Smartphone audio, downgrade to upgrade.

BQ E4 Aquaris running Neutron Music Player, Erutan is pretty amazing so go buy her music!

Until recently I had a Sony Playstation Portable as a music player, the PSP Slim has a Wolfson Microelectronics chip inside so it had a decent audio section to read my lossy music files. I was mostly happy with the sound besides the following nags: The proprietary memory card price per Gb is expensive as hell (I can buy a 32Gb SD card for the price of a 4Gb proprietary card). I also wanted less conversions when uploading my music to the player, most of my music is in lossless Flac and converting it to Mp3 was a tedious task.
Changing memory cards weekly is not very good in the long run hardware wise.
With that in mind I started searching for a new music player, a cheap one if possible without the above nags but with all the good things my Sony PSP had.
The audiophile in me craved some high resolution players, Fiio has some really nice ones but after my experience with my now half dead Philips Opus I knew that after some years I’ll would end up with a shinny brick because like most people I enjoy new gear from time to time… a multimedia solution was needed, a player that could still be useful around the house or at least for my kids when the time came.

Thus enters the Android OS smartphone to the brawl, limited to CD quality audio by default unless it uses a modified kernel or an external DAC, the typical Android smartphone was something I always advised against as a music player mostly because its a “all-in-one” solution that doesn’t have audio enthusiasts as target consumers. Android based smartphones struggle to drive impedances above 16Ω, so I knew I probably had to build a portable headphone amplifier to use with my

32Ω Sennheiser HD 449 headphones.
Not all is bad, some smartphones have FM radio, they also can be customized software wise and even a 4″ phone has a better screen than most audiophile players in the market.

With that in mind I went shopping for a cheap Android smartphone.
I choose a 150€ Spanish designed BQ E4 Aquaris, this Spanish brand was the first to release a Ubuntu OS smartphone so you might know it if you follow Canonical’s Ubuntu OS.

The Aquaris is small with only 4″ screen, a rare thing in a world were bigger is better.
It has the correct size for a DAP, the IPS screen is made of Gorilla glass, you can also remove its battery when it dies, something most DAPs don’t let you do easily unless you know your way around tools.
The battery lets you enjoy a lot of music before it kicks the bucket.
Hardware wise the plastic doesn’t feel very solid, on the other hand its fast enough with it’s Quad-Core 1.3GHz CPU and 1Gb of Ram. You also got 8Gb of internal memory for apps, OS and other stuff, I advice against using the main memory for music files but that’s my opinion. You can use a microSD card up to 32Gb, I recommend a class 10 microSD.
It also takes photos and other stuff but you should really see the site for more information.

Sound wise it’s fairly decent and detailed but you might need to access the MediaTek engineer mode if you want more output power, I made a slight change (+5) to the output but I advice caution if you want to mess around the audio section of the BQ, if you kill your headphones or the phone don’t complain to me, it’s your problem not mine. If you have a portable headphone amplifier you won’t need to change anything in the audio, in fact as soon as my headamp is done I’ll return the settings to the default. Like I said the sound is detailed with a my 16Ω Philips in-ears, above that impedance you won’t have enough bass or enough power to drive headphones loud without distortion, my

32Ω Sennheisers felt lifeless and under powered so you can be sure there is a need for a external headphone amplifier and this applies to most Android smartphones.

I often use airplane mode when I play music with this phone, I also don’t have any Sim card inside because I won’t be making calls from it.
The FM radio is sensible enough and has RDS, I always enjoy having FM on my players, I’m sure old Walkman users know this need.

The E4 runs on Android 5.0 almost stock after you update it, I disabled a lot of apps because I’ll use it as a DAP but it doesn’t bring many from factory.
I installed the paid version of the music player Neutron, I went for it because it has a solid way of dealing with music files and folders, plus it doesn’t go fetch cover art to the internet. I enjoy that a lot, its a offline player, no need for internet unless I want it.
Some say it’s one of the best audiophile music players for android, I can’t claim it’s true but it does a pretty solid job, plus it has some details I enjoy like starting and stopping the player with the insertion and removal of the audio jack, every time my headphone jack was accidentally removed using my PSP people would hear music in the street, I didn’t enjoy that at all.

I’m happy with my downgrade, lost the Wolfson chip but gained a solid DAP under 150€ and if I get tired of it I can always use it as a phone.

My portable headphone amp is in the workbench so I‘ll enjoy my Sennheisers very soon. To the curious it will be a based on a JRC4565 IC. The TI BBs are nice to push 600Ω loads but nothing beats a solid JRC4565 on low impedance loads.

Update: I’m now using a Sony Walkman and this as a smartphone. The Walkman is more or less untouchable in terms of size and quality.