Big thanks to FiiO for sending the K3. I am not being compensated for this review/comparison, but they did allow me to keep both units.
4,549-word post, approx. 8 min. read
- 7/26/19. Stereo Crosstalk spec for K3 was missing. Minor grammar fixes.
- 7/29/19. Added Images/Gallery.
- 7/30/19. Added more Images from P.M. listening session, as well as some HD 600 impressions. 🙂
- 8/10/19. Minor errors fix. Added link to Reddit in using E10K with a phone. Added Video Comparison.
- 8/12/19. Added Scanned notes and Comparison Table.
- 12/23/19. Giveaway info added.
- 2/2/21. Article/link cleanup.
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
Let’s start with a quick chart!
Before we get into the FiiO K3 vs. E10K Amp/DAC comparison review, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
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Table of Contents
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In the Box
Build & Features
Every once in a while a company releases a true upgrade to an already existing fantastic product. In this case, it happens to be a company that’s really grown on me in recent years. FiiO makes wonderful products at affordable prices that appeal to beginner enthusiasts looking to get their feet wet into the audiophile hobby.
In all honesty, I’ve pitted the E10K up against both a DragonFly Red and Oppo HA-2 and the difference almost wasn’t enough to warrant the price jump from about $75 (E10K) to $200 (DragonFly Red) or even $350 for the HA-2. Do note that the HA-2 has been discontinued but I owned one for a while and absolutely loved it (Life sometimes sucks and you have to sell your belongings to make ends meet, lol).
Yes, the E10K sounded slightly grainier but you would never even notice unless you had the other 2 amps right there as a buffer and were vigorously going back and forth. Furthermore, what if your ears are lying and there’s not any difference?
That you’re almost trying to conceive of something perceivable and sort of trick yourself into preferring the more expensive option over the cheaper model?
It’s hard to say.
I think there are subtle differences between some Amps and DACs, but the Law of Diminishing Returns becomes even more apparent than it does with headphones; that’s to say, from Amp to Amp you’re really going to have to try hard to notice a measurable difference.
Regardless, I did find the K3 to have some of those sorts of improvements, technically as well as sonically. I’ll outline everything for you today!
In The Box
In the Box
Bolded are the differences.
With the K3, you’re getting:
- The Amp/DAC.
- 4 adhesive strips (2 pairs). Put these on the bottom to protect the unit while it’s on your desk.
- Type-C USB Cable.
- Quick Start Guide.
- Warranty Card.
With the E10K:
- The Amp/DAC.
- 4 button adhesives (1 pair + 2 extras). Put these on the bottom to protect the unit while it’s on your desk.
- Micro USB Cable.
- Quick Start Guide.
- Warranty Card.
Being how much of an upgrade the K3 is, FiiO really kind of skimped on accessories here.
There’s no optical cable, no coax, no short 3.5mm to 3.5mm line out, no RCA to mini, nothing. It’s a bit of a pain to have to purchase any of those separately, but I digress…
- Price: Check on Amazon! | Check B&H! | Check eBay!
- Capability: Handles PCM Files up to 24-bit/96 kHz.
- Stereo Crosstalk: > 70 dB.
- Outputs: 1x Coaxial, Line, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack.
- Output Impedance: 1.04. What is Output Impedance?
- Output Power: 200mW@32Ω.
- Output Voltage: 7.39Vp-p.
- Inputs: 1x Micro USB.
- Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >105dB.
- THD at 1V output: <0.006%@1KHz.
- Frequency Response: 20Hz -20KHz.
- Dimensions: 79mm x 49.1mm x 21mm.
- Weight: 79 grams.
- Warranty: 1 year.
- Power: Bus-powered.
- Features: Bass boost, Gain switch.
- Price: Check on Amazon! | Check B&H!
- Capability: Up to 32-bit/384kHz.
- Stereo Crosstalk: ≥70 dB (1 kHz).
- Outputs: 1x Coaxial, Line, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack, 1x 2.5mm balanced
- DSD Support: Yes, 64/128/256.
- Output Impedance: 1.04. What is Output Impedance?
- Output Power (Single Ended): 220 mW @ 16 Ohms, 120 mW @ 32 Ohms.
- Output Power (Balanced): 320 mW @ 16 Ohms, 200 mW @ 32 Ohms.
- Output Voltage: 7.39 Vp-p.
- Digital Outputs: Coaxial: RCA for 192 kHz, Support DSD64 DOP
Optical Out: Up to 96 kHz.
- Inputs: 1x Type-C USB.
- Signal-to-Noise Ratio: ≥113 dB.
- THD: ≤0.004%.
- Frequency Response: 20Hz to 80kHz.
- Op amp: 2 x OPA926.
- Low-pass filter: TI OPA1612.
- USB chip: XMOS XUF208.
- Dimensions: 2.8 x 2.3 x 0.9″ / 70.0 x 58.0 x 22.0 mm.
- Weight: 83 grams.
- Warranty: 1 year.
- Power: Bus powered, 5 VDC 500 mA.
- Features: Bass boost, Gain switch.
Build & Features
The build quality of the K3 feels more solid to me than the E10K, but it’s a somewhat marginal difference.
The E10K weighs in at 75g and the K3 is +7 or 8 at 82/83g. My scale weighs it in at 83.
Still, I feel as though if I were to actually purchase the K3, it would be more justified. It feels really nice in your hand, with a matte black finish and smoother overall character. The E10K’s finish is a somewhat rougher feel but doesn’t collect fingerprints and marks as easily as the K3. Something to keep in mind.
Length and height-wise, they are pretty much exactly the same, but the K3 is wider and thus a tad bulkier even though it doesn’t really come off as a bulky unit. It’s also contoured and rounded off, lending itself to a more elegant, modern look than the older and boxier E10K.
FiiO has laser engraved the Hi-Res Audio symbol on the top of the K3. The E10K doesn’t have this (being that it’s older), but both have the FiiO logo. The difference is that on the K3 you can read it when the unit is facing you and it’s towards the front. On the E10K, it’s upside down and towards the back. I think the logo makes much more sense where it’s situated on the K3, and just looks more professional in conjunction with the Hi-Res Logo.
On the face of the K3, we’ve got the ADC Volume Pot/Power On which is a nice upgrade from the older E10K Pot. The difference here is that the E10K was numbered 0-8 with an OFF indicator in text as well. The other difference is that the Pot on the K3 is now a digital control, meaning you won’t get any channel imbalance issues at lower volumes.
The power-on indicator on the K3 also doubles as a sample rate indicator.
- Blue = 44.1kHz or 48kHz.
- Yellow = Anything above 48kHz.
- Green = DSD.
The K3’s knob is not numbered, but is slightly larger in circumference and made of aluminum. Instead of numbers, we’ve got one small circular white dot to indicate where you are on a clock. This hearkens back to the FiiO Q1Mark II, which has the same white dot (albeit a smaller knob) and the red piece behind the pot. I’m thinking FiiO is aiming to streamline the design of all their amps to make them more consistent in look/feel across the board.
This time around, both the gain switch and bass boost are on the front, which makes tinkering with the sound a whole lot easier. I do find the switches on the E10K to be easier to flick, but the way they are situated on the K3 is much more convenient. I simply put my index finger on the top of the unit and use my thumb to adjust. With this, you also don’t have to turn the unit around to figure out if you’re on low or high gain like you may with the E10K.
We’ve also got another addition though: the 2.5mm balanced jack in addition to the standard 3.5 mm.
A quick note about the 3.5mm jack: It’s a bit more of a chore to plug in my headphones than it is with the E10K. With the E10K, the transition is smooth and makes a satisfying click. With the K3, I’m kind of having to labor just a bit more to get the headphone jack in. Somewhat minor, but still should be noted.
You’ll know what I mean when you receive the unit. It could be that because it’s brand new, it needs some time to get acclimated. It just seems like the hole could use some gunk or something. 😛
If you have balanced headphones, the K3 supports DSD64/128/256 which is a nice added touch. My regular readers and subscribers already know how I feel about DSD, so instead of boring you to tears, I’ll just place links to various places where I give my opinion as well as an article from Cambridge Audio. 🙂
- Great article from Cambridge Audio on What is DSD? (And why it’s overrated).
- FiiO A3 Shootout Article/Video (same as above).
- FiiO Q1 vs. E10K vs. DragonFly Red.
On the back is where the fun starts for me.
The first main difference is that FiiO switched from micro USB to Type-C which is probably a good decision.
Micro is okay, but their jacks were somewhat unreliable over the long term. This is something that I haven’t touched on much because it never became a major issue for me, until: I had an issue with a micro USB cable from FiiO simply failing, and the integrity of the jack itself was a little suspect. I referred to it as a little jiggly like jiggly puff in my original E10K video.
For me, micro USB cables, in general, have always seemed to be on the cheap side, so I’m glad FiiO made the switch here. It doesn’t feel Piggly Wiggly this time around. Type-C is extremely rugged and doesn’t move around at all inside the unit.
That said, I still use the E10K daily, and have had the DAC since September of 2018 or thereabouts.
USB 1.0 & 2.0
Right above the Type-C jack is a small switch that reads USB 1.0 and 2.0.
The cool thing about this is that when you plug the K3 into your PC, it’s instantly recognized and ready to go without a driver for USB 1.0. I’m now running Windows 10 on a Lenovo X1 Extreme and the setup was flawless. The K3 is recognized right away, ready for music.
Then simply turn the unit off and disconnect everything (basically a reboot).
Now you can use USB 2.0, which supports DSD256 and up to 32-bit/384kHz. The USB 1.0 section only supports up to 24-bit/96kHz files.
Line Out and Coax
The K3 has kept 2 of the best features apparent in the E10K which made it one of the most versatile units I’ve tried. Both the Line Out jack and Coax are still available this time around, allowing you to use the K3 in many different ways.
Let’s take a look:
Just a DAC or Just an Amp
If you ever want to upgrade Amps, the K3 works as a DAC or just an Amp. Depending on the unit, you have some options:
- 3.5mm to 3.5mm Line Out. Perhaps the simplest and most straightforward. Plug one end into the line out of the K3, and the other end into the line out of a different amp. Plug the K3 into your PC via USB and turn it on. Now turn on the other amp and plug your headphones into that. You’re ready to go! With this option, you can connect the K3 or E10K to almost anything.
- RCA to mini (3.5mm). If you have something like a Schiit Magni, JDS Atom, or a customized Objective 2, you would just run the 3.5 mil into the back of the K3, and the RCA’s into any of the aforementioned amps. Another great option that I’ve used in the past with the E10K.
- Coax. Use this to connect to any DAC of your choice.
- Optical/Toslink. Use this to also connect to any DAC of your choice via SPDIF.
- Line Out to powered speakers. Just use 3.5mm to RCA or 3.5mm to 3.5mm into speakers like the Presonus Eris e3.5 or something similar.
As a Converter
Also, some DACs only have coax and Toslink capabilities. If your computer doesn’t have those, you can use the E10K/K3 to convert the signal from USB to coax and then connect the other DAC to the E10K.
So it would look like: PC/Laptop via USB > E10K/K3 via coax > other amp that has coax > headphones.
Another option you have is to run a Toslink cable from a receiver/TV into a converter. Then run a cable from the other end of the converter into the E10K or K3. Now you can use it with your TV!
Optical & Gaming?
If all that wasn’t enough, FiiO added an Optical/Toslink port! Use this to connect to a DAC using SPDIF as mentioned above.
The only problem? It’s optical OUT only and not IN. This essentially means you can’t use it for Console Gaming which was kind of a huge disappointment for me. It would have made the K3 the most valuable DAC on the market in my opinion, but it still comes close!
With optical out, you can hook it up to something like a receiver or speakers that have optical in.
E10K & Gaming
With the E10K, you can use it for gaming and it’s recognized instantly. The problem? You won’t get any headroom and it just barely reaches an acceptable listening level. I maxed out the volume on my PS4 settings and had to tick the gain switch just to get it loud enough with the V6 and even then it’s not enough. If you don’t have a DAC handy for gaming, you may as well just plug your cans into the controller for the time being. You’ll get a louder sound and the quality is just as good!
- Related: The Best Headphones for Gaming!
With your phone
The K3 can technically be used with a smartphone, but depending on the make and model, you may get an error like “this device needs too much power.”
The good news is that if you have a phone with a Type-C port, this USB Type-C to USB 3.1 Gen1 Female Adapter Cable should work.
Both are bus-powered, so using them with your phone is technically possible, but you’ll be draining your phone’s battery since neither have batteries of their own to draw power from.
With the K3, the above-linked adapter will work but with the E10K, you’ll have to use something else as it’s micro and not Type-C. This is all I could really find on the matter: FiiO E10K for an iPhone 4S. It’s probably more trouble than it’s worth.
Both of these units are desktop Amp/DACs primarily, so do keep that in mind. If you are looking for something that’s geared more towards smartphones, the Q1 MK II is a great solution that also works on your desktop as well.
I feel like I’m about to get a bit disappointed again with regard to power and the K3.
I dogged the Q1 MK II for quite a while before warming up to it. Surprisingly, I can still drive a Sennheiser HD 600 with it despite it only putting out 7mW into 300 Ohm. The 600 technically requires 20mW to sound loud enough but I find with the gain on I can reach a nice level despite the low output.
With the K3 out of the single-ended 3.5mm standard headphone jack, we’re only getting:
- 220 mW @ 16 Ohms.
- 120 mW @ 32 Ohms.
Out of the 2.5 mil balanced:
- 320 mW @ 16 Ohms.
- 200 mW @ 32 Ohms.
The original FiiO E10K provided 200mW @ 32 Ohms, no questions asked.
It seems like FiiO has geared this newer iteration of the E10K toward the budget-minded audiophile who may be more inclined to purchase lower Impedance IEMs or Headphones.
That’s fine, but being a desktop amp/DAC I would have liked to see it provide a bit more power just in case we want to upgrade headphones down the road, use inefficient planar magnetic headphones (looking at you HiFiMan), etc. but not have to attach a separate Amp or whatever.
Related: What is a Planar Magnetic Driver?
I think this Amp/DAC is good enough to become a mainstay in my small home studio like, forever, so it’s a bit disappointing that it doesn’t provide more power out of the main jack.
NanoTechnos, in his FiiO K3 Review over at Headfonia agrees:
“The Fiio K3 supports both single-ended and balanced output. Still, even in balanced mode, the output power isn’t very high with 200mW @ 32ohm. If you plan to use big cans or drive planar headphones, I think you’ll feel more comfortable with an additional headphone amplifier connected to the line-out.”
The option for balanced is nice though, so if you upgrade, just make sure to get a balanced headphone with balanced cables or DIY. It’s also cool that you could theoretically just use the K3 forever and get a separate amp to pair if needed.
Even with all that said, I’m listening with the HD 600 right now and I’m getting plenty of volume without the gain turned on! It’s even got some headroom to spare. So maybe specs are overrated sometimes. Do note that you won’t hear anything until around 2 o’clock, but the knob turns quite a bit (to about 7 ‘o clock). So you’ve got quite a bit of wiggle room here. I haven’t needed gain at all with the 600’s which is a welcome surprise.
The K3 does support up to 32-bit/384kHz, which is a welcome upgrade from 24-bit/96 out of the E10K. At the price point of just a hare over $100, this is fantastic in my eyes and adds a lot to its value.
Some other small differences between these 2 I mentioned in the Specs section at the top:
- The K3’s frequency response is 20Hz – 80kHz vs. 20Hz – 20kHz for the E10K.
- Total Harmonic Distortion. With the K3 it’s ≤0.004% vs. <0.006%. A small difference but you may notice the K3 is a tad cleaner. More on that in the Sound section!
Both have an Output Impedance of less than 1.04 or thereabouts. What is Output Impedance?
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Click to see them in action!
- K3 DAC Chip: AKM AK4452.
- E10K DAC Chip: Burr-Brown PCM-5102.
Sony MDR V6
The sound of the K3 and the E10K is a bit interesting to describe. I feel like it’s very similar, but there are times when the K3 is the clear winner. With certain tracks, there’s just this sense that the K3 performs better.
On Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine” off of 1982’s Thriller, The E10K sounded good but perhaps not as lively as the K3, which felt more like you were in a live setting rather than listening through a device. The K3 also sounded more organic and natural.
It’s like the E10K had this ever so slight layer of fog over the sound. As if it wasn’t given ample room to breathe and express its creativity.
The impact and weight of the K3 are immediately apparent at the start of the song. The kick drum and hats were crisper and more lively. The instruments (especially background ones) were also more fleshed out, and as a whole, the song breathes more naturally.
This same sort of phenomenon is apparent on a Master track of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” There was so much more micro detail present with the K3, and even more so than the song normally provides (which is quite a lot). Dreams is a fairly detailed song, with a lot of layers, subtle sounds, and an almost elusive nuance that sometimes can go unnoticed.
The K3 brings out everything that this song has to offer with effortless grace. I did find Stevie’s voice to be a bit too forward paired with the MDR V6, whereas with the E10K, it may be slightly pushed back and less aggressive.
Still, @ 24 seconds you can clearly hear her breath out of the K3 which is something I haven’t caught with other headphones and amp set-ups. The decay of her voice is also on point, trailing off beautifully while also painting for you a clear picture of her unique vocal inflections and subtleties.
I feel as though the K3 gives you a deeper glimpse into the soul of the artist, while the E10K lacks a bit of weight and body. This is especially apparent to me during Mick Fleetwood’s opening drum fill. It just didn’t sound as full as it did on the K3.
I found both to have an ultra-low noise floor, with dead silence while nothing is playing. I personally cannot perceive a difference, but your mileage may vary.
I found the Bass Boost on the K3 to be slightly disappointing on some tracks, to a welcome addition on others. I really think it depends on what you’re listening to.
On Mariah Carey’s Fantasy, the +6dB boost was really muddy and disappointing, whereas on the E10K it was done much more tastefully.
On “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” from The 1975, it seems like I could make out the background voices easier. They sounded more clear and transparent. Even so, out of the E10K, the song sounded about the same otherwise.
Chelsea Cutler’s “Out of Focus.” – The K3 rendered the song a bit more detailed and articulate, especially the background voice in the beginning. On this track, in particular, the K3 perhaps pushes the mids back a bit and the treble is less harsh/sibilant overall. What does Sibilant mean?
Out of the E10K, the song seemed more forward, but a bit less refined. It’s a little more grainy by contrast, but the difference isn’t monumental. Vocals seem more forward on the E10K with this song, but it ends up being kind of annoying.
Sennheiser HD 600
Out of the 600’s I listened to quite a lot of tracks out of both. So far I have gone back and forth rather extensively with 2 (more to come).
With “French Riviera” from Cautious Clay, I didn’t find too much of a difference. The E10K was maybe not as refined sounding, but it’s very subtle.
On “TOOGOODTOBETRUE” from Gallant (feat. Sufjan Stevens and Rebecca Sugar), the E10K was perhaps slightly more sterile/cleaner sounding while the K3 was a bit warmed over and smoother sounding.
This is kind of a running theme but:
What was most incredible to me was Soundstage on the song “Lights Out” by SONN, Ayelle out of the K3. What is Soundstage? I’ve never experienced that great of width and depth on the 600s. They are infamous for having a more narrow image, but this time around I was so startled by what I perceived as a knock on the door @ 0:38, that I ripped the headphones off in a panic and checked to make sure I wasn’t about to get murdered in my apt. Mind you I was listening fairly loud at night as well.
Words cannot express how real it sounded. Even after knowing it was part of the track, I kept replaying it and it would kind of startle me again and again, to the point of discomfort. You’ve absolutely got to hear it for yourself.
Here are some notes I jotted down whilst listening with both! Keep in mind I’ve demoed many songs with both amps, but only really vigorously went back and forth with these. I’ve had the E10K since September/October of 2018 so I’m very familiar with how it sounds. I’ve also had ample time listening to songs out of just the K3.
When it’s all said and done, I would take the K3 over the E10K every day and twice on Sunday.
It’s not that the E10K is worse, but rather the K3 is an actual improvement in nearly every category.
The sound gets a fairly significant upgrade here, you’ve got the choice of balanced or single-ended with regard to headphones, there’s the Optical Out, the inclusion of USB 1.0 or 2.0, both the gain switch and bass are on the front this time around, the Volume Pot, as well as the overall build, is better, it supports DSD and higher resolution files (up to 32-bit/384kHz), and the LED changes colors depending on said file.
The only area that the E10K trumps the K3 is power output out of the single-ended jack, as well as the more tastefully done bass boost overall.
The lack of power may become an issue for you depending on what types of headphones you will be using, but with the Sennheiser HD 600 (300 Ohm and 97dB Sensitivity) I find the K3 reaches loud enough even without the gain switch on. This type of Impedance and Sensitivity level covers most circumstances you’ll encounter with higher-end headphones. At 97dB it’s right on the cusp of being low, as the HD600 is fairly inefficient. Related: What is Sensitivity in Headphones? You will have to turn it most of the way up without gain, but I’m currently listening now and don’t feel the need to turn the gain on. You do have it available if you need it, however, and the overall sound is wonderful regardless!
Looking for a power upgrade?
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this FiiO K3 vs. E10K Comparison/Review.
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the “mark” on something? Haha get it! Because FiiO Q1 Mar.. nevermind. Please let me know down below or Contact me!!
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Are you convinced the K3 is a true upgrade from the E10K? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…
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