The DAP dating game. For your first date, you hope for a perfectly intuitive UI that needs no secret handshakes to ideally get by without an owner's manual altogether. Delivery by FedEx unearthed this modest presentation box containing a 3M graphic marking system (peel and stick), a manual, an Apple-white AC charger with US-style 2-prong folding plug, a matching USB/mini-USB cable, a USB stick and Esther in her sharp business-grey sandblasted suit. And a fine figure she cut, with no visible fasteners or plastic safe for the peel-back rubber latch on the twin card bay.

In one of the two micro SD card slots sat an empty 16GB Samsung (Soundaware support up to 128GB cards each).

One of Esther's decisive charms are her hard navigation switches. So no touch screen or scroll/click wheel. Anyone who ever had issue with unresponsive skip-prone wheels whilst cursing silently or loudly at a touch screen's inevitable finger prints will breath a big sigh of relief. Ah. Life in the mechanical lane is good. Once playing, the nicely crisp screen displays all the expected intel, from numerical volume and L/M/H gain mode plus battery charge on top to time play/remain at the bottom, with ticker-tape artist and album name scrolling endlessly over Soundaware's screen theme in the middle, play mode, finally sample rate/bit depth, format and track number of total tracks below the company name.

Grasping that the central play/pause button double tasks as 'enter' when cruising the menu is all it takes to be up and running. Whilst our Chinese friends don't list AIFF support, I decided to mythappropriate two 64GB cards from my now antique Vinnie Rossi-modified Astell&Kern AK100 loaded for bear with AIFF files. I wanted to see what Esther would do. Hitting the 'scan music' command, I waited... and waited. Perhaps being shy with strangers, Esther gave no indication as to progress or her digestive system. But a few minutes later, the read-in progress stopped. Moving to the 'music library' icon, I clicked on 'artist' and voilà, déjà vu all over again. Not only had everything imported correctly—albeit without cover art—Esther proceeded to fall into instant song when I hit 'play'. Aiffing eh. But was it love at first sight?

Before we lift the gentlemen-don't-tell embargo, a few mandatory words on the user interface. Very much like mobile phone navigation, Esther's menu presents fields which one scans left or right. These fields are called Playing, List Manager, Storage, Music Library, Setting, Upgrade and About. List manager splits into favorites and recent, storage into SD0 and SD1. 'Music library' has album, genre, artist and all music views. 'Setting' offers language, backlight time, brightness, music scan, digital coax mode on/off, power-off options (auto, smart, keyed), fade on/off, DAC (fast/slow roll-off filter) and sound (3-stage gain and sound offset). The latter is balance and identified as left towards, right towards and default. 'Upgrade' has force recovery and firmware upgrade. The latter requires downloading the latest version to the upper memory card. 'About' shows version, serial number, total installed memory capacity, remaining free space and contact us.

The only thing not perfectly crystal is how to create/tag favorites; how to prompt repeat one/all/random and such. This only requires some button pressing whilst playing a cut. Now the 'down' button cycles through play mode options which are duly confirmed with a small icon. Pressing 'up' alters display mode. Pressing 'M' for menu brings up an 'add to favorites' okay which merely needs confirmation. Perfectly crystal is how to execute a factory restore. Properly marked, one of the pin-prick vent holes on the right check must be needled whilst the menu is set accordingly. The slider on the left cheek locks/unlocks the mechanical buttons to avoid mobile trigger frustration when Esther goes walkabout in a pocket or bag. However, the display on/off and volume up/down functions still work. The latter then doesn't auto trigger the display.

As far as perfect blind dates go, Esther proved to be quite the doll or dame. She was far from mysterious, taciturn or temperamental. In fact, she was multi-lingual to without fail display all the non-standard letters on my Turkish tracks. She only played coy about gapless by not outright stating whether she did or not. Mary Cui would have to sort that one, too. To wrap up my initial meet, everything was peaches with cream. That the manual included plenty of Pidgin English was merely amusing given that consulting it wasn't needed in the first place.
The only unexpected peculiarity at this point? The variable line-out. To feed my Feniks Audio Essence actives—formerly branded Eversound—meant opening Esther's volume to 100 for a bypass. Here I'd expected a fixed output to distinguish it from the headfi port. In line-out mode, even the three gain setting were still operational; something else to ask Mary about. Relative to my trusty Belkin dock with height-adjustable swiveling USB nub, Esther's port orientation did the business. Though her USB mini port isn't centred but offset to the left of her bottoms, docking the deck for 24/7 MO in high-power analog mode was child's play as you can see below. If such use appeals to you (you'd be nuts to overlook it), think Belkin dock for some €30.

When Mary's answers came in, I learnt that gapless is "nope"; that the main difference between headfi and line-out ports is their voltage/drive (lower for line-out though you could certainly use that to drive headphones as well); that volume control is not executed in the FPGA but via the CS4398 chip's interpolation filter; that for cover art to show, it should be a jpg or png no larger than 500KB; and that the basic M1 model comes either with the Vitality or Analog PCB. "Vitality is neutral, more resolving with more details in a wider soundstage whilst Analog is much warmer, with rich musicality and emotional liveliness. The M1Pro's sound is upgraded over the M1 Analog not only with different capacitors but also its clocks are costlier superior femto clocks. The Pro's crystal oscillator too has far higher specs on precision and noise. A few other parts are changed as well. On sound quality, the fair comparison would be between M1 Analog and M1Pro. For the Pro, soundstaging, resolving power, airiness and overall transparency are all quite significantly improved." So Esther, Orphan Black style, exists as three clones. They all look the same but their sonic personalities are different.