Sunday, 24 April 2011

FiiO A1 Review

First Impressions: Oh just how similar to the E9 is this? For me the only difference in the lack of a white strip on the dial (I have an old one.) It’s also really much lighter than I expected it to be. Aesthetically it is just identical to the E9 and I really like that, they look great together. It does strike me that stacking them as you instinctively want to could someday cause a heat issue. I can’t say it will but it’s something I think I shall be keeping an eye out for.

Once it’s all connected up and I give a little listen my first impressions are not what I was expecting. The E7 and 9 have tended towards the warm (more so the E7 and its DAC) and the A1 strikes me as very clear and light sounding. FiiO were concerned at one of the speaker options I’d be testing it out with. Now I can see why they were concerned. Maybe it will fill out with a few hours on them?

Tiny irritation, it was an irritation with the E9 having to turn on the E7 separately. With A1 you now have 3 things to turn on independently. I see no way around it but still I don’t love it.


Setup: Laptop > E7 Docked in an E9 connected to the A1 > Speaker

The speaker used will vary and since it’s unlikely you will have the exact same speakers you will have to take the information as you will. I can make no promises that how I hear the speakers I have here will offer the same results with any other speaker you use. I can tell you there was a pretty big variation between the ones I tested.

Comparison Amp: Sony MHC-W550


It is the amp unit from a Sony Stereo; it’s pretty large but designed more for power than finesse.

Speaker 1: Panasonic SS-P310

Type 1 way, 1 speaker, Bass reflex


Woofer 6.5 cm cone type

Impedance 6 ≠

Input power 60 W (Music)

Sound pressure level 79 dB/W (1.0 m)

Frequency range 110 Hz–25 kHz (j16 dB)

130 Hz–22 kHz (j10 dB)


These little speakers came off the back of my old home cinema package. So you probably don’t have them and won’t see them on their own and frankly you’re not missing out. As speakers go there are really a bit cack. They are however teeny tiny and I could see someone having, like I, old speakers to hand and you may want to give them a new life somewhere else. So could you use this as a little bedroom set up? Yes you could. The A1 can drive them very loud, at 10 o’clock it’s getting too loud. Still while they can go loud they never make a room filling noise or have much in the way of a low end. These are rubbish little speakers.

Hooking them up the Sony they actually do sound better, a lot better, they still don’t sound great but they became much more listenable. It’s not something I’d ever use though as the amp is several time the size of both speakers combined. Still I can’t help give this one as a huge win to the giant Sony.

Speaker 2: Panasonic SB-PF310

Type 2 way, 2 speaker, Closed


Woofer 12 cm cone type

Tweeter 2.5 cm semi-dome type

Impedance 6 ≠

Input power 60 W (Music)

Sound pressure level 81 dB/W (1.0 m)

Crossover frequency 4.5 kHz

Frequency range 40 Hz–50 kHz (j16 dB)

50 Hz–45 kHz (j10 dB)


These are the front partner speakers of the previous ones and are much more reasonably sized. These are designed to be able to play music and sound far fuller and just plain better than the tiny ones. They clearly are a little insensitive however as they need the volume cranked a little more but this does wonders for them. They sound really nicely balanced and above all, clean sounding. It an undramatic sound but it’s very pleasant on the ear and I’ve got to say I actually really like it. It may not be the most detailed sound on earth but it’s easily the best I’ve heard out of these speakers.

A listen connected to the Sony makes them go a step backwards and take on a more thick and muddy sound. Honestly it’s a little disappointing.

Speaker 3: Sony SS-H10

These Speakers came off my parents old Hi-Fi, it was the first CD playing device i ever got my hands on and remember it and its speakers well, with very fond memories.

Type 3 Way system Bass reflex enclosure

Speaker units Woofer 13cm diameter cone type

Tweeter 5cm diameter cone type

Super Tweeter 2cm diameter dome type

Frequency Range 65Hz – 20kHz

Sensitivity 88db/W/m

Rated impedance 6 ohms


Ahh now these sound pretty decent. These really still are not putting out the levels in the lows that these speakers are capable of, I know I don’t have their original amp unit (it’s long dead) but these should be much more meaty and room filling. The A1 can easily drive these very, very loud, more than I would ever want but it still isn’t giving me the impression that it is really driving them to their fullest. What it is giving however is a very, very clean and transparent sound. Being a Sony it’s naturally inclined towards a thick, heavy meaty sound and the lighter sound the A1 is adding actually works really well. It can’t make these speakers the most refined in the world but it tames that big fat low end making them so much better behaved. The deep lows are still present but they roll away, it is what I always remember as a speaker that could thunder out a low end and it’s just not there. I spent much time with Annie Lenox and “Love Song for a Vampire” and the faux heartbeat barely registers. The mid range however is quite wonderful. It is much more pronounced than Sony tune their amps and I for one love a good mid range. The high end too is really pretty decent, no harshness yet everything sounds so clean and clear. Sony usually much over does the high end and often can be pretty brutal but here it’s very pleasant on the ear.

Jumping over to the big Sony amp, woosh the low end has returned. Yes it’s not as clean and tight as with the A1 but its considerably more abundant. The overall sound is very thick and meaty but the mids clearly lack the air and confidence they had on the A1. The highs too just don’t sound as good. They have become thicker, almost hidden and what does come through is the hard edge of a note. Its an altogether much warmer and thicker sound. Its not what id call unpleasant but its really a bit thick, too thick for me. It’s why I’m not a huge lover of Sony IEM’s or have bought a Sony X series DAP.

Speaker 4: Sony SS-W550G

Like the previous Sony’s these came off an old Hi-Fi, this time it was mine. It was my “I’m 18 and I want a party machine” stereo. The speakers are beasts.

Type 4 Way, 5 unit, Bass reflex

Speaker units Woofer 17cm diameter cone type

Centre Tweeter 3cm diameter dome type

Side Tweeter 5cm diameter cone type x 2

Super Tweeter 2cm diameter dome type

Rated impedance 6 ohms

I couldn’t find the sensitivity or the frequency range response.


Hooking up these monsters to the tiny little FiiO looks ridiculous but on playing them, remember I’ve comment about the lack of prodigious bass? Oh not any more. This speaker is really quite the bass monster with that big 17cm woofer (7 inch.) going back to “Love Song for a Vampire” that heartbeat is vast and significant, it smacks you very much like a heartbeat! Dear god I remember why I bought these, shakin’ the house down wooo! It’s a very unrefined sound, how Sony managed it with so many drivers in there I don’t know. What really has been dispelled is that the A1 isn’t capable of driving out a low end, its having no trouble about pounding it out here. Changing tracks to Owl City’s “Cave In” I am very surprised by what I hear. The song is very quick, crisp and frankly very ill suited to that Sony sound. Well the little FiiO manages to propel the speakers to a level of agility I didn’t know they had in them! I am very, very pleasantly surprised. The treble too is actually good and remarkably refined given they naturally want to be quite abrasive and its a treble heavy song too. Hugely impressed.

Flicking over to the big Sony (that they belong with) I expected stupendous levels of bass but no. The bass is there obviously but what’s more readily apparent to the ear is the treble has jumped forward. Is it that the little FiiO didn’t have the grunt to drive all those tweeters? It’s quite reminiscent of the EX700,big bass that’s big and flabby and overly noticeable treble. You would think that with the increased treble clarity would be better but its noticeably worse than with the A1. It really isn’t the best pairing, odd given they belong together. Too thick, too muddy and too soft.

Speaker 5

Audica CS-S1

Enclosure Type 2-Way Reflex

Enclosure Material Aluminium

LF Units 2 x 50mm Neodymium

HF Units 1 x 14mm Dome Tweeter

Power Handling 30W-100W

Frequency 80Hz-23KHz

Sensitivity 87dB


As you can see from the spec these are not going be big, bass monsters nor reach terribly deep. This is largely why I bought them, I wanted a speaker that I wasn’t going to be afraid to use for fear of bothering the neighbours. I wanted something with finesse and beauty and these have both.

Testing with the little A1 I am instantly relieved. After finding the previous speakers so variable I was afraid that these would just sound so thin and screechy but no, they sound remarkably full. Of course they don’t reach down low but they do everything else so well and in particular the mids. The mids sound just wonderful and are instantly recognisable as being some way above the previous speakers. The combination provides a dry and airy sound that is just full of breathy texture. The clarity too is most impressive. Granted if you’re after a deep rich sound then this certainly isn’t a combo for you.

With the big Sony amp I must say I was slightly disappointed. The Sony just doesn’t have the clarity that the A1 has and while it wasn’t so readily apparent on the cheaper speakers here it’s pretty noticeable. It isn’t an unpleasant sound and some may prefer its thicker and richer tone but all I’m registering is that it’s too muddy.

FiiO A1 Review Addendum

First off this section was written at a different time (a handful of weeks) from the rest and is a much more quick comparison between how the FiiO sounded compared to the Zone 2 output on the Yamaha RX-667 AV receiver I recently bought. Also I will also only be comparing the Audica, the big Panasonics and the “small” Sony’s. The tiny Panasonics I couldn’t be bothered with and the giant Sony’s had left the room some time ago because they are huge I really wasn’t bringing them back through.

First up was the Panasonic SB-PF310 and on the yammy it was pretty disappointing. The Yamaha is a warm and rich source and pannys just didn’t pair up well, the treble was pretty recessed and overall it just sounded so lifeless. I know they really aren’t the best speakers but having been so pleasant and balanced sounding with the A1 the pairing here is a real disappointment. It feels so much like the Yamaha just isn’t properly driving them which may sound ridiculous given its potential power output. Synergy matters and the crisp clean FiiO helped it whereas the thick heavy Yamaha just makes this speaker sound too heavy and muddy. Clear and definite win for the A1.

Next up we have the Auidica, I had high hopes here but the Yamaha just isn’t doing their upper end justice. The mids are nice but a little laid back sounding and the lows too are a bit soft. Sure it’s not a low end heavy speaker but it’s not spitting out the punch it ought to be. However it’s not an unpleasant noise being both articulate and intimate. Maybe a little too intimate actually, very, very much a near field and small soundstaged set up. The far more dynamic and greater crispness of the FiiO I’d say was better, certainly much more fun.

Lastly we have the Sony’s, the Sony SS-H10, I didn’t expect much here but I was surprised by just how well they went with the Yamaha. The speakers still retained that Sony sound but they became so much more open and airy, they felt gentle and huge and so expressive. The bass may still be not quite as deep and powerful as it ought to be but that really isn’t a failing id much rather this than flabbily farting all over the place. It’s so smooth and controlled. The mids are a surprise too being so emotive and clean. I really had expected them to be overly thick and heavy but they retain such an airy, open quality. I don’t understand why. Highs too are just as impressive, a little gritty and spiky as Sony are want to do but the naturally smooth treble of the Yamaha really tames any edges. I like it greatly. As to which is better the A1 or the yammy, I think I have to give it the Yamaha. I can’t say the Yamaha is fundamentally in any way “better” but the synergy going on here is outstanding just as it was utterly terrible with the Panasonics.

FiiO A1 Review Addendum 2


Well I’ve had these things so long and still not posted up the review because I just bought something else. A set of Roth CHARLiE 2.1, yes that’s how they write it. So anyway stupid name aside the 2 channel speakers on it are just normal passives so I could hardly not give them a bash with the A1 could I? Firstly I’d like to start off by saying that Roth do sell the Charlie in a 2.0 form and I am assuming they tuned these little speakers to operate sans sub as believe me with the sub going they are really rather low end heavy, fair enough I’m sure that will appeal to most ipod dock buyers but what it does mean is that they have a couple of relatively dinky speakers that have a very full rich bottom on them. Given the predisposition of the A1 to be a little bright in theory they should go very well together.

They do.

The Roth’s are a little shy in the highs for my liking but honestly its perfectly livable and overall is o pretty damn good match. They give a smooth rich sound that is very easy and gentle on the ear yet gives far better clarity than their own amp / sub does. The lows trail off gently and the highs do too leaving an easy, liquid mid in there that’s sumptuously lush and relaxed without being too heavy or thick. If Roth are reading, you might want to contact FiiO and use the A1 amp in your next version as they work much better with your speakers than your own amp. I kinda with I had gotten them in black as they really go so nicely with the A1 in both sound and aesthetics.

Okay back to the review as it was

Audica MPS-1 Comparison


I also feel I have to compare the A1 / CS-S1 pairing to the Audica MPS-1 that I have. While it’s not identical, the speakers are a little different lacking the tweeter of the CS-S1 and being tuned to go a little deeper (Frequency range 70 - 20.000 Hz.) the amp element too isn’t entirely dissimilar the A1 but with a little more power at 25W RMS on each channel.

First impressions are that the MPS is a much warmer and richer sound, the lack of a separate tweeter means that the highs are much less crisp. The low end too is noticeably fuller, that extra 10Hz range really shouldn’t make that much a difference but Audica have clearly tuned the MPS speakers for less abrupt roll off than in the CS-S1 (the CS-S1 are aimed at home cinema use so a sub will be around to take care of the low end.) of course how much of this difference being down to the MPS amp I cannot say as it has a proprietary speaker connecter on it and I’m not playing round with wire cutters to find out.

The A1 / CS-S1 combo is just the far cleaner and more crisp of the two particularly at low volumes.


Well I want to say that I’ve found reviewing this amp hard. I don’t have the array of speakers that I have earphones and so it’s harder be more elaborative in judging where they sit in relation to other products. I can’t compare these to 12 other amps so you will have to just go and what I feel about them and be aware of my limited scope of comparison.

I should note that the potential heat issue I feared never manifested, it barely ever got warm to the touch.

On the whole I really rather like the A1. At times I have worried that it doesn’t have the grunt to properly power everything, this was particularly noticeable with the tiny Panasonics. Whilst they may have been rubbish they sounded far worse with the A1 driving them than they did with the big Sony’ clearly they wanted more power behind them. On the other end the drove the Audicas beautifully and significantly better than the powerful but thick and muddy Sony.

As with all things there will always be an element of synergy in determining how well things will go together and I must say I found the A1 to be a bit of an enigma. While on the whole it gave me the impression of being a very clear and clean sounding amp, a touch more treble happy than bass happy but not always. On the giant Sony speakers while it sounded great I’d have expected more abundant treble. On the smaller Sony in turn I expected more bass. While I can say I was genuinely happy with the A1’s performance I can’t promise the same for everyone. The speakers you use with them will make a big difference.

Overall its clarity and transparency was as impressive as the form factor was diminutive. As you can see from the photos if you already have the E7 and 9 and are looking for a speaker amp it’s got to be a consideration. The A1 is much more about delicacy and refinement than it is about force and power. I don’t see it ever replacing big, brash mainstream stuff for those that want it but I was quite impressed with how it handled things. The fact is we all have (or have had) big mainstream brand stuff around the place. How many have had a high street brand like Sony or JVC, or AIWA (you know the sort of tat you get in Curry’s and the like) or any of the others in the house and had the thing die? Odds are the speakers on it were still working fine and if you still have them then something like the little A1 can give them a new lease on life. Sure if you’re a hardcore audiophile with some KEF Muon’s in your living room then it’s not for you but if you’re just getting into the world of crazy audio geekdom then it’s a great way to go. Many on Head-Fi move from portable headphone listening to acquiring a desktop setup, eventually to speaker listening. (I’m not saying exclusively but most do buy a set of speakers eventually.) With FiiO, they have the E7 for on the go. The E9 to give you that bit more oomff when you sat at your desk. Now with the A1 they are offering you a good quality way to start moving into desktop speaker listening too. I know there isn’t final pricing out yet but so for everything FiiO have done has been a bargain so I don’t see why this would be any different.

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