scummy gooey liquidy assemblage of aural joy.  Sure it’s a teeny bit warm, it’s a teeny bit mellow and it’s a teeny bit reticent.  So what, its sooooooooo scrummy and delicious sounding.

Contextually the competition for the HM-650 is my long-time favourite, the Studio V 3rd Anv. and I can’t quite decide which I like better.  They pair with different things, the Studio being more neutral and clean, the 650 has a touch of liquid warmth.  Aurally they are both superb but if push comes to shove I think I’d give it to the 650.  (Well I would today but tomorrow it could be the Studio.)  It offers that euphonic, better than real life sound that is so mesmerising. However I don’t know if the 650 could be my daily driver.

I really, really, really like how the 650 sounds.  This and the q-JAYS are such a captivating combo, truly a heavenly pairing.  Warm IEM’s, a bit less so, the RE-600 while lovely was a hint dull for me but I’d bet anyone buying the 650 has more than one IEM to pick up anyway.  Though I wonder how often I will pick up the 650 day to day.  It’s just so gorgeous sounding but that battery life is a sod and no micro USB charging (seriously HiFiMAN, SERIOUSLY!?!?!?) so you can’t get a sneaky charge in when in the office or wherever.  Then I go back to listening and all is instantly forgiven.  Oh god it sounds so lovely. Just keep in mind that the 650 is a true audiophile DAP and makes tons of compromises to make it happen.  It won’t be your head that picks the 650 but when your heart hears it, it’ll be the one making the decision to buy it.

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