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Fiio X5 vs Cowon J3 Review

For anybody out there who knows anything about science, you’ll know that all good superheroes have a realistic and scientifically-plausible origin story.

Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, Rubber-Man was exposed to radiation and Batman inherited wealth.

And although it’s typically inadvisable to use the term ‘hero’ when describing oneself, to use any other term would be disingenuous.

You see, I once said hi to a homeless man. So in this spirit I’m going to give selflessly for the benefit of others by providing my first impressions of Fiio’s new music player the ‘X5′ with specific reference to how it compares to my previous player, the Cowon J3.

Of course before I do this, I need to make it clear I’m not an audio geek. In fact, it blew my mind when I started listening to music in full stereo for the first time, as my first audio system only had one working speaker.

And this is where my story starts, with what I’d like to say was three months of unadulterated disappointment with my purchase of an ipod Classic, to replace my Zen Vision M, in the Winter of 2010.

It was terrible.

In terms of sound it was like moving from a good wine to a bad cocktail. From the perspective of my music collection, it must have felt something like living under an authoritarian regime, given the overbearing incompetence of iTunes.

Which is where I started my longest-running love affair yet, with Cowon’s J3:

Image Source

So for those of you who don’t know, Cowon is a little known Korean company that makes products in the audio and portable media space. At the time of purchasing the J3, I had no idea who the hell Cowon was, but when I searched for mp3 player reviews the J3 kept being recommended for its sound quality, battery life and its ability to play pretty much any music or video format thrown at it.

It also trumped the iPod for me in four important ways:

  1. It’s small;
  2. Its memory is upgradable (via a Micro-Sd card slot);
  3. The memory is solid-state, which essentially means it lacks moving parts making it ideal for jogging;
  4. It didn’t have anything to do with itunes

For all these reasons and more, buying my J3 was undeniably a success. It sounded great, looked great and allowed me to promptly uninstall itunes from my computer.

Unfortunately, like my success streak of stealing lunches from the break-room fridge, all good things must come to an end. For my J3 this has meant an unceremonious decline, complete with memory loss, random outbursts and it occasionally wetting itself.

Moving on…

Now they say they’re plenty more fish in the sea. Unfortunately, in the case of my old MP3 player I didn’t really believe this was to be true. How was some other player ever going to be able to fill the J3-shaped void in my heart?

And so doing what every desperate loner does, I went online to look for a rebound player. Eventually I came to find my new player’s critically acclaimed predecessor the X3, before forking out a heart-stopping $419 for its sister, the X5:


 

Again I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I’m not an audio geek. I’m just a person who thinks they can tell the difference between a poor sounding audio player and a good one.

For reference, I’ve been listening to the device for about a month using a range of headphones, including the Audio Technica–ATH-M50, Creative Aurvana Air, Bose QC20 and Sennheiser PXCC300. I tend to rip my music using Exact Audio Copy, using Lame’s ‘preset insane’ parameter (320kbps), while wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Overall Design

When I first saw this player, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a result of an iPod Classic awkwardly attempting to look slick as part of a mid-life crisis. Consequently, you’re not going to hear me rave about the look of the player (I don’t like the design of the iPod Classic either for reference).

 

 

 

 

 

Still, both compared to an iPod Classic and a J3 it’s a well-made device. Being made with a single piece of aluminium, it feels like a quality piece of equipment. At the same time, it’s also rather heavy, being more than double the weight of the J3. Obviously this isn’t going to result in back pain, but unlike the J3 it’s not ideal for the gym/jogging or skydiving. Still, it feels like a much more solid device than the J3.

The device includes a volume rocker, off switch and five tactile buttons surrounding the navigation wheel. In terms of audio outputs, it has three including a headphone jack, 3.5mm audio output (for plugging into external speakers) and a coaxial output.

It also comes with two microsd cards slots, meaning its potential storage capacity will only increase as microsd cards increase in size. The downside is that because the device comes with no internal storage you’ll need to fork out additional cash if you don’t have a microsd card skulking around in the bottom of a drawer.

User Interface

So if you’ve done any research on this device at all you’ll know that the first thing that people have an issue with is the user interface (UI) and truth be told it is pretty terrible.

Personally, I prefer control over my device to being mollycoddled through the process of selecting my music. Unfortunately, I’d also like to make sure I’m spending as little time finding the music as possible, yet the way they’ve structured the UI doesn’t help me do this.

For example, as far as I can tell the only way to move down your list of albums is by turning the scroll wheel or pressing the ‘skip track’ buttons (the two buttons below the scroll wheel that can be seen in the photo above).

What this means is that albums, genres or track names which are in the middle of the alphabet are exceedingly difficult to get to, resulting in me listening to albums at the start or end of the alphabet more than the middle. Ie, there is a skew towards me listening to Abbey Road or Wish You Were Here more than Morrison Hotel.

In fact I timed myself and found that it takes at least 20 seconds of furiously turning of the scroll wheel to get half way through my music collection.

Now, whilst this might not sound like a big deal this means that there is no way to skip right to the letter in the alphabet where your album resides. For me this is a big downer as generally I’ll have a specific track/album/artist I’m interested in listening to then I’ll seek it out. For this to take 20 seconds each time is just a little annoying.

In fact, while I’m at it, what ever happened to having a ‘play random album’ or ‘play random track’ option? How can we put a man on the moon, and not continue to include this function on new devices?

But anyway, scrolling through albums by their album art is also not possible with the X5, something I really liked about Cowon’s J3. Again this is disappointing as sometimes it’s a nicer way of browsing through albums.

The UI also has a number of weird limitations when compared to the J3. For instance, when browsing by genre it will bring up a list of all tracks, not giving you the option to view albums in the genre. The ‘play by category’ option is also limited to Album, Artist and Genre, meaning there is no option to browse according to a track’s year of release, bitrate or whether it’s tagged as a podcast.

In fact, even when you do manage to find the song (or droid) you’re looking for, you’ll be presented with a list of tracks by filename rather than the name of the song in the id3 tag. Although this might seem like a minor annoyance, it’s almost as if the Fiio team were like ‘nah, it’s cool, no one will notice’.

There are also still kinks to be worked out, even with the latest version of the firmware I’ve had issues with it slowing down and sometimes skipping the first couple of seconds of an album.

But before you start thinking that I’ve got a lot of hate for the Fiio X5’s UI, let me say that generally it does a lot of things okay. For instance, although I don’t tend to use the equalizer if I did I can’t see myself complaining. Its home screen is also intuitive enough to make navigating through the options okay.

Still, how they managed to come up with a UI so mediocre, given it’s (in their words) “forged from years of experience and feedback” is a mystery to me. Surely the designers have used other products before? Or even operated an Mp3 player?

But I digress. It’s adequate. Wait to go Fiio.

Sound

So I made it clear earlier that I’m not an audiophile. I just know the difference between crap and gold. Fortunately the X5 is, as you’d hope is gold.

You see, X5 is a high-resolution player which essentially means it can play audio files which are 24bit, a full 8 bits higher than a typical CD:

“The easiest way to envision this is as a series of levels, that audio energy can be sliced at any given moment in time.  With 16 bit audio, there are 65,536 possible levels.  With every bit of greater resolution, the number of levels doubles.  By the time we get to 24 bit, we actually have 16,777,216 levels.”

~ Tested.com

Whether this can actually be perceived by the average user (like myself) is another matter, and of course unless you’re ripping Mp3s from a high-definition source you won’t be hearing those extra 8 bits. Still, with the not-so-imminent release of Neil Young’s Pono it’s nice to know I won’t be left behind with superfluous features.

It’s also supposably got a top of the line audio chip and can function as an external DAC allowing you to output sound from your computer via the X5. Now although this is cool, personally it isn’t likely to be very useful for my Mash marathons. Still, I can see this being appreciated by others.

The X5 supports a full array of audio formats beyond the boring Mp3, including APE, FLAC, ALAC, WMA, WAV and DSD.

But anyway back to the important stuff: the player sounds amazing, and I mean out-of-body experience amazing.

In fact I have a text message describing the listening experience as like being “in a bubble of awesome” which is perhaps as technical as I’m going to get with describing the sound, except when I compare it to the J3, it sounds to me like the separation between the instruments is better.

Practically this means that as good as the J3 sounds, I still feel as if I’m hearing some of my music in a new light. This doesn’t mean that the player is objectively better quality of course, but it does suggest that I prefer the way it translates my mp3s to sound.

Now, I am happy to admit how unscientific this review is, after all I have a clear psychological incentive not to admit that I spent all this money for nothing. But still, I love the way the X5 sounds.

Now to another point that needs to be mentioned as part of this review, unlike the J3, audio is all the X5 does. No video and no funny pictures of cats.

Obviously this is going to result in some hate being directed my way as people talk about how they’d prefer one device that does one thing well, than one that does everything mediocre. But if I had to be honest it’d be that the J3 did a lot of things well, both in the realm of audio and video.

Unfortunately, the X5 just does audio, which I find a bit disappointing. Of course, I knew this before I bought the X5, but it’s a feature of the J3 I’m going to miss and it does feel like I’m getting fewer bangs for my buck.

Battery

Both the X5 and J3 have “non-serviceable” internal batteries, the J3 being charged using a proprietary USB cable and the X5 using a standard micro-usb port.

Firstly, as somebody who hates encouraging the proliferation of unnecessary landfill, I give Fiio props for using a non-proprietary cable as it means I can recycle an old charging cable.

In terms of battery life, I tend to get around 1 to 1.5 days of listening from the X5, compared to 3-4 days of listening out of the J3. So as much as I love Fiio ditching the proprietary cable, the X5 can’t compete with the J3’s battery life.

Overall

Fiio’s X5 is a high-end digital music player/DAC squarely targeting people willing to pay a premium amount for a premium device.

Unfortunately, for me personally, it’s not a J3 killer, given its clunky UI, mediocre battery life, lack of ability to play video and high price:

  • Overall Design (X5=J3)
  • User Interface (J3>X5)
  • Sound (X5>J3)
  • Battery (J3>X5)
  • Price (J3>X5)

But it has to be said that the Fiio X5 is not trying to be a J3 killer, making this an unreasonable comparison. It’s also worth noting that many of my complaints with the device have to do with the user interface, meaning there is a real possibility that my whining will become obsolete as the firmware is improved. In fact, this is in a real way a motivation for me writing this review.

And whilst part of me would love to see the device play videos in the future, with the widespread proliferation of smartphones and tablets this isn’t necessary, as honestly if I want to watch an episode of my favourite show I will probably do so on my phone.

So do I think it’s a worthy upgrade to the J3?

No. I don’t.

But the X5 shouldn’t be seen as an upgrade to the J3.

In my mind the J3 is a device which included a lot of features when it was released which are now available to the average user through their smart phones and tablets.

The X5, on the other hand, tries to one thing and largely succeeds. If it wasn’t for the user interface being almost as awkward as my teenage years, the X5 would be a clear winner.

 


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  1. Thanks for the review. I’m debating between the Fiio X5 and the iBasso DX90. How’s the scroll speed/responsiveness on the X5 compared to like an iPod Classic? Currently I have the Astell & Kern AK120 Titan and it’s massively slow in scrolling. Slow meaning 50% speed of the iPod Classic. And is the wheel on the X5 smoove or does it click which you scroll?

    • Hey Jackie! I think in terms of scroll speed it’s much the same as the iPod Classic, however, from memory the iPod Classic has an alphabetical ‘Rolodex’ type system where you can skip to albums by the first letter of their name (which the Fiio X5 lacks). Re: the wheel, it does give feedback via clicks as you turn it, but it still turns quite smoothly.

      I haven’t tried the Astell & Kern before, but I’ve heard it sounds pretty amazing! Was way out of my price range when I bought the X5 though.

      EDIT: Posted this a while ago, but didn’t use the ‘reply’ option, so you might not have seen it. :)

  2. Hi there !
    Many thanks for this review. It was exactly what i was looking for.

    I’m in possession of a J3 myself, and I’m mostly very happy with it. Well, mostly.
    Actually, there’s only one thing that never stops pissing me off with Cowon players (I had a D2 before that), it’s the lack of possibility to create multiple on-the-fly playlists.
    It’s THE main feature – besides good quality of sound – that I ask for.

    So, how about the X5 ?

    I read what you say about the UI. Actually, you have not said whether or not you can still browse the actual files on the SD card. Can you ? ‘Cause actually in terms of looking for music, that’s the only feature I use. everything on my J3 is stored organized so i don’t look for it too long. So, simply browing the files on the card would be enough for me.

    You pretty much made up my mind in keeping the J3 already. But still i’d like to know.

    Thanks in advance.
    J.