Quick and dirty product review: HIFIMAN Sundara Planar Magnetic Headphones

I'm not an audiophile so i can't offer you a detailed description of the sound the HIFIMAN Sundara produces. Besides, there's more than enough reviews of these cans on the interwebs anyway, such as this excellent review by the respected Joshua Valour...

And a follow-up review, again by Joshua...

As i said, i'm not an audiophile, but i have taken a small step in that direction with the purchase of an external AMP/DAC combo and the $350 USD Sundara. Except for the Sundara, the only half decent cans i have is the open-back QPAD QH-85 headset which caters to gamers (it's got a mic) and so they are the only ones i can compare the Sundara to ... and what i have to say isn't entirely pretty.

The Sundara sounds great. It's an open-back, planar magnetic type with very thin and responsive diaphragms that produce a well-rounded sound without over or under-doing any aspect of it. The bass, mids and highs are all well defined in my opinion. The build quality seems really good; contrary to what Joshua said, they don't feel cheap in any way to me. However, compared to my $94 QPAD's, that's about where the pluses end.

My QPAD QH-85 is significantly lighter and more comfortable than the Sundara. While they also have a somewhat thin and short cable, at least it acts like a 'normal' cable that obeys gravity whereas the Sundara cable is like a god damned slinky! It may well be a better cable as far as the internals, but the sheathing, which feels like silicone, is like a coiled rattlesnake poised to bite me somewhere where i'd rather not be bitten. I tried running it through my hands while exerting some pressure on it to heat it slightly and get it to straighten out, but that didn't help a whole lot. Hopefully it will straighten itself out in time, else i may purchase a different cable.

I thought the Sundara frame design, with a suspended headband that molds to your head, would be more comfortable than the QPAD design, however it's really not, largely due to the extra heft of the unit. The clamp pressure is also a too high for my taste, but perhaps this will feel better once the ear pads break-in. Problem is, i couldn't wait for that to happen. The Sundara ear pads are kind of shallow which is nice because it positions the drivers close to the ears, but they are so close that, with the added clamp pressure, the top of my ears were getting a bit sore from contact with the material just inside the ear cups. I wanted to stretch out the frame a bit to reduce the clamp pressure, but the head band makes that difficult because it prevents flexing the frame far enough to open it up. It is doable however and the phones do feel somewhat better after i figured out how to do it (hold the unit in both hands near the drivers and open the headband as far as it will go, then with your index and middle fingers, press down on the top of the frame).

Another niggle i have with the Sundara is that the hinge for the driver housings isn't loose enough which causes the ear pads to not conform to the sides of your bean as well as they could. I put a tiny bit of lubricant on the hinge points but it didn't really help. Again, this is something that may heal itself in time.

So while i'm very happy with the sound, i expected more in the comfort department for my $350 clams. And a better cable too, though the length of it is perfect for me.

In the end, the question is whether the extra $256 bucks on top of the QPAD's equates to a $256 dollar better experience and, from my perspective, the answer is no, it don't, but such is the case in the audiophile world where one can spend thousands on a set of cans to get an incrementally better sound. That said, i'm not sorry i bought them and i'm sure they will feel more comfortable once the pads break-in.

Product Review: Schiit Hel 2 External Headphone AMP/DAC

UPDATE: I don't recommend buying anything from Schiit Audio until they address the quality control issues they are obviously experiencing and are certainly aware of. While i was writing this review i was listening to music and my Schiit Hel 2 started having the same 'popping' every few seconds that several people in this Reddit thread mentioned.

Following is my original review...

First of all, dealing with Schiit Audio was not entirely a pleasant experience. Perhaps some of my frustration can be chalked up to the alleged COVID-19 "plandemic" (yes, the spelling is intentional), but i'm not sure that accounts for all the trouble.

Second of all, i'm not very technically knowledgeable regarding audio, but i do have a basic understanding of digital audio and i just wanted to share a potentially unique and early review of the Schiit Hel 2, "early" meaning i've only had the unit in my hands for a week or so.

The Hel 2 Gaming AMP/DAC is primarily aimed at headphone and headset users who also want to run their microphone through the unit. Basically the $199 USD Hel is an upgrade to the $109 Fulla 4 (up from $99) for those who require more power and options. I no longer do much gaming, nor is that why i bought it. From all of the reviews i've read and watched, virtually all of them enthusiastically positive, the Hel is more than just a gaming quality sound card; it seems to be a very worthy addition to the budding audiophiles tool kit. It seems to be built with high quality parts and nothing about its weighty steel and aluminum exterior feels the least bit cheap. However, while writing this review i ran across several people on Reddit that have had problems similar to what i experienced, both with Schiit and its products. Here's a couple partial quotes from the beginning of the thread...

'HuskySlim' opened the thread with...

All i’ve seen so far are a lot of people with a lot of issues on their new Fulla 4 / Hel 2 units. Is this something that Schiit is aware of and actively correcting with the outgoing units? Seems like a lot of units are effected.

'b34tn1k' replied with...

I got my Hel 2 yesterday and it's cut out a bunch of times. I've emailed their support detailing the steps I've taken to trouble shoot and their reply was to ask if if I'd taken any of the steps that I already detailed.... It was like they didn't read my email beyond the subject line.

The Fulla i received was DOA which is why i went with the Hel. There's no excuse for this. Schiit is shipping product which they know may be faulty. In Schiit's defense however, 'HuskySlim' apparently wasn't using the required power supply and this may have been an issue with 'b34tn1k' also, i don't know. What i do know is that i completely agree with the statement, "It was like they didn't read my email beyond the subject line". I'm certain this is what happened in my case, no less than three times.

Here's the specs for the Schiit Hel 2...

Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.3db
Maximum Power, 16 Ohms: 1350mW RMS
Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 1200mW RMS
Maximum Power, 50 ohms: 800mW RMS
Maximum Power, 300 ohms: 200mW RMS
THD: <0.0008%, 20Hz-20KHz, at 1V RMS
IMD: <0.0008%, CCIR
SNR: >110db, A-weighted, referenced to 1V RMS
Crosstalk: >-80dB, 20Hz-20KHz
Output Impedance (headphones): 0.25 ohms
Output Impedance (line out): 75 ohms
Gain: Low and High, selectable via front panel. Low has maximum output of 1.3V RMS, high has maximum output of 8VRMS.
USB Receiver: C-Media CM6635
DAC: AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1656-based filter stage
Sample Rates and Bit Depths: 
USB Playback: 16/44.1 to 32/384 supported without drivers on Windows 10, Mac, Linux, Android (any UAC 2 device) with autoswitching to UAC1 for PS4, PS5, and Switch consoles.
USB Input: 48kHz
Optical Input: 16/44.1 to 24/192
Output Stage: TI OPA1656 (4 amp stages per channel) 
Power Supply: Via USB, with +/- 12V rails via high-current dual-polarity switching regulator, with inductor filtering and local regulation
Power Consumption: 2.5W typical
Size: 5 x 3.5 x 1.375” (including knob)
Weight: 13oz
APx Report for Hel 2

I purchased the Hel because i wanted to see if i could achieve better sound quality than my motherboard's sound system offers, but primarily i needed to clean up the horrible noise floor for my microphone. Having a nice, big, mechanical volume knob is also welcome.

As for the sound quality on the headphone output, it's hard for me to say whether the Hel outshines the onboard sound which is actually pretty decent with the MSI B450 Tomahawk Max. It certainly is not any worse, that's for sure. The microphone for my headset is an order of magnitude better with the Hel, which has pretty much eliminated the noise floor.

The Hel seems very well built with smooth controls and there is no static when adjusting the large aluminum, top-mounted volume knob. Apparently this annoyance is somewhat common among some headphone AMPs, even good ones.

One of the problems i had with the Hel was latency. Listening to music or doing voice chats was absolutely fine, however watching videos resulted in roughly a 200-300 ms delay between someones lips moving and the sound hitting my ears. I don't know whether Schiit could have done anything different regarding design however. In my case i run a Linux box (Manjaro) with PulseAudio and once i screwed around with the configuration file for PulseAudio, the latency issue seems to be resolved, or at least nearly so. Here's what i did...

  1. Make a pulse folder in the .conf directory of my home directory ( ~/.config/pulse )
  2. Copy /etc/pulse/deamon.conf to ~/.config/pulse
  3. Make sure the default-sample-rate option is either set to 44100 or commented out
  4. In the daemon.conf file, change default-sample-format = s16le (the 'le' could be 'be) to default-sample-format = s24le
  5. After saving the file, open a terminal and restart PulseAudio: pulseaudio -k

If you want to double check that the default-sample-format setting matches the spec for the Hel 2, or if you're tweaking your config for another sound card, open a terminal and run pacmd list-sinks and look for the sample spec: line for the card you want to configure. For the Hel 2 the spec is: s24le 2ch 44100Hz , thus why i used the s24le setting.

Here's the resources that helped me:

Overall i like the Hel, however after reading some of the more recent reviews which i missed earlier, i'm feeling less confidant about potential quality control issues. Had i found the Reddit thread i linked earlier, i would not have bought from Schiit. That said, maybe the company was having a problem with quality control issues during the manufactured "pandemic". Whatever the case, if you're interested in any Schiit product, i'd recommend finding the most recent reviews before you decide to pull the trigger.

PROS:

  • Made in the U.S.
  • All metal, solid build quality with silky smooth volume controls and quality toggle switches
  • Flexible in terms of input/output capability
  • Can drive most any headphones thanks to the hi/lo gain switch
  • Microphone volume knob
  • Unlike the Fulla, the Hel has a mechanical switch to toggle between the USB and optical inputs
  • Power switch

NIGGLES:

  • Requires a separate (included) power supply - the data USB cable alone won't cut it
  • Microphone gain is weak, but OK, at least for me
  • The microphone gain knob is positioned on the front of the unit which makes it a bit difficult to adjust - i think they should have stuck it on top near the output volume
  • Price may be an issue for a dedicated gamer who is not an audiophile or doesn't need the feature-set of the Hel

CONS:

  • Quality control issues in some cases, at least with the latest revision of units shipped around June, 2021

Dealing with Schiit Audio

I was originally going to review the Schiit Hel 2 external sound card, a headphone DAC/AMP combo, but i'm really not in any position to do so since a) it's the first and only decent external sound card i've owned and b) i only have one pair of headphones and they aren't great. What i am in a position to do however is review Schiit, the company, based on my interaction with them. Here's the story...

I originally ordered a Hel 2 from their website and waited for it to show up in my mailbox. And i waited, and waited, and nothing. I was never sent a tracking number or anything else regarding the status of my order and so i finally contacted them and asked what's up. The rep said that there was a supply problem and that the Hel wouldn't be available for another 6 to 8 weeks. That's great, i said. Were you planning on ever telling me this??? Again i waited and i eventually decided that i didn't really need the Hel and so i canceled the order and ordered a Fulla. During this period i had sent a few emails informing them that, because their 1/8 to 1/4 in. stereo adapter that shipped with their devices was considered junk by several reviewers, i wanted to make sure i was sent a good one since i had none. Although they (as in, more then one person) addressed part of my brief mails, not once did anyone acknowledge my concern regarding the adapter and i mentioned it no less then 3 times.

To my surprise i received the Fulla shortly after i order it and was quite excited to have it ... right up until the point where i plugged the f'n thing in to test it. It was DOA. The power LED never lit. I tested with a powered USB hub and, nothing. I tested with a dedicated power supply and, nothing. I tested with different cables and, noting. Most of the reviews i've read regarding Schiit equipment have been exceedingly positive, however a few reviewers mentioned quality control issues. You can add another one to the bunch. I sent the Fulla back and re-orderd the Hel 2, pleading with them to place me high upon their list since the Fulla was DOA. I didn't expect them to do so since they obviously don't fully read or respond to emails, but to my surprise i received the Hel in short order, and it worked!

Given my limitations i mentioned earlier, i'm reasonably happy with the Hel, however there is a latency issue and the microphone gain seems to be anemic. Regarding latency, this may be due to my operating system; Manjaro Linux with the KDE desktop and Pulseaudio sound system. Listening to music is totally fine, but watching a video results in roughly a 200-300 ms delay between a mouth moving and the sound hitting my ears. Hopefully i'll find a way to fix the problem. Regarding the mic gain issue, one of the major reasons i wanted an external DAC/AMP combo with a mic input was to cleanup the microphone noise floor which the Hel does wonderfully, however i have to crank up the gain very high (about 85% or better) to get a good sound level and i expected more from a $200 dollar AMP. The Hel also takes a rather long time to boot after powering it on. If you keep it powered on this obviously isn't a problem, but i tend to turn it off when i'm not using it.

In the end, i'm not trying to sway people away from Schiit, but i would suggest using caution. The problem i had with their Fulla DAC/AMP had nothing to do with my machine since i tried to power it with 3 different devices, yet it never powered up. When i returned the Fulla i enclosed in the package a note stating the procedures i used to troubleshoot it but, as i expected, i never received a reply. If you decide to deal with Schiit Audio, good luck. I suspect you won't experience the problems i did but, then again, you never know.

Product Review: Corsair M65 RGB Elite Gaming Mouse (on Linux)

Rather than critiquing the gaming performance and digging deep into the specs of the Corsair M65 RGB Pro, the focus here will be to inform others as to how well i personally like this mouse and its usability and compatibility with a Linux based OS.

the TL:DR version

Stay away from this mouse! Corsair is using horrible, very poor quality micro-Omron 50m switches for both the primary and secondary buttons which do not last long at all.

intro

My Cooler Master Inferno finally gave up the ghost after 11 years. It started clicking the primary button by itself and although i might have been able to resolve the issue, i've had it apart several times to clean crap from the wheel sensor, chipping the case in the process, and its feet were just about worn down to the nub. Oh, and all that nice rubberized coating was worn off and it didn't take long for that to happen either. Time for a new rodent.

Corsair M65 RGB Elite Gaming MouseThe Corsair M65 RGB Elite is a wired, right-handed, 7 button (plus the scroll wheel and its button) gaming mouse with solid specs, like a very accurate 18,000 DPI optical sensor which provides a max resolution that's an order of magnitude higher than any human could ever manage, but bigger numbers are more impressive apparently. With the KDE desktop and the mouse sensitivity set to 50% and acceleration enabled, the M65 is set at around 600 DPI for a 17 in. 1080p laptop display.

looks and feels

I think the M65 is a very nice looking mouse. I'm not entirely sure if it looks more like a weapon or a mouse with its somewhat prominent red 'sniper' button and vented aluminum frame, but i do like its angular yet smooth looks. The one piece top seems to be made of silicone and it feels velvety smooth. The plastic, concave sides have a hard, sandpaper-like texture which, as i suspected it would, is already wearing smooth after only several weeks of daily use.

The M65 feels good in the hand, but it's not as ergonomic as my Inferno was and because of the way the sides are shaped it's a little harder to lift off the pad, even with the rough textured sides and even though all the rubbery coating was worn off of my Inferno. I removed all the weights to make the mouse lighter and although this surely made a difference, it wasn't one i could readily feel. It also feels narrower between my thumb and pinky fingers, yet it's actually a little wider in that area compared to the Inferno. The M65 is a shorter mouse designed to be 'claw' or 'fingertip' gripped and this is certainly my preferred style of holding a mouse.

As implied, the M65 has three removable weights, each located in a different spot, however the way this feature was implemented wasn't well thought out. The weights are held in place with screws and replacing a screws after removing a weight is a little tricky because the hole in the weight guides the screw into it's threaded socket, though one could just leave the screws out entirely for more of a weight reduction. Had the engineers had their thinking caps on, they might have used these screws to hold the mouse together as well instead of adding two more which, to their credit, at least aren't located under the damned mouse feet, thus disassembly is very easy requiring only a Phillips driver. Although on the smaller side this mouse is quite heavy, even with the weights removed. It also has a very solid feel thanks to the rigidity of an aluminum frame and there's no detectable rattles when shaking it or squeaks when squeezing it.

Like many wired gaming mice, the M65 uses a braided cord which i find to be a gimmick. These cords are often rather stiff and unlike the older rubber/plastic/silicone sheathed cords, the slight noise that the nylon braiding might make as it drags across a rough textured mouse pad could be annoying to some, though this can be managed with some creativity.

the buttons

The primary and secondary buttons, both rated at 50 million clicks, are significantly quieter and lighter feeling than those of most mice and while i personally don't like loud buttons, these are so quiet that there's hardly any audible feedback and so sensitive that i couldn't rest my fingers on the buttons without clicking them. Whereas with the Inferno i knew i had clicked something because of the audio and tactile feedback, i now find myself looking at the display for confirmation. If we were to compare the feel of these buttons with the trigger of a gun, the words 'hair trigger' would certainly be appropriate. The throw of the buttons -- how far they move before a click is registered -- is much less than with the Inferno and i'm fine with that part of it.

Overall the click of the right and left buttons just doesn't feel good with the right button feeling slightly crisper the the left, possibly because its switch is positioned slightly differently than the one for the left button. Several times i had the mouse apart to see if anything could be done to adjust the pressure required to click and though that was easy enough to do with some strategically placed foam tape, nothing solved the problem of the very mushy feel of the buttons.

Corsair is using the Omron 50m switches for the primary and secondary buttons and though they are rated at 50 million clicks, they are absolute garbage and apparently quite a few gaming mice use these switches. Mine lasted a few weeks before developing what i might call 'switch chatter' and clicks not registering. Besides the laughably short lifespan of these switches, they are so sensitive and mushy that you actually end up pressing the buttons much harder in order to make sure the click registered, thus they more fatiguing to use. I ended up replacing them with a pair of Huano Blue Shell Pink Dot switches.

The down-click of the wheel button is significantly stiffer and crisper than that of the primary and secondary buttons, leaving me with no complaints here. One thing i very much disliked with the Inferno was the barely noticeable notches of the wheel when scrolling and the M65 is little better in this regard. Also, as with many mice, one can scroll the wheel a half notch and it will stay there instead of rotating to the nearest detente in the wheel. Unfortunately there is no side scroll function, though pushing the wheel to the right results in a middle click because the switch is located on the right side of the wheel shaft.

The M65 has three buttons on its left side and, thankfully, none are of the 50m type. The 'sniper' button requires perhaps a little too much effort to press, though i'm sure this was done intentionally in order to prevent accidental clicks since the user is likely to rest the tip of their thumb on this button. The back and forward buttons are OK.

The last two buttons behind the scroll wheel control sensitivity by default and require more pressure to operate than is necessary, though i'm not complaining. Their location is good, making them candidates for binding to other functions for game use.

Missing from the M65 are the 'wing' buttons of the Inferno which were located on the outside edges of the primary and secondary buttons. In my opinion these were great buttons to have and there's no reason to not have them on all gaming mice since they don't interfere with any other operation as long as they're placed smartly.

configuration

The M65 will of course work as a standard 5 button mouse on Linux without any additional software, however when i first plugged it in, it defaulted to a 'breathing' mode where the LEDs slowly changed colors. I find this to be really annoying and Corsair's ultra-bloated, ultra-buggy and Windows-only iCUE crapware is needed to configure the RGB lighting, DPI and button assignments since they don't do Linux. I grabbed a Windows 8 image and installed it in a VM in order to be able to use their crappy software and the process was about as frustrating as it could be in that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. Many times it refused to write to the mouses internal memory or froze the OS and changing something as simple as the USB report rate caused all of the settings in that section of the GUI to become disabled. Sometimes re-plugging the mouse worked, other times a soft reset did the trick. The latter is accomplished by unplugging the mouse, holding down both the primary and secondary buttons and plugging the mouse back in while continuing to hold the buttons down for about 15 seconds or so. After a while the mouse seems to reboot and all settings should be at their defaults.

You can also access the firmware file directly which might of been helpful were i able to download different versions to try but Corsair doesn't make them available. To boot the mouse in this mode, unplug it and unscrew the upper-right weight retaining screw. In the hole where the weight goes is another smaller hole with a button in it that you can press with something small like a toothpick. If you press that button while plugging the USB connector back in, the mouse boots in something like USB storage mode and you can open a file manager and see the new device/folder inside of which is a firmware.bin file. Apparently you can replace it with another version and, i presume, reboot the mouse again by re-plugging it.

While there is a Linux configuration utility for the M65, the ckb-next software means having to run a daemon in the background since, at the time of this writing, they haven't yet reverse engineered the communication protocol that Corsair is using to talk to the device and so you can't store any settings on the mouses internal memory. Also i was warned about a stability issue when i installed it on Manjaro. Using the the utility, any button can be assigned to any other button, macro, or keyboard key, or it can be used to invoke a program and, unlike Corsair's iCUE crapware, you can adjust the lift-off distance with ckb-next. Honestly it would be a great utility were it able to write to the mouses internal storage.

If you don't want to use any 3rd party software to configure the mouse, there is yet another potential option for Linux by using Xorg configuration files, though there appears to be limitations.

conclusion

I'm quite sure some people will not like the way the primary and secondary buttons work since the throw is very short, they require very little pressure to operate and they are very quiet. If you're wanting a satisfying and crisp 'click' sound and tactile feel when you actuate these buttons, look elsewhere. On the other hand, these characteristics may be a plus for some, especially if working or gaming in the vicinity of those trying to sleep, however the atrociously short lifespan of the Omron 50m micro-switches used for the primary and secondary buttons makes buying this mouse a really poor decision in my opinion. Stay away from this mouse (and Corsair products in general as far as i'm concerned), as well as any mouse/device that is using the Omron 50 million click switches.

resources