First Impression: Fiio X3 DAP

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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.

Intro

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.

 

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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…

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Lieven is living in Europe and is a full time Headfonia writer and the leader of the gang. Coming from a musical family he's always been interested in good sound. Unlike his family members the only musical instruments he plays are amps and DACs. He loves playing with old tubes and discovering new products while staying faithful to the good old Sennheiser HD650. Taking pictures is a real challenge but seeing happy readers in the end is what it's all about for him.

  • Josh Cuz

    At the beginning of 2/10 songs, there is a pop and a delay for take half a second.

    • dalethorn

      I don’t have my X3 yet, and I wonder about those pops. I get pops in several tracks with other players, so I wonder if it’s in the X3 or maybe it’s in the music and other players suppress it?

      • George Lai

        Slightly off topic but in the case of an iPod there can be a slight pop at the start of a new track but I believe it’s amp-dependent as I only hear it occasionally on my ADL X1 amp and none of my other countless amps. Turning off sound check on iTunes (one of the suggestions I found in Google) and the iPods seems to have minimized it so now I very rarely hear it on my X1. As I said it’s slightly (or very) off topic but I’m just inclined to believe it’s the amp and not the player. Happy New Year, Dale.

        • dalethorn

          Very on-topic I think – thanks George, and happy New Year to you.

  • dalethorn

    My X3 is unusable because it takes 30 seconds for it to see the first file on my 64 gb Fat32 MicroSD card. I can’t get to the files that begin with ‘J’ or any other letter immediately like I can with i-devices. My files are sorted A to Z like “Aberdeen – Fine Day” to “Zola Jesus – Hey You”, so without the nasty task of making folders (which probably would make things worse and a huge headache in management), is there any way at all to get directly to a track beginning with ‘J’, ‘K’, etc.? I’m not sure playlists are a solution because I like to skip around irrespective of alphabet, genre, or anything else.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Do you have the latest firmware Dale? Honestly I couldn’t reply, mine is always on shuffle when I use it. But to tell the truth, I always end up using my ipod, Cypherlabs and amp combo and never the X3.

      • dalethorn

        Yes, I did update the firmware first thing, and that went well. The delay may have something to do with reading headers on the 1024 FLAC tracks. But that’s just half of the problem. The other half is getting to a new track quickly. If I could do that I could get by OK with the first issue, the delay. The sound is interesting – I haven’t got it figured out yet, but I can tell already where a better player would have a smoother sound. Still a good sound for portable use though.

        • Io

          I think one really don’t need 1024 FLAC tracks…. Just saying…. Not trying to attack you or anything. Why don’t you try around 500 tracks? I think that is more that sufficient really. It will greatly reduce the delay.

          • dalethorn

            The delay is the small problem – getting instantly to any track is the big problem.

            The reason I have only 1024 is because I haven’t gotten my other 1200 tracks in high-res format yet, so I will need to eventually have about 2500 tracks. My wife has 6000 tracks, so she would like to go high-res also.

            • George Lai

              Hi Dale. I guess that’s why I’ve never dared to try an X3 or DX50 or AK100/120. I love how my 40,000 tracks on two iPod Classics can be retrieved instantly in whichever manner I want. They’re in various resolutions and in a way I’m thankful I can’t tell the difference between 320, FLAC, ALAC, etc. Maybe one day I could but until these other players work faultlessly, I’ll stick with my iPods.

              • dalethorn

                Well, I am glad you replied with that info, George. I’ve been looking at the possibility of getting a new iPod classic (or whatever it’s called) in the 160 gb size from the Apple store. I was wondering, do you know if the headphone out has the same impedance as the iPhone5 or iPod Touch? We had a problem with bass muddiness with either a B&W P5 or ATH ESW9 with the old iPod Classic. And can I presume that the dock connector would work with my FiiO LOD cables to the FiiO amps (or other analog amps)? Thanks!

                • George Lai

                  Hello Dale, I’m not sure if the headphone out on the (yes) iPod Classic has the same impedance as I always use the 30-pin line out. All 30 pin LOD cables can be connected to all analog amps but again, most of the time I connect the 30-pin LOD to USB In on MFI-certified DAC/amps like the Cypher Labs Theorem for example. The iPod can’t even be switched off as it goes into standby and is “Instant On”. I doubt I could stand waiting for 30 seconds.

                  • Eric Thompson

                    The AK100 or 120 has to do this better doesn’t it? and has up to 128gb of storage

                • George Lai

                  Hi Dale, how’s your experience with the X3 three weeks later? The X5 looks tempting!

                  • dalethorn

                    I haven’t really used it. Since I don’t maintain formal playlists, getting to any track out of a thousand tracks is a chore. Then another problem – my i-devices allow me to use a nice equalizer to fine-tune certain headphones with small adjustments, but the X3 doesn’t support that.

                    • George Lai

                      Thanks for the prompt reply, Dale. I guess I’ll stick to my iDevices. Cheers.

              • dalethorn

                I could never tell the difference between an accurate WAV rip from a CD and a 320k CBR MP3 converted from that WAV, by direct comparison. But I think I understand now – it has to do with my ability to concentrate around my auditory blind spot (similar in principle to the visual blind spot). Anyway I find it much easier to tell the difference if I get 2 identical iPods and amps, and load one iPod with the WAV files and the other with the MP3s. Then I shuffle the iPods so there’s no way for me to tell the difference, and play one through then switch to the other and play it through. Maybe just 30-60 minutes of music on each, and play where it’s extremely quiet – for me late at night at home.

            • Io

              I agree totally with George and I think it will do you better in fact to get iPods rather than DAPs.

      • Eric Thompson

        Lol why is that? even over the AK? I currently have an iPod+E17 but I really want more storage space… or if I didn’t have all the iPod crap on there. A music iPod and a game/movie iPod? lol

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          AK and CL are more on less on the same level

  • cyborg32

    How if X3 combine with other FIIO portable ampls? will that improve the sound quality?

    • dalethorn

      Were you intending to use the X3 as a transport only, or as transport-plus-DAC?

  • Rūdolfs Putniņš

    Used my X3 for a week. The verdict so far is that the UI is usable though much less functional than any of the Rockboxes. I use a 16GB card and I haven’t encountered any slowdowns.

    Soundwise I find the player to be very pleasant and a step-up from any of the usual smart-devices. The headphone output isn’t truly neutral, but none of the colourations stand in the way of the music. Line out is much better and for more serious semi-portable use I’d add a quality amp in the mix. The digital output isn’t much to write home about, but it’s usable. At home I very much preferred the USB from the PC on my Stello DA-100 Signature to the X3 coax. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as I’m pretty sure the 3,5mm mono jack is less-than-perfect for high frequency signal transmission where impedance matching is a must to avoid jitter inducing wave reflectance.

    For my Earsonics Sm3v2 I really like the headphone out and it was adequate with the Paradox as well. Maybe in some future I’ll swap the output opamp for something fancier, but now it’s good as it is.

  • Shay

    Hello
    I wish to ask how the X3 stands up against the X5 in the Bass sound ?
    Is it heavy then the X5, cleaner and so
    I use the B&W P7 as my main headphone

    • Eric Thompson

      good headphone

  • dennisksc

    should i go for e07k/e09k combo or just buy the x3?

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      The source you use with the FiiO’s will give you a lot of flexibility and control, and you give up a lot of that with the X3, but you gain the convenience of having a single small device.

      • dennisksc

        So are you saying that x3 doesn’t work that well as a USB dac compared to e07k and such?

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          The X3 certainly has a DAC, but it’s not any more separate from the X3 than the DAC in an iPod is separate from the iPod (and you can use the iPod’s DAC separate from its amp via the LOD).

          So if you wanted to improve your sound using the X3 and a separate amp, you could, but that would mean the X3 as a good portable player now becomes a kludge instead of a good portable.

          I’ve done many things like that, but have never been happy with the results. Using the E07k/E09 makes more sense. Putting it differently, I would use an iPod alone, or an X3 alone, as a portable player, but for indoor hi-fi I would prefer to output the portable player digital data into a good DAC-plus-headphone-amp.

          When the signal leaves the portable player across the USB cable etc., there’s no harm to the signal because the

          • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

            because the asynchronous DAC will clean up the data as it arrives. It’s what’s between the DAC input and amp output that makes the real difference, and if those are well matched (especially combos that eliminate the DAC output jacks and wiring and amp input jacks and wiring), then you get the cleanest possible signal. And that’s the reason you’re using components like that in the first place – to get the best possible sound.

  • oldandcurious

    Hello again Mike.

    As a “reader” of this very informative site, I started “collecting things,” that eventually led me to get the Fiio X3, the E07K and last month, the HD600. My budget-constrained question is, of the following that are locally available from my corner of the globe, which would be the wiser choice in terms of sounding “good enough” for my HD600. Preferrably, one that will take at least a year before I dare think of the next step-up -

    E09K, and for some more bucks, below do share very similar pricing from where I buy my “stuff.”

    02+ODAC
    ALO’s The Island
    Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier

    If the X3′s DAC is decent – I have none really to compare it with – I can save some more and just consider:

    X3 as DAC + “name the budget amplifier here.” And/or,
    E07K + L7 + “name the budget amplifier here” is also one my options.

    My HD600 plugged into the headphone out of my old Aiwa midi-component is very pleasing to my ears as it is. Classical music comprises 80% of my listening habit; The rest is divided more or less equally by Jazz fusion, R&B and vocals.

    Thank you.

    P.S. Anyone can chime in.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Then keep the XR + Dac and get a JDSLabs C5 or Duet ot Picollo

      • oldandcurious

        Thanks. The JDSLabs C5 is available from where I post this reply.