FiiO E3 Headphone Amplifier Review

IMG 1949 main FiiO E3 Headphone Amplifier Review

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.

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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.


dragnandy on July 29, 2008 1:08 PM

great review! im no audiophile, but for 8.50, ill might take a shot. if i have some low quality headphones, like the Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds, would the FiiO be efficient with the buds and a creative zen?

yuki on July 29, 2008 2:26 PM

Been waiting for your review for a while ^^, thanks. Quite surprised, order a few units ^^.

Skobbolop on July 29, 2008 4:09 PM

With my Bass-heavy v-moda Vibes the FiiO wouldn’t be much of an improvement or what?

jannovk on July 29, 2008 4:10 PM

Do you think it will have good gain with creative ep630? :)

JDGAFFLIN on July 29, 2008 4:50 PM

Another excellent review, Martin. You sold me on this one.

Mike on July 29, 2008 7:12 PM

Many thanks for the review–it’s good to see fairly inexpensive technology that does its job, and well!

alex on July 29, 2008 9:57 PM

Probably receive a “duh” answer for this question; Would this help to alleviate the low volume level I get when I plug my ZVM into my stock car stereo (3.5mm to 3.5mm)?Turning up my ZVM to full blast and the car’s volume really doesn’t help quality on mediocre speakers, not to mention my battery drains faster.

Archidelic on July 30, 2008 8:10 AM

Anyone have tried this with the hd595? If yes, it improved anything?Meanly in the bass?

Martin Sägmüller on July 30, 2008 8:30 AM

Jannovk – I don’t think it will do much good for the EP-630.Archidelic – Yes, the HD595 certainly could benefit from the FiiO.Alex – I dunno, give it a try! ;)

david on July 30, 2008 8:31 AM

I just bought one.The interconnect that comes with it sucks, good thing i had a decent $50 one lying around.Anyway, the problem is that you can’t turn this thing off when you have your headphones plugged in even though your mp3 player might not even be on. What a poor design flaw :( . And the battery life is not very good on AAA batteries either.Apart from that you can’t complain considering its price. Might as well buy one for a mate anyway!

Vuhuy Pham on July 31, 2008 1:16 PM

I’m using mine (FiiO, that is) with Senn HD555′s and I heard a definite improvement. Bass is more pleasing to my ears. However when used them with some $50 in-ear SONY buds, they actually sounded worse. :/Overall, get them if you have some nice open cans that could use some extra juice…couldn’t hurt.

Brad L. Wooldridge on July 31, 2008 1:36 PM

I’m definitely getting one of these eventually.But, my real question is, where did you get that screen protector for your 4GB Clip?I’ve had protectors, but had to cut them down to fit the Clip’s tiny screen.Thanks.

Andreas Ødegård on July 31, 2008 1:50 PM

Brad L. Wooldridge: That Clip is mine, and its also just a cut screen protector. there aren’t screen protectors specifically made for the Clip. Trick to make it work well is the round off the edges, if you dont it will fall off much easier :)

Eric on August 2, 2008 11:29 PM

too bad about the volume. otherwise i’d be on this sucker/

Brad L. Wooldridge on August 3, 2008 5:49 PM

Andreas Ødegård: Okay, thanks. That’s a good job! It look a professionally cut screen protector.

Chris on August 4, 2008 7:48 AM

I’ve got Sony D66′s and Atrio M5′s which I run off my Sansa e260. I know my D66′s would probably benefit from this, but does anyone know how the Atrio’s will respond? I read all these great things about the sound quality of the Atrio’s, but I don’t hear it…maybe I need to amp up my headphone output?

Martin Sägmüller on August 4, 2008 3:26 PM

Most of all you need to give the Atrios some time to settle down. They sound better after a few days of usage than fresh out of the box.

Martin Tran on August 6, 2008 7:53 AM

Thanks for the review!What did you use to create this frequency response diagram:

Martin Sägmüller on August 6, 2008 12:55 PM

I used RMAA, it’s free software:

TimothyT on August 8, 2008 9:13 PM

I have the fiio amp as well, my Creative Zen (just zen) has terrible output and very little bass. Even with my Sennheiser MX 500 the bass is weak, but with the fiio amp added on it sounds much better. It’s worth 10 bucks that’s for sure.

Jason on August 12, 2008 10:48 PM

They have a black version on dealextreme now

Brad L. Wooldridge on August 13, 2008 1:51 PM

I picked up the black one today: a whole five cents cheaper than the white one!

neal on September 27, 2008 11:16 AM

has anyone tried this with a rio karma and shure ec2′s?looks like it should and not much weight, although for that price i shall try one!

jjrosaria on October 18, 2008 3:00 AM

Hi will this work good with my senn hd 555. Cuz if yes i am gonna buy one straight away

Bear on October 24, 2008 2:08 AM

Just got mine in the mail, tested it with ER-6i, holy crap what an improvement in the bass!! This thing did wonders for the ER-6i, and took the cold edge off my DAP.. I now know the meaning of warm sounding..I love it, it put an ear to ear grin on me. If you don’t notice the difference in sound right away, try it on your next listening session and give it a few minutes and let it sink in, You’ll hear the difference..seriously, go buy one..for less than 10 bucks, it’s totally worth it.

jin on November 7, 2008 7:20 PM

Great Synergy with head-direct RE2

Sudhix on November 14, 2008 2:15 PM

Just got mine.It does wonders to my CowonA2 and Senn HD280.. It rocks

kevin on November 25, 2008 1:53 AM

great review, Martin. do you have any idea how it sounds with denon d1000?

Sub on December 25, 2008 4:25 PM

Ive been looking for a good screen protector like the one pictured… which one did you use?

sam on January 1, 2009 10:05 PM

has any one tried the new fiio E5 ? i came accross it on http://www.mp3amplifier.comany idea what the difference is? is it worth the price difference? i know it isnt much but i am just trying to get reviews before i buy. thanks

Rahul on January 7, 2009 6:48 AM

I’m thinking of one of the following set up:1.Ipod_Nano -> FiiO -> Senn_HD6002.Ipod_Nano -> FiiO -> Senn_HD6503.PC/Laptop -> FiiO -> Senn_HD650Pls provide inputs based on experience.Is there an alternative portable-amp which will be better suited in above set-ups. Priority is performance over cost.

Rahul on January 8, 2009 2:00 AM

Errata:Read “FiiO” as “E3 FiiO”As well if somebody can provide input on how better is E5 over E3 in above setup, then it will be of great help.Thx in advance,Rahul

JimDog on January 12, 2009 3:23 PM

Hope this isn’t a dumb question, but I’m not looking to improve on my headphones sound, I just want them to be louder.I just came back from a trip and on my new cell phone I could not watch a movie at all (couldn’t hear it).My previous cell phone with the same headphones worked great.So instead of spending >$100 on noise canceling headphones, I wonder if I could get away with this $10 item???

Zeus_Hunt on February 4, 2009 9:10 AM

How is the Clip attached to the FiiO on the 2nd last picture ?

Martin Sägmüller on February 13, 2009 10:01 PM

Double stick tape.

Daniel on July 26, 2009 5:59 PM

It’s really good, i bought it because the volume is too small for my audio Technica SQ-5, which I connect to SE W890.To attach it to my cell phone i use velcro, it’s cheap and useful.Anybody know will it still sound good with sansa fuze ? or will the bass’ll be too loud ?

Mike G on May 31, 2010 5:50 AM

Hi will this Fiio E3 headphone amp work with my old Sennheiser Hd600s and boost the volume without adding to much to overall natural sound and openness of the 600sThanks

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