Pros: Aesthetics (it looks gorgeous), inputs, features, supported formats, power output, value, manual and driver inclusion
Cons: Size of the power adaptor, lack of variable control on rear RCAs, text on silver case difficult to read, filter use is cumbersome, no gain switch.
I've been aware of Aune for some time during my Head-Fi journey – particularly their T1 Tube DAC, and more recently the B1 portable amp which was recently featured on Head-Fi. But until now I've never had a chance to sample their gear, and indeed haven't really taken much notice of their product line. That changed recently when Aune offered a chance to audition the X1s desktop DAC/amp in your own home for a week. I jumped at the chance, and for the past week have enjoyed putting this little unit through its paces.
One of the nice things about reviewing audio gear is doing the research and getting to know the individual companies a little better. Aune (Wuhan AO LAI ER Technology Co.ltd ) was formed in 2004 and was one of the first Chinese companies dedicated to high quality digital audio. From the website (I have paraphrased some of it):
Aune is a developer and manufacturer of integrated enterprise, with high-end design team unity, and an excellent operational management team. Full of scientific and technological innovation, we are constantly exploring different solutions in the high-quality digital audio field.
We were the first to launch a mastering digital audio player in China, and also its supporting 32bit/192kHz advanced decoder and peripheral products. We have also supported the development of personal computers integration with traditional audio equipment, a high-quality USB decoder, and the traditional CD turntable.
In addition to the innovation of R&D, from operations to customer service, from product manufacturing to the user manual, Aune pursues excellence in every detail. We firmly believe that the "pursuit of perfection" is endless. Meanwhile, Aune company's HIFIDIY.NET is the portal to focus on soundfield, and since 2004 has become the largest Chinese audio site, with nearly 1,000,000 members in its community. It is the foundation of the Aune brand, has had extensive influence in the Chinese audio community, and received numerous accolades.
What I've really appreciated from Aune so far has been their willingness to provide me additional information about their products – something some other audio companies are often more reserved in supplying.
I was provided the Aune X1S DAC/amp as a review sample, for one week's use before sending it on to the next participant in the tour. I am in no way affiliated with Aune - and this review is my honest opinion of the X1S. I would like to thank Aune for making this opportunity available, and also for providing me additional information during the review.
PREAMBLE - 'ABOUT ME'.
(This is to give any readers a baseline for interpreting the review).
I'm a 48 year old music lover. I don't say audiophile – I just love my music. Over the last couple of years, I have slowly changed from cheaper listening set-ups to my current set-up. I vary my listening from portables (Fiio X5ii, X3ii, LP5 and iPhone 5S) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > USB > iFi iDSD). I also use a portable set-up at work – either X5ii/X3ii > HP, or PC > E17K > HP. My main full sized headphones at the time of writing are the Beyer T1, Sennheiser HD600, and AKG K553. A full list of the gear I have owned (past and present is listed in my Head-Fi profile).
I have very eclectic music tastes listening to a variety from classical/opera and jazz, to grunge and general rock. I listen to a lot of blues, jazz, folk music, classic rock, indie and alternative rock. I am particularly fond of female vocals. I generally tend toward cans that are relatively neutral/balanced, but I do have a fondness for clarity, and suspect I might have slight 'treble-head' preferences. I am not treble sensitive (at all), and in the past have really enjoyed headphones like the K701, SR325i, and of course the T1 and DT880.
I have extensively tested myself (abx) and I find aac256 or higher to be completely transparent. I do use exclusively redbook 16/44.1 if space is not an issue. All of my music is legally purchased (mostly CD – the rest FLAC purchased on-line).
I tend to be sceptical about audiophile 'claims', don't generally believe in burn-in, have never heard a difference with different cables, and would rather test myself blind on perceived differences. I am not a 'golden eared listener'. I suffer from mild tinnitus, and at 48, my hearing is less than perfect.
For the purposes of this review - I used the Aune X1S in as many different scenarios and tested all of the inputs and outputs to test its versatility. Primarily though I was looking mainly at use as a desktop DAC/amp for my main system. I also took the opportunity to test The X1S against my Audio-gd NFB-12 and iFi Micro iDSD.
WHAT I LOOK FOR IN A PORTABLE DAC/AMP
I thought I'd list (before I start with the review) what I really look for in a desktop DAC/amp. In listing these points below, I tried to think what the device would need to do/have in order to convert me.
Clean neutral signature
Ability to drive higher impedance cans (eg my HD600 and T1)
Ability to take a variety of different inputs – but primarily optical and USB.
Ability to decode a number of different resolutions
Ability to control/drive my active JBL LSR-305 monitors
Easy to use and configure
Value for money
As an addition I also tested the Aune X1S as a DAC > line out to my LD MKIV OTL tube amp, and finally with IEMs. Although I don't use it for IEMs, I know there are others who do, so it was worth testing.
Did I get all of this with the X1S? Well not all, but quite a bit.
This is a purely subjective review - my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt - especially if it does not match your own experience.
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
The Aune X1s arrived in a large black box and lid with the Aune name printed on top, and a silver sticker on the side with some detail on the product. The box is quite large (319 x 262 x 97 mm), and to be honest when I first laid eyes on it, my immediate thoughts were "this things going to be a lot larger than I thought", and also "how am I going to fit it on the desk!"
Thankfully on opening the box, the X1s was a much more svelte size, and I also have to give kudos to Aune for the beautifully form fitting foam enclosure. The components are really well protected.
Included in the package is the Aune X1s (complete with rubber caps on the rear inputs/outputs) the quite large power brick, a USB cable, 3.5-6.3mm adaptor, contact card (a nice touch), and a mini USB stick which holds not only the manual (pdf), but also Windows driver, a word document to show how to set-up native DSD playback (this document is really easy to follow and quite well written with very good pictures and screen shots), and files for Foobar set-up. This is really quite comprehensive, and shows excellent commitment to the product.
The table below lists most of the relevant specifications, and because I've compared them later in the review, I've also included same specs for my NFB-12 and iDSD.
X1 SERIES HISTORY
I wasn't aware how much history there was with the X1 until I'd read through some of the material on the website. It was interesting enough to warrant listing in the review. The first generation was actually introduced in 2008, and there have been 5 releases in total for the series. With each generation, there have been improvements in features and technology, but with the X1S there has also been a definite change in style also. From the 4th generation X1 to 5th generation X1S, there has also been advances in better SNR, lower THD, less crosstalk, and better support for higher res formats.
BUILD / AESTHETICS / HEAT
I guess I'm like many others on the forum – sound is most important to me, but I'm a sucker for a really good looking unit as well, and on the style front, the X1S is simple, elegant, and gorgeous. The body is entirely anodised aluminium, and looks to be a seamless central chassis, with separate front and rear panels.
The top of the unit is slightly concave – but this shouldn't be a problem as this being a DAC and amp, most people won't want to be stacking anyway. The front panels sports a really easy to control analog pot on the right hand side which is nice to grip and tracks exceptionally well – totally smooth with no grabbing. The indicator has a nice indent and is very easy to see exactly where the pot sits. In the center is a standard 6.3mm headphone in socket which is gold plated and fits very snugly. On the left hand side is the input switch – which has a green LED which indicates that the power is on, and also which input has been selected (USB, optical, coax and line-in). This switch also doubles as the input for the digital filters (which I'll cover later in the review).
My only gripe with the front panel on this unit is that the markings are excessively difficult to read (grey text on a silver anodised panel). This is something that should definitely be fixed at some stage.
The rear panel has a 5 pin DIN socketed power cable on the left hand side, along with venting for the power supply. There are also 3 pairs of RCA connectors – a pair of "audio in", a pair of "audio out", and a "coax in" and "coax out". Next to this is the optical-in port, and on the far right is the on/off switch and USB plug socket. The USB socket takes a standard USB-B plug. The rear panel is quite clean, and easy to identify and plug.
The included USB cable is a very good one with gold connectors, well shielded, and is 1.5m in length. The power brick (15v adaptor) is large and almost as heavy as the X1S itself, weighing in at 800g. It has a cord length of 1.75 m from plug to adaptor, and then a further 0.95m from adaptor to DIN plug. This is worth mentioning because for my set-up, I had to have the bulky adaptor body on my desk – safely hidden behind my monitors – but there all the same.
All in all, the build is very solid, very clean looking. My one wish would be for clearer text on the front, and a smaller power adaptor. Even after a few hours use, the X1S has only been lukewarm to the touch – and barely registering above room temperature.
DRIVERS, MANUAL, FILTERS, SUPPORTED RESOLUTIONS
One thing I love about the Aune X1S is the inclusion of the memory key for both the manual and Windows drivers. The manual is easy to read and lists specifications, features and how-tos, along with measurements at the end (a nice touch).
Sadly I couldn't test the X1S with Mac as we don't have one in the house. I was able to test it with my Debian Linux netbook though, and after plugging, it was immediately recognised at kernel level (as an X1S USB DAC no less), and selectable as default. Within less than a minute I was playing music over USB. Very easy – no fuss.
With Windows, I could immediately play via optical or coax with no drivers needed. For USB, I plugged the unit in, turned it on, and Windows came back telling me it needed drivers. I ran the driver executable from the USB stick provided, and within less than 5 minutes I had the drivers installed and was playing music. Again – very easy install.
One thing to note though (and this may have been simply my older motherboard) the driver did not seem to play nicely with the iFi HD USB driver – so I had to uninstall one to use the other. Not a big issue – but one worth noting. With the driver properly installed I was able to set highest resolution at 24/384, and after configuring Foobar (I've done this before with the iDSD) play DSD files natively. I also tested redbook, 24/96 and 24/195 files, and all played without issues.
It took me a while to work out how to set the filters – there are three:
To access them you simply press and hold the input button until the LED goes red, and then continue to hold, and it will cycle the first three lights. Stop pressing at the filter you want and it is activated. I tried the filter settings over a couple of hours, and there really was little difference between them – the first filter was a little less bright than the second one, so I left it set at slow roll-off for most of my testing. One thing I'd suggest to Aune for future would be to have a separate switch for activating the filters, and also a separate LED. It would make things a lot easier – especially if each was labeled. The current system is a little cumbersome.
INPUTS AND OUTPUTS
As advised previously, I tested optical, coax-in and USB, and all worked well. Next to test was the line in, and also coax out. For the line-in, I simply switched the spdif input to the iDSD, and ran some RCAs from it to the X1S. Easy to set-up, and instant music. I also tried this with my X3ii running as a player to the X1S amp, and this set-up worked incredibly well also. The versatility so far has been very good.
For the coax out, I tried several different ways to get this working – running to my iDSD, my NFB-12, even to the E17K. At no time could I get it working. I haven't listed this as a negative anyway – as I can't honestly see why I would ever want to run coax (digital) out through the X1S (ie use it as a pass through). It honestly makes no sense to me why the RCA is even there. It is simply puzzling.
Lastly, I ran the X1S as DAC, and then line out to my LD MKIV OTL tube. This set-up was very good, and every bit as enjoyable as when I use my iDSD in the same set-up. This would be an ideal set-up for someone on a budget – X1S > LD MKIV > HD600 = a really nice listening experience. For under $1000 dollars, this would give most people a very good fidelity system. My only concern with this is that with the fixed line out on the X1S and no gain switch, the LD MKIV was running at around 15% of the total pot. Any louder than 20% and things were getting uncomfortable.
OUTPUT PERFORMANCE (POWER)
For this exercise, I simply used the optical-in, Foobar playing a 24/96 album (Bob Dylan's "Infidels"), and then cycled through all of the headphones I would normally use with my own gear – and compared them quickly with the iDSD to make sure there were no major changes in presentation.
AKG K553 (32 ohm, 114 dB SPL)
Comfortable listening level at around 9 o'clock on the pot for me. Very linear presentation. The two devices sound very similar with the only noticeable difference being that the X1S might be very slightly brighter/leaner – but we are talking micro amounts.
HD600 (300 ohm, 97 dB SPL)
Comfortable listening level at around 10 o'clock on the pot for me. Again really nice neutral and detailed presentation. Again the difference with the iDSD is that the iFi has a slightly warmer more organic tonality where the X1S seems to be a shade leaner and lighter. Both sound great with the HD600 though.
T1 (600 ohm, 102 dB SPL)
Comfortable listening level at around 10.30 – 11.00 o'clock on the pot for me. This is a really nice pairing, and there is no doubt that the T1 are being driven well. Frequency balance is good, and bass presentation is clean and dynamic. Switching to the iDSD,a nd once again the major change is flavour rather than quality – with the iDSD again being a little more organic sounding and not quite so lean.
JBL LSR 305 Active Speakers
The X1S had no trouble driving my desktop monitors, and sounded pretty good with them. My issue though is that the rear RCA is fixed, and there is no way of controlling them via the X1S volume control. This is a pity – as it does make it a deal breaker for use as my main desk-top DAC/amp. Both my iDSD and NFB-12 can run the speakers on variable volume control. With the X1S I'd have to use the Windows volume control. Workable – but not ideal.
Dunu DN2000J IEMs (8 ohm, 102 dB SPL)
I'm using these mainly because they are very sensitive and I wanted to see what the X1S 10ohm output impedance would do with the Dunu's low 8 ohm impedance. First up – I couldn't hear any hiss, so unless it was under my hearing threshold – tinnitus sometimes masks hiss for me), then the X1S definitely has a lovely black background. For this test, the pot is just under 9 o'clock, so there is enough play with more sensitive loads. Switching to the iDSD and it's quite hard to say whether the change is impedance or simply more of the same difference in tonality. Things don't sound to different to me – just again the iDSD's more organic sound.
The next section is simply to compare the X1S very quickly with my other two desktop amps – the NFB-12 and iDSD. With this test, I only used the HD600, and used optical in for all comparisons so I could switch very quickly. I volume matched first using a 1 kHz test tone and SPL meter to level the playing field as much as possible.
Vs NFB-12 - $235 USD from Audio-gd
The NFB is a veritable powerhouse, and easily one of the most powerful amps in its price bracket. Compared to the X1S it is larger (so less small-desktop friendly), and my version has the filters set with jumpers (you have to open the case). The NFB-12 has all the inputs the X1S has except for a line-in. It does have a gain switch though, and has a variable out so that speakers can be used and controlled by the volume pot. It does not need a power adaptor. It does not play DSD, and its highest resolution over USB is 24/96. Sonically the NFB-12 sounds a little fuller, warmer, and richer than the X1S. The X1S does sound slightly more detailed. Both have great balance and neutrality, and although their sound signatures are different, I'd find it hard to pick one I like more – both have their strengths. I think based on the more modern architecture, smaller footprint, and nicer aesthetics I'd choose the X1S – BUT – that decision would be reversed if I needed to run speakers. Both are really good versatile sources.
Vs micro iDSD – $499 USD from most US agents
The iDSD is one of the most configurable DAC/amps I have ever owned, and whilst not competing in the same ballpark as the Aune X1S it was going to be interesting to pitch them side by side. The iDSD has easier access and more configurability with filters and gain settings. It has essentially the same inputs and outputs as the X1S. Both require drivers, and essentially play at the same resolutions – but the iDSD has higher DSD resolution capability. The iDSD is also more powerful, and does have the ability to control rear RCA out with the pot (for speakers). The iDSD has the smaller form factor, can be used portably, and is powered by USB. In side-by-side comparisons, the two units sound a lot more similar than the NFB-12 vs X1S. They have similar levels of overall resolution, with the X1S sounding very slightly thinner to me, whilst the iDSD is very slightly warmer and fuller. Both have excellent detail presentation and clarity. The Aune X1S though is much cheaper, and presents a real value alternative for someone wanting sonics close to the iDSD, and doesn't need a lot of it's features.
VALUE & CONCLUSION
I've really enjoyed my week with the Aune X1S. Its level of detail, power, and configurability is fantastic for the low price it is being pitched at. Throw in the beautiful aesthetics and form factor, and I do think Aune has a winner on their hands.
The X1S would be an ideal unit for a second room, bedroom, holiday home, work place set-up, or for any budding audiophile starting out. Sonically it is very neutral – maybe very slightly on the bright/lean side – but wonderful sounding with the headphones I have tested it on.
It isn't without its faults though – and I have listed them below as recommendations for changes in future.
I would recommend this DAC/amp without question to someone who wants very good quality and sonics, but is maybe limited on available budget.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO AUNE
For future iterations I would suggest considering the following:
Change the text on the silver unit to something with more contrast
Add a variable line-out option (controlled by the pot) for those wanting to run active speakers. This would need to be switchable (outputs) but I think it is the single most important feature missing.
Add a gain switch to allow more use of the pot
Add a separate switch and indicators for the filters
My thanks go to Aune for giving me a chance to review the X1S. It really is a wonderful unit and I look forward to seeing more products from Aune in the future.