Thursday, January 06, 2005

Listening Test: iPod (3G) vs NW-HD3 vs MZ-NH1 Line Output

I thought I'd hold more formal listening tests than I've done to date, where the HD3 felt pretty similar to the iPod in overall terms of sound. These have been 'lazing on the sofa' and 'trampling along the streets' tests though, so not terribly controlled. Much cable untangling, switching and amp-warming later, I have a more definitive answer. I thought I'd start with the use for these players definitively requiring a high quality output: the use of a Line Out for output to hi-fi and other 'big gear'. This may seem counterintuitive as the purpose of these players are for portable use, but pushing these players to the limit, their differences should be more profound. I chose to do the test on my home headphone "rigs", partially as my replacement speaker amp has not arrived yet and also because I have some of the best headphones around.

I took the NW-HD3 and the top-model MZ-NH1 Hi-MD from the Sony stable, and the older 3rd generation model of the iPod since that's all I have access to at the moment. All of the cables used are the same, new-stock Qunex J2P and were tried with a prototype dynamic amp to drive the Sennheiser and a prototype electrostatic amp to drive the Stax. Normally I wouldn't do test with amps-in-work, but these have already proven themselves very capable. Headphones used were the Sennheiser HD650 with Zu Mobius cable and the Stax SR-007 Omega II. An upgraded and remanufactured instantaneous audio switch was used.

The iPod has a Line Out output on it's dock socket, and it is presented at the back of the dock as a 3.5mm socket. Optional portable docks which allow the Line Out connection to be used are also available in the form of the Sendstation Pocketdock and the Sik Din. The Sony players have a firmware switchable Line Out/Headphone socket and both players were of course placed in Line Out mode prior to the test.

Listening to a range of albums in 256K ATRAC3+ (HD3/NH1) & 256K MP3 (HD3/iPod), all players put up a decent performance and there's not that much to call between them. Still, the MZ-NH1 does come third place behind the HD3 and iPod. The iPod ekes the most detail possible out of the material, and retains the best dynamic range. The iPod retains a very slim lead over the NW-HD3. Users of HD3's don't need feel so bad though: Using most portable amp combinations, the difference is indeed very, very slim and only a really sad geek would lose sleep over the differences.

Now, you'll notice that I said there's not much difference... while using two codecs. Surely ATRAC3+ has been proven to be a superior codec? At lower bitrates, sure. 64K ATRAC3+ is vastly superior to 64K MP3. However at 256K, there's practically nothing in it as far as a codec vs codec comparison is concerned.

Now onto lossless or PCM data. I rip the music to OMG PCM (uncompressed), hit transfer for the HD3 and... er... Sonicstage is converting it to 256K. The realisation comes that it doesn't support uncompressed or lossless music. Honestly, for the normal people among us it's not a huge probem. For rabid portable audiophiles, big problem. The MZ-NH1 does support uncompressed (although not lossless... so you'll effectively need 2Gb of Hi-MD storage for every 1Gb of Apple Lossless). Straight away it's interesting the amount of grain the Hi-MD player generates in comparison to the iPod. This isn't 'fake detail' grain either, it's 'detail missing' grain. The iPod output also retains more dynamic headroom, which makes it cleaner and more impactful. It does seem that Apple really came through for 'higher-end' listeners when they implemented the Apple Lossless codec, as not only is it relatively manageable in size (a typical CD would take up 300MB... big, but still it's not 600MB) on a large-capacity player, it's also genuinely decent quality, possibly the best listening experience out of a portable right now.

With all that said and with the limitations listed, both the iPod and NW-HD3 would actually make good amped players (including for car use), providing your bitrate needs don't go beyond 256K. However, if your uses are 'audiophile', then certainly among the players trialled here the iPod seems to be the only way to travel.

For car use, the iPod can simply be sat in any number of supported car dock solutions incorporating an audio connection and operated normally without doing anything else. The HD3 has no widely available separate jack line-out solutions, so since you've not only got to seat the player on the car stand but also have to plug in the line out cable and switch the player to Line Out mode manually, that may be a hassle factor too far for you. Sony probably missed the trick to put a Line Out signal into the dock connector since there seems to be no news of such accessories.

As an executive summary, the comparison for LINE OUT performance came out as follows:
256K data: iPod > NW-HD3 > MZ-NH1 (differences are small)
Lossless/Uncompressed: iPod > MZ-NH1 (a more noticeable difference) with NW-HD3 sitting out the test.

Headphone out listening tests will come later.

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