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Luxury & Precision L3 Pro Balanced Portable Hi-Fi Player

Rating:
3.5/5,
  1. HiFiChris
    L3Pro: more internal memory, more luxury, a different internal structure and wood
    Written by HiFiChris
    Published Oct 12, 2016
    3.5/5,
    Pros - entirely hiss-free, fully balanced internal structure, good & clean sound especially in balanced mode, int. memory, beautiful design and build
    Cons - firmware would benefit from some updates (correct sorting in alphabetical order, touch swiping, gapless), output impedance could be lower
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    Preamble:

    Luxury & Precision (http://www.luxuryprecision.net/) is a Chinese audio company that is rather new on the market, having established in 2014. While the company might seem rather new (although they are already quite well-known in the hi-fi scene with their previous LP5, L5 and L5 Pro digital audio players), the team behind it is definitely not and has been responsible for other highly regarded and well-known products in the past, including the wooden Colorfly C4 DAP (and I bet that there is about no one who is more or less seriously into the portable audio and hi-fi hobby for more than just a short time and has not heard of it yet).

    Recently, they announced and released a smaller and more budget-friendly DAP, called “L3” which I reviewed here. What set the L3 apart from the competition at its respective price point of $399 is the Luxury & Precision’s dual DAC and dual OP amp 100% balanced internal with a 2.5 mm balanced output socket next to the regular single-ended 3.5 mm headphone output, 3.5 mm line out and digital COAX output.
    As a follow-up, Luxury & Precision has announced a new DAP that is based on the L3 and called “L3 Pro”. Despite its visuals (wooden instead of carbon fibre back, slightly different colour, more premium buttons), its internal design and built-in memory was somewhat changed, too, and it costs $100 more than its non-Pro brother.

    So let’s find out how much luxury and precision the Luxury & Precision L3 Pro (that by the way supports native DSD playback) delivers and in what ways it differs from the L3.


    Before I go on, I want to take the time to personally thank Mr. John Yang as well as Mr. Wan for the opportunity to review this digital audio player which I received free of charge as a pre-production review and test sample for an honest, unbiased evaluation.
    As you will likely notice, this review of the L3 Pro will be very similar to the L3’s, as both audio players are similar in many regards and it would not make sense to fully re-write the paragraphs that describe the very same aspects.


    Technical Specifications:

    MSRP: $499
    32 GB internal memory, micro SD up to 128 GB (FAT32-formatted)
    Digital to Analog Chip: Cirrus Logic CS4398 (x2)
    OP Amp: SOLO (x2)
    Headphone Amplifier Chip: Crown 1812A (x2)
    Coprocessor: 1812M
    Sampling rates up to 32 Bit/768 kHz, supports up to DSD256
    USB: Sampling rates up to 24 Bit/192kHz
    Power: 1.25 V using 3.5mm output, 2.5 V using 2.5mm output


    Delivery Content:

    The L3 Pro arrives in an elongated black cardboard box already known from the L3 that turns out to be two flatter boxes held together by a black cardboard sleeve with a shiny black “Luxury & Precision” logo on the upper side upon closer inspection.
    Sliding out the upper box, one will find the same shiny black “Luxury & Precision” logo on the lid with the DAP being inside, which is softly bolstered by black velvet and foam. What’s inside as well is a labelled envelope that was empty on my unit, however back then it contained the manual, a second screen protector and warranty card in the L3’s package.
    The other box that is labelled “accessories” contains two smaller boxes that are labelled as well (“USB cable” and “protection case”). One of them contains a USB charging and data transfer cable and the other a really beautiful protective leather case.
     

     
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    What surprised me a little as I haven’t seen it included with an audio player was that I also found a name card holder and bookmark, both made of real wood, in the package. They are however not part of the regular accessories but intended as gifts by Luxury & Precision to thank testers and reviewers for spending their free time on testing and writing about the audio player. At this place, I want to take the time to say “thank you” to Luxury & Precision for these two nice little wooden gestures that show that we all are human beings and not only robots.
     

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    Although the appearance of the packaging is not the most luxurious and rather simple, its content (the DAP and case) are definitely beautiful products and make up for the slightly plain unboxing experience.


    Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

    I cannot help myself but to say that I find the design just absolutely awesome, stylish and beautiful, just like back then with the normal L3, and that it reminds me of Porsche Design products by quite a bit (probably a bit less with the L3 Pro because of its wooden back).
    The chassis is made of partly matte, CNC-milled aluminium and does not only look but also feel very solid and valuable. The rear is covered by a plate of very beautiful real wood veneer that is treated/coated so that it stays in this nice condition. This is a contrast to the L3 which had a brushed aluminium front as well as carbon fibre back plate, nonetheless I would say that both players look comparably great. Where I personally prefer the L3 Pro though is the use of a darker shade of aluminium that is more grey than silver, along with the buttons having the logos engraved which also looks quite a bit more valuable as well as premium although it is just a little touch.
     

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    The L3 Pro’s large touchscreen does not have smartphone-level resolution but a more than just sufficient pixel density for an audio player – and the screen is large and beautifully fits to the overall design, being located at the front.
    Above the screen are three buttons with engraved symbols in the upper left corner (the right one is a screen lock/unlock button and also there to set the L3 Pro into “hold” mode by pressing it for a few seconds; the other two are user-customisable). Right next to them sits the rotary volume potentiometer. Compared to the L3’s, it is easier to turn (which could be a bad thing in some situations, but it is lockable in the setting) and has got single steps that feel crisper.
    There are overall 60 volume steps and while I personally would not mind if there was twice that amount (probably to be enabled through the settings), the lowest possible volume is still good to go if I want to listen to music quietly with very sensitive in-ear monitors, though I sometimes wish for an even lower listening levels if I want to listen to extremely sensitive in-ears at really low levels late in the evening, but that is just me being nitpicky and in almost all cases, the lower and upper volume range are really good to go.
    The right hand side of the DAP contains three buttons with engraved symbols for playback control (the play button also acts as power on/off button) in the upper half as well as a single micro SD card slot in the lower (the cards have to be FAT32-formatted – exFAT is unfortunately not supported). In addition, the L3 Pro has also got 32 GB of user-accessible internal memory, which I find quite nice to have and which is twice as much as the L3 has.
    The lower side offers a nice selection of output sockets: a 3.5 mm single-ended headphone output, a 2.5 mm balanced headphone output, a combined line out/coaxial output socket as well as a micro USB charging, DAC and data transfer socket.
     

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    All of the engraved buttons are by the way easily accessible and have got a nice and convenient pressure point.
     

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    The included leather case with beige/khaki colour is insanely nice, feels very premium and has got a nice, slightly Alcantara-like texture and feel. Its visual as well as haptic qualities perfectly match the L3 Pro audio player and small accents like the nicely stitched back or the embossed logos add a really nice touch to it. In addition, it fits the DAP perfectly with a very strong grip so it will never naturally fall out.
     

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    Operation, User Interface:

    Firmware Version 0.9.0.0:

    The L3 Pro, just as the L3, has got a rather simple but quite well-structured UI that is identical to its non-Pro brother: upon powering, on after the start screen has disappeared (which takes just very short time), one is greeted with a simple media library screen that lets you choose (from bottom to top) between “Album” view (sadly, there is no miniature cover preview, at least not with my files where I have embedded the cover directly into the file), “Artist” view (not much surprising, there is no sort function by the “Album Artist” tag, which is unfortunately a common thing for most DAPs), “All music” view and “Directory” view that lets you navigate through your music files and folders on your micro SD card as well as internal storage. What is pretty bothering though is that those files in directory view are not sorted in alphabetical order but seemingly by the date they were last edited/added, so if you are going to primarily use the folder browse mode, be prepared to use a program like “FATsorter” to get your files in the right order – for a DAP at this price point, I feel like this should not be.
    Above is also an “Update media library” button that I find somewhat misplaced in music library view, as it can happen quite quickly that one accidentally touches it (it has happened quite a few times to me), so it would have been much better if it was located in the settings, especially as it really isn’t needed often at all.
     

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    Above, we have those three tiles that are present in every of the three screens and will get you directly to the library, playing screen or settings, which I find quite convenient.
    There is also a status bar that lets you know whether a song is currently set to play or pause, lets you know the volume level you are at and shows a battery indicator. If you lock the screen operation and buttons (hold mode; activated by a longer press on the screen lock button), it also shows a small key lock symbol next to the battery indicator. Activating the line out, a dedicated symbol appears, too.
     

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    The settings of the L3 Pro have quite surprised me in a positive way, as there are some smart options: starting with basic things like the “Play mode” and some basic EQ pre-sets (there is no custom EQ), the “Visualizations” setting lets you choose between showing the ID3 tags or lyrics, which might be interesting for some.
    Then there are the audio output settings that let one choose to enable/disable the S/PDIF coaxial output, select DoP over S/PDIF (it is actually a coaxial output and no TOSLINK) (I don’t know of many DACs that support this though, but it is an interesting feature), change the digital filter settings (sharp and slow roll-off) and last but not least switch the output phase by 180° which is the first time that I see this feature in a digital audio player (another device that I know of that supports this feature is the ifi Audio micro iDSD DAC-Amp).
    Settings like brightness, light time, a sleep timer, languages or auto shutdown are also present, but there is more: as previously mentioned, there are two user-configurable buttons on the top of the DAP, and both can be individually programmed (nothing, Play mode, Lyrics, S/PDIF (the digital coaxial output), Digital Filters, Output phase, Explorer, System settings, Now playing, return key), which is a very handy feature. But that was not all and you can lock the buttons and volume dial, select the USB mode (storage or DAC), set a USB audio delay (long or short) and choose whether the L3 Pro should run on its own battery’s power or by the host device when using it as USB DAC.

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    What is left is the “Now Playing” screen that is quite basic however shows all the information one needs (album cover, resolution/bit depth, Play Mode, Artist, Track Title, Time Bar, Track Counter). Besides the virtual playback control buttons on the screen, there is no other possible interaction and I think it would be more up to date if clicking on the Play Mode indicator actually changed it instead of having to go to the settings. Not being able to use the time bar for manual fast forward/reverse is a little inconvenient, too, however using the (virtual or physical) buttons already gives you a good speed.
    What is a little sad as well is the lack of gapless playback even with FLAC files (there is a small gap between seamlessly recorded/mastered tracks).
     

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    Besides the screen, one can also use the playback control buttons on the side of the player to navigate through the menus, so almost the entire DAP can actually be controlled without the touchscreen at all. And I also think that this is how the UI was originally designed, as when we have a list or are in the settings with so many options that it would require scrolling, one cannot simply use their finger to fluently swipe up and down but has to use two small virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen to go to the next “page”.

    It’s not that the UI was bad or so (I actually quite like its sleek, minimally and well-structured design and especially the super responsive touchscreen/interface), but it is the little things that sum up and make up for some inconvenience (tedious scrolling through folders, folder view not alphabetically sorted, location of the media library update button, only FAT32 support, no touch swiping, almost no interaction on the “Now Playing” screen) despite the smart options in the settings. Yes, I actually quite like the design and simplicity of the UI, but there is still quite some room for improvements on the software side.

    Overall it, while it is nice to see Luxury & Precision slightly having tweaked the L3 Pro on the build and hardware side, the UI leaves some things to be desired (especially a correct order in folder view) and while I value that they have built the software from scratch unlike many other manufacturers, I really think that it would probably better and easier for them to take a pre-built firmware or use Android/Linux as the base.

    As an important notice for all readers, although the firmwares of the L3 and L3 Pro look exactly the same and also have the same features, different firmware files have to be downloaded and installed for each player.


    Battery Life:

    For the battery test, I connected the cheap Superlux HD668B headphones to the single-ended output and set the volume to 30. Then I played circa 70% CD format (16 bit/44.1 kHz) and 30% 24 bit Hi-Res FLAC files. Occasionally, I unlocked the screen and navigated through the menus.
    With this test method, I was able to get pretty exactly 10 hours and 10 minutes of playback time which is similar to what I achieved with the L3.
    On a related note, on the software side, the battery indicator turns red way too early although the battery has still got use for more than at least two to three hours. This could be probably and hopefully fixed with future firmware releases.


    Sound:

    On the technical side, the L3 Pros has got a different OP amp compared to the L3 as well as an additional voltage stabilisation circuit. Also, the Line Out was refined as some users liked to use their headphones directly out of it for some reason.
    The voltage output over the single-ended and balanced output are however similar on both players to be better suited for portable headphones.

    Frequency Response, Output Impedance (single-ended):

    Not much surprisingly, the unloaded frequency response is perfectly linear and therefore as it should be:

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    Boosting difficulty, let’s measure multi-BA in-ears that require a source with as low as possible output impedance (preferably below 1 Ohm) to be driven without frequency deviation. Connecting my usual load reference for measurements, the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 that reacts quite critically when not driven by a source below 1 Ohm, this is what we get:

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    Using some other in-ears (multi-BA, hybrid and dynamic), we get the same result that leads to the conclusion that the output impedance in single-ended mode is not very low by modern standards but also not very high either:

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    The calculated output impedance in single-ended mode should be somewhere around 3+ Ohms which is more or less okay however not good or as low as it could be – it is neither really bad nor exceptional but also not ideal at all for multi-driver in-ears. It could be definitely lower though for modern standards. Whether it is still okay to drive multi-driver in-ears with varying impedance response or not remains a personal decision, as everybody has their own feeling of what is still right or already wrong. For critical and stationary use with multi-driver in-ears, it would be definitely above my personal, subjective threshold because with most multi-driver in-ears, the resulting frequency deviation is definitely noticeable for me. With most dynamic driver in-ears (that usually have a ruler-flat impedance response that does not care about the output impedance, as it can be seen with the example of the Sennheiser IE 800 used as load above,) and full-sized headphones however, it is perfectly fine as those do not really care about the source’s output impedance because of their flat or high impedance response, so their frequency response is not altered by the L3 Pro. And for portable, non-critical listening, the output impedance would be almost okay for me (it is a borderline decision and for me, it neither falls into the category of being really low nor quite high although it isn’t ideal).
    On the more individual side though, I think many people won’t care about the L3’s output impedance in single-ended mode much at all, as devices like the AK240 measure identically in single-ended mode with the SE846 as load (source for this is a measurement in a German audio community).
    Well, at least there is no low frequency roll-off with low impedance loads like the Colorfly C4 had.

    As the main headphone amplifier chip (Crown 1812A) is identical to the one used in the L3 non-Pro, it is not much surprising to see that the measured frequency deviation results with complex multi-driver loads are identical for both players.

    Hiss:

    This is where the L3 Pro really shines, just like its non-Pro brother: Being a hiss-sensitive person myself and listening to music at rather low volume, a hiss-free output is important to me for more critical/concentrated listening.
    The Ostry KC06A is a heck of a hiss-revealing in-ear and although it is just a dynamic driver model, it reveals hiss more easily than some of my most sensitive and hiss-revealing in-ears which are the Shure SE846 and Pai Audio MR3. It is that sensitive that it uncovers every little bit of hiss if it is present.
    And using exactly this in-ear, the L3 Pro is in the same perfect hiss-free ballpark as my iBasso DX90, The Luxury & Precision L3 and last but not least my gain-reduced Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII. Having said that, it also beats very good devices like the Cowon Plenue D I once used to own or the Chord Mojo that I also bought not long ago. While the Chord and Cowon are already really good when it comes to hiss performance, there is some relatively slight hiss audible with very sensitive in-ear monitors. With the DX90, gain-reduced UHA-6S.MKII and the two Luxury & Precision L3 Pro and non-Pro iterations however, there is no hiss. Nothing. Just silence.
     
    Transparency, Precision, Soundstage:

    Now to the very subjective part of my review. My opinion and experience regarding the sound signature of source devices and amplifiers goes like this: there is an existing audible difference between various devices, but it shouldn’t be overrated – simply because the basic character of a headphone won’t be completely changed (if the circuit follows a clean design philosophy), but sometimes rather “shaped” a little and is extremely subtle in many cases and is (in most cases) just slightly present (if even) and not huge like totally different classes.
    So let’s continue with my subjective impressions and observations in single-ended mode:

    Because of the higher than ideal output impedance for multi-driver in-ears, I only used dynamic in-ears as well as full-sized headphones for this test, as it is my usual testing method when I detect a tonality deviation with my multi-driver in-ears. The models I then used were the DUNU Titan 5, Sennheiser IE 800, Ostry KC06A, Audeze LCD-X and Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00, as all of them have got a flat impedance response or much higher impedance than what would be relevant.
    And as you will notice, the following description is more or less the same as for the L3 non-Pro, as I wouldn’t bet money on telling both apart in a truly blinded test while I meant to detect some slight differences in side-by-side listening, but more about that later in the “Comparisons” section.

    What I am hearing then is a basically very clean and especially neutral sound. Beginning with the in-ears first, there are good dynamics and transparency, good control, more than enough power for high listening levels and a clean, hiss-free background. The timbre over the whole frequency response is neutral and natural, however the upper end might appear slightly bright to people who were used to less hiss-free sources because of the L3 Pro’s better clarity due to the missing noise (even if it was subtly in the background with the other players, hiss can change the perceived tonality/timbre of a source). Note attack and treble are neither on the aggressive nor smooth side and seem just right.
    The bass subjectively appears a little bit more on the fuller, more impactful side to me, which might be because it is very slightly less arid that some other devices’, however not slow or soft at all (we are still speaking about really small differences and I am not sure if I would be able to spot these in a truly blinded test in addition to the volume-matching I am already doing). This might have to do with the slightly reduced damping factor with the ~ 3 Ohm output.
    The soundstage appears relatively average in terms of expansion, with a well-rounded width to depth ratio. Instruments seem nicely separated from each other and nicely layered in the imaginary room.
    Summarised, there is nothing bad to say about the sound at all and it conveys with a very clean and neutral yet not aggressive or sterile sound.

    Moving on to the above-mentioned rather easy to drive full-sized headphones, there is easily still enough power for higher listening levels. The dynamic headphones basically sound like from most sources but there is a small difference with the LCD-X, that, while it sounds really good and controlled in the mids and treble, has got a very slightly softer bass attack compared to sources like an iBasso DX90 or Geek Out IEM 100, although it is more arid and less soft than from sources like a MacBook Air – but again, we are talking about really subtle differences when the volume is properly matched.

    For more demanding headphones like a Sennheiser HD 800 or Beyerdynamic DT880 Edition 600 Ohm, the regular output will likely be too weak for people who prefer higher listening levels, so they should either look at a different DAP, external amp think of using the L3 Pro’s balanced output if 2.5 V RMS are enough for their needs.

    Line Out, Digital Out, USB-DAC, Balanced Out:

    The Line Out puts out a neutral and clean signal like most other DAPs’ Line Outs do as well. Comparing the LO signal of the L3 Pro to most other DAPs’ LO signal, feeding the Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII and my stationary hi-fi chain with the Swans M1 speakers that barely get any use at all anymore, I cannot make out a reproducible difference in contrast to the (sometimes more and sometimes less present) small differences between the DAPs’ headphone outputs. In fact, I have experienced only very few devices that sound slightly “coloured” over the line out, so it wasn’t too surprising that the L3 Pro sounded uncoloured and neutral over its line out as well.

    Setting the L3 Pro to “self power supply”, activating the USB DAC and using the Apple LOD, I can use it with my iPhone. The volume is then controlled by the L3 Pro, however there is unfortunately no volume level indicator anymore. This is where I would like a firmware update that adds a volume indicator in DAC mode.
    Connecting it to my Windows 7 laptop, the drivers are automatically installed the first time, and each time I connect the L3 Pro to it again, it is immediately recognised. Plug & Play at its finest – though, that is not entirely true: always when I connected the L3 Pro to the PC for the first time, it was immediately recognised but did not play any sound at first. Hence, I had to disconnect and reconnect it again in order to make the USB DAC work as intended.
    After rebooting the DAP, it also does not keep its DAC settings, so that is something to look into with future firmware releases.
    So in this regard, it shares these minor flaws with the L3 in DAC mode.

    Using a coaxial cable and enabling the digital output in the settings, one can use the L3 Pro as transport device to connect an external DAP. Using my Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII and Chord Electronics Mojo, it worked flawlessly.

    Something more or less unique at this price point is the 2.5 mm Balanced output with a fully balanced internal structure as well. While I am no fan of using upgrade/aftermarket cables (because of my “all stock” philosophy) and therefore have no such aftermarket cables for my in-ears, my Audeze LCD-X arrived with an additional Balanced cable and I therefore I used the adapter I already soldered for the L3.
    Like with all Balanced outputs, the L3 Pro is able to put out more Voltage over the balanced output and can therefore drive more demanding headphones to higher volume levels.
    Reducing my LCD-X’s volume to match the single-ended volume (I did close enough to a 0.28 dB difference of the SE output over the Balanced one), I noticed a slightly more arid bass response as well as a somewhat larger soundstage compared to the single-ended output (not by a huge margin though; the difference was still rather small as there are no “big night and day” differences between various audio players).
    However, the Fidue Sirius comes with a balanced terminated cable right from the factory, so it was the one in-ear that I could also use for testing the balanced TRRS output. And what I heard with the Audeze was also what I noticed in combination with the Fidue: the soundstage was somewhat more spacious as well as better rendered and the bass was a little more arid – probably because of a lower output impedance and therefore superior damping factor? By the way, despite the higher output power, I did not experience any hiss with the Fidue in Balanced mode.
    The difference between single-ended and balanced output is slightly less present with the L3 Pro than with the L3, hence I would say the first has got the slightly better single-ended output than its non-Pro brother.

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    Comparisons:
    Needless to say, the devices were metrologically volume-matched as close as possible. Because it would have been too easy to tell the DAPs apart with multi-driver in-ears because of their different output impedance, I only used dynamic in-ears with flat impedance response (Sennheiser IE 800, Ostry KC06A with treble tips, DUNU Titan 5), the Etymotic ER-4S and full-sized headphones (Audeze LCD-X, Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00) for these direct comparison. For listening, I used the single-ended output because I am no fan of aftermarket cables (for regular listening above though, I used my LCD-X in balanced mode with an adapter cable).
    As you will see, most of the comparisons are similar to what I have written in my L3 review to a high degree (but not entirely). You can believe me that I have performed all of the direct comparisons and taken the silly time to properly volume-match the devices, however as the L3 and L3 Pro sound extremely similar when directly compared, I don’t see where the point would be if I re-wrote all of the comparisons just to have them express the exact same content.

     

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    FiiO X3 (first generation):
    On the sound and design side, the X3 really does a lot right and offers really good value for the money. However, my gripe with it is the operation/navigation: the button layout is a little odd and navigating through the menus is somewhat cumbersome with the last and final firmware update.

    The L3 Pro has got the superior button layout and is easier to operate and navigate, however the FiiO has got exFAT support and sorts the folders in directory view correctly whereas the Luxury & Precision does not (at least not with workarounds). The X3 has got a really low output impedance whereas the L3 Pro’s is higher but offers a balanced output.
    Hiss-wise, the L3 Pro is quiet whereas the X3 has some moderate hiss with rather sensitive in-ears.
    The L3 Pro appears to have a little more clarity with super sensitive in-ears because of the absence of hiss, with similar bass speed and a similar soundstage expansion with probably the slightly more precise spatial cues on the Luxury & Precision’s side.

    iBasso DX80:
    The DX80 is a heck of a DAP with its very powerful output, two micro SD card slots, two different digital outputs, touchscreen and really low output impedance. And I have to say that iBasso has done an excellent job regarding the user interface – the only thing it would lack for perfection would be a search function and sorting by the album artist tag. A negative side of the DAC chip implementation and high power output however are a quite high noise floor and occasionally appearing low frequency “thump” when pressing play/pause or changing tracks.

    Regarding visual appearance, I somewhat prefer the L3 Pro’s silver aluminium looks, along with its metal buttons in contrast to the DX80’s plastic side planks.
    UI- and operation-wise though, the DX80 does a much better job for me, with the better navigation and more intuitive operation.
    While both have got a really nice and large touchscreen, the DX80’s has got the better resolution.
    The iBasso has got the more fine-grained volume control and more powerful output.

    Both have the same DAC chips, as well as fully balanced internal architecture however the DX80 does not have a balanced output.
    With sensitive in-ears like the KC06A and Titan 5, the DX80 shows quite noticeable hiss for me. With less sensitive in-ears like the IE 800 however, there is just an extremely faint bit of hiss left.
    Sound-wise, the iBasso is somewhat warmer and smoother, more “organic” sounding. Nonetheless, it has got the very slightly higher transparency yet having less upper end clarity because of the noise floor. The DX80’s soundstage seems to be a bit more spacious and the bass attack is a little faster as well, likely mainly due to the better damping factor.

    It is not easy to say which one I personally prefer more sound-wise with sensitive in-ears – the DX80 has got a really low output impedance but is hissy and the L3 Pro alters the frequency response of multi-driver in-ears because of its output impedance but is hiss-free. With dynamic driver in-ears, I very personally slightly prefer the L3 Pro.
    On the UI side though, I would go all the way for the DX80.

    Shanling M2:
    I was sceptical about the operation and UI at first but the M2 turned out to be a DAP with very intuitive and easy operation for me. Where it could be definitely improved for me is the headphone output for sensitive multi-driver in-ears, as it is quite hissy and has got a rather high output impedance. While it delivers a really powerful output, I personally find it much better suited as transport DAP over the Line Out or digital output. For this comparison however, I will of course use the headphone output for listening.

    While the M2 is beautifully made and I like its design a lot, the L3 Pro takes it even a step further and feels more luxurious and solid, also having the larger and more beautiful (yet less resolving) screen.
    Operation- and UI-wise, I have to admit to prefer the Shanling as it seems smoother and more intuitive, and is easier to navigate.
    With the DUNU and Ostry, it is quite easy to tell both apart (audible hiss with M2). With the IE 800 it becomes more difficult and there is just very faint hiss with the M2.
    Despite being hissy (hiss usually leads to a somewhat smoother perception), I personally find the M2 to have a slightly more aggressive/bright attack in the treble while still sounding neutral.
    Soundstage-wise, I perceive the M2 as being more spacious while the L3 Pro has got the somewhat higher transparency yet minimally slower bass attack despite the M2 having the higher output impedance and therefore worse damping factor. Again, we are definitely not talking about night and day differences but rather nuances.

    UI- and operation-wise, I would pick the M2 but the L3 Pro would probably be my choice when it is about directly driving portable headphones and dynamic in-ears (slightly more transparency, no hiss, lower yet not perfect either output impedance).

    iBasso DX90:
    While the DX90’s UI is rather simple, I absolutely love it for its qualities as a standalone-DAP: its (internally also fully balanced architecture however without balanced output) sound output is very clean, transparent and crisp, hiss-free and the headphone output has got a very low output impedance, along with a very fine-grained volume control. The only thing it could benefit from is a little more spatial depth compared to its soundstage’s width.

    Build-wise, the Luxury & Precision looks and feels more luxurious.
    The L3 Pro has got the larger and slightly better resolving touchscreen. Navigating through lists is however easier with the DX90 because of its better scrolling and correct alphabetical sorting. What the L3 Pro however does better, UI-wise, is a track counter on the “now playing” screen that the iBasso unfortunately lacks.
    The DX90 has got the more fine-grained volume control.

    Moving to the sound side, both are not far apart in terms of subjectively perceived “timbre” but the DX90 has got the slightly more aggressive note attack in the treble, giving it that typical “SABRE-glare” and making it appear slightly leaner, with the L3 Pro having the more “neutral” and “round” perceived treble attack.
    Both DAPs are pretty much identically perfect when it is about hiss/noise performance.
    To my ears, the DX90 has got the somewhat quicker bass attack whereas the L3 Pro appears a little fuller in the bass due to the very slightly less arid attack which is probably caused by the lower damping factor because of the output impedance. In terms of “transparency”, I see the DX90 as being slightly ahead.
    Moving to the soundstage, I perceive the DX90’s as being wider while having less depth and the L3 Pro’s as being more rounded with less width than the DX90 but a more circular depth to width ration.
    Again, in the end, using dynamic in-ears and headphones, the difference is quite small, objectively speaking.

    Luxury & Precision L3:
    The software/UI is identical on both players and the output power is almost identical as well.
    In contrast to the L3 which comes with 16 GB of internal memory, the L3 Pro has got 32 GB built in, what I personally find very nice to have.
    Regarding looks, while I am really digging the L3’s carbon fibre back panel, the L3 Pro’s wooden back looks at least as beautiful if not even more attractive to me and feels very luxurious and well. Besides the L3 Pro being made from slightly darker aluminium, it is the engraved buttons that really add an even higher feeling of great build quality. In addition, the L3 Pro’s volume dial has steps that feel and sound a little crisper, nonetheless it is easier to turn than the L3’s, so you have to be more careful with the L3 Pro not to accidentally access the volume control dial (at least that’s the case with my two units).
    By the way, the L3 Pro’s leather case also to look and feel slightly more elegant than the L3’s, but that is totally a matter of individual preference.

    Regarding sound, both are almost identical and at least pretty similar. With my observations of which I am not sure if they are reproducible or not, I definitely wouldn’t bet money on telling both apart in a truly blinded test which would be the next step after the volume matching I am already doing.
    Being able to compare both side-by-side for a couple of hours during the course of a few days, I would say that the L3 Pro has probably got the slightly more precise instrument separation, slightly higher transparency and also the very slightly more arid and defined bass over the single-ended output. Speaking about slight differences, the L3 non-Pro probably also has the slightly more “aggressive” treble edge with the L3 Pro being slightly more rounded but not to the extent of the Chord Mojo that I sometimes find to be a bit too smooth and rounded in the highs so that it lacks some aggressiveness that should be there with cymbal splashes.
    Over the balanced output, I have the slight feeling that the L3 Pro has got the slightly more precise spatial cue over the L3s, but don’t quote me on that.
    What I actually want to express is that both sound equally good with the L3 Pro being probably better over the single-ended output by a smidgen, mainly regarding bass quality.
    The thing is that clean audio really is no wizardry these days and if one device was really quite easily audibly inferior to the other in a correctly set up and volume-matched direct comparison with rapid switching back and forth, it would be very poorly designed. And none of the two Luxury & Precision audio players nor the others used for comparison are really poorly designed, so in a properly volume-matched comparison, it is not much surprising to see the differences not being “night and day” but varying between “indistinguishable” and “rather small”.
    So when I had to pick the differences between the L3 and L3 Pro, I would say that the latter probably has the slightly less aggressive treble edge, minimally more precise spatial cues as well as the slightly more arid bass in single-ended mode.


    Conclusion:

    The L3 already sounds impeccable and the L3 Pro does at least just as good.
    Volume-matched as closely as possible and compared over a few hours, I would say that the L3 Pro (in single-ended mode) probably has got the slightly more arid bass, probably the slightly more precise spatial cues, and probably the slightly more rounded, less raw treble edge and very slightly higher transparency. But don’t quote me on that, as I wouldn’t be sure if I was able to tell both apart in a truly blinded test or not. What’s to say though is that both players’ sound is very good.
    But they are still not perfect on the sound circuit side and could benefit from a lower output impedance, preferably clearly under one Ohm, to be usable for all kinds of (multi-driver) in-ears without frequency deviation.

    The design and visual as well as haptic presentation are excellent and really deliver “luxury and precision”. And saying this, the L3 Pro also feels and looks even more premium than its brother, the L3, and the doubled internal memory is quite nice, too.
    Besides exterior design, the interior is also pretty nice with a fully balanced architecture and a 2.5 mm balanced TRRS headphone jack that I find to sound a little more refined compared to the 3.5 mm single-ended output.

    Leaving all the good things aside for a moment, the software is definitely neither up to date compared to the competition nor ideal at all yet. While the response speed is super high and touch inputs are immediately recognised, things like the lack of touch swiping through folders/lists and the lack of correct sorting in folder browse view that sorts the folders by the date they were added instead of their first letter make the overall nice presentation appear less nice.

    So who do I recommend the L3 Pro to? Everybody who is using dynamic driver in-ears/headphones and/or doesn’t care about some frequency deviation with multi-BA in-ears due to the audio player’s not fully ideal output impedance in single-ended use, people who love a clean, neutral, transparent and especially entirely hiss-free sound, enthusiasts who love to have a fully balanced internal architecture with a balanced 2.5 mm output socket as well as music lovers who don’t mind having a user interface/software that is not ideal yet.

     All in all, I come to a final rating of 3.575 out of 5 possible stars.


    Details of my final rating/conclusion:
    - 0.3 stars for the output impedance that could be a bit lower in single-ended mode
    - 0.25 stars for no “album artist” sort function and other little gripes (many DAPs unfortunately lack this one, but having a good folder structure is an even better workaround)
    - 0.3 stars for a yet somewhat unfinished seeming software and no alphabetical sorting in folder browse view plus lacking gapless playback
    - 0.3 stars for a somewhat unrefined operation (cannot scroll through lists with fingers but need to use virtual buttons to scroll through “pages”)
    - 0.2 stars for only FAT32-formatted micro SD card support
    - 0.075 stars for the very slightly soft bass in single-ended mode
      hqssui, JohnYang, twister6 and 5 others like this.
    1. Layman1
      Thanks for this professional and informative review, much appreciated!
      I'd personally like to also see twin (micro)SD card slots, but that's my only criticism of the hardware.
       
      Otherwise, am disappointed to hear about the software limitations you described (gapless, touch swiping, etc).

      Since you're in touch with the manufacturers (I assume), have they given any indication as to whether they intend to respond to the issues you've highlighted? It would be great if we could hear news of a planned firmware update to fix them!
      Layman1, Nov 9, 2016
    2. HiFiChris
      @Layman1
       
      As far as I know, it was mentioned that touch swiping is one of the next things on their agenda. The best source for updates is the L3/L3 Pro thread.
       
      As far as I also know, the whole software and UI was programmed from scratch without taking anything else as basis, and by one person only if I remember correctly. While this is quite remarkable, I am somewhat concerned that an otherwise good DAP and company might get lost among other DAPs with really good firmware implementations because of shortcomings such as the lack of touch swiping for scrolling or that folders are not automatically sorted by their name. 
      HiFiChris, Nov 9, 2016