Apple used to dominate the MP3 player market with its iPod line, both in product sales and mindshare. People who don’t use Apple products still refer to iPods and podcasts in everyday speech.
Apple no longer makes an iPod, having moved the name to its line of headphones: AirPods. If you want to listen to music on the go in the Apple ecosphere, then you have to buy one of their expensive cellphones.
There are alternatives, of course. Used iPods in excellent condition remain available from sellers on eBay. (That’s where, in the past, I got mine.) Other companies make music players, ranging in price from very cheap to very expensive. Most music players handle a variety of digital music formats, two common ones being MP3 (the most popular), WAV (format used by CDs), and FLAC (lossless, high quality playback).
TIP: If you use iTunes, then you don’t need to be locked to it. It is not well known that most non-Apple music players handle Apple’s proprietary format, AAC/M4A, after Apple opened it for anyone to use. This means that you can drag music files from the C:\Users\<user name>\Music\iTunes\iTunes Media\Music folder to the music player attached to your computer, such as your phone. Liberating your tunes from iTunes ensures Apple cannot lose/block the music you purchased.
For me, music is important, and so when I listen to music, it must be reproduced well. Nothing beats a live classical music concert, of course, but the limitations inherent in digitized music can be overcome, partially. One is to record music in a lossless format, such as FLAC [free lossless audio codec], or at a high bitrate, like 320kb/sec for MP3s.
Another is to use a high-quality DAC [digital-analog converter]. This chip converts digitized music into the analog format our ears need. The typical cell phone maker doesn’t care about DAC quality, including Apple, in my opinion. (I own an iPad and two iPods.)
There are ways around a lower-quality DAC:
- Bypass the cell phone’s built-in DAC, which you can do if the phone has a USB-C connector: buy a good quality set of headphones that come with a USB-C connector, which contains its own DAC circuitry; in the phone’s Settings, instruct it to bypass its own DAC and play digital music directly to the USB-C port.
- Buy a high-end music player. Sony and FIIOS sell models that cost $1,000 and more. I was not interested in that. There are alternatives that cost in the $200-$300 range.
TIP: How do you tell if a headphone is “good”? In the specs, I look at the Sensitivity rating: anything over 100dB is good. Headphones withe lower numbers are cheaply made, and I avoid headphones missing the Sensitivity spec.
I had bought a high-end music player a couple of years ago, but was disappointed by it. Never mind that the external controls felt rough; the unforgivable sin was the ever-persistent hiss, a sign of poor SNR [signal to noise ratio]. I returned it.
Last week I took another look at what is available, and settled on the AP80 Pro-X, the top-end model from Hidizs at about $200. When I tried buying it directly from the Hidizs site at https://www.hidizs.com/products/ap80-pro-x-fully-balanced-lossless-music-player-ayfk, it rejected my credit card, and so I bought it from Amazon.
This player, at 2”x2.5”, is diminutive yet shockingly flexible in its capabilities, which is something that I’d expect from a product calling itself “Pro-X.” The body is made from aluminum with a plastic back. The front is a 2.5” touch screen. I got the one in natural aluminum color, which the company calls “gray.”
The box includes two screen protectors and two USB cables, a short USB-C to UBS-C cable and a longish USB-C to USB-A. No charger is included, but any USB charger works with it; the vendor recommends limiting charging amperage to 2A.
First thing I have to point out is that this music player has no storage. So the first thing I had to do was insert a microSD card. The unit handles cards up to 512GB formatted with FAT32 (according to the specs). I inserted a spare one I had with 64GB capacity, and then filled it half-up with music and podcasts. (In my collection, I have, in total, about 130GB of music.)
What formats does it support? Dunno. Other than MP3, I didn’t really know for sure until tech support sent me the following screen grab, from which we see that it covers all the ones we would expect to see -- Apple’s AAC, lossless FLAC, OGG container, lossy MP3, and Windows audio WMA.
I can create playlists within the unit, but I found the process awkward, and I was unable to learn which externally-created playlist formats the AP80 supports. Which is okay, because I don’t use playlists; I organize my music by folders, which this unit supports -- and which Apple’s products notably don’t.
TIP: I create “playlists” with a few master folders, using names like Pop, Jazz, Christian, and Podcasts. If necessary, I create sub-folders with names like American, British, and Canadian. Each artist gets his or her own folder, and then under that come folders for each album. I then drag albums from my computer into the appropriate folder on the music player.
The player displays "ebook" files, but the documentation does not list ebook formats, so I tested it by loading documents in formats I would expect an ebook reader to support: PDF, DOC, DOCX, TXT, and EPUB into folder \Book. It only displayed the TXT (plain text) file.
The AP80 Pro-X can apparently read files from an external device, like an external hard drive, but I was unable to get that working. It also does step counting, but I have not yet tried it.
The music player uses the X1000 CPU from Ingenic, a Chinese manufacturer of chips for small hardware. This CPU is designed for audio devices and runs at up to 1HGz. Technical details here: https://www.cnx-software.com/2015/09/22/ingenic-x1000-mips-processor-and-x1000-phoenix-board-target-iot-and-embedded-applications/. The operating system is probably Linux.
With the music stored in the machine, it is time to get out the music by listening to it. The AP80 Pro-X offers four ways to do this:
- Bluetooth - for wireless headphones, which are convenient to use, but the Bluetooth standard further degrades digital music by further compressing it
- 3.5mm headphone jack - for wired headphones and stereo systems
- 2.5mm lineout jack - this outputs the sound at a constant, high volume level and is meant as an input to a stereo system
- USB-C out - for USB-C headphones, something Apple, again, cannot support, but might be able to once it switches its phones’ port away from Lightning
The jacks are all at the bottom of the unit.
Apparently, this music player can be used as an external headphone amplifier, where it reads music from an external source via the USB-C port, and then delivers it with the 3.5mm headphone port. (I’ve never understood the need for headphone amps.) Hidizs sells its own line of headphones, and I would interested in their quality, but the design of them, unlike their music players, I find tacky. What intrigues me is that the headphones come with DIP [dual-inline position] switches (to adjust the tone), as well as removable, replaceable cables.
The screen is a touch screen. I was pleased with the quality of the display in its high resolution (for the small screen size), strong colors, and brightness.
Externally, the AP80 Pro-X has a largish dial, which, with a pleasing click feel as I turn it, performs several functions:
- Push - turns display on and off
- Hold down for 3 seconds - turns power on and off
- Rotate - changes the volume
The maximum volume can be limited to a lower level through an option in Settings. The overall Bluetooth volume can be set separately, which usually I want to be louder. There is also an option that switches between low and high gain.
The unit has physical buttons for previous track, play/pause, and next track. These controls are replicated in software on the touch screen.
Missing is a fast forward that would speed through a track, such as getting through a long podcast. Also missing is a Lock button (called “Hold” on Sony units) to keep the controls from being activated accidentally when the unit is in my pocket or a carrying case. (I find that happens too often, and so the unit has lost a quarter of its battery life.) A hole for attaching a wrist strap would have been appreciated, as well.
Wo boy. Here is where this review would explode into all kinds of directions. This thing is absolutely packed with options, which in navigating on a small screen can get frustrating for me. There are, as best as I can tell, four areas with settings:
- Settings from the main screen
- A different menu of settings accessed from the playback screen
- Bluetooth settings
- MQA settings -- lets me change the quality of the sound, such as warmer or cooler, sharper or looser bass, and so on.
Here are a pair of options that I appreciate the most:
- Play next folder, play next album
- Remember position in song (for resuming play later)
The #2 frustration, after the inadequate documentation, is moving on from the home screen. So far it seems either luck or coincidence that lets me get from beyond it.
Another frustration is that I’d like to customize the home screen with the options I use the most, such as accessing Folder view directly. Right now, home screen gives me access to the following options, some of which to me seem pointless to give them such prominence:
- Bluetooth - on or off
- Gain - low or high
- USB Mode - Storage, Audio, Dock
- Line Out Mode - toggle maximum volume on Line Out port
- Screen brightness
- Play controls - these do not work when the unit is powered on
- Volume - unnecessary duplication of the volume knob
The unit’s battery lasts about ten hours, and charges in an hour, depending on the amperage of the charger I am using; a 2-amp USB charger is recommended. I can use the unit to listen to music while it is charging, which some players do not permit.
The documentation notes that the battery life is shortened when listening at higher volumes. I wonder if more complex formats, like FLAC, might also reduce battery life, but I did not test this.
Another frustration is that there is no Support tab on the company’s Web site. The only support immediately visible is the chat bubble.
To the credit of the company, I received nearly instant response contacting them by chat and by email. To my dismay, their support staff did not understand what I meant by “playlist” when I asked which playlist formats the music player supported, and kept sending me instructions how to load music files.
The brief manual included in the box covers only the basics that you could probably figure out on your own. There seems to be no in-depth documentation to explain the meaning of all options; the names of a few options are long enough to be cut off by the display, and so I literally don’t know what they do -- such as "Button operations when...".
The manual only ever gives generic links to hidizs.net, which is unhelpful. I happened to find a news item on the Hidizs Web site from two years ago that mentions a firmware update, and from that I got the link to the hidden support page. Here, you can download firmware, a USB DAC driver for Windows, copies of the brief manual for each device, and so on: https://www.hidizs.net/apps/help-center.
(The last firmware update is from 2020, and so my unit already carries it. I tried installing the USB DAC driver, but it would not recognize the player.)
An Android app can be used to control the music player remotely, such as when it is attached to a stereo system: HiBy Link is not made by Hidizs. (I suppose there might be other Android music apps that do the same.) I connect the app to the music player through Bluetooth, and then the app read all the music stored on the device. After that, I could remotely control the music being played back. Apparently, it can use direct WiFi to move music files from the phone to the player and back, but I have not tested this.
What Ralph Grabowski Thinks
This device is certainly a luxury in an era of smartphones being everything-machines, including effective music players. I do enjoy the fine sound that the AP80 Pro-X emits, how well it is constructed physically, and the geekiness of it all -- giving me hours of fascination.
If I were to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t buy it. The frustrations outweigh the benefits. In order of greatest to least significant, the drawbacks are:
- Unit accidentally turns on, and so drains the battery
- Difficulty in moving on from the home screen
- Relatively short 10-hour battery life (my phone plays music for more than a day)
- Confusing array of options with no detailed documentation
[Disclosure: I provided a copy of this review to Hidizs in case they had any comments on the shortcomings I found, but they did not have any.]