Sunday, 17 November 2013

FiiO X3 Review

FiiO X3 Review

Thanks to Advanced MP3 Player's (AMP3) for the loan.

First Impressions:  I note in the box there is a big red card that tells you to go update the firmware, then to go to head-fi.  So firmware duly updated to 2.05 and I think I may just skip the going to the head-fi page for the moment.  Though while I was on the FiiO website to get the new firmware I did cast an eye over the X3 page and noticed something.  The section detailing the internal DAC used.  It’s a WM8740, I’m sure you all know that means it’s a Wolfson but what was news to me is that Wolfson are based in England.  Shame on you FiiO for making such a school boy error.  Also in the box I note a card for HDtracks, the first I’ve seen a DAP that can playback high res files making an effort to direct people to place where you can find some.  And you get a discount too so bonus.  The X3 itself though is visually, erm well, no one’s going to mug you for it.  I can’t say I’m looking at the button arrangement and thinking this is going to be intuitive to use either.  The silicon case it arrived in too, it’s no looker but it should protect the thing from falls.

On to listening and I picked up the RE-600’s as they were on my desk.  The sound seems to be very fluid and a slight touch on the warm side.  I’d kinda expected warm as it’s a Wolfson inside but the 600 is warm so no snap judgements.  Feels very, very fluid. 

Screen:  Yeah it’s fine.  It’s in colour, it will display album art and it works.  However this is no Sony DAP screen.  I found its brightness was okay once I turned it up to max but it remains a screen that serves it purpose rather than one you long to look at.

Battery Life:  The spec says 10 hours, or with newer firmware more like 15.  That seems more apt to me.  In use I just got into the habit of sticking on charge after I used it but really if I wanted I could have probably gotten away with maybe every second or third day depending on use.

UI:  Hmm if there is one area the Far East has issues with its still making UI’s.  The button layout may look “trendy” being on a diagonal but it’s not instinctively intuitive to use.  You will get used to it easily enough but when you first pick it up you’ll have to think and randomly will press the wrong button.  Navigating menus too are odd.  Sometimes you select an option with the play/okay button and others you cycle through options with the volume up and down buttons.  Again you get used it but let’s just say Apple designers aren’t quaking in fear. 

N.B. you have to either manually tell the thing to update or set the “Update Lib” to auto to get it to fully recognise SD card changes.  Took me far too long to discover this and was only by asking in the forums.

In the Hand:  It feels quite nice.  It’s sturdily put together and seems reasonably good.  Like some other things I’m immediately thinking it’s very 80’s styling.  The corners are rounded but I would still not be inclined to put this in a pocket that also has my phone in it as I think the phone would lose that encounter.  I can’t say again I find the layout to be intuitive or fitting my thumb well.

Format Support:  Essentially it plays everything you can think of.  I do really mean everything too, even that most annoying of formats, ALAC.  Yes even Apples “were going to be awkward just because we can” format will work with the X3.  So that copy of things I keep in Itunes for use with the old Ipods will work with it, meaning I’d only need that one copy.  It will also do things like .ogg and .ape files which I’ve never actually seen anyone use.  Still, you’re more likely interested in the array of lossless formats.  FLAC, WMA, APE, WAV are all supported and in high res formats too, up to 192K/24bit for most. (see specs for exact details and I suspect they may change over time as firmware’s get updated)

Also, 64GB cards are supported

Connections:  The X3 is unlike most DAP’s is awash with sockets.  Okay so it’s obviously got a 3.5mm headphone out socket.  Standard fare so far, now on the bottom there is a micro USB socket, ostensibly for charging the thing but with the latest firmware it acts as a USB data in connection.  Also on the bottom is a 3.5mm line out socket.    Where things get more unusual is that on the top there is a digital coax out.  It’s got a 3.5mm jack socket so to got the coax connector there is an adapter in the box.  Personally I’d have preferred it were an optical over coax but it’s not like I’d personally ever use either.  Still it’s a really unusual addition and if you wanted to hook the X3 up to a proper amp and use it as your source you can.

Volume:  It goes to 60 I believe and even on low gain in never really pushed it out of the 20’s.  Its easily capable of going louder than I’m sure you would ever want.

Sound Quality:  This is going to be heart of things.  Acoustically the X3 follows what in my head I think of as the Chinese/Sony sound.  It’s going for that warm, smooth sound.  It’s not too far from the old traditional British HiFi sound too. Warm, rich mellow, a bit sedate etc etc.  quite unlike the more common American, crisper and harder.  In the speaker worlds anyway.  This DAP follows that warmer, richer softer, smoother sound lineage.  The first IEM I spent any time with it was the DN-1000 and I found them rather subdued.  Even the sprightly and crisp MA750i was tamed somewhat.  Not that either were unpleasant to hear, they both have smooth and sumptuously flowing mids.  The bass and highs though, well they didn’t have the spark and enthusiasm I’d have liked to see from those IEM’s.  Jumping then to the Senn IE8 and things rather change.  It’s a much more dramatic IEM with a very V shaped sound and to me it seems a much more lively pairing.  Actually the two make for a really very impressive pairing.

EQ’ing isn’t something I as a rule am a fan of, its pain reviewing things for one.  So I’m not going to go through each variation but go with sweepingly broad commentary.  Sooooo you get a slightly unusual EQ set up here in that its back to the old school bass and treble controls only.  You can bump either up or down in 10 notches in each direction.  If you have a look at the measurements at max the difference is pretty huge so you can really change things a lot!  10dB swings are simply massive.  So if you want to give it stupid huge bass then you can, I can’t say I was very drawn to, maybe a plus 2 or 3 for things like the RE-0 perhaps.  Any alterations were completely distortion free.

A really nice addition here is that you change the channel balance.  If you have some hearing damage as I know there are lots of people that do, you can alter the balance of the left and right channels to match up with your hearing.  Something you almost never see.

Lows:  Smooth and polite.  In its natural state the balance is a hint on the reticent side, it pairs well naturally with rather big and brash bassed things like the IE8 but otherwise it’s a touch maybe too polite.  It doesn’t love to do hard and punchy bass either, it’s not flabby but in aggressive tracks it doesn’t attack with the hardness it perhaps ought to.  Tonally its little warm and genteel.  The quantity in its natural state is a little bit light and reserved.  Of course you can adjust it all the way to stupid amounts if you like or reduce to almost nothing too. it’s a rather Sony like warm bass.

Mids:  This is really where it does its best.  It’s a somewhat mid centric DAP with that warm, smooth and liquidy ooziness that allow the best vocals to just flow.  Vocals all sound superb.  They really are first rate and if you’re a big fan of vocal heavy stuff thin this type of sound signature works just so very well.  It’s the same sort of thing Sony have done for years and I believe it it’s the primary reason that Wolfson has the reputation it does.  They have a signature sound and this is what you get here.  Warm and gorgeously sumptuous sounding music that just flows. 

Highs:  Super refined and smooth.  Rather like the mids they are all about the smooth and sumptuous flow of music.  Any abrasiveness or in your face detail junkies are probably not best served here.  The extension is rather good.  Tonally it’s a bit soft and genteel again, delicate and relaxed.  Of course you can really dial up the quantity levels too if you want but they will never really take on an edgy in your face hyper “clarity” that some like.  Of course if you’re using a very brittle and treble abundant IEM like the DBA-02 they do a good job of balancing.

Detail levels are very good if not always readily apparent.  The tonally warm nature of the X3 doesn’t hurl things at you in the way some other things might. 

DAC:  As of the last firmware update you can plug the X3 into a computer and use it a USB DAC.  So you’re basically getting a free DAC, so yey for that! 

Hiss:  Erm I can’t say I noticed any.

Accessories:  It comes with the aforementioned 3.5mm to coax adapter, a micro USB charging/data cable, a couple of screen protectors, a silicone case and an odd one.  It comes with a copy of “Dr. Chesky's Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show” in 192K/24bit.

Value:  It’s a FiiO and everything they have ever done has been of the very highest value.  The sound quality you get for the financial outlay is arguably better than you will find anywhere else.  They X3 sounds superb and you get the DAC functionality on top, you just can’t argue with that kind of value. 

Conclusion:  Like many things form the Far East there are positives and negatives.  The negatives here being the button layout and the UI.  I know neither things are the end of the world but I liked neither.  The thing isn’t much of a looker either.  However for lots of people with an audiophile inclination these are not exactly that important.  The X3 is cheap and sounds great.

The Sound quality here is really aiming toward that rich, warm, smooth, Wolfson sound that is so popular in audiophile land.  It’s a very tube like sound.  It has plenty of detail and nuance.  It’s a sumptuous sound that I’ve oft seen referred to as a more “organic” sound.  that warm and almost tubey sound that is so fervently loved in some circles.  If that includes you then this DAP is a real winner acoustically. 

Then FiiO throw in a free DAC into to the mix is somewhat we have come to expect from FiiO when it comes to value.  It elevates things to level others will have a hard time matching.  You simply can’t imagine the likes of Sony doing something like that.  Sure the trade-off is the UI is a bit meh and the button layout I don’t like but they are things you can push past pretty quickly.  It’s a great warm sounding DAP that doubles as a DAC and it can play every format you can think of.  That it then cost what it does is the real clincher, for an audiophile DAP/DAC for £160, hell yeah, that is stunning value.

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