Great sound quality and performance, but it's not exactly user-friendly
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 5 February 2021
Warning: LONG review, that gets a bit techy in places. Nothing too off-putting, hopefully, but if you're just looking for a simple-to-use, easygoing music player and aren't really all that bothered about whether or not it sounds fantastic, then I can save you some time and tell you now, this is not the music player for you. If, on the other hand, you put sound quality first but you want to know what the Fiio does well and what it doesn't, then read on, and hopefully this will be of some use to you. Cheers.
OK, first the good:
- Sound quality is excellent. I have a massive music library; having it all on one device in lossless format - even flac - is just not an option. I'd need terrabytes and terrabytes of storage, and the technology just isn't there yet to get that much data on one microSD card or one device. So I still use mp3 (v0 LAME encoded, mostly) and AAC/MP4 music files. A slight trade-off in sound quality, which you'll maybe notice if your ears aren't aged like mine and if you use top quality, wired earphones. For the rest of us, a well-encoded mp3 or mp4 file sounds just as good and takes up a fraction of the space. And the Fiio makes even these lossy formats shine. It's actually slightly better sound quality than my old Cowon Z2 Plenue, which I'll be honest, surprised me, as the Cowon's sound was tweakable to the nth degree, it had a great DAC and headphone amp. The Fiio gives slightly better stereo imaging/soundscape, slightly more detail, much better sub-bass, and sounds just a little bit less 'digital' than the Cowon did. It's just a joy to listen to, even through bluetooth earphones.
- It can take a 512gb microSD card, no problem. My library of 12,000 songs takes up about a third of that, so it'll be a long, long time til I need to worry about storage space.
- Bluetooth 5.0 on this thing is excellent. I get an absolutely rock-solid connection to my earphones (Shure TW1, which also run Bluetooth 5.0), no matter which Bluetooth codec I use. Even when I'm out running, with the Fiio in an armband swinging to and fro, it just works. The only time it's ever disconnected - and it was only once, and for a fraction of a second - was when a car passed me. It looked as though the driver in the car was doing something with his phone at the time (because who cars about paying attention to the road, right?)... something bluetoothy, that interfered with my connection. It happened once, and it's never happened again since then.
- Build quality is very good. It even comes with a clear soft plastic (or hard rubber?) protective casing, so you don't have to worry about buying an after-market protector.
- The buttons - next track previous track, play/pause, and power on/off - are responsive, and the volume roller works well.
- The 3.5mm headphone socket is at the top of the device, where it should be. Not at the bottom, where other, lesser device-makers put it.
- Unless you're technologically clueless, initial setup is fairly straightforward. I wouldn't expect my granny to get it right first time, but for anyone used to using a PC or a smartphone, it's easy enough. Connect it to your Windows PC and it'll appear in Explorer right away, so you can drag and drop music to the device. To be able to do the same with the microSD card, find the Drivers folder on the Fiio device (still in Windows, that is), copy it to your PC, then install the driver (Samsung MTP driver) on your PC. You can then drag and drop your music to the SD card too.
- Pretty easy to update the Firmware and/or the Fiio music software. Look up instructions online for installing the Formware or the Fiio Music apk. It really is easy. My device came with the latest firmware but with an older version of the music app, which worked well enough but took *forever* to scan for music, so it's well worth updating to the latest version - which still takes a while to scan, but it's nothing like as slow as the stock version. My library (around 12,000 songs, remember) took about 2 hours to scan using the stock version of the music app. With the latest version, it took less than an hour.
- Volume level is not capped - or at least, not so capped that you'll need to find a hack. With my wired earphones, a normal listening volume is about 30 (out of 60). With my wireless earphones I do need to crank it up to about 50 though.
- Battery life is excellent so far, and it charges very quickly compared to my smartphone or my old Cowon.
- The screen is tiny, and there's nothing in Settings to make text size larger, or anything Accessibilty-related at all. You're stuck with the display as it comes. Which is tiny. If like me you've got big fingers and struggle to type on a smartphone, you'll *really* struggle with this thing. It's not helped by the fact that the Fiio music app makes no attempt whatsoever to cater for those of us with shovels for hands, with its tiny icons and text. If having to make several attempts to press the right button or menu option enrages you, you should look for a bigger device with a bigger screen. Knowing what I know now, I do wish I'd sprung for a bigger Fiio. But then, the small size of this model makes it perfect for popping into an armband for when I'm going running. I quickly forget it's there.
- As mentioned above, the music app takes a *long* time to scan for music. Worse than that though, it doesn't auto-scan after you disconnect it from your PC. So every time you add new files, delete files, or even just change the tags on a file, you'll need to go into the music app, go into Settings, which may or may not involve much rage as you try to get your finger-press juuuuust right to hit the tiny, tiny Settings icon, then more rage as you try to select the Scan option in the tiny menu, then you can either select 'Scan All' - which will take about 5-10 minutes, depending on how much has changed and how big your library is - or, if you're brave, you can tell it you want to Scan Specific Folders, which requires more deft, laser-accurate selecting of folders by your ham-fisted self. You'll probably tire quite quickly of constantly selecting the wrong folder accidentally, and just use the Scan All option instead.
- No WiFi, only Bluetooth, so - although this is technically an Android device - you can't download apps from the Google Play store. You can get apps onto it, if you can find the .apk for the app you want, download it to your PC, then copy it to the device. That's how you update the Fiio music app, as I mentioned earlier. However, I've yet to find another .apk and get the device to install it. I'm guessing Fiio have restricted which apps you can install. Which is fair enough; this is a music player, not a smartphone, after all, but if you're thinking you can use this for more than playing music, then think again.
- On-board memory is tiny, so you *will* need a microSD card
- Now, this next one might not bother you at all, but I have to mention it, as it's almost been a deal-breaker for me. Bear with me here, I get a bit nerdy. For the purposes of transferring media, the device will *only* connect to your PC by way of MTP (Media Transfer Protocol), which I'd have thought by now would be old, obsolete tech. You cannot - repeat, cannot - connect it as a 'mounted storage' device, so you can't map it as a drive. What this means - at least, in Windows 10 - is that when you connect the device to your PC to transfer music onto the microSD card, add files, delete files, amend tags, etc, it's slow. So very, very slow. If like me your Music library is massive, with hundreds of folders, then hundreds more subfolders, it's painfully, tediously slow. Go into an Artist folder from the main library, then come back out of it to the main library again, and it takes aaaaaages to populate the list. That gets really old, really quickly. Also, the default folder view is icons rather than List or Details. If you want to see the folders in a List or Details, you have to change the View in Windows. But, as this is an MTP device only, you can't apply that change to the whole device/microSD, you have to do it for each folder that you go into. And if you're thinking you could just tell windows to Customise the folders (so that they look the same as, say, the Music folder on your PC - same columns, same sort order, etc... and why wouldn't you want that?), well, tough. You can't. The option to Customise just doesn't appear. (You can apparently fiddle with the Registry in earlier versions of Windows, to trick it into letting you Customise, but not in Windows 10). Now, again, this might not sound like a big deal, but if like me you're a bit OCD about file tags, artwork, etc, it's a MASSIVE deal. In short, it makes navigating around the device in Windows a real chore. Oh, also, you won't be able to see thumbnails (artwork), so every file will look the same, with the generic 'blank' icon that Windows uses for a music file. And every file's file size and bit rate will show as zero in the preview pane. Again, sounds trivial, but it's not. I've resorted to removing the microSD card from the Fiio every time I want to do anything with it, popping it into an adaptor and inserting it into my PC as an SD card. That way it's far, far quicker to use, and Windows treats it like any other storage space, so you can customise it wholesale rather than folder-by-folder, you can see artwork/thumbnails, file size, bitrate, etc. Removing and re-instering the microSD card is pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but it's something you'd rather not have to do; eventually - we're probably talking years here, but still - it's going to wear out the card or the slot. If Fiio had done what other brands (eg, Cowon) do with their devices, which is to let Windows treat them as a mounted storage device instead of just an MTP device, you could leave the card in the device, connect it to your PC and it would behave like a USB drive or an external hard drive - ie, efficiently, quickly, customisable, just... better. MTP-only is such a backward step, tech-wise, I'm at a bit of a loss to understand how the decision-makers at Fiio signed off on it. I don't know if it's something that could ever be fixed by a firmware update, but I would guess not, otherwise surely - surely to God - it would have been done by now.
- There's something very wrong with the Graphic Equalizer (in both the stock music app and the latest version of the app). As long as you choose one of the presets, it's fine; but if you try to diverge and choose your own settings, something weird happens: as soon as you move one of the sliders up, even just one notch, the volume dips and the other frequencies get clipped dramatically. It's just broken, basically. To restore the sound to how it was before, you have to either turn the equalizer off. Luckily with the equalizer off the sound is great through my earphones, so for me this isn't a deal-breaker. But if your earphones or your preferred sound require some equalizer tweaking, you'd better hope one of the presets suits you, Otherwise you're out of luck until they fix the EQ.
OK, I don't want to end on a string of cons here, as - despite all these shortcomings - I do actually love the device. For a runner using bluetooth earbuds, once I strap it to my arm and hit play, step out the door and start my run, it's just a joy to listen to. Music sounds superb, Bluetooth connection is rock-solid, and I quickly forget what a ball-ache the whole file-management rigmarole was.
For what you pay, I think you'll struggle to get a music player that sounds this good, and if the build quality is as good as it seems, you should get years and years of use out of it. If you have small, nimble fingers (or if you're not as easily enraged as me and you think you can live with the tiny screen anyway), and if you can look past all the shortcomings when it comes to managing your music library, then this is a great little music player and I don't think you'll regret your purchase.
Thanks for reading. 👍
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