I’ve been using this incredibly tiny and cheap headphone amp we already mentioned earlier for a few days now and I’m really impressed with its performance. My expectations weren’t exactly high when I ordered it, but after testing it with several phones I’d say the Chinese FiiO company managed to design a really fine product.
The amp’s construction is very simple. It’s powered by one AAA battery and sporting only a 3.5mm input jack that connects to the headphone output of an MP3 player and another 3.5mm output jack where the headphones plug in. The output also acts as the power switch. A red LED lights up when phones are plugged in, indicating that the amp is active. Rumor has it that a National Semiconductor LM4917 op-amp works at the core of the amp. However, this has yet to be verified.
The FiiO E3 was not designed to work with line-out connections since it lacks a volume control. However, what it does for low- (and not-so-low) powered headphone outputs can be quite nice – when one’s headphones synergize well with the amp, that is.
The FiiO certainly doesn’t improve every phone you throw at it. It especially doesn’t like a variety of low-impedance or overly sensitive in-ear phones. For example, my extremely efficient Shure SE530 or UE Super.Fi 5 tend to hiss a lot when plugged into the amp. This hiss can be fixed for some phones by simply using an impedance adapter plug, which increases the resistance of the output. However, some phones (like the SE530) don’t like those adapters and their sound quality decreases when used with one. Other phones, like Etymotic ER-6, don’t seem to mind some added resistance and work fine that way. It’s a bit of a gamble, but considering the price of the FiiO, there’s hardly anything to lose. Furthermore, if one doesn’t mind some background hiss, the choice of phones that can be used with the FiiO increases by quite a bit.
Where I like the FiiO’s sound the best is with full-sized, higher impedance phones, or very bright sounding ones. My favorite combination is using it between the slightly bright sounding Sansa Clip and the Ultrasone HFI-780. That’s some fine synergy, if I ever heard some. The FiiO gives a bit more body to the bass and tames the slightly overbearing treble of the Ultrasones quite nicely. The differences might be subtle for some listeners, but it is certainly an improvement. Also the q-Jays benefit a lot from this amp’s characteristics. They already have a very precise bass reproduction, but could use a little more impact for my taste – and that’s exactly what the FiiO adds, besides taming their powerful treble (without veiling the sound). This setup sounds less fatiguing to me and can be enjoyed longer before getting “hot ears” from too much treble consumption.
By no means is the FiiO an amplifier with a linear response. I measured its frequency response with RMAA and was somewhat surprised at the results. The whole frequency range below 500Hz gets boosted by about 3dB. For my taste this is a very welcome behavior, especially for phones that lack a little oomph in the bass department, like the q-Jays or Ety ER-6. I’ve been using the FiiO mostly with my Sansa Clip, which has a rather sub-par sounding equalizer. The FiiO’s bass boost sounds a lot better than the Clip’s software EQ, so I can leave the Clip’s muddy EQ turned off and enjoy some higher quality op-amp bass instead.
Even though the FiiO boosts the bass it doesn’t affect the detailedness and precision of the connected source. Without exaggeration, it sounds as clean as my old PA2V2 amplifier and some CMOY amps I tried, and it’s also not a lot worse than my Corda Headsix.
One thing the FiiO doesn’t do is boosting the perceived volume level by a lot. In the right setup it can add some quality to the sound, but not a huge amount of loudness. So don’t expect it to work wonders on some 300 Ohm phones attached to your cell phone, or crippled French-firmware player. I measured a volume boost of around 7-8dB with the FiiO, something that is generally perceived as “about twice as loud” in comparison to the unamped output of the connected player.
So, by all means, give the FiiO E3 a try if you want to add some higher quality bass to your portable setup, cut down on some predominant treble, or want to drive some higher impedance phones with a bit more impact. It might not work with every headphone out there and it might add some background hiss to some phones – but at $8.50 it’s definitely worth a try. Maybe you find some good synergy. I know I did. The FiiO is a fun toy that added some new excitement to my uber-portable workout rig and I sure intend to keep the amp with me on the go.
You can purchase the FiiO E3 from DealExtreme ($8.50, worldwide free shipping). Let’s hope they start selling the black version of the FiiO as well.