There’s a problem with locking yourself into what the computer commentators call ‘the Apple eco-system’: for all the advantages of the company’s ‘it just works’ interoperability between computers and mobile devices, when it comes to music beyond CD quality, iTunes and the various iOS devices are a bit of a dead loss.
There are two ways of looking at that limitation: one is that for mobile listening you really don’t need quality beyond CD, as you’re likely to be listening in noisy mobile environments; the other suggests that the iPod has always been about cramming the maximum number of ‘songs’ into the storage space available, with little regard for sound quality beyond ‘good enough’.
However, that hasn’t stopped headphone manufacturers developing ever more capable models for mobile listening, to the point where you can now spend well into four figures for a pair of little in-ear headphones, and designs costing £200 or more are increasingly commonplace.
So what do you use to drive these new headphones? Well, you can add a headphone amp to better power the headphones, but that still doesn’t get over the iOS devices’ limitations, so clearly a change of player is required.
There’s a few of those about or on the way: the Colorfly models from China, and the Astell & Kern machines from iriver offshoot Astell & Kern, plus of course the much-vaunted – but yet to materialise – Pono player from rock star Neil Young.
However, the problem is that these players tend to be pricey: the Colorfly C4, which is either cunningly retro in its looks or just plain ugly, is £549, while it’s perfectly possible to spend £1000 or more on one of the A&K players. Looks like this high-resolution on the move is going to prove expensive.
Except… There’s the Fiio X3 – a newly-launched pocket music player from another Chinese company with a background in portable amplifiers and the like, and selling for around £160 through its UK distributors. Based in Guagzhou, China, Fiio was founded in 2007, and its products are now distributed globally through more than 60 partners.
In fact, there’s been talk of the X3 for some time – for almost three years, in fact! –, the manufacturer having had some component supply problems along the way, requiring the project to be put on the back-burner for a while, and ultimately demanding a complete rethink of the specification.
What was originally going to be a product built around use with an external DAC/headphone amplifier – a portable digital transport, if you like – has now appeared on the market able to drive headphones well, and also with line-out audio and electrical digital outputs.
It’s a compact unit, just under 11cm long, 5.5cm wide and 1.6cm thick, and despite weighing only 122g it feels solid and chunky in its metal skin. It’s powered by a lithium-polymer rechargeable battery good for more than 10 hours’ use, with a charge time of less than four hours via the USB cable supplied.
There’s 8GB of internal memory, and a Micro SD card slot enabling up to 64GB of extra memory to be added using inexpensive cards.
A system of buttons, and menus on the 320×240-pixel colour display, allow the player to be set-up and operated, with options including the information displayed during playback, gapless playback on/off, and +/-10dB bass and treble, and +/-5dB balance adjustment.
The digital-to-analogue section uses Wolfson’s WM8740 converter, and the X3 will play MP3, AAC, WMA and Ogg up to 16-bit/48kHz, and FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless and WMA 9.1 Lossless at up to 24-bit/192kHz.
The player comes complete with a USB cable for charging/data transfer, an adapter cable to convert its 3.5mm electrical digital output to a standard phono socket, a couple of screen protectors and a neutral silicon ‘skin’ case.
For this test Fiio supplied not just the X3 player, but also its Mont Blanc E12 headphone amplifier, selling for around £110, and while the amplifier definitely boosted the level of the sound, and gave even more effortless dynamic ability, the X3 alone offers the kind of performance likely to amaze those so far only familiar with the sound of an iPod or iPhone.
I tried the player with a variety of headphones, both over-ear and in-ear, and in every case I was delighted not only by the overall sound quality on offer, but also by just how revealing the player was of the added resolution and impact of recordings at higher resolution – not to mention the rough, gritty texture of low-bitrate content.
It’s simple to set up the player to show the information you want during playback – track-name, cover art or other text information – and, provided the music stored on the player is tagged correctly, all works smoothly enough.
Music can be added to the player by switching memory cards, or just connecting up to a computer using the USB cable and ‘drag and drop’ copying directly to an installed card, and all that needs to be done once this is completed is a library update, which can be done manually, or set to happen automatically every time the player is connected to a computer via USB.
The bass, treble and balance controls are subtle in their operation, and there’s also a selectable gain control giving 6dB more level if required: this last may be worthwhile if you are using especially demanding headphones and you like your music really loud, but as already mentioned I had no problems with the drive and dynamics of the Fiio with everything set to ‘flat’, and the extra gain does come at the expense of a slight hardening of the sound.
As well as testing the X3 with headphones, I also connected it via its line output to my main system, as well as running the digital out through the D-to-A section of my network music player.
The result? The Fiio is rather good when connected via its analogue out, despite this involving a 5m run of (admittedly high-quality) interconnect cable, and a very fine digital transport when fed through an offboard converter (as one might expect given the original intention for the device).
With solo piano, the X3 delivers all the weight and finesse one could want, with a fine sense of the size of the instrument and the space in which it was recorded, and this is even more true when the recording in question is a high-resolution one. Meanwhile with large scale orchestral works the levels of detail available, plus the sharp, clear focus of the sound brings to life both the individual performers or sections, and the flow of the piece as a whole.
Meanwhile, play some mainstream rock or pop through the Fiio, and its sound has both power and definition, making for an exciting, involving listen, with vocals clearly defined and instrumental textures easy to appreciate. Oh, and it rocks, too!
The onboard conversion and amplification proves more than up to the job of powering the kind of headphones with which this player is likely to be used (and models beyond that remit), and when used as a source for a speaker-based system, whether using its digital or analogue outputs, the Fiio delivers a lot of music for a device so small.
True, those who use this player while travelling are going to be disappointed when they get to their destination that there’s not a dedicated dock waiting, as would be the case with many a modern hotel room and Apple’s iPods and iPhones. However, most docks have a 3.5mm analogue ‘AUX’ input, so provided you carry a suitable cable with you, there’ll be no problem.
That limitation – if it is a limitation – aside, as a means of carrying a decent amount of very high quality music in your pocket, and playing it wherever you want, this little device has much to recommend it, and comes at a very affordable price.
Add a high-quality pair of in-ear or on-ear headphones, and you have a complete high-resolution-capable music system wherever you want it. And that, in my opinion, makes the Fiio one of the significant audio bargains of the moment.
Price around £160
Type Digital audio player
Storage 8GB internal, up to 64GB on Micro SD cards
Formats played MP3, AAC, WMA and Ogg up to 16-bit/48kHz, and FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless and WMA 9.1 Lossless at up to 24-bit/192kHz, plus APE files
Gapless playback Yes, user-selectable
Outputs Headphones, electrical digital, analogue stereo line out
Other connections USB for charging/data transfer
Tone controls Yes: bass and treble, plus balance
Power Internal lithium-polymer battery, USB charging/power
Dimensions (WxHxD) 5.5×10.9×1.6cm