The DAP market has really taken of this year, the quest for an all in one music solution has never sounded any better and now we have so many choices for where we go. Earlier this year I think many people including my self would have said the best sounding player would have to be iBasso’s DX100 (I have auditioned it before but never extensively). While it sounds great its dated Android user interface (UI) and bulky design did not seem to win everyone over with many still choosing to go for an iPod Classic (or iPod touch/iPhone) with a external amp or external amp and DAC. The iDevice option was still most of the time bigger but the UI was loved a lot more. Now though, new options are continuously coming through and the size is dramatically coming down and the UI’s are getting better. iRiver’s AK100 was a huge success even though it had some horrible problems (could be resolved with modification, why my main used player at the moment is the MS-AK100) and its price and size were clearly less than the DX100 even though I certainly prefer the sound of the DX100. Budget DAC and amp manufacture Fiio also got on the boom in the market with their X3 and I think iBasso saw this as a gap in the market for a new player, with a cheaper price tag. At 150 pounds this is roughly a quarter of the price to the iBasso flagship DX100 but is still a feature packed DAP that could terrorize its competitors.
iBasso have completely revamped the UI for this new model and also moved onto Wolfson to provide a WM8740 DAC chip in this, the same as what both iRiver and Fiio have chose to use in their players. This DAC is capable of 24 bit files that sample up to a rate of 192kHz. The amplifier stage has amazing specifications for use with IEMs and portable headphones having an output impedance of under 0.5 ohms and three gain settings to help pair a bit more accurately with different headphones. Feature wise this is packed, for a start as well as the headphone out, there is a 1.5V rms line output from just the DAC or you can completely bypass both the DAC and amplifier stages in the DX50 and use a digital coaxial output into an external DAC to make this an amazing little digital transport. iBasso are even more generous by including a mini jack to coaxial cable so you do not have to faff around to get the right cable needed to use the digital output. Next up I want to talk about memory storage. The DX50 has a really small 8gb of on board memory, which with high quality audio files such as FLAC, ALAC, APE, AAC, OGG and WAV that the DX50 can handle will not last very long at all, in fact, if you’re using 24/192 file that might just manage 5 albums. Not to worry though as this has two methods of adding storage, first of all it has a microSD slot, it is not quite the 2 that both Astell & Kern Players have but unlike them, it will be compatible with all future microSD cards, including ones that will be a whopping 2 TB in size. It is also nice to not have to reformat the likes of microSD cards to FAT32 as this of course can handle EXFAT. The second way is through USB OTG (on the go). You can connect a USB hard drive to the USB port on the DX50 and then completely access all the music on that hard drive. I can see this proving handy in many ways. For example if you’re a frequent flyer taking a hard drive along with you will not add a lot of bulk and will allow you to access tonnes of music. The same applies for using it at work or even attaching a smaller hard drive to it in order for more music and with memory continuously getting smaller and cheaper, the memory of this device will only get better! The next BIG thing they have nailed is battery life. It is rated at 14 hours and I have comfortably got 12 hours out of it my self. To really put the icing on the cake though is that the battery is removable and is the same one used in the Samsung Galaxy S3 phone so you can take spares on the road with you. Spare batteries can be had as such little prices as less than 10 pounds as well so is a quick and affordable option to boost battery performance for this player.
This DAP is controlled by a combination of both physical buttons and a touch screen display. The main bulk of operation is done by the touch screen display but we do have a sleep button on the left side that works like one on an iPhone and underneath that we have a lock button that works just like one on a iPod Classic. On the right side we have the volume rockers that work just as one would expect and then on front of the DX50 under the touch screen display we have 3 large buttons. In the middle we have the pause/play button and either side we have forward and back track options. I find them very easy to find in my pocket, much easier than the small side buttons that AK100 has in comparison.
The firmware on this is at V1.1.6 at the time of reviewing and this is the second update. iBasso released this on 1.00 and I was really disappointed with it, as to say it did not work is honest. It could not play 75% of my library and when it tried to play them I would have to restart it to play any song as it caused a complete mute of the device. Quality control was also left questionable with there seeming to be a wide range of problems people had that did not match my experiences, in fact I think I had one of the better working units. Fortunately the latest firmware does not show any real problems for me but I was a bit disappointed that it was not released 100% working, or even close as I can not say it is even working 100% now. Just the other day, on the latest firmware I gave a few clicks of extra volume and the player instantly increased to full volume and would not listen to me pushing the volume down button or the pause button. I had to scramble to get my IEMs unplugged as I was getting to a very high level of volume very quickly and this is actually something potentially dangerous. Since then I have not put on earphones until I have set a low volume and checked that it is working alright in worry, not something I want with a DAP, now it has not happened again but the worry is constantly there. Now this firmware has been out over a week now and no solution has been released, apologies made or warning issued and this is something rather serious. Now I am not doubting they will get this fixed and continue to smooth out the problems it has but I do not like how many bug it was released with or how serious some are, I do not expect release with a perfect firmware but I expect a lot better than this.
As for the UI, I do not mind it that much; it is quite attractive to look at and easy enough to navigate through. When switched on you are prompted to either scan SD card or browse files, this my first annoyance as it asks me every time and if I have not put new music on my SD card and have no reason to scan, I am not sure why this is prompted and I which I was taken straight into the main menu. Once inside you have a music play screen, a settings menu and a My Music menu. On the music playing screen you have album artwork, song name, artist and album as well as the sampling rate and kbps of the track. You then have the My Music menu that separates the music on the device and SD card into the usual artist, album, genre and all music, in which you can listen to an album at a time, an artist or just shuffle all your music. In the settings menu you first have an EQ. It is turned on by pressing open and you can make your own custom EQ with the 8 band equalizer or use one of the 5 preset options this has. I wont go into any more detail regarding EQ as it is not something I use or am to bothered about but I know some people need it. You then are able to select the play mode like on any other player, choose the gapless playback settings and then you have some advanced setting such as power management. The only problems I have with navigating all this is that the back button in the top left corner is just a bit small and can be missed quite easily and when scrolling it sometimes confuses that with clicking a option. It works quite snappy though with only a bit of delay when selecting a song and this I am all relatively happy with.
The build and the design of the player certainly remind me of the bigger and bulkier DX100 with a hint of added sexiness. It is sleek and feels cool in your hand and the rubberised look the buttons and ports have goes nicely with the brushed aluminium the rest of the payer is. I also like the rubber because it is resistant to fingerprint marks and wears out well. The metal exterior certainly feels solid and the only weak and tacky feeling bit is the plastic around were the battery sits inside the device but I guess that just helps keep weight down.
iBasso have made a DAP with what a DAP should be made for in mind, IEMs and portable cans. No impedance issues and no hiss issues mean for a very easy listen when using IEMs like I plan to with this, and I am sure most people do. Anything this can not drive is not ideal for out of the house use and this does not concern me in the slightest, I doubt many people want and I don’t think anyone should expect this too drive my 300 ohm Sennheiser HD580 or the HiFiMAN HE-500. If you do want to use this with a harder to drive headphone then that should not be a problem as the line out of this is of great quality, very neutral and distortion free, both too my ears and through measurements and putting this into an amp too drive your headphones of choice is highly recommended.
The sound of this is first off all, clearly the focus of this player, the unfinished firmware aside, they clearly spent more than enough time of making it sound good and not enough on the firmware. Both ends of the spectrum seem to have the slight focus of this player with a solid bottom end and a sparkly top end but this does not mean for me to say the midrange is recessed in any way, just a bit warm. The bass is very easy going, pleasant on the ears and great to pair with. It supplies bass as deep as any headphone can deal with and the mid-bass has just a bit of bloom to it, a bit of extra presence and decay and little whollop. It is not as tight, punchy and fast as the AK100 but has just a splash more fun without being stupid. It is also nowhere near as generous on the decay as the Cowon J3 that was a muddy mess, this delivers a very high quality bass. The midrange could be described ever so slightly as thin in the lower section with a bit more fullness in the higher areas, even a bit of sweetness there. Even though the midrange does have some warmth, details are very easy to hear and the nuances flow into the music nicely. Clarity seems to be boosted in the presence range ever so slightly and moving onto the treble we have an almost bright presentation. It has a nice splash to it and amazing airy extension but can sometimes just be a bit rough on the edges of it and just ever so slightly shrill with brighter headphones. Soundstage does not have the most impressive width, going from the headphone out to the line out into the MyST PortAmp shows a clear expansion in soundstage width but the depth is much better from the headphone out, almost on par with the dedicated amp. Instrument separation is clear and assured but imaging, is well not as extremely pinpoint as some of the more expensive players, I am not saying its gets overwhelmed or smudged but with the likes of the Tera Player, it was almost too vivid.
In terms of resolution the AK100 is certainly a step up, more resolving, detailed and a much blacker background, not that this is a noisy player, just a little bit of white noise in the amp section. A more on par player would be the HiFi ET MA8, which has a superior DAC section but the amp section has more glare and leaves me finding the DX50 the nicer player. The Cowon J3 is leagues behind the quality this player delivers into your headphones and if sound quality is what you want then your wasting your time looking at an iPod Touch. The HiSoundAudio Nova’s are similar in price also but really just do not compete, in fact they did not impress me in the slightest.
I think iBasso kicked themselves in the teeth by not working a little harder on making sure the UI was finished and amazing because some people are quite ruthless and that will really hit their reputation on the forum and through reviewers like myself who have to be that honest. This being said with firmware updates this is going to get easier to use and have less problems, too a point where you will be left with a great sounding DAP that has left the price range revolutionized, because, nothing at the price can stand up to this. Add to that how future proof this is with the swap in batteries and memory up to 2TB and I think iBasso are so close to have an amazing product and even though I have encountered some problems, I think the next firmware will get rid of the main volume problem and with that out the way, there is nothing to stop me giving this a HUGE recommendation!