Introduction: Unfamiliar Territory
A couple of years ago, I was telling my father-in-law about my audio and music hobby. He asked me if the equipment I had was made by “Pioneer, Sony” or another well known brand. I explained that those were, generally speaking, mass-market brands, and that the equipment favored by hard-core audiophiles these days was often made by “boutique” or specialty brands with names like Wilson, ProAc, Audio Note or Primaluna (I didn’t even mention Schiit!) – names well known in the audio community but unheard of in the larger, consumer electronics markets.
The more deeply I’ve ventured into the world of high-end, portable audio, the more I’ve come to understand how my father-in-law felt while I rattled off the names of obscure brands of audio equipment he’d never heard of.
It’s true that the home audio speakers-and-amp enthusiast will encounter some more familiar names when venturing into this corner of the hobby: Sennheiser, AKG and Grado, among others, make some well respected headphones. Oppo, revered for their universal DVD and audio disc players, makes some portable gear like headphone amps. And lately, even familiar, home hi-fi brands like the venerable, value-oriented NAD and the very high-end, French manufacturer, Focal have gotten into the portable market.
But… hang out long enough on Head-fi.org and you’ll enter a market also populated by small brands you (the home audio enthusiast) have never heard of; names like Dunu, Final Audio Design, Fidue, Campfire Audio, Dita, and (the subject of this review) iBasso.
The iBasso DX80 Digital Audio Player
You can check out this post to see why I decided to go with a stand-alone DAP rather than an iPhone with an external DAC/amplifier. Having now lived with my iBasso DX80 for about five months, I’m glad I did. I have found the all-in-one, special purpose DAP to be a convenient way to get high-end sound on the go, without having to plug another piece of hardware into my cell phone in order to accomplish the same thing.
I selected the iBasso DX80 after doing my research on the Internet in general and on Head-fi.org in particular. With dual Cirrus 4398 DAC chips (one per channel), a (mostly) metal body, a largish touch screen, three physical navigation buttons (which I love – more on that in a bit), dual MicroSD card slots supporting (theoretically) up to 2 terabytes of storage, the ability to function as an external DAC for your laptop, and more – and all of this at a current street price of just over US $300 – the value proposition on this unit seemed very high.
At first I wasn’t going to bother including my own unboxing photos of the DX80 since they’re available all over Head-fi. Yet I know that you, my beloved readers, love them, so here we go…
The retail box is kind of a clamshell affair. (Note that in this picture I’ve already installed one of the included screen protectors.)
There is a wedge-shaped box of accessories packed under the main unit. Here we see the warranty card, Quick Start Guide and one of the two supplied screen protectors.
Here’s the mini-plug to coaxial cable, for taking a digital (SPDIF) signal out of the DX80 and feeding it to an external DAC.
A reassuringly beefy USB to micro-USB cable, used for charging, transferring music files and employing the DX80 as an external DAC with a laptop or other computer.
Some people believe in the need for audio gear to be “burned in” to in order to reach its full sonic potential. Others do not. Clearly, iBasso does, which is why they supply this nifty burn-in cable. It provides a resistive load to mimic a pair of earphones. Plug it in to the headphone jack, set a playlist or album on “repeat” and it will allow you to silently burn in the DX80 without abusing your favorite ear phones.
iBasso also thoughtfully includes a silicone rubber case for the DX80. Although, like all such cases, it’s a bit of a dust magnet, its grippy texture helps prevent drops and its springy consistency provides some nice impact protection. The Korean company Dignis also makes a leather case for the DX80.
User Experience: Touch Screen Interface
As is the case with a lot of Chinese brand digital audio players, the DX80 uses a customized version of Android for its operating system and touch screen user interface.
This seems like a good time to report that iBasso has been quite diligent about pushing out regular firmware updates for the DX80. (Here is the download page where you can find firmware update files for various iBasso products.) Updating the DX80 firmware is a fairly trivial procedure – download and expand the file, which will be called “update.IMG.” Make sure the file is located in the root directory of the microSD card in Slot #2 and either choose Update Firmware from the Advanced menu or reboot holding down the power and Volume Up buttons to get you into an early start up menu that will give you the option to update the firmware. At this point, as of firmware version 1.5.8, the DX80 firmware is quite solid, with just one, minor bug* remaining, but, for my purposes, no showstoppers.
Let’s take a look at the user interface.
There are two ways to interact with your DX80.
The first is by using the touchscreen. You can tap the touchscreen to select tracks. You can also swipe left from the currently playing song to access the My Music screen, or swipe right to access the Settings screen. Here’s a visual tour of the touchscreen interface:
This is the Now Playing screen. The navigation widgets and scrubber bar are pretty self explanatory. Notice, too, the little icon on the right above the scrubber bar, indicating that the entire album should repeat. Tapping there will give you several other repeat options. As shown here, a single tap on the album art brings up the Volume and Battery charge display overlaying the top of the album art….
… and a second tap reveals icons that (from left to right) when tapped will display (from left to right) Song Info (size, format, bitrate, etc.), add the current song to a Playlist and remove the song from a Playlist.
Swiping across the Now Playing screen from left to right gets you to the My Music screen, showing all the ways you can organize and access your music collection. I find myself using Album view most often.
The Album view, list mode. Tap the icon in the upper right margin and you can see your albums like this…
Album mode, thumbnail view!
Here are the Advanced Options, where you can set things like display brightness and time until the DX80 automatically powers off. Rescan Library merits its own screen shot…
Whenever you’ve added new music files to either of your Micro SD cards, you’ll want to rescan that card with this screen. This rebuilds the index of all your files so that the DX80 can access them by their various metadata (album, artist, genre and so on).
Finally, a downward swipe from almost any screen brings you this handy-dandy shortcut to the most frequently used Advanced Settings. Gapless Playback should be enabled for albums (e.g., live concert recordings) meant to be played with no pause between tracks. The Gain setting can be set to either high or low, depending on the sensitivity of your ‘phones (with the caveat that High Gain mode will tend to drain the DX80 battery more quickly). Low Gain works fine for most IEM’s, but if you’re driving a pair of less sensitive, full-size “cans,” High Gain may be your better choice. The Digital Filter setting is supposed to shape the way your files sound, but honestly, I haven’t found it to make that much of a difference. The next row of buttons toggles that way the DX80 behaves when plugged into a computer’s USB port. (Reader mode mounts the DX80’s memory as a removable volume on your computer, allowing you to transfer files to the DX80. DAC mode allows the DX80 to function as an external DAC for your computer – very handy!) And in the bottom row, you can set the playback repeat mode.
User Experience: Buttons!
For all of the power and flexibility of the touch screen controls, my favorite UI feature of the DX80 consists of three large, physical buttons just below the screen; from left to right, as expected, we have Skip Backward, Play/Pause and Skip Forward. (Additionally, a long press on these buttons will Skim Backward in the current track, Lock The Screen And Buttons, and Skim Forward in the current track, respectively.) This means that you can control many of the DX80’s playback functions without having to look at the touchscreen. You’ll deeply appreciate this when listening to music in the dark at bedtime or when you want to control the unit without removing it from your pocket. Add to this the physical volume increase and decrease buttons on the right side of the DX80 and you get a lot of everyday control without having to actually look at the unit. This is brilliant, and deeply appreciated, especially compared to listening to music on today’s smartphones that require you to deal with the touchscreen to do almost anything except adjust the volume.
I find the sound of the DX80 to be quite lovely: airy, neutral and uncolored, which in my book is a good thing. You get the sound of your music files without a lot of editorializing, although, of course, you can use the built in graphic equalizer screen to tailor the sound to suit your tastes if you like. I tend not to “EQ” my music – probably a silly holdover from my home audiophile snobbery – but others love to equalize their music.
This “neutral-ish” assessment of the sonic character of the DX80 comes with two caveats.
First, the only other portable, digital players I’ve ever spent significant time with over the years were a first-generation (!!) iPod and a series of iPhones, so my DAP listening experience isn’t as broad and varied as some.
Second, like your feelings about any portable music player, your perception of the DX80’s sonics will be VERY significantly influenced by the headphones or earphones with which they are paired. With a pair of Sennheiser IE80’s, I found the sound to be overwhelmingly bloated and bass-heavy (for my tastes, of course). With the Dunu DN-2000j and the Musicmaker Shockwave III, the highs were (to my treble-sensitive ears) punishingly bright on pop music with a more compressed, “modern” sound signature, such as Lorde’s Pure Herione. But paired with the Final Audio Design Heaven VII, the Hifiman RE-600 “Songbird” or (especially!) the luscious KEF M200 IEM’s, the sound is just beautiful and supremely musical. To my surprise, I have found that, paired with the right earphones, the iBasso DX80 can deliver a musical experience that’s extremely immersive and emotionally satisfying. It’s different than listening to my full-size home stereo rig, but no less enjoyable in its own, unique way. And I can take it with me wherever I go!
I’ll have a lot more to say about my IEM travels in my next blog post! But for now, I’d highly recommend the iBasso DX80 to anyone looking for a standalone Digital Audio Player. It’s well built, well priced, works almost perfectly and sounds great.
By the way, iBasso has a new, “statement” model in the works, to be called the DX200. Hopefully I’ll get my hands on one when it’s released so I can share how it stacks up compared to the DX80.
Until next time, be kind to others and enjoy your music!
*”one minor bug” – Under the current 1.5.8 firmware, if you power off (automatically or by hand) the DX80 while listening to an album, when powered back on, the tracks will be in alphabetical order rather than album order. Annoying, but a couple of screen taps gets you back to album sort order. As far as I can tell, this is the sole remaining DX80 firmware bug.