The far more expensive Astel&Kern players are technically ahead of the iBasso DAPs: they have more detail, clarity and a bigger sound stage. They also have better build quality, touch screen and they still have the very best user interface. I do find the iBasso players to sound more musical and I end up using an external amp with the AKs most of the time with full sized headphones where I almost never use one with the iBasso players. If you don’t mind using an external amp, the AKs are still the reference DAPs, without doubt. But they will cost you double, at least. And then there’s the cost of the extra amp.
Fiio’s X1, as I reported a while back, is way too noisy for me and I didn’t recommend using it without an external amp. As a result I find it to be the least good of the DAPs discussed in this review. The DX50 is a bit better in my eyes because it does have more power and extracts more detail than the X1. The Fiio X3 has a good DAC chip and while I love the level of detail the player produces I do find it lacking in musicality and dynamics. The DX90 combines all the strong points of the X3 and adds exactly the missing musicality and smoothness, making it the best player of these four DAPS.
If I add in the Astel & Kern players in the mix my ranking from bad to good would be: X1<DX50<X3<DX90<120ii<240. But don’t forget you will be paying premium for the AKs and you will probably need an extra amplifier. The Calyx M, for those interested, ends up between the AKs somewhere. I’m missing the X5 for the moment but going from memory I would rank it just below the DX90.
It’s probably clear by now but one of the biggest strengths of the iBasso players is that they have a lot of power to drive full sized headphones. Here’s a selection:
Beyerdynamic T90: Power wise it is doable but the mids are still rather thin and overall body is missing but the bass is pretty good. I would have to recommend an external amp though; the T90 is one of those harder to drive headphones.
Hifiman HE-400i: A really wonderful combo. No external amp is needed and even on low gain it sounds superb. It’s a great match and that results in gorgeous sounding mids and close to perfect bass. HE-400i review soon!
Sennheiser HD650: This is discussable. Some find the DX players to have enough power to drive the HD650 but they admit it sounds thin with less bass definition. To me that means the DX’s don not have enough power to make the HD650 sound like it should. Is it doable? Yes, but this is not how the HD650 is supposed to sound.
Soundmagic HP150: A real easy to drive headphone that needs no external amp. You could play with the EQ to change the sound if you would want that. It has pretty good bass but it do is different from the discontinued HP100, which I loved. I still have to get used to the HP150’s sound but I prefer the HP100 till now. A full HP150 will follow soon.
Audeze LCD-XC: Performs surprisingly well. Yes, it’s the easiest to drive Audeze but its still an orthodynamic. It doesn’t really need an amp and I’ve been using it without one but performance will improve even further with the use of an external amp (more body, detail and musicality).
Like I mentioned there is no need for an external amp when using (custom) in ear monitors. That is unless you prefer to tune the sound hardware wise. I haven’t really used any amp for my IEM listening an I mainly used the RHA T10i, Beyerdynamic DX160 and my customs.
I know I’m being pretty hard on the DX50 but when comparing it to the DX90 that’s just the way it is. Looking at its price however, it sells for only $239, the DX50 is a more than just OK DAP. If you do have extra budget though, the decision to go for the DX90 should be a no-brainer. It’s quite a lot better. At $419 it is almost double the price but to me it is absolutely worth it. Too bad the European price is 419€.
I do think the AKs are still the best DAPs on the market but if you look at price/quality there is nothing that beats the DX90. If you’re a full size headphone user and you don’t want to be carrying an extra amplifier around, the DX90 is exactly the DAP you need. It’s the only DAP I have been using and the AKs both have been in storage most of the time. That means a lot.
A lot of people ask me which DAP they should get and there are a few options. First option: you have an unlimited budget and you go the AK240, Calyx M, etc route. Second option: go for the full CypherLabs setup. Gorgeous sound, pretty expensive as well though and you should be prepared to carry a triple stack in your pocket. Third option is to go for a “do it all” DAP. More and more DAPs are being released each week, a lot of them are good and even more of them are bad. If you just want to carry your DAP around, you are on a budget like most of the people, and you do want high end sound then, to me, there is only one way to go: Buy the iBasso DX90 and live happily ever after.
I was having a Skype video call with Mike earlier this week and when I showed him the DX90, He started laughing and showed me his DX90 in return. Turns out he thinks exactly the same as me and he’s only been using the DX90 as well. It’s a small world.
The DX90 is awesome and you’ll love it. If you are looking for a first DAP or you’re thinking of replacing your actual player, I can strongly advise starting with the DX90. It’ll save you a lot of time. If you’re on a much smaller budget and you can only afford the DX50 you should go for it. I’m pretty sure you’ll be amazed coming from an iPod or something similar. My advice though would be to save up for the DX90.
Yes, I’m hooked. I actually just emailed Audiogarden and asked if I could buy the DX90 from them, I hope they accept.