For this review, I chose to pair the Fiio KA3 with the FiiO FD3. Those ears have been my top choice in this price range since their launch now, and they’ve been in my bag for a few months now.
And for the source, I kept my MacBook and iPhone, combined with the ddHiFi TC28i. For the files, I mainly used Apple Music and Spotify, as I ended up using the KA3 almost exclusively on the go, or on the train.
So, did FiiO keep his promise of “tremendous power in a small package”? Actually, yes!
Out of the box, the FiiO KA3 immediately surprised me with its power. On paper, the output level should not be this significant, but once connected to my FiiO FD7, I was amazed by how well it sounded, even with a source as crude as Spotify. This was especially true with dynamic, bass-hitting, tracks like The Age of Love from Charlotte De Witte & Enrico Sangiuliano, where some drums seemed to popup right into my face, nipping at the heels of the FiiO K3.
Head to head against the EarMen Eagle, another DAC equipped with a newer ESS Chip the KA3 also showed some major tonal difference, especially on the high-mids. While the Eagle showed tamed highs and softer mids the FiiO focuses on details, and dynamics, giving a completely different experience.
It’s precise and dynamic, so bad recordings are not welcome, as the experience will turn out for the best. Compared to the FiiO K3, there are small improvements here and there, but some downsize too: better dynamics overall, better bass control, but harsher high-mids, especially with big cans like my Audeze LCD-X. But, obviously, you don’t get the KA3 to drive big planars. Paired with a FiiO FD5 though, the end result is superb and for a small on-the-go combo, it’s utterly impressive.
As promised in the product sheet, the KA3 absolutely dead silent, even with sensitive IEMs like the FiiO FA9. To be sure, I tried various sources to check if EMI shielding was okay too and 99% of the time, I was pleased to hear the same pitch-black background. The only time I heard some parasites, was when my phone had to catch up with the old edge bandwidth, but that only occurred once.
In case you haven’t listened to any of the modern FiiOs, you’d be surprised to find out that the previous mid-focused signature is now gone. The FiiO KA3 is very neutral, with a wide sound stage and very good layering: with the right headphone/earphone you can spot each instrument and each singer with ease and there is no channel imbalance to ruin the experience.
All in all, a surprisingly good DAC, especially in this price range.
Highs: just on the spot, most of the time. The KA3 avoids the classical upper-mid boost, often found on low-tier DAC. If that gives a sensation of precision, it can also lead to some sibilant on sensible headphones. None of that was found on the DAC, fortunately, and electro tracks such as Naive response from Daniel Avery never scorched my ears.
Mids: open and linear. Vocals and acoustic tracks were an easy job for the KA3, even more once paired with a good IEM. The sound stage is wide and voices glided easily into my ears, especially paired with the FiiO FD5, as the two devices seemed to pair really, really, well.
Bass: dry and fast. FiiO has nailed the low end on their last models. The FiiO KA3 never lost composure and always offered a tight, fast bass, especially through its 4.4mm Pentaconn output. There is no shallow echo nor dragging sensation, and a whole new 3D effect, with the right headphones
The FiiO KA3 is a sturdy little DAC, capable of great lengths once paired with a good IEM, or portable headset. Sound quality is surprisingly good, build quality is praise-worthy, and the conception design makes it the perfect companion for your smartphone – even if iPhone users still have to get an adapter like the ddHiFi TC28, or MFi06.
In my opinion, it’s the perfect alternative to NuPrime’s Hi-mDAC, even if the latter keeps the edge in terms of resolution. But, in terms of power, the KA3 outmatches the Hi-mDAC and allowed me to push my headphones even higher. Bonus point for the 4.4mm plug which makes a real difference in the long run. Kudos to the brand.