Introduction and Features
The Pioneer XDP-100R is the company’s first high-resolution audio (HRA) player, and has been conceived as a genuine alternative to the more expensive Acoustic Research and Astell & Kern devices.
It’s also set to be one of the first players that will be able to take advantage of the new Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) file format that’s set to launch later this year.
That’s the technology which is going to bring bona fide high-resolution audio to the streaming generation – and if you’re not excited about that you need your ears checking.
While the majority of people are still happy to stick with running Spotify from their phones, more and more of us are really starting to care about the noises we’re flooding our ears with.
That doesn’t mean we’re becoming polo neck-wearing audiophiles with bespoke listening rooms – it just means there’s a growing recognition that there’s better sound out there than YouTube, Spotify and white-tailed Apple ear-buds.
As much as we might malign the style-over-quality marketing monster that is Dre’s Beats brand of headphones, they have proved to be the gateway drug to higher-end headphones, and subsequently higher-quality audio sources.
And that means there’s more and more of a market for high-quality portable players too.
Pioneer is tapping into this burgeoning audience for improved quality with its XDP-100R player, a device which literally wears its high-resolution audio leanings on its sleeve.
Hardwired for sound
At its most basic the Pioneer XDP-100R is an Android Lollipop-based media player with a 4.7-inch touchscreen and the audio chops to cope with a huge range of formats and sampling rates, including DSD 11.2MHz and FLAC 24-bit/384kHz.
But Pioneer has gone to town to ensure that it hasn’t just hit the standard marketing checkpoints needed for a HRA player by packing it full of high-quality audio silicon too.
That side of the hardware equation is powered by a SABRE ES9018K2M digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which is paired with a SABRE 9601K headphone amp.
The SABRE pairing can’t quite match the sonic skills of Acoustic Research’s AR M2 player, with its powerful class A amplifier, but also means it doesn’t need the same huge power reserves to keep playing.
And it’s not just the actual components Pioneer has used either – it’s their placement. Pioneer has physically separated the audio circuit board from the system circuit board, ensuring there’s no extraneous noise added into the sound from the Qualcomm CPU running the rest of the player.
It has also pushed the power supply as far down the board as possible, with all the analog audio circuits gathered around the headphone output on the top, again to try and keep the signals as clean as possible.
On the system hardware side the quad-core Qualcomm CPU is backed up by 2GB of system RAM and an impressively bright, clear screen with a 1280 x 720 resolution.
There’s only 32GB of internal storage, with around 25GB available for actual content, but Pioneer has added a pair of microSD slots on the side. Both are capable of supporting cards up to 200GB in capacity, giving the XDP-100R a pretty staggering potential storage capacity of some 432GB.
Even with a hefty HRA library, that’s a healthy amount of storage space.
If you’re more into the streaming vibe then Tidal, Spotify and Deezer come pre-loaded, enabling you to stream directly from the Wi-Fi connection. It’s not just about incoming wireless goodness either, as the XDP-100R also supports Bluetooth connectivity, with aptX support for CD-quality transmission.
The device’s 1,630mAH battery is good for a quoted 16 hours continuous playback, and the Android 5.1.1 OS is pretty good at marshalling its power reserves during standby time too.
All that internal audio goodness is one thing, but the potential for MQA support down the line adds a whole other string to the Pioneer player’s bow.
MQA is set to revolutionise the high-resolution audio world, bringing it out of the closed-off arena of the super-serious audiophile and opening it up to the convenience of music streaming and portability.
Traditional HRA formats need incredibly large file sizes to fit in all the audio data for true lossless playback – a single 24-bit/192kHz FLAC album can take up over 1.5GB of space.
That makes them impractical in general terms for streaming, and means that with the base 32GB of internal storage in the XDP-100R you’re not going to fit much high-quality music onto the portable player without serious expansion.
MQA, however, uses a technique the company is calling Audio Origami to ‘fold’ up a high-resolution file into a far more manageable size. That means files that are magnitudes smaller than at present, and which are only a little larger than the CD-quality tracks Tidal streams today.
The MQA format does need a compatible decoder in the playback device to fully unfold the file into its original, studio master, state. But one of the neatest tricks of all is the fact that even without such a decoder it will still play. It won’t be in its original full studio format, but thanks to the origami technique it will still be of higher quality than CD.
This in turn means big things for streaming companies. The fact that MQA files are adaptive, and able to unfold to whatever level the playback device can support, means those companies only need to store one format for each track in their library.
In Tidal’s case it currently houses some 1.4 petabytes of audio data, because of all the different formats it supports. Replacing some of that with MQA files will save a huge amount of server space, and therefore money.
Tidal is promising MQA support soon – we were expecting it to drop very soon after the new year, but there have reportedly been some technical delays which have slowed things down.
Fingers crossed those get ironed out, so this brave new world of HRA streaming can truly begin.
The Pioneer XDP-100R is a great little device; although I’m using ‘little’ with a some qualification here; it may only be rocking a relatively diminutive 4.7-inch screen, but housing those high-end audio components certainly demands space, and as such it’s got a pretty chunky, squared-off chassis, making it feel far bigger than a modern phone.
That slightly industrial design – all sharp angles and brushed-aluminium finish – has actually grown on me though.
I’ve even grown to appreciate the bumpers Pioneer has placed on the top and bottom edges of the player to protect the ports. I was all set to take to them with a screwdriver (pleasingly, this is an option) and get them off first thing, but the headphone jack protector especially came in very handy.
As well as keeping the 3.5mm connection safe it also provides a handle for pulling the device out of your pocket without pressing either the volume control or the physical skip, pause and play buttons down the side.
The XDP-100R is all about convenience too. I’ve used a fair few HRA players recently, and the use of a full Android 5.1.1 installation makes everything easily accessible, and utterly familiar too.
The fact that it comes rocking the full Google Play Store makes getting all your audio apps a pleasantly simple affair. There’s none of the usual side-loading shenanigans needed to get your favourite player installed, although the actual playback software the player has been kitted out with is mighty impressive stuff.
The XDP-100R will also cast away to your Chromecast Audio, offering a Bluetooth aptX connection to power your wireless speakers too. So, while it’s unashamedly sold as a high-resolution audio player, it’s not shy about letting you get your dirty low-res kicks too.
But it’s by no means the perfect HRA player. My biggest concern is the output power of the Pioneer.
With a quality set of headphones you really need to crank the volume up to get a decent listening experience. In fact. with pretty much any headphones you’re going to be operating in the higher echelons of its volume range.
The scale goes from 0 to 160, but anything below 130 was barely above background noise, especially when you’re taking a stroll around town.
That’s where the higher-spec hardware of the Acoustic Research AR M2 really comes into play. It may chew through power like a fat kid (i.e. me) through candy, but it sure goes loud – around ten times the headphone volume of the Pioneer.
Even though the XDP-100R isn’t quite so power-hungry, it does still smash through the battery reserves when you’re running directly from Wi-Fi, or even if you leave Wi-Fi on in standby mode. With Wi-Fi off, though, I’ve been really impressed with the way Lollipop is able to preserve the battery without completely shutting down the device.
I’ve left it sat aside for a week or so and still been able to pick it up, pull on my headphones, press play on the side and step out into the world with my ears filled with Take the Power Back in glorious high-res, 96kHz/24-bit.
In short, the noise. It’s a simple thing, but the sound quality from a decent audio source, played back through a great pair of headphones, can be a beautiful thing. The clarity of sound coming through the Oppo PM-3 headphones when rocking a 192kHz/24-bit source is excellent.
It’s the convenience of the Pioneer XDP-100R, though, which separates it from the other HRA players I’ve tested.
Others may have higher-quality components, sound a little better, go a lot louder and cost a whole heap more, but having that full Android ecosystem at your disposal, as well as casting and Bluetooth connectivity, makes the Pioneer a really powerful, versatile media device.
It’s also got the potential for a huge capacity too, with a pair of 200GB microSD cards able to deliver nigh-on half a terabyte of storage.
My main issue is the XDP-100R’s output power. It’s frustrating having to push the volume up so high just to get a reaction from your headphones, even more so when you’re outputting through speakers.
There is a dedicated ‘Line Out’ option in the settings, shortcutted on the home screen, but that simply locks the volume to max on the standard headphone connection.
And while I have grown more affectionate towards the chunky chassis, that pseudo-industrial design aesthetic is likely to polarise opinion.
At $700 (£500, AUS$719) the XDP-100R is also a rather expensive piece of kit. When you’ve got the hugely popular Astell and Kern AK Jr coming in at $500 (£400), and Sony’s NW-ZX100, with 128GB storage, at $600 (£500, AUS$689), there’s a whole lot of competition at this price point.
I’m genuinely a big fan of the XDP-100R. I’ve been testing a few other players at the same time, including better-sounding and higher-spec offerings, but, because of how versatile and easy to use it is, I keep finding myself coming back to Pioneer’s inaugural HRA player.
Its physical design takes a little getting used to, and the output volume can be frustrating at times, but despite its high-res leanings it’s happy to embrace the lower-resolution joy of streaming and wireless connectivity too.
The elephant in the testing room, however, is MQA. Right now it’s still just a tantalising glimpse into the future of high-res streaming rather than a solid reality, and despite the fact that Tidal is going to bring it in this year we’ve yet to test it on the XDP-100R.
It’s also far from the only device that’s going to be capable of delivering the new standard – Acoustic Research has also said it will support Tidal’s MQA when it updates the Android app.
But none of that changes the fact that this is a great-sounding, powerful – albeit pricey – high-res audio player with a lot potential and some serious versatility.
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