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Onkyo DP-X1 Portable Music Player

When I reviewed Astell&Kern’s first offering in early 2013, the AK100 ($699), the concept of a high-performance portable music player was new and the AK100 was unique. Flash forward three years—nowadays audiophiles have a plethora of options. Astell&Kern alone offers seven players, from the AK Jr ($499) to the AK380 ($3499). Other manufacturers including Sony, Questyle, Calyx, Colorfly, iBasso, and Fiio have all come out with high-resolution, high-performance players whose prices range from less than $300 to $1300. Obviously, the portable player market has “blown up” into a massive business driven by an increasingly mobile customer base. And the plethora of choices continues to grow.

One of the latest manufacturers to toss its portable player hat into the ring is Onkyo. Its DP-X1 ($899) offers a unique set of features and capabilities at a highly competitive price. The first headline on the DP-X1’s web page leads with “Powerful, Portable, Pricey.” Onkyo’s intent is clear: Release a high-value, high-performance portable player whose features and performance rival “premium-priced” competition. Given the highly competitive nature of this particular market, Onkyo needed something more than merely “we sound better” to elbow its way in. So, what has the Onkyo DP-X1 got that the others haven’t got? MQA. The Onkyo DP-X1 is the only portable player so far, besides its “cousin” the Pioneer XDP-100R ($699), to offer MQA capabilities. But, wait, of course there’s more. The DP-X1 also includes a true balanced headphone output (and dual DAC chips) with the capability to drive difficult headphones that usually require beefy external amps to sound their best. Add to all this the ability to access and play popular streaming sources, including Tidal, Spotify, and Pandora, and you have a player that does indeed challenge competitors with much higher pricetags. Will the Onkyo succeed in displacing other competitors on the pedestal of best-priced high-performance player? That is a distinct possibility.

Technical Tour
The DP-X1 uses two amplifiers and two digital-to-analog converters, so it can deliver a true balanced signal. This is the primary difference between the DP-X1 and the Pioneer XDP-100R, which has one DAC and one amp and only supports single-ended headphone connections. With double ESS Sabre ES9018K2M DACs and double ESS Sabre 9601K amps, a balanced output is available via the DP-X1’s 2.5mm connection, which is located to the right of a standard 3.5mm single-ended stereo connection. In addition the DP-X1 also has two types of balanced drives, ACG and BT. ACG is short for Active Control Ground drive, which according to Onkyo can deliver “greater stability, increased S/N ratio, and greater spatial dimensionality,” as well as “greater delineation for lower frequencies in hi-res audio, and overall robust and taut sound.” Inside the owner’s manual, Onkyo has a slightly more detailed explanation of AGC. “The basic operating method is the same as the balanced mode, but AGC uses technology to even more forcefully fix grounding standards…output volume is the same as the regular single-ended operation, however.”

The DP-X1’s storage capacity currently maxes out at 432GB. To achieve this amount of storage you will have to use two 200G micro-SDXC cards. Internal memory is limited to only 32GB, and some of that will be occupied by the OS and whatever apps you choose to add to the DP-X1.

The DP-X1 supports a multitude of audio formats including 11.2MHz DSD, 384kHz/24-bit PCM, MP3, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, and AIFF, as well as MQA files. Basically if it’s a music file, the DP-X1 will play it.

Ergonomics
The DP-X1 uses an Android 5.1.1 platform for its OS, which allows it to have all the functionality of a smartphone minus the annoying phone call part. You can access the Internet, send and receive email, and even keep your address book on the DP-X1 if you wish. Internet Access via WiFi also lets you use Google’s Play Store to add any apps you wish to the DP-X1. I added Tidal and Onkyo’s own “Onkyo Music” store to my review sample. Downloading and installing was quick and easy. The quick part was due to my WiFi’s 5.0GHz connection speed, which speed-tested on the DP-X1 at over 100MBps! That throughput rate rivals my hardwired Ethernet connection. How come so fast? A month after I moved into my new home in Denver, CenturyLink offered my neighborhood fiber-optic connections. Since every time it rained I lost my Internet due to the old copper cable’s lack of water-tightness, after the tenth service call I jumped at the opportunity, not so much for the speed (which has been nice) but for the reliability. Now even if I lose power my Internet still works for as long as the high-speed fiber-optic modem’s battery back-up lasts.

If you already use an Android phone the DP-X1’s pages will be quite familiar to you. Unlike some players with their own customized Android-based interface that can limit functionality, the DP-X1 is open to whatever you want including third-party music players and apps. While I didn’t try out other player apps since I found Onkyo’s supplied one did everything I needed, if you have a player that you’re used to, or prefer to use, you can easily add it to the DP-X1. But since the DP-X1 has Android openness, you might download an untested program that could in extreme cases “brick” (make non-functional) your DP-X1, so I would advise some restraint.

 

Within the DP-X1’s settings you have many options for general operations. In the music settings you can choose which form of amplification you wish to use (ACG or BT) as well as eq. The DP-X1’s  eq functions include five presets as well as 16-band user-selectable ones. Adjusting the 16-band eq requires a steady finger (or stylus) since the delineations are rather close together. The Onkyo also has something called “featured eq” which includes 18 different settings developed for different pop musicians including Buckcherry, Scott Ian, Tim Lopez, Steven MacMorran, Midi Matilda, Leo Nonventelli, Strange Talk, Chris Traynor, and Jim Ward. You can modify any of these eq settings and store up to 1000 custom eq curves.

The DP-X1 has three gain levels. But the differences between level settings aren’t so great that you can’t use “low” with low-sensitivity headphones. I know this because for the first couple of days I used the default “medium” with a wide variety of headphones before I found the gain adjustments, which are buried among the Sound & Notification settings. Perhaps seasoned Android users will find these nested menus old hat, but for new Android users the Onkyo’s menu system will require a learning curve. The onboard owner’s manual app is essential reading if you hope to become deft at navigating through the DP-X1’s many features. Some adjustments, such as upsampling, digital filter, and DSD upsampling-conversion options, are found within the Onkyo music player app via a drop-down menu. While its settings are not as convoluted as those of some players, the DP-X1’s more arcane controls are not intuitive in function or location.

The DP-X1 supports Bluetooth headphones or other playback devices via aptX. Once paired you can send an audio stream to any compatible BT device.

Battery life is listed at 16 hours using 96/24 FLAC files and a single-ended headphone connection. With balanced headphones, battery life will be quite a bit shorter. Also, if you leave the DP-X1 hooked up to a balanced headphone in pause mode overnight, the battery will be exhausted by morning and need a full recharge, which takes somewhere around three hours.


Populating the DP-X1 with music was as simple as connecting it to my MacPro’s USB 3.0 inputs. Onkyo has its own file-transfer app called X-DAP Link (PC and Mac), which you can download from its site, but I used another app called Android File Transfer to move files into the DP-X1. This little app popped up every time I connected the DP-X1 to my Mac via the supplied USB cable. One further advantage of this method was that instead of appearing on my desktop as an external drive, which is what occurs with many portable players, the DP-X1 is recognized by the app, but not as a drive so you don’t have to wait for it to un-mount before disconnecting it.

The DP-X1 can also be used as a “source device” to connect to other USB DACs. You will need a special cable to accomplish this, but Cables to Go, among other sites, has what you need to make the connection. Once hooked up you have a multitude of options to send files to an external DAC, including upsampling and different DoP (DSD over PCM) file protocols. And if your external DAC is MQA-compatible, the DP-X1 can even output MQA files to that device.

Sound
I’ve reviewed a fair number of portable players during the past couple of years. With most of them the primary limiting factor in overall fidelity has not been the player itself, but its synergy with the headphones or transducers connected to it. I used a plethora of headphones with the DP-X1 from hyper-efficient in-ears like the Westone W60 to the most power-hungry full-sized cans, such as the Beyerdynamic DT-990 600-ohm version. Even in single-ended mode the DP-X1 had no trouble driving the DT-990s to satisfying levels, and with the efficient ones the low-gain modes delivered sound without hiss or hum.

I used the DP-X1 via its single-ended output for several weeks before I received a Silver Dragon adapter cable to go from the 2.5 TRRS connection to a standard 4-connector XLR from Moon Audio. With the adapter installed I tried all the headphones in my collection that use balanced connections. These included the HiFIMan HE-560, Sennheiser HD700, Grado RS-1, Audeze LCD-2.2, AudioQuest Nighthawk, and Mr. Speakers Ether and Ether C. I also tried both of the DP-X1’s balanced modes, Bal and AGC. I found the Bal had a slightly higher output level. With several phones, including the Mr. Speakers Ether-C, I preferred Bal overall due to its superior dynamic contrast and bass extension.

 

Comparing two different portable players is not easy. Making sure levels are the same is the first problem; the second is that switching from one player to another takes more than a couple of seconds, making direct comparisons even more difficult. I set up a test to compare the Onkyo DP-X1 against the Astell& Kern AK240. After listening to several of my own recordings via both players I was forced to conclude that at least with the three earphones I used, the Ultimate Ears RR, Jerry Harvey Laylas, and Empire Ears Zeus, I could not identify any differences between the two players when they were both playing back my own DSD5.6 recordings.

I could spend multiple paragraphs detailing the hows and whys of MQA, but it will be far more efficient for you to look at the video links at theabsolutesound.com (“MQA Explained in Short Videos”). For more information read Robert Harley’s technical article about MQA (“Beyond High Resolution”), also on theabsolutesound.com. Finally, if you like questions and answers take a look at this interview with Robert Stuart on the Computer Audiophile site. On the DP-X1 all my MQA files played without any issues. MQA-encoded files also loaded and played just as fast as regular non-MQA versions.

When I compared MQA conversions of my own recordings with the originals, on some headphones I could not discern any sonic differences, but on those headphones and in-ears that I currently use for reference, such as the Ultimate Ears RR and Mr. Speakers Ether C, I could hear the improved resolution. For me the improvements manifested by the MQA-encoded files were in soundstage specificity, image placement, and low-level details. It was easier to listen into the mix, and to differentiate between sounds that were more homogenized on the non-MQA files. On my recording of Bryan Sutton and Chris Eldridge playing “Church Street Blues” at a workshop outdoors, Eldridge’s voice was better isolated from his guitar (whose sound hole was less than eight inches below his mouth). Instead of blending into one sonic entity the guitar and voice were separate and easily differentiated in space. Also some of the subtle variations in Bryan Sutton’s picking were easier to discern on the MQA-encoded file.

Conclusion
Yes, there are plenty of options nowadays for anyone looking to acquire a high-resolution high-performance portable player. But if value-for-dollar and maximum flexibility and functionality are high on your list of must-haves, you can substantially narrow down the list.

Taking it further, if future-proofing is among your most-wanted attributes, I can think of only two players that qualify, and only one of those can provide a true balanced output—that’s the Onkyo DP-X1.

While the DP-X1 may not be quite as disruptive a new technology as MQA, it does raise the question of why, except for aesthetics or ergonomics, anyone would choose another player if his budget maxed out at under $1000 (except perhaps for the Pioneer XDP-100R, if I were absolutely sure I would never, ever, need a balanced output). I predict that Onkyo will sell a lot of DP-X1 players because it is currently the best value out there in flexibility, functionality, and sound. Recommended? Is that even a question? Onkyo has hit a home run that deserves two trips around the bases.

Specs & Pricing

Operating system: Android OS 5.1.1
Total (current) maximum storage: 432GB
Internal storage/RAM: 32GB including Android OS system area (RAM: 2 GB)
Extended storage: 400GB via two 200GB micro-SD card slots
DAC and HP amplifier: Two ESS SABRE DAC ES9018K2M and two headphone AMP SABRE 9601K
Wi-Fi specification: 802.11a/b/g/n or 802.11ac (Wi-Fi direct / WPS)
Bluetooth support: A2DP/ AVRCP/ HSP/ OPP/ HID/ PAN
Codec: SBC/aptX (Transmit only)
Playable audio formats: DSD/DSF/DSD-IFF/FLAC/ALAC/WAV/AIFF/Ogg-Vorbis/MP3/AAC/MQA
Sampling rates & bit rates: 11.2MHz/5.6MHz/2.8MHz 1-bit, 44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/176.4k/192k/352.8k/384k 16-bit/24-bit (32-bit float/integer can be played down-converted to 24 bit)
Supported video formats: H.263/ H.264 AVC/H.265 HEVC/MPEG-4 SP/VP8/VP9
Balanced output spec: 150mW + 150mW
THD: Less than 0.006 %
S/N Ratio: 115dB
Frequency response: 20Hz–80kHz
Dimensions: 3″ x 5″ x 0.5″
Weight: 7.16 Ounces
Price: $899

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