Fiio’s latest contribution to the world of sound and music came in the form of the X5 portable music player. Following on from the recent release of their limited edition portable amplifier, the E12DIY, the X5 is another statement from Fiio that they want to play at the high end of sound quality, even if the pricing is still only at the mid level (and for that we are thankful!)
- Size: 67.6 x 114 x 15.6 mm
- Weight: 195 g
- Storage: 2 x micro SD (TF) card slots – max capacity 256Gb at time of launch
- Line-out: 1.5 Vrms
- Output impedance: <0.26 ohms
- Recommended headphone impedance: 16 – 300 ohms
- Max output current: >150 mA
- Max output voltage: 8 V (peak-to-peak)
- Battery life: > 10 hours
- Sample rates: up to 192 kHz / 24 bit
There are plenty more specs available on the Fiio website (fiio.com.cn), but to me these are the key elements that show the general versatility of the X5. There are some further outstanding numbers such as crosstalk and signal-to-noise ratio, but there are different figures for the amped headphone out and the unamped line-out so I’ll let you look these up yourself to as not to overload everyone with numbers.
The X5 retails for around $400 and offers the same compatibility as other much more expensive players. However the question is whether it offers the same performance? I bought the X5 to replace my far more expensive RWAK100 so outstanding performance was a must and I haven’t been disappointed… for the most part.
Design & Compatibility
On first look at the X5 you’ll probably immediately think of it as an iPod clone and in many ways it is from a form factor point of view, but it’s slightly larger and heavier than an iPod, has a broader range of connectivity options, plays many more formats of audio (compared to iPod models released up to May 2014), and sounds better than any iPod I’ve tried, but we’ll get to that later.
The case of the X5 is made from high quality aluminium which is anodised (I think) to a dark grey finish. The player feels solid, high quality, and durable, but not too heavy for a portable device. It’s no lightweight, but it’s quite pocketable.
The top of the X5 is home to three 3.5mm jacks – a headphone out, a line out and a coaxial out – a reset button and a power button. Down the left side (looking from the front of the unit) you’ll find volume controls, and on the bottom of the unit you’ll find a pair of TF card sockets with rubber covers, and a micro-USB socket.
Moving to the business side of the X5, the front houses a 2.4 inch screen, a control wheel with central button and buttons at each of the 4 corners of the wheel. Unlike the iPods that the X5 resembles, the wheel is a mechanical scroll wheel that spins versus the iPod’s touch-based wheel. The X5 wheel is also just a wheel with no press-down button functions – on the X5, button functions are handled by 4 buttons at the “corners” of the wheel.
To me, the button operations of the X5 are pretty spot on. The wheel feels a bit odd at first – looser than you’d expect, but in no way at risk of falling off – but it does a great job as a scrolling interface for the various menus. The central button works as an “OK” and play / pause button and the 4 corners work as (from top left and moving clockwise) a shortcut / menu button, back button, step forwards button, and step backwards button. I’ll expand on the operation of these shortly.
Menus & Interface
The X5’s menus are clean and simple and the interface is (to me) very intuitive. I have noticed a number of comments on the Head-Fi forum that it is not as intuitive to some, but to me it made perfect sense after reading the quick start guide so this is probably a question of what we’re used to and how we think. Some of you might find the X5 takes a little more time to get used to, but hopefully your experiences will be equally straight forward and enjoyable.
From the “Now Playing” screen of the X5, you can access the menu with a long press on the top left corner button (meaning the top left of the four silver buttons around the central wheel) or you can use the top right button to step back through previous views. The back button is also a quick way to get back to “Now Playing” when you’re in the menus.
Within the menus, the scroll wheel and the forwards and backwards buttons make navigating quick and easy (except in long menus, but I’ll get to that) and the central button has a consistent role to select the desired options. One thing that is a tiny bit confusing here is the variable function of the forwards and backwards buttons which will sometimes operate the scrolling function to move through menu items and at other times become toggle switches to choose options like high or low gain. It’s a really minor thing that you get used to quickly so this is not a criticism so much as an observation.
Another feature which I use rarely, but really appreciate is the shortcut button which brings up a horizontal list of options over the top of the “Now Playing” screen. I’ve included a picture further down the page that shows this shortcut bar. This quick access menu allows you to select options such as marking a track as a favourite, choosing shuffled or sequential playback, and even deleting a track on the fly.
While the touch screen of my previous player, the RWAK100, was nice, I find the mechanical control of the X5 more consistent and direct given the small screen sizes of these devices.
At the time of writing this review (June 2014) the X5 supports an incredibly wide range of formats including FLAC, MP3, WMA, AAC, APE, OGG, and ALAC. It also supports the super-high spec DSD format, but it downsamples this to what is essentially super-high quality FLAC before decoding so it’s more of a convenience factor that it converts your DSD for you rather than you having to convert before loading onto the device.
I’ve found a few minor glitches with compatibility, but I like the fact that the X5 just shows a quick notification of incompatibility before moving on – it hasn’t locked up or frozen in my experiences. The files that I haven’t been able to play back so far have been very low bitrate podcast files and some wave files that may have been unusual sample / bitrates. All-in-all, the X5 has comfortably played every normal media file in my collection that includes a wide range of MP3, WMA, AAC, ALAC, and FLAC.
Other Comments on the Interface
There are too many interface elements to cover in detail without turning this review into the X5’s user manual so instead I want to highlight a few things I really like and a few things that will hopefully be fixed in the X5 via future firmware updates.
Things I Like
- The automatic library scan (used to populate library browsing options) is quick! The AK100 used to take ages to scan 3000 files while the X5 completes a scan of nearly 5000 files much, much faster.
- The player has a selectable auto-start feature which means it will automatically start playback when you power it up with headphones or line-out connected
- The screen is bright and clear – easily viewed even in bright light
- 120 steps of volume make fine adjustments easy
- 10-band equaliser allows fine adjustments to the sound signature
- When the screen is off, the volume buttons also act as track forwards / backwards buttons using a long press – this makes “in pocket” use really easy
Things I don’t like so much
- No playlist support*
- No replaygain (volume levelling)*
- Unable to select to play all of a certain artist – only one album at a time*
- Can only scan / catalogue 5800 tracks despite the large, 256Gb max capacity – you can still load more tracks, but can only browse them via folder view, not by categories such as artist, album, or genre*
- The screen is smaller than the window on the device – the screen is square while the window is a wider rectangle – this is really a minor niggle
- Scrolling through the library doesn’t accelerate so long libraries can be tedious to navigate*
* These items (above) will likely be fixed / added in later firmware updates.
One final comment about the interface and usability of the X5 is that a number of people have reported stuttering playback, system freezes, and other issues. In my time with the X5 so far I have not experienced any of those issues and any glitches that have arisen have been due to faulty / corrupt audio files and in no way a fault of the device. Like many of the boutique / hi-res players on the market (really that means non-Apple players), the X5 can be a little bit sensitive to file issues, but that is true for the X5’s competitors too so should not be a subject for comparison I believe.
One of the best things about the X5 is its huge range of accessories. It comes with a black silicone case, but there are also other cases available from Fiio (via their retailers) including the HS6 stacking kit (see image) to use the X5 with a portable amplifier and the “leather” case which is not genuine leather, but looks and feels quite nice.
Best of all, the accessories are all incredibly well priced and offer a wide range of options for all different scenarios. This allows you to have multiple cases for different scenarios which is a really nice touch.
The X5 is designed to play the highest quality music you can find and therefore it should recreate that music with grace, precision and accuracy on par with the devices from the likes of Astell & Kern / iRiver and iBasso. Fiio spared no expense it seems in creating a clean and accurate path for the signal from the DAC to your headphones and the results are excellent.
Rather than discuss the treble, mids and bass of a DAP (digital audio player), I prefer to consider the overall signature of the player and whether it delivers an accurate representation of the music or whether it colours it or alters it in any way.
To my ears, the X5 is clean and accurate with just a hint of warmth. The warmth doesn’t come at the expense of any detail though. Much like the Matrix X-Sabre DAC that I use at home, the X5 is able to balance warmth and smoothness with clarity and detail. This is an impressive balance to strike because it keeps the music enjoyable, but in no way lacking the accuracy and detail you expect from a top-end system. I prefer a slight touch of warmth to a more analytical sound so this is perfect.
There has been some discussion on forums of the X5 lacking bass, but to my ears it is accurate to the recordings I know well and love so I think this might be a personal taste thing and there’s always that 10-band EQ to give you a bass, mid or treble fix – whatever your tastes require.
Imaging and Staging
The shortcut band at the top of the screen allows quick access to common settings
The X5 creates an outstandingly accurate image and stage, but it also has a minor flaw here.
When I contemplated buying the X5 to replace my RWAK100, I was concerned about a drop-off in sound quality given that the X5 literally costs half of what I paid for the X5. I was fortunate to be able to test my concerns with some direct A/B comparisons of each device and what I heard astounded me. (Note: I completed the test with an X5 that already had many hours of use as a demo unit so burn-in was not an issue.)
I loved the RWAK100 and held it in high regard as a reference for affordable portable sound, but the X5 offered greater accuracy and size in the soundstage! The most revealing test here was the track called Dancing Flute & Drum from Dr. Chesky’s Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show. At the beginning of this track you can hear some drum sticks (or similar percussive instrument) being hit together. The resulting sharp, stoccato sound rings out through the space they were recording in and effectively creates a sonar-style image of the room. On the RWAK100, this image was good, but seemed to fade slightly around the corners. On the X5, the image was complete and perfect – every inch of the room’s reflections returned to me and revealed their tale of the room’s size and shape. I was sold.
So the X5’s image and soundstage is entirely accurate and detailed which may lead you to wonder how there could be a minor flaw here… well the flaw is very subtle and only revealed by comparing the headphone output of the X5 with the line-out from the X5.
Upon connecting the X5 to the E12DIY amplifier and comparing the two outputs, the outstanding performance of the E12DIY reveals a minor shortcoming of the X5’s onboard amp. Before I go any further though, let’s get real – the X5’s onboard amp has to fit into the same space as the DAC, power supply, screen, scroll wheel, buttons, line-out, coaxial out, and processors whereas the E12DIY uses essentially the same chassis size for amplification and power alone – it’s not a fair contest.
So, back to this flaw. The flaw is very subtle once you’ve “burned-in” the device, but it was quite noticeable at first. The flaw I’m referring to is a slightly less than “black” background to the music. There’s no hiss or audible noise, but the sounds don’t leap out of nowhere in the X5 in quite the same way they do when using the E12DIY (or other high quality amps) connected to the X5’s line-out. There seems to be a limitation to the blackness of the X5’s background that is initially caused by something that benefits from burn-in (capacitors perhaps?). The good news is that after 30-40 hours of use (based on various users’ opinions and experiences) the sense of a slight haze in the music all-but-disappears. After burn-in the X5 is not quite perfect and with A/B comparisons using a high quality amp you can here the difference, but that difference is tiny, especially if you’re using the X5 when you’re out-and-about with noise and other distractions. Even despite this tiny, tiny, tiny (have I emphasised how miniscule this issue is?) drawback, for a $400 device that is a transport, DAC, amp, and database, the results are still nothing short of extraordinary.
My recommendations would be to not judge the X5’s headphone output until you’ve used it for a while. I have to admit that I was quite disappointed when I first started using the X5s headphone output and stuck to using the line-out exclusively for some time (while leaving the X5 driving headphones overnight to see if burn-in would help). Upon returning to the headphone out recently, I was shocked to hear the improvement and now have to seriously consider whether the tiny improvement in sound from using the E12DIY is worth the extra size and weight of the stack compared to the easy single-box option of the X5 on its own. The X5 is honestly good enough that I now often choose to use it on its own and that’s saying something coming from someone who’d always rather carry an extra bit of gear if it means extracting that last little bit of sound quality. The difference is just too small to justify in many situations now.
Performance with Various Head / Earphones
I mostly use the X5 with my Unique Melody Miracles, but have taken the time to test it with a wide range of devices including:
Although I could happily listen to all of these head / earphones with the X5, I would have to say that the two planar headphones (HE-500 and LCD 2) definitely benefit from the extra power of an amp, but they are absolutely enjoyable with the X5 even if not quite reaching their peak.
The T1s are another headphone that probably benefits from a dedicated amp, but the X5 brings the T1 very, very close to it’s peak performance even without an external amp.
With everything else I’ve tried, the X5’s relative neutrality and hint of warmth makes it an excellent source that allows the earphones and headphones to sing with their own voice and sound exactly as they should.
The Line-Out in Detail
It’s a few days since I posted this review and I’m revisiting it to add a quick comment on the line-out of the X5. The line-out is an unamplified 1.5V output designed to run straight to an external amp so it bypasses the X5’s internal amplifier and gives your external portable or desktop amp a straight shot to the X5’s DAC.
The reason I wanted to come back and add this is because the line-out deserves special attention for incredible performance. I used it one evening to quickly audition a Burson Soloist amp which I was borrowing from a friend. The sound from the setup was so good with “just the X5″ that I had to see how good it would get with the much more expensive DAC only Matrix X-Sabre that I use in my office. Switching to the X-Sabre I was shocked to hear almost no improvement!!
Now, in subsequent, more thorough comparisons I can say that the X5 is not quite as good a DAC / source as the X-Sabre, but we’re comparing a $400 device that’s a portable player, amp, database and DAC to a dedicated DAC worth $1200-1300. The X-Sabre has a slight edge in resolution and refinement, but it’s not an $800 edge which is to say that the X5 performs so much higher than its price.
The X5 line-out has a nice authority in the bass without adding significant “colour” the sound and is easily on par with other dedicated desktop DACs (and DAC/amp combos) I have heard up to about the $600 mark. This is incredible performance for a compact, portable device in the price range of the X5 so I simply had to come back and give that fact the airtime it deserves!
Summary and Conclusion
Coming from the RWAK100, the X5 had big shoes to fill (despite the RWAK100’s tiny form factor) and it has not only filled them, but redesigned them. My expectations for a portable player have shifted thanks to the X5. It’s ability to be so well priced, feel great in the hand, have a wide range of affordable accessories, deliver world-class sound via it’s dedicated line-out and near-world-class sound from it’s on-board amp, and enjoy excellent ongoing support from the wonderful folks at Fiio make this a portable player to reset the bar for others to follow.
Every time I use the X5 I find that I enjoy it – the whole experience. It feels good, works well, looks good and sounds good. I honestly can’t imagine spending more on a portable player without leaping into the rarified air of the AK240 or Tera Player because there’s just no need when the X5 is SO good at $400. So in other words, in my mind, the X5 just made the $400-$2000 range redundant in the world of DAPs.