HANDS-ON: HIFIMAN SUPERMINI Digital Audio Player – The Little Engine That Could

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.

I have to admit, as someone from the Walkman generation, I can’t fathom the idea of spending megabucks for today’s equivalent to the device: a Digital Audio Player.

Of course, the market is riddled with super high quality players from manufacturers like Onkyo, Pioneer, and Astell & Kern, and with prices ranging from $1,000 up to $3,000. Yes, there are more affordable options. But, in my opinion, they tend to be cheaply built, are buggy, or have sound quality no better than an iPhone.

Still, in this digital age when everything has been miniaturized and can be manufactured at a much lower cost than a Walkman, why should a decent Digital Audio Player cost much more than a decent Walkman of yesteryear? Taking inflation into account, a traditional Walkman would sell for no more than $400 today.

In August, HifiMan, a designer/manufacturer of high performance headphones and portable audio products, announced its latest portable player, the SuperMini. The unit supports all lossless file formats, including DSD. Lossless formats deliver the full dynamic range and realism captured from the original recording. The player features expandable memory up to 256GB via microSD card (although the term “expandable” is confusing since I can’t seem to detect any internal memory at all). Represented in Canada by D2MK Marketing, it sells for an MSRP of $499, but with some quick searching, you can easily fetch one for about $450. I was lucky enough to have a SuperMini sent to me for review.

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The Look

The SuperMini is truly super mini. It’s merely 1.77″ x 4.09″ in size and just 8mm thin. But despite the diminutive size, the build quality is still very solid. Made with an all-metal body, the unit has zero flex. Every button has a distinct tactile feel when pressed, rather than feeling spongy like you might find in other players within the same price range.

There are four slots at the bottom of the player. One for a TransFlash/microSD card up to 256GB in capacity, a micro USB input for charging, and two (yes, two) 3.5mm headphone outputs: one for regular headphones and the other for balanced headphones. You cannot, however, use both outputs at the same time. Why balanced headphones? The theory is by using a balanced connection, sonic anomalies caused by grounding imperfection (such as hum and buzzing) can be avoided. However, since this is a rechargeable battery-operated unit, I don’t see any reason for grounding imperfections to ever present themselves on this player, which essentially makes the balanced headphone output redundant.

The HifiMan SuperMini comes packaged with plenty of extra goodies, including a very good pair of balanced-earphones (I’d compare them in build and sound quality to earphones in the $150 range), and a screen protector. Plus, the instruction manual is clear and concise, something that’s hard to find nowadays. However, it does not come with a wall charger, nor a memory card to get you started. That’s a big deal considering that the unit doesn’t actually have any internal memory, which means a memory card is not simply an add on if you want to be able to store more music, but rather a necessity, to start listening, period.

What’s more, a blank memory card is also required in order to run firmware updates. It would make sense if HifiMan included at least a 1GB memory card in the package amongst all of the other accessories.

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Setup and Use

That said, the firmware upgrade process is extremely easy. I went to the HifiMan Website, downloaded the firmware to a blank memory card, plugged the memory card in, and the rest was done automatically. That even included the deletion of the firmware file from the memory card, rendering the memory card blank once again, and ready for the next firmware upgrade.

The Graphical User Interface may be deemed archaic for some, but I prefer it as opposed to ones with fancy, colourful, and sometimes confusing icons. Everything is clearly labeled on the crisp 2″ (diagonal) OLED display, including information like artist and album name, and genre, as well as icons for settings. Within settings, you can do things like put a song or playlist on repeat, shuffle tracks, control backlight to your liking and/or to save power, reset the device, or format the inserted memory card.

It is seldom that you find a portable device that’s so straightforward to use that you never have to refer to the manual, but that was the case with this device. Needless to say, navigating this Digital Audio Player was a breeze. All you need to do is tap up and down, and hit enter or back. Playing a game of Pac-Man is more complex than that!

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The Evaluation

For this review, I used both the noise-cancelling PSB M4U-2 headphones and the earphones equivalent, the PSB M4U-4, along with uncompressed PCM files in the .WAV format so no conversion was required. All files were extracted using my computer’s CD reader and Exact Audio Copy at the slowest reading speed for the utmost ripping accuracy. Then, I transferred the files directly to the memory card and inserted it into the SuperMini.

There have been so many good music recordings of late, like Phil Collins’ Singles Remastered Limited Edition and the Queen Anthology, plus great older but classic ones like Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and the legendary album Jazz At The Pawnshop. The SuperMini clearly aspires to accuracy and neutrality rather than romance. There are no euphonic lies, no ‘tuned’ colourations. It is, by any measure, a precision tool rather than a musical instrument; as it should be. This is, after all, a playback device, and it should never change the sonic quality in any way.

The SuperMini’s bass extension, control and slam are nothing short of exciting, whether reproducing that huge booming ending of Circle of Life in Disney’s The Lion King or the tightness of the bass drums in Sting’s Windmills Of Your Mind. Dynamic swings from soft to loud are swift and smooth, with no unnecessary overhang, no hesitation.

Colouration, if it exists, is just about impossible to detect and the soundstage is, as you’d expect, very wide and panoramic. This player so accurately reproduces every recording I played back during my review; anything that veers from the sonic truth is caused by the source recording or the headphones.

Delightfully, the player can actually operate for the full 22 hours using its internal Lithium-ion rechargeable battery, as advertised. I determined this by first charging it in full, plugging in my headphones, and playing a song at my preferred listening volume level on repeat, then checking back virtually every hour. Starting from the 21st hour, I paid close attention to when the player died. To be exact, it lasted 22 hours and three minutes from a full charge. That’s super in my books!

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Bottom Line

If ever an affordable Digital Audio Player suggested ‘reference quality,’ even at a time when the category is in turmoil thanks to streaming services and other distractions, it’s this one. I would never have believed it without hearing for myself that a device of this size, with its high value proposition, could be this engaging.

True, it does not play MQA files (something that HifiMan could add via firmware update if so inclined.) And it does not have any internal memory, requiring that you use separately-purchased memory cards instead. (The good news is microSD cards can be purchased on the cheap these days.) Also despite its clinical tendencies (read: highly accurate audio reproduction, which I prefer anyhow) and a Graphical User Interface that’s a throwback to the ‘80s (which I also prefer), I’d highly suggest the SuperMini as an affordable and great-sounding option if you’re looking to get into the world of portable high-res audio listening.

PROS

  • Great value proposition
  • Near-reference sound quality when paired with the right earphones/headphones
  • Comes complete with extremely good quality earphones

CONS

  • No “starter” memory card included
  • Firmware update can only be done using memory card
  • Some may balk at the ‘retro’ GUI style
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