First, I’d like to thank Peter Hoagland and the folks at HiFiMan for providing a sample of the HM-700 for review.
Anyone who knows HiFiMan knows they’re no stranger to portable audio players. They’re well known for their high end and very expensive HM-801, HM-601 and most recently, their HM-901 portable audio players, geared toward the most discerning audiophiles, with high quality DACs, and modular amplifier cards, in case the stock amplifier isn’t good enough. All of these players cost hundreds of dollars, with the highest end HM-901 costing some $1,000.
Enter the HM-700, a lower end audiophile player without some of the fancy bells and whistles of the higher end models but with support for high quality audio, a balanced 3.5mm jack and promising uncompromised audio quality for a lower price. So, does the HM-700 live up to these promises? Read on to find out.
Packaging and Accessories
The HM-700 arrives in a simple black box, adorned with a gold HiFiMan logo. Inside is the HM-700 player itself, a set of RE-400B earphones, an arm band case for working out, an adapter to connect the balanced ended RE-400B to standard 3.5mm jacks and a shirt clip.
And though this doesn’t technically qualify as an accessory, per se, the HM-700 comes with some free music, including some full albums like Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire, Jack Johnson’s From Here to Now to You, Musica Nuda’s self-titled album and Katy Perry’s Prism. Yes. Katy Perry.
But free, music is free music and I appreciate the gesture.
Design and Build Quality
The HM-700 is defined by its distinctive brownish-grey and orange design, dominated by its glass panel covering the LCD screen. It’s a decent looking device that’s rather simple and straightforward with the prominent three orange buttons which control volume and power/hold features. Below those buttons is a square directional pad that sits flush with the device.
The LCD screen isn’t going to win any awards for its quality or resolution. It serves up what you need to see and little else.
HiFiMan clearly took a no-nonsense approach to the HM-700. There are no bells and whistles, no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, no expandable storage, no USB DAC functionality, no, the HM-700 is all about the music.
Software and User Interface
The HM-700’s user interface is archaic, to be blunt. Yes, it’s pretty simple and relatively easy to understand but using it made me pine for my iPhone. Like I said, the interface isn’t difficult to wrap your head around but navigation is rather slow. If you’re the kind of person who listens to one album at a time, this won’t likely be a problem but if you’re like me and you like skipping around, it can be rather annoying, scrolling through the folder hierarchy to find the song you’re looking for. This is especially annoying if you have an encyclopedic music collection and want to cram as many songs as you can into the 32GB storage. Why you’d want to is another story.
But this is all highly subjective. The complaints I have about the user interface may not apply to others. As always, your mileage may vary.
File support is decent enough. It supports MP3, APE and FLAC formats up to 16 bit/48KHz and uncompressed WAV files up to 24 bit/48KHz. One notable and unfortunate omission is the lack of support for unprotected AAC files, which makes up most of my personal music library.
Battery Life is solid at around 12 to 15 hours in my tests.
The sound coming from the HM-700 is flat in frequency response, as it should be but nicely rich and detailed, presenting a very nice amount of detail wrapped in its very inviting sound signature. So, the HM-700 would be pretty much flawless. But it has one big issue that holds it back from greatness, and as I understand it, this is an issue with many “audiophile” DAPs, namely that it hisses like a snake with sensitive earphones and headphones. Audible hiss is one of my personal pet peeves so to hear it from the HM-700 is a letdown, to say the least. IEMs make the hissing the most obvious, including the bundled RE-400B.
The HM-700 and RE-400B are practically made for one another. The resulting sound coming from the HM-700 is superb and really brings out the best in the RE-400B. Check out my full review of the RE-400 for more detailed impressions of its sound signature and quality but I think it’s safe to say you won’t find a better pair of pack in earphones anywhere else.
That is, unless you opt for the far more expensive HM-700 + RE-600 package. Yeah, it’s expensive at $500 (double the regular price), but it’s still a solid deal.
But I digress.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’m sold on the balanced connector. I know it has its professional uses and in that realm, balanced XLR connections are pretty much a standard of high end audio. But when it comes to consumer audio, especially if you aren’t dealing with 24/96 or higher rate files (whether or not people are capable of perceiving a real difference between 24 and 16 bit is a debate for another day), you’re simply not going to hear much of a difference between a balanced or unbalanced connection.
That’s not to say there are no differences to be heard because there certainly are, such as improved stereo separation and a wider soundstage. While that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, the differences are rather slight. However, given the choice, I’m glad the HM-700 has the balanced connection as I’d rather have it and find the differences to be slight than not have it at all.
If it weren’t for the hiss, I’d say the HM-700 is easily the best sounding portable player I’ve heard. It’s warmer and more immediately involving than the ruler flat Sansa players I have (Clip+ and Fuze) and less sharp and clinical than the iPhone 4S but really, we’re talking minute differences here, the likes of which only discerning listeners to really notice and appreciate. Hissing excluded, the HM-700 is held back by a number of usability issues that will likely frustrate people used to iPhones, iPods and Android phones/tablets, which are light-years ahead of the HM-700 in terms of ease of navigation and overall usability.
But in the world of audiophile music players, archaic interfaces come with the territory, so the HM-700’s faults in that area aren’t unique and are usually forgiven because sound quality is king and the HM-700 delivers. It’s warm and rich but detailed sound signature will likely appeal to audiophiles from all walks of life and though it lacks a line-out for a dedicated amp, its built in amp circuit still has enough power for many power-hungry headphones like the 250 Ohm Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro and HiFiman’s own HE-400. It should be noted that these hard to drive headphones will also cut down or eliminate the hiss in the process. It’s easy to load up an album, plug in a set of headphones and relax with your feet up and it’s best suited to an environment where you won’t have to fiddle with it much.
So the HM-700 is a player that lives and dies based on its sound quality and it does indeed deliver. Though I wish there was no hiss with sensitive IEMs, especially since the RE-400B is bundled with the player and the RE-600 sounds so lovely with the HM-700 (but then again, the RE-600 sounds lovely with any good source) and would sound that much better without the distracting hiss in the background.
All told, the $250 HM-700 isn’t the kind of player that’s particularly easy to recommend, at least not to the average music listener. Its ancient user interface and lack of extraneous features will be a hard sell to millennials and most youngsters will be wondering how they’re supposed to control the thing without a touchscreen.
But the HM-700 isn’t designed for those people, it’s clearly designed and marketed for the audiophile. The kind of person who has more pairs of headphones than shoes, the kind of person who listens to music on a “rig” rather than just an MP3 player, the kind of person who knows what WASAPI and ASIO drivers are, the kind of person who knows what FLAC and APE formats are and can rattle off the pros and cons of each at a moment’s notice.
That’s the kind of person who would be interested in the HM-700. And for those kinds of people, the HM-700 is a great deal. For $250, you’re getting a very capable portable player with excellent sound quality, plenty of storage space, a stellar pair of earphones in the RE-400B and even some free tunes to get you up and running.
That hiss though…it’s just so hard for me to ignore.
But if iPhones and Androids just don’t have the sound quality you want, the HM-700 should have a spot on your shortlist for being one of the better deals in the audiophile portable player space.