The X5 is perhaps the quintessential Fiio player, it was one of their first devices and also one of their most universally acclaimed. Fiio have come far since the unveiling of the original X5, experimenting with various form factors and interfaces. With their flagship X7, Fiio first adopted a touch screen based android interface, one that radically differed from the scroll wheel based devices that came before. This was an especially pertinent move since the majority of complaints about Fiio devices was their inefficient, immature software and the move to the much more refined, much more developed Android OS was nothing but wise. Just one year later, it’s great to see Fiio bringing this premium experience down to a more affordable price. Retailing for $550 AUD, the new X5 III provides a highly similar performance and feature set to the X7 within a more compact form factor. Let’s see if the X5 III is Fiio’s next champion device.
I would like to thank Fiio very much for providing me with the opportunity to review the X5 III. There is no monetary incentive for a positive review and I will be as objective as possible in my evaluation of the player. All words in this review are my own.
X5 II – X5 III
Physically, the X5 III is roughly identical to the X5 II in size but adopts an android based touch screen interface over the proprietary click wheel-based interface used before. Usage should be familiar to those who have experience with the higher end X7 since it employs the same internals and operating system.
But while the X5 II had a more rounded design, the 3rd iteration of Fiio’s iconic player instead boasts a much sharper, angular styling that is refined enough not to become abrasive in the hand but far more catching to the eye. Each corner is subtly rounded and softly chamfered both for ergonomics and aesthetics. The sandblasted finish on the sides of the device grant it with some traction in the hand and the glass back is certainly very eye catching. I would perhaps like to see a frosted glass back on the next model, ever since I lay my hands on the Sony Z5, I’ve been a huge fan, but the glossy back should remain clean due to Fiio’s inclusion of not one but two cases. I love the gunmetal colour scheme that Fiio have adopted, it’s industrial and mature, more so than previous devices.
Horizontal/Vertical Viewing Angles – Colour and Contrast Comparison @Max Brightness
From a glance, the first thing that pops out is the 4” IPS LCD panel up front. While the X5 III remains, at its core, a music player, the implementation of a touch based android interface requires an impressive display since it is such a visual based operating system. Luckily, Fiio’s choice of panel is quite good, perhaps not by today’s standards (as shown above), but it’s a reasonably bright and saturated panel that sports a sharp 800×480 resolution, a universe apart from the rather archaic panel employed on the X5 II. The capacitive touch screen is also sensitive, and navigating through the UI is mostly as response as any modern smart device. Tasks such as watching videos and even some casual gaming are all well served by this resolution and the screen was visible even under the harsh Australian summer sun, if barely. There is no ambient light sensor so you’ll have to manually adjust the brightness but Fiio were kind enough to leave the brightness slider in the notification quick settings for easy adjustments.
While purists may not embrace the move to Android, the X5 III does retain all of the controls of the X5 II, minus the scroll wheel. The layout has been updated to better fit the form factor and ergonomics of the device.
While the X5 III is an audio device, It cannot be considered a pure music player due to its adoption of the android operating system. I’m a huge fan of this move, I owned the X3 for a while and loved the form factor and quality of the device, but found the UI significantly less practical than an average smart device. Many others have noted this as well, perusing Fiio’s Amazon pages reveals similar complaints; the device is solid, the interface is not. Luckily, moving to android grants the device access to the wonderful Google Play store and all of the apps supported by android, meaning the X5 III is compatible with Spotify, Pandora, etc. It also makes for a nice browsing and casual gaming device due to its large battery capacity. Youtube is not ideal since the X5 III has no external speaker or gyroscope (no auto-rotate) though use with headphones is as proficient as any other android device.
Behind the scenes, the X5 III is internally identical to the X7 with the same RK3188 SOC. For reference, it’s using a quad-core A9 running at 1.8GHz with a Mali-400 GPU, essentially the same as the Samsung Galaxy S3. But don’t let those specs hold you back, due to the X5 III’s lower resolution 800×480 screen (vs 1280×720 on the S3), the UI is much smoother, mostly running around 50-60fps with only the occasional skip. This is helped by Fiio’s incredibly clean and stripped down version of android. While it still has all the essential features, Fiio have loaded the player with minimal bloatware and have stripped all superfluous features such as auto sync. The X5 III is missing all of the superfluous additions that bog down almost every Chinese smartphone I’ve tested, I’m very grateful for Fiio’s thoroughly clean and functional take on Android for it is just what this player needs. Yet due to the more dated hardware, the X5 III is still nowhere near as fast as a modern smartphone (though it is smooth), even my M8 is considerably faster in general navigation even with its 1080p screen and my 10 is faster still. I do feel that the device is limited by its 1GB of RAM; when streaming music in the background, the player will frequently freeze and multitasking isn’t really viable, most apps close as soon as you open a new one. However for music in addition to a basic tasks such as browsing or 2D gaming (even some 3D gaming), the player is fluent and zippy, it only begins to bog down when multiple things are happening at once, such as when updating apps in the background.
And this actually one of those features that most people don’t appreciate on Android, the ability to have music playing in the background, here in pristine quality while playing a casual game of Pinout or Smash hit. Of course, the device was never intended as a gaming platform, but it goes to show that it is viable and ultimately, a great way to pass the time.
Powering all of this is a 3400mah non-removable battery. Fiio rates it for over 10 hours of usage however in my testing, the player could achieve considerably more playback time. I’m assuming that’s a screen on figure, 10 hours is achievable given the screen’s low resolution and smaller size, but you would have to turn off WiFi, Bluetooth and turn the screen down to its minimum brightness. In terms of music playback, users can expect around 20 hours on low gain and a bit under that on high gain. I left the X5 III playing for 12 hours overnight to burn-in my F3’s, the device was in low-gain at volume 60/120 and there was just below 50% remaining in the morning. That’s not quite as impressive as the Sony NW-A25 for example, but the X5 III is a far more powerful device in every way and superior to the vast majority of smartphones. With more multi-media usage, music, browsing, watching videos and some brief 3D gaming, the X5 III made a full day of heavy usage with around 20% to spare at night which would be sufficient for any user. While the device does not use a Qualcomm chipset, it is compatible with Quick Charge 3.0, I was able to charge to 80% in just over 40 minutes, very impressive. The device did become warm but not alarmingly so, the thick aluminium shell acts as a nice heatsink to keep everything running within threshold.
Storage performance is more important than you might think when navigating a large music library and also in general device responsiveness. Luckily, the internal storage performance on the X5 III was high enough not to bottleneck the device, unlike my HTC One X, which is good to see. While the player does bog down when installing apps, navigating through a ~20GB music library stored on the internal storage was nice and zippy, the app caches the majority of the information to speed things up. Using the A1 SD Benchmark app, I saw internal storage sequential read and write speeds of 29.43MB/s and 25.65MB/s respectively, which is far from a UFS solution, but better than most budget smartphones which tend to see vastly reduced write performance. The SD slots is unfortunately, quite lack-luster and you will not see any benefit when using faster U3 cards over a basic class 10 one such as the Sandisk ultra. I put my fastest Micro SD into the player, my Sandisk 128GB Extreme Plus rated for 95MB/s read and 90MB/s write, and the player only managed to pull sequential read/write speeds of 12.33MB/s and 11.79MB/s which is very disappointing. By comparison, my HTC 10, which currently has the fastest non-UHSII SD slot on the market, managed to pull 86.60MB/s read speeds and 57.47MB/s write speeds from that same card. Running the test multiple times unfortunately, produced similar results. But benchmarks do not necessarily reflect real life performance and even with these mediocre speeds, navigating through a 120GB library of music (20GB internal and 100GB on sd) was still smooth and stutter free. The reason, again, comes down to that caching. While album arts can take a second or two to load, all of the titles and albums are stored in a database file resulting in quick navigation. This was both in Poweramp and the native Fiio music app, both of which have a lengthy library scan upon first launch but remain responsive in usage after that. While some users will be disappointed with that SD performance, the device is no longer as reliant on sd reader speed as previous devices due to optimisations within the software rather than hardware.
I’m especially fond of the swipe based interaction; swiping to the right over a song/album reveals options to favourite, add to playlist or send songs via Bluetooth while swiping to the left allows users to delete albums off the device.
At the top is a tabbed UI which has the usual categories: all songs, artist, album, genre and folders. The app automatically scans when the SD card has been removed/mounted to your PC but there is an option to manually rescan your library should an error occur.
From the now playing screen, Fiio give you a nice large album art, basic play/pause and skip track buttons along with toggles for action upon finished song and a button to add the playing song to a playlist. In the bottom left is the eQ button which reveals 3 presets, rock, metal and pop along with a slot for a user defined eQ. There are 10 bands with 6dB of adjustment either way. Heading into Viper effects in the settings menu enables an eQ with up to 12dB of adjustment should you require more flexibility.
Viper effects has various other useful features though unfortunately, most require an in-app payment. Fiio’s music player also lacks a persistent service that runs in the background. Music will keep playing when the app is minimised though if the app is closed through the multitask window, music will cease playing. Most music players such as Poweramp and play music have a persistent notification even when the app is closed, it just prevents accidental closes when the close all button is pressed in the multitasker. In addition, the app does not remember the songs that were last played nor does the home screen widget which resets everytime the app is closed.
Fiio also include their own Fiio marketplace. It has some basic apps, Poweramp, Neutron music player, Spotify, etc. While I appreciate the thought, it offers no functionality that the play store does not.
Though X5 III defaults to charge only when connected to a USB port, the device can also functions as a USB DAC. You are required to install a driver from Fiio beforehand, but after installation, it’s essentially plug and play, you just need to select the X5 as your playback device on your computer. On the X5 itself is a setting that allows you to exit USB DAC mode and resume function, there is also an option to mount the internal storage and SD card(s) via USB Mass storage, the X5 III does not support MTP at present, meaning you’ll have to wait for the cards to unmount first before they appear on your PC.
I would also like to add some comments on the X5 III’s wireless performance. Bluetooth is surprisingly potent with above average range for a player in addition to apt-x support, resulting in perceptively lower latency and higher audio-quality over a standard connection. Connecting to a Bluetooth enabled device is as simple as with any other Android device, Fiio have even added a dedicated Bluetooth button to their music player app for quick streaming to a wireless speaker/headphone. WiFi performance is not so flawless. It is likely an antiquated single band implementation that easily bogs down with larger app downloads and even stutters with 480p Youtube streaming. I live in a very interference-heavy area and definitely feel the lack of 5Ghz WiFi support. That being said, I had no issue downloading smaller updates and apps and experienced no freezing when streaming extreme quality audio through Spotify. While the WiFi implementation is far from ideal, it is adequate for what the player was designed for.
The X5 III is using quite a comprehensive list of electronics to achieve what Fiio and AKM say is a “velvet sound”. It’s a nice setup that is quite impressive for the X5 III’s asking price (especially considering all of its other features) with dual components serving each channel discretely. In usage, this translated to a sound that was not as resolving as my Saber based HA-2, but one that was smoother and just as well separated. The player carries the slightly darker Fiio house sound though deviations are very minimal and I would actually consider it to be more neutral than my brighter Oppo HA-2.
Images courtesy of Fiio
The first thing I noticed about the X5 III was its soundstage. It is definitely one of the most spacious portable sources I’ve heard in a while. The X5 III did a great job reproducing live recordings through my Sennheiser HD700’S and ie800’s, the HD700’s in particular, do tend to struggle here with lesser sources. When compared to the HA-2, a similarly priced source, the X5 III is just as spacious and open even though it has a darker sound which tends to sound a little more musical and a little less pristine. Imaging is also very good, not quite as sharp as the HA-2, but very close. Separation was admirable on the X5 III and instruments and details all had a nice sense of air around them. The X5 III was a huge upgrade over my Realtek based laptop and HTC 10, both sounding considerably more closed in and compressed. My e17K did an admirable job considering its more conservative pricing and age, but ultimately, its performance was not as nuanced and separated, the e17K also has a more sculpted sound that is sure to be more polarising.
While there are many factors in an audio chain, I do believe that the DAC gives character to the sound with the amplifier choice providing subtle adjustments as per the manufacturer’s intentions for the device. And where the Oppo HA-2 carries the typical clean and hyper clear Saber sound, one that I find rewarding yet somewhat fatiguing, the X5 III produces a sound that is more musical, warm and lush. I do feel that the HA-2 is a technically superior source though many will find the X5 III is more listenable for longer stretches of time. Of course, this is also a matter of synergy; both of my favourite phones, the HD700 and IE800, are treble boosted and especially susceptible to source tonality.
The X5 III starts off strong with a slightly lusher than neutral low-end. The HA-2 is slightly tighter and more agile, but also has a more diffuse sub-bass tone where the X5 III is fuller. Mid and upper bass was linear on both though the X5 III sounded like it had a few dB of boost across the board by comparison, nothing major nor immediately noticeable, but something that I noted during a direct AB.
Mids are slightly warm and slightly dark, the HA-2 boasted more clarity and also more detail, male vocals in particular, were reproduced with increased resolution on the HA-2. The warmer X5 III is still resolving, more so than the X3, Q1, E17K and my HTC 10, but male vocals still sounded very slightly muddier to me, something that does not affect the HA-2 and Mojo. Female vocals tell a similar story though to a lesser extent. The X5 III has a slightly fuller body where the HA-2 sounds clearer but also slightly less natural, I feel that their quality is on par, their presentations just differ. The midrange performance will probably be more a matter of personal preference, while I do tend to prefer the more resolving HA-2 with my darker HD 700’s, my brighter, more neutral and already very aggressively detailed New Primacy’s are generally better served by the more musical X5 III.
The high-end is where things get pretty interesting. The HA-2 no doubt has the brighter treble response of the two overall, every detail is present and sparkly while remaining surprisingly refined. Despite this, the X5 III is actually more aggressively detailed in the high end, especially micro-details; the X5 III tends to bring them more to the fore than the HA-2. That being said, the X5 III lacks the refinement of the HA-2 and Mojo, while the player resolves a lot of detail, it does come at the cost of smoothness and higher instruments such as strings tend to sound smoother on the HA-2 with the same amount of detail retrieval, it’s all just less in your face. This, again, comes down to preference, however here, I do find myself consistently preferring the HA-2 more often. The X5 III performs very admirably, however, and I do consider the HA-2 to be a pretty standout DAC/AMP combo. It’s really phenomenal that the X5 III is so comparable in terms of SQ, considering the minimal pricing difference and extensive feature set of the Fiio.
The AMP section is also quite proficient. As with most recent Fiio gear, background hiss was present but minimal with my most sensitive iem, the Oriveti New Primacy and non-existent with my less sensitive gear such as my ie800’s and portable headphones. In terms of volume, I usually sat around 25-35 of 120 volume levels on high gain with my HD700’s and around 20-25 on low gain with the majority of my iems. My HTC 10 by comparison required around 10-12 of 16 volume levels to achieve the same volume and my Oppo HA-2 sits at around 2 of 5 on high gain. The X5 III also produces no coil whine when charging, unlike the Sony NW-A25 which had a prevalent buzz when plugged into a power source. I would say that there is sufficient volume and driving power for any portable earphone/headphone and enough for most larger home headphones too. Perhaps higher 300-600 ohm headphones will struggle, but I feel that my HD 700’s were well driven; just slightly less so than from my Oppo HA-2 which sounded a little more dynamic and spacious. The X5 III was clearly superior to my HTC 10 (undoubtedly one of the best smartphones for audio) when listening through my HD700’s, with a much larger soundstage, more bass extension and a clearer sound in general. With earphones, the 10 holds an advantage with a silent noise floor though the X5 III was still noticeably more dynamic and punchy. I suspect the X5 III has a slightly fuller bass response than neutral, if very slightly so; it pursues the warmer, lusher and smoother sound that the Chord Mojo so masterfully pioneered, though it still lacks that sense of effortless detail that the Mojo possesses.
My readers commonly ask me where they should first upgrade their audio chain; their earphones, player, AMP and even source files. I would never recommend DAPs on account of their inefficient interfaces and unrefined software; I’ve personally always had a much more pleasing experience using my Android or IOS based device with an external DAC/AMP combo. Fiio had stopped surprising me in this regard, I had come to expect great products for affordable prices at every release but somehow every new iteration of their devices failed to really grab my attention. But with the X5 III, I feel that Fiio have really invigorated the DAP market with the move to a more conventional touch-based operating system while retaining familiar (not to mention very high quality) analogue controls. Fiio have also outdone themselves in sound quality which is pretty fantastic. The X5 III also boasts an incredibly solid build, one that is much improved over past Fiio devices in addition to a pretty solid display that is well served by its conservative quad core chipset.
Accessories – 10/10, Fiio have never skimped on their accessories and the X5 III exemplifies their need to go above and beyond in this regard. I appreciate the addition of a slim TPU and protective Leather case from factory, both accessories most manufacturers charge considerable amounts for after sale. In addition, Fiio provide the user with some great quality cables and even apply screen protectors from factory. Nice job Fiio!
Design – 9/10, The build is as solid as any HTC device I’ve owned in addition to the class-leading HA-2. The finish is also much improved, the device feels much more unified though the glass back attracts smudges as one would expect. The edging on the glass panels could do with a bit of work (could be more rounded), but the chassis is quite exemplary overall, easily superior to almost any other Chinese player I’ve felt and much improved over Sony’s plastic frames. The controls are all pronounced and well delineated. The volume wheel is nice and clicky with a strong texture that avoids accidental presses by design. The play/pause and track skip buttons could both be located better, requiring conscious effort to avoid accidental presses.
Sound Quality – 8.75/10, I do still prefer my HA-2 (mainly midrange), the X5 III is close, more musical and also far more fully featured. It does lack that effortlessness and silky detail that the HA-2 regularly glimpses and Mojo commands, but every other aspect of the sound is sublime, it’s just not otherworldly. Lower mids in particular, are a bit muddy and the high end can sound more granular than other high-end sources. Bass is nice, full and very articulate, upper mids are also smooth and very natural. It’s a lush sound that is also aggressively detailed, something that I’m sure many people will love.
Verdict – 9.25/10, The X5 III is ultimately another well-rounded, fully-featured and competitively priced device; except this time, there are no software quirks to hold back my recommendation. If devices such as the iPod Touch have survived this long, then I can see a place for this device in today’s market. Its standout sound quality is immediately superior to even the best smart devices, its dimensions are very portable (even if it is quite thick) and the playback controls make a world of difference when on the go, even if those controls have some placement issues. While I would like to see a faster wireless implementation and a processor that is perhaps 1 generation ahead of that implemented, the X5 III is still vastly faster than any proprietary player. If you’ve been looking for a great DAP without the software quirks that plague so many, the X5 III should on your watch list, it brings many of the features that the X7 pioneered to a more palatable price.