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Is an entry-level DAC/AMP worth an upgrade? A FiiO Q1 casual review

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I have never been an audiophile myself, although I love to own a good pair of headphones, I didn’t worry much about my setup. My personal belief is that to upgrade audio quality, a good pair of headphones is a lot more important than anything else. Of course, a good source is important, but I’m also in the camp that couldn’t distinguish a lossless file with a good compressed one (iTunes AAC files for example, is generally good).

But I have always been curious how a separate DAC/AMP could do to improve my setup. Is it worth upgrading over the on-board sound from my setup? So FiiO recently released Q1, an entry-level ($69.99) portable DAC/Amp and I decided to give it a test myself.

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Build quality and design

The first time I pick Q1 in my hand, I instantly fell in love. It has a simple, classic look, along with all metal chassis to give it a build quality beyond its price point. It has a nice feel and weight to it, but didn’t become cumbersome in my pocket.

The volume control is protected and is doubled as power switch. I liked the volume control a lot, it allowed me to precisely control my desired listening level. At the same side with the volume control, there’s a bass boost switch, headphones line-out and status LED. On the bottom, there’s a charge switch, a high/low gain switch, a micro USB port, along with AUX line-in that also double as line-out when using it as DAC only.

The battery is 1400 mAh and rated for 30 hours listening session. I was unable to test this claim as I keep mine plugged in and I never run out of battery when I’m using it as AMP on the go.

Accessories

At entry-level price point, it’s natural that not many accessories is included beyond mandatory one. Included with the package are a micro USB data cable, a mini to mini 3.5mm jack, a pair of silicon pad and a pair of rubber. There is no lightning nor micro USB to micro USB cable, so if you are looking to use the DAC on iOS or Android devices, you need to buy it separately.

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Sound quality

Before I go into sound quality, let me tell you about my setup first. My usual listening setup at home is through a Macbook Air paired with AKG K551. I also have Audio Technica ATH-M50s for another comparison. As for my portable setup, I have a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 paired with Shure SE215 SPE. My audio source is iTunes AAC 256kbps files and AAC 320kbps purchased from mora.jp.

So how did stacking up FiiO Q1 improve my setup? Not much I’m afraid. The differences is very small. I suppose this could be because the on-board sound from Macbook Air is pretty good already and that the Macbook Air actually sounds very similar to Q1. If I had to pick, Q1 might have better dynamic range and more energetic sound – but I’m sure it’s still hard to distinguish if I’m doing a blind test.

Compared to my Note 4 however, the Q1 sounds more neutral, while Note 4 is a little on warmer side. The bass boost switch will add 5db to the low-end, in my experience, this add to a more bodied sound and the effect is pretty good without overwhelming the mid-end much. I liked to add the bass boost for a more fun listening session, I found that it’s a good combination with K551, but too warm for M50s.

The only small problem with Q1 is that I noticed a very small hiss when paired with Shure SE215 SPE. This is only audible when I switched Q1 on and I quickly forget it when the music start playing. The hiss isn’t audible with K551 and M50s however. Sensitive IEM might pick up the hiss better than full size headphones. As a note, pairing Note 4 directly to SE215 SPE have no hiss at all, however with Macbook Air and SE215 SPE, there’s annoying hiss. Q1 hiss is much less than what the Macbook Air produce, so in a way, that’s an upgrade over the Macbook Air on-board sound.

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Conclusion

Do I keep Q1 as part of my setup? The answer is obviously yes, but not for a better audio quality. The reason is much simpler, I liked to be able to precisely adjust my volume level as I needed. With Macbook Air or Note 4, we can’t be very precise, especially with Note 4. The bass boost is a welcome addition too.

Is Q1 a worthy upgrade over the on-board sound? If you already have a good laptop or smartphone, depends. It’s small improvement at most, but with only $69.99 MSRP, you can’t ask for a lot either. However if your setup has problem or have electrical noise, Q1 is definitely a good choice. And if you are like me, love to have precise volume control while slightly improving the sound, then yes, it’s worthed. You can find this nice little DAC/Amp on Amazon. 🙂

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