BERLIN—With Apple paying less and less attention to its iPod line, maybe it's time for some other players to step up. In recent months we've seen Neil Young's Toblerone-like Pono Player, the music-focused London smartphone from Marshall, as well as more mainstream devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, which claim to play high-res, 24-bit audio.
Here at IFA, we got a close look at the Echobox Explorer X1, which looks to be the official music player for Jay Z's struggling hi-def music service Tidal. According to George Gill, Echobox's chief development officer, the Explorer X1 will probably come with three months of free hi-fi Tidal service (a $60 value) and, as I saw, there's a Tidal logo right on the home screen.
This isn't an exclusive Tidal player. Flip to the right in the UI and you see Spotify and TuneIn Radio. The player also has 64GB of internal storage plus a MicroSD card slot, and it can play various uncompressed formats including FLAC and WAV; DSD file support is coming very soon, hopefully by launch. With a 200GB SanDisk MicroSD card, the X1 could easily take the place of the much-beloved-by-audiophiles iPod Classic.
It's also adorable. The X1 looks like a wooden flask with a metal top and bottom. The flask's cap is the volume knob, and it's the best-feeling knob I've ever touched on a mobile device. It has ridged edges, and distinct clicks for steps, like on a high-end stereo system. Most of the UI is operated through a 3.5-inch touch screen. (An earlier model, with a 2.7-inch touch screen, has been discarded.) Is it slim and super practical? Nah, not really. Is it fun and a little silly? You bet.
Gill is clearly an audiophile, and the X1 is a work of love. It's still under development, although Gill said it's going on sale in October for around $450. The demo model I saw had unstable software, and Gill said the company was swapping out the optical output port on the top for a coax jack.
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True to his audiophilia, Gill rhapsodized about the player's DAC—an older TI PCM1792, which he said gives a more analog feel than newer chips do. But he didn't know quite what processor it ran on, saying only that it was a Rockchip CPU running the Android 4.2 OS. While the X2 is a general-purpose Android device—you can swap out the special Echobox software for the standard Android launcher easily—it clearly has enough power to stream high-quality music and not much more.
I put on some Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro headphones to listen to the player; Gill pointed out that many devices don't have an amp powerful enough to drive massive headphones, but the X1's 300mW amp has no problem doing so. Uncompressed music sounded deliciously well-rounded, with bone-warming bass and easily distinguishable cymbals.
We hope to review the Explorer X1 when it becomes available in October.
Editors' Note: After this story was published, Echobox wrote in to clarify that "we are not financially supported by Tidal or their official player, [but] we do have big plans for the future that we would love to include them in." Also, the processor is an RK3188, which is a quad-core Cortex-A9.
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