The X3 2nd Generation is a worthy replacement for the original X3. At a price point of roughly $200 U.S.; the X3 product line provides a wide range of product features along with a sound that provides a meaningful step up the portable players that most people use nowadays, their mobile phone. The sound is somewhat more refined than the original X3, with less of the mid bass “bloom” or warmth that is the hallmark of the original X3.
Instrumental articulation is noticeably more crisp; but not to the point of being so analytical that the unit is difficult to use for extended periods of time. In in fact I would argue that a highlight of the X3 family is how listenable the units are when it comes to just sitting down and playing music. I find it enjoyable to relax in bed at night and listen to the original X3 over IEM headphones (so as not to disturb my wife); and the 2nd generation unit is just as enjoyable. In particular, the high end is fully present but not harsh.
I tested the unit with FLAC files using both the redbook standard and higher res files up to 24bit 192khz, and also DSD files. I did not listen to much MP3 or AAC files as I tend to use my iphone for that kind of source material. The iphone supports Bluetooth and when I exercise sometimes I prefer to have my headphones untethered. Sure the fidelity is reduced but you can’t have everything sometimes.
I listened primarily to vocal driven rock (Alabama Shakes, George Exra, Decemberists, the National, Head and the Heart, Rolling Stones, Who), and more progressive rock (King Crimson, Yes). I also listened to the 24-192 version of Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” from HD Tracks and Charles Mingus “Ah Um” sourced from SACD and converted to PCM via Foobar. In addition, classical pieces included Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Gustav Holst “The Planets”; and various pieces of chamber music.
I also tried some less well recorded rock to see whether the unit was overly revealing. I have found that sometimes hi fi systems can make poorer recordings hard to hear because audio flaws can be highlighted more than is desirable. But the recent releases of live Bruce Springsteen from 1975 sounded fine; and trust me the recording quality on that release is fine but nothing special.
A good forum for music fans and especially hi res music fans that readers may want to check is are the Steve Hoffman forums: www.stevehoffman.tv
All sources, rock, jazz, and classical sounded very good both over the line out in my car and using various IEMs and earbuds and over the ear headphones. Both efficient and inefficient headphones were driven just fine with the machine and no hiss was detectable. But then again none of my headphones as of now are particularly demanding. I would note that this new X3 made my older Yuin PK3 buds sound great. I have never heard particularly good bass from those earbuds before, and this unit brought those alive.
Feature wise the new X3 overall keeps pace with the original unit. The new unit still has a line out and digital coaxial output like the original X3, but now the line out and coax out use the same port which is switchable in software. One thing I like in the old unit was that the line out was near the micro-USB port. In my car that meant that both the line out cable and the power cable (I have it hooked up for power to a USB power plus) come in from the same side. On the new unit the power port is on the bottom and the line out is on the top. Okay, so that is a first world problem but this is my review and I’ll whine if I want to. One thing I do like compared with the entry level X1 is that there is no annoying notification that I am using the unit in line out mode.
The unit still can be used as a DAC, but I could not find a low power mode like in the original unit. So I had to use a $10 USB port adapter that suppresses the power demand information and makes it much easier to run the unit with a iphone or ipad using the Apple connecting kit.
Not a big deal really, as I found that this adapter made the DAC mode on the original X3 more reliable. The DAC mode was not tested with my notebook but I suspect it will remain the same somewhat tricky setup under windows as it was with the original X3. It works, but not without some fiddling. I suppose that is the nature of the beast.
I did test the OTG capability of the unit. I was able to get a 32gb USB stick formatted in FAT32 to work using a micro-USB to USB OTG adapter. After sending the review unit on its way, my new unit arrived and I was able to get a similar PNY USB 3.0 stick to work with 256GB formatted in FAT; so that was excellent in my view. Please note: one cannot simultaneously charge the FIIO and play music via a USB stick over OTG. That is a limitation/design feature of OTG and USB.
Unfortunately, I could not get my higher capacity SDXC cards (128gb and 256gb) from PNY to work with a variety of OTG SD adapters that were tried. Please note I am referring to the larger format SD cards, not the microSDXC. I also could not get these cards to work via an extender that connects the internal micro SDXC to external (larger size) SD using a ribbon cable. I did get a very low capacity card to work in some of these scenarios; so the issue may relate to design changes in the controllers as the SD format moved to SDXC for higher capacities.
I did try the unit with some DSD files. The original X3 can play DSD files by converting them on the fly to PCM. The new unit can natively play DSD files. To get DSD music there are two main options. One is to find websites that sell the files. The second is to find an older PS3 with older firmware and some hacks that are explained in depth on ComputerAudiophile.com. From there, the ISO files can be extracted with a variety of utilities to yield DSD files (actually there are a variety of extensions but the music itself is in DSD format). Well in my case I found a local genial soul that has a modded PS3 who was willing to convert a few of my SACD discs to ISO format. Unfortunately they sold their PS3 so that was that for me.
I tried some classical music and the Rolling Stones Hot Rocks. The files sounded great but keep in mind that for any given song DSD formatted files are 3 to 4 times larger than a 24-88 file. But in particular I have never heard the older Rolling Stones material sound so excellent. My classical files were more quartet driven as I wanted to hear individual instruments. The sound was amazing but I suspect that due to file size issues I will listen to 24-88 files (or above) in PCM more often than not.
One area where the original unit has an advantage is that it has hardware bass and treble controls. I do not know if this is a limit of the machine or just current firmware, but for higher res files (24-88 and above) the equalizer on the new machine is greyed out. On the older machine there was some tone control capability on the headphone out that was always available; the new machine just has a software equalizer.
The new machine, as other reviewers have noted, has a smart approach to the pause mechanism and can restart quickly from pause without draining the power much.
There have been a great of discussions about the wheel approach like on the X1 and X5 versus buttons on the old X3. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day they all get the job done and that is about all that is worth saying about that from my point of view.
A few summary observations. If you have never purchased a high fidelity DAP before, the second generation X3 is a great place to start. I suspect the unit will hold its value fairly well. If you already have a X1; this unit is, in my mind, a step up. I find it more listenable over extended periods of time particularly in the high end which I found to be smoother.
The comparison with the original X3 is tricky. This new unit has more articulation but once you really sit down and listen to either unit it is fairly easy to get immersed in the music and stop worrying about whether the bass guitar is quite as well defined. So I suspect that the upgrade is more driven by the desire to have a wheel driven interface or some other features rather than the relatively small sound differences. Please do not get me wrong; the new X3 is a step up but whether that step up is enough to drive your purchase is up to you. And some features of the original unit (discussed at length in other reviews) may be enough to keep your wallet in your pocket. Or you can be indulgent like me and decide you want to have two good X3 DAP units so that one can be left in the car and one is used in the house or some such.
Please note: FIIO allowed me to reserve a spot in the original upgrade discount program while I reviewed the unit. So my price was part of a small group that received a discount and that price is no longer available. Current US prices start at $199.