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January 2024

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FiiO Q15 Desktop / Portable Hi-Res Music DAC And Headphone Amplifier Review
An overachiever that exceeded my expectations.
Review By Tom Lyle

 

FiiO Q15 Desktop / Portable Hi-Res Music DAC And Headphone Amplifier Review An overachiever that exceeded my expectations. Review By Tom Lyle

 

  The FiiO Q15 desktop / portable Hi-Res Audio and Hi-Res Music DAC and headphone amplifier (headamp) is a small device that well earns its' category. One can call it a portable device. Still, it is a bit heavier than your average DPA (Digital Audio Player, at first popularized by Apple's iPod device) that weights 305 grams (about half a pound). Many might consider it more at home when used as part of a desktop system.

Some of the features of the Q15 should be familiar to anyone who has had some experience with portable listening devices, but the Q15 goes far beyond what most would expect from this device. It is priced at $399 and is at the top of the FiiO Hi-Res DAC / headphone amp line.

Spoiler Alert: Audiophiles should consider the FiiO Q15 a stone-cold bargain.

 

Claims
Even though the Q15 is a miniature audio component, FiiO claims that they designed it to be used as a high-end DAC/headphone amplifier with the credentials of a desktop component. The FiiO Q15 even has a "Desktop Mode," which enables the Q15 to bypass its internal battery, ensuring desktop performance even when used as a portable headphone amp/DAC.

Inside this device, which is about the size of a very thick iPhone, includes a Qualcomm QCC5125 Bluetooth chip and an AKM "flagship" DAC combo AK4191 and AK4499EX in separate partitions, which FiiO claims will significantly improve sound quality. It also has an XMOS 16-core XU316, which supports 768kHz/32-bit PCM, DSD512, and the proprietary lossy MQA decoding scheme. It's incredible what modern miniaturization has brought to the audiophile world, as it wasn't too long ago when these features could only be found in the best full-sized audio components.

The FiiO Q15 has dual power supplies has 1600 mWs of output power, and includes Bluetooth connectivity, USB, Coaxial, and Bluetooth Decoding, a 10-band global parametric equalizer (PEQ), a five-level audio circuit, and a bright, full-color IPS display. It also includes what I consider its most important specification, its combination of AK4191 and AK4499EX, which enables it to have separated partitions, increasing its sound quality. In addition to this, its XMOS 16-core XU316 supports high-resolution digital files, including DSD.

 

 

When Desktop Mode is engaged in combination with using its balanced output, the FiiO Q16 can put out a massive amount of output power, as high as 1600mW, which can quickly drive just about anything it's connected to, from an easy-to-drive in-ear monitor (IEM) to a more challenging large over-the-ear headphone.

The FiiO Q15's most astonishing feature is that it is priced at $399, which many non-audiophiles might consider a stretch for a portable or desktop product, but when one considers its features and sound quality, is a bargain! If I hadn't known its price, I would have assumed that the FiiO Q15 cost much more.

The FiiO Q15 has many methods of connection — USB, Bluetooth, and type-C USB in and out which will enable the Q15 to connect to a desktop, laptop computer, or phone. The Q15 has what are called desktop and phone modes. The phone mode allows one to bypass one's phone battery, instead supplying its power with the Q15's battery. 

 

Impressive
The number of features contained in this device is quite impressive. It is larger than most DAPs (Digital Audio Players), other than the top-of-the-line models from high-end equipment manufacturers. Still, it is definitely much heavier than one's carafe DAP. Yet, its functionality is such that I could write a tome's worth of text listing all of its functions and options — which seems weird given that it cost $399.

 

 

Expert
Before I go any further, I'll admit that I'm not an expert in portable or desktop systems. But those who know me likely trust my opinion regarding high-end audio equipment. I'm a serious headphone listener, but still, I used the Q15 in only two ways: when connected to my Sony Walkman DAP and to my desktop computer that doubles as a music server, it is hard-wired via USB to the main system in my acoustically treated, dedicated listening room.

 

Sound Quality Of FiiO's Q15
I didn't compare it to my reference DAC, an EMM Labs DA2; that would be ridiculous. But it wasn't an enormous difference that I could hear when played through my main system. But when connected to my Sony Walkman DAP, it improved the sound quality of all files, upgrading the sound quality of everything from "CD Quality" (a.k.a. 1980's Redbook) 16-bit / 44.1kHz resolution music files up to playing DSD files.

 

 

Audition
During the FiiO Q15 audition period, I used it as a headphone amplifier when listening to the Sony Walkman. There was a bit of a learning curve, as I spent more time than I would have liked deciphering the online manual, attempting to not only use the amplifier in the Q15 rather than the one in the Sony but also learning how to bypass the DAC in the player. But I did spend time connecting the USB output of my music server, and instead of connecting it to my reference DAC, I joined the USB output to the Q15 and its analog output to the linestage of my system. This is where I could hear how the Q15 sounded in absolute terms.

The Q15 did not embarrass itself during this rather unfair comparison. Its sound quality could be compared to an "affordable" desktop amplifier or DAC. Although the Q5 effects circuits worked well when using them, they were unnecessary when using high-quality headphones or connected to my main system.

 

 

Using the Q15 was much easier once I got the hang of it. It has a conveniently located volume control on the top of the device. On the unit's topmost portion of the device, there is a knob that controls many of its functions. But on its lower portion is a "phone mode" switch, a S/PDIF coax, USB, and power inputs, and a switch that controls "desktop mode."

As I previously mentioned, when using "phone mode" via a USB connection to one's mobile phone, it makes it so the Q15 provides the power so it won't drain the phone's battery." Desktop mode" can power the Q15 from an external power source plugged into its "Power in" port, the Q15 won't use its own battery when plugged into the computer. 

 

 

Connected
Most of my time with the FiiO Q15 was spent with it connected to my Sony Walkman audio player. The two were connected via a short USB type-C cable. The Q15 worked immediately, with no problems whatsoever. Volume was now controlled by the large wheel on the top of the FiiO. I'm not one to adjust settings such as EQ or any effects, I like to hear the music as it was produced by the musicians and their engineers and producers, not by me. The sound of the FiiO Q15 was as transparent as I could have hoped for. The Q15 improved the sound of my player in every conceivable audiophile trait, but the most noticeable was the apparent transparency of its sound. This was impressive, as the FiiO Q15 cost less than my player!

Thankfully, there was also an improvement in the sound quality of the music coming through my headphones regarding the sound sound-field. I call this quality a sound-field rather than a soundstage since the sound isn't coming through the air from a pair of speakers but two small speakers only a few millimeters away from my ear canals. This characteristic is very noticeable with high-end audio headphones, as all the music doesn't sound as if it originates from inside one's head. Still, the music often forms a halo around my skull, an aura of sound, if you'd like. The Q15 could reproduce a very lifelike sound, given the quality and resolution of my player's music.

 

 

Again, this was amazing because the FiiO Q15 headphone amplifier / Hi-Res Audio DAC only costs $399. I wish all high-end audiophile equipment were within its price range! The FiiO Q15 is a fantastic device not only because it has many functions. Even so, I really only used the Q15 in two ways: connecting it to my Sony Walkman DAP and as a desktop DAC connected to my computer-based music server. There are so many ways to use this product that I'll never be able to demonstrate them all in one review.

I'm somewhat proud of my ability and experience to hear even the most minor improvements (or the opposite) in any piece of audio equipment. The Q15 improved the performance of my portable. I also admit that I'm not an expert on portable devices, although I listen to audiophile headphone amplifiers (and headphones, of course) daily. I also listen to my Sony Walkman DAP daily and used the FiiO Q15 in a few ways, but for the most part, I used my portable DAP instead of my reference headphone amplifiers (sans DAC).

 

 

Quality
Using the FiiO Q15 to improve my Sony Walkman DAP's sound quality was my first order of business. Connection to the Sony was simple, as I connected its USB output to the input of the FiiO Q15 and the headphones to the Q15's 3.5mm "mini" jack."

To discover how the Q15 behaved with several headphones, and also because it was fun, I used many different sets of headphones during the audition period. Headphones included the affordable Sennheiser Pro HD-280, a closed-back headphone with excellent isolation and a very neutral, revealing sound. I also used the slightly more expensive but still affordable Sennheiser open-back HD-600. An affordable audiophile favorite for quite some time, the OPPO PM-1 is now discontinued, but this planar magnetic headphone sound is detailed and refined and has a vast, enveloping soundstage. They were introduced about ten years ago at around $1100. Lastly, I used the quite pricey Grado PS2000e headphones, priced at about $2700. These reference phones aren't likely to be in the average FiiO Q15 user's headphone arsenal. Still, these headphones are the ultimate sound quality, especially their detail retrieval and huge sound field.

Using the FiiO Q15 with my Sony Walkman instead of the Sony Walkman without the Q15 wasn't like night and day. An audiophile description I first used nearly 30 years ago was "a small but significant improvement in sound quality." This perfectly describes the experience of using the Q15 with my Sony Walkman. Sound quality improvement was much more noticeable when listening to high-resolution files, especially DSD. There was an improvement in sound quality across the board, including the size and scale of the sound field, its apparent frequency response, micro- and macro-dynamics, and, most importantly, the perceived realism of acoustic instruments and voices.

Of course, the level of improvement the FiiO Q15 rendered depended on the recording quality and headphones used. Connecting the Q15 to the USB output of my music server was not to embarrass it when compared to my usual DAC in the main system in my dedicated listening room, the mighty EMM Labs DA2. Yet I was very impressed with this FiiO DAC, as it displayed the audiophile traits I listed above when used with my Sony portable player. A more modest desktop system would appreciate the FiiO Q15 much more than my high-end system.

 

 

In Conclusion
I must congratulate FiiO once again for producing a product that is an overachiever and exceeded my expectations. I expected it to perform better than it did, especially since it is essentially a miniature audio component. The other FiiO products I've used in the past included their portable digital players, which included at least one very affordable player and one of their top models. Despite the FiiO Q15's relatively low price, I consider it a product that deserves an audition. Recommended.

 

 

 

Tonality

Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)

Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise
Emotionally Engaging

Value For The Money

 

 

 

Specifications
Type: Desktop and portable DAC with headphone amplifier
DAC: Flagship AKM AK4191EQ + AK4499EX Combination
USB Chipset: XMOS 16-core XU316
Bluetooth Chipset: Qualcomm QCC5125
Maximum Sampling Rate (USB DAC): Up to PCM 768kHz/32-Bit / Native DSD512
Maximum Sampling Rate (S/PDIF Coax): Up to PCM 192kHz/24-Bit / DoP DSD64
Lossy proprietary MQA Support
SNR: ≥ 123db (A-Weighted)
THD+N: <0.0004% (LO/1kHz/10kΩ)
Bluetooth Codec Support (Receive): SBC / AAC / aptX / aptX LL / aptX Adaptive/ aptX HD / LDAC
Display: 1.30-inch TFT (240 x 240)
Headphone Output: 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced
Line Out: 3.5mm single-ended (Shared PO) and 4.4mm Balanced (Shared PO)
Line In: S/PDIF Coaxial via RCA jack
USB Connection: Type-C USB2.0 (Charge/Data Transfer) and Type-C USB2.0 (Charge)
Color Options: Black or Titanium Grey
Dimensions: 143.5 x 71.75 x 21.75mm (HxWxD)
Weight: 305 grams
Price: $399

 

 

 

Company Information
FiiO
No.21, Longliang Road
Xialiang Village, Longgui Street
Baiyun District
GuangZhou, China

Voice: +86 136 605 40625
E-mail: sunny@fiio.net  
Website: FiiO.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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