Disclaimer: The Headfonia Store is an Ibasso, Fiio and Astell & Kern dealer.
The Ibasso DX50 ($239.00 from Ibasso).
I had an instant good feeling about the DX50 the first time I laid my eyes on it. Its design and built is the first player that challenges the exterior supremacy of the Astell & Kern players. It’s a little bigger than the AKs but the shape sort of made the player feel and look smaller than it actually is (a bit thicker and wider than a standard iPod Classic). Though it follows the same exterior lines as the bigger DX100, the build quality is definitely much improved and the lines also are more modern than the DX100. As I started playing around with the touch screen, I noted that it’s almost as snappy and very close to the Astell & Kerns, and definitely more responsive than the DX100.
The Headfonia Store sells the DX50 for roughly $300, following the MSRP set by the local distributor. If you buy it direct from Ibasso’s website, you can get this player for merely, $239. If we’re just buying based on build, and considering that the AK100 sells for $650, I’d easily price the DX50 at $450 and I’d still think it’s a competitive price. This is the player that’s going to start messing up the portable player market, and in a good way. I’ve seen how the Astell & Kern seduces headphone enthusiasts with its sexy good looks. The DX50 in my opinion, not only looks better, but I also like the huge three button play/forward/back navigation as well as the bigger screen size. That’s a lot of pluses for me, except for the fact that the AK player is smaller and is more friendly on the pocket. Now I know that we don’t sell a huge lot of AK100s and 120s just because they look good, but I know that it’s a huge selling point as people expect their HiFi player to have the same build quality as their Macs, iPhones, and HTC Ones. And this DX50 has precisely that slick build quality that’s not only going to make life tough for the AK100 and AK120, but also the Fiio X3 which over at my store is merely $70 less than the Ibasso.
Of course we need to talk about the sound, because that’s the sort of people we are. And I’m happy to report that the DX50 sounds good. The DX50 has a smooth and dark signature, and it sounds very refined. Clearly it’s an impressive sound signature to hear and people’s impression of it seem to confirm my thoughts. The biggest difference between it and the Fiio? I’d say smoothness and refinement is where the DX50 excels. Both are dark and laid back, and fairly linear. The Fiio is more grainy and more harsh, the Ibasso significantly smoother. The Fiio has the blacker background which I usually rank very highly, but it’s hard to ignore the DX50′s more refined sound. The DX50 does lack depth and layering, and also dynamics — these three areas I’d rank the Fiio X3 to be better.
From the first listening session using the Aedle X1, Fidelio L2, and Audez’e LCD-2, I keep on feeling that the top treble is tapered too excessively. I don’t think it’s a question that Ibasso can’t make a player with a decent treble extension. Rather, it’s a conscious decision to make the player sound good with average quality recordings and mainstream mastering tones. It’s a good call on Ibasso’s part if you’re playing average quality recordings as it helps tremendously to smooth out the top frequencies, similar to how the Aurisonics ASG-1 is able to tackle any recording without any treble issues. With high quality HDtracks stuff, however, I do feel that a lot of the air in the recording has been cut off, in a way similar to an over-dampened headphone (headphone nodders should be familiar with this).
What I can’t explain is that a similar tapering effect also happens on the sub-bass frequencies. While I’m not expecting for a sub-bass performance of some esoteric DAC, what I hear on the Ibasso does seem a bit extreme. The roll off even comes at an earlier point than the Fiio X3.
In all, while I don’t think that it’s going to be a very good sound for high quality recordings and classical pieces, the sound quality has enough wow factor to it that I think I’ve a lot of wows from people who’s stopped by for an audition, and only one comment so far about the points I addressed above from one of the most prominent modders in our community. However, I don’t think these sound quality complaints are going to break the deal for anyone considering to buy the Ibasso, especially at the market shaking price that Ibasso is selling these for.
Obviously I wanted to compare the DX50 to the AK100 which I think is acting pretty nervous at the moment to see such a fine alternative player being priced less than half its selling price. I do know in my memory that the AK100 which is our standard demo DAP on the Store and I listen to on a daily basis, has a dryer sound than the DX50, and that’s no good. And checking the two side by side, I confirmed that the DX50 is smoother. In fact, comparing it to the DX100 which we also happen to have, again the DX50 is smoother (though the DX100 is superior in a lot of other technicalities). Back to the Astell & Kern, obviously the AK doesn’t have that top and bottom tapering that I’ve been saying earlier, and that’s very important for me. The deal breaker for the Ibasso for me, however, is the compressed dynamics (how explosive the sound can get) and likewise compressed dynamic range (perceived range of soft to high loudness levels). This translates to a more polite, but flat sound impression. When the dynamics are compressed, gone is the explosive effect of loud passages which is pretty important for either classical or rock listeners, which in turns reduces the PRaT and toe-tapping factor for me. Yes, with some poorly mastered Jpop stuff, the DX50′s tuning can save your ears from bleeding, but on the other hand, I want to hear the dynamics in my music! So, yeah, as much as the DX50 has impressed me from the first second, looks like it’s not going to be MY daily player.
Still, I need to stress things once again, that the complaints I have are less likely to affect the buying decision of the people who are considering of getting one. Especially after seeing the player in person, it’s a very hard piece of electronics to resist buying. (Hint: if you’ve outspent your headphone shopping budget — I know you have — don’t come over to have a look at the DX50. It’s very hard to resist in person).
The deal breaker, at least at this moment, is the UI. I don’t really read HeadFi, but a friend told me that they’re talking about the UI flaws there big time. Flaws which most of them are probably also similar to what I’m experiencing at the moment. Four hard-crashes in a day. Settings (such as loop or shuffle) not being saved. Scrolling gesture often accidentally results in the playing of a song I meant to scroll through. Slow media scanning on the external SD card that happens every time you turn on the player. With the default auto-off set at 5 minutes, I had about 10 media scanning in one day yesterday. I was talking about this to a friend, and a familiar response is, “Yes, they’re making the early adopters paying beta testers”. The DX50 should still be in a beta stage at the moment, or even an alpha stage. I do think that the glitches would be fixed eventually, though I’m not sure if Ibasso has the software expertise to create an entirely glitch free UI. Of course nothing is 100% glitch free, so when I said “entirely glitch free”, I said it in that context.
End words, based on the assumption that Ibasso will eventually make the UI smooth enough for daily use, my verdict is “WOW”. They’ve really impressed me with the DX50. Size: good enough. Build quality: is there anything better at the moment? Sound: less technically competent than the 100, but still extremely very good. Price: Why do they sell this at $239 when they can easily sell it at $439? I hope the Fiio X3 and the AK100 will survive this.
About two weeks after the “first” batch of the DX50 I received (this was probably Ibasso’s 4th batch), I received a second batch of DX50s (all these are for the store, for sale to our customers). I don’t want to ruin the day of the people who bought our first batch, but there definitely are some serious differences in technicalities between the store’s first and second batch (Ibasso’s 5th batch?). Our second batch has a significantly more spacious, open sound. With manufacturing consistencies seemingly always a challenge that’s not necessarily addressed in the design stage, would’ve known what happened between the two batches. I definitely was surprised to hear the difference. Though some of the comments I made about the sound still apply, the huge improvement is that the DX50 is now extremely spacious, and easily “outspace” the AK100 player, while still retaining its smooth sound. Now, if only it could improve the dynamics and range…
Some people who refused to get the DX50 based on their impression based on the store’s demo unit (first batch) changed their mind after listening to a second batch unit whom one customer purchased and shared in front of all of us. Since we have sold out our second batch units, I’m in the process of ordering a third batch and so I’m curious to see if there are any further differences. Keep in mind that between the two batches I compared earlier, both units have been equipped with the latest firmware from Ibasso 1.20.
Another improvement that we get with the latest firmware is that I now very rarely encounter any crashes. Definitely a big plus over the original firmware and I believe the firmware will continue to be improved by Ibasso.