Just look at how much portable DAPs evolved lately.
One year ago I tested for the first time something truly revolutionary, a true portable audiophile hub called FiiO X7 that impressed me immensely.
The announcement of newest X5 III about two months ago was a bigger shocker for me.
At first because almost all features found in X7 are present here as well but at a much more attractive price point.
First 3D renderings looked so cool, I was wondering if the final product will look as good so I contacted the manufacturer to find out.
After a few days I woke up with the courier in front of my door, so for about two months I’m extensively testing the newest X5 generation III.
The pre-production unit had few issues that happily were reported and solved in the final production version that I am using right now.
If the transition from X5 to X5 II was almost a maturation of the first generation, oh well I cannot believe how big is the gap between X5 II and newest device.
I will enumerate some of the additional features found in X5 III:
- Customized Android 5.1 OS (without Android SRC)
- 4” IPS Touchscreen with a 480×800 resolution
- 2.4 Ghz Wi-Fi connectivity
- Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX!
- Single ended (SE) 3.5mm output and a balanced 2.5mm (TRSS) output
- Two top of the line AKM AK4490 DAC chips
- Possibility of installing 3rd party apps from FiiO Market such as: Onkyo player, Neutron, Rockbox, PowerAmp
- Wireless Hi-Res streaming via Tidal, Spotify and Qobuz apps
- 32 Gb internal memory (27 Gb available for the user)
All these features were absent from X5 II, aren’t those some significant improvements?
On the outside there is also a definite change. I like the volume wheel, every time I think about home desktop amps when I touch it, it’s pleasant to the touch and responds quick to my actions.
Until this moment I think this is most ergonomic FiiO DAP tested. I always was bothered by X7 buttons placement. All those 4 side surfaces were covered with buttons, Ins and Outs. On X5-III all those were moved to the left and down side, I don’t need to remember any more where is everything and what it does.
I also like those protected microSD trays, device supports two microSD cards up to 256 Gb per slot, so basicaly up to 544 Gb of Hi-Res music.
Under the hood of X5 III
X5 III is basically a 5 in 1 device: a portable Hi-Res DAP, dedicated headphone amp SE or balanced, external DAC using the Line-Out, digital transport (coaxial out) for a better DAC or for an AV receiver, it’s also a Wi-Fi streamer for apps like Tidal, Qobuz or Spotify.
It’s incredible how many features were implemented in such a small box.
For the first time in FiiOs history dual DAC chips are used, more exactly the AK4490 from Asahi Kasei that are part of a newer generation called Verita. To better understand them is worth mentioning that the same chips are used in the Astell&Kern AK380 DAP sold at the exorbitant sum of 3.500 USD/EUR.
Of course, those DAC chips tell just small part of a bigger story, besides those their implementation is more crucial.
Manufacturer of the premium AK4490 informs us that Velvet Sound architecture was used that had a big impact on audio performance which will be covered further into my review. FiiO together with Asahi Kasei provides some hardware presets that are actually some digital filters that are part of AK4490 and that can be changed at will.
Here is an image that explains what sound changes can be expected:
In reality differences are not that big, but I managed to get a more natural sound, a neutral one and a more detailed one. I have concluded that stock filter sounds best to my ears. To avoid bottle-necking performance of this wonderful chip two high performance crystal oscillators were used, one for DSD and PCM material of 44.1/88.2/176.4/352.8 kHz and one for 48/96/192/384 kHz sample rates. Those two help tremendously reaching a very low jitter and increasing audio accuracy.
X5-III doesn’t use amplification modules how X7 does, so engineers have gone from the start with the idea of implementing a headphone amplifier suitable for a wide range of headphone/earphone types, without limiting battery life too much. So the output stage uses four op-amps: two pieces of OPA1642 and two pieces of OPA426 made custom for FiiO by Texas Instruments.
The final result is impressive, in stock form X5 III achieves 480mW of power in 16 Ω, line-out reaches 1.8 V – a sizable upgrade from the older X5 and X5 II. Detailed specs can be found accessing the following link.
Besides microSD and coaxial cable I was glad to find in the package two protective cases: a transparent silicone one and an elegant leatherette case. As I understand both will be present in the final production version, very nice of them. From the factory protective films are already applied in the front and on the back.
As in the case of A5, manufacturer decided sandblasting with zirconium to achieve a smoother and unique finish of this DAP, that is more resistantant in time than aluminium anodisation (X7, X5II). The case is made from a single block of aluminum and the back looks to be made of glass, I’ll be honest I like it’s design a lot. Let’s get to the most interesting part.
First impression that it left on me is that it sound natural, warm and very smooth/liquid. I would characterize it as having a velvet sound, no I get it why that AK4490 uses Velvet Sound architecture. I think we are dealing with the most liquid and most natural sounding FiiO DAP to date.
The timbre is pleasant, music tone is slightly thickened, after each note’s kick I’m feeling it’s weight and texture. I doesn’t look to be tuned towards linearity or for extreme neutrality, for some it might be a plus, for others a con. Personally I like slightly warmer sound therefore this sound is to my liking.
Besides naturalness I think this DAP offers the deepest sound from all FiiO DAP range. I can look easier into recordings and I can easily listen individually any sound I want. For example their previous X5-II sounds large and wide but it didn’t have this impressive depth that indirectly creates the impression that the music breathes and there is a lot of air between every note. Sound is never crowded – a thing that I often appreciate.
No jokes, X5 III is really on par with X7 in it’s stock form (with AM1 module) with some differences between them, I do not consider that one or another is better, just different, about this I’ll write detailed in my comparisons section.
Frequency response is an interesting one. What impresses instantly is the sub-bass and bass response.
For that I used newest album of Infected Mushroom – Return to the Sauce (2017), especially I was interested in reproduction of Flamming and Manipulator. With those I’ve heard the weightiest and deepest bass from all FiiO DAPs.
It was articulate, fast, I was hearing some additional layers and subsequent vibrations, it impressed me instantly.
Do note that bass tests were done on Audeze LCD-4 that are notorious for their excellent bass quality.
Being capable of the smallest hidden nuances even on bass, it was very easy for me evaluating all 3 DAPs.
After first 2 minutes from Manipulator the mix became so complex and fast reproduced that if you blink you loose 3 or 4 notes, the kick in the chest is also impressive (on my studio monitors). Sincerely, if bass is something that you are passionate about, I don’t think it can’t be better than this in a portable DAP.
The earthshaking bass reproduction exceeded the performance of X5 II or X7.
The sound depth mixed with lightning fast and articulated bass created a state of trance for me.
The day I heard from morning to evening Sennehiser HE-1 I was a little limited by the music that was available to me, so I pulled from my pocket my trusty X5-III and connected it to the venerable headphone system. Basically transforming X5III into a source and DAC for the fabulous electrostatic system from Sennheiser.
Listening to Massive Attack – Angel I left with the feeling that I heard the deepest and most detailed bass, of course big part of this magic is due to good external headphone amp and headphones used. I don’t think that the whole system was pulled down by this little buddy, not at all.
For proper mid range evaluation I’ve used some Gothart and Pink Martini.
More than ever, I started moving my head on Gothart, a sign that music is doing it’s job. Like the bass I felt that mids are sweetened just a little bit and brought forward in the foreground.
Thus the accordion, piano and violins have a longer vibration and I have more time to appreciate them.
The notes decline is a touch slower and because of that I’ve got the feeling of liquidity and smoothness.
The vibration of these instruments is impressive enough; acoustic music lovers will appreciate these qualities.
I felt that voices were special as well.
I like the chameleon effect that I usually hear on top equipment.
On live recordings voices were heard far and deep, as if the sounds are far away from the listener. On studio recordings, voices are heard exactly in the center and brought much more forward, very clear but thickened a bit.
Solo pieces, sopranos are a delight, voices always seem velvety and sometimes guttural if recording asks for it.
From my point of view bass and mid range rendering is its biggest strength and the most interesting aspect of this DAP.
High frequency performance will not be for everybody – although they are present and pretty articulate, they are always left behind because of emphasis on bass and mids.
Instead transition from bass to mids to highs seems natural, I don’t hear dips between them, maybe just a few raisings.
Highs are relaxed, unstressed and nonabrasive.
At this department both X5 II and X7 fares better, offering more believable and clearer highs. Playing a bit with digital filters I can bring the highs up a bit, using EQ I can wake them up as well to my liking.
For the purpose of obtaining a velvety sound it was important to trim the treble up top a bit, more exactly after 18 kHz the straight line slowly begins to drop.
Roll off is somewhat more obvious on classical music.
I don’t consider it bothering or very alarming, but I hear it almost immediately.
On Mozart and Vivaldi pitched sounds immediately disappear, the bite goes away as well.
Cymbals are bottle-necked and it appears that the entire contour of the instrument disappears, while I hear them, its vibrations stops abruptly.
Music that in the past stressed my ears too much because of the annoying highs becomes listenable on X5 III. Or vice versa bass heavy music can became too boomy, emphasizing too much this area of frequencies.
Otherwise the sound seems airy, fresh, detailed and well integrated on multiple layers.
The sound-stage is wide but not too wide, instead depth gives impression of a 3D sound, ample and full of substance, quite meaty even.
Of course the most direct comparison is versus the previous model
X5 III vs X5 II
New one sounds deeper; on some tunes the difference is pretty big. Sounds are breathing more and are clearly defined between them. This effect amplifies the sensation of clarity and spaciousness, it feels like everything is in place and as if sound is free of congestion.
Newest device sounds more natural and musical, basically is due to richer bass and mids.
Impact is also more visceral on the new device, especially on electronica or rock music.
On older X5II classical seems more correctly rendered and more…complete in a way, those crispy high notes are doing some magic there.
Newer one also sounds more detailed offering more nuances and better contrast. Music seems livelier and agile, with better dynamic swings, even impact is improved.
I consider newer device a considerable upgrade vs the older one.
With a slight tuning high notes can practically became the same as on X5-II.
X5 III vs X7
Ok, how should I put it.
Personally I think both are one the same level of performance.
X7 wins on details, on height and width of stage. On X7 everything sounds big, imposing and very spacious. On X7 contour of notes is clearer, on X5 textures are meatier.
X7 extracts more information and subtleties and I also think it offers a faster sound overall.
X5 III sounds deeper, as if the window to the music is opened and I can see far away some hidden notes, very interesting effect. X5 also sounds sweeter, more musical, more relaxed. On X7 I feel like analyzing music, on X5 I want just to listen to it to no end with a glass of wine near me.
In its stock form X5 III on some aspects surpassed X7 performance mostly because of a weaker amplification in the AM1 module.
X5 III in stock form can drive easily cans like Sennheiser HD650, something that cannot be done on X7 with AM1. X5III internal amp seems like a serious one, it drove basically any headphone set, with the exception of some hard to drive planar magnetics, for which I used an external portable amp from the same manufacturer, more exactly the A5.
If on X7 a superior module is used, lets say from AM2 and up, the X7 takes the lead and outperforms the X5III SQ. But you should know that a superior module, means an additional sum of money. I like both devices quite much for what they do and I consider both on about the same level.
I’m really impressed of what FiiO did with newest generation of X5.
I like everything about it: design is beautiful, construction is solid, sandblasted with zirconium finish will withsand long periods of time, interface seems quick and actually moves faster than the one in X7 (not sure why since both use the same hardware SoC), sound is as expected.
I really like the new change of tactics to newer AKM chips, as I like their sound, it’s a good move in my opinion.
This DAP impressed me on speakers as on headphones too. I didn’t hear hiss on efficient IEMs, on low gain there is absolutely nothing going on.
On high gain it drove inefficient cans and higher impedance without the need of an external amp, if driving planar magnetics on the road is your goal then I recommend adding a more powerful external portable amp.
Streaming apps worked really well, I used mostly Tidal what didn’t have issues. Wi-Fi antenna is not really great, comparing 1 to 1 with an iPhone 6, FiiO loses the signal faster.
From the sound point of view I have nothing to rant for, the only thing that might bother someone is the high notes rendition but playing with EQ and digital filters can help a lot.
It exceeded my expectations and I consider it a clear improvement over the older generations and even a fierce competitor for X7.
For all those 5 functions it offers I consider it is correctly priced, the test sample I decided to keep, audio performance is too seductive to let it go.
- Beautiful design, finish, construction quality
- Powerful internal headphone amp
- Cool 5 in 1 device (DAP, headphone amp, external DAC, digital transport, Wi-Fi streamer)
- Natural, vivid, liquid and slightly sweetened sound
- Deep presentation, airy and well placed in a 3D field
- Good transparency, clear textures followed by a strong kick into the chest
- Lively, joyful, high contrast sound, not linear or neutral at all (could also be a Con)
- Hiss nowhere to be found on highly efficient IEMs
- Two microSD expansion slots
- Highs could be slight problem for some
- Not linear or neutral presentation
- Weak Wi-Fi antenna
Equipment used for review:
FiiO X5 III, X5 II, X7, A5, EX1 MKII, Audeze iSine 20, LCD-4, Meze 99 Classics, Sennheiser Momentum M2.0 (over ear), HD600, Dynaudio BM12 MKIII.
Oh Yes! and Sennheiser HE-1, Olympus’s new headphones