We've already roundly ribbed the HiFiMAN HM-601 for looking like something released 10 years ago, but perhaps more serious are its interface problems. Its looks are simple, its basic menu layout familiar, but navigating through it can feel like operating something through a mirror's reflection, because the D-pad rarely behaves as expected.
For example - when in the "What's playing now" view, you'd expect a right press to go to the next track, right? Wrong, it brings up a pop-up that lets you add the track to a favourites list. To go to the next track you press down.
The HM-601 gets itself into these usability scrapes because it doggedly sticks to the principle that a left press on the pad should always flick between different menus (apart from the few odd occasions when it doesn't, just to spice things up a bit). Once one control element is flip-reversed, a domino-like effect takes over that infects the whole interface. So, to edit EQ faders, you press left and right rather than up and down, and some of the time the select button in the middle of the D-pad will do nothing at all. Diddly. Squat.
When other players do just fine with a similar complement of buttons, it's a wonder that HiFiMAN has managed to make everything feel so fiddly. Its navigational quirks are things you'll get used to, but for a little while it does feel like learning a new language... that uses a different alphabet. In defence of the player, we experienced similar navigational face-palm moments in Cowon's J3 and X7 players too - perhaps it's all part of being an audiophile-oriented player. Just like needing to have 300 hours of publically sneering about the MP3 codec to get your audiophile club card.
Once you've passed the unintuitiveness test and earned your HM-601 interface license, the menu structure is actually dead simple. As it's not a feature-packed device, everything of note can be shoved into one main menu without it seeming overcrowded.
You can rifle through your audio library by Artist or Album, change EQ settings, activate the shuffle and repeat settings - but that's about it. There's no radio, no audio recording and - it goes without saying, but - no Wi-Fi, no apps and no games. The screen is basic too. It's colour, but doesn't display album art and suffers from both colour and contrast shift when viewed from an angle. A text-only approach keeps things clear, but it's not pretty.
The HM-601 is not sold on its features though, rather its audio quality - and in that argument, a lack of features can be sold as a positive, the unadulterated nature of the internal circuitry resulting in less interference. How much you believe in the realities of such claims is up to you.
It does, however, play more audio codecs than several top audio players, including the Sony NWZ-A866 and iPod Classic. On top of MP3s, it will play the high-end OGG as well as the lossless FLAC and APE codecs. Some reports online suggest it struggles to pick up some specific codec configurations, but we didn't experience any problems. Files from SD cards are integrated into the main library too, using the files' ID3 tags - an important usability win (or at least non-fail) for the HM-601.
After having learnt to live with the player's dysfunctional ways, it continues to demand patience. Against "modern" devices, the HM-601's 9-hour battery life seems rather ridiculous given its size - the Cowon J3 lasts for around 45 hours, the iPod Classic around 40. It takes an age to charge too. In summary, this device is horribly impractical in a number of ways. This alone should be enough to turn off most looking for a decent MP3 player. It does, however, make up some of the lost ground with its sound quality.