First listen: Master Enhancer pre-production prototype
Last month, audio engineer John Kasha launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to bring a frequency-enhancing audio device called the m.e. into production. The little box is promised to deliver the kind of listening experience you get when sitting in the front row at a concert. We were sent a pre-production prototype to try out.
Our m.e. prototype was hand built by Kasha and is a little chunkier than the expected production dimensions of 43 x 28 x 16 mm (1.7 x 1.1 x 0.6 in), as its circuitry is housed within a 58.1 x 39.6 x 22.7 mm (2.29 x 1.56 x 0.89 in) 3D-printed enclosure.
The Master Enhancer is built around an integrated hybrid analog/digital, single chip design – no separate digital signal processor and no individual analog-to-digital or digital-to-analog circuits. As a result, Kasha says that the m.e. should offer cleaner audio and better battery life than portable headphone amps or pocket-sized DACs already on the market.
Since charging the battery over USB for a few minutes prior to first use (until the red glow showing through the label on the top of the plastic case disappeared), we've had the prototype plugged into music playback devices for just over a week for more than 3 hours per day and it has yet to show any signs of needing a top up.
How much charge still remains at the time of writing is something of an unknown as the LED inside doesn't indicate remaining battery life (its makers claim a good 80 hours of use between topups). The production unit will have two LEDs that light up when it's operational, when the battery is low and to show which mode is active.
The prototype unit didn't have a single button control either, it just kicked in when source device and earphones/headphones were plugged into the 3.5 mm TRRS audio jacks. As such, we weren't able to mess around with the power off/wake up timer and the gain control scheduled for the production version.
Pump up the volume
The first thing we noticed when the m.e. was cabled between the audio source and the plugged in ear gear was a significant boost in playback volume, resulting in us knocking down the source volume by three to five clicks (depending on the device) to achieve comfortable listening levels. This means that the source player doesn't have to work so hard throwing out the tunes, which should have a positive impact on player battery life. However, the boost did mean we had to do some volume adjustments to get matched sound levels for comparison when playing music on source devices connected to the m.e. and not.
Other than a volume bump, the makers of the m.e. are promising a significantly improved listening experience – whatever headphones/earphones and source music player you're using. So did the prototype deliver? Well, we did detect slight signal noise between songs, a bit of a hum, but other than that ... yes. It wasn't the night and day difference we were expecting, though. At least not at first.
Rocking with flagship in-ears, on-ears and around ears
We first tried the m.e. with a FiiO M3 portable music player and RHA's flagship T20 in-ear monitors, launching a marathon MP3/FLAC session in the company of a few Clutch albums, the atmospheric Xenography by Chris Stack, Black Stone Cherry's Kentucky, Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd and Eric Johnson's Bloom.
Now it has to be said that the M3 and T20s do a rock steady playback job without any help from the m.e. With the prototype sat inbetween, we noticed a slight expansion left and right, and out front, and a little extra detail here and there (such as some added presence to vocals and a smidge more definition to the instruments).
It was a similar story when swapping to a Galaxy Note 8.0 and a pair of Crossfade closed-backs – detecting a bit more spread and a little tweak in the right direction for detail and definition for ZZ Top's First Album, Rise by The Crooked Fiddle Band and the debut album from Device.
So far, the difference between naked and assisted playback hadn't been jaw-dropping. The enhancements were noticeable, sure. Giving some added warmth to Johnson's exquisite Ciel and a little extra roominess to the guitars in Old Man by that lil old band from Texas, for example.
Perhaps the most notable change was with the percussion, with the drummer's stick gymnastics allowed more room to sparkle and subtle parts eked out from the background noise to give the track a little more rhythmic vitality. Vocals, too, were injected with more clarity and definition, giving the words on Feeling Gravity's Pull by REM, for instance, less of a supporting role.
But would such things be enough to add an extra gadget to the signal chain, be burdened with ensuring yet another something is charged up and ready to play, and have to fork out US$99 or more (the current available pledge level on Kickstarter) to be in with a chance of getting one? In a recording studio or audiophile's sound room, very probably. But, in casual or mobile listening environments, we felt that playback differences were not really significant enough. Until we dipped below the flagship radar.
Gear that's kinder to the wallet
When you don't have the budget for top of the range headphones/earphones, the m.e. can really help your kick-around gear punch well above its weight. With the m.e. plugged into our Samsung Windows workhorse laptop and a pair of first generation Marshall Majors, the soundstage opened up revealing more detailed instrumentation. Sennheiser's HD201 circumaurals already offer a great sound for very little money, but add the Master Enhancer into the mix and you get stronger delivery and improved definition.
Feeding from the bottom proved to be the biggest surprise though. We tried the m.e. with an old Android smartphone and a cheap pair of earphones, the kind you get supplied with such a device. On their own, the earphones sounded pretty crap. But with some help from Kasha's hybrid circuitry, cheap and nasty took on a whole new character – sounding livelier and punchier, with instruments appearing less muffled and less cramped.
The m.e. prototype noticeably fiddled with the frequencies and widened the stereo image, but exactly how pronounced these effects were during our tests seemed to depend on the quality of the gear we had it plugged into. The kind of ear candy you throw in a backpack or travel bag and plug into a smartphone showed marked improvements when the m.e. took center stage. Quality audio gear, not so much.
The volume boost was impressive, though. And having its own long-life battery means that the m.e. is not a drain on the source device. The prototype also worked with headphone/earphone microphones, though there was no response from the inline controls on the cables of those we tried so our smartphone had to be brought into play via the touchscreen when taking a call or pausing/skipping tracks.
Based on our experiences with the prototype (note – performance specs and capabilities could change prior to production), we'd say that if you don't already own top drawer portable audio gear, then the m.e. is likely worth a Kickstarter pledge to bump your listening experience up a notch or five.
But if you're mobile music arsenal is already stocked with the finest, it's not so clear cut. It means adding yet another device to your signal chain, and parting with more cash, for what we found to be marginal differences to playback. The m.e. will likely find a happy home with golden-eared folks who yearn for every ounce of detail, however, such as music professionals and modern audiophiles.
As of writing, there's less than a week left to run on the m.e. crowdfunding campaign and still a ways to go to reach the lofty $384,000 project goal. Should the project not reach its target, we're told that Kasha still intends to go into production. And no doubt those who backed the campaign will get first bite at the production unit cherry.
Ed's note: The Kickstarter campaign was cancelled on August 21.