Cons - Needs the A5 amp to power high impedance cans, UI lags at times even on simple operations, battery doesn’t last as long as advertised.
Ngoshawk generously loaned me his Fiio X5iii to compare with my other DAPs including previous generation X5s. I was not compensated in any way for this review and the player goes back to Ngoshawk when I am finished with it and the other toys he sent. Also, worth noting, I don’t have notes on the unboxing or accessories as I did not unbox a new player.
I knew before the X5iii arrived that it was a complete departure from the previous versions so direct comparisons would not be possible. The New X5 is an android based touch screen controlled DAP. Gone are the scroll wheel and simplified music-player only IU of the gen 2. To be sure, at $399, I expected a big change from previous generations as the price tag has inched up higher with this generation of the X5.
The X5iii is a solid steel chassis with solid heft. I could find no detectable flex in the case or screen. The corners are smoothed for pocket carry with a slight raise on the left side to protect the volume knob. The new 4” touchscreen looks to be exactly the same screen used on the X7 and is a huge improvement over the previous generations but well behind most android phones. (See screen discussion for more on this). Inside, 32gb ram (26 usable) gives the player enough capacity to use without having to purchase Micro-SD cards for basic users if they intend to use the Music Only mode. If you intend to use the full android interface, I’d suggest saving the internal capacity for application storage as it runs out pretty quickly and most phones these days have at least 64gb if not 128 internal. While 32gb is great for a DAP, it is only mediocre when comparing to other android devices. Same goes for the processor, the use of a Cortex-A9 is a big increase over previous generations, but is a step below most current android devices. The A9 is a 2014 chip and its age shows when compared with modern snap dragon processors.
My first thought when I looked at the X5 was oh no, another touch screen dap but I am happy to report that nearly all the controls can be handled by physical buttons. This is huge to me as I commonly use a DAP in a pocket and adjusting volume and switching tracks without having to look at the dap is a requirement for me. If I have to stop what I am doing and look at the DAP, it is a huge distraction and time waster and not something I can tolerate. The buttons on the X5 are tucked in nicely so at first glance one could miss them. Playback controls split the volume knob on the left panel while the right panel has a single button that operates as a power button, a screen on/off button, and a charging indicator. The power button is recessed to avoid accidental contact. Gloved hands may have some problems as the button is fairly small and there is no tactile click when operating it. Dual Micro SD slots sit below the power button on the right side.
The top is clean with all inputs and outputs now on the bottom of the player. Again, with me using my DAPs in a pocket a lot of the time, I prefer all the I/O to be on one end or the other rather than some on both as cables become a problem when using an external amp. The X5/A5 combination with the stacking kit and a JDS Labs micro 3.5mm cable between the two is a nice convenient package for in pocket use.
I mentioned earlier that the screen was a big improvement over previous generations, and it is. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it is great. I don’t think it is all that much of a stretch to expect an android digital audio device to be able to playback music videos with reasonable quality. Between the aging processor and 480x800 pixel resolution, the X5 is no match for even last generation flagship telephones like my HTC M9 and the iPhone 6s. Both phones sport a 1080x1920 hi-res display that makes watching videos a lot more realistic. I would expect the next generation X7 to sport a 1920x1080 display since this X5 now has the same display as the current X7. The positive points on the screen are: it does have a good viewing angle and excellent color. The screen is clearer than a lot of capacitive touchscreens and doesn’t have the milky appearance of some tempered glass screens used on recent tablets and phones.
The X5 sports a 3400mAh lithium polymer cell that is not user accessible. The math suggests this should provide 9.6 hours of battery life but in practice I was only able to get about 7 hours. This may be in part to how the backlight is configured, which apps are running in the background, use of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. My guess is the 10-hour claim is when used in Pure player mode without Bluetooth enabled. Realistically, I’d expect 6-7 hours which is still quite respectable for an android device. It is worth noting that the battery type used in the X5 does not develop a memory so is best charged after each use rather than running the battery all the way down between charges. Expect the battery to last between 500 and 1000 charge cycles before needing replacement. Deep discharge will result in that number being lower while shallow charge/discharge cycles may prolong it beyond 1000 cycles. Watch for heat as a sign of battery decay and the need for replacement. The X5 does offer rapid charging which is nice for those on the go but will also result in fewer charge cycles before failure of the battery. When not in a hurry, it is best to charge at the standard 1A rate rather than opting for the quick charge.
Inputs and Outputs
The bottom of the X5 has a 3.5mm stereo unbalanced headphone output on the far left, a 2.5mm balanced output immediately to the right of the unbalanced output, and a 3.5mm fixed line-out/coaxial output on the far right. In the center is the micro-USB port. As most tablets, phones, and laptops move to USB C, Fiio again opted for the last generation Micro-USB. The good news is USB C is backward compatible to micro-USB and cables are cheap so no great loss. Wireless outputs are provided by Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX. Pairing is standard android and works as expected.
The X5 Wi-Fi works well but appears to be 2.4ghz only as my 5ghz networks were not detected by the X5. This limits the speed of the wireless to Class N as AC is not implemented. The good news is this opens up all kinds of streaming options to X5 users. Tidal was installed on the X5 I tested and it worked well. DLNA is also an option if you install an android app and would let you use your X5 connected directly to your music library. For those with a NAS and an internet connection this gives you the ability to connect to your library from anywhere. That alone may be enough to sell the X5 to some users.
The android version on the X5 is android 5 so it is a couple generations behind current flagships but it should be noted that few phones are actually running the most recent version of android and that being at least one generation behind is commonplace even for flagship devices. Android 5 does provide a stable well tested environment with good application compatibility. OTA upgrades to applications and the OS itself make upgrades much easier than earlier versions and hopefully Fiio will maintain a common codebase between the X5 and X7 so changes to applications will be pushed down to the X5 as newer versions are released for later products.
I’ve mentioned a lot about android in this review but it should be noted that those who don’t want to fiddle with android the X5 sports two shell options. I have seen other comments on the X5 that speak of multiple boot modes but this simply is not the case. The Kernel is android regardless of which mode you choose, the difference is the shell loaded over the top of that Kernel. One Shell is the typical Android, the other is called Pure Music Mode.
If booted to pure music mode, the system hides all other applications and runs only as a music player. Users of previous generation X5s like myself will find this a bit comforting as it is old home week. Controls on the screen mimic the previous generation X5 and the learning curve is dramatically reduced. The downside to the Pure Music Mode is several times I noted marked lag in operations. For what is supposed to be the streamlined music only mode, the player does not appear to be optimized for the hardware and simple pause / resume play operations should not take multiple seconds to process.
For those who have previous experience with Android players, switching modes to Android gives you the ability to download USB Player Pro, or Neutron etc... from the Fiio Store (very limited options and more of a suggested apps page). The downside was that a lot of the Fiio Store is in Chinese only and limited my ability to find the applications I might have wanted to install. The good news is the google play store is readily available and most audio apps should have no problem running on the X5s hardware.
With dual AK4490 DACs, one should expect much. This is the same dac as used in several other higher end players and a couple of the Astell & Kern models. The question is, is it as well implemented here as it is in some of those high-end players?
The X5 gen 2 with its Wolfson Dac was quite warm and rich, but was often criticized for lacking detail and dynamics. The new generation is still going to draw comments about being warm as it does have a bit of warmth although to my ear not as pronounced as the previous generation, however, that is where the similarity ends. The new X5iii brings more dynamic range and more detail to its delivery than the previous versions while still retaining excellent manners. The X5iii is a pleasant experience with excellent extension on both ends without being boomy at the bottom or harsh at the top. Soundstage is seemingly deeper than it is wide with good instrument separation and imaging. Power seems to be a bit of a conundrum. I did notice a slight hiss with my most sensitive IEMs as the noise floor is not quite low enough to use super sensitive IEMS. At the same time, the X5 was not able to really drive the HD6xx or Fostex T50rp to their fullest extend as I had kind of expected. For most headphones and iems between the notably hard to drive over-ears and the ridiculously sensitive IEMS the X5 did well with no hiss and ample power to fully fill out the sound.
Bass is full bodied but tight with good articulation down into the 40Hz range. It does seem to suffer from some sub-bass roll off below 50Hz. Above that point, texture is good and detail was better than most in my experience. Neutral to slightly bright headphones will pair nicely with the Bass of the X5 as it does not bleed into the mids so a mid-forward headphone is really accentuated.
The mids are smooth and natural sounding making vocals particularly well voiced. The timbre and texture of the upper mids makes female vocals particularly clear but not cutting or sibilant.
If the X5iii has a weakness, this is it. Treble is a bit too laid back. It is neutral and very well behaved but lacks a bit of sparkle. I’m not sure the treble has less detail than the previous generation but it is definitely less treble forward than the X5ii and can appear a bit less detailed as a result. On the plus side, the treble on the X5iii does have a more natural sound to it than the X5ii.
Options to alter sound profile:
Good news, if you don’t like the sound of the X5, change it. A 10 band Graphic EQ is standard and accessible via the Pure Music Mode. If in android mode, plenty of EQ and DSP effects are available for download.
On top of those, the X5 includes VIPER. VIPER is a pre-packaged set of alterations to the sound profile that include bass enhancement, tube sound, Clarity options (enhanced Treble) and several others (15 in total). For some reason, you have to have Wi-Fi on for VIPER to work, not sure why but now you know as I found out the hard way. While I found most of these to be little more than EQ presets, a few were of interest as they did make a pronounced difference. If you are a bass-head, Setting the Viper Bass will bring the bass a bit forward and a bit more aggressive than stock and may make the X5 more to your liking. I was a fan of Clarity as I prefer a slightly bright signature.
A well-mannered DAP in the mid-fi range. Better as a pure music player than as an Android device as it lacks memory, screen real estate and resolution, and processing power to really compete with top end devices. If you want a single do all device, you are probably still in the market for a Flagship phone. If you are looking for an easily upgradable music player with good sound, great features and good expandability, then the X5 makes a solid choice. The X5iii competes on a near even footing with the Cayin i5 which runs $100 more.