High quality DAPs become more and more affordable. The performance border shifts on both ends, top and bottom shelves are equally filled with decent performers. Often to pay more is to get more in return, that’s true. But a very good DAP today doesn’t cost a ton of money and this writing isn’t about one of top of the line products, on the contrary in fact. Latest HiFiMAN SuperMini is quite affordable and very promising. $399? Heck yes, fun time ahead!
Let’s take a good long look at the past, 2010 or something along those lines. At that time, Astell&Kern wasn’t even a thing, said brand emerged in 2012. Not that many expensive audiophile DAPs were available six years back. As far as yours truly remembers, Vinnie Rossi’s iPod modification known as the iMod was the most popular. One could easily spend $1’000+ on a portable setup with it. Now it isn’t anything crazy. But such pricing years back, even for this kind of setup seemed off the charts to say the least. iBasso DX100 also gained lots of recognition and praises on forums. These two aside, HiFiMAN HM-801 surely stood out of the crowd as well. Picture a PCM1704 based DAP big and heavy enough to easily do some fatal damage. Because of said features, this old-timer was highly unpractical and its quirky interface didn’t help at all. Add a rather steep price on top of that, short battery life and presto, an obscure, luxury DAP aimed at the highest calibre aficionados who’re willing to forgive lots of things in the name of sound quality was the outcome. The HM-801 model sounded very good though, but we won’t dive into this matter here. The point is that this top shelf product indicated in which direction HiFiMAN as a company headed years back. No prisoners taken was the clear message, HE-6 planars followed shortly after. And then some.As far as I remember, HM-801 and HE-6 models placed Dr Fang Bian’s company on the audio roadmap. He gained the needed attention and once this was given, it was high time to adjust to the market, its people and their needs. HiFiMAN portfolio needed to expand quickly in order to cover broader audience and exactly that happened. HM-601 and HM-602 models emerged shortly after, then came HM-650, HM-802 and HM-901. Similar story happened with headphones, over the years HiFiMAN delivered many really good ones, mostly of planar topology. This company surely deserves its current position on the audio market. I had a pleasure of reviewing most of its products and the takeaway is that it undoubtedly pays lots of attention to sound quality. Yet not everything always clicks with HiFiMAN.OK, so where’s the catch? As there obviously is one? Well, HiFiMAN isn’t a company that delivers goods as refined as its competition in terms of OS and build quality. What Fang Bian achieved is remarkable and I’m very pleased with his company’s portfolio, please don’t get me wrong. Yet it’s rather undeniable that HiFiMAN’s flagship DAP and i.e. similarly priced Astell&Kern’s device aren’t on the same luxury and convenience level. The former simply isn’t there yet. It’s highly probable that in my previous reviews the same remark was made. But everything changes and it’s safe to say that HiFiMAN catches up. Not that long ago, HM-901S became this company’s new flagship DAP. It gained new body, tweaked circuitry, upgraded interface and far more stable and quicker OS. In comparison to said device’s previous version, the improvement is easily noticeable. If one is curious whether this rule apply only to revamped goods, latest products or maybe both, this review surely will help to answer said questions. HiFiMAN SuperMini is it’s main dish, enjoy.
It can be seen that HiFiMAN products’ visual appearance evolves. HM-901s is a decent example. The very first version of this device in particular was rather bulky, its body was made out of plastic, which isn’t impressive at all these days. If a manufacturer wants to be successful with its top tier products, CNC milled aluminium alloy is the only reasonable way to go. Fang Bian’s company had some catching up to do and both HM-901 versions – s and u – clearly show that this goal was achieved to some extent. Full-fledged aluminium body was delivered and said products look and feel much better than their vanilla versions. New enclosure was implemented in more affordable HM-802s too. Let’s leave pricey devices alone at this point and shift our focus to HiFiMAN’s entry level DAPs.Recently discontinued HM-700 model was introduced around early 2014. It was quite a sidestep from what HiFiMAN got us all used to. Said DAP wasn’t bulky at all, it was designed to be as portable as it gets. When it was sent to yours truly, an armband was a part of the package, which clearly indicated that this device should be used on the go. Heavy workout anyone? The device itself was very good on usual fields, sound quality that is. Small form factor and affordable price were the obvious upshots. But HM-700 build quality left me rather unimpressed as this device had this plastic alike, therefore cheap feeling to it. Once similarly looking SuperMini hit the market, the initial impression wasn’t the same ol’ “meh”. Far from it.SuperMini DAP looks quite like HM-700 model, but the latter shares more similarities with another HiFiMAN newcomer – MegaMini – even more. This review’s main dish is a bit pricier, though perfectly affordable still. And once on hand, it feels very solid, which is a very nice surprise. That unimpressive feeling mentioned above? It’s gone completely, SuperMini model really is up there build wise. It’s small above all else, picture a (L x W x H) 104 x 45 x 8,5 mm pocket device of a true audiophile DNA and mere 70 grams weight. Battery life of this DAP is rated at 22 hours, though I was able to squeeze 14 out of it. That’s a decent performance overall, yet in comparison to manufacturer’s declaration… something’s clearly off. Seven hours less? Past testing phase, this journalist’s assumption was that the unit delivered to his hands directly worked at lowest possible settings (1/32 value) with its display constantly in off mode. But that’s just a rough guess of what might be going on.Moving on, SuperMini’s FR is 20 Hz – 20 000 kHz, its THD is 0.04% and SNR hits the 103 +/- 3 dB mark. This device’s balanced headphone out packs 320 mW under 32 ohms load. The product looks and feels slick and, as stated above, very well-built piece of hardware. Its enclosure is actually made out of CNC machined aluminium alloy and it can be felt. No plastic parts anywhere in sight, which is a sight to be seen in our $399 case. SuperMini has a very nice 2″ OLED display of rather low resolution, it shows white marks on a perfectly black background. It’s a bit vintage overall, with easily noticeable refreshing rate, yet serves it’s purpose rather well. Three responsive buttons sit right below; forward, play/pause and back, in that order. Quite big area underneath is plain.SuperMini’s right side sports four buttons in total; power on/off, return, volume down and volume up. It was of no issue for this scribe to reach for second button a bit further than usual with his thumb. Yet those of you who got used to HM-700 DAP and alike, therefore based on a front panel focused interface, might have a hard time early on. SuperMini’s top and left sides are plain, whereas four sockets in total sit on its bottom; regular and fully balanced 3,5 mm headphone outs of unknown output impedance, microSD card slot and microUSB data transfer/battery charging input. Both 3,5 mm outs are quite noisy, yet I was able to defeat that with iFi Audio iEMatch, but that’s a story for another time. SuperMini’s data transfer is painfully slow, our device works only with FAT32 cards. Also forget OTG function, this machine’s isn’t capable of this glorious deed.The product doesn’t have an in-built memory, therefore in order to use it, one has to think about it before spending aforementioned $399. These days memory cards are very affordable, hence lack of one in the package isn’t considered as a deal-breaker by yours truly. Speaking of which, there are two sets of rubber tips inside, a pair of RE-600 IEMs equivalent, presumably of $200 value, four pairs of wax filters for these, a USB cable, one piece of a protective film and a leaflet. That’s decent enough. Ah, SuperMini’s internals. Not much is known about these. The DAC and main headphone amplifier both sit in one chip, whereas eight operational amplifiers in total (four in single-ended) handle the signal past the latter. This is rather odd as HiFiMAN representatives were always very outspoken about what’s inside of this company’s products. SuperMini DAP is obviously full of secrets and you be the judge whether you can live with this. That’s it. And this journalist? He’s into sound quality above all else.It’s high time to address an elephant in the room matter, SuperMini’s functionality. Most of audiophile DAPs sport some interesting features. These days a product of this sort can act as a USB DAC, it can have digital output (usually coaxial) and some internal memory built-in. HiFiMAN’s latest machine is as vanilla as it gets, it doesn’t have any of these. It was designed as a DAP with strong emphasis on its sound quality. And as such, it delivers. It also works with majority of both lossy and lossless formats, natively up to DSD128 too. Yet said product’s limited functionality might not work for some of you. Therefore if multitasking is what you pay attention to, it’s time to move on and shift focus to FiiO products for example, full of features as per usual and decently priced at that. Another thing is user’s interface. SuperMini’s buttons work as intended, yet its OS is very limited, stripped from very basic options. User can browse folders by genres, folders or artists, but a search engine isn’t there. The same story goes with album covers, equalization or gapless playback. That last element might actually be a deal-breaker for many of you. To hear the music as artist intended, therefore without any intervals between tracks, is important for lots of enthusiasts. It was explained already why SuperMini can’t have this feature implemented, it’s heavily related to OS itself and sound quality. But it is what it is. The takeaway for this chapter is that SuperMini should be seen as a sound quality oriented DAP, with very intuitive, stable yet basic user interface and very limited usability outside of its main function. If that status quo resonates with your needs, please read on. If things are the other way around, FiiO, iBasso or pricier Astell&Kern products are out there for the taking.
In order to properly test HiFiMAN SuperMini, several things had to be taken care of. These include various IEMs, that’s the main field to cover. Next there are other, similar products. I’ve decided to use FiiO M3 because it’s very affordable, sounds quite good and to a degree offers similar functionality. Now let’s get down to the tasty part.HiFiMAN’s latest DAP sounds very good right off the bat. And it’s rather difficult to fit this product inside just one frame. It neither doesn’t sound plainly transparent nor overly thick. Therefore it can’t be described as merely warm or cold, that’s not the case at all and that’s good. With SuperMini model, things are of complex and very interesting, well-thought nature. It can be heard that people responsible for its sound knew what they were doing.Picture a DAP which sounds thick, smooth and very, very punchy. That’s the SuperMini’s rough psych profile. These several descriptive measures separately aren’t that impressive. But when combined altogether in a $399 portable device, well, that’s a recipe for a success. The outcome is a very enjoyable sound overall. Not of a surgeon’s knife precision, we’ll get down to that in a moment, and not as wide as it gets. But with SuperMini, fun service will be surely provided.Our DAP has a very strong low end. It is nicely extended and generously textured, a listener not only hears but also feels its presence. Yet SuperMini’s bass isn’t neither overblown nor overbearing, it fits where it needs to fit. In downstairs regard, I couldn’t have asked for more from a DAP with such price tag. The midrange is present, pleasantly thick and lifelike. It doesn’t stand out of the crowd, the connection between said FR part and the bass is perfectly fine. SuperMini’s highs are nicely sewn with the rest, although slightly trimmed. If one is after detail retrieval, a specific pair of IEMs or headphones has to be used to achieve this goal. To some individuals, this might be a potential flaw. Though my subjective palette tells me that if upstairs department would have been brighter, it wouldn’t fit the rest this well. Proper highs decay and weight were served and that’s what matters the most. And even though slightly on the darker side, I consider SuperMini as a quite universal sounding machine.The real spot where HiFiMAN’s DAP shines is its punchiness. This device kicks like crazy. In comparison to FiiO M3, there’s really no contest in that regard. SuperMini is both thicker and feistier. Its sub bass is much more audible, to a point where the sound with proper IEM’s really goes wild in downstairs department. Another two of our machine’s prominent sound features are smoothness and almost non-existent grain level. To witness these in a device from SuperMini’s shelf is a rarity, that’s a given. So there you have it, a marvelous performer and very decently priced at that. Are there any downsides? Well, objectively one, subjectively at least additional two. Our DAP’s soundstage is well-developed in terms of depth, yet rather narrow. Aforementioned FiiO M3 sounds more spacious and airier. It doesn’t mean that SuperMini’s presentation is stuffy, or constrictive even. In fact it is not. Yet those of you who’re after spacious and fairly light experience, probably won’t like this performer as much as this journalist does. As far as subjective ‘downsides’ go, the same story is with thickness and transparency. To my ears, HiFiMAN’s latest is neither overly dense or fuzzy performer, it’s too agile to be one, nor too clear sounding as well. My point is that it doesn’t have these aspects as well-developed as its key features. To have every field equally covered and of quality for $399 is a very difficult task to fulfil.Now let’s cover the suitable company matter. SuperMini goes rather well with IEMs from the opposite spectrum, hence airy, spacious, bass light and midrange heavy Vision Ears VE5 sounded great with this DAP. A perfect synergy case indeed. Moving on, NG Audio Capricorn flagship, even though it sounds much thicker and feistier, performed well with this review’s main dish. To hear this kind of lows is a rarity, believe me. Authority, texturing, tightness… everything simply clicked in a marvelous fashion. In balanced mode, which is tighter, a bit thicker and more resolving in comparison to a regular 3,5 mm out, Capricorn’s bass was a dynamite. Said IEMs midrange was grand too, not excessively thick or veiled, it matched downstairs. Yet the frequency part above could be a bit more pronounced and present, slight spark would do wonders. In the end, out of pure curiosity I’ve plugged HiFiMAN HE-1000 planar, full-sized and open flagship to SuperMini’s balanced 3,5 mm out. Said cans performed loud enough to feel perfectly comfortable. Was this experience comparable to i.e. the outcome achieved with COS Engineering H1? No, not even close. Though the effect was very enjoyable nonetheless. This wasn’t a case of faux pas at all, that inherent feistiness and tightness was impressive as hell. Add said planars’ generous muscle mass and expansiveness and boom, smile on your face will appear. Yes, to experience how grand HE-1000 model can sound is to know that these can go even faster, denser, more spacious and livelier. But heck, the effect this decent with a $399 DAP? Bloody hell… And lastly, IEMs bundled with SuperMini. These are not only decent performers all alone, but also work very well with said machine. Their fair transparency, slight warmth and inherently natural character overall matched it brilliantly. Again, for the asking of $399, this is a grand package sound wise.
The statement that HiFiMAN SuperMini is a case of somewhat vintage DAP is factually correct and rightfully so. The initial plan was to deliver a product affordable, small and simple overall, yet of great sound quality. I’m confident to say that each of these goals were undoubtedly achieved. Several years back it was impossible to have a performer soundwise this good and this small at the same time. HiFiMAN’s latest is very well-made and as such, it serves as a proof that said company pays more and more attention to this important aspect. Which is for us – users – a clear win/win.
Yet SuperMini’s shortcomings are the reason why this isn’t neither an universal device nor an easy recommendation. Said portable machine won’t please multi-purpose freaks. Let me point it out again: no gapless playback, no line out, no digital out, no DAC function, no OTG support and a very basic OS on top of that. Can you get by without these? Can you really? I know I can, because of purely subjective reasons. An affordable and handy DAP is… an affordable and handy DAP. It doesn’t have to please me in every way possible, no. It has to sound good though, be easy to use and portable. YMMV, though.
In any case, if you’re after a DAP plain, small, easy to operate, with rather generous battery life and grand sound quality for the coin, I encourage you to audition HiFiMAN SuperMini. This product’s sound is refined, enjoyable and coherent. Smoothness, punchy attitude and vividness it delivers are really remarkable features under $400. And make no mistake, get yourself familiarized with stock IEMs, these are really good and work very well with this review’s champ. Perhaps these will turn out to be the only ones you need, for a while at least. ‘Till next time.
- Headphones/IEMs: Vision Ears VE5, NG Audio Capricorn, ENIGMAcoustic Dharma D1000
- DAP: FiiO M3
- Digital source/headphone amplifier: COS Engineering H1
- IEM cable: Forza AudioWorks Pyre
- Music: NativeDSD
Retail prices of reviewed components in EU:
- HiFiMAN SuperMini: $399