The DACS

The biggest talking point, apart from the sound quality, is what is under the hood of the DX90. The original DX50 sported a WM8740 24Bit DAC Chip implementation which is pretty much tried and tested now and perhaps getting past it’s sell by date. iBasso though did a fine job of wringing just about all they could out of the WM8740 and from our previous review we complimented it very highly indeed comparing it favorably to DAP’s almost double in price. For the DX90 iBasso ditched the DAC setup of the DX50 entirely and instead opted for a totally new dual mono DAC implementation around the ESS Sabre32 ES9018K2M chip. This is far more modern chip than the older WM8740. Tonally the ESS Sabre32 ES9018K2M has a far more dynamic, resolving and cleaner signature than the older, warm to neutral WM8740 chip.

Volume Control

Also volume control on the DX90 is probably among the best in the new daps I have tried to date outside of the AK series. The volume control on the DX90 is far tighter and more refined than the DX50 and a positive delight for IEM’s compared to HM-901 stepped attenuator. The HM- 901 attenuator is pretty solid but the steps are much bigger for me on the HM-901 than the digital control on the DX90. IEM’s tend to crap out and distort pretty quickly on the HM-901 compared to the DX90’s more sensitive levels of output and s/n. I rarely remember getting above 4-6 on the dial of the HM-901 with my least sensitive IEM’s compared to the oodles of play I got with the DX90. Forget about sound quality and which is better; if there is no control on the power then there is little point for me personally going with a higher end unit for sensitive cans and IEM’s.

Tonality

The DX90 exhibits a very neutral and transparent tonality and quite frankly its a big step up from the DX50 making it sound somewhat dull in comparison. That is no slight on the DX50 which remains bang for buck for me and superior to the FiiO X3 but side by side the DX90 is way above in terms of clarity and resolution. This is no sterile monitor like presentation either. The DX90’s attention to detail and fine image separation makes it a wonderfully engaging DAP also with superior dynamics to both the DX50 and FiiO’s own X5. The DX90’s soundstage is just so much more expansive than the DX50 and even bests the above average X5 soundstage capability.

Bass

Bass on the DX90 is tight, hits hard and has more extension and texture/detail than the DX50 and certainly more attention grabbing than the more intimate, thicker but slower X5 bass signature. Combined with my Merlins the DX90 bass response felt very firm and planted without any hint of fuzziness or bloom. This is the kind of clean bass I like with natural extension that doesn’t feel disjointed or lack coherence from the rest of the presentation.

Mids

The mids on the DX90 are relatively balanced with a very slight hint of warmth but with bit more bite and presence and not as sterile or cold as the original AK100. I wouldn’t describe the DX90 mids as being overly forward though. The large airy soundstage tends to leave a slightly less intimate experience with acoustics and vocals than the X5 is capable off. It is all about flavors really in that respect rather than any imagined weakness.

Treble

The DX90’s treble is a thing of beauty with excellent control, articulation and definition. It doesn’t sound blunted or recessed in anyway. There is certainly a lot more sparkle in the DX90’s treble presentation with a generally more airy feel than the X5’s more tapered top end. It is a strange thing but when comparing to the X5, which I originally reviewed as being wonderfully smooth and coherent, I found it was the X5 which suffered from more sibilance than the DX90. This is despite the DX90’s treble being more forward and aggressive than the X5. I often use Deadmau5’s “The Veldt” as a great reference track for sibilance checking. The tail end of the vocal can easily slip into a lingering “sssss” sibilance with any gear exhibiting slower decay and true enough the DX90 nailed this one and the X5 just slipped out one too many “s” in comparison.

Matching

Overall the DX90 sound is a major upgrade on the DX50 sonically and provides a worthy ying to the yang of the more intimate and thicker FiiO X5. My own personal preference tonally is the spacious, detailed and airy DX90. The dynamic and clean tuning suits my tastes perfectly and gets the best out of my stubbornly warm and laid back UM Merlins which is always a good sign. I did take time though to run it through some of other IEM’s and a few headphones just to see what it could do both matching and power wise.

DX90 with the UM Merlins

Volume setting: 190-205 (low gain)

Ticking all the right boxes right here and putting some much welcome life into my otherwise warm and laid back UM Merlins. Whilst by no means magically turning it into a frost queen the UM Merlin’s seem more agile and responsive and the DX90 really testing that dynamic driver yielding some excellent, deep and detailed bass responses especially with EDM genres. It is not all grunt and low end though with some wonderful agility and emotion combined with a proper display of the DX90’s imaging expertise with that fantastic soundstage capability of the Merlin.

DX90 with the UE900

Volume setting:205 – 220 (low gain)

Absolutely nailed it for orchestral flac, particularly “Evanstar” from the Lord of the Rings Two Towers OST. Incredibly detailed yet well controlled from top to bottom. The UE900’s slightly lighter application of bass and sense of roominess is an excellent match for the dynamic DX90 detail and imaging. Solo female vocals are wonderfully detailed with plenty of emotion and not a hint of sibilance. The UE900 DX90 combination was a touch weaker with rock, in particular Bai Bang’s “Everybody Everywhere”. Cymbal work felt a little harsh and peaky and the mids a little bit thinner I would have liked. The X5 did better in this instance outside of orchestral and EDM with a thicker bottom end and a more muted top end to control the lower treble splashiness on the UE900.

DX90 with the Fidue A83 (low gain)

Volume setting: 195-205

A relative newcomer to the market the Fidue A83 is a hybrid single dynamic and dual BA universal IEM. It looks darn sexy and retails for around $300. I have only had these for a short period of time and using them with foams they still sound a touch brighter than the UE900 though incredibly detailed, fast and with decent bass extension. Using Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, I got a tremendous sense of speed with this combination but perhaps the A83 was a little thinner sounding and more distant and ethereal than the UE900 using the DX90.

DX90 with the Minerva Mi-Pro Artist (low gain)(CIEM)

Volume setting: 195-205

The Minerva Mi-Pro Artist is a 3-way BA custom IEM from the UK which I covered in early January 2014. Very natural mid’s, clean presentation and decent body added to a tight and snappy bass line. It lacks the bombastic feel of the UM Merlin but has a slightly more forward and intimate presentation that matched very well to the DX90’s panache for detail. The multi-layered string work of Max Richter’s “Spring 1” from his recomposed Four Seasons work was remarkably accurate and energetic with the Mi-Pro. The UE900 though had a touch more clarity in the treble with the DX90 on orchestral works but that slightly muted lower treble on the Mi-Pro worked much better with the DX90 on rock.

DX90 with MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs

Volume setting:235-240 (high gain)

Sadly a failure with a tinny closed sound, squeezed treble and very low if nonexistent bass response. David Guetta’s thumping EDM Blade like “Glasgow” track sounded positively weak and lacking in any real depth, punch or slam. I should not be too surprised though because even the HM-901 needed to go to around 7-8 on the balanced card to really get the Alpha Dogs pumping so I didn’t really expect the DX90 to come even close.

DX90 with the Oppo PM1

Volume setting: 210-220 (high gain)

I was half expecting medium gain for the sensitive soul that is the PM-1 but in fact it really needed a high gain setting to get the most out of the PM-1 without the use of amplification. Probably the most efficient planer right now on the market with a consumer type presentation that really suits the DX90 in terms of control and getting the best out of that PM-1 top end. The DX90 pushed the PM-1 treble in the right direction without a hint of harshness. Rock sounded pretty good with the DX90 and PM-1. That splashy lower treble was under much better control unlike the UE900 and the Fidue A83. I did feel that thick and lush signature on the PM-1 was a bit thinner than I would have hoped for but overall not the worst match in the world. The HM-901’s bigger sound edged out the DX90 as a match for the PM-1.

Final Thoughts

I have to admit I am in love with my DX90. Perhaps the HM-901 is the more mature and natural sounding DAP and the FiiO X5 has the better battery life but the DX90 has just the right type of tonality to make it a great match for my Merlin’s and pretty darn good on the rest of the gear. The form factor and volume control also makes the DX90 a perfect travel companion combined with a suitable matched IEM. For those wishing to have a darker thicker smoother sound the X5 is probably going to be a more suitable candidate. These two companies are basically going head to head right now with Astell & Kern moving to a perceived higher ground and the HM-901 appealing more to headphone enthusiasts than IEM users for me personally. Should you upgrade from the DX50? If you love the tonality of the DX50 then perhaps no need to upgrade since everything else is more or less the same. That includes the physical looks, functionality and the OS. But if you want a step up in resolution, a faster, cleaner engaging sound then the upgrade might make lot of sense.

So where to next in this fast and furious DAP war? I wonder if we will see a DX150 or DX200 bearing in mind the DX100 seems like an eternity ago or do we go down to the lower end like FiiO with their rather sexy looking X1 and roll out a DX25? I am not so sure. iBasso have perhaps given the game away a bit with the launch of the wolf (DX90) in sheep’s clothing (DX50). Is a new redesign possible at this stage keeping costs low or will we see that same shape and format with a cheaper chip or lower quality amp? Hard to tell but it’s fun watching and participating that is for sure.

Many thanks to iBasso for sending us a review sample of the DX90 and a special thanks to Nathan Write of Ohm Image for the lead picture included in this article. Spiffing job and makes me feel like a rank amatuer with a camphone.

Links

www.ibasso.com/en/products/show.asp?ID=83

SRP: $419

Technical Specifications

Line out
Frequency Response: 17Hz~20KHz +/-0.1dB
S/N: -119dB +/-1dB
THD+N: 0.0015%
Crosstalk: 115dB (1KHz)
Output Level: 1.7Vrms (1kHz 0dB)

Headphone out

Frequency Response: 17Hz~20KHz +/-0.1dB
THD+N: 0.0015% (32ohm load)
Output Level: 1.3Vrms(Low gain), 2.0Vrms(Mid gain), 2.8Vrms(High Gain)
S/N: -118dB +/-1dB(Low gain), -116dB +/-1dB(Mid gain), -115dB +/-1dB(High Gain) (32ohm Load)
Crosstalk: 75dB (1KHz,32ohm Load)
Output Impedance: <0.1ohm

Battery

Battery Life: 8.5hours
Battery Charge Time: 3hours with AC adapter, 5.5hours with PC USB port
On Board Flash: 8GB
Audio Formats Supported: APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, OGG, MP3
Case dimension: 2.52W x 3.98L x 0.67H (inch)
64W x 100L x 17H (mm)
Weight: 140g or 4.94oz

Accessories

USB cable
Coaxial cable
Burn-in Cable
Silicone case
Screen protector

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About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

Related Posts

  • I may have missed it in the article, but if I have 2000 songs where both the filenames and internal tags are in the format ‘Artistname – Songname’, can I get directly to ‘Led Zeppelin – Heartbreaker’? I was not able to do that with the FiiO X3.

    • headfonics

      I have the same format, I have artist, album, title and it shows just fine in the internal directory transferring using winamp.

      Using the metatag option (My music – artist or genre) all my albums showed in perfect order under artist name and even my fav genre, artrist, album, song title.

      • You windows users you…

        • headfonics

          It really whips the Llama’s ass!

      • But you didn’t answer my question. How do I immediately select the song I named? On the iPhone, I press the ‘L’ button, then in one to 1.5 seconds I scroll to the song. How would that work with the DX90?

        • headfonics

          Well thank you Dale for being a bit more clear with your question.

          You dont have an L button on the iBasso because there is no keyboard so you operate it exactly in the same way an the ipod Clasic UI using the touchscreen. That is a drill down system.

          • I get it now – that’s cool – thanks.

          • headfonics

            Welcome!

  • headpspace

    Any comparison with the clarity and sound signature of the DX-50 should take into consideration what firmware is installed on it. Each firmware has a different sound signature and some of the custom firmwares by Doc2008 i.e ”Mega Sound Explosion’ take the DX-50 to another level.Any user can get a lot more mileage out of the DX-50 by experminenting with firmwares, the sound sginature is chosen with a databse system and even Ibasso play around with this for each release. Also, The very poor battery life of the DX-90 cannot be ignored, and it is an area that Ibasso seriously need to improve upon for the next device. The gap between the 2 players is also seriously reduced when using Line out to an amp.

    • headfonics

      There are differences tonally but it is reasonably safe to say the DX90 technically is a big leap up. Those who chose the custom firmware are going to be in the minority over those who choose to upgrade with the official firmware.

      I think we covered the battery and I did say a better battery is needed.

      I believe most of that is a consequence of opting to go with the same ergonomics of the DX50 but with increased processing power and same battery basically. Some have tried a bigger one but it just make the DX90 look pregnant with a proper backplate.

      Line out and DAC potential is going to be a review in itself with the X5 etc next month.

      By the way heck of an email address you have there πŸ™‚

      • Ash

        Has the DAC potential review out? Link? Thank you.

        • headfonics

          Ah its still on the table for 2014, lots of new product reviews to get out of the way first but I will get there dont worry πŸ™‚

          • Ash

            Good to hear, I look forward to it!

            It’s an aspect that is rarely expanded on, but IMO really adds to the value of these high-end DAPs.

          • headfonics

            You are dead right – its a value add that rarely gets discussed.

  • Li_An

    Hello,
    very interesting review. I hesitate between the DX50 and the DX90. I need one FLAC/MP3 player as musical groups tend to sell FLAC files and no more CD. So it’s to listen on my HiFi equipment not with headphones. Which one must I consider ?

    • headfonics

      If you want better resolution then the DX90 is probably the right choice.

      • Li_An

        Thank you. I bought finally the DX 90 πŸ™‚

  • Rik P

    Hello, Great review!!!
    I currently own a Cowon Z2 which is paired with a Nuforce amp and Polk 8000 headphones. Would DX90 be a significant upgrade to the Z2? also does the DX90 have featutes like recently added playlists?

  • Kyle Caalim

    Does anybody have a clue to what happened to iBasso? I haven’t heard anything from them but their website is broken and nobody seems to know what’s going on with them. The only thing on their website is the downloads page for the firmware. This makes me want to not purchase the DX90 because I will not be able to contact iBasso for their customer support in case I am ever in need of anything.

    • headfonics

      Sent them a health check email as I noticed this also. I will update you if I have any further news. Thanks.

    • headfonics

      All is well, new web site under development with new product lines πŸ™‚ Go buy that DX90 hehe.

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  • Does anyone know if there are any limitations on the database with this device? I know there is a limit with the Fiio X5, variously reported at 5200 or 7000 songs, but I need something that will take 10,000+.

  • awake

    great review for a great DAP

    Ibasso produced a winner here, imho.

    • headfonics

      Yup agreed and its one I have been using quite regularly to this day.

      • Fossil Bob

        Nup. Disagreed.

        • headfonics

          On what?

  • Grimy Strings

    Just bought this off amazon. Love the sound, but I’m confused by the variable line-level output. Battery life also seems to be lower when running at full volume.

    • headfonics

      Saw this reason in Head-fi that saved me a lot of writing πŸ™‚

      It has got a true Line Out bypassing the amp section but it is variable instead of being fixed. iBasso did it on purpose, I remember there was a discussion about that many months ago.

      I guess it is variable because the DX90’s volume is being adjusted in the DAC, not the amp section, therefore they might just have taken the signal path from the DAC and lead it directly to the LO-jack (therefore a fixed LO wouldn’t even be possible if my theory was true).

      Just set the volume to the maximum ammount if you are using the LO, as it would be the same as if it would have been a fixed LO (though you shouldn’t forget to reduce the volume if you want to use headphones straight from the DX90).

  • Andy Liang

    Which is a better match for the Sennheiser IE80s? the Ibasso dx90s or the Fiio x5? I personally listen to hip pop, rap, electronic and most other genres.

    • headfonics

      Hmm have not done an IE80 listening session in a long time so from aural memory I would say the DX90 for superior dynamics.

  • Freckle

    Great review, I am considering this DAP and have also looked at the FIIO X5. The X5 has 256GB storage; the DX90 has 64gb of internal storage – I did not see how much internal storage the DX 90 has – can you provide that info?

    • headfonics

      The DX90 has 8GB onboard memory with a single microSD slot (SDXC and SDHC MicroSD Card) that can take up to 2TB in theory, tested with 64GB no issues and an OTG compliant microSD port that can handle externally powered HDD or flash sticks up to 2TB.

  • Fede

    Great review! I am getting a DX90, my only concern is that the treble would be a little harsh, I usually hear music on my IPOD, any thoughts on that comparison?
    Thank you.

    • headfonics

      Actually the DX90 treble extends well and clear though it is quite well controlled for me compared to the X5 which has a metallic edge to the uppers. The DX90 blows the ipod treble out of the water.

  • Li_An

    It depends how you use it: if you use line out with HiFi installation, you should put the volume at 255 (max) to have the best sound.
    If you use it with hearphones (IEM), it depends on how much power the headphones need to work correctly (Dx90 manages most of headphones but some of them need a lot of power). So you may have to put a high level for volume – 120 for me with my headphone a AKG. So, no surprising you do not hear anything at 70.

    • Anuradha Kharmate-Palve

      Is it Dx90’s natural behavior ? (Sound is just Quiet from 1 to 90. on low Gain)

  • Dorea

    how does this compare to Fiio x7?

    • headfonics

      Personally I think the stock IEM module of the X7 is more neutral and flatter than the more dynamic and slightly bass enhanced DX90 but that is only half the story. The UI is light years ahead on the X7, the apps make it more involving with streaming and of course they still make the X7. In defense of the DX90 is it smaller, possibly more robust and you can replace the battery once it dies.