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Fiio Q1 MKII Review – Balance and Harmony

Introduction –

Fiio have transcended a lot of other Chinese manufacturers not only through their wide range of products but also through their consistent performance. And while products like the X7 II may not epitomize frugality, a sense of value underpins every product. The original Q1 was my first dedicated source and one that marked an entry point into the hobby for many listeners. However, even considering its meagre price, it was not a device without its flaws and perhaps not one that is best suited towards modern uses.

With the very unfortunate loss of the headphone jack on many smartphones, Fiio’s affordable products are more pertinent now than ever. So, retaining the same $99 USD asking price, Fiio have produced a new Q1 that comes better equipped for smartphone use with a flatter, more compact form factor and wider file support. It also sports a 2.5mm TRRS output, providing a taste of balanced audio that, just a few years ago, was limited to sources costing several hundred dollars. Let’s see how the Q1 MKII performs in various use case scenarios.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Sunny from Fiio very much for her quick communication and for providing me with the Q1 MKII for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the DAC free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 

Accessories –

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As with all newer Fiio products, the Q1 MKII is nicely packaged and well equipped with accessories. Fiio provide buyers with 2 pairs of smaller stacking bands and 2 pairs of larger bands, a micro usb charging cable

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In-line with their newfound focus on smartphone use, Fiio provide buyers with a micro-b to lightning otg cable in addition to a short interconnect cable and silicone pad that prevents the Q1 MKII from scratching the back of your phont and vice versa.

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Design –

The Q1 MKII departs from the original Q1 with a much more refined, coordinated aesthetic combined with a generally more svelte design. Gone is the silver capped flask housing of the Q1 in favour of a slimmer, flatter design that is easier to live with during daily use. Due to its more conventional shape, the DAC/AMP no longer rocks on flat surfaces and more comfortably sandwiches behind a flat backed smartphone. The machining and finish are all a few steps up from the original model too, creating a product that feels markedly more complete than its predecessor.

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The Q1 is available in both silver and matte black and I have to reiterate what a compact unit the Q1 MKII is, it truly surprised me. In addition, its insignificant weight at just over 100g and rounded edges that don’t catch on clothing during portable use, allow the new Q1 to find practicality both at home and on the go. Furthermore, the DAC’s anodized aluminium constructed (with exception of the plastic plates on either end), are reassuring of the device’s longevity. This construction is topped off with tight tolerances between seams and smooth machining to every edge that belie the Q1 MKII’s conservative asking price, this is a nice looking device.

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And onto the physical features, the main outputs are located at the front of the DAC; a regular 3.5mm out and 2.5mm TRRS balanced output on the left and a line-in jack in the middle that enables the Q1 MKII to be used as an external amplifier. On the right is the volume knob that doubles as a power switch and a notification LED that denotes power and charging/battery status. One of my main issues with the original design was its volume knob that protruded slightly from the housing, causing volume to shift when the DAC was shifted sideways. The new knob no longer suffers from this issue and its position is easier to manipulate.

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The Q1 MKII also has a DSD indicator light to ensure that the source player is providing the DAC with the full resolution file since some players will downscale those files. On the rear are two metal switches with a tactile concentric texture that enable users to toggle bass boost and adjust gain between low and high. In the middle is a regular micro-usb plug for charging and data input.

 

Usage –

The Q1 MKII requires users to download a driver before first use though those who have used other Fiio DACs/DAPs will be able to plug and play. And when paired with a smartphone over USB OTG, the Q1 MKII instantly connects, I didn’t find it to be nearly as picky as prior Fiio DAC’s perhaps due to some power consumption adjustments. The Q1 MKII also has an in-built MFI certified camera connection kit of sorts like the Oppo HA-2 that makes it ideal to pair with Apple devices. Fiio are kind to include a lightning to micro-usb cable out of the box though android phone users will have to purchase a separate cable/adapter. When stacked with my smartphone, the Q1 MKII produced no EMI noise.

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Despite the Q1 MKII’s slightly larger battery capacity (1800 vs 1400mah), the original model actually finds better longevity by a fair margin. The Q1 MKII manages a passable but not outstanding 10 hrs of playback time or 20 hrs as an amplifier only. This contrasts to the 30 hrs of battery life provided by the original model. In use, the Q1 MKII does handily exceed Fiio’s rating but I wasn’t able to squeeze more than 12 hrs of life when used as a DAC/AMP at low-medium volumes. Luckily, the Q1 MKII charges quickly and runs off the USB port when connected to a computer. And while the Q1 MKII lacks a switch to enable/disable charge over USB, the Q1 MKII didn’t suck power from my HTC but rather ran on its internal battery, something that bothered on the HA-2.

The Q1 MKII also has some other handy features that make it an excellent choice for sensitive iems. Chiefly, it makes use of digital compensation to provide better channel balance at lower volumes as opposed to other amps with a traditional analogue volume pot. As a low volume listener, I did appreciate the added control, my Oppo HA-2 was barely usable at lower volumes due to channel imbalance. The pot is also very fine grained but its 45 degree angled ridging and spot on resistance mitigate accidental pocket volume changes.

 

Sound –

The Q1 MKII makes a notable stride over the original in both output power and codec support (see Fiio’s website here for exact specifications). This starts with the Q1 MKII’s newer, higher end DAC chip, implementing the AK4452 as opposed to the PCM5102 of the original. And while both are slightly fuller, smoother sounding chips, the Q1 MKII ends up sounding appreciably more linear account of its hugely improved amp stage. In fact, the new Q1 is using the same circuitry as the AM3A module for the X7 II that costs $99 on its own. This is a great choice, the AM3A is my favourite sounding X7 amp and one that provides stunning value at Fiio’s asking price. Finally, the Q1 MKII makes use of dual crystal oscillators to reduce jitter while retaining the low/high gain and bass boost functionality of the original.

 

DAC –

But, of course, how these elements culminate in the final product is most important and the Q1 MKII unsurprisingly provides a noticeable increase in quality and ultimate listening experience. Where the original Q1 was a warmer, more laid-back source with a mediocre soundstage, the Q1 MKII is more neutral and spacious. It is not an explicitly neutral source, compared to the very linear X7 II, the Q1 MKII sounds slightly fuller, darker and softer in the higher frequencies, but it is a step up from the majority of similarly priced sources I’ve heard. Resolution is also notably higher and the new amplifier segment provides a noticeable jump in both clarity and refinement.

 

AMP –

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Though power is actually slightly lower than the original and just slightly higher in balanced, the Q1 MKII ends up providing a better experience with the vast majority of gear. The Q1 MKII is slightly noisier than the X7 II despite using similar amplification circuitry. It is still a quiet source, my Campfire Jupiter’s found slight hiss that was quickly overshadowed once music was playing, even at lower volumes. The balanced output is a very nice addition, it is a shame that the output power is so much lower on the regular TRS port, but those with earphones/earbuds that can take advantage of a balanced output will find a much nicer experience than the original Q1. This starts with a slightly more solid sub-bass impact and generally more spacious sound that aids separation. It is very noticeable if not night and day, and the regular output still powered even my most difficult in-ears and portable headphones to capacity.

 

Bass –

The Q1 has nice bass extension but sub-bass notes have a slightly softer, looser impact. Mid-bass is slightly elevated, granting additional fullness to its low-end, but also some added bloat when compared to cleaner, more linear sources. This sap a little texture and definition from bass notes though more mid-forward or cooler earphones such as the Rose BR5 MKII find great synergy with the Q1 MKII’s slightly larger bass notes. The Q1 MKII also benefits from a larger stage and generally impressive clarity that aids separation. Otherwise, bass is surprisingly linear, the Q1 MKII is tighter and more defined than its predecessor and appreciably more balanced than similarly priced sources like the Hidizs AP60 that utilize the same DAC chip.

 

Mids –

Mids are clean and bodied but lack that last iota of refinement. That said, the Q1 MKII performs very well within its price class with impressive linearity overall. As a result of their low-frequency bump, midrange body is slightly fuller than neutral throughout but never to the extent of outright warmth or thickness. The Q1 MKII also possesses good but not great clarity and plenty of resolution to discern individual layers within more complex tracks. Vocals are full-bodied, clear and articulate but do miss that last element of extension and refinement, though instruments are crisp and well textured. The Q1 MKII is easily the more transparent source when compared to the original Q1 and even the E17K. It is well-detailed and clear without erring on the side of aggression, producing both greater long-term listenability and technicality than the aforementioned models. My main issue is that the Q1 MKII isn’t the smoothest sounding source out there nor is resolution exquisite, but the Q1 MKII didn’t falter too much even when paired with the exceptionally revealing Campfire Jupiter and Sennheiser ie800.

 

Treble –

Highs carry that typical AKM sound with a very slight lower-treble accent enhancing detail presentation and a more laid-back tone above. Once again, extension is good but not outstanding and due to their smoother nature, the Q1 MKII doesn’t excel with air and clarity. However, lower treble details are very crisp and well-bodied. For instance, cymbals have realistic timbre and texture and strings are accurate with a nice sense of body. However, higher notes aren’t quite as flattered, triangles and high-hats are a little dull and cymbals don’t shimmer quite as much as more neutral sources. On a whole, the high-frequency presentation of the Q1 MKII is more laid-back though they still retain more balance than the Q1 and are surprisingly nuanced if lacking attack. The E17K has a bit more high-end aggression and clarity than the Q1 but the Q1 MKII is appreciably smoother and instantly more refined in its presentation.

 

Soundstage –

Despite its more laid-back high-end, the Q1 MKII has a very nice soundstage that is notably spacious. Of course, higher end sources do still hold an advantage here, the X7 II and X5 III are both notably larger, though the Q1 MKII is a great step up over the more intimate E17K and original Q1. It is a very wide sounding source and depth is respectable too. Vocals have nice projection and instruments extend beyond the head with the right set of earphones or earbuds. Separation is surprisingly strong due to the Q1 MKII’s mostly linear nature. This is only accentuated when switching over to a balanced connection where separation and space noticeably improve, especially aiding thicker, more congested sounding in-ears.

 

Comparison –

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HTC 10: The 10 may no longer be the best sounding smartphone on the market, but it is an excellent example of smartphone audio done properly. Even still, the Q1 MKII provides a noticeable upgrade and improved driving power with pickier earphones/headphones. Starting from the lower frequencies, the 10 is bolder but the Q1 MKII is slightly more neutral and noticeably more defined, making the smartphone sound quite muddy.

The HTC 10 has a pleasant but not outstanding midrange with a somewhat artificial sense of clarity and thinner vocal body. Both sources are slightly dark in tone, and while the Q1 MKII isn’t quite as clear, it sounds appreciably smoother and cleaner throughout. Highs are noticeably more prominent on the 10 though it can tire with already brighter in-ears while the more detailed yet smoother Q1 MKII finds greater listenability and refinement. The Q1 has an appreciably larger soundstage with better resolution of layering and background details.

iPod Touch 6G: The 6th generation iPod Touch is utilising the same chipset as the iPhone 6 so it should sound very similar to the 6s and dongle included with the 7 and 8. It is a clean and crisp but not particularly musical source that suffers from similar fall-backs to the 10. Bass is tighter than the HTC but also leaner, the Q1 MKII though actually slightly fuller, is more controlled and coherent with the iPod glossing over some finer details. The iPod is cleaner and more neutral than the 10 but similarly thin with lower resolution.

While the Q1 MKII is similarly balanced, it has noticeably more body, sounding more natural and musical and finding greater synergy with the majority of my iems. Highs are bright but not especially detailed on the iPod which creates a sense of forwardness that can push v-shaped and mid-focussed in-ears over my threshold of comfort. The Q1 MKII lacks this entirely, it is once again, smoother and more nuanced with more texture and detail to instruments. The Fiio also has the larger, more nuanced stage though the iPod has respectable layering.

 

Verdict –

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The Q1 MKII is a considerable step up from Fiio’s previous model in both form and sound though it definitely does not make Fiio’s higher end models redundant. It’s also not the most flawless source on the market, but for a lot of people, I think it will offer more than enough performance and buyers certainly receive a lot of product for the money. The build and design are as excellent as we have come to expect from Fiio and little features such as MFI certification and a very usable bass boost make it an excellent companion to any smartphone. And in listening, the Q1 MKII continues to impress with one of the more linear, transparent sounds I’ve heard around this price augmented by a clean, clear amplifier. The option to go balanced also offers some very real benefits though at the cost of a slightly hampered TRS output. Still, the Q1 MKII is a featured, versatile and well-considered offering that has never been more relevant.

Verdict – 9/10, The Q1 MKII is one of best DAC/AMPs I’ve heard around Fiio’s asking price and a fine upgrade to even the more distinguished smartphones out there. It’s excellent build, compact design and clean but musical sound make it a perfect on the go companion.

The Fiio Q1 MKII is available from Amazon (US) for $99. Please see my affiliate links for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations. 

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