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Golden Ears: Fiio FH9 Review (with the Fiio x Jade Audio KA3)

The Hybrid Flagship

Christopher Coke Updated: Posted:
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Hardware Reviews 0

Welcome back to Golden Ears, our column dedicated to the world of high-end audio. Today, we’re looking at the brand new flagship from Fiio with the FH9. Featuring a massive 13.6mm diamond-like carbon dynamic driver, six balanced armatures, interchangeable nozzles and cable ends, a new tuning, and pure titanium shells, it's time we dig into what exactly comes with a $599 earphone. And, more importantly, does it earn its keep at that price and its place in the Golden Ears pantheon of high-end headphones? 

Specifications

Current Price: $599 (Amazon

Fiio FH9 - Overview and Key Features

With the FH9, Fiio is adding a new flagship to its line-up. This new set comes alongside the FA9 and FD7, leading each product line. Breaking apart Fiio’s offerings can be confusing at first, but thankfully its naming conventions help clarify things. The FA series uses only balanced armatures for their sound. The FD series is only dynamic drivers. And the FH series is a hybrid, using a mix of dynamic drivers and BAs. 

The FH9 falls into that latter group and uses a single huge dynamic driver and six balanced armatures. Hybrid designs like this have become more popular in recent years and for good reason. Using different types of drivers allows earphone makers to play to the strengths of each. Using a small electronic component called a crossover, each is responsible for a set band of frequencies that hit the ear at once, creating a cohesive but detailed sound with less distortion.

In this case, bass duties are handled by a large 13.6mm dynamic driver using a diamond-like carbon diaphragm. For an earphone, that’s massive and required an improved magnetic circuit to power properly. Fiio has nailed the design, as it’s bass-rich, textured, realistic, and extremely pleasant to the ear. Mids and highs are segmented between the six Knowles balanced armatures. Rather than implement them on their own, Fiio actually partnered with Knowles to develop an improved system for each to work in harmony for the best possible sound. 

It’s clear that Fiio has taken feedback from the last entry in this line, the FH5s. Like that earphone (reviewed here), the FH9 uses two armatures right in the nozzles but the implementation is much improved. With the balanced nozzle and ear tips, there’s no harshness or sibilance. The FH5s could sometimes experience both at higher volumes, but this is a marked improvement and results in a more comfortable listen over extended sessions. I loved the FH5s but the FH9 is a huge step up in detail, resolution, and even atmosphere. It has kept me coming back, even when I should be testing new headphones. It really is that good. 

And, for most listeners, $599 is a big investment into an earphone. It should sound that good. It should be filled with small innovations to custom-tune the sound and delivery in a way that makes the user feel good about their investment. And even beyond that, it should look and feel that good also. On every single one of those fronts, Fiio delivers. 

The shells, for example, aren’t the usual resin we’ve become accustomed to. Instead, they’re milled from pure titanium. It looks and feels great (though is a bit heavy), its acoustic properties reduce unwanted resonances within the chamber. To take that a step further, Fiio has implemented a custom notch filter to further reduce resonances for enhanced clarity.

We also see the return of the semi-open back design found on the Fiio FH5s and the recent FD5 and FD7 earphones. This allows sound and pressure to escape out the back of the plate, but like large over-ear headphones, the sound leakage is absolutely minimal (though they are less isolating). You won’t need to worry about bothering the person sitting next to you with these but can instead enjoy a more natural and spacious sound. The soundstage is wide and realistic, outperforming most similarly or lesser-priced earphones, while stopping short of being the most spacious. The sense of space and realistic imaging (where sound sources seem to be coming from) is very well balanced for an exceptionally enjoyable listen.

The FH9 also gets the full customization treatment and accessory treatment. The cable is Fiio’s LC-RC ($69.99 bought separately) and is exquisite. It’s easily the best cable I’ve used to date (though, I admit to needing to experience more of the triple-digit options on the market), composed of 19-cores and 152 different wire strands. It’s rope-like but soft and flexible and includes interchangeable ends to accommodate 3.5mm single-ended sources and 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced outputs. 

The sound profile itself can subtly be tailored to your taste with interchangeable nozzles and eartips that emphasize certain colorations. There are bass, treble, and balanced nozzles that screw on and off of the earpiece. The bass and balanced nozzles each use Fiio’s S-Turbo design to modify the sound frequencies. In the picture above, you can see the balanced nozzle on top and the treble below for a closer look at their design. I was immediately able to hear a difference between these nozzles, which isn’t always the case. The difference is rather subtle and won’t completely change the sound signature, but it’s also clearly audible and can help tailor them to taste. There are also 15 pairs of ear tips in the case with silicone sets catering to bass, vocals, or a balanced sound signature. 

Fiio FH9 - Comfort and Fit

The FH9s are a larger earbud, which meant that I couldn’t get as secure of a fit as I would have liked. That said, they were quite comfortable to wear. It’s clear that Fiio has put time and effort into fine-tuning their ear-piece designs as each of their models lately have been easy to wear for extended periods of time. Due to their size, it was easy for the left earbud to come loose with any kind of activity beyond walking around. Definitely not exercise buds — but do people exercise in $600 earbuds without moisture protection? Probably not, so I don’t consider this a big deal. 

The more important piece is whether they are secure enough to create a proper seal and comfortable enough to wear for extended listening sessions, and the answer to both is yes. 

As per usual, there’s also a plentiful array of tips to choose from. There are 15 pairs altogether, including S/M/L pairs in balanced, balanced, bass, or vocal silicone varieties, two pairs of double-flanges, two pairs of SpinFits, and two memory foam sets. If you can’t find something that works here, you’re likely to struggle anywhere. It’s a generous assortment that should cater to the needs of any listener. 

Fiio x Jade Audio KA3 - Portable DAC/Amp

In addition to the FH9, Fiio sent along its latest dongle DAC, the Fiio x Jade Audio KA3. Jade Audio is Fiio’s new sub-brand that caters to a younger, more cost-sensitive audience without sacrificing audio quality. The KA3 features balanced (4.4mm) and single-ended (3.5mm) outputs, is made entirely of sturdy metal, and features an impressive spec-list for the $89.99 cost of entry.

The KA3 uses an ESS DAC (ES9038Q2M) which is largely neutral with a touch of warmth. Powered by USB-C (included via smartphone), it’s able to deliver sound up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD 512 decoding. A small LED ring on its face will change color based on the sampling rate of the music you’re listening to. 

Despite its small 2.25 x 0.75 inch size, it packs a punch. From its 3.5mm port, it can output 130mW into 32 ohms. When connected over balanced, that increases to 240mW. In simple terms, it has enough power to drive just about anything at full resolution excepting only very demanding over-ear headphones. I was able to drive my HIFIMAN Ananda and GoldPlanar GL2000 with room to spare. The FH9s, when connected to my PC over balanced, I had to turn the PC volume all the way down to 5 and keep my music at 50% to keep from getting much too loud. 

At $89.99, this is a high-value device. I wish it offered MQA support for users who want it, but since I don’t personally use TIDAL, I didn’t miss it (and the audiophile community is very mixed on whether MQA has any benefit at all, so this may not matter at all depending on how you listen). I also wish there were some kind of onboard volume control to make quick adjustments, but that functionality is left to your source.

That doesn't mean the KA3 doesn't have any control. In fact, it also has its own control app when connected to an Android device. Using the app, you can choose between seven different filters that will subtly affect the sound. It also possible to manually swap between low and high gain modes and even correct channel imbalance from your source, which is a neat addition. 

Fiio FH9 - Listening Impressions

Finally, we come to it. How do they sound?! I conducted most of my listening on my PC or phone using the KA3 but did also drive these from a Khadas Tone 2 Pro desktop amp. My source was mostly Spotify on Very High quality but I did break that up with other high-res sources. My listening was a mix of guitar-driven metal, ambient chillstep, live contemporary worship music, and a mix of piano and orchestral tracks covering said metal. I also spent the most time with the balanced nozzles and silicone tips. 

Fiio got so much right here. For my personal tastes, the FH9 hit the perfect notes. The bass is plentiful, rich, and textured. The mids are clear and alive with detail, delivered with realistic timbre. The highs are just enough to enhance percussion and the sense of space and atmosphere. They aren’t sharp or sibilant. Fiio has taken the lessons its learned from its last releases and applied them here in expert fashion. 

The overall sense is one of balance. No one element overwhelms the other. Where the FD5s were a bit too bass light, these dial it up with that massive DLC driver. Listening to Sean Townsend’s cover of Killswitch Engage’s “Take This Oath,” even on YouTube, was an atmospheric joy. The strings were wide and filled the bottom of the track, creating a bed for the details in the mids to jump out (separation and imaging are great on this track.) Jumping to PVRIS’s “What’s Wrong,” the kick and bass had good thump and impact. Bass texture is excellent. 

When it comes to mids, the tuning is very nuanced. Guitars jump out, especially clean notes which hang in the mix. Vocals are slightly stepped back, clear but not intimate, soft and natural sounding. “The Interview” by AFI is a good example of how instruments blend. The rotary effect on the guitars comes through crystal clear and has an almost psychedelic effect on these earphones thanks to their excellent imaging. The detail here is absolutely exceptional. When more than one person is singing at a time, you can clearly hear tiny textural differences between the two voices. It’s exquisite.

The middle-highs are treble here are my favorite of any Fiio tuning. They’re not rounded off or prematurely rolled, but aren’t sharp even at higher volumes. There’s a sense of airiness and sparkle here that enhances the music. High hats, snares, and cymbals pop forward to the front of the mix in a way that’s great for rock and pop music. There’s a snappiness and pop to these earphones that’s very enjoyable with this tuning. 

I did test the other nozzles, and as you can see from the graph above, they really only separate in the middle-highs and treble. Red is the bass nozzle, yellow is the balanced nozzle, and green is the treble nozzle. These differences are clearly audible, more so than the switches on the FH5s, but I found the balanced set to be the most enjoyable. With the bass nozzle, the low-end was increased but seemed to lose some definition. The treble filter did occasionally sound a bit sharp. This can be remedied with less volume, but the balanced nozzle was definitionally the most enjoyable with the least sacrifice. 

Imaging was great and soundstage was very good. There’s a great sense of separation between instruments, so you can clearly hear exactly how your favorite song is composed. The positionality of the different instruments is easy to discern. The soundstage is very natural but it isn’t as wide or tall as a good set of over-ear open-backs (I pick up more scale than depth or width). Go in expecting better performance than closed-back earphones but keep things realistic. The emphasis here is on a naturally open sound and it is finely tuned to deliver exactly that.

Final Thoughts

This review is effusive. I get it. I’ve been lucky enough to review many different headphones this year and the FH9 is easily my favorite, even toppling outstanding sets like the Mangird Xenns Up (which I still adore). Audio is a very personal thing and depends on your music library, but for my own, these earphones are simply outstanding. With the FH9, Fiio has taken all of the feedback it received on the FH5s and FD5 and applied that here. For the money, these are an incredible option and a triumph of Fiio’s design ambitions.

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

9.5Amazing
Pros
  • Beautifully balanced sound signature
  • Excellent build quality (titanium shells)
  • Great cable with interchangeable ends
  • Addresses virtually all of the concerns of prior models
  • Fiio KA3: Tons of power, well constructed, well priced
Cons
  • Soundstage is good but not great
  • Fiio KA3: No onboard volume controls or MQA support


GameByNight

Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight


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