The Biz: Where is Portable Audio Going? An Overview of the New Age DAP Market

Editor’s Note: Victor leads us on a trip into the realm of DAPs, with additional insight and commentary by Mr. T. Special thanks to longtime reader and good friend Moe, who helped us fact check and gave us numerous additional resources.

If we look back at the annals of [recent] history, we’ll notice that the most primitive portable audio player was probably the battery-powered cassette player. If you are young like me, then you probably didn’t have much experience with it. Yet, the cassette tape was what put the Sony Walkman on the map. Guys like Nathan at ohm-image probably had one attached to their hips while walking to school.

After cassette players came the age of the portable CD player, and the Sony Walkman evolved into the Sony Discman. From tape to disc, this transition signaled not only a change in medium, but also a shift from analog to digital. We now had the digital audio player (DAP). Although I wasn’t quite the audio geek I am now, nonetheless I had a Discman, as did many a youngster. Was the DAP then a permanent fixture in our lives, though? Not nearly. In fact, I hesitated to carry one around, as it was bulky and burdensome. Sony’s ATRAC-based MiniDisc system shrunk the Discman to manageable sizes, but required lossy compression and a return to a tape-like cassette. To this day, however, there’s still a cult following for those cute little MD players.

Then, the internet happened. Napster happened. MP3s became the most widely shared (and pirated) digital files on our computers. These MP3 files, highly compressed and easily accessible, revolutionized the way people stored and handled digital music.

It wasn’t until portable MP3 players came out, such as the Apple iPod and the Sansa Clip, that people started showing true interest the digital audio player and its portability. By storing compressed MP3 files that provided many hours of playback, these small DAPs astonished the crowd with versatility and portability. The late Steve Jobs took the iPod and vaulted the near-bankrupt Apple to the forefront of consumer electronics.

Anyhow, the past isn’t such a big concern now. In the present day, the age of the high-end, high-resolution DAP has arrived. While there were multiple other audiophile DAPs prior to 2012 (e.g. HiFiMAN HM-801, Colorfly C4, iBasso DX100, etc.), it was iRiver that really catapulted the high-end DAP into the forefront of audiophiles’ collective consciousness, and so in my opinion, this market really only blossomed after the introduction of Astell&Kern AK100.

With a footprint about half the size of the gargantuan iBasso DX100 and a marketing strategy that claimed the triumph of ‘mastering quality sound’ (MQS, or basically just compressed lossless 24-bit PCM) over conventional MP3s and the Red Book (16/44.1 PCM) format, Astell&Kern struck gold with the AK100. Gone were the days when audiophiles had to carry bulky field recorders or massive amplifier stacks. With a Wolfson WM8740 DAC and a low-noise output, the AK100 provided high quality sound, all in a minuscule (compared to older generation of DAPs) aluminum enclosure. This type of new age design contrasted sharply with the “Audiophiles care about looks? Nah, only sound matters!” type of approach something like the HiFiMAN HM-801 took. The HM-801 had all the audiophile-approved guts, such as a high-end R2R DAC and high-powered amplifier with balanced output, but looked like a Cold War era device, stodgy footprint, and clunky user interface. iRiver bet big on vanity and ease of use, hoping to rope in the younger crowd that was used to Apple-esque industrial design.

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The Astell&Kern AK100 sent the personal audiophile industry into a DAP arms race.

And sell like hot cakes the AK100 did. Ever since the huge success of AK100, other companies have followed suit and have started making more competitive high-end DAPs. The FiiO X3 and iBasso DX50 were two DAPs that followed AK100’s lead with the Wolfson WM8740 DAC chips, but worked at the market from an affordability standpoint.

Astell&Kern, however, wanted to push the price envelope upwards, rather than lower the cost of entry. They released the $1299 AK120 just half a year after the AK100, doubling both the number of DAC chips and the price. Gold nonetheless flowed like the stream at Sutter’s Mill. A&K now dominates the ultra high end market with its flagship AK240 — with a whopping retail price of $2,499 USD.

Astell & Kern’s quick climb from pricing out the ordinary fellow to stratospheric heights has caught the attention of not only the personal audiophiles, but also the general consumers and other manufacturers. No one expected a $2.5K DAP to sell like the AK240 did. This success demonstrated audiophiles’ willingness to open up their wallets for something of higher quality, regardless of price tag.

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Love it or hate what it stands for, the AK240 has sold beyond peoples’ wildest expectations, despite a still recovering global economy.

And in this era of high-priced DAPs, more and more, price be damned, consumers are demanding top-of-the-line (TOTL) performance out of their DAPs. And companies are more than happy to match those demands with additional features. The AK240 is equipped with a 2.5mm balanced output and captivating futuristic design, while other players like the DX90 offer an USB OTG feature and other audiophile-friendly features. Native DSD decoding support is now bog-standard.

Beyond Astell&Kern: A Market Explosion

Since our 2013 founding, we here at CYMBACAVUM have covered a whole lot of these new ultra-premium players in our ‘DAP’ section; recent notable players include the Cowon Plenue 1 (thoughts here), Calyx M (thoughts here), and Sony ZX1 (review here).

However, the market is quickly becoming both diverse and stratified, and can now be separated into a few different categories:

“Old-School” (Not Separated by Price)
Affordable High-Resolution
Premium High-End
Cost No Object, TOTL High-End

While the lines between categories are arbitrary,  the “affordable” segment usually falls below $500 USD, while the “premium” segment would be anything between $500-1500, and the TOTL segment as any product above that. It’s a handwavy way of sorting these products out, but stratifying products by price usually works pretty well.

As one can see, the market is diversifying on both ends of the spectrum. More companies are daring to encroach on Astell&Kern’s supremacy in the ultra-luxury segment, while still other companies like FiiO are changing audiophiles’ expectations of the kind of performance that comes out of an “affordable” DAP device — their upcoming X7, an Android-driven, ES9018S decoding, modular amplifier design, is looking incredibly promising, despite a relatively “low” expected asking price of $699 USD. Still others, like HiFiMAN (and to a certain extent, Lotoo and Questyle), are sticking to their guns and delivering unique electronic topology with pre-smartphone era user interfaces.

Regardless of the direction, one thing is clear:

DAPs are becoming more and more prevalent, and they have become the new trend among audiophiles, whether for headphones or for IEMs. In many ways, it’s still like the old iPod/amp stack, just placed into one small, integrated enclosure. Instead of getting a small MP3 player and stacking it up with an amp, many are choosing to get a standalone DAP, as these DAPs do provide sufficient power (especially for most IEMs) and thus the prevalence of portable amps seems to have declined.

Future Trends

I suspect the following features to get increasingly popular among DAPs:

  • Apt-X or a new lossless wireless codec, as wireless receivers are getting increasingly popular (the new Sony ZX2 uses a special Bluetooth LDAC low-energy mode to stream high bitrate audio wirelessly)
  • Phone + DAP (Meizu’s MX4 Pro might be a start, read the China Inc. and ESS section for more)
  • Better screen, so as to be able to be used as multimedia players, not just as music players
  • Better file management system, as managing hundreds of albums on a DAP still remains a huge burden
  • Slimmer and lighter design (Sony’s newer DAPs represent this)

Features aren’t restricted to these, however. What’s important to note is that the new definition of the high-end audiophile DAP is looking more and more just like that of other smart devices.

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Where are these DAPs coming from?

One of the most interesting things is to examine where these new age DAPs are coming from — doing so gives us a clear picture of how the hi-fi landscape for portables is far different from that of the home audio sector. The main thrust of DAP development comes from Asia, where most electronics are manufactured, and where portable devices are valued for their size and convenience in places where space comes at a premium.

Specifically, however, the countries primarily driving audiophile DAP development are China and South Korea — the former of which is the manufacturing capital of the world, and the latter a major smartphone and semiconductor manufacturing bastion. China in particular, because of its diverse domestic market, has been leading the charge with tons of different companies. There’s even an entire thread on Head-Fi dedicated to ‘Obscure Chinese DAPs‘.

Many of these Chinese companies are either longtime ODM/OEMs with fingers in numerous other audio and electronics ventures, or … Many of these companies also reside within the belt of Shenzhen/Guangzhou/Hong Kong — an area steeped with electronics manufacturing.

Converging so many manufacturing entities under one single area of China is advantageous not only for gigantic conglomerates like Apple (by way of Foxconn, Pegatron, etc.) but also small, boutique electronics makers like those spearheading this DAP revolution. Lack 500 pairs of MELF resistors? Get them from next door. Need to manufacture a bespoke aluminum chassis? The CNC mill from company X is available off-book for very small order quantities. Company Y next door will hear of the news and offer a better competing price for the same kind of work. Ordering an 4.5″ IPS display requires a MOQ (minimum order quantity) of 50,000 pieces? That’s okay — get it from the OEM who got squeezed last month with a sudden drop in orders (a death knell for OEMs).

Navigating through such terrain requires knowing the right people, and having the right ‘guanxi‘, though — and that requirement will preclude all foreign bodies other than those with longtime connections to the extant electronics industry over there. Similar to their Chinese counterparts, the Korean companies are usually ones that are vertically integrated into the electronics industry, subcontracting for multinational chaebols such as Samsung and LG. It’s a small (albeit revolving) door that requires the right keys to open. Thus, the focused has shifted — a famed UK or German audio firm can’t deliver a similar competing product because its foot is not in the door — and after all, high-end audio is still a niche industry.

Beyond that, it is no longer the markets with traditional purveyors of hi-fi that are creating the demand — it is a different world now, one with emerging populations of audio lovers in countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Brazil, etc. Traditional Asian bastions of hi-fi, Japan and Hong Kong, are still going strong. China is big enough for a market of domestic-bred companies and imports. Are the US, UK, Germany, and Scandinavia still important markets? Sure, but they don’t necessarily drive the demand like they used to.

Convergence: the smartphone as a primary DAP

But alongside the developing DAP market, there is another market that has developed as a giant: the smartphone market (how could that be ignored?). When the iPhone was first released, Steve Jobs envisioned the convergence of the DAP market and the phone market. For us audiophiles, a merger of our mobile communications devices and our super high-quality DAP hasn’t quite happened, as even with increased attention paid to improving smartphone audio quality, the electronics are still not quite there. But as the development has progressed, phones are becoming more and more suitable as DAPs. Even without a specific focus on audio quality, the iPhone is currently regarded as a big audio success, and few Android phones have wowed me with astonishingly good sound quality.

Moreover, portable DACs are adding in OTG support for iOS and Android. This trend has been on going ever since the Apple’s CCK (Camera Connection Kit) became available as a way to get digital audio output out of a smartphone. Companies like Leckerton Audio, CEntrance, V-Moda, and Astell&Kern market these products to the new generation of portable-fi, adding “Hi-Fi-ness” to the convenient usability of the smartphone. Nevertheless, as an owner of one of these portable DACs (the AK10), I must admit that the addition of a micro USB cable and a DAC to my phone is burdensome and inconvenient.

Currently, despite that fact that I owned a AK100 in the past, my main DAP remains the LG G3. As I mentioned in the list above, I believe that phone manufacturers are gaining more and more interest in the DAP market. Meizu’s new bold move (releasing a phone with “retina sound”) might instigate a new movement in the smartphone market.

You may have noticed that recently, ESSTech has been dominating the market. Their SABRE products have permeated every level of the D/A kingdom, and in the newest generation of DAPs and smartphones, the ES9018K2M reigns supreme. The very device to ever use the ES9018-2M was the Resonessence Labs Concero HP (see review here), but within a year and a half, it has found itself in nearly every new portable device that has come to market.

This is nowhere more prevalent than in the new crop of Chinese smartphone devices, which seek to differentiate themselves from their American and Korean counterparts by putting in so-called high-end audio components. Meizu, in their press conference for their MX4 Pro, even boasted that their new smartphone possessed greater dynamic range than the mighty HiFiMAN HM-901. LG attempted this before by adding native 24-bit support in its Optimus G series, but didn’t quite gain success, as the DAC chips themselves weren’t sufficient enough for users to be convinced of the “Hi-Fi-ness” of the phone. Nonetheless, if the MX4 Pro is successful, I hope the DAP market will go through a swift change, further blurring the line between the audiophile DAP and the smartphone.

And here we are, on the cusp of Astell&Kern releasing yet another uber-flagship — the AK380. It will probably break records for cost (and perhaps for performance). It will have us audiophiles lusting after it. I only hope that one day, I can have a device that performs like this and can simultaneously answer calls whilst running Flappy Bird.

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