||SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX LL, aptX HD, LDAC
|Supported Audio Formats
|USB DAC Chip
|USB DAC Format
||384 kHz/32-bit, DSD 256
||72 x 32 x 11.1 mm (excl. back clip)
PRICE R2 990.00
IMPORTED BY CPlan Audio 083 212-4599
WEBSITE www.cplanaudio.co.za / www.fiio.com
Last month I took a look at FiiO’s BTR3K, and just as it was the BTR1 that made me interested in its successor, so it was that the BTR3K made me want to go the next step, which was the company’s Flagship portable high-fidelity Bluetooth amplifier – the BTR5 2021. I say ‘was’, because FiiO has recently launched its successor, the BTR7, which looks decidedly delectable, but at the moment there is no arrival date for South Africa.
If you read the previous review on this site, you’ll know that I was blown away by the extensive capabilities of the diminutive BTR3K on several levels. In order to justify my stance on the FiiO, it was necessary to spend quite some time going through those capabilities in the review. The BTR5 2021 obviously offers all of what the BTR3K offered, plus more.
Accordingly, I’m going to suggest that for a more thorough run-down of those specs that you either read that review on our website (avnews.co.za/bluetooth-amplifier-dac-fiio-btr3k), or visit FiiO’s website.
Here, I’m going to mention the most important differences between the two, and then focus on my real-world experiences with the product.
For starters, again for the Tech-Heads who I know love to know this stuff, the really nitty gritty differences between the two are improvements to the DAC (Dual ESS9219P chips with better decoding performance, higher signal-to-noise ratio and lower power consumption compared to the BTR3K’s dual AK4477A), improved USB chip decoding (PCM up to 32-bit/384 kHz, DSD256 versus PCM up to 16-bit/48 kHz), as well as considerably increased output power for the BTR5’s Balanced and 3.5 mm headphone outputs.
With reference to the headphone outputs, the balanced side has each of its channels driven separately with their own DAC and amplifier chip.
The BTR5’s Qualcomm CSR8675 is a low-power Bluetooth chip with enhanced audio capabilities that include support for 24-bit audio processing as well as a 120 MHz DSP that allows it to handle numerous Bluetooth decoding functions easily.
The BTR5 also sports a 0.49-inch monochrome OLED display. Nothing fancy, but then it only has to display basic information like battery and volume levels, what Bluetooth codec it’s using, the sample rate, or if it’s decoding an MQA file.
The BTR5, like its predecessor the BTR3K, comes in this small, high gloss black form that somehow seems largely immune to fingerprints. Over the years in the industry I’ve dealt with numerous other brands with similar-looking finishes, and they’ve all had to go so far as to supply white gloves with their products to help users avoid spoiling that look. Whatever FiiO’s trick is here, it works, although I have to say that the BTR1’s more ‘industrial’, rugged look remains a favourite of mine.
Contained in the box, you’ll find the BTR5, a USB Type A to C connector (for the DAC connection between the FiiO and a laptop/charging) as well as a Type C to Type C connector (for the Smartphone/DAC connection). There’s also the belt clip, which provides some extra level of protection for the player. A welcome addition, as I’d hate to see how the little device handles a drop onto a hard surface… Interestingly enough, for the first time out of the three FiiOs I’ve used, there was no lanyard included, which was actually my favourite way of carrying them around.
For this review, I spent more time with the wired DAC/Smartphone setup as opposed to using the Bluetooth option. The latter may offer more convenience by way of freedom of movement, but if your chief aim is music quality, then using the wired DAC is a no-brainer.
Setting it up is pretty simple, especially using the FiiO Control App, where the only thing you have to do is to turn the USB Charge option to ‘off’. Then plug the unit in, and off you go. You can also turn it off on the player itself when you connect it to the Smartphone, but I found the App easier to use.
I’m currently using another new toy, recommended to me, which is the Neutron music player. Available on the Google App store at a more than reasonable price, this player offers 32/64-bit-processing, high-resolution audio playback without frequency resampling and bit truncation (if the internal/external DAC supports it), multi-channel native DSD, and far too many other features to mention here. I’ve used a number of music players over the years, and although it took me a bit of time to get the Neutron figured out, it’s by far the best I’ve ever used.
As with the FiiO Control App’s various options to tweak your audio stream, I chose to leave all of Neutron’s audio choices alone and to listen to my music as is, even if the player does offer a plethora of options to tailor your listening experience.
Before we move onto the listening notes, one peculiar ‘eccentricity’ I picked up during this review was that the FiiO Control App only remains active when Bluetooth is active. If you turn off Bluetooth when engaging the wired DAC option, the App is no longer accessible. You can leave Bluetooth on to keep the App open, but I’m not certain why anyone would do so when using the wired connection?
The most obvious difference between the BTR3K and the BTR5 is of course the power output – the latter has plenty of it in reserve, and maxing it out would only lead to uncomfortable listening levels, the kind that aren’t going to do your ears (or your headphones!) any kindness.
Of course as I’ve stated before, extra power with no control is completely useless and is guaranteed to ruin any listening experience. Here, those dual ES9219C DAC chips come into play, ensuring that the extra volume is always packed solid with musical detail. As much as I enjoyed my time with the BTR3K, it has to be said that it would have long since been running out of steam at the point where the BTR5 was powering on at full speed with plenty of headroom left.
Mentioned earlier, the BTR5 has also made a leap-forward upgrade in USB DAC decoding. With its separate XMOS xUF208 decoder chip inside, the FiiO is capable of asynchronous audio decoding under USB Audio Class 2.0, meaning it can support 384 kHz 32-bit/DSD256, which can be compared to a desktop decoder … with obviously a considerably greater price tag. The 2.0 does require a separate driver from the FiiO website, though.
Other notable differences are the addition of an equalizer to the BTR5, as well as an NFC option to make connecting even easier, so long as the Smartphone supports it of course.
As before, I listened to a variety of music genres, partly from my personal collection built up over the years, as well as to a vastly bigger – and still growing – library of favourites via Spotify (downloaded as well as streamed).
The experience using both my old Sonys as well as the newer Sennheisers was thoroughly enjoyable, and left me lamenting the fact that I had wasted so much time previously listening to my music without the addition of one of these wonderful little units.
I’d say that you shouldn’t expect the BTR5 to make a bad recording good, because that’s not its job. But I have to clarify that I’ve been forced to collect a few …less than ideal … recordings of titles from the ‘80s over the years, prior to my discovery of Spotify. They were some of my favourite hits from back then, but the recordings I found were less than ideal and to be honest pretty bland, with so much of the magic I remembered gone.
Prior to using the BTR5, I’d listen to them because I had such fond memories from those days, but the actual listening experience was never great, never satisfying. I’m not going to claim that the FiiO took those recordings and made a jaw-dropping improvement, but there was no doubt that a recording that had initially sounded so one-dimensional, so dull, now had an element of depth to it, improvements to the bass, as well as treble that was clear but not painfully sharp as it can be on poor recordings.
Seeing as we’re dealing in 1s and 0s here, my assumption is that what I was hearing was the BTR5’s own slightly warm signature on the music it deals with. Purists will frown at this, I suspect, because they like their music with nothing taken from or added to it.
I can understand this viewpoint to a certain extent, as over the years I’ve heard how even headphones themselves can ruin a good recording, and in recent times I’ve found myself moving from my original tastes of bass-rich ones to ones that are far more neutral, where none of the frequencies are given any preference over others. It’s entirely possible why I also seldom meddle or tinker with equalisers anymore — because I no longer feel the need to tweak what I’m listening to.
But with good recordings, you’re rewarded with all this DAC has to offer, and on these I honestly couldn’t detect any sort of ‘interference’ in the way the music was presented. Bass was tight and punched well when needed, mid frequencies were smooth as velvet, and the treble was presented beautifully clear. The differences are not of the ‘smack in your face’-type, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there was a marked increase in clarity to the music overall, the kind of change that just makes your listening experience so much more rewarding, and where you really want to listen as long as possible.
The BTR5 (and its predecessors) are a great combination of value for money and the convenience of portability. But most importantly, for me at least, it allows those of us who love our music — but who lack the fortune of owning dedicated stereo systems — to have an opportunity to experience great quality music without having to spend considerable amounts of money. That makes the FiiO devices worth each and every cent.