Even if you happen to be a confirmed audiophile, chances are you’ve stopped using a dedicated digital audio player a long time ago. From the days of the iPod to the rake of other digital players that were all the rage about a decade ago, precedence has undoubtedly moved to the more convenient smartphone.
These days smartphones are, after all, more than capable of playing back high-quality audio. So why, then, would a consumer want to go out and buy a dedicated audio player? I reckon it would be for one reason only: because the user is a purist; one who necessarily wants to have a dedicated device that does one specific job, and does that job well. Also, having a dedicated player means that all of its storage can be used for music and music alone.
With a smartphone, a compromise would need to be made, with a lot less than the maximum storage space being available given the installed apps and the like. And if your lossless music collection runs into many tens of gigabytes, 32 or 64GB of storage on your phone just wouldn’t cut it.
So a dedicated music player it is. Which brings us to the Fiio X3; a baby-fied version of their high-end X5 that we reviewed earlier this year. While almost similar in physical appearance, the X3 is physically smaller and excludes some of the features of its bigger sibling.
Flipping it around in the hand, the front of the device is dominated by the OLED screen and the click wheel with the four buttons arranged around the dial. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and a 3.5mm output that doubles up as a Line-out or Coaxial out. On the left side is the power button and volume up/down along with the tiny reset button recessed in a hole. The microSD card is located on the right side; you’ll need to invest in a memory card of your choice as the player itself has no internal storage. A little blue LED on the front beneath the click wheel indicates power on. The device is built using a brushed aluminium alloy body, which does impart a certain heft despite its Lilliputian demeanor.
In the package is included a useful silicone sleeve that snugly fits on the device to protect it from occasional dings. A couple of screen protectors are included for the device’s front display. There is also a set of gimmicky stickers that you can use to dress up the device as the American Flag, a wooden texture, or a black carbon fibre type weave.
To take the device through its paces, we loaded a selection of high-quality MP3 (320Kbps) and lossless (FLAC 96KHz and 192KHz) audio tracks on the device. Connecting the device to a computer via its USB interface has it show up as a drive, and transferring files is as easy as drag and drop, although speeds are limited to USB 2.0 throughput--I clocked an average of 4.5MB/sec transferring to the device, which can be tediously slow. You’ll often need to transfer hundreds of file, and having a USB 3.0 interface would have sped things up significantly.
On the listening front, we paired the player with Audio Technica ATH-M40X headphones and fired up a selection of tracks across genres like classic rock, jazz, hip-hop and classical. The sound delivered was both warm and sharp, with excellent rendering of all the nuances we looked out for in each of the tracks: the intake of breath before Andrea Bocelli launches into ‘Our Father’, the riff against the strings in the guitar solo in ‘Hotel California (Live)’, the faint discordant arpeggio that plays in the background in Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’. The player does complete justice to high-resolution files and a good pair of headphones.
There’s also a 10-band graphic equalizer with a custom setting for fine-tuning the audio experience to your particular taste. You can also use this device as an external sound card, using its high-quality built-in DAC/Amp with audio files on your laptop or desktop; simply plug it into a USB port, toggle the appropriate setting on the device and select it as the playback device from your computer.
We did encounter a few downers though. For starters, the volume level appeared to be lower compared to when we generally use the same headphones via a dedicated DAC/Amp like Fiio’s own E07K. Also the interface is still as rudimentary as its predecessor--no support for smart playlists, and still no search function; factors that can swiftly become an issue with a multi-thousand music library. Also the click wheel is not the touch type; it’s the same fiddly rotating version that just doesn’t feel solid.
At Rs 14,599, this certainly isn’t an impulse buy for most people. But then, this isn’t a device for everyone; only purists would want to invest in the singular functionality of this device. That said, there are no other devices on the market that can deliver this level of audio fidelity at this price.
What we liked: Excellent audio quality, all-metal body, silicone sleeve included
What we didn’t: Maximum volume level could be higher, USB 2.0 interface makes for slower transfers, dated user interface
Specs at a glance
Formats supported: AIFF, APE, FLAC, ALAC, WMA and WAV (192/ kH/24-bit)
Battery: 2600mAH Lithium Polymer
Body material: Aluminium alloy
Outputs: Coaxial/Line Out, 3.5mm headphone out
Usage modes: Player/External DAC
Storage: None inbuilt, microSD card slot
Interface: USB 2.0
Price: Rs 14,599