In this article, we review the FiiO KA1, a new entry-level DAC/AMP dongle, available for just €/$49,99 Euro/USD.
Disclaimer: The FiiO KA1 was sent to us, free of charge, by the brand in exchange for our honest opinion.
Founded in 2007, FiiO is one of the biggest companies in the audiophile world, thanks to an extensive range of (usually) affordable but (mostly) excellent products. IEM, headphone amps, DACs, and obviously DAPs, they did it all and did it well. So much that when a new player comes out, it usually becomes the benchmark that other brands have to refer to, like the FiiO M11 Plus or the K9 Pro, two high-end devices.
But, in the beginning, the brand was primarily famous for its cheap, USB-Key sized audiophile DAC, like the FiiO E5 and E3. A legacy that lead to the actual Jade audio series, with devices such as the JH3, or the FiiO KA3, a direct successor, boosted with an ESS Sabre chip.
And if this small DAC was already a kick in the nest, here comes the FiiO KA1, a simpler, cheaper version, that’s still coming with a Sabre DAC. The new chi-fi king? Let’s see.
A quick word about Jade audio
FiiO sent us some references about Jade audio, here is a copy:
“Jade Audio” is a subsidiary brand of FiiO Electronics Technology Co., LTD. It is a stylish, technological, and youth-oriented brand aiming to provide high-quality yet cost-effective audio products with an excellent listening experience for the younger generation all around the world. The entity’s Chinese name is derived from “翡声” (Fei Sheng), meaning “the sound of Jade”. The name “Jade Audio” conveys our mission towards providing consumers with a crisp and pleasant listening experience while maintaining audio fidelity
Design & Build Quality
Even smaller than the KA3, the FiiO KA1 is the epitome of a portable DAC. End to end, the KA1 is just 40 mm long, 15 mm wide, and 8mm thick. To those measurements, you can add the USB-C / 8-Pin Cable, which is now soldered to the case, whereas the KA3 enjoyed a detachable one, allowing you to switch between Lightning/USB-C. Thanks to that, the DAC can easily be carried in a jean’s pocket, a jacket, or simply stick to your phone if you’re ok with QI-wireless charging.
Entirely made of aluminum, the FiiO KA1 looks and feel much sturdier than many of its competitor. From afar, you could easily mistake the DAC for a rugged USB-Key, or an SD-Card adapter. Also, like most USB-DAC, it is made of two parts: the body itself, working as a protective case and a thermal radiator, covered on each side by silver-toned plates.
Like every product recently released by the brand, the FiiO KA1 is absolutely flawless in this regard. Black anodized aluminum, silver-plated front and backplate, screw-less design and an exquisite braided cable, ending with a USB-C/Lightning termination. Everything looks and feels nice to grasp, reminding me of the iBasso DC05, another great pocket DAC.
It feels almost as premium as Maktar’s X2 Lightning Dongle, which remains my top choice for whoever wants a flawless device, with its matte-black tubular frame, but the KA1 is approximately five times cheaper, and doesn’t look five times worse…
But, most of all, this is one of the sturdiest devices I reviewed recently. I’ve never stepped on this one like I did with the KA3, but build quality being exactly identical, I’m sure the FiiO KA1 can overcome any hardship.
All in all, it’s a very solid piece of work, and it really gives a good impression.
Comfort and Specifications
Once again, the FiiO KA1 is extremely simple to use.
You plug it into your phone, insert your headphone jack, and you’re good to go. There were nos issues with my iPhone 13 Pro Max + TC28i + KA1, or with my MacBook: each time, the FiiO KA1 was immediately recognized by the source, and music came out almost instantly. On Windows, I had to wait a minute, until the OS got the right driver but after that, it worked flawlessly.
Two versions co-exist :
- the USB-C one, that allows you to connect the KA1 to your computer, tablet, or smartphone
- the Lightning one, for iPhone users or iPad users who still own an 8-pin version
Unlike NuPrime’s Hi-mDAC – but like every other USB-DAC – there are no volume controls on the KA1: everything has to be done from your source directly. Last but not least, you can spot a LED ring on the upper side, indicating the current sampling rates:
- blue for files up to 48kHz
- yellow for files above 48kHz
- green for DSD files
- and finally magenta for MQA rendering
Let’s take a quick look at the specs now.
Like the ddHiFi TC35 Pro, at the heart of the FiiO KA1, you’ll find a next-generation ESS Sabre ES9281AC Pro.
A SOC, more than a DAC, advertised as a high-performance 32-bit, 2-channel audio D/A converter, paired with a headphone amplifier and a USB audio interface. Add to that ESS acclaimed HyperStream II Quad DAC architecture, Time Domain Jitter Eliminator, and, on paper at least, this chip should suit even the most demanding audiophile.
And, fitted in the KA1 you get:
- up to 32bits / 384kHz PCM decoding + DSD256 support
- Hardware MQA renderer
- 114dB SNR + 45mW @ 32ohms
- ultra-low power consumption (1.5mW in standby mode), 60mA during playback
- HyperStream II DAC architecture
- 64-bit accumulator and 32-bit processor
So nothing new under the sun, the only big upgrade between the classic and pro version remains the MQA support, something that’s missing on the FiiO KA3 – even if the latter remains better in every other way.
For the nerds out there, here are the full specs.
- Type: USB DAC
- Model: FiiO KA1
- Chipset: Sabre ES9281AC PRO
- Frequency range: 20 – 20 000Hz
- Compatibility: PCM up to 32bit/384kHz – DSD up to DSD256
- SNR: 114dB
- THD: < 0.0005%
- Output power: 45mW @ 32 ohms
- Size: 40 mm x 15 mm x 8 mm
- Weight: 10g
- Socket: USB-C or Lightning (8-pins)
- Price: €/$49
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