Who still remembers when first gen X3 was announced that was capable of decoding 24bit/192 kHz material?
At least for us it was a portable revolution, although I do not own an impressive collection of Hi-Res material, I was really glad to see dedicated hardware for high fidelity audio playback. That device kickstarted a whole new generation of really cool Hi-Res portables.
I’ll tell you a small secret, from many points of view X3 Mk III could be the best FiiO DAP, especially from the perspective or price/performance ratio. If an Android OS is not needed, or third party apps or Wi-Fi streaming capabilities, then X3 MK III might be the device you are looking for.
Design and build quality
It’s small and cute, it uses performance audio parts, potent headphone amplification and besides it has a balanced 2.5 mm TRRS output and if needed it can be used as an external DAC for your PC.
At first inspection I notice that it is thinner, a little bit taller, all buttons, ins and outs were moved on the left or bottom side.
Like his predecessor the 3.5 mm jack has a triple function: it can be a normal 3.5mm headphone output, a clean line-out that provides 1.9V Rms or a digital coaxial output to another higher performance DAC (like the desktop ones). On the bottom the balanced out can be found together with microUSB input for changing or data transfer.
On the left side besides the standard volume buttons, On/Off button and microSD slot, a multifunction button can be found as well that works as a shortcut for many features of this DAP: like directly accessing the EQ, fast changing a theme or background, changing fast forward or back for a tune, play/pause and many others. In many cases when display cannot be accessed the multifunction button really comes in handy.
The front side is entirely covered by glass, I’m glad to see the newest touch wheel – its much more reliable than the mechanical one found in the past devices. The back plate seems to be plastic made and the reinforced frame is aluminum made which is always nice to see.
I can’t complain, build quality seems good, I kind of like it its design as well, but honestly I like the X3 MKII look a little bit more, it’s uni-body design is more appealing to me.
Under the hood
On the inside at least for me things are much more interesting.
Firstly in its construction 3 different PCBs were used, one for analog amplification, one for digital conversion and one for Bluetooth.
Lets take them one by one.
Digital decoding is handled by two pairs of TI PCM5242, two pieces exactly for that true balanced output and also for offering a better SNR and a much better crosstalk of ≥97 dB.
In USB DAC mode, both DAC chips will work which is really good, please note the 1.9V output from the line-out!
First op-amp is used in the low-pass filter and the second one handles the actual amplification stage. Both chips are found in higher performance amplifiers, sincerely I do not worry much for the amplification, on normal 3.5 mm headphone out it offers 160mW of power and on balanced output 190mW of power into 32 Ohms, for its size and weight those are really impressive numbers.
Bluetooth duties are handled by the F1C81 chipset which regretfully doesn’t offer AptX or AptX HD support but at least it works with Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy devices.
Battery capacity is at 2350 mA that together with Sennheiser Momentum M2.0 over the ear headphone at a volume of 60 out of 120 offers a little bit more than 11 hours of playtime.
I’d wish a little more, but its Ok. Lets not forget that X7 MKII with the high-power module offers 8 hours of playtime, so I consider than 11 hours is more than adequate.
X3 supports Hi-Res PCM files up to 24/192kHz for majority of lossless formats and also natively support for DSD64.
Like the old model X3 MKIII doesn’t have internal memory and relies entirely on the microSD card slot that supports cards up to 256 Gb.
In USB DAC mode X3 works in asynchronous mode – crucial information for some.
Sadly Hi-Res PCM files cannot be played via Bluetooth, only PCM 16/44.1 kHz files.
Ok now lets get to the most interesting part.
First impression is that it sounds quite musical and more natural that its superior models, having a well put together tonal balance.
It sounds somehow very different compared to its old iterations X3 and X3 MKII and I think that’s great, at the end of the article I will make some interesting comparisons between them.
Unlike his predecessor, newest X3 has an authentic sonic character, chosen direction by the manufacturer is very clear for me.
I adore a musical presentation having a slightly bigger body and that is why X3-III is right up my alley.
Besides a higher level of detail presented to the listener, at last for the first time I’ve heard a very fluid presentation on X3, with a good rendering of the extensions and a quite potent headphone amplifier.
First major change that was felt instantly was the superior rendering of bass and especially sub-bass.
Sennheiser HD600 are headphones known as not being extraordinary in the sub-bass area and still connected directly to the X3-III sub-bass was awakened from hibernation.
Listening to Massive Attack – Angel I was surprised by the performance of the sub-bass and upper bass.
Slowly but surely few layers of bass surfaced and were clearly heard on X3-III. First of all I was impressed by the capability of headphone amplification of this small guy and secondly by the extension in the bass area that for example X3-II was not capable of.
I wanted it or not, I just started shaking my head, on good audio equipment this tune can induce you into a state of trance and this thing just happened to me.
I’m glad that bass notes are not overlapping other frequencies and still offering a good impact and speed. It can be better than this but at a much higher price point.
Martin Solveig & Dragonette – Hello sounded really explosive.
The high dynamics of the track simply elevates your mood instantly by providing a fast transient response. On this track as well I felt an exact dose of musicality and technicalities. At some point bass guitar sounds like a separate entity from the song, when string vibrations stop abruptly is the moment when I realized that there is not any trace of echo or background noise, and believe me you don’t want to hear those on faster paced tracks.
Recently I listened to some folk rock from our northern neighbors Vopli Vidopliassova – Vesna which albeit didn’t sound super technical, it’s extremely musical and really challenges the correct playback of the mids. There are several acoustic instruments, some overlapping voices and an accordion, accompanied by guitars and drums.
This kind of music just shines on X3-III. I feel like mids are well defined on X3-III, they are indeed a bit syrupy and emphasized and it might be just that that puts you instantly in a state of well-being and relaxation.
It’s important to know that although the mids are slightly accentuated, they do not sound slow or mellow. As a general rule, equipment that sounds more musical will always sound slower, devoid of speed and impact.
But it’s not the case with X3-III, the potent headphone amplifier stage and those two DAC chips really do mix well together, offering good dynamics and well defined frequency extremes and a good dose of speed and impact.
Listening to the local haiduks Phoenix – Strunga – the song, although recorded quite badly has some excellent passages in which my imagination is playing me and in which the holography and positioning of instruments in space is demonstrated.
I’m glad to hear the very well defined space between instruments, muddiness effect is not present and a crowded interpretation will rarely be heard on this device.
Bass notes and mids once again shone on this track, offering a small dose of vintage that is so very present. Vintage rock reproduction was just magical, not even X5-III or X7-II can sound as seductive as the X3-III.
Going on with a higher quality material: dCS The Spirit of Turtle in DSD64 just now I realized the capable technicalities of this device.
Surely the level of detail is quite high, but it still has something to learn from the performance of older brothers X5-III and X7-II. Only now I felt the biggest difference.
Although the highs and lows are not sharp or abrasive, they do not have the last bit of information, something is still missing in this area of frequency.
Slightly romantic sound is due to calmer treble left a little bit behind.
On NedSym Lite – Ravel’s Tomb I’ve heard a deep and penetrating sound with a pretty deep soundstage but a little limited in width, I would have wanted a larger and maybe higher stage.
The sounds do not hit a sudden imaginary wall; it dissipates quite smoothly and does not create the feeling of agglomeration at all. From this point of view, X3 is something special, offering a deep stage and quite extensive but not very wide, somewhere in the middle.
Imagine how happy I was when on single-ended 3.5 mm output I was able to satisfactory drive some Sennheiser HD600 and I was not even on the loudest volume levels.
Out of curiosity to the line-out of X3-III I connected from my point of view the best portable headphone amp: HeadAmp Pico Power and listened to the same HD600. The differences were not that big in the favor of Pico Power.
Yes, I had a better detail extraction, better dynamics and higher drive ability, but besides that X3-III in stock form sounded decently and not very far away, which pleased me enormously.
Comparatively X1-II in stock form although I like how it sounds it is pulled down heavily by its mediocre headphone amplification that is unable to drive demanding headphones.
It’s not the case with X3-III and I even don’t think there is a need of adding an external headphone amp, in its stock form X3-III already drives most of dynamic headphones.
With portable headphones, there is no point in discussing it, it easily drives some Momentum M2.0 and Meze 99 Classics / Neo headphones and some F9 IEMs from the same manufacturer. On low gain, internal headphone amp doesn’t hiss, so highly sensitive IEMs can be used, only on high gain can barely heard an un-disturbing hiss – but only when nothing is played, when music is starting it is impossible to hear it.
Using F9 on balanced output soundstage expanded on width and depth. Sound becomes more airy and notes breathe easier. Sound also becomes slightly faster, having a better kick and impact. Nevertheless sub-bas on the balanced output has a somewhat shorter decay creating an impression that it is not so present.
vs X3 MKII
Newest device sounds more explosive having better dynamics, more lively somehow but less neutral. Level of detail retrieval is almost the same, sub-bas and upper bass are better rendered on newer device and the treble is better rendered on the older X3-II. Soundstage is deeper and larger on newer X3, from this point of view older brother sounds flatter, more 2D in a way.
Headphone output is almost the same, X3-III still wins by providing a balanced output and I think it sounds airier and decompressed that really can help few headphones that do lack airiness and are more up front.
vs X1 MKII
X1 although having the same sound character, it loses big when speed, impact and width of stage are taking into account. Its headphone amplifier is also pretty limited that has a major impact on the grander scale of the sound picture.
X1 sound a bit devoid of life, slower, its less authoritative and offer a weaker control over the headphone drivers.
X3 is in another league, clearly in a higher one.
vs X5 MKIII
Acoustic sound print of both devices is quite close, still X5 wins ground on crowded music where dynamic rises and falls are so important.
X5 sounds more linear and more technical. It’s faster, having a better impact on the eardrum. The difference is not as big as between X1 and X3, for tight budgets X3-III might even be the perfect middle ground between sound reproduction and features. Sonically X5 is better, but not much better, instead it offers additional features that X3 doesn’t have (Wi-Fi streaming, 3rd party apps, etc.).
Probably it’s the only disappointing feature of the newest X3.
Bluetooth connectivity is kind of slow and it connects slowly. I do not recommend X3 MKIII if your biggest priority is the Bluetooth feature, surely there are better devices that offer a better Bluetooth experience.
This little guy raises the bar again on what a good price/performance ratio DAP should offer.
If Operating Systems is not your thing, installing 3rd party apps or other useless features do not interest you but only listening to high fidelity music from a microSD card, then I think X3-III is currently the most complete solution.
It worked flawlessly in USB DAC mode and as a digital transport, it excelled as a portable Hi-Res DAP and it limped on Bluetooth (I do hope for at least AptX in future iterations) but overall X3 offered a pleasant experience, using top-of-the-line components and performance.
I liked it quite much especially on acoustic music and I do feel it excells on everything that has tons of mids and bass.
At this moment it might just be the most balanced Hi-Res DAP on the market.
X3 MKIII can be purchased at around 200 Euro mark from authorised on-line stores.
Cool 3 in 1 device (Hi-Res DAP with Bluetooth, USB DAC and a digital coaxial transport
Top construction quality, classic design, very pocketable
Lively sound, very natural and authentic, rich tonality
Single ended 3.5 mm and balanced 2.5 mm headphone outputs
Airy presentation, deep and large stage
Good internal headphone amplifier stage
Good price/performance ratio
Lack of AptX and AptX HD support and of Hi-Res playback over Bluetooth
Slight masking of treble and putting it on the second row
Difficult interface at first, needs some accommodation time
Equipment used for review:
FiiO X3 MKIII, X3 MKII, X1 MKII, X5 MKIII, F9, Sennheiser HD600, Momentum M2.0, Meze 99 Classics, Neo, Headamp Pico Power