Fiio X3 / iBass DX50 / Astell and Kern AK100 / Cowon D20 / Colorfly C3 Review
Nov 19, 2013 at 8:41 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 4


New Head-Fier
Aug 19, 2013
I wrote this for my work but thought it might be of slight interest to some users on here as there's potentially handy info amongst the waffle (please excuse the apocalypse aspect as this was written to specified theme):

Yes, that’s right, the time has come and the audiophile apocalypse is upon us – if you listen carefully you can even hear the thundering hooves of the Five Horseman bearing down, ready to make battle for the accolade of best sounding player. Mountains will crumble and the ground will shake as these mighty behemoths clash for your affections.
OK, in all seriousness and with scary quotes about world-ending lambs aside you sometimes need to be careful when selecting a premium digital audio player. There’s a great deal of choice and competition nowadays and while all of these players sound good some are much better than others or offer interesting features to expand your listening choices. There’s also in some cases a fair amount of cost involved so you really need to be certain that you’re getting as much value for your money as possible.
So like Dante Alighieri before me, please allow me to take you by the virtual hand and guide you safely through this apocalyptic battlefield where titans and gods rage in all their vitriol. Watch out for flying brimstone and don’t feed Cthulhu.
The First Seal - Fiio X3 8GB Audiophile Digital Music Player and Recorder
All too often our mind-set is that the more money you throw at something the better the results. While this is true for many things in life – an expensive car is going to give you better performance than a fifth-hand rust bucket for example – but it’s not always as clear cut when it comes to audio performance, no matter what some people choose to believe.
The Fiio X3 is an absolute dynamo of a player which, if nothing else, clearly demonstrates that great sound doesn’t have to incur a ridiculous price tag. Considering the fact that it’s a reasonable £159.00, and therefore one of the lower priced entries in this list, it delivers the same level of performance as much more expensive high-end digital audio players and actually has one or two nifty little tricks up its sleeves which other brands haven’t even considered.
This little beast will play almost any audio format, including Apple’s ALAC lossless format, and is even capable of playing back 192kHz/24bit master tape quality audio. Moreover, the X3 supports TF cards up to 64GB in size; which is massively helpful considering there’s only 8GB of space on board the player and this will be eaten up in no time at all if you use lossless files.
If that wasn’t enough the Fiio X3 isn’t just a high quality audio player – it’s also an Asynchronous USB DAC. In layman’s terms this means you can connect it to your computer and actually use it to control the tone of your music and also radically improve the audio output power. While this feature might not be of much interest to people who just want a great sounding portable audio device it’s a wonderful addition to the arsenal of any self-respecting audio enthusiast. Not to mention that the fact the X3 does this means you can avoid needing to buy a standalone USB DAC, like the Fiio E07K, and save yourself a fair bit of money.
There’s also ports aplenty on the X3 (dedicated line out, coaxial out and headphone out) so it really doesn’t matter if you’re using it on the go, connected to a home HiFi or even pumping out music from your computer – no matter how you want to enjoy your music you can expect epic sound quality.
Something else which definitely makes the Fiio X3 well worth considering is the on-board DAC chip. Fiio, like iBasso and Astell & Kern, use the Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip to deliver top-tier sound quality which definitely highlights that you don’t need to spend big for unrivalled audio. Moreover, Fiio use a separate AD8397 amplifier chip which is a high current amp, closely resembling a Class A amplifier, capable of outputting 300mA into 16ohm earphones. Why is this important? Well quite simply it means that even if your earphones aren’t the top of the range they’ll be driven to the full extent of their abilities.
Really the only drawback I could spot with the X3 is that the 3000mAh battery will currently only last for around 10 hours (liable to be less with lossless music); although Fiio do claim that in the future they can prolong playtime through optimising the firmware. I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait patiently for them to get around to that.
When all is said and done the Fiio X3 is without a doubt one of the best sounding players out at the moment and for an unbelievable price too.
The Second Seal - iBasso DX50 24/192 HiFi Audiophile Digital Audio Player with Lossless support & Wolfson DAC
The iBasso DX50 is all set to take the world of high quality digital audio players by storm and considering the sound quality, design and features on offer it’s looking increasingly likely that this player will soon be one of the main competitors in this audio heaven footrace. Thinking about it I don’t actually think we have ever had more people asking when we were going to be stocking a particular product as we have with this demon of a player.
Under the hood the iBasso DX50 isn’t radically different to the Fiio X3 or Astell & Kern AK100, since all three use the same awesome WM8740 Wolfson DAC chip and will all play back basically any format you can choose throw at them, but the DX50 is without a doubt the perfect balance between cost and performance. 
For many people the iBasso DX50 is the player they’ve been waiting for and is considered by some to be the pinnacle of premium digital audio players and is most likely the best placed to bring out the best of your music collection thanks to the well thought out additional features which will appeal to both HiFi enthusiasts and people who simply want a stunning audio player to carry around.
Getting the ball rolling is the sound quality of the player – everything I blasted through my earphones from the DX50 sounded absolutely immense with a lovely overall tonality. I was able to pick up on the different frequencies effectively and there was also a stunning level of detail to the tracks I was playing and even the bands who had clearly recorded on a tight budget sounded excellent with punchy bass and clear middle and high frequencies. Moreover, I generally don’t use lossless files (I don’t personally hear a difference between FLAC, WAV, MP3 etc so just stick to MP3 320kbps) and if how good these sounded is anything to go on then those of you who benefit from the purported higher sound quality of lossless audio are no doubt in for a face-cracking smile in the not too distant future.
However, as good as the iBasso sounded to my ears at the end of the day it uses the same DAC chip as the AK100 and X3 so sounds near identical to these. What the iBasso has which the other two don’t offer though is the fact that you can determine the gain level thanks to the three-way switch at the bottom of the player. Enabling the higher gain modes brings whole new life to your music, pushing it seemingly above the capabilities of the nearest competition, and most importantly means that the DX50 has more than enough output to drive all but the most power hungry of headphones and works effectively when hooked up to home stereos.
Speaking of connecting the player to home HiFi systems it’s great to see that iBasso have been incredibly sensible and have included enough output ports to please everyone. Not only is there a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top of the player there’s a nice little Coaxial out nestled just next door and there’s even a dedicated line out socket at the bottom of the player; really it’s just a shame that the DX50 doesn’t act like a USB DAC like the Fiio X3 does as then it would be a total winner.
The design of the iBasso DX50 is also a definite winner and one of the first thoughts to occur to me when I saw one in the flesh for the first time was that it would be easy to control. I believe the reason for this is because of the fairly large skip track and play buttons which sit just below the touch-screen. While it might be quite an obvious statement the fact that these buttons are located at the front of the player and are large this means that you can easily control music playback from your pocket without needing to feel your way around the sides of the player for a small button. There are also solid volume buttons on the DX50 so again it’s really simple to fiddle with the volume without needing to take the player out of your pocket.
The user interface is quite similar to the AK100 too as all both seem to use a skinned version of the Android music player (the X3 does too but it looks a bit niftier) so navigation is quite straight forwards being predominantly text based. Moreover, the 2.4” IPS touch-screen is very responsive so provided you have good finger aim you shouldn’t struggle to select artists and can scroll through the music list fairly quickly. Again though I’m wondering why they’ve bothered with a high quality screen since the DX50 won’t support videos or pictures – we’ll have to chalk this up to them wanting a decent user experience I suppose.
There’s also a curious, but very welcome, feature on offer which we should quickly chat about and that’s the OTG function. This is a feature which I’ve not seen for a few years now and effectively means that you can connect a USB portable hard drive to the DX50 and play back the music you have stored there. This feature might not be used too often or by every DX50 user but the potential it offers is astounding as you could simply load up a portable HDD with hundreds of tracks and plug and play to your heart’s content.
The iBasso DX50 is a wonderful player and it’s pretty hard to beat when you look at what’s on offer and the very reasonable price. Furthermore, the USB on-the-go support could come in very useful since you could use the player to act as a mini-HiFi with access to hundreds of tracks. Moreover, the high output level and sound quality make it a joy to listen to and you’d be hard pressed to find another player which will do so much for your money.
The Third Seal - Astell and Kern AK100 Personal MQS & Ultimate Portable Hi-fi Music Player
I’ve often been asked by people what player I would buy if money weren’t an object or I simply had to get the best sounding player going no matter the cost; well now I kind of have an answer for them in the form of the Astell and Kern AK100. Basically without getting bogged down by the nitty-gritty, if the rest of the players on this list are BMWs then the AK100 is a Porsche.
Sonically the AK100 is very impressive and is definitely one of the best sounding players available at the moment. The overall sound comes across as being bold, with very respectable bass response, yet still subtle and detailed enough to retain the musicality of your music. The great dynamics of the sound mean that no matter if you listen to stadium rock of gentle acoustic folk you will be able to hear all the little details coming clearly through rather than fighting to be heard. This is all thanks to the inclusion of the Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip, which is very much the mainstay of these higher quality DAPs, and ensures that your music sounds as good as it possibly can.
What is most impressive about the AK100 though is something which many people might find a bit uninteresting when talking about which are effectively the Demigods of MP3 players – memory size. I know that this isn’t the most glamorous feature to talk about, or even get excited about, when talking about products designed with little else in mind than elevating your music enjoyment to levels never before reached but it is extremely important. The reason for this is incredibly simple: high quality audio formats take up reams more space than MP3 files so if you want to encode all of your songs in to a lossless format like FLAC or WAV then you’re going to need lots of space. The AK100 has 32GB of built in memory and if that wasn’t enough it also has a dual Micro SD card slot built in to the bottom of the case; meaning it is capable of providing 96GB of storage in total. While the Fiio X3 and iBasso DX50 both also feature Micro SD card slots (supporting up to 64GB and 2TB cards respectively) neither have such huge storage space immediately available from the off and as handy as memory card expansion is it’s great not having to rush off and by a high capacity card straight away when you realise how large your music collection really is.
Build quality and design are also definitely worth talking about as the AK100 is a clear winner on both counts. The shell of the player is made from brushed aluminium and this not only lends some nice weight to the player in your hand but gives the impression that it will stand up to a little bit of rough love. The design of the player also utilises the dual control method very well as there are solid buttons for skipping tracks or pausing music so you don’t need to rely on the touch-screen to quickly change tracks plus the Optical output and dual card slots are easy to access. The only complaint I’ve heard about the AK100 is the volume knob, which is located on the right hand side of the player, where some people are understandably worried about snapping this off in their pockets. While I can certainly see why this might worry some users, as the knob does noticeably stick out from the side of the player, it does feel fairly strong – plus it’s a nice little touch which gives the AK100 an almost ‘old school’ feel and makes the volume very easy to change.  
Perhaps the best part of the design of this player is the user interface. Again, not something which is often considered greatly when playing high quality audio is involved but certainly something well worth thinking about considering that you will need to get on with this player for some time to come and that’s not even getting in to how much it costs. Suffice to say that while audio quality is definitely the driving force behind the AK100, iRiver have clearly spent a little bit of time thinking about the user experience. Thanks to iRiver taking a simple approach to the UI on the AK100 selecting music is a simple matter of pressing the obvious list button and then navigating through the easy to read text on screen from there. Effectively there are no gimmicky menu structures or needless graphics in sight and as such you can simply get on with selecting and enjoying your tracks without any worry about your next expedition through a garbled menu in a desperate hunt for a song to play.
There’s plenty of gravy to compliment the fine roast beef which is the AK100 and while some features are very welcome and will almost certainly be of use at some point – such as the inclusion of Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP/HFP for high quality wireless audio and the support of 24bit/192kHz FLAC or Mastering Quality Sound files – there are definitely others which give the impression they’ve only been included to help justify the price tag. For instance the AK100 uses a 2.4” LCD IPS colour screen does seem incredibly useless considering the AK100 doesn’t support photos or video and the menu is predominantly white text on a black background so there’s no need for a high quality screen. In fact the only use I could really find for the touch-screen, outside of navigation anyway, was that it made the confusing equaliser on the AK100 slightly easier to use – after all it’s kind of hard to adjust the curve of a frequency without a responsive touch-screen.
The Astell and Kern AK100 leaves me feeling slightly conflicted if I am being brutally honest. As much as I love the modern design and fantastic sound quality I just can’t really work out where your money is going. After all the AK100 uses the same DAC chip as the Fiio X3 and iBasso DX50 and doesn’t really offer any radically extra play time from the battery so all three are tremendously similar – in fact the only really differences I can see are the on-board memory, dual Micro SD card slots and Bluetooth 3.0 and while these are most welcome they don’t totally account for the large price difference.
That said if you’re looking for a player which will play music brilliantly, has slightly longer battery life than some of the competition, and an awful lot of initial storage space then the AK100 would be the one to look at. While it’s a lot more expensive than the nearest competitors it looks unbelievably stylish, sounds amazing and does have a few tricks up its sleeve, such as Bluetooth 3.0, so would be a great investment.
After all what is a Porsche 911 other than a more expensive and really, really, REALLY nice VW Beetle? 
The Fourth Seal - Cowon D20 32GB MP3 Player
Cowon have built quite a reputation for themselves over the years as they’ve been in this game for quite a while now and were one of the main brands you’d consider if you were looking for high quality audio. In fact every now and again we’ll have someone phoning up to ask us if we know any way that they can get their hands on an ancient Cowon X5 of yore; which is quite telling about how good they were in the past. Times change though and while Cowon are still one of the main brands to consider if sound quality is a big requirement they seem to have adjusted their position a little bit so they’re competing more against companies like Sony than Astell & Kern; which is probably a good decision as they can offer strong sound without charging obscene amounts of money.
The Cowon D20 is basically the latest version of the Cowon D2 from a few years back (D2 begat D2+, D2+ begat C2, C2 begat D20 is how it goes) and as well as sounding pretty great it’s highly portable with some handy features acting as a side dish. Like the Colorfly C3 it’s not quite “up there” with the likes of the DX50 or X3 but that doesn’t automatically mean it wouldn’t be pleasing to the ears and is actually a great choice if you fancy balancing sound with additional features.
The sound from the Cowon D20 is pretty strong, outputting at 29mW per channel, and comes across as being quite rounded out with decent separation between bass, mids and highs but it could still do with being a bit more dynamic than it is. This can be remedied though if you’re prepared to wade through the plethora of sound improving and manipulating tools which Cowon have lined up in the player settings. There’s a shed load of different changes you can make to the sound from the D20, so I’m not going to real them all off here, but suffice to say that these cover everything from added bass, MP3 enhancement, equalisation and various sound profiles (E.G. creating one profile for Rock music, another for Jungle and so on) . Basically with a bit of time and a little hard work from your ears you can get some great performance out of the D20.
So what about those handy features I mentioned earlier then? Sure, no problem, coming right up. First of all it’s worth pointing out that the D20 will play music for roughly 90 hours if you’re using MP3 files encoded at 320kbps so you can expect to get a fair bit of play time even if you’re using lossless files; which is definitely a big help if you’re trying to play back files like FLAC which eat through battery power in no time at all. Moreover, the helpfully long battery life will also come in to play if you have been fiddling around with the audio settings on the D20.
The Cowon D20 also features a slot for SD cards – officially supporting cards up to 32GB in size – and while many, many players offer this kind of thing nowadays they don’t all have 32GB of internal memory to begin with like the D20 does. The best bit about the memory expansion on the D20 is that the player scans the card when you turn it on and displays all the music, both on the card and on the player, in the main music menu whereas some players operate in a way where you have to select between internal and external memory. Little touches are always the best.
There is what could be considered a large drawback which worth mentioning though: the user interface. The general interface is OK as it’s mostly based around icons or text but Cowon muddle things slightly by including fiddly little icons where their function is not really apparent and occasionally will leave you gritting your teeth. The best example I can give of this is changing from one artist to another – you press the screen, then a button saying ‘open’ to bring up the music menu; from here you need to press a speech bubble to bring up a menu at the bottom to let you get back to the folder hierarchy and if this wasn’t tricky enough to do in the time you have before the menu vanishes there’s a right pointing arrow icon at the top left which many people, myself included, get caught out by as they naturally assume that’s the button to move back to the artist list.
The other thing worth bearing in mind is that Cowon will ask you to define your region when you first turn the player on and if you select the European Union option a lovely, hefty volume cap is applied (Thanks EU! How did you know that I’m incapable of deciding what is a sensible volume level for my own ears?). This can be remedied by formatting the device and going through the process again so you can select the Non-EU option but this also means you’ll need to copy all of your music across again and will lose your user defined sound settings.
Being the cheapest of all the players on this list the Cowon D20 is certainly an attractive choice, considering what you get for your money. The sound quality is very decent and there’s lots of options for fiddling with the sound to bring it in line with your own tastes; not forgetting the long battery life and memory expansion. But when you compare it to something like the iBasso DX50 or Fiio X3, which are far from being the most expensive players out there themselves, you’d be forgiven for thinking the D20 is ever so slightly lackluster. Still it’s well worth a punt if you don’t need world shattering audio quality and would rather save yourself some hard earned cash.
The Fifth Seal - COLORFLY C3 8GB MP3 HiFi Music Player
In many ways I feel a bit sorry for the Colorfly C3 as while it’s a great little player when you’re comparing it to more standard models, such as those from Samsung and Apple, it doesn’t really hold up quite as well when it comes to high-end DAPs.
The sound of the C3 is respectable but many people appear to find the overall sound signature a bit clinical and while there is a alright bass level I would have to agree that for the most part it’s a bit ‘colder’ than others. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world if you have varied music tastes, or lean more towards acoustic or classical music, but it would be noticeable if you either like strong bass or listen to music which needs a bit more punch.
 The user interface might also be considered a bit lacking as while there’s nothing wrong with manufacturers using a basic text-driven menu system (in many ways it’s a lot better than when they try to get fancy and get it totally wrong *cough* Cowon i10 *cough*) but when this is coupled with a dot-matrix screen it does feel like you’re using something designed by Casio circa 1990. Moreover, the reliance on touch-sensitive buttons, which sometimes aren’t all that responsive, does sometimes mean that it’ll take you a few presses to perform the action that you want.
Other than those two main gripes the C3 does have some good things going for it, such as its solid design and build quality. The C3 is made from metal and definitely feels like it would shrug off a fair few drops before anything serious goes wrong. Moreover, there’s a handy Micro SD card slot so you’re not stuck deciding what albums to remove when the 8GB of internal memory is full up.
Don’t get me wrong, overall the C3 is very good but it’s just not as dynamic and powerful as something like the iBasso DX50; which is only £50 more expensive*. However, if money is a big deciding factor and you could do a lot worse than picking up one of these players as while the C3 isn’t quite as good as some of the others on this list it’s got a respectable sound and a solid design.
*Price correct at the time of writing.
Whew. Finally, safe and sound after our little jaunt through the audiocalypse. We’ve seen some sights, looked at some players and even had some tea and cakes by the banks of the Sanzu River. Well…we talked about players and if you had tea and cake then I’m jealous.
Anyway, enough waffling and time to pick the winning player!
Well this is a bit of a tough one since all five players certainly have both their merits and downsides. Following my own advice about getting as much for your money as possible I would have to say that the iBasso DX50 ever so slightly comes out on top (the DX50 is also the one I’d spend my money on if that’s of any help?), since it’s the best balance between price and features, with the Fiio X3 coming in a close second.
However, whether you’re looking for a fantastic sounding player on a restricted budget or if you have all the money in the world ever any of these players would be well worth checking out and would be worthy additions to your audio arsenal.
“Long is the way, And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light”.​
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Lines 432-33​

Nov 19, 2013 at 9:42 AM Post #2 of 4
Top post, well done !
Nov 19, 2013 at 4:09 PM Post #3 of 4
Interesting review ElliotCWSC without the touch more colouration in the lower mid-range sort of descriptions. You could notice the difference between lossless and mp3 with these sort of players, all you need is a good desktop amp, a set of full size hi-fi headphones and the sort of track that benefits from not being compressed at all. You lose the brightness of mp3, the bass is improved and there is an absence of artifacts. Your review shows how different DAPs are, although they all have the UI issues the Cowon has in varying degrees. They are all similar in some respects although the Cowon has a hard time matching the other gas-guzzling players in pure sound quality. The colder sound of the Colorfly C3 makes it attractive to me as is its minimalist form and low price. The warm tube-like sound of the X3 appeals to some however. Nice comparison review of popular hi-fi players.
Dec 15, 2013 at 4:00 AM Post #4 of 4
Great review very detailed and informative.. Sort of clears of the confusion of many of us who are on the edge trying to take a plunge and jump in to audiophile dap world and are not sure which way to go.. Personally I think fiio x3 is best bang for buck ratio but you have to say dx50 is far better in looks and features though sound quality wise there aren't much differences. Ak 100 looks definitely looks best of the lot but is it really worth to spend 4or 5 times the price just to feel better in looks department is the question and thought.. However this review sort of answers many questions straight away.. Grt work keep up bro

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