In a short span of time, FiiO has risen as the unlikely hero that will save audiophiles from portable agony. The X5 is their best player, refreshed for 2015 with some great new features.
Since 2007, FiiO has been striving to raise the expectations from the ‘Made in China’ moniker that is synonymous with dubious quality, unless it is preceded by a ‘Designed in California’ disclaimer. Now that it has established itself as a maker of fine portable audio products, we had to take its flagship X5 player more seriously. Even more so in this second-generation avatar. Lighter and smaller than its predecessor, the new player is capable of decoding native DSD files. For those who don’t listen to grass grow, this means you can play 192kHz/24-bit files that have been mastered in the high-resolution, non-compressed DSD mode.
Delivering on its promise
Although it looks a lot like the original iPod Classic, the X5 has an interface all its own and it’s pretty quick to get around. The clickwheel, though, isn’t as accurate as Apple’s icon. The UI screen is presented with limited colours, probably to conserve battery life, and album art is displayed in thumbnail form. We didn’t have any trouble playing whatever form of audio files we threw at it – FLAC, ALAC 192/24, DSD and obviously MP3. Rocking two SD-card slots, it can hold up to 256GB of music on-board, but of course, will shoot up the overall investment you make. We tried out the newly acquired Audioquest Nighthawk open-back over-the-ear headphones with the X5, expecting the need for an external amplifier. But the 14V power supply and high-gain feature on the FiiO proved just as engaging with all the dynamics, verve and resolution we could find in a stand-alone headphone amplifier.
Chinks in the metal armour
Finished beautifully in a titanium exterior shell, this is one hardy unit. Sparsely populated with textured buttons, it also is extremely easy to use in the dark and with instant on from standby mode, also very convenient. But all’s not well. The font is unnecessarily small, there’s no clock display anywhere and even though this is a purist music player, the omission is unforgivable. The volume control doesn’t correspond to your button inputs linearly, suddenly rising up to eardrum-bursting levels. The UI lags behind when you’re making changes, indicating the need for more memory and certain vital info like file type refuses to stay present on the screen at all times. So while FiiO has made advancements in the sound quality of the X5, it still needs inspiration from the best in the business to make it a glitch-free experience.
Plug in any quality cans into the X5 and load up a hi-resolution file to experience what you missed during the original iPod’s launch. There’s a high degree of resolution and grain-free presentation on tap. The richness of the timbre makes you forget that you’re listening to a portable player. Listen to Patricia Barber - her voice resonates in your head and almost gets hypnotic on Morning Grace with its increasing vocal pitch. Nuances like the tonality of different cymbals is easily deciphered through the X5, which on other players seems almost irrelevant. The bass is controlled and with adequate weight, never getting boomy or unruly. The midrange is where the X5 shows off its strengths the most though, presenting the music in a fatigue-free manner that allows hours of listening, provided you have equally comfortable cans on you. If you have another source full of music, the X5 will also work just as a USB DAC, again a unique feature that might prove to be handy more than often.
FiiO X5 (2nd Gen) Verdict
Ticking almost all the boxes for a modern music player, the FiiO X5 seems to have aged well. Almost HD screen, 3330mAh battery, twin SD Card slots, USB 2.0 with a line out are some of its headlining features. Not to mention that it plays almost every conceivable audio format. It even bundles in a few goodies like a silicone case and a few stickers to embellish the back of your player. There’s no reason to be smug while being a serious audiophile.