While we still don’t have any idea when Spotify will be launching its Hi-Fi service, between Tidal, Apple Music, Deezer, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD, there’s no shortage of streaming services jumping on the Hi-Fi bandwagon. There’s just one issue with that, though; you need an external DAC to get the benefit of any of these Hi-Fi tiers. There’s nothing new about using external DACs and amps to get the most out of your music, but on a phone? The big music streaming services are pushing mobile hi-fi, and you probably don’t have what you need to enjoy it.
A DAC (digital to analogue converter) takes digital audio files and turns them into a smooth analog signal for the speaker drivers in your headphones or earbuds. There’s already a DAC in your smartphone, but not all DAC chips are created equal. The chips found in the $130 FiiO BTR5 2021 are much closer in quality to the ones you would find in a desktop DAC. This makes it able to handle files with larger sample rates and higher bit depths, and also helps you get better sound out of lower resolution files. However, it’s still a $130 Bluetooth accessory, so we’re clearly into audiophile territory here.
FiiO BTR5 20218.50 / 10Read ReviewsRead More ReviewsSee on Amazon
The FiiO BTR5 delivers desktop quality audio for your smartphone and brings high quality Bluetooth codecs to your wired cans, but it’s Android’s spotty support for USB DACs that holds it back.SpecificationsProsConsBuy This ProductFiiO BTR5 2021Shop at Amazon
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The BTR5 works as a plug-n-play DAC, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have it plugged in to use it. In wired mode, the BTR5 replaces the crummy 3.5mm adapter that came with your phone (if you're lucky). It's also a wireless Bluetooth receiver that can pipe high-quality audio into a pair of premium wired headphones.
It’s taken a lot of design notes from modern smartphones. It has the same glass sandwich design we’re all accustomed to, complete with curved edges. While itdoes have a display behind that glass face, it only takes up a tiny portion of the available space. It doesn’t need to be very large since it only has to display basic information like battery and volume levels, what Bluetooth codec it’s using, the sample rate, or if it’s decoding an MQA file. It would be nice if the screen was bigger so it could display more data, but not knowing the sample rate of your MQA files or the current bit depth isn’t the end of the world.
All of the controls are on the right side, along with a microphone. In wired mode, the volume rocker only adjusts your volume, but in Bluetooth mode it can skip tracks back and forth. The power button pulls up the display so you can see the battery level and your current sample rate or if you’re decoding an MQA file. In wireless mode, the display will just tell you what Bluetooth codec is being used. Holding down the power button will bring up the menu so you can do things like toggle charging or change EQ modes. The unmarked button is only used for menu navigation in wired mode, but it’s the play/pause/assistant and answer/reject call button in Bluetooth mode.
The top of the BTR5 shows off an unexpected audiophile feature in the way of an extra headphone jack. This isn’t for two people to listen at the same time—I tried that just to see if it would work and it didn’t. This jack is actually for balanced output. In addition to having a smaller jack, balanced cables also further insulate the left and right audio channels to cut down on interference. The balanced jack on the BTR5 is designed with higher headphone impedances in mind, at a 150ohm recommended max, as opposed to the 100ohm recommendation FiiO gives for the 3.5mm jack. I tested that with my 250ohm Beyerdynamic DT770s, and it sounds like I’m maxing out the BTR5.
The base model BTR5 comes with a Type-C to C cable and a Type-C to A cable, which is all you need to use it on Android, Windows, and in your car’s USB type-A port. The “Apple” version includes a Type-C to lightning cable and costs $10 more. That might sound pricey for a short cable, but the cheapest lightning to C OTG cable I could find was $16, so if you have an iPhone or iPod touch, the extra $10 isn’t a bad deal.
For anyone nostalgic for fanny packs and Walkmen (me), you’ll be pleased to see that FiiO has included a belt clip for the BTR5. In wireless mode, this was a decent way to anchor my headphones to one spot so they didn’t annoy me while I was on my phone, but it can be cumbersome in wired mode whenever you need to take your phone out. No one is forcing you to use the clip, though, but this is still better than letting it dangle or float around in your pocket.
Software, audio, and battery life
When I say that the BTR5 has desktop quality sound, I’m not exaggerating. It’s comparable to an entry-level DAC in the same price range. There are obviously trade-offs when you compare it to a desktop setup, but the sound quality isn’t one of them.
There are 2 different apps that integrate with the BTR5. Fiio Control lets you change settings and set up EQ profiles. While the BTR5 has a lot of options easily accessible in its menu, the control app lets you do much more, like forcing specific audio codecs. The FiiO Music app has all the same controls tucked away in the settings menu, but is also a music player. Both apps work fine, and putting the controls in their own app is a good consideration for anyone who wants to do all their listening through their preferred app.
As previously mentioned, the BTR5 can be used as a USB DAC or a Bluetooth receiver. As a USB DAC, it supports up to 384kHz sample rates at 32 bits, but there’s a caveat on that. There’s not one universal way that all Android devices interact with external DACs, so not every phone will just automatically hand off decoding to a USB DAC, and plenty will just opt to use their internal DAC. This isn’t the fault of FiiO, it’s just a weird eccentricity with Android right now. With the right phone, music on the FiiO BTR5 sounds flawless.
Support for MQA tracks on Tidal and other services is one of the big selling points of this device, but you’ll only hear the higher quality audio if your phone connects to the DAC correctly. Sadly, you won’t know if it does until you try. I tried the BTR5 with a PC, Mac, iPhone, and several Androids. I only had issues getting hi-fi quality sound out of the androids. It seems like Samsung has this pretty well handled because they already sell devices with external DAC chips, so if you’ve got a Samsung, odds are good that none of this applies to you.. Using an app like USB Audio Player Pro totally circumvents this issue, but it feels demoralizing to spend another $12 on an app to make your $130 DAC work correctly for MQA. That’s a big ask seeing as MQA isn’t even lossless.
As a Bluetooth receiver, things aremuchmore straightforward, thankfully. With support for aptX HD and LDAC, until aptX lossless becomes more prevalent, you won’t be able to get a better Bluetooth audio experience than this. Between the two, LDAC has more bandwidth, so you’ll probably want to opt for that. At the max speed of 990Kb/s, according to Sony, LDAC justbarely has the bandwidth required for lossless CD-quality FLAC files, which aptX HD does not. There will be some loss if you go with files with more bit-depth or a higher sample rate, but that’s the same for all Bluetooth devices right now.
FiiO claims a nine-hour battery life and a full charge in an hour and a half, and that seems realistic from my testing. There’s room for huge variance depending on factors like volume level and the impedance of your headphones though. This is a bigger concern in wireless mode, though, because you can easily have the BTR5 charge from your phone while you use it.
Should you buy it?
It depends. I honestly love the sound quality I get out of the BTR5. My wired desktop headphones sound better on Bluetooth than any of my Bluetooth headphones by a mile, and it wasn’t that out of the norm for me to spend 12+ hours a day with headphones on once I started using the BTR5. I think it hits the perfect intersection of desktop quality sound and a convenient enough size to bring anywhere. Iwant to recommend this to everyone, but it took a lot of troubleshooting due to Android’s patchwork DAC support. It’s a lot of hassle when most people are fine listening to lower quality audio. The FiiO BTR5 is a good product, but it’s only worth it for audiophiles.
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Connor is 6'5", quite literally making him a massive nerd. His first Android was a Samsung Intercept he bought in 2010, and he's been a rabid Android fan ever since. When he's away from his keyboard, he's usually taking photos or working out.