Pros: See Review
Cons: See Review
Pros: Sound quality, versatility, (mostly) easy to use UI, data storage options, charging indicator, user’s manual, most “issues” can be addressed via firmware update
Cons: Gapless needs work, lack of markings on control buttons, silicon cover needs larger holes for plugs, twitchy scroll wheel, no playlist support, no easy way to return to “Now Playing” screen, “Next Track” and “Previous Track” functionality needs work, need to read user’s manual just to operate the player
I would like to thank James FiiO and Joe Bloggs for giving me the opportunity to evaluate the X5. It was provided at no charge and with no obligation other than to post my thoughts and impressions to the Head-Fi community. The X5 was reviewed using Firmware 1.00. Some of the issues noted below may be addressed in future updates but the player was reviewed and rated “as is”.
This review is going to be somewhat different since I won’t be focusing on the sound quality so much as the usability and versatility of the unit. My needs are fairly specific: I want a dedicated digital transport to replace an old laptop I've been using for a digital music source. I also want a portable player to carry with me when traveling, something to handle headphones and IEMs. I also may end pairing the DAP with an external DAC or Amp depending on my sonic preferences at the time. The beauty of the X5 is that I was able to try all those options.
I have owned a number of DAPs in the past to include a Second Generation iPod Nano, Cowon D2, S9, J3, a Little Dot DP-1, and iHiFi 960. I am currently using an iBasso DX50 as a digital transport for my home rig (along with a Schiit “uber” Bifrost, Lyr, and LCD-2s) and as a portable player for use with IEMs. My music preferences include 60’s-70’s Classic Rock, 80’s “New Wave”, Classical, Folk and some “New Age” stuff. While I totally understand and appreciate the advantages of analog sound, I grew up at the dawn of the digital age and recognize the convenience of digital music while being able to accept its limitations. What does that mean to you? It means I’m an old fart that doesn’t mind listening to digital music and trying out new toys.
Since the tour started, there have been a number of reviews with unboxing pictures so I will just say that the contents of the X5 box were all there and well packed. The player was already in its protective silicon sleeve and had a screen protector mounted (with a couple of spares included). A thoughtful inclusion was the USB-to-microSD card reader/writer. After admiring the contents, I hooked a charger to the X5 to top off the battery. I noticed the little charging light below the scroll wheel. It glows red while charging and turns green when the battery is full. It’s a very useful indicator since the menu screen only stays on briefly during charging.
The X5’s rival in my Man Cave is the iBasso DX50. I got it a short time ago and have found it to be rather nice for my needs. The X5 would have to equal or better the DX50 if it was going to pass muster. I also use a Schiit (uber’d) Bifrost DAC and Lyr Amp with Amperex USN-CEP 7308 tubes. For headphones I have the Audeze LCD-2…and on the last day of the evaluation I received a pair of Dunu DN1000 IEMs.
I found the X5 to be well built and comfortable to hold in my hand. It is taller than the DX50 but a little thinner front-to-back. There are four elongated buttons at the 2:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 10:00 positions outside the prominent scroll wheel and center button. The screen is not a touch screen. I like the fact all the jacks for the Headphone-Out, Line-Out, and Coax-Out (SPDIF) are all on the top. I did have some problems with the position of the power switch since I am used to it being on the side of my phone and the DX50. The position of the power switch makes it a little difficult when you have a cable plugged into the Coax Out and need to reactivate the screen. The volume controls are located on the side while the USB port for charging, file transfers, or DAC functionality is on the bottom nestled between two microSD card slot covers. I actually like the covers since they help keep the cruft out of the sockets…and since I ended up loading the X5 up with two 64GB cards I probably wouldn’t have to open the covers that often (of course, YMMV).
The scroll wheel is rather twitchy. It is the main control for navigating through the menus but it is extremely sensitive to small movements, sometimes jumping several options in the menu when I was only trying to move to the next option. It's made worse by the scroll wheel being a bit loose, having some play before connecting with the next underlying contact. It made for a pretty frustrating experience…and to top it off, when spinning the scroll wheel it kept squeaking in one spot. I hope it is just a fluke confined to this one example and not indicative of all players. I think if FiiO reduced the sensitivity of the scroll wheel (perhaps adding a slight delay before switching to the next option), it would be a lot less frustrating. The frustration can be reduced somewhat by being able to use the four front buttons to navigate the menus. However, this brings up a couple of points…
The User Interface (UI):
When I think of a UI, I don’t just consider the menus on a screen but physical buttons and controls on the player. A UI should be fairly intuitive and should not require studying a manual to memorize what a button does. It can make for a very frustrating out-of-box experience for a new user having to operate the controls by trial-and-error. In my opinion, one of the biggest shortcoming of the X5 UI is the lack of control symbols on the front buttons. I really think this can be a major decision factor for people looking to buy based on the appearance of “ease of use”. Not everyone wants to have to “RTFM” (Read…The…F*...err… Manual), instead preferring to just pop in a microSD card and hit play. I deliberately approached this evaluation without consulting the manual unless I got really stuck on navigating the UI (...and yes, I ended up having to cheat and RTFM to learn what physical buttons did).
I really like the screen main menu...It works well with the scroll wheel (at least when the scroll wheel isn’t being twitchy). I also noticed the menu selection rotates opposite the direction of scroll wheel spin which makes scrolling through the menus counter-intuitive. Perhaps if the menu scrolled in the same direction as the scroll wheel, it would significantly reduce some of the perceived “twitchiness” or at least make it easier to adjust to the UI. I found the four physical buttons do allow some menu navigation as well (except scrolling up and down in a sub-menu), but I had to RTFM to discover it. The on-screen menu symbols are pretty intuitive and the sub-menus present all the necessary information (I liked the separate music and player settings menus). I just have a question…how does one go straight back to “Now Playing” after changing a menu setting without having to navigate backwards a step at a time to the main menu? Perhaps having an option that returns you to the “Now Playing” screen after a certain amount of time is in order?
Using the player:
Disclaimer: Remember, I reviewed the X5 with Firmware 1.00. Some of the issues noted will probably be addressed in future updates but the player was reviewed and rated “as is”.
I used two 64GB microSD cards with Flac and MP3 music. I had some initial trouble getting the X5 to recognize the cards after formatting them with my PC. It was easier to format the cards in the X5 and load them with music via the USB-to-microSD card reader. I’m sure it was due more to my ignorance than to any issue with the X5 but it seemed to be the easiest way to load music on the cards. After that, the X5 easily recognized all my folders and tracks.
Selecting and playing music was easy using the directory (folder) menu. I do like the option to choose which microSD card to access but I would also like to see an option where the player indexes both cards and presents all the music folders in a single directory. I would also like to see multiple playlist support and the ability to add music to favorites by folder as well (playlist support is rumored to be coming in a firmware update). Gapless playback is a necessity for me so I enabled it. In Firmware 1.00, the music transition was not smooth with an abrupt transition as if the end of one song and the beginning of the next were clipped and jammed together. I hope this can be addressed in a future firmware revision since it can be a major factor in choosing a DAP.
A note about the sound:
This area will actually be rather short since I find offering impressions of sound quality to be subjective and a matter of great debate in some circles. The only apples-to-apples comparison of the sound quality that I can make is with my iBasso DX50. I received the DX50 with a firmware that left it sounding rather bland and cold. Recently, iBasso released a firmware version that brought the DX50 to life musically...it sounded really good to my ears…until I listened to the X5. I found the X5’s sound to be more full and musical with good extension in the bass and treble and well-rounded mids. I also noticed the background of the X5 was completely silent compared to the DX50 which sounds “airier”, almost as if you can hear the noise floor along with the music. The difference between the two sound signatures is very noticeable with the X5 having the better sound quality. Again, this is all subjective but are my impressions comparing the two. I favor the X5 on sound quality if nothing else…
As an aside, I was asked to try the player with my LCD-2 headphones. The X5 drove them surprisingly well, managing to play them louder than my comfort level...it won’t replace a high-powered amp, but at least it doesn’t suck when the X5 is all you have. I found the X5 paired excellently with the Dunu DN1000 IEMs! I would be perfectly happy having the X5 and DN1000 with me if I ever got stranded on a deserted island (with power ).
I tried out the X5 four different ways…as a player with headphones, as a digital source feeding my Schiit Bifrost DAC and Lyr Amp, as a source/DAC driving my Schiit Lyr Amp, and finally as a standalone USB DAC feeding my Schiit Lyr. The X5 acquitted itself admirably, performing all the functions I required.
Hey, it works! The holes in the silicon cover are too small for large plugs...
As a Digital Source feeding an external DAC/Amp... And as a USB DAC feeding an external Amp...
The display while operating as a DAC... And feeding the LCD-2's...
As a Digital player feeding an external Amp via Line-Out... The X5 and Dunu DN1000...an Excellent Pairing!!
The X5 is a diamond in the rough. With Firmware 1.0 there are User Interface issues that make operating the player less than intuitive and somewhat frustrating. Gapless isn’t correctly implemented (yet), and the menus and shortcuts need some refinement. These, I truly believe, will be addressed in future firmware updates (as I’ve already heard rumor of). Hardware wise, the scroll wheel is a bit loose and there are no control icons on the buttons. These could be fixed in future revisions but might frustrate current users not accustom to “feeling their way around” the controls. While the User's Manual wasn’t completely finished it was excellent in pointing out features and operations but the question is, how many new users want to have to “RTFM” before they can even use a player?
Despite my critiques above, I am looking forward to getting the X5 after it is released in the USA. While I may have to wait for a few firmware revisions as well as “RTFM'ing" before owning an X5, I think in the end it will definitely be worth the investment when I need a DAP or a DAC or a Digital Source or a… I think you get the picture.
My thanks again to James FiiO and Joe Bloggs for the opportunity to evaluate the X5 and offer my impressions.