It’s always nice when a product not only lives up to expectations but wildly exceeds them. This is especially true when the product in question is relatively inexpensive. Let’s take the FiiO Q1 MkII portable DAC/headphone amplifier being reviewed here for example.
I’ve been shopping for a USB DAC/amp to drive my in-ear monitors. High-quality monitors deserve better than the 3.5mm jack on the bottom of my iPhone or on the side of my MacBook Pro. They sound pretty good in this context, but I know full well that they can sound great with some cleaner power and a better DAC chip in the driving seat.
The obvious choice was Cambridge Audio’s DACMagic XS v2. I’d reviewed the original version back in 2014, and I’d loved it – so simple, yet so damn good. Frankly, not buying the review unit when I had the chance was a stupid decision, and based on that lingering regret, I ordered a DACMagic XS v2 from Amazon. A few hours later however, I started thinking about how much time I spend listening to music on my phone, and the idea of a DAC/amp that could do double duty on both my Mac and my phone became very appealing.
So I cancelled the order and started looking into portable options with a built-in battery. FiiO’s Q1 MkII seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Compact, well specified, designed for use with an iPhone (with Apple Mfi certification), and as mentioned, relatively inexpensive. FiiO is definitely getting some international attention with a range of innovative products that seem to offer great bang for the bucks. So an order was placed and a unit arrived a few days later.
My first impression was good, and things just kept getting better. FiiO supplies the Q1 MkII in a neat box that’s filled with accessories including a short Lightning to micro USB cable, a standard micro USB Cable, a 3.5mm cable, four silicone bands to attach the unit to a phone or music player, a protective silicone pad, and a woven pouch.
The Q1 MkII is a well-designed piece of audio gear. At 99 x 59 x 12.5mm and only 101g, it’s small but feels remarkably solid. The curved slab design and sleek matt finish with gold accents makes it look like a premium product. Even the combined on/off switch and volume control knob feels like it belongs on a much more expensive product. Rounding out the value for money part of the equation, you get more than a plain old 3.5mm output jack; the Q1 MkII also has a 2.5mm balanced output for balanced ‘phones, which is something FiiO is pushing quite heavily in its own range of ‘phones.
An important point is that this unit is also high-res capable, supporting up to 384kHz/32 bit PCM and up to DSD256 with two separate crystal oscillators, each handling different sampling rates. The DAC chip is the AKM AK4452, with the same amplifier chip used in FiiO’s higher-end music players. FiiO clearly hasn’t skimped on the parts budget. In an almost unbelievable display of largesse, there’s also a 1,800 mAh battery in there, bass and gain switches, an impressively well implemented analogue-digital hybrid volume control, and a line in/out option that allows the Q1 MkII to be used as a stand alone amplifier.
For US$100, that would seem to be a great deal but of course, no one buys a headphone DAC/amp to fondle or stare at – sound quality and functionality are critical. So does the Q1 MkII deliver in this regard?
The short answer is an emphatic yes! All that attention to detail on the part of FiiO’s engineers has paid off in spades because this thing rocks! It’s quickly become one of my all time favorite pieces of audio gear, and is used for upwards of eight hours a day on a regular basis.
Sonically, this review could be as easy as the one I originally did for the aforementioned Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS, which basically boiled down to something like “Sounds much better than my Mac! Job done. Head for the beach”.
Compared to the 3.5mm jacks on my Mac or iPhone, the Q1 MkII sounds noticeably and unmistakably better. There are improvements in clarity and resolution, as well as an increase in dynamics and perceived power. This is true even with a set of Apple’s mundane Earpod earphones plugged in. But switch to a far better set of ‘phones such as Sony’s XBA-4 or Logitech Ultimate Ears UE900s and the differences are even more apparent.
These in-ear monitors use four balanced armature drivers per side, and they’re capable of revealing the limitations of source material, digital to analogue conversion and amplification. With the FiiO in the loop, and playing high-res or CD quality files, these ‘phones come into their own, delivering the dynamic range, tight control, and forensic insight into the music that I expect from a good head-fi system.
The audible weaknesses of the Apple outputs (soft bass, veiled treble, and a general lack of resolution manifesting as reduced listener involvement) vanish. What’s left is an altogether more coherent sound, along with the desire to listen to more music. Much more music. There really isn’t an area where I can fault the FiiO’s sound quality. The Sony ‘phones can sound a touch lean with certain sources but not here. The Q1 MkII bass boost switch was tried for a while but it ended up being set to “Off” because the unboosted sound had plenty of weight and control on offer.
The midrange and treble are just as appealing – smooth, extended at the top without being harsh or peaky, and always enjoyable and non-fatiguing without any major audible peaks or troughs in the frequency response. I never once felt that I needed more warmth or less volume to ease away from even harsh recordings. The FiiO is well balanced in this regard, and just as good at low volumes as it is cranked up loud, thanks in part to the hybrid volume control taking care of any potential channel imbalances. The best part of all is how good these ‘phones sound when playing a 320kbps Spotify stream. The FiiO does a stunning job of making them sound like something I want to enjoy all day, instead of background music I listen to while I bang away on a keyboard.
The FiiO is almost flawless from a functional perspective, at least in my Apple ecosystem. It’s been utterly reliable, with the battery maintaining its charge through extended listening sessions on the iPhone. FiiO claims 20 hours using the line input and 10 hours when the DAC is online, and while I never pushed that long, six hours was a non-event. Not everyone will need the unit’s ability to be strapped to an iPhone for portable use, but for those who like a bit of quality when they’re out and about, it’s a nice feature.
The only glitch in the entire review is the annoying click that resonates through the ‘phones when the unit is first powered up. I’ve learned to turn it on but to leave the volume set low for a few seconds, then to turn it up.
Thus far, I haven’t tried it with a set of balanced ‘phones but a set of FiiO’s F9 PRO model arrive tomorrow, so that’ll be an interesting experiment. And I haven’t put it to the test with some difficult to drive headphones but a potential order of a set of Sennheiser’s HD6XX from Massdrop might take care of that. To be fair, with 75 mW (into 32 ohm) of power from the unbalanced output, this portable unit isn’t designed to provide a massive amount of grunt into headphones like the HD6XX, but the DACMagic XS did a reasonable job with my HD650’s, so I’m curious to see how the FiiO manages. There’s 220mW from the balanced output for the geeks out there, and the recommended headphone impedance from the balanced jack is 16-150 ohm. For the kind of ‘phones I’m planning to use with the Q1 MkII, it’s up to the job.
So to cut a long story short, the question is this: “Is FiiO’s Q1 MkII a good buy”?
Hell no, at the price, it’s a superb buy! I’m more than happy with mine, and I actually can’t recommend it enough.