By now I’ve had quite a bit of first hand experience with many different types of Amps and DACs.
To my regular readers and friends, it may seem like I’m beating a dead horse. But it’s even worse. This horse isn’t just dead; he’s been rotting on the side of the road for months – tattered, smelly, and fly infested to the max. He doesn’t even really resemble a horse anymore. He’s just a big pile of slop. Wait, when’s the last time you saw a dead horse on the …
You know what I’m about to say. Most amps and DACs sound roughly the same and I’ll stand by it for as long as necessary.
Because it’s true. Ever thought about why so many new companies are sprouting up wanting a piece of the pie? Because there’s a huge market for it right now. There’s thousands of options at your disposal. Nearly everyone is looking for an Amp or DAC to improve the quality of their music. Not only that, but even someone who’s found something isn’t satisfied. They want more. It’s a disease. What is a USB DAC?
The disease of more. The disease that’s taking over society. Nothing is ever good enough.
Most of the newer comments and emails I get asking for help come from those who bought something but just can’t enjoy it. They need an upgrade.
“I really like what I have but there’s got to be something better.”
It’s easy for me to sit here and put those people on blast because I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be able to reveal this truth, given how much I’ve heard.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter. None of it. Just buy something. They all sound great. FiiO amps in particular have an enormously good price to performance ratio.
The extra detail you’re getting with a Chord Mojo or something more expensive is like +0.000001 fraction of a percentage more than you’re already getting. That didn’t even really make sense but you get the idea. Woo! I feel better now. My purchase is justified.
The differences between headphones are much more significant. The law of diminishing returns is apparent in headphones, but it’s even more prevalent in Amps and DACs.
At the end of the day, I’m scarred for life. I’m a part of the problem. I want more too. I have 6 amps in front of me right now but in the back of my mind I’m always saying something to the effect of:
“Well I really like the million and one amps I have now, but there’s got to be something better. I’m sure if I just keep chasing the imaginary unicorn I’ll catch it one day. Or a Neematoad.”
Anyone remember the show Doug? First ever episode. August 11th, 1991. He tries to bag a Neematoad but Roger was playing a prank on him because there’s no such thing as a Neematoad but there actually was because Porkchop dressed up like one to get back at Roger for messing with Doug but there really actually wasn’t a Neematoad because Neematoad’s don’t exist alright? Just like the perfect amp.
You like run on sentences? Me too.
Neematodes however? Yes, they do exist. They’re small parasites that either feed on the outer surfaces of plants or burrow in soil. They’re in fact so tiny that you would need a microscope to actually see one!
Now that I’ve sobered you up a little and given a lesson on Neematodes, let’s get into the specifications of the A3!
Check out the total list for the FiiO A3 – Portable Headphone Amplifier over at B&H Photo/Video!
FiiO E10K vs. A3
It helps to use the E10K as a buffer to compare these two. The E10K comes in at 79 grams vs. 92 for the A3.
Though the E10K has a great build for about $75, it does feel cheap in comparison to the heftier A3. Holding an A3 in your hand feels substantial and it does happen to be a bit cheaper with regard to price.
On the E10K, the potentiometer is larger and it’s situated to the right of the unit’s face. On the A3, it’s smaller, and in the middle.
I prefer the larger knob on the E10K because it’s a bit easier to turn and get a hold of. I like big knobs and I cannot lie. The A3 is still fairly intuitive though, so no worries there.
Size wise, the A3 is slimmer and sleeker than the fatter looking E10K. While the E10K is taller, it’s also more narrow in width and not quite as long as an A3.
Both have the bass boost on the front of the unit, but the E10K’s is on the left of the volume pot while the A3’s s to the right and towards the edge. Also, the off position is to the right on the A3 which is a bit awkward at first. So you flick left.
On the E10K it’s to the left. You flick right.
The headphone jack on the A3 is at the back left, while the E10K’s is on the front left. I haven’t had any issues with this so far, but I thought it was strange at first to hook up. I was looking around for the jack for a second or two.
Both have a line out, but the A3 just calls it auxiliary. It’s basically the same for all intents and purposes. More on that in a bit!
The A3’s gain switch is on the front left, again, towards the edge while the E10K’s is on the back of the unit next to the line out jack.
Both have micro USB input on the back as well.
Both the E10K and A3 have a brushed aluminum finish that is resistant to fingerprints. For me this is a Godsend because I can’t stand smudge marks on my amps. The E10K does feel a bit rougher when you slide your fingers over it, while the A3 is smoother. Both are black and you can see little white lines spanning the length of each.
When you turn the A3 on (by turning the dial), a little blue light appears on the back of the unit. When it’s flashing, that means it’s charging. Solid blue indicates a full charge.
On the E10K, you turn the volume knob and the blue light appears on the front instead. It’s larger as well. Both make a satisfying click when you turn them on, but the A3’s is a bit louder.
Consider this excerpt about the A3’s light in Sonic Elevation’s informative FiiO A3 Review:
“Unfortunately, the LED doesn’t change color when you’re running low on battery. When you power it on, it turns blue. When it’s close to dead, the LED is still blue. Since there’s no clear way to tell when it’s running low, it can be a slight inconvenience. There’s nothing worse than your music player stopping out of nowhere while you’re jamming out to your favorite song.
If this happens to you, keep in mind that you won’t be able to keep listening as you’re charging the device. You’ll have to go without until it’s fully charged again. If we had to point out a single major flaw, we think this is it. Although the 16 hour battery life is usually more than enough – having to wait for a few hours while it charges is pretty inconvenient.”
FiiO A3 vs. Q1
But wait, there’s more!
The Q1’s build is even better than the A3, albeit by about 8 grams. The Q1 comes in at an even 3.5 Oz. (100g).
It’s ever so slightly slimmer than the A3, and the longest out of the 3. It’s also a hare wider than the A3. On the front we’ve got a volume pot to the left which is not numbered like the other 2.
The pot is either just about the same size as the A3’s or a smidgen smaller (kind of hard to tell).
On the left side of the unit, there’s the 3.5mm headphone jack as well as a balanced 2.5mm jack. This is the main difference between the Q1 and the others. You can use the Amp/DAC with balanced headphones or balanced cables (requires mod with standard headphones).
The Q1 also has a line out jack on the front which supports DSD as well. We’ll get into all that more in depth a bit later!
On the back of the unit, the same micro USB slot appears, as well as a gain switch and bass boost. The difference with these is that they are much harder to adjust, and are flat and circular. The gain switch and bass boost on the A3 (as well as the E10K) are super easy to flick because they kind of protrude out and resemble tiny sticks.
Now that build is out of the way, what about features & usage?
Features & Usage
The biggest difference between the A3 and the E10K is that the latter is bus powered only, and does not have an internal battery. This explains why it’s lighter and feels cheaper, even though it’s build is still very good.
The A3 uses an internal rechargeable battery and thus is a bit heavier.
Don’t be fooled by the weight of the E10K; it can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’ like Mick Foley (Mick was fat though). Sorry, Mick. Still love you.
We went over features a bit above. Both have a gain switch and bass boost but they are situated a bit differently.
The best feature of the E10K as far as I’m concerned is the line out jack. It’s come in handy so many times for me when I needed just a DAC to pair with a headphone amp like the JDS Labs Objective 2.
The A3 is just an amplifier by contrast.
E10K as a Converter
Also, some DACs only have coax and Toslink capabilities. If your computer doesn’t have those, you can use the E10K to convert the signal from USB to coax and then connect the other DAC to the E10K.
So it would look like: E10K from PC/Laptop via USB > E10K via coax out > other amp that has coax in > to headphones via 3.5mm or 1/4″.
There’s a reason why I recommend the E10K a lot. It’s like an all purpose tool for very cheap, and sounds incredible!
FiiO A3 vs. Q1
Right off the bat, the Q1 features DSD support, and also has a balanced 2.5mm jack for use with balanced headphones.
In theory, DSD provides better sound quality because it takes 1 bit and samples it millions of times per second. But does it actually sound better? No. That DSD file is basically the same as a 24-bit/176kHz. A standard DSD file is the equivalent of a 24-bit 88kHz file. So when people yammer on and on about DSD and how it sounds better, just slap them in the face like Batman.
The A3 doesn’t have DSD support, but who cares. It doesn’t matter.
The A3 does not have a balanced 2.5mm jack, but who cares. It doesn’t matter unless you have balanced headphones. 99% of people who buy the A3 won’t have balanced headphones because they won’t have a high impedance, low sensitivity headphone that may come with balanced cables.
Other than that, both have a gain switch and bass boost, but the Q1 cannot be used as just a DAC. The exact same method that worked with the E10K as a DAC paired with the A3 or Objective 2 did not work with the Q1.
Something to keep in mind.
Video Review & Shootout
Click to see them in action!
How about ergonomics?
FiiO E10K vs. A3
The E10K provides 200mW into 32 Ohms, while the A3 pumps 270mW into 32 Ohm.
Both the A3 and E10K provide enough power with a headphone like the HD 600 given you have the gain switch on.
I get tired of people who say it’s not enough. Did you even plug the headphone in and try it?
Then stop writing blogs talking about how it’s not enough. That or do better research.
I find the volume knob with gain on to be plenty loud at around 5-6 on the E10K (out of 8).
On the A3, between 3-4 nets the desired effect. This makes sense when you consider the A3 provides 70mW more power. I can math!
The HD 600 requires around 20mW to perform optimally, so not that big of a deal really. Yeah it’s 300 Ohm and will resist a bit, but it’s definitely one of the “easier to drive” headphones in the entry level audiophile category.
Impedance is a measure of resistance. That’s it. People online try to make it complicated and end up sounding like they have no idea what they’re talking about. Higher number = headphones will resist the power fed into them.
Sensitivity is a measure of efficiency. How efficient is the headphone at using the power it receives? Low number = not efficient. High number = efficient.
This is a bare bones rudimentary way of looking at it. I consider Sensitivity a better indicator of whether a headphone needs an amp or not, but both are important.
The only real gripe I have with the Q1 is the whole 7mW of power into 300 Ohm. Yikes. Luckily, most users who are in the market for this headphone amp won’t really be using it with higher impedance models like the 600, and if they are, they’ll probably be using balanced headphones. The Q1 out of the balanced 2.5mm jack provides 220mW into 32 Ohm, so similar to the A3 and E10K. Smack dab in the middle actually.
A3: 270mW into 32 Ohm
Q1: 220mW into 32 Ohm (balanced)
E10K: 200mW into 32 Ohm
Fortunately for us, it still works pretty well with gain on. I’m listening now with the HD600 and it sounds fantastic.
What a perfect time to talk about sound.
FiiO E10K vs. A3
Right off the bat, you’ll notice that the sound of the A3 and E10K is very similar. It’s an incredibly clean, neutral signal with perhaps a bit of extra emphasis on the treble.
I find the E10K to be a bit grainy in comparison to something like an Audioquest DragonFly, but the differences are very subtle.
The A3 has a similar character, but sounds a tad less grainy and instead comes across as very very sterile and clear. For the price, it’s ridiculously impressive.
I have a hard time believing this thing is roughly half of a Benjamin. It sounds that good.
In comparing the 2, I find the A3 to be ever so slightly cleaner sounding that an E10K. It’s squeaky clean actually.
With Alina Baraz and Galimatias’ Pretty Thoughts (FKJ Remix) The E10K sounds a bit raspier by comparison, but it’s a small difference.
Both have a clean signal overall, with plenty of thump and impact even out of a headphone like the HD 600. Rad!
FiiO A3 vs. Q1 vs. E10K
Right off the bat you’ll notice the Q1 has a warmer tilt to it, while still retaining all of that fine detail.
Again, these differences are incredibly subtle, but they’re still apparent. The Q1 comes across as the laid back stoner in high school who really didn’t care much about anything except smoking pot. Oh wait that was me. Lol. The Q1 is a nihilist.
“No Donny, these men are cowards.”
If I could sum up the A3 and E10K in two words: Crisp and detailed.
If I could sum up the The Q1 in 2 words? Pothead. Okay that’s one word.
Also apparently there’s a difference between a stoner and pothead. A stoner is stoned all the time basically. A pothead kind of has some semblance of a productive life. Probably smokes on the weekends or after work to numb the pain.
That’s all I got.
For phone users, the FiiO Q1 is a fantastic investment. I was admittedly a bit harsh on it at first, but I’ve since come to really love this thing.
It provides a smooth warmth to the music but still sounds incredibly detailed and revealing. It’s pretty versatile as well with DSD support and the 2.5mm jack, and can also be used on your desktop if you wish.
Between the A3 and E10k is a tough decision. The E10K is a bit more intuitive and doesn’t need to be charged, but also cannot be used with your phone. The A3 provides a bit more power and sounds a hare better by my estimation. In the end, I think since we already have a phone option above, the E10K wins out slightly.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.