Sunday, 25 May 2014

iBasso DX50 Review

iBasso DX50 Review

Thanks to Advanced MP3 Player's (AMP3) for the loan.

First Impressions:  Hmm, an android based DAP but with real buttons, this sounds like it could have the makings of the perfect DAP.   Oh, and yes it’s from iBasso and the internals have impeccable specs.  Its musical heart being a Wolfson WM8740 DAC, Wolfson chips have a stellar reputation that time and again has been shown to be one well deserved.  However they normally find themselves in DAP’s with not exactly the worlds friendliest UI’s.  Fingers crossed the android based bit means this might be pleasant to use.  Right of the bat though this isn’t the android your used to.  It’s skinned and honestly I forgot for a bit that it’s got a touch screen, pushing those buttons on the front and nothing happening.  Still I figured it out.  Oh China, you and UI’s.  Still it’s a long way from the worst I’ve seen. 

So 64GB SD card goes in and I fire it up.  Scanning media.  A few minutes later and we’re ready to go, I figure lets start it with something beastly and pull out the HD600’s.  The little DX50 handles them with seeming ease, even on low gain, Jesus the volume output on this must go to insane levels, sure has hell no French volume cap on this!  Sound wise its warm, rich and full bodied.  In short it has that very “Wolfson” sound to it.  I should feel more upbeat but already I’m thinking this is going to be a brutal slugfest with the X3.  Right now it’s sounding quite excellent pushing the big cans in a way that feels like it shouldn’t be possible from a portable.

One point I’d really like to praise though, user replaceable battery!!!!!  It’s even really common a battery, its one for a Samsung S3, oddly iBasso seem afraid to write Samsung anywhere which I find very odd.  It’s always S**sung S3.  Why????

Screen:  As DAP’s go the screen is alright.  One of the better I’d say from China but this is a DAP who’s priority is audio not video.  It’s functional but the little album art it displays is rather meh.  Still its serves it purpose well.

Battery Life:  Yey, it has a removable battery.  Okay so it’s a loaner and I’m not buying spares but if you’re a real road warrior then you can just take spares with you. Capacity wise it’s claimed 14 hours to me seemed about right, if a little conservative.  A full days use had it down from full to two bars so easily enough for normal use I think.

UI:  Hmm.  Okay it may have android in there but you’ll never really notice it.  Still with the touch screen for navigating around it’s a breeze compared to some.  It is fairly straightforward too.  I’ll admit it took a minute or two to think how to make it shuffle all songs rather than one album but it is easily one of the better audiophile DAP’s I’ve encountered, check that it is easily the best.
Oh and the buttons, they only work for volume control and play/pause and skipping.  I love real buttons for these, I can control the thing by feel alone and as an added bonus the screen doesn’t wake when you use them.  So no battery draining screen lighting up to tell you changed to volume or skipped a song.

In The Hand:  My eyes tell me it’s quite boxy but the back side edges have a slight bevel to them and it makes a huge difference.  In the hard it feels much more rounded than it really is.  It felt well shaped to my hand.  There is something about its black, featureless look I found strangely appealing.  Something almost monolithic to it.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s pretty, but it had an appealing quality that I’m rather failing to put into words.  Oh and using the buttons while it was in my pocket worked superbly, my fingers intuitively pushed the right one every time.  That’s not something I have been able to claim for every Chinese DAP.

Format Support:  Erm everything I think.  The specs say APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, OGG, MP3 and its states it can do up to 24Bit/192kHz.  So that’s everything really.  One thing that is a bit more stand out however is that it supports exFAT formatted cards.  This is a really huge deal because this means that you can just format card into exFAT rather than forcing it to FAT32.  Additionally this means that it will happily take card up to 2TB.  Yes that’s 2048GB.  I know you can’t get cards that size now but my first MP3 player at the time had a 32MB card in it.  This means the DX50 is capacity future proofed for a while to come.

Connections:  The thing has 3 3.5mm sockets on it, headphone out, line out and more unusually a coaxial out.  Now I will grant you a coaxial digital out is a pretty niche ability but, it does mean you can use the DX50 as a digital transport for your music.  Personally given the internals are rather good why you wouldn’t just use the line out….hey more is better than less right?  Another strange one is that due its android heart the DX50 supports USB OTG.  That’s “on the go” and what that means is you can attach USB storage, like a thumb drive (with a connector adapter, it needs to be micro USB) and access music there too.  While it’s a “ooh that’s clever” I’m not sure just how useful that is day to day. 

Volume:  The control is digital and has 256 increments.  It also has a low, mid and a high gain option.  The control you have it vast.  Likewise the output potential is enourmous.  Even on low gain, the big HD600’s could go louder than I would ever, ever drive them.

Sound Quality:  The bit that matters.  So I have previously commented it’s got a Wolfson DAC at its heart.  If you know what that means there is a good chance you know what the Wolfson “house sound” is like.  In the past I’ve also described it as the Sony “house sound” or like the traditional “British” HiFi sound.  It’s a warm, smooth sound.  It’s a bit mellow and rich and it has a bit of focused high end peak.  So in a general sense, that’s what you get here.

For me the above meant pretty early on I took my IEM box and started rooting about for those IEM’s I consider to be on the brighter side of things.  It’s not to say you can’t pair a warm DAP with a warm IEM, whatever floats your boat but I think it’s best to pair opposites as a general rule.  The DX50 did not disappoint with any of them.  Even the notoriously hard to drive well ER4 and RE-0 both were excellent.  The ER4 in particular which I find can be a touch abrasive in the high end (tbh I think pretty much all BA IEM’s are to one degree or another) but the hint of mellowness complimented them beautifully. 

Beauty is a rather good word.  In my head I can’t help but conjure up some ye olde film star from yesteryear poised so elegantly and shot with a soft focus filter.  It’s that softness here that takes the edge off any roughness, smoothing, in a liquid like flowing fashion.  Vocals in particular can so often wondrously benefit from this effect.  My own musical preferences for velvety and flowing vocals tamed such otherwise dry IEM’s.  Again I mist single out the ER4, a notoriously analytical IEM, indeed arguably the standard for analytical in the IEM world for the last 20 years, it took on warmth and depth.  Particularly soft male vocals were enhanced by this and I greatly enjoyed both Mika and Erasures Union Street album.  Acoustic stuff pretty much all sounded superb.

Lows:  Smooth and sumptuous.  When it comes to warm and full bass the DX50 does well but where it falls down is that it just doesn’t want to get aggressive.  It could well be the warmest and creamiest bass I’ve ever come across to date.  Even slipping over to the warm HM-601 and it sounds thinner, more airy more delicate.  The DX50 just doesn’t want to be aggressive no matter where you push it.   Even the X3 isn’t this polite.  It’s the acoustic equivalent of a warmed bar of chocolate.   Warm, gooey, loveliness but you know sometime you want a grapefruit, crisp and tart and the DX50 is not one to go there.  Depth wise it’s nice, if you ask it to do deep and dark it will happily do so.

Mids:  It somewhat shines here as far as I am concerned.  I can be quite the fan of liquid and flowing vocals, the DX50 with its warmth pairs nicely with my preferences.  Nora’s “Painter Song” is so languid and velvety it’s an indulgence to listen to.  Likewise Tracy’s “Fast Car” is just outstandingly pleasant to have flow over your ears.  Acoustic guitars though while lovely, don’t have that snappy, twangy edge to them.  They ought to have a little bite to them and it’s a touch lacking.

Highs:  Warm, softened, unabrasive and mellowish.  Sure they do have that typical band where they tend to focus and punch through acoustically.  However even with a relatively bright IEM’s they didn’t of the savagely that some tracks offer.  Now the big plus there is that it makes for a very forgiving sound, poorly mastered or not the highest bit rate flaws are largely glossed over.  The brittleness you can find up top is gently tamed.  This means if your using something like the DBA-02, a very hard and aggressive IEM, then the hint of civility is very, very welcome.  If you’re using something like the IE7 then you’ll find warm on warm can be oppressively so.  (Unless you want a super warm sound of course.)  Extension is as you’d expect.  Technically flawless but its benign nature makes it not seem so obvious.

N.B.  I was asked how it plays with the W4, then promptly forgot so I’m adding it here.

The W4 is to my mind the “perfect” IEM in the sense it feels very flavourless.  It can do pretty much anything you ask of it and doesn’t feel like its setting the agenda.  So with the DX50 you have a richness and darkness to everything.  The highs of course cut through but there is little in the way of air or liveliness.  It’s an on paper perfect rendition but there is an anechoic chamber like deadness.  Dark, sumptuous, smooth have been the running theme and it’s continued with the W4 in play.  I would note though that the bass seems particularly vigorous, quick BA bass pairs well with the richness here. A beautiful but not thrilling pairing.

EQ:  It would appear the EQ works by dropping all band volumes on it being engaged.  As best I can tell this means that when you bump up a selected band it’s only in actuality reducing its reduction.  That mean the whole EQ activity takes place in the negative!  How clever, no over amping a band and sending it into clipping territory.  Otherwise it’s an EQ, you know how they work and if you like them or not.

Hiss:  There was some on more sensitive IEM’s but the hiss felt very dark and deadened.  It reminded me of long ago of the hiss you would get from cassette players with Dolby engaged.  It really wasn’t something I could detect in use though.

Accessories:  Well you get a case, a couple of screen protectors and a 3.5mm to coax out adapter.  Oh and a charger/data cable.

Value:  £200 or in Americaland $240.   Is it a beautiful sounding player, yes it is.  Is its user interface the best I’ve seen come out of China?  Oh hell yes!  Is it great that it can support up to 2TB SD cards, oh god yes.  None of these things make it jump out as tremendous value.  It’s a question of what you’re looking for in a DAP.  You get here a quality product with audiophile grade sound quality and that’s really what you’d buy this product for.  In comparison to a 16GB Ipod Touch there is no competition between them sound wise.  What really matters to a buyer of the DX50 is, is its sound right for them, anything else is just gravy.

Conclusion:  The DX50 is a superbly capable DAP.  Feature wise it’s got a bunch of things really going for it.  The big one has got to be the UI, for those that have used “audiophile” aimed at DAP’s will know what I’m talking about.  So often the UI isn’t there to help you play what you want, it’s there to prevent you from doing anything.  The UI here is actually pretty good, I mean it’s actually something you can just pick up and work it!!!  I can see reading some old reviews that the launch firmware had some problems but I can thankfully say I’ve encountered not one.  The UI has been a real pleasure to use.

Still the sound, that’s the bit that matters, and it and I haven’t gotten on so well.  The DX is lovely, beautiful, sumptuous sounding player.  Its delicate and dark and warm and all those chocolaty goodness metaphors.  Well I kinda like something lighter.  The DX50 made me go whip out all the lightest and brightest IEM’s I have to use with it.  Now I’ll grant you some of them paired up really nicely, the q-JAYS, RE-0, ER4, RE-272, RE-400, and CK10 all did wondrous things together with the DX50.  They are all kinda bright, kinda edgy up the top they all need a bit of warmth to soften them up.  Additionally I must mention the HD600, they were simply gorgeous when paired together.  Even still, the DX50 just felt reticent and somewhat stoic.  It yearned for smooth and slow, sumptuous music that flows over the senses and when you gave it something faster you could tell its heart wasn’t in it.  Sure it did a reasonable job, but the warmth, the beauty; they all wanted to pull in a certain direction.  If all you ever listen in Nora Jones, Rebecca Pidgeon, that Krall woman, you know the stuff I mean, then you are absolutely set. 

It could of course simply be me that’s the problem here.  For many a year Sony have produced just the same sort of warm sounding DAP and they consistently get high praise for a consumer product.  Maybe lots of people out there will just love a rich warm sounding DAP that’s very friendly to bad bit rates or bad mastering.  I know many loved the DBA-02 when it launched and if it was my only IEM then a DAP like this is just the sort I’d want, my ears would demand it!  As DAP’s go it’s the darkest and most sumptuously warm sounding I’ve encountered to date.  It’s got a removable battery.  It can cake up to 2TB cards.  Its UI is actually really usable.  It’s got power in spades.  It’s like a darkly indulgent audio device, seducing you with its aural temptations.  Me though, I like things a bit lighter but I can really see why someone could fall in love with the DX50 and its magnificently rich and deep sound.

iBasso DX50 Quick Review

iBasso DX50 Quick Review

Thanks to Advanced MP3 Player's (AMP3) for the loan.

Brief:  Darkly sumptuousness in DAP form.

Price:  £199

Specifications:  Line out: Frequency Response: 20Hz~20KHz +/-0.2dB, S/N: -109dB +/-3dB, THD+N: 0.003%, Output Level: 1.5V rms (1kHz 0dB), Headphone out: Frequency Response: 20Hz~20KHz +/-1dB, THD+N: 0.004% (32ohm load), Output Level: 1.2V(Low gain), 1.7V(Mid gain), 3.1V(High Gain), S/N: -103dB +/-3dB(Low gain), -106dB +/-3dB(Mid gain), -108dB +/-3dB(High Gain) (32ohm Load), Output Impedance: <0.5ohm, Battery Life: 14hours, Battery Charge Time: 3hours with AC adapter, 5.5hours with PC USB port, Case dimension: 2.52W x 3.98L x 0.67H (inch), 64W x 100L x 17H (mm), Weight: 146g or 5.15oz

Accessories:  A micro USB charger/ data cable.  A 3.5mm to coaxial out adapter. 2 screen protectors and lastly, a silicon case to keep it safe.

Aesthetics:  To my eyes its look is strangely monolithic and I rather liked it, I’ve been told the metal back can be scratched easily if that sort of thing bothers you.  You do get the case but with the case in I thought it looked ugly.

Build:  Felt good and solid.  A touch light but it’s snugly put together.  So much so it was a real effort to get to back off to expose the battery.

Power:  It has oodles of power available.  It comes with low, med and high gain options and it happily drove the big HD600 beasts and the notoriously power hungry RE-0’s.  In volume too it could go to louder than I would ever care to subject my ears to.  Lots and lots of power here.

Sound:  Dark, warm, sumptuous Wolfsonness.  One of its big selling points is its Wolfson heart and rightly so, their chips are very widely loved in audioland.  In my experience they have a warm and smooth flavour and here it’s the most marked display of that I’ve dealt with.  It’s really quite flavoured for a DAP and it’s a gorgeous sound.  Music flows and oozes and my word it’s beautiful to behold.  Here comes the but you knew was coming, but its so very warm if you pair it with warm IEM’s it’s all too soft and smooth.  I want a little more drama and excitability in my DAP’s.  Now I’ll grant you when you hook it up to lighter and brighter IEM’s then they can complement each other very nicely.  Indeed with the highly resolving HD600 the pairing was quite excellent but most things left me wanting.  I wanted more passion and excitability and the DX50 just isn’t that.  It’s a bar of 50% coco chocolate with salted toffee.  Dark yet creamy and sweet then with that hint of salt cutting through in the top end.  It’s so inviting and indulgent but sometimes you just want a grapefruit, something light and crisp and the DX50 just is not that.  Lovely but with a distinct flavour so long as you love that flavour it’s an exquisite DAP.

Value:  Its beautiful sounding, it’s got a really excellent UI, removable battery, it can use exFAT so it’ll do up to 2TB SD cards, all pretty unique attributes for a DAP.  If you care about audio and like a warm sound this is leaps and bounds better than the Ipod you’d get for the same money.

Pro’s:  Beautifully exquisite sounding, great UI, power, 2TB SD card capability.