These days, it seems like all we see are headphones and in-ear monitors. But for many of us, we spent our youths with circular earbuds plugged into our ears, whether we were listening on an iPod Touch or plugged into a computer for a gaming session in the school computer lab. Contrary to how it may seem, earbuds are still very much a competitive choice and Fiio is out to prove that with its new FF3 dual-cavity earbuds.
The FF3 uses a specialized drum-like design to enhance the quality of bass of its while still delivering plentiful details thanks to its beryllium-coated driver. We’ve paired it with Fiio’s new KA2 portable DAC/amp that can instantly enhance the sound of your smartphone or PC and offers a balanced connection on a budget. In fact, both products are affordable with the FF3 featuring an MSRP of $99.99 but already selling at a discount on AliExpress. The KA2, on the other hand, comes to market at $44.99, making this pairing an affordable solution no matter where you’re listening.
But does the sound quality deliver for music and games? Let’s take a closer look and find out!
Fiio FF3 - First Impressions and Key Features
The Fiio FF3 is the latest earbud from Fiio after a string of successes in other form factors and categories. The company has been incredibly active releasing new products over the last year and its in-ear monitors have been positively received, including here at MMORPG.com.The FF3 takes popular design choices found within its in-ear line and applies them here to good effect to devlier a product that punches above its price point, while making some smart trade-offs to keep its price low.
Let’s start with build quality. The FF3 uses stainless steel shells, available in silver or black. They’re durable and feel premium. The cable is non-detachable, but also very nice, and composed of silver-plated copper. It’s very soft and thin where it meets the earbuds. I have a number of aftermarket cables and appreciate the option to swap out to one of my favorites, but the cable is good enough that I’m not sure I would even if it was detachable. There aren’t any big trade-offs here.
The cable, while locked to the buds, isn’t locked to the termination. Like Fiio’s more expensive sets, the FF3 features a swappable termination for either 3.5mm or 4.4mm connections. To change them, you simply unscrew the metal shield surrounding the termination and the plug easily pulls free. The buds don’t require special listening equipment to sound great, but swappable terminations is an outstanding feature at this price point and ensures compatibility with everything from your gaming PC to your high-end DAC.
The buds also feature the unique, stylish design that’s become married to Fiio these last few years. The dual-cavity drum design results in an hourglass-like design. The grilles are almost snowflake-like, so it’s a shame to cover them with a foam filter. The opposite side features a pattern of triangles in a glossy finish that looks striking.
Inside those shells is a massive 14.2mm dynamic driver. With a size like that, the driver is able to move a lot of air and you can count on a big sound. Big drivers can sometimes have issues covering the whole frequency spectrum with the same level of quality. To ensure exceptional high-end details, the driver has been coated with Beryllium to increase its rigidity and responsiveness. It also uses a PU dome and copper-clad voice coil to enhance its timbre and tonality.
The other element of that is the drum-like chamber that makes up the other half of the hourglass. This chamber isn’t designed to increase the amount of bass. The driver itself is more than capable of delivering quantity. Instead, it’s designed to improve the quality of the bass you hear: more texture and details, and greater extension.
Also included in the package is a series of tuning foams. There are six pairs each of bass, balanced, and crisp foams. You can also wear the buds naked, if you prefer, but I would recommend adding a filter for enhanced comfort. These foams also make a noticeable difference in the tuning of the earbuds. The bass tips definitely raise the low-end and give the buds a warmer sound overall. The balanced tips give the FF3 more of a V-shaped tuning. The crisp tips are essentially just donut rings for comfort without any filter for the grille itself and allow you to hear all of the detail and air in the upper end.
Finally, you have the hardshell plastic travel case. It’s the same one Fiio has been using with its earbuds for some time and is as good as ever. It’s not the most pocketable case, but keeps the buds safe, even in a full backpack.
Fiio KA2 Balanced DAC/Amp - First Impressions and Key Features
The Fiio KA2 is the kind of dongle DAC I longed to find only a year ago. At only $44.99, it features a 4.4mm balanced output, a great DAC, and enough power to drive many over-ear headphones, limiting the amount of gear you’ll need to carry from place to place.
While the FF3 doesn’t require a balanced connection, connecting over balanced usually means higher peak output from your amplification device. In this case, the KA2 is able to output up to 152mW into 32 ohms. That’s enough to drive virtually any IEM or earbud on the market today and most over-ear headphones too. You’ll want to step up power output if you plan to drive low sensitivity planar magnetics, but for it’s tiny size, the KA2 is remarkably powerful.
And about its size: the pictures don’t do it justice. This tiny DAC/amp is easily pocketable and even looks minuscule next to other dongle DACs, like the AudioQuest DragonFly Series. Its small size doesn’t undermine its robustness, as the entire chassis is made of durable metal. There are no physical controls, but an indicator light changes color to indicate the quality of the audio that’s being played.
Under the hood, the KA2 uses a pair of Cirrus-Logic CS43131 DAC chips. This dual DAC design dramatically reduces the chance of cross talk and audible distortion. It features a maximum sampling rate of 32-bit, 384kHz. It also supports up to DSD256 audio decoding.
There are also some software features that are available when you download the Fiio Control app. The biggest of which is selectable gain modes. If you’re listening to IEMs or earbuds, low gain will likely suffice. But, if you’re connecting over-hear headphones, high gain may be in order. You can also select from five digital low-pass filters that will slightly alter the sound to your personal taste.
At $44.99, the KA2 is a flat-out great value. The only thing that could make it better would be if it also supported 3.5mm headphones. At this price, with the kind of audio quality it delivers, I’m not going to pick on it for that.
And with that, let’s get into sound quality.
Fiio FF3 and KA2 - Listening Impressions
Heading into this review, I hadn’t listened to a pair of earbuds in the better part of a decade. As such, more experienced earbud listeners may have slightly different impressions. Take my reports here as those of a massive IEM and over-ear fan “going home” to the earbud form factor.
All of my listening for these tests was done with the KA2 connected to my smartphone. I listened to a wide array of tracks and genres on Spotify “Very High” quality. I also used the KA2 on my PC to play games.
The first thing that stood out to me about the FF3 is that I had to retrain my ears to use the earbud form factor. They follow the same circular design of Apple’s original earbuds, but after years of using in-ears, I found that they made my outer ears sore for a good week. That eventually faded, but the larger design takes some adjustment, especially if you have smaller ears. Today, I can wear them comfortably for a good couple hours before needing a break, but your mileage may vary.
The second thing to keep in mind is that the foams you use will make a big impact on the sound profile you’ll hear — more so than simple tip swapping with in-ear headphones. There is a noticeable change in the sound across all three, which is great for tuning it to your taste.
Don’t let the graph above worry you — these earbuds aren’t bass short, sharp, or shouty. I say that because the graph did worry me. That graph makes it look like the earbuds lack bass and could potentially be much too bright. In fact, the earbuds are very well balanced and have plenty of bass. They are bright overall, but not negatively so. With either the crisp foams or bare, the FF3 has a classic, audiophile-friendly tuning that balanced well-textured bass with great details in the mids and highs. With the balanced or bass foams, they become quite a bit warmed and lean into the low-end.
There’s also good bass extension, which isn’t at all what I see in that graph. You can hear noticeable rumble in the sub-bass frequencies even at moderate volumes. The bass is punchy and well-textured. It appears that the drum cravity is effective!
At the same time, there’s quite a bit of detail in the higher registers too. I especially liked this set for rock music. Vocals are forward and warm. Cymbals from the drums have realistic sparkle and decay. Snares snap. Guitars, on the other hand, move freely throughout the soundscape depending on the mix. This is an area that can work against it at times, as acoustic guitars exists in the area of its mid-range bumps and can sometimes sound too wide and uncontrolled. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, but when it jumps out — Rain City Drive’s I’d Rather See Your Star Explode — it’s left me reaching for the EQ.
What made them stand out more, however, was the soundstage. Compared to IEMs, the soundstage is much wide and more open, closer to open-back headphones than in-ears. This, I’m told, is common to earbuds and one of the reasons they still have a dedicated fanbase. Since the buds don’t fit into the ear canal, they’re able to leverage more of the outer ear to deliver a greater sense of space. The FF3s aren’t as wide as they best in-ears or over-ear headphones, but they’re excellent for the current price point. They also aren’t great at isolation either, so using them on a noisy commute will be more difficult than with a sealed off pair of IEMs.
This also makes the FF3s a great fit for gaming. They’re able to deliver audiophile-level sound quality with a wider soundstage than any in-ear at this price point I can recall. You won’t need to enable Dolby Atmos with these. The bass performance also makes cinematic moments and bursts of intense action very fun. If you don’t mind the form factor, these are a great choice for gaming right out of the box.
Throughout my testing, the KA2 outperformed my expectations. It’s dead quiet: no white noise that bleeds into your listening, even with more sensitive IEMs. I couldn’t hear a big difference between the different filters, but found that it delivered excellent sound quality even on its default Minimum Phase Roll-Off Filter. Notes sounded realistic, with enough weight and dynamic range to make music and games enjoyable. This is an easy upgrade for your PC audio, even if you’re already running a high-end gaming motherboard.
Returning to the foams — I was surprised to find, based on the graph, that the bass and balanced filters warmed up the sound too much for my ears. The bass filter decreased the details I could hear in the highs and placed a veil on the listening experience. The balanced filter reduced that substantially. I found that the bass didn’t need any extra enhancement, however, so I went with the crisp foams and haven’t looked back since.
The FF3 and KA2 make an excellent pairing, but each delivers great sound quality on their own. At their current pricing, these are both great value products. The earbud form factor won’t be for everyone, particularly if you have smaller ears, but the enhancements to soundstage are an meaningful trade-off, (especially for gaming). At $99, or less, for the FF3, and $44.99 for the KA2, Fiio has priced these competitively, and I suspect both will do very well once more people get a chance to give them a listen.
The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.