Upgrades and Side Grades

(Using the mid-tier Westone W4 BA IEM as reference)

The X1 v the X3 2G

Those wondering if the X3 2G is a decent upgrade on their X1, well the short answer is yes. Compared to the new X3, the X1 sounds darker, more congested and with a notch or two less resolution and clarity and indeed a heavier bass bias. Definition is not as good in the low end though and the speed is not quite up to par also with the new X3. More often than not I use an X1 strapped to a more neutral amp such as the RX just to tone down the weight and increase the air of the X1 stock performance. It is a great budget DAP do not get me wrong but I found myself more easily engaged and drawn in with the soundstage, detail and layering of the X3 2G once we got beyond the crash bang and wallop of the X1.

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The X3 2G v the X5

There is also been a lot of chat about the X3 2nd gen and the X5 being more bosom buddies in terms of tonality and to some extent that is true. Both have a far more neutral character than the older X3 and both are a bit more composed than the X1 and less dark. Side by side though the X3 2G feels a little bit brighter and not as refined as the X5 which has better low end definition and a slightly fuller bodied sound with a smoother vocal presence.

I do agree though with Bryan’s assessment that the vocal presence of the X5 is slightly more engaging than the X3 which is a bit more distant though I am a fan of neither in terms of sibilance control compared to the DX90. The difference is not night and day though between the two X’s and I can well understand why some might have difficulty choosing one over the other and asking why spend the extra. Unless you have some reference tracks in hand, you may not immediately notice the more refined sound the X5 is capable off but it is there.

The X3 2G v the DX90

The DX90 is still the benchmark in so far as mid-tier DAPs go for me and in this case the DX90 still had the edge in terms of treble articulation and clarity and overall dynamic range. Bass response on the DX90 is better extended with more impact than the X3 gen 2. The lower treble in particular has a more natural timbre and control than the X3 which has a bit more sizzle and peakiness and can result in a little bit of over emphasis on cymbal and percussion sequences. Imaging on the DX90 is also more three dimensional and convincing than the X3 2G which tends to have decent width but lacking more in height and depth and feels a bit more congested than the DX90 is capable of.

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The X3 2G vs the Shanling M3

The X3 Gen 2 actually competed very well indeed against the much larger and more expensive M3, perhaps only losing out a little in treble control and overall musicality. Both exhibited a neutral signature with a leaner sound signature than the DX90, though the M3 had a slightly longer decay than the somewhat drier treble performance of the X2 Gen 2. Mind you, I thought the M3 OS was reasonably rock solid but switching back and forward between both OS, the X3 2G was clearly superior and more user friendly than the command dial of the M3. Its smaller form factor and superior codec processing capability also weighs in favor of the X2 2G. Both can act as DAC’s, both analog and digital, so whilst I still have a slight preference for the musicality of the M3 I have to admit the X3 2G is the more user friendly, future proofed and a wiser choice overall. And, it is $150 cheaper.

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The X3 2G vs the Shozy Alien

This can only be a tonal match up because the Alien has no LCD, no GUI, is all mechanical in terms of operation and looks like a ninja knife. It is unique, frustrating at times, but it also sounds bloody good for around $160. If random playing and shuffling is your thing in terms of operation I highly recommend the Alien but if you need the assurance of a screen to tell you where you are and what you are doing then the X3 2G is a no brainer. The X3 is thoroughly modern in that sense whilst the Alien is still a bit of a risk

Tonally though, the Alien is the more natural sounding of the two with a far more organic sounding presentation and a treble performance with just the right amount of extension and a very controlled lower treble in particular. The bass in the Alien, like the X3 2G, is neutral and clean and whilst both have an excellent and detailed mid-section I just preferred the more flowing nature of the Alien’s midrange and the stronger more full bodied vocal presence. There is a tremendous amount of PraT in the Alien and something that I could listen to for a long time.

Sadly a long time is not what you get with the Alien and at 6-8 hours on hi res it falls someway short of the portable prowess of the X3 2G’s battery. The other major drawback of the Alien though is background hiss with sensitive earphones and the X3 2G, whilst not the blackest of backgrounds or 100% silent is a much better performer than the Alien for hiss. When the tracks are in full swing this is really not a huge issue, but it is something to be aware off.

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The X3 2G vs the iHiFi 770

The Xuelin iHifi 770 is more mobile phone-like in appearance. It is sleeker and slightly taller than the stubbier X2 2G. It does not have a touch UI, much like the X3 2G, but the X3 OS is much snappier overall. The jog wheel and physical buttons are more responsive than the $180 770’s non tactile buttons and feels like ‘life in slow motion’ in comparison.

Tonally it is a bit darker and warmer than the X3 2G and not quite as pacey but vocals are more intimate with a bit more character and warmth than the X3 2G’s slightly more remote vocal performance. The 770 sports a single Wolfson WM8740 which is the same DAC as the older X3 but the implementation on the 770 is relatively natural and fuller with a slight bass bias, decent mids and a relaxed treble performance with very little peakiness.

Remember I said old analog rockers might feel a bit alienated with the new X3 well they just might find a better fit with the iHifi’s analog type presentation. If you want a more liners presentation with detail and speed then the X3 is going to have the edge but if you want a more relaxed, slightly more liquid and analog tone with more bass weight then the iHifi 770 sneaks ahead.

Page 4: Scores on the Doors

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About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

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  • George Lai

    Nice article, guys. So, to clarify on the microSD card, ideally it should be FAT32 formatted for normal use and to cater for FW updates? In addition, can it be formatted in situ? Thanks.

    • headfonics

      Fat32 is the most glitch free operation George and yes there is a ‘settings>storage formatting’ option for on the go formatting.

      • George Lai

        Thanks

    • Ped7ro

      I use a 128GB formatted in exFAT and I haven’t had any issues.

      • headfonics

        Yes it should work fine, just historically with earlier FiiO products FAT32 was the easiest one to work with. Also FW1.00 is more stable than the older beta 0.xx release.some reviewers got.

  • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

    Do you think the new x3 make a good match with the DT770 32ohm ?

    • headfonics

      I will try that tonight and let you know 🙂

      • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

        How it was?

        • headfonics

          Not bad actually 🙂

  • Trisskatel

    Hi, is there a real difference between the DX50 from IBasso and this new X3? (They are indeed approximately at the same price range, but, as you said, the DX90 is still better). But what about the DX50?

    • headfonics

      Oh sorry I missed this comment – tonally they are quite different but my memory of the dx50 is fading a bit on the minute details The X3 Gen 2 has a better treble response from memory.

      Note the X3 Gen 2 has native dsd decoding.

  • sulbh

    is this better than ipod classic 5.5 gen sound quality wise?Has anyone compared these two?

  • Ignatius Andi

    Hi There!
    The review who made me bought this DAP. However, im trying to upgrade my X3 2G to add amp 😀 !
    My budget and availability down to Cayin C5 & FiiO E12A. Thus, you already reviewed both amp and making me more confused.
    What do you have in your mind between this two amp pairing with X3 2G?

    Thank you @headfonics:disqus !

    • headfonics

      If using headphones get the C5, if using iems get the fiio E12a 🙂

      • Ignatius Andi

        Actually, im using both depending on the situation. Thanks for the advice.

        Oh My wallet.. 🙂

        • headfonics

          hehe yes the wallet, be careful it doesn’t abandon you!

  • Ilias K

    Hi, thanks for this great review. I currently own a first gen X3, an E12 and an E12A..I was wondering if i should upgrade to X3ii or X5ii? I am using Westone w40 and AT IM-02 iem. Also Philips X2.. I am planning to get a planar headset at a later point. Could i just use the X3ii with E12A on the go and the E12 with the planars?..

    • headfonics

      I would go for the X5ii over the X3ii, the tonality and resolution and amp is just that bit better for me (check my x5ii review).

      I like the W40 and use it a lot for the reviews and the e12a strapped to either the X5ii or X3ii is just fine for most IEMs.

      For planars if you are thinking HE400s, PM-3 or HE400i the DAP on its own should be suitable and an E12a even better for just a little extra oomph. Beyond those easy to drive planars a Cayin C5 amp would be better suited for HE400i upwards.

      • Ilias K

        thanks for the detailed reply, much appreciated. i think i will go for X5ii..one more thing, since you are also using the W40, did you have any chance to try them with the X5ii stacked to the E12A? And, does this combo generally make any difference at all?I mean, considering they have pretty much same output specs..

        • headfonics

          The E12a I have used in combination with the W4 and not the W40 and it was a good match with a nice back background, low noise and a favorable mid and treble response, especially over the E12 so I see no reason why that would be different for the W40.

          I have yet to match that with the X5ii specifically but given the E12a is your end amp the difference might be just a jump in resolution which of course favors the X5ii.

          Interestingly I was reviewing the A5-Pro headphone last night and found the X5ii to be a much nicer match than the DX90 which was a first for me as I usually favor the DX90.

  • Steve C

    Great review! Now that I have decided to upgrade from an I-pod that no
    longer works, and considering that I have never liked using I-Tunes on a
    windows computer anyways, I have decided to buy an X3ii. Two questions I
    have regarding the X3ii. First, I read somewhere the X3ii doesn’t
    natively communicate well with Windows 8. Is it difficult to configure
    it to work with Windows? The 2nd is regarding categories. I’ve always
    had difficulty with labeling my music so that when I transferred it to
    the I-tunes library, albums with different artists (such as dual
    artists) would get split, so I’ve gotten used to keeping only the main
    artist listed. Will I have to keep doing this? Thanks.

  • Gianni L

    Great review, just in time for xmas! I’m considering to buy the x3 2nd gen upgrading from an ipod classic; I’ve already own a pair of Bose ae2, should I upgrade it with a pair of Fiio ex1 (I’m on a budget) ? I’m also thinking to take the e12a if the sound improves dramatically. I listen from jazz to edm and I’m not a audiophile, but I recognize quality. Thanks in advance for any suggestion.

    • headfonics

      Rhe EX1 should be fine for an IEM budget upgrade, its a good performer by all accounts. The E12a is an excellent IEM amp also with a low noise floor and good power control.

  • Alexandru Popovschi

    I conect FIIo X3II to my mac pro (2012) to use as a DAC but is not working, on the player screen it shows that is connected as a DAC but the sound don’t come to headphone from the player..

  • Oldandcurious

    An advanced thank you for your thought on this.

    I am on the verge of buying another X3K to replace the misplaced one, more like I left it behind somewhere in SLEX.

    I am now flipping my coin on getting and X3K and then a Mojo. Considering that locally, the Mojo is priced very close to the X7.

    The X7, as good as the reviewers have chimed in how good it is, to me is too close to the precipice of “it will get more expensive from hereon.”

    My thinking is, will I get more mileage from this approach? X3K+Mojo?

    I won’t mind saving up for the “X7 X-version,” had it been all its improved sonic performance also came in the X*K format. Yes, I prefer longer battery life than having a touch screen with streaming service. For music playing, I can live with the scroll wheel, the smaller screen and the smaller form factor of the X*K series.