The combination of the X1 type user interface and X5 options on the new X3 Gen 2 is a welcome improvement compared to the older X3 physical button and menu layout.
Yes, the X3 first gen gradually improved through firmware innovation but in the end, the older candy bar interface had seen better days. Now the X3 Gen 2 uses the X1 interface which I think is probably the best iteration of the FiiO DAP OS to date and certainly the most stable.
For those not familiar with the X1 OS, this is a fast booting (around 6-7 seconds) non-touch based operating system and GUI layer that is controlled by the combination of the job wheel for movement and the four buttons on the front panel for selection and confirmation.
If you ever had the old Apple 3rd Gen iPod then it is not that far off in terms of wheel and button clicking, only not quite as linear but certainly a lot more intuitive to those used to the Apple iPod interface.
It also sports a new sleep option which mimics the iPod ‘never off’ type system status in the settings menu meaning it can hibernate effectively for hours and a simple press of the power button wakes it up immediately.
Bryan: Although I can navigate through the rather straightforward menu system of the X3 Gen 2, I find the typefaces too small and too fine for outdoor reading. Maybe FiiO can increase the thickness of the screen typefaces in their next firmware update.
The core X3 Gen 2 OS is designed for both the X1 and X5 but the GUI is more X1 than X5. That means the home screen on the X3 Gen 2 has the same 5 home screen options when you boot up as the X1 namely (left to right) –
You access these five through nudging the job wheel and selecting with the center confirm button on the job wheel itself. You can return in and out of the selected section by pressing the return button which is, by default, the top right corner button (one of the four on the front panel).
The Now Playing, Category and to some extent, the Browse Files options only come alive when you have inserted a micro SD card with music files loaded of whatever readable codec or file format. The same rules apply as before in that the micro SD card must be FAT32 if you want to do firmware upgrades.
However, for general playback and reading of files, it can play NTFS or FAT32, if so applicable. My NTFS formatted card from my DX90 worked just fine and read instantly through the Browse Files format. It also only took around 15 seconds to update the tagged Category section also (media library update) with approximately 1500 FLAC files.
The settings menu in the X3 2G is very similar to that of the X5 except now the language option is 3rd from the bottom where previously it was at the top (FW 2.5) and given that the X2 2G uses a single output jack for the analog line out and coax digital line out you now have a multifunction menu option to select one or the other.
You also have the option to turn on or off the in-line headphone control feature of the X3 Gen 2 which allows you to integrate many remote control inline units that come with IEMs and some headphones which is not a feature on the X1 or the X5.
Options consistent with the X1 settings menu also include the theme option for the OS, giving you a range of 6 colors including 3 shades of grey, blue, orange, and yellow. The X1 previously had a rather fetching pink which went down well with a few female buyers if I remember rightly from one-to-one feedback but sadly this colored theme is now gone.
Out of the box, the X2 2G starts with the orange theme by default. The key lock feature of the X3 2G though is restricted primarily to the side volume buttons which is one less option than the X5 which has two options; the volume buttons to the side and the bottom two buttons on the front plus the jog wheel.
It is much the same in the Play settings though the X3 2G this time has a default volume option to select via memory or customized personally to your desired volume. On the X5 the same option exists but instead called the Power On volume and you have the option of the last setting or fixed only.
Fixed volume settings continue with a stock setting of 60 out of a possible 120 digital steps and of course as the mentioned volume is controlled through the side volume buttons and not the click wheel.
The current 2.5FW of the X5 does contain the play through folders options which the X3 2G also had on the latest 1.0FW just recently released. This basically allows you to skip to the first song in the next folder after the last song in the current folder if you are using the Browse files as your main media library manager, which I like to do, so this is very welcome indeed.
Track limit and OTG
The FW2.5 of the X5 also did away with the 5800 track limit that many people objected to given the capacity of the X5 could well have more than 5800 tracks in lossy format stuffed onto 256GB of memory cards.
However, on the X3 2G, it is not clear if that limit is still there with the 1.0FW they recently released, and sadly my higher storage cards are NTFS formatted which the X3 2G is not yet capable of reading.
Only FAT32 as of now can be read on OTG and possibly not to 2TB as it didn’t read my 2TB portable HDD even when powered. It could well be a technical parameter of the OTG and possibly limited for flash drives only or a memory restriction or simply my complete inability to work modern IT orientated file formatting.
Either way, if you have a flash drive it will work just fine formatted in FAT32 and show up in the OTG folder of the Browse Files option.
The Category option is still problematic for me. I still do not like the Genre>Genre Type>Song organization structure. It is still too flat and throwaway and really needs to be Genre>Artist>Album>Song especially if you religiously tag everything perfectly before uploading and expect the same format to exist when you have 1000-2000 tracks on a memory card and maybe only 2-3 genres.
Ibasso made this change after much discussion and their category tagging is so much the better for it. FiiO needs to do the same. Artist and Album categories are otherwise fine and tagging reading was 99% accurate upon updating the library which can be done through the settings menu.
Otherwise, the FiiO UI is now an impressive and fairly stable OS compared to the competition out there right now. It has come a long way from the original X3 and during testing, I found little in the way of freezing or finding accidental menu cul-de-sacs.
Bryan’s impressions up first:
Past the physical scrutiny, I find its sound to be a little dry. [I allowed it to play for 24 hours non-stop while plugged into a wall charger before doing some listening for this review.] That is by no means a disparaging verdict against the X3. Remember the original X3 has that midrange-forward and rather thick sounding low-end presentation?
Well, for all the faults that the X3 had, this new-gen of X3 in a way reverses all that and goes for a more genteel overall feel. Whereas the X3 sounded dark and thick, the X3K is rather clear and more refined.
When I heard the original X3, my immediate reaction was to comment on its soundstage. It was narrow and a tad too shallow; this one isn’t. It appears that the X3 has evolved and has been retuned to be more neutral sounding.
Speed & Decay
In its pairing with the AKG-K3003, Noble 4C (Custom In-Ear Monitors), and the Beyerdynamic DT1350, treble sounds fast, nay, a little too fast. Organ, cymbals, and even high hats decay a little too abruptly like withdrawn before they naturally die out.
Obviously, no one can accuse the X3 2G of dragging its feet. This baby is fast. Unfortunately, music is that cursed thing that requires a tightrope balancing act between fast and slow sounds. In Meja’s Do The Angels Have A Home, for instance, the piano bass notes should have lingered a tad longer but they decay a bit too quickly.
Midrange and in particular, the vocals, sound neutral and flat. U2’s Mysterious Ways came off a tad more reserved than usual. 80’s tracks which are typically mastered before the loudness wars, their midrange sound even more respectful of the distance between us.
Given how the old X3 sounded, I am amazed that the new X3 2G has opted for this tuning. Playing through the rest of my test tracks, with the on-board EQ switched off, everything sounded pulled back by a step or two.
It gives less of that intimate feeling that the singer is singing beside you than the sensation of listening to someone performing on stage or about a few steps in front of you. While this prolongs the onset of listening fatigue, it will likely provide less intimate satisfaction.
Even the X5 sounded closer to my ears than the new X3 is. At around the third day, I decided to tweak the EQ to see how sensitive the X3 is to equalizer changes. Bass is tight but even with my preference for clean tight bass output, I was still begging for more in terms of quantity and depth.
Upon the entrance of the horns in Beethoven’s Ninth, for instance, I found the bass rumble to be overly smooth. Straight out of the AK Titan or the AK240, I know this part should sound fully textured and airy.
Based on my trial and error, I found the following EQ tweak makes the X3K more engaging.
30 Hz +2 dB
60 Hz + 1 dB
500 Hz +2 dB
1 kHz + 2 dB
2 kHz + 1 dB
Voices sound more alive, energetic, and intimate; Bass presence more palpable and thicker without impinging on the integrity of the midrange (but still lacks texture). Unfortunately, when I tried to add a bit of treble boost, its sharpness made me reset every tweak above 4 kHz to zero. The above setting may not suit those who listen to Classical music as strings (violin and harp) sound rather dull.
My own impressions
Gone is the warm and inviting, the lush but laid back, and the thick and rich tones of the Wolfson chipset. Gone is the old house sound of FiiO and I highly doubt we will see it come back. The new X3 2nd Gen is now very much a more neutral to natural-sounding DAP built for clarity, balance, and accurate timbre. I
can appreciate what Bryan is saying, that top tapping musicality of the older X3 is replaced instead by something a bit leaner and more composed. It is a little less liquid, especially in the mids but the trade-off is a much more coherent sound, an airier treble and mid-performance, and a bass signature that is tighter and more linear.
Game of Preferences
Yes, this is personal taste in some ways. I can understand why some might not take to the new more ‘mature’ FiiO house sound and want the old rock ‘n’ roll, sound imperfections, and all, but honestly the new X3 is just far more evolved. It is especially a better performer for IEM’s which, after all, is where I believe this DAP is going to have greater appeal than the older X3 and even the X1.
As with any change in sound, some strengths become less evident and some known weaknesses ebb away a bit. The new X3 has a better and more precise imaging, flatter and more neutral presentation, and a more agile yet smooth treble performance than the X3 first gen. But it is thinner sounding with a leaner bass response that maybe doesn’t have that fullness for the instant impact the old X3 has.
Bass heads might struggle with this one, analog old-time rock lovers might feel a little alienated. Then again, welcome on-board acoustic aficionados, shredding guitar gods, and Vai fans and leave the door open also while you are at it for 80’s synth because this X2 Gen 2 has pace aplenty to cope with detail and complexity that perhaps tripped up the X1 and the first-gen X3 from FiiO.