My Video Review:
After crowning FiiO’s M17 as the king of (trans)portable DAPs, capable of driving the most demanding loads out there, it was only a matter of time when such technology will make way into affordable stuff. When their K9 PRO ESS arrived at our HQ, we again crowned it as the king of All-In-Ones at its respective price point. A few months later, we were informed that FiiO started stripping away the digital audio player section, ditching M17’s display, RAM & ROM memory, a powerful CPU and an unlocked Android OS, in favor of a newer PCB design and of a better thermal dissipation, while lowering the bill of materials as much as possible. Months passed by and FiiO started sending questionnaires about an upcoming triple-O (Overkill, Overpowerful, Oversized) unit that could be released soon. I embraced that idea and many others were as enthusiastic about having an M17-like performance at less than half its asking price. FiiO green-lighted the project and at the end of September, Q7 was unwrapped in front of our screens, leaving a bitter taste in our months as it couldn’t be ordered the next day.
Instead of passing into the history books as Apple predicted, portable audio is growing day by day and even if the rest of the world is catching up, this is still the biggest profit-making machine in Asia. Considering the newest trends in which every gadget should fit in our pockets, we are going to see a lot of high-fidelity portable devices that won’t go extinct anytime soon.
While Q7 rocks a few tweaks under its aluminum hood, especially the digital input board seems completely redesigned by using newer and higher performance components. I’m the most excited about a better heat dissipation and of a lower price point for their newest do-it-all portable or stationary DAC & headphone amplifier combo. M17 was known for its immaculate technicalities, competitively pricing it $1799, but Q7 defies all logic by going with a much lower $749 price point. Is it really by $1050 cheaper while offering a similar performance? We don’t know that yet, but hopefully it will deliver or surpass our wildest dreams.
They already have a good selection of portable DAC/Amp combos and they surely didn’t want another ESS-Sabre and THX-AAA powered unit in their portfolio, going with “the last (trans)portable DAC & headphone amp combo you’ll ever need” motto, without murdering your wallet for good. As usual, I will be reporting about everything I find interesting to share with you and for a good measure, I’ll add a comparison with its alter-ego (M17). Until that happens, let’s unbox this bad boy and see what’s inside its package.
Q7 came in a biggity big box, but I was already expecting that, as their M17 showed up in a similar fashion at our front door. Mother nature is a little happier this time around, as everything was neatly arranged in a single card-board box (instead of two on M17) that still holds plenty of soft foam for a better protection during shipping. Q7 and its leatherette case will be brightening your eyes first, followed by a quick-start guide, by some additional paperwork, a multi-function dock and a smaller box that holds a few USB cables (so you can hook it up to your Android / iOS devices, to your PC or MAC), a power cable and an external switching mode power supply.
The coolest accessory is its leatherette case that was redesigned around its back and display assembly, since Q7 no longer generates as much heat and there’s a much smaller display as well. The case is no longer slippery, offering a much better grip – an essential upgrade for a 620-gram unit.
Design & Build Quality
It isn’t a surprise to anyone that FiiO’s Q7 looks exactly like their M17 DAP, with a few minor tweaks around its case. You won’t find a big 5.5” display, making room for a smaller 1.3” screen that will consume less power and generate less heat. Four buttons found on M17’s left side were completely removed and there’s no longer a tempered-glass sheet on its back, going with a rubberized surface for a (much) better grip. Some minor changes can be found at the bottom of the unit, removing a microSD card slot and a secondary USB Type-C input, placing two switches in their stead.
Its body was carved from a single block of aluminum, sandblasted with a matte-black-everything leitmotif. While I slightly dislike its lateral RGB lights, it was a mandatory design decision as FiiO disguised air vents with them, that will be moving hot air away from its electronics, cooling them down and prolonging their life. If you ever owned any of their entry to mid-level portable DAC/Amp combos from the Q1, Q3 and Q5 line-up, then you should forget everything you know, young padawan, as Q7 is a much bigger and scarier beast, dwarfing all other portable DAC/Amp combos I have used to this day. Funny thing…FiiO still calls it portable, but it’s more like transportable as I can barely fit it in my pockets. It’s massive and at 620 grams, it’s three times heavier than their Q5S TC and almost six times heavier than their Q3! It’s nuts!
At the same time, this is not your regular DAC/Amp combo for a growing IEM collection, but the last thing you’ll ever need for your IEM, portable and desktop headphone collection, including heavyweight cans like Hifiman Susvara, Abyss AB-1266 and all its variants. FiiO didn’t compromise its power output, nor its digital to analog conversion stage, hence its muscular shape and (un)pocked friendly weight. If you do your homework, you’ll observe that most of its electronics were designed to work in a desktop environment, powered from the wall and that’s why it came up so massive and bold looking.
I’m an old-school audiophile and I personally like massive volume pots that offer a higher physical resistance. FiiO went with a knurly metallic pot, that won’t easily turn in your pockets. Touching and turning it feels satisfying, reminding about desktop amplifiers of all sorts.
In the end, M17’s shape was used as a strong foundation, replacing all slippery materials with grippier ones. Even its leatherette case offers a better handshake for a nicer protection on its back, which is a small, but noteworthy improvement made by the FiiO team.
Controls & Layout
I have complained many times about unnecessary buttons and complicated layouts on portable devices. Since there were so many features cramped inside M17’s case, it felt unfriendly and cumbersome with seven buttons placed on two sides, getting a far from ideal user-experience. I like changing my tunes single-handedly on the go without looking at its display and that felt as a buggy quest-line on M17. Its layout didn’t score top points in my rankings, but luckily, Q7 came to the rescue and solved the biggest mistakes of its close relative, by removing three buttons and relocating two switches, getting a much fresher look. I didn’t quite understand why M17 had a volume knob and two volume buttons separately, but that thought won’t puzzle my mind anymore on Q7. Besides controlling everything via its user interface, a few additional features can be accessed after installing a FiiO Link app on your smartphone, where you can apply a custom EQ, change status indicator color, choose a Bluetooth codec or change the channel balance.
On top you can spot a huge volume wheel and four headphone jacks coming in single-ended and balanced flavors. Its 3.5mm and 4.4mm jacks can also work as a SE or BAL line-outputs, just in case you’ll use it with a desktop integrated or headphone amplifier. On its right, an On/Off, Previous, Play/Pause and Next buttons can be spotted and on its bottom you’ll find a 12V two-pole DC input, a USB Type-C for charging or USB DAC mode, a full-sized coaxial and Optical inputs and tiny switches that lets you choose an operation mode (battery powered or DC powered) and USB-Charging feature.
An overkill digital and analog section would require an oversized battery that could power its internal components and deliver a respectable battery life. FiiO went with a massive 9200mAh battery that offers about ~11 hours of non-stop music playback via its single ended outputs and about ~9 hours of head-banging via its balanced outputs, which felt marginally improved versus the M17.
As a small detour, Q5S TC uses a 3800mAh battery and Q3 MQA an 1800mAh one, offering a less-impressive battery life. A massive battery would require a longer charging time, but thanks to Quick Charge 4.0 and PD 3.0 standards, It goes from zero to fully juiced in about 4 hours and a half. In real time scenarios with hard to drive desktop headphones via its 4.4mm balanced output and Super-High gain mode, I squeezed around 8 hours and a half, which is not-bad considering I was pushing it to the limits. With their own FH9 and FH7S IEMs on the 4.4mm BAL output, I’ve got around ~9 hours and a half, as mid-gain was more than enough with such ultra-sensitive loads.
Under the hood of FiiO Q7
FiiO stripped away the digital audio player from Q7 and you can forget about a CPU, RAM ‘n ROM memory, microSD card slot and about a heavily customized Android 10 OS, as Q7 will play tunes only from a third-party digital transport, which can be your smartphone, PC/MAC, your TV / media player or even a gaming console. You have plenty of use cases thanks to USB, Optical and Coaxial digital inputs and to a driver-less USB UAC 1.0 standard (if needed).
Its digital to analog conversion stage is made with a single ES9038 PRO desktop-grade DAC chip. This silicon is still a flagship one from the house of ESS Technologies and in some ways, it’s still their best one yet. The main digital to analog and amplification board was shielded, reducing internal and external wireless interference. Even desktop DAC makers aren’t putting as much care and attention towards their devices.
When making a high-performance digital to analog converter, the timing of the DAC is the second most important part and this is where Q7 shines brightly, rocking custom-made femto-second crystal oscillators from NDK, fully preserving the timing of the DAC, leading to a higher-precision, to a lower jitter (noise) and of course to a purer sound. FiiO went ahead and replaced an aging XMOS XU208 digital receiver, with a newer, faster and higher efficiency XU-316 that will be controlling its digital inputs and DSP functions like MQA decoding.
Going forward to the amp stage, FiiO went ahead at used the same THX-AAA-788+ modules that were custom developed with THX engineers around two years ago. Such modules should normally sit in a desktop unit, but once again FiiO went with the most powerful battery-operated headphone amplifier modules out there. With 1.5Watts per channel in 32Ω via its balanced outputs and 3 fricking Watts per channel in DC mode, Q7 can easily drive your entire headphone collection. I did try it with a wall of headphones, including with inefficient loads as planar-magnetics and I will be telling you more about its power output in a dedicated chapter.
As for wireless capabilities, it supports all those fancy Bluetooth codecs not only as a sender, but also as a receiver. Thanks to a Qualcomm QCC5124 chipset, it can send and receive data in the best possible codec (LDAC) and thanks to Bluetooth version 5.0, the speed doubled and the distance quadrupled compared to their former portable DAC/Amps.
One of the most important aspects of portable HiFi devices are total harmonic distortion and noise levels. While THD is already very low due to the very nature of THX-AAA modules, its noise floor is also staying in check. At maximum volume it can reach 2.8 μV on its single ended output and up to 4.5 μV on its balanced out, which is lower compared to their flagship M17 DAP! Alright everyone, my body and spirit are ready for some well-deserved music so, let’s hit some eardrums!
I. Preliminary Impressions
Is it pure coincidence or a strong desire to learn? I can’t say for sure, but it seems that I’ve tried a good deal of THX-AAA powered portable and desktop headphone amplifiers and since people are calling me The DACMan for obvious reasons, I also tried a good share of ESS-Sabre powered DACs, coming in desktop and portable forms.
In the wrong hands, an ultra-linear ESS-Sabre silicon together with honest sounding THX-AAA amplifier modules can become boring, lean and even…bright or clinical sounding and there are plenty of examples to give. FiiO are shaping their THX-AAA modules for a long time, as about five years ago they started tinkering with detachable amplifier modules on their X7 MKII portable DAP and they were the very first ones to develop battery-operated THX-AAA modules. They have a much-broader experience with ESS-Sabre silicon as you can trace them even in aging entry to mid-level devices. If Q7 would be their very first ESS-Sabre unit that uses THX-AAA amplifier modules, then I will be probably writing a much darker & twisted story, but luckily, after years of trial and error, they learned the limitations of such designs and tried patching them up. I immediately connected a pair of Hifiman Susvara which are notoriously difficult to drive and they also need a warm-ish sounding setup that would bring more soul from your favorite tunes, while removing glare and listening fatigue.
I don’t find FiiO’s Q7 as warm and full-bodied, nor does it sound smooth and relaxing, but it was never bright and clinical sounding either, so what’s the catch? I find it Extremely dynamic (with a capital E) and punchy sounding, especially when used in Ultra-High gain mode. I have the Hifiman Susvara for a while now and I’ve been using them with all sorts of desktop headphone amplifiers, even with a bunch of integrated and power amplifiers, meant to drive passive loudspeakers. The very first thing that will hit you, is that Q7 isn’t sounding like your usual, battery-operated unit (a similar thought tickled my mind when M17 arrived) and more like an AC-powered desktop unit. Secondly, there’s a serious amount of information going forward, a whole lot more compared to anything FiiO has done before with the exception of M17 and K9 PRO ESS and if you never tried those units, then Q7 will feel like a breath of fresh air. The sheer quantity of micro-details coming forward is staggering and you shouldn’t be surprised hearing a few nuances that you never knew were there. The next thoughts that will be scratching your head will be power and control. The power output, especially when used in DC power mode is so impressive, that it was able to outperform a few desktop headphone amplifiers. Very few desktop headphone amps could drive the mighty Hifiman Susvara to acceptable levels, but Q7 drives them beautifully, proving impressive dynamics, a fast start and stop of the drivers and more importantly, a good control of their drivers, as the music felt real, without going too fast or too slow…just right. FiiO Q7 won’t drive just the Hifiman Susvara, but any other desktop headphone you can think of, with the exception of electrostatic headphones.
The next thing that will hit your eardrums would be a linear tonal balance that doesn’t try to be clinical or plain boring sounding. I’m still describing a dead-neutral DAC/Amp combo, but somehow Hifiman headphones never sounded bothersome or lit up top. Maybe its fun factor stole my attention or maybe its punchy transients are calling my name, but regardless of what I was using, it never appeared as harsh or clinical sounding, going with an honest presentation without becoming an issue in the long run. FiiO’s Q7 might tire you down with treble intensive music, but that might happen only after a few hours of music listenin’, movie watchin’ or games playin’ with a hot sounding can around your neck.
Probably the very first or the very last thing you’ll observe is how technical and right everything is bonding together. There is no stone unturned when music starts playing, providing the right amount of detail-retrieval, speed and impact, while never limiting the scale of the music. This is a very technical sounding unit that won’t beatify or slander FiiO’s reputation.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give to it, is that it outperformed every portable DAC/Amp combo I tried so far. It can replace a separate DAC and headphone amplifier and it could fight with desktop components anytime and I won’t be surprised if it will outperform a few of them.
II. Noise Floor & IEM Pairings
There’s one thing I like about FiiO more than anything – they always provide detailed specs and measurements, including noise floor readings for all headphone jacks. While ordinary measurements won’t tell you that much, the noise floor reading is crucial, as it tells you how much noise is crawling under your headphones. Get a higher noise floor and suddenly, gremlins will be paying a visit, always playing in the background, which is unacceptable with ultra-sensitive IEMs. But get it much lower…and you’ll wake up from a bad dream, as nothing will be playing in the background, except for your tunes.
There’s no longer a CPU, RAM, ROM and a complicated OS somewhere in there, less components that adding noise of their own and the signal path gets much shorter. In simpler words, while Q7 is more affordable, it has a better noise rejection performance versus a pricier M17 DAP. For example, what was a noise floor of 3.5 uV on M17, transformed into 2.8uV on its single ended outputs and that was 7 uV on balanced outputs, went lower to 4.5uV, which already feels like a big improvement.
Regardless if I was using balanced or single ended outputs, up to its high-gain (its third gain position) setting, I couldn’t detect traces of noise, even with ultra-sensitive IEMs like FiiO FH9 or FH7S. After trying a few more IEMs, it was clear to me that Q7 is an IEM friendly unit, that will never raise the noise to alarming levels. It was peaceful and completely noiseless via all digital inputs. I tried it with my TV, with a PlayStation 5, with my smartphone, with a laptop and with a Windows PC and the same story repeated itself. There was a complete silence in between passages and a pitch-black background, making it an IEM friendly unit.
When I tried Super-High and then Ultra-High gain settings, then some low-intensity noises made their appearance felt with ultra-sensitive IEMs, that were missing in action with high-impedance or low-sensitivity headphones. My Sennheiser HD800S didn’t pick that up and so did ten or so planar-magnetic headphones. If you need my advice, stay on mid or high-gain with sensitive IEMs, go with high-gain on portable over-ear headphones and go with super-high with desktop headphones of all sorts. Ultra-high gain can be unlocked only in DC power mode and I recommend doing that only with two specific headphones: Hifiman Susvara & Abyss AB-1266 and all its variants.
III. Power Output
FiiO Q7 is proving up to 1.5 Watts per channel (or 1500mW per channel in DAP terms) in 32Ω on its balanced outputs. Connect it to the wall with the included power brick and the power output doubles in no time! Three.Fricking.Watts.Per.Channel from a unit that can fit in Hulk’s pockets? That’s mad! It’s almost unbelievable that FiiO could pull this off, as a (much) bigger FiiO K9 PRO ESS is providing only 2.1 Watts per channel. Could it be true that a pocket friendly unit can get so incredibly powerful? Considering that I’m grinning with a Hifiman Susvara on my head as I’m typing this, I don’t really question those numbers.
This is probably the biggest selling point of Q7 (and M17 for that matter), as both units won’t be running out of steam regardless of the headphones being used. If your goal is driving your entire headphone collection, without ever wondering about headroom and power remaining on tap, then this is a very easy recommendation to make. Shanling will be releasing their H7 portable DAC/Amp combo in a couple of days that will compete with Q7 in battery mode operation, providing a slightly lower output of 1.3 Watts per channel. My Shanling H7 review will be coming soon(ish), including a detailed comparison with FiiO’s Q7, so stay tuned for that in January 2023.
I went ahead and tried all sorts of desktop planar-magnetic and dynamic headphones and you know what? Q7 drove them all with flying colors, without any exaggerations from my part. Dynamics went crazy, delivering the exact kick and thump at the right time. As more music was added to my playlist, it was clear to me that Q7 delivered fast and impactful transients. It didn’t limit dynamics and the soundstage never collapsed on me, pushing and pulling membranes like it was its morning workout routine. Battery operated devices aren’t usually so alive, massive and airy sounding, but Q7 together with M17 are very different animals. Battery powered units are usually trying hard in delivering a desktop-like experience and there’s always some kind of limitation at play, but that’s not happening with today’s unit.
In all honesty, Ultra-High gain setting wasn’t even need with most of my babies, except for the Hifiman Susvara that demanded all and everything. Kennerton Rognir, Erzetich Phobos V.2021 and Audeze LCD-4 smashed and pounded like putting Hulk on a drum kit, always trying to impress an electronica addict like myself.
IV. Detail Retrieval
People will make fun of its gargantuan look and obese case, but once music starts playing, the funny faces will be washed out, as besides a robust power output, Q7 will never stay in the way on the music. As M17 before it, Q7 tries to highlight every nuance and musical note in a relaxing manner, every good and every bad thing cannot hide from its gaze. Q7 was very clean and resolving at all times, but it was doing that without making over-sharpening the music. I find it highly detailed and this is certainly a squeaky-clean sounding unit and if you like dwelling deep into your tunes, then Q7 is a very good unit at that.
When I want to be alone with my thought and reflect a little, then I’ll grab a portable digital audio player, a nicer IEM and I’ll go outside for a walk. After trying tens of portable digital audio players, none of them impressed me as much as FiiO’s M17 when it comes to cleanness & transparency and I feel that Q7 walks the same path. If you are chasing colorful natural overtones or a squeaky-clean presentation, then Q7 is part of the later that won’t interfere with the tonal balance, leaving it unchanged for the most part.
If you ever tried a well-designed ESS-Sabre DAC based on flagship (read: desktop grade) silicon and a proper THX-AAA amplifier like the Benchmark HPA4, then you can already imagine how Q7 (and M17 for that matter) will sound. Still, it seems that FiiO added their own secret ingredient that calms the top-octave without trying to interfere with the treble output.
I was listening to Radio Activity by Nostalgia Progressiva (Qobuz / Tidal) via the Meze 109 PRO, which are not perfect candidates with their (slightly) hot-tilted headphones, especially on progressive rock and metal. Q7 nicely controlled the treble output, while gently adding longer vibrations on acoustic guitars that completely relaxed my body. Small intricacies were popping all around me, including cleverly placed pops and crackles scattered around on purpose. This tune wasn’t as warm or full-bodied as I know it to be, but still, 109 PRO were enveloped by a void nebula in between the notes that improved the perception of air passing by, placing everything all around me in a 21 by 9 aspect ratio. My office window was open and I started star gazing on this track, getting a mesmerizing experience. While this is not a creamy sounding unit, it fully captured the emotions that I needed to hear from this track and that my friends, isn’t an easy task. I might be the transient response guy, but I’m equally impressed by an utterly-transparent sound and there’s no other way to describe Q7’s performance as a whole.
V. Transient Response / Dynamics
Some of these chapters are interconnected in one way or another. For example, you cannot have a highly detailed sound without having an invisible noise floor and you cannot have impressive dynamics, without a lot of power under its hood.
Q7 never runs out of steam, easily driving difficult loads as low-sensitivity planar-magnetic headphones. With it, dynamics will never feel softened, this is not a laid-back sounding unit, this isn’t a smooth or lightweight sounding unit and more like a berserker that entered its furious state on the battlefield. If your music demands an instant start and stop of the drivers, quick shift in dynamics from slow to fast and vice-versa, then Q7 will follow those orders without flinching. We are talking about a dynamics monster machine that goes up and down in split seconds and you’ll definitely feel that with modern tunes that have a higher mid-bass presence.
It’s thumpy and visceral with bass intensive tracks and if I can hear a hefty low-end with the Hifiman Susvara, then there is no need to talk about some other headphones. Q7 sounded amazing with the Susvara, but it became punchier and livelier when powered by the FiiO PL50 External linear and regulated power supply. I’m still describing an ultra-linear sounding unit, but since it’s so fun and engaging, this part saved it…as I never found it boring or dead-flat.
I don’t remember smiling so often with portable devices, as Q7 sounds more like a proper desktop DAC & headphone amp combo. It does remind me about their M17 DAP, but also about their impressive K9 PRO ESS that follows a similar tuning. If you ever dreamt about carrying a K9 PRO ESS whenever you go, driving all sorts of IEMs and headphones, then Q7 feels extremely familiar, sounding more or less the same. Be it Kennerton Rognir planar, Erzetich Phobos V.2021, Audeze LCD-4 or Hifiman Susvara, there wasn’t a tune that was pressing the brakes.
I’m a simple man, slap my ear-drums and I’ll tap my toes, infuse a meaner attitude down-low and my mood levels will skyrocket. A random playlist was playing in the morning and out of the sudden Have You Ever by The Offspring (Qobuz / Tidal) starts playing. I couldn’t hold it as my feet went into an uncontrollable toe-tap fiesta, while my head refused to stay still. This fella got colossal cojones, getting on my nerves with its mean attitude, while pushing dynamics like crazy.
Bass Drops by Nenad Vasilic (Qobuz / Tidal) felt scary at times, moving thick air so easily, transforming a cello into a powerful weapon that masterfully controlled the air around it. You cannot remain unimpressed by its echo, by its trail and natural decay and by that abusive bass rumble going deep inside your skull, sounding scary real with open-back headphones.
VI. Soundstage & Imaging
When the funky sounding Slivovitz – Liver (Live) started playing (Qobuz / Tidal) I was surprised by the bass guitar that felt as if it was added later on. It seems that this track wasn’t mastered for headphones, as an extreme stereo effect was swinging in full force, having plenty of sounds to my sides and not that much in the middle. This tune doesn’t sound like your regular jazz and more like an energetic funk, as an overly excited drum player went overboard with his drum kit, placing the sounds to my left or right, sometimes even at lower or higher altitudes – a clear sign that Q7 can play with your imagination if the music is good enough. No matter how busy and crazy those passages were, Q7 managed to nicely untangle them.
A true statement track was Mu Ahkku by Mari Boine (Qobuz / Tidal). Please give it a try, but do it in the evenings for its relaxing properties. The big drum, the soft bass guitar and the sorrow infused vocal performance felt so incredibly…spacious. Musical notes weren’t fighting for prime time, they were at peace with each other. A pair of Kennerton Rognir planar were sitting on my head and I stopped from whatever I was doing, as an excellent placement of the sounds around me fully captured my attention. There was a massive void space in the between the notes, a much bigger one compared to regular recordings, that sometimes it felt like a pair of near-field monitors were playing in front of me. This track sounded incredible via headphones and the little Q7 never felt out of breath. The final outcome was an open wide sound, that had a precise imaging and location of the notes. The leading edges were clean and sharp, but never bothering to me. You’ll be coming back to this album once in a while, especially when you need peaceful moments by yourself.
I don’t want to appear overly-enthusiastic about it, but I don’t recall hearing such a believable soundstage coming from a battery powered device. M17 was fantastic in this area and so is Q7, closing the gap between the two, even if there’s a major price difference. I did try quite a few portable THX-AAA amplifiers and it seems that Q7 leads the pack as one of the widest and deepest sounding unit. The secret sauce is doing its mojo again, as it never appeared two-dimensional or plain flat sounding.
VII. Frequency Response
If you love all the little things about bass, starting with the low-end definition, sustain, cleanness, speed and impact, then Q7 will feel like the perfect candidate for your bass-intensive music. It’s nimble and clean, it will sustain long cello and organ pipes and it will slam like Thor’s hammer if needed. It got the quantity you could possibly desire, but the true standout was its quality, getting those layers and sub-layers so defined and alive. If you own bass light IEMs or headphones, then Q7 can solve those issues for you. Meze 109 PRO and 7Hz Timeless aren’t that impressive in the bass, but Q7 marginally improved their definition and substantially improved their dynamics. Q7 will even outperform a few desktop DAC + amplifier combos, as I personally like it more than any of the mid-level Topping or SMSL combos, sounding livelier and more dynamic by comparison.
Going by the rule of thumb, I should be disappointed by its midrange performance, as usually THX Achromatic Audio Amplifiers (AAA for short) are lean, flat and boring sounding in here. Same goes for mid-level ESS-Sabre DACs that aren’t that full-bodied and natural sounding. As I have said before, there is a secret sauce at play and I’m not sure if it comes from its output stage, clocking system or FPGA, but clearly, FiiO fought back the lean nature of such designs by adding some life and naturalness where there should be none. I want to be clear that Q7 won’t sound smooth & creamy and it won’t provide a lot of warmth. I still find it dead-neutral…but it offers a good neutrality, if such thing exists. It doesn’t punish you for listening less-than-perfect recordings and it won’t scream with treble intensive tracks. I didn’t feel overflown with emotions when instrumental music started playing, but at the same time I didn’t feel the dread of listening to a clinical sounding unit. Throat singing of Mongol warriors (The HU band) felt authentic and intimidating. I wouldn’t charge forward versus these guys, as their vocals felt so brute and heavy at the same time.
Its treble performance can be described as deeply extended past top octave (past 16kHz – if you’re young enough), getting a detailed presentation that’s crispy and sparkly, but without getting into harsh territory. It can certainly get hotter sounding with the wrong headphone or IEMs, but if you want a calm its top-end for a fuller-bodied presentation, then I wholeheartedly recommend getting a FiiO PL50 linear and regulated power supply for $150. From ultra-clean and ultra-linear, Q7 felt denser and meatier sounding, especially in the bass and midrange, while slashing remaining traces of glare and listening fatigue. I’m into treble intensive tracks and this part is extremely important to me, hence using flagship FPGA and R-2R ladder DACs and while Q7 isn’t exactly natural and real sounding, it goes into that direction after adding the PL50 PSU. On its own it wasn’t the best pairing with FiiO’s FH9 IEMs and Sennheiser HD800S, but after adding the PL50 the sound felt jumpier, freer to a point of becoming effortless.
VIII. Bluetooth Performance
You see that rubbery surface on its back? It wasn’t put in there for a better grip or price cutting, but mostly for a better wireless performance. The glass surface on backs of modern DAPs is being used for the same reasons. I already tried the latest Qualcomm QCC5124 Bluetooth receiver in plenty of units by now, in portable or desktop form and most of them performed decently. My smartphone natively supports LDAC and AptX-HD data streams, it’s Bluetooth 5.0 enabled, so I will be squeezing the best Q7 has to offer.
Two concrete walls didn’t pose a problem even from a substantial distance, getting a solid Bluetooth performance. Several meters away and the signal was still going strong and only when I moved to the balcony, with an additional wall in between us, the music started losing a few beats. I tried as hard as I could in an open space, but I didn’t lose the signal even from 20 meters away. Bluetooth connection was going strong and it worked as intended.
Sending music from my smartphone connected to streaming services worked equally impressive and LDAC codec sounded almost indistinguishable from the USB connection. In the end, Q7 worked well with Bluetooth senders, but it performed better with those that support BT 5.0 and LDAC codecs.
IX. A Comparison
FiiO M17 ($1799) VS FiiO Q7 ($749)
What initially supposed to be a detailed comparison in between the two, transformed into a shorter one and that wasn’t because I didn’t want to deliver you the full story, but mostly because…these sounded so incredibly close, with a few minor differences.
The most important thing to know is that Q7 lacks the portable digital audio player functionality, as it doesn’t have a big display, an Android OS, a powerful CPU, ROM, RAM memory and a microSD card slot. Q7 is a portable or desktop DAC/Amp combo and it will need a digital transport that will be providing the tunes. Q7 is also UAC 1.0 enabled and if you have a PlayStation 5 or a Nintendo Switch, then it will work with both as a DAC/Amp combo. I honestly don’t game that much, but the latest God Of War Ragnarök held this review for a couple of days, as PS5 sounded so much better via Q7 and world-class headphones.
When it comes to electronics, Q7 uses a single ES 9038 PRO DAC chip versus two chips on the M17. Another difference is the XMOS chipset, as Q7 uses the latest one (XU-316) that never had an issue with any digital transport. M17 was no slouch, but it wasn’t flawless to me. While both are being shipped with a dock that provides active cooling, Q7 was barely warm in the Ultra-High Gain setting and balanced output, that I see no reason to use it. M17 felt considerably warmer…almost hot after a few minutes of use in the highest gain position. Q7 could be a better choice for people living in arid environments. While both have the same cases, there are less electronics inside the Q7, improving the air flow and cooling under load.
Sound wise…honestly, you’ll hardly notice a difference with mid-level IEMs and desktop headphones, but connect some world-class headphones and a few things will start to differ. As I have mentioned, Q7 is a highly detailed sounding unit, sniffing the tiniest details without too much trouble, but M17 pushes all that to eleven, providing itty-bitty more information.
If you have a substantial IEM collection, then Q7 looks like a better unit, since it was blessed with a lower noise floor. You can easily use low, mid and high-gain with it and ultra-sensitive IEMs, while you can use only low or mid-gain position with M17 for a noiseless performance. In the highest gain position, Q7 was noiseless with a sensitive desktop headphone like Apos Caspian or Kennerton Vali, while M17 exhibited some residual noise.
There was another minor difference and I felt it mostly with flagship open-back headphones and I’m not sure if the dual-DAC configuration gives a helping hand, but M17 was by a hair deeper sounding, having a stronger 3D effect with reference recordings. Q7 was only by a hair less holographic sounding, but in a relaxed state of mind, I hardly noticed a difference (except for the noise floor), getting confused which was which in a controlled blind test.
The difference was smaller, than when changing the ear-tips of your IEMs, or worn-pads with brand new pads on desktop headphones. I’m giving you a real sense of change…as in reality, they sound so incredibly close.
Apart from that, I find them extremely technical, dynamic and alive. Their power output is identical and everything else stays on the same page, which works in favor of Q7, since it costs by $1050 less.
If you can get past its colossal proportions and heavy-duty case, then you’ll be greeted with an ultra-linear & ultra-detailed presentation that’s both technical and fun sounding at the same time. It has gobs of power, driving everything out there with plenty of headroom remaining on tap and if you ever dreamt about an affordable M17 DAP, then Q7 goes with a similar tuning at a much more attractive price point.
While cheaper, Q7 worked better with sensitive IEMs on higher gain positions and it could be the perfect companion for ultra-sensitive IEMs. It revealed a dynamics monster sleeping within some of my headphones, thanks a punchy and highly dynamic signature.
I’m usually complaining about a thing or two with portable devices, but that wasn’t the case with Q7. There’s finally a portable DAC & headphone amp combo that won’t hold back detail retrieval, fast transients and soundstage, without rising distortion to alarming levels. Q7 felt well-thought & well-crafted and it’s a great sounding unit in all regards. It fully justified its price point and if I think about it, I find it dirt cheap for everything we are getting in return, deserving my highest praise and award.
FiiO Q7 was kindly provided by FiiO, you can purchase it from their AliExpress Store, you can get it from their worldwide distributors right here, or you get it from Apos Audio right here. (Apos offers free shipping in the USA and Canada, free 45-day returns in case you don’t like it, an extra year of warranty and they will price match the lowest price you can find online).
In case you’re getting one, please let me know in the comments section below. That’s all for now folks, Sandu’s singing out!
- Overkill, Overpowerful, Oversized
- CNC machined case, outstanding build quality
- Has a better grip when holding it single-handedly
- A great unboxing experience and a wide selection of accessories
- Additional features can be found via FiiO Link app
- The most powerful current-production portable DAC/Amp combo, drives even the notorious Hifiman Susvara
- Extremely technical and ultra-linear sounding
- Fast & Furious with electronica tunes
- Highly-detailed & resolving
- Open and wide sounding, mimicking the sound of well-made desktop DAC/Amp combos
- Effortless and unshackled, especially in DC power mode
- Extended frequency response, without rounding off frequency extremes
- Dead-silent with IEMs and sensitive headphones in the low, mid or high-gain positions
- Offers a rock-steady Bluetooth coverage and an amazing codec support
- The best portable DAC/Amp I’ve heard so far
- Dirt cheap considering we are getting such a performance
- I don’t find it portable and more like transportable
- For the best results with desktop headphones, I recommend getting separately the FiiO PL50 that will set you off $150
- DACs: Chord Electronics DAVE, Gustard R26 Discrete, SMSL SU-10, SMSL M500 MKIII, EverSolo DAC-Z8, Gold Note DS-10 Plus & PSU-10 EVO
- DAPs: FiiO M17, M11S, Shanling M7, M6 Ultra, Hiby RS2
- Headphone Amps: Trafomatic Primavera, Trafomatic Head 2, Enleum AMP-23R, Ferrum OOR + Hypsos, Flux Lab Acoustics Volot, Burson Audio Soloist 3X GT, Topping A90 Discrete
- Preamps: Chord Electronics Ultima 3 Pre, Burson Audio Soloist 3X GT
- Integrated Amps: Enleum AMP-23R
- Power Amps: Chord Electronics Ultima 5, Burson Timekeeper 3X GT (x2)
- Loudspeakers: KEF Reference 3, Musician Knight 1, Sound Of Eden Crescendo UNO
- IEMs: FiiO FH9, FH7S, FD7, Meze Rai Penta, LittleDot Cu KIS, Kinera Skuld, 7Hz Timeless & others
- Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Susvara, HE1000SE, Sundara Closed, Audeze LCD-5, LCD-4, Sennheiser HD800S, Erzetich Phobos V2021, Erzetich Mania, Meze 109 PRO, Kennerton Rognir planar, Vali, Apos Caspian, Sendy Peacock, Apollo, HarmonicDyne Poseidon & others
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Topping TCX1 (x4)
- USB Cables: Supra USB Excalibur (x2), Chord C-USB, Matrix Hi-Fi USB
- HDMI Cables: Supra 8K HDMI 2.1 (x2)
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3), iFi Audio SupaNova (x3)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC1500 (stereo setup), Elite BAC400 (headphone setup)