With smartphones becoming a center of our personal entertainment, the days of dedicated mp3 players, point'n'shoot cameras, dvd players, etc. are in the past. Unfortunately, that also means that a lot of us accepted a compromise to have everything conveniently in one "jack of all trades" package instead of having a dedicated "master" of each trade. But some people still value a high quality of sound from a higher bitrate encoding of lossless audio formats as well as having an audiophile quality dedicated DAP. In my recent reviews I looked at FiiO X5 which is a compact powerhouse, but it wasn't exactly compact/lightweight enough to toss in your shirt pocket. On a mission to find something smaller, portable, and less fragile, I came across a recently introduced digital audio player from HiFiMAN. Founded by Dr Fang Bian in 2007, HiFiMAN has been on a leading edge of design and manufacturing of quality audio equipment for many years. They are actually well known for their high end DAPs (HM-901 and HM-802), so I was surprised to see their new HM-700 model offered for $250 which includes a bonus pair of one of their flagship RE-400B headphones (retailed at $99). Intrigued by this dynamic duo and considering this being my first step into balanced audio, I decided to take an opportunity to review this DAP. Let me share with you what I found.
Starting with a product packaging, I was very pleased with details of a high quality "gift box" presentation. With so many companies trying to out do each other with flashy graphics of the packaging, here you start off with an elegant mystery black box and only a gold print of the company name. Once you lift the top cover, you reveal jewelry like presentation of HM-700 and RE-400B right next to each other. When I originally saw a picture of HM-700 on HiFiMAN website, I assumed it was a 3D rendering because it looked very minimalistic and non-traditional. I didn't realize that's exactly how it's going to look out of the box - a futuristic looking gadget from some si-fi movie. With a small footprint fitting in a palm of your hand, it weights only 3 oz with a compact dimensions of 105mm x 49mm x 12mm. The top half of HM-700 has LCD screen (2"), then 3 unmarked cylindrical copper color buttons in the middle (volume -/+, and power/hold in between), and a flat area at the bottom which houses 4 hidden directional (up, down, right, left) buttons. I actually never experienced a gadget with such touch controls where its a physical contact button concealed under a surface layer. At the bottom corner on the left side you have 3.5mm headphone jack (TRRS balanced output, location is more convenient for right angle connectors) and on the opposite right side a standard micro-usb connector (for charging, data transfer, and adapter), and also at the bottom edge a small pinhole port for a reset (which btw I never had to use even once - the firmware is solid!!!). As part of included accessories you get a soft velour drawstring pouch and a screen cleaning cloth, usb to micro-usb cable, and two adapter cables (more about it later). The included RE-400B are super lightweight aluminum housing in-ear headphones which come with a number of their own accessories including a total of 8-pairs of custom eartips (not the generic type, but actual custom design), 5-pairs of replacement filters, and a shirt clip. Furthermore, an armband case was included as an accessory bonus to use HM-700 during your exercising.
HM-700 packs a very impressive spec for a portable DAP with 32GB of on-board flash, battery life of 15 hours, and support for various music formats including WAV, MP3, ACE, FLAC (16bit), and WAV (24bit, 44.1/48kHz). Obviously, it's not designed to carry your terabyte hi-res FLAC library, but considering it's portable nature - it has plenty of room. The interface is very minimalistic, though took me a few minutes of getting used to because of lack of OK/enter button. I didn't realize how that became embedded into my thumb operation. Here, OK button is also the Right button. While Back button is also a Left button. Up/Down works to scroll through the list, as well as Fast forward/back. Long press of Right button also brings up a menu with more options. And there are plenty of those (options)! In reality, you don't need any instructions, just a few minutes to get used to UI navigation and various menu options. The disadvantage of such minimalistic control is that some functions take extra clicks to get to, but it's very intuitive with a relative fast UI response. Display doesn't have the highest resolution, but we are not talking about video player or smarphone, and I found it perfectly adequate for song artwork view. Inside of the house, I had no problem with a display view, but it got a little harder outside in a direct sunlight where I think a piece of anti-glare screen protector would come handy. Before I proceed with sound quality, let me first go into more details about included RE-400B in-ear headphones.
For anybody wondering, "B" in this headphone model stands for Balanced to work directly with Balanced TRRS output of HM-700. HiFiMAN decided to give us a taste of high end balanced output architecture in a scaled down package. So what does this mean? Can you use a regular headphones plugged into HM-700 directly? Sure, though they won't sound to it's full potential due to a topology of a single "hot" wire per L/R channel connection instead of a balanced differential connection. In general it will not sound worse than plugged into your regular mp3 player or a lot of the smartphones. But if you are ready to step up to a higher audio quality, RE-400B will be waiting for you with their detailed warm neutral sound. Nothing really is over-emphasized in there, and it delivers a tonal balance across entire frequency range. Bass is very detailed with a nice fast punch, nothing is exaggerated, though bassheads will find the quantity on a low side. Mids have a great definition and clarity, with a natural delivery of vocals. Treble sparkle is there, but not over-emphasized which gives a touch of warmth to the sound. There is no hint of sibilance and they are perfect for extended listening. Microphonics effect is hardly noticeable either. Thanks to a balanced architecture, the soundstage is wide and very realistic like you are in the room with an artist or at the concert. What is great, HiFiMAN provided a short 3.5mm wire adapter which converts/terminates balanced output to a standard unbalanced so you can connect RE-400B to any audio player or smartphone/tablet to enjoy their sound. And wise versa, they also included an adapter which connects to audio jack and micro-usb jack of HM-700 in order to attach any unbalanced headphone to enjoy high quality sound. My only gripe, I wish they would have used a thicker wire/shielding with that adapter, or perhaps built it into a lanyard connection.
There are definitely a lot of options to use HM-700 and RE-400B together and in conjunction with other audio players and headphones. To comment on a sound of HM-700 + RE-400B or with HM-700 and other headphones through an adapter - I found it to be of a high quality. The #1 challenge with any audio hardware is being able to reproduce a sound without adding coloration. In my opinion, HM-700 delivered that with high marks. For a seasoned audiophile, they might find it a bit colder/digital in comparison to some other high end equipment, but I personally would consider that minor for portable use. For those on the go with an active lifestyle who value a high quality sound and don't want to bring along your bulkier, expensive, and more fragile DAPs - I can't think of a better alternative than HM-700. Just strap HM-700 to your arm, with included armband, plug in RE-400B with their amazing passive noise isolation (just choose the correct eartip) - and dive into an amazing world of audio, uncluttered by text messages and email interruptions or social media updates!
Overall, some people might have a polarizing opinion about HM-700. $250 for mp3 player is a lot of money. But if you start to think about what you are actually getting - this becomes a bargain. The player design is a head-turner that will get attention anywhere you go. It's super compact and durable (just google YT video of HM-700 falling test - it's insane!!!). You get 32GB of storage and 15hr of extended battery life, not to mention a universal micro-usb connection. The included bonus RE-400B headphone by itself is a gem and worth every penny of its original $99 price tag. Now, factor in all the accessories, eartips, adapter cables, and armband... hopefully you see my point. Is this a must have gadget for everyone? Not really. But if you value a sound quality on the go, I would give HM-700/RE-400B combo a serious consideration!
Here are the pictures for your enjoyment.