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Rs. 14,599 (Launch price)

Fiio

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A Little Thing with a Big Heart
Sep 12, 2014 03:45 PM 12458 Views
(Updated Mar 31, 2015 12:44 PM)

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I am not much of a'cans' person(headphones) other than during travel, I used my dumb mobile phone, a Samsung Champ II(C-3330) loaded with a 16 GB mircoSDHC card and a fold-able Sennheiser PX100-II, and the pair did the job quite well with CD ripsof mp3 files at 320 kbps at 44.1 KHz sampling rates. In fact, during initial use, the quality of the sound that the Champ/Sennheiser combo produce did take me by surprise even though I never liked the idea of music coming from top of my head as opposed to from a pair of facing speakers("the headphone heaven-syndrome", I call it).


Over time, I guess I got used to the sound because it was fatigue-free, easy to live with. In fact, it went to an extent that I started using this duo for my regular late night music listening sessions. During the course of time, I did some A/B comparisons with other mobile phones(smart) as well as a few portable audio units made by Apple, Cowon, Sony, etc., still the Champ II managed to come out on top. Champ II seemed to sound better than a much higher priced Galaxy series smart phone, at times. On another occasion, an A/B test with my nephew's iPOD Classic(Apple's flagship - 3rd Gen.), this time using the same music tracks and the same headphones, the iPOD owner acknowledged that the Champ was marginally better than the iPOD Classic in dealing with mp3 tracks. At times, I wonder if the Champ II was a freak where Samsung just happen to get the electronics of the music replay part right by sheer accident!


OK, let me get back to the subject in question. Soon enough, the 16 GB microSDHC card maxed out and ran out of space. The hunt was on for something with a higher memory capacity, either in a mobile phone(which I didn't really need) or a standalone music playback device. After much research on the web(I am no gizmo geek, I assure you) mobile phones were ruled out, and because either(1) too many unwanted functions took priority or(2) they were short on the memory department, or(3) were well over my budget, or(4) a combination any of the above. My final short-list for a music player, based on professional and user reviews on sound quality alone, looked something like this:




  1. Astell & Kern AK120(S.Korea - ex iRiver) 64GB+ 128GB microSD - Street price US$ 1, 229/-




  2. Astell & Kren AK100 Mk II(S.Korea - ex iRiver) 64GB+ 128GB microSD - Street price US$ 899/-




  3. HiFiMAN HM-801(US/China) 16GB+ 32GB SD card - Street price US$ 790/-




  4. Hi-FiMAN HE-602(US/China) 16GB+ 32GB microSD - Street price US$ 439/-




  5. FiiO X5(China) 256GB dual microSD - Street price US$ 350/-




  6. Cowon(several models, some MP4 - S.Korea) S9, J3, D2, X7 - Street prices between$150 to$300




  7. FiiO X3(from China) 8GB+ 128GB microSD - Street price US$ 170/-






Any one of these music players, I was told, are capable of playing several formats of music tracks and perfectly good enough to replace a decent high-end CD player in an audio system. I say that because some of these unit are capable of handling 24bit/96KHz and/or 24bit/192KHz which are of much higher resolution than the 16bit/44.1KHz Red Book commercial audio CD. The higher priced units usually came configured with dual DAC and OpAmp circuitry, and the lesser ones with single DAC/OpAmp(either Burr-Brown, Philips or Wolfson). Many swear by Wolfson DAC, however, unless the circuitry design is optimal and well integrated it is not going to make much difference which DAC or OpAmp. Right? In terms of cost, to most it may seem exorbitant for their intended single purpose use - play music. To this you may add the cost of SD memory cards, which, in most cases, do not come shipped with the unit. And then, there is an even more unrealistic hidden cost that most realize only too late - the price of 24bit/192KHz music tracks for those who want to take dive into that'audiophile' well. Downloads at 192/24 resolution costs on a average between$25 to$30 per album(Nora Jones "Come Away With Me" 45.04 minutes$25 from HDTracks). Downloads from Linn Records, Naim and others'specialist' sources can sometime cost even more. This is clearly something thing that needs to be factored in before one wishes to try the 24/196 route(more on hi-res downloads later). Coming to the subject of portability, those with jogging/workout with music on their mind can forget this unit and move on - majority of these fall around the size of a smart phone, but are much heavier and meatier and are probably not as rugged one would wish for(read delicate?). Indeed, they are portable enough to be pocketed, but any of these units are most likely to drag your trouser belt-line down.


On this list of 7 items, items #6, #7 and #8 were short listed, and the rest crossed out due to budget constraints. Among the three brands selected, Cowon models remained undecided because some of them were mp4(movie) players which was not what I had in mind. In addition, I came across some users' reviews that seemed to be contradicting given the same model. The FiiO X3 went to the bottom of the list, again because there were a few reports about how the user interface was ho-so unfriendly and some also experienced some kind of starting problem(say, for example, formatting the microSD card to FAT32 to being with). That left me with the FiiO X5, which automatically took the pole position. Mind you, all this, without ever having seen or auditioned any of these units first hand - a'la Las Vegas mindset, but with some betting tips from the experts and users alike.


This exercise of mine lasted for more than six months, and of those, two months went towards waiting of stocks of X5 at an Indian dealer in Mumbai(Pro Audio Home). To this day, I do not have a response from them. And that delay, in all probably paid dividends. The FiiO people somewhere in China, during my wait-listed time for the X5, had managed to put out a new firmware for the X3(V3.0) which seemed to have overcome most of its inherent problems with previous firmware. People who were once cursing it, were now all praise for it. However, as for the sound quality of the X3 is concerned, once they got it going, users seemed to be unanimous - great sound quality. Again, no stocks of X3 with the Mumbai dealer. So, I started looking elsewhere.


Treoo at Singapore seemed to be the best bet. Folks at Treoo were knowledgeable, friendly and responsive. They answered all my questions promptly and confirmed a fact the firmware upgrade(to V3.0) did make the X3 sound better and a bit more user friendly. They even went on to recommend ideal headphone pairing for the unit. And for the best part, the X3 cost me a little lesser(around Rs. 13K including shipping, as opposed to the Indian price of Rs. 17K plus courier from Mumbai).


The unit arrived in good shape(along with some accessories I had ordered, like a QED 3.5mm interconnect cable, V-Mota earpads for Sennheiser PX100-II). Prior to the arrival of the unit, I had also had some serious email correspondence with FiiO directly to clear up some doubts in my mind, mostly on the subject of formatting a 64GB Sandisk microSDHC memory card and other user reported issues. This because, my PC running on Windows 7 Pro 64bit does not support formatting FAT32(NTFS and exFAT are available, but does not help the cause here). The reason for this is because up until now, FAT32 formatting was limited to cards of 32GB capacity or lower. If you load a 64GB or 128(which is max for X3) one will only be able to format only 32GB portion of the card, leaving the rest blank and unreadable. I got some really clear-cut instructions from FiiO(and in perfectly understandable English) on how to format the SD card(1) loaded inside the X3 unit, as well as(2) using an external USB card reader plugged into my PC. They also provided me with an outside agency formatting source(Holland) from where I could format memory cards and hard-disc drive to FAT32 where there were no capacity limits. Though I had to try it out a few times, I eventually formatted my 64GB Sandisk loaded in the X3 unit. Now it was music ready.


I loaded CD1 of "Jazz At The Pawn Shop"(First Impression Music issue) that was in mp3 format(320kbps/44.1KHz) on my PC hard-drive. One good thing about the X3 unit, it is a plug-n-play unit, and as such, does not require any driver or related software to be downloaded to your PC hard-drive. Just plug it into the USB port and it will appear as a removable drive on Windows menu(2 drives in fact, one for X3 internal memory and the second for the microSD card or TF card). You just drag and drop, or copy and paste music files - quite simple.


Listening to the Jazz At The Pawn Shop tracks using Sennheiser PX100-II. I could instantly make out that the mp3 tracks sounded cleaner, a lot more dynamic, more open with lot of space between instruments, jet-black silence. In fact, I could hear those tiny bits-and-pieces that I did not previously hear with the Champ II phone - like people moving around this live recording session. My instant thoughts were, if mp3 tracks sounds this good, what's is to come out of those mastering standard 24/192KHz and 24/96KHz tracks? I am aware of the fact that the PX100-II is bit bass-boosted(say, in comparison to my older Sennheiser HD-320 headphones). After a few more downloads of mp3 tracks, I realized that the X3 could do with a better pair of headphones. So, soon enough, a locally purchased brand new Sennheiser HD-558 arrived(a setback of around Rs.13K and again, an item based entirely on pro and user reviews). The HD-598(Rs.18K) might have been a better choice, but I didn't like the beige/maroon colour scheme of the unit. Given the time to burn-in, the HD-558 seemed to be a perfect partner for the X3 unit. I was able to listen to mp3 and FLAC tracks for hours on end without any kind of fatigue setting in. Thus the auditioning of X3's capacities began in earnest.


I downloaded the following tracks from HDTracks:




  • Bill Evans "Waltz for Debbie - Take 1" - OJC Records$2.98(I have the original LP and a CD version) - 192/24 AIFF




  • Sara K "Brick House" from Album "Hobo" - Chesky Records$2.49(I have the Chesky CD) - 96/24 AIFF




  • Vienna Phily - Beethoven Symphony 5 in C minor Op.67 "Allegro" - Deutsche Gramaphone(I have the CD) - 88/24 AIFF.






Then I downloaded the same above tracks ripped at mp3(at 320/44.1KHz) and FLAC(96/24) from my CDs.


After three days of trials and travails, frankly, I really don't know what all this big fuss is being made about 24bit/192KHz resolution recordings? I made out very little in terms of sonic gains over FLAC or even mp3 at 320/44.1. Don't get me wrong, 24/192 tracks do sound brilliant, but not by leaps and bounds over high-res FLAC or mp3. Suddenly, to me at least, the 24/192 sounded more like a rip-off. Or on second thoughts, you need a better pair of headphones, say in the region of$500+ to actually'hear' the benefits of 24/192 audio tracks. If you ask me, I think FLAC(which is a compressed, but lossless format) is the best way to go, though it takes up around twice as much space on the memory card as mp3/320/44, it is still a big saving over other uncompressed lossless formats in terms of memory space. Another accidental discovery I made, using the same source material from CD ripped at 320/44.1 resolution, mp3 tracks ripped using LAME encoder(on Nero 8) sounds marginally cleaner than those ripped using FhG(Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft) encoder(on Nero 10). The optical drive on the PC is a constant.


I have not really gone much into the physical dimensions or design aspects of the X3(plenty is available on FiiO website and on the internet). All I can say is, it has solid built quality about it, enclosed in a black anodized brushed  aluminium-alloy body, handy to hold and operate. One thing good is that FiiO supply a dandy silicon cover, otherwise it can be quite slippery, and then it takes on fingerprints quite easily.


Another great advantage is that the X3 can be used as a standalone DAC with analogue music sources or a PC. With short duration test between my PC its 2.1 Altecs, I found that it does sound better than WinAmp/Intel sound-card. The X3 delivers what it was primarily designed to do - play music at the highest possible levels.


Pros




  • top notch sound quality, no matter what the format is(APE, FLAC, ALAC, WMA, WAV, DSD, HE-ACC and mp3/mp2).




  • with mp3 tracks, the linear 16 bit decoding capacity probably makes mp3 playback better than most smart phones and mp3 players.




  • excellent range in 120 steps of volume control allows for total control over volume levels(60 being preset)




  • a non-digital treble and bass control allows for more flexibility for the listener.




  • 10 hours playback using 3000mAh lithium-polymer battery(I have not tested this yet).




  • two spare screen scratch guards, even though it is not a touch screen.




  • 8GB internal and 128GB microSD(or usable 132GB approx. in all) provides ample space for all formats of music.




  • supplied silicon cover provides protection and a decent grip on the otherwise slippery brushed aluminium body surface.




  • mini USB port, three 3.5mm jack ports(headphone, line-out, and coaxial DAC out) provides flexibilty with most any audio system.




  • any smartphone mini USB mains charger(12V) will recharge the unit.




  • prompt and understandable responses from FiiO shows that they care. In today's world that surely has to go down as a Pro.






Cons




  • navigation around the unit functions will take a bit of getting used to.




  • navigation buttons are oddly placed and a little tacky, less than that solid feel one should expect from such a unit.




  • the supplied user manual is pretty close to useless, both, in size and print quality as well as instructions therein. It's written more like a trouble-shoot guide.




  • not for those who are joggers or on gym work-outers.




  • formatting SD cards higher than 32GB capacity to FAT32 tests ones patience(several tries before




  • non user replaceable 3000mAh battery pack(10 hours). Anyone with screwdriver skill should be able to get this done, I reckon.




  • no AC mains battery charging unit provided.




  • should anything go wrong with the unit, immediate service may not be available in India.






Note:(A newer PDF version of user manual that comes with firmware upgrade(V3.0) is much clearer and better).


What's in the Box:




  • FiiO X3 unit




  • Short 3.5mm jack to twin RCA jack cable.




  • 1 meter long USB cable




  • 2 spare screen scratch covers(one comes fitted from the factory).




  • 1 light grey silicon jacket for the unit.




  • 1 useless user manual.






Final Words: The FiiO X3 is for those who take their music listening seriously. Given the right pair of headphones it sounds more organic(or should I say, almost valve-like) and less digital than anything I have ever handled before or since. It will be right at home partnering most high-end audio systems as a source material playback unit(Krell and Audio-Research in my case).


At the time of this review, it is only a little over a month or so since I have had the X3(and in everyday use). Updates are likely to follow.


Update: 31st March 2015


It has been 6 months now, and the FiiO X3(in partner with Senheiser HD 558 headphones) has shown no signs of wear or defects - and I use it for at least two hours every single day. Recently I have updated the firmware to V3.3 which gives additional flexibility in sorting music files and it also includes a 5-band graphic equalizer(+6 to -6 dB). The preset EQs are pretty pathetic, however user EQ saves the situation. On the sound front, the volume level seems a bit receded. I now use 68(out of zero to 120 steps) as default volume level as opposed to the original 60. Despite the slight volume drop, there seems to be more'presence' and'space' with instrumental music like jazz.


There is a completely revamped X3 version 2 due to come out in April 2015. It resembles and follows the trend set by big brother the X5(iPod clone?). The Wolfson DAC and OP-Amps are gone, and replaced by Cirrus Logic DAC and Texas Instruments OP-Amps. The size is slightly bigger than the original and the pricing is expected to be marginally lower than the previous(my) version. We will have to wait and see what it sounds like.


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