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Deciding on which component to review first
, I opted for the upscale version of their portable player called Esther M1Pro. Could it give my Questyle QP1R a run for its money? The standard M1 gets $581, the upgraded Pro $775. China's younger generation is often referred to as the planet's most demanding and savvy when it comes to smartphones and portable gizmos. It's no surprise that many of its established hifi firms play the DAP sector, be they called Calyx, Cayin, Fiio, HifiMan, Lootoo, Opera Audio, Questyle or Shanling. Now Soundaware add themselves to our DAPper list, hoping for some recognition and sales outside China.

Onto the spectacular. There's native DSD and 32-bit/192kHz PCM support which arrives by way of a Cirrus Logic CS4398 chip [circuit schematic below]. There are twin "femto" clocks for the 44.1/48kHz sample rate families; and custom FPGA algorithms. There are six-layer circuit boards with gold-immersion traces and dual card slots for more than 256GB of memory. There are analog outs for headfi and hifi plus a 0.5V coax digital out for a claimed 30 hours of battery life (PCM/DoP). Class A/B analog mode delivers up to 2.8Vrms, hence reduces useful battery power to ~ 8-9 hours. Finally there's a 2.4" display.

Soundaware claim a whopping -130dB noise floor for their headfi port. This promises happy hour at the ultra-efficient IEM corral which so often is prone to noise. Format support—we note the omission of AIFF—is for MP3, WMA, AAC, ALAC, M4A, CUE, WAV, FLAC, APE, ISO, DSP and DFF. All of that tech gets packed into a svelte 175g chassis of 115 x 59 x 15mm which arrives in a choice of business grey or champagne gold.

Let's rewind the porta aspect for a moment to mention another app oft overlooked by the more snobbish segment: digital transport duties. Consider this. First there were spinning discs, be they CD, SACD or DVD-A. Then came lengthy buffers called memory players. Then PCfi exploited RAM and software players to spin down an HDD after a lengthy playlist had been read to buffer memory. Finally solid-state drives arrived to remove moving parts. And in-between somewhere, all but forgotten, we witnessed card slots in DACs like the $4'995 Resonessence Invicta below.

Formatted in FAT, basic card readers are limited to displaying endless lists. Navigation is a far cry from a basic iPod. Enter today's portable digital players. They combine card-based file storage with battery power, operating systems and displays for far more convenient navigation by artist, album, song, favourites, playlist and more. Bottom line, when tapped digitally, they can be exploited as advanced card readers. And that makes them audio renderers which will seamlessly interface with even very exotic D/A converters. But because they're portable and complete players, they do a lot more. They go on the road for mobile fun, just add headphones. My point is, if you let them multi task, they can get even more serious in a posh stationary hifi. Aye caramba!

Walking that talk, that's exactly how I use my QP1R. Once I realized that its micro USB port is oriented just so to fit a Belkin express dock for Android phones, I mail-ordered three of those Belkins. I keep one on my work desk, one on the bedside table and one in a secondary system. On the desk, the QP1R's Toslink output feeds my Feniks Audio Essence actives for a compact but high-performance complete system of just three pieces (well, four if we count the dock). On the night stand, it feeds an AURALiC Vega. And so forth. It's a convenient way to transport and access 5'000 AIFF files with complete cover art, no laptop required. Docking the player keeps it charged for endless duty and various random modes can exploit that to keep playing without repetition. In the olden days, it took a 100-CD Sony carousel to pull that off. Not that you wanted to move one from room to room, never mind take it out for a walk ghetto blaster style.

On rapid tech progress and miniaturization trickery, today's DAP are real miracles. They do so much in a form factor that's smaller than a basic calculator was during my school days. Once we add contemporary finish quality that must compete with mass-produced Apple and Samsung smartphones to keep up, this entire sector is quite the headscratcher. One must just stop long enough to not take it for granted. True, modern pricing à la Astell&Kern induces its own scalp injuries but that shouldn't be the case with today's example of the breed. And so it came about that I had a blind date with a Chinese lady called Esther.

The next photo from Chinese site Soomal shows us the M1 and M1 Pro versions side by side. To the naked eye, only the capacitors appear different. Soundaware however also talk of different FPGA algorithms for a noticeably different sonic tuning. The Internet then has photos of yet another PCB version called Vitality with its Kermit-green chlorophyll capacitors. I'd have to query my contact Mary Cui on a complete break-down of what distinguishes one model from the next. After all, the nearly $200 surcharge for the Pro isn't insignificant. Buyers might expect more than just a different pair of output coupling caps no matter their pedigree.