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.
The 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.
- 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
The 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.)
A 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
I 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!
I’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.
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.
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.
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.