Pioneer XDP-100R Portable Audio Player Review
Is this the commuter's new best friend?
What is the Pioneer XDP-100R?At the moment the means by which we listen to audio on the move is engaged in a very keenly fought contest. You essentially have the option of choosing a phone that is designed with at least a nod to audio capability, a DAC designed to take a digital feed from a phone and do a rather better job of decoding and amplifying it or you can choose a dedicated portable audio player and leave your phone to get on with the business of being a phone - that is to say a device for looking at the internet and making Vines.
There are pros and cons to all of these approaches but the portable audio player possibly has the biggest task of the three to convince a would-be purchaser that it is the best option. You are effectively required to carry an extra component around with you all the time and even the titchy Lotoo PAW5000 is still going to take up pocket space. Furthermore, at a time where our phones are slicker and more powerful than before, players frequently come across as a little shortchanged in terms of their basic functionality. I was a big fan of the Sony NW-ZX2 but there's no getting away from the bald fact that the screen and operating system lag behind even a basic Xperia model - let alone one that comes near the £950 asking price of the ZX2. The Lotoo doesn't suffer from aged Android syndrome but neither does it do terribly much other than play files you already own.
That makes the Pioneer XDP-100R an interesting device. We'll cover the spec in due course but beyond technical firepower, the Pioneer runs on Android 5.1.1 and boasts a 720x1280 screen that is a reasonable size on the unit. Furthermore, it costs a whisker under half as much as the Sony. Is this the portable audio player to make you feel better about having two devices on your person and can it match the incredible sonics of the Chord Mojo?
SpecificationsThe Pioneer is an Android based portable audio player. As noted, unlike competition from Sony and other brands, the XDP-100R runs a relatively up to date Android 5.1.1 build as the basic software. While it would be easy to point out that Android 6 is already in the field, the bulk of Android devices are still running 5.1.1 at the time of writing and the jump from older versions is quite considerable. Like Sony, Pioneer has gone for a complete install that allows the XDP-100R to directly load anything from the Google Play Store rather than any silliness with side loading and the like.
Internally, the Pioneer is built around an ESS Sabre 9018K2M DAC with a matching (and rather less commonly encountered) 9601K headphone chip. The ESS Sabre is rapidly turning into the go-to chipset for decoders of all sizes and the performance it offers is considerable. If you don't happen to have a Rob Watts type figure to produce custom wonders on FPGAs like Chord Electronics does, it is probably the best all round decoding option out there. The 9601K has allowed Pioneer to equip the XDP100R with a 160 step volume - although there is a slight sting in the tail here, we'll cover in a bit.
It also ensures that the XDP-100R supports PCM up to 24/192 and DSD128 (although with conversion to PCM taking place prior to decoding). The big news as far as supported formats goes is that from early next year, the Pioneer will be fully compatible with the MQA compression algorithm from
Meridian which promises to make the process of streaming high res audio a simpler business than before. This will be added by software update and to the best of my knowledge puts the Pioneer in a field of one (technically one and a half as the XDP-100R has a step brother in the form of the as yet unreleased Onkyo DP-X1). If MQA becomes a big deal - and at the moment, the jury is out on that, the Pioneer has you covered.
Storage on the Pioneer is a game of two halves. The XDP-100R is supplied with a relatively meagre 32GB of internal storage out-of-the-box. This is hardly anything to get excited about but the XDP-100R is fitted with not one but two micro SD card slots that each accept up to 200GB giving you a maximum notional capacity of 432GB which is rather more impressive. At the moment, the cost of a 200GB micro SD is still over £100 from a reputable source but 128GB cards hover around the £50 mark which would give you a healthy 288GB for £400 less than the Sony ZX2 would give you 256GB for.
The storage is available to the dedicated audio player App on the Pioneer which is a good but hardly groundbreaking design but additionally, the XDP-100R comes with Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz loaded as well as the Onkyo Music App which allows for the direct purchase of music to play on your Pioneer. Where Pioneer has been clever is that while the XDP-100R offers conventional file management by dragging and dropping files via Windows/OSX you also have the option of downloading desktop software to better allocate data across your cards and the internal storage. At the time of reviewing, this doesn't seem to be available yet but it should help you get the most out of your space.
The rest of the specification of the Pioneer is hardly groundbreaking but convincing enough. Battery life is quoted at 16 hours and with the test sample left on loop playing a 16/44.1kHz rip of VAST's Visual Audio Sensory Theatre into a pair of Audio Technica CKR10s at reasonable volume (120 out of 160), it managed to exceed this. You also get Apt-X bluetooth as standard which means that the XDP-100R will play nicely with car audio systems and other bluetooth friendly options. There are some other clever touches too. The Pioneer's GUI has options for line out (maxing and fixing the volume out) and standalone (that turns unnecessary functions off).
DesignThe Pioneer is all metal and a piece of industrial design that begins to make a little more sense after you have spent some time with it. The first impression is that it is quite large and a little ungainly There is also more than a little sense of Astell & Kern to the design too. After a little while though, things start to make a little more sense. The Pioneer sits nicely in the hand and the placement of the buttons on the side of the chassis is logical and well thought through. The partially shielded volume controller on the side is visually odd but it does ensure that accidental adjustment of the volume is pretty tricky. The most visually curious part of the design is the 'bumper' (Pioneer's own turn of phrase) which sits at the top of the chassis and protects the 3.5mm input. This looks odd but I can confirm it works surprisingly well at keeping the jack socket protected and also gives you a useful grip to pull the Pioneer out of your pocket.
There are some excellent detail touches too. The engraved 'High Resolution Audio Player' in the side of the chassis doesn't alter the performance in any way but does make the Pioneer feel a little more special than a normal phone. Where the XDP-100R does feel like a normal phone and in a good way is the display and operating system. Everything is fast, smooth and colourful and more than anything else, the Pioneer feels like a product where the interface is a key part of the design rather than a means to an end. This also means that it works well as an extra Android device. As I've no need to install my email or banking apps, I can run it unlocked which means that the XDP-100R is the fastest starting device in the house which actually makes it an ideal device to run control apps on. You might think that using a £500 DAP as a remote for a streamer is overkill and you'd probably be right but it doesn't stop the Pioneer being very good at it.
Any drawbacks?The Pioneer is a well considered product but it isn't a perfect one. Unlike some of the competition it has no SP/Dif digital out, relying instead on USB/OTG making it a little less suitable for use in main systems as well as on the move. The two SD card slots are unprotected and vulnerable to debris getting in if not actually fitted with cards and while the rotary volume is harder than you might expect to jog, it isn't impossible meaning from time to time you can have a quick burst of high volumes.
The biggest issue for the XDP-100R is that those volume levels are never quite as high as you might expect. Compared to the Sony ZX2, let alone the Chord Mojo or Oppo HA-2, the Pioneer doesn't feel especially powerful. It would be unfair to describe the XDP-100R as underpowered but it hasn't got the headroom of some rivals. This rather undoes some of the good work of the volume control as having 160 steps is lovely but if 100 of them are inaudible it kind of defeats the object. *Author's note- this has now been corrected in the latest version of software. They still apply out of the box.
More than anything else, the Pioneer feels like a product where the interface is a key part of the design rather than a means to an end.
How was the Pioneer XDP-100R tested?The Pioneer was used with a 64GB Samsung Micro SD running a selection of lossless and high res material including DSD. The Spotify and Tidal Apps were also used - in the case of Tidal arguably more than the default player App. The Pioneer has been tested with Noble 6 and Audio Technica CKR10 earphones as well as Oppo PM-3 and Audio Technica MSR-7 headphones. The Chord Mojo and Oppo HA-2 have also been available for comparative testing running off a Google/LG Nexus 5 smartphone.
Pioneer XDP-100R - Sound qualityIn order for the Pioneer to be judged in any way successful, it has to sonically outperform a smartphone on its own while rivalling external DACs for sound quality and offering a more convenient size and shape than the Smartphone and DAC combined. If it cannot do these things, then brutally it has little purpose in existing. The good news for Pioneer is that the XDP-100R is broadly capable of meeting these slightly varied challenges. Pioneer and their supporting PR had been keen enough to charge and pre-load the review samples and being the sad case I am, I had brought a pre-loaded micro SD card with me too. As such, the initial listening to the Pioneer was done while travelling back from
London. While that slight lack of headroom was immediately noticeable, the basic qualities of the XDP-100R were present from the outset.
These qualities are- possibly down to the similarities in their decoding hardware- rather akin to the Oppo HA-2. The Pioneer has a presentation that is very fractionally forwards of neutral. Thanks to a decent level of refinement, it rarely sounds harsh or forward but it imparts an excitement and a sense of immediacy to the way it makes music that is extremely appealing. Listening to Grimes' Flesh without Blood, the Pioneer pounds along with real bite and attack. Like the Oppo, this doesn't seem to make the way that the Pioneer handles more relaxed material sound false or forced (at least in isolation) but when you want the XDP-100R to have fun, it has no problem providing that sense of joy that makes music what it should be.
On a technical level, the Pioneer does a great deal right too. The bass response is deep, fast and detailed with good separation and differentiation between low notes and a excellent integration to the upper registers. Every Open Eye by CHVRCHES sounds big and convincing and there is an impressive relationship between Lauren Mayberry's soaring vocals and the crunching electronic noises below. The tonality of voices and instruments is consistently convincing and the Pioneer is able to work across a wide variety of music and give a good account of itself while it does so.
As is the case with most of DAPs, the Pioneer has extra EQ and decoding settings that are only present in the dedicated player App but unlike the Sony, the effect of these is nothing like as dramatic (and it must be said, slightly artificial). The various EQ adjustments all work pretty much as they are described and were largely ignored by me after the initial testing. Of more interest are the three filters which have a less obvious but more benign effect on the sound and the option to cut the level that DSD converts to PCM at. Not only does this make DSD test material very slightly less noisy, it also brings the overall levels closer to normal PCM conversion.
The flipside is that as the decoding is rather subtle in its effects, Tidal sounds broadly indistinguishable from the same 16/44,1kHz albums played in the player App. This is good news because as you can shunt music on and off it wirelessly, Tidal remains the slickest audio platform on the Pioneer - and pretty much every other portable device. In the time that the XDP-100R has been here, the amount of time I've used it compared to the dedicated App has been an easy 3/1 in favour. This is because broadly speaking, the Pioneer sounds excellent without any processing and as a result, Tidal does too.
In comparison to the more expensive Sony NW-ZX2, the Pioneer lacks the almost liquid quality of the top end that the Sony possesses and it can't match it for headroom but hits back with a greater sense of drive and excitement. Does it sound as good as Chord's all conquering Mojo? No is the simple answer. The Pioneer lacks the headroom, the uncanny realism and total transparency that the Chord offers. If you want the absolute best way to listen to music on the move, you still need the Mojo but the second area that the Pioneer competes with it - convenience - muddies the waters somewhat. Having used the Chord on the move a few times now, there is no escaping from the fact that the form factor is not a perfect fit for the job. Partnered with a mobile phone, it is ungainly and hard to get in and out of pockets. Oppo's HA-2 is better in this regard but the Pioneer, bumper and all, is more practical still. If you accept that there will be a second unit travelling with you, the Pioneer is not a bad shape or size to assume that role.
A final area where the Pioneer has an advantage over its rival audio players is that the screen is large enough and sufficiently imbued with resolution to make it an unexpectedly capable video player on the move. Using it to catch up with an episode of Masterchef The Professionals was a perfectly satisfying viewing experience and broadly indistinguishable from my standard Motorola Moto X. In the same way that the Pioneer is able to take some App responsibilities over from other devices, it has a multi function ability that many dedicated player rivals lack. The effect is ultimately like an iPod Touch made by an audio manufacturer rather than a computer one - which essentially is exactly what the Pioneer is.
The effect is ultimately like an iPod Touch made by an audio manufacturer rather than a computer one - which essentially is exactly what the Pioneer is.
Pioneer XDP-100- MQA and firmware updatesSome months after the initial review of the XDP-100R, Pioneer supplied a second sample that included the ability to play MQA files as promised in the original specification. MQA is described at length on Meridian's own website but in essence, it is a compression system that allows for high resolution audio to be packaged in such a way that it streams in roughly a CD sized stream but can be unpacked by an MQA compatible device into a high resolution file. A non MQA equipped unit can still read the CD quotient of the file.
How does it sound? A selection of test music was placed on the unit that uncompressed to 96 and 192kHz MQA files. The material, by and large sounds excellent. There is no sense of any audible compression and the largely classical selection of music has the fluidity and naturalness that I associate with high res recordings of this nature and there is an airiness and spaciousness to them which is deeply impressive. A look at the sizes of the files themselves on the hard drive does suggest that no trickery is afoot- they genuinely are smaller than would expected for a 'normal' high res file.
The caveat to this is that I have no means of easily comparing the files to their stock counterparts. As such, the improvement over their CD equivalents is hard to determine. Equally, having never heard the music in question before, it is hard to quantify what MQA is doing in an absolute sense. The concept itself is undoubtedly an interesting one and if it can be intelligently applied to streaming services and downloads, it has the potential to squeeze more performance without increasing file sizes. Pioneer should be commended for getting the XDP-100 up and running with the software as it offers the scope to do more with the existing storage and apps.
Interestingly, while MQA is a fascinating addition to the Pioneer, by the far the most noticeable change with this sample is that the volume limiter has been removed. At a stroke, the Pioneer now has the ability to go seriously loud with both earphones and headphones. There is no sign of any additional harshness or aggression when more volume is in use and the result is that you can now use the Pioneer with headphones that it really wasn't happy with before. This increased headroom reduces the advantage that the Astell & Kern had beforehand and means that the XDP-101 now stands comparison with the Sony NW-ZX2.
- Detailed and punchy sound
- Flexible and well thought out
- Keenly priced
- Limited headroom
- No SP/Dif out
- Stiff competition
Pioneer XDP-100R Portable Audio Player ReviewThis is a complex and constantly evolving category at the moment and the likelihood of any single product landing the killer blow and being all things to all people is unlikely. Pioneer's effort doesn't change this state of affairs. It doesn't sound as good as Chord's mighty Mojo and in some respects, it can't completely better the Sony NW-Z2. The limited connectivity is something you will have to take into account when looking at the XDP-100R. The revisions to the volume output have now given the Pioneer the horsepower required to challenge rivals on even terms.
This further improves the competitiveness of the XDP-100 as a whole. The Pioneer is a full £450 cheaper than the Sony and as a complete package of sonics, software and storage, the XDP-100R has the opposition looking decidedly inflexible. The addition of MQA further improves this tempting proposition. The XDP-100R can't deliver a knockout but when we take it to points, the Pioneer is the best DAP tested so far and one of the most capable on the market. If you are looking for music on the move with some well thought out extra functionality, the Pioneer needs to be checked out.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £500.00
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