Tonality & Presentation
I am actually very impressed with the tuning of the DX120. I was expecting something warm and forgiving but this is far more neutral but just as engaging. It still an AKM chipset tuning to some extent with a slightly enhanced or fuller sounding low-end and some forwardness in the upper mids and lower treble but its tastefully done and not in your face. It makes for a very immersive and enjoyable listening experience.
I remember being dazzled by the very fun and somewhat aggressive sounding AK4490EQ that Cayin stuck in the i5 a few years ago and to some extent that was a theme with the older AKM-infused DAPs. iBasso have refined this presentation to something a lot subtler and in a way, more reference-like in tone.
In the context of the DX150, I find the DX120 to have a cooler sound, slightly more neutral in the midrange timbre and a little more sparkle in the treble. It is not quite as thick sounding as the DX150 or possess the same level of even-harmonic bias with the Amp 6 card. The detail is excellent as is the dynamic range. If you are coming from the DX80 the DX120 is also a bit cooler sounding but it is a definite upgrade in terms of resolution and imaging prowess. Staging is also more holographic in nature than the DX80.
With competing DAPs and using the same IEM and tracks (Andromeda, a mix of EDM and rock) the low-end of the DX120 was a key difference. Some DAPs opted for something a little softer and warmer such as the Shanling M3s whereas the DX120 sounded tighter, with a little more sub-bass presence and power that gave it an edge in staging depth. The dynamic range, by the way, is excellent so that additional depth is not muddy or one-dimensional helping to create a more immersive sound.
Testing the HiBy R3 against the DX120 with tracks from DJ’s sub-bass powerhouse album Retrological 2.0 and we found ourselves gravitating towards the DX120 for that additional sub-bass power and depth the iBasso sound provided.
The DX120 delivers a clean and clear level of midrange resolution with excellent instrumental separation. Midrange instrumental timbre on the DX1220 is underpinned by a solid bass fundamental so they sound weighted but not overly warmed up. You get a nice sense of authority and clarity at the same time from bass and rhythm guitar work.
The vocal presence on the DX120 is ever-so-slightly forward sounding compared to the likes of the R3 and even the N5ii. In fact, the higher up you go the more energy the DX120 delivers which is not too far off what I come to expect from AKM chipsets. Male vocals have a nice harmonic balance and the vast majority of female vocals sounds fairly accurate and at times quite rich in detail. It is only when higher pitching to soprano level do you feel a greater upper harmonic overtone creep in.
This is not a soft treble, more neutral and clean sounding but the body is good and overall it does sound a little more natural to my ear than some of the ES9018/28 infused DAPs such as the M3s and N5ii. The N5ii has the greater energy which some will perceive as being more detailed sounding though I think both are just fine for top-end resolution. Rather the lower treble on the DX120 a little more enhanced so percussion work has a bit more presence and perceived articulation.
Efficiency & Noise
The ability to handle efficient IEMs on the DX120 is very strongly connected to the noise floor performance. With this in mind, the DX120 is very good indeed and it is a DAP I have no real issues hooking up to sensitive IEMs like the Andromeda and Phantom via its unbalanced output.
However, it is not completely dead silent, there is just a tiny very low level of hiss with the likes of the Andromeda but you have to go looking for it, in all honesty, to really notice it. You will hear more hiss and noise though if you hook up super sensitive IEMs to the DX120 balanced output. Do remember, however, this is a 400mW x 400MW (32Ω) load output so it is not that surprising to hear a higher noise floor with sub-20Ω BA IEMs.
If I am to contextualize this I would place the single-ended output of the DX120 on par with the DX150 with Amp card 6 but higher noise levels than the DX200 single-end also with Amp card 6. For balanced performances, the DX120 noise floor is higher than both the DX150 and DX200 balanced outputs with Amp 6.
Competition-wise, the DX120 is miles better compared to the FiiO X5iii and X3iii noise floors with similar IEMs. The Cayin N5ii is the quieter of the two DAPs with its low gain setting in both balanced and unbalanced settings.
The HiBy R3 is also slightly quieter on its balanced output with sensitive IEMs but it still has detectable hiss. Remember, the R3 amp is much weaker than the DX120 at just 25% of the potential output power so it should be quieter.
Line & Digital Out
No OTG… For Now
OTG on the DX120 is a no go. It is not cut and dry in terms of no sound though. You do actually get an audio signal and I was able to get audio from both my Oppo HA-2SE and a FiiO Q5.
However, the quality of the signal is very poor with frequent crackling and stutters making it virtually unlistenable. I am hopeful future firmware can correct this since a signal is possible but it may also be a limitation of the OS or CPU capabilities. For now, do not go looking for it.
I also have 2 issues on the DX120 line-out performance. Not so much in terms of sound quality. At 1.8V it is just shy of the magical 2V for the majority of desktop amps but otherwise plenty of voltage, low noise and excellent dynamic range for portable amps.
Rather the 2 problems are a very annoying pop when pressing play on the DX120 and a tiny bit of crackle when pausing the playback. The pop is off-putting, to say the least. The crackle slightly less so but neither should be there. Again, I hope it is something that can be corrected.
If you have the latest Windows it should automatically detect and load the universal 2.0 USB drivers to activate the DX120 as an external DAC. For some reason, this didn’t quite go to plan on my own PC with some power issues on one of my USB sockets. Switching to a secondary USB slot brought some stability.
Note, if you are using FooBar set the output to 24BIT, it will not function under a 32BIT output format. If you do not have the latest Windows then download the DX150 USB Driver, it should work in the same manner as both use an XMOS USB stage. For MAC users it should be plug and play.
Just be aware also you do need to set the USB functionality to DAC on the DX120 first. It will not default to it automatically so either activate it in the general settings or the playback drop-down screen before plugging it into your PC.
For those who are interested in using the DX120 for speech-based audio such as movies, the DX120 performed quite well with minimal lag. Voice sync issues seem to be absent during the 2-3 movies I watched with the DX120 as the primary DAC/Amp.
Launched just before the end of 2017, the M3s is priced to go head to head with the DX120 at $299. The M3s is built on HiBy’s non-touch based OS and in terms of ease of use its miles behind the touch-based new Mango OS on the DX120. Granted the HiBy OS is a touch faster to load up but the interplay between the physical buttons, finger and screen make the navigation cumbersome and slower in real life.
The form factor on the M3s is actually really nice with some smoothed curves and a pocketable size. It is not quite as eye-catching as the sweeping contours of the DX120 but it is equally comfortable in the hand. The larger touch-sensitive DX120 IPS screen obliterates the washed out 3″ 480 x 800px TFT screen on the M3s. However, the 2D glass finish of the M3s is very attractive to the eye. The viewing angle of the DX120 LCD is superior, the legibility is superior and the color saturation much more appealing.
Like the DX120 there is no onboard memory with provision for only one slot for a memory card on the M3s compared to two on the DX120. The M3s, however, has Bluetooth connectivity and can integrate into HiBy Link on smartphones meaning you can bi-directionally stream to source and smartphone. The DX120 has no connectivity options. Battery life on the DX120 is better at 16 hours compared to 13 on the M3s. Both can use a line-out and USB-C DAC from a PC but the M3s’s line-out is not a dedicated LO, sharing instead with the regular 3.5mm single-ended output.
DAC & Amp
The M3s has a lower grade AK4490EQ chipset in a dual channel implementation. The DX120 has a single AK4490EQ which is a higher performing chipset but only in single channel implementation. The M3s will decode up to DSD256 compared to the DSD128 limitation of the DX120.
The DX120 has by far the lower noise floor compared to the M3s at 0.00032% compared to 0.0015%. It also has the more powerful balanced output rating at 400mW compared to 230mW on the Shanling M3s. The M3s has a slightly higher 130mW rating on its unbalanced output.
The tuning on both on a macro level is not that different between these two DAPs. Both are aiming for something lively and musical in their approach rather than dead neutral. There is a degree of low-end warmth and some shimmer in their treble performance. Vocal presence on both is slightly forward and more vivid than neutral.
The difference for me is on the technical side, most notably the dynamic range and the level of resolution or detail. Tonally, the DX120 has a little more authority on the low-end. I do not mean infinitely more low-end presence than the M3s but rather superior definition and dynamic range. The impact on the low-end thus sounds tighter on the DX120 using an Andromeda as our test IEM. The M3s has the same presence but sounded slightly softer with a bit more mid-bass bloom.
I am also getting that same sense of superior resolution throughout the midrange and treble on the DX120. Vocals sound a little more accurate with better spacing around them. The M3s presence is good but lacks the same pinpoint control and comes across as a little less detailed sounding. The lower treble on the M3s has that older AK4490 sound which tends to emphasize a slightly longer decay on percussion timbre. The DX120’s treble is tighter, less splashy and more realistic sounding for percussion instruments such as cymbal and hi-hat.
HiBy Music R3
The R3 is the entry-level DAP from HiBy Music. Priced at $229 it is a little cheaper than the DX120 and perhaps a slightly lower tier but we threw it in any way because it is loaded to the gills with interesting features.
The R3 comes with its own HiBy Music OS which is a competitor to the Mango. I must admit the OS is fantastic with its MSEB DSP, simple but easy to navigate options and TIDAL integrated. It makes light of its smaller screen real estate. The addition of WiFi and Bluetooth LDAC really opens up the R3 as a functional connected device so it is more than just a pure music player.
The R3 is much smaller than the DX120 but also a lot more fragile with that glass back. The 2D 3.2″ glass cover IPS screen is attractive with a great viewing angle and brighter also than the DX120 screen. The viewing angle is also superior on the R3. I do prefer the physical buttons on the DX120 over both the layout and tactile feel of the R3 buttons.
I am not a fan of the rocker system on the R3 for individual track control and operating blind the larger better-spaced buttons on the DXx120 does perform better in the pocket. The R3 only has a single card slot for memory and battery life is a lot shorter at 9 hours compared to 16 hours of the larger DX120. It gets even shorter if you leave BT and WiFi on also.
DAC & Amp
The DAC inside the R3 is excellent, this is an ES9028Q2M and can decode up to DSD256 and PCM 32bit/384kHz. Noise level performance on the DX120 is much superior though at 0.00032% compared to 0.003% on the R3.
Although both have balanced output the amp inside the R3 is also much weaker and only really suitable for IEM’s in terms of driving power. At just over 200mW (112+112) into 32 ohms balanced it is about 50% of the driving power of the DX120. Headphones become relevant when using the DX120’s output.
It took me a while to figure out the key tonal and technical differences between these two because both aim for a slightly musical lilt with a heavier low-end (R3 has some core DSP applied) despite their different DAC chipsets. Both have excellent levels of detail also on initial impressions or casual levels of listening.
After a while, though the differences start to make themselves heard. The R3 just lacks that same level of staging depth as the DX120. The DX120 just has the edge on bringing out that sub-bass presence and power compared to the R3. That enhanced depth, in part, allows the DX120 to sound just that little bit more holographic in its soundstage over the R3.
The detail is all there and the R3 continues to be a wonderful player for clarity. However, the R3 is not quite as vivid sounding as the DX120 particularly in the midrange and vocal dynamics. There seems to be a more neutral and controlled mids presentation on the R3 compared to the fuller and more forward sounding vocal of the DX120.
The DX120’s background also seems that little bit blacker, particularly on solo guitar work. For example, Duran Duran’s Ordinary World’s brief guitar solo seems a lot easier to pick out and more lifelike than the R3 playing the exact same track and same solo passage.
The N5ii has actually been replaced by the N5iis for some supply reasons and has had some upgrades. However, the N5ii is what we have and in terms of functionality not a huge amount of changes has happened between the two versions.
The N5ii also uses a HiBy skin on top of an Android 5.1 platform. On that basis, the N5ii OS is more complex and functional than the DX120 Mango OS but also that 1GB RAM makes it a bit slower. The N5ii OS has a player focus with a well laid out home screen media manager but it also has all the benefits of Android WiFi, BT as well as being able to load some 3rd party Android apps.
It will slow down though the more you load so watch the performance levels or upgrade to the N5iis which is faster. I also find the RAM allocation in the N5ii to be a bit of an issue for streaming buffers on large cloud libraries.
The form factor is a little longer and blockier looking than the DX120. The DX120 looks the more modern player. The N5ii’s screen is a little larger and brighter than the DX120 screen at 3.65” compared to 3.2″. However, the color tones of the DX120 screen are much better. Both are IPS panels so viewing angles and legibility are good enough though neither have the “pop” of the R3 2D glass screen.
The N5ii uses an analog dial for volume which I find very useful compared to the button controls of the DX120. Both have dual memory card slots and USB-C ports though the Cayin port is a modified version so you need to use their own USB-C cables for OTG. The N5ii also has 32GB onboard memory compared to none for the DX120. The N5ii has WiFi and BT with bi-directional support and HiBy Link whereas the DX120 has no connectivity.
DAC & Amp
The DAC on the N5ii is an older ES9018K2M chipset so not as competitive as either the R3’s ES9028Q2M or the DX120’s AK4495EQ. I am not a fan of the ES9018 chipset but I do think Cayin did a good job with the tuning though on the N5ii. It has less of that ‘Sabre glare’ but still a bit more neutral than the DX120.
Both have the same DSD128 and PCM 32Bit/384kHz decoding capability. THD+N numbers, as with the other tested DACs are not as good as the DX120 at 0.002% compared to the excellent DX120’s 0.00032% (balanced). Both have good output power on their amps with the N5ii at 250mW+250mW on a 32Ω load compared to the 400mW of the DX120 on a similar load. The Line out on the N5ii is a little stronger at 2Vv though. I do prefer this over the 1.8V LO of the DX120 for amp matching purposes.
The gap between these two in terms of performance is not that big to be honest which bodes well with those with tighter budgets. Both have very low noise floors, with the N5ii’s new triple gain level system working a charm with efficient IEMs.
Tonally, the N5ii and DX120 are more smooth than neutral sounding. However, the N5ii low-end is a shade more neutral sounding with slightly less weight and sub-bass impact than the DX120. The DX120 will deliver a bit more authority and sound the slightly deeper of the two staging-wise. Both have excellent staging width with the N5ii delivering a bit more upper treble energy.
Instruments on the N5ii are also a little more neutral in their positioning with a slightly leaner timbre. It is still quite smooth but lacks the same bass fundamental presence that the DX120 delivers so not as full-bodied. That stronger fundamental overtone or 1st harmonic on the DX120 is really the key difference between these two players’ signatures.
Vocal presence is also more neutral in terms of weight and positioning compared to the DX120. The N5ii has a touch more odd-harmonic presence with its livelier treble signature whereas the DX120 vocal pitch is a little richer sounding.
The DX120 treble is a tiny bit smoother and more natural sounding with a bit more body. The N5ii has the livelier brighter top-end signature but again, it is a little lighter in tone or weight but in no way harsh or exhibiting unwanted glare.
The DX120 is a very welcome addition to the mid-fi DAP line-up in 2018. When it was first announced the design totally caught me out. It is just so “not iBasso” with those modern smooth curves and the ditching of the previously industrial design ethic.
And truth be told, I really hope they continue down this road and all future DAPs they make embrace the joy of smooth cornering and more radical contouring. It makes a big difference in your hand.
The size is just right also. It may not be as thin or as cute as the HiBy R3 but the larger screen size and more durable machined aluminum build may well be welcome by those who think the R3 might be a little too fragile. Ditch the silicone case though and bring in something a bit more refined like a leather case. The silicone is just too thick and not easy to work with for connections.
The sound quality is excellent if the lack of stable LO and OTG connectivity is less so. It is still on the musical side in how it presents its tuning. You will get great sub-bass depth and presence and a slightly forward and energetic upper mids and lower treble. For those that want excellent detail in their player but hate something purely linear and analytical then the DX120 is a refined and strong mid-fi choice.
DX120 Technical Specifications
- OS: mango pure tone system
- DAC: AK4495
- Screen: 3.2-inch 480X800 resolution full-fit IPS touch screen
- Sampling rate: PCM: 8kHz-384kHz (8/16/24/32bits)/native DSD: DSD64/128, stereo (does not support multi-channel DST)
- Clock system: TCXO active temperature compensation crystal oscillator + phase-locked loop technology, digital audio bus full synchronous clock
- Battery/Charging: 3700mAh 3.8V Lithium Ion Polymer Battery/USB TYPE-C MTK-PE+ is compatible with QC2.0 dual fast charging technology, supports 12V, 9V/1.5A fast charging standard, and is backward compatible with common BC1.2 specification. USB charger
- 2 Micro SD card slots
- Size: 63mmx113mmx15mm
2.5mm balance po:
- Maximum output level: 3.6Vrms
- Frequency response: 10HZ-45KHZ+/-1dB
- THD+N: 0.00027%, -111dB (no load @2.4Vrms), 0.00032%, -110dB (32Ω load @2.4Vrms)
- Dynamic range: 117dB
- Signal to noise ratio: 117dB (32 ohm load) (132dB)
- Crosstalk: -116dB
3.5mm single-ended po:
- Maximum output level: 1.8Vrms
- Frequency response: 10HZ-45KHZ+/-1dB
- THD+N: 0.0004%, -107dB (no load @1.2Vrms), 0.00056%, -105dB (32Ω load @1.2Vrms)
- Dynamic range: 115dB
- Signal to noise ratio: 115dB (32 ohm load)
- Crosstalk: -115dB
3.5mm single-ended line out:
- Maximum output level: 1.8Vrms
- Frequency response: 10HZ-45KHZ+/-1dB
- THD+N: 0.0004%, -107dB (no load @1.2Vrms)
- Dynamic range: 115dB
- Signal to noise ratio: 115dB
- Play time: about 16hours