My first experience with Fiio was their E07K mobile DAC. Back then, they were an awesome choice if you wanted to up your audio quality without letting the hobby consume your wallet. Fast forward a few years and we’re glad to see ample growth. The company has continually pumped out successful devices, while maintaining a great value, and more and more people are noticing.
Over this time, Fiio has expanded to other areas in audio, such as Android HiFi DAPs, wireless receivers, and even their own headphones. But recognizing their roots, we were particularly interested to see how far their mobile DACs have come. Fiio’s new flagship DAC is the Q5, and they were kind enough to lend us a unit to test. This synopsis sums up the important details one should know.
The Q5 portable DAC is a whopper when it comes specs. It isn’t just a basic-function metal block like the olden days. Sure, you can use it that way, but we now have much more flexibility to suit different use-cases we may desire. We’re talking about native Balanced output support, changeable amp modules, and Bluetooth wireless capability with aptX support. This is as feature-packed as it gets, without having a display.
- Uses older microUSB standard rather than current USB-C
- No Android OTG cable included in the box
- Uses vanilla aptX codec instead of better aptX HD
What it’s like to use
- The Q5 takes a lot of design cues from Fiio’s top player, the $650 X7 Mark II DAP. At about half the cost, this is a very good thing. We’re talking about a completely Aluminum build, with diverse cuts, angles, and finishes to catch the eye.
- The bottom of the unit is exactly the same as on the X7 II. This is because the Q5 uses the same changeable amp module design. Like the X7 II, the Q5 ships with Fiio’s comprehensive AM3A module, which includes both Balanced (using the 2.5mm TRRS standard), standard 3.5mm, and microUSB ports. The flexibility of this features means you can upgrade to a higher power amp if you have harder-to-drive cans, or if you use a different jack (i.e. the 4.4mm Pentacon Balanced standard). But the AM3A covers most headphones (impedances from 16 to 300 ohms on balanced, and 16 to 150 ohms standard).
- The Q5 shouldn’t exactly be summed up as a X7 II without a screen (although the central, brushed metal plate does look like where a display should be). A big difference is a leather pad on the back. We love this update, actually. The black leather matches the elegance of the silver metal, while serving as a nice contrast to the eyes. The friction against a tabletop is a nice improvement from the slippery smooth metal.
- In addition, the volume knob is reworked. Rather than being perpendicularly recessed from the side, the entire wheel is now built into the side. We prefer this change, since more of the knob is exposed. Also, the mechanism smoothly/finely rolls. It’s very firm and doesn’t have flimsy-feeling play like before.
- Many of the exterior details have also changed. For instance, the power button is underneath the volume wheel, and has a tiny LED at its center to indicate power status. The three playback buttons (for play/pause and going forward or back in tracks) are bunched on the left side. Up top, Fiio now has an analog line-in port in addition to the line-out (both 3.5mm).
- Because the X7 II is software controlled, it will naturally have a few more audio options/customization. But Fiio brought over two important ones via switches: a bass boost and gain adjustment. They’re simply on/off toggles, though. We would’ve liked at least a middle setting to each (i.e. medium bass boost or medium gain setting). Other Fiio devices have this flexibility, even older ones.
- Fiio is typically pretty generous when it comes to packaging contents. The same is true with the Q5 DAC, with one notable exception.
- There’s a microUSB to Lightning cable in the box (to tether to an iPhone), but not an alternative for Android users (either microUSB-to-microUSB or microUSB-to-USB-C). Being that a mobile DAC highly depends on this cable for its primary use, it’s disappointing. However, we talked to Fiio about it and it’s in fact not an oversight. They opted not to include it (or even promote Android compatibility on the Q5) because it’s not guaranteed to work due to the wide variation among Android phones (you can see the official statement here). We can understand, as we’ve had the OTG audio out function fail to work on certain phones before. But, as we’ve shown, it should work just fine with many newer and popular phones. You’ll just have to get your own cable. Fortunately, these cables can be found on Amazon for not much money.
- On the subject of wired connectivity, the Q5 sports separate microUSB ports for charging and digital audio transfer. This is a nice thing, as you can charge and listen at the same time.
- Something we glossed over in the beginning is the illuminated slit across the front of the device. This is also exactly carried over from the X7 II DAP. However, it has also been upgraded. It’s now functional and serves as a device status light (it can change between various colors, not just blue like before). It’s mostly used to indicate what input you’re using (i.e. white for USB or yellow for coaxial), but also shows blue when you’re using Bluetooth and flashes to red when battery is running low.
- Speaking of battery life, whether you’re using the Q5 as a wired DAC or wireless via Bluetooth, it will run about 10 hours. This is a decent range in the grand scheme of things, and on par with competitors like the Chord Mojo or iFi Micro iDSD.
- Bluetooth is real easy to toggle – while the device is on, long-press the play/pause button until you see the front light turn blue. Then find it in the phone’s Bluetooth settings and tap to pair. Fiio didn’t forget to include the support for aptX (higher fidelity streaming over Bluetooth). However, it’s not the larger bandwidth aptX HD variant (a 576 vs 352 kbps difference). It’s our opinion that any wireless-capable “HiFi” player should be using the best possible codec.
- Being closely related to the X7 II, we were really interested how the sound of the Q5 would hold up. If you’ve read our X7 II synopsis, you’ll know that Fiio’s top efforts have impressed us. We’d be ecstatic if a similar prowess could be achieved from a device half the cost.
- However, although the Q5 largely resembles the X7 II on the outside, the same can’t be said for the innards. Where the X7 II’s sound was powered by a trusty SABRE ES9028Pro chip, for some reason Fiio switched to a AKM solution for the Q5 (namely, the AK4490EN). But this move is in no way a cut corner. AKM is an audio chipset maker just as valued, and the AK4490EN is a high-end, dual-DAC powerhouse. This specific DAC chip is in fact used in Astell & Kern’s top-end players.
- But more importantly, how does it sound? Despite the hardware differences, the quality follows the X7 II pretty darn closely. Things like the prominent mid-range, superbly balanced frequency curve, clear articulation, and engaging energy that we loved from the X7 II’s sound are all carried over.
- It’s a very open/airy reproduction, making our Shure SE846 earphones sound more spacious than with a standard player. You pleasurably get sucked into the music as a result. The liveliness is enhanced by the DAC’s dynamics and significant soundstage. The soundstage is more rounded than wide (which is more of a preference kind of thing). But coupled with the clear separation of notes, the space is utilized for a catching presentation. Fiio succeeds at a dimensional sound, and while dynamics aren’t quite as pin-point as on the Chord Mojo, it’s still appreciable to an analytical ear.
- Despite the great clarity, we can’t say that this is the most crisp reproduction we’ve heard. Ultimately, the Q5’s sound leans more towards presentation, impact, and fun. This is fine to us, as the emotional response is often the most important factor. Just take note that more analytical listeners may get more enjoyment from a higher-end DAC.
- A lot of the liveliness is due to the forward mid-range – a trait we also saw (and loved) from the X7 II. Vocals and instruments like guitars are really present as a result, like they’re right next to you.
- Bass is very controlled with the Q5. This in no way implies dullness. Particularly in the mid-bass region, there’s ample energy/punch to get your blood flowing without being overdone or noticeably interfering with the mid-range. The sub-bass has the appropriate deep definition while more subtle in comparison. Bassheads may find the Q5 overall a bit light with bass, but we feel Fiio struck a great balance with accuracy and fun. The bass boost switch is an option if you need more, however, it’s too bloaty for our tastes.
- Last but certainly not least, the treble is very clean and expertly conveyed. This is an area that really shows what you paid for, as the details remain prominent despite what’s going on elsewhere. So you’ll easily be able pick up details you may have not before. Its frequency response also reaches higher-end crispness (like crashing from cymbals) and makes great use of the spacious/airy quality of the reproduction that we’ve discussed before.
We can understand that average consumers may consider the Fiio Q5 too rich for their blood. However, for anyone seeking higher quality audio or the general audiophile, this is actually a great value DAC. It achieves its asking cost in sound quality alone, but is also filled with a bunch of extras, like top-notch build quality, wireless capability, and healthy battery life. The reality is that the Q5 competes very well with a high-end DAC like the Chord Mojo, which run twice the price. It’s a job well done.
Also See: iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC Synopsis