The iBasso DX220 Max is a beast of a DAP. Made in limited quantities, it strives to be, perhaps, the most advanced portable DAP on the planet. Stuffed to the gills with everything and the kitchen sink – and weighing about as much as a kitchen sink – does the DX220 Max add up to the sum of its parts?
Build and Design
The DX220 Max comes in a sturdy, but somewhat nondescript black box. Inside you’ll find the player, charger, and various cables and adapters that you’ll need, including the very useful balanced 2.5mm to 4.4mm adapter. The DAP itself weighs about 3 pounds, and it’s all in total about two to three times the size of your average portable DAP. The weight and size mean that this is not a device that you can stick in your pocket. It’s also not a device that you want to hold for very long. If you want to hold and use the device at the same time – rather than placing it on a table or desk – you’re going to need to use two hands.
From the brushed metal body and tan leather case to the brass knobs and jack plates, the unit itself feels modeled after early Hi-fi equipment of the 60s or 70s. The vintage look complements its large size and adds a bit of charm to the device. The volume knob is a small work of art, and while it lacks a tactile “clicky” feel, it has a good amount of resistance and a smooth response. My one minor gripe in the design is that for all the features they crammed into this thing, they don’t have any hardware playback control buttons. Of course, you can’t let its vintage styled accents deceive you: from the battery to the DAC, the DX200 Max contains every ounce of modern technology that they could squeeze into it.
Many of the device specs look a lot like a good smartphone: 8-core processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage…but then there’s stuff like Accusilicon ultra low phase noise Femtosecond oscillators, custom 4-wiper potentiometer, optimized super class A discrete amp circuit, and dual SABRE ES9028PRO DAC Chips. Basically it’s all the power of a high-end smartphone, plus all the power of a high-end DAC/Amp combo in one unit.
In terms of wired connectivity, you can connect balanced (4.4mm, or 2.5mm with the adapter) or unbalanced 3.5mm headphones. You can also run a balanced line out to a separate device (like a loudspeaker amp). You can use the SPDIF out to use the player functionality of the DX220 Max and send a digital signal to an external DAC, or connect a computer, phone, or tablet via USB to use the DX220 Max in DAC only mode. For wireless connectivity, you can use the DX220 Max to playback music with Bluetooth headphones or a streaming device like a Roon. You can also connect any number of other Bluetooth devices like a remote to control playback.
The DX220 Max also has some unique features, including separate batteries for the analog and digital portions of the device. Part of the reason for this is that the analog section does a lot of heavy lifting, which requires more power and more consistent delivery than the smaller batteries typical of mobile devices have, but it also provides surprisingly good battery life for a device of this size – iBasso claims 14 hours of playback time. My testing indicates that 14 hours is probably a pretty accurate number, and that you can expect better than a full day of battery life if you’re not literally listening to music every waking moment. The main disadvantage of this setup is that you need to charge both battery sections separately, which means hooking it up to two separate chargers to keep it going.
The first thing you’re going to want to do with the DX220 Max (after you curl it a few times to work on those biceps) is figure out how you’re going to listen to music with it. You can connect it to the internet over wireless and download music, connect the device to a computer and copy the music over, or transfer music via an SD card.
The DX220 Max provides two main ways of interacting with the player, which will also affect how you listen to music: the standard Android experience and iBasso’s MangoOS for a player focus experience. The Android OS is the default, and enables you to use the Mango player, or download any number of other players and streaming apps to listen to music. Using the APKPure app store, you could even download games or productivity apps, but because of the size, you’re probably not going to be holding it up playing Candy Crush in bed at night.
The MangoOS mode provides a pure player, and will probably be the preference for most users who are using a collection of preexisting music off an SD card, rather than a streaming app like TIDAL, Spotify, or Qobuz. The main benefit of MangoOS is that it’s much more lightweight than Android, so the system won’t be wasting processing power on things that aren’t playing back music. Android is the default, but the system will automatically boot into whatever OS you last used when you turn it on, so once you switch to MangoOS you can use it 100% of the time if that’s what you prefer.
Whether you're using Android or MangoOS, the Mango player has all of the controls for your device’s audio output. This includes EQ, gain, balance, and digital filters. The DX220 Max has seven digital filters which affect certain aspects of the DAC processing. You can make minor tweaks to the output of the DAP and possibly make it a little brighter or warmer – with each change also affecting the overall responsiveness, to your liking.
Well, that’s a lot of features, and a lot of interesting stuff about the design, but what does it sound like? I was expecting something the sound to be akin to a suped up iBasso DX220, which is very neutral. What I got was a warmer, more musical, and frankly more engaging sound, based on the Amp8 expansion module for the DX220, rather than the standard DX220 sound. The other array of enhancements also provide more headroom, more depth, and a wider soundstage than the standard DX220 Amp8 sound.
I listened to a variety of headphones and IEMs with the DX220 Max, ranging from Meze Audio 99 Classics to the Noble Sultan, and felt that each one was enhanced in some way, whether it was in terms of detail, tonality, or soundstage. I took some notes for each of them.
Noble Sultan: The pairing was open and detailed, vocals were particularly clear and intimate. There was excellent low end rumble and physicality, and the imaging was out of sight. Classical orchestral recordings felt particularly natural and lifelike.
Meze 99 Classics: Despite the warm to dark tuning of the headphones, and the DX220 Max’s slight warmth, the 99 Classics had plenty of detail and clarity. The bass remained coherent, while having a great deal of physical thump.
HEDDPhone: The tonality and dynamic of the DX220 Max and that of the HEDDphone seemed perfectly paired, creating an neutral yet impactful signature, with a massive soundstage to play on. Impeccable detail and sense of space. The HEDDphone may have been pushing the DX220 Max’s limit as some older recordings had me pushing 80-90% volume to get my desired listening level.
Meze Empyrean: A match made in heaven. The bass hits hard and with plenty of slap, and the sound remains detailed and spacious throughout. While the HEDDphone had me pusing 90%, the Empyrean was quite comfortable in the 60-70% volume range.
Comparison: Astell&Kern SE200
The SE200 and DX220 Max certainly both have their pros and cons. The DX220 Max has a longer feature list with a greater number of connectivity options, while the SE200 is a player first and foremost. The main differentiating feature of the SE200 is its two separate channels each with a different DAC and amp circuit.
While they may look incredibly different, the sound of the two DAPs is not too far off. The big difference in sound is that the SE200 provides more of a true reference output, while the DX220 Max, is somewhat reference like, but slightly warm with a little bit of extra presence in the low mids. With balanced armature IEMs like the 64 Audio U12t, the touch of warmth from the DX220 Max provided a heightened sense of bass impact and fullness. In terms of over-ear headphones, the DX220 Max has significantly more power under the hood, so where the SE200 provided really solid performance with the Meze Empyrean at 85% volume, using a balanced input, the DX220 Max provides similar results using the unbalanced output at 60% volume.
For many listeners, the DX220 Max may just be too big, it’s more than double the size of the SE200, and it weighs about the same as a 13” Macbook Pro. While the SE200 isn’t exactly iPhone slim, in comparison the DX220 Max it’s sleek and lightweight – and actually stands a chance of fitting in your pocket (as long as your jeans aren’t too tight). If size doesn’t matter to you, the DX220 Max is probably the better choice for over-ear headphones, as it will be able to deliver a bit more power to a larger variety of headphones. If you want a more transparent, neutral signal in a DAP, the SE200 has the edge over the pleasant but warm DX220 Max.
The Bottom Line
The DX220 Max is the king of versatility. It might have some small inconveniences, like requiring multiple chargers, but the end results is a DAP that sounds amazing with a huge range of headphones and IEMs. Its ability to fulfill other roles as part of your hi-fi system like a dedicated player, or a DAP adds additional value. The DX220 Max might not be the DAP for long walks on the beach, but as a transportable unit it combines power, versatility, and superb sound quality into a package you can’t help but fall in love with.