portable music player
Fiio has created a dedicated fan-base for its high-res portable players, and the X7 is no slouch on DAC duties at home either.
There seems to be a booming market for high-end portable audio players — iPod-like devices which are not only capable of handling losslessly compressed and high-resolution music, but of actually treating it with respect. One of the major players in this space is Fiio, and its top-ofthe-line portable player is the X7. Let’s see if this is worthy of residence in the pocket of a high-end audiophile. (Spoiler: it is.)
The X7 is indeed pocketable, though it may drag at the waistband a little thanks to its 220 grams of mass. That’s in part due to the build quality of the body, which is mostly a one-piece CNC-milled structure.
On the front of this is a touch-sensitive control and display screen. On the left are volume up/down buttons and a power button. On the right are track skip forwards/back keys, and play/pause. A setting in the menus can switch the skip keys with the volume keys if, for some reason, this would prove more convenient for the user.
On the top edge is a 3.5mm socket for line output and coaxial digital audio output (a short adaptor cable for the latter function is included). At the bottom is the headphone output and a Micro-B USB socket for charging and data transfer.
There is also a microSD slot on the left. That’s important. The unit only has 32GB of built in memory for your music (minus a bit for the operating system and other workings). The slot supports up to 128GB cards, so you can put quite a lot of high quality audio on it, at the cost of the owner having to purchase the card (reputable brand ones are available for less than $100 these days from reputable sources, and, of course, will get cheaper still over time).
Things are actually a little more complicated with regard to the headphone connection. The bottom 25mm section of the unit is removable (although securely screwed on) because it’s actually a headphone module. The AM2 comes as standard, but there are also AM3 and AM5 modules, being Middle and High Power respectively (the AM 2 is apparently optimised for in-ear monitors and portable headphones). Each module is available for $145.90. No head-gear is supplied with the unit.
With regard to the coaxial output, I’m inclined to think that optical might be preferable thanks to the electrical isolation it offers. Still, I can imagine that those with an even higher-end DAC may want to experiment with using the coaxial digital.
That might take a bit of doing, though. The DAC built into this unit is the ESS Sabre ES9108S, with four channels bridged for each of the left and right stereo playback channels for higher performance. Fiio specifies the line output SNR at 115dBA.
You can use the unit as a USB DAC for a computer if you want (a driver will be required for Windows, none for Mac).
Internally this is an Android device, running Android version 4.4.4. Fiio hasn’t placed much of a skin over this, so anyone used to Android phones will have no trouble learning to use it very quickly. But you can hide its Android nature by having it start straight up in Music Player mode.
You can apparently install some apps on it, although we had some kind of an authentication problem with the Google play store. The Fiio marketplace had a bunch of apps, mostly labelled in Chinese, but including Spotify and Tidal. I downloaded Spotify three times before it occurred to me that this was a manual installation… I used the supplied file manager to navigate to the Download folder and found three copies of the Spotify application package. Selecting one allowed installation.
This less-than-usual Android convenience was also evident in the firmware update procedure. You have to download this and copy it to the internal memory (or installed card) and then use an upgrade app to select the file. It worked well enough, but was much less seamless than normal Android phone updates, and there are is no apparent provision for upgrade notifications.
The important app is ‘Fiio Music’. This is a competent music player that supports darned near everything: DSD64, DSD128, DXD up to 352.8kHz, WMA Lossless up to 24/96kHz, and APE, Apple Lossless, AIFF, FLAC and WAV up to 24/384kHz. Plus, for lossy formats, MP2, MP3, AAC, WMA and OGG. In addition to playing from internal storage, it can also play from DLNA servers on the network.
Setting up is pretty simple. You can connect to your Wi-Fi network (2.4GHz) through the settings menu, required if you want to use things like Spotify, or to access DLNA music from your network. The unit runs a quad-core processor so it’s snappy in operation.
You will want to load up the internal memory and any inserted microSD card with music, of course. The simplest way is to plug it into a computer (Windows or Mac, both) via the micro-USB port. It will appear as a drive. You navigate to the ‘Music’ folder, or to the additional SD card, and drag in all the music you want from your computer. Alternatively, if your music is residing on a NAS, you can use the supplied ES File Explorer app to log onto the server and then copy and paste music from it to internal storage wirelessly.
Finally, if your computer supports it, you can just plug the microSD card into it, copy your music onto the card, then put it in the player and use the settings in Fiio Music to scan the card to update its library.
For our listening we used mainly the Fiio Music app, listening to a variety of
losslessly-compressed CD quality tracks, plus plenty of high-resolution tracks in 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64 and DSD128 format. I also used Spotify a fair bit (it must have been an older version of Spotify because it did not support sending music to a Chromecast Audio device, although it did support Spotify Connect).
The music delivered up by the Fiio X7 sounded glorious, whether via the line output through an audio system, or via headphones. There was an utter absence of noise on modern DSD and high resolution PCM recordings from audiophile labels, while the far more abundant CD-standard music also sounded first class. It worked with all my test files with resolutions up to 384kHz, and DSD128. I used reasonable quality earbud headphones for some listening, and Oppo PM-3 headphones for closer listening. In both cases the amp of the unit provided high levels effortlessly and cleanly.
The only wrinkle was that the Fiio Music app would not show up a number of my test signal files via the usual Album and Artist lists — for reasons I couldn’t work out. It would display four of them, but not the other half dozen with similar naming. Yet all the actual music files I loaded onto it appeared with no problems. But you can navigate via folder to the music, and that worked fine. I was also able to play the same tracks directly from the server via DLNA.
I tried the unit as a USB DAC. That was challenging because there were no instructions I could find (the firmware to support this function had been released only days before review deadline). Eventually by poking and prodding I discovered that if you pulled down from the right top of the display a settings panel was displayed, and one of the icons thereon switched between USB Storage mode and USB DAC mode.
I plugged it into my Mac Mini, and OS X recognised it immediately. I set it as the output device for the Audirvana Plus music player, and all PCM-based music files up to 192kHz worked perfectly. OS X reported that the unit supported a maximum of 192kHz sampling. I was unable to get it to work with DSD over PCM from Audirvana Plus, although that software works fine with all other DSD-capable DACs we’ve used, so possibly more work needs to be done on the Fiio’s firmware to allow this.
I’m happy to report that the output impedance of the headphone amplifier is rated at just 0.2 ohms, rather than the ridiculously high level of some. Consequently virtually all the power is available for your headphones, and headphones with impedances that vary widely by frequency should suffer no ill effects on tonal balance.
The output is limited by gain rather than clipping, by which I mean that with the volume advanced to the maximum setting, the three 0dBFS test tones were completely undistorted. I prefer amps that will go over the top in clipping, because if a recording is encoded at a low level there’s plenty of gain to hear it at your preferred level.
For the results of noise and frequency response, see the graphs and the information alongside.
The Fiio X7 is a thoughtfully designed, true audiophile quality portable music player, and should prove very comfortable in the pocket of listeners with the highest standards, especially given the headphone module flexibility. Stephen Dawson
The Android-based interface for the Fiio X7 is high on settings and on information, providing everything from bit-rate to format to channel count. It’s highly codec-friendly as well, supporting darned-near everything in our test pile, including AIFF, FLAC and WAV to 384kHz.
Le channel Right channel Le channel Right channel PCM DSD64 DSD128