Smartphones that put value into quality audio are too far and few between. Every once in a while a smartphone maker surprises us mobile audio lovers by including a dedicated HiFi DAC in the internals, like ZTE’s mid-range Axon 7 or most recently the top-end LG V30. But it will just be that if we want a good DAC, our smartphone choices will be severely limited. If we want a smartphone from one of the two top brands right now, Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone, then we have the kiss the HiFi thought goodbye. Or do we?
Aside from the external DAC solution, where we have to have a unit physically tethered to our phones (see our Chord Mojo DAC Synopsis), a more convenient option that many audiophiles opt for is a dedicated digital audio player (DAP). Yes, this market still exists. But instead of MP3 players, it’s for on-the-go audiophiles. These mobile devices put audio quality as the utmost feature, but function like a smartphone (aside from the network connectivity). And more and more HiFi DAPs these days use Android to drive them.
One of the standout DAPs like this is the Fiio X7. The bang-for-your-buck Chinese manufacturer is well respected in the audiophile community. The original X7 was the company’s first dive into a top-end DAP and the Android OS, so it felt like a beta in some ways. Mark II of the X7 is now out and it shows that Fiio has been real busy. The X7 II is coined as “Thoroughly Transformed, Inside and Out”, and rightly so. This Synopsis sums up what you can expect from the sequel and if it’s worth jumping on.
The chassis of the Fiio X7 II is still essentially a block of Aluminum, but it’s been refined all around. It’s thinner, lighter, and more ergonomic. The insides have also been revamped, with careful PCB shielding (to crush any possible noise) and a newer SABRE ES9028PRO DAC from ESS Technology (one of the leading mobile HiFi DAC manufacturers).
- Compact size and premium construction
- Changeable amp section, to suit other headphones
- Balanced output out of the box
- Two different cases included in box
- 64GB internal storage and two microSD slots (2 x 256GB)
- Android OS (open for music app streaming like TIDAL, Spotify, etc.)
- Solid software experience and standalone music app
- Stupendous sound from ES9028PRO DAC
- Large battery doesn’t equate to great battery life
- Same chipset and display specs as before
- Sound is better out of 2.5mm Balanced jack than standard 3.5mm
- Volume wheel should be firmer
- Software can still hiccup.
- Expensive, at $650 msrp
What it’s like to use
- The body of X7 II fits/feels great in hand, due to its compact size and cold, premium metal all around. The flat end where the microSD card slot reside is offset by an attractive but ergonomic raised and tapered edge. The physical controls are grouped towards the top of the edge and are intuitive: Play/Pause button, Forward/Back track rocker, and volume scroll wheel.
- The volume wheel is a great update from the volume rocker on the original X7. It is ridged for traction and is recessed within a notch in the design to avoid accidental rolling. However, there’s a wee bit much of play to it. Each volume step clicks into place and stays for the most part, but more firmness would add undoubtful confidence that it won’t move unless desired.
- All of the buttons can be set to be inactive when the screen is off, if desired.
- We would’ve liked the power button to be placed on the side too. Its placement at the top, right corner is a reach.
- Fiio’s packaging for the X7 II is generous. You’ll get two different cases – a TPU wrap and a premium leather slip-on. It additionally comes with a screen protector already installed.
- It ends up being of little consequence that the chipset and display have yesteryear specs. You don’t need the player to have super high resolution to play music; your smartphone can handle watching videos and scrolling through content. The viewing angles of the IPS LCD are surprisingly good, and navigation through the software is smooth and brisk.
- We’re looking at Android 5.0 (Lollipop). DAPs usually use an older version of Android, just how it is. But this is an improvement from KitKat on the original X7 – we at least have the Material Design UI now.
- This is a pretty bare-bones, stock-like build of Lollipop. Fiio primarily messed with the drop-down notification shade (adding in custom Quick Settings), the Settings menu for custom audio options, and incorporating its own music app.
- A “Pure Music” mode is helpful for times you only plan to listen to on-board music. It reduces the software down to just the music app, turning off all other operations that impact battery life.
- We did observe a couple hiccups at times, but nothing that became a frequent annoyance: the music app can freeze unexpectedly, WiFi can drop for a moment, and pressing the screen when it dims to stop it from timing out doesn’t work.
- The Fiio music app is cleaned up from before and is now intuitive. It could be prettier, but its function is solid.
- There is no system-wide EQ, only in the music app. But there are settings for gain (only low or high) and filter mode.
- The X7 II does a 180 from the sterile sound signature of its predecessor. It’s now full, engaging, and notes can hit with pleasant impact. Particularly, the mid-range was moved up, producing a more “in your face” presentation (in a good way).
- Despite the focus on a bold sound, we don’t detect that detail or accuracy was compromised. All the frequency ranges are at the same level, meaning, not one is more present than another. It’s the kind of balance that everyone should strive for. So you can pick apart the sound if that’s your style, you’ll get shining detail from wherever the track dictates.
- The soundstage is also excellently delivered. It’s not the widest out there, but the airyness is a thing of beauty. Coupled with clear separation between elements of the sound, you get an immersive out-of-head experience.
- Sub-bass is deep and meaty, but we wouldn’t say that the treble is quite as prominent from the opposite end of the spectrum.
- The stock amp doesn’t have a ton of power, so headphones that would benefit from more power may get a meatier sound. We got a tad more depth all around out of the iFi micro iDSD BL, and even the petite Chord Mojo DAC to an extent.
- Our sound impressions above were using the Balanced output. Unfortunately, the sound wasn’t quite as brilliant through the standard 3.5mm jack. It’s still detailed and better than a smartphone would offer, but the fullness and punch take a step back (almost like what the original X7 sounded like).
- The battery capacity was increased from 3,500 mAh to 3,800 mAh on the X7 II, but it doesn’t result to much. On the standard jack, you’ll get around 8 hours. Since the Balanced jack pulls more power, it’s about 7 hours there. You’ll get a decent amount if you run in Pure Music mode of course (which shuts off all the OS functions).
- Fiio continues to incorporate a changeable amp in the design. The bottom portion (under the screen) can be unscrewed and pulled out. Since the X7 II already has Balanced, the only other reason you may want to do this is if the power in the stock module doesn’t quite cut it for higher impedance headphones. A nice thing is that the dimensions are exactly the same as in the original X7, so they are interchangeable.
- We were disappointed to see only support for the vanilla AptX wireless audio codec. The higher fidelity version, AptX HD, has been around for some time now; there’s no excuse for not having it in a high-end DAP.
- The blue light underneath the display is just for show, exactly like on the original X7. You have control over it from within the Settings, to have it lit, pulsating, or off. You can also change its brightness.
Making the choice to get a DAP isn’t easy. High-end offerings like the Fiio X7 II come close to the price of top-end smartphones. You have to think about if it’s worth it, and that it will require carrying around and charging another device. That said, the convenience of one to those of us who want the best audio on the go is also apparent. We can offload audio responsibilities to a device that has the capacity to handle it better. If we listen a lot, it also relieves a chunk of battery life from our already taxed smartphones. And we can’t forget that more and more smartphones are leaving behind the headphone jack.
As far as if the Fiio X7 II is worth it, it depends. If you only plan to use the 3.5mm standard jack, then we’d have to caution. It’s not nearly as fulfilling as the Balanced output. You wouldn’t want to pay this kind of dough and not get what the device can do. But if you are enabled to go Balanced, then definitely. This is one of the best mobile audio players that we’ve heard and we feel it’s worth the price. All of the work that Fiio did updating the X7 paid off.
Also See: Chord Mojo portable DAC Synopsis