(Using the mid-tier Westone W4 BA IEM as reference)
The X1 v the X3 Gen 2
Those wondering if the X3 Gen 2 is a decent upgrade on their X1, well the short answer is yes. Compared to the new X3 Gen 2, the X1 sounds darker, more congested, and with a notch or two less resolution and clarity and indeed a heavier bass bias.
The 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.
The X3 Gen 2 v the X5
There is also been a lot of chat about the X3 Gen 2 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 a 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 of but it is there.
The X3 Gen 2 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.
The X3 Gen 2 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 Gen 2 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 X3 Gen 2. 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.
The X3 Gen 2 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 Gen 2 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 some way 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 of.
The X3 Gen 2 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 Gen 2, 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 Gen 2 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 linear presentation with detail and speed then the X3 Gen 2 is going to have the edge but if you want a more relaxed, slightly more liquid, and analog tone with more bass weight than the iHifi 770 sneaks ahead.
Bryan’s final thoughts
I’ve always held that while the low frequencies dictate the rhythm of the music and the midrange its soul, it is in the highs that the energy of the music is typically felt. If everything works smoothly and flawlessly, then all you have to attend to is the music. Sadly, this pre-production unit resets all the time.
In the 4 nights that I had this with me, it must’ve frozen on me at least twice every night. Rest assured, expect FiiO to roll out a fix or a firmware upgrade before the production units hit local stores.
All told, after 4 days of experimenting with the EQ of the X3 Gen 2, I have managed to draw out the rhythm and the soul of this FiiO. Not bad, considering that its soul was quite timid to begin with. And I am rather glad that it sounded the way it did for a dap that will be marketed at around $199.
If you consider that my daily go-to player is the AK240, I may be setting the bar too high. This FiiO wonder should not be judged by the yardstick of Astell & Kern. On its own, in its price range, the X3K is a vast improvement over the previous generation X3.
My own final thoughts
The FiiO X3 Gen 2 OS is now pretty rock solid, evolved, and for previous 1 gen X3 users a serious upgrade in DAP technology and capability for this price.
As a direct replacement for the older X3, it brings all the FiiO DAPs into a recognizable roadmap, both form factor and UI wise, as well as bringing a level of consistency into their new house sound which is I consider to be a significant upgrade.
I still can’t quite believe we are talking native DSD at this price point when only recently I was rejoicing at the Oppo HA-2 hi-res capability at $299. I am half expecting next year to have DSD gadgets in my local supermarket shelves at $20 a pop at this rate.
At $200 it is not the only player in the market vying for the top dog position though, but right now it feels like it is the most future-proofed with the codec options at hand and functionality for the price. It is also not the pinnacle of sound for me in the $200 range.
The Alien is the more natural-sounding DAP with a better vocal performance, the iHifi 770 is a more analog sounding DAP and a natural fit with rock. Both have their quirks and in the case of the Alien, it is only really for the hardened audiophiles who can handle a lack of a screen.
The real dilemma for me now is it worth going out and buying an X5 when you can buy the new X3 Gen 2 for $150 less? The answer is probably not if you have that amount in the first place I would recommend buying an Ibasso DX90. The X3 Gen 2 is really not that far off the X5 in terms of performance capability and is much cheaper to boot!
Interestingly I did not have a single issue with my FiiO X3 Gen 2 compared to Bryan though I did upgrade to the new FW1.0 from the older beta version. In that time I had no snags so not sure what happened there, sorry buddy but if you have the old beta firmware try an upgrade if you can.