Pros: Great instrument separation, simple GUI, dual microSD cards, fast music library update, library and file directory browsing
Cons: Fatiguing for me, hallway-like soundstage, coloured sound, cluncky UI, large size, protective relay, crashes, really slow battery charging
Since Head-Fi's detail section does not represent the scores of the reviewer, but rather the community average, here are my scores based on the 10 days that I actively used the unit (2014/02/10 - 2014/02/19):
Audio Quality: 3/5
Battery Life: 3.5/5
User Interface: 2.5/5
Overall Rating: 3.2/5
Now let's get into the details of these details.
At $350 USD, this device offers a lot for the price. What's a lot?
Here's what's in the package:
- Hard storage box
- X5 unit with screen protector pre-installed
- Soft silicone sleeve/case
- MicroSD card USB reader
- Male microUSB - male USB cable
- Short male 3.5 mm - female RCA coaxial cable
- Short male 3.5 mm - male 3.5 mm cable
- 2 x extra screen protectors
- 3 x 3.5 mm plugs
- HD Tracks coupon card
- Warranty card
- Quick-start user manual
- X5 button layout card (I did not see this in the touring unit package though)
That's a ton of stuff bundled with the device. Will people even use half of these? Probably not, but they're nice to have handy and it adds to the value of the package.
What else does the X5 offer?
- Portable media player
- USB external soundcard
- MicroSD card reader
For what it's worth, the X5 offers a lot at $350 and the overall package is well- and competitively-priced.
4/5 (Great) for Value
My Testing Rigs (Click to show)
FiiO X5 (with 64 GB SanDisk microSD Class 10 card) -> AKG K 701 (8-bump headband), Audeze LCD-X (touring unit), MEElectronics M9-BK, MrSpeakers Alpha Dog with Obedience Kit (touring unit), Sennheiser CX-300, or V-MODA Crossfade M-100
FiiO X5 (with 64 GB SanDisk microSD Class 10 card) -> FiiO L2 -> FiiO E12, JDS Labs C5, C5D, or Objective 2 -> AKG K 701 (8-bump headband), Audeze LCD-X (touring unit), MrSpeakers Alpha Dog with Obedience Kit (touring unit), or V-MODA Crossfade M-100
This is a quality of the X5 that seemed weird to me. Everyone else, or pretty much everyone else, seems to like the X5's sound and that it's "the greatest thing since sliced bread." My experience with the X5 is that it sounds okay, but nothing amazing.
In short, I heard:
- a bumped-up mid-bass response that sounded a bit boomy
- excellent warm lower-midrange
- fatiguing upper-midrange/lower-treble
- slight roll-off in the treble that makes it sound soft
- deep soundstage that isn't very wide
- great instrument separation
- imaging seems off
- good detail retrieval
In general, I listen for the overall sound signature before analyzing the technicalities and the X5 doesn't sound transparent to me. It has a warm sound overall that may be a bit thick, and there's something with the upper-midrange/lower-treble region that makes the X5 sound fatiguing to my ears and is a deal-killer for me in that regard. I'm not going to lie and say that the X5's audio quality is good if I have to take breaks from listening to the device due to fatigue, no matter what headphone or earphone I used. No other portable media player I've tried has this effect on me. The soundstage wasn't particularly wide, more so deep, so imaging seemed off to me and it was weird having the effect of listening to the music half-way into in a concert hall instead of the front-row, or on the stage as the conductor.
Using the line-out feature of the X5, it turns out that the amplifier portion of the X5 causes the fatigue issue for me since I no longer had those painful listening experiences. The DAC portion seems to add some warmth to the sound since I was hearing more mid-bass than I typically do. On the other hand, pairing the large X5 with an external amplifier seems impractical for being used as a portable media player.
What is this fatiguing sound I hear? It's hard to completely describe, but I was in a 2014 Subaru Forester the other day and I heard the same kind of sound from the speaker system. Female vocals, and really anything in the upper-midrange frequencies, sound really harsh, shouty, strident, or hard on my ears, almost as if dynamics of those instruments are being compressed and/or the system has a hard time reproducing those sounds accurately. They just really hurt my ears and I had to cover my ears or speaker to dampen the effect. It's one thing to have it happen to X speaker or Y headphone, but I had the experience with all headphones I used with the X5 (AKG K 701 (8-bump headband), Audeze LCD-X (touring unit), MEElectronics M9-BK, MrSpeakers Alpha Dog with Obedience Kit (touring unit), Sennheiser CX-300, or V-MODA Crossfade M-100). None of my other portable media players, amplifiers, nor DACs reproduce this effect.
Figure 1 - A depiction of me in anime form reacting to the X5's fatiguing sound
As for headphone pairings, I think the X5's sound worked the best with the Audeze LCD-X (touring unit). It sounded okay with the Alpha Dog with Obedience Kit (touring unit), but it wasn't optimal and the narrow soundstage of the X5 made it sound weird and off. I use the Crossfade M-100 as my main portable headphone in my portable rig, and the fatiguing upper-midrange/lower-treble was definitely not a good pairing with it, especially if I plan to listen to louder volume levels due to ambient background noise. I'd like to keep my hearing intact thank you. My two earphones aren't a good pairing with the X5 either because the "kill switch" effect will activate (more in the "Design" section).
Overall sound quality is okay, but a non-transparent sound and especially the listening fatigue are a big no-no for me.
3/5 (Okay) for Audio Quality
Figure 2 - A beauty shot of the X5 (credit goes to lugia862)
The main body of the X5 is absolutely superb. It's made of a single solid piece of metal and it reminds me of an aluminum unibody MacBook. When I first picked up the X5, I noticed how heavy it is. It's quite heavy and it feels like picking up a portable external hard drive (or at least a 500 GB OWC Mercury On-The-Go one). I have small hands and the weight and wide body of the X5 almost feel uncomfortable to me when handling it with one hand. It's like having a super heavy Samsung Galaxy SIII in your hand (actually the width dimensions are very similar: 67.6 mm for the X5, 70.6 mm for the SIII).
Figure 3 - Size comparison between the iPod 5G, JDS Labs C5D, and FiiO X5
What's disappointing to me is that the body of the X5 feels rock-solid, but the buttons and mechanical wheel feel quite cheap. In the end, these moving parts are probably going to get the most use and thus wear-and-tear over time instead of the body. I'll expand on this more in the "User Interface" section, but the X5's front-panel buttons are raised from the main body instead of being flush and they're easy to push/activate. This is not very convenient to have in your pocket since accidental button presses will occur.
Figure 4 - Note the raised buttons
I use portable media players in my left hand. Why my left hand? Headphones typically have the cable running down from the left earcup, and the portable media player consequently ends up in my left pocket (it's annoying to have the cable cross your body to go into a right pocket). That in combination with my small hands makes handling the X5 an awkward task. The skip track and previous track buttons are near the bottom of the unit (this is poor placement considering it's far from the center of mass) and the back button is on the top-right of the wheel (making it awkward to reach with your left hand).
Moving on to the X5's mechanical wheel, the wheel has steps (or clicks) when it rotates. Although having a stepped wheel is not a problem for me, the problem is that these steps seem very worn down; like when you have one of those long retractable erasers and the plastic steps wear down. This results in a very unresponsive and inaccurate user experience (more in the "User Interface" section). To add to that, the wheel is loose and for some reason, sticky if it hasn't been in use for some time (more on this in the "User Interface" section). To make matters worse, the wheel has very little grip with your fingers. The wheel's surface has a smooth, matte, soft-rubber/plastic feeling like the 2013 Nexus 7 tablet computer. This is problematic because you have to dig into the wheel to get a good grip on it, and upon spinning the wheel, you can feel it rubbing against whatever is right behind it. A patterned/texture surface like this early mock-up would have been much better in my opinion:
Figure 5 - Note the textured/patterned surface on the scroll wheel
Now it looks like this:
Figure 6 - Note the smooth surface on the scroll wheel
On second thought, it looks like the textured/patterned wheel was actually in an earlier prototype. Sad face.
Figure 7 - A photo of the X5 before the current iteration of design
Though I didn't really mind too much, the center button is activated in the very middle of the circle. If you press the button along the outer portions of the circle, it feels unresponsive and more effort is needed to press it than if you had just pressed the button in the very center.
The microSD card rubber/plastic doors are hard to access and it took me a while to get them open the first time around. Counterintuitively, you should push the door parallel to the X5's bottom instead of trying to pry it open.
Figure 8 - Showing how you should, and should not, try to open the microSD card door
http://fiio.com.cn/products/index.aspx?ID=100000055517771&MenuID=105026016 (modified by me)
The screen of the X5 itself is just fine. Text is reasonably sharp and it's easy enough to read complex characters in Asian fonts such as traditional Chinese (無賴-許哲珮 for example: http://www.hifitrack.com/zh-hant/node/6359). The weird thing about the screen though is that it has a large black bezel surrounding it. Because of this, the screen appears smaller than what it looks like it can display under the glass, and it looks a bit disproportionate to me considering the wide body of the X5.
The X5 uses a protective relay to prevent damage to either the headphones or the unit itself. While this is probably a good thing to have, my experience with the X5's relay has been more of a miss than a hit. For instance, if the X5 is in my jacket pocket and nothing is touching it, nor the cable of the headphone/earphone, the headphone cable can rub against the jacket's fabric and create the well-known staticky sound. This has happened to both of the earphones I have at hand and every time I've done this, the X5 goes into an emergency "kill switch" mode and everything on the X5 shuts off. I need to use a pin to hit the reset button to get the X5 to even turn on again. When this happened to me for the first time, I thought the battery died. Upon using a friend's portable battery charger for about 20 minutes, the X5 still didn't turn on and I had to use a toothpick from a restaurant to reset it. Talk about having a heart attack with a touring review unit...
This is extremely inconvenient for any user, especially if you plan to use these while doing anything outside in a true portable situation. I often speed-walk to my next class at school and this portable media player would be utterly useless to me if it keeps hitting the "kill switch" every time my earphones get into contact with my jacket's fabric. I didn't have this problem with the Crossfade M-100 on the other hand, so I'm not sure what the problem is.
Design of the body is nice, but the main operating buttons feel cheap and are oddly placed. It doesn't look all that ugly in-person, but it does have that retro-look to it, which I like.
3/5 (Okay) for Design
There's not much to explain here, but I did a battery drain/charging test on the X5 unit before handing it off to the next person in the tour.
For my battery drain test, I tried to emulate a worst-case (or just a bad) scenario for music playback:
- High gain
- Volume level 96/120
- Replaying a 2:41 DR21 24/96 FLAC file (track 3: http://www.hdtracks.com/dr-chesky-s-sensational-fantastic-and-simply-amazing-binaural-sound-show-133068)
- AKG K 701 (8-bump headband) connected to the headphone out port
- Wrapped in a towel to simulate being in a poorly-ventilated coat pocket
- Less than 30 seconds of the screen being turned on
- Turned on/off the player twice (I had to do 2 sessions)
From this test, I got around 10.5 hours of battery life from the X5. It's not too bad, but it's not great either. I'd say it's about average for a portable media player.
The battery charging on the other hand took quite a long time to fully charge, which was shocking to me. I went to bed about 30 minutes after the battery depleted and left it charging via USB for about 4 hours. I woke up and the battery still wasn't fully charged, so I charged it periodically throughout the day at school. In the end, it took around 9 hours to fully charge (the LED indicator turned green). That's a ridiculous amount time if you only have a USB port at hand.
Raw Approximate Draining and Charging Times (Click to show)
Charging: 2:40-7:10, 10:40-11:20, 12:20-14:20, 15:20-17:30
The X5 has an average battery life, but it takes nearly the same amount of time to fully charge it as it does to drain.
3.5/5 (Good) for Battery Life
The user interface (the interactions between the user, hardware, and software) is generally acceptable. The graphical user interface is navigational and things work reasonably well. Heck, they even have the full user manual in the settings, how cool is that? On the other hand, there are a bunch of problems I have with the X5 that all add up and prevent it from being a great or excellent user experience.
Right when you boot-up the X5, you're presented with a boot animation that lasts about 5 seconds total. This isn't problematic, but I would prefer a quicker boot time since I want to listen to my music as soon as possible.
After the boot animation, you're presented with the main menu of the X5. It looks nice and all, but when you rotate the wheel in one direction, the icons change in the opposite direction. This is a pretty well-documented issue and even after 10 days of active use, I couldn't get used to it. The center highlight remains static while the icons are dynamic/change. In other words, you control the direction the icons move.
Figure 9 - Home screen of the X5
One would think that if you wanted to get to the heart icon (for a favourite playlist) in Figure 9, then you would rotate the wheel counter-clockwise (moving the dynamic icon up from the bottom into the static highlighted area). Upon doing that, you actually go to the folder icon above the music icon, the exact opposite direction you wanted the icons to go.
Still on the topic of the mechanical wheel, as described, it feels like it has worn down steps. This creates some problems with the user interface since you may scroll 2 or 3 worn down steps, and the graphical user interface only registers 1 step (the "worn down scroll wheel" problem is, according to James, actually a firmware problem that will be fixed). This makes navigation inaccurate, which is absolutely key for me when using a portable media player: I want an accurate mapping of my actions on the hardware side to the graphical user interface in the software. Additionally, when I left the X5 alone for some time and came back to move the wheel, the wheel stuck on me and it was stiff for the first few steps. I have no idea why this would happen, but it was annoying when using the X5 as an external USB soundcard and I used the wheel to adjust the volume.
Speaking of the X5 as a USB soundcard, you can't adjust the digital volume from your computer; all volume is controlled with the X5 (the DAC volume should be adjustable from the computer if you're using a PC). Also, the screen of the X5 stays on when you have it connected to your computer. I worry about this because I have a FiiO E7 and the screen is burned in (the E7's display never turns off either). One, this is annoying to have in the dark because you have a display that's always on and you don't even look at it most of the time. Two, sometimes when disconnecting the X5 from your computer, the screen stays on even after removal and a reboot is required to get it working again. This is inconvenient if I just want to unplug the X5 from my computer after charging and use it right away. Still talking about using the X5 as a USB soundcard, I wish the wheel would always be active for volume control. It gets irritating having to hit the volume buttons on the side of X5, or press and hold the center button, to activate the volume adjustment menu just to change the volume by a few units.
If you plan to use the X5 as a portable media player, the physical media buttons don't work nearly as well as I thought they would. In "Lock Mode 1," the media buttons are inactive when the X5's display is off and you have to hit the hold/power button every time you want to use the volume/playback buttons. In "Lock Mode 2," the media buttons are always active when the the X5's display is off. While "Lock Mode 2" may seem to be the logical choice to use when you have the X5 in your pocket, this is actually not very practical at all since the previous track/next track buttons protrude out from the X5's main body and are thus very easy to accidentally activate. This happened to me way too many times and I thought the X5 was just acting up. In addition, in this mode, the previous track button actually goes to the previous track, instead of restarting the song like in every other media player I have ever used.
It doesn't matter to me at all, but the speed at which the X5 updates your music library is actually pretty fast, which is a good thing. On the other hand, the media library itself has poor organisation. It basically only sorts music by song, album, artist, or music genre. Once you go into those categories and select an artist, album, or music genre of your choice, every song with that tag listed in alphabetical order by filename, not even the track name (e.g. 01 Fearless, 01 Mine, 01 State of Grace if sorting by the artist Taylor Swift). This again is a well-documented issue and this type of organisation is generally not useful for the user. Fortunately I don't have to deal with this since I browse all of my files by folder directory, which the X5 does support. However, all files are displayed in the X5's directory mode, including those pesky hidden files that Mac OS X creates on external drives. If you try to play one of these hidden files, the X5 displays a popup message saying that it can't play it and move on to the next file about 3 seconds later.
Regardless of whether or not these hidden files affect the X5's media playback, I had playback issues with the X5. Sometimes the X5 would randomly stop playing half-way through a song and would lock-up the entire device. A reboot is required to get it functioning again.
Figure 10 - Both the original media files and the hidden "._" files created by Mac OS X are displayed in the X5's file directory browsing mode (http://elyonbeats.bandcamp.com/album/museum)
Video 1 - The X5 froze-up on me while playing a 16-bit/44.1 kHz Apple Lossless file during a bus ride (http://www.yesasia.com/us/jay-chou-2007-world-tour-concert-live-2cd/1010040628-0-0-0-en/info.html)
Unfortunately I wasn't able to diagnose the problem in this case. When I re-formatted the microSD card, I did so in order to update the X5's firmware, so either one of those variables may have been the problem. In terms of upgrading the firmware from version 1.00 to 1.10, the differences were pretty minimal. The only differences I found were that the X5's display turns on if you press any button when the display is off (showing a message along the lines of "you must press the power button to use the X5"), and the track scrubber moved a lot faster, too fast for accurate track scrubbing.
Although my native language is English, FiiO did translate the X5 in 7 different languages (Chinese (traditional and simplified), English, Japanese, Korean, French, German, and Spanish), which is nice to have.
On another note, the battery indicator only has bars (e.g. 3 bars of battery). I would prefer to see a numerical value because I can get a quick and relatively accurate reading of the X5's battery life (e.g. 62% battery instead of 3 bars for a range of values).
The user interface as a whole is usable, which is acceptable, but the myriad of problems makes it a frustrating experience.
2.5/5 (Acceptable) for User Interface
Evidently, my honest experiences and impressions of the X5 are pretty much the opposite of others'. Yes I'll probably be alienated because of this polarising review, and yes my review will just be a grain of salt in the larger pile, but I wanted to explain my experiences with the X5, and write an honest review. In short, I wasn't really impressed by the X5 at all and I thought it had more annoyances than enjoyable things. The X5 is okay for being an all-in-one solution of having a portable media player and a portable USB soundcard combo, and this is a great value in that regard, but I encountered waaaaaaay too many problems with it that ultimately prevent me from recommending this to anyone without trying it first. Even if the sound quality was beyond awesome, the user interface is definitely not something I would like to deal with again. On the other hand, there are people out there who don't care about the user interface at all and only care about the sound quality. Perhaps the X5 is right for you then.
Fortunately, FiiO has acknowledged some of these user interface issues and is working on some fixes for future firmware updates. However, until those are officially released, my experiences with firmwares 1.00 and 1.10 still stand. Unfortunately, the stock sound is pretty much locked in place via hardware unless changes are made in the firmware, so my sonic impressions of the X5 are more or less set in stone.
You might say that my touring review unit was defective, or that I broke it somehow (this was actually suggested in the X5 tour thread...). While that could have been the case during the time I had with the X5, the users before and after me in the tour have written glowing reviews for it, so I don't think that was the case for me.
With that, I am still very thankful to FiiO for allowing me to try this, and I'm glad that I did get the opportunity to try it. I would also like to thank you, the reader, for taking the time to read through this very lengthy review! I really do hope this review helps a person or two.
Note: Text in red are corrections made by Joe Bloggs of FiiO