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.