Pros: Sound quality, really small, excellent build quality, stable software, price, performance
Cons: Impossible to read display in sunlight,
Fiio 3X Second Generation Review
Lots of other reviewers have talked about the technical aspects of the Fiio X3 Second Generation so I am going to limit my review to what I heard and felt. This is a subjective review.
In Toastmasters, where I’ve been a member for over 20 years, we have a saying about doing evaluations. It goes like this: Evaluate the speech you heard and not the one you would have liked to have heard.
So I’m applying the same principle to my review of the Fiio X3 Second Generation (3X) which I want to thank Joe Bloggs, a Fiio online customer representative, for inviting me to the 3X tour of Canada.
I am a retired professional photographer, community newspaper and national magazine editor (mainly trades to do with the cabling and electrical business in Canada) and I’m an active Amateur Radio operator so I’ve had headphones on my ears most of my life.
Recently I got into audio in a big way after going to my local headphone shop here in Toronto to buy a $75 Fiio E-10 K DAC and came back with a Fostex HP-A8C DAC and a set of Audeze LCD-X headphones. Talk about up selling. I went back a week later and got the Fiio DAC anyway.
I’ve Got A Lot of Fiios
I started a few years ago with a Fiio E11 which I plugged into my IPad so I could get better audio when watching NetFlicks. Cheap and cheerful the E11 really added a whole new dimension to my video viewing enjoyment.
Then I got a Fiio E09K amplifier and accompanying Fiio E17 Aspen DAC/Headphone amplifier for my upstairs music room so I had some idea of what to expect from Fiio when it came to the X3.
So thanks to the last guy on the tour who charged the battery I was immediately ready to start my review.
Within two minutes the X3 had passed the “no manual” test and I was hearing music after inserting my micro SD card from my Astell and Kern AK-100 II. (More about this later.)
What I Saw
First the X3 is much smaller than I expected at 9.5 cm long, 5.5 cm across and 1.5 cm wide. (My AK-100 II is 11 X 5.5 X 1.5) and the X3 weighs 135 gms (compared to 170 gms for the A&K).
The Fiio case is made of lightweight aluminum with rounded corners and all the controls pretty much flush with the case. The X3 uses a main rubberized wheel with four push buttons on the front surface to do the navigation. Now some people like wheels and some don’t and it comes down to personal taste. I found the wheel just fine and I liked the navigation method and the menu system which comes up on the LCD screen. It’s a good system in my opinion.
One of the things I really like about the X3 menu system is it goes asleep really quickly and if you need to reawaken it for any reason it’s back with a single tap of the top button of three on the side of the unit. The other two buttons are volume up and down.
However, when in sleep mode, the volume up and down buttons turn into next song or last song buttons with the middle button moving you forward into your playlist and the bottom button moving you back. Very cool and well-thought out feature.
The X3 does have a tiny LED indicator light on the front panel that runs blue if all is well and turns red under charge and green when the battery is full charged up. Very cool again.
A full charge is supposed to take three hours and give around 11 hours of playing time. I didn’t check this out but it would seem about right.
My first pleasant surprise after pushing the on button was the super fast loading time for the software. The X3 is ready to go in just over five seconds. (The A&K takes 30 long, long seconds!) Love it. This is the way all software should load - fast.
Now I haven’t yet progressed to the point I’ve got a ton of music files in a variety of lossless and lossy file formats (let alone understand it all) but the X3 literature says it supports DSD, DSD64, DSD128 (.iso & .dst and .dff); APE; FLAC; WAV; WMA Lossless; Apple Lossless; MP2; MP3; AAC; ALAC; WMA and OGG. I’ll take Fiio at its word on this. Other reviewers cover this technical stuff way better than I can.
What I Heard
So I’ve got my mico-SD card out of my A&K and into the X3 and I turned the unit on and there were all 1500 tunes. Very cool. Never had the X3 not read the card first time and I can't say that about the A&K!
Now I had the chance to run the same songs on the X3 from the internal memory card and from the AK-100 II from its streaming function from my ITunes library at the same 44.1kHz/16bit. I could also switch headphones back and forth to compare what was happening.
So we’re at the place where I’ve fallen into the trap of evaluating the speech I would have liked to have heard as opposed to the speech I did hear. And for Fiio, it’s not necessary bad news.
Here’s an analogy: I own a 2003 Toyota Celica with 137,000 kms on it. I love this car. It’s a fun car to drive. For me (at 66) it never gets old and I hope to keep it on the road for another couple of years at least.
And then there’s the guy in my small town who drives a Ferrari. It’s a red Ferrari. I can recognize it by the sound it makes from several blocks away. I would love to own a Ferrari but not only can I not afford a Ferrari, I couldn’t afford the insurance for a Ferrari. And thus I don’t own a Ferrari whether it’s red or any other colour.
Same principle applies here so after a day of switching headphones and DAPs back and forth I decided today to run the X3 all on its own and let it speak for itself.
Remember I’m retired so in the last two days I’ve got around 10+ solid hours of listen in so far and six of them were with the X3 into mainly Shure 535s. The X3 plays differently with different headphones. My elderly Sennheiser 439s (modded) and much maligned 590s sound muddy and boring as do a set of $60 Skull Candy in-ears.
The Momentums (on-ears and on sale here in Canada for $139) sound great as do my super cheap $36 T-Peos D-202Ns and Grado 60s.
After six hours of continuous music ranging from Bob Marley to Lucinda Williams to The Doors to Ani DiFranco to Beth Orton to Lyle Lovett to the Buena Vista Social Club with a smattering of opera singer Cecilia Bartoli I can say the X3 is a wonderful sounding DAP especially when you consider the estimate selling price of $199.
Now are they a contender compared to the Astell and Kern AK-100 II. Ah...no. The AK-100 II with the Shure 535s (often with a Cypher Labs Picollo amp in the mix) provide the best portable music experience I’ve ever had ...period. It’s wonderful and when I compare the X3 to the experience, the X3 comes in second. The A&K has a lot of other features as well including onboard memory and the ability to accept wireless streaming files from the MacBook Pro plus Tidal (someday soon I hope) but those are only features and for $900 you should get something added.
This is sort of like my Celica vs the Ferrari story.
So today I thought I’d give the X3 a chance to stand on its own and I plugged in the Shure 535s and put my music playlist on random and let it run and run. My ears never tired of the experience which is not something I can say about six hours with the Audezes and the Fostex DAC which can be intense.
I did run into one issue which since I can’t determine the cause and it went away doesn’t concern me. When I first tried the X3 with the Shure 535s I could hear a slightly click - click sound for the first few seconds after plugging in the very sensitive in-ear 535s and turning on the X3. This click sound happened a couple of times and then disappear for good. The Shure 535s have never clicked before or after and I’m don’t know what happened here but it did go away and wasn’t present with any of the other many headphones I tried on the X3.
So I went back to swapping out headphones and the experience was the same for the Momentums, the Grados and even the super-cheap T-Peos. Now I’m not a fan of equalization but the X3 has a lovely 10-band equalizer with 10 presets which might be very popular with some folks who own one set of headphones. Nice touch.
The headphones I used for this review are the typical types of headphones that people are going to use with the X3 and Fiio is going to sell a couple of big boatloads of X3s to people who want a better listening experience with a much larger variety of file formats and memory than smartphones can manage.
Now for those who are adventuresome, the X3 can also be used as a DAC.
I compared it to my Fiio E-10 K which is my go-to DAC in my office attached to my MacBook Pro where I stream TIDAL and either listen it to through my office headphones or stream it to my living room (Apple Airplay into Fostex HPA8C and Audezes) or to my tiny music room (Airplay into Fiio E09K and Fiio E-17 Aspen and various headphones) and the X3 was terrific.
What I Felt
So would I buy one for myself? Yup especially if I didn’t have the A&K unit. Would I recommend it to a friend? Absolutely and I recommend it here to you.
In the world of high-end audio $200 is a rounding error when it comes to what we can spend to setup our systems. So this could be the best $200 you spend to listen to your music. Add on snappy headphones like the Grado 60s or the T-Peos or Momentums and you’re going to be very very happy.
Just don’t go out and test drive a Ferrari. You’ve been warned!
I got up this morning to the revelation that not once during a whole day of listening to the X3 did I even consider adding an external amplifier. I almost always use my A&K with a Cypher Labs Picollo external amp. This combo is spooky good into the Shures.
For the most part the A&K sounds great without it but add the Picollo and my foot is tapping away keeping the beat and it doesn’t much matter which set of headphones I’m using I get the same effect. However it is more noticeable when I’m using the Sennheisers than any of the other headphones as they need more drive and sound flat without the Picollo.
Adding the Picollo is easy by plugging in a jumper from the amp to the X3’s Line/Coax Out plug and the 535s are rocking. I pause the music and there’s absolute silence out of Picollo even with the volume at maximum.
So that works and the X3 automatically goes into a Line Out mode (if that's what is selected in menu) with the Picollo plugged in so let’s try again without the Picollo. I’m listening to Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space and my foot is tapping again. This is very good audio. Amazing with or without the amp.
Okay enough with this third party amplifier. Let’s see what the X3 makes of a Fiio E11 with the 535s.
First there’s an expectable, minimal amplifier hiss that the 535s can hear near the noise floor from the E-11 but the music keeps on keeping on. I am really enjoying the X3 so let’s swap out the 535s for the Sennheiser Momentums and it’s time for a little more Bob Marley. The Momentums are dead quiet. They don’t hear any hiss so let’s hit play and…
Oh yah mon this is heaven: Is This Love That I’m Feeling? Yes Bob it is - it is.
Let’s take the E11 out and I can tell the bass notes are diminished a little. If I wasn’t swapping back and forth I wouldn’t notice the difference but the E11 especially with the three-position EQ button makes the X3 just rock when it comes to Bob Marley. I tried different settings with the X3 built-in equalizer but there was nothing in the presets that sounded better than no equalization. I could have done a custom setting but the X3 didn’t need it so why bother?
A quick swapping of the E-11 back to the Picollo and surprise, surprise I preferred the pairing of the Fiio X3 and the Fiio E-11. I’m not sure why but the E-11 EQ just seems a little more gritty (another technical term) compared to the very smooth sounds of the Picollo and I like gritty.
Goodness I hope there’s some audio engineer out there wisely nodding his head in agreement and I’m not just sitting here going slowly senile listening to Bob tell me it’s all going to be alright.
This is an outstanding experience with or without an external amp. The X3 is also very very tolerant of getting plugs pulled and pushed without any hysterics that require rebooting. This would appear to be one stable operating system.
Somebody should get a raise for this!
I was thinking of wrapping up this audition and going back to my regular setup but this is so much fun I’m running the X3 into the Momentums for at least another day. And really if you just add a little volume to drive the Momentums there’s no need for an external amp. Sure an external amp will change the sound but not so much as you’d notice after 30 seconds of listening. Some difficult to drive headphones might appreciate the amplification but there’s nothing I own (aside from the Sennheisers) that needs it when it comes to the X3.
But all is not good. Huston we’ve had a problem here. I took the X3 outside in the bright sunlight and the screen becomes unreadable. It’s so unreadable in sunlight that even holding a cap over the X3 to shade it doesn’t help. It’s the type of LCD display that’s the issue as my IPhone, IPad and Kindle are readable in bright sunlight.
Don’t think you’d want to try searching for a tune while you’re at the beach with this display. The Astell and Kern AK-100 II is somewhat better but still pretty hard to read in full sunlight but is readable with some shade from a baseball cap. The X3 is not.
So my previous experience swapping out the X3 with the AK-100 II reaffirmed my original decision to go buy an insanely expensive DAP (as opposed to the AK-240 which is a very insanely expensive DAP) as the AK does so much more and does sound better (remember the foot tapping test).
Having said that I do realize there is a $700 difference in price so I thought of of another way of straightening out the playing field. I took the entire day listening to the X3 for an hour or so and then switching over to the AK-100 II for another hour or so.
I swapped out headphones starting with the Sennheiser Momentums on-ears and then to the Shure 535s and then to the T-Peo D-202Ns.
Strangely enough, just for casual listening and walking around the house and the neighbourhood I preferred the X3!
Here’s why: First the published dimensions don’t give you an adequate sense of just how much smaller the X3 is to the AK-100. I can carry the X3 in a shirt or pants pocket without any issue. There are no sharp edges to catch on clothing and unlike the AK-100 no wheels or other controls protruding from the case.
The X3 is also a lot lighter. You can forget you’re carrying it around.
Sound-wise each unit sounded superb…about 10 minutes into each listening session. In other words, if you don’t have a Ferrari in the driveway, the Celica seems pretty good.
It’s the same with the audio from the X3 compared to the AK-100. Give your ears a few minutes to adjust and compensate for the slightly different sound reproduction, then the music itself sounds very good on either machine.
For this test I put my 1500 song playlist on random run and there wasn’t anything from folk to rock and roll with an occasional opera soprano thrown in that didn’t sound very good on either unit.
So if you’re in the market for a really decent sounding DAP and you’re not willing to spend your entire old-age pension cheque then the X3 will thrill you and at my age I don’t get thrilled nearly enough anymore.
Thanks X3 and Fiio.