Any company launching a digital music player today runs up very quickly against a conceptual problem — most phones on the market today are extremely capable media players that take care of most people’s needs without requiring extra gadgetry. For those who need to carry an extra dedicated audio and video player, the Apple iPod Touch is the current incumbent, and the device to beat.

The hisoundaudio Studio eschews any notion of pandering to video, and goes straight for the jugular with audiophile-pleasing sound chops. A flash memory-based player, the model I was sent reported 8GB of capacity, although shop listings claim only 4GB as standard. Regardless, storage capacity is expandable through a microSD card slot that keeps company with the mini-USB interface along the bottom edge of the device.

Andvancedmp3players are offering the Studio to UK customers at £280, with free next day shipping. For comparison, the 32GB iPod Touch is currently available for £222.55 on Amazon.

As an odd side feature, the Studio includes a line-in port. You can connect another signal source via mini-jack, and use the Studio’s built-in sound circuitry to amplify the sound. It’s hard to come up with a convincing scenario in which this would actually come in handy, but it’s possible that this is the killer feature someone is looking for in a portable player.

The manufacturer claims a 100-hour battery life. While I was unable to test the full extent of this claim, the player stood up to three days of fairly hard usage both in the office and on the commute. A charge every 3-4 days should ensure that buyers are never caught without their music collection on the move.

The instructions or manual included in the box were unfortunately in Chinese with no English translation, and I have not been able to access hisoundaudio’s site.

Hisoundaudio Studio

According to a dissection on the MP4Nation blog, the Studio uses the Sigmatel 3770 chipset, a standard component in many China-manufactured media players. While the hardware used struggles to justify the price tag, the more important factor is the subjective impression of the sound quality.

The sound is certainly impressive enough. The bass and treble were both well-defined and solid, with no muddiness detectible in extremely high or low tones. Both vocal-led folk and thumping dubstep benefited from a large dynamic range and crystal clear reproduction. FLAC files especially produced a superior, especially when driving our test Wharfedale stereo speakers.

The internal amp produced a consistently loud volume, much better than any other digital music player we have tested recently. There is some hiss in the mid-tones at extremely high volume, although this was less of a problem at a more reasonable setting.

The sound may be slightly warmer than I favour, and the lack of equaliser settings means that I was unable to adjust to my liking. This is a matter of personal taste, but I would recommend that you try the sound before buying, as adjustments will prove hard to make.

There is one serious and major problem with the Studio that I have to mention, and that’s its design. Rather, I should say its lack of design, as it doesn’t look like anyone with aesthetic or ergonomic experience got anywhere near this product’s development.

The chassis is small enough to hold comfortably in one hand, made of metal and heavy-duty plastic. The overall impression is of a particularly large and unwieldy cigarette lighter, and leaves the Studio looking cheap and tacky beside its space age competition in the form of the iPod Touch.

The height and width of the casing make it smaller than some rivals, but bizarrely the manufacturers have chosen to make the depth almost an inch, over three times the size of my go-to music device, my Android smartphone. Combined with the sharp corners, this makes the device difficult and painful to carry around in a pocket.

The interface suffers from this lack of forethought as well. While most modern players rely on touchscreen input or at least have large and colourful displays, the Studio is saddled with a tiny 128x64 dot matrix LCD screen.  Navigation is handled with a set of unlabelled buttons on the front, and the lack of explanatory notes on screen makes it difficult to understand which button does what at any particular moment. The miniscule display makes scrolling through a long list of songs or albums a frustrating chore, and you can forget about managing playlists on the go.

The bundled earphones are pretty standard fare, but if you care about sound quality or comfort, as you probably do if you’re willing to spend this much, you’ll want to swap them out for a better pair as soon as possible.

OUR VERDICT

The hisoundaudio Studio certainly produces a wonderful sound, and with a lot of volume that bespeaks a beefy amplifier under the fascia. FLAC playback is also a serious bonus for audiophiles. However, the poor design, painful ergonomics and extremely high price all rule this digital audio player out as a true contender.

Bottom line, will I be choosing to carry the Studio around with me? Not likely.