Portable, high resolution music is a curious beast. First, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus for what you might call the ‘pocket-sized’ players: Personal/Portable Audio Player, Portable Media Player, HD Music Player, MP3 Player (still?), and Digital Audio Player (DAP.) The list is certainly varied but we're going to go with the latter until someone comes up with a better, industry-wide moniker.
The world of DAP is also an interesting and exciting area of tech and development. We are likely a bit behind the curve on up-take in the UK, but Advanced MP3 Players (the distributor of the model we are reviewing,) has seen its DAP sales double in the last 12 months. They say this has, primarily, been driven by the excitement surrounding hi-res streaming services. Plus, Sony and Astell & Kern apart, there is a swathe of new, predominantly Chinese, brands producing high quality, high spec, high priced, hi-res DAPs. Such as: Cayin, Lotoo, FIIO, Shanling; and our review brand, iBasso.
An obvious question could be: why bother when we have portable music players as an integral part of our mobile phones? Except for the simple answer, as we all know, the musical quality of our phones can leave us a little wanting. Plus, if you have hi-res sound at home and even in your car, why settle for something inferior when you are out and about or travelling?
The flagship, £1399 iBasso DX320 is slightly thicker than an iPhone 14 Plus (17mm compared to around 8mm) and it is more or less the same height and width. It weighs in at 310g, which is about 60g more than the iPhone 14 Plus. Point being, if you are used to carrying one of the larger phones, this is in the same ballpark.
The design is restrained, nothing too flashy or fancy. A matte black finish; slightly contoured corners; and an impressively slim bezel around the excellent, large 1080px resolution screen. There are: three recessed buttons on the right edge for track control (start, stop and skip); a micro SD card slot on the left; a couple of headphone output sockets (4.4mm for balanced 3.5mm for conventional) on the base; and a USB-C socket for charging and a coax for output on the top edge. The only feature that sticks out, literally, is the silver, dual function volume wheel, on/off switch. It looks like someone in the design department might have suddenly thought: ‘Holy crap, we’ve forgotten a volume control - oh well - just stick it there and hope no-one notices...’
Nothing in this straightforward form gives away the tech wizardry inside, that puts the DX320 at the forefront of premium DAPs. With some justification, iBasso makes much of its dual digital to audio (DAC) chips, which are designed to emphasize 'spatial reverberation, quietness and dynamic range’ with minimal distortion of sound. The audio control system, developed in-house, is also designed with the purest, interference-free signal in mind (I’m sure the two ‘Accusilicon femtosecond oscillators’ have a lot to do with that!). In the end, the quality of sound output speaks for itself.
iBasso also makes much of its dual battery system. One for the digital section and one for the analogue, claiming that a single battery powering the entire system can cause distortion and degradation of the sound quality. This may well be the case, but, despite this, what the two batteries don't do is give you a great playing life from a single charge - 10 hours max, depending on what type of tracks you’re listening to. In reality, though, listening times rarely seemed to break into double digits before a charge was needed.
Does it work? Well, as I’ve said, the sound is second to none. So, the combination of all this tech produces superb result, and that’s all that really matters.
The DX320 supports ultra-high-resolution files, up to 32bit-384kHz in PCM, DSD up to DSD512, and full MQA. The reality is that the sound reproduction is simply a joy to listen to, both from the library of albums and streaming music services.
I used a variety of earphones and headphones and I was never left with the impression that I needed a little more power to satisfy. It always felt as if there was plenty more in the tank without a hint of strain.
The volume is easily controlled from the sticky-out knob on the side or on the touch screen, and a limit can be set to suit your needs. It is something that I like to do, just to be on the safe side of getting an unexpected sound blast from an errant track or because I've set-up something wrong.
The least impressive of our listening devices was the (very good quality) wireless earphones, but that is less to do with the DX320 as so much as the nature of wireless. They sounded perfectly fine but they were not quite on the same 'sublime revelation' page as the wired examples.
For me, the DX320 came into its own with high-quality in ear monitors (IEMs) and high-quality recordings such as DSD, Tidal Masters and Qobuz hi-res. The spacial awareness, irrespective of the type of music, was extremely impressive - and I don't mean stuff flying around from one ear to the other - but carefully considered recordings, in which every instrument occupied its own space, be it orchestra or small group. Hearing an orchestra at full tilt covering the complete tonal range at one end, to the simplest of vocals with minimal accompaniment at the other (and everything in between,) and being captivated by both, is no mean feat.
Enjoyment, too, was consistent across all volumes. Even at modest levels, there was oodles of detail to be discovered. Particularly impressive was the detail and force at the lower end, with a consistent depth and focus of the bass. So, too, was the seamless integration of the lows, mids and uppers that combined with the richness of tone and clarity in detail in voice and instrument.
The review sample was supplied with an alternative AMP14 amplifier module for use solely with 4.4mm socketed balanced headphones. This can be relatively easily swapped for the standard-supply amplifier module. You are even supplied with a small screwdriver to accomplish the task. It’s not difficult but it needs care, obviously.
There are two outputs on the AMP 14: line out (LO) to provide an audio signal to another device and power out (PO) for headphones. Both so subtly marked that you really need to be careful not to plug your headphones into the wrong socket (LO.) The excessive volume could do you some serious damage. Ideally, IBasso would supply a blanking plug for the devious LO output to prevent accidental use.
Does the AMP14 make a difference? Certainly, there is an added layer of richness and warmth to the listening. Everything sounds lusher with a tad more detailing and musicality, closer to reality, possibly. Do you need it? Certainly not. You can stick with the basic player. There’s more than enough to keep you entertained and enthralled. The AMP14 can come later...
There is no question that the sound quality is of an extremely high and engaging level, as you would expect from a device of this price. The build quality, too, is solid and functional. The design perhaps is a tad unremarkable, or understated, depending on your point of view.
There are, in effect, three different operating systems to access your music: Android, Mango Player, and Mango OS. The latter seems to bring little extra to the party except an added level of confusion. Be aware, this is definitely a device that needs the instructions reading before you start.
Essentially, the Android system allows you to add and use apps such as Tidal and Qobuz and access Mango Player, which, in turn, lets you access your albums and tracks in the library on the internal 128GB hard disc or SD micro card. It all works simply and functions perfectly well. The internal storage capacity of 128Gb is impressive. I loaded about 50 albums onto the player, a mix of CD quality, super hi-res and DSD and it was still at less than 50% capacity.
The thin bezel surrounding the screen also houses a little surprise: a thin illuminated strip across the top edge indicates the sampling rate of the track being played, both on library tracks and streaming. For example, if it’s 88.2kHz/96kHz, you will get a pale green illumination; a Tidal Masters track at 705.6kHz/768kHz will give you a reassuring red illumination; and if it’s DSD 64 format, this changes to a cyan and so on.
When you first turn the DX320 on by a short depression of the volume control knob, getting to the home screen is carried out at a fairly leisurely pace. You also get an option to go to the Mango OS system, which is a bit more appetising in appearance than the Android version, although this only allows access to the library not any online music services. So, it really depends what you want to do as to which system may be best suited.
The navigation for album, track, playlist genre etc is logical and easily accessible on both and I couldn’t detect any influence on sound quality from the different operating systems. Once you have made your choice of system, all functionality, of choice of track, volume and whatever else you want, can be accessed very efficiently via the touch screen. And that screen, my, is impressively bright and sharp and can have its brightness reduced to conserve the battery life - which is no bad thing.
Download for apps is done via an advert laden browser called APK Pure. Once I'd found and downloaded the apps I wanted (although I couldn't find a way to access BBC Sounds or even a decent radio app, but maybe that's just me), I found the 'force stop' control for APK Pure to stop me going bonkers. If I'm listening to music, that’s what I want to do, not compete with ads showing me Tinder or Galaxy Life that are guaranteed to change my life, even if it’s true.
While dependent on lifestyle and desire for seamless hi-res content and quality, the iBasso should be definitely be on your ‘give it a listen’ list. The results are truly spectacular, the sound is both awakening and absorbing, and it is an undeniably rewarding listen.
For me, there are some issues with the operating system. Particularly, the intrusive download interface. However, you will only need use this once and you can forget about it.
The player certainly delivers what it promises in exemplary sound. The question is, how would you use it? Is an extra 310g to port around alongside your phone conducive to your particular lifestyle? If your answer is, 'absolutely!', then the DX320 will reward you handsomely,
Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble Blue as the turquoise night of Neshabur (DSD)
From the sometimes-challenging Silk Road Journeys project, this 15-minute track creates a sound stage as wide and expansive as the steppes it represents. Each instrument is placed, and heard, with pinpoint accuracy. It builds slowly to an atmospheric beat, pulsing with excitement helped along by the strangeness of some of the instruments (how about kamancheh, ney, Santur and tabla), and the ever-present cello soaring upwards or plummeting to stomach gripping depths.
Hiram Salsano Otreviva (Tidal)
Opening with a goat (or maybe cow) bell, birdsong and Hiram Salsano calling for Bella, a dog maybe. It’s infectious fun, with multi-layered voices (what strength) and rhythms popping up all over the place to create an extraordinary, unfamiliar sound in the Southern Italian taranta tradition. It is lively and bursting with energy. Tidal says its explicit, but we’ll have to take their for word for it…
Lana del Rey Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me
Ultra-minimalist ballad of melancholy with Lana Del Rey referencing American poet Sylvia Plath and much more besides. Voice, piano and nothing else, except for an awful lot of emotion and, while a joy to listen to with such clarity of the DSX320, it’s probably not going to put you in the best of moods first thing in the morning.
If you want hi quality music while you are on the move and why wouldn’t you, rather than just at home, this is a serious answer, the quality and performance is without question but you will need deep pockets in both senses.