iBasso DX80 DAP - Reviewed

anirbandd

Conversation Architect
Introduction:​

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The DX80 is a digital audio player/DAC which fits right into the premium hifi audiophile category. Chinese company iBasso launched the DX80 as its flagship digital audio player [DAP] at the end of 2015, over their erstwhile DAPs: DX50, DX90, and DX100. Since then it has garnered numerous highly favorable reviews from users and critics alike.

The DX80 is launched in India by Pristine Note aka ProAudioHome. If that name sounds familiar, then it is because they are the company behind India's own Signature Acoustics brand of IEMs.
Review unit for this review was provided by Pristine Note.
The views in this reviews are entirely my own.


Unboxing:​

The packaging is every bit as premium as the device it houses. I could go on and on about the packaging, but I will let the pictures speak a thousand words. Gorge your eyes on one of the most elegant packaging you will see in a while.

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Accessories:​

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Among the supplied accessories, two items stand out. The first and most conspicuous is the silicone jacket/cover. It is a snug fit and does well to protect the DX80 from minor scratches and abrasions. However, a major drop will do nothing to protect it, owing to the weight and the thin cover. The cover is also a dust/lint magnet owing to its non-slip surface.

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The second item is a cable designed to go into the headphone jack. This is a "burn in" cable, pictured as the leftmost cable in the above photograph. It serves the purpose of burning in the player without actually plugging in any headphones. The black box on the cable simulates the impedance of a headphone and allows the current to circulate in the electronics.

However, a point to note is, most of the hifi DAC, DAP, portable Amps from renowned companies do their burn in from the factory itself. Also, since this was a review unit and came from another tech review house, I did not perform any additional burn in.

A charger is NOT included. It can be charged from any PC USB port or any generic mobile charger. Also included are two screen guards.


Design & Build Quality:​

The DX80 is exceedingly well designed. The sharp curves, bold switches and the matte black colour makes for an excellent and masculine looking device. The button placement is spot on and is similar to a smartphone. With a CNC Machined aluminium chassis, the DX80 is built like a tank. And like a tank, it is on the heavier side. At 178gm it weighs equals or more than your generic smartphone. And yet its build and design let it sit comfortably in my palm.

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The screen is a 3.2” IPS [800*480], capacitive touch LCD. Although not among the best displays on DAP in the market, it does the job well enough. It is sharp enough at normal reading distance and cover art was sharp.
Below the screen are three large, distinct, physical buttons for basic playback operation, with the function printed on each. Sitting flush with main body of the player, they sit in their own slots and can be operated easily without looking. Easily within reach, they have a nice and tacky feel to them. The volume buttons are on the right side and the power button on the left side and as with the playback buttons, they can be accessed really easily.

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I found just one drawback for the volume buttons: since they sit flush with the side wall of the DAP, often I would press the volume down button while meaning to press the volume up button and vice-versa. I would have been happier if one of the volume buttons came with an identification dimple of some sort.

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The I/O ports, namely 3.5mm headphone out, line out, SPDIF/Coaxial out, micro USB port and the µSD card slots are reinforced into the aluminium body frame. All in all, the ports are sturdy.

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Features:​

The DX80 features the Cirrus Logic flagship CS4398 24-Bit, 192 kHz Stereo DAC. Honestly, I had no idea about the Cirrus Logic DAC chip and googled about it. The CS4398 is used in multiple high end HT systems, most notably in Marantz’s CD player lineup. The CS4398 chip supports up to 24bit, 192kHz audio file, and also has native DSD playback. More on this later.

The DX80 has slots for two µSD cards, each theoretically supporting up to 2TB capacity (as they become available). As of now, it will support the 512GB cards. The dual card slots are placed at the top of the DAP and the slot is covered by a silicone dust cap. At the bottom are the 3.5mm headphone out and Line Out port and the SPDIF/Optical output is placed at the top, to the left of the SD card slot. The micro USB port is located to the right of the SD card slot.

The feature that really wins it for me is its ability to function as a USB DAC when connected to your PC. In MAC/Linux it is supposed to work without any driver software. For the Windows PCs, it needs a driver installation. I used this and it is an absolute breeze to setup.

It features a 3600mAh3.8V battery which is reported to be plenty to keep the device going on for an average of 12hours. However, this is to be taken with a pinch of salt since there are plenty of factors that can affect battery performance. For example, continuous DSD playback or fiddling with the screen on will significantly hit the uptime. Additionally, the battery is not user replaceable.

The digital volume control is stepped into 150 levels. I found this to be quite well optimised to control the volume without being too fine or too coarse. In my opinion, the levels above 100 are “loud” while anything above 130 was definitely too loud for continuous listening. The levels 80-100 was a good spot to stay in a normal household level of ambient noise. If in a totally quiet environment, 50-80 was okayish.

This brings us to the amplification used in the DX80. The specs table state a max of 260mW output power [unspecified headphone impedance] at a voltage swing of 10V. This was more than enough to drive all my IEMs and headphones, so that above the 130 mark of volume control, I could hardly listen continuously for more than a couple of minutes. There is a Low Gain/High Gain feature where the user can boost the output in High Gain mode to power even the most demanding set of cans.

The equaliser is also worth mentioning. The 10 band equaliser is given priority amongst other options, and can be directly reached from the main options menu. iBasso has done a very good job on the equaliser and same can be clearly heard. Changes made are immediately reflected on the output. Being highly responsive, it goes a long way in modifying the acoustic output to suit your taste.

OS/Firmware:​

The DX80 runs on a proprietary version of the Android, a highly customised one at that. In fact, until I read about it, I had no idea that it was running Android. The core android gestures [swipe left/right; pull down menu; short tap; long tap] are there and serves some pretty neat purposes. The devs put some of the more frequently used options in the pull down menu. I felt this was really neat because I ended up using options from the pull down menu more times than going in the options screen.

Media Library scans on my µSD cards, a 32GB class 10 and an 8GB class 4, loaded to the brim with songs, took just 20-30secs on average. All those tags and album art actually showed up in the media library accurately.
However, while the core android functions are there, it is not at all intuitive from the get go. I felt that the touch was not up to the mark and not as smooth and responsive as capacitive screens current gen smartphones. It frequently happened that I wanted to swipe or pull down, but a light touch did not work, and I had to press down hard, similar to resistive touch screens.

iBasso has been serious in the firmware development front. Issues reported by users in forum are promptly taken up and resolved. Since its release late 2015, iBasso has churned out a number of f/w updates: squashing bugs, improving under the hood and polishing the UI. I did not face any major issues with the UI or the firmware. At the time of writing this review I was using the latest 1.5.2 version firmware.

However, it would be great if the time could be displayed at the playback screen, similar to phones. Since I cannot think of any other reasons, I am just going to say that being a $300 device and not having a clock on the main screen just does not work out. :p

UI pictures: Included in next post due to forum restriction of max 20pics in one post​

Audio:​

I will start with the soundstage since that is what is apparent as soon as you put on the headphones. Coupled with a good/capable set of cans or even IEMs, the soundstage is simply huuuuge. Easily larger than anything I have heard on a DAP/PMP. I am a fan of Indian Classical live recordings, and listening to those recordings simply fantastic. What is even more delightful is the accuracy in the imaging with even run-of-the-mill IEMs and headphones. Multilayered songs like Metallica's S&M, A Meeting by the River, some of Dream Theater songs were rendered beautifully with a large and clearly presented soundstage.

Imaging is extremely accurate and it is really easy to imagine the musicians in the soundstage. Channel separation is fantastic and helps augment the imaging.

The DX80 sounds absolutely neutral and free from any kind of coloration. The balance between highs, mids and lows is excellent. Low end frequencies are very rich and greatly detailed. In good recordings the deep bass region is very well reproduced with great clarity and without any kind of muddiness. I would even go on to say that the bass is kind of extended into the lower frequencies bringing out some very small but noticeable details. Depending upon the track being played it can be fast and tight or laid back. But never does it loose a footing.

Something that I noticed in my Sansa Clip Zip [I know the li'l Clip is miles behind, but I am mentioning it just for the sake of comparison], when I play songs with powerful vocals, I often feel that the instruments and the background music take the back seat when the vocals come up. It sort of feels like the vocals are coming at the cost of the other bits of the music. On the DX80, that does not happen. Even with Adele's powerful voice, you can clearly concentrate on the other bits. Again, this might just be a psychoacoustic phenomenon, but I found it worth mentioning.

Mids and vocals are reproduced exactly as it. As I previously stated, the vocals can take the center stage without compromising any of the other bits. Voice reproduction is extremely clean and very close to the real thing.
While the DX80 is very neutral in the overall tonality, I just could not help but feel that the treble might just be a bit boosted in the mid highs. But the boost, if any, is immensely pleasurable and lends a kind of airyness into the highs. Never does it feel fatiguing or overbearing. The clarity and accuracy, again, is just tremendous.

Overall, the sound is very natural and in a dark, silent room, with even a moderately good set of head/earphones, it does give you the sensation of being one with the music.

That being said, with all the accuracy and near to perfect reproduction of sound going on, the DX80 is very unforgiving to the source of the music. And by source I mean both the recording quality and the compression. Any and all recording imperfections are clearly reproduced. In live performance recording tracks, the murmurs of musicians behind the mic, the occasional tighten of the strings of an instrument, or the minute scraping of the hand over the membrane of the tabla as the artist prepares, is heard clearly. I have some 24bit-192kHz vinyl flac files and the pops and clicks are were a bit too clear and audible to make me a bit uncomfortable in beginning. Although, I must say, that as a person whose only experience with vinyl was a limited few years before our turntable broke down, it feels quite pleasurable to once again listen to vinyls, once the initial wearniess due to the pops and clicks wears off.

The DX80 mercilessly differentiated between lossy [mainly mp3] and lossless [mainly FLAC] audio tracks. The lossy compressed tracks have none to a very narrow soundstage. Lower end bass and higher end treble is heavily affected and the details in these regions are absent. Imaging was okayish, but it depended on the compression type.

Final Takes​

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Retailing at Rs. 28500, the iBasso DX80 is definitely going to burn a hole in your pocket. But the quality that you get at that price is just stellar, be it the physical design, or the sound. This is a serious piece of equipment meant for the serious audiophile, although it will provide joy to the casual listener as well. Coupled with the fact that in addition to being a DAP it can work as a standalone DAC and a mild Amp as well, it definitely takes the cake.

The iBasso DX80 is sold in India by ProAudioHome. Interested members can check out the same at www.pristinenote.com and at Maintenance.


This is my first review of a really hi-fi DAP. As such I understand that there might be some shortcomings. The esteemed readers are requested to please provide constructive criticisms for the same. If you have questions about the device feel free to leave a question and I will get back to you ASAP.
Shout out to [MENTION=157395]SignatureAcoustics[/MENTION] for providing the review unit.

Signing off,
Anirban.
 
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