HiBy R5 (Gen 2)

nymz

1000+ Head-Fier
Hiby R5 Gen 2: Entry level benchmark
Pros: Class A mode sounds delicious
Outstanding battery on eco mode (30h)
Google Store
Amazing price to performance
Connectivities
Power on class A
Cons: Android 8
Slow when compared to modern phones
Buttons are okayish and no volume wheel
Gets warm and batery takes a hit on Class A mode
Eco mode sound is just fine
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Disclaimer: This unit was purchased by me through Linsoul with a discount in exchange for a written review. No incentives of any kind were given and the review you are about to read are my own thoughts and opinions. Thanks once again to Linsoul for the continuous support.




Price: $450
Purchase link and info: Linsoul
Operating system: Android 8.1
Hardware: Snapdragon 425, ES9219C x2 DACs, WiFi up to 5GHz, Bluetooth 4.2, USB 2.0, 2GB RAM, 16GB internal storage and up to 2TB through SD cards, 4500mAh battery
Display: 4.7’ IPS , 720*1280

Included in the box:
  • Hiby R5 Gen 2
  • USB-C to USB-A cable;
  • 2 screen protectors;
  • A blue leather case;
  • User manual and warranty papers.
IEMs used:
  • DUNU ZEN PRO
  • DUNU VERNUS
  • Softears RSV
  • MiM Dark Magician
  • LETSHUOER EJ07
  • LETSHUOER S12
  • LETSHUOER x HBB Kinda Lava
  • Tripowin x HBB Olina
  • Sennheiser IE600
Other sources used:
  • Singxer SA-1,
  • Cayin RU-6,
  • Qudelix 5k
  • Xduoo XD-05 Plus w/ Burson V5i opamps
  • iFi xDSD Gryphon
Test playlist with some of the songs used: Tidal




Form factor, connectivities and interface

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Last year I had the chance to own a Hiby R5 Saber for a short period of time but oh boy was I impressed. At that price, and still to this day I find it one of the best entry level digital audio players (DAPs) that you can get if your intention is to get a nice packed battery, clean sound and a lot of power.

Walking the footsteps of its older brother, the Hiby R5 Gen 2 (R5) has a couple changes to be noticed, namely the form factor. It now has a bigger body (123*71.3*15.5mm), screen and battery, together with a new amplification circuit that we will delve into later.

On the top for the chassi you will find nothing but tempered glass, as the buttons stay on the side panels. To the left you have your volume up and down rockers as well as the SD card slot. On the right side you have four buttons: power button, previous track, play/pause and next track.
As you can see, it’s simple and effective, but I’d like to nitpick the button quality: when using the included protective leather case, I had this problem where sometimes it was hard to find the right button to press or they pressed out by themselves when the Hiby was in my pocket. And yes, you can easily figure out I’m a volume wheel fanboy!

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One of the things I love the most about the R5 is that it covers any connectivity needed on the go. Labeled across the glass, you will find Hiby R5 Gen2 inputs and outputs at the bottom of the player and it contains nothing less than two balanced outputs (2.5mm and 4.4mm), a single ended output (3.5mm) that also works as a lineout and the USB-C port that lets you connect any dongle to it or, using it the other way around, lets it act as a USB DAC/Amp if you connect it to another digital source such as a computer. Again, lots of choices!

Using the R5 Gen2 as a USB-C DAC/AMP combo for desktop usage is a breeze after installing a small and quick driver on your computer. I’ve only used this method a couple of times and it worked flawlessly, but you have to keep in mind there will always be some delay in the DAP world when compared to pure DAC/AMP combos, but nothing troublesome and you will only notice it in some videos or movies.

What I really used the Hiby R5 Gen the most was purely as a source. Both headphone outs and lineouts worked flawlessly and were easy to set up even for the go, when attached to other amps or dongles. I will disclose that over 95% of my time with the Hiby R5 Gen2 was using it as a music player, on local FLAC files and this is where this review will mainly focus.

Gliding down into the interface territory, there’s not much else to say other than it’s your typical Android 8 player - It won’t be lightning fast when you compare it to your average phone or tablet but does the job right. If your use case is mainly like mine, which means using FLAC files and Tidal, you won’t even notice the interface speed - just pick your album, put it in your pocket.

Now, this leaves us with the final use case, adopted by myself a good dozen of the times, which is the Bluetooth pairing with your phone. In this scenario you can either control the DAP through Hiby Link or, my favorite, use it as a Bluetooth amplifier and run streaming services on it in places where you can’t connect it to a wi-fi network. Trust me, very useful during commutes where you can just jam to something you haven’t downloaded into local files yet.

Now we know how the swiss knife works but how does it sound?




Sound and different amplifications

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Right off the bat you will be faced with two amplifying modes: the regular delta sigma (economy mode) and the festival headliner, Class A amplification. I won’t be covering the technical differences between the two given there’s a lot of articles written by much more capable people than me all over the internet.

Mode selection or not, there’s common factors to both: It has a dead-silent background even on my Zen Pro with High Gain turned on for testing. Speaking of gain modes, the R5 has three so you can better tune the volume for your needs.

In my opinion, the economy mode resembles the typical ESS implementation you can find commonly in the market, leaning towards the neutral bright side of the spectrum. It’s the usual very technical and clean, sometimes dry sound that has become an industry standard and very reminiscent of its predecessor, the Hiby R5 Saber.

This mode will also come out as the most sparkly and detailed of the two, but let’s face it, it is called economy for a reason, right? The economy mode pumps up a stunning 30 hours of playtime which I can attest for by not charging it during most of my holidays. Second to the sound, I would say this is the biggest quality of the R5 Gen 2.

Outputting “only” 10 hours of playback, comes in the Class A mode. This is due to its nature of amplifying the sound. Keep the battery time in mind but also the fact that it gets VERY warm, are the only two negatives I can think of in this mode, so let’s get into the positives.

The Class A sounds amazing. The moment you press it (it changes after a quarter of a second sound drop, useful to A/B after volume adjustment) the party starts.

Everything gets a touch of smoothness that is converted into musicality, leaving no doubts of the greatness Hiby has built inside such a small device. The neutral-bright sound of the ESS chip swifts into a neutral warm type of sound, more refined and with a bigger stage. Female vocalists like Agnes Obel just take you on a bigger journey.

I have concluded that this mode worked the best with all of my IEMs, but as expected, it paired the best with the brighter ones. This doesn’t mean it turns dark like the Cayin RU-6 R2R dongle, but instead just warmer with a neutral treble, turning every jazz note into a jam session - and who doesn’t like that?

Again, the economy mode may give a sense of a hair more of details due to its treble boost, but the order in this mode is by far musicality. Once I tasted it, I have to admit I almost never went back to economy mode other than for testing purposes and battery stress, but that also means you have options: you have two sound signatures on a single device.

Despite the Class A mode sounding better to my ears and giving the form factor of the Hiby, you can’t expect a day and night difference. It’s on the more subtle side but undoubtedly present.




Comparisons

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Cayin N3 Pro

Android vs non-android. Utility vs speed. Tubes vs Class A.

The Cayin N3 Pro is a non-android based DAP, which gives it advantages and disadvantages vs the R5, as obvious as the interface speed or the boot up speed. Being the connections partially the same (difference resumes on the N3 Pro not having a 2.5mm connect but having an extra balanced line out) and sharing the same price bracket, let’s just focus on sound here.

The solid state on the Cayin N3 Pro sounds better to my ears than the economy mode of the R5 and it’s much more powerful (800mW vs 320mW @ 32 ohms). It is more neutral and technical, namely the stage size. The AKM implementation of the Cayin is still one of the best I have heard to this day. The R5 will fit darker iems better if it is your intention to give it a small bump in the upper region.

Now, the caveat comes when we compare their “special” modes and this is where the tables completely turn. The Hiby R5 Gen2 now has more power than the Cayin (475mW vs 130mW @ 32 ohms) and brightens up one of my biggest complaints on the N3 Pro: you can only use tubes on 3.5mm headphone output while with the R5 you can use Class A in any jack.
Now, regarding preferences, the R5 Gen2 is a clear winner when we compare it vs the N3 Pro tube modes: it’s less warm and bloated, giving a sense of just musicality where the N3 sometimes feels extremely warm. Regarding technical differences, they aren’t much different and I will say the R5 comes out ahead on details and stage, but nothing to call home about.

The last words go into the ease of usage. The Hiby is much easier to carry around, connect transducers to and has more utility due to Android where the Cayin is faster and gets less warm in tubes than R5 does on class A. The battery of the Cayin is around 9 hours which goes close to the 10 hours of replay time in the Hiby’s Class A mode, but once you switch to economy mode, it’s a bloodbath, as the R5 outputs an outstanding 30 hours.

Cayin N3 Pro’s speed helps it being fast to transfer songs into it but the Hiby R5 Gen 2 comes out ahead in the charging time thanks to its quick charge 3.0, taking almost half.




The verdict

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I have no doubts about the crazy price to performance ratio Hiby R5 Gen2 brings to the table in the budget segment of the DAP market - and yes, this is “budget” for a DAP. It might not be for you as it is not for me, but DAP prices have always been high and it just seems to be getting wilder by the day.

There is also the ethereal question regarding how much price to performance you can get on the go if you get a portable dac amplifier or even a dongle, and everyone knows it. It will always fall under the use case scenario for each individual - some prefer to use their smartphone, some prefer to have a separate device to play music and don’t drain the phone’s battery. In my case, I do prefer DAPs but both types of portability have their own benefits, in different places at different times.

As far as DAPs go, and after carrying the Hiby R5 Gen2 for months while playing my favorite tracks to save me from the commute boredom, I have no other option but to highly recommend this DAP if you are looking for one at this price range. For those that got the early bird promotion or found it on sale, you made an amazing deal.



Thanks for reading!
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GiRes

New Head-Fier
not so good as you can think
Pros: not really.
Cons: A lot. Mostly caused by a not mature software and a dry sound
Coming from a Fiio X5iii with a pleasant sound and sluggish poor functioning software and 2 SD slots, now, with the R5ii I have a dry not emotional sound with a sluggish and poor software not mature (for instance no functions for car use) or with poor management of functions like the line out function that in my case is NOT automatic; with bugs in the use of Bluetooth commands especially if you try a different player instead of the Hiby one, BT Pairing should be automatic but does not sound before you do an on/off of the BT ... so after that is the BT paired! The hiby player is not really good or functional especially if you think to bring it everyday with you walking ...good luck to practically manage play pause and volume with the lateral buttons in your pocket..forget it....especially if you use the cover, at that point is impossible. Basically you must keep it out of the pocket for everything you want to do all the time.
I installed on it the ONKYO player and the quality sound is much better. Poweramp unfortunately has problems in BT when you put in pause once you play again start the hyby player..even if not opened.
This is an 8.1 just in case you think to use Wavelet.. so no way. The 3.5mm out not really a good sound better to avoid. In balance with class A just a bit better but just because has this dry sound with painful forward mid and high the only way to have something decent is to use the MSEB to have something warmer and with a more balanced sound or equalize.. ...Screen not bright at all in exterior, and the glass on the top look like plastic. If you want to connect to an external dac with a simple office setup for instance a common K5pro +e30 you need a special coaxial cable not in the box (you have to buy the R6 to have it) that is almost impossible to find e in Europe and eventually the only way is to buy in China the Cayin's one.... Since I have the R5ii I forget to enjoy the music because all this nerving stuff. Probably with future updates will be better but this is the same story like fiio ...we are the tester and possibly after 2 years of updates you have something decently working.
psikey
psikey
I thought SQ of X5III rubbish compared to Hiby R5II, especially if using class A amp.

originalsnuffy

Headphoneus Supremus
HiBy R5 Gen 2; More Goodness in the R5 line
Pros: Amazing battery life. Smoother android app access than original R5. 2.5 and 4.4 balanced jacks.
Class A improves rhythm section nicely (better defined bass and drums).
Cons: Amazon HD not working with side fast forward, rewind, and pause with latest firmware. Amazon HD can still be glitchy. Gets fairly warm with class A usage.
By now you have seen any number of reviews of the R5 Gen 2. There are lots of pictures of the units, charts of the power output, explanations of Class A amplification, etc. So this review will get into items that aren't really discussed in those reviews.

To start off, it is worth asking: Why even purchase a dedicated DAP nowadays? There are tons of dongles now that work with both Android and IOS phones. Music apps with the dongles can provide redbook HD and hi res. Many can output DSD signals natively.

The reason is partially related to the convenience of having a single unit to work with. Why carry two devices to listen to music? The other reason is in the category of "Duh". The dedicated devices have more power. HiBy has never been a power shy brand and the new R5 has plenty of power on reserve, especially in class A mode.

Now I listen to my R5 mainly in my car, which is old school and still has a 3.5mm audio jack. Fortunately my 8 year old Jaguar (a depreciation monster if there ever was one) has a Meridian sound system which is basically Harman neutral and sounds terrific with good sources. I leave the EQ off (both on the DAP and the car), and use the regular circuitry not the class A. Class A is immaterial in this use case. And....it sounds great. At first I thought the ESS chipset would bug me, but in fact the treble glare that people complain about really isn't there on this machine.

And yes, the unit sounds good with regular amplification and super good with Class A. None of my IEMs (all three of them) are particularly power hungry. All are fairly neutral. The only power monster is perhaps my latest splurge, the LetShuoer S12 planar. And they sound very natural, especially when Class A is engaged. The LZ A7 (I use the black filters the most, which are the most reference style) sound terrific also. And of course my trusty FLC8D sound good with this unit also.

So I am a bit of a digital nerd, and did try the unit directly attached to the iphone. As promised, direct attachment does not work. HiBy leaves that to dongles. You can use the Apple CCK (camera connecting kit), but that requires an additional battery and lots of wires. Also, the unit reports on 24 bit 88khz with the iphone even with DSD. Is that an error? Who knows, but it did sound good. But if you want the DSD lights to come on its dongle time.

I did not test the unit with my notebook, but I have no reason to doubt it works well. Nor did I test the bluetooth outputs. Frankly, I don't see the point of sending a hi res signal over bluetooth. LDAC and HiBy's proprietary codecs get close to bit perfect but don't reach that and its not of interest to me. I have a pair of Sony noise cancelling headphones with LDAC, but realistically I use that pair for airplane movie listening (and typically use a 3.5 jack).

How does the unit sound compared to other units? My Cayin N5II has a slightly laid back sound compared to the R5, and I find both enjoyable. My original R5 (the first one, not the Saber) has a slightly warm sound, and over time I came to appreciate the neutral sound of the R5 Gen 2.

Yes, this is the most refined unit I have owned. But realistically I find that I get used to almost every unit after about 15 minutes of listening, so a unit has to be really harsh before I complain I borrowed a Lootoo (spelling?) once that I though was harsh, but that is the exception rather than the rule. But the Class A punch is noticeable, and does add a nice dimension. And no, using Class A in the car adds nothing so one is better off using the regular power sipping mode.

The unit is quite large but can be pocketed. I presume the space is largely occupied by the battery. Which makes sense as I had to ship both the Cayin and the original R5 to China for battery replacements. Which is an $80 fix; of which $20 is parts and $60 is shipping.

What would make me give this unit a perfect rating? I would add native iphone compatibility. Why not be the ultimate phone dongle? I would also kick up support for Amazon HD a notch.

I listened a bit to Tidal (my two month trial is ending soon but I put it to good use) and Apple music. Both sounded good. MQA in my mind does sound good,. Like many on Head-Fi I do object to all the hype about folding (I fold my origami tighter than you and blah blah blah) and what have you. Don't get me wrong, MQA is a very good, mildly lossy algorithm. But with bandwidth and memory card storage getting cheaper all the time I do wonder what the point is. Oh, yes, MQA is from the same Meridan company that makes the stereo in my car. Not that this particulalry matters....

To Tidal's credit, they have some unique hi res titles. I found a number of jazz albums in "Master" quality that otherwise are only out in Redbook, and quite a few rock titles too. Some highlights were Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus, Procol Harum Grand Hotel, Miles Davis Milestones (stereo version), Return to Forever Romantic Warrior, Jackson Browne first album (Saturate Before Using), and Mahavishnu Orchestra Apocalypse.

Note: As a repeat customer, and to entice a review, HiBy provided a discount on the purchase of the unit (but no discount on the accessories). I purchased a red case at full retail but it turns out the Blue case it came with is just fine.

I'm not too sure how many more dedicated DAP units are in my future. But this one is a keeper.
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originalsnuffy
originalsnuffy
I have only played with MSEB, formerly something like Mage Software 8 Ball. Our very own Joe Bloggs created it. I leave all EQ off, but you should read some other reviews of HiBy DAP units (some R5 reviews and certainly R6 family reviews get into this) to get a sense of MSEB. MSEB gets into the things that matter; like cold / warm, extra bass definition and extension, etc.

For PEQ, I do think UAPP has that and maybe the R5 has it natively. I do think UAPP has a place. I barely use its capabilities but it can do a lot. That has its own thread. The cost is modest (thinking $7).

I am weird. I buy IEMs and DAPs that can sound good together with no EQ.
ruffandruff
ruffandruff
Thanks mate 😊, I have both Nuetron and UAPP and they do have great EQ. I was just looking to see if a system wide PEQ is available for other apps like Apple music. Anyway thanks for the response mate.
originalsnuffy
originalsnuffy
MSEB is system wide. I would read some other reviews or the online manual. I just don't EQ, is not in my vocabulary.

gLer

Headphoneus Supremus
HiBy R5 (Gen 2): A class of its own
Pros: Unique Class A technology in this price range
Outstanding battery life (in standard mode)
Rock-solid software performance and reliability
Excellent sound performance (in Class A mode)
Cons: Average sound quality in standard/eco mode
Battery life takes a big hit in balanced Class A mode
Dated SoC makes performance slightly sluggish
Android 9 would have been better
Full disclosure: HiBy kindly sent me a sample of the HiBy R5 Gen 2 in exchange for my honest review, without any expectations. Due to shipping delays and other unforeseen circumstances, publishing this review has taken me longer than anticipated.

Introduction

They say the best stories are the ones with a twist you weren’t expecting. In the case of the HiBy R5, now in its second generation, there are not one but two exciting twists that make this midrange digital audio player a standout: class-leading battery life, and Class A amplification.

Sadly, as the adage goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too; you can’t have the seemingly endless battery life while using the class A amp. But the fact that you get to choose one or the other at this price point is what makes this story somewhat different from what’s come before.

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Packaging and presentation

The HiBy R52 (as I’ll be calling it throughout this review) arrives in a predominantly purple-themed box with the name of the player on the front and sides, and some Chinese writing on the back. Nowhere is ‘Gen 2’ mentioned, so I’m guessing the purple colourway is what HiBy uses to differentiate generations.

The box itself is fairly small, without the frills or heft of the folding-box design of the RS6, or the luxurious launch edition briefcase of the R8, but then I wouldn’t expect many frills at this level. Remove the lid and you’re greeted with a simple foam cutout housing the player itself, a high-quality HiBy-branded USB A to C cable, a spare plastic screen protector (two are generously pre-applied to the player, front and back), some paperwork, and best of all, a well-made, tight-fitting faux leather blue-purple case.

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It's a rather basic set of accessories, but also very complete, and the case and screen protectors are welcome additions that similarly-priced DAPs don’t often include. I would have preferred to see tempered glass protectors pre-installed, given they don’t cost much more than plastic and do a much better job of protecting the player against knocks and fingerprints, but it’s a minor gripe, and plastic does have the advantage of a smaller footprint.

Design and build

Taking a departure from the rounder-edged designs of previous R5 iterations, the R52 joins the ‘masculine’ design language of the R8, R6 2020 and RS6 before it. It’s also larger than previous R5 players, sporting a new 4.7” 720P screen, but relative to the higher-end HiBy players, it’s still relatively small and very light. If you’re looking for a pocketable-size DAP, it fits.

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One major departure from the previous masculine motifs is the switch from wheel-based to button-based volume controls. I personally prefer buttons for volume, with the exception of one or two ultra-high-end wheel designs that I’ve personally used on a DAP. I think HiBy missed a trick, though, by putting the volume buttons on the opposite side of the payer to the other functional buttons, but again, it’s a small usability gripe.

Note that if you’re using the case, the buttons do become harder to push (because the case covers the buttons), but again that might be a good thing if, like me, you’re prone to wild swings of the volume dial.

As already suggested above, there are four buttons on the right side of the player, one each for power, play/pause, track forward, and track reverse. A small LED sits between the buttons and denotes playback file quality and charging mode. The output ports are lined up along the bottom of the player: a 3.5mm single-ended headphone out/line out, and two balanced headphone outs (2.5mm and 4.4mm).

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The back and top of the player are glass-covered, supposedly to maximise the wireless and Bluetooth range of the built-in antennas. The screen itself is clear, adequately bright (for outdoor use too), and with decent viewing angles. Don’t expect the latest OLED or retina display technology and you won’t be disappointed. For a pocketable music player, it’s more than good enough.

Overall, the size, shape, and weight of the R52 make it very easy to hold and use one-handed. The angled corners give your thumb and palm a solid surface to rest on, which makes the player easier to grip and harder to drop. It’s a sleek, modern design made of solid materials, and comes well protected for everyday use.

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Standout features

The midrange DAP market is crowded and hotly contested, so anyone designing a competitive product needs to deliver something other than just excellent sound quality, reliability, and usability, even on a budget.

With its heritage in software design for portable players, HiBy has the software and usability part down pat (I’ll get to this in more detail down below). What it’s added to the R52 in terms of hardware, however, is quite new for the under-$500 DAP market.

For one, you get as-advertised 30-plus-hour battery life with the larger-than-usual 4500mAH battery. There’s a catch: to get your full quota of juice, you need to use the DAP’s built-in ESS9219C DAC/amp, with single-ended output, with the stock HiBy Music app playing local files, and go easy on the streaming/screen use.

So basically, it’s a ‘best-case scenario’ battery life, not typical use battery life, but even if you halved the battery life in favour of extended streaming time and screen use, you’re still getting far more uptime with the R52 than you would with most other Android DAPs in its size and price class.

It’s important to remember this is an Android DAP, first and foremost, which comes with numerous overheads before you even get to the music player software. The cynics might point to the fact that HiBy limits the R52 to an older version of Android (8.1), running an older SoC (SnapDragon 425) with limited RAM (2GB).

But you can just as easily flip that coin to show that the budget was instead spent on quality audio components, including dual ESS Sabre DACs, 163 high-precision resistors, 19 Panasonic tantalum POSCAPs, and 4 ELNA electrolytic capacitors.

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Not to mention, the second standout feature of the R52: Class A amplification. While debating the pros and cons of Class A and Class AB amplification is beyond the remit of this review, in a nutshell, Class A amps deliver the purer and less distorted signal transmission between the two (HiBy quotes an impressive THD of 0.0006% for the R52’s Class A amps), at the cost of needing more power – hence the sacrifice in battery life (down to 7 hours using Class A and balanced output).

In practice, there’s no debate: activating the four discrete Class A amps on the R52 audibly improves sound quality, to the point where not using Class A is a compromise. I’ll describe the benefits in more detail in the sound Impressions section below, but suffice it to say that having Class A as an option for less than five Benjamins is quite something.

As a quick aside, it’s important to note that, in my experience, Class A doesn’t equate to more volume. What it gives you is more driving power with less distortion. The R52 is already a fairly beefy DAP in the power department, and should easily drive most IEMs to ear-splitting levels with its basic amps. Class A further reduces distortion, which adds weight, stage, and fullness that is audible even at lower volume levels with IEMs, but also scales up smoothly with larger, less sensitive headphones.

Neither of these standout features – extended battery life and Class A amplification – are of much use if software and usability fall short, so I’ll cover these first before getting stuck into the sound.

User experience

In my opinion, whether you’re spending $500 or $5,000 on a DAP, you’re buying the user experience (UX) as much as you are the sound quality. Otherwise, you might as well just get a portable DAC/amp for your phone.

For me, UX is the combination of the base software, UI design, responsiveness, and stability. A full-featured, up-to-date software suite that continually crashes is poor UX, as is a super-slick, super-fast UI with clunky, incoherent software. Thankfully the R52 delivers an excellent – albeit not quite top-tier – UX, with its HiBy-modified HiBy OS platform, system-wide DTA architecture (that bypasses the Android audio stack), and system-wide MSEB sound design software (which is like an EQ, but arguably better).

Bootup is a relatively slow 23 seconds, but once you’re in, the excellent standby time means you don’t have to put the player to sleep or switch it off when not in use. In my testing so far, standby battery drain (with WiFi and Bluetooth off) is paltry, maybe 2 percent a day, if that. This means that as long as there’s enough charge, you can put the player away for days, even a week or two, and still come back to a charged-up player ready to go when you are. Moreover, since the R52 features QC 3.0 charging technology, you can go from zero to full in a couple of hours.

In use, the R52 presents a very basic UI, with an uncluttered home screen, five app icons, and the standard three-button Android 8.1 navigation bar. A few oddball apps are installed by default, but as I do with any Android DAP, I quickly uninstall or disable what I don’t need and add my choice of apps for music playback, file management, and Web access (UAPP, Solid Explorer and Chrome respectively).

Since Google’s Play Store is preinstalled on the international version of the R52, adding apps is easy, and I’m yet to find an app that I need that’s not compatible with the base Android version. There’s much talk about streaming apps not supporting older Android versions, but I’m yet to see that in practice, and indeed expect all current streaming apps to work reliably with the R52 for years to come. Put another way, chances are you’ll be using a different DAP by the time Tidal or Spotify stops working reliably on the R52.

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But I digress. Swiping down from the top of the screen brings up a quick launch panel that lets you quickly activate or deactivate functions, like Wifi, Bluetooth, and gain level. There’s also a quick toggle for the Class A amp, so you can easily switch between amplification modes without navigating the Audio Settings menu.

Speaking of audio settings, aside from amp mode, you get a limited choice of two low-pass filters (anodizing and linear fast roll-off), line-out mode (to switch between single-ended headphone and line-out – sorry, no balanced line-out option here), plugins (to install HiBy’s useful selection of system-wide plugins, like the excellent Convolution filter), MSEB control, DSD compensation, channel balance, and a volume limiter.

Depending on your tweaking habits, some of these controls – especially MSEB – can be quite useful, and the fact that they’re active system-wide, even with streaming apps, is another HiBy differentiator.

Other settings you may find useful include Bluetooth options (Connected devices) such as wireless casting and nearby file-sharing; Battery options that let you set all manner of shutdown timers and enable battery saver mode in case you’re really, really frugal; and Display options that let you change wallpaper, set a display sleep timer, disable the side LED, and even use HiBy Music in full-screen mode so you can pretend you’re not using Android (although all this does is hide the bottom navigation bar).

If you’re familiar with Android (or smartphone settings in general) there may be a few other settings you might want to mess with, like app permissions, notification settings, and so on, but by and large, I leave these untouched and unused on all my players. Still, it’s good to know you get fairly deep system-level tweaking functions should you need them, and you can even enable Developer Mode for more advanced settings options (go to Settings - About Device and tap on ‘Firmware Version’ seven times).

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Music playback

The most important function of any music player is, er, music playback. HiBy provides its own mature music player, HiBy Music, and generally speaking it’s a well-rounded, stable, and feature-rich player.

I never use it – and in fact, I disable it on my HiBy players – preferring the excellent and far more polished and sophisticated USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP) for all my playback needs. But don’t see this as a slight on HiBy Music, rather as one of the main benefits of using an open Android-based player: choice.

Not only do I get to choose which playback software I use, I can also install other useful apps, like wireless file management, to simplify my DAP life and give me all the functionality I need without ever having to connect the DAP to a physical computer.

I covered some of my playback and file management habits in great detail in my HiBy R8 review, and since I could easily configure the R52 the same way, it may be worth your while to skim over my R8 notes, if only to see what’s possible using different apps and settings.

Navigating my Plex library, local files, and Tidal with UAPP on the R52 is generally smooth and glitch-free. I can tell that the scrolling speed isn’t quite as snappy as it is with one of the faster SoC players like the RS6 and R8, but it’s not too laggy either. Album art takes a second or two to appear after a fast scroll, but playback controls initiate almost instantly, so it’s not something I find distracting. Again, don’t expect modern smartphone speeds and you won’t be disappointed.

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Another important music playback factor is wireless support. As a modern player, the R52 has all the wireless features you need, from 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi, to LDAC, UAT (HiBy’s proprietary high-speed format), AptX, and AAC Bluetooth (though Bluetooth is limited to version 4.2, if that means anything to you).

It’s noteworthy that the R52 supports Bluetooth transmission and reception, so you can connect it to your wireless IEMs and headphones and use it as a Bluetooth DAC/receiver, though not at the same time. It also supports HiBy Link, meaning you can use your phone as a virtual remote control for the R52. Unfortunately, HiBy Link is limited to HiBy Music, so you can’t use it with other playback software.

File support, as expected, is extensive, from hi-res 384KHz PCM to native DSD256. You can also use it as a USB DAC with your phone, laptop, or PC/Mac, with all the benefits of hi-res format and DSD support thrown in. The R52 is also fully MQA 16X certified, meaning full hardware unfolding from the Tidal app or UAPP (or local MQA files if you have any). Since the playback bitrate is always displayed on the top status bar, you can immediately check that your files are being processed (or upsampled, as is the case with MQA) correctly.

Aside from the slightly slower UI responsiveness, there’s little that separates the R52 from HiBy’s more mature and expensive high-end players in terms of functionality. This is testament to HiBy’s software smarts, and for me continues to be one of the main reasons I recommend HiBy ahead of several other more established and prestigious Android DAP brands on the market.

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Sound impressions

For a long time, I believed that the sound quality of a portable system is almost entirely determined by the IEM or headphone, and that the source plays a small but insignificant role in what you hear. I was wrong.

As with anything gained from experience, I’ve come to temper that opinion somewhat, and while I still consider the transducer to be the primary determinant of sound quality, the source – be it an amp, DAC or DAP – is more important than I gave it credit for. Sources can and do colour the sound, be it through tuning choices, DSP or components used, and they can also limit (or enhance) technical performance, be it resolving ability, dynamics or stage size.

Most of all, the source’s tonal and technical characteristics are inherently tied to the single most important factor of any playback system: synergy. A lesser source that has ‘better’ synergy with a given IEM will lift the performance of the system far more than a better source that lacks the same synergy. This is why your choice of player should ultimately be based not on pure performance, but rather a combination of the features you need and the synergy the player has with your choice of IEMs.

The above is an important segway to my summary of sound impressions with the R52 not because of any particularly great synergy I discovered while using it this past month, but because one flick of a switch very clearly shows up my debunked theory that sources don’t matter.

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A different Class

I’m generally not a fan of Sabre DACs. To me, they’re the epitome of modern Delta Sigma technology: clean, clear, crisp, resolving, so very ‘hi-fi’. They’re also cold, clinical, and despite what anyone tells you, still haven’t shaken off the so-called ‘Sabre glare’ that gives some vocals and higher-pitched instruments, particularly when poorly recoded, a faint glassy sheen. They’re the poster child of digital sound.

Yes, this is subjectively my opinion, but it’s also been my consistent experience over many years with many different DACs, DAPs, and other Sabre sources.

The R52, with its dual Sabre DACs, is however one of the better implementations I’ve heard. HiBy has almost (but not completely) eliminated the ‘Sabre glare’, giving it a clean but vivid presentation out the box, which becomes ever-so-slightly more refined after 100 hours’ burn-in. For casual listening with mainstream IEMs, it’s a very pleasant sound indeed.

However, in its stock configuration, what remains is still a somewhat dry, flat sound that tends to hold back the organic performance of some of my best-performing IEMs. This becomes readily apparent when doing A/B comparisons with other DAPs. The R52’s ‘default’ sound is about as far away from the warm, lush, yet resolving sound of the RS6’s discrete R-2R DAC, or the wide, airy, effortless sound of the R8’s AK4497, for example.

On the whole, the R52’s direct-from-Sabre sound is neutral, as it doesn’t emphasise or underplay any specific frequency. It’s also quite transparent, but as I mentioned above, is limited by the technical performance of the stock DAC/amps.

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This all changes when you – literally – toggle the Class A switch. No warm-up time is needed; the sound that was a bit thin with some of my music now has actual meat on the bones. The tonality doesn’t shift too far left, but the fuller sound does make the bass more impactful, adding a slight warmth that was missing before. Vocals (and the midrange in general) become more pronounced – not forward, per se, but better articulated, though the DAC’s inherent dryness is still somewhat evident. Treble is still crisp but less strident.

But the biggest change is the technical performance. Depending on your IEMs, what you may have previously perceived as a flat stage in the stock configuration is now more open, with better depth. It’s still not the widest of stages, even with wider-stage IEMs, but feels less hemmed in than before. Resolution is also improved, and if you have resolving IEMs, you’ll be hearing that with the R52 in Class A mode. It’s still not quite as articulate as the RS6, or as resolving as the R8, but it’s not far off.

The Class A ‘feature’ brings the R52 much closer to the HiBy ‘house sound’ of recent-generation DAPs: clarity and musicality in equal measure, with a hint of warmth, tasteful midrange colour, and a treble that sparkles without overdoing it. It’s a fuller, beefier sound, and goes to show just how easy it is for a source to change the overall balance of a portable system. Again, don’t expect the vastness and effortless tonal range of HiBy’s high-end players, but you’re definitely not getting sold short for the money.

Closing thoughts

HiBy is still relatively new to the DAP world, at least with its own players. But a long heritage of creating proprietary software for other DAP manufacturers – including sister company Cayin – and continually refining its HiBy OS open Android platform (which also powers other popular players such as Cayin’s flagship N8ii), makes it appear far more familiar and established than it is.

Ironically, it’s the hardware features in the new R52 that sets it apart from other midrange competitors, like FiiO’s M11-series and Shanling’s M3. While it’s not the first to use the new streamlined ES9219C platform, pushing battery life beyond the 30-hour mark and pushing sound quality with discrete Class A amps is a nifty double-blow that knocks out the direct competition with versatility and quality in equal measure.

While it doesn’t quite reach the level of higher-end DAPs, for less than a third of the price, most users will get substantially better audio performance than they would from a $200 dongle, especially if they're wanting to drive larger headphones, and more functionality than they would from transportable DAC/amps.

The R52 is small and light enough to carry even if you’re already carrying a phone, and can double as a wired or wireless DAC for your phone if you so choose. It also has better Bluetooth support than most phones (especially AAC-limited iPhones).

As a standalone music player, however, the R52 comes into its own, with all-day battery life when you’re out and about on hikes or at the gym, and a step-up in Class A sound quality when you’re listening intently at home.

Coupled with HiBy’s rock-solid software platform, the R52 is the ideal pocketable music player for almost any occasion or use case, and despite some obvious shortcomings, it still ticks almost every box: usability, versatility, reliability, sound quality, and wired/wireless compatibility.

If you’re in the market for a modern DAP that bridges the gap between phone, dongle, and flagship, at $450 the HiBy R52 is an easy recommendation from me.

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