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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