It’s just getting better!
PROS: design, features, accessories, storage, price.
CONS: fw still needs some work, summit-fi look with a mid-fi sound.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Many of my readers can probably agree that original FiiO X5 was a gateway into the world of affordable audio quality. While the early X3 could be considered as an underground hit, the first gen X5 went all the way to a mainstream level, getting attention of not only audiophiles, but also regular consumers. That was 3 years ago, the time has changed, the market competition became more aggressive, the number of new releases skyrocketed, and picking your next DAP became more confusing due to so many choices. In audio gear business, if you don’t re-invent yourself with something new to stand out from the crowd, you are not going to last for a very long time. So, with FiiO recent announcement of their 10-year anniversary, you can get a good idea this company knows what they are doing, being in business for that long.
When it comes to their DAPs, without taking into consideration the original X3, the main design focus of the FiiO X-series was a mechanical wheel which lasted through X5, X5ii, X1, and X3ii. The next step was a brand new X7 flagship designed with a touchscreen interface and a removable amp module – a big step forward with an attempt to capture the attention of summit-fi market. X1ii was another bold move, replacing the mechanical wheel with a capacitive touch “wheel”, but it kept a familiar design look from the original X-series, just in a more futuristic chassis. When X5iii was announced and its design details were revealed, it became an overnight “too good to be true” sensation, especially when FiiO shocked everyone with $399 price tag for an open Android DAP.
I’m building up my review intro, the same way how my excitement and anticipation was building up a few months ago, before I received X5iii review unit. Unfortunately, I got a bit carried away with high expectations without realizing that we are still talking about a mid-fi DAP, not intended to go head-to-head with summit-fi competition or to overthrow its own X7 flagship. But due to my own hype, when I finally got X5iii in my hands – I felt a bit underwhelmed with a sound, though impressed with a design. I’m glad I took some time before jumping into the review, and I was patient to wait for a few fw updates which did improve the sound quality. I do realize the web is already filled with dozens of published X5iii reviews, and hopefully I will be able to contribute with additional info from my perspective to complete the picture for anybody who is looking to either purchase their first or to upgrade to their next DAP.
Keeping up with a common packaging theme between their different products, you can still expect a printed sleeve box with another storage box inside of it. The printed sleeve has an eye-popping image of X5iii which stands out with a 3D-like picture of the DAP, focusing on both a touch screen interface and a volume wheel on the left side. The back of the box has a detailed list of the Main Features with an impressive spec. While some other DAPs read like a smartphone spec, here there is no mistake you are dealing with a serious DAP design. Everything looks great on paper.
The actual storage box is all black, only with FiiO name on the top of the cover. With cover off, you will find a protective foam keeping the DAP secure inside of the precise cutout, and underneath of it a plethora of accessories. I will talk about accessories in the next section of the review, but I do want to mention that FiiO put an extra effort to make the unboxing experience of X5iii to feel like you are dealing with a flagship quality DAP. They set the bar high, so will be interesting to see what awaits us with X7ii.
The list of included accessories starts off with a traditional high quality usb to micro-USB cable, thus you know that FiiO is sticking with a more common micro-USB port instead of following other manufacturers who are switching to usb-C. But I think one of the reasons for using micro-USB is to be backward compatibility with their K5 docking station which works fine with X5iii. Also, you will find FiiO’s traditional short digital output interconnect with 3.5mm TRRS plug on one side and female coax connector on the other side. Keep in mind, this is not a typical interconnect because FiiO design shares LO with Coax Out. With that, all you need is to add a coax cable (not included) to use X5iii as a transport with your favorite DAC/amp.
One peculiar accessory I found was a metal key used to assist in removal of micro-SD card trays. Just like in some smartphones and sim card trays, FiiO decided to keep both micro-SD cards sealed away from the dust under a cover inside of a small tray which pops out when you insert this tool through a pinhole opening. You can probably use a paper clip for the same functionality, but nevertheless – this little tool looks cool.
If you are looking for a screen protector, you will find one already applied, and it’s not some cheap film protector but a high quality 7H hardness rated tempered glass screen protector. This was a great idea because now you are dealing with a full front panel touch screen which you want to protect not only from scratches but also from accidental drops. For those who are not familiar, in case of direct impact the tempered glass usually shatters and could be removed while leaving the glass display unharmed. Furthermore, tempered glass feels smooth and natural when swiping your finger across, unlike some plasticy film screen protectors. Btw, you will also find a regular film protector which is applied to the back of X5iii.
Long gone the days of the cheap black (or gray) silicone FiiO skin cases, and now X5iii arrives with 2 different cases. One is a nice looking black pleather case with a smooth shiny surface and red stiches on the back, along with a stamped FiiO logo. It’s not a real leather, but it has a premium look with a nice grip. The power button is covered but easy to press, on the other side the track skip buttons are covered and easy to press, while the volume wheel and play/pause button are open. The bottom of the case is open with a full access to both SE and BAL HO ports, micro-usb port, and LO/Coax port.
But if you want a more fun look with a fully transparent case that doesn’t hide any details of the design, you can switch to another included clear transparent case, made from a decent quality silicone material. With this case, all the buttons are covered and still easy to press. The volume wheel is open for easy access, and at the bottom you have an open 3.5mm SE HO output. The balanced 2.5mm HO, micro-SD, and LO/Coax ports are covered with a clear silicone dust plugs which are attached to the main case. You can open these ports and don’t have to worry about losing the plug. Or, if you find yourself irritated by constantly opening one of the ports and don’t want to be bothered with unplugging it – you can just cut off that plug cover.
For me personally, as much as I like a more sophisticated look of the pleather case, I prefer a transparent fun look of the clear silicone case which also has a better and a more secure grip. But either way, including a pleather case and a tempered glass screen protector (already applied) was a bonus I didn’t even expect.
When a company announces a new product, you can expect an original design. But the incremental version bump usually has ties to the previous design. X5ii was a nice refresh from the original X5 but still had a similar layout and other familiar elements, which also scaled down to X3ii and X1. X1ii was a bold move that kept the original “look” but stepped it up with a major change when mechanical wheel was abandoned. And of course, X7 had an all new design with a smartphone-like touch screen layout. In contrast to all of these previous X-series releases, X5iii feels like a brand-new product.
Sized at 114.2mm x 66.2mm x 14.8mm and weighting only 186g, this CNC aluminum alloy DAP is slimmer and yet just a little taller and a touch wider than X5ii predecessor. The switch to a full Android OS means a touch screen interface which occupies almost the entire front panel of the DAP. The top of the DAP has no controls or ports, and the right side has a power button with a red accent ring around it and a blue power-on LED in the middle of it. As I mentioned before, below it you will find 2 microSD slots. Both are fully covered since now you are dealing with two separate trays, removable by pushing through the pinhole opening to release the latch. Each card is capable to support up to 256GB of storage, so you are talking about a combined 544GB of storage (including internal) and you can also expand further with OTG storage device and “unlimited” streaming on top of that.
The left side has a beveled edge where you will find a Play/Pause hw control button at the top and Skip Next/Prev combined button toward the middle. The buttons have a nice tactile response with a softer click response. As expected, hw Playback control buttons are operational with a screen on and off. Between Play and Skip buttons, you have a recessed volume wheel which sticks out just enough for you to control it with a thumb. As you move the wheel, which has a click action as it turns, you also have access to touch screen volume slider for a faster adjustment.
The bottom of the DAP has all the available ports. Starting from the left, you have 3.5mm single ended HO and next to it 2.5mm TRRS balanced HO. 3.5mm HO also supports headphones with in-line remote so you have an alternative way to control the playback. Next is micro-USB port which supports everything from charging (including 2 charging modes, regular and fast 9V/12V high speed to give you easily 10hrs of playback thanks to 3400 mAh 3.8V battery), data transfer to internal memory and micro-SD cards, using it as USB DAC, connecting external OTG storage (though some of the external hard drivers might not work if they sink too much current), and also being able to use it with a docking station such as K5 DAC/amp. Last, but not least, is 3.5mm port which you select from within Settings to operate as either Line Out to use with external amp or Digital (Coax) Out to use with external DAC/amp.
When it comes to non-touch screen DAPs, you have a lot of room for creativity to make your product stand out from the crowd. With a touch screen, especially when it occupies the whole front view – you don’t have too much room for something original, so every little detail counts. Unlike a blander X7 design with a symmetric hw control buttons, X5iii spiced it up with a cool looking power button, seamless microSD card trays, and an interesting non-symmetric design of the left side with hw playback buttons and analog volume wheel. These little details make the design not only a pleasure to look at, but also a fun to use and to show off to others.
Under the hood.
Here you will find a dual (2 separate) AK4490EN 32bit DACs which have been used in many recent new DAP releases, even those with a much higher price tag. This is not necessary the latest and the greatest DAC from AKM, but it’s certainly among their very popular models that supports all the latest PCM and DSD lossy and lossless formats, from DXD, DSD64, DSD128, WAV, FLAC, APE, ALAC, AIFF, WMA, MP3, etc., and has various digital audio filters. It was impressive to see two of these DACs being used in an Android DAP under $400.
Furthermore, you have a quad core SoC Rockship model RM3188 long with 1GB of RAM and 32GB of build in internal storage (and as I mentioned already, it could be expanded with additional 512GB of storage thanks to a support of 2 microSD cards). Also, you have 3.97″ touch screen with an acceptable 480×800 pix resolution and decent colors (deep colors with a good contrast). You will also find Bluetooth BT 4.0 with aptX codec and 2.4GB WiFi. Plus, as already mentioned, 3.8V 3400 mAh battery supporting a dual charging mode. Playback time will vary depending on the file format, screen on time, enabling WiFi and Bluetooth, and volume level, but you can get at least 10hrs without a problem.
With all this hardware under the hood you shouldn’t have problem running the pre-installed heavily customized Android 5.1 OS (still with a bypass of Sample Rate Conversion limitation), which comes with 2 operating modes: Pure Android (w/Google Play included) and Pure Music (no other apps are running to focus all resources on a pure music playback). Yes, you can load and run many different apps, but keep in mind that you only got 1GB of RAM and not the fastest SoC, so performance will not be a match your latest smartphone.
As far the hw audio portion of the design, in addition to a dual AK4490EN, you also get dual crystal oscillator (22.579MHz and 24.576MHz) to cover both clock rates (DSD/44.1/88.2/176.4/352.8kHz and 48/96/192/384kHz), and two dual-channel OPA1642 chips to use for Low Pass filtering and another OPA426 opamp for amplification section which supports 300mW under 32ohm load. All this looks great on paper, but the true test is how it translates into audio performance which I’m going to cover in Sound analysis section of the review.