It is barely 3 months since the launch of FiiO’s current flagship DAP and already excitement is turning to what is coming next; the FiiO X7. Much as FiiO took a big leap from the first generation X3 to the first generation X5, so it feels like the X7 will take this small company out over the edge and into stranger, richer waters. Despite all that florid description, one thing is for certain; this is FiiO’s first touchscreen, Android based player and they’ve sure gone to town with the specifications. One of the best DACs in the world? Check. Aircraft-grade duralumin chassis? Check. Variable modules for audio customisability? Why of course! With so much that is new and so much riding on its success (Head-Fi have been speculating for just over a year), FiiO have been coy in rushing it’s release, adamant that the world will receive it only after the native Chinese market has proven it works. With that in mind, here are 5 leaps FiiO has made with the new X7; why they may fail, why they won’t and why it’s something to get irrationally excited about! Some slight conjecture may follow.
1: Diving into Andoid
Most of us will know that the main competition between smartphone application systems is between Apple iOS and Google Android. As it stands Android has the larger share of developers seeing it as a priority (40% to iOS’ 37%) on top of a larger installed user base amongst smartphones. The reason for this is simple; Android is both open source and powerful enough to drive operating systems on cameras, game consoles and regular PCs alongside the usual tablets and smartphones. It’s no wonder that FiiO have decided to use it and its added functionality in the X7. Increasing functionality, however, could prove a double-edged sword as by definition it increases the opportunities for elements to go wrong. Especially as the X7 will be perpetually stuck with Android Lollipop, possibly making it less easy to update than before. Opening up a FiiO product to third-party applications (which you will be able to download from the FiiO website) has already softened the release schedule (the X7 to be released in multiple stages in comparison to the Q1 being released worldwide on the same day). That said, the sheer work going into applying Android shows FiiO are focusing on an engaging, functional and fun user experience from their new player; something I believe they will succeed in.
2: Why WiFi?
In a similar vein to the switch to Android, FiiO have also added Wi-Fi capability to this new model. On the surface this seems a no-brainer, apps need to be downloaded from the internet so you might as well make it as easy as possible to connect. Equally, as more and more of the population shift their listening habits from CDs to streaming it makes sense to support Spotify and Tidal. FiiO will likely have no problems in hooking up a Wi-Fi module to the X7, though a possible concern may be in what they had to sacrifice to make it fit. As this is going to be the company’s flagship DAP and most expensive product by far, a few commentators see the application of Wi-Fi as needless in such a high end audio player. They have a point, this is still a niche market with the main goal being perfect resolution of audio, not lossey streaming. But by applying Wi-Fi technology alongside a world class DAC that can deliver the largest variety of lossless files yet (at 384khz/64bit quality) shows that FiiO are actually attempting please old listeners whilst gaining new ones. After all, niches tend to grow over time and FiiO wants to make sure as many as possible are satisfied.
3: Losing their memoryThe first DAP to be given ‘flagship’ status was the X5 which, along with being a huge sonic advancement on the X3, was differentiated by double memory card slots. This physically doubled the amount of audio the X5 could contain, gaining it many admirers with huge libraries in the process. The second generation X5 also claimed two memory sockets whilst the X1 and X3ii stuck with one. Knowing this it seems strange that FiiO have only been able to accommodate one microSD slot on the X7. This could possibly be due to needing to accommodate both the Wi-Fi module and the interchangeable amplifier modules (more on that later) though it has still not gone unnoticed by the Head-Fi community. Admittedly the X7 will have an inbuilt memory of 32GB and will likely be fully prepared to accept the 200GB microSD cards when they become freely available. This should be ample for the portable music fan, maybe just not for those who want their entire collection in their pocket.
4. Customisation through modulation
It has to be said that the biggest bone of contention when FiiO asked people what their dream player would be was what amplifier it would have. I mentioned in a previous post how the beauty of amplifiers is that there is no such thing as one that is ‘best’. An amplifier can be varied and nuanced in so many ways that it becomes a matter of both personal taste and audio set-up. An amplifier that makes in ear monitors sing could sound weak through high grade planars. Needless to say, the community greeted FiiOs question with partisan desires based purely on instinctive preference. FiiO then responded with the smart idea of having 4 interchangeable amplifier modules, thereby keeping everyone happy. It wouldn't matter if you had high power, medium power, balanced output or IEM needs, the X7 will handle it. These will share usability with the upcoming Q5, allowing for all manner of combinations. It’s a pretty unique in that full modules are interchangeable and not just the chip (as in the HM-802) and I’m sure FiiO will add new modules over time. Still, it’s a pretty big shift and we will probably have to see how much the individual modules cost before passing full judgement. Though I, for one, am excited to see them in action!
5: A different business modelFiiO are not like other companies. Profit, though obviously vital, is not the highest priority. James Chung, the Head of FiiO, set it out nicely when talking about the X7: “HiFi is all about entertainment and to keep everyone happy, right? Rather than making profits, the main target [for] us in designing high-end players is to challenge ourselves to realize the dream of us and all the audiophiles.” This goes some way to explain the desire found throughout the FiiO range to innovate and develop in ways suggested by their supporters. After starting the X7 thread a year ago and with over 330 pages of suggestions later; many of the ideas wanted by the Head-Fi community were actually adopted by FiiO. This is a huge gamble. One person’s dream DAP could be widely different from another. FiiO could try too hard and accommodate all these disparate ideas, ending with a Jack-of-all-trades product that fails to live up to the hype. Yet I don’t think this will be the case. For one, the X7 is gorgeous enough to be forgiven user interface problems (which have plagued FiiO since the beginning) and the tech inside should make it punch way, way above its price bracket. It’s the FiiO way after all. I am not worried. I think FiiO are branching out in to new territory whilst firmly sticking to their original philosophy. This is going to be a player ostensibly aimed at audiophiles whilst keeping the door open for inquisitive listeners with money to spend. It’s both for their niche whilst striding defiantly towards a new one. Still, there is a sense, a small murmur on the community boards that some are worried where this path may lead them; that FiiO may end up forgetting its roots and its core customers. Personally, I trust FiiO wholeheartedly and am strong in my convictions that this player will become something amazing. It’s time to stop worrying and get excited! In the run up to the Christmas release date why don't you acquaint yourself with FiiO's current range, as stocked by the AV Shop.