Our ears aren't to be trusted. The placebo effect can work just as well with high-end audio equipment as it can with pharmaceuticals, so the only real way to test out a device's mettle (and metal, in this case) is in direct comparison. Out first contender is the Apple iPod Classic, a DAP often criticised for its middling audio quality.
Does the Hisoundaudio Studio-V blow it out of the water? Not really. This has as much to do with expectation as ability though. The vast majority of popular MP3 players are actually rather good audio performers, so the difference between most players isn't going to be the grand leap you might expect. It's subtle compared with the difference between a cheap pair of earphones and a high-end pair like the Phonak PFE 112 or Shure SE535, for example.
We advise you manage your expectations, before you're stuck with managing your disappointment.
The Studio-V does offer better sound quality than the iPod Classic, with slightly better treble extension and detail, and the sound is uncoloured. It doesn't bring valve-like warmth or increase soundstage hugely - and we tested the player with a wide range of earphones and headphones. The player does sound good, but not £300 good. There's also a slight hiss in the background, not present in the iPod Classic, that may annoy and it's highly susceptible to interference from mobile phones - unlike most modern media players.
We do have some concerns about Hisoundaudio's claims about the Studio-V's insides too, which could help explain the subtlety of this performance boost. The player claims to feature a class-A amp, but the combination of the following doesn't make a great deal of sense - a) Class-A amps are the least energy-efficient type b) the Studio-V has a claimed 100-hour battery life c) The player isn't that heavy or large d) and much of its weight is from the thick metal body, so it can't be all-battery. Oh, and e) it doesn't get particularly warm, as you'd expect from a class-A amp device. Hisoundaudio claims there's secret sauce "EMA (energy management arrangement)" technology at work here, but we're not entirely convinced.
There's clever physics, but this is starting to sound a little bit like magic.
The idea that there's something ever-so-slightly fishy going on is supported by US retailer MP4 Nation, which opened the Studio-V up to find a Sigmatel audio processing chip, as used in players costing a fraction of the price. Again, this doesn't mean the sound quality is bad, just that it's not what you're primarily paying for here.
We plugged the Studio-V into an "actual" Class-A valve amplifier (an inexpensive one too) and found a more significant difference in tone than between the iPod Classic and Studio-V. As a final scrutinisation of the device's skills, we used a line out dock to plug the iPod Classic into the player, using it as an amp rather than the source. Using the line-out of the iPod cuts out the Apple device's own internal headphone amp circuitry. Switching between the iPod's and Studio-V's headphone jacks, there was a noticeable (if fairly slight) improvement in the tone of the high-end, which sounded more impressive through the Studio-V.
Hisoundaudio explains its lack of EQ options, of which there are none, saying that it wants the sound to speak for itself, but as it turns out the sound quality is not the greatest of orators. Granted, most EQ options are awful gimmicks that only serve to reduce sound quality, but we found actual use for the BBE options of the Cowon X7 and J3. The Studio-V just doesn't offer the stand-out sound quality we'd expect of an audiophile device retailing for £279.
For that price, you could buy a 120GB Cowon X7 plus a Fiio E7 dedicated portable headphone amplifier. Or, even better, a pair of Ultimate Ears Triple Fi 10 earphones and a Sansa Clip player - and still save yourself some money.
The Hisoundaudio feels and looks like a high-end audio device. It's simple, stripped-back and built with the strength of a rhino. However, while sound quality is good, it's not quite good enough to justify the price tag and lack of features. Treble definition is a highlight, but there's an audible hiss and mobile phone interference means it's not all that at-home in the pocket of the average gadget fan.