Disclaimer: Not too long ago, I purchased the Hiby R3 Saber for my own personal use and have enjoyed it so when the opportunity came up to work with Hiby and Musicteck to tour the R5 Saber I couldn’t resist. This is a tour unit and not something I was given so I have not received an incentive to write this, nor do I have any financial interest in either Hiby or MusicTeck.
Also please note that there is a distinction to be made that a Saber model from Hiby does not necessarily feature an ESS Sabre dac. In the case of the R3 it does use an ESS chip but in the case of the R5 the chip used is a Cirrus Logic and not related to ESS. This has caused more than a little confusion as most were under the assumption that the Saber line-up would all be ESS based models. I’ll admit to asking if some add copy simply hadn’t been updated from the original R5 when I first looked into this newer version.
Unboxing / Packaging:
The R5 Saber (here after referred to as the R5s) comes packed in a slipcover package with the front showing a graphic of the player with a large stylized S in the center, the reverse also sports a large S to differentiate the R5s from the original. This is important because the box inside that slip cover is exactly the same as the original with its matte black background and gloss black Hiby R5 in center and specs on the reverse. Lifting the top reveals the player in a foam surround with all other elements underneath. Lifting the foam reveals a box with the micro-sd insertion tool slotted into the top and a hole in center for lifting it out. Inside the box are the manual, an extra screen protector, a charging cable, and a leather case for the player. Again if you are already familiar with the R5, no surprises here.
The R5s physically hasn’t changed from the R5, dimensions are the same at roughly 4.25 inches tall, 2.5 inches wide and slightly over ½ inch thick. Front and rear are glass plates with sides being rounded aluminum shell. The screen on front occupies most of the space with a slight edge top and bottom and a larger edge to the sides. Screen size is 4 inches with a resolution of 540*1080. Volume controls and the micro-sd slot are on the left side with power, reverse/back, play/pause, and forward/next on the right. The Power button has an LED embedded that glows blue when the unit is on and red when charging. Headphone ports are on the bottom of the unit with 3.5mm to the left and 4.4mm balanced to the right. A USB type-C port splits the two. Again the back glass just says R5 and looks to be exactly the same part as the original, but the aluminum frame has a small white stylized S on the lower right side. (The problem being if you have both in their leather cases they now look exactly alike. For purposes of review, I set different wallpapers to keep track without taking them in and out of the case repeatedly. Controls are well fitted with very tactile clicks which makes the player easy to use in a pocket and while the leather case does dull that snap a bit, it is still quite obvious where the buttons are through the case and feel is still quite positive compared to some other recent models. Like many recent players, clicking the volume controls does bring up the on-screen volume control and it is then easy to make larger changes via the screen rather than repeatedly pressing or holding down the physical controls. One other minor pet peeve, the leather case obstructs the micro-sd card slot so it has to be removed to change cards, not a huge thing I know, but if you can cut out ports for power and jacks, why not that too?
The R5s uses the same basic internals as the original R5 with a Snapdragon 425 processor and 2gigabytes of ram to support the android 8.1 SOS. The Signal path hardware is a pair of Cirrus Logic 43198 DACs, followed by two OPA1642 op-amps handling low pass filter duty, Panasonic tantalum and electrolytic caps and a pair of AD8397ARDZ op-amps complete the output stage. Hiby is quick to point out advanced heatsinking technology used to keep the high-end components from overheating in the small space available to them. The R5Saber has 16gb of internal storage and supports up to 2TB micro-sd card use for added storage. I tried several brands of 512gb and all worked fine. The only 1 TB card I have is a Samsung and it to worked without issue. To date, 2TB cards have not arrived at a price point that has made even thinking about grabbing one. The R5s supports up to 32/384 via PCM, DSD256, and MQA decoding and a wide range of file formats. Power is there in spades with the balanced output capable of over 500mW into a 32Ω load. Single ended output is limited to roughly half that which is still quite capable for a pocket DAP. The R5s has switchable gain as well for those who want to use sensitive iems and don’t need a ton of power to drive them. I had no trouble using 600Ω Beyerdynamic 990s with the R5s even though officially it is listed as being capable of driving 16-300Ω headphones. The fact that the R5s can deliver over 1 watt via balanced output into a 16Ω load makes it one of the few pocket DAPs capable of driving the T50rp and its variants with authority. I paired the little player to the Dekoni Blue for a day at work and really enjoyed the combo.
The R5s is much like its siblings in this department, sporting bi-directional Bluetooth with LDAC, UAT, HibyLink, as well as all the AptX and AAC options. Wired connections include 3.5mm single ended headphone / fixed level line out as well as a switchable 4.4mm headphone/line out port. The USB port also offers bi-directional support so the R5s can operate equally well as a Transport for your desktop system or as a USB DAC when paired to laptop or smartphone. A usb to coax cable is also an option for those wanting to use the R5s as a pure transport to a non-USB DAC as well. Wifi supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and supports up to 802.11N standards. This gives the R5s the ability to do over-the-air firmware updates as well as stream from a variety of sources. With its open android OS one can load Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Spotify etc to further expand their options. The R5s also supports connecting to DLNA devices via some applications so can retrieve content from home NAS systems that support DLNA.
The R5s has a roughly 16 hour life in my use so the stated 18 hours playback in single ended is not unrealistic. Bluetooth use will drop that number some as will use of wifi streaming. I had not trouble even with every option on and using the more potent balanced output of getting an entire 8 hour work day out of it with enough battery left for the half hour commute to and from work so the R5s will be a solid option for those wanting a player they can avoid having to charge at lunch hour. The battery is listed as 3500mAh which is about the same size as most smartphones these days and offers similar performance in the R5s. The unit does support QC3.0 so can utilize higher amperage USB chargers but remember quick charge trades battery longevity for speed of charging so leaving it on a slower charger overnight when possible will likely mean extra time before having to return the unit to Hiby for battery replacement as it is not user serviceable.
Controls/UI: UI problems out the bazooka – failed update repeatedly – boots to No command dead android.
I’m dividing this into the Android UI and then the Hiby App as separate components since many will choose to load alternative player software and thus the limiting factor is really Android as the R5s is likely to run a variety of player software equally well. The R5s ships with Android 8.1 skinned with a Hiby splash screen and background but otherwise its pretty much stock android. The device supports OTA upgrade but a word of caution, the on-screen keyboard is small enough that typing a wifi password can be challenging. Once connected, check for updates and it prompts if an update is available. I found it kind of funny that Hiby didn’t add it’s signing certificate to Android so by default the Hiby App’s updates are not trusted (Photo 1st row right below). The play store worked as expected and I was able to install UAPP and Neutron as well as Tidal and Qobuz apps. The one odd placement is that gain is hidden under the main Android settings rather than under Audio settings as can be seen in 3rd row right below. I did have an issue early on with the R5s not booting and giving me the dreaded dead android but after removing the micro-sd card and power cycling the unit it came back up. Since that, it has operated without issue despite repeatedly rebooting the device to try and induce the problem again.
The default music player is of course the Hiby app. Most will be familiar with some version of this player as it exists as a free standing Android app as well as being used by several other DAP makers for their products. When started the player begins a search for music on the device. Scanning is dependent on card size and speed and brings up another issue that I ran into. When using a large card (256gb or larger) scanning can take an extended time and by default the Android time-out/sleep value is shorter than the time it takes to complete the music search. When the unit goes to sleep, the scan fails and the device has to be reset to restart the scan. Those with large memory cards will want to set the sleep function to an extended time or disable it at least long enough to complete the initial scan. Once the scan is complete, the player shows its main screen with titles shown and options to switch to folder, album, artist, or genre (gray bar beneath icons at top). There is also a private cloud option for DLNA connected systems. Across the top, the row of icons provide access to various menus. The first icon, the user silhouette brings up the main menu which can also be opened by swiping from the left edge to the right. Next in line is an icon that looks like two eighth notes and opens the music library with options for file, album, artist, and genre. The single note icon is the favorites where playlists are created and used. Next in line is the Hiby icon that allows for enabling the Hiby client or server functions if connecting the R5s to a phone or other source. Lastly search is represented by a magnifying glass.
The right swipe menu contains options for importing music, scanning a new card or library, EQ (with both presets and custom), MSEB which offers a ton of tuning options but unfortunately still does not offer a way to save groups of settings for different headphones or earphones (maybe one day). Plugins are supported for those wishing to add additional manipulations to the player. Remaining options are settings, and sleep timer. If you wish to exit the player, that option is also hiding at the bottom of the right swipe menu.
In the song list menu, swiping left reveals per track options so songs can be added to queue, or playlist, removed from the player, or the properties of the track explored. On the album, artist, and genre screens swiping left opens the A through Z list down the right side for quick maneuvering around the file system.
Determining a DAPs sound quality is always tough in that so many other things play a role in what you hear. Source material, headphones, and even accessories can alter results. For this reason I used tracks, headphones, earphones and tips I am intimately familiar with so as not to attribute qualities of any of those to the DAP. I like the original R5 but found that at times it smoothed over a bit particularly in the lower treble region. No doubt a conscious decision as this area is most often associated with fatigue or stridency. The drawback is sometimes tracks are supposed to be strident and in those cases it didn’t do a great job of portraying that. The R5s is brutally honest in its presentation. Detail is very good and everything is exposed. Poor recordings sound poor here, so this is probably not the player for your collection of bootleg live recordings as even some professional mastered live albums (Bob Seger Live Boston 1977) sound pretty terrible with lots of distance and little dynamics on display.
Linearity is quite good with little coloration added, if anything the lower-mids may be just slightly elevated. Power is very good with enough that any reasonable headphone should be no problem. Even the He6 was listenable with the balanced output although it did leave the player without a lot of headroom.
Compared to the original R5, Lows are more textured with better detail and about equal emphasis, lower mids are very slightly forward in comparison to the original but not something you’d notice unless side by side testing. Textures in the mids are improved with the R5s sounding a bit quicker on the attack than the original which gives guitar growl a more believable edge. Strings have better texture and timbre hands down. If you like me are a lover of string quartet, this is a marked improvement over the original and worth an upgrade. Vocals also share in the improvements in detail and texture and now when a female vocal gets sibilant on the recording, it is sibilant on the playback, as it should be. Highs show that same improvement in detail but if anything a touch more reserved which is probably good as more detail and more forward would also likely read more fatiguing. Top end air and sparkle are good as well so no loss compared to the original.
The soundstage on the R5s remains pretty similar in dimension to the original but instrument separation is improved resulting in cleaner imaging and more precise positions compared to the original.
Original R5 –
I have spent most of the review comparing these two but a quick run down for the reader who skipped to this point. Physically these are the same unit on the outside with few cues to the differences inside. Internally the R5s is largely the same except for a new Low pass filter section and a different tuning. Sound wise, the R5s is a more brutally honest tuning with no smoothing or improving of poor tracks. The saber exposes more detail at the expense of possible fatigue from poor recordings. Hiby has long used the moniker “Make music more musical” and the R5s seems to go directly against that with making music playback more realistic if slightly less musical than the original.
R3 Pro Saber –
So how do the two Sabers compare. Visually these two are quite similar with the exception of much better buttons on the R5 compared to the R3. I suspect the R3 uses the style buttons it does due to space constraints as it is roughly an inch shorter than the 5 but similar in width and thickness otherwise. The R3 also moves the ports to the top but retains the USB-C connector at the bottom. Soundwise, both shoot for the same space and both end up roughly the same place. The R3 has a bit sharper top end but falls a touch short of the R5 for details in the mids and low end textures. The R5s also packs a good bit more power than its little brother which may well contribute to more perceived low end.
Shanling M6 –
The Shanling M6 is Shanling’s answer to the open Android dap and is the lowest priced Shanling model that uses android so although it is $100 or so more expensive it is the directly comparable model. The M6 also stands about an inch taller than the R5 but is otherwise similar in size. That extra inch is almost all screen with a 4.7″ on the M6 compared to a 4″ on the R5. The other thing that extra $100 buys is a Snapdragon 430 (vs 425) and 4gb ram (vs 2gb) in the M6. The M6 shipped with a generation older version of Android but has since been updated so is on an even footing there. Both can use terabyte cards as well so tough to separate the two in that regard. The M6 uses dual AK4495 dac chips which are arguably also very close in performance to the CL43198s used in the R5. One thing to note controls are reversed with reverse, play, forward on left on the M6 and volume knob on right so lefties may have a preference for one or the other based on control placements. The M6 adds a 2.5mm balanced port and retains the 3.5 and 4.4 of the R5 but the R5 has more power output from both single ended and balanced by a wide margin. The M6 is a little smoother sounding but has good detail so that will come down to personal preference. Power wise the R5s outclasses the M6 but UI is snappier on the M6 with its beefier processor and larger RAM. I prefer the R5s, but do think the M6 may be more future proof as 2gb is pretty much the floor for current android models and may be inadequate as future versions come out.
Cayin N3 Pro-
Recent price drops have brought the N3 Pro to within $79 of the R5s so a compare of these two recent releases seems in order. Physically these two are roughly the same height and width with the N3pro being maybe a ¼ taller and thicker. The N3pro is heavier by roughly 20% as well. Screen size favors the R5s with nearly an inch more screen on the face and a higher resolution to boot. The N3pro is not android and is thus locked into the music player software provided with it where the R5s allows for any android app to be loaded and customized. Controls are all on the right side of the N3pro rather than split like the R5s. Ports include 3.5mm single ended headphone and line out plus a 4.4 balanced port on the N3pro so roughly equal there. The R5s offers MSEB and EQ to tune the sound while the N3pro offers tube modes in addition to solid state to tune the signature. Signature wise these two seem to be shooting for different markets as the R5s is more a reference tuning and the N3pro is a more musical forgiving tuning but less reference and slightly less detailed. It should also be noted that all those tube modes don’t work if you used balanced output so here the R5s has an edge in that MSEB and EQ still function regardless of output type selected.
Thoughts / Conclusions:
In some ways the saber name belongs on the new R5s as it does have a sharper edge than the original with exposure of more details of the original recording to the user. In other ways the fact that Sabre is a name used by ESS dacs leads to confusion. Add in that the first in this product line the R3Saber uses an ESS chip and you really muddy the waters. Confusing naming aside, does the R5s deserve your attention? If offers an awful lot for $399 as few other full android daps come within $100 of that price point. The trade off is it is a slower processor and a bit less ram than some of the more expensive models so OS may not be quite as quick. I had no problems in music playback apps as most are not particularly CPU intensive anyway so unless you play games or watch movies on your DAP it probably isnt an issue (but then again with it being android, you could install them if desired). The tuning is what I think the R5 should have been to start with. I understand that Hiby’s motto is “make music more musical” but a lot of us want a reference dap that exposes all that is there good or bad and doesn’t sugar coat it for us. The R5s is that for sure. The R5s also has power to spare and out-muscles many of those same competitors that want $100-200 more for their similar products. I had no trouble running 300Ω headphones for extended periods without rapid battery loss or big time heat problems as are common in small daps with heavy loads on them. Oddly the R5s biggest competition is probably its little brother the R3s as the two are similar in sound and unless you need the power the R5 can deliver or want the flexibility of loading players other than Hiby’s own, the R3 is a smaller more convenient pocket dap with enough power for most iems and a simplified OS for $200 less. I own an R5 and and R3s and will likely sell off the R5 and get the R5s but my travel companion will likely remain the R3s unless I need the power of the R5s for a specific review item.
- Packaging - 7/107/10
- Accessories - 7/107/10
- Build Quality - 7.5/107.5/10
- Sound Quality - 8/108/10
- Battery Life - 8/108/10
- Connectivity - 8/108/10
Pros: Improved sound quality with more detail than original R5, near neutral signature, retains build quality of R5
Cons: Saber name for CL Dac is confusing, some growing pains with OS/app updates. not very forgiving of poor material.