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Impressions: do kilobuck DAPs make a difference?

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PART 1 of 3

These are my not-so-brief impressions of the Lotoo PAW Gold Touch and Hifiman R2R2000 DAPs. If you’re into super-high-end mobile audio or just curious about what sort of music player you can buy for eye watering money, read on. (Hint: jump to the end of the article for the TL;DR)

Ever since I started getting serious about mobile audio, I’ve always wondered how much of a difference a seriously high-end source would make to the already-exceptional sound quality of my personal system.

I’ve always been a firm believer that the transducer – in this case the IEM – makes appreciably the biggest difference to sound quality in the chain, followed by the source, and then the tweaks (cables, eartips etc.). As such, by far the biggest portion of my budget was invested in the best-possible IEMs.

So, when I recently got the chance – no, the privilege – to spend some quality time with @ron g's summit-fi DAPs, the Hifiman R2R2000 ($2500 retail) and Lotoo Paw Gold Touch ($2700 retail), I took the opportunity to closely evaluate them alongside my system. The results were both eye-opening and surprising, though maybe not in the way you’re thinking.

This is not going to be a lengthy review of either of these DAPs, or of my own HiBy R6 Pro for that matter. You’re welcome to scour the web for the many fine, full-length reviews of these marvels of modern music technology; in fact, here’s a few to get you started:

•   Hifiman R2R2000: 
•   Lotoo Paw Gold Touch: 
•   HiBy R6 Pro: 

Instead, this is going to be a series of reflections of my own thoughts as I listened back to some of my most familiar tracks, switching back and forth between the three DAPs, mostly paired with my 64 Audio Nio (and occasionally Ron’s Andromeda and Andromeda S) IEMs.

The findings are not based on any measurements or objective analysis, but describe what I was hearing – and feeling – in the context of my own music with my own gear. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive analysis of the features and functions of these DAPs, I refer you to the reviews above. The opinions expressed are entirely my own (unless otherwise stated), and I take full responsibility for any attempts at sarcastic humour that miss the mark. I intend no harm or foul to any person, living or dead, and any semblance of truth in my biting wit is entirely accidental.   

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Meet the heavyweights

Aside from being the current flagships of their brand, the R2R2000 and LPTG have very little in common (not only functionally, but also sonically).

Hifiman’s R2R2000 was never intended to be a ‘DAP’ in the traditional sense (as in, with support for playback of locally-stored music files, album management and so on). It was initially conceived as a high-end music player with a very unique DAC (more on this shortly), functioning exclusively as a hi-res Bluetooth receiver. In other words, it was originally designed to be controlled entirely by a host device (typically a smartphone), receiving files over LDAC and playing them back with the highest-possible fidelity using its industrial-strength audio hardware.

This probably explains why the R2R2000 has the single worst UI of any music player I’ve ever had the displeasure of using, going back to the original iPod. Actually, if the R2R2000 had anything like the interface of the original iPod (circa. 2001) it would have been a huge improvement on the stinking pile of poorly-coded garbage some shmuck at Hifiman was actually paid to greenlight. Not only is the interface, if you can call it that, comically juvenile and horribly unintuitive, it then relies on six ‘buttons’ on a ‘navigation’ pad that takes up half of the already-tiny screen. No touch screen here, that’s so 2007.

Worse still, the R2R2000 seems to be powered by a processor less efficient than one you’d find in an electronic lighter. It is so ridiculously underpowered that at first, I thought something was broken when I pressed a button and…nothing happened. Eventually I discovered that you have to press a button (to bring up a list of folders, for example), and then wait five seconds for the processor to work out what you want to do, make a cup of coffee, and then execute. And that’s one of the faster operations; hit the play button and you can, literally, pour a cup of coffee in the twenty or so seconds it takes for the DAP to engage the amp (denoted by a soft ‘pop’ in your ears) and start to play. Luckily hitting pause, or skipping tracks, is as quick as you’d expect from a turn-of-the-millennium device, otherwise it would be nigh unusable. 

Ok, glad I got all of that off my chest, because we’re not here to read about usability or functionality – I mean, who cares about that right? We’re here for the sound. And when it comes to sound, the R2R2000 is indeed more capable than its pre-prototype Commodore64 interface would suggest.

Here, the star of the show is the long-discontinued but still highly coveted Burr Brown (now Texas Instruments) PCM1704UK R2R DAC chip (or rather, chips, since the R2R2000 uses two, one for each channel). These chips are so rare that Hifiman apparently bought the last existing stockpile for use in this limited-run DAP (though, as it turns out, they bought enough to make an upcoming DAP that uses four of these suckers apiece!). The 1704UK is a very complex, very expensive to manufacture chip, renowned for its pristine quality (when properly implemented), with a smooth, analogue sound taken to an extreme level of refinement.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my very first impression of the R2R2000 was a squeaky clean, rather thin, very bright sound unlike anything I expected from the so-called finest R2R-on-a-chip DAC (and that was with my warmer-sounding IEMs). An Asian-American friend and enthusiast with far more knowledge of Hifiman than me, hearing how I described the sound, said he wasn’t surprised Hifiman chose to “tune the R2R sound out of the most famous R2R DAC” and that it was most likely done to appeal to the well-heeled Asian audiophile community who favoured this type of sound profile (and before you get all PC on me, I’m not inferring anything here about the listening habits or hearing ability of wealthy Asian people, just passing on what was told to me by one such individual).

While I can’t vouch for the veracity of his comment, I can’t deny this is a sound made for the classical and instrumental aficionado: completely colourless, neutral, clinical, and pushed well into what I’d consider a brighter tuning with a strong treble emphasis (though probably one of the better treble tunings I’ve heard from a DAP).

Lotoo’s PAW Gold Touch, on the other hand, is almost the diametrical opposite of the Hifiman. Much larger than I expected, and almost twice as thick and heavy as my already thick and heavy HiBy, the LPGT is a picture of polished refinement and quality construction. From the soft, genuine leather case to the large, bright touch display and ornately-engraved gold-plated volume dial, the Lotoo looks and feels every bit the premium superstar device that it is. It makes the Hifiman’s sharp-edged, awkwardly-small façade look silly by comparison, which doesn’t even begin to describe how much more advanced it feels in use.

With a lightning-fast 3-second startup and fluid, responsive touch controls, the LPGT is instantly likeable, literally. Based entirely on Lotoo’s proprietary OS, you’re not going to find apps, streaming services or anything remotely like what you’re used to using to play music on your smartphone (or Android DAP, but again, more on that later). What you will find is a cleverly designed, dedicated interface with a single-minded goal of playing back your music – both local or beamed via hi-res Bluetooth – with more fidelity than almost any other portable player available today, the Hifiman included.

Also, unlike the Hifiman, my initial impression of the Lotoo was firm and focused, pretty much the same as what I was hearing. From the very first note, the LPGT takes a grip of your IEM drivers and conducts them like a maestro, never letting up for a second. Everything sounds as solid as brickwork, from the tight, controlled bass response, clear and detailed mids, and superbly crafted highs. There’s definitely more emphasis on the lows and mids – at least when compared to the brighter, leaner Hifiman – and even though Ron made the comment that he wishes he could combine the Hifiman’s treble with the Lotoo’s lower ranges, I’d take the Lotoo as-is.

Where the Hifiman ‘exposes to the right’ to cram as much detail down your ears as possible at the expense of any semblance of warmth or musicality, the Lotoo manages to extract as much if not more detail from your music without resorting to extremities; and it does it all so effortlessly.

Part 2 continues below...

PART 2 of 3

Getting down to details

I spent a full day just getting to know these two very different beasts, and it was during this time that most of my early impressions were baked-in, so to speak.

But, as anyone who spends any sort of time in this hobby knows, first impressions aren’t always lasting impressions. The next few days were spent working through a list of more than 40 personal favourite tracks, some reference quality, some less so, some hi-res, some less so, to come up with what I hoped would serve as a more conclusive assessment.

Of these tracks, I’m going to use 10 to showcase what I feel are the main differences, strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities of these DAPs, specifically with my IEMs, and specifically with my own DAP thrown in the mix.

In no particular order, the tracks I’ll reference include:

•   Rachael Yamagata – Be Be Your Love
•   Brandi Carlile – The Joke
•   Ingrid Michaelson – The Way I Am
•   Alphaville – Forever Young
•   Whitehorse – Dear Irony
•   Thomas Begersen – One/Beautiful People
•   Daft Punk – Within
•   Owl City – The Saltwater Room
•   Def Leppard – Love Bites
•   Eagles – Hotel California Live

My impressions from this point on will weave in and around what stood out most for me about how the two featured DAPs presented these tracks, how they compare to the HiBy, and how it all tallies with my personal preferences.

Bass impact, texture, tonality. I have a fairly good idea of how I enjoy the Nio’s generous bass response: elevated, punchy, deep and nicely textured. On most of the music I listen to the HiBy checks almost all of these boxes. The intro to Rachael Yamagata’s ‘Be Be Your Love’ is a good example of this, where the kick drums have a real punch to them but also plenty of detail. The LPGT has even more control of the drums here, cutting short some of the Nio’s natural resonance without losing any of the thump. The R2R2000 falls slightly short of the other DAPs, with less impact and, oddly, a touch of bloom in the bassline, which the Nio tends to exhibit from time to time if left unchecked.

Bass control is critical on Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘The Way I Am’, failing which the deep bass strumming bleeds over the vocals, and the finger clicks aren’t as clear and sharp as they should be. Whereas the HiBy has the deepest strumming of the three, the LPGT has more control, and separates bass and vocals best. The R2R2000 comes last again with this track, but only because the rumble isn’t as pronounced, so, personal preference.

Hifiman’s leaner bass response does have its advantages on occasion, like with Whitehorse’s ‘Dear Irony’. The droning bassline in this track blurs the harmony between male and female vocals with the Nio on the Lottoo and HiBy, but the Hifiman’s light touch opens up the vocals and makes them more distinct.   

On the whole, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Nio’s bass with the HiBy more so than the Lotoo. Where the Lotoo showed greater control and a touch more detail, it also short-changed the natural decay I enjoy, which gives the Nio its comparatively relaxed sound. The R2R2000 was far too neutral and restrained for my liking, and it simply didn’t have the bass chops for epic cinematic tracks like Thomas Bergersen’s ‘Beautiful People’, or the weight of bass for Daft Punk’s ‘Within’.

That said, if you prefer your bass light and tight, with plenty of detail but not much impact, the Hifiman delivers in spades. Incidentally that’s very similar to how I’d describe the bass response on both Andromeda IEMs, so the combination of the R2R2000 with Andromeda will give you a dead neutral, highly detailed, very un-bassy sound signature, if that’s what you’re after.

Midrange detail, tonality and timbre. Midrange is where all three DAPs have their own unique flavour. Where the R2R2000 is on the drier, more etched side of the spectrum, the HiBy is warmer, wetter, but still detailed and natural. The Lotoo splits the difference, with exceptional vocal and instrument clarity, a natural voicing that’s not too wet or dry, and a neutral presentation that’s less analytical compared to the Hifiman.

On Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Joke’, the LPGT showcased the natural vocals, albeit with a touch less emotion than the HiBy but with more control, more detail, and a startlingly effortless presentation of this complex and compressed track. The R2R2000, in contrast, put too much edge in the vocals, making Brandi sound harsher than she should.

Where the Hifiman did surprise me was Owl City’s ‘The Saltwater Room’, a rather bright recording that I expected wouldn’t quite gel with the R2R2000’s brighter leaning. Instead, I found the vocals here to be sublimely smooth on the Hifiman, without a hint of grain, and beautiful detail. The other DAPs drove the Nio with excellent control and cohesion here too, but at least with the vocals, the Hifiman prevailed – even though, overall, I enjoyed this track on the HiBy more than I did with the other two.     
Where I felt the R2R2000 was less impressive was tonality. Don’t get me wrong, everything I played with it was ‘correct’, but especially in the midrange I felt it lacked the weight and excitement that both the HiBy and Lotoo had in spades. Perhaps I’m just not a fan of the flat, neutral tuning – even with an IEM that’s anything but flat and neutral. This is why I think the Hifiman is tuned too bright, making piano strikes (Daft Punk ‘Within’) and even guitar plucks (Eagles ‘Hotel California Live’) less impactful and, to me, emotive. I mean, how do you f*** up the Eagles, man!?

The Lotoo, meanwhile, is the very definition of professional reference. Everything sounds so real, you’d swear you were in the room with the band or in the crowd with the…crowd. I was literally looking around when the crowd started cheering on that Eagles track, stopping short of whistling along with the cheers when those famous Hotel California intro chords were plucked. The Lotoo gives the Nio’s occasionally intimate stage a greater sense of depth, and even a sense of three-dimensional space that I haven’t heard with the HiBy. While it may not convey raw emotion as well as the HiBy does, it might do so better for others who have less esoteric tastes than mine.

Treble extension, sparkle and air. I’ve already hinted at this part above, but if there’s one thing the R2R2000 does better than Lotoo and HiBy it’s treble. Brighter it might be, and even though I’m not a fan of bright, I can really appreciate the level of treble refinement Hifiman has been able to extract from these DACs. Normally when I hear a brighter treble I think sibilance, but going over my notes as a write this, there’s not a single mention of sibilance with the R2R2000. Not in The Saltwater Room, where I thought I’d find it, or Def Leppard’s ‘Love Bites’, where sibilance is a constant concern. Instead, my notes here read: “super smooth splashes / smooth vocals / in fact everything here is very smooth / I like the treble detail and smoothness of this DAP”. Clearer than that you can’t get, excuse the pun.

The Nio, with its ‘open BA’ TIA driver, has one of the very best treble responses I’ve heard in any headphone – smooth, detailed, well extended, with no peaks or suckouts, and is both relaxed and airy at the same time. The Nio’s bass and midrange fullness takes centre stage, but the treble never suffers as a result. The R2R2000 extracts an extra layer of detail from the Nio, and even on Thomas Bergersen’s ‘Beautiful People’ where it fell flat in power and emotion, I really enjoyed the detail and smoothness in the strings.

The Lotoo was a bit of a mixed bag here. While it wasn’t quite as bright as the Hifiman, it was more resolving than both Hifiman and HiBy, pulling out microdetails I didn’t hear with either of those DAPs. This didn’t always work in its favour though; on the Bergersen track, for example, I found the emphasis on treble details too much of a good thing, distracting me from some of the other parts of the track. This, again, is where personal preference comes in. For me there’s a point where too much detail becomes just as detrimental as too little, and while it may win out on pure technicalities, the Lotoo’s was my least favourite of the three based on my choice of music and IEMs.

The intangibles. I already mentioned the Lotoo creates a bigger sense of space than both HiBy and Hifiman, and for all its lightness and brightness, I found the R2R2000 also has the smallest stage of the three. Not that the Nio is a particularly expansive IEM, but it has a very natural sense of space that the Lotoo emphasises and the Hifiman downplays.

Speed and timbre don’t vary quite as much, and frankly at this level I wouldn’t expect them to. All three DAPs, while imparting their own tonal flavour, don’t really change the fundamentals of the IEM itself. If you’re listening to an IEM with fast attack and decay, that’s not going to magically change with a change of DAP. Likewise, if you’re listening to an IEM with a poorly resolving driver, it’s not going to suddenly flood you with detail when plugged into an LPGT or R2R2000. What these DAPs do manage to do is make the most of the technicalities inherent in your IEMs, so if you have a set that scales well with better upstream gear, these DAPs will deliver accordingly. 

In many cases, depending on the track, all three DAPs tended to outflank each other in different ways. The HiBy equaled the Lotoo’s stage size in ‘Be Be Your Love’, and both were wider than the R2R2000. But the Hifiman was more detailed than the other two in ‘The Way I Am’, no doubt because its brighter tuning toned down the ‘haze’ of the bassline, important as the bass is to that track. It also had the upper hand with vocal and instrument separation in Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’, with a deeper sense of space than both the HiBy and Lotoo, and that track isn’t particularly bassy.

Thomas Bergersen’s ‘One/Beautiful People’ – two separate tracks that lead into each other – is where the HiBy eclipsed both Lotoo and Hifiman for me. It’s a rather dense track, and all three DAPs handle the complexity and compression very well, but the HiBy presents the most cohesive and emotionally satisfying rendition of the bunch, at least with Nio, even if it’s not the most technical of the three. One thing I noted here: playing these two tracks in folder mode on all three DAPs, the HiBy is the only one that supported gapless playback, while the other two had a jarring jump that really shouldn’t be there at this level.

Part 3 continues below...

PART 3 of 3

Closing thoughts

It was, first and foremost, a privilege for me to get the opportunity to spend this time with devices that are so niche in this country, I doubt more than a small handful of them even exist here. In fact, I don’t know anyone else who owns – let alone uses – a LPGT in South Africa, and only two others who own an R2R2000. Even the HiBy, which is far more accessible price-wise, is one of two that I personally know of locally. So, it’s a real treat to not only have access to these DAPs, thanks to Ron’s generosity, but to finally know what it must feel like to live and work in a part of the world where the experience isn’t quite as alien as it is here.

Secondly, this experience answered many questions that I’ve been harbouring for months, even years: how much difference do these kilobuck DAPs really make to the system as a whole. The answer, of course, is quite a bit, but not always in the ways you’d expect them to.

There is no question that of all three DAPs, the Lotoo is the better built, better engineered device that takes fidelity to the extreme without ever losing the ‘soul’ of the music. It is a reference DAP of the very highest order, and a precision tool that gives you the clearest possible window to your music with whichever IEM you use to listen with. It was the DAP I used when I wanted to hear the differences between the Nio and both flavours of Andromeda, and it described those differences unflinchingly. It also has the fastest and most responsive UI, albeit lacking the features and functions I personally depend on for everyday use. That said, it will probably age better than an Android DAP, and will still feel current a decade from now compared to a device stuck on a decade-old version of Android.

Starting with the good, the Hifiman is a very solidly build (albeit weirdly shaped), very small and therefore very pocketable device, though the chances of me ‘pocketing’ a $2500 DAP while out and about are slim to none. It is also well engineered, with a clean, airy, very neutral sound that present classical, jazz and acoustic compositions with unrivalled quality. I’m not a big fan of its tonality, but I can also appreciate how someone would be, especially those that hanker for detail above all else, and don’t want any one frequency to dominate another (unless it’s treble, in which case, go wild). But as good as it sounds with some of my music, it’s borderline unusable. I won’t rehash my commentary above, but needless to say what you get for your money, sound quality aside, is laughable. I wouldn’t pay half what I paid for the HiBy for the Hifiman, and even then I wouldn’t use it as a pure-play DAP, but rather as a conduit to a two-channel system with an inferior DAC. Never mind features, I never got past its lethargy, which spoils the whole experience of listening to music on the go in the first place.

Which brings me to the HiBy. I was never much of a HiBy fan before I bought the R6 Pro, given the company is better-known for the proprietary OS it OEMs for the likes of Cayin and Shanling, and not a very good one at that. But, with my IEMs and with the music I listen to, I preferred listening with the HiBy more often than I did with either the Lotoo or Hifiman. This was possibly the biggest surprise for me, especially when I consider the Lotoo a superior DAP in everything but features.

Interestingly, the jump in sound quality between all three DAPs – setting tonality aside for a minute – was nowhere near the ‘night-and-day’ difference some people would have you believe it is. If I had to plot it on a scale, I’d say both Lotoo and Hifiman were a good five or ten percent ahead of the HiBy technically, with a lower noise floor (especially the Lotoo), and better detail extraction. Tonality, however, is better on the HiBy. Music is smoother, more cohesive, a touch warmer and more impactful, and while comparing them side-by-side the technical differences are obvious, play them independently and after a while, the HiBy becomes the more enjoyable listen.

How much more enjoyable? Than the Lotoo, not much, and the Lotoo takes the lead with a handful of reference-quality tracks. Than the Hifiman, it’s not even close. There’s literally nothing, aside from maybe classical music, that I’d rather listen to with the Hifiman over the HiBy, and since I hardly ever listen to classical music, that’s a hard no for me.

All of this is before we consider my use case for a DAP. For example, I regularly like to stream content from Tidal, and if I’m going on a quick drive, may even download a few albums for offline listening. Can’t stream from either Lotoo or Hifiman, let alone save anything for listening later (unless it’s in your library).

Second, the ability to use apps like Plex gives me access to my entire music library from anywhere in the world, as long as I have Internet access, but is not an option without open Android.

Third, I do all my file management from the DAP. Using an app called Solid Explorer, I can log into my music server from anywhere, and select and download any of my music files without having to physically connect the DAP to a computer or remove the SD card.

Finally, using the incomparable Android-only USB Audio Pro app, I have access to all manner of advanced playback features, like professional PEQ, crossfeed, bit-perfect playback, and hi-res external DAC support, some of which is available on the Lotoo but definitely not on the Hifiman.

Say what you will about Android as a music player OS, when implemented properly, it simply does not get in the way of sound quality, or battery life, and adds far more benefits in and around the actual act of playing back music that make the whole experience far richer and more rewarding.

If you’ve read this far, or just jumped to the last line to get the TL;DR, here it is:

Lotoo PAW Gold Touch. If all you want to do is play your high-quality lossless music library on the best possible hardware with the least amount of colouration and have zero inclination for anything other than music playback, and also have the substantial financial means to buy it, the Lotoo is an easy recommendation. I personally don’t think it’s worth the asking price, but for half the price it would make a compelling buy even if I did value the usability and flexibility of an Android DAP.

Hifiman R2R2000. I can see the appeal of a music microscope, which is really what this DAP is about. Bright, analytical, clinical, and a tonality that makes it very listenable even if you’re not a brightness fan like me. But I can’t in good conscious recommend it to anyone. Not for $2500. Maybe for $250. Life is too short to put up with poor design, poor UI, and poor implementation. I’m not sure what Hifiman was thinking here, but clearly people buy it, so maybe it’s just me. But in 2020, pandemic jokes aside, this level of usability and processing ineptness should never be tolerated at any price.

Thanks for reading!


--- Quote from: gLer on August 28, 2020, 01:39:48 PM ---Thanks for reading!
--- End quote ---

Thanks for the great effort - and excuse my rudeness if you can - but what's the bottom line here?


--- Quote from: Shonver on August 28, 2020, 02:28:03 PM ---Thanks for the great effort - and excuse my rudeness if you can - but what's the bottom line here?

--- End quote ---
My pleasure. Had fun with these unobtanium DAPs so thought I'd share my thoughts. Bottom line is in the TL;DR (last two paras of Part 3). If all you're after is an answer to the title question, then here it is: yes - but read the fine print.


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