Hifiman 901S ($1500)
That other awesome sounding dap that looks and feels like its from the ‘80’s but was released in.. 2014? In tone, dynamics and stage the 901S competes with any dap. But despite modernizing the even more outdated design of the 901, the 901S still has the design of a cold war era music player. The scroll wheel is slow, it takes a while for the track display to start moving so sometimes it takes forever to figure out which song is which if the tracks are listed as ‘artist – track’ instead of just ‘track’.
While both the 901S and LPG can be placed in the category ‘brick’, the LPG’s UI is everything you always wished the 901S was: fast, and very responsive. Both share approximately the same shape, although the LPG is more compact. They’re both burdened by the impracticality of a wall charger which imposes a slight restriction for everyday use, but the LPG has better battery life. While the LPG has a much better and more responsive UI while offering extra features as PMEQ, the 901S on the other hand offers more versatility with its replaceable amp section.
They not only share a similar clunkiness, lack of a touchscreen, and use of a wall charger, they also share a very similar tone. In fact, I’d say the two are cut from the same cloth, being overall more similar than different when it comes to sound. Both have a forward presentation, with a neutral to slightly brighter neutral signature that offers a lot of clarity and excitement, while maintaining a natural tonality. Equally, they both offer a dynamic bass presentation although the LPG wins in quantity. Their main differences can be summarized as follows: overall, the LPG has better focus of instruments with higher resolution. The 901S on the other hand has a more spacious and airier stage (except for the minibox gold which comes close to the LPG in space and sound), as well as the benefit of being able to switch amps.
Cowon Plenue S ($1700)
The Cowon is a very elegant looking player, especially without the case. It has the classic Cowon understated design, but the heat ridges on the back give it nice finish. Its UI is based on Linux, and is responsive and very intuitive to get to learn. However, while the large touchscreen without a doubt gives it an advantage, the LPG doesn’t necessarily feel slower to navigate through the different folders or scrolling through albums, which is quite remarkable.
The Plenue S is slightly more laidback in comparison to the forward LPG, with a wider stage. The LPG however is noticeably deeper, projecting the sound further with more impressive layering. While the LPG slightly brighter than neutral, the Plenue S has a mid-centric tonality, and a mid-bass hump makes it warmer than the LPG. The Cowon’s midrange is more colored in comparison the LPG; it is warmer and slightly thicker, while the LPG is clearer and more transparent. In the upper midrange the differences are greater; the Plenue S is smooth and laidback, while the LPG is brighter and more detailed. The same holds for the treble; the LPG’s treble is thicker and more prominent; in line with Cowon’s house sound, the treble is smooth and toned down for a non-fatuiging presentation. The Cowon has a nice stage with good separation and imaging, but due to a darker tonality it isn’t quite as resolving as the LPG. The LPG just has a stronger focus of instruments, feeling more precise and powerful.
Astell & Kern AK380 ($3500)
AK’s are mainly known for their exorbitant pricing, but the AK380 does deliver class in its sound, UI and looks. Its shape is beautifully designed, and used as an example for other manufacturers. The touchscreen and UI are both excellent – which of course should be expected for its price.
The AK380 has a slightly warm, mid-centric tonality. It immediately impresses with its soundstage and imaging: very spacious and precise, almost dwarfing the LPG, and easily besting both the 901S and Plenue S. Its general tonality has a certain naturalness, a very effortless sound. The presentation is slightly laidback compared to the LPG, The LPG is without a doubt the ‘king of resolution’ in its class, but the AK presents resolution in a more natural way. Because it has an even tonal balance, it preserves lower harmonics better for a more detailed and nuanced sound. The LPG also has great midrange resolution, but its focus is more on the articulation of the core of the tone due to its lift in the mid/upper treble, and in doing so, the traces of the note are less apparent. Basically, the reverberation of a chord, the vibrato in an electric guitar or violin, the AK presents such nuances more clearly.
The LPG on the other hand is more forward in its presentation, more stimulating, and it creates thicker notes. Its tone in the upper midrange and treble is brighter. While the AK380’s bass is tight and highly resolving, it doesn’t match the LPG in overall quantity, at least not in its standard configuration. Send it over to Vinnie for the Red Wine modification, and among others the bass gains in power and hits with more authority, while having a more natural texture. While the AK’s overall timbre has a certain naturalness, the upper midrange of the LPG shines and sparkles, portraying a greater realism and more transparency, even though it is more colored. When I listen to an electric guitar, I want to hear it soar, while a violin or acoustic guitar should shine and sparkle. The LPG does just that, even though it is a little rough around the edges compared to the AK. The AK is smoother, certainly more refined, but also tends to keep it a bit on the safe side. You could say the LPG is more fatuiging if you’re sensitive to that, while the AK isn’t.
When it comes to the treble, the LPG’s is more prominent and thicker; its presence adds to the liveliness of the presentation. But the AK’s treble is just something else. With greater resolution, it is more articulate, quicker, and is toned down just a notch or two to give it an incredible natural timbre. Delightful – so this is what $3500 treble sounds like. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but while I prefer the LPG’s brighter upper midrange, I can just sit back and listen to this treble endlessly.
(AK380 on loan from Dutch distributor HDPHNS.com).
The LPG truly is a very special player, with its own strong personality. This isn’t a presentation that is designed to be completely neutral, at least in a more reference or uncolored perspective. The LPG is designed to sound engaging. It combines a full midrange with abundant sparkle, and adds excellent resolution to the mix. Due to the thicker note presentation and the intimate stage, it doesn’t feel completely airy. I’ll admit I felt cramped up the first two weeks after I bought it, I had to get used to the stage. But after that, I promptly put up my 901S and Plenue S for sale. I initially had some doubts about the practicality of using the LPG at home and work due to the charger, but its sound won me over and the battery proved sufficient.
Later I used the funds to purchase a RWAK380cu. The AK is more uncolored and reference tuned. I’d have to say it’s technically better, more refined and more resolving (even though the LPG isn’t lacking by any means). Not to mention that incredible stage and beautiful timbre. But due to its tonality, I still prefer the LPG for a lot of my favorite genres, as I listen to a lot of rock and electronic music for instance. It is more stimulating and ‘exciting’ due to its forward and brighter presentation. The AK on the other hand I find better for smooth jazz, singer/songwriter type music, or classic rock to name a few.
Comparing the AK and LPG really boils down to this: the AK is for sitting back in a barcalounger, lighting a nice cigar, and putting on one of Beethoven’s sonata’s while pondering whether to acquire that 3 million dollar asset to ensure the long term development of your company. The LPG on the other hand is for air-guitaring when that fine solo of your favourite rock song comes along, or shamelessly pumping your hand to that catchy electronic melody you just can’t get out of your head – your pick. At times I prefer the stimulating tonality of the LPG, although I equally love the refined and vast presentation of the AK. The two are really more complimentary than similar, and listening to the LPG doesn’t feel like I’m stepping down when it comes to pure enjoyment – not bad when you consider the price difference between them.