Reviewing a premium digital audio player

Article By : Brian Dipert

At the heart of the XDP-02U digital audio player's appeal is its hardware design, but you also need to consider accessories, storage, music services, and audio formats.

After having tried out (reasonably) cost-effective high-quality headphones, along with computer-connected DACs and amplifiers for them, I thought it might be interesting to also pair the former with a relatively inexpensive and (claimed) premium mobile DAP (digital audio player). I’ve long used legacy iPod Classics to store my voluminous music library for in-car playback purposes, but the combination of an embedded battery and a 1.8″ HDD made their sooner-or-later demise a matter of when, not if, and getting inside of them to swap out whatever had expired was not exactly easy. Plus, by going with a fully solid-state alternative, I might even be able to reliably use it when truly mobile (i.e. while exercising).

My choice, as is often the case, entered my life via a gift-receiving opportunity, specifically (this time) my birthday and courtesy of my wife. Pioneer’s XDP-02U (known as the XDP-20 in Japan) comes in three colors (dark blue for mine, shown below, as well as pink and white), has dimensions of 2.5″×3.9″×0.6″ (64.5×98.2×16 mm), weighs 4.41 oz. (125 g), and was priced at $299.99 when unveiled at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show.

photo of Pioneer XDP-02U digital audio player

photo of Pioneer XDP-02U digital audio player back

You might think it’s pricey, and I wouldn’t argue with you there, but everything’s relative; Astell & Kern’s SE200 is $1,799 (but hey, it lets you switch between two different integrated DACs based on your listening preferences because they sound different, right?). And the acquisition tipping point came when I saw the XDP-02U on sale for $100 off, at $199.99 (I’ve subsequently even seen it $50 lower on what I presume is closeout, at $149.99).

Keep in mind, if you pick up an XDP-02U for yourself, that your purchases probably aren’t complete when the player’s in your hands. There are headphones, of course, if you don’t already own a quality set of ’em. And then there’s the fact that the XDP-02U only comes with 16 GBytes of storage onboard. Two (empty) microSD card slots are also included, each capable of accepting a memory card up to 400 GBytes in size, but populating them is going to hit your wallet a bit hard.

With no shortage of skepticism, I initially bought two 400 GByte microSD cards of indeterminate origin off Ebay for $29.99 each; they reported (and formatted, and re-formatted) as the claimed capacity in both Windows and MacOS, but the first one failed after 16 GBytes of data was written to it, with the second failing with a >128 Gbyte payload. Here’s the background on what’s going on, courtesy of Andrew “bunnie” Huang, who I’ve mentioned before (and here’s more interesting microSD reading material from him). Fortunately, I eventually got my money back from PayPal, although the merchant never responded (and hasn’t been yanked from Ebay yet, either). I didn’t have to give up the bad microSD cards, either, so you should anticipate seeing them as teardown victims sooner-or-later. I ended up picking up two legit Sandisk 400 GByte cards from Amazon on sale for $47.99 each, both of which work just fine.

At the heart of the XDP-02U’s appeal is its hardware design. For example, quoting from the Amazon listing:

The XDP-02U features twin ESS SABRE ES9018C2M DACs and twin high-output SABRE ESS9601K amplifiers. Each symmetrical L/R channel is fed by separate custom capacitors. The design leads to transparent reproduction and yields extraordinary detail on a spacious soundstage. The amps are powerful enough to drive headphones up to 600 ohms … The clock synchronizes data timing between devices. The XDP-02U has two clocks; one detects 44.1 kHz signals (for native playback of audio sourced from CD), scaling to 176.4 kHz, and the second upsamples 48 kHz signals to a maximum 192 kHz. Enjoy jitter-free sound suited to the original sampling rate … Audio circuits and processing system are on separate boards to limit noise interference. Battery and power supply are also isolated. Customized hand-selected components, such as audio-grade capacitors, are used throughout to achieve clearest possible audio reproduction.

Expanding on the above-mentioned wide sample rate support (along with support for multiple sample sizes, by the way), the XDP-02U supports (PDF) a diversity of lossy and lossless audio formats, including:

  • FLAC/ALAC/WAV/AIFF/MP3/AAC/MQA (44.1 kHz/48 kHz /88.2 kHz /96 kHz/176.4 kHz/192 kHz (16 bit/24 bit/32 bit))
  • DSD/DSF/DSDIFF *DSD Native (2.8 MHz/5.6 MHz (1 bit))

Not included in the above list, alas, is WMA (Windows Media Audio). A number of years ago, I’d unwisely chosen WMA as the native format for the digital music collection I’d ripped from my innumerable audio CDs, transcoding (in a further quality-degrading manner, mind you) from there to AAC for my various iPods using a seemingly no-longer-available program called EasyWMA. If you’re thinking it’s a bit daft to use a premium DAP to listen to twice-lossy-compressed tunes, I can’t argue with you, but the only ways to “fix” this situation are to re-rip all those CDs from scratch (or re-buy them from an online service, I suppose).

Speaking of which, unsurprisingly the XDP-02U also doesn’t support any of the Fairplay-inclusive iTunes tracks (including pretty much the entire Grateful Dead Dick’s Picks collection) I’d purchased prior to Apple going DRM-free back in 2007. I’d thought that subsequent to Apple’s (and record label partners’) change of heart, I might be able to re-download all of this material absent DRM (in M4A format versus the prior M4P, to be precise), but Apple seems determined to force me to re-buy it instead. Again, the workaround here is to burn the M4Ps to CDs and then re-rip them in a XDP-02U-friendy format. That all aside, for the music already in formats that the XDP-02U likes, copying the tracks to the DAP is easy; when you connect it to a computer via a USB-to-micro USB cable, the internal memory along with any installed microSD cards mount as distinct drives with both Windows and MacOS.

Resident music files aren’t your only option with the XDP-02U, either, which (unlike the iPod Classic, but akin to an iPod touch or, for that matter, music service apps running on a smartphone) integrates dual-band Wi-Fi capabilities. The supported services include two you’ve perhaps never heard of (Deezer and TuneIn), and one that you might have (Tidal, owned by artist Jay-Z). Tidal is notable for paying musicians higher royalty percentages than many other online services. And particularly germane to this conversation, it’s also known for its “HiFi” music tier, which serves up content in the lossless FLAC and related ALAC formats as Tidal Masters (on its website, the company claims more than 170,000 tracks) that deliver the “ultimate audio experience” with “master-quality songs.”

Prior to researching, I’d assumed that Tidal was delivering its Masters as DSDs (perhaps better known to readers as the format employed in Sony’s SACD). Turns out, however, that Tidal’s using Meridian Audio’s MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) format instead. Whether what MQA actually delivers is reality, hype, or a mix of both remains a controversial subject among audiophiles years after the format’s initial unveiling at the 2014 AES (Audio Engineering Society) Convention. Suffice it to say that MQA is an “audibly lossless” (translation: lossy) compression format, albeit a quite clever one, and on that point it’d admittedly take a lot of evidence for me to doubt the technical “chops” of Bob Stuart and his team.

photo of Pioneer XDP-02U using the Tidal

The Tidal implementation on the XDP-02U is unfortunately subpar compared to that in the Tidal apps running on my various Android and iOS devices, as well as on my computers. You can’t download tracks for offline listening, for example, you can only stream them over Wi-Fi (a particularly frustrating experience when it seemingly randomly locks onto a far-away node in my mesh network, inevitably leading to subsequent connection drops; the XDP-02U also seems to be particularly obstinate at resisting handoff from one node to another as I move about the house). And you can’t directly search specifically for Masters tracks (and albums containing them) via the XDP-02U, although if you pre-load them up in your library via another device, you can then access and play them back on the DAP.

More generally, the XDP-02U user interface is regressive compared to those on other devices, although it’s not as bad as I’d expected from reading reviews posted by others. The front panel is a capacitive touchscreen, albeit only with a 320×240 pixel resolution and 2.4″ diagonal size, and not all displayed text will scroll if it doesn’t natively fit. More generally, navigation is a bit like using Windows’ File Explorer or MacOS’s Finder by means of your finger. Turning the attention to audio-output options, they’re robust albeit not complete. Both unbalanced (complete with three different gain setting options for different headphones’ impedances) and balanced analog options are available, along with analog line out, and the available Bluetooth profiles include (via firmware update) higher-quality aptX. But curiously, although the microUSB port is usable not only for charging and file transfers but also as a digital audio output option (conceptually connected to a high-quality standalone DAC), its use here is restricted solely to the relatively obscure USB OTG mode (versus the more robust USB-C and Lightning implementations on others’ devices).

That all said, I’m still content with my new toy (especially at its discounted price), so much so that after first snagging a four-months-for-$4 Tidal HiFi deal, I decided to further extend my service access with a year-for-$99 promotion through Best Buy, even though I’ve already got Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, and Sirius XM subscriptions (sigh).

The XDP-02U is lightweight, compact, and reasonably rugged. And battery life seems decent, although since the battery itself is non-removable (translation: non-replaceable), the device is ultimately yet another example of “obsolescence by design” (again, sigh). Pair the XDP-02U with a set of quality headphones like my Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 58X Jubilees, situate yourself in a quiet listening environment, and prepare for sonic excellence.

Time to turn over the microphone to you, dear readers, for your thoughts; I’m “all ears”!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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