They came, they saw, they conquered. This is an understatement to just how far FiiO has come in the headphone audio business; they’re a house brand now. The FiiO legacy is something that I’ve divided into three segments: Build up, domination, and now, empire. My friends, FiiO is here and here to stay.
James Chung – CEO of FiiO – established the company in 2007. The biggest goal was perhaps establishing the idea that ‘Made in China’ could be synonymous with world-class quality and dedication. From 2007 to 2011, the mainstay of their product lines were the E3 entry level portable amp, E5 portable amp, and E7 portable DAC/amp. These proved to be quite popular and were fundamental to FiiO’s ability to establish a foothold in the headphone audio market. This is the build up. The secondary wave was the domination of the marketplace. From approximately 2011 to 2013, FiiO underwent a massive process of re-investing to completely fill their product lines with close to everything imaginable dealing with audio processing. The E17, E6, E11, E12, and many products were produced during this period (give or take a few months) and gave them solidification in the market. But from 2014 on, we have the secondary K series revamp and DAP launches that have pretty much skyrocketed anything FiiO is pushing out. The K series are FiiO’s way of updating the model numbers of their old products to a new one. But the main popularity is with FiiO’s DAPs, the X1, X3, and X5. Today, we have the X1 ($99 USD) and we are excited to give this a unit the coronation that it so deserves. *(Please note that these “wave” periods I mention are merely something that I’ve conjured up myself and do not reflect any of FiiO’s views or statements. They are a personal insight into FiiO’s rise.)
FiiO has, in the past, dealt with a composite combination of materials for the construction of their devices and the X1 is no different. The front of the X1 is composed of a single piece of shaped metal and composes the straight front of the device and all four sides of the unit. It is held in place by two specialty screws on the bottom of the unit. The back is a plastic that mimics the material texture and color of the frontal metal and features traditional FiiO silk-screening.
Without a doubt, the unit is well built. Nothing really screams out that it is about to fall apart and it is quite sturdy. The buttons have a satisfactory press feedback to it and doesn’t overly jiggle in the location. Upon testing the flushness of the screen bezel and scroll pad, I found it to be done well without any jarring sharp parts or vibrations in normal use.
The faults in the build are a result of FiiO’s early development in DAPs, but are by no means glaring. FiiO is essentially developing most of their hardware in house and with ‘what they know’. While a lot of the outside looks like stuff that has been around for decades, its much more complicated than that. Their scroll wheel is the biggest example of their continued innovation and developmental drive. It’s in working condition but due to how it tracks and stabilizes it is one of the weakest links the device for the build. The wheel jiggles a bit, with an approximate +- 1.5mm rise and lowering on both sides. It’s not much but it’s noticeable and that’s all that it takes. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the buttons start sticking a while (no, I didn’t spill anything on it). My top volume button is starting to give ‘two’ tactile feedbacks, meaning that it is hitting something first before the membrane switch. I’m not sure if others have the same issue, but it’s happening on mine so I may as well report it. (This review was written with the latest, 1.1 firmware.) The last thing I’d like to say is that the X1 can take a beating but in place of not damaging the internal components, the outside dents very easily. My X1 has one or two battle scars from my early uses when my hand wasn’t accustomed to it (this may be why my top button is acting weird as the switch may have gotten damaged). The device escapes from these drops without an issue but the body shows all the damage that has happened to it sadly. You win some you lose some, and in this case, I guess it’s better that the device can stay alive without an issue and be left with some scars than vice versa.
The user interface is perhaps one of the most fundamental and important parts of a DAP. The FiiO X1 builds off FiiO’s previous platforms with a few twists in the GUI. The expertise that FiiO was able to gain through the past few years of testing have really paid off. I still remember the initial software for the X3; it was quite buggy and slow. The X1 on the other hand, is speedy, intuitive, and quite comparable to consumer devices.
The device truly understands what you want to use its buttons for. What was once plagued with useless buttons on their past devices and firmware, FiiO’s engineering team gave the X1 (and software updates for the others) access to device functions while the screen is off. Holding the up button goes to the next track while holding the down button either restarts the track (if it’s been playing for a while) or traverses to the previous one. The volume buttons also work as intended while the screen is off. This feature can be turned on or off in the device settings. I for one, welcome this lock screen layout and the other two choices they give you. My only nitpick is that FiiO does not have consistency with this function. On the X5, the up button and down buttons do the opposite of the X1 in terms of traversing song selection when held. As I transition between the two frequently, it was quite confusing. I found the X5’s layout to be better thanks to this, but once you get used to it on the X1, it’s not an issue to use.
The song selection process is quite intuitive and working, but it could use some fixes. Moving between songs, playing them, and accessing menus is straightforward on the X1. It operates similar to an iPod in some capabilities with automatic song categorization, and similar to a desktop file browser with the manual song categories. It’s not an overly complicated system and it works quite well granting you don’t have corrupt files on the SD card. The nitpicking I have for the X1 here would be that it has some lag and hang up issues. Entering, exiting, or position scrolling through a track, if you do it too quick, will hang the system up. There aren’t any audio pops or issues during this, but you can see the system just hang for a moment before resuming operation. This means that you can’t try to win finger movement competitions on the X1 during operation. It can handle general use speed without a hitch, but immediately pressing the enter button to enter a song and then trying to scroll through a track, change volume and then pause caused the system lockup.
The X1 has a whole suite of features. I’ll just recount some of the main ones. For one, the X1 supports up to one 128GB micro SD card for storage; there is no internal memory. The unit also has a fixed line out for using it with another amplifier of your choice. Did I mention that the X1 also has a fairly reasonable screen size and quality of color production? It’s not bad for sure and hell, it’s survived my non-planned drop tests without issue. It has external buttons with that scroll wheel of it’s and is pretty easy to use. The only feature that will disappoint some is that it cannot be used as a dedicated DAC with a computer or phone. This is the line FiiO had to cut the costs at folks.
The overall design of the unit is quite intuitive with only a few physical nitpicks. Starting with the side control buttons, after the first few days of getting used to them, I had no issues using them. The X1’s side control features a near flush Wake/On button followed by a small reset hole before leading to a raised Volume up and then down button (with the volume up button featuring a small raised dot). The use of flushing the wake button and raising the two volume buttons with the additional raised dot on the volume up serves to differentiate the buttons when you are not looking at it. This works 99% of the time, but there are a few times here and there that I wish the buttons weren’t as close to each other. Due to how small the device is it’s easy to be off by a few millimeters only to find that you are hitting the wake button instead of the volume keys. The X1’s main control buttons on the face feature the same layout as the X5 but this time, with silkscreen printing to alert the user to what their functions are. This lessons the initial device shock that users may have from not knowing what the buttons do, but past the first few hours of use, you’ll never look at them again.
The side design is too plain and there isn’t anything they can do about it really. I don’t know if it’s the silver color as opposed the X5’s stealth black, but it almost feels like the X1 is just throwing stuff randomly across the sides (it isn’t). Whereas headphone audio devices usually have packed upper and lower sides for inputs and outputs, the X1 just has on centered input USB plug and a 3.5mm output on the left side on the top. It just seems way too plain that it throws me off. This goes the same for the micro SD slot being on the right side of the unit with nothing else there. It just seems almost like a cheap Chinese toy rather than a device. I honestly don’t know why it gives off this feeling, but there honestly is nothing else that I would have designed it to give it a better look. I mean they could move the wake button to the right side on the top side panel, and the micro SD slot to the bottom like the X5, but at the same time, spacing issues would probably make that a bit more difficult. In the end, I can’t offer a solution to the side panel design, but it honestly just looks too plain and almost random.
The FiiO X1 was used in conjunction with the AKG Q701, Miu MR2 IEM, CS4398 DAC, Objective 2 Amplifier, NuForce Reference DAC8, and a suite of other headphones and source components.
Let’s talk amplification of the X1 and if it struts the strut. Well for starters, the X1 can output 100mW @ 16 ohms, has a max output current of 46 mA, line output of 1.46 Vrms, and a max output voltage of more than 4.2 Vp-p (peak to peak) and an output impedance of less than 2 ohms. By comparison, an iPod can output only .5 to 1 Vrms. This gives the X1 quite a bit of power for its size making it capable of being a source component for even desktop rigs. My testing of the X1 have confirmed that it doesn’t have an issue with any environment I use it in, be it with another amp, a desktop rig, or even a portable one. It just works.
The sound of the X1 is thick, warm, and with a forward emphasis. It’s immediately recognizable when you hear it, that the X1 has some serious warmth throughout the midrange. Compared to higher end units, it’s not as separated or transparent but at the price range, it is barely something that I even would consider an issue. The warm sound signature compliments modern genres well and the thicker bass really rolls well with it. The tonality is fairly rich rather than neutral, and so playback of songs won’t be as accurate as one may remember it.
The X1 was especially memorable when it got the ‘home team’ advantage. Asian music (yup) especially modern Asian pop was something the X1 excelled at. On Alan’s album Love Song, the track “Love Affordable” was something of a real treat. The warm and condensed mid range of the X1 really brought out the voice, but it was the warmth that really did it. The unit is really good at masking production mistakes that occur in recording or otherwise. It’s not as sharp as the X5 was at times, and rather takes a mellow path. Throughout the song, there are plenty of moments in where the vocal artist would have a bit of trouble with cohesion with the track or there would be random distortion at set parts. On other units, this really becomes too apparent whereas the X1 is able to buff out the faults as if they didn’t even happen.
The bass is the X1’s rise to fame, but also its downfall. The low frequency section production on the X1 is pretty boomy. It didn’t have that much more of a rise in general volume, but man was it loose and expansive. On the plus side, on the track “Grew” of the same album by Alan, the looseness and boomy gave the song some real oomph on headphones lacking in bass, and to really bring out the song. The beginning minute of the song has some nice bass kicks and has a melody focused around it. The bass on the X1 worked well here and the effect is visible on other songs as well. It provides a tender addition to the music and it really carries it through at times. But alas, the downfall is with the same exact problem. On quality tracks and with reference tracks I know like the spec sheet of my computer, it becomes apparent when minute details are off. This pretty much happened every second when doing bass tests and noticing that everything was just off on the tracks with more deliberate use of low-frequency instrumentation.
The X1 brings everything more forward, oh, and it ditches transparency for the best thing since sliced bread. No it doesn’t, but seriously, when listening and comparing the X1, I noticed something very distinct. It’s like the X1 pretty much just dropped the idea of neutrality, accuracy, and a point towards making the electronics disappear that most strive towards. The X1’s sound was very colorful, forward, and pretty much like a Michael Bay movie if you consider everything else to be like a Chris Nolan. The vibrancy that the X1 has was like the initial adoption of 3D glasses; it was a ‘we think this is better anyway’ kind of thing. It’s not bad or new by any means, it was just interesting that FiiO went with this route for the X1 – many units in the world follow a similar sound ideology to what I’m describing. It certainly makes walks to class more interesting on the X1 than with a more neutral unit like the Colorfly C4.
Overall for the sound, I found that it was quite interesting for the price point and offered a great vibrant mood for the to-go crowd. The rich and forward signature that the X1 brings to the table certainly brings some value to the market.
I’d just like to give a standing ovation, because this unit is as cheap ($99) in the U.S and is readily available from a name brand manufacturer (FiiO). Seriously, it has 128GB storage option, line output and an easy to use UI. And best of all, it’s not hard to find or buy compared to many other units on the market thanks to FiiO’s market saturation. I’m astounded by the vibrant (but not as accurate) sound that FiiO can push out with the X1 with the features it has and the price point it sits at. If you are in the market for a cheap audiophile DAP for use in the car, as a transport, or even to get your feet wet in the field, look no further than your local retailer for the X1.
Bowei Zhao is an aspiring audio Guru who spends his time studying Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, fighting wraiths on his PC in the deepest dungeons, and finding out what the newest tech products are on the landscape so he can get his hands on them.