In a world of MP3 players where the iPod is king, and all rivals have to scrabble at its feet for scraps, the HiFiMAN HM-601 doesn't play by the rules. Bravely battling against the norm, it's big, it's bulky and it will only fit in your pocket because buying it will lessen the amount of notes and coins you need to carry around with you - it costs around £170 at today's conversion rates. Yet it's still a good choice for a small proportion of the population, because it sounds rather marvellous.
The HiFiMAN HM-601 looks like a device from another age. If you forget the colour screen for a second, you could easily fool yourself into thinking it was released back in 2001 alongside the Creative DAP Jukebox and first-gen iPod. If you remember those days, like us, it may hold a certain charm. But next to players like the Cowon J3 and Sony NWZ-A866, it can seem rather an anachronism.
It's made of gunmetal grey glossy plastic and is adorned with some industrial-style physical controls. There's a 4-way navigational D-pad and three sliders, which act as the power switch, hold toggle and mute mode selector. They're all made of plastic rather than metal, but have a solid action that's rare in these days of touchscreen operation.
The plastic construction helps to keep the weight down too. At 26.5mm thick, the HM-601 is much chunkier than obvious rivals like the iPod Classic, but at 163g (according to our measurements although HiFiMAN claims a whopping 200g) it's not much heavier than the opposition.
This very reasonable weight is partly down to the type of memory it uses. There's just 8GB of internal storage, which is flash memory - rather than a hard drive zapped in from 2001. What makes this relatively small storage fine in our eyes is that the HM-601 offers a full-size SD card slot - that gaping hole on its left side. This lets you expand that 8GB by up to 32GB, giving a maximum storage potential of 40GB. Full-size SD cards are much handier to keep as a "library" of a larger music collection than their smaller relatives.
While microSDs are on the road to ubiquity, now featuring in the vast majority of phones, they're horribly easy to lose, and horribly hard to effectively label. Keeping a small library of larger SD cards is a much more attractive proposition. Once again, the HM-601 has us brimming with retro nostalgia - keeping music on physical media, how quaint.
The volume control feels similarly antiquated, using a dial with numbers etched into it rather than any on-screen notification of the level. This is down to the internal circuitry of the HM-601 taking precedence over such flim-flam considerations as user interface, but like the crucial and highly unusual "low gain/high gain" switch by the SD slot, it's a clue that this isn't a player for folks teetering on the edge of buying an iPod Nano.
Another clue is the 3.5mm line-level output, which sits up top right next to the 3.5mm headphone jack. This gives you an additional audio output that circumvents the volume control - perfect for hooking up to a hi-fi, for example. It's not so much an MP3 player as an "audio source".