It’s been an exciting time for portable audio or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and wear headphones in public.

Back in the day, portable audio was a wild and wooly world of portable cassette players (some with built in analog FM tuners), and later, portable CD players, spent batteries and small, discrete (and sonically mediocre) headphones. And after all that, you had to plan what music you thought you might want to hear that day and schlep the attendant physical media based recordings with you. Still, being able to listen to music on the train or when walking through the park, etc. was enjoyable enough to make it worth while, at least for me.

The status of portable audio stayed pretty much quo until the first Ipod hit the market late in 2001. It may have not been the best sounding thing and it’s storage capacity was initially limited, but really, how many cassettes or CD’s could you carry in your pocket? You could carry an Ipod with a lot of music and a pair of the supplied earphones in that pocket easily. And to me that was a revelation.

The market place in general and young folks in particular thought so too and soon portable audio was a major player in consumer electronics. A proliferation of playback formats, digital players and IEM’s (as they became to be known) followed and the whole thing became a social phenomenon complete with “Beats” headphones becoming a must-have accessory for the hip youth culture and the emergence of the detached teen in his world of Itunes fodder for many first and second rate comedians. Mainstream? It was a torrent…

That audiophiles would join in was just an inevitability. The early Ipod MP3 sound was far from the best and the earphones and headsets available at first tended to be somewhat cheap and cheerful. But a world of more sonically sophisticated players and IEM’s, some of the custom fit style (adapted from live music performance and broadcast requirements), became all the rage in our little segment of the consumer audio world. And as more and more Avant-Garde young bohemians, wannabe gangsters and hipsters started wearing their over-ear Beats in public (I had a ringside seat to this traveling the NYC subway system), it gradually became acceptable to wear over-ears in public even for us old, repressed and self-conscious middle Americans to join in. So I did indeed stop worrying.

Now, people seem to be willing to just let their headphone freak-flag fly. I have seen all kinds of phones in the street and on the train, including upscale Audio-Technics, Sennheisers (including HD-600’s), lots of different Sony’s (including quite a few of the recording studio standby MDR-7506), JBL’s and even more than a few Grado’s. I have done my part in this, wearing at times a pair of HD-800, my FAD Pandora’s and even a pair of retro (and decidedly retro-looking) Beyer DT-48’s that date back to the Woodstock era whose almost identical forbearers first hit the market in the late days of the Great Depression!

And so audiophile digital players have evolved too. Many of us never bought into the ITunes concept and ripped our CD’s on to our computers to transfer to our (audiophile) players in their native format (eg. WAV) or somewhat compressed so-called lossless formats (such as FLAC or ALAC). And, moving forward, with the increased availability of Hi-Rez files originally initially intended for the home music server market, it would be inevitable there would be demand for portable players capable of Hi-Rez playback.

To the audiophile, the availability and the public acceptability of better on-ear phones made the ability to play back the better sounding file formats even more desirable. There are now many Hi-Rez audiophile players, some with more-or-less serious attention paid to the D-A conversion and analog output stages, available. Initially, the availability was in the high priced audiophile market, but in the last few years this has trickled down to more modestly priced units. The concurrent availability of smaller and higher data capacity storage devices (both internal and external), finally made the resulting larger HI-Rez files fully practical.

Of the new wave of Hi-Rez portable playback devices, I am mostly familiar with the Fiio X-3 and the Ibasso DX-50 as I own both. However, I have mostly used the DX-50 because of the OTG (On the Go) connector which allows external storage to be connected to augment the internal memory and internal microSD card. Unfortunately, the OTG port in the Fiio only allows you to input digital streams for playback on the Fiio’s D-A converter. This may be useful to some, but really what’s the point of being able to play back Hi-rez files with their large file sizes without expandable memory to store them? But I digress…

Connecting, say, a thumb drive to the DX-50 requires a somewhat unusual “USB OTG micro USB Male to USB A female” cable, available on-line through the usual sources. But I found that Micro Center had them in stock which allowed the instant gratification of driving to the store and picking one up to expedite the project, decidedly old school! So I bought that and a PNY 128Gb USB thumb drive for around $70. Presto, along with my 64Gb micro SD card I now had 192 Gb total storage. A good start.

I now have the 64Gb microSD card and three external 128 Gb thumb drives filled with music (Hi-Rez and not) set up for my DX-50. So I have around 448 Gb of storage available portably, not too bad, even for Hi-Rez files. And BTW, what’s the point of Hi-rez players without expandable memory? But I digress…

All my music files are now resident on a 1Tb hard drive. When I can find a 2.5 inch hard drive external enclosure with internal battery I will be able to carry around all my Hi-rez files for when I go on vacation and the like. You gotta love it!

So how does the DX-50 sound? Well, it sounds OK. It can sound a bit threadbare and artificial at times and to be sure even one of the small external amplifiers (in this case a Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline P-51 Mustang) helps things out a bit. But the DX-50 is reasonable for portable applications driving even decent headphones directly, good enough to enliven dull daily stuff like my commute for work with enjoyable music and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The Operating System is good enough for me (I don’t engage in stuff like complicated search features, playlists or other fripperies, I just pick an album or song a play it) and it has been reliable. I found a case that I could easily modify to carry and protect it at a “Five Below” store and the supposed-to-be belt clip holds two of my thumb drives. But how I wish the PONO had the ability to handle external storage…

To me, it’s a far cry from yesterdays cassettes and walkman…

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Posted on October 1, 2015, in Personal Stereo, Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on It’s been an exciting time for portable audio or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and wear headphones in public..

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