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FiiO Q5s: An upgrade to your music (Jeff Li/IBTimes)

It doesn't take an audiophile to enjoy good music. As I found out from reviewing the FiiO Q5s, it doesn't even take audiophile level headphones to reproduce good music - but having a good DAC/Amp alone might be enough. In the case of the Q5s, it can even mean doing so without being near a wall socket.

When reading FiiO's introduction of the Q5s, you might be asking the same question as other music 'enthusiasts' (A few notches down from a sound fanatic): 'Isn't this made for Audiophiles?' With jargons like 'Dual AK4493EQ DAC chips' and 'XMOS XUF208' and '768K/32B/Native DSD decoding' it does seem like deep waters to jump into for a mere enthusiast. What I have found out while using the Q5s is that while I might not know exactly how it works, I do know that it works. It produces a distinct improvement from the sound of my current music set up; even though I don't have 'audiophile ears'.

Turning the music up a notch starts from the hardware

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Q5s' leather bound visual (Jeff Li/IBTimes)

Sound quality aside, the first striking thing about the Q5s is its visual. The Q5s looks and feels like a solid piece of precision milled aluminum (Which it mostly is), with a mix of sandblasted and brushed finish. It's made more an object of desire by being in the shape and size of an iPod/cigar case/hip flask - only smaller and denser. On the back of the unit, it is covered by a layer of black faux leather, which just adds to the suave metal box look. The soft layer is not just for looks, but functions as a protective layer to avoid scratching the finish of the unit.

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The Q5s' Visual highlight: A tactile volume knob

One of the first visual cues you'll notice is the knurled volume knob accented with a red rubberized band. Like most people these days, I have long grown used to turning the volume of my music up or down by buttons or with touch screens. But there is something about changing the volume by turning a heavy, metallic, tactile knob that makes the listening experience more engaging.

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Multiple I/O options to choose from (Jeff Li/IBTimes)

In terms of connectivity, the Q5s aims to exhaust possibilities of both input and output. Whether your main music player is your computer, laptop, mobile phone, or dedicated media players, there is a port that you can connect your device into. In addition, the Q5s also accepts a wide range of HD Bluetooth streaming options for wireless connections. The outputs are also unusually plentiful, with an ordinary 3.5mm socket and line-out for your headphone and speaker needs; as well as the less usual balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm sockets (Read: Audiophile territory).

Inside of the Q5s is packed a 3800mAh lithium-ion battery, which translates to at least 9 hours of playback on more demanding set ups, and up to 25 hours on simpler set ups. If you are using the unit with your personal computer, with the micro-USB connected, it will both be processing the music as well as being charged from the same connection. The Q5s is also smart enough to manage the power so that the battery doesn't get over charged while being used through the USB port.

Photo from amazon.com

These hardware features combined, you end up with a package that is both aesthetically sophisticated and functional enough to proudly display on your desk at work, but at the same time not appearing as a completely sound crazed geek. The FiiO Q5s also offers the option to be taken with you, so that your favorite sound can follow you on both the journey and the destination.

Dynamic reproduction of your favorite songs

You know you're in for a treat when you play a familiar song on a new set up, and suddenly hear details in the song that you've never noticed before. There were numerous of these 'eureka' moments in testing the Q5s, but: not until I got the headphones right.

I tested this unit with various earphones and headphones that vary in price and form; including fairly pricey in-ear-monitors (IEMs), and a variety of on-ear and over-ear headphones. What surprised me was that when matched with the IEMs, though the Q5s showed some flair compared with other DACs, it was not enough to write home about. It was only when the Q5s was paired with headphones that have higher impedance, did the sound showed a dramatic transformation.

The most surprising performance actually came from my old Koss KSC-75s (Legendary for its amazing sound and dirt-cheap price tag). When it was paired with the Q5s, the details of the higher frequencies became crystal clear; the separation of instruments went from murky to well-defined; and the texture especially of acoustic instruments suddenly had more life and depth. My 'eureka' moment came when I listened to a well-loved song that I've been listening to for the last decade, and my ears suddenly picked up the faint sound of the metronome that the sound recording engineer left in the final recording. Needless to say, I was completely blown away, that pairing one of the cheapest headphones that I own with the Q5s can produce such respectable result.

Hiss buster

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Hiss free music playback through the Q5s (Jeff Li/IBTimes)

When I'm sometimes asked why I feel the need to use an external DAC with my laptop, my simplest answer is always: "I can't stand the noise from the laptop audio output." Desktops and laptops both contain components that interfere with the built-in DACs on its motherboard, which culminates to a faint hiss in the computer built-in outputs. DACs on the other hand, being isolated from the rest of the motherboard can eliminate most of the unwanted noise.

The Q5s that showed itself powerful enough to drive the most demanding headphones produced no audible noise during my testing. No matter how high the volume knob is turned up, the hiss was thankfully nowhere to be heard.

Who is the FiiO Q5s for?

Not just for audiophiles, that's for sure. The Q5s produced a better sound that was discernible even by a mere audio enthusiast like myself. It is for those who are looking to take their enjoyment of music up a notch. It is also ideal for someone who wants a DAC/amp that can perform both on the desktop at work and in their pocket while on the go. The surprising news is that you might not even need to upgrade your headphones, as I discovered. The Q5s could be the addition you need to breathe new life into your existing set up.

David is a tech enthusiast/writer who is often on the move and is on a mission to explore ways to make his overhaul flights more enjoyable. This is a contribution to an ongoing IBTimes review series on gadgets for Business Travellers.

Photo from amazon.com