Hifiman can claim to have been one of the original proponents of the new wave DAP market when back around 2007 they launched the HM series with the excellent if somewhat ’boutique’ HM-801 and then in 2011 came the lower level but no less capable HM-602. Not without their faults, especially the all too short battery life and somewhat limited UI, they were lauded as the future of high end portable players and certainly a huge step up in audio capability from the Creative, Apple and Philips ‘norm de jour’ cluttering the minds and retail shelves in many a city.
Fast forward to 2013 and 2014 the audiophile DAP has become big business and probably one of the hottest wars among a number of companies for many a year. Ibasso have the DX50 and the DX90, FiiO with the X3 and X5 and Astell &Kern (iRiver) have the AK series topping out just recently with the $2.5k AK240 (and another 0 and it could have been the price as a brand which would be cool eh?). There are also a number of indie brands out there such as the Calyx brand which is going to ensure this stays an extremely vibrant sector. In some ways you can argue that Astell & Kern may have stolen the thunder from Hifiman in terms of what can be done and how far one can go with portable high end DAP’s and combined with a rather pro-longed and slightly problematical launch period for the HM-901 in 2013 you could be forgiven for thinking some of the original sheen in the HM series had been lost.
However I see the HM-901 in a slightly different manner now that I have had some time to play with it and if Hifiman and Dr. Fang stay true to their principles and continue developing the key features of the HM-901 then in actual fact the HM-901 is probably the only flagship “system” DAP out there in the market that targets audiophiles in a way that breaks away from the immediacy of the Apple culture that perhaps the likes of FiiO and Ibasso are more focused on capturing.
What do I mean by a system DAP? Every single DAP out there will tell you that their DAP will have a considerable increase in sound quality combined with an easy to use UI and a responsive support team focused on improving it firmware by firmware. But it is only Hifiman (that I know of) that can lay claim to having any sort of modular approach to their DAP designs through their unique amp card system that in some ways negates the need for any external amp matching thereby making it for me the only “system” type DAP for me in the market. Think of Google’s project Ara and in some ways that is the philosophy deployed by Hifiman, initially via the HM-801 and now with the HM-901. Outside of the “me too” features common on most high end DAP’s nowadays this is what sets Hifiman and the HM-901 apart from the rest.
Note: new firmware is now out – V1.085 – http://down.head-direct.com/hm901/update.zip We will update you in a few weeks on any noteworthy changes.
Click on next page for build impressions…