The Chinese electronics company FiiO have been making innovative and affordable audio accessories since 2007. After an initial few years developing speaker sets, the company first found success with the tiny and affordable, yet incredibly powerful E3 headphone amplifier. In a story worthy of internet dreams; the E3 was released, gained modest sales before seeming spent when a member of the Head-Fi forum spotted it on eBay. After asking the forum if anybody had any information on the product (and with none subsequently coming), the member took the plunge and bought one. One very good review later and the E3 went viral. FiiO then built on this with successive budget, intermediate and high end amplifier models raising the opinions held by the audiophile community in the process. They then branched out by adding digital audio players into the mix in 2013 and released the X1 not long after. Of the three FiiO X series DAPs available, this is the cheapest, but have FiiO sacrificed quality for cost? Let's find out.
The X1 draws immediate parallels with the classic iPod with its track wheel and button placement but trades in the white casing for a really well made aluminium chassis. It’s also disarmingly light at 106g, making it not much heavier than a chocolate bar. Luckily the build quality gives it a tough durability and after a while I felt quite confident popping it in my pocket without the included silicon case (which, though nice to have, pretty much ruins the elegant aesthetic). There are two volume controls (+ and -) and an on/off power button on the left hand side. All in all, on the surface it is an incredibly well built and classy unit.
SoundUnfortunately the X1 doesn’t have any inbuilt memory so you need to supply your own microSD card before listening. However, this does mean that any advancement in flash memory capacity automatically increases the eventual memory of the X1. For example the current largest microSD card supported is 128GB; though as SanDisk recently announced that a 200GB card would soon be available it is to be expected that FiiO will be able to update their firmware to accommodate this. To put that in perspective, that gives you a top possible capacity for c.3262 96kHz/24bit FLAC tracks or c.17543 44.1kHz/320kbps MP3s. Considering my last audio player was a third generation iPod Nano that could barely fit 2000 low quality MP3s, that’s quite some capacity. Of course, many would say that a player like the X1 isn’t designed for MP3s, but I have to say that there is a serious improvement when listening to some of my old iTunes purchases. The spatial separation of instruments and tightening of frequencies (especially the bass) particularly brings new life to songs that previously sounded murky and cluttered. My old player struggled with anything that wasn’t heavily compressed, often leading to an uncomfortable crackling at higher dynamics. The X1 clearly doesn’t suffer from the same problem with notes held clean even at the loudest bits. It’s quite exhilarating. Lossless files are (obviously) equally well handled, with the X1 taking particular care in spacing each musical component and minimising any audio bleed present in compressed tracks. Put simply, high definition tracks sound amazing on this player.
A lot has been written about the user interfaces of the X series being something of an Achilles heel for FiiO. The dominance of Apple and the clean ease in which we’ve become accustomed to handling an iPod makes everything else pale in comparison. It’s a problem that effects audio players, smartphones and computers alike. That said, the UI on the X1 is actually not that bad. When I first got my hands on it I had read many reviews and opinions about how it was difficult to organise your music into playlists and how everything had to be manually adjusted so that albums would play in order. This is simply not true; for my lossey files I just copied them directly from my iTunes library by dragging folders across. Each album then appears in the player in order and I can find an album or artist fairly quickly. Clicking ‘Play all’ can be a bit daunting as the X1 will group all opening tracks together (as they’ll be labelled as ‘01’) followed by all secondary tracks (‘02’) etc. Happily you can use the random shuffle mode to make things a little easier. In fact, the dual function of the volume controls (short press for volume, long press for next track) means that shifting to the next song is instinctive and easy when the X1 is hidden in your pocket. Though as I mostly stick to playing individual albums, I have very few issues in regards to files. Other extras in the UI include different colour sets, a 7 band EQ, variable key lock settings (e.g. which buttons still function when the unit is locked), Headphone out/Line out selector and numerous other little tweaks that could probably occupy you for hours.
Final ThoughtsOne slightly less positive impression is that the scroll wheel is a little too sensitive on my unit (though I can’t find many others who have the same problem) and the song select can occasionally lag a bit behind what is actually playing. Though that said, these are tiny irrelevances when you consider what the unit is providing for the cost. As an upgrade from an aged iPod, the X1 is a no brainer. As a solid, dependable unit to enhance the pleasure of portable music at a decent cost, the X1 is utterly faultless. It's even available in champagne (read: white gold) colour should you be feeling fancy. It's certainly opened my ears to the world of portable audiophilia which, I suppose, was always the point. I can’t recommend it enough!