Stereocheck Reviews:

Fiio KA5: A comprehensive and affordable DAC

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore my history with Fiio products. It all began back in 2016 with the Fiio X1, a device that truly impressed me with its sound quality. Subsequently,...

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore my history with Fiio products. It all began back in 2016 with the Fiio X1, a device that truly impressed me with its sound quality. Subsequently, I upgraded to the X3 II, which met my music needs perfectly. However, my experience with the X5 III and M6 was rather underwhelming. This trend was also noticeable with Fiio’s headphones – earlier models were great, but the newer ones fell short. Recently, I had the chance to review the KA3 dongle, which left me skeptical about Fiio’s budget sound quality. But then came the KA5, which completely changed my perspective and made me reconsider other competitors in the same price range. Could it be the return to DACs from Cirrus Logic that made the difference?

Complete set

The Fiio KA5 comes in a medium-sized cardboard box with a stylish dust cover. Removing the main box from the dust jacket is a simple task – just carefully catch it with a fingernail at the lower end and pull. Upon opening the package, you’ll find a black instruction book, which surprisingly is not the device itself. It is advisable to discard the manual immediately to avoid any unwanted scents. The manual contains instructions in Chinese, English, and hieroglyphs. Along with the manual, you’ll find a good selection of accessories: two cables in a fabric sheath (type C and Lightning), as well as a metal USB adapter for connecting the dongle to a PC. This accessory set is quite impressive, and Apple users will be pleased with the inclusion of these items.


Design

Let’s now shift our focus to something more captivating. Specifically, let’s delve into the protagonist of the evaluation, which exudes an aura of superior quality and expert craftsmanship. The gadget is crafted from a blend of metal textures – ribbed aluminum and copper-hued steel. Additionally, there is a glass covering on the underside, the purpose of which remains somewhat ambiguous to me. However, the OLED screen is undoubtedly a standout feature. This screen showcases text in a crisp white hue, a refreshing departure from the dated toxic blue symbols of the past. It is also noteworthy to highlight the two color variants available for the device – the sleek black (like the one I own) and the more striking white option.

In terms of the controls, the layout is quite intuitive. There is a diamond-shaped multifunctional button that serves various purposes such as activating the display (double click), navigating through the menu (short click), and adjusting the volume. Additionally, there is a separate key for changing menu parameters. To switch between UAC 2.0 and UAC 1.0 modes for connecting the KA5 to the Nintendo Switch, the “menu” key will be required. This process may not be the simplest, so it is recommended to refer to the official website for instructions.

When it comes to connectivity options, the setup is more conventional. Three interfaces are located on the side ends – USB type-C, 4.4-mm Pentaconn, and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The absence of the 2.5mm balanced connector signifies a move towards more modern and widely used connection standards.


Display

Typically, I don’t analyze the display and menu items separately, but this time I must make an exception for the KA5 menu, which offers intriguing and practical features. After pressing the multifunction key, users can adjust backlight brightness, screen off time, select DAC filter, adjust channel balance, enable S/PDIF, choose gain level (low or high), and most notably, select amplification class (AB or H). This final option has a direct impact on sound quality, unlike DAC filters.

Unlike other manufacturers, Fiio/Jade Audio has chosen to be concise in providing information about the key components of their device’s circuit technology. As mentioned earlier, the device utilizes a pair of mobile DACs CS43198 (PCM 32/768; DSD 256), which are not commonly found in the portable Hi-Res market. However, this uniqueness is actually a positive aspect, setting them apart from their competitors at ESS. Initially, Fiio used circuits from Cirrus Logic in their first Hi-Res players, which were later replaced by chips from Asahi Kasei, and eventually by chips from ESS Saber due to a well-known unfortunate incident.

For amplification, the device relies on a pair of LM8261 op-amps manufactured by Texas Instruments. These op-amps exhibit impressive output power capabilities, reaching 265 mW for balanced output and 122 mW for S/E (3.5 mm). However, it’s important to note that the 265 mW output power does not necessarily mean that the KA5 is optimized for full-sized headphones. In my opinion, it is better suited for intra-channel dynamic or hybrid models, rather than clean armatures.

Sound

In general, I would describe the sound of the product as relatively smooth, analytically focused, with a mid-range emphasis that is comfortable for listening. I would characterize it as “more accurate than warm” and with a subtle digital touch. Terms like “refined,” “balanced,” and “rich” come to mind when discussing the sound of the KA5. The richness indicates a strong timbral range in the device. While some may label it as a monitor-like sound, I believe there are noticeable hints of bass and treble, along with a gentle warmth in the tones and the aforementioned digital touch. Let’s now delve into the frequency spectrum components.

Bass. With minimal accentuation and a stylistic background presence, the bass in the KA 5th provides a pleasant softness at a normal speed and expressiveness. The textures are somewhat simplified, as previously mentioned, as the focus is more on the technical and aesthetic aspects of the midrange. Personally, I found the bass to fulfill its intended function perfectly. However, it may not be suitable for those who are bass enthusiasts.

Midrange. The midrange is analytical and graceful, delivering excellent rendering of individual sound images with sufficient emotionality. Acoustic and some electric instrument solos sound luxurious, with each note standing out and a captivating richness of timbres. Nonetheless, there are still some drawbacks. The vocals and instruments have a light and thin quality, and the virtual soundstage is somewhat simplified in terms of scale and structure. It’s important to remember that this device is priced around $150, so it would be unfair to expect $500 performance from it.

High frequencies. The upper frequencies also offer no unpleasant surprises, well, almost. The HF device excels in rendering individual sound images with timbral sophistication and moderate expressiveness. The accents are relatively well-placed, although there may still be some sibilants and whistling overtones. The Fiio KA5 is neither excessively sharp nor overly soft. Overall, I confidently recommend it to those who are sensitive to high frequencies.

Competitors

The primary rival of our Fiio is the widely beloved and highly sought-after Shanling UA3 mobile DAC, which comes at a price that is nearly UAH 2,000 lower. The sound characteristics of these devices are quite distinct: Shanling offers a more analog and music-focused sound, whereas the KA 5th excels in technology and, in my view, delivers richer timbres. Personally, I prefer the Fiio version, although the UA3 is also commendable. Unfortunately, I cannot provide much insight as I have only experienced much more affordable dongles.

Conclusion

Fiio KA5 possesses immense potential to captivate its audience. With its exceptional technical prowess, analytical precision, and rich timbral sound, this device is sure to leave a lasting impression. Not only does it boast an impressive design and high-quality housing, but it also offers advanced functionality. All these features combined make it an irresistible choice for those seeking a comprehensive and affordable audio solution.

Fiio KA5
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