FiiO’s X7 is their long-awaited flagship player running on a custom Android operating system and designed to be the ultimate expression of FiiO’s portable music capabilities. It will retail at a little less than $1000 here in Australia so it’s up there with some stiff competition. After being disappointed by the X5ii I was keen to see if the X7 would be a return to form or a continuation of the slide for FiiO.
I have a pre-release version of the X7 thanks to a Head-Fi tour so thankyou to FiiO and Head-Fi member, Brooko, for making this tour and review possible!
- Dimensions: 130 x 64 x 16.6mm
- Weight: 220g
- Display: 3.97″ IPS TFT (480 x 880 pixels)
- Storage: 32Gb internal + uSD card slot (up to 128Gb compatible)
- DAC: Sabre ES9018S
- Audio formats: DSD64/128, DXD, APE, ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA, MP2, MP3, AAC, OGG
- Battery life: ~10 hours (quoted)
- Outputs: 3.5mm headphone socket, 3.5mm switchable line-out / digital coaxial
- Connectivity: WiFi (b/g/n), Bluetooth V4.0
Design & Functions
Straight away, the X7 differentiates itself from other FiiO players through its design. It’s a narrower and taller player than the X3ii or X5ii proportions and is 80% glass on the front with no buttons or navigation wheels. There are hardware buttons on each side which have been made symmetrical – a decision I disagree with because it makes remembering which ones do what slightly trickier. Apparently FiiO originally planned to offer two screens on the X7 – the main screen on the front and a small, monochrome screen on the back – so the buttons would switch sides depending on the orientation of the device and which screen was active. When they did away with the secondary screen they decided to keep the symmetry and find a use for it. Personally, I think that was a mistake. It is possible to map which buttons do which (i.e. change which side does skip / play and which side does volume / power), but I’m not sure if that will help. The symmetrical buttons aren’t the end of the world, but as it stands it’s very easy to accidentally skip a track when you’re trying to adjust the volume.
Overall, the X7 is a good size and weight. It’s sturdy, but not too heavy and the size is comfortable in the hand and in most pockets. It feels nice to hold and is easy on the eyes so, all-in-all I’d say that FiiO has done a great job with the design. The screen keeps pace too and is colourful, sharp and allows you to enjoy the interactions with the X7 without any distractions of poor picture or colour.
An interesting bit of trivia provided by FiiO with the review units is that it takes nearly 7 hours to craft one X7 chassis (machining, polishing, etc.) so there’s clearly a commitment to design and quality in the X7’s aesthetics and physical form and it does show – the X7 looks the part.
Something else that differentiates the X7 is its removable amp module. The bottom portion of the player is designed to detach by unscrewing two T5 screws. I was looking forward to showing you how these attach and work, but someone earlier in the tour has shredded the T5 socket on one of the screws so we’ll both have to find out more about this system somewhere else.
What I can tell you though is that the X7 comes with an IEM amp module which is powerful enough to drive portable headphones and IEMs. It’s a great choice by FiiO to bundle this amp module because portable players are predominantly used with these types of ‘phones so having this as a default makes sense and then people can buy upgraded modules with more power / different characteristics later if they want to.
The idea of being able to have different modules for different needs and the chance to have the X7 dock with a desktop amp through the same connector is genius, although I wonder about the logic of having to undo the screws when connecting to your desktop amp if you then have to reattach and screw on your portable amp module before heading out the door. A quicker system might have been good, but perhaps a secure connection was too hard to guarantee without using screws.
Being an Android device, the interface is mostly as expected – slick, smooth and intuitive – however, because Android doesn’t have the best sound management capabilities, most companies looking to produce high performance Android players have to use their own software to bypass the Android quirks. The Acoustic Research AR-M2 is a good example.
FiiO’s custom music player promises the best possible audio from the X7, but sadly the interface and functionality is pretty poor. It looks nice and basic functions are great – seek, play, pause, skip, etc. are all fine, but library access and passive functions are a little lacklustre.
When I say “passive functions” I’m referring to functions like ReplayGain and computer-generated playlists that are set-and-forget features that should absolutely be available on a flagship device like the X7. To have a high-end device where you have to manually build your own playlists on the device and can’t import them automatically from your computer is just crazy. Both ReplayGain and playlist support are available in lots of Android player apps so there is really no excuse for these to not be available.
The other disappointment for me is the clumsy navigation on the library. It’s hard to explain what’s wrong with it, but somethings just not right. I pride myself of my openness to change and adapt to different devices, but the X7 feels like hard work to get around no matter how much time I spend with it. Contrast this with the player apps available in the Android store and once again I’m left feeling like there’s no excuse. There is a help option in the X7 player’s menu that provides a nice visual tutorial, but it’s in Chinese at the moment so perhaps that will make things easier once it’s in English.
Other than the elements I’ve already mentioned, the X7 offers gapless playback, a resuming function and the ability to play through folders as well as a good solid folder, artist, album, and genre browser so general navigation is good. There’s a nice 5-band EQ that works well as well as high / low gain modes and a balance control which I know is very important to anyone with a unilateral hearing loss so it’s good to see FiiO catering to that market who deserve to enjoy audio the same as the rest of us.
The final menu option is the switch from analogue line-out to digital coaxial line-out. Both use the 3.5mm socket on the top of the device so it’s important to switch this prior to use.
Through the supplied IEM amp module, the X7 sounds warm and smooth, but not in the way that the disappointing X5ii did. The X7 still isn’t instantly compelling and engaging like the Acoustic Research AR-M2, but the sound is undeniably good. There is space and sharpness in the image / staging and the sound has a quite organic nature that’s really enjoyable. The IEM module produces a polite, but highly enjoyable sound that is noticeably better than the X5ii or most other sub-$1000 players I’ve tried. It’s definitely more to my liking than the Cayin N6 and is almost indistinguishable from the outstanding HUM Pervasion.
FiiO X7 vs HUM Pervasion
Given that both of these are Android audio players I thought it was worth offering a direct comparison. To put this in context, the X7 offers internal storage, full hi-res / DSD compatibility, a sexier design, digital out and a changeable amp module while the Pervasion is smaller, runs equally well with any Android player software (you don’t need a custom app to play at full audio quality) and therefore provides ReplayGain, playlist support and all kinds of other features missing from the X7.
Playing standard bit-rate PCM files only because the Pervasion doesn’t do hi-res, the comparison between the two is incredibly tight. The players are almost indistinguishable from one another with the exception that the X7 provides the tiniest bit more sense of space around the sound, but it is so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. In other words, both sound fantastic and I would recommend choosing based on features rather than sound. If hi-res or changeable amps are your thing you should go for the X7, but if playlists, ReplayGain and better interfaces are more important then the Pervasion is for you.
The line-out from the X7 is simply exceptional! Feeding it into my Bottlehead Mainline amp and driving the Sennheiser HD800s, the sound from the X7 is completely indistinguishable from the Matrix X-Sabre DAC and that’s high praise. This tells me that implementation of the ES9018S has been handled extremely well by FiiO’s engineers given that, despite being a portable, battery powered device, the X7 holds its own against a dedicated, mains-powered DAC. Now, battery power supply is actually cleaner than mains power so that’s a benefit for the X7, but portable devices often make sacrifices for size and battery life considerations so it’s great to see this isn’t the case with the X7. As a dedicated transport and DAC, the X7 is a stellar device – if only it supported ReplayGain and playlists…
DSD vs PCM
One of my ongoing issues with many DSD-capable players on the market is that they sacrifice PCM quality for DSD functionality. I don’t know if that’s a side-effect of the Burr-Brown DAC chips or something else, but I am consistently disappointed by FLAC quality on these players (e.g. X3ii, X5ii, Cayin N6, etc.) I was worried that the X7 would continue the trend, but hoped the use of a new DAC chip would help and it has!
There are still differences between DSD and FLAC and, to me, the DSD does sound a little better, but with the X7 it’s more a case of the DSD sounding even better rather than the FLAC being poor quality to start with. I tested the X7’s DSD / PCM capabilities using a DSD (dff) copy of Steely Dan’s Aja (the track from the album of the same name). I converted the DSD version to 24-bit, 192kHz FLAC for the comparison and while the FLAC version still sounded great, there was a smoothness and clarity to the DSD rendition that took the X7’s sound quality to another, really exciting level.
So the good news is that those with large PCM libraries like me can still enjoy the X7 while having the benefits of DSD and DXD playback while DSD aficionados can enjoy the best possible sound with the X7.
Summary & Conclusion
I came into this review not expecting a lot after the disappointment of the X5ii, but I’m pleased to say that the sound quality from the X7 is excellent and, coupled with FiiO’s continually good physical design and quality, the X7 has a lot to offer. Battery life, hi-res and DSD playback, exchangeable amp modules, and an Android interface are all great features. Now it just needs a mature player software with playlist support and ReplayGain to be able to truly hold up as a flagship device. It currently can’t act as an external USB DAC which is a shame, but that may come in time and isn’t really a deal breaker for me. What is currently a deal breaker is the poor functionality of the FiiO music app and the fact that it’s necessary to use the FiiO app to enjoy full audio quality. I hope FiiO can get the app improved rapidly and include these seemingly simple features in a new version very, very soon. If they do they’ll have me extremely interested and should have everyone else interested too!