Solid build, Clean Bluetooth implementation, Refined sound
Slightly more laid-back high-end, Design isn’t especially sleek
The Q5 is an absolute bargain for those searching for a mature, tonally transparent DAC/AMP.
Like many, my first DAC was from Fiio, the humble but mighty Q1. It illuminated to me just how significant a source can be in the audio chain, inevitably leading to subsequent upgrades. It felt like yesterday when I first saw the idea of an exciting flagship Q5 floating around on the forums. In turn, an elusive feature-packed DAC/AMP was teased and now before me, the finished product. It may have been almost 2 years since then, but the wait was well worth it. The Q5 is a highly competitive portable DAC/AMP featuring dual AKM DACs, the same interchangeable amp system as Fiio’s flagship X7 DAPs and the introduction of a very intriguing Bluetooth implementation. The Q5 represents ambition in design and thought in execution.
For instance, each integral component is driven by a separate power supply, Fiio have cherry-picked a high-end USB interface chip and selected Panasonic film capacitors, all to maximise sound quality. This is engineering that people were gawking at just a few years ago on Chord’s venerable, but also considerably more expensive, Mojo. Of course, these features aren’t unique to the Q5, but Fiio’s $350 USD asking price is very palatable. It’s not insubstantial but far from premium, especially considering the internals on offer. Though it doesn’t challenge flagship devices, perhaps Fiio’s latest DAC/AMP is an example of truly positive return in a market of inflation set to diminishing performance gains. You can read all about the Q5 on Fiio’s website here and treat yourself to one here.
I would like to thank Lily from Fiio very much for her quick communication and for providing me with the Q5 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.
The Q5 is packaged similarly to Fiio’s other devices with an attractive two-tone box adorned with punchy renders. Inside is a hard box containing the Q5 within a plastic sleeve well-protected within laser-cut foam. Removing the DAC reveals the accessories below. Fiio provide almost all of the cables buyers could need, a 3.5mm to coax adapter, 3.5mm interconnect, micro-usb charge+data cable and a lightning otg cable.
It would have been great to see Fiio include some OTG cables for Android devices though they are widely available online for just a few dollars. In addition, the Q5 comes with stacking bands, a padded pouch similar to the Q1 MKII and a T5 screwdriver should users want to swap the included amp module for another.
The Q5 has a terrific design that harmoniously balances luxury and practicality. Its flexible inputs and control well suit home use while its rigid build and smartphone-like form factor are well-equipped to survive the rigours of daily life. Its edges may not be as smoothly formed as Hiby’s R6, but its design feels congruent with other high-end devices such as the X7 II; a notion reinforced by its use of the same amp modules. It’s precisely machined and sharply styled while maintaining a tapered back that sits comfortably in the hand.
The Q5 is more compact than the X7 II but identical in width and depth. As a result, the Q5 can be a little cumbersome when stacked with a smartphone. Its housing is solid aluminium with zero flex, and the contrast between its brushed front, bead-blasted sides and polished edges catch the eye like few others. I’m personally a fan of the Q5’s faux leather rear. It isn’t supple like the genuine leather on Oppo’s HA-2, but is harder wearing and prevents scratches with similar aplomb.
The bottom of the player houses the main audio interfaces. As aforementioned, it uses the same interchangeable amp modules as Fiio’s flagship DAP, enabling more flexible driving power and outputs. Fiio include the AM3A from factory which is my personal favourite for IEMs. It has both 3.5mm and 2.5mm balanced outputs and attaches via two T5 Torx screws. As always, I find Fiio’s amps to provide reliable audio, I didn’t experience any issues with the connectors or sound cutout.
What makes the Q5 quite outstanding is Fiio’s attention to detail. For instance, the left side houses a second micro-usb port that exclusively charges the device, in addition to the port on the bottom. The Q5 will still charge from the bottom port, and it does so automatically depending on the connected device; drawing from its internal cell when connected to a smartphone for instance. By separating the charge and data circuitry, Fiio promise superior sound quality and lower interference when charging during use.
The right of the player houses the power button identical to that on the X7 MKII in addition to a large chamfered analogue volume wheel. It provides smooth, fine grain volume adjustment while retaining enough friction to avoid accidental adjustment. The left side houses the Bluetooth controls with 3 media buttons; play/pause, skip forward and skip back. The buttons are all clicky and well delineated ensuring convenient pocket use.
Windows users will have to install a driver from Fiio, after which the Q5 is plug and play. The DAC is easily operated, attempting to establish connection after power-on. It has a pulsar status light just like the X7/MKII, however, unlike the X7, the Q5 signifies the type of source it’s connected to via an RGB LED. It brings the same analogue/digital hybrid volume control from the Q1 MKII, digitally compensating for channel imbalance at lower volumes. This provides greater flexibility at low-volumes and helps to retain bit-perfect audio as volume doesn’t need to be digitally reduce on the source. Fiio promise over 10 hours of battery life when used as a DAC/AMP, a figure I was reliably able to meet.
The Bluetooth feature is undoubtedly a highlight of the Q5, one of the first devices I’ve seen to implement this method of connectivity and easily the best sounding. Once powered on, holding the play/pause button on the left side enters BT mode, signified by a blue pulsar light. The Q5 pairs just like any BT device and delivered impressive range similar to an over-ear headphone and hugely improved over Fiio’s BTR1. I experienced no cut-outs at all, phone in hand, Q5 pocketed, even within the city at peak hour. What surprises most is the quality of that audio. Where I had previously assumed Bluetooth to be the most limiting factor of wireless gear, the Q5 disproves a lot of my beliefs, demonstrating that there is hope after all.
The Q5 doesn’t apply any DSP, delivering unadulterated sound and a balanced signature. Its analogue volume control eliminates noise, with none of the hiss and buzz that the majority of BT implementations are prone to. The Q5 is also very EMI resistant, I didn’t notice any interference over either a wired or wireless connection, something that bothered on the HA-2. Though the Q5 does sound compressed and lacks treble extension over Bluetooth, it still sounds a lot better than a lower-end wired source and I can see this as a perfectly feasible on-the-go solution for those that dislike stacking and have a pocket to spare. Colour me very impressed, the differences are there but they’re nowhere near as large as one would think.
The Q5 comes with Fiio’s AM3A, the same that ships with the X7 MKII. It uses 3x AD8260 op-amps combined with 3x OPA926 pre-amps; one pair for the single ended 3.5mm output and two pairs handling each channel on the balanced output. It’s not as analytical as the AM1 nor is it as full-bodied as the AM2. Rather, the AM3A is slightly engaging with a touch of additional bass impact and a cleaner overall presentation. It’s articulate but not overly so, retaining realistic midrange voicing. In addition, as the AM3A doesn’t introduce additional mid-bass/lower-midrange body, it sounds very clean, delivering precise transience and a neutral tone that maintains transparency.
The AM3A has minimal hiss, just a little more than the AM1 which I find to be essentially silent. Hiss is perceptible when listening through very sensitive in-ears such as the Campfire Audio Jupiter but doesn’t irk when music is playing. The Q5 is also fairly EMI resistant, I didn’t notice any noise when listening through my laptop regardless of WiFi and CPU activity, and listening over Bluetooth also doesn’t introduce any additional noise. Though not the highest gain amplifier, the AM3A delivers deafening volume to IEMs and portable headphones. All of my portable gear sounded well-dampened and controlled, driven to potential.
The Q5 even did a fine job driving the Advanced Sound Alpha, a large planar magnetic headphone in addition to the Sennheiser HD6XX though both sounded more controlled and dynamic from my Schiit Magni 3. The AM3A has a low output impedance (<1.4ohms) which, combined with its fairly low noise floor, makes it very well suited towards low-impedance multi-driver IEMs. This was reinforced by subjective impressions using the Hyla CE-5, an 8.9ohm earphone that is highly source sensitive. The CE-5 sounded as balanced through the Q5 as through the X7 MKII and DX200 w/AMP5. The Q5 received well over 150hrs of burn-in prior to testing to ensure optimal performance.
The Q5 uses a dual AKM4490, the same as the X5 III. However, the Q5 sounds appreciably different due to its different amplification hardware. In particular, the Q5 has a more accurate timbre due to its greater balance in addition to sounding generally cleaner and more resolving. As such, I won’t provide DAC specific sound analysis, though this is a nice chip that Fiio have been able to implement well in the past and one with wide codec support (provided on their website here).
The Q5 is as any great source should be, balanced and transparent. It has some slight flavouring to its sound, lying on the smoother, more refined side overall; though this is chiefly due to some slight treble tweaks with the remaining sound impressing with its linearity. This serves to create some additional contrast forming a sound that is mostly accurate and never clinical. As always, these comments are relative to other sources I have on hand, and all sound characteristics outlined will be more subtle than those between earphones and headphones.
The Q5 demonstrates that one shouldn’t judge a source by its components. Where I expected a warmer, fuller AKM bass response, the Q5 instead reciprocates with an impressively well-defined and neutrally toned presentation. It extends terrifically into the lowest frequencies, reaffirmed by tight, very slightly enhanced impact. This is especially evident coming from Saber 2018 sources such as the Oppo HA-2 which tend to sound a little cooler with less sub-bass weight. The Q5 rather delivers concise impact free of bloom and muddiness and its subtle elevation grants its low end with a more physical character without introducing excessive colouration.
This is reinforced by a neutral mid-bass tuning and excellent control throughout. Accordingly, the Q5 delivers a transparent tone and accurate note size. Through this style of tuning, the DAC sounds just a little more engaging while remaining nicely separated and well-defined. Upper-bass is also fairly neutral, extending linearly into the lower-midrange and providing the foundation for a transparent image. As bass is very balanced with well-judged sub-bass emphasis, the Q5 never overpowers higher elements and its slightly more aggressive texturing brings details to the fore. This is heightened by accurate decay and attack providing precise, separated notes that remain composed during faster tracks.
The Q5 MKII has quite an enchanting midrange on account of its refined, natural vocals and crisp instrumentation. Its lower midrange extends linearly from its bass response, providing accurate body. These comments extend to its centre midrange with spot-on vocal body and size. Resultantly, the Q5 produces a realistic timbre and defined yet delineated layers. It thoroughly impresses with its transparency, just like the X7 II, though it isn’t quite as clear due to the positioning of its upper-midrange. Vocals are also well-present and natural as a result, where the X5 III sounded more laid-back and lacking intermediate density. By contrast, upper-mids are very slightly laid-back, a character carried by Fiio’s other AKM sources including the Q1 MKII and X5 III.
None of these sources are veiled in the slightest, especially the Q5 so I wouldn’t consider this an issue. That said, it is evidently denser sounding compared to sources such as the X7 II and DX200. Still, as lower-treble has a touch of emphasis, both male and female vocals are well-articulated with an uptick of clarity; so the Q5’s slightly attenuated upper-midrange rather grants female vocals a smoother, more liquid character devoid of any blunting or truncation. And despite its slightly smoother, more laid-back upper-midrange presentation, the Q5 is a very detailed source; a result of both excellent resolution and great linearity that flatters the smaller intricacies in the background while providing wholly resolved notes in the foreground. It’s tonally correct and transparent with very linear tuning. In short, this is a very well done midrange.
The Q5’s higher-frequencies are a synergistic blend of crispness and organic body. It doesn’t sound quite as composed as higher-end sources such as the DX200, but doesn’t fail to impress with its well-detailed and controlled presentation. Lower-treble has a touch of emphasis that grants the Q5 with slightly more articulate notes and a slightly more aggressive presentation of details. It’s not spiked nor is it aggressive to the extent that instruments sound thin or sharp; they’re just a little crisper. In fact, the Q5 actually sounds a little more bodied through its treble. Perhaps this can be attributed to its gradual slope into an attenuated middle treble that grants the Q5 with a dark background and a sense of cleanliness throughout its presentation.
And as the DAC extends very well up top, resolution is excellent and air is maintained. The result is a treble presentation that engages with its concise attack and remains impressive under scrutiny due to its textured, well-bodied notes. Instruments such as cymbals are flattered with realistic shimmer and decay while strings are natural and accurately placed. Though the Q5 isn’t the most immediately open and airy sounding source, it presents a detailed and richly textured image through a highly refined lens. Where many high-end sources pursue a more reference sound or a musical low-end counterbalanced by an energetic high-end, the Q5 prides itself on organic body and liquid smoothness.
The Q5 delivers a larger stage among portable sources, achieved through a combination of a more neutral low-end and slightly laid-back high-end that pushes the background further into one’s periphery. The result is a nicely expansive presentation and one with enough body to avoid sounding sparse and uninvolving. The Q5 layers well and its instruments are accurately placed besides female vocals that can be pushed back on some tracks. Its combination of extension and control enable pinpoint directional cues and its lower-treble energy imbues a slightly more pristine sense of attack to every high-note. Separation is a strength of the Q5, chiefly on behalf of its concise, neutrally sized notes that occupy nothing but their rightful place in the stage. Its darker background makes the Q5 sound more composed than most sources, but at the same time, its high-end can lack an iota of air and sparkle in the highest octave.
The comparisons below were done using the Fibae 3 to avoid the effects of output impedance. Though it doesn’t represent exact real-life usage, this does ensure each source is fairly represented as the effects of output impedance tend to vary from earphone to earphone.
Fiio Q1 MKII ($100): The Q1 MKII is tuned similarly to the Q5 but executes its signature with less refinement and technical aptitude. The Q1 MKII has greater sub-bass impact but it’s slightly looser and less defined. It has a warmer mid-bass that delivers larger but also less separated notes. The Q1 MKII has a fuller midrange with less clarity but a pleasant tone and modest layering. It has slightly enhanced treble energy like the Q5 but lacks the same linearity and extension. As a result, the Q1 MKII sounds more superficial, it’s perceptibly less detailed and less airy, also taking a considerable hit to resolution. The Q1 MKII’s soundstage is considerably more intimate compared to the Q5, it’s less separated and less layered and its presentation is generally less dynamic. Of course, the Q1 MKII is just a third of the price and certainly offers a significant upgrade over almost any smartphone. However, the Q5 has clear advantages, as it should. On the flipside, the Q1 MKII has a little less hiss, though it’s also significantly less powerful.
Shozy Alien+: The Alien+ is less linear and bodied, leaning further towards the engaging side. The Q5 has a more neutrally bodied low-end where the Alien+ sounds cooler through its mid-bass. The Alien+ extends just as well, it has great sub-bass control and impact but isn’t as linear. The Q5 has more lower-midrange body, it sounds more natural and accurate where the Alien+ is quite thin but also more revealing. The Alien+ has similar vocal presence, but sounds a touch over-articulated; clearer but also less realistic in timbre and comparatively ill-defined. The Alien+ has noticeable lower-treble emphasis, more than the Q5, bringing details to the fore. It’s also very detailed, enhanced by its crisp, clear delivery. Finally, the Alien+ extends well and has nice air up top. Despite this, the more refined Q5 is more resolving and linear, it has a larger soundstage and considerably better imaging. Both are musical over-analytical, the Alien+ more so. As such, it’s more immediately engaging but also less realistic and discerning of fine detail. A benefit of the Alien+ is its hugely versatile amp that has zero hiss and immense power that few portable sources can match, including the Q5, making it best suited for harder to drive headphones.
Fiio X7 MKII w/AM3A: The X7 II is slightly more resolving and more balanced overall. That said, the Q5 is actually a little more discerning down low. Primarily, the X7 MKII has slightly larger bass notes and a hair of additional warmth where the Q5 is more neutral and slightly more separated. The X7 MKII is more linear through its midrange, chiefly with regards to upper-mids that are slightly more forward. As such, female vocals are more accurately positioned and it’s a little more linear into its treble, delivering slightly more detail. That said, the Q5 is slightly more engaging with a crisper lower-treble that brings details more to the fore. The Q5 has a darker background where the X7 MKII delivers greater linearity into the highest frequencies and a more resolving image. It’s not immediately obvious due to the Q5’s laid-back midrange, but the X7 MKII has a larger stage with greater separation on account of its airier sound. The X7 MKII hisses slightly less for those with sensitive IEMs.
DX200 w/AMP5: The DX200 is a very resolving source that finds nice musicality with the AMP5 module. It has less sub-bass impact than the Q5 but delivers a slightly tighter, more controlled low-end. The DX200 is similarly well-defined but has greater separation. Both have a neutral tone and great linearity into the midrange. The DX200 is slightly more full-bodied than neutral, but it has a more accurately positioned upper-midrange. The DX200 is aggressively detailed though it’s actually less emphasized than the Q5. It has gobs of detail with a slightly crisper presentation where the Q5 is less subtle in its presentation and a little less refined. It sounds less nuanced and lacks the same linear extension into middle and upper-treble. Accordingly, the Q5 sounds slightly muted compared to the airier, brighter DX200, but it also sounds cleaner. Still, the DX200 manages terrific foreground detailing while maintaining a composed background. The DX200 has a much larger soundstage with greater separation throughout. It’s more layered and has more precise imaging. The DX200 hisses slightly less than the Q5 while offering similar driving power.
The beauty of Fiio’s line-up is encapsulated by their price/performance; either priced conservatively enough to appeal to the majority, ala Q1 MKII, or providing sufficient performance to please more discerning listeners, the X7 II to name an example. In turn, Fiio’s Q5 hits a sweet spot, as one of the most impressive DAC/AMPs I’ve recently tested in terms of value. It should also be noted that this isn’t just due to its sound, as the Q5 is impressively feature packed. Its wireless connectivity is genuinely compelling while Fiio’s implementation of the same swappable AMP modules as the X7 enhances its versatility (though at additional cost).
The Q5 also doesn’t compromise functionality or build quality, with well thought out controls, and a design that’s just as comfortable during daily commute as tethered to a PC at home. In listening, the Q5 performs admirably with a very clean, refined presentation combined with moderate driving power. Female vocals may sound a touch laid-back and the Q5 isn’t remorselessly revealing or airy. However, in return, it rewards listeners with a smooth, detailed and tonally brilliant sound that finds great synergy with a wide range of gear. The Q5 is an absolute bargain for those searching for a mature, tonally transparent DAC/AMP.
The Q5 is available from Amazon (International) for $350 USD at the time of writing. Please see my affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.