A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 1 Fiio X5

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Fiio X5
Fiio tends to be known for their affordable gear. They specialize in desktop and portable amps, cables, that sort of thing, with prices typically under $100 (with a few exceptions). For a newbie just embarking on their audio journey, Fiio gear often provides that very first taste of better-than-basic sound.

Being known as a value leader is generally a good spot to be in, until you try to launch something costing significantly more money. Will people be put off? Do they think of your brand as merely capable of "budget" gear? It's a legitimate problem from a marketing perspective. One sure-fire way around it is to pack your new product so full of features that it practically bursts at the seams. Then, even with a higher price, people will still associate the device with "value".

This seems to be the approach taken by Fiio with their X5. At $350, the X5 breaks new ground for the company, yet has been strongly accepted as a value leader. After spending time with the device I can see the appeal.

External Design
The X5 is interesting from a design perspective. Based on pictures alone it might appear somewhat bulky, but in real life is quite manageable. I'd call it mid-sized overall, with an upscale feel thanks to the aluminum case. Handling the AK240, the Calyx M, and the X5, and assuming no prior knowledge, I might not immediately guess the price differences involved.... until I touched the Fiio's scroll wheel. That portion seems a little out of place to me as far as the action goes. The rubberized texture is welcome but it just doesn't move with the precision I would have liked. I'll discuss the scroll wheel more in the UI section down below.

Interestingly, I don't find the X5 all that heavy, despite it weighing just 20 grams less than the Calyx (which I referred to as being "hefty"). I suspect this is due to the profile—the Calyx looks like a phone from some angles, and with that appearance comes certain expectations. X5 has nothing in common with a phone and the aluminum enclosure looks like it should be heavy, so I guess it just works for me.

The front panel is dominated by that scroll wheel, the surrounding buttons, and the screen itself. I find the screen merely satisfactory—it ends up being smaller than it looks thanks to a sort of empty space on each side. Still, it gets the job done for the price, and I've certainly seen worse. Given all the features aboard I guess it's unreasonable to expect complete success in every single aspect. Fiio does have an upcoming X7 which aims higher, so we'll see how that turns out.

Internal Design
Despite the price being lower than direct competitors, Fiio uses top notch parts throughout the X5. The dual core CPU runs at 600mHz which seems plenty fast due to the more simplistic operating system—in contrast to the similarly equipped Calyx which could use more horsepower for its more complex OS. The DAC is a Texas Instruments PCM1792, and the output stage features quad OPA1612 opamps for low-pass filtering, I/V conversion, and voltage gain. The headphone output is buffered by a pair of LMH6643 opamps which provide a good amount of juice—over 250mW into a 32 ohm load. That's dedicated portable amp territory.

The X5 is quite versatile as far as what it will play. It handles the usual suspects including hi-res FLAC up to 24-bit/192kHz, as well as DSD64. It also does hi-res Apple Lossless and even hi-res WMA Lossless which is honestly something you don't encounter very often. If you're keeping track, this $350 device comes very close to matching the thrice-priced competition from Calyx—that model does even higher sample rates with PCM and allows for double rate DSD, but I wouldn't consider those essential by any means.

User Interface
The X5 has come a long way since the early firmware days. By now it's a solid user experience that seems reliable enough, and for the most part gets the job done. That said, I remain a little underwhelmed. The spinning wheel might sound like a reasonable choice...it worked great on the iPods of old, right? But in this case the wheel leaves a lot to be desired. It's mushy, doesn't feel very precise at all, and frankly has a lot in common with the wheel on my Sansa Fuze—which has about seven years of regular use accumulated. It seems like the X5 would have turned out better by having a simpler interface with up, down, left, right, and a click button in the middle. As it stands we get buttons surrounding the scroll wheel that, even after memorizing their function, still don't seem intuitive. I suspect Fiio chose this configuration based on looks—I admit the configuration is pleasing to the eye—rather than usability.

All is not lost. The X5 is serviceable if a little clunky. I can generally find what I need, and I appreciate having the option to browse by folder as not all DAPs offer that. The X5 also has a decent 10 band EQ which, while not the best I've encountered, can be useful at times. There are some custom themes available here that improve things aesthetically, but that only goes so far.

Connectivity
From a connectivity standpoint, the X5 is one of the best out there. It's got a whole laundry list of features, nearly matching the far more expensive AK240. We get the usual headphone out, as well as a line-out and a coaxial digital output. Like the Calyx, it can also act as USB DAC via its microUSB port. It has dual microSD slots for storage. The only things missing are balanced headphone out and wireless connectivity—two features that aren't very common. To get all this connectivity from one of the more affordable DAPs on the market is refreshing.

Battery
I get anywhere from 8 hours to 12 hours depending on file type and headphone pairing. This is decent if not amazing. I suppose it comes down to context—compared to the offering from Calyx, the X5 battery life is spectacular. Compared to the Sony, not so much.

Sound Quality
The X5 can be used in several ways based on your particular needs. The most obvious use: plug straight into the headphone jack, no other accessories involved. I suspect this is how most users will approach the X5.

Results using the onboard amplifier are a mixed bag for me. On the plus side I like the amount of power on tap; it can comfortably drive cans like Sennheiser HD650 or Audeze LCD-2 without feeling majorly underpowered. It's also quiet enough to use sensitive IEMs without issue. Output impedance is less than 1 ohm so no trouble there either. So far so good, right? Unfortunately, despite all the positive attributes mentioned thus far, I just don't love the end results. There's no single word I can muster which fully explains it. I guess I just find the sound a bit lackluster. Specifically the highs, which try to stand out as clear and detailed but ultimately have a lack of refinement. It detracts from what could be a rather nice overall presentation. They seem to have a bit of a "steely" sound which I don't recall hearing from any other devices in this comparison. I believe Tyll once called it "metallic", which seems to capture what I my intent pretty well. This is unfortunate as I think the rest of the spectrum is quite well done. Lows have authority and impact befitting an upscale device, and mids are clean, engaging, and honest. But those upper registers just don't cut the mustard for me. I find myself wishing Fiio had just made a rolled off, "fun" presentation instead. Because I could get behind something like that as a deliberate voicing. As it stands, I think Fiio was shooting for a more detailed, AK240 type sound, but couldn't quite get there.

Again, we should remember the $350 price tag and judge the X5 accordingly. It shouldn't be asked to keep pace with Calyx, HiFiMAN or Astell&Kern and their higher prices. Still, I'd rather listen to the more affordable Sony A17 if we assume the use of an easy to drive headphone. Even the Sansa models, although clearly outclassed on the rest of the spectrum, do treble in a less offensive manner. I know a lot of people who really enjoy their X5 so perhaps this is just a tonal issue I'm particularly sensitive to.

On the other hand, I very much enjoy the X5 using the line out to drive an external amp. Adding the iQube V5, or the Leckerton UHA-6S mkII, or even one of Fiio's own portable amps, will really kick things up a notch. I paired the X5 with Fiio's E12 portable amp ($129) and heard a clear improvement in that troublesome treble. This tells me the culprit lies in the amp stage of the DAP, rather than the DAC. Fiio even makes a nifty kit for attaching the E12 and X5 together. The combo is relatively thin, but even so I wish the external amp wasn't necessary at all.

Going one step further, I paired X5 with the same iQube and Leckerton, but this time using digital output. The results take on the character of whichever device now handles DAC/amp duties—the X5 makes a competent transport without any surprises. If Fiio made a cheaper version omitting line-out and headphone jacks, for use as a dedicated transport only, I think they'd sell a decent amount of those. Then again, the "normal" X5 is already so much cheaper than many competing DAPs, that perhaps my idea makes little sense. Despite my complaints it remains a very high value device overall.

COMMENTS
castleofargh's picture

cool to see something about DAPs.
I usually whine a lot when reading reviews as they always are too nice with the devices, forgetting to tell about the shameful side of a device. well I must say, this time the practical reports felt spot on for the stuff I own or could try(and I really don't say that often).

I also wondered about the hm802 not getting much love. it's too big for me, I'd rather have smaller and use an amp when necessary, but it seemed like a pretty good product.

John Grandberg's picture
If everyone writes fawning reviews and leaves out all the disappointing aspects, how will the companies making these DAPs ever learn?
Dopaminer's picture

Great review so far; really looking forward to Part II. I think you should reconsider your iBasso stance and include the DX90. Judging by the headfi threads, the DX50 and DX90 have been the `gateway` daps for many audiophiles who transitioned from smart phones or ipods, and then subsequently `moved up` to higher priced (sometimes MUCH higher priced) daps like AK240, etc. The DX50 and DX90 are highly relevant in any comparison, especially the DX90 with its power and dual sabre dacs, and its huge following.
d

John Grandberg's picture
I have to admit, I'm still sore at iBasso for blowing out my $750 set of CIEMs with their stupid volume bug. You're totally right about their relevance, but I'm just not sure I'm "there" yet.
tony's picture

Thank you for explaining the differences in all these players.

I'm reading and trying to imagine each player vs. my iMac/Schiit system.

Does anyone offer an iMac in shirt pocket size?

Anyway, nice bit of work here.

Tyll, Joker, Katz and Grandberg make a pretty strong group of journalists.

Tony in Michigan

potterpastor's picture

Tremendous survey so far! I love my Sansa Clip and my Sansa Clip+. By the way, I prefer the sound quality of the original Sansa Clip over the 2nd gen Sansa Clip +, but the original clip doesn't have a slot for micro sd cards.

John Grandberg's picture
I haven't had an original Clip in ages. No memory expansion = no go for me. But it's interesting that you like it more for SQ. I know they switched to a newer AMS SoC for the Clip+ and newer models, so I can see how it might be a little different. Personally I recall them sounding the same but I can't say I spent a lot of time comparing.
potterpastor's picture

The Sansa clip firmware is really sluggish and slow. It takes hours and hours to refresh the media every time you intentionally or accidentally move the microSD card. It is just not feasible.

You didn't review the iPod touch fifth-generation, but it probably is the best of all the players. It is so easy and fast to load music, and it sounds great.

Impulse's picture

I've been using a Clip Zip for running for a few years now, along with a pair of MEElec M6. Tempted to swap them for my Xiaomi Pistons but I like the fit of the M6 a lot when it comes to being active.

I used to take along the Zip when traveling but my Nexus 5 doesn't really burn thru battery much while playing music. I'm usually sending it via Bluetooth anyway to a Sony MW600 receiver (and my V-Moda XS or Ety IEM).

That's one category of devices I'd love you guys to survey, ClieOS tested some of the Sony/Samsung BT receivers on Head-Fi a while ago but it was not an exhaustive review. I feel like they kill two birds with one stone...

It takes the burden of output (DAC and amplification) off your phone or tablet, while also cutting down on wires, particularly when used with something like the XS with removable cables you can swap for short ones.

Impulse's picture

A BT receiver lets you enjoy the headphones you already have with a minimum of wires without getting pricey dedicated BT cans or a compromised set...

It's not something I use at home, at all, because I know BT is ultimately a bottleneck to what my cans are capable of (never mind my Asgard 2); but it's ultra convenient on the go...

As much as Tyll complains about how cramming batteries and BT electronics into a pair of cans tends to hurt their design you'd think these things would've come up in the conversation a few times.

John Grandberg's picture
I have a Noble BTS on the way, hoping it accomplishes just what you mention. From a design perspective it looks like just what the doctor ordered for a smartphone with high output impedance or just generally lazy sound quality. We'll see.
Impulse's picture

Looks kinda pricey compared to some of Sony's BT receivers with comparable battery life AND a display for track info, caller ID, etc... But if the sound quality is a cut above the rest it might very well be worth a look.

I'm definitely looking forward to your take on it. I don't particularly need the display on my Sony anymore since my smart watch accomplishes the same function. Being BT 4.0 that Noble unit might get better battery life than advertised with BT4.0 compatible phones.

I've heard great AptX BT devices as well as awful ones, not putting much stock that, the standard SBC codec seems decent enough if a device uses the highest bitrate... I've wondered whether AptX is more efficient but, no one tests for that kinda thing.

John Grandberg's picture

We'll see. The sub-1 ohm output impedance is promising. You don't typically see that spec on gear from other brands.

Which Sony model do you use?

Impulse's picture

I'm using a Sony MW600, pretty old unit, I think it's discontinued now but still widely available at close to it's original price. I believe they replaced it with the MW1 but that seems discounted too, not sure if the SBH5x models are their most current or what.

I get pretty good battery life out of it tho (over 7hrs still after a few years), I remember comparing it to my Clip Zip with my Ety hf3 but it's been a while... Now I'm curious to do so again.

Ended up settling on it basically based off Amazon reviews, a couple positive comments about it or the MW1 on Head-Fi, and just the fact that it looked better than a similar unit by LG. It's hard to find detailed specs like output impedance or DAC used, much less anyone that has more than one of these things for comparative purposes.

ManiaC's picture

Please if you can add Cayin N6 and Fiio X3 2-nd generation.

John Grandberg's picture
I have the Cayin N6 here now, as well as QLS QA360. Both are worth talking about. Should be able to get the Consonance Suzanne as well, but I'm not sure if the Questyle QP1 will be done in time.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
Yeah, but by the time the Questyle comes out you'll have a lot of great experience to evaluate it with. Thanks, John, great work here.
tony's picture

Another Wiki type of reference work.

You guys keep hitting home runs.

This portable comparison is doing Tons of work for me and probably for everyone else.

I'd buy a plane ticket to see a Seminar with all four of you lads.

You 4 are becoming a "Top Gear" type of experience, you might be able to do a weekly show ( remote kind of thing, like that TV guy does ). Betcha you'd be getting a huge following.

Tony in Michigan

elfary's picture

iPhone 6 output impedance is 2.3 ohms. Check your facts (or measurements).

tony's picture

Nice catch here elfary,

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
And so did Ken Rockwell on his site. He got 3.18 ohms on the 6+, and I got a bit higher than that. Within margin of error/unit to unit variability I suppose. The point stands that it's pretty good as-is, but not perfect - there is some improvement to be found with a lower output impedance, when using certain IEMs.
Stefraki's picture

Have been increasingly falling in love with my Pono. Functionally speaking, it's very silly in several aspects... sound quality-to-price ratio? It's amazing.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in Part 2.
ednaz's picture

It's difficult in these online shopping days to do good research on your own. When I decided I wanted to step up from the iDevices, I couldn't find anyplace where I could listen to 2 or 3 alternatives with the IEMs and headphones I own. As fraught with argument as an exercise like this can be, it's a necessary tool (unless someone wants to order four or five units and sell off the ones they don't like.)

I agree on your assessment of the Fiio X5 sound, that's agreement from someone who enjoys listening to the device. But I think it's a problem with some earphones, but not at all with others. With my Westone ES5, it's edgy metallic for sure. But with other earphones or headphones - Xiaomi Piston 2, Ety custom sleeved, ACS T1 CIEMs, my AKG Quincy Jones portable headphones - it's not noticeable at all.

That's where the YMMV comes in - really seems to me that in a lot of cases you need to look at DAP/headphone combinations. Which makes for a combinatorial nightmare. Still, with good roundup reviews like this, and knowledge of your own headphones, it's possible to get to happy.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I absolutely enjoyed this first collective look at DAPs.
Thank you very much John for compiling your thoughts and sharing them with the innerfidelity gang.

I share @ManiaC's interest in the Fiio X3ii as its been getting some pretty great buzz on other audio sites. However im guessing its sound quality wouldnt exceed the X5 and we have your review for that one.

Keep up the great work and keep sharing your thoughts and reviews. We headphone fans love our electronic toys..having more DAP reviews and wall-o-fame entries are a perfect fit for this site!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

PS: What about adding Zunes, Archos Jukeboxes, Creative NOMADs, Diamond Rios, or the audiophile-standard-setting coby usb player!?

tnelson's picture

I'd be interested to know more about the target users of dedicated DAPs with higher SQ than iPhones and other smartphones. I honestly am curious about this issue…I understand wanting the best possible source for an environment in which you can discern SQ clearly and maybe wanting a physically small personal source that can be moved from quiet listening site to site (home, office, etc).

However, I am skeptical that benefits of a high-SQ DAP can be heard if used as a portable player. On streets, planes, cars, in coffee shops…there's no way I'd be able to hear an enhancement beyond my iPhone, regardless of how good the source or IEMs. Too much isolation or noise-cancellation can be dangerous on the street, so there's always going to be ambient noise.

I would still need my phone for streaming (or lossless downloaded) TIDAL, internet radio, plus all the non-audio smartphone functions. Why carry another device? It would be interesting to evaluate a current iPhone and Android phone among the DAPs being compared for SQ, for folks like me who are skeptical about the audible benefits of carrying a second audio device. Doesn't fit my lifestyle, but what is the target listening market for these?

John Grandberg's picture
I definitely agree that any benefit is lost in a noisy environment. That almost goes without saying. But each situation is different - two people commuting to work might have vastly different ambient noise situations. One might not be a good candidate for anything beyond a phone and decent IEMs, the other might be well served by a nice DAP and higher-end IEM. So you have to examine your own scenario and go from there.
On Song Audio's picture

Hi I am the U.S. representative for the M. Please keep in mind that the M can play while plugged into a 5 volt USB supply. The 4 to 5 hour battery life applies when a power outlet is not within reach.

Laistrogian's picture

I'm wondering if it's possible to do measurement for these DAPs. While I can understand why some people would want to by DAPs, something like A&K240 comes across me as being "unnecessary."

You could call me objectivist or something like that but for me it's still physics, if the numbers are the same they should sound the same.

SixChannel's picture

2 years ago I settled on a Samsung Galaxy because it 1)has a true FM radio, 2)has open architecture for music player and 3)allows me to peruse the innumerable internet stations. Although I see FM a lesser draw these days, opening up to the internet swung the deal for me. The only unfortunate part is that the amplifying stage isn't the best for my big cans, but I fixed it by strapping it to an amp.

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