FIIO Q1 MKII POR­TA­BLE DAC

Por­ta­ble DaC

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS -

Re­viewer Steve Daw­son could hardly be­lieve the per­for­mance of this MkII ver­sion from FiiO, and he cer­tainly could not fault the price!

Ihad been plan­ning to re­view the FiiO Q1 por­ta­ble DAC and head­phone am­pli­fier, but be­fore quite get­ting to it, the Chi­nese firm launched a suc­ces­sor. The FiiO Q1 Mark II is a huge up­grade over the orig­i­nal model. The old unit was a PCM-only de­vice, lim­ited to USB Au­dio Class 1.0 com­pat­i­bil­ity. That means it topped out at 24 bit, 96kHz sam­pling. The new one? It’ll han­dle just about any dig­i­tal au­dio stan­dard you’re likely—or even un­likely—to have on your note­book com­puter, tablet or phone.

The equip­menT

To be clear, even though the FiiO Q1 Mark II han­dles true, grown-up au­dio­phile sig­nals, this is a por­ta­ble DAC and head­phone am­pli­fier. Very por­ta­ble. It weighs a smidgeon over 100 grams, and is only 100mm long on the long­est di­men­sion. The clear in­ten­tion is to al­low you to en­joy high qual­ity au­dio while you’re on the road.

And de­spite its con­sid­er­able ca­pa­bil­i­ties and (as we’ll see) ex­cel­lent per­for­mance, it only costs $150. Au­dio­phile qual­ity is now within reach of most of us.

The FiiO Q1 Mark II is a DAC and a head­phone am­pli­fier that is com­pat­i­ble with Win­dows and Mac com­put­ers, and with An­droid and iOS tablets and phones. I imag­ine it’s also com­pat­i­ble with Linux de­vices, although I haven’t tested that.

You can use its head­phone am­pli­fier func­tion­al­ity with ana­logue sources as well.

In ad­di­tion, the de­vice has a built-in 1800mAh recharge­able Lithium Ion bat­tery, al­low­ing it to power its own func­tions when used with cer­tain por­ta­ble de­vices. If you plug the unit into a com­puter, it will draw power from the com­puter to charge up its bat­tery. But if you plug it into an iPhone, it will recog­nise the con­nec­tion and use its own in­ter­nal power, avoid­ing a power draw on the phone. It’s not clear what hap­pens with an An­droid phone, although I ex­pect it would be like the iPhone. FiiO says that with a full charge, the in­ter­nal bat­tery will last for 20 hours with ana­logue in­puts and 10 hours when it’s used as a DAC.

Typ­i­cally you will use the dig­i­tal in­put to feed mu­sic to the FiiO Q1 Mark II. This is via a Mi­cro-B USB con­nec­tion on the bot­tom of the FiiO Q1 Mark II. In­cluded with the unit is a stan­dard USB Type-A to Mi­cro-B USB cable, suit­able for con­nect­ing the unit to either a Win­dows or Mac com­puter. The unit can also be charged up us­ing this cable (whether from a com­puter or a stan­dard USB power sup­ply). Also in­cluded is a short Ap­ple Light­ning to Mi­cro-B USB cable. This is to al­low use with an iPhone or an iPad. The unit will also work with An­droid de­vices which sup­port the ‘On-The-Go’ stan­dard for their con­nec­tors. No cable is sup­plied for this ap­pli­ca­tion.

Also on the bot­tom are two small slide switches. One is a bass booster, the func­tion of which needs no fur­ther de­scrip­tion. The other is a gain switch with high and low set­tings.

All the other stuff is at the other end. There are three sock­ets on that end, a com­bi­na­tion ro­tary vol­ume con­trol and power switch, and two LEDs. One of the sock­ets is for a stan­dard 3.5mm head­phone jack. Next to that is a 2.5mm, 4-pole socket for bal­anced head­phones. The lat­ter is rated to sup­port head­phones with im­ped­ances from 16 to 150Ω. No im­ped­ance spec­i­fi­ca­tion is given for the stan­dard out­put, but it is rated as be­ing ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing more than 75mW into 32Ω loads. The bal­anced out­put is rated at 220mW into the same load.

Next to the bal­anced out­put is an­other 3.5mm socket. This acts as both line in­put and line out­put. I am not cer­tain how it knows which func­tion it should adopt. I had as­sumed that it switches to in­put func­tion when head­phones are plugged in, but just now I tested that and found that it’s happy to de­liver to both head­phone and line out­put at the same time.

Per­haps it de­faults to line in­put when no sig­nal is be­ing pro­vided via the Mi­cro-B USB socket.

The blue LED is sim­ply a power in­di­ca­tor. The green one il­lu­mi­nates only when a Di­rect Stream Dig­i­tal sig­nal is be­ing re­ceived. That’s a very use­ful func­tion. Get­ting source equip­ment and soft­ware to stream DSD to an ex­ter­nal DAC, rather than con­vert it to PCM, can be tricky. This LED gives the user con­fi­dence that they have it right (or in­forms them that they’re go­ing to have to play with their set­tings some more).

In­side, the unit uses an AKM AK4452 DAC chip. This is a high-res­o­lu­tion DAC with sup­port for PCM sig­nals from 8kHz to 768kHz sam­pling and 32-bits of res­o­lu­tion, and Di­rect Stream Dig­i­tal to 5.6MHz. It uses 256× over­sam­pling and has se­lectable fil­ter char­ac­ter­is­tics.

This LED gives the user con­fi­dence that they have it right or in­forms them that they need to ad­just their set­tings…

The sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio is spec­i­fied at 115dB, and THD plus noise at –107dB.

The head­phone am­pli­fier chip is the OPA926, ap­par­ently from Texas In­stru­ments. I couldn’t find any spec sheets for this at the TI web­site. The line out­put chip is the OPA1662, one of TI’s ‘ul­tralow dis­tor­tion’ op-amps.

In­stal­la­tIon

As I’ve pre­vi­ously men­tioned, since early 2017 Win­dows has be­lat­edly sup­ported USB Au­dio Class 2, which pushes things be­yond 96kHz, 24 bits. So when I plugged the FiiO Q1 MkII into a Win­dows com­puter, it was recog­nised and started work­ing al­most straight away. Win­dows Au­dio De­vice man­ager gave a list of com­pat­i­ble out­put for­mats, from 16-bits and 44.1kHz to 32-bits and 384kHz, with all the 44.1kHz and 48kHz mul­ti­ples along the way.

So I ducked over the Foo­bar 2000 to play some real mu­sic, and im­me­di­ately se­lected WAS­API (FiiO Q1), and tried play­ing back some un­re­mark­able CD-stan­dard FLAC… at which point Foo­bar in­formed me that this was an ‘Un­sup­ported stream for­mat: 44100Hz/24-bit/2-chan­nels’. I switched the out­put to 16-bits and it worked. So I tried some 192kHz, 24-bit mu­sic, and it pro­duced an out­put that sounded like it was be­ing trans­mit­ted through a bam­boo rod, rat­tling against a di­aphragm. I switched back to 24-bits, and got a sim­i­lar fail­ure mes­sage. So, un­less you’re pre­pared to ac­cept Win­dows do­ing its stuff to the au­dio, you’re go­ing to have to go to the FiiO web­site (www.fiio.net) and down­load some driv­ers. You’ll need them any­way, be­cause you’ll want ASIO sup­port for DSD.

The driver was easy enough to find on the FiiO web­site, but you will need to down­load some un­pack­ing soft­ware which can han­dle RAR files, rather than the far more com­mon ZIP files.

Con­fus­ingly, there were a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ex­e­cutable files to choose from on the FiiO site. I picked one more or less at ran­dom, and it in­stalled the rel­e­vant driv­ers. Soon I had DSD and high-res­o­lu­tion PCM up to 384kHz work­ing fine from my Win­dows com­puter.

Such trou­bles weren’t needed for iPhones and Macs. With these it was a straight­for­ward plug-and-play. Like­wise for An­droid phones and de­vices, although you’ll need to sup­ply your own cable. As it hap­pens I have both Mi­cro-B USB to Mi­cro-B USB, and Mi­cro-B USB to USB Type-C ca­bles, so I was able to test it on sev­eral An­droid de­vices suc­cess­fully. I used the USB Au­dio Player PRO app on An­droid de­vices for high-res­o­lu­tion and DSD. For iOS de­vices I used the Onkyo HF Player. The paid ver­sion of this can stream high-res­o­lu­tion au­dio, in­clud­ing DSD, to ex­ter­nal DACs.

I also tried an iPod Nano of the last gen­er­a­tion be­fore they were dis­con­tin­ued. I couldn’t get any sound out of that, but they’ve al­ways been pretty iffy at work­ing with ex­ter­nal DACs.

Sub­jec­tive Per­for­mance

So, first things first: yes, this DAC worked with all the PCM and DSD files I had avail­able. That in­cluded high-res­o­lu­tion FLAC mu­sic at up to 352.4kHz and 24-bits (the soft­ware in your de­vice han­dles the de­cod­ing to PCM, the FiiO does the DAC du­ties), and Di­rect Stream Dig­i­tal at stan­dard, dou­ble and quad speeds (oth­er­wise known as DSD64, DSD128 and DSD256). The var­i­ous pieces of player soft­ware in­form me both of the source file for­mat and what they’re ac­tu­ally de­liv­er­ing to the DAC, so I know that there was no PCM con­ver­sion with DSD, and this was con­firmed by the in­di­ca­tor light on the unit.

I had no bal­anced head­phones avail­able so I in­stead switched around be­tween us­ing Oppo PM-3 head­phones, twenty-year-old Sennheiser HD 535 head­phones (which I still love) and Blue Lola head­phones. The first and last are closed back. The Sennheis­ers are open back. They are also rather in­ef­fi­cient, and have an im­ped­ance of 150Ω. If there are out­put level prob­lems, these head­phones will dis­close it.

But they didn’t. I was able to play ev­ery­thing at any vol­ume level I wanted, even un­com­fort­ably high lev­els, with these head­phones. You will need strange head­phones in­deed to run out of oomph with the FiiO Q1 Mk II DAC.

As I’m writ­ing this, I am lis­ten­ing to mu­sic recorded nearly six decades ago: So What from ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis. The for­mat is DSD64—this record­ing has been out on SACD for many years since Sony has man­aged to con­vince it­self that DSD is some kind of archival for­mat. If I re­call cor­rectly, it was recorded on three-track ana­logue tape. The tape hiss dates it a lit­tle—this be­ing pre-Dolby—but there is a lively, un­com­pressed feel­ing to the record­ing. That cym­bal, re­lent­lessly sound­ing at 45 de­grees to the right of straight-ahead, the drums, the gui­tar… all are gor­geously lay­ered in a space that ex­hibits re­mark­able depth… even though I am lis­ten­ing through head­phones. The mu­sic is on a 256GB mi­croSD card plugged into my com­puter.

Foo­bar 2000 with suit­able plug-ins is feed­ing this to the FiiO Q1 Mk II DAC di­rectly in DSD for­mat. That card doesn’t have any su­per high-res­o­lu­tion DSD on it, so I’ve just switched over to my Google Pixel 2 XL phone. USB Au­dio Player PRO is stream­ing some DSD256 mu­sic from the NAS server on my net­work straight to this DAC, which is de­cod­ing it beau­ti­fully.

The sound is clean, clear and, when us­ing the Sennheiser head­phones, airy and open.

But I did most of my lis­ten­ing to mu­sic en­coded to the CD stan­dard 44.1kHz, 16-bit stan­dard for the ob­vi­ous rea­son that that is how most mu­sic comes. Holly Cole’s al­bum ‘Temp­ta­tion’ was richly han­dled, with pow­er­ful bass, yet fine con­trol on such ma­te­rial as Train Song. Even on the HD 535 head­phones the bass was full, but with the Blue Lola head­phones it was pro­vided with a near-sub­woofer-like qual­ity.

Yet the sub­tleties in her voice re­mained ev­i­dent. A lit­tle tape hiss was present in the record­ing, eas­ily heard. The ring of chimes bounced across an in­ter­nal sound stage with sub­tlety and beauty.

ob­jec­tive Per­for­mance

Even though the lit­tle vol­ume con­trol turns smoothly, with­out in­den­ta­tions, it ap­pears to op­er­ate dig­i­tally. From less than half a volt out­put up to the full 1.51-volts from the head­phone out­put, each step was 0.5dB, (ex­cept for the 4th high­est step, which was a full deci­bel). Be­low that each step was one deci­bel, ex­cept for the 1.5dB jump be­tween 0.448 and 0.375 volts out­put. I have no idea why there would be those two dis­crep­an­cies. In prac­tice, I didn’t no­tice them.

The max­i­mum line out­put level for a dig­i­tal in­put sig­nal con­sist­ing of var­i­ous fre­quen­cies of sine waves, mod­u­lated to peak at 0dBFS, was 1.58 volts RMS. That’s a lit­tle less that than from a stan­dard CD player, but not much less; only two deci­bels. Note: the line out­put is sub­ject to unit’s own vol­ume con­trol. There is no fixed out­put set­ting. That was with the ‘Gain’ con­trol set to ‘high’. The out­put volt­age was halved with the low gain set­ting. There are few head­phones that this unit won’t drive com­fort­ably. I did all my lis­ten­ing and test­ing with the line and stan­dard head­phone out­put, not the bal­anced out­put. The head­phone out­put drove 300Ω loads at the max­i­mum out­put set­ting with­out clip­ping, and pro­duced 1.5 volts. That works out to 7.6mV, and 8.8dB above the (1mW) sen­si­tiv­ity rat­ing of any high-im­ped­ance head­phones you’re us­ing.With a 16Ω load the out­put from the full scale sine waves clipped a lit­tle at

the two high­est vol­ume set­tings, but all was fine at 1.2 volts out­put. That trans­lates to 90mW, or 19.6dB above the head­phone sen­si­tiv­ity rat­ings, so given that most low-im­ped­ance head­phones and ear­phones are rated at well above 100dBSPL for 1mW in­put, thun­der­ous lev­els are clearly avail­able. I cal­cu­lated the in­ter­nal im­ped­ance of the head­phone out­put to be less than 2.2Ω, so even with low-im­ped­ance head­phones with which the im­ped­ance varies by fre­quency, the af­fect on the re­sponse should be min­i­mal. With 44.1kHz/16-bit in­puts, the fre­quency re­sponse is even to just on 20kHz and drops away sharply above that. Clearly FiiO uses one of the sharp anti-alias­ing fil­ters, rather than a slow one, in the DAC chip. For 96kHz in­puts, the fre­quency re­sponse was main­tained out to 43kHz be­fore cut­ting off sharply. With 192kHz in­puts, the fre­quency re­sponse of my mea­sur­ing rig was at least as much the lim­it­ing fac­tor, but ad­just­ing for that ADC’s ef­fect, the fre­quency re­sponse of the FiiO Q1 Mk2 was –2dB at 63kHz and –3dB at 75kHz. Some noise de­liv­ered to the DAC via the USB socket breaks through into the ana­logue out­put. Us­ing a 0dBFS 1kHz sine wave, out­put via the head­phone socket into a high im­ped­ance load at max. vol­ume, the noise floor was at –132dB or bet­ter for most of the audi­ble band, with a small bump to –129dB around 7kHz. That’s when the Win­dows com­puter was run­ning from its bat­tery. When the com­puter was plugged into power, the noise floor be­low 1kHz hov­ered slightly above –123dB, with what at first glance look like mains fre­quency spikes reach­ing up to –105dB. I say ‘at first glance’ be­cause when you check the spikes, you find that they are at 60Hz and its mul­ti­ples, not the ex­pected 50Hz. I guar­an­tee I was in Aus­tralia when do­ing this mea­sure­ment! There’s also a fair bit of spu­ri­ous noise above 1kHz. Note: none of that was audi­ble. The spikes you see in both noise traces at 2kHz, 3kHz and 4kHz are dis­tor­tion prod­ucts. They look bad, but in fact the 2kHz spike is at –90dB, which is 0.003%, the 3kHz spike is at 0.0009%, while the 4kHz spike is at 0.0004%. Add them up to­gether any way you like, and you’ll see that THD is well un­der 0.005%.

Con­Clu­sion

The FiiO Q1 Mark II should not be thought of as an up­grade to the pre­vi­ous model. It is to­tally dif­fer­ent in de­sign and sig­nal han­dling. The only real com­mon­al­ity is the ex­cel­lent porta­bil­ity—‘way smaller than any smart phone—and the built-in bat­tery. What it does do is chal­lenge the per­for­mance and sig­nal ver­sa­til­ity of au­dio­phile DACs cost­ing an or­der of mag­ni­tude more. Stephen Daw­son

Graph 5: THD+N at 1kHz when pow­ered via USB show­ing left (blue trace) and right (pink trace) chan­nels 24 bit/96k test sig­nal.

Graph 2: Fre­quency re­sponse (96kHz/24-bit) show­ing left (blue trace) and right (pink trace) chan­nels.

Graph 3: Fre­quency re­sponse (192kHz/24-bit) show­ing left (blue trace) and right (pink trace) chan­nels.

Graph 4: GTHD+N at 1kHz when run­ning on bat­tery show­ing left (blue trace) and right (pink trace) chan­nels us­ing 24 bit/96k test sig­nal.

Graph 1: Fre­quency re­sponse (44.1kHz/16-bit) show­ing left (blue trace) and right (pink trace) chan­nels.

One of the sock­ets is for a stan­dard 3.5mm head­phone jack. Next to that is a 2.5mm, 4-pole socket for bal­anced head­phones.

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