Our main issue with the otherwise excellent Pioneer XDP-100R was the fact that its actual output was pretty weak. You had to have the discrete volume control pushed up to almost the maximum to be able to hear it clearly out in the wild.
That's now changed.
Originally the volume had been limited in line with certain legislation, but with one of the latest system updates Pioneer has introduced a feature called 'variable line-out' which unlocks the full power of the XDP-100R's output.
The feature has been pushed out to existing models and just needs to be turned on in the system settings and the device rebooted. And from then on you can power high-end headphones and high-res audio tracks to ear-bleeding volumes.
The sort of high-quality headphones you'll want to run with the Pioneer's high-quality innards need a greater output than standard cans, and the HRA tracks the XDP-100R loves to play also deserve a little extra volume too.
We've been testing the new feature for a while now and, for the money, that little update has made the Pioneer XDP-100R easily one of the best, and most versatile, dedicated HRA players on the market today. It's also a great sign the engineers are still working on ways to make it even better.
Roll on MQA…
Original review below:
The Pioneer XDP-100R is the company's first high-resolution audio (HRA) player, and has been conceived as a genuine alternative to the more expensive Acoustic Research and Astell & Kern devices.
It's also set to be one of the first players that will be able to take advantage of the new Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) file format that's set to launch later this year.
That's the technology which is going to bring bona fide high-resolution audio to the streaming generation – and if you're not excited about that you need your ears checking.
While the majority of people are still happy to stick with running Spotify from their phones, more and more of us are really starting to care about the noises we're flooding our ears with.
That doesn't mean we're becoming polo neck-wearing audiophiles with bespoke listening rooms – it just means there's a growing recognition that there's better sound out there than YouTube, Spotify and white-tailed Apple ear-buds.
As much as we might malign the style-over-quality marketing monster that is Dre's Beats brand of headphones, they have proved to be the gateway drug to higher-end headphones, and subsequently higher-quality audio sources.
And that means there's more and more of a market for high-quality portable players too.
Pioneer is tapping into this burgeoning audience for improved quality with its XDP-100R player, a device which literally wears its high-resolution audio leanings on its sleeve.
Hardwired for sound
At its most basic the Pioneer XDP-100R is an Android Lollipop-based media player with a 4.7-inch touchscreen and the audio chops to cope with a huge range of formats and sampling rates, including DSD 11.2MHz and FLAC 24-bit/384kHz.
But Pioneer has gone to town to ensure that it hasn't just hit the standard marketing checkpoints needed for a HRA player by packing it full of high-quality audio silicon too.
That side of the hardware equation is powered by a SABRE ES9018K2M digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which is paired with a SABRE 9601K headphone amp.
The SABRE pairing can't quite match the sonic skills of Acoustic Research's AR M2 player, with its powerful class A amplifier, but also means it doesn't need the same huge power reserves to keep playing.
And it's not just the actual components Pioneer has used either – it's their placement. Pioneer has physically separated the audio circuit board from the system circuit board, ensuring there's no extraneous noise added into the sound from the Qualcomm CPU running the rest of the player.
It has also pushed the power supply as far down the board as possible, with all the analog audio circuits gathered around the headphone output on the top, again to try and keep the signals as clean as possible.
On the system hardware side the quad-core Qualcomm CPU is backed up by 2GB of system RAM and an impressively bright, clear screen with a 1280 x 720 resolution.
There's only 32GB of internal storage, with around 25GB available for actual content, but Pioneer has added a pair of microSD slots on the side. Both are capable of supporting cards up to 200GB in capacity, giving the XDP-100R a pretty staggering potential storage capacity of some 432GB.
Even with a hefty HRA library, that's a healthy amount of storage space.
If you're more into the streaming vibe then Tidal, Spotify and Deezer come pre-loaded, enabling you to stream directly from the Wi-Fi connection. It's not just about incoming wireless goodness either, as the XDP-100R also supports Bluetooth connectivity, with aptX support for CD-quality transmission.
The device's 1,630mAH battery is good for a quoted 16 hours continuous playback, and the Android 5.1.1 OS is pretty good at marshalling its power reserves during standby time too.
All that internal audio goodness is one thing, but the potential for MQA support down the line adds a whole other string to the Pioneer player's bow.
MQA is set to revolutionise the high-resolution audio world, bringing it out of the closed-off arena of the super-serious audiophile and opening it up to the convenience of music streaming and portability.
Traditional HRA formats need incredibly large file sizes to fit in all the audio data for true lossless playback – a single 24-bit/192kHz FLAC album can take up over 1.5GB of space.
That makes them impractical in general terms for streaming, and means that with the base 32GB of internal storage in the XDP-100R you're not going to fit much high-quality music onto the portable player without serious expansion.
MQA, however, uses a technique the company is calling Audio Origami to 'fold' up a high-resolution file into a far more manageable size. That means files that are magnitudes smaller than at present, and which are only a little larger than the CD-quality tracks Tidal streams today.
The MQA format does need a compatible decoder in the playback device to fully unfold the file into its original, studio master, state. But one of the neatest tricks of all is the fact that even without such a decoder it will still play. It won't be in its original full studio format, but thanks to the origami technique it will still be of higher quality than CD.
This in turn means big things for streaming companies. The fact that MQA files are adaptive, and able to unfold to whatever level the playback device can support, means those companies only need to store one format for each track in their library.
In Tidal's case it currently houses some 1.4 petabytes of audio data, because of all the different formats it supports. Replacing some of that with MQA files will save a huge amount of server space, and therefore money.
Tidal is promising MQA support soon – we were expecting it to drop very soon after the new year, but there have reportedly been some technical delays which have slowed things down.
Fingers crossed those get ironed out, so this brave new world of HRA streaming can truly begin.