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Moving music

Why have a dedicated device for your music? In a word, ‘quality’.

We completed our review of this Pioneer model before discovering it was not being made available in Australia. But the review may be useful to European readers of, and of interest of those who read a secondary piece on European regulations which did appear in Sound+Image April/May 2019. The magazine pages for the review, although never published, can also be read by clicking right. >>

It has been a couple of years since we last took a close look at a Pioneer portable audio player. That one was the Pioneer XDP-300R. This one — the Pioneer XDP-30R — is newer, smaller and lower in cost.

It’s lighter, too, and quite different in a number of ways. But it also has similarities — style-wise, for one. One edge is bevelled, with a rotary volume control near the top. The knob differs in being copper-coloured and on the right side rather than the left. The body is 94mm on the longest dimension and only 15mm thick. It weighs 120g, or about three quarters of the weight of a typical mobile phone. The casing is solid aluminium. At the bottom on that side is a ‘hold’ switch.

On the bottom edge is a Micro USB-B port. You use this to charge the player, and it can also be used to transfer music files (slowly — see below) if you connect it to a computer. No 5V mains adaptor is provided, though these days most homes will have plenty of those floating around.

On the top is the power button and the two analogue outputs. Both can be used for headphones or line-level output. One is a standard, unbalanced 3.5mm socket for regular headphones (or regular line output). The other is a 4-pole balanced 2.5mm socket for balanced headphones or line output. The power button has two functions. If you press and hold it, it switches the unit on, booting it up. Touch it briefly and it merely switches the screen on and off. Hold it when the unit’s operating and a shut down confirmation will appear on the screen. Tap that and the whole thing closes down.

On the left-hand side are three buttons — skip forwards, play/pause, and skip backwards — and two slots for microSD memory cards. Each supports a card of up to 200GB.

On the front is the touch screen. This is quite small, with a 61mm diagonal. So even though this unit seems to run under a heavily skinned version of Android, it is so locked down as to not permit the installation of any apps. What is available is the music player for the music stored on the unit and its cards, and three online music players. Those players are TuneIn, for internet radio, and Tidal and Deezer for streaming music. Not available is Spotify, not a surprise since Spotify generally only allows other apps to open its app, not access it directly.

The Home screen is divided into eight sections. The top two invoke the ‘Library’ and online music. Three across the middle of the screen are for switching the unit from headphone to line out, choosing the output mode from the balanced headphone socket, and access to an assortment of sound processing options.

The sound adjustment options include EQ settings, upsampling mode (you can upsample to 88.2kHz/96kHz or 176.4kHz or 192kHz), ‘Hi-bit 32’ which apparently does something or other to 16 and 24-bit audio to turn it into 32 bits, and ‘Digital Filter’. The EQ settings include a number of presets and three ‘Custom’ settings. Each of the latter allow you to adjust ten frequencies, from 32Hz to 16kHz up to ±12dB. Got some headphones with which you’re not entirely satisfied as to the frequency balance? You ought to be able to significantly tame them with this unit.

The three choices offered across the bottom of the home screen are for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Settings.

Don’t find them convenient? You can hold down any but the first two for several seconds, and then choose from a couple of dozen shortcuts to other functions, such as immediately choosing the digital filter, unmounting a microSD card, or changing display brightness.

Loading music
The wonderful thing about these modern players is their sheer capacity. You don’t have to make do with MP3 or AAC or some other lossy format, simply for reasons of space. You can fit something like 1200 hours of CD-standard music, losslessly compressed with FLAC or ALAC.

You can load music onto the unit in three ways. One is to use Pioneer’s Windows software. One is just to plug it into a computer and use the file management facilities to transfer music over. One is to pop the SD cards into a card reader attached or built into a computer. There’s a good chance that this last will be the fastest; it was for me.

The unit’s own connection is limited to USB 2.0 speeds: in theory that’s about 60MB/s. In practice, I measured rates of around 9MB/s when copying to the unit’s internal storage, and only around 7MB/s when copying to the microSD cards installed in it. I should note that I used cards rated at 90MB/s write speeds and could copy music to them using a fast card reader at up to 70MB/s. Copying 400GB of music onto cards installed in the unit via the Micro USB-B connection will take you around 16 hours. Perhaps using a fast card reader might be the go.

But if you want to put music on the unit’s internal memory — around 12.4GB was available on the review unit — then you will need to use a wired connection.

The player scans the music files — by default, every time you turn it on. Once you’ve got a pretty stable load of music into the unit, I’d suggest switching off the automatic sync feature in settings. That avoids the delay on starting up. You can manually sync easily when you add more music.

In use
Set-up is straightforward. The device guides you through it when you switch it on the first time. You just select the language, then you can choose to have a password lock, or not, followed by connecting to your Wi-Fi network. The unit scans the airwaves and offers available access points. You choose one and enter the password. Because the touch screen is so small, letters are entered via old-fashioned letter groupings, as though you’re using an old flip phone to send a text. There’s a reveal button so you can make sure you’ve entered it correctly before hitting the connect button.

The connection was completed quickly, whereupon the unit informed me that new firmware was available. I declined it at that point so I could quickly explore the unit’s facilities, and then went to the settings and had the unit update the firmware. That took about ten minutes. The player rebooted, and then it told me another new firmware was required. I guess the changes must have been significant; the updates took it from 1.05 to 1.30.

I noticed a couple of small changes, but one significant one was a setting for ‘USB Audio’, which lets you output DSD.

The music player was well organised, offering the usual lists (Artist, Album Artist, Album, Songs, Genres and Playlists) for choosing music. A swipe from the right when in a list dragged out a panel of letters, so I could tap on ‘R’ and go straight to the artists beginning with R. That made this player the fastest I’ve used for navigating through extensive music collections.

One thing I would have liked, but which wasn’t available in this player, was a kind of ‘current’ playlist or play queue. When I get into a real listening jag, whatever I’m listening to often triggers a desire for some other piece of music. With one of my favourite player apps I can navigate to that new piece and simply enqueue it so that it plays after the currently selected list. You can’t do that with this player.

I used a number of headphones, all wired, for listening. (I have a phone I can use if I’m satisfied with Bluetooth.) Apart from one weakness, the player delivered a superb performance. It handled all the headphones well, delivering solidly across the frequency spectrum, including the deepest bass. I find it weird that these days we live in a world where one can be listening to music on headphones which sounds like it is being driven by the weightiest, most expensive audiophile gear in the world, but in reality it’s coming from a small box weighing just 120 grams.

It handled all my audio tracks up to 24 bits and 192kHz sampling, as well as DSD64 and DSD128.

I could hear no difference between the ‘Sharp’ and ‘Short’ filter modes with 44.1kHz material, but the ‘Slow’ mode was noticeably softer in the treble. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the difference has little to do with any esoteric attributes of a particular filter model, and is simply to do with the earlier roll-off of high frequencies.

The one weakness I flagged above had to do with output level. There was insufficient gain with some tracks and some headphones to deliver truly satisfying volume levels. With most low-ish impedance headphones and wired earbuds it was fine. But with a lot of classical music, which tends to be encoded at a much lower level, the volume control would top out at an indicated ‘60’ while the listening level remained anaemic.

Long story short: I think the Pioneer XDP-30R has been hobbled by European regulations. This prompted a whole secondary discussion which appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Sound+Image magazine..

Happily, there’s a workaround. Select: Line Output and set it to ‘Variable’ rather than ‘Fixed’. Suddenly you’ll find that you have up to 12 decibels more gain available. But, you may wonder, surely that mode wouldn’t be suitable for driving headphones? Well, read on.

You will have to switch back to Line Output each time you switch on the player, since it defaults to Headphone mode. But it does retain the ‘Variable’ rather than ‘Fixed’ setting. Just remember, however, to lower the volume level before switching.

Well, it wasn’t merely my imagination that the output seemed relatively low. With no load, the output was a mere 0.427 volts RMS — and that was at the high gain setting. The advantage of this was that even at 16-ohms load, the output of my full-scale sine waves did not clip. With high sensitivity earphones, there should be plenty of headroom. But those wishing to use lowish sensitivity, high impedance headphones could find this output quite limiting.

In fact, at 300 ohms, the unit could deliver only 0.6 milliwatts with my test signals. That means a maximum output of some two decibels less than the sensitivity rating commonly used with headphones. If your 300-ohm headphones are rated at, say, 95dB for 1mW input, you’re going to max out at 93dB SPL.

Most headphones are lower in impedance, so they get more power. But even into 16-ohm headphones the unit manages only 6.9 milliwatts, for an 8.8 decibel boost over sensitivity rating. And that is a long, long way short of the claimed 75 milliwatts of outputs.

So what about the Line Output mode? The output characteristics — apart from level — in this mode seem to be no different to those in ‘Headphone’ mode. It had the same 4.7 ohms line resistance as the headphone mode — and that comports with the model circuit diagram for the ES9601K headphone amplifier chip used by this player. I figure that Pioneer has placed some kind of digital preset maximum when using headphone mode.

In ‘Line Out’ mode, the unit could deliver 1.99 volts into 300-ohm loads, equivalent to 13.4 milliwatts or 11 decibels above sensitivity rating (13dB more than the headphone mode). And into 16-ohm loads it could manage — just short of clipping — 0.865 volts or better. That’s 47 milliwatts or nearly 17dB above sensitivity rating (8dB more than the headphone mode). Since low impedance earphones are normally above 100dB for such a rating, that ought to be plenty to curl the hair of any European regulator.

I conducted frequency response and noise measurements at the maximum level in headphone mode.

As we’ll see, the noise floor was quite a bit lower when using the line output mode at a higher level. The reason is noise in the measurement rig, stray interference and so on.

Nonetheless, with 16 bits and 44.1kHz sampling the A-weighted noise level was still -94.6dB, while THD+N and IMD+N were both below 0.01%. The default ‘Sharp’ and the ‘Short’ filter mode frequency responses were virtually identical, rolling off gradually to be down by a touch over 0.2dB at 20kHz, and smacking into a brick wall shortly afterwards. ‘Sharp’ was at -1dB at 20.7kHz, ‘Short’ at 21.1kHz. ‘Slow’ was very different, its trace departing the others at 11kHz to be down by 1dB at just under 17kHz and 3.2dB at 20kHz.

With 24 bit sound and the maximum ‘Headphone’ setting, the noise was at -97.3dB and again both distortion measures at under 0.009%. Using 96kHz sampling, the ‘Sharp’ and ‘Short’ output levels were down by around half a decibel at 20kHz, 1dB at 28.5kHz at 3dB at 45kHz. Again ‘Slow’ was... slower, although this time the output was similar up to 25kHz. It was down by 1dB at 27.5kHz and 3dB at 38kHz.

With 192kHz sampling, there was no significant difference between the three filters. Output was down by a third of a decibel at 20kHz, 1dB at 33kHz and 3dB at 56kHz. And -6dB was around 70kHz.

Finally, using the ‘Line Output’ setting and maxing out the gain gave a noise level of -109.6dB A-weighted. That also increased both THD+N and IMD+N forms of distortion, but still below 0.05%.

The Pioneer XDP-30R high resolution audio player is a little gem. It has stacks of capacity, excellent performance, and even manages to get around silly government regulations. And it is priced at a level far, far short of the cost (inflation adjusted) of the original iPod. 

Pioneer XDP-30R $799

+ Excellent audio performance
+ Enormous capacity with excellent navigation
+ Some online streaming functions

– No ‘enqueue’ function for adding tracks/albums to play after current playlist
– Conformance with silly European regulations

Tested with firmware version: 1.30/18627AEP
Display: 320 x 240-pixel 61mm colour touch screen
Storage: 16GB internal, 2 x microSD slot (up to 200GB each)
Outputs: 1 x 3.5mm headphone/line digital audio, 1 x 2.5mm TRRS for balanced  headphone/line, Bluetooth
Other: 1 x USB Micro-B, Wi-Fi
Dimensions (whd): 63 x 94 x 15mmm
Weight: 120 grams