hapless music afficionado
Refined super hi-res sound of R3 Pro makes my toes curl
Reviewed in the United States on 14 December 2019
With the R3 Pro, HiBy have raised the bar again. The R3 Pro will have many high-priced DAPs looking anxiously over their shoulders. The low price point, the small size, the touchscreen, the powerful balanced output, the connectivity, and the polished HiBy software stack, along with the superb sound signature from the dual CS43131 dac-amp chips make the R3 Pro a compelling proposition, with nary a competitor in sight. This is a versatile DAP that has almost every feature anyone could want, except of course access to a standard Android 8.x or 9.0 OS for loading any desired app, such as Amazon Music HD or Primephonic (though HiBy says that more streaming options are coming than the two built-in to the OS/FW currently). But I have not tested most of these features, and I am going to comment only on the default sound signature. I got the R3 Pro earlier this week, and I have been listening to it almost every waking moment since, while at my computer at home (during some days away from work). At this point in time, I own a number of DAPs, including the HiBy R6 Pro, iBasso DX220 and iBasso DX160. Curiously, the HiBy R3 was the one that I used the most over the past year, for two hours a day while commuting to/from work, and whenever I shopped for groceries, at department stores, etc. The silver lining to losing the R3 last month was that it made me buy the R3 Pro as a replacement. And what a replacement it turned out to be! I loved using the R3 for its touchscreen, its small size and its sonic performance for the money, but the R3 Pro takes all of that and amps up the goodness with noticeably better sound and various other updates.
I have listened to the R3 Pro exclusively through its 2.5mm balanced socket, using mostly a Final Audio f7200 pair of earphones, though I have also used a Tanchjim Oxygen, an Etymotic ER4SR, and a Final Audio B3 with the R3 Pro (with similar conclusions using any of these; the B3 has the best resolution and balanced sound of them all - Final is clearly aiming at the Harman IE target with it). I did back-to-back sound comparisons of the R3 Pro with an iBasso DX160 and an iBasso DX220 with Amp8 (not having my R6 Pro at home) to get an idea where the R3 Pro stands in the DAP hierarchy. I used identical f7200 earphones and the same FLAC music files (ripped from CD) on microSD cards. I did not play around with the MSEB or the standard EQ programs at all; I just used the default audio tuning. I also listened to the same FLAC files through my desktop audio system as a reference for accuracy [Topping DX7 Pro DAC section feeding Monolith THX 887 or S.M.S.L. SP200 or JDS Labs Atom amp, driving Drop HD6XX or Audio-Technica ATH-R70X headphones; thanks to the measurement-based reviews at Audio Science Review which informed my desktop set-up]. I also used the f7200 earphones with the desktop system a few times, by means of adapters. I volume-matched by ear as best I could.
None of the DAPs can match the desktop system for sound quality (SQ) (not surprising, considering the difference in power and space envelopes), though all three come pretty close. The treble on the R3 Pro is more extended and firmer than that on the R3 (based on my extensive memories of the latter), but with no harshness. For example, the piercing soprano at the start of Darya Dadvar's "Mikham Beram Kooh" off her "Berlin 2004 Live" CD (also available on YouTube) can be heard in its full glory without making me wince at artificial grain or tearing as less resolving previous-generation DAPs do. The default sound of the R3 Pro leans slightly more towards the sibilant direction than in the DX160 or DX220. Michael Barenboim's virtuoso account of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 (for violin) off his recent "Sciarrino Berio Paganini Tartini" CD comes through clearly, and the R3 Pro manages to display some of the scraping sound of the bow during the melody that immediately follows the pizzicato plucked bit in the middle. Though here, the DX160 and DX220 do capture a little bit more of that scraping sound with their slightly better resolution. The R3 Pro does the mids justice, with instruments and particularly voices layered with great clarity and nuance, including in-drawn breaths of musicians. Darya Dadvar's Navaee, Yade Man Kon and Autumn Leaves sound like the gems they are, the R3 Pro showcasing the singer's perfect vocal shaping. Vocals that lesser DAPs render as mumbles jumbled by overlaid music, such as on Justyna Steczkowska's "Prosze Cle - Sktam" off her "To Moj Czas" CD, are cleanly separated and enunciated by the R3 Pro, and I can now actually recognize the individual words in Elina Duni's version of "Avec Le Temps" off her "Baresha" CD. Tessa Souter's "You Don't Have To Believe" off her "Listen Love" CD is spellbinding through the R3 Pro, and Anna Maria Jopek's vocals in her cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance" are all moonlight and filigree. Though I should note that all of this music is ever so slightly thinner and brighter with the R3 Pro, versus slightly clearer and firmer with the DX160 and slightly more full-bodied and liquid and natural with the DX220 which latter I attribute mostly to Amp8. HiBy have tuned the bass marvelously this time around, with the help of the CS43131. Where the bass on the R3 was a bit loose and sloppy, on the R3 Pro it is tauter and better resolved. On Le Bang Bang's "What's New?" track off their superb "Pure" CD, the notes of the plucked upright bass that support the fearless and emotive singing are heard in detail with piquant frequency arcs corresponding to the sliding of the double bassist's fingers. The bass work in Hilary Kole's "You And The Night And The Music" off her "Moments Like This" CD sounds very musical and dance-inducing through the R3 Pro. Again, the DX160 has similar refinement in the bass but with slightly more prominence (amplitude), and the DX220 with Amp8 makes the bass more impactful and only a small bit looser than the other two DAPs. So overall, the R3 Pro gives you a noticeably more neutral, more resolving and yet more musically coherent default sound signature than does the R3. The doubled max power through the balanced socket gives the sound an authority that the R3 lacked, and which belies the compact size of the R3 Pro. The R3 Pro does not unseat or even match the DX160 or DX220 in SQ, but it comes surprisingly close, considering its much lower price, smaller power and smaller size. The good-quality amps that come integrated into the CS43131 and CS43198 enable DAP designers to provide higher power sound output for a given battery capacity and life. The R3 Pro offers a better value proposition than either the DX160 and especially the DX220, though the latter's amp-swapping capability (and that of some FiiO DAPs) allows for economical enjoyment of various amp signatures.
To me, these Cirrus Logic DACs came out of left field, displacing a memory of Cirrus Logic as a long-ago also-ran in the video-card race (if indeed it is the same company). What with all the development of DACs since the dawn of digital music, and Burr-Brown DACs in high-quality CD players now just a distant memory, I imagined until this year that DACs are a mature and stable technology, with essentially no big advances in recent years. When I bought the DX220, I was hoping that it would be my "endgame" DAP, as I was at that stage of audio gear addiction when my sotto voce mutterings of "TOTL" turned to semi-pleading mutterings of "endgame". It seemed that ESS Technologies had become the leader with the ES9028 Pro, though I believed AKM would catch up, based on their AK4493 and AK4495. Around that time, the Zishan DSD (now available also as an updated Zishan AK4497) and the F.Audio FA2 (now discontinued; the new model is FA3) astonished me with the beauty and clarity of their sound, due mainly to the "velvet sound" AK4497, though their primitive navigation controls do not scale to large microSD music libraries. Curiosity caused me to buy the iBasso DX160 (after a lot of indecision between that and the similarly spec'd and priced HiBy R5). The CS43131 and CS43198 DACs show we have a third runner at the forefront of the DAC race. And the ES9038 Pro in the desktop Topping DX7 Pro greatly outperforms the ES9028 Pro (if you ever notice that my neck is crooked, this comes from slapping myself in the head periodically for not buying the Oppo UDP-205 with its dual ES9038Pro, before Oppo shuttered its Blu-ray player mfg operation). With the super hi-res SQ of the newest generation of DAC chips, any DAP based on DACs older than the ES9028 Pro, the AK4497 and the CS43198 are essentially obsolete. Except perhaps for Bluetooth transceivers operating with protocols lesser than LDAC, where the lower bitrate of the protocol is the limiting factor. While I will love my HiBy R3 Pro (and if I lost it, I would buy it again in a heartbeat), and it will be my most-used DAP because of my long commute, it will not be my "endgame" DAP. Nor will the DX160 or DX220 (sigh). Any hope of an endgame DAP must now rest on one with the AK4499, or the ES9038 Pro (or successor) or the equivalent from Cirrus Logic. Desktop DAC units based on AK4499 are in the offing (Topping D90 about to be released, SMSL M400, Monolith Liquid Platinum DAC). I await such a DAP from HiBy (rumored R8), iBasso or FiiO (rumored M15Pro) or others, if they can manage to incorporate these more power-hungry DAC chips. Astell&Kern and Sony have each already released AK4499-based DAPs. However, they cost $3500 each, and so their intended market demographic is the crowd whose wallets double as cod-pieces. For someone like me, who started off at age ten, listening to Erica Morini's Brahms, David Oistrakh's Tchaikovsky (on Melodiya), a 45rpm of Callas singing an aria from Rigoletto, all on vinyl using a worn-out cartridge and needle, entry-level priced hi-fi gear has come a long way indeed, and the HiBy R3 Pro is an outstanding example of just how far. If your application does not involve extracting the last iota of accuracy from your music files, and you do not need to drive 600 ohm headphones with it, the R3 Pro is an unmatched bargain for every other purpose.
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