Saturday, May 4, 2013

Himedia Q5 review, an audiophile delight - Almost

Many people argue that smaller operating systems provide better sound than big bloated operating systems.
Examples of this type of thinking can be found with software such as cPlay + CMP, which (when running in CMP mode) replaces windows shell with CMP shell, to reduce the number of windows processes running in the background. XXhighend, and Jplay software suspend windows services when the player software is running.
Users of all of software listed above report a substantial increase in sound quality, in comparison to software which does not reduce or suspend services such as WMP, Foobar, Winamp etc.
Taking this concept a step further, what if you can start with less background services in the first place? Vortex box is a linux based operating system designed primarily as a music server and player. It’s not designed to check your email or surf the web. So, it has many fewer processes running in the background. Vortex box is one of the best sounding music sources when paired with an appropriately high quality output device such as Yellowtec PUC lite or Audiophilleo USB > SPDIF converters etc.
But what if you don’t want a PC turned on in your listening room? What if you want a playback source that uses around  12 Watts of power? What if you want something that is small and compact, can accept USB drives, SATA HDD, and can stream audio from the network? What if you still want excellent sound quality?

The answer is: the Himedia Q5 media box. Importantly it has both coaxial and toslink SPDIF outputs. It runs on a customized Android operating system. It also has an app called Hicontrol which allows armchair control of the device using your android phone or tablet over WiFi.
The review:
The Himedia Q5 was reviewed against a Yellowtec PUC2 (not the lite version) running off USB bus power, using the software cPlay  in CMP mode. The Himdedia was powered by a fairly generic linear 12 volt 1 amp power supply.
Volume levels were the same. Swapping back and forth between sources was achieved by swapping the coaxial cable between the respective SPDIF outputs, whilst playing the same tracks.
After trying a few Android music playback apps, I settled on Neutron because it was clearly the best sounding app that I found. 

According to the programmer of Neutron, it was designed from the ground up to be an audiophile player, and it shows.

I did find there to be differences between the Himedia and the Yellowtec.
The stand out feature of the Himedia is its ability to reproduce transient music with great speed and dynamics which just about match those of the Yellowtec. 
However upon doing a few swaps back and forth it was apparent that CMP + Yellowtec reveals far greater inner detail, ambience and depth to the sound. The Himedia just doesn't cut the mustard in this department. The Himdia has a very forward but less 3D presentation to the sound. When doing this comparison I was listening to Sade's album, PromiseOn the track "Mr Wrong" when played on the Himedia, Sade's vocals sound more chesty, and the bass guitar has less definition, and the highs sound a little, shall I say "digital". The same track played via the Yellowtec reveals a silky smooth top end, Sade's vocals sound feminine and delicate and the bass has great definition. 
I initially thought that the Himedia seemed to give a more “warts and all” presentation to the top end, I thought it was revealing of the original recording, but this turned out to be me getting used to the sound, when I swapped over to the Yellowtec, it was plainly apparent that the Himedia is a little rough up top.

After doing some research online, I found a gentleman which has measured the output of an android and found that during the up sampling process there are significant artifacts present in the signal, see his blog here.

Despite these artifacts the Himedia is still a very competent and enjoyable digital source.

The difference between the Himedia and the Yellowtec is quite profound, when listening critically. A more casual listen reveals similar qualities, such as a pleasant forward sound, great dynamics, and an even balance from treble to bass.  Ultimately the Yellowtec has an obviously cleaner and refined sound particularly in the top end due to the lack of up sampling artifacts.

At the moment the Android Operating system can't escape it's up sampling artifact problem even when running the very well programmed, and excellent sounding Neutron audio player.
If Android OS could enable the ability to pass through 44.1Khz data without up sampling to 48khz then all of these problems would go away. If the artifacts were not there, I have no doubt the "top end" would sound nicer, and present greater depth to the audio.

Despite these flaws I can still confidently recommend the Himedia Q5 as an audiophile playback source because it does 90% of things "right", however best avoided for those who seek technical perfection. 

  • Great dynamics 
  • Great tonal balance from top to bottom 
  • Very good detail levels (although still lacking when compared to the best)
  • Slightly rough top end as a result of up sampling artifacts
  • Slightly chesty mid-range
  • Slightly ill defined bass frequencies