Disclaimer: Lieven and I both received a free Fiio X3 from Fiio. The Headfonia Store does sell some Fiio products, as well as other popular products mentioned here such as Astell & Kern, Altmann Tera, Hifiman, Fostex, etc.
This is a double review. Normal text is Lieven’s. Italics are Mike’s.
I have been a fan of the Fiio sound ever since I listened to the great Fiio E10 Dac/Amp and everyone knows Mike likes the Fiio sound as well. I bought, own and still daily use a couple of these units at home and at work: the price-quality ratio is excellent and I love the dark sound signature. I’ve been looking for a new affordable portable player to keep me entertained during those daily 2 hour train rides from home to work because the (great sounding) iPod+CLAS+C5 combination just is too big to carry around the whole time (not even mentioning the weird looks you get).
The X3 at this very moment has only been available in mainland China and some samples have been sent to out to reviewers, these last units have a special version of the firmware: the FW1.00Beta. This will not be the firmware version the end consumer will have when their units arrive as there will still be several changes according to Fiio. (I could post a list in the comments if anyone’s interested)
The Looks / The Unit
The X3 comes with a couple of accessories like a screen saver, a silicone case and a couple of cables. The unit itself is black, weighs only 122gr and mesures 1.6cm – 5.5cm – 10.9cm, incorporating a 240×320 resolution screen. It actually is thicker as some of the official pictures make it look but the overall size is great.
It’s a functional shape and size, but hardly inspiring in terms of aesthetics and definitely not as good as it looks on the 3D renderings. Being used to the build quality of the Astell & Kern AK100 and AK120 players (Headfonia Store is a huge Astell & Kern reseller), the Fiio really doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same class but obviously that’s a stupid comment as the Fiio retails for 1/3 the price of the AK100. A more valid comparison is to the popular Cowon players as the X9 that retails for $199 and is heaps ahead of the X3 in terms of build quality, screen size and technology (touch screen and UI).
Using the X3
This review would get huge if I would describe every single menu item the X3 offers. On top of that, as I said, this is a 1.00Beta version of the firmware and the UI will have several changes in the next version anyway. Overall the menu structure is not too difficult and complicated, it’s pretty obvious where you will find the different lists, options etc. I can’t really complain about the User Interface but if I have to say something it would probably be that the navigation structure by artist/album could be better but that will probably be the case in a later firmware version. Besides that the only two other things I’ve noticed so far are that the controls become slower when accessing the bigger FLAC files on a fully packed X3 and that you sometimes get a small pop when switching tracks. Important to mention is also the +6dB high gain setting which I tried with the LCD-2. I’m walking a head of Mike’s sound impressions but this is one of the first times I found high gain to sound acceptable. I switched back low gain immediately though, it just sounds better and more relaxed.
What I do appreciate is the quality of the screen, the UI navigation and the responsiveness of the UI. Again not quite AK quality screen, but it’s a good quality screen and I like how the UI is quite responsive and snappy. The UI graphics is pretty good as well and though the positioning of the buttons can be made to be more intuitive (+ shaped, for instance), overall I’d give an 8/10 for the UI.
The local enthusiasts were excited to hear that the X3 sample unit has finally landed and so I invited them to play with it on the store, despite the local distributor not yet having a unit. Most of the comments were positive but there was a comment mentioning that there is a lag when moving between songs though it doesn’t happen all the time. Perhaps it’s a function of the file size (I had mostly AIFF and WAVs in the player) or the caching side of the player hitting the limit. While not super speedy as the Altmann Tera, I personally have no complaints about the speed of the UI. It works just fine in my opinion.
When it comes to functionalities, the X3 doesn’t disappoint and it shows that Fiio’s R&D put a lot of thoughts into deciding what they deemed necessary into the player. USB charging is a standard feature these days and I’m happy I see it in the X3. Huge battery inside the X3 by the way, 3000mAH that allows for a roughly ~11 hours playback. I’m also happy that Fiio used a standard 3.5mm connector for the line out rather than going with their proprietory docking. There is a mandatory hold switch which is a must have on DAPs. A microSD external slot for storage expansion (up to 64GB), a 3.5mm headphone out and finally a not-quite-industry-standard 3.5mm coaxial out (Fiio supplied a 3.5mm to RCA coaxial adapter) so I can use the X3 as a digital transport. Superb and more than I can ask for. For browsing the files, you get the standard browse by Album/Genre/Artist or through folder browsing. The player also provides shuffle functions. A bass treble control that goes from -10 to +10 without getting distorted in either ends. Gapless Playback, Memory Play, Balance and Gain. The player also supports up to 24/192 files. Really, everything you can ask for in a player.
While I was pretty skeptic about the controls based on the pictures, I can now only say the button lay-out works fine and can easily be operated with one hand once you’ve figured out and memorized the menu structure somehow (takes only 30 minutes of playing with the unit). As everyone knows by know the X3 offers loss-less playback for APE/FLAC/ALAC/WMA/WAV and supports the usual AAC/OGG and MP3 formats.
Inside the unit you can find a Wolfson WM8740 chip like inside a lot of other devices on the market, the op-amp selected by Fiio is the AD8397 giving it the Fiio sound signature. Bass and treble as Mike mentioned are adjustable hardware-wise in stead of software/DSP-wise making it “much more natural sounding” according to Fiio. I’ve been playing with this and I really liked the outcome, especially for the bass part. The X3 also has a 3.5mm Line Out output so you can connect it to a (portable) amplifier and of course you can use the X3 just as a Data Storage Unit and connect it to an external dac with a coaxial cable (supplied!). The Fiio website isn’t that clear on output power as they state two different numbers @ 16Ohm: 300mW and >540mW so maybe this will get cleared up in the near future.
Sound Impressions on the next page…