Today we're checking out one of FiiO's first forays into the balanced armature market, the FA1.
The FA1 is an earphone with some appealing features, like lightweight, 3D printed, custom-styled housings, the use of a Knowles 33357 full-range driver, and the ability to replace the cables via a common MMCX connector. Add to that an extensive accessory kit and a low price tag of 99 USD and the FA1 is setting itself up as a competitive entry in the 100 USD market. But is it?
Let's find out.
A huge thanks to Lily at FiiO for entrusting me with a sample of the FA1 for this review. The thoughts and opinions within are my own subjective opinions based on weeks of time spent with the FA1. They are not representative of FiiO or any other entity. At the time of writing it was retailing for 99 USD. You can check it out here: https://www.fiio.com/fa1
The FA1 was paired with the mostly uncoloured Radsone ES100 connected to the LG G6, LDAC enabled. I also used it with FiiO's own uBTR. It was also run straight out of the warm Shanling M0 that was a nice match. The TEAC HA-501 with ZiShan DSD sourcing some mad beatz also played a part in running the FA1. Since it was easy to drive, I didn't find amping necessary. The FA1 seemed most at home running through neutral to warm devices. Something bright like the Walnut F1 sounded too harsh with the FA1.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. My preferences for earphone tuning are quite relaxed and as such their is no one signature I look for. The HiFiMAN RE800 Silver, Brainwavz B400, and Massdrop x MeeAudio Planamic are examples of earphones with wildly varied signatures that are enjoyable for different reasons. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when perusing my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
Packaging and Accessories:
- Driver: Knowles ED-33357 balanced armature
- Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20Hz
- Sensitivity: 11dB (1kHz@1mW)
- Impedance: 15ohms@1kHz
- Maximum Input Power: 100mW
As has been the trend for many years, the FA1 arrives in a white cardboard box with minimal accents. On the front is an image of the FA1's ear pieces made from fine black lines, along with the usual branding and model details peppered about. The sides, top, and bottom contain nothing worth mention while the back contains just a brief description of the earphone, “Full frequency single balanced armature driver earphone with detachable cables
”, a code to scan, and some company information. It's all very clean, neat, and quite attractive in it's simplicity. FiiO did a nice job with the exterior packaging.
Grabbing the magnetically sealed flap and flipping open the lid sees three boxes in the interior. The first box has the FA1's ear pieces nestled tightly into a protective plastic insert with the cable attached. The performed ear guides wrap up and around with the cable disappearing into a couple holes. Opening the box you find the cable neatly wrapped and tied with one of the Dunu-style rubber ties that FiiO adopted with their early partnership with Dunu. The second box contains the carrying case and accessories. The third and final box resides under the first box. It is wafer thin and contains the manual. I like this box-within-a-box style of unboxing since it's fun to see what's stored where. Maybe not the most environmentally friendly, but everything here is recyclable cardboard so it's all good. In all you get:
- FA1 earphones
- MMCX copper-plated silver cable
- Waterproof plastic hard case
- Nozzle cleaning brush
- Green single flange silicone tips (s/m/l)
- White single flange silicone tips (s/m/l)
The presentation is attractive, refined, and fun to unbox. The plastic case is deceptively large. I was able to fit the FA1, Shanling M0, and a Topping NX1 portable amp in there. Space was at a premium, but it all fit without forcing it. That's pretty awesome. The included tips are pretty decent too. The green tips in particular have a nice feel to them with soft, flexible flanges that provide a nice fit. Overall this is a really nice kit, especially considering at 99 USD you're also getting a silver cable and a genuine Knowles driver. I'd say we're off to a good start.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
FiiO is making a big deal of their 3D printing process for this earphone, and it's easy to see why. If I didn't know this earphone was 3D printed, I would have guessed it was made from the same process as the similarly shaped and equally drop dead gorgeous Kinera Idun. The only thing I can see that gives it away is the inner nozzle and sound tube which contain a layered texturing common to the printing process. Other than that these are basically flawless. The shells are polished smooth and the wavy rippled pattern of the face looks amazing, especially on the black sample I was sent. The MMCX ports are perfectly integrated into the top, while the base sees a small vent on each ear piece to help prevent pressure build up. Thanks for thinking of that! I'm quite impressed with what FiiO has done with the build.
The cable is pretty fantastic too. Silver wires with a copper plating is nothing to scoff at. On first glance I thought the sheath was the same as that for the twisted copper Litz cable Campfire included with the Polaris and Comet. While not the same, they are quite similar. FiiO's cable is a bit thicker, not as stiff, and has a looser twist to it. The hardware is quality stuff too. The sheath for the MMCX plugs is a ribbed plastic that's easy to grip with a coloured aluminum ring at each base to denote channel: red for right, blue for left. The y-split is metal with what looks to be a laser engraved FiiO logo. Leading into the bottom is an effective strain relief. Out the top, relief is omitted in favour of a useful chin cinch that also happens to be metal. The 90 degree angled jack is a familiar site, quite similar in design to the one on the older FiiO F1. The sleeve leading down to the 3.5mm plug is extended to avoid interaction with cellphone cases.
Comfort with the FA1 is excellent thanks to their low weight (4.5g per ear piece) and a very ergonomic, semi-custom design that we have seen quite a bit lately on products like the Tenhz P4 Pro, Kinera Idun, and TFZ Secret Garden, to name a few. The design locks into the outer ear and remains stable even under heavy movement. The preformed ear guides keep the cable securely wrapped up and over the ear using a material that slides comfortably across the skin. Some might find them a bit long though, so I suspect FiiO could take off nearly an inch of material without it affecting the usefulness. Due to the shape and size of the ear pieces, someone with small ears might experience issues getting them to insert naturally, but that should affect a minority of users.
As with all earphones of this style I've tried, isolation is excellent. The FA1 snugly fills the entirety of your outer ear which blocks a ton of noise. Toss on some foams and you will feel like you're in a vault. These are awesome to use in noisy areas like the bus or in a busy coffee shop.
The FA1 has a fantastic signature that borders on neutral. Starting with treble, I find it sees a small bump in the upper regions giving the FA1's representation of cymbals a bit more shimmer than I'm accustomed to from single armature models. At times it does display a metallic edge that can be slightly distracting, such as on Massive Attack's “Mezzanine”, though it's not particularly common nor does it detract much from the experience. For the most part everything is smooth and refined with a snappy but realistic decay with good control.
The mid-range really stands up and sounds forward making vocals and instruments in this region quite prominent. I really enjoy these qualities with classic rock and thoroughly enjoyed running through the entirety of Supertramp's “Crime of the Century” album for the umpteenth time. Note are imbued with a touch of warmth and while not lean, trend more in that direction than not. I find this highlights the FA1's outstanding articulation and clarity. Timbre is quite accurate too with instruments sounding as they should.
The FA1's low end is smooth but textured with decent depth and a solid thump of impact in the otherwise reserved mid-bass region. As is often the case, roll off into sub-bass regions is felt earlier than on your typical dynamic driver. For anything that doesn't require silent bass that you feel, not hear, the FA1 should be plenty sufficient. This bass presentation felt particularly well-suited to Daft Punk's “Give Life Back To Music” where the bass line plays a support role to the synthesized vocals and funky guitar. Texture is pretty good with grungy bass represented well, though it's more liquid than some other single armature based models like the Brainwavz KOEL and EarNiNE EN120.
The FA1's sound stage spreads out from your head with the physically forward mids acting as an anchoring point. I felt a greater impression of depth than width. Vocals are generally quite intimate with instruments dancing away just behind. It doesn't make the FA1 sound congested thanks to accurate imaging and competent laying and separation, but it falls behind some multi-driver offerings like the Brainwavz B200.
Overall the FA1 makes for a fantastic listen. A strong mid-range and vibrant, detailed treble steal the show while a punchy but reserved low end urges the rest of the signature on. The sound stage borders on intimate, playing well to the impressive vocal performances the FA1 regularly delivers.
Select Comparisons (volumes matched using Dayton iMM-6):
Brainwavz KOEL (69.50 USD):
The FA1 and KOEL are both 3D printed earphones with single armatures and MMCX equipped removable cables, though the FA1 comes in a full 30 USD more expensive. The FA1 is slightly more treble forward with additional energy in the upper treble regions. While not quite as refined, the FA1's treble gives chimes and cymbals more sheen and in general sounds more exciting. The KOEL's mid-range isn't as forward, either in emphasis or stage placement, but it is warmer, fuller in body, smoother, more natural, and just as detailed and crisp. Bass on the FA1 sees a slight bump in emphasis and extension to a slightly greater depth, though it still doesn't rumble like something with a dedicate low-range armature, such as the KZ BA10. KOEL still has an edge in impact and texture. Raw sound stage size goes to the KOEL as it is able to toss effects further into the distance, however, the FA1 is able to bring sounds in closer and as such is the better performer with intimate vocals. Imaging, layering and separation are pretty much on par. Overall, I think the KOEL is more enjoyable and a slightly better performer.
In terms of build, it's clear the FA1's extra 30 USD can be found there. As much as I like Brainwavz's improvements to their 3D printing process, and appreciate the unique and comfortable designs they have come up with, there is a rawness to their shells and overall construction not present in the FA1. The fairly common (see Kinera H3 and Idun, Tenhz P4 Pro, and TRN IM1 for an idea of the FA1's shape), custom-like housings seem to be crafted with a more matured process, from the smoother surfaces, to the more well-defined nozzle, to the stylish face plate. The FA1 also has a more impressive cable given it is VERY similar in look and feel to what Campfire Audio included with the Polaris. The FA1 has a premium air to it that the KOEL just can't match.
Campfire Audio Comet (199.00 USD):
The Comet and FA1 are both single armature earphones with removable MMCX cables, though the Comet doubles the price coming in at 199 USD. The FA1 has a brighter, leaner signature with more upper treble energy. It sounds more raw than the smoother Comet, albeit with similar clarity. The Comet's mid-range has more meat on it's bones with vocals having more weight behind them and a timbre that is slightly more accurate. Bass on the Comet is a bit slower and less nimble but provides better extension and more visceral feedback. Texture is improved on the Comet. Sound stage isn't amazing on either, but the FA1's thinner sound helps give it a great sense of space, particularly in the mids which are more physically forward and intimate on the Comet. Overall I find the Comet offers a more balanced and fully fleshed out sound, which is what I would expect given the price. That said, it's not twice as good and the FA1 certainly puts up some stiff competition.
In terms of build, as beautiful as the FA1 is the Comet with it's very unique design and hand-polished stainless steel housings up the ante. They look and feel more premium. In the FA1's favour they're lighter, more ergonomic, and nicer to wear regardless of the circumstance, though some people will prefer the Comet simply because of their more universal shape. Their cables are very similar with the Comet's having a tighter twist and slightly nicer hardware to the FA1's greater flexibility and reduced memory. What it really comes down to here is that the Comet is better built with some stunning but polarizing looks while the FA1 is more traditionally gorgeous with better comfort and ergonomics.
The FA1 has proven itself to be a very well-rounded product. It has a coherent, balanced signature with a spectacular mid-range and clean treble, though it's low end is unlikely to please someone that prefers some extra emphasis down there. The housings offer a ton of isolation and are extremely stylish. I doubt many would have a clue that these were 3D printed given just how refined and well put together they are. In my opinion, that right there is FiiO's crowning achievement with this model. Their printing process is seriously impressive. Add to that a high quality cable, a bunch of accessories with a case that is useful beyond just carrying around the FA1, and this one gets an easy recommendation.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock - Skelethon (Album)
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (Album)
Elton John - Yellow Golden Brick Road (Album)
King Crimson - Lark's Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp - Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom - Converting Vegetarians (Album)
Infected Mushroom - Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz - Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack - Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac - Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy - The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco - screw*d Up Friends (Album)
Felt - Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bone) (Album)