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Christmas Gift Guide
Headphones

FiiO's new low-price, high-res music player wows the Audiophiliac

Is FiiO's sleek little $200 X3 2nd-gen high-resolution music player right for you?

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The new FiiO X3 2nd Gen music player. FiiO

Neil Young's Kickstarter funded high-res PonoPlayer may have grabbed the lion's share of media attention, but FiiO's more-affordable portable players were on the market years before Pono entered the fray. FiiO has continued to refine and improve its players, and its latest, the X3 2nd Gen is totally revamped, looking nothing like the original X3. The new one has four button/jog wheel controls just below its 2-inch (50.8mm) 320×240 LCD screen. The user interface is a little better than previous FiiO players, but still lags far behind those of my iPod Classic and Sony's Walkman NWZ-A17 player. On the upside, the X3 2nd Gen sounds better than either of those two, and it's cheaper than the NWZ-A17, while the iPod Classic is history.

The X3 2nd Gen's connectivity is straightforward: in addition to the 3.5mm headphones jack there's a combination 3.5mm line output/coaxial digital output and a Micro-USB data transfer/charging port for the 2,600mAh battery, (it runs up to 11 hours on a charge). Sadly, there's no built-in memory, but the X3 2nd Gen can hold up to 128 GB microSD cards. Playable formats include MP3, AAC, OGG, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, APE, ALAC, WMA, and DSD. It's a portable player, but it can also be used as a USB digital converter/headphone amplifier. The aluminum chassis feels really solid, and the X3 2nd Gen comes with a slip-on protective silicone case. This player is nice and compact, just 3.8 x 2.3 x .6 inches (96.7 x 57.7 x 16.1mm) and weighing 4.8 ounces (135 grams).

I auditioned the X3 2nd Gen with a bunch of headphones (all of which sounded great), but I really loved this little player teamed up with the Oppo PM-3 planar-magnetic headphones. There was incredible detail balanced with sweet tonality. Directly comparing the X3 2nd Gen with the Sony NWZ-A17 didn't take too long, the NWZ-A17 presented a leaner, brighter sound than the X3 2nd Gen. High-res FLAC files were slightly clearer than standard-res files on both players. The Sony's bass might be a tad firmer, but the treble detailing is coarser. Switching over to the Ultimate Ears UE900 in-ear headphones, I heard similar tonal differences between the two players.

Tough-to-drive high-impedance headphones like my 300-Ohm Sennheiser HD-580s didn't faze the X3 2nd Gen one bit. Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" pumped up nice and loud with no problem. Putting aside loudness, the X3 2nd Gen sounded vastly more transparent and alive than my iPod Classic -- frankly, it was no contest.

To finish up I compared the X3 2nd Gen with the original FiiO X3 with Audio Technica ATH M50x full-size headphones. Both X3s sounded good -- the older model is sweeter, more laid-back, the X3 2nd Gen is livelier and brighter. I prefer the X3 2nd Gen.

The FiiO X3 2nd Gen runs $200 in the US, £159 in the UK, and AU$249 in Australia.