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FiiO X3 portable digital audio player
page 2
page 3
page 4 Sound Quality
page 5 Conclusion
page 6 Measured Performance
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Fiio-delity

 

 

Will Chinese manufacturer FiiO have a runaway success with their new budget X3 digital audio player? Noel Keywood thinks so.

 

Little hi-res players like the FiiO X3 I am reviewing here aren’t so common as yet but they’re an intriguing proposition for any hi-fi enthusiast. Aimed at headphone users and the portable market, they also have a Line output to drive a hi-fi. You can think of them as a high-quality ‘CD player’ then, a portable one.
    The iBasso DX50 portable audio player I reviewed last month (p34, December 2012 issue) seemed like a real bargain, costing just $239 direct from the factory in China.
    The FiiO X3 is also from China but costs around £150 from on-line retailers like Amazon. So if buying direct from China makes you fearful, and Amazon is a name you know and trust, the X3 may interest you.
    £150 is a new, low price point for a portable potentially able to deliver sound quality better than any CD player, as well as far better sound than portables like the iPod.
    I suspected there would be hidden drawbacks because this player is one-quarter the price of the market leading Astell&Kern AK100 from Korea — and of course well below the cost of hi-fi CD players too.
    But what I found surprised me. The X3 isn’t as slick as the £1100 Astell&Kern AK120 I use as a high-resolution audio player, but it is impressive at one-tenth the price.
    As portables go the X3 is small, measuring 110mm high, 55mm wide and 18mm deep. That makes it the size of a small mobile phone – old sort with no screen! – and easily pocketable. Weighing 125gms on our scales, it isn’t especially heavy either and won’t be punching a hole in your pocket.
    Unlike the iBasso DX50, but like the AK100, 120 and Colorfly C4 Pro I have reviewed, the X3 has a non-replaceable internal battery charged through its USB socket. It is a 3000mAH, 3.7V lithium polymer cell.


    Charge time is quoted as around 9 hours from a PC but I charged our review sample initially from a higher current iPhone charger and it took barely 5 hours, re-charging then being a matter of topping up at barely an hour or so. I managed 11hrs replay time with the X3 set to repeat, its screen unused. The case can be unscrewed so the battery may be accessible, but I did not try this. The case is metal and both build quality and finish are good; I had no gripes here.

    Interestingly, this player will work whilst charging, so it can be used as a stationary domestic player with external power supply. Charge time is inevitably lengthened, but it does mean the player isn’t limited in playing time by its state of battery charge, although FiiO warn that doing this may give the X3 “slight fever”. Turn down volume to reduce this fever, they advise! Mine didn’t need to be hospitalised, I’m glad to say.
    The X3 will play high-resolution digital audio right up to 24/192 spec. in basic WAV format, meaning uncompressed; it doesn’t baulk at the data rate (9Mbps). Music is stored on 8GB of internal Flash memory that can be augmented by a single microSD card up to 64GB capacity. With hi-res music files reaching 200MB or more, the internal memory will hold just 40 tracks – not so much, but probably enough for a daily commute. That makes an additional 32GB (£25) or 64GB (£50) card obligatory – reckon on adding one to the X3’s cost. Obviously, if you have a lot of compressed MP3, AAC etc, or even FLAC CD rips, the internal memory will hold a lot more tracks and possibly be enough.
    In addition to WAV, the player handles FLAC up to 24/192 – the two formats I use. APE, ALAC, WMA, MP3, OGG and even grotty old MP2 are played. FiiO don’t mention AIFF,  Apple’s equivalent to WAV, a totally uncompressed PCM format, so I loaded AIFF and it did not play, being flagged as an ‘unsupported file format’. The solution to this is to convert to WAV or FLAC using the free XLD programme for Mac, or dBpoweramp for PC.
    An important and distinguishing feature of any high-resolution player is that its analogue output amplifiers don’t stifle sound quality. Measurement showed that at 3V through the headphone socket (high gain) the X3 has 50% more output than most CD players, and ten times more output than most portables. It has far better dynamic range than either as a result, so FiiO don’t scrimp in this area and measurement showed the X3 offers 10dB more dynamic range than CD. Not bad for a player costing just £150.
    I was interested to see FiiO identify the DAC chip as a Wolfson WM8740, the same as that “put into use for the top level CD player Saturn which is manufactured by the hi-fi brand Rega”. They go on to point out that iRiver use this chip in their Astell&Kern players, as do Sony in their PHA-1. I’m impressed that such a good part should be used in the X3 and measurement confirmed excellent results from it, through the all-important analogue output amplifiers. The output amplifier is an Analogue Devices AD8397 able to swing large output at high frequencies.
    There is a Line output through a 3.5mm jack that delivers a fixed 1.7V maximum, unaffected by volume control or gain setting, designed to feed a hi-fi amplifier.
    The X3 can also be set to act as a USB DAC and worked perfectly with a MacBook Pro in this fashion.
    In addition to these two analogue outputs the X3 has a digital output. I’m finding that as good as high-quality portables may be in terms of DAC and output amplifier, sound quality through an external hi-fi DAC is often appreciably better. I got quite a shock at how much better music from the iBasso DX50 sounded through headphones plugged into an Audiolab Q-DAC, digitally connected, than the player’s own headphone amp. – and that was the case with the X3 too. Not surprising perhaps when you consider the Q-DAC offers another 11dB dynamic range, or 121dB in all, when playing 24bit files. This massive range is why you get those dark silences from good 24bit recordings, as well as a lovely, silky-smooth sound free of coarseness.


    The X3 outputs S/PDIF digital from a 3.5mm jack and it worked properly from the outset, unlike the DX50, except that 192kHz sample rate files were down-sampled to 96kHz (firmware 2.05). Curtailed audio bandwidth was clearly visible on our analyser and both Q-DAC and our Rohde & Schwarz UPV audio analyser flagged up 96kHz sample rate. In case you are wondering, bit depth was not reduced, and since this is more influential upon sound quality than sample rate, the X3’s digital output still works well enough and has a useful role to play for hi-fi buffs who want the best from high resolution files.


    Of all the players I have used to date, the X3 was the fiddliest and least intuitive. It fires up quickly – in just a few seconds – but the home screen has a rather turgid list of options in dull blue text; turning brightness to maximum improves legibility. This is not a touch screen as on the Astell&Kerns, so the X3 is driven by pressing buttons. Basically, there are forward and back buttons, forward acting to Start and Pause play when a file is reached. There are Up and Down (the menu list) buttons too. Files can be searched by Category (Album, Genre, Artist), as a list, or as a computer folder/file tree.
    Since so much output is available via headphones, gain can be set High or Low, and maximum output volume and default output volume levels set also, to prevent excessive headphone volume. Album artwork is supported.
    The X3 is inelegant: its display panel is workmanlike, its controls prosaic in layout and touch and the screen a little coarse, but it is usable and I’m not going to be critical considering its low price.
    There are treble and bass controls, but no equaliser as found on many other players. Volume (0-60) is controlled by Up and Down buttons. Gapless playback is an option, and Repeat Once, Repeat All and Shuffle. Various screen dim and auto power off times can be set, to preserve battery life – or otherwise.
    The player can be re-set using a paper clip through a small hole in the case and, whilst this isn’t very convenient, our sample never crashed once, unlike all other players I’ve tested to date. I was impressed by this; the X3 was a sweet player to use in real life, if short on style.
    Our sample came with Firmware version 1.23 and was updated to 2.05 without difficulty; both were stable. You have to download the firmware to a microSD card, since the player updates from card only. A small card of 1GB will do, FAT32 formatted and best loaded direct from computer through a USB adaptor that costs pennies. The card is then put into the player, two buttons pressed simultaneously and bingo – it’s done.



SOUND QUALITY
Our X3 came with no fewer than twenty six hi-res music demo tracks  from Chesky, showing just how good high-resolution downloads – in this case from HDtracks – can sound. There were some great little demos here, including David Chesky in a Cathedral walking up to the mic to demo binaural recording technology - eery! Even worse was a binaural haircut where scissors and razor travel over the listener’s head on replay. Amusing demo tracks like this were common in the early days of stereo – I have LPs of them. It was great to hear more, in latest digital. However, I loaded and played my own series of music files that sit on a 16GB SanDisk SD card for listening tests, since they are tracks I know and also have on my Astell&Kern AK120 for comparative purposes. I used Philips Fidelio X1 headphones, Jay V-Jays when on the move, and the player also fed my WAD300B valve amplifier driving Martin Logan Electromotion hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers.
    Straight away I simply enjoyed the X3. Being used to an AK120 it obviously lacked the tidiness and orderliness, and the bass line behind Diana Krall singing Narrow Daylight (24/96) was softer and warmer, less defined in the time domain. This sort of thing apart, the X3 sounded big and lusty through ‘phones – there were the same forceful dynamic contrasts I have come to expect, or at least hope for, from such players, due to their specialised DACs and headphone amps.
    The Eagles ‘Somebody’ (16/44.1) roared along, Glen Frey sounding full bodied, the Hammond organ swirling fruitily in the background. The bass line on ‘Busy Being Fabulous’ was solid and kick drum had punch: this track rocked. Again the X3 wasn’t as tidy or couth as the AK120, but then you would not expect it to be at the price.
    It was with hi-res classical rather than Eagles type Rock that the X3 was ‘nice’ rather supremely lucid or tightly controlled. The Minnesota Orchestra playing Rimsky Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers from The Snow Maiden (24/96) came over as full bodied and powerful, but suffused with a small amount of bloom that added a pleasant sense of warmth to proceedings. If anything the X3 is best described as big hearted and almost ‘warm’ in the sense that it has an easy demeanour. It lacks the sharp definition or sense of deep inter-transient silence of more expensive players, it also lacks their forensic resolution and grip; it is less couth all round and not as dramatic. But it manages to be fun and it conveys the intrinsic quality of high resolution digital audio files well.



CONCLUSION
The X3 may not be so pretty display-wise but – button pressing apart – was one of the easiest players I have used to date. The menu system is visually unattractive and the buttons not so lovely either, but they are usable and the X3 never once crashed, with its old or new firmware. It fired up quickly and got on with playing music, always sounding easy and entertaining. Because FiiO have used a good DAC and headphone amplifier it delivers high-resolution music with gusto.
    It will play compressed MP3s, iTunes files and such like (but not .aiff), CD rips and modern 24/96 or 192 material too. At the price it’s a great portable, and a good high-quality domestic digital player. It isn’t up with the Astell&Kerns, but it isn’t their price either.
    The X3 is great entertainment though – and a fine budget starting point in high-resolution digital.


FiiO X3 PORTABLE DIGITAL AUDIO PLAYER,   £150  (U.K.)



EXCELLENT - extremely capable

VALUE - keenly priced

VERDICT
An affordable high resolution digital player that can drive a hi-fi or headphones. Excellent quality and value.

FOR
- sound quality
- line output for hi-fi
- small and light

AGAINST
- basic display panel
- no touch display
- downsamples 192k

 

Advanced MP3 Players

+44 (0)843 289 6880

www.advancedmp3players.co.uk


All measurements were made with our Rohde&Schwarz UPV, the world's most advanced audio analyser.

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE
Frequency response of the FiiO X3 via its analogue headphone and line output extends to 70kHz with 192kHz sample rate digital, our analysis shows, so the DAC and output amplifier exploit the benefits of 192kHz sample rate.
    The digital output down-sampled 192kHz to 96kHz, limiting analogue bandwidth to 48kHz – no disaster, but a surprise. This wasn’t cured by firmware update to 2.05.
    With gain set to High, the headphone output gave a massive 2.9V at full volume (60), higher than CD players (2V) and too much for most headphones. With gain at Low it gave 1.4V.
    Distortion at 0dB was low at 0.002%, rising to 0.06% at -60dB with 24bit. These are low values for a portable at full gain, meaning the headphone output delivers high quality audio. One small drawback was that as volume was wound down noise in the following output amplifier adversely affected the player’s dynamic range. At full volume the EIAJ Dynamic Range value with 24bit was a healthy 111dB, but this value decreased as volume was turned down.
    The Line output is unaffected by the volume control, having a fixed output of 1.7V and similar performance to the headphone output. This is suitable for driving a hi-fi amplifier.
    The X3 measures well enough to complement high resolution digital audio through its headphone or Line outputs. It has no major weaknesses, downsampling to 96kHz being a minor limitation. NK

Frequency response (-1dB)
192k                5Hz -70kHz

Distortion (24bit)    (%)
0dB                    0.002
-60dB                  0.06

Separation (1kHz)           95dB
Noise (IEC A)               -110dB
Dynamic range (EIAJ)    111dB
Output                              2.9V

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE, 192k sample rate

 

DISTORTION, 24bit, -60dB

 

DYNAMIC RANGE   (EIAJ, –51.068dB – 60dB = –111dB)

 

 

 

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