When every phone from the last decade could serve as an iPod replacement, there are some folks who simply don’t see the need for an MP3 player. “My phone can store hundreds of songs,” they’ll say, “and I take my phone with me everywhere I go.”
If your phone plays double duty as a music player, that’s absolutely fine - no one will tell you that you’re wrong for using the tech you already have for a purpose it was designed to do.
What we will tell you, though, is that if you’re using your phone as an MP3 player, you’re missing out on a world of spectacular sounding audio. Not to be a contrarian here, but smartphones weren’t built around playing music - they were built primarily to be phones.
If you’re looking for a device to play music at high bitrates with impeccable resolution and the proper DACs to power your high-end headphones, a phone simply won’t suffice. And that’s when you need to go for something a bit more heavy duty. Like, for example, Fiio’s X5 Mk. III - the third-generation audio player from Fiio that gladly handles Hi-Res Audio.
Fiio’s Hi-Res Audio hardware is encased in a sleek silver chassis, one that’s a fair bit bigger than your standard smartphone - which makes it less pocket-friendly than we’d like, but a fair bit sturdier as well.
All that extra protection is appreciated, although ultimately unnecessary, as Fiio includes a plastic case that sits around the player itself - offering an extra layer of protection should it go for a tumble while you’re holding it in your hand.
On the left-side of the player, you’ll find traditional playback controls and a volume slider while the right-side plays host to the power button and dual SD card slots. These slots enable expandable memory - a term Apple devotees may not have heard before, but one that will significantly improve their way of life.
But, beyond the expandable memory slots, the X5 comes with 26GB of NAND Flash memory - more than enough to store several full FLAC albums, and thousands of high bitrate MP3s. Once you run out you can certainly install an SD card (the X5 supports up to 512GB of external memory), but know that out of the box you’ll have a fair amount of memory to play with.
On the lower face, you’ll find a standard 3.5mm auxiliary jack, a balanced 2.5mm jack, coaxial output for external DACs and a microUSB port that’s used for charging - i.e. more than enough ports for most music enthusiasts.
On the front face you’ll find the 4-inch, 800x480 screen - a resolution that is severely lacking compared to the competition.
The low resolution is fine if you’re only planning on using this as a straight, no-holds-barred music player, but if you’re ever in the mood for streaming video, this will be an incredibly disappointing experience.
All of the Fiio X5’s hardware is paired with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop - one of the older, and honestly less-stable versions of Google’s mobile OS. It throws errors and will sputter on load-up, but it’s workable if nothing else.
Unfortunately, the OS itself isn't the only issue: Fiio has installed a number of apps on the device that ultimately limit its utility.
The Google Play Store, for example, has been replaced by the Fiio Market, which offers a scant 24 apps - many of which aren’t in English. Fiio Music doesn’t have a storefront for you to buy songs, but rather acts as a repository for music on the device. Don’t get us wrong, a repository is nice, but so is a proper storefront like Google Play Music - which, as you might’ve guessed isn’t available here.
If you’re in the market for a player that takes music from your PC and carries it with you wherever you go, none of this will be particularly bothersome for you. You’ll have enough space on-board for the first few weeks of use, and plenty of expandable storage options down the road. But, if you want something that can handle light gaming or streaming, the X5 really won’t - and simply can’t - accommodate those requests.
The silver lining in all this is that, as a music player, the X5 is downright great. It supports all the main lossless file formats including FLAC, ALAC, AIFF and WAV, many of which at 24-bit/384kHz and WAV files at 32-bit/384kHz - well above what’s required for Hi-Res Audio.
Playing music through the X5 is a wonderful experience. You’ll hear the separation between the mids, lows and the highs, and there’s a crispness about the ranges that can be hard to hear on other devices. The soundstage is wider here than on your mobile device - and while it’s not wider than our current top-pick in music players, the Onkyo DP-X1A, it should be a substantial improvement from your smartphone.
We appreciated how the highs sparkle and lows offer a controlled rumble without losing their distinct shape. We liked the richness in tone that was slightly elevated above neutral and yet not distorted in a way that ruins the music. It can also get extremely loud using 100 points of loudness, which is nice if you appreciate steps up in volume rather than 10 to 12 leaps.
Fiio says you can expect about 10 to 12 hours of playback on a full charge of the 3400mAh battery - which, in our testing, turned out to be a bit overzealous. We were able to squeeze about six hours out on a full charge cycling between web browsing, music listening and stand-by modes.
At $349 (£377, AU$449), the Fiio X5 Mk. 3 is a solid, moderately inexpensive Hi-Res Audio music player. If you’re buying it for the sole reason to play songs in their highest quality, and have a way to obtain those songs on your PC, the Fiio X5 is a good pick. If you’re looking for something with multimedia capabilities - or are easily put-off by unintuitive software - consider looking at the all-around better Onkyo DP-X1A or the Astell & Kern AK Jr, which do everything listed above with a far better handle on providing a great user experience.
- These are the best MP3 players available right now