Fiio X5 Portable Hi-Res Music Player

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!)

Overview

  • 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.

To read the rest of the review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s plenty of great new content coming soon, but only on the new site. Hope to see you there!

 

Massive Portable Player Shootout

I’ve been using an iPod Video 80Gb (5.5 generation) for years now and have loved it, but my music collection continues to grow and I’m a fan of lossless audio (ALAC and FLAC) so it’s no longer large enough to hold all my tunes. I’m now at a major crossroads when it comes to finding the right combination of quality, capacity, and ease-of-use. There are a few options I’ve considered and I’ve been lucky enough to try all of them so I’m sharing the results here. I’d like to extend a massive thanks to Wing and the team at Minidisc.com.au for providing the Cowon J3 demo unit and outstanding customer service in my purchase of the Cowon X7 unit.

What’s Being Compared:

  • Apple iPod 80Gb (5.5 Generation) – middle of image
  • Apple iPod 160Gb (late 2009)  – top right of image
  • Cowon X7 160Gb – top left of image
  • Cowon J3 – bottom left of image
  • Sony 460 Series Walkman 4Gb – bottom right of image

If you’ve spotted the odd one out here (yes, the Walkman) and you’re wondering why I’m comparing a little 4Gb player to three hard-disk behemoths and a large-scale SD-based player, it’s purely thrown into the mix as a reference point to see how the expensive players compare to a relatively cheap option.

I’m comparing the players on 4 key factors:

  1. Sound quality (including power output)
  2. Size
  3. Interface & Ease of Use
  4. Customisation & Flexibility

Sound Quality

It’s very hard to conduct a subjective test of sound quality on audio sources because the only real way (short of complicated and expensive setups) is to keep switching your headphones or line-out cable from source to source. Because each of the player’s has a slightly different volume scale, it’s also hard to match the volume exactly and that can influence our perception of quality, too. I’ve done everything I can to minimise the impact of volume, delay between sources and personal preference. All players were tested with no sound “enhancements” (i.e. no BBE effects on Cowon products and no EQ or Sound Check on iPods). All testing was done using 320 kbps MP3 tracks to avoid any potential difference between ALAC and FLAC files. I used my Audio Technica AD900s, Ultrasone HFI-680s and HiFi Man Re0s with each player for a thorough sample.

The order of performance here is a little tricky, but essentially it’s:

First Place: Cowon X7 & J3 – Clean, rich sound with a massive open sound stage and all of the details perfectly presented. My only criticism of the Cowons is that they actually are a little under powered from a volume perspective. They have no trouble getting great sound quality out of the higher impedance HFI-680s and Re0s, but they are at more than 95% volume in order to create an energetic, exciting listening experience.

In addition to their naturally awesome sound quality, the Cowons offer the range of BBE features to further enhance your listening pleasure and although I normally steer clear of “sound enhancements”, the BBE suite is exceptional. The EQ settings are widely adjustable and powerful, the BBE bass boost seems to do a great job of boosting the bass without all the added distortion of many systems and the compressed music enhancement (MP Enhance) is quite effective at bringing the brilliance of lossless music back to a compressed track. Finally, the winning feature for me on the Cowons is their stereo enhancement (equivalent to crossfeed in RockBox). This feature replicates in your headphones the effect of listening to speakers. It’s a simple process and doesn’t mess with the source signal and sound quality, but does result in a beautifully focussed stereo image.

The only key sound quality feature missing (which could also be considered ease-of-use) is ReplayGain. The Cowons don’t normalise the volume for you meaning that you may have to regularly adjust your volume from track-to-track and that’s an issue when you try using the volume controls, but more on that later…

Second Place: iPod Video 5.5G – Solid, clean sound with good depth and good detail. The iPod Video is a great no-frills player. I’ve used it with RockBox and also the regular interface. Either way, the natural sound is great and it seems to have more oomph than other players (volume at 85-90% for higher impedance headphones).

The EQ on the iPod is horrid and introduces all kinds of distortion, but I don’t feel it needs equalising if you have decent headphones. It also lacks a quality volume levelling feature in its original Apple guise (RockBox fixes this). The iPods do have the Sound Check feature, but I find it fairly useless and have heard many reports of degraded sound quality from its use.

Third Place: iPod Classic & Sony Walkman (tied) – These players don’t sound the same, but it’s hard to split them based on their differing shortcomings. The iPod Classic lacks depth in the bass and has a touch of harshness at the high end combined with a lack of very high end detail. It also suffers from the same lack of sound enhancements as explained for the Classic (above).

The Walkman actually has an enjoyable sound for a cheap device (<$100), but it can’t match the others in terms of detail and soundstage. That said, the sound enhancements offered are quite good and quite effective. It’s a perfect exercise player for me (i.e. when I want fun sounding music that I’m not listening to for quality).

Size

I’m not comparing the Walkman here because this is about capacity. Very simply, the J3 is the smallest, but not by much. The iPod Classic is next, followed by the iPod Video and the Cowon X7 is easily the largest and quite bulky. All but the X7 could comfortably fit in a pocket, but the X7 would require a bag of some sort to carry around. It fits nicely in the palm when you’re using it, but the X7 is definitely a bit bigger than the alternatives. That said, if you want to match the sound quality of the X7 you’ll need to add an external amp to the iPods meaning that they just got a bunch bigger and have extra cables sticking out… I’ll be doing a post about the pros/cons of external amplifiers soon.

Interface & Ease of Use

The iPods are the easy winners here – that’s just what Apple do – make things easy. There is no doubt that the Apple interface and synchronisation protocols work well. My only complaints are the lack of effective volume normalisation and the restriction to ALAC as the lossless format. Having recently converted my entire library to FLAC, I really don’t want to have to undo it now. RockBox on the iPod Video allows the use of FLAC, but the Classic can’t use RockBox so it’s slightly more limited.

Another bonus for the iPods is the massive range of accessories available. Being able to drop your pod into a dock and have instant, remote controlled music is a great plus and something that no other player can offer without significant fiddling and expense.

The Walkman comes second because it just works. There are limited bells and whistles and the synchronisation with MediaMonkey was easy and painless. It can’t play lossless formats, but with 4Gb capacity and just-above-average sound quality, 320kbps MP3s are fine. The menus are easy and obvious and the buttons are easy to use and well-placed. Perhaps the best thing about the Walkman though is the SenseMe feature which scans your library and sorts them into mood-based groups. The system isn’t quite perfect (it put a slow song into an upbeat category), but it’s a great, quick playlist solution.

I’m a big believer in working with industrial design rather than fighting against it. If it doesn’t work how I initially expect, I take the time to understand it and learn it, but the Cowons are a long way behind in the ease of use category because of some crazy design decisions. Both players have the volume controls on the side down the bottom of the players. When you’re holding the players you’re fingers are nowhere near the buttons so it’s awkward to adjust the sound (and you need to because there’s no volume levelling).

The menus in the Cowons are quite good and you can access all the important settings direct from the “now playing” screen so this is a plus for the Cowons, but it doesn’t make up for the killer…

You can’t auto-sync playlists to a Cowon player!! That’s right, the Cowon X7 will hold 160Gb of your music, but it won’t let you easily transfer the playlists from MediaMonkey (or Winamp or WMP, etc.) to the player. When you do ask the media player to transfer the playlists, they appear in the X7 (or J3), but when you click on the playlist it says “no file”. I’m sure there’s a fix, but from everything I’ve read it’s a manual fix not an automated one – very frustrating and possibly a deal breaker for me.

Customisation & Flexibility

There are a bunch of custom interfaces for the Cowons and this makes them more customisable than the others. Combine this with their ability to sync with any system and play any type of sound or video and you’ve got a very flexible and customisable player.

The iPod Video can run RockBox and that gives it plenty of flexibility. I rate it only a fraction behind the Cowons because RockBox can be a bit unstable.

The Walkman and iPod Classic tie for 3rd place for different reasons. The Walkman can’t play lossless audio, but it can sync with lots of different systems. The iPod can play lossless audio, but only ALAC so they’re pretty even. The iPod might win by a hair thanks to its ability to play lossless and sync with MediaMonkey.

Summary

What’s the player of choice then? For a collection up to 80Gb, I think I’d take the iPod Video, but over 80Gb it has to be the Cowon. The sound from the iPod Classic just doesn’t cut it for this type of premium player. If you have a huge library and need a large capacity player, there’s a good chance you also appreciate the quality of good music.

I’ll be adding a line out adapter and portable amp to my iPod Classic in the near future and will be sure to report back on the results. In the meantime, I actually think the best answer is to have the Classic for dropping into a dock, using in the car, etc. and having the Cowon X7 (or J3 if you want a small pocket-sized option with killer sound) for mobile portable listening direct to headphones.

 

 

 

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 3… Finale

Welcome to the final installment of my 3 part series of posts about the pros and cons of compressed audio. If you haven’t read from the beginning, it’d be a good idea. Here’s a link: Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

By the end of Part 2 you hopefully have an understanding of the process of compression (i.e. removing sounds that we theoretically won’t hear) and also the impact that this removal has on the overall “picture” created by the sound. For this final part of the article, you need to keep this concept of a musical “picture” in mind because this final concept is all about the hidden magic within the picture, not the individual, identifiable details.

Harmonics

You might have heard of harmonics before. If you’ve played certain musical instruments (particularly stringed instruments), you might have even deliberately created pure harmonics. If you haven’t heard of harmonics, don’t worry – here’s a short explanation.

Anytime you play an instrument that uses a string or air to create sound (i.e. just about any instrument other than electronic synthesizers), you are creating harmonics. Harmonics are the sympathetic vibrations that occur along with the note that you’re creating. Have you ever run your finger around the rim of a glass to create a musical note? That’s the same concept. Your finger running on the edge of the glass creates vibrations. If you get the speed of your finger movements correct, the vibrations you create, match the natural vibration frequency of the glass. As a result, the whole glass vibrates together and forms a beautiful clear note. Different glasses will vibrate at different speeds of movement  and will create different notes as a result. This is the concept of harmonics.

If you were to walk up to a piano and strike the key known as “Middle C”, you would hear a note – just one single note, but that note will have a quality very different to the same note on another piano or on a violin. The reason for this is the creation of resonance and harmonics. To explain this, I’m going to talk about the note called “A” which is a few notes above “Middle C”. I’m using the “A” because it makes the maths easier.

If you now strike the “A” you’ll hear a single note once again. This time, the note will sound higher than the previous “C”. What’s actually happening though is that your ear is receiving vibrations in the ear and these vibrations are moving 440 times every second (440 Hz). However, there are also other vibrations going on and the majority of these vibrations are directly related to the 440 Hz we began with. As the “A” string inside the piano vibrates, it creates waves of vibration. The loudest of these move 440 times per second, but it also creates other waves moving 880 times, 1760 times, 3520 times per second, etc.

Every note created by an acoustic instrument naturally creates these harmonics which go up in doubling increments (i.e. like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.) Old synthesizers sounded particularly fake because they didn’t recreate these harmonics and the output sounded flat and lifeless. Newer synthesizers create harmonics artificially and have come closer to the sound of the real thing, but there’s still a degree of difference created by the subtleties that can be created by acoustic instruments. A slight difference in strike pressure on a piano, plucking/strumming strength on a guitar or force of air through a trumpet can create a significantly different tone as a result of the different range of vibrations it creates. All of these subtleties are the “magic” that make music so special and exciting.

A quick note: this blog is not an anti electronic music. Electronic instruments (i.e. synthesizers, drum machines, etc.) can create amazing music which is impossible with traditional acoustic instruments. The discussion of acoustic versus electronic instruments is designed purely to illustrate the importance of keeping harmonics where they were originally intended/recorded.

Harmonics, Subtleties & Compression

In reading the section above, you might have wondered why you’ve never heard these harmonics. You might even choose to put on your favourite CD and try to listen for them. You can actually hear these harmonics if you listen carefully, but the key thing to recognise here is that we aren’t consciously aware of them in normal circumstances. The harmonics and subtleties happen “behind the scenes” of the music and are rarely noticed by the casual listener or anyone who is not actively listening for harmonics.

If you now think back to my previous discussion of compression and the removal of sounds that we theoretically don’t hear, you might see the connection. The first things be “compressed” (i.e. removed) are the harmonics and subtle, quiet sounds that create the finest details and tonal qualities of the music. To the casual ear, nothing seems to be missing, but play the same song compressed and uncompressed through good speakers and you might notice a difference that you can’t quite put your finger on. Here’s another visual example.

The following picture is a hi-resolution (1900 x 1200) desktop wallpaper image provided with Microsoft Windows 7. I’ve used it because it has a certain magic about it in terms of its depth and detail.

The next version of that image is at a lower resolution of 800 x 500 pixels (a bit like a lower bit-rate of compression).

Notice there’s a certain level of the “magic” missing from the second image? It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what’s missing, but the image isn’t as instantly captivating and engaging to the eye. It almost looks flatter somehow – less bright and alive.

Here’s one last version at 600 x 375 pixels, making it even lower resolution and stealing more of the “magic”.

Are you seeing a difference? Don’t worry if you’re not. Go back now and take a close look at the textures of the character’s face and the stitching on his costume. As the resolution drops, so does the detail. See it? That’s exactly what’s happening to your music.

Compressed Music in Real Life

Although it’s probably clear by now that my preference is always for uncompressed music (known as lossless music because no detail/information is lost), it’s not always practical. Understanding compression allows you to choose what suits your needs best. Here are some factors to consider when choosing your level of compression (or choosing no compression):

  • How much space do you have for your music on your computer, device hard drive, iPod, etc? You’ll need to use compression if your space is limited and you want to store a large number of tracks. Here you need to weigh up quality, quantity and space. You can consider increasing storage space, decreasing the quantity of tracks or increasing the compression (and therefore decreasing the quality of the music).
  • Where and how do you listen to your music? If you listen in noisy environments, at very low volume (i.e. background music only) or use low quality speakers/headphones then you might as well use slightly higher compression to maximise the quantity of tracks. The noisy environment issue can be overcome with in-ear earphones and noise cancelling earphones, but the other situations generally mean you can afford to sacrifice quality for quantity.
  • How much does it matter to you? After all, you’re the one doing the listening so if you’re happy with music at 128 kbps that’s all that matters. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong level of compression – it’s entirely up to you.

The best way to decide is actually quite simple. Take a well-recorded track (or two) that you really like and use your music player (iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.) to compress it in different ways. Next, listen to the different versions on your favourite headphones and/or speakers and decide what you’re happy with. Way up the differences you noticed between the different levels of compression and think about how much space you have to store music and then make a decision.

Summary

Compression is a fantastic tool for portable audio and convenience, but if you have no significant space restrictions, I highly recommend sticking with lossless audio (either Apple Lossless Audio Codec – ALAC, Free Lossless Audio Codec – FLAC or Windows Media Audio 9.2 Lossless). You never know when you might upgrade your speakers or headphones and even if you can’t hear a difference now, you might be amazed at the benefits you get with that next pair of speakers or the next set of headphones! Don’t give up the magic of the music unless you absolutely have too!

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my series of posts about the pros and cons of compressed audio. If you haven’t read Part 1, it’d be a good idea. Here’s a link: Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

Wielding the Eraser

I explained in Part 1 that compression means pulling out sounds that we won’t actually hear, but think about this… The music is like a painting that we “see” with our ears. Compressing music is the equivalent to taking an eraser to the Mona Lisa. It’s like saying, “No-one will notice this brush stroke of stray colour or this tiny bit of shading.” Perhaps that’s true and, to a degree, no-one would notice, but at some point the whole painting’s just going to lose something. It’ll lose a little bit of soul. Sure, you might not pick exactly which parts are missing, but you’ll know something’s not right. Here’s an example:

Notice how the sky in the second image looks unnatural and full of lines? That’s because the process of compressing has removed some of the subtle shades of blue and replaced them with wider bands of other shades. For example, let’s number the different shades 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4. During the compression process we would replace shade 1.2 with a second band of 1.1 and replace 1.4 with a second band of 1.3. Now that blue sky would be made of bands of shades 1.1, 1.1, 1.3, 1.3. You can see the evidence of this above in the second image.

So looking at the example photos, it’s clear that they’re both the same photo, but if you had to choose one to print and frame, I’m guessing you’d choose the first one because it’s closer to real life and therefore more pleasing to the eye. The same goes for music.

Think of music as a complex bunch of vibrations making a particular range of patterns. Any little detail you remove from those vibrations will permanently alter the overall “picture”. You’ll still recognise the sound or the song, but it won’t actually sound identical to the original.

Let’s talk about the ear again. Remember my description of how we hear? The ear perceives music like the eyes perceive a painting. You take it all in at once, you don’t pick out a particular colour here and a particular texture there, you just see it as a picture. When we compress sound we permanently alter the “picture” as if we had taken to it with an eraser. To our ears, the result is no different to the photo above on the right. It might not be as dramatic (depending on the level of compression), but it’s essentially the same. You don’t notice a loss of individual sounds, you notice a loss of overall quality and realism.

Here’s one final visual version to show you what I mean. The following charts are spectrograms that show sound as colour. The darker the colour, the louder the sound and the higher up the colour appears, the higher pitch the sound is. A bass guitar shows up down the bottom while a violin shows up further towards the top. There are 2 lines in each chart – these are the left and right stereo channels.

Spectogram - lossless

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - no compression

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - moderate compression

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - mid-high compression (128 kbps)

Notice the density of the yellow and orange colours reduces as you get more compression? The more blue you see, the less of the musical “picture” is still intact. You might also notice that there is more variety and clarity in the colours on the top chart and the colours all get more “blurry” as you move down the charts. That’s the effect of averaging things out. If you look at the first spectrogram and then the second, you might notice that the second one looks like a slightly out-of-focus copy of the first one.

By the time we get to 128 kbps, nearly every high frequency sound is removed. That’s because we lose those hearing at these frequencies first and are less likely to notice the missing sound… or at least that’s the theory. The key thing to notice here is that the musical pictures are different. This is the most visual representation of sound that I can provide and it illustrates exactly how the musical “picture” is gradually erased by compression.

In the Final Installment

Now that you know how we perceive sound and how compression works, you’re all ready to read about why compressed music loses its “magic”. In Part 3, I’ll explain a bit harmonics and their role in creating the soul of the music. I’ll also sum up what this all means when it comes to choosing the level of compression that’s right for you.

As always, I hope you’re enjoying this information and I welcome any feedback or questions you might have.

Ready for Part 3?