A Reference Flagship on a Budget!
PROS: neutral revealing signature, dual ES9028Pro DACs, DSD512 support, Android 6.0/WiFi/Bluetooth, 2GB of RAM, 6Vrms (BAL) / 3Vrms (SE) outputs, leather case.
CONS: single microSD and 64GB of internal storage, battery life due to high power AMP module, fw is almost there.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
What is the first thing that goes through your mind when you hear a DAP being labeled as a Reference? I have a feeling many audiophiles will envision a cold sterile uninspiring sound, used as a reference for a comparison to other sources How about referring to a DAP as a Flagship, does it make your wallet cringe in fear of $2k-$3k price tag? Who knows, but my feeling is that some manufacturers inflate their prices, regardless if it’s a headphone or a DAP, just because flagship products should have a flagship price tag. In my opinion, iBasso is going to shatter many of these inflated cold stereotypes with their 10-year anniversary release of a new Reference Flagship DAP – DX200. Despite a high cost of its premium components, they still managed to list it at a very reasonable price, and its neutral revealing sound signature quickly elevated it to a reference level in my book.
Of course, you can’t start talking about DX200 without mentioning iBasso DX100 and its HDP-R10 twin (special edition Japanese version of DX100) which had a truly forward thinking design back when it was introduced 5 years ago. Today, when many DAPs lose their momentum and become irrelevant a year after the release, it’s fascinating that people still ask me to compare DX100 to new products I review. I don’t have DX100 and not familiar with DX90, but ever since reviewing DX80 DAP and IT03 3way hybrid monitors, I formed a solid opinion about iBasso as a company which pays close attention not only to details of the sound tuning and ergonomics of the design but also selection of quality materials and components. DX200 release is not an exception, and here is what I found after spending the last month testing this DAP.
iBasso put a lot of thought into the packaging design, making sure it has a flagship appeal from the moment you get it in your hands. From a soft-touch exterior sleeve and storage box to a peculiar diagonal split opening, right away you can sense that you’re dealing with a premium product. Unlike majority of other packaging boxes where you have a foam cutout tray protecting the DAP from sliding around, iBasso came up with an interesting idea where DX200 was placed on an open “tray” surrounded by a cool sketch drawing describing ports and controls, while the surrounding foam was glued inside of split halves of the box. DX200 is still secure and protected inside, and then becomes a centerpiece of the presentation without a need to take it out after you slide the box open.
As a matter of fact, I usually prefer to take my review pictures with a DAP out of the box, while here I kept it on a “display” tray because it looked cool with all these sketch lines around it – a nice setting for detailed pictures. Once I removed the tray, underneath I found boxes with a leather case and cable accessories, each one labeled and with a little tab to assist in removing them out.
We all come to expect a screen protector, a charging cable, and a manual, and you will find all of this here included with DX200. When it comes to a power/charging cable, iBasso took a step further, featuring a premium build USB to USB-C cable with a flexible braided nylon jacket and a solid quality metal connectors. I know, it’s just a cable, but I still find it to be a nice touch to include a quality upgrade cable, especially since we are dealing with a less common USB-C.
Another included cable was a short thick coax interconnect, a solid construction design with a perfect length for a portable external DAC/amp connection. I wouldn’t mind seeing a short optical digital cable included as well, but you can find these on-line for under $20. If you have a need to use DX200 as an external transport and you want an improved quality sound, I always find optical connection to yield better results when comparing to electrical cable.
Also, included was a burn-in cable which is only intended for the initial “break in” period. Many manufacturers recommend a burn in period of 200hrs to break in electrical components (such as caps). You can go through burn in by listening with your headphones, or you can take a shortcut by attaching this cable with a built-in load which simulates your transducer. I find it very convenient because you can set DX200 on repeat for a week and crank up the volume (up to the max 150 steps) without worrying about blowing your headphone drivers or distracting others with a loud music. DX80 featured a similar cable with 3.5mm TRS single ended connection, while DX200 burn in cable comes with 2.5mm TRRS balanced connection. Per iBasso, connecting balanced output will exercise most of the circuit components since they are shared between SE and BAL outputs.
One thing to keep in mind, you will not get an accurate total battery life reading while using burn-in cable since it drains battery faster in comparison to a regular headphone use. If you want to test DX200 battery endurance, use headphones at a regular listening level.
Last, but not least, is the leather case included with DX200. This DAP is not exactly compact or featherlight, and you can feel the heft of all metal solid construction in your hand. I would personally recommend to use the case to enhance the grip and to protect both the DAP and the surface you place it on from scratches. The case has a generous port opening at the bottom for your headphones and LO, covered micro-SD slot on the left to keep the dust away (need to remove the case to replace the card), a complete cutout around the transport controls and volume wheel on the right side, and full opening at the top for digital out, USB-C, and power button. The snap button in the upper right corner keeps DX200 “locked” inside, and the back panel with an imprinted company name and logo has extra cushioning to absorb the shock if you drop it.
Without a doubt, it was great to include a quality case with stock accessories, and it should do a good job enhancing the grip and providing some level of protection if you drop it. But to be honest, I wasn’t too crazy about it. Maybe it’s just because I’m spoiled by Dignis cases which I use with majority of DAPs. Perhaps cutting some bulk on the back to slim it down and trimming the right front side since it covers part of the volume wheel would be an improvement. For sure it’s not a showstopper, and I hope that maybe we will see a premium upgrade from Dignis or someone else in a near future.
When DX200 was first announced, iBasso presented 3 different choices and let their fans decide the winning design. Despite a few choices with exotic body lines, majority of people agreed on a standard clean rectangular shape with a volume wheel surrounded by a protection bar with embedded power and hardware control buttons. As much as we enjoy the looks of non-traditional exotic designs, at the end of a day many prefer a more practical and comfortable shape that is easy to hold in your hand and to carry in your pocket. But at the same time, having the analog volume wheel with hw buttons next to it clearly sets the design apart from a typical boring smartphone look.
The focus of the front of DX200 is 4.2″ IPS high resolution (768×1280) display which utilizes Mitsubishi optical glass with OCA-bonded touch screen. The display is raised on a beveled pedestal, while the included leather case protects and keeps it away from the surface even if you place DX200 face-down. With dimensions of 128.5mm x 69mm x 19.5mm and the weight of approximately 240g, this high precision CNC engraved aircraft aluminum DAP feels very solid in your hand, though it’s a bit on a large and thicker side, especially with extra back padding of the leather case. The only plastic part of the exterior design is at the top on the back, a small ridged plate to make sure WiFi and Bluetooth antennas are not blocked by a metal shield.
The left side of the DAP in the upper corner has a slot for micro-SD card (up to 256GB), while the right side has a volume wheel along with Play/Pause and Skip Next/Prev buttons. The buttons are embedded into a guard bar which extends and goes around the volume wheel to protect it from accidental bumps. This bar extends around the corner to the top where it also hosts a power button (long press to turn the power on/off, short press for a display on/off), and 2 hex screws securing it to the body. At the top, you will find USB Type-C connector for charging, data transfer, and future usb-otg support. To the left of it, you will find SPDIF multi-port which supports both electric coax and optical connection.
The bottom of DX200 has Line Out port, 3.5mm TRS Single Ended HO, and 2.5mm TRRS Balanced HO, all part of a default AMP1 module. Amplifier module is removable and replaceable where iBasso promises more modules in the future. Personally, I’m hoping for an amp module with the same number of ports and a reduced power for IEM use to extend the battery life. If you think about it, by default AMP1 has a very impressive spec even for many demanding full size headphones, which are not always practical for a portable use. But for IEMs which don’t require too much juice, lowering the output power will do the trick of extending battery life which is always welcome for a portable use.
The removable amp module slides in at the bottom of DX200 and stays behind the display, hidden from the front (the joint seam is only visible from the back/sides) so it doesn’t add too much to the length of the unit. With two latches and a pair of screws on each side going into these latches, the module attachment was very secure.
Under the hood.
Price of the DAP is often a hot topic of discussion since in some cases it varies in thousands between different flagships. Of course, a company has every right to charge for the product as much as they want to. But regardless of MSRP price, every DAP has a bill of material (BOM) which is based on the cost of the components, and in case of DX200 it’s not cheap.
When iBasso announced to be the first to offer 2 high end desktop ES9028Pro (32bit 8ch) DACs, I automatically assumed DX200 will have a price closer to other flagships in $2k+ range. From what I heard, ES9028Pro is still too new and costs approximate 6x more than your typical AK4490, ES9018, or PCM1792 DACs. So using two of those, and adding on top of that two Femtosecond high precision oscillators from Accusilicone, 6-layer gold plated printed circuit board (PCB), handpicked low ESR capacitors, high precision resistors and ultra-low noise power regulators, XMOS XU208 usb receiver, ARM Cortex-A53 8-core 64bit CPU, 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM, 64GB eMMC internal storage, 4.2” IPS high res Mitsubishi optical glass, and CNC engraved aircraft aluminum body – have to add up to a high cost.
Common sense will tell you, higher cost means higher price. But Basso took a risk and decided to lower the MSRP price, similarly to what they did with IT03 3way hybrid IEMs. I guess it’s one of those examples where manufacturer makes a product more affordable to push higher volume of sales. But it takes more than just a reasonable price and an impressive spec to sell the product.
Besides the key components I already listed above, including dual pro series desktop quality ES9028Pro DAC (we’re talking about S/N ratio of 125dB from a balanced output), you also have a generous size 4400mAh 3.8V Li-Po battery (providing about 8hrs of playback time with mixed mp3/FLAC files – as tested by me), 5G WiFi, BT4.0 (no aptX). SPDIF output support of both coax and optical, and AMP1 module HO outputs supporting 2.5mm TRRS BAL with output voltage of 6Vrms (1.125W into 32ohm load) and 3.5mm TRS SE with output voltage of 3Vrms (281mW into 32ohm load). In terms of storage, it has a single micro-SD card (up to 256GB) and 64GB of internal flash memory. In my opinion, dual micro-SD and internal storage boosted to 128GB would have been more appropriate for a flagship release.
The powerful hardware makes it a breeze to support the latest Android 6.0 OS along with a smooth decoding and playback of majority of lossless and lossy files up to PCM 32bit/384kHz and DSD512, covering all the formats from APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, OGG, MP3, DFF, DSF, DXD, including support for M3U playlists. I don’t even have DSD512 files for testing, though tested DSD256 without a single hiccup. And just like a playback of audio, I also enjoyed a smooth playback of video (great way to watch some movies).