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Headphone Amplifiers item created by FiiO, Jul 16, 2017
Pros - Potentially Good DAC
Cons - Mediocre Amp Section
This is my review of the Q1 II. There were issues with the line-out which Fiio may resolve. However, this review is based on the unit as it stands. Fiio may issue me with a second unit; if that unit does not display the the same line-out issues as this unit I will update this review to reflect this.
Looking at the pictures of the Q1, I initially thought that it maybe had a small desktop profile and that was its intended demographic; especially considering that it has a completely unprotected volume control. However, on unpacking the unit I was surprised to see just how diminutive it was: approximately 100mm long x 60mm wide x 12mm thick; that's quite a small form factor, ideal for stacking with, say, a DAP (as transport) and external amp, if you just wish to use it as a DAC. I actually quite like this form factor, although the volume control does look vulnerable and will easily get knocked. If you're listening to the on-board amp there is the potential an external nudge to the volume knob could end up temporarily deafening you; a quick removal of the headphones saving the day.
Exterior build quality is good with the casing being made of metal, which I assume to be aluminium, painted in a sheen near black. The front and rear of the unit are plastic and I suspect slide in and out of the metal casing attached to the circuit board in a somewhat similar manner to an external hard drive enclosure.
On/off is achieved by a simple turn of the volume knob to click on, whilst amplifier gain and bass boost is achieved by moving slider switches at the rear of the unit.
There is only one digital input (USB) yet two headphone outputs (balanced and un-balanced); given the quality of the amplifier components, and the target demographic, the balanced headphone output is probably irrelevant. It would have been better to include an extra digital input, coax, say, and dispense with the balanced output altogether.
For this review, my intention with the Q1 is to first listen to the DAC and analogue sections in isolation and give my opinion on each, before listening to the two in tandem and forming an opinion of the unit as a whole. This methodology is important, in my opinion, as I have found that a component which may be only average when viewed as a whole, can excel in one sub-aspect of its performance, i.e., as a DAC or as an amp.
For the DAC section, I will use the Q1's line-out to feed a CI-Audio headphone amp powering a pair of Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro (250 Ohm) Headphones. As a reference I will use Fiios own X3 mk1 (in DAC mode) and also the Chord Mojo in line-out mode. I'm using the X3 as a reference because, although as a DAP it has long been superseded (and had a decidedly average performance as a DAP) it excels as a DAC being a quite capable performer into much more resolving equipment.
For the analogue section I will use the Chord Mojo as DAC feeding the Q1 powering a pair of Sennheiser HD-25 1 IIs. The Q1 should have no problem with the Sennheisers as they are 70 Ohms and assuming the amp specs for the Q1 II are similar to the Q1 I (I haven't been able to find the specs for the Q1 II) that suggests a power output of 87 mW, assuming the output power curve perfectly follows a rectangular hyperbola.
On initially connecting the Q1 to my PC nothing happened, I needed drivers (good old Windows). I visited Fiio's site but only found drivers for the Q1 I. As it happened this was ok and the DAC section of the Q1 II was recognised. I then started my listening. I used Goldwave as my software player and loaded up “I Feel Love” by Donna Summers as my first track: this is an incredibly clever Giorgio Moroder produced track which has the listener surrounded by synths coming in and out of the mix and which, as Donna Summer sings, simulate an, ahem, building climax. Because of the complexity of the music, this track is a good differentiator of a systems ability to communicate macro and micro dynamics as well as resolve instrumental detail. For the first 30-40 seconds I was very impressed at the Q1 II s ability to reproduce this track; the Q1 II's DAC certainly sounded more musically detailed than the X3's. However, I physically moved the Q1 II to a different location on my desk and, as if by magic, the music stopped.
At first I thought tha DAC had lost communication with the PC due to the USB cable briefly disconnecting - via asynchronous USB a loss of communication usually stops the music player, however; the music was still playing. I then worked out that the output from the Q1 IIs line-out had apparently stopped. I plugged my Sennheiser HD 25-1 IIs into the headphone output of the Q1 and found out it, as a unit, was indeed still working.
As I tried to to work out why the output from the line-out was not working I discovered that if I turned up the volume control to full I now got some output, but much attenuated. The line output I was now getting was dependent on the volume control and also influenced by the gain and bass boost switches; the sound quality was also reduced quite substantially, sounding very much like the analogue section of the Q1 II (see later). At this point I suspected I had suffered what I assumed was a hardware failure of the line-out output stage. As I now had very little choice I decided to move on to the analogue output of the Q1 II.
For the amp section I used the Chord Mojo as the DAC and fed it to the line in of the Q1 II; from here I used the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II plugged into the single-ended headphone out. Using the same Donna Summer track the resultant sound was less than impressive, i.e., slightly soft, lacking in micro dynamics and generally a little compressed and bland. The sound from the analogue section of the Q1 II was, remeniscent of that from my Senheiser GSX 1200 Pro gaming DAC amp; nothing to write home about in hi-fi terms.
I briefly connected the Q1 II to my note 3 via USB OTG using both the Sennheiser HD 25-1 IIs and a pair of 1MORE MK801s; I preferred the sound straight out of the Note 3's headphone jack to the Q1 II, it just communicated more of the music in terms of emotion and dynamics.
DAC and AMP Together
Listening to the Q1 II as a whole, DAC and amp using the HD 25-1 IIs, merely underlined what the Q1 II sounded like via the Mojo, namely the analogue output was by far the weakest link and ultimately determining the sound of the combined DAC amp.
If the DAC section is as good as my initial impressions suggested, I would recommend a purchase just for DAC usage in combination with a better amp as those initial few seconds of true line-out sounded very good. Judged as a whole though, and with DAC section line-out on my unit taking on the characteristics of the amp, the Q1 would not be an upgrade to the headphone out of most good smartphones. For desktop/laptop computer use, even if the Q1 II were ~£100, a used Fiio X3 mk 1 or ii would be a much better option as a DAC to a good desktop amp.
I've contacted Fiio's technical support and if I do manage to get the line-out working again, or they send me a revised unit, I will update this review to reflect the listening tests on the DAC.