The HiFiMAN HM-601 features some fairly serious components under its dumpy, shiny plastic exterior. It has a TDA1543 DAC, generally considered an "oldie but a goodie", and a "proper" headphone amp - offering more power than something like the Fiio E6. HiFiMAN claims that it will be able to power the majority of full-size headphones - a claim it's understandably careful about given how power-hungry headphones like the HiFiMAN HE5 are.
The sound isn't neutral and completely uncoloured, but these days you can get such a signature from a competent, cheap player. You don't need to spend megabucks to get decent sound quality. What the HM-601 does bring, though, is a lovely warm, "analogue-style" sensibility to music, whether in its high or low gain setting.
It's not a particularly bright, insightful-sounding player, but it is a joy to listen to, and can help curtail sibilance and harshness. However, there's only a very basic equaliser built-in, giving you /-10 control over five frequency bands, tagged 60Hz, 300Hz, 1kHz, 3kHz and 6kHz.
The level of control this supplies has nothing on the system employed by the Cowon J3, another great-sounding player available at a similar price, but the effects of EQ edits sound very good - avoiding the distortion and ugliness less proficient equalisation brings. We found it particularly handy to add a little top-end brightness, as the HM-601 can sound a tiny bit rolled-off at the top of the frequency spectrum at times.
However, we find it hard to justify the massive compromises inherent in using this device, against a friendlier, smaller, longer-lasting player unless you can make real use of its headphone amplifier. If you use IEM earphones, we think you're much better off with something else - and even with over-ears headphones you don't necessarily need a headphone amp to make the most of them.
One way to tell - although by no means a conclusive test - is to find out your headphones' impedance. Around 300 Ohms suggests you could do with an amp - 30? Not so much.
If you're only just starting out with more expensive audio equipment, and have only started haemorrhaging your financial veins rather than arteries, you'll find a much greater difference in sound quality by buying a decent set of headphones or earphones, rather than a high-end audio player like this.
Digital music makes it fairly easy for a budget player to sound pretty good - and those 10 years of progress we've referenced a number of times at the HM-601's expense have really helped. It's not that it's hideously expensive - £170 really isn't for a good player, but there are so many options that are so much easier to live with. The simplified circuitry of the HiFiMAN even means it's susceptible to mobile phone interference - something we thought we'd waved goodbye to a long time ago.
The Cowon J3 and Sony NWZ-E454 are both good options, and while the Apple iPod Classic may not be considered the last word in sound quality, its latest iteration is a good, clean performer and offers 160GB storage for just £20-30 more. Oh, and an interface that certainly won't put you off actually listening to music.
Our relationship with the HiFiMAN HM-601 is a conflicted one. We love it and hate it, at the same time. It's a pain to use, the battery life is mediocre and the behaviour of the navigational D-pad wills you to throw the thing out of the window. And yet it sounds great and has enough power to deal with demanding headphones most media players can't do justice to, without a headphone amp. If you have such a demanding pair, this player's worth searching out. The rest of us should probably stay a little nearer the mouth of the deep, dark "audiophile" cave.