FiiO R9 Flagship Music Player, Streamer, Headphone Amplifier, And Hi-Res Lossless DAC Review
Song Of A Luddite
Why? Because nothing I was listening to in the audio stores sounded nearly as good. Well, there was the Conrad Johnson and Audio Research gear, but it was out of my price range. But it seems that through most of my adult life, I've straddled the divide between "they don't make them like they used to" and "new and improved". I love my Prius but I'm still wary of the limitations and hidden complexities of fully electric cars. When my wife and I bought a new refrigerator, we decided on a model sans any bells and whistles. Not only was it cheaper, but there was less to break. We just bought a new oven. One of its features is the ability to talk to it with my smartphone. I haven't explored that new frontier yet. I've never had the desire to start talking to my appliances and I'm frankly afraid of what they might say to me about my cooking or cleaning.
In many ways, I've felt the same about streaming. I never wanted to jump into the whole Napster thing, and while my wife and I bought some music through iTunes, Steve Jobs's decision to go with the MP3 standard limited playback to the car and computer. I've only started listening to dedicated streamers in the last couple of years and using Qobuz has taken this experience to the next level. While I stream quite a bit at work and home, I've mostly used my laptop with the FiiO FD5/BTR7 combo. The sound I've encountered is quite nice, but if I wanted to dig deep into the music, I would fall back to vinyl and CD playback. That's where that musical magic had been until the arrival of the FiiO R9.
New And Improved
What I'm going to focus on is how the R9 is different from the R7. First, let's talk about the exterior. The R9 has a larger, high-resolution display, and a "fully liquid metal bicolor display". No, a Terminator is not going to pop out of the thing, but it's a really cool-looking metallic finish. It readily shows fingerprints, but FiiO was smart enough to provide a cloth to wipe those off. Some of the interactive changes include increased Bluetooth support with a QCC5125 chip and HDMI digital inputs. The amplifier now operates in eight-channel THX with a maximum output of 7300 mW. The biggest upgrade in the DAC chipset. The R7 utilizes one ES9068AS for both channels, while the R9 uses one ES9038PRO for each channel.
Woah, That's Heavy!
Is There Anything More Exciting Than New Music?
The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed this live recording with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm. If you like Stravinsky's The Firebird, you're going to love this one. It is a sweeping large-scale orchestral work utilizing the full potential of the modern symphony orchestra. Listening to this piece with the R9 I was stunned at how silky smooth everything sounded without sacrificing dynamics. The bass was deep and rock solid. Every instrument was solidly located in a deep soundstage. But most importantly, the massed strings, the litmus test of every high-end system, sounded warm and smooth, like the real thing.
Another new classical release that fell in love with was Anna Thorvaldsdottir's orchestra pieces Archora and Aion performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra [Sono Luminus – DSL-92268]. These pieces are reminiscent of the music of Ives and Lutoslawski and are performed and recorded beautifully. Once again, I was blown away by the R9, which brought this stunning music to life. Subtle details of Thorvaldsdottir's arrangements were laid bare, but at no time did this recording sound etched. In all of the pieces, the strings swirl in and out of different chords with a lot of glissando between the notes. This gives an eerie texture to the music with all sorts of mind-blowing harmonic overtones. The R9 captured all of this with aplomb.
Looking at the list, I was pleased to see that Wynton Marsalis had written a new symphony in 2023. During the holiday season, I had been listening to his Crescent City Christmas Card [Columbia – CK 4528], so it was a nice transition. This is his fourth symphony, entitled The Jungle [Blue Engine Records - BE0040] and this live recording with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is only available in digital formats. This piece was written to highlight the paradoxes of New York City. As expected, this is jazzy music in the lineage of Duke Ellington. For most of the six movements, the brass is dominant and constantly propels the music forward. This brass sounded amazing with both a richness in tone and a healthy amount of bite. In addition, the flutes were stunning as they both soared and soothed. This music is fueled by sadness and anger, and listening to it with the R9 is a thrilling experience.
After spending a lot of time listening to the R9 with headphones, it was time to put it in my system. First I decided to listen to something simple: Keith Jarrett's Sun Bear Concerts [ECM-X-1100]. These live solo performances were recorded in 1978, but still sound fresh today. Listening to this music with the R9 fronting my system, I was drawn in by Jarrett's artistry at the piano. Not only did the recording sound vibrant, with an excellent tone, but I could understand all of the subtle choices made by Jarrett as he played. It was an engaging experience.
Lastly, I got out one of the big guns. I started listening to the CSO's 1956 RCA recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra [LM 1934]. Like I've said before, the people involved in the recording of those RCA "shaded dog" albums knew what they were doing. I was completely blown away by the sound of this album using the R9. The massed strings were sweet, the woodwinds were bursting with tonal color, and the percussion was sharp and dynamic. Did it match the sound of the original vinyl? No, but it was a lot closer to it than I expected.
It's All About The Magic
I've had my Grado SR225e headphones for seven years now, and they've never sounded this good. What FiiO has done in creating the R9 is nothing short of miraculous! They've not only managed to pack all sorts of features into that cube but also a high-quality streamer and headphone amp. I haven't even begun to explore all of the possibilities of the FiiO R9 yet, but this luddite is looking forward to all of the discoveries to come.