A lot of people are asking how the X3 and the DX compare. Since I have both, I thought I would post some quick impressions. Please note that I intentionally did not title this a “review,” as I haven’t used either of these units long enough to do them justice. I’ve had the X3 since it was first released in the US (through Miccastore) about a month ago and the DX50 (first batch) for only a few days. I honestly expected there to be a clear and obvious winner between the two, but that really isn’t the case. The two units are more different than they are alike. I’ll try to divide my impressions into categories below for ease of reading:
The DX50 has the edge here. Upon first receiving the X3, I have to admit that I was disappointed that the build quality isn’t even close to the quality of my E17. I realize James told us in advance that the X3 design is several years old (it was put on hiatus for over a year due to subcontractor supply problems) and that we should not expect more up-to-date E17-like build quality, but I still felt the disappointment. The E17’s beautiful brushed aluminum case is sublime. The quality of the case is first-rate and it feels like it was milled from a solid aluminum block. Not so with the X3. From a distance, the X3 appears to be built like the E17, but that is only in appearance. The case is actually plastic, and not particularly sturdy feeling plastic either. There are thin sheets of brushed aluminum bonded to the top and bottom to give the appearance of an aluminum case, but once you hold it in your hand, the illusion ends there. I don’t think it would survive even a short fall onto a concrete floor very well. I keep my X3 is in the silicone sleeve at all times. It is a bit weird looking, but I feel much more comfortable with some protection.
In comparison, the DX50 is more than a bit better. While still nowhere near the quality of the E17’s construction, the DX50 just feels more solid. The plastic body is much thicker, better finished, and feels more durable. There is also more (and thicker) aluminum used in the outer shell. The DX50 feels more solid in the hand, and it would probably survive an accidental drop better than the X3.
The UIs of these two devices couldn't be more different. The DX50's UI is Android based, and largely dependent on its touch screen. The X3's UI uses only physical buttons and is a ground up design, designed in house by FiiO. As a result, FiiO's UI was a much bigger undertaking for a such small company. Using an already existing operating system like Android as a starting point has to be far less challenging and far less expensive. Of course, basing a UI on Android also comes with all of Android's faults (like the touch screen). I suspect FiiO considered a custom design a good investment because the X3's UI is being used as a design launching pad for the upcoming X5 model. FiiO has also stated that when ready, the X5 UI will be released for the X3 as well. Considering how well the X3's UI works, it's a massive achievement, and a great success, for FiiO.
Both units were released with some significant firmware bugs. The DX50’s firmware is still a complete mess, but to be fair, it’s only been on the market for less than two weeks. I’m sure the firmware will improve and eventually catch up with the X3, but there’s no way to know how long that will take.
Like every Chinese DAP I’ve used before, the X3 UI’s fatal flaw is with gapless playback. In the X3, gapless playback is dependent entirely on ID3 tags. So if your files have no ID3 tags, the X3 cannot play them gapless at all. The only way the X3 will play gapless is if (a) the files have ID3 tags with sequential track numbers, and (b) the files are played back through the X3’s Category/Album menu. The X3 cannot play any files (even those with ID3 tags) gapless through its file browser menu. Even when playing files with ID3 tags through the Category/Album menu, X3 will occasionally insert gaps between the files. This, however, is supposed to be corrected shortly via a new firmware upgrade.
The X3’s inability to play gapless through the file browser is really unfortunate. I always prefer to use a simple file browser on a DAP. James has admitted in the X3 thread that making gapless playback dependent on the ID3 tags was a design error, and he has stated that the X3’s UI will be redesigned to allow gapless playback even without ID3 tags. I believe those UI changes are being made as part of the development of FiiO’s upcoming X5, and they may not be ready until 2014. At any rate, this is great news and it will make the X3 are far more useful player when those upgrades are implemented.
Putting aside the gapless playback issue, the X3’s UI is actually quite good. It’s not as good as Rockbox, of course, but it’s probably the best stock UI I’ve ever used on a DAP. The only other major issue with it is that the control buttons are just in the wrong positions. The quirky positioning of the buttons takes a very long time to get used to, and I doubt I’ll ever be completely comfortable with the button placement. I have no idea why FiiO didn’t arrange the buttons in a simple, intuitive, up-down-left-right configuration with an “Enter” button in the middle. The X3’s layout is completely counterintuitive and you constantly find yourself hitting the wrong button as a result.
In comparison, the DX50’s UI is very different. The button layout is better. Physical buttons for volume up/down are on the right side of the unit, and there are three buttons on the front panel: Previous track, Play/Pause, and Next track, properly positioned from left to right. The problem is that not all of the DX50’s functions can be accessed with the physical buttons. Unfortunately, the UI is Android/touch screen based, and in order to navigate through your music library you must use the touch screen interface. It is only after you have selected the folder you want to play that you can use the physical buttons to start/stop playback, switch tracks, and adjust the volume. The DX50’s touch screen is a bit too sensitive and a bit buggy, but those issues will assuredly be fixed in future firmware updates. The real problem, and something I learned very quickly with the DX50, is that touch screens are just a really bad idea on a DAP. By its nature a touch screen requires you to be looking at the screen in order to use it. This makes the DAP almost useless in situations where you cannot devote your attention to the screen. Driving is the most obvious example. The line outs on both the X3 and DX50 are perfect for a car audio system with a proper Line In jack, and the high output of those line outs is exactly what a car audio system needs. Unfortunately, with its touch screen, the DX50 just isn’t practical to use while driving. In fact, it’s downright dangerous.
Other than the issues with the touch screen, which may come down to personal preference, there are many good things about the DX50’s UI. First and foremost, gapless playback seems to work very well. It is not dependent on ID3 tags like the X3, so even untagged files will play gapless, even in file browser mode. At this point, it’s hard to say much more about the UI because it’s still so buggy. As of firmware version 1.0, tracks with special characters (including the apostrophe, of all things) will not play at all, tracks will sometimes play out of sequence for no apparent reason, album art sometimes won’t work, etc. As I stated previously, I prefer to use the file browser at all times on a DAP, and that appears to function well. However, category playback under Artist or Album is a complete mess. My DX50 reads less than 10% of the files on my microSD card under Artist and Album. I’ll assume it’s a firmware bug that will be corrected in the future.
In the end, I have to say the X3’s UI has the edge. Assuming FiiO corrects the gapless playback issues, the X3 UI will be the clear winner, and second only to Rockbox. While I applaud iBasso getting gapless playback to work correctly on the DX50, even ignoring all the firmware bugs, I have a hard time getting past the DX50’s touch screen. I don’t understand what purpose a touch screen serves on a DAP. It was a nice sales gimmick on consumer devices five years ago, but I’ll always take physical buttons over a touch screen.
I’m going to keep these comments short because I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time with either unit to make definitive impressions. I will say that while both units produce excellent sound, their sound signatures are very different. The X3’s bass is a bit boosted for me. I’ve experienced this with all of my headphones and through the lineout. The mid bass is an area I’m very sensitive to, and with most recordings I do notice it right away on the X3. The DX50, in comparison, is more neutral. Many DX50 owners have reported treble “sparkle” and listener fatigue as a result. I have to admit that I’ve experienced none of that. I would describe the DX50’s sound as “polite.” Some recordings, especially certain rock recordings, can sound a bit tame and too laid back. Others, however, sound quite good. It’s really hard to choose a winner between them based on sound quality. If the X3 didn’t have the bass bump, it would be my preference. If the DX50 sounded a bit more alive and engaging, it would be my preference.
Accessories and Packaging
The X3 wins no contest. FiiO has always been amazing when it comes to included accessories. The X3 came with just about every accessory you could ever imagine needing. Right out of the box, there was a screen protector already applied to the screen (thank you), with two extra ones included as well. A strange looking but very useful silicone sleeve is also included, along with a coax output cable, a standard USB cable, and a basic user manual. Everything is packed in a handsome sturdy cardboard box with slick but elegant graphics on the outside and separate compartments on the inside for the X3 and the cables.
There is a lot of fawning over the DX50’s packaging in the DX50 appreciation thread, and in my opinion, most of it is unjustified. The DX50 is packed in an elegant looking, but very thin and flimsy cardboard box. Included inside with the DX50 is a coax output cable, one screen protector, a USB cable, and a useless velvet pouch. No silicone sleeve is included, and there is no user manual, printed or electronic. Some kind of user manual would have been appreciated, as would a couple of extra screen protectors. Seriously, where are you going to find extra screen protectors for a DX50 if you need them in the future?
Then again, compared to the mass market consumer DAPs, both of these Chinese companies are being very generous. I haven’t seen a portable consumer music player with a free carrying case included since the late 1980s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a consumer product include a free screen protector. Why include one? – it’s a great opportunity to make an extra five bucks off the consumer!
It’s a close call, but at this point, with the currently available firmware, I would have to lean toward the X3. While the X3’s gapless playback issue is annoying, the fact is that it does work as long as your files have ID3 tags. Its bass bump is unfortunate as well, but I suppose it could be minimized with the right headphones, or perhaps even some EQ. The DX50’s firmware is such a mess right now that it’s hard to consider it a completed product. The X3, in comparison, is now wonderfully stable under normal use. As a result, I don’t see the DX50 being worth an extra $60 just to get a more neutral, albeit a bit too polite, sound when you factor in all the firmware bugs. That said, things could certainly change in the near future. The DX50 will certainly have many more firmware updates in the coming weeks, and DX100 owners previously reported changes in its sound signature through firmware updates. Likewise, along with better gapless support, FiiO has many upgrades planned for the X3, including DSD playback, USB OTG, and possibly even USB DAC support.
Another factor to consider is that the price gap between the two models will most likely only grow wider. The “street price” of FiiO products tends to go down as the product ages. FiiO has much wider distribution and sells larger quantities than iBasso. That means there is more competition among authorized dealers, and therefore more incentive to discount prices. Since iBasso’s products are generally sold only web direct, there is little reason for iBasso to offer discounts. As a result, before long, the price gap could be closer to $100 than the current $60.
Edited by jj69 - 9/18/13 at 8:54pm