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My component of 2023

A repurposed desktop speaker 'stand' adds rake to aim the display up and doubles as convenient holder for two remotes.

€699. Am I off me meds? How can anything so affordable nab gold? For doing all that it does, how could it not?

That's obviously just an opinion. And it only culls from kit I met this year. How much can one man sample properly inside his own four walls not a show hotel across a year? It's why the headline includes a qualifier. It's nothing absolute, just my pick. It's deliberately subversive; and what my low-fat wallet voted on. "Any technology sufficiently advanced becomes magic to those unfamiliar with it." Though not verbatim, it's a belief SciFi writer and aeronautical engineer Robert A. Heinlein held. To my mind it rather applies to FiiO's R7. It's a full-featured wired/WiFi network streamer with onboard DAC, up to 2TB SD storage, a USB host slot, RCA/XLR fixed or variable outputs, 6.3mm, 4mm and XLR4 headfi ports, a 30-watt SMPS and a DAP-style touch screen running Android 10. Its cigar-box sized black or white casework is metal not plastic. A Bluetooth remote is optional. At max gain, its balanced headfi outputs deliver 3W/32Ω.

FioO certainly don't solo it by sticking a DAP lookalike touch screen to an AC-powered case. Astell&Kern have the ACRO CA-1000, Lotoo the Nagra-esque Mjölnir, Shanling the EM-7. Mjölnir simply goes ten times as cash heavy, the two others want up to thrice. Why would one want an R7? The most obvious application should be as desktop hub ending in powered/active speakers and/or headphones. A less obvious app and the one I chose is as USB-C SD server fronting an upscale system without hardwired LAN or WiFi. Unless we run vinyl or CD, that usually means a laptop or PC/Mac whose internal/external SSD stores our files and whose screen and touchpad or keyboard/mouse become our library's sat nav. What if we don't want a computer in our WiFi/LAN-free listening zone? What if for less cashish we can secure an audio-optimized device that's even smaller but packs seriously superior hifi hardware which for headfi needs naught else; for passive speakers just an amplifier; as server just an SD card packed with files and/or an external SSD; and doubles as headphone stand?

Even without the raft of network smarts that John Darko touched on in his own review; even without the line-out functionality… the R7 already is more than an overtime employee when working my limited digital transport cum headfi gigs. Yet as networking kit it still affords me firmware updates and whatever new software features or navigation smarts those may bolt on. I'll just take it briefly downstairs to go online. Should you poo-poo offline listening, did you know how much CD-quality content a €120 1TB SD card will hold? A maxed-out CD carries 700MB of data so a 1TB card can store 1'428 CDs. In actuality few CDs max out to capacity. You'll probably get closer to 2'000. Need more? Hello 2TB card or external SSD.

And yes, today's listener majority no longer buys music but instead pays for cloud access with Apple, Qobuz, Tidal & Bros. For them the mere notion of having to whittle millions of albums down to just a few thousands spells mega grief. But the R7's WiFi antenna and Ethernet port skip right over that. Milk the cloud until it rains. The R7 does everything you'd expect of a DAP or smartphone (minus the latter's call and camera abilities) plus caters to us WiFi allergics. Our sort must hardwire their web access. As renters we thus may not run a 50m+ Ethernet spur up the stairs into a second floor to actually reach the final destination at the end of a hallway. And, we actually may want to limit our computers to the ground floor. Now what?

A battery-powered DAP with USB can fill our lonely slot. It's exactly what a Shanling M3 Ultra did in my upstairs system before an R7 kicked it to the curb. Because that runs off AC, it has no power time or portability limits. It can pack a far beefier output stage, full-size line-out sockets, a bigger display and may even power an external SSD. In my setup, a 2m USB cable connects it from right next to my seat to a Soundaware D300Ref USB bridge on the near sidewall. That reclocks the USB data then fires them out as AES/EBU down a 6m cable to a Sonnet Pasithea DAC between the speakers. It's ultra convenient, tidy, the display crisp, the GUI perfectly intuitive and customizable like any Android 10 smartphone. Even though 20+ years on this beat should have me crusty with seen-it-all cynicism, I actually look at FiiO's R7 a bit like an Amazon tribesman upon first seeing a smartphone take his picture. What sorcery is this, Brujo-San? That it can do so much in such a small box, pack a lovely touch screen, be this nicely built and not cost more still strikes my inner reviewer as bordering on magic. Add a 2TB microSD card's mere existence to that tally.

Readers not math-challenged already spotted a blustering blunder. I published this October 4th so a full 88 days shy of year's end. How to be sure that I'd not run into anything worthier in the remaining nearly three months to nab my Year's Favorite spot? Foresight by way of common sense. You too possess my crystal ball if you reckon that if anyone were planning a competing product, they'd have already launched it prior to Q4 kicking in. So my inner contrarian who'd rather pay a whole lot less than ever more feels uncommonly certain. Nothing could possibly cross my path before January 1st that will tick this many personal boxes for €699. Plus, the whole intent of this page was giving you sufficient advance notice for the December season. If FiiO's R7 sounds like something that might tick all of your boxes or delight an audiophile friend you want to present with a sterling gift, why risk FiiO selling out stock while you still have a discretionary 2023 hifi budget?

My last sentence obviously assumed that one enjoys such a budget. My bad. Not all readers will. If that's you, I've been there. Now reading about new toys becomes day dreaming about what if. I've been there too, with plenty of Stereophile issues in my days of print media and hifi retail. That's often where special-interest journeys start; by reading about stuff in insider media. To lower your barrier of entry was more reason for today's pick. We all know how Nagra or Raidho kit rocks. But it's nice to know that one can already get on the ladder to better sound with today's far more modest mini. It's priced and functions like a mid-tier smartphone but does so much more sonically. That it can also be rather more than a beginner's first all-in-one desktop hub you now appreciate from my placement at the very beginning of a first-rate system in a smaller room. Mission accomplished…