I currently use as my goto player and DAC, the AK120 with Chord Electronics Mojo, now this is my current favourite but it is expensive and also cumbersome in that the 2 units while being small need to be held together and both need seperate charging, so they are a little bit more complex and involving than a simple one box solution which the Acoustic Research M2 represents. But is it going to be sacrificing much on the sound quality going with just the AR-M2. When serious listening I use myAudeze EL8 Headphones and will the M2 have enough power to deliver the results that I am looking for, we shall see.
Features and Build QualityThe AR-M2 is well built made of solid metaland feels as good as it looks and is weighty which gives it a reassuring feel of high end class to it. It also features a touchscreen front which when I have been using it has been faultless in its operation, with a 5" size screen it is nice and big too which gives an excellent resolution for album art and also the other features that come along with the Android based software.
The M2 is built around the brilliant Burr-Brown PCM1794A DAC which is a state of the art high resolution audio chip which can play literally anything that should comes its way and play it well but it also has a very powerful Class A amplifier built into the small chassis which can power near enough any headphones on the planet. It goes to show how Acoustic Research have really thought very clearly about the design of this DAP and wanted to give the best playback performance necessary, this means the best DAC possible and also the best power achievable from their player.
Making sure that Android based operating system is running smoothly is a Qualcom Snapdragon 400 processor which is fast enough to make everything run nice and smoothly on screen and flick between the different Apps that are available when installed.
But the Android based operating system has been stripped right down to the bare minimum so that it can focus on the audio aspect of the player only. With regards to memory it has onboard a healthy but not massive 64GB of storage but with memory cards becoming cheaper that is not a problem as it is easily upgradeable by the Micro Mini SD Card slot and you can then fit whatever you like and swap and change out cards when they are full. I have a little library of cards with lots of different albums on, which are marked up by their resolution, ie DSD, 24 bit and so on. Inputs are made up of a 3.5mm headphone jack for your favourite IEM or OEH whichever you prefer, also you get a mini USB input for charging and also for connecting to a PC which will help with your files transfers and this is as easy as just dragging and dropping from folders it is that simple. Outputs is in the form of a single 3.5mm stereo line output to plug into your main HiFi system if you so wish. The AR-M2 supports a wide range of media includingWAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, APE, DSD, and DXD files so more or less every format out their currently available. Usage
For usage and valuation purposes I am using two different set ups with the AR-M2 player which are the brilliant Oppo PM-3 Headphones for on the move listening and for serious listening I will be using the gorgeous Audeze EL8 Headphones which give a fantastic performance with the right bit of kit attached. I am also using the new Zeno Atlas Cable to go with the Oppo headphones which is a really nice upgrade over the standard cables, giving a more solid performance and squeezing every last ounce of audio performance from the Oppo headphones.
Using the AR-M2 is an easy affair with a fairly fast boot up time and immediately giving you access to your music via the AR player, it gives you album, folder and artist selection tabs with more available when you scroll along via its touch screen which is pretty accurate and works well for a touch screen device. The battery life is estimated at approx 9hrs of play on a full charge which is pretty good considering it is using a Class A type amplifier and the battery is a 4200mAh which is where most of the weight for the unit comes from as it is a fairly large battery, but you cannot skimp on quality. Updating firmware is an easy affair as I was running a beta 2.5.5 version when I recieved the unit and got an update of 2.5.6 to update the player with.
All that is needed to be done is to transfer the zip file to the root directory of the player and then once transferred go into the player's menu and reboot it from the zip file and update to the latest version, simple steps which you are stepped through on the AR website.On the M2 the Android software gives you the ability to load Spotify, Qobuz and Tidal which requires subscription, I myself have a Tidal subscription so log into the unit with Tidal and it streams perfectly when connected via your WiFi network. The quality of the M2 DAC's really put to good use and give a very good sound which is most definitely HiFi quality.Performance and Sound Quality
The AR-M2 is certainly a great performer and I have owned quite a few DAP's over the last couple of years since they first emerged in the UK ranging from the Sony NWZ-A15 to the stunning performing and one of my favorite players the Cowon Plenue P1 andI have reviewed both players at The Speaker Shack.
But it is clear after long listening sessions that the AR-M2 has an open and airier sound that simply shines with the right material, it is most definitely high end in its sound reproduction as it gives a strong performance in all areas of sonic detail, dynamics, bass and plenty of space around instruments which gives a real sense of how good this player really is.I start by listening to some tracks from Patricia Barber's DSD album Companion and it has so much detail and great drive behind the sound that the volume really does go loud on this DAP, in fact it can be a slight problem if you knock it by accident and suddenly the volume jumps as it can give you a scare like I have just done as it is easily nudged, but there is NO getting away from the quality in the sound as the air around the instruments is just fantastic giving a good sense of space around them.
The timing is also spot on with good dynamics and bass reproduction which is probably the best I have heard to date.Track 2 Use Me on the album starts off with a brilliant solo piece from the cello and it sounds so natural in that each pluck from each string feels so tangible and slowly in comes the percussion with a delicacy that I have only really heard it sound this good through my own HiFi but the AR-M2 does a brilliant job in portraying the feel of the music.
So Track 3 Like JTis one of those pieces of music that needs a nice player to shine and the AR-M2 certainly does not disappoint with excellent dynamics from this fast moving Jazz track which has some excellent bass and transients which the M2 handles with aplomb.A new album I just picked up is by Charles Lloyd & The Marvels - I long to See Youand it is Jazz album with a more funky nature to the sound, but also quite laid back at times. It sounds great on the AR-M2 with lots of drive and power, the M2 does an excellent job of driving both my Oppo PM-3 and Audeze EL8 Headphones and it especially sounds good through the Audeze with some stunning bass reproduction and levels of detail retrieval which are quite amazing. Some of the tracks are reminiscent of the 1960's Jazz with their own twist especially on Track 2 - Of Course, Of Course which has some beautiful melodic flute playing and some snappy percussion. It is a beautiful player to listen to and the album really does come alive listening to it on the M2, which is something that I could honestly be happily listening to if I was not in the position of owning a good HiFi system.Conclusions and Final Thoughts
The Acoustic Research M2 High Resolution Music Player is quite a remarkable player in that it has one of the best sound qualities I have heard from any DAP to date, its quality and design really has gone into this products internals which is the DAC's and Amplifier sections of the player as it clearly shows from every piece of music that I have listened to. The only problem that I had with it was with the volume control which kept on getting knocked and turned up, it could of been slightly stiffer or something in place to lock it. Other than that I had no other issues with this player as for me the sound is the most important factor and it certainly bowled me over on that side.It gets a huge recommendation from The Speaker Shack as one of the best sounding DAP's on the market and is a joy to listen to and own, and at 899 it is a relative bargain.Acoustic Research Website and M2 Player