fiio x3, why?
For the last year I have been listening through a pricey home system, a cowon z2 and an AK100. A few months ago I bought the ALO RxMkiiiB and that has allowed to me drive larger headphones. These days I listen to: cowon z2 > Alo RxMkiiiB > Sennheiser HD600. I have tried feeding the ALO with the Rega Saturn and it sounds superb. Not so much with the AK100. The Alo is very transparent and powerful, tilting towards the analytical. There is some background digital noise on quiet passages due to the double amping when using the cowon, but I'm willing to ignore them as it doesn't detract from the music. As far as AK100 vs Cowon z2, the Cowon anihilates it in the musical department. I know for some its very difficult to define musicality, but for me its quite simple: if the player makes me concentrate on melodic/rhythmic/harmonic content as opposed to frequency response, transient attack and scaling, then I know I'm in the right track. Its a waste to use music to listen to gear, it should always be the other way around. My deepest musical realisations happened when listening to keith jarrett through a $200 Sony stereo while going to music school about a decade ago. The "audiophila" is just icing on the cake; a parallel hobby to my melomania. The Astell&Kern not only sounded uninvolving, but also unnatural and quite aggressive. It caused my ears to ring for hours with most music and I could easily give up the improved perceived detail for a more relaxed and natural presentation. The Cowon is an extremely forgiving player and very customisable in terms of sonic signature. Its always about the musician's intent (instead of the engineers) and I am able to digest the most complex symphonic pieces using it because it lays the music right, in a very engaging manner. Relaxed yet never boring. My only complain about its sonic signature is that the highs seem a bit papery and lacking body. Which in turn affects image specificity and cymbals' body. But this is a reasonable tradeoff for a player that never gives a hint of glare or sibilance, which I absolutely abhor. I was hoping the x3 had more realistic highs without harshness.
As I am writing this I am waiting for the x3 to arrive. I've only listened to it once at a friend's place for half an hour. What immediately struck me is the line out's raw power. Fortunately I played beck's hi rez version of sea change to test it instead of a compressed pop album. I had to immediately lower the Alo's gain to medium. And still there there was plenty of headroom even playing classical music. This 'raw power' manifested itself not only in decibel levels, but also in the sharpness of the transients and body of tone when rendering pianissimo pizzicato strings or a pianist's foot accidentaly stomping when depressing the pedal. These micro details really contribute to the ambiance of the recorded space and results in a more believable stereo image. The bass seemed to go deeper than the cowon or astell&kern, but it might be just that the impact was more immediate. I didn't have time to do a head to head. I noticed too that the presentation was cleaner, with greater separation between the instruments than any of the players I currently use (except perhaps the Rega Saturn, which costs almost 10 times more). The downside? Harsh highs on certain albums. The highs on The National's "Graceless" made it unlisteneable ('trouble will find me' is a tough album, I've head it sound shocking through a $40,000 system) and some other pop albums were on the verge of being too grainy on the highs. The z2 renders them fresh and spacious, but lacks the deep bass impact necessary for a true pop experience. That addictive raw power didn't face any tonal issues playing well recorded classical or ECM Jazz, which makes me think it might be just transparent, instead of harsh with the highs. Those 30 minutes of intense driving thrust, HF issues aside, were enough for me to order one and asses more carefully later. Even though I found it frustrating to be unable to tweak the sound. I will continue writing after a week with the player.
Sound impressions after a week
The initial judgement hasn't changed. The sound of the Fiio X3 is open and powerful. There is a 'bloom' from the low mids to the deepest bass. I love it, since the HD600 is often too flat and lacks that body in the voices and piano that the HD650 is so revered for. However, I was never a big fan of the 650's attack and separation. I also always found that the 600s were more open and its soundstage wider and deeper with greater specificity thanks to the extra treble extension. So I think I'm finally getting that thickness I missed with my rig. The analytical presentation of the RxMkiii creates an addictive synergy with the x3.
I have listened to hi res Jazz, Rock and Folk (Marcin Wasilewski, Keith Jarrett, The National and most of the 24 192 Joni Mitchel releases) and other redbook albums and it doesn't sound extremely detailed necessarily. The sound is relaxed yet has a seemingly endless dynamic headroom. If you want to listen to every nuance of the musical layers, you have to pay attention. The AK100, in comparison, presents the nuance glaringly, shouting at you. The typical "I notice things I never heard before". The truth is that you never heard them before because you are not paying enough attention. I don't think that music happens too often in the nuances, but rather in the melody, rhythm and chords. The voices and lead instruments are definitely emphasised with the X3. They have body, weight and an almost physical presence. Pop beats are INTENSE. The lowest bass drums have a speed and heft I could not get even dream of with the AK100'a or Z2's EQ talents. This might become an issue with a warmer set of cans of amp. I also listened to it briefly and unamped with my Sennheiser IE80. I wasn't very pleased with the combination. The bass bloom congested the sound and the stage kind of collapsed in complex passages. Voices had a thick resonance that didn't gel well with my IEM experience.
I carefully assessed if carrying the RxMkiii was worth it since the X3 is able to drive the HD600 quite comfortably. I compared different genres. My conclusion was that the X3's internal amp is quite capable and has a warm and natural (to certain extent) sound signature. Voices (Joni Mitchel, Luciana Souza, Cecile McLorin Slavant) sound a bit more convincing dynamically than with the RxMkiii, which was disappointing since this amp alone costs more than 3 times the price of the X3. The Alo sometimes misses micro dynamics and favours separation and detail. However, tonally, the Alo had better composure and did not have a digital edge to the "sss" of the singers. When it comes to classical music, the Alo destroys the X3's internal amp. I listened to the complete first movement of Mahler's 9th (Pierre Boulez + Chicago Symphony Orchestra) throughout the Alo completely riveted to the music and then tried to repeat the feat with the X3 alone only to find myself yawning. I had to invest too much of myself to discern the instrument's position within the recorded space and Mahler's glorious layering and dynamic approach to writing. Well its unfair, isn't it? Surely I'd be exhausted after half an hour of Mahler. So I went back to the Alo only to find myself riveted again.
I also compared it to the newest iPod touch and was surprised to find that the iPod is no slouch. It has deep bass with the ALO and Beyonce's latest sounded exciting and never harsh or thin. Going back to the X3's line out though revealed greater detail in the lower frequencies especially. I was unable to perceive immediately any differences in the voice and upper half of the spectrum with over produced pop though.
Finally, the slight grain I noticed on the high frequencies when I auditioned my friend's Fiio is mysteriously absent on mine. Or might it be that I replaced the National's album by the hi res version on my micro SD? I know, shouldn't break the the ceteris paribus golden rule for assessing gear. Leave me alone :p
I'm really happy with this player. I never care about looks, UI or apps. Im in this game for the music. Sometimes, though, the X3 refused to give me my music. It has frozen probably 7 times since I got it. I have to carry a paper clip with me to reset it. I feel silly. For the last 3 days, though, I has stopped freezing. The AK100 and the Z2 also froze frequently when I started using them to stabilise later into smooth operation. Im hoping the same will happen with the X3.
I think its amazing bang for the buck, and if you have revealing headphones this might be the player for you. I don't see myself looking for a replacement until March, when the X5 is released internationally :)
Edited by vitmirr - 12/31/13 at 1:27pm