The booming personal audio sector has led to the rise of companies like FiiO that specialise in products such as headphone amplifiers and digital audio players aimed at consumers who aren’t satisfied with their smartphones.
Most smartphones can be turned into nifty digital audio players by downloading tricked out music players like Poweramp (for Android phones) and Onkyo’s HF Player (for iPhones) but even they can’t usually handle demanding headphones or IEMs.
FiiO borrows heavily from the iPod's classic design. (Rezaul H Laskar/HT Photo)
That’s where digital audio players (DAPs) like FiiO’s X3 2nd Gen come in. The review sample provided by Headphone Zone came in the titanium colour, clad in a black silicon case. This is a classy-looking piece of gear whose design is clearly inspired by the iPod Classic – the jog wheel in the centre is a giveaway.
There’s nothing complicated about the user interface and I was able to get the X3 up and running without consulting the manual even once. The X3 has no onboard memory and you have to feed it music on micro-SD cards (it can accept cards of up to 128 GB).
The X3 powers up and is ready to play within seconds and it read micro-SD cards, even those loaded with hundreds of audio files, within a minute or so. I never encountered any serious problems during two weeks of using the X3, including lags or the player freezing up, though tracks sometimes stopped momentarily before resuming again. This glitch occurred very rarely and I wasn’t able to ascertain if it was a problem with the software or the micro-SD card in use.
The X3 drives headphones with a wide range of impedances, from 16 ohms to 150 ohms. Have a headphone like the Urbanite XL that likes loads of power? No problem, the X3 had a two-stage gain setting (low and high) that takes care of things without a fuss.
You won't mistake the 320x240 pixels screen for a retina display for sure. (Rezaul H Laskar/HT Photo)
The 2.0" TFT screen with 320x240 pixels won’t win any awards for slickness but it serves up all the essential information – volume level, gain setting, battery level, elapsed and total time of the track that’s playing and the track’s title – though the album art is cropped to fit the display. At the start of each track, the screen briefly displays the name of the song, album and performer and the type of audio file.
The four buttons on the face of the X3 and the larger button at the centre of the jog wheel let you access shortcuts, browse tracks, the currently playing track, player and system settings and fast forward or rewind tracks. There is a slight kink though – once the screen is in sleep mode, only certain buttons can be used to fast forward or rewind tracks though the volume buttons function normally.
The 2600 mAh battery took about three to four hours to charge fully and provided about 10 hours of playback. Accessories include a one-metre micro-USB data and charging cable, a 3.5mm coaxial and S/PDIF adapter, two extra screen protectors and bodywork stickers to give your X3 the colours of the US flag or wood grain.
The best part about the X3? It plays everything from lossy MP3s to FLAC, AIFF and WAV files in 192 kHz and 24 bit as well as DSD128 files and rips from SACDs without any fuss. The X3 never failed to read any high-resolution files fed to it.
The X3’s digital-to-analog conversion is handled by Cirrus Logic’s CS4398 chip with a new low-pass filter developed by FiiO and the player has dual crystal oscillators dedicated to multiples of 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz to ensure low jitter.
The X3 can also be used as an outboard DAC for playing back music from a computer, handling both DSD and high-res files of up to 192 kHz/24 bit. The X3 functions as a plug-and-play DAC with Macs while Windows PCs require the installation of a driver.
As a digital audio player, the X3 has a neutral and clean sound that never got fatiguing even after several hours of listening. The player maintained a vice-like grip on the music, handling everything from hip-hop to heavy metal with ease.
The X3 sounds great even when it is paired with cheap earphones like the Xiaomi Piston 2. (Rezaul H Laskar/HT Photo)
The bass had great extension, going deep and low, and the highs were airy, every hit on the cymbals coming through nice and clear. Vocals were another area where the X3 excelled.
With high-res audio files, everything good about the X3 became even better. The soundstage became wider and the bass had greater punch but without obscuring the mids and highs.
The sound was uniformly excellent with a wide variety of headphones and IEMs, ranging from the cheap-but-great Xiaomi Piston 2 in-ears to the Urbanite XL and Skullcandy Aviators.
The X3, priced at Rs 14,999, is placed somewhere in the middle of FiiO’s range of DAPs. For those who are no longer satisfied with using their smartphones for music playback and want to up the game, the X3 could be just what the doctor recommended.