All the features in the world won’t mean a thing if the player doesn’t come with a worthy sound quality and so that’s the question we all are asking. Fortunately Fiio has got that aspect covered as well, based on their experience producing successful USB DACs like the E07K, E10, and E17. The sound signature of the X3 follows the footsteps of the E10 and E07K USB DACs with its laid back, clean and spacious sound, black background and with a good depth. It sounds closest to the E07K and is a sound signature that I enjoy very much.
Though not quite the resolution of the AK100 or the Hifiman HM60X series (or any of the i-Devices DACs), the sound signature of the Fiio is extremely easy to enjoy. Portraying a clean playback of the music with good instrument separation and certainly cleaner and more technically proficient than Apple’s line up of players/phones or some of the Android phones I’ve tried (Nexus 4, Samsung S4, HTC One, among others). It’s clean, unoffensive and has a nice black background to it. Good soundstage width and depth, I really have nothing to complain about. Treble though relatively laid back still manages a lively sound, the midrange extremely clear and the bass punchy and well controlled. The sound is moderately laid back but the pace is quite speedy and with a good PRaT factor. It’s a well tuned, musical sound with a wide genre bandwidth and I suspect it’s going to sell very well at the price that it’s being sold at. A number of local enthusiasts have tried my X3 sample using numerous different IEMs and I have yet to hear one negative comment. The common adjectives from the impressions seemed to be “relaxed” and “clean”.
Personally, being used with far more expensive portable sources in the market (Altmann Tera, Astell & Kern, Fostex, CypherLabs, Hifiman, VentureCraft, etc). I highly enjoy the sound and the tonality of the X3 to my ears is second only to the Altmann, but there is no denying that aside from the inferior resolution to the higher priced players, the X3 does have quite a limitation in its scalability. Dynamic range and micro detailing are all fairly limited and I don’t see the X3 being the source of any high end portable rigs. The DAC resolution lacks the scalability to follow the quality of the recordings and though the X3 more than suffices when you are listening to mostly mainstream recordings (the X3 does mainstream very well), high quality recordings sounds rather constricted through the X3’s out, even from a highly resolving IEM like the Sennheiser IE800 — I simply can’t get all the dynamics out. But again, there are more people listening to mainstream recordings than jazz or classical pieces, so I would imagine that this is not going to be a very big deal especially when *again* we are looking at the price of the X3. However, if you are one of the few who happens to have a big collection of high quality recordings, this part should come as a warning to you.
Unlike Mike I never had the pleasure of having so many top level DAPs around and as I just told you the iPod/CLAS/C5 was my only portable rig till now. Not that that’s a bad thing because the CLAS is a really great sounding device and based on my experience with this unit I can only confirm what Mike has written above. While the X3 is a great sounding unit with the typical Fiio sound signature it doesn’t quite get to the level of the Cypherlabs iDevice when it comes to rendering the music. Then again the X3 only costs a fraction of the CLAS and the sound you get from the X3 for that price is exceptionally good. In the conditions I use my portable device (in the train with a lot of people talking etc) the CLAS’s performance somehow goes to waste as you can’t fully enjoy it and this is were the X3 comes in the picture. You get a clear sounding player with a nice dark background, laid back sound and excellent punchy bass that you can even adjust. The mids are clean and detailed while the treble isn’t too hot and overall the sound stage width and depth are pretty good. Sound stage isn’t the widest I have heard but it’s completely in line with the price tag, especially given all the other features you get. I would loved to have seen a mid “equalizer” as well though, but that’s just me.
So while you won’t get the high quality sound of the top level players, the X3’s sound still is very good and enjoyable. It does all genres in a more than acceptable way with a good pace, and that’s an understatement really. Personally, when commuting, I couldn’t ask for anything better than the X3: it has the memory and power to drive all of my portable headphones and with a sound signature I love. And it gets even better: it does not only drive on-the-go headphones, it also handles higher end headphones when you want to use it at home. What’s not to like?
Talking about IEMs, Fiio really has taken the time to make sure the player passes the typical review tests with flying colours. And I’m not trying to make an all positive review either, but the X3 has zero hiss with the IEMs I’ve tested (IE800, Ocharaku, Westone W4R) at maximum volume level (60) on low gain, while on high gain at the same setting, there is tiny tiny bit of hiss (the hiss is so low I have to unplug the IEM out to make sure if the hiss is really there) at maximum gain.
At the other end of the spectrum, big headphones also work relatively well with the X3. I used the Audez’e LCD-2 and Hifiman HE-6 to test this. The LCD-2 works fine at low gain, about 30-40 at the volume mark, while the HE-6 gets a moderate volume level at high gain maximum volume. I don’t really suggest driving either of these monsters out of the X3 as the dynamics isn’t there, but just so we get a good idea of how loud the onboard headphone amp can get.
I haven’t really decided what is the best pairing for the X3 (at least to me) but it doesn’t seem to be very picky in terms of pairings and I enjoy the X3 out of the different IEMs and headphones I’ve tried it with.
The only iem I have tried the X3 with are my custom made hybrid iems from the Swedish Cosmic Ears and while I am used to listening to them with the C5, I actually prefer listening to them straight out of the X3. The reason for that is the bass: with the CLAS/C5 combo you just get the BassBoost switch on/off option which makes it either have too much or too little bass. With the X3 I can tune it to my own preference and on top of that the volume control is way more precise. No hiss and all good results here.
Next to the iems I have been using the X3 with the Beyerdynamic COP and T90, Hifiman’s HE-500 and Audez’e’s LCD-2. While the X3 managed to drive the LCD-2 just fine at low and high gain, I wasn’t too excited about the produced sound but you can blame that on me being used to the Violectric V200. Same goes for the HE-500: it’s less difficult to drive than Mike’s HE-6 and volume wise the result was fine. It’s been a while since I listened to the Ibasso DX100 with the Hifiman, but from memory the X3 does just as good. I expected it to be an awesome match between the COP and the X3 but it wasn’t as magical as I had hoped for. The T90 on the other hand is the best match of the “desktop” headphones so far. The combination of the X3 and T90’s characters, in combination with the adjustable bass and treble makes it a really good sounding combination. They’re the reason for my actual sleep deficit and I haven’t even tried all the other headphones yet…
In the realms of hi-fi players, the closest competitor to the X3 that I see at the moment is the Hifiman HM-60X and the Astell & Kern AK100 players, all of which are priced higher than the X3 (the AK100 is triple the price at $650). The X3 should be a direct threath to the Hifiman 60X players, especially as the $199 price list is less than the $249 price of the entry level Hifiman 601 (the $50 difference is a very sensitive factor in this segment). I still consider the Hifiman to possess the higher resolution DAC, but I don’t think that’s going to be strong enough ammo to combat the X3’s tonality that’s so much more easier to appreciate with a wider range of recordings (in addition to the $199 price).
Compared to the AK100 which is selling like hotcakes everywhere, the X3 is inferior in resolution, but I really think that the Fiio can give a serious challenge to the sound of the AK100 if you’re just considering the *again* the tonality aspect. The X3 sounds good with any sort of music I’ve tried it with. I can see existing AK100 owners obtaining the X3 as a second player and may even use the X3 as their daily driver.
The real market for the X3 however is going to be the enthusiasts still sticking to their Ipods/Iphones/Smartphones as they can’t justify spending $300 and up for the currently available HiFi DAPs or i-Device DACs. That segment should be huge and at the price that the X3 is being sold, there shouldn’t be any question over “will there be any difference if I upgrade from my Ipod” as so far the impressions I’ve gathered indicate that the improvements are fairly obvious to the average enthusiasts.
The X3 does fall short in terms of design and build quality and though those aspects may not sound like a big deal in an online review, it does play a big factor in real life sales as more and more people put bigger weight in design and build quality (try reading the Samsung Galaxy S4 reviews compared to the HTC One, for instance). This is the only “X” factor left in the sales performance of the X3. Let me know in the comments how you think the X3 is going to perform in the market.