I first became aware of the Lotoo PAW Gold high-res digital audio player (£1,499) some time ago when online discussion threads began suggesting the Lotoo might be a strong (and more cost-effective) competitor to Astell & Kern’s expensive top-tier players. But now that I have spent some time with Lotoo’s flagship player, which is the subject of this review, I’m prepared to say that it is anything but a copycat, ‘me-too’ product. Rather, it strikes me as being a player methodically designed to do a great many things and to do them all well. While Lotoo’s PAW Gold is by no stretch of the imagination an inexpensive product, I think a careful survey of its capabilities, which I hope to provide here, will demonstrate that it offers very good value for money.
The footprint of the PAW Gold is surprisingly compact; if you place it atop the screen of, say, a Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, you will discover there is a bit of screen surface showing all the way around the perimeter of the player, which will give you a sense for its pocket-sized dimensions. Even so, the Lotoo does not register on the mind as being truly ‘small’ owing to two factors: first, it is relatively thick (25.4mm or about one inch from front to back), and second, its beautifully machined solid Duralumin casework feels somewhat like a solid block of billet aluminium in the hand. Rather than offering slimline styling in the vein of players from Acoustic Research, Astell & Kern, Questyle, and others, the Lotoo comes across as a decidedly purposeful (indeed, almost military-grade) chunk of a player—an impression further reinforced by the PAW Gold’s handsome two-tone, dark silver and even darker grey anodised outer surfaces.
Lotoo also marches to the beat of a different drummer when it comes to the PAW Gold’s user controls. Where some manufacturers prefer minimalist, but therefore perhaps inscrutable, multifunction user controls that rely heavily upon extensively branched pull-down menus, Lotto takes a different approach. Instead of fitting one or two cryptically labelled ‘mystery controls’, the PAW Gold takes the old-school approach of providing a number of clearly labelled pushbutton switches, each of which pulls down its own tightly constrained set of control menus.
The front panel controls include the following switches and screens:
FILE (which allows users to choose selections from a general song, artist, track, and album directory)
LIST (to choose from among user-defined playlists)
SETUP (which provides comprehensive player setup configuration options)
ATE/PMEQ (which offers sets of studio-quality ‘Acoustic Timbre Embellisher’ and user-definable Parametric EQ options),
An engraved and gold-plated metal rocker-type selector ring (which provides Play/Pause, Forward, Backward, and Stop functions),
A user-definable ‘function button’ positioned in the centre of the sector ring,
An Fn switch (which lets users define the role of the ‘function button’),
A Power On/Off switch that doubles as an ‘enable’ switch for the player’s display screen and front panel controls, and
A sapphire glass-covered 1.8-inch full colour OLED display screen (which can, at the user’s option, provide three different screen views: the main playback/control window, a two-channel real-time spectrum analyser, and a window showing cover art for the track/album in play).
The player’s main playback control window is a marvel of user-interface design, presenting a substantial amount of information in a very small space. Specifically, the window shows play settings (repeat or sequential playback modes, etc.), EQ/tone effects settings if any, a colour-coded 2-channel playback VU meter, total time and running playback time for the track in play, the track’s sequential number within a given album, file format/bit-depth/sampling rate information, artist/song title/file suffix information for the track in play, and playback status (playing/playback paused/playback stopped). In short, virtually anything one might want to know about playback can be found at a glance on the PAW Gold’s screen.
Top mounted controls and jacks include:
A master gain switch offering high (+15 dBu) or low (0 dBu) gain settings,
A Hold switch (in essence a control lock-out switch),
A knurled and gold-plated metal thumbwheel-type volume control (which is protected by a machined metal arch cut into the top surface of the player),
A headphone output jack (3.5mm), and
An analogue line-out jack (3.5mm).
The left side of the player provides a USB 3.0 jack (used for loading digital audio files and metadata to the player’s music library memory card) plus a dedicated socket for the player’s included 12V battery charger. The right side of the player is deliberately left blank, while the bottom edge of the player provides a covered memory card slot that can accommodate SDHC/SDXC music library memory cards of up of to 2TB capacity.
If the Lotoo’s controls sound overly complicated, in practice the player proved easy to understand and to use. Its hybrid button-plus-menu control architecture is often quicker and easier to use than the controls of many ostensibly easy-to-use players that force users to move up, down, and sideways through labyrinthine menu structures. With the PAW Gold, you simply press the button that corresponds to the task you want to accomplish, and then make your selection from a focused set of menu options. That’s it: simplicity in action.
The DAC section of the PAW Gold is based on a Burr‑Brown PCM1792 DAC chip ably supported by a stable and accurate clock promising <5ps of jitter. The DAC supports decoding for PCM files from 16-24 bits/8kHz-384kHz, as well as decoding for DSD64 (2.8 MHz) and DSD128 (5.6MHz) files. Next, a dedicated Blackfin 514 DSP device supports the player’s extensive EQ and tone-shaping options. Then, a Texas Instruments LME49600 headphone driver device supports the PAW Gold’s very powerful 500mW headphone amplifier section. Last but not least, a stonking 6,000mAH lithium-polymer battery gives the Lotoo 11 hours (or more) of playback time, which is impressive considering the player’s formidable output capabilities.
Lotoo has packed an awful lot of player in a very small package. The longer I used the Lotoo, the more capable and satisfying it seemed to be. In particular, I found myself drawn to the fact that—unlike many DAPs—the PAW Gold has more than enough output to drive relatively power-hungry planar magnetic headphones. Headphones and CIEM’s I used with the PAW Gold during my listening tests included the Audeze LCD-3, HiFiMAN HE 1000, and Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphones plus the JH Audio Roxanne, Noble Kaiser 10, and Westone ES60 custom-fit in-ear monitors. Here is what my listening tests revealed.
The overall sonic character of the PAW Gold falls somewhere in between the precise and almost hyper-pure sound of the Astell & Kern AK380 (as reviewed in issue 127) and the detailed but also warm and highly organic sound of the Questyle QP1R (reviewed in this issue). Frankly, a solid case could be made for choosing any one of these players purely on the basis of one’s listening tastes or personal voicing preferences. However, the Lotoo is far more powerful than either of the other two players referenced here, which gives the PAW Gold certain qualities of sonic self-assurance and dynamic swagger that few other portable players can match. When you consider the PAW Gold’s middle-of-the-spectrum voicing characteristics and abundant dynamic clout, it may just be that rare bird that fits most listeners and most listening applications, most of the time.
To hear what I mean, try listening to the O-zone Percussion Group’s ‘Jazz Variants’ from Musik wie von einem anderen Stern [Manger test CD] as played through a set of HiFiMAN HE 1000 headphones driven by the PAW Gold. The ensemble features a veritable potpourri of percussion instruments that, on this track, are heard at everything from subtle and delicate on up to ‘blow-the-roof-off-the-house’ volume levels (and everything in between). Faced with an admittedly challenging track and a set of very revealing and somewhat power-hungry headphones, the Lotoo did not flinch or stumble, but rather rolled up its sleeves and went to work with the sort of finesse and gusto I have usually have heard only through powerful, full-size desktop amp/DACs.
On ‘Jazz Variants’, then, the Lotoo caused transient sounds to be carved with plenty of leading-edge energy, snap, and speed, while instrumental timbres sounded pure and were highly differentiated. In particular, it was satisfying to hear the Lotoo render the energetic ‘pop’ of snare drum notes with fierce authority and vigour, while at the same time capturing the distinctive and fleeting ‘rattle’ of the snares ringing forth from the undersides of the drums. It was also a treat to hear the PAW Gold reproduce the sharp initial ‘ping’ of notes sounded from chimes (or perhaps tubular bells) and then to hear how the voices of the instruments seemed to ‘bloom’, then sustain and slowly decay within the reverberant acoustics of the recording space. Finally, the attack, sustain, and intensely modulated ‘skin sounds’ of the giant concert bass drum strikes heard on the track were simply mind-blowing owing to their impressive combination of raw power and unexpected subtlety. Throughout the track, the Lotoo made dynamic contrasts stand out in a vivid way—effortlessly conveying information about the shapes and dynamic envelopes of notes in a way many expensive loudspeaker-based hi-fi system would have found difficult to capture.
In terms of detail and resolution, I felt the Lotoo Gold was essentially on a par with the Astell & Kern AK380 and Questyle QP1R players mentioned above, although the sonic presentations of the three players can at times sound significantly different. As I noted above, the AK380 emphasises sonic purity, clarity, and detail, where the also finely detailed Questyle delivers a more naturally warm and organic sound. The Lotoo, for its part, falls somewhere in between these two, with a sound that is somewhat brighter and more overtly transient-orientated than the Questyle, but that is perhaps not quite as purity, clarity, and detail-centric as the Astell & Kern.
When I initially listened to the Lotoo, I wondered if it had as much to offer in the way of subtlety and fine focus as the AK and Questyle players. However, one recording that settled the question for me once and for all (in the Lotoo’s favour) was the intricate and evocative bluegrass track ‘Why Don’t You Go Back To The Woods’ from Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer’s Skip, Hop & Wobble [Sugar Hill]. What especially caught my ear was the effortless manner in which the Lotoo crisply differentiated the attack, timbre, and decay characteristics of the overlapping voices of Douglas’ Dobro and Barenberg’s steel-string guitar—instruments that, as rendered by lesser players, can be very difficult to distinguish indeed. I was also favourably impressed by the Lotoo’s ability tease out the astonishing array of textures that master bassist Edgar Meyer is able to draw from his acoustic bass on this track. At one moment Meyer will explore the instrument’s deep, growling sonorities, yet in the next he will evoke lighter, higher pitched, and more fleet-footed aspects of the instrument’s sound in a manner reminiscent of, say, a mandolin. Through it all, the PAW Gold admirably keeps pace with Meyer’s variegated performance – something that would be hard for amp/DACs of any size or price to do so well.
Over the course of listening for this review, Lotoo’s PAW Gold has become a favourite listening tool for me, as well as a preferred travel companion. I say this because this versatile and accomplished digital audio player is as much at home driving power-hungry full-size headphones as it is in making high-quality, high-sensitivity CIEMs sing. It can literally drive anything and everything well, making it the portable digital audio player for all seasons and reasons.
- Type: High-res portable digital audio player/DAC
- Inputs: Super Speed USB 3.0 (via Micro-B jack; used solely for uploading digital audio files to the player), Music library memory card (see ‘Storage’, below)
- Outputs: Stereo analogue line output (via 3.5mm min‑jack), single-ended headphone output (via 3.5mm mini-jack)
- Firmware: Upgradeable via Lotoo-supplied downloads
- Storage: Single card slot for SDHC/SDXC music library memory card at capacity of up to 2TB
- DAC: Burr-Brown PCM1792
- Other Processors & Major ICs: Blackfin 514 DSP device supports ATE & PMEQ options. Texas Instruments LME49600 headphone driver
- Clock Jitter: 5ps (Typ)
- Supported Formats: WAV, FLAC, AAC, ALAC, MP3, WMA, M4A, CUE, OGG, APE, WavePack, and DSD (DFF, DSF, ISO)
- Sample Rates: PCM: 8kHz – 384kHz, 16/24-bits. DSD: DSD64 (2.8Mhz), DSD128 (5.6MHz).
- User Interface: 1.8-inch colour OLED screen, plus control switches and jacks as describer in the main review text.
- Frequency Response: Headphone& Line Output: 20 Hz – 20KHz, ± 0.06dB; 5Hz – 50kHz, ± 1dB
- Output Levels: Maximum output: [email protected] Ohms. Headphone output, high gain: +15dBu. Headphone output, low gain: 0 dBu
- Line output: Maximum output: 2V RMS, +9dBu
- THD + N: Headphone output: 0.00058%
- Line output: 0.00036%
- Signal/Noise Ratio (headphone and line output): 120dB
- Battery: 6,000mAh, Li-Polymer battery
- Playing time: 11 hours
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 104 × 60 × 25.4mm
- Weight: 280g
- Price: £1,499
Manufacturer: Lotoo, Ltd.
Distributed in the UK by: KS Distribution
Tel: +44(0)1903 768919
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