iBasso DX120 featured

iBasso DX120 DAP Review – Sculpture

TESTED AT $299
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Are you looking for a modern but simple device to play your digital music files with the highest quality? Enter the iBasso DX120 high-performance digital audio player (DAP). This DAP sports an AK4495 DAC chip, dual Micro SD card slots and supports up to DSD128. Coming in at $299, this is iBasso’s current entry-level player and it has got some great features along with a gorgeous, curved body and of course, great sound.

Product page: http://www.ibasso.com/cp_xq_dy.php?id=7280#page1

iBasso official website: http://www.ibasso.com/index.php

Pros
  • Dual Micro-SD Card Slots
  • USB Type-C
  • Full physical playback controls
  • Can be used as an external USB DAC
  • Solid, premium build with unique styling
Cons
  • The included silicone case only offers partial protection

Disclaimer: This sample was provided for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.

Package and Accessories

The unboxing of the iBasso DX120 begins with the very low-key grey cardboard sleeve on the exterior. Beneath the sleeve is a blue box with a metallic finish and a magnetic flap cover. Opening the box reveals the DX120 which is placed in a protective plastic bag and seated in a foam insert.

A smaller black box under the foam insert contains the rest of the accessories. Let’s break down the full contents of the package:

  • iBasso DX120 Digital Audio Player
  • Clear TPU protection case
  • Coaxial cable
  • Burn-in cable
  • USB Type-C cable
  • Screen protector
  • Quick start guide
  • Warranty card

That is a nice bundle for an entry-level DAP. I particularly like the sleeved USB cable which feels premium and the addition of a coaxial cable is much appreciated too. I’m always chuffed when a protective case is provided so I was pleased to see one here.

Having said that, the case is a bit strange as it has no rear cover which is arguably the main area you would want to protect from scratches (after the screen). Of course, there are other third-party cases available but you would expect the provided one to be at least functional even if not the highest quality.

Build Quality and Design

This is one of the most interesting DAP chassis I’ve seen in recent times. It’s defined by the sleek curvature along the sides, the subtle ribbed texture of the aluminium alloy case and the rounded corners. It fits naturally in the hand thanks to the wavy curvature on each side and it’s a good size for pocketability.

Front of device

There are two colour choices available, one is sky blue and the other is earth brown and personally, I think both are gorgeous. Tempered glass is the material of choice for the back of the device and it fits in well with the overall aesthetic despite being a fingerprint magnet. The glass back comes with a screen protector pre-installed.

On the top side of the DX120 are (from left to right): coaxial output, dual Micro SD card slots and USB Type-C port. Moving to the bottom there are (from left to right): 3.5 mm line out port, 3.5 mm single-ended phone output and 2.5 mm balanced phone output.

Finally, on the right side are the physical playback buttons (from top to bottom): Power, Volume+, Volume-, Next/Fast Forward, Play/Pause, Previous/Rewind.

DAP with iBasso IT01s earphones
Display

The DX120 has a 3.2 inch 480*800 OCS bonded IPS touch screen. It has a fairly wide bezel all around, particularly on the bottom but it doesn’t detract from the user experience. The colours are vibrant and the image is sharp and clear. Viewing angles are good overall and text is distinct and legible. One area that could be improved is the screen brightness. Although it is crisp it can be somewhat difficult to see while outdoors and the difference between 50% and 100% brightness is fairly slight.

Clear display
Internals

At the core of the DX120 lies an AK4495 DAC chipset which adopts the VELVET SOUND™ technology and provides full 32-bit processing. A multi-core CPU drives the Mango OS and with the graphical tasks being offloaded to a GPU utilizing Open GL rendering, the operating system speed and response has been greatly improved.

iBasso’s engineers were able to optimize the AK4495 to achieve a THD of -111dB and this when combined with the lowered crosstalk and distortion of the 2.5 mm balanced output delivers a very clean and realistic sound reproduction. It should also be noted that the DX120 has an output power of up to 400mW (with a 32 ohm load) from the balanced output, which is a lot of power for a pocketable DAP.

The DX120 also uses XMOS XU208 with Thesycon USB driver for its USB DAC function which allows you to use the device as an external sound card on computers and tablets.

Battery Life

Sporting a 3700 mAh battery, the DX120 has a runtime of up to 16 hours but this number can vary depending on use. If you play your music at higher volumes or use hard to drive headphones you can expect this number to be a bit lower but it’s still impressive considering the DAPs high output power. The USB Type-C port supports quick charge and the battery can be fully charged within 2 hours.

UI and Functionality

The DX120 combines 2 of my favourite things when it comes to the graphical interface on a DAP, namely visual appeal and responsiveness. iBasso’s Mango OS is attractive, colourful and functional and those things combined with the solid touchscreen sensitivity and speed all add up to a very satisfying user experience.

Pressing the power button starts the device. You’re greeted with a boot screen and the OS is fully loaded within about 10 seconds. By default it takes you to the Now Playing screen which contains album art and playback controls (in addition to the physical playback buttons on the device).

This screen is well laid out and gives you a clear image of the album art (assuming the music is correctly tagged). The top 2/3 of the screen is dedicated to displaying album art while the bottom 1/3 is reserved for quick settings icons, the shuttle bar and play controls.

From this Now Playing screen you have quick access to settings such as gapless playback On/Off, gain Low/High modes, digital filters and sound modes. These options can be accessed by pressing the settings icon to the left of the file format information. You can also choose the USB function, which lets you choose between USB reader, external DAC and charge only modes.

Swiping right takes you to the My Music screen where you can navigate through your music library and search for albums, artists or genres. When browsing the Album screen you can choose between a grid mode and list mode, whatever one suits your preference.

The screen layout is logical, very straightforward and self-explanatory and a breeze to use with the responsive touch controls. You can return to the Now Playing screen by tapping on the arrow in the top left corner or by swiping left.

A left swipe from the central Now Playing screen takes you to the Settings screen. From here you can access all the playback options, such as filters and sound modes, in addition to the 10-band Equalizer and L/R balance. The EQ has 6 settings: Custom, Classical, Pop Dance, Rock and Bass.

Settings menu

From this screen, you can also access the Advanced settings, where you control system specific options such as Languages, Display, Power management, Rescan Library, System Info and Factory Reset. There’s not much more for me to say about the UI. It is highly functional, logical, speedy and attractive. Nuff said!

Now playing screen

Sound

My main IEMs used for testing were the Sennheiser IE 800 S and M-Fidelity SA-50 using the balanced output. However, I also tested a lot of budget and entry-level IEMs using both single-ended and balanced outputs.

I’m not going to dive into the digital filter settings as I believe the difference between them is negligible enough to be insignificant. For my testing I kept it on Slow roll off as in the past I’ve found this to be the most natural and transparent setting.

Sound Modes

The sound modes do have a slightly more noticeable change in sound compared to the digital filters but it is still very subtle overall. However, I will briefly touch on what I heard with the various options.

  • Reference – The most analytical of the sound settings, this mode is the most transparent and uncoloured of all the options. Faster transients and smaller note body for the most accurate sound.
  • Traditional – A smoother and common type of sound that gives a very slight emphasis on the lower scales. This is the most “musical” of the sound modes and is good for emotive listening.
  • Original – Similar to the Traditional mode but with less sub-bass presence and a slight lift in mid-bass. Treble is more prominent here too, the end result is like a very mild V-shape tuning.
  • Classical – Takes some of the edge off treble notes, as well as bringing the midrange slightly forward and less impact in the bass.
  • Natural – A more relaxed treble, emphasis on vocals and lower midrange. Probably the most relaxed mode, similar to Classical but without the attenuated bass.

The iBasso DX120 has very little colouring or alteration of the sound. I find it to have fairly dense notes with very good resolution and layering. End to end extension is excellent, particularly in regards to the bass. The player has a full dynamic range and doesn’t sound compressed or restricted in any way. From the lowest sub-bass rumbles to the highest of treble tones it’s as though the DX120 just opens the door and lets them pass through.

The sound has a very earthy and straightforward nature. Detail is above average and in conjunction with some good headphones, the resolution is simply outstanding. Having a reference type tuning also does not make this a cold or lacklustre player. For example, when paired with the IE 800 S the character becomes warm and inviting.

Soundstage is heavily dependent on the chosen transducers but in general I find the DX120 to have an average to intimate stage with above average imaging and positioning. The density of notes doesn’t lend to an expansive or airy stage but creates a very stable space with pinpoint directional cues which is enhanced by the blackness of the background.

Comparisons

Acoustic Research AR-M20 (review here)

For me, the AR-M20’s greatest asset is its magnificent 5-inch touchscreen display. There are very few DAPs even now that can match it in this. However, it’s not perfect; the display could be brighter as it’s not always easy to see in direct sunlight.

Another area where the AR-M20 shines is its amazing power management. You never need to worry about switching it on or powering down; it can sit for weeks without losing a charge and comes to life instantly with the push of a single button.

Although at release the AR-M20 was considerably more expensive (around $700+ IIRC), it has been showing up on Massdrop recently for around the same price as the DX120. It runs on Android but the proprietary software running on the device allows the AR Music Player to bypass the Android subsystem resulting in a purer sound with less inteference.

Where the AR-M20 is lacking is its lack of a balanced output but that won’t be an issue for some people. The AR-M20 is quite powerful for a DAP with a 2.1Vrms single-ended output compared to 1.8Vrms on the DX120. With its balanced output though, the DX120 drives 3.6Vrms.

Being Android based, the AR-M20 has all of the associated bells and whistles, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and support for third-party apps. However, I much prefer the Mango OS to the AR Music Player because it’s easier to navigate and feels more intuitive to use.

In terms of sound, the AR-M20 with its Burr-Brown PCM5242 DAC has a warmer, softer presentation with more bass emphasis. For my tastes, I prefer the neutrality of the DX120. Both of these players are fantastic but I like the physical playback controls and balanced output of the DX120.

ATC HDA-DP20 (review here)

The HDA-DP20 is similar to the DX120 in terms of usability. Both are purist designs built for simple music playback without any distracting bells and whistles. Physically, the ATC is very utilitarian and while it can’t match the modern curves of the iBasso it certainly has its own charm.

The ATC is powered by dual Wolfson WM8740 DACs and is definitely competitive to the DX120 when it comes to sound quality. It has a lighter and airier sound than the iBasso DAP as well as a larger soundstage. The DX120 has more dynamic range and improved layering. The ATC has a smoother and airier treble while the iBasso DAP is more direct and has more note density.

ATC’s HDA-DP120 only has a single-ended output but it is a quite powerful [email protected] ohm. The ATC also has a plainer interface but has basically all of the same functionality as the DX120, minus the digital filters and sound modes. The HDA-DP20 has a smaller at 2.3 inches compared to the DX120’s 3.2-inch touchscreen display but is also clear with vibrant colour.

I have a soft spot for the ATC and I think it is a largely underappreciated DAP but taking everything into consideration the DX120 comes out ahead in several areas (balanced output, larger display, touchscreen, battery, dual card slots etc.)

Pairing

These headphones and IEMs were used to test the performance of the DX120. As well as the expected flagship models I’ve also included several budget earphones because I’m sure there are plenty of people interested in this entry-level player that don’t have TOTL gear to match with it.

Sennheiser IE 800 S (review here) – A warm and inviting sound that is resolving and rich with detail. Lots of depth in the stage with fantastic imaging and pinpoint positioning. Punchy bass with lots of authority, full-bodied, smooth and rich midrange and a light, airy treble.

iBasso IT01s (review here) – Tight and punchy bass. Neutral and transparent midrange with accurate timbre. Very clear, well-defined treble without any harshness. Wide soundstage with good imaging. Layering is excellent with great instrument separation and clarity.

CCA C16 – Stage has more depth than width. Fairly balanced signature with an emphasis on the upper midrange. Bass is only slightly enhanced and has a relatively fast attack with medium paced decay. Upper mids sound thin and lack body. Treble is non-fatiguing but somewhat dry with average extension.

FiiO FA1 (review here) – Average size soundstage with more depth than width. Bass is closer to neutral with slight boost in the mid-bass. Midrange notes have fast transients and medium decay giving some body. There is a slight emphasis on the upper midrange. Treble is somewhat dry and laidback. Instrument separation is average with not a lot of space between instruments.

MEZE 99 Classics (review here) – A fairly balanced signature with slight V-shape. The soundstage is quite large for a closed back phone. Tight and textured bass with lovely weight. Midrange is rich and smooth with good instrument separation. Slightly warm lower mids and more neutral upper midrange. Light and airy treble with plenty of sparkle.

Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro – This was the only item I tested where I felt it necessary to switch to high gain mode (single-ended output). Having said that though, there is still lots of headroom and power to spare. Expansive soundstage with great width and roundness. Bass is full-bodied and far reaching. Sub-bass notes have authority without being cumbersome or overbearing. Midrange has good instrument separation and clarity with emphasis on the upper mids. Lots of macro detail and layering. Treble is more forward with lots of airiness but slightly fatiguing.

Conclusion

When I think of the iBasso DX120 it reminds me of something that Michelangelo said:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

Michelangelo

The DX120 removes all the superfluous modern DAP features and chips away the inessentials until the truth of the music is revealed. It’s a music player plain and simple and in that capacity, it works flawlessly.

If you want to use streaming or third-party apps then this isn’t the player for you. However, if you want a great sounding device that has a large memory capacity and is bundled in a gorgeous body with a sleek, modern user interface then your solution is right here.

iBasso DX120 Specifications

2.5mm Balanced
Output Voltage:3.6Vrms
Frequency Response:10Hz-45kHz+/-1dB
THD+N: 0.00028%,-111dB (without load) 0.00032%,-110dB(32Ω@2.4Vrms)
DNR:-117dB
S/N:117dB
Crosstalk: -116dB

3.5mm Single-ended
Output Voltage:
Frequency Response: 10Hz-45kHz+/-1dB
THD+N:0.00042%,-107dB (without load) 0.00056%,-105dB(32Ω@1.2Vrms)
DNR:-115dB
S/N:115dB
Crosstalk:-115dB
Output Impedance: 0.24ohm

3.5mm Line Out
Output Voltage: 1.8Vrms
Frequency Response:10Hz-45kHz+/-1dB
THD+N:0.00042%,-107dB (without load)
DNR:-115dB
S/N:115dB

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