Better, But: Fiio X5

fiio-x5

I love the sound of the new Fiio X5. A clear upgrade from the X3, the X5 sounds so much more cleaner, more spacious, and a blacker background too.

The first comparison I did was with my daily driver portable player, that is the AK100 Mk2. I enjoy the X5’s sound more than the Astell & Kern AK100 (Mk1 or Mk2 variants) though I have to admit that the Astell have more steps, more resolution, and easily sounds richer in the small details. For some reason the X5’s sound is less tiring and more analog. Certainly the Fiio sounds darker in tonality, though the brilliant clarity still shines through the black background of the music. It’s undeniable that the AK100s is a step up in resolving micro details, portraying ambiance, and seems to have far more steps in the gradients from soft to loud passages, but these strong points fail to dull the X5’s sound quality. The X5 felt more analog, somewhat like a poor man’s Altmann Tera. The superior depth of the X5 combined with the wider soundstage and blacker background, makes the music more palpable than on the AK, even if the X5 doesn’t resolve as much micro details as the AK. The X5 also sounds more planted on the low end, and I’m not talking bass presence here (though the Fiio’s bass slams harder), but rather a feeling of weight that gives each note in the music a more realistic feel.

The dynamic range is better on the AK (the steps from soft to loud passages), but the dynamics or the explosiveness is far stronger on the X5, even when driving easy IEMs from the lowly Visang, Ocharaku’s Donguri, to the mighty FitEar MH335DW. My verdict between the AK100 (Mk1 or Mk2) and the X5, in this case, is that while the AK resolves more, the X5 makes a more lifelike music.

Talking about the X5 and the Ibasso DX50, I easily would choose the X5’s sound over the DX50 every single time. The DX50 is clean, smooth and spacious, but as I’ve written on the DX50 review, I find the dynamics and dynamic range rather constricted on the Ibasso. I don’t know what caused the Ibasso to be like that, but it severely hurts the performance of the DX50. Side by side with the DX50, the X5 matches everything that’s good about the DX50’s sound, while adding more depth, dynamics, and range. It’s a clear win for the Fiio.

Just to give an idea of where things stand now in terms of SQ, it’s: X3 < DX50 < X5 < AK100 Mk1 < AK100 Mk2

Now I want to move on to talk about other aspects of the player.

The player is rather big and in person it’s definitely bigger than it looks on pictures. For some reason, I know we use to live with players like the HM-801 and not complain. But these days, the AK is my benchmark player in terms of overall day-to-day usability and the X5 comes out a little too big. Not HM-801 big that I’m going to get mocked carrying it around, but the X5 definitely doesn’t win any favours from me just because it’s so big by today’s standards. I think the DX50 is the maximum limit of what I’m willing to live with these days when it comes to portable players.

The build quality is good and I love the semi-gloss finish on the front and sides, but I can’t understand why Fiio has to finish the back with that hairline anodised finish that falls totally out of place in this piece of sleek modern design. As nice as the overall player is, it doesn’t feel as refined as the Ibasso DX50 or Astell players and so in that sense it’s still fairly disappointing to see the X5 that looks very nice in the computer renderings coming out not as refined as I had hoped.

The user interface is another “why” point for me. Why oh why do they have to try so hard to make an UI that’s simply not intuitive to use? Or why oh why do they have to try to mimic Apple: the king of the UI world? It’s like going to the Voice and choosing a song usually sang by Michael Buble. You know you’re just gonna make yourself sound worse than you really are.

In comparison, the Ibasso DX50 is very easy to use with its large Play/Forward/Back controls on the front. One of the beef people have with the X3 is in its controls and the way the buttons are laid out, and the X5 seems to be repeating the same mistake. Who designs the UI for Fiio, by the way?

The Jog dial on the X5 rotates a little too loose to navigate the menus and songs, and one control that I expect it to do, it doesn’t: volume level. We all know how jog dials rotate to adjust volume levels as we all grew up with the Ipod. That should be the one thing they implemented, then they can afford to loose the volume button on the side too! And don’t get me started about the four corner buttons that nobody knows what they do when you press them. Yes, eventually you’ll figure the four buttons out, but why do they have to make it so un-intuitive?

Read more on the next page

Better, But: Fiio X5 4.67/5 (93.33%) 3 votes

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  • holsen

    Great review. I’ve got both an X5 and an AK120 and I think your assessment of the sound is spot on. Ive been doing a lot of A/B testing over the last couple of days to figure out which unit I’m going to keep and it’s proving to be a very difficult decision. The two main considerations for me are 1: SOUND QUALITY and 2: EASE of USE

    From a sound perspective comparing the two units, I have found myself using exactlu the same language as you. The AK120 produces a cleaner and wider sound stage and is much much better at revealing the micro details of sound. The cymbals are much clearer and better layered and details like fingers strumming across guitar strings while present on the X5 or more pronounced (evident) on the AK120 – not to say that they are not there on the X5, they are just more separated and distinct on the 120. Sound-wise I say the X5 is Very Good, the AK120 is Excellent (Yes it’s subjective, but my ears seem to confirm yours). The use of dual mono DACs clearly widens, layers and details the sound stage better.

    From a UI perspective I have to give the win the X5 – it took a about 8 minutes of playing with the device to begin to understand the relationships between the buttons and once the short trial and error period was over it all made sense and became rather intuitive. I would say that playback control is much better on the X5. I think the the AK120 is underpowered from a processor perspective. Changing menus is always met with buffering delay. For example when listening to an album or a track on an album and you select the control to go back the the artist or album list and little spinning “buffer” icon appears and it can take up to 12 seconds before you can access the menu or item you actually want. And if you want to fast forward through a track, the fast forward action is jittery at best. If I want to move from 1 minute and 20 seconds to let’s say 2:30 and hold down the forward key – the track advances 12 seconds or 15 seconds at a time and I might end up at 2:43 with no real precise way of getting to the place I want. On the X5, playback control is every bit as precise as an iPod. You can just dial right in to where you want to go. The other advantage the X5 has over the AK120 is track selection.
    Lets say you are listening to track 5 on an album and want to go back to track 3. It’s simple click twice on the back button and you are there. Not so on the AK120. If on the 120 I’m listening to track 5 and want to skip back to track 3, the first click of the back button takes me back to the beginning of track 5. Subsequent presses do nothing they just repeatedly bring me back to the beginning of the current track. Occasionally and extra click will move me back 1 more track but its not consistent. In fact it’s downright frustrating. There’s just too much lagtime on a $1300 device. I think the only area where the AK120 UI has the advantage is in the merging of contents from both mSD cards into 1 Artist, Album, Track Listing. On the X5, you browse the contents of each card. so in effect you have 2 separate Artist, Album and Track Lists. If Fiio can fix this with a future Firmware update – they’ve got a complete winner on the UI.
    As I continue to evaluate the 2 devices I’m torn over which one to keep. I L O V E the audio clarity of the AK120 but for $900 + 2 SD cards the UI sucks in my opinion.
    On the other hand the X5 sounds remarkably good for a $350 payer and the playback control is superior BUT it cant merge the libraries of the 2 cards and sound isn’t “as good” as the 120.
    I think that had I not heard the AK120 I would be completely satisfied with the X5 and hopefully about a firmware update to address the library issue. But I have heard the AK120 and love it’s sound and feel I may keep it and suffer it’s inferior user control (which I believe is a under powered processor issue). I’m going to let the X5 run continuouslyu for the next 48 hours to “burn-in” the DAC – if that brings up the micro details, I’ll keep it. If not I’ll hang on to the AK120 and return the X5. Either way both devices are magnificent upgrades to iPod. For pure value X5 is the clear winner. For those who are super finicky about sound – it’s the AK120 (by about an 8% margin) – Dont ask me where I came up with that number, it’s another one of those personally subjective things. I hope this helps somebody.

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  • David Evans

    Wow. You seem to make the big stuff (how it SOUNDS) small and the small stuff (how it works) big. I am only a consumer but I demo’d an X3 and a DX50 before I bought an X5 to experience it in all its breadth and depth. Then I sold it and bought a DX90 to do the same. Then I sold that too – having lived with both for two months each. I have now bought the FiiO X5 again – this time, to keep. In my opinion, better sound, first and foremost, preferable UI and lastly, extra features (inc latest firmware), especially two card capacity. I also note your rankings are simply in ascending order of price alone which seems somewhat simplistic to me. The X3 is a lite X5 but too lite in too many ways for me – other than price, DX50 is miles off the pace and (had at time of demo) RUBBISH product quality, the DX90 less impressive but more expensive and the AK’s are ridiculously overpriced in any VALUE equation. If you factor in VALUE ie performance vs price, the result, for me, is even more of a win for the X5.

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      Me personally (just an opinion) – I think the UI comes first, as long as I can expect decent sound from the player. If a more expensive player with better sound is affordable to me, it still has to have a usable UI or I can’t use it. After being spoiled by Apple devices, I really need A to Z buttons or the equivalent on my player, to get to a range of tracks (A to Z) very quickly, where a scroll wheel isn’t good enough. This is especially true when the tracks are on a MicroSD card. I found the X3 completely unusable because of the lack of navigation on the card in real time. Maybe the X5 is a lot better?

      • George Lai

        Hi Dale, when I demo a player for the first time, if I can’t figure out most of the buttons etc in, say, a minute, I don’t even continue.

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          Well George, I’d make you the number one reviewer – save me lots of time (heh). BTW, I really miss the iPod Classic – scroll wheel and all.

          • George Lai

            That’s why I still have one iPod Classic that I still haven’t taken out of the shrink wrapped box. I bought it when it was discontinued.

    • willy vlyminck

      I agree with most you write, but the AK100II have Wlan,which make life more easy, specially as you can transfer firmware directly and can also stream music, the question if it´s worth 3 times the price of the X5 is open for discussion,.Anyway FiiO is currently working on a similair player named the x7 and should cost about 700 Euro, which is still 500 Euro under the AK100II.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_7zifx6dho Chris B

    One of the best parts about the device is the customization ability

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_m9HBFsM0k

  • Satish Bhat

    Anybody trie d a&k jr and compared it with Fiio x5?