In Romania the high fidelity portable player revolution started with FiiO X3. I remember even now all the enthusiasm that engulfed me before getting the much expected player.
At last came the day when a successor was announced, the player that started it all is now at version 2.0, ladies and gentlemen I present to you the new FiiO X3 second generation.
I remember very well that first X3 amazed me in some way and even exceeded my expectations in some areas, so that the new X3 was received with the same impatience. Ok, it is done, it is here, it is unboxed, memory card is loaded with music, I have more than 50% battery, let the music play and see if newest X3 rises at the same level of quality standards built by the first generation.
At the exterior this player looks almost identical to the little X1, expect that X3 is by 2mm thicker. As you can see the left, right, up, down buttons of the first X3 are gone, that looked complicated at first. Newest X3 now receives the rubber menu wheel that is much more precise and easy to use, an important upgrade for a better navigation and a true user friendly operation.
This time the case is all made from metal, the construction quality is at a high level. A BIG update compared to X1 and even to X5 is the scroll wheel that is much more precise and firm. On X1 and X5 the wheel offer a lower resistance and has a little juggle and it is not that precise compared to newest X3.
Again micro-USB connection was used that charges and connects the player for data transfer with PC’s. As well two jacks can be found, one is the amplified headphone out and the second hybrid jack, that can be a clean Line-Out (to other amplifier or to active speakers) or it can be a Coaxial-Out (to use the player as a transport to a better DAC, to a receiver, etc).
Having only 135 grams and small dimensions, the player stays comfortably in hand and has a small footprint for any pockets. I like the new titanium / gun metal color, I think it looks great and pairs very well with the E12A amplifier.
For the first in the history of the company a Cirrus Logic DAC chip was used.
And not a simple and ordinary DAC chip or this Japanese manufacturer, no, FiiO targeted up top because we have here the top of the line, the flagship CS4398!
To better understand the potential of this chip I can tell you that it can be found inside a Marantz NA8005 (1200 Euro), inside a Primare DAC30 (2400 Euro), or even inside the most expensive portable hi-res player, the AK240 (2500 Euro).
Because of this chip X3 second generation is the first FiiO product that natively playbacks the DSD64 and DSD128 material. As a comparison first gen X3 and X5 converts the DSD into PCM in real time and plays the PCM stream. A clever trick, but still, native playback is better every time than any digital conversion technique.
The rest of amplification is done by the chain OPA1642 * 2 and LMH6643 by Texas Instruments.
X3 is the only DAP from FiiO that has two crystal oscillators that are used for maximum precision, one for multiple of 44.1Khz and one for multiple of 48Khz. Therefore the player supports music in lossless format up to 24bit/192Khz and DSD64/128 files – both streams natively decoded.
The player offers just one single memory card slot and at this moment can the used up to 128Gb memory cards, in the future bigger capacity cards will be supported.
X3 can also be used as a DAC connected to any PC after the installation of ASIO driver, on MAC no driver is needed.
Ok, lets get to the most interesting part:
So, how does new X3 sound?
To generalize a bit it sounds fresh, precise, airy and transparent.
Headphones used for this review were Sennheiser Momentum 2.0, Amperior and Sony MDR-1A. With all of them X3 sounded different as trying to emphasize the strengths of each headphone.
It sounded slightly different from what I heard in X1 and X5, and Very different to the old X3.
I presume that part of this hocus-pocus is because of that Cirrus Logic DAC and due to those two precise crystal oscillators which significantly reduces the jitter level (digital noise).
I will start with X3 after that will do some comparisons.
Without a doubt newest X3 offers a fresh, very alive, clean and vivid sound signature.
Detail level is high and the transparency of this player is rivaled only by X5 or by premium grade DACs.
On some aspects its on the same level with X5, a player that is almost double the price.
Even from the first listen I was surprised by the level of transparency of this player. It is at least on the same level with X5, everything seemed airy, the sounds had a beautiful and well defined body. As if every musical note is delimited by a shell, and the core of the notes is heavy and palpable. It is easy to sort any note and listen to it alone if I wish so.
Listening to Remedy Lane album by Pain of Salvation strengthened my first impression that absolutely nothing stands out, as if a premium stereo system was engaged.
The Underthow track has big stage and puts a lot of audio sources to the test.
On X3 the stage was quite large and well defined, first notes were heard at a higher than the ears level – this confirmed the stereo and 3D image that this player have. The only blame I have is the width of the stage. Sometimes can the heard as if notes will hit an imaginary wall, at that recording the notes should fly almost to the infinity (is it felt on orchestras, live open air concerts). At this department X5 gains a lot of ground having a wide and tall soundstage, good depth and sounding a little bit more holographic.
X3 surprised me with coherence and tonal accuracy that it possesses.
Only this thing alone is a massive upgrade to the old X3 that had emphasized bass and mids to the point of cutting some of the high end of the spectrum.
Newest X3 sound correct, linear and precise, musical and pleasant to the ear. It is never dry and boring sounding.
I have nothing to reproach regarding frequency response but I will explain in particular.
The base had the impact, the strong kick and good depth that is needed for electro and rock music. I even say that it is slightly faster than X5, but it is a calmer base compared to how it plays on X1.
I don’t really get it how the manufacturer does it, but X3 by audio performance stays exactly between X1 and X5, very likely they follow a well defined recipe to not cannibalize each other.
X1 has the smallest stage and an up-front sound without much air between notes, X3 it’s a significant upgrade to it and X5 is an X3 on steroids.
Although on some aspects X3 is on the same level with X5, especially tonal accuracy and frequency spectrum is on the same level with X5, and this is an affirmation that will please a lot of people, because by the difference a decent pair of headphone can be purchased.
The transition to the mids is easily done and I do not hear an emphasize of mids or some kind of dryness.
Voices sound centered, not diffuse or dislocated, the impression that artist are divided into two is not present. Everything seems in place.
The distance between artists, physical space between notes is felt, nothing is crowded and the mash effect to my joy is never heard.
Extra syrupy sound of the old X3 is gone, nor the veil thrown over all notes is never present, nor the base that invades part of the mids is not found, or mids that bleed to higher registers.
I think most of the work was done exactly here, doing a straight line over the frequency spectrum is not an easy task for such a small box.
High freqs sounded airy, they had the sparkle, a slight bite by the ear, but did not bother me how other audio sourced do.
Extreme frequencies (sub bass and upper highs) had a good extension that was felt and heard as much as to not upset the listener.
An important factor of what I didn’t mention earlier is the kick, speed and the power reserve.
The slow sound of the old X3 is not present at all, I hear now an articulate impact that is well represented, Double base, double drum sounds as having multiple sub levels of information, it doesn’t sound as one single fat note.
A big surprise represents the implementation of the headphone amp inside, which exactly as in case of using the X3 as a stand-alone DAC sounds transparent, its quite powerful and offers fast transients.
To my amazement when I connected X3 to the dedicated E11K headphone amp, I didn’t get a very different sound. Besides having more tap on the volume wheel for harder to drive headphones, the sound remained almost the same.
Only when I connected an E12A I did get a slightly more transparent and clear sound, having a faster tempo as well.
Internal headphone amp of X3 is excellent and it drove my headphones with authority, good control and I had a lot of headroom left on the volume pot.
The player has slightly less power to the old X3, but the implementation is much better to me.
I’m sorry to say this, but X3 owners of the first generation should try and listen to the new gen, speaking of sound it’s completely on another level, for me it sounds much better. Don’t throw stones, first gen was great for the first step, but portable music players evolved spectacularly.
Logical comparison would be with first gen X3:
First gen X3 as a comparison sounds slightly muddy, a level of information is wiped, frequency extremes are not present by hiding the upper highs and distorting the sub base. Upper base cover part of the mids and upper mids covers a bit part of the highs, it doesn’t offer a tonal accuracy and a linear frequency response.
First gen X3 sounded syrupy and had part of the upper registers wiped for my liking.
Second gen X3 resolved absolutely all those problems and as a bonus added some new things that makes me glad, as native DSD playback, better EQ implementation and the utilization of rubber scroll wheel that adds a lot of comfort in day to day use.
Compared to X5:
As a whole X5 sounds very close to X3, the biggest difference would be the side of the stage that is wider and propagated basically to infinity on X5, on the new X3 the width of the stage can be felt but the hight of the stage do not suffer.
The depth as well is a little bit better on X5, therefore X5 sounds slightly more holographic. X5 also has a slight edge in the headphone amp department that is more complex and more powerful.
Compared to X1:
Sincerely it is a bigger difference between older and newer X3 than to X1. And as an idea I like X1 more than first gen X3 as a tonality point of view, the latter one still has a more powerful headphone amp.
X1 has a much smaller stage on the X,Y,Z axis and it is not as holographic and 3D.
X1 is basier, less detailed, has less levels of information, sounds crowded sometimes and upper highs doesn’t have the necessary sparkle.
Comparisons to other mobile sources as smartphones and ordinary mp3 players are absolutely useless, the latter ones being much more behind sound performance wise.
Like first X3 exceeded my expectations, so did the new X3.
Construction quality is top notch, used materials are very good, the feeling in hand is pleasant and the UI and menu is better organized than on X5 and X1, being more user friendly.
The difference between it and X5 is quite small, that if I would be put to choose from these two and buy one, I don’t know If I would pay extra for X5.
For me newest X3 is an instant classic and a easy recommendation to do.
I do not know any player, or DAC that sounds as good for ~220 Euro.
X3 is a true audio system, it’s not only a hi-res portable player, it’s also a DAC, a headphone amp and a digital transport.
The rest of the conclusions you can draw by yourselves.
- Hi-Res player, dedicated DAC, headphone amplifier, digital audio transport – all done well
- Extra airy and detailed sound, high transparency level
- Holographic sound and a natural stereo image
- Scroll wheel massively upgraded
- Strong kick, fast transients, crowded-free sound
- Native DSD playback
- Good construction, easy to use UI
- Excellent price/performance ratio
- Soundstage limited on width and depth (compared to X5)
- Doesn’t have two micro-SD slots
Gear used for review:
Fiio X1, X3, X3 II, X5, E11K, E12A, Sennheiser Momentum 2.0, Amperior, Sony MDR-1A, Audioengine A5+