A pocket-friendly audio powerhouse.
PROS: dual micro-SD storage, powerful balanced output, very responsive [Mango] touch interface, wide soundstage, resolving tonality with quality bass, price/performance ratio.
CONS: audio playback only (no BT or wifi), full case would be nice.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
While a support of streaming apps has been an important requirement for some audio enthusiasts looking to purchase a new DAP, I’m noticing a new wave of people who prefer “less is more”. Being a jack of all trades raises the value of the product, but lately I have seen more of my readers looking for a source which is a master of one, simplified down to “less”, offering “more” with just a function of audio playback. And for many, this is not necessary a replacement of their other swiss-army knife DAPs that do everything, but rather a sidekick alternative in a more compact footprint.
A few manufacturers already recognized this demand, with a lot of recent $100-$350 DAP releases, including the latest iBasso DX120 which some might consider as a replacement of DX80. While we have been spoiled by DX200 flagship and its more budget-friendly little brother DX150, both with Android, Google Play, Bluetooth, and modular amp design, iBasso now ready to complement it with a more simplified yet still powerful audio playback only compact DX120, with a dual micro SD card, balanced output, and all new optimized Mango OS. Here is more about it.
Unboxing and Accessories.
Regardless if it’s a flagship or an entry level budget product, many companies like to make a nice first impression with packaging, and iBasso is no exception. Maybe it’s a fetish, but I like the soft touch of the material used in iBasso packaging sleeves and boxes, certainly feels different to the touch. As usual, inside you will find a foam tray with a secure cutout for DX120, and a box with accessories, including a premium braided-sleeve usb-c cable, coax cable, burn-in 2.5mm cable, transparent grip-case, tempered grass, quick start guide, and a warranty card.
It’s the same short durable coax cable you find with other iBasso DAPs, and the same balanced burn-in cable which is extremely useful for a quiet burn-in without the need to blast your headphones loud. But the transparent grip-case wasn’t my favorite. This “case” goes around the perimeter, covering the top, bottom, and sides while leaving the back panel open. It feels plasticy and I wish the back of it would extend a little further so the glass panel of DX120 (already with a “screen” protector, btw) would have a better protection, maybe even covering the whole back and using a softer silicone transparent material. DX120 is very compact and has a nice design ergonomics with a contour sides for a better grip. But I still like the security of enhanced grip, and already mentioned this to MITER guys, to see if they can come up with a leather case for it. Will update this section if they do.
I jumped on the iBasso bandwagon back when I first reviewed DX80, thus I’m not familiar with DX50/90/100, only DX80/150/200. Next to these, the DX120 is their smallest DAP in the lineup. With dimensions of 63mm x 113mm x 15mm and the weight of 165g, DX120 fits very comfortably in my hand, and the extra heft of CNC aluminum chassis gives it a nice balanced feeling. The front of DX120 is occupied by a 3.2” 480×800 IPS touch screen with a good viewing angle and a decent color contrast. Unlike some other plain-looking touch screen rectangular DAPs, DX120 has a less boring look with nice ergonomics.
In addition to beveled edges and a longer slope beveled extension at the bottom, the sides have a visible concaved contour for a more secure and comfortable grip. Chassis is made of CNC aluminum, available in two finishes, sky-blue and earth-brown, and the back has all glass flat panel, interesting choice considering iBasso doesn’t have to worry about covering BT or wifi antennas, probably to make it look more premium. The bottom of the DAP has a dedicated 3.5mm LO and 3.5mm HO, both ports have an identical connector with an outer gold plating, and 2.5mm balanced port next to it. If you are frequent to using 3.5mm terminated headphones, maybe a good idea to cover LO port with a dust plug so you don’t confuse it with HO port.
Top of the DAP has 3.5mm S/PDIF digital COAX port (to use DX120 as a transport), dual micro-SD card slot (in theory, each card could support up to 2TB, while now you can use 512GB in each slot), and usb-C port for charging, data transfer, and USB DAC connection. Charging is controlled by TI BQ25890 MaxCharge power management chip, allowing Qualcomm Quick Charge QC2.0 and MTK-PE, meaning you can use 12V, 9V/1.5A wall charger to charge its 3.8V 3700 mAh LiPo battery in 2hrs to enjoy max playback of up to 16hrs (based on screen off, mp3 continuous play), which should be lower when playing higher res files. With XMOS standard XU208 and Thesycon USB driver support, you also get USB DAC functionality.
Left/right sides of the DAP have a symmetrical wavy line. While left side has no controls, everything is placed on the right side. You can hold the DAP in either left or right hand, but for a more comfortable access to controls I preferred a right hand so I can use my thumb. There are total of 6 buttons on the right side, all aligned along the wavy line, making the design less boring. A smaller power button is at the top, further away from other controls, followed by two larger Volume buttons and then a cluster of 3 smaller transport controls (Play and Skip Next/Forward). Buttons are plastic, and I wish they would have a better identification to feel them blindly, like a bump on Vol+ and a bigger bump on Play button (it has one already). It’s a small DAP and you have 6 buttons close to each other with not a lot of spacing in between, but the fact that iBasso used different size for Volume and didn’t line them up in a straight line – helps when controlling the DAP.
Under the hood.
In the heart of DX120 you have AK4495EQ DAC which surprised me with its tonality since I expected performance closer to 4490, while it was leaning more toward ES9028 type of sound. The unit also features multi-core CPU with a dedicated implementation of GPU to control UI, lowering the CPU load. And for further optimization, DX120 uses Direct Memory Access (DMA) for a more efficient CPU operation. These are not just words, DX120 has the fastest and the most responsive Mango OS out of DX80/150/200. With more dedicated CPU cycles, there is no issues processing supported PCM (sampling rates from 8kHz to 384kHz at 8-32bit depth) and native DSD up to 128 (tested both 64 and 128 without a problem). I didn’t find any noticeable lag while switching between screens and songs. In my review unit, switching between mp3 and flac files is instantaneous, going up to DSD64/128 from a flac has maybe a second or so delay (no different than some other DAPs), but then back to flac was instantaneous again. Gapless playback was perfect, and I was also able to read CUE files without a problem.
I don’t know which differential op amps iBasso used, but we are talking about a very powerful output for a compact DAP with BAL 2.5mm Headphone pushing 3.6Vrms (about 400mW into 32ohm load) and 117dB SNR. Single Ended SE 3.5mm Headphone output is less powerful at 1.8Vrms (about 100mW into 32ohm load) and 115dB SNR, more appropriate for sensitive IEMs. Both outputs are low impedance, under 0.38 ohms. Personally, I preferred BAL high-gain output for all my iems and headphones, to my ears the extra power adds a little more finesse to the sound, but you should be aware, high power output will contribute some hissing to lower impedance and/or higher sensitivity IEMs. It’s a trade-off when dealing with a powerful output DAP, and for those who find it to be an issue with sensitive low impedance IEMs, I recommend looking into iEMatch from iFi, available in both 2.5mm and 3.5mm versions. At the same time, I noticed that some sensitive IEMs also exhibited a low level of hissing from SE output too, but I only hear it when I drop the volume down to zero and push Play. I’m not splitting hairs here, just reporting what I hear.