Review: iBasso DX150

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Test iBasso DX150

The iBasso DX150 is iBasso’s latest DAP. The DX150 runs Android and is fitted with a dual Asahi Kasei AK4490 Velvet DAC. It is capable of handling audio streams up to 32-bit/384 kHz, and DSD up to 11.2 MHz. Moreover, this DAP is fitted with an AMP6 switchable amplification module including an unbalanced and a balanced headphones output, as well as a line out.

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iBasso DX150: specs

This DAP basically had smartphone specs, minus the modem. The specs are a 64 bit 8 core processor, 32GB eMMC internal memory, dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth transmission, a 4.2” touch screen with a resolution of 768×1280 pixels, a 4400mAh Qualcomm Quickcharge 2.0 battery, and a micro SD port. On the other hand, the handling of audio stream is completely different from a smartphone’s. The DAC is not integrated to the SoC and the headphone amplifier isn’t short of breath. iBasso has implemented a dual AKM 4490EQ DAC, which is well known for its performance and is usually found in high-end hi-fi amplifiers and AV receivers, as well as hi-fi DACs.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150’s manual commands.

The particularity of the AKM 4490EQ Velvet is its velvety sound signature, with an ingenious emphasis on the low-mids and high-lows. The sound signature is especially warm and may be adjusted by the user via one of the multiple integrated digital filters. The point of using a dual DAC is that it ensures perfect separation of the channels (one stereo DAC per channel) and it reduces background noise. But, as we have said numerous times, if a DAC, a digital transmitter, and a headphone amplifier do not work well together, as great as the converter may be, the result will be of very little interest. This is why iBasso took great care in optimizing data synchronization by using two clocks. Because the iBasso DX150 can be used as an external USB DAC, the manufacturer pulled out all the stops for the USB controller and used an XMOS XU208. As for the amplifier, that’s the pièce de résistance.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150 features three analog outputs and a mini-jack S/PDIF digital output (opposite side) to connect an external DAC or DAC / amplifier.

The AMP6’s amplifier is fitted with balanced and unbalanced outputs boasting an almost non-existent noise level, with an SNR rated at 118dB. This is ideal for ultra high sensitivity earbuds and will ensure an extremely low signal-to-noise ratio. The output power reaches 425mW at 32 Ohms via the balanced output (2.5mm) and 185mW at 32 Ohms via the unbalanced output (3.5mm). These values are compatible with all earbuds and high sensitivity headphones (100dB) with a measured impedance rating (< 50 Ohms). Better still, the iBasso AMP6’s amplifier may be replaced by the iBasso AMP3 or iBasso AMP5 amplification module. In a nutshell, the iBasso DX150 is very interesting on paper.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150 comes with a protective case, an S/PDIF cable, a USB Type C to USB Type A cable, and a burn-in cable.

Android: what advantages for a DAP?

An audiophile digital audio player running Android provides the manufacturer with an all inclusive, user-friendly OS, with native touch screen handling. But Android is also subject to two major drawbacks. The first one comes from the OS’s audio mixer, which is limited to PCM audio streams up to 16-bit / 48 kHz. As a result, every audio file automatically goes through an undersampling or oversampling process in order to match this format. This operation is not a problem if it is carried out by the DAC (DACs are designed to handle this task), but this is not the case with Android as the central processor is put in charge of this process. The issue here is that the processor applies a subpar algorithm (so its overall performance isn’t affected).

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150’s Android 6.0 stock interface.

iBasso managed to solve this problem by bypassing Android’s audio mixer. The preinstalled musical app directly sends the audio stream in its native format to the Asahi Kasei AK4490 DAC. The DAC can handle PCM audio streams up to 384 kHz and PCM streams up to 11.2 MHz in DSD.

The second drawback inherent to Android systems is the necessary updates. Only the biggest brands (Samsung, Huawei, etc.) have the manpower to keep up with the frequent updates imposed by Google.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150’s SD slot is an easy way to expand the storage capacity up to an additional 25 GB.

iBasso DX150: how to install Android apps

The iBasso DX150 DAP comes without Google Play Store. We can draw the conclusion that the manufacturer did not want to take the responsibility of offering access to third-party apps which would inevitably lead to untimely updates. However, Google services –which are mandatory to install the Play Store– are accessible. We first installed Aptoide (from the integrated web browser), then we installed the Play Store using its APK format installer. But here’s the problem: apps cannot be updated or installed directly through the Play Store and all downloads are simply put on hold. Even emptying the app’s cache or rebooting the device time and time again cannot solve this issue. We used Aptoide as a fallback plan to install all the apps we wanted, and everything worked perfectly.

Test iBasso DX150
The Google Play Store is easy to install but has difficulties running properly (all downloads are automatically put on hold).

iBasso DX150: Bluetooth transmission

The iBasso DX150 is fitted with a Bluetooth receiver which is only compatible with the universal SBC codec. This means that you will not be able to enjoy Bluetooth aptX or LDAC transmission, even with compatible headphones. That being said, this is not particularly important given that the player’s DAC and amplifier are not put to work when using Bluetooth transmission. We noted that listening to HD and DSD files was not possible over Bluetooth and that only 16-bit / 44kHz audio streams are handled by the default music app (which sends data without modifications). In order to listen to higher definition audio files with Bluetooth headphones or speakers -although there is no real advantage in doing so considering the damaging compression- you have to use a third-party playback application which uses the Android mixer and its undersampling process.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150’s native playback app is directly connected to the dual AKM DACs.

iBasso DX150: native playback app

The preinstalled audio playback app features an interesting range of settings. In addition to the aforementioned 5 digital filters (Sharp Roll-off, Slow Roll-off, etc.), the app has a 10 band graphic equalizer (33 Hz, 63 Hz, 100 Hz, 330 Hz, 630 Hz, 1 kHz, 3,3 kHz, 6,3 kHz, 10 kHz and 16 kHz), a gapless mode, a two position gain adjustment setting, and a USB DAC mode (which requires the installation of drivers for Windows). The file organizer uses the tags to sort the tracks by artist, genre, album, or by folder. The app also lets you create playlists and adding tracks is very simple. The playback interface features shortcuts to access the digital filters, gapless mode, and gain adjustment. Information about the track you are listening to is displayed in the progression bar (codec, quantification, sampling, bitrate) which is controlled by a navigation button large enough to be user-friendly. Shuffle play and repeat mode are also offered.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150’s low-pass filter can be adjusted via the interface.

iBasso DX150: test conditions and listening impressions

We listened to the iBasso DX150 with Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 and Plantronics BackBeat Pro headphones and we used their original connection cable. We encountered no difficulty setting up the DAP, outside of the installation of third-party apps. We listened to DSD (.DSF) and FLAC files (16/44 to 24/192) that were stored on the device’s internal memory and on a 16 Gb microSD card. The speed of copying files to the internal memory was limited to 25 Mb/sec, which is a result of the technical limitations of the USB 2.0 controller. When copying files to the class 10 SD card, the maximum speed reached 15 Mb/sec. Pretty good numbers.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150 DAP is compatible with gapless playback.

The iBasso DX150’s sound signature was completely to our taste, especially when using the Slow Roll Off filter. The restitution is soft, warm, and offers a plethora of details in the lows. The pitfall of overly emphasized mids has been avoided and we thought that the balance was quite simply remarkable. The DX150 is able to extract an impressive amount of information from CD quality FLAC files and displays an unusual organization ability for a device in this price range, or for an electronic device, period. The soundstage is wide, spacious and natural. The dynamic range varies from one track to another and does not suffer from stereotyping. The DX150 is all about subtlety and natural sound restitution.

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iBasso DX150: compared to…

FiiO X5 III: this is a direct competitor of the DX150, also running Android and fitted with a dual AKM4490 DAC. The user experience is comparable, although the iBasso has the upper hand thanks to its natural sound restitution and its ability to get the best out of even the most modest recordings.

iBasso DX80: clearly below the DX150, the sound restitution is not as generous.

Cowon Plenue R: Cowon wins this round when it comes to its beautiful AMOLED screen and for the overall user experience. Nevertheless, the DX150 displays superior performance as far as sound restitution is concerned.

Onkyo DP-X1 / Pioneer XDP-300R: these DAPs are more expensive and put more emphasis on the mids than the DX150.

FiiO X7 II: probably the most direct competitor to the iBasso DX150 in this price range. The high-end ESS Tech ES9028 Pro DAC isn’t as warm in our opinion and loses the fight to the DX150 due to its less natural sound. The FiiO X7 II is an excellent DAP nonetheless.

Test iBasso DX150
The iBasso DX150’s aluminum volume control wheel.

Conclusion

What we liked:

  • The warm, slightly vintage, sound signature
  • The notable differences between each sound take
  • The USB DAC mode
  • The native compatibility with DSD audio streams
  • The possibility to change the headphone amplifier (iBasso AMP3 ou iBasso AMP5)
  • The 7h battery life
  • The fast charge (roughly two hours)

We would have liked:

  • Android 8.x
  • A working Google Play Store
  • A Bluetooth aptX controller
  • For it to have been lighter

The iBasso DX150 is weighed down by its perfectible software program. This is too bad, as the unbalanced headphone output is enjoyable, harmonious, and ensures a truly audiophile experience. Given the price tag, the DX150 is better value than many more expensive models.

Test iBasso DX150
An animation is displayed on the iBasso DX150’s screen when the user adjusts the volume.

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