Shozy Alien Digital Audio Player

The Shozy Alien came to my attention a little while ago before it was released and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it ever since. The main reason for my excitement is that there have been a number of stripped-back, screenless players in the past (and present) that have excelled in sound quality because of their very simple designs – I was hoping the Alien would continue this trend, but at a much lower price.

Overview

Shozy AlienThe Alien is a well-priced (~$250 AUD), compact, screenless player that plays only WAV and FLAC files – no MP3, no AAC, just the two major lossless options. For some people that will be an instant turn-off, but others may realise that this dedication to limited formats means a possible emphasis on playing those formats flawlessly – that’s what I was hoping for.

Specifications

  • Recommended headphone impedance:  8 – 32 ohms
  • Signal to noise:  >98dB
  • Power:  2 x 55mW (into 16 ohms)
  • Battery life:  8 hours
  • Charge time:  2 hours

The specifications I’ve seen published all say the Alien is designed for up to 32Gb microSD cards, but testing with a 64Gb card (formatted in FAT32 mode) proved that it works with larger sizes, however, the navigation system means that I would never want to use it with anything more than about 10-12 albums at a time and therefore a 32Gb card is plenty large enough.

Design & Functionality

Build Quality

Shozy Alien back viewThe Alien, like everything else I’ve seen from Shozy, is beautifully built. The main body of the device is machined from aluminium into a futuristic shape somewhat similar to the embellished hilt of a sword. It may be surprising to hear / read that the Alien is very comfortable to hold despite its slightly angular shape. The angles and points on the device are all gently rounded – just enough to make them smooth to hold while maintaining the striking aesthetics that set the Alien apart from anything else in the market (except perhaps the uniquely shaped AK240).

The Alien is screwed together with some tiny iPhone style screws on the back where another perfectly machined sheet of aluminium nestles impeccably into the main casing. The Alien is a flawless example of metal work and precision design – you couldn’t fit a piece of paper into the seams on this device, the tolerances are that tight. (The rubber feet shown in the image to the right are not included with the Alien.)

Interface

SAMSUNG CSCA large part of your enjoyment (or fury) with a screenless device is its interface because there are no visual cues to tell you what’s going on. The Alien employs a simple 4 way, ring shaped rocker button with a central toggle button. The central button is a simple on / off button which is slightly recessed inside the ring button to prevent accidental power-downs. This is particularly helpful because the Alien always starts from the beginning when powering up, so accidentally switching it off could be an infuriating error if you’re halfway through an album. On a couple of occasions the recessed power button has made switching the device on / off in my pocket a little tricky, but I’d prefer that to mid-session restarts.

The 4-way rocker switch is an intuitive +/- volume (up and down) and skip forward / back (right and left) setup. The + button also acts as pause with a long press and the forward / back buttons can skip tracks (short press) or folders (long press). It’s a simple setup that’s relatively effective except for one tiny issue. I’ve found that almost every time I try to pause the player (and sometimes when I just want to alter the volume) the close proximity of the buttons, and possibly the shape of the rocker button, results in me skipping tracks or folders instead of pausing or changing the volume. I expect this is something I’ll become better at over time, but in the short term it’s mildly frustrating and calls for significant care when activating either function, especially during in-pocket use.

Loading Files

SAMSUNG CSCThe Alien doesn’t interact with your PC (or Mac) in any way shape or form so you can’t access the microSD card via USB and will need to use a card reader to load the files for your Alien. I imagine this was done for one (or both) of two reasons: either to keep the costs of production down or to keep avoid the use of potentially noise-inducing components inside the Alien. I’ve found that it hasn’t really prevented my enjoyment of the device in any way, but it has resulted in me leaving the house with a fully-charge Alien, a pair of my favourite earphones, and no memory card on a couple of occasions. Needless to say, 2 such events was enough to teach me to always double-check that my Alien is loaded with a card before walking out the door.

Folder Layout

Because of the screenless interface as described above, the way you arrange your music files is pretty key on the Alien. You need to have your files in separate folders (unless you want them all together) and these folders need to sit in the root directory of your memory card. If you have folders within folders, the Alien won’t read anything below the top most level so be aware of how you structure your files and folders.

An example of the folder structure I’ve found best with the Alien would be:

microSD \ Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms \ So Far Away.wav
microSD \ Muddy Waters – Folk Singer \ My Home Is In The Delta.wav

In my setup, each folder is named by the artist and then album name with the individual tracks numbered and named inside each folder. Technically you could just have track numbers and nothing else if you wanted to, but I find having all the info makes browsing the card on my computer easier.

Audio Formats

The Alien works perfectly with both WAV and FLAC files, but is tuned for WAV files. I have tested identical copies of both WAV and FLAC and while it’s possible that there may be a tiny sound difference, it’s not sufficient that I could say one is better than the other and may just be placebo so feel free to use whichever format you prefer as I don’t think you’ll really know the difference.

The Alien can also handle 24-bit audio, but with limited sample rates so it’s not a player for those who want DSD, DXD or even 192kHz compatibility. That said, it sounds so good with standard 44/24 audio that I haven’t really bothered with 24-bit audio other than to test that it works.

A friend and I have encountered some minor glitches with random FLAC files being ‘invisible’ to the Alien. We’re not sure why this happens yet, but I can only assume that any minor glitches or corruption in the encoding process may be enough to make the Alien ignore the file and skip to the next track on the card.

Lack of MP3 Support

If you have a lot of MP3 files in your collection you might want to consider your conversion and card-loading methods before jumping on the Alien bandwagon. Software like MediaMonkey and Foobar (and probably JRiver) offer easy on-the-fly conversion as you load a memory card so in these cases it’s easy to convert MP3s to WAV for the sake of Alien playback. That doesn’t mean you’re getting lossless audio quality because the WAV file created from an MP3 can never be better than the MP3, but this approach will allow flawless playback on your Alien.

Different Impedance Headphones

I’ve tried the Alien now with a wide range of headphones. It is specifically designed for lower impedance IEMs and small headphones so it’s not going to drive full-sized cans with the authority of a proper amplifier, but that’s not what it’s for – it’s a maximum portability audio device so it’s optimised for highly portable ‘phones like in-ears and compact portable headphones. So far, the Alien performs beautifully with any in-ears I’ve tried it with and also with the moderate impedance Alessandro MS-1s. With higher loads like the 50 ohm Thinksound On1 and 80 ohm Beyerdynamic DT1350 I could hear that the Alien wasn’t squeezing every last bit of performance from the headphones, but they remained highly enjoyable even if not maxed out performance-wise.

A Little Hiss

With lower impedance in-ears the Alien produces a faintly audible hiss during very quiet moments. Friends of mine have been unable to hear this though so it might be something that’s only of concern to those who are particularly sensitive to treble and hiss. For 98% of my listening the hiss is completely inaudible so it’s nowhere near a deal breaker and it’s completely inaudible with headphones so don’t let the hiss put you off.

Amping

Shozy Alien w FiiO E12DIY & Noble Kaiser 10I received a recommendation to try the Alien with an amplifier and have to say that it is an incredibly good piece of advice! Despite not having a dedicated line out, the Alien makes for a brilliant source when paired with a quality amplifier. Normally, double-amping (feeding an external amp via an already-amplified headphone out) detracts from the sound, but the Alien’s headphone out is of such excellent quality that things just get better when amping. Because of the high impedance of an amplifier (normally 1000s of ohms versus the <100 ohm of most ‘phones), the hiss I mentioned above is completely gone when using an external amplifier so that’s another bonus in addition to the external amp’s ability to drive a much wider range of loads including full-size, power-hungry cans.

Beware if you’re using an external amp with the Alien that it needs to be an excellent amp with outstanding transparency and imaging or you are liable to lose some of the Alien’s magic. I wanted to save this revelation until the next section, but it’s important to mention here. This player offers exceptional sound in terms of space, transparency and resolution so if your amp isn’t top notch you’ll be losing out on what the Alien can offer – choose your amp wisely!

Sound

Shozy Alien w Noble Kaiser 10 and FiiO E12DIYI’ve already let the cat out of the bag, but the Alien sounds amazing! Shozy’s decision to design a player with no screen, no internal card reader (to access the card with your PC / Mac), no onboard memory, and only FLAC / WAV support has resulted in a beautiful, organic sounding device that presents the music as a perfect, coherent whole with no distractions to remind you you’re listening to a recording. The Alien presents a sound that is realistic, spacious and rich – a sound that contains oodles of detail, but without flaunting anything.

From top to bottom, the Alien’s sound is as close to flawless as you are likely to find for less than $1000. Top notch gear in the upper price echelons may offer slightly more micro details, but you’d only notice it with direct comparisons. In isolation, the Alien just sings like a perfect, extra-terrestrial angel and any shortcomings are completely invisible without direct comparison.

The bass extends deep with excellent control. Mids are clean and liquid without any sense of emphasis or added lushness, and the treble is smooth and extended. If I had to pick one area where the Alien might colour the sound slightly it would be the treble, but I’m not sure about this – you see the treble is extended, but super smooth so I can’t tell if the player tilts towards a hint of warmth or if it is neutral, but smooth. Smoothness versus roll-off is often hard to judge, but to my mind, the Alien offers a sound that is very similar to the Matrix X-Sabre DAC which is generally considered a little warm so perhaps the Alien is warmer than neutral or perhaps it’s just not dry. Either way, it’s highly enjoyable and completely realistic sounding.

One of the biggest strengths of the Alien in my opinion is its staging. The Alien throws a stage that is at once huge and coherent. Auditory cues are perfectly placed in a large, open space that seems to extend equally in all directions and each sound is clearly defined and focussed within that space. If you have ‘phones that have good imaging abilities, the Alien will reward you with a marvelous experience.

Comparisons

I really only had one comparison to the Alien that’s even close to fair (disregarding my iPods and Walkman because they’re not in the same league) and that’s the FiiO X5. At the time of writing this I no longer have my X5 because the Alien made it completely obsolete for my purposes – that’s how far ahead of the X5 the Alien’s sound is. Of course the X5 offers features that are miles ahead of the Alien in some regards: two microSD slots for up to 256Gb of storage, a simple visual interface, more output power, digital out, line-out, DAC functionality and OTG capabilities, but all of that meant nothing to me once I heard the difference in sound.

As I stated in my review, the X5 is an outstanding portable player for all of the reasons above, especially at its price, but the sound, while good, never quite wowed me in the way the Alien managed to even within the first few seconds. When comparing the headphone outs of both players, the X5 has more power, but the sound always seemed flat (spatially). The staging from the X5 is very accurate, but the sound all occurs in quite a tight space stretched from left to right. With the Alien I heard a sense of depth that made the music seem instantly real whereas the X5 remained an excellent, but artificial reproduction of the music.

The quality of the Alien’s treble is another element that set it apart from the X5. The X5’s treble carried a slight edge that I could never fully enjoy – it’s a subtlety, but there’s just something about it that falls short of perfect to my ears. The Alien’s smoothness made me think that the X5 may convey slightly more detail in the music, but I consistently enjoyed the Alien more than the X5 so any potential loss of these miniscule details is irrelevant. In fact, I think the amazing presentation offered by the Alien makes it easier to listen into the music in a way that the flat “wall” of sound from the X5 can’t so there’s a trade-off: the X5 might offer 1-2% more micro-details, but with the Alien I can actually enjoy more details so it was a simple choice for me.

Conclusion

For around $250 AUD here in Australia, the Shozy Alien offers astounding sound quality and impeccable build quality for portable audio with small headphones and earphones. It is a study in simplicity and focus that results in a near-perfect device. You need to be comfortable using a device with no shuffle function and no screen, but adapting to this approach will reward you with one of the most enjoyable truly pocket-sized sources you are ever likely to hear. I am personally loving the fact that the Alien makes me think consciously about which files to load and which albums I want to listen to. Gone for me are the days of shuffling 4000+ tracks and I’m loving the focussed enjoyment of rediscovering my music collection on whole album at a time. Of course, with the way the Alien is designed, you can create whichever folders you like so you can still create your own mixes if you want to (you don’t have to arrange your music by artists / albums).

In the end, all that matters is that once you load a memory card, plug in your ‘phones and fire up the Alien all you be able to think about is the incredible realism and engagement offered by the music pouring out of the Alien and straight into your ears.

Aside

I’ve heard whispers recently of a modification you can do to the Alien. I am trying to find out more and decide if I’m willing to void my warranty to test the mod, but once I know more I will share it here so check back if you’re interested.

Lachlan Fennen Written by:

Facilitator, training design consultant, blogger / writer and amateur photographer

15 Comments

  1. ...
    December 10, 2014
    Reply

    i can only second your opinion on the sound! Awesome little device

  2. Chris
    December 15, 2014
    Reply

    Hey man. Just came across your blog through, of all things……small ear canals! Maybe you can help me out a bit. I recently decided to try some IEM’s for the first time, so I ordered three vastly different looking ones. The normal looking “bullet”, just stick it in your ear type…..not a chance that could ever stay in. Anyways, I found one that would stay in and it seemed comfortable enough, but when I started to play music it immediately started to hurt. I certainly can’t be positive about anything, but my only thought would be that maybe – and I’m completely assuming here – that soundwaves cause pressure, and with the speaker of the IEM lodged into my ear canal, the pressure of the sound causes it to hurt. Beleive me, I’m totally reaching here, lol! Have you ever heard of anyone experiencing this? Man, I REALLY want to be able to use IEM’s.

    • December 16, 2014
      Reply

      Hi Chris,
      It’s funny where random searches lead us!
      Sorry to hear about your ear troubles. Can I ask which IEM you had this trouble with?
      Some IEMs seal better than others and, from what I’ve read, it is possible to create pressure within the ear canal, but in most cases you shouldn’t experience significant discomfort if you’re listening at ‘normal’ volume levels.
      Tell me a bit more about the IEMs you’re using and the source you’re feeding them with and I’ll see if I can offer any advice.

      Regards,
      Lachlan

      • Chris
        December 16, 2014
        Reply

        Hey Lachlan…….Yeah, google certainly can be a trip! The three I ordered were these: VSonic GR7 Classic. Shure SE215. SoundMagic E10. I chose these based on the completely different ways they would fit in the ear, since I had never tried IEM’s before. The SoundMagic’s would have never stayed in my ear. The Shure’s actually had a slight factory defect in them, but I was atleast able to try them out and get a feel for them (to be honest I can’t really remember how these felt in my ear, but for some reason I couldn’t use these either). The VSonics were the only ones to stay in my ear – they’re big and chunky which helped to secure them to stay in place. Before I turned them on, they seemed comfortable with no pain. After a few minutes of playing music my inner ears started to ache. I’m playing everything through an iPod with 192-256 mp3’s, and atleast in this particular instance, I was playing them at a very moderate volume level. And just incase your wondering, I didn’t like the sound signatures on any of the three, they were all to bright. Ask away incase I missed something. Thanks man.

        • lachlan@lachlanfennen.com
          January 10, 2015
          Reply

          Hi Chris,
          Sorry for the slow response – I’ve been working on this site.

          It sounds like you might be hyper-sensitive to treble. I personally found the VSonics hard to listen to for any extended time for the same reason (assuming my guess is correct).

          Perhaps try going to a headphone store (you’d need to find a specialist headphone place like Jaben or Noisy Motel) and ask to try some warm sounding earphones. Something like the Audiofly AF140 or AF180 might work well for you too.

          Good luck and keep me informed of how you go.

          Regards,
          Lachlan

  3. January 13, 2015
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing excellent informations. Your web site is so cool. I am impressed by the details that you have on this site. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for extra articles. You, my pal, ROCK! I found just the info I already searched all over the place and just could not come across. What an ideal web-site.

    • lachlan@lachlanfennen.com
      January 14, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks so much, Jamie. Glad you like it!

  4. landroni
    January 20, 2015
    Reply

    Thank you so much for this finding. If the Alien can indeed rival the X5, then it’s definitely a catch!

    I have one concern though concerning the supported resolutions, as the available info seems to be conflicting. For instance this website indicates support for up to 24bit/96kHz, while this other website clearly indicates the manual which talks only of 24bit/44.1kHz (actually very strange, but I’ve seen these specs elsewhere, too). And frustratingly the manufacturer’s page has nothing to say on the matter…

    So I’m confused. I’m fine with support for all resolutions up to 24bit/96kHz, but otherwise it’s kind of a deal breaker for me… So is there any chance that you have seen specs or tested resolutions above 16/44.1?

    [Sorry for double-posting. My HTML skills are lacking…]

    • lachlan@lachlanfennen.com
      January 20, 2015
      Reply

      The back of the Alien’s packaging states 44.1kHz / 24-bit (FLAC or WAV) maximum so I would stick with that as the guaranteed compatibility. I do believe some people have had success with 24 / 96 wave files, but I haven’t tested this thoroughly enough to confirm.

      Honestly though, the Alien sounds so good with 16 / 44 files that the need for hi-res audio is questionable in this instance (and I like hi-res so it’s not like I’m one of those who doesn’t believe it is better)

      • landroni
        January 20, 2015
        Reply

        Yup, I also inquired with the manufacturer, and after a speedy reply it’s indeed 16bit and 24bit at 44.1khz. No more, no less. All hardware decoding. The limited spec was apparently chosen to limit complications. After thinking some about it, it sort of makes sense.

        Re 16/44 vs hi-res… The limitation kind of dampens my enthusiasm, but I think I’m still very intrigued by this piece of hardware, although it’s unlikely to simply replace my need for a FiiO X5 (or some other cost-efficient alternative, and I’m not quite convinced by the Hum Pervasion). I have a feeling that it shall pair wonderfully with the E12DIY & my pair of Grado SR225i…

        This said, having carefully read Understanding MP3s, I now have little to no doubt that 16bit/44.1kHz lossless (FLAC, etc.) are always superior to any lossy compression of any kind (MP3, Vorbis, etc.). And I see no reason why the same reasoning wouldn’t extend to the 24/96 or 32/192 worlds: if you avoid “averaging out” (aka down-sampling), then some equipment, for some works (or portions), for some ears, will always present something exquisitely different. But you cannot know beforehand when, where or how. And the moment you start spending piles of greenback on high-end equipment, it makes absolutely no sense to limit yourself in terms of input quality, especially with the spacious storage devices we’re gifted with nowadays.

        (I actually have a long-winded rant on the subject, including double-blind testing, but it’s not polished yet so I won’t release it into the wild just yet.)

        • lachlan@lachlanfennen.com
          January 20, 2015
          Reply

          Thanks for the detailed response and information!
          While I am a fan of hi-res audio on my desktop, my ongoing experiences with hi-res on portable devices lead me to feel that it’s unnecessary to use hi-res audio on the go and it limits how many tracks you can carry with you. Unless you’re sitting and specifically listening in a quiet place with your portable device, I think few people (if any) could pick the difference between lossless 16/44 and hi-res formats given that portable devices are rarely quite as good as desktop setups and are often used in less than ideal circumstances such as offices and public transport where there is outside noise.
          I’m not saying one is right or wrong, but I’ve personally enjoyed the freedom of not worrying about hi-res compatibility for my portable gear as it opens a lot of options with no real drawbacks when it comes to real-world listening situations.

          • landroni
            January 21, 2015

            Re Audiophile portability. My experience with the FiiO and the Grado SR225i have redefined the meaning of “portable”. The SR225i comes with a hefty, thick cable that would put any non-sound engineer to shame; requires the use of a yet bulkier adapter to 1/8″ (mini) headphone plug; has an open design, which in practical terms means that I can even hear a cat purring when I’m listening to music. And the sexy X3 + E12DIY combo, in addition to this monstrosity, promptly draws laughs from my friends. But then, of course, the sound cometh, and they stop laughing… 🙂 So what audiophile portability actually means in my case, is that you should be happy if you’re able to move from one room to the other…

            Re high-res audio. I see your points, and I’m still very intrigued to try out the Alien. I’m quite seduced by their minimalistic philosophy…

  5. May 10, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks for this review! I wonder if you’ve heard Alien Gold, the updated edition? Is there any difference in SQ?

    • May 11, 2016
      Reply

      I have heard the gold version and it’s a significant upgrade over the original Alien (which is saying something). I’d highly recommend the new, gold alien!!

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