Digital audio player shoot-out

Return of the music player

(From left)  Onkyo DP-S1, FiiO X7 Mark II, Pioneer XDP-30R.
(From left) Onkyo DP-S1, FiiO X7 Mark II, Pioneer XDP-30R. PHOTOS: ONKYO, FIIO, PIONEER

iPods may be fading but many are still buying portable music players. The Straits Times Digital reviews three of the latest.

When Apple discontinued its iPod Shuffle and Nano MP3 players last month, many saw it as the final nail in the coffin for portable music devices.

In the era of smartphones and streaming services like Spotify, the thinking was that no one would ever need a device dedicated to playing music files.

Yet, as mass-market digital audio players like the iPod faded away, a new breed of high-end music players has started to catch on.

Audio brands such as Onkyo and FiiO continue to churn out new devices at a quick pace, refreshing their player line-ups and releasing new models.

Among the latest digital audio players to be released in Singapore are the flagship FiiO X7 Mark II, the ultra-portable Pioneer XDP-30R and the Onkyo DP-S1.

A spokesman for audio electronics company ConnectIT said it has seen a 20 per cent increase in sales of such players from last year.

But why would anyone still want one in 2017?

Audiophiles say the quality of streaming music simply cannot match the high-fidelity sound they can get from high-end music players. They compare high-resolution audio to 4K video, with richer sound quality and more detail.

Others note that the dedicated players save them from draining their phone batteries and provide a cost-effective way of listening to music that is normally best enjoyed through home hi-fi systems running into thousands of dollars.

Those picking up the hobby today can start by spending as little as $500, pairing a budget player from Chinese brands such as Cayin or Lotoo with entry-level audiophile headphones from Audio-Technica.

Said teacher Joshua Loke, 28, who listens to music on an Onkyo player: "You can get some seriously good stuff at around $500. Getting into the hobby is not expensive. But getting serious about it will be."


Return of the music player


PHOTO: FIIO

At $999, the FiiO X7 Mark II portable audio player , is the most expensive out of the three players featured here, but is a reasonable option for a flagship player in a market where high-end players can go for as much as $5,000.

And it definitely looks and feels like a premium product in both hardware and software.

The X7 Mark II's brushed metal body is smooth and sturdy, and isn't too bulky or heavy, unlike some of the other high-end players. In fact, the player is one of the better-looking and sleeker ones in the market, which tends to be dominated by slightly bulkier and brutalist-looking blocks.

It is also the first FiiO player to sport an Android operating system, running on a modified version of Android 5.0 and is a vast improvement over the slower, slightly sluggish user interfaces that seem to plague digital players.

Its touchscreen is among the most fluid and responsive I've seen on a portable player.

This, I feel, is the most important feature after sound quality in a music player, as a smooth user experience makes listening to music all the more enjoyable.

The FiiO X7 Mark II portable audio player... definitely looks and feels like a premium product in both hardware and software. 

  • TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $999

    SUPPORTED FORMATS: DSD, DXD, APE, Apple Lossless, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA lossless formats up to 384kHz/32bit

    WEIGHT: 212g

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5; DESIGN: 5/5; PERFORMANCE: 4/5;

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5; OVERALL: 4/5

On this front, being able to scroll through tracks smoothly and jump between menu options quickly made the X7 Mark II a joy to use.

However, music tracks added to the library tend to remain there even after you delete the physical files, requiring manual refreshes every now and then to keep your music library updated.

Running Android opens up streaming possibilities as users can download and run their music apps of choice, such as Tidal, Deezer or Spotify.

The player comes with both 3.5mm audio input and a balanced input. Sound quality is equally good on both, so users have the choice of pairing the player with their favourite headphones.

Its ES9028PRO digital-to-analog converter is one of the latest in the market, and able to crunch and process audio very clearly and cleanly. Sound quality is dependent on the headphones you pair the player with, but is generally faithfully reproduced across the board.

The X7 Mark II's onboard amp is powerful enough to drive most audiophile-grade headphones, such as the Beyerdynamic DT880s.

•Verdict: The FiiO X7 Mark II is a good mix of hardware and software, with good sound reproduction and a responsive user interface within a sleek, solid body that is a joy to hold and carry around.


Smooth, consistent and neutral playback

Like Pioneer's XDP-30R, Onkyo's DP-S1 comes with three audio filters, which adjust the tonality of audio playback in subtly different ways.
Like Pioneer's XDP-30R, Onkyo's DP-S1 comes with three audio filters, which adjust the tonality of audio playback in subtly different ways. PHOTO: ONKYO

Onkyo's DP-S1 digital player looks remarkably similar to the Pioneer XDP-30R, down to button placement and volume control location.

The similarities are no accident - Onkyo acquired Pioneer's audio-visual line in 2015, and now both companies offer similar products under their own branding, often to different markets.

But the DP-S1 is $70 pricier because of better design materials and arguably better sound quality.

Instead of a plain plastic back, the DP-S1 comes with a ridged, leather-like back that feels nicer in the hand. It also has a larger volume control, but the aesthetic differences end there, which is something to consider before paying the extra $70.

The DP-S1 is a small player that's a compact alternative to Onkyo's first digital audio player, the DP-X1.

Despite its miniature stature, the DP-S1 punches above its weight in terms of sound quality, offering smooth, consistent and neutral playback.

The DP-S1 is a hair louder than its Pioneer cousin, being able to drive headphones to a similar loudness at a lower volume setting. Their sound profiles are largely similar ... with good detail and response.

  • TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $699

    SUPPORTED FORMATS: DSD , DSD-IFF, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3, and AAC lossless formats up to 192 kHz/32-bit

    WEIGHT: 130g

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 3/5

    PERFORMANCE: 3/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

It contains the same twin digital-to-analog converter set-up as the XDP-30R, which is able to process files up to 32-bit/192kHz.

The same twin-amp set-up of its bigger brother, the DP-X1, is squeezed into a smaller body, giving the DP-S1 a similar oomph in a more mobile package.

These amps are capable of driving headphones within 16 - 600 ohms, which runs the gamut of most audiophile favourites, save for the most demanding of headphones.

The DP-S1 is a hair louder than its Pioneer cousin, being able to drive headphones to a similar loudness at a lower volume setting. Their sound profiles are largely similar, being relatively neutral and balanced with good detail and response.

And, like the XDP-30R, the DP-S1 comes with three audio filters: sharp, slow and short, which adjust the tonality of audio playback in subtly different ways.

Turning it to sharp heightens the liveliness of the player, giving songs a quicker attack and a less rounded tone. Slow and short give songs subtly different degrees of a more laid-back feel, suitable for orchestral or ambient music.

It will also support the latest MQA audio format, which will be pushed out in a future firmware update.

The player's battery life is also within the 8hr to 10hr range.

Both players also come with 16GB of internal storage and two microSD card slots that support up to 256GB of storage.

•Verdict: Onkyo's DP-S1 is a more expensive variant of the Pioneer XDP-30R, for a nicer-looking package and slightly louder sound quality.


Small and compact, easy to use on the go


PHOTO: PIONEER

Pioneer's audio expertise is famed for hi-fi and car set-ups, but its mobile-listening offerings are a little-known secret, save for those within audiophile circles.

Its latest player, the XDP-30R, isn't just targeting audiophiles. The player's small, compact body stands out in a market full of large, bulky players.

It's easy to use while on the go, instead of being portable only in the sense that you can take it from point A to point B in a bag but not use it comfortably while walking about.

The XDP-30R fits snugly in one hand. But its small size also means a smaller touchscreen, which takes up less than half of the player's front surface area.

It has two headphone jacks - one for regular 3.5mm headphones, and a smaller 2.5mm one for balanced headphones.

A high-gain mode lets it drive power-hungry headphones, which is necessary if you plan on using it as an alternative to a home audio set-up. While it doesn't replace a dedicated desktop, it is an acceptable compromise and alternative on account of its mobility and portability.

  • TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $629

    SUPPORTED FORMATS: DSD , DSD-IFF, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3, and AAC lossless formats up to 192 kHz/32-bit

    WEIGHT: 120g

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 3/5

    PERFORMANCE: 3/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

The XDP-30R offers a quick and responsive experience in terms of selecting and processing songs. There is a slight lag while selecting songs, particularly higher-encoded files, but it is overall responsive.

Interestingly, the XDP-30R will also support the new MQA audio format in the latest firmware update.

Despite it being such a portable package, the player is capable of a wide and clear soundstage. It can come across as a bit neutral and lacking in liveliness, but that is mitigated somewhat by using the filter options to tweak the sound profile.

The player comes pre-loaded with three high-resolution audio streaming apps: tunein, Deezer and Tidal. These should be adequate for most users' needs but having more options would not hurt.

Battery life is decent, lasting from 8hr to 10 hr.

Given that I got the best listening results using high-gain mode and with volume at 80 per cent near maximum, expect battery life to generally fall around the 8hr mark using these parameters.

•Verdict: The XDP-30R is a good option for those looking for a truly portable high-res digital audio player. Its size and quality make it a better option for listening to music on the go, compared with bigger or bulkier players in the market.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2017, with the headline 'Return of the music player'. Print Edition | Subscribe