PICO size with a MEGA Sound!
PROS: super small and lightweight, supports most hi-res formats, high end sound quality, drives even some demanding full size cans.
CONS: fw and app is still work in progress, no display, only 32GB internal storage.
Manufacturer website: Lotoo PAW Pico.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Lotoo is one of those manufacturers who doesn’t like to spoil its customers with frequent updates or new releases. Some companies prefer to get it done right the first time and only release new products if it’s a significant improvement or something completely different. PAW Gold (LPG) was released over 2 years ago and still being held in high regard by many audiophiles. It stood the test of time regardless of being without a touch screen, still using a proprietary DC wall charger, and lacking some functionality like USB DAC. What it has is a fantastic reference quality sound, lots of power, build-like-a-tank construction, very fast OS, and even a full-size SD card. These qualities can play an important role in future-proofing the design with no need to have a new model every 6 months.
Year and a half ago, Lotoo surprised us with another model, PAW 5000 (P5k), though I felt it was geared more toward audio enthusiast on the go, rather than hardcore audiophiles. It did take a little step back in sound quality due to a combined DAC/amp in comparison to LPG discrete DAC and amp solution, though still borrowed heavily from its big brother, reusing some key functionality and adding new features geared toward users with active lifestyle. P5k was smaller, lighter, slicker, with Bluetooth wireless support, included Sport armband, and even Sport mode to change the tempo of the playback. It was an interesting direction for Lotoo to take, trying to expose their product to a mainstream crowd. Afterward, many Lotoo fans were speculating and hoping for a new updated LPG version, but the company made it clear that original LPG is still going strong.
When rumors started to circulate about a new upcoming PAW series model, it got many audiophiles attention, and when a name Pico leaked out along with some images from one of the audio shows – it raised some eyebrows since many didn’t expect a matchbox size shell that looked like a tiny sports audio player. For sure, it looked very cute in the pictures, and it was hard to dismiss the fact that Lotoo kept their PAW name, giving a hope it still has audiophile DNA hidden somewhere under the hood. Prior to me getting a review unit of Pico, I heard a rumor that it shouldn’t be underestimated due to its tiny size and could drive even some demanding full size cans. My brief auditioning of Pico at CanJam NYC made me do a double take when I quickly realized its sound potential, despite its toyish look. Now after spending two weeks with Pico, I would like to share with you what I found.
Despite having a rather small packaging box, the list of the Features on the front and General and Audio spec on the back looked very impressive, especially mentioning of built in GPS, Motion sensor, and Bluetooth low energy (BLE) support. Plus, you get a deceiving drawing of Pico itself which didn’t look that small. You can easily get fooled by thinking this is going to be another compact audio player… until you lift the box cover.
There is a very good reason why Lotoo mentioned “ultra light weight” and “ultra small size” in the list of their features. This is not a marketing hype or exaggeration – you are dealing with a tiny matchbox size screen-less audio player with dedicated playback controls and analog volume pot. When you pick it up from the box and place it in the palm of your hand – it almost looks like a little toy. But don’t be fooled by its size.
After lifting the Pico from a secure form fitted top paper tray, underneath you will find a manual and the rest of the included accessories.
The included manual has very detailed instructions in both English and Chinese, something you want to keep handy by your side. Due to lack of a display, some of the functionality is not as intuitive, and the manual is very clear about steps you need to take to switch to Sport Mode or the firmware update, etc. I would also suggest for Lotoo to make the manual available in pdf format for download from their website.
Other included accessories are a charging/data USB cable with a common micro-USB connector (high quality construction), a soft comfortable elastic armband, and a clip attachment for the back of Pico.
You can say that Pico is geared more toward the use while exercising, biking, running, etc. While P5k was a bit awkward to wear on armband, at least for me personally, Pico is just perfect for it. The clip attachment itself is wide, almost the size of the Pico itself, and it has a nice spring-loaded action with a solid grip. The back-panel attachment is very slim and has small hooks which securely latch around Pico.
When the clip is attached, it adds very little bulk to the DAP, and all you can see is just a clip. My only small comment here, the back of Pico has port labels and the clip attachment covers these up. It’s not a big deal since we are talking about only a few of these, but perhaps these labels could be re-printed on the clip cover so you can still see them.
Design and functionality.
I have mentioned the word “tiny” quite a few times already, and to put it in a better perspective with real measurements, we are talking about 40.8mm x 46mm x 12.6mm dimensions, the smallest I have ever seen for a DAP. And it’s not just ultra small, but very light weight, thanks to a plastic durable shell which brings the weight down to only 26g. With headphones in your ears and cable connected to Pico, it’s so small and light that if you drop this audio player, it will be just dangling down from a cable, securely attached to a headphone jack. The detachable clip is very useful, something many will probably keep on permanently.
To achieve their goal of tiny size, Lotoo had to make a few compromises, including no display and no removable storage. While other PAW audio players represent your typical DAP design and functionality, Pico is a hybrid design with a combined Activity Tracker and HiFi Audio Player. Just like those small activity trackers which you wear throughout a day or during your exercising to collect the data, Pico is equipped with GPS tracker, Motion Sensor, and Bluetooth (BLE) interface to communicate with your phone/app so you can collect and track your activity data. At the current moment, the app is still work in progress (not released yet), and instead when you switch Pico to Sport Mode it can guide you with all the activity data by voice commands. The initial fw release has Sport Mode in Chinese only, and English language option should be added soon.
But you don’t have to switch to Sport Mode and can keep Pico in its default Music Mode, where all these activity tracker sensors are disabled, allowing to enjoy a hi-res audio performance and extended battery life of up to 10hrs on a single charge. I have tried Sport Mode by following detailed instructions in the manual, confirmed GPS to be locked in based on LED indicator confirmation, but couldn’t understand what the Pico was “saying” to me since English is not implemented yet. Also, in Sport Mode you can still listen to music and receive voice notifications, but music files should be stored in a Sport folder. I would like to revisit Sport Mode later once English language option is added, and probably will update my review then, but for now I will focus on Music Mode.
Going back to a design, despite a very small real estate to deal with, every control has a logical placement in order to be able to operate Pico blindly. The top of the audio player has a combined Skip Next/Prev buttons which also skip to the next/prev folder when you long press it, and a separate Play/Pause button. Buttons have a nice click action with a good feedback, and easy to feel without looking at them. Next to Play/Pause you have multi-function green/red LED which you need to pay attention to not only for colors but also a sequence of blinking. Yes, lack of display is a big limitation, but Lotoo took a full advantage of LED functionality, and the Manual describes it in all glory details.
On the right side, there is 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the left side you will find a micro-usb connector (for charging and data transfer), a Fn/Mode button which you long press to switch to Sport Mode or short press to hear Battery status. Next to it there is 3-position slider switch which either turns the power off, or turns it on while setting a playback to either random or sequential mode. These are very minimalistic controls, easy to reach and simple to remember. I know the fw is still a work in progress, and currently by default once the power is on, Pico auto-starts the playback from the last song you left off, while I suggested to Lotoo it will make more sense for user to start the playback manually instead of auto-start.
Last, but not least, is the analog volume pot. While playback controls are handled by a few buttons and you can easily access Fn/Mode button on the side, blind operation of volume is not an easy task, especially on a tiny device where its hard to operate closely placed up/down volume buttons. Here, Lotoo decided to implement a cool little volume control with a continuous rotation knob that has a nice grip, some resistance, and a precise click action as you turn it. It also has +/- volume label printed on the face of the knob so you know which clockwise/counterclockwise direction to turn.
The only problem, since it’s a continuous rotation wheel without a marker to indicate the current position – you don’t know the volume until you start playing. It was a bit of a hassle when I switched between my planar magnetic full size cans and sensitive IEMs, trying to remember to turn the volume down in order to avoid a sound blast. Perhaps Lotoo can figure out how to add a voice indicator of the volume level along with a battery status indicator (for now battery indicator is only in Chinese when you press Fn/Mode button). Also, there is an audio indication when you reach the maximum volume level. I didn’t find it necessary with IEMs, but it came in handy when trying to push Pico driving some demanding full size cans.
Overall, considering tiny footprint of this DAP and its lack of display, I think the design and controls of Pico were implemented very efficiently. I do miss the display, but after realizing the intent of this tiny DAP as a “hidden” audio source, you quickly start to appreciate its minimalistic design.
Under the hood.
Once you start playing the music, you quickly realize that Pico has the same PAW blood running through its veins. While LPG and P5k share the same DSP processor (Blackfin 514 model), for Pico they switched to another lighter DSP from the same family, Blackfin 706. Obviously, there is not much room for an audio interface with a discrete DAC and OpAmps. Instead, Lotoo used Ti3105 chip (low-power CODEC with integrated DAC and HP Amp), the same as in P5k design. But unlike P5k, to preserve the battery life Pico has a lower voltage output, though it was still sufficient to drive many different IEMs and even full size headphones.
Honestly, I’m still puzzled because Lotoo clearly states -3.5dBu @ 16ohm output level, which translates to 500mVrms. This is a rather low voltage output, but I was still able to drive some demanding headphones, even with Pico at the max volume level and surprising without any audio distortion noticeable to my ears. How they achieved this, I have no idea, and I will go over in more details about pair up in the next section of the review.
I already mentioned it has a standard micro-USB connector and supports USB2.0 protocol. There is no uSD card support, most likely due to Lotoo trying to keep the size down and battery life to the max, and instead you have 32GB of internal flash memory. I would have loved to see more, but I’m guessing that was a design limitation. Regarding the battery, here we have 300mAh Li-poly with 10hrs of audio playback at full charge. A small physical size and the corresponding capacity of the battery is also due to a smaller size of the Pico itself.
Considering use of Blackfin 706 DSP and Ti3105 integrated DAC/amp, I’m sure many fw resources were shared between P5k and Pico, including a support of numerous lossless and lossy audio formats: DSD, DFF, DSF, ISO, FLAC, APE, WAV, MP3, WMA, OGG, M4A, AAC, AIF, ALAC, CUE with sample rates of 2.8MHz/5.6MHz (up to DSD128) and PCM 32kHz-192kHz. It’s all great, but ironically you only have access to 32GB of flash memory, so I don’t believe many people will use it beyond MP3 and FLAC files.
GPS, Motion Sensor, and BLE support are also important part of “under the hood” design, but to preserve the battery life they are not enabled in Music Mode. Keep in mind, the support of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) in this case is similar to your fitness activity trackers like Fitbit or Garmin, just enough bandwidth to read the collected data, not a two way audio communication to stream music from your smartphone.
What I see here is that Lotoo scaled down significantly the functionality of LPG and P5k due to a lot smaller footprint, but they still left a few important audio ingredients, and based on a sound quality I assume that audio decoding/processing code was also re-used.
PAW Gold vs PAW Pico: