The FiiO FA9 is the company’s brand new flagship monitor featuring 6 BA drivers per side and unique switchable sound signatures. It is currently priced at $499.99.
Disclaimer: The FiiO FA9 sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank FiiO for this opportunity.
To learn more about FiiO reviews on Headfonics you can click here.
Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here.
FiiO has been gradually moving upwards with their IEM ambitions. It was only a few years ago that they dipped their toes into the market with the EX1 and now, in 2020, we have what seems to be a settled road map and some fairly mid-fi high value to performance ratio options such as the FH5, FH7, and the FA7 in late 2018.
For those that are not aware the H stands for hybrid and the A is the armature side of the FiiO monitor business. They had a short dabble with earbuds via the EM3 in 2016 but nothing really since that. The focus now seems to be on multi-driver hybrids and all armature with the FA9 being their most ambitious to date at $499.
Of course, there is more room when you use numbers and we have seen much higher driver counts so I cannot discount FiiO coming out with an FA11 and FA15 but for now, this is their flagship in the FA lineup.
The FA9 contains pretty much everything that FiiO has already learned in the making of IEMs plus one or two new things they have not tried out before. First the basics. This is an all-BA 6 driver universal monitor configuration rated at 16-32Ω and 111dB SPL.
The 6 drivers are 3 dual-driver designs from Knowles and completely different from the FA7. This is a dual HODVTEC-31618 woofer for the lows, dual EJ33877 for the mids, and a dual SWFK-31736 for the highs.
The dual HODVTEC-31618 woofer is connected to a long 80.6mm sound tube that FiiO claims is a quasi low-pass filter to help smooth out the bass response. You can see that grey long tube clearly in the picture above.
Also, the EJ driver for the mids is an ED-29689 and an entirely new BA fused by FiiO. The company has stated it is a driver used in high-end models but rarely do high-end companies achieve the same level of transparency as FiiO in listing their drivers. I have noted, however, some companies have stated they have changed their midrange driver to a new Knowles variant so it could be the same one.
So, why a broad range and not a fixed impedance value? That is due to the new switchable sound signature of the FA9 which is a first for FiiO. Impedance or resistance is an inherent feature in switching designs that can either release or restrict aspects of the frequency response, hence the variation.
The switching is controlled by FiiO’s use of an electronic 4-way crossover and you get a total of 3 switches on the sides of the drivers that offer up to 6 different sound signatures.
You have two signatures that are entirely based on the impedance value, hence the swing from 16 to 32Ω in this spec sheet. The first enhances the sensitivity of the FA9 making it easier to drive and the second lowers impedance to help combat issues regarding noise floors on some sources.
The remaining 4 signatures are more focused on delivering enhanced treble or bass to mids and would be more based on your own listening preferences. FiiO has branded them into simple to understand labels such as pop, strong bass, standards, and crisp highs.
The FA9 aesthetic it is more ambitious than the FA7 with a bigger form factor as a consequence of trying to fit in that long tubing, crossover switch block, and additional driver. It still shares some common traits with its smaller sibling such as DLP 3D printed clear acrylic shell and aggressive custom universal shaping.
The front faceplate is a very sparkling diamond-cut design with a quasi 3D-effect as you turn it under the light. The FA7 hinted at this type of design with its grooved finish with a splash of red but it feels a little simplistic beside the FA9’s impactful faceplate.
The whole tone is bright, transparent, and silvery and not too dissimilar to a Swarovski crystal effect. I am tempted to say quite feminine in the looks department but this is 2020 so smoke ’em if you got ’em.
One other note is the finishing on the resin shell. It is honestly quite perfect, even compared to customs the ability to peer right into the mechanics of the FA9 is uncanny.
Cables & Connectors
FiiO are now fully wedded to MMCX and it is the new round bore connector system as opposed to the older flat brass plates. Each termination on the stock cable has a clear ring for the left and red for the right to make it dead easy to connect each channel properly.
The only tricky part is connecting. This is due to the flush positioning of the connector at the far back of the shell combined with the smoothness of the shell itself. It can be a slippery and slightly off-balanced affair so grip tightly when connecting. I actually prefer the elongated MMCX stem of the FH7 as you can grip it better.
The cable is the same as the FH7 stock cable which means an 8-core 152 strand Litz Monocrystalline SPC wire inside. This is a supple braided translucent jacket finish and a complimentary silvery aesthetic that marries well with the flash of silver on the FA9 faceplate.
The cable is light with virtually no memory retention and handles much better than the FH5 stock cable despite the FH5 cable seemingly a little smaller. It is also dead quiet for microphonics and the memory hooks seem not too stiff.
The cable is terminated with an anodized right-angle 3.5mm TRSS jack with excellent strain relief. The lightweight and small y-split barrel are similarly finished with a detachable chin cinch.
On a physical level, I am quite impressed with this cable but like the FH5 cable, it does not come terminated with a balanced TRRS jack. I would love to see balanced as stock with an adaptor in the box for 4.4mm or 3.5mm.
Comfort & Isolation
The comfort and seal on the FA9 are excellent. The lightweight resin is super smooth and perfectly formed to fit fairly snugly in my ear without any undue pressure. It also feels secure and there are a few reasons for that.
The first is the nozzle which is a bit longer than the FA7 so it feels like it is going a shade deeper which does help get a better seal from most of the tips FiiO has thrown into the box. One thing to note, the all BA design means no bass port for venting which always enhances passive isolation potential.
The second reason is the variety of tips supplied by FiiO for the FA9 which should cover most types of ear canals and preferences.
Like the FH5 and FH7, they are all in a single foam tray and labeled in terms of what they focus on for the single-bore silicone tips such as balanced, vocal, and bass. Though this time the labeling is cut into the form and black backing is quite hard to see compared to the white of the FH7 tray.
There is a change in the line-up from the FH7 tip selection, however. The FA9 ditches the additional balanced single bore tip that came fitted out of the box on the FH7 and instead they have thrown on the medium SpinFit. It is one less set of tips but really just getting rid of unnecessary duplication in the tip selection at the same time.
The longer nozzle of the FA9 works better for me with the current set of tips than the FH7 nozzle. The bass tips, which I struggled with on the FH7, have a much tighter seal this time around and sound better as a result.
The vocal tips are still my number one for depth and seal whilst the SpinFits felt a bit too soft in my left ear and kept breaking the seal, even on the largest size. I felt the isolation was pretty good also from the balanced tips but if I had to choose one silicone single bore purely on comfort and isolation it would be the vocal tips.
The biflange was actually more secure in my ear but the isolation just a shade behind the vocal tips. Surprisingly, I did not feel the stock foam tips isolated as well as the biflange and vocal tips for my ears.
Packaging & Accessories
The FA7 comes in a fairly sizeable black lift-lid container with two suede-lined hard foam layers. If you have seen the FH7 package it is pretty similar in terms of layout and accessories except for the filter pill case on the top. The FA7 does not use filters, nor does it need to due to the switch mechanism doing the work of the filters.
The top foam is cut out to allow for a full display of the monitors and a partial display of the stock cable. Underneath, on layer two, you get the expansive foam tip tray.
Below the tray, you get the same blue faux leather case from the FA7 and a step away from the older plastic hard case seen on the FH5 and FA7. This is a fairly deep faux-leather oval blue case with plenty of space for the cable and drivers. There is also a little mesh on the lid to holds some tips and the filters.
Beyond that, you get the smaller softer zip pouch for enhanced pocketability. This is the same cushioned soft pouch you get with the FH5 and FH7. You also get a cleaning brush and a small magnetic IEM cable organizer clip in an off-white color.
The FA9 does have a core sound signature with the switches amplifying or reducing aspects of that curve selectively. This is a warm and ‘close’ tuning with plenty of bass quantity. There is a solid dip in the lower-mids, a mild bump for the vocal presence, and some clear but not an overly bright treble response.
In some ways, there is a legacy aspect from the FA7 with its smooth delivery but I find the FA9 technically superior in terms of clarity and with more headroom than its 5-driver counterpart.
One of the key differences is the better level of contrast that prevents the high quantity of bass response from the FA9’s low-end driver from sounding overly bloated. It sounds big, pretty impressive for a dual BA driver though you can definitely tell it is a BA driver with its lack of air pressure coming at you in waves at the sub-bass level.
So, compared to the FH5 and FH7 it has a similar quantity and it does sound dense but still on the slightly polite side sub-50Hz in terms of impact. This is combined with a linear extension into the mid-bass that remains elevated until around 200Hz that carries a lot of latent warmth into the mids of the FA9.
That dip in the lower-mids can be overshadowed a little by the elevated low-end so when it gets busy you get a little less clarity and instrumental presence than I would like. However, vocals are buttery smooth and natural sounding and the level of PRaT in low-end instrumental pitching is impressive for an all-BA design.
There does seem to be a little lack of air in the upper mids which you can compensate for with tip rolling and treble boosting but you will not get the same clean presence as the FH7 or even the FH5 which have more significant vocal bumps.
The FA9 is a huge step up on the FA7 in terms of imaging. I felt the FA7 struggled a lot for air and whilst I would not say the FA9 is the airiest monitor in the world it does have significantly better staging capability in both its width and height.
Depth is relative to me for these two as both are BA but the FA9 does more with its dual BA driver in terms of quality of the layering and the level of detail its bass texture. Certainly, with the bass boost on it is the most forward aspect of the FA9 soundstage,
Mids are a mixed bunch with male vocals having a slight nudge but nowhere near as forward and focused as was the case with the FH7 and FH5. You get an impressive female vocal presence and better clarity for lower-pitching vocals when the low-end is quieter.
The resolution of the FA9 and articulation is the most impressive aspect of its staging performance. The enhanced treble clarity with treble boost on does inject some much-needed space into the mids of the FA9 and a slightly sharping of individual notes. That means imaging cues are much easier to pick out compared to the FA7.
This is not an aggressive treble. It is relatively safe though you can tease more forwardness out with the treble boost on. However, its improved airiness is easily noticeable and you do get a very light shimmer in the upper treble that was not there on the FA7.
Impedance Boost (S0)
With the impedance switch off you get a blacker background and a more neutral tuning which works wonderfully well with the bass boost off and treble on, well, at least for my preferences.
With the impedance dropped or lower (switch on) the bass has increased presence and the overall tone is more colored with enhanced bass and treble contrast. Separation and clarity drop a shade also but that can be nullified a little by keeping the bass boost off and treble boost on.
Treble Boost (S1)
I tend to keep the treble boost on at all times. It brings some welcome odd-harmonic presence in the FA9 instrumental and vocal timbre as well as enhancing perceived clarity in the mids and treble.
Timbre sounds more accurate by shaving off a little warmth off and adding some welcome contrast to the low-end. Without the treble on, the timbre is too soft for me with overly rounded instrumental notes and vocals.
You can actually get the FA9 to sound relatively neutral by lowering the impedance and turning the bass boost off. Combine that with a neutral source such as FiiO’s own M15 or the M11 Pro it has a far more articulate but drier quality to its presentation and less bloom creeping into those dipped lower-mids.
Bass Boost (S2)
With the bass boost on and nothing else turned on, the FA9 has a more remote staging quality, less close but also a little safer for me in terms of a vivid exciting treble presence. Bass becomes more aggressive with a bit more bloom and aggressiveness, especially if you keep the impedance switch set for 16Ω.
You can get away with this tuning for bright EDM where the treble can often be quite bright in the mix anyway. The additional bass weight and warmth also help fatten up low-end synth notes. For rock and percussion orientated work, I would suggest throwing on the treble boost to bring the treble forward a bit more to counter the even-harmonic bias on the low-end.
I would suggest turning on the treble boost along with the bass boost to get a better balance overall between the lows and the highs on the FA9. FiiO refers to this as the standard tuning which is S0 down, S1 up, and S2 down. It does give upper mids a lift with better treble presence and air.
On a side note, logically if treble boost is S1 up, the bass boost should have been S2 up also. Having S2 down for bass boost makes memory recall for the settings difficult to manage.
The FA9 is rated at 16-32Ω and 11dB SPL and relatively easy to drive from most sources. This is also a variable impedance IEM with one of the switches allowing you to move between 16Ω and 32Ω to better adapt to your sources noise floor.
The impedance selector switch on the FA9 does actually work but due to the relatively safe 111dB SPL, it will depend on the source you are pairing it with. More powerful balanced connections were particularly useful barometers.
For example, with the FA9 switched to 16Ω, which is the most sensitive level, I honestly did not hear much in the way of noise on FiiO’s own M11. Sure, the mute relay pop was a little duller with the higher impedance switch on but switching back and forth did not bring a huge change because it is already quite quiet for hiss to begin with.
In contrast, the impedance switch did make a big difference to the noise floor when paired with Hifiman’s R2R2000 which can be quite brutal in terms of noise to sensitive IEMs. With the 16Ω setting, the noise floor was fairly easy to detect. With the 32Ω setting, there was a palatable reduction in noise and more useable volume also.
In all instances, the impedance selector will also reduce or increase current demand, and thus volume levels will adjust accordingly. It is not a huge jump but you will notice it going back and forth.
I have to go with a neutral or clean source with the FA9, more M15 than M11 which can sound a shade warmer and less resolving through the mids. The M11 treble though marries well with the FA9 in a standard mode or with the treble boost on.
The M11 Pro would likely be a better candidate for pairing with the FA9 alongside the M15 if you are intending to up the bass quantity as they are more resolving through the mids and treble. All 3 offer solid black backgrounds with the FA9, particularly when the impedance is dropped down to 32Ω.
The M15’s level of resolution and excellent control on the low-end was probably my favorite combination with the FA9. Even with the bass boost on it still kept a superior level of separation compared to the M11.
For competitor DAPs, I felt the iBasso DX160 to be a better match for the FA9 compared to the HiBy R5. The DX160’s staging strength and reference tonality is perfect fodder for the switching personality of the FA9. It retains an excellent level of separation whilst sounding airier than the R5.
The R5 will give it some oomph but on the whole, I do not think the FA9 needs anymore ‘oomph’. Separation and clarity are key for the FA9 and the DX160 does it better.
If you want a HiBy DAP then the R3 Pro’s more neutral signature does it better for me. Female vocals in particular with bass and treble boost on sound forward and nicely balanced. The FA9 is not the most demanding to power so the R3 Pro has no problems driving it also.
The FA7 is the precursor or the next down from the FA9. It shares a fair number of features but obviously missing some more advanced tech such as the sound switch selector. That means its sound is fixed rather than variable.
While both use an all-BA 4-way crossover design their driver counts and types are different. The FA7 uses FiiO’s previous Knowles partnership drivers, the Knowles CI-22955 woofer, ED-29689 midrange, and a dual BA tweeter SWFK-31736.
The FA9 is all change with a dual HODVTEC-31618 woofer for the lows, dual EJ33877 for the mids, and a dual SWFK-31736 for the highs. With the impedance switching and new drivers, the impedance values have also changed with the FA7 fixed at 23Ω and 110dB SPL and the FA9 variable from 16-32Ω but with similar SPL levels at 111dB.
Both use a 3D printed process for their designs though the FA9 is much bigger than the FA7. As mentioned, the long tubing inside the FA9 and the additional driver does need additional space. The aesthetic on the FA9 is also a bit more dazzling with the diamond-cut silver finish whereas the FA7 opts for a slightly simpler design behind a ruby red polished resin finish.
Both come with similar tips selection but the stock LC-3.5B cable on the FA7 is 4-core Monocrystalline SPC as opposed to 8-core LC-3.5C on the FA9. The design of the LC-3.5C FA9 cable is also a bit easier to manage and not quite as stiff as the smaller4-core FA7 cable.
There are a couple of important differences and ones which mark out the FA9 as the better all-round performer to the FA7. The first is the level of bass bloom in the FA7 which is higher than the FA9, even with the strong bass switch selection on.
This is combined with a politer treble that injects a little less contrast into the FA7 instrumental and vocal timbre giving it a warm but softer sound. The FA9 has more of an upper-mids and treble lift, especially with the treble option activated. This delivers a higher level of contrast and reduces the warmth and softness creeping into the midrange performance.
As a result, the FA9 can be as heavy-hitting as the FA7 but sounds cleaner and airier through the mids and treble. The bass response is also tighter which provides more room for vocals and instruments to breathe.
You will be able to pick up on spatial cues a bit better in the FA9’s taller and more open sounding staging quality. The FA7 is as deep but its softer tone and attenuated treble leave it wanting for more headroom and air as it can sound a bit dense for me.
The FH7 is FiiO’s flagship hybrid monitor and just slightly cheaper than the FA9. I am sort of expecting an FA9 at some point though not sure when.
The FH7 follows a very different aesthetic and internal configuration to the FA7. This is a mixed 5 driver build instead of 6 BA inside the FA9 consisting of a single beryllium-coated 13.6mm dynamic driver for the lows, a single Knowles DFK for the mids, and a dual BA SWFK-31736 for the highs.
FiiO does not specifically mention the crossover in detail for the FH7 so we presume 3 or 4-way much like the FA9. The FH7 also does not have any switch settings for resistance variation or sound tweaking so the ratings are fixed at
The sensitivity rating for the FH7 is on the easy side of the FA9, however, at just 16Ω and 111dB compared to the variable 16-32Ω, 111dB rating of the FA9.
The FH7 sound can be tweaked, however, just not via resistance but instead filters. You get a small pill case of filters that you apply on the nozzle tip that tweak 2 FR bands, treble and bass as well as a 3rd offering a neutral sound signature. The reference filter is fitted out of the box.
A very different aesthetics and use of materials here. The FH7 components are machined from a CNC aluminum-magnesium alloy as opposed to a 3D printed resin. Though slightly smaller, it is tougher and heavier than the FA7. It is also a lot colder in your ear and isolates a bit less due to the bass port vent and well, aluminum is never quite as tight as resin contoured shells.
The design is a dark “ripple-like” blue ton with gold trimming and a stainless-steel nozzle that runs slightly shorter than the FA9 version. One thing I do like on the FH7 is the extended MMCX stem which is flush on the FA9. I find detaching and attaching the cable a little more assured on the FH7 as a result.
Both have the same tip selection, carry case, and stock SPC 8-core SPC cable so nothing to distinguish either for the accessories and cable.
Probably the critical differences here focuses on the bass timbre and dip into the lower-mids of the FA9 combined with the shaping of the upper mids and treble of the FH7.
The FA9 comes across as the warmer of the two with slightly less contrast in the timbre through the mids and treble. The FH7 has some fantastic dynamic bass texture and punch right at the lowest level. The FA7 actually sounds as voluminous but not quite as tight.
You can tell the difference in the air pressure coming at your drums when that dynamic driver hits a sub-bass note. The BA drivers present plenty but in a politer manner whereas the FH7 drives it in. I have to admit the FH7 dynamic driver low-end is the more impressive low-end performer of the two.
BA Driver Changes
Mids into treble has also some significant differences. I find the FH7 has a bit more timbre contrast with a peakier treble overtone. That enhanced midrange vocal presence upper harmonic order is slightly emphasized as a result so it will have a ‘crisp’ effect to percussion tone and vocals will seem ‘vivid’.
The FA9’s treble is clean and clear but not quite as dominant in the harmonic balance of its midrange timbre. Vocals still sound very natural to me and overall, I find the tonal balance to be more even-harmonic biased and relaxing.
A bigger lower-mids dip on the FA9 can mean a slight lack of presence or air for some instruments but at the same time, it sounds a little smoother and less prone to sibilance.
For example, a saxophone solo on Rocha’s ‘Lies’ track from their 2017 Unum album sounds totally different on both monitors. It is forward, clean with a brighter tone on the FH7 and softer, further back and warmer on the FA9.
I would suggest keeping the treble boost option on for the FA9 and the bass boost off if you enjoy the FH7 level of contrast but want something slightly more natural through the mids.
The FH5 is the second in line on the hybrid side and just behind the FH7. Technically it is a run below the FA7 and FA9. However, a lot of people still love its rich smooth sound and the price point is on the money for me in terms of value to performance.
The FH5 is a 4-driver hybrid monitor consisting of a single 10mm PEK Polymer Nanocomposite dynamic driver and 3 balanced armature drivers. The frequency split is the dynamic driver for the lows, a single larger mid-range BA for the mids, and a dual driver for the lower and upper treble.
The FA9 is a 6-driver all BA creation but all dual drivers with a 4-way crossover, 2 for the lows, 2 for the mids, and 2 for the highs. The drivers in the FH5 are also different, using the older single ED30262 for the mids and a dual driver TWFK-31082 for the highs.
The sensitivity of the FH5 is fixed at 19Ω and 112dB SPL compared to the variable 16-32Ω and 11dB SPL of the FA7. In truth, both are pretty easy to drive and I tend to find north of 112dB SPL is where the noise levels on amp output stages tend to get a lot more noticeable.
Much the same as the FH7, the FH5 is a CNC aluminum-magnesium alloy ‘TRISHELL’ compared to the much lighter 3D printed contoured resin of the FA9. The FA9 seals better due to the lack of bass venting port and more ergonomic shape.
The FA9 is bigger but you will notice that in your ear due to the lightweight design. It also has a longer nozzle compared to the FH5 which does help a lot with tip selection. I can seal far better with almost the same tips as the FH5.
The cable on the FH5 is just a step down for me compared to the FA9 cable but given the price point that is understandable. The FH5 uses a 1.2m mono-crystalline silver-plated braided copper wire with a TPU that makes it a little stiffer and offering less dynamic range than the 8-core LC-3.5C on the FA9.
On a technical level, from the mids upwards the new FA9 BA drivers really outperform the FH5 triple configuration in terms of dynamic range and resolution. The FH5 sound beyond the 2k marker can lack a little presence and though the tuning is not peaky it can sound brittle in comparison.
The FA9’s mids are smoother, more refined and when the low-end is not pumping out wave after wave of EDM energy it also sounds way more complex or holographic compared to the FH5.
The low-end, on the other hand, is very much a driver trade-off. You get more warmth, possibly more quantity also, and definitely more mid-bass bloom with the FA9 BA drivers, even with the bass boost off. However, the FH5 dynamic driver still has better extension and power, and a shade less bloom also. The ‘verve’ I tend to find in good dynamic drivers shines through very nicely.
One thing to note, like the FH7, the FH5 has much more of a 1-3 bump whereas the FA9 is gentler and very reserved in the 3-4k region. That does affect timbre which is more rounded and not as forward on the FA9. I tend to go with treble boost and bass off to maximize the upper mids presence and headroom as much as I can on the FA9.
With the FH5 you get some treble presence but it is more lower-treble focused and slightly faded in comparison. You will also perceive less upper treble extension compared to the FA9 when that treble boost is turned on.
The FA9 is an impressive upgrade on the FA7, no doubt about that. It still has some legacy traits with that warmish sound but everything is now tighter, more extended or airier, and definitely more resolving. The low-end is big for a BA driver though I have to say, I still have a preference for their hybrid dynamic driver tuning from the FH7.
The switching technology is some required value-add. It takes the question of whether or not the FA9 suits me or not to which sound I like the most. I have always said that options that create choice make for a more nuanced preference selection rather than a take or leave it scenario. There is power in choice and for me, the FA9 synergy potential is now much better than before.
I am curious though if the switch can be applied to their hybrid range which would be something. I am also very aware that mathematics is infinite thus 9 can be 11 and 11 can be 13. The FA9 is not going to be the end game for FiiO by my reckoning. The improvements with the FA9, however, are excellent.
FiiO FA9 Specifications
|Impedance:||16-32Ω @ 1kHz|
|Frequency Response||15Hz – 40kHz|
|Cable:||1.2m interchangeable 3.5mm MMCX cable|