iPhone 4S vs Fiio X3 and X5

If you read HiFi magazines at all regularly you’ll have noticed that high-res digital music players have been getting quite a lot of press recently. This is an interesting trend for those of us who have been around long enough to remember this kind of thing:

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It is pleasing that there are enough people interested in high-quality sound to support this burgeoning market, and if it can attract people young enough to have grown up on a diet of MP3s & iTunes there’s hope for our hobby yet.

In this review I’m comparing the iPhone 4S with the Fiio X3 and X5. If you’re considering buying one of these players, there are plenty of great reviews out there.

The X3 and X5 both look good value for money, with 24/192 capability, reputedly good headphone amplifiers, and USB DAC functionality, all for around £160 and £300 respectively. The X3 is fairly well put together but doesn’t have premium build quality. The casework of the X5 on the other hand feels very pleasantly solid and well finished, with only the large size and flimsy scroll wheel attracting demerits.

The X3 comes with 8GB of internal storage, and the X5 with none.
For this comparison, I used a PNY 32GB class 10 SDHC card. X5 Note: it is critical that you format the SD card using the formatting option of the X5. If you format it using your PC you are likely to experience stuttering when playing back high-res FLAC files. I had this problem initially and this fixed it. The Fiio X5 thread on head-fi was 950 pages long last time I checked and there is quite a lot of discussion of this issue.

Music

Diana Krall Live in Paris
Dire Straits Dire Straits
Evan Christopher Django a la Creole
Amber Rubarth Sessions from the 17th Ward
Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan “Dvorak; Symphony No. 9; Smetana; The Moldau [Karajan]”
– All Apple lossless (m4a) rips from CD

 

Julia Fischer Sarasate, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Op 35
– 24/96 flac download from Linn Records.
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Op 35
– 24/192 flac download from Linn Records.
Diana Krall All For You, A Dedication To The Nat King Cole Trio
– 24/96 flac download from Linn Records.

Equipment

In the course of this review I listened to all three players using BeyerDynamic DTX100 IEMs – decent quality earphones (costing around £80). I also tried my daughter’s Sony ZX610AP headphones – these sounded OK but were clearly balanced on the bassy / fun side and weren’t really the sort of headphones you’d pair with an fairly expensive player like the X5.

Sound quality impressions

Let’s be pragmatic from the outset: the iPhone sounds OK. It’s not awful by any means, but clearly audio quality wasn’t the number one design criterion. [As an aside, using the three devices it is abundantly clear that user experience was the number one design criterion for Apple and it shows: it’s in a different league in this department.]

The iPhone sounds warm and has a midrange emphasis that can make female vocals in simple arrangements sound quite pleasant. However even on CD lossless rips the Fiio players are clearly more capable, giving a cleaner, higher-resolution, and better balanced sound on simple material, and maintaining more composure in complex material. Bass is cleaner [more on this later], with basslines easier to follow. Midrange and treble are more airy, with ambient details more clearly discernable. Soundstage is better. On hard-sounding tracks such as Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the name”, the Fiio players took some glare out of the midrange and were easier on the ear. On larger-scale classical works, the iPhone’s sound would become quite muddled on the louder passages. Instruments were hard to separate in the soundstage and the trumpets had a hard glare. The bass was muddled and overblown. The X3 did a better job: the midrange didn’t have the hardness of the iPhone and different instruments could be discerned tonally if not spatially. The bass was clearer but still a bit overblown. The X5 cleaned the sound up still further; individual instruments were easier to follow in the opening passage. The bass was lighter and timpani not so prominent, but individual drum strikes could be clearly separated, where the iPhone and (to a lesser extent) the X3 merged them into a general rumble.

Moving to high-res material showed the Fiio players operating at their best. High-res digital has a lovely smooth and natural sound that CD-quality material just can’t match. Better headphones than mine would make the improvement even more apparent.
The X3 sounded lovely and smooth with Diana Krall’s 24/96 recordings of “I’m An Errand Girl For Rhythm” and “‘Deed I do”, but had a slightly dark sound signature on these recordings. The X5 had more ambience around the voice, and the double bass was a little cleaner and easier to follow. Overall I felt the X5 was significantly better than the X3 on these recordings.

Overall impressions

The iPhone is pleasant enough to listen to on non-orchestral music – slightly bland, but not too bad. It isn’t very good with large-scale orchestral music though. The X3 just sounds more modern: smoother and more open.

As I alluded to earlier, on some tracks the X3 exhibits a slightly dark tonal character and bass can be a bit overblown. Setting bass = -1 on the X3 cleans the sound up a lot, making the overall sonic character closer to the X5, but the latter still displays more ability. Bass notes are easier to follow on the X5 and there’s more snap, air, and polish to the sound, and the soundstage is much better.

I have seen the X3’s UI criticised as being hard to work. I found it fine – it’s like an old non-smartphone UI but I figured out the major operations quickly and easily without the manual. The X5 was harder to figure out due to the multi-function buttons and the slightly slow UI response times. The functions were easily remembered after a quick look at the manual though.

However, minor gripes aside, both these players offer very impressive value-for-money. The X3 is a great-sounding introduction to decent HiFi equipment, having audio performance that is a significant step up from an iPhone. It clearly hasn’t got an Apple UI, but it’s fairly easy to use and is priced very attractively. In all the comparisons, the improvements heard between the iPhone and X3 were continued between the X3 and X5. The family resemblance is there but the X5 is clearly the more capable player. While costing twice as much as the X3, the X5 is still very good value for money considering how great it sounds.

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Test: AT607 stylus cleaning fluid.

Standard intro and disclaimer
High resolution digital recordings of hifi system upgrades can be used for subsequent comparison to provide a more reliable method of assessment than trying to apply and assess the update at the same time. Other benefits are the possibility of external validation of conclusions, and letting others hear the kind of changes that are possible for a given level of effort or expenditure.
It should be understood that no assessments are being made with regard to the relative performance of analogue vs high-resolution digital.To avoid any copyright issues I’m restricting my recordings to 1 minute for vocal work, and 2 minutes for classical. My test recordings are as follows.Female vocal, easy listening
Cold cold heart – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
I’m alright – Madeleine Peyroux, Album “Half the perfect world”

Male vocal, country
Pay me my money down – Bruce Springsteen, Album “The Seeger Sessions”

Classical
Schubert Symphony no.5 in B flat major, D 485, Album “Frans Schubert, Symphonien Nos. 5&6, The chamber Orchestra of Europe with Claudio Abbado”.

Test purpose
Test whether AT607 stylus cleaning fluid provides a discernible benefit, and whether it should be considered value for money.

The system under test was a Timestep EVO turntable / SME IV / AT33EV / Luxman E200.

Test preparation
The phono stage was warmed up for an hour and cartridge warmed up by playing one side of a record.
Recordings have been captured as 24bit, 96kHz WAV files using a SoundBlaster X-fi PCMCIA soundcard and a Dell Inspiron laptop.

Test 1: Clean the stylus carefully with the supplied brush and make the recordings listed above.

Test 2: Clean the stylus with the supplied brush followed by AT607 stylus cleaning fluid and repeat the recordings listed above.

Results
Caveat: these are high resolution recordings taken from a high performance audio system, and are intended for download. The differences are unlikely to be fully appreciated through the embedded player and typical computer speakers.

Test 1

Cold cold heart – test1
I’m alright – test1
Pay me my money down – test1
Schubert D485 – test1

Test 2

Cold cold heart – test2
I’m alright – test2
Pay me my money down – test2
Schubert D485 – test2

Conclusion
All the recordings sounded clearly different after the stylus was cleaned with the AT607 fluid. More detail was evident right across the frequency range: more air and definition in the treble, cleaner, tighter bass and more ambient details could be heard.

AT607 is readily available on the web, typically in the £10-£14 range. I got mine from Sound Hifi who were very good value at £9, with free postage if you buy two.

I think this makes AT607 stylus cleaning fluid a very worthwhile investment.

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Linn Lounge – an enjoyable evening of great hifi

Recently I have attended some “Linn Lounge” events hosted by a Linn dealer, during which a Linn representative gives a talk about the career of a featured artist, playing a selection of tracks on a demo system to showcase Linn equipment and hi-res downloads from Linn Records and other partner labels.

The events I attended were hospitably and professsionally hosted by Michael at Lyric Hifi in Belfast. Everyone is welcomed with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, some snacks and a general chat. The event starts with Michael giving an overview of some typical Linn digital streaming configurations, and answering questions. He explains why certain recommendations are made and what products he has found to work well.

George from Linn then gives a presentation lasting an hour or so, in which he steps through the career of the featured artist, playing tracks periodically, in studio master quality when possible. I have found these presentations to be well-researched and enjoyable.

Micheal sets up a couple of different systems for each event, and I’ve heard music on systems ranging from merely fairly expensive to eye-wateringly expensive, and while I could never afford the £30k system, it was a joy to hear – as great hifi always is.

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Optimising the PT Too power supply to reduce AC motor vibration

Standard intro and disclaimer

High resolution digital recordings of hifi system upgrades can be used for subsequent comparison to provide a more reliable method of assessment than trying to apply and assess the update at the same time. Other benefits are the possibility of external validation of conclusions, and letting others hear the kind of changes that are possible for a given level of effort or expenditure.
It should be understood that no assessments are being made with regard to the relative performance of analogue vs high-resolution digital.

To avoid any copyright issues I’m restricting my recordings to 1 minute for vocal work, and 2 minutes for classical. My test recordings are as follows.

Female vocal, easy listening
Don’t know why – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
Cold cold heart – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
I’m alright – Madeleine Peyroux, Album “Half the perfect world”

Male vocal, pop
Paper walls – Marc Cohn, Album “The Rainy Season”

Classical
Schubert Symphony no.5 in B flat major, D 485, Album “Frans Schubert, Symphonien Nos. 5&6, The chamber Orchestra of Europe with Claudio Abbado”.


Test purpose
The DC motor tests I did last time showed the DC motor turntables having a cleaner overall sound, with more treble detail, cleaner bass and midrange. The accepted explanation is reduction in the vibration coming from the motor. Is it possible to optimise the drive signal to the AC motor to reduce vibration?
This might give the best of both worlds, as it won’t suffer from speed drift and will be cheap to implement (provided that you don’t blow up your power supply!)

The system under test was comprised of a Pink Triangle PT TOO turntable, SME IV tonearm, Dynavector DV10x5 high output MC cartridge and Graham Slee gram amp 2 SE phono stage.

Test preparation
Before each test session, the turntable was warmed up by playing one side of an album.
The phono stage was left running for 30 minutes before the start of the test.
Recordings hve been captured as 24bit, 96kHz WAV files using a SoundBlaster X-fi PCMCIA soundcard and a Dell Inspiron laptop.

Test method

  1. Adjust the power supply to minimise vibration at 33rpm
  2. Make the test recordings
  3. Return the power supply to its factory settings
  4. Repeat the test recordings

Results
Caveat: these are high resolution recordings taken from a high performance audio system, and are intended for download. The differences are unlikely to be audible through the embedded player and typical computer speakers.

Optimised power supply

dont know why – optimised AC
cold cold heart – optimised AC
Im allright – optimised AC
paper walls – optimised AC
Schubert-D485 – optimised AC

Standard power supply

dont know why – standard AC The standard power supply has slightly more midrange emphasis; voice and piano just a little more prominent. Both sound equally good on this track. The slightly leaner balance of the optimised power supply may make basslines a little easier to follow.
cold cold heart – standard AC Both sound good but the optimised power supply sounds more accurate – voice clearer, bass cleaner sounding.
Im allright – standard AC The optimised power supply is clearly better on this track. Gentle cymbal work is easier to hear, and voice a little clearer. This track has a powerful bassline which was leaner and easier to follow on the optimised power supply. Overall the optimised power supply has a punchier, clearer sound.
Paper walls – standard AC The optimised power supply is clearly better on this track for the reasons stated above. On this track the standard power supply had a slightly bloated bassline that merged into the voice. This was much tighter and more clearly separated on the optimised power supply.
Schubert-D485 – standard AC The standard power supply sounds quite nice; the little bit of extra body to strings and flute is nice, but the cello parts can be a little overpowering. On balance the optimised power supply sounds more accurate.

Conclusion
To my ears, a convincing win for the optimised power supply; this would be a very cost-effective modification for any PT too. I’d imagine Phil King’s vibration damping modifications would provide a worthwhile improvement too.

Details of the modification
The standard PT too (metal case) power supply synthesizes the AC drive signals, with the voltages of the phases being independently adjustable via the two small pots beside the output transformers. The standard configuration drives both phases at the same voltage (250v for 33rpm and 230v for 45rpm).

Warning

  1. The motor uses 250v drive signals, so be careful not to touch the live connections. You undertake this modification at your own risk.
  2. Never connect the power supply unit to the mains without the motor connected. This is reputed to damage it.
  3. Please note that while you can optimise the power supply by feel, you’ll need a voltmeter or oscilloscope if you want to return it to the factory settings.

I took the motor out of the turntable and adjusted the voltages of the phases to minimise the vibration I could feel while holding the running motor in my hand.

Playing around with these I found that it is possible to make 45rpm totally smooth, and to reduce the vibration on 33rpm significantly but not totally eliminate it. It is also not possible to optimise both speeds at once.

In my case the lowest 33rpm vibration was achieved with phase 1=200v, phase 2=210v. It was smoothest with the two phases unequal

factory 33rpm voltages
factory 33rpm voltages
factory 45rpm voltages
factory 45rpm voltages

This resulted in the following values for 45rpm : phase 1 varying between 170 and190v, phase 2 180-200v. This was very rough. Since I only listen to 33rpm I decided to optimise that just to see what kind of difference it would make.

adjusted 33rpm voltages
adjusted 33rpm voltages
adjusted 45rpm voltages
adjusted 45rpm voltages

This is likely to have to be done on a per-motor basis.

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Assessing turntable upgrades II – Pink Triangle DC motor upgrade

Standard intro and disclaimer

High resolution digital recordings of hifi system upgrades can be used for subsequent comparison to provide a more reliable method of assessment than trying to apply and assess the update at the same time. Other benefits are the possibility of external validation of conclusions, and letting others hear the kind of changes that are possible for a given level of effort or expenditure.
It should be understood that no assessments are being made with regard to the relative performance of analogue vs high-resolution digital.

To avoid any copyright issues I’m restricting my recordings to 1 minute for vocal work, and 2 minutes for classical. My test recordings are as follows.

Female vocal, easy listening
Don’t know why – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
Cold cold heart – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
I’m alright – Madeleine Peyroux, Album “Half the perfect world”

Male vocal, pop
Paper walls – Marc Cohn, Album “The Rainy Season”

Classical
Schubert Symphony no.5 in B flat major, D 485, Album “Frans Schubert, Symphonien Nos. 5&6, The chamber Orchestra of Europe with Claudio Abbado”.


Test purpose
There has been much debate about the relative merits of AC and DC turntable motors. In this test I assess the changes due to fitting the funk firm V-Drive DC motor upgrade to a Pink Triangle export.

The turntables under test were

  1. Pink Triangle PT TOO (AC motor)
  2. Pink Triangle Export (with DC motor upgrade)

In both cases the same SME IV tonearm, Dynavector DV10x5 high output MC cartridge and Graham Slee gram amp 2 SE phono stage were used. When testing the Export, the bearing and platter were transferred across from the PT TOO to reduce the number of variables in the test.

Test preparation
Before each test session, the turntable was warmed up by playing one side of an album.
The phono stage was left running for 30 minutes before the start of the test.
Recordings hve been captured as 24bit, 96kHz WAV files using a SoundBlaster X-fi PCMCIA soundcard and a Dell Inspiron laptop.

Test method
For each turntable :

  1. Ensure that the downforce and arm height settings are set to the same values.
  2. Make the recordings listed above.

Results
Caveat: these are high resolution recordings taken from a high performance audio system, and are intended for download. The differences are unlikely to be audible through the embedded player and typical computer speakers.

PT TOO

Arm height front 13.5mm, rear 13.5mm
downforce 2.1g

dont know why – pt too
cold cold heart – pt too
Im allright – pt too
paper walls – pt too
Schubert-D485 – pt too

Export

Arm height front 13.5mm, rear 13.5mm
downforce 2.1g

dont know why – export The export is definitely brighter in the treble and seems punchier in the bass too. Bass depth seems about the same. There is more emphasis on ‘s’ sounds with the export, but it feels like it is revealing what is there rather than causing it, as the CD version clearly has this emphasis too. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sibilance. I’ve always thought that there is something attractive about the way the pt too handles female vocals, but I think the export tonal balance is more even.
One minus point though; it feels to me that in a couple of places on this recording the export speed is drifting a little.
cold cold heart – export The extra body to voices is quite attractive on the pt too, but the overall balance is a little dark and bass-dominated in my system. The export sounds more evenly balanced with more air in the treble and subtle percussive string details more apparent.
Im allright – export Export definitiely preferable here, the voice being a bit overpowering in the pt too recording. the bass has slightly
less power but has equal depth and the recording feels tauter and punchier.
Paper walls – export The pt too has a little more body to the voice which is nice, and more powerful and solid sounding bass, very low frequencies being more noticeable. However, the upper bass can become a little overpowering on this track. The export bass is better matched with the rest of the recording (although missing a little low frequency power) and the treble has a nice amount of additional detail on guitar strings and cymbals, but is never overpowering.
Schubert-D485 – export I think that the export is probably a flatter frequency response, and listening carefully I think the bass does go as deep, however the lower frequencies do have more solidity with the pt too, and strings a bit more body. Both are nice.

Conclusion
There were very obvious changes to the overall tonal balance of the system when moving to the turntable with the DC motor. It should be noted that while every effort was made to keep the number of variables in this test to a minimum, the two turntables have different top plate materials, slightly different rear suspension setups and different belts. I didn’t move the motor into the PT TOO because I didn’t have time to fit it properly. The general consensus in discussions on other forums is that the PT TOO and standard Export (AC motor) sound very similar.

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Assessing turntable upgrades I – VTA adjustment

Standard intro and disclaimer

High resolution digital recordings of hifi system upgrades can be used for subsequent comparison to provide a more reliable method of assessment than trying to apply and assess the update at the same time. Other benefits are the possibility of external validation of conclusions, and letting others hear the kind of changes that are possible for a given level of effort or expenditure.
It should be understood that no assessments are being made with regard to the relative performance of analogue vs high-resolution digital.

To avoid any copyright issues I’m restricting my recordings to 1 minute for vocal work, and 2 minutes for classical. My test recordings are as follows.

Female vocal, easy listening
Don’t know why – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
Cold cold heart – Norah Jones, Album: “come away with me”
I’m alright – Madeleine Peyroux, Album “Half the perfect world”

Male vocal, pop
Paper walls – Marc Cohn, Album “The Rainy Season”

Classical
Schubert Symphony no.5 in B flat major, D 485, Album “Frans Schubert, Symphonien Nos. 5&6, The chamber Orchestra of Europe with Claudio Abbado”.


Test purpose
The necessity of accurate arm and cartridge alignment is widely accepted. In this test I am assessing the differences in tonal balance when the vertical tracking angle (VTA) is changed. I have assessed the differences due to approximately 1 degree of VTA change, with both values lying close to 24 degrees (it is hard to accurately measure VTA values).
The analogue front end under test was comprised of a Pink Triangle Export with Funk Firm V-drive DC motor upgrade, SME IV tonearm, Dynavector DV10x5 high output MC cartridge and Graham Slee gram amp 2 SE phono stage.

Test preparation
Before each test session, the turntable was warmed up by playing one side of an album.
The phono stage was left running for 30 minutes before the start of the test.
Recordings hve been captured as 24bit, 96kHz WAV files using a SoundBlaster X-fi PCMCIA soundcard and a Dell Inspiron laptop.

Test method
For each alignment :

  1. Measure the distance between the record surface and the centreline of the arm tube at two reference points. All measurements were taken on the same side and position on a specific LP.
  2. Measure the downforce, and adjust as necessary to ensure the same value is used for both alignments.
  3. Make the recordings listed above.
  4. After taking the recordings, calculate the relative change in the heights of the front and back of the arm tube, from which the change in VTA can be calculated.

Results
Caveat: these are high resolution recordings taken from a high performance audio system, and are intended for download. The differences are unlikely to be audible through the embedded player and typical computer speakers.

Alignment 1
front 12.5mm, rear 10.5mm
downforce 2.1g

dont know why 1-tt1
cold cold heart 1-tt1
Im allright 1-tt1
paper walls 1-tt1
Schubert-D485 1-tt1

Alignment 6 (I tried a number of others but these two give the best contrast)
front 13.5mm, rear 13.5mm
downforce 2.1g

dont know why 6-tt1
cold cold heart 6-tt1
Im allright 6-tt1
Paper walls 6-tt1
Schubert-D485 6-tt1
  1. front change in height : 1mm
  2. rear change in height : 3mm
  3. distance between measurement points = approx 100mm
    so I’d expect the angle change to be tan^-1(2/100) = 1.1 degrees, let’s say 1 degree.

Measurements from photographs agree with this calculation.

This small change in VTA produced clearly audible changes in the tonal balance of the system. The brighter sounding recordings were taken with the tonearm level, the other set with the back lower.

Conclusion
A one degree change in VTA produced clearly audible changes in the tonal balance of the system. For reference, the relative change in the positions of the front and back of the tonearm required was 2mm. This clearly indicates that careful setup and listening tests pay dividends in the overall sound from a hifi system.

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Reasonably priced calibrated microphones


Following on from this post on signalscope io devices, I needed a reasonably priced calibrated microphone for use with signalscope. Two contenders are the Behringer ECM8000 and the Dayton Audio EMM6.

The EMM6 is available in Europe from Intertechnik and in the States from Parts Express (considerably more cheaply 😦 ) The ECM-8000 is available from Parts Express.

The EMM6 comes with an individual calibration result, which is nice, and Cross-Spectrum labs offer an enhanced calibration service for these microphones.

Both will require an external phantom power source. The Alesis ProTrack is one option, or you can use a dedicated phantom power box (which again are about three times as expensive in Europe as in the states) and a separate preamp.

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