This week we reviewed the FiiO X5 III audiophile digital audio player (DAP), successor to the FiiO X5 II. The brand sent us an early release of their new, Android-based portable player, a model fitted with a dual DAC, a balanced headphone output and an unbalanced headphone output. A very promising DAP, and one which enters into direct competition with the FiiO X7.
The FiiO X5 III is the second of the Chinese manufacturer’s audiophile portable players to run Android. The basic interface of the FiiO X1 II and FiiO X3 II has given way to a tactile screen along with access to the Google Play Store, as well as to any Android app, including Qobuz, Netflix, Deezer and Spotify.
FiiO X5 III: Asahi Kasei AK4490 dual DAC
In direct competition with the Astell&Kern, Pioneer XDP-300 and Onkyo DP-X1, the third version of the FiiO X5 inherits its fundamental qualities from its predecessor. In other words, it uses a dual DAC (one stereo DAC per channel) in order to bring both distortion and jitter down to an extremely low level, while offering significant improvements in terms of channel separation and dynamic range. While FiiO chose an 8-channel dual ESS Sabre chip for the FiiO X7, the FiiO X5 III is fitted with two Asahi Kasei AK4490 high-end DACs. This DAC, which also equips the Astell&Kern AK380, is considered–along with the new ESS 9028 Pro–to be the best available on the market.
FiiO X5 III: presentation
The FiiO X5 III DAP looks like a thick smartphone due to the size of its components, including the condensers, headphone amplifiers, and a high-capacity battery. It is brought to life by a quad-core ARM SoC and Mali graphic controller which work together to ensure optimal smoothness for the interfaces of the device’s audio apps, given the 4.2” screen’s average resolution (720p).
Like any other Android portable device, it is fitted with WiFi and Bluetooth (apt-X) controllers.
The LED-backlit, 4.2” screen is an IPS model offering very satisfactory viewing angles. In addition to the touch screen, several buttons are made available on either side of the FiiO X5 III: play/pause, previous/next track, power/lock. A control wheel lets you adjust the sound level (+/- 120 increments).
FiiO X5 III: internal memory and dual microSD reader
The FiiO X5 III DAP features 32Gb of internal memory. Although part of this is taken up by the OS (about 3Gb), the rest can be used to install apps and store audio files, for example. Two microSD slots are available, each of which is capable of handling cards up to 256 Gb. Future firmware updates should make it possible to use bigger microSD cards, although this would offer only limited benefits.
FiiO X5 III: balanced and unbalanced headphone output, digital and line output
The FiiO X5 III is a versatile model which features balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs as well as a line output allowing for connection to an integrated amplifier, for example. This line output can also be used as a digital coaxial S/PDIF output in order to connect the X5 III to an external DAC.
FiiO X5 III: FiiO playback app and “Pure Music” mode
Because Android EQ limits the sampling rate of audio stream to 48 kHz, FiiO developed a specific app which communicates directly with the integrated DACs to read HD audio files. Therefore, file formats including 24 bits/192 kHz and DSD are natively handled. In order to benefit from this function, activate the Pure Music mode. Note that the Pure Music mode deactivates other installed apps.
The FiiO X5 III playback app is very responsive and can sort tracks by artist, title or album. It goes without saying that the files have to be tagged properly, otherwise the app will not be able to index the tracks. We recommend installing the AutomaTag app which lets you download missing metadata (artwork, additional information) and update the files stored on the DAP. Gapless playback is integrated.
This app can handle all types of common audio formats, lossy (MP3, WMA …) and lossless (FLAC, DSD …), up to 32 bits/384kHz and DSD 11.2 MHz. The playback app can also stream music from a DLNA server.
Surprisingly enough, FiiO pre-installed Viper Audio filters which can be activated or bypassed. Some are free (dynamic compression, for example), while others are available for purchase (tube effect, solid state effect, etc.). We didn’t try out these options.
FiiO X5 III: test conditions and listening impressions
We listened to the FiiO X5 III with our set of Meze 99 Classics headphones (unbalanced cable) and a selection of FLAC, FLAC HD and DSD files.
There are several telltale signs which point to a good audio system at work: longer-lasting notes, the apparition of formerly inaudible micro-details, the possibility to turn up the volume without experiencing auditory fatigue, the discovery that even the most ordinary soundtake is, in fact, very rich… The FiiO X5 III combines all of these features; it is as simple as that. FiiO didn’t just bring together components with great specs; the brand also managed to achieve a real balance.
We listened to Crocodile Rock by Elton John, a track with a particularly compressed and high-pitched mix, thus particularly unpleasant to listen to with average electronics. What is so difficult about Crocodile Rock? During the mixing process, the high-mids were brought to the fore, which make the low-mids and high-bass difficult to distinguish. A very difficult mix to listen to if the DAC and headphone amplifier are not spot on. The FiiO X5 III does a great job and it was with great pleasure that we let the wild rhythm, high-pitched chorus and psychedelic synth take us away. The polar opposite is U2’s Bullet the Blue Sky with its rather ‘dry’ balance. The result is just as impressive, with an unexpectedly wide sound placement. Left, right, and center, the electric guitar enjoys very thorough support from the rhythm section.
We observed the same thing with David Bowie’s live version of Stay, recorded at the BBC in 2000: the electric and rhythm guitars (on the right) are truly delightful in addition to being in perfect harmony with the thundering intro. The soundstage is meticulously layered and tactfully built, which highlights the work of the audio engineer. To be honest, any pop song is very flattering to the ear. With Nikita by Elton John, the strings sound lifelike and the synth solo–often thrown at the listener–is well integrated within the overall melodic ensemble. And what can we call George Michael’s chorus throughout the song, and especially starting at 5 minutes, besides ‘heavenly’? With even more demanding musical styles, the FiiO X5 III performs brilliantly, especially with jazz (Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk…) or opera (Maria Callas).
FiiO X5 III: conclusions
What we liked: the unmistakable musicality, the wide variety of settings proposed, the expandable storage space, the fact that Google Play Store comes pre-installed, the battery life (about 10 hours).
What we would have liked: to be able to use the DAP as an external USB DAC (maybe with a future update).
FiiO has already announced that the FiiO X5 III’s firmware will benefit from weekly updates until its European release, which is announced for March. The model we received had the 1.0.2 version of the firmware installed and we were able to download and flash the 1.0.9 version. With its current update, the DAP is a stable and fully competent music player. It is possible to install Qobuz and Deezer without any problem.
However, the FiiO X5 III cannot be used as an external USB DAC–at least not yet– while the FiiO X7 can. In short, a few drawbacks subsist, but they should be corrected with each new firmware update. Nevertheless, the FiiO X5 III is a pleasure for the ears, the best Hi-Res Audio DAP released by the manufacturer to this day… and maybe the best on the market.This post is also available in: French