Pros: Made for great recordings, built like a tank, easy to use
Cons: May be a bit heavy for some users, scroll wheel not as durable as rest of player
The Fiio X5 Pays A Visit To Saigon
I first want to thank James at Fiio and everyone else involved in setting this tour up (especially Joe Bloggs) – it was way cool of you guys to let us have a crack at the X5 before its release and much more satisfying to be a participant as opposed to a spectator, which was always the case in the past for this guy….
Where I’m Coming From
So I’ve been into this hobby for a couple of years now and started out buying a used Cowon J3 in the for sale threads after having an ipod 5.5 and and 4th generation ipod touch. I like the J3 quite a bit because of its battery life, decent though unspectacular sound quality, and stable/more than adequate UI. It’s light as a feather, too, which matters a lot to me since I listen to music nearly daily while driving a moped on my way to work (half hour each way) and elsewhere (Saigon is a veritable sea of mopeds – the streets are teeming with literally millions of them). There simply is no other way for me to keep my sanity intact when driving to work. Exhibit A: (I drive through this intersection nearly every day )
Anyways, I’m not yet a super-discerning know-it-all sommelier of daps (not a conscious goal of mine), but I’m getting that itch to upgrade. I guess I’m your typical newish head-fier with a mild case of upgradeitus who is on somewhat of a budget ( the X5 should retail for $350, depending on your region). Fortunately for me, I was allowed to participate in the SE Asian tour and had the X5 for about a week. Here’s my experience with the X5…
Old-school Build Quality
It is built like a tank and really feels like a substantial piece of kit in my hand, unlike most consumer electronics nowadays. It seems like something designed for field use – its build is that robust. For my own purposes and general use, it is on the heavy side and not ideally-sized for a shirt pocket during my commute (that is where I keep my J3 when on the road). I kept it in my backpack instead, which wasn’t quite annoying, but a bit cumbersome when getting off my bike since my backpack is strapped to my handlebars, facing me. Clearly, this will not be an issue for 99.9% of users. After a couple of commutes, I decided the J3 is better suited for this generally dangerous task since this was, after all, a review unit and not mine (imagine the horror of having to inform Fiio of the demise of a review unit!). Saigon is quite hot, so there never really is a time when one has use for a coat with pockets – I wish I had an occasion to drop it in the inside pocket of a peacoat or something like that…hence, I’m really jealous of people who get to experience 4 seasons. For me, the X5 is more of a coffee shop/office sitting-on-your-tookus dap, which is quite alright since I spend a lot of time planning lessons or reading.
As far as battery life is concerned, I got about 10 hours or so out of it, using a mix of 16/44 and 24/96 files. I thought that I’d be really annoyed by this because of the J3 and its 30+ hours, but it didn’t cause me any problems at all. I knew what to expect, so how could I feel let down? I will say that it does take awhile to fully charge, so you need to be patient. A green indicator light beneath the scroll wheel will show you when it is topped off. Otherwise, the light will be red and blinking. Everybody is in agreement about its storage capability: 2 microSD (256GB maximum capacity) slots is a beautiful thing. There is no on-board memory, but this can be forgiven since they were forward-thinking enough to consider the size of high-res files (typically over 1 GB per album) when deciding on this aspect. Well done, Fiio! Here's a couple of pictures I took of the X5: Camera: Canon S110
In The Box (16.6 X 13 X 4.3cm)
- Micro USB cable: 1 meter, large current Micro USB cable (for charging/data transfer)
- Silicone case: 1 dark gray semi-transparent silicone case (with built-in port covers)
- Coaxial cable
- OTG cable
- Protective film: 2 pieces (plus one already applied to the X5's screen)
- 3.5mm port covers: 3 pieces (very handy to avoid plugging into the wrong port when not using the case)
- User manual
- Warranty card
- Promotion code for HDTracks
Much has been said about the UI and its unintuitiveness relative to other daps, but I didn’t find it particularly challenging to use. After a couple of minutes navigating through the UI, it struck me as a fairly straight forward affair, even before being improved with an update by the good chaps at Fiio (after I sent it to the next tour participant). There are similarities between the UI of the X5 and that of an ipod, but the X5 isn't quite as good. I'm not very picky about this kind of stuff, so I felt that it did its job admirably.
As far as the scroll wheel is concerned, I can’t say that I loved it, but it wasn’t bad. I wish it was more solidly affixed as it had just a wee bit of play and seemed to be slightly flexible (in contrast to the rest of the player, which is as solid as the hammer of Thor). I got used to it fairly quickly and didn’t really give it much thought after that. My experience was that the UI is very stable overall, though it did go a bit screwy on me a couple of times. At one point, the text was completely reversed, an exact mirror image of itself. Turning it off and back on again fixed the glitches each time (I think it happened 3 times over the span of a week), so it didn’t bother me so much as it put a sliver of doubt in my mind about its long term usage. I’m confident that Fiio will make the UI rock solid by the time it is released into the wild (if it isn’t already).
Update: Fiio has released a new version of the firmware with the following improvements:
- DSD support
- USB on-the-go support
- Improved decoding of lossy formats (mp3 / ogg vorbis)
- New UI for file browsing and selection of songs by category
- Other bug fixes related to lock screen and recognition via usb by some computers
Update #2: Fiio has released firmware version 1.2.2 and gapless playback has been successfully implemented.
The brightness of the screen isn’t really sufficient for direct sunlight, but that’s one of the sacrifices that had to be made to keep this thing within reach of more budget-minded audiophiles like myself. In its defense, few if any audio-only devices can adequately cope with the sun in SE Asia (especially in its price range). My J3 has the same issue, but I’ve managed to live with this minor inconvenience for over 2 years now without having a mental breakdown over it.
This thing is way more revealing than the J3. (For the record, I used Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs 3.2, VSonic GR07 MK1s, and UM Miracles CIEMs). There were some albums on my J3 which sound just fine to me that were shown to be less than stellar recordings by the X5, and this is a good thing. Yes, it means you may have to dig around and perhaps pay again to find another version of an album you already love and have to really enjoy it on the X5, but it will be worth the trouble. High-quality recordings were made for the X5 and one that really stood out for me was Paper Airplanes by Alison Krauss & Union Station from HDTracks. With my Mad Dogs plugged directly into the HO of the X5, this album sounded sublime, just crystal clear, non-fatiguing, and full of body. I was near max volume, but I must have mistakenly been on low gain. It didn’t bother me at the time, but I was a bit surprised. I thought I had it on high gain and I’m now 99.9% sure that I was in err. The MDs are a fairly power-hungry set of cans, so rest assured that the amp section of the X5 has enough power to respectably drive a plethora of full-size headphones. Another peach of an album was Whites Off Earth Now! by The Cowboy Junkies (MFSL), which is a collection of old blues songs masterfully reinterpreted, featuring gobs of sub-bass goodness (at least I think it's sub-bass).
Other recordings didn’t sound so great to me; Morning Phase by Beck (24-96 flac from HDTracks) sounded harsh in the highs – not exactly sibilant, but grating (with flat eq setting). On the J3, the same file sounds better though less detailed: The X5 really put a spotlight on a recording's flaws. I used the X5's eq to reduce this and it did do the trick, but I was left hoping and praying that the folks over at MoFi get their well-manicured hands on Morning Phase and give it the same treatment they gave to Sea Change (a much better record imo). Much has been made about the sound quality of Beck’s latest, so I’ll just reemphasize my point about the revealing nature of the X5: garbage in, garbage out (sorry, Mr. Ludwig, but I think you laid an egg). Feed it properly and you’ll be very pleased with the results.
At any rate, the Mad Dogs did sound gorgeous with the X5, and is clearly a better mate than the E17, which is substantially warmer and less revealing. I didn’t bother to stack the X5 and E17 – for better or worse, I just can’t be troubled to lug around a brick during my commute, so I didn’t see the point. I’m probably in the minority, but I just want a dap that can stand on its own two feet (I usually use iems, so this stands to reason in my mind). Those who do prefer to use a separate amp or dac are in luck; the X5 has both a line out and coaxial out, and can also be used in amp/dac mode when hooked up to your computer via usb, which just shows its versatility. Though I would probably only utilize the amp/dac on occasion, it is a player that you can sort of grow into, should you decide to delve into the world of portable amps/dacs. That flexibility right there really makes this a good value relative to other products in its price range.
Regarding how my personal gear paired with the X5, my Miracles and GR07s both sounded very good, but not as good as the full-size Mr. Speakers cans. They needed a bit of eq adjustment to tame the highs with some recordings, as I've mentioned, especially if I wanted to listen at louder volumes (I usually do), which only surprised me in the case of the Miracles. For this reason, I will go out on a limb and recommend iems or full-size cans that are mildly warm-sounding – some have called the X5 neutral to slightly warmish, but my impression is that it’s a bit of a detail monster (in a very good way with the right headphones). As always, YMMV…anybody who has been following the threads will know that most people have had a notably different experience from mine, so I may be the exception here.
Final Deep Thoughts
For those of you with a dap that sits in the entry-level to lower-mid tier, and also have your first confirmed case of upgradeitus, I think you need to give the X5 a long look. Yes, it’s heavier than average, but it is built to withstand Armageddon, has a fairly powerful amp section, is easy to use, and can hold up to 256gb of music (128gb MicroSD cards are now available if you hadn’t noticed). It will play nearly every file type under the sun and you can go high-res if you like, all the way up to 24/192. It doesn’t look very sexy, but like me, you just want something that is dependable and sounds great. Just ponder for a moment what you're after, how you’ll be using it on a day-to-day basis and consider your options. Fiio has made an excellent player here and it should be on your shortlist. Also, they deserve heaps of credit for really listening to their customer base to find out what people want; they do a remarkable job of delivering features that there is demand for and the X5 is evidence of this. If you want to hear it for yourself, they've reopened the tour (http://www.head-fi.org/t/696004/fiio-x5-preview-world-tour-re-opened-for-application-p-114/1725#post_10392960), so depending on where you live, you may be able to audition this fine piece of ear candy.
If you want to read up on all of the vital stats, like size, weight, output impedance, etc., here's a link to Fiio that has everything you need to know in one place: http://fiio.com.cn/products/index.aspx?ID=100000055517771&MenuID=105026016
A couple of parting shots...