Reviews

Review: Astell&Kern, FiiO, Sony, Onkyo and Cowon portable music players

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This week we’re reviewing several digital audio players, all of which have the capacity to read CD and HD quality files.

FiiO X1

FiiO X1

This was the baby model during our listening session. Despite its low price, the Fiio X1 handles studio quality files up to 24 bits and 192 kHz. Its interface, operated using a scroll wheel and four control buttons is exactly identical to the X3 and X5 but is stripped down to the bare minimum. The color screen is good quality and non-touch. This little DAP is responsive and indexing of the microSD card’s files is carried out quickly.

Listening is clear, controlled and the mids and highs are not overpowering. The FiiO X1 doesn’t use any fancy device to charm listeners’ ears. We do not quite reach the refined quality of double DAC models but the FiiO X1 performs better than any smartphone. Listening is neutral but lively at the same time.

We liked the tonal balance and the 10 hour battery life. We would have liked a USB DAC mode.

FiiO X3 II

FiiO X3 II

This is a FiiO X1 fitted with a top-of-the-line DAC, a more powerful headphone amp (up to 3 times more powerful) and more comprehensive range of connectors. With its Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC and double synchronisation clock buffer, the FiiO X3 II can support DSD files. We already had the opportunity to test the FiiO X3 II. After an initial breaking-in period where listening is slightly dry in both the medium and treble, the FiiO X3 distills a sound with solid character and a slight emphasis, however, in the mid range. There is a pleasantly wide range of details and information conveyed to listeners’ ears.

A highlight of this model is that it is adapted to both earphones and low-sensitivity headphones and it offers gain adjustment.

We liked the details, sound placement, output power for high impedance headphones, the 10 band equalizer and the USB DAC mode.

FiiO X5 II

FiiO X5

Higher up in the range of DAPs is the FiiO X5 II, whose general structure is bulkier than the X1 and X3 II models. This is due to the larger components needed for the Texas Instruments Burr Brown PCM1792 DAC. This high-end Burr Brown chip adds overall density to the listening experience. There is a constant feeling of power.

FiiO X7

FiiO X7

One of the best DAPs currently available, which is superior to FiiO’s other models. In terms of quality, it surpasses other, more expensive models. This isn’t surprising considering that the FiiO X7 uses an ESS Sabre 9018S DAC, considered over this last number of years as the world’s best. The ESS Sabre 9018S handles 8 channels, which equates to 4 DACs. We found its listening quality to be remarkable with both CD and DSD quality files during our recent FiiO X7 test.

Proof that the FiiO X7 is excellent is that any female or male voice can be extracted from the recording and protected from any interference along with the audio message. This applies to both CD- and studio-quality files. We discover new instruments or voices which we hadn’t noticed before. Robert Plant’s vocal chords can clearly be heard wavering on Kashmir (“Let me take you there”).

We particularly liked its unrivaled musical quality and its ultra fast 128 Gb internal memory. We would have liked a USB DAC mode and an improved user interface

NB: This DAP will be available at the end of November and its interface will allow the installation of various apps such as Android, Qobuz, Deezer, Spotify and Google Music.

Astell&Kern AK Junior

Astell&Kern AK Junior

For a long period of time, the Astell&Kern range has been missing an attractively-priced DAP. Not any longer as the manufacturer has brought out the Astell&Kern AK Junior, designed for earphones and high-sensitivity headphones. Listening is smooth and precise, timing is credible and the tonal signature is well crafted. There is the neutral sound of the Wolfson WM8740 DAC. The AK Junior will satisfy those who are looking for a classic style portable player with a responsive tactile interface. Please note that the DSD format is supported, but only via prior PCM conversion. FLAC, ALAC, AIFF or WAV files are decoded up to 24 bits and 192 kHz.

We liked the neutrality and lively nature of the listening experience, the elegant and smooth interface, the 64 Gb of internal memory, the long battery life (approximately 12 hours in mixed SD/HD listening). We would have liked a USB DAC mode

Astell&Kern AK 100 II

Astell&Kern AK100 II

Successor to the AK100, Astell&Kern’s first DAP, the Astell&Kern AK100 II, has replaced the Wolfson WM8740 DAC with the DSD-compatible Cirrus Logic CS4398. This DAC shows itself to be more authoritative and accurate. The presence of a WIFi controller enables users to listen via a local network and Astell&Kern provide a sharing software, which is compatible with SD and HD audio files up to 24 bits and 192 kHz.

We liked the design and manufacturing quality, the very smooth Android home interface, the volume control, the USB mode and the S/PDIF output for a possible external DAC or amp with DAC connection

Astell&Kern AK240

Astell&Kern AK240

The Astell&Kern AK240 DAP delivers an ample and smooth audio message, filled with well structured details. The first notes are soft with a slight emphasis in the medium and upper medium ranges (please note that the Pro adjustment of the equalizer offers a more continuous delivery). This softness continues when the audio message becomes more complex and as the volume increases. The low frequency range appears lighter and even slightly discreet in the upper bass section.

We liked practically everything. We would have liked a more generous bass range, though.

Sony NWZ-A15

Sony NZW-A15

The Sony NWZ-A15 is the most compact and lightweight of the HD-audio-compatible DAPs, weighing only 66 grams on the scales and whose dimensions are small enough to slip it comfortably into your pocket. It is compatible with PCM files up to 24 bits/192kHz and it has an extensive internal memory. A distinctive feature is that is also features an FM tuner. Listening is pleasant, without ever reaching refined levels. This is a device made for listening using earphones or good sensitivity headband headphones.

We liked its ultra compact format, its responsive interface, its playful listening and the Bluetooth controller for listening with a wireless speaker.

Sony NW-ZX100

Sony NW-ZX100

Sony’s answer to Astell&Kern is its Sony NW-ZX100 DAP. This is a very good portable device whose amplification just slightly lacks in range. It will benefit from being paired with the Sony PHA-1AEU DAC amplifier, which will give it the necessary added extra. The Bluetooth wireless transmission is faultless and has an exemplary level of quality and control. This is the highlight of this device and it performs perfectly when used with a set of good quality Bluetooth headphones, such as the Sony MDR-770BN (always very easy to listen to and frighteningly good in the low range) or the Sony MDR-1ABT (both meticulous and extremely comfortable).

We particularly liked the extensive Bluetooth adjustments.

Onkyo DAC-HA300

Onkyo DAC-HA300

The Onkyo DAC-HA300 is perhaps the most peculiar model in this selection. It’s not the most pleasant model to use nor the easiest one to fit inside your pocket but its strengths lie elsewhere. Onkyo has chosen a Burr Brown PCM1795 DAC, paired with excellent Muse amps. This Onkyo can support any set of headphones, even those with an impedance of 600 Ohms. With earphones or sensitive headphones, the HA300-DAC produces a well-structured sound with a swift response in the low frequencies but is not excessive. It also works as an external USB DAC.

We particularly liked the the old-style structured listening which is nonetheless very smooth. We liked the USB DAC mode and its compatibility with 128 Gb microSD cards and iPhones. We would have liked an interface with more than three display lines

Cowon Plenue 1

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Yet again we find the Texas Instruments Burr Brown PCM1792 DAC and once again it’s in dazzling form. Cowon has carefully perfected its implementation and the sound produced is both precise and structured. The interface is excellent as is the design. The Cowon Plenue 1 shows its authority – it knows exactly where it’s going. All music is highly enjoyable and users will have many hours of listening pleasure regardless of what’s in their playlist.

We liked the powerful and harmonious sound, the functions of its equalizer and the internal 128 Gb memory.

This post is also available in: French

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