Review Date: 18 January 2022
- DAC: ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M
FiiO Control App (Android)
Size: 56.3mm x 20.2mm x 12mm
USB port: Type-C USB
Earphone port: 3.5mm
Balanced output port 4.4mm
System firmware and Bluetooth version can be upgraded via USB
Sampling rate indication: Blue ≤48kHz, Yellow ＞48kHz, Green ＝DSD
- Recommended Headphone Impedance
Maximum supported sampling rate 768KHz/32bit
- SE 3.5mm Output Power (2 Vrms)
- BAL 4.4mm Output Power (2.7 Vrms)
- FOSTEX T40RP MK3 (Magnetic Planar, 50 Ohm, 91db Sensitivity)
- Beyerdynamic DT880 (Dynamic Drivers, 600 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Etymotic ER4SR (Single BA, 45 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- TRN VX Pro (8 BA + 1DD Hybrid, 22 Ohm, 106db Sensitivity)
- TIN HiFi T3+ (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 105db Sensitivity)
- Shure KSE1500 (Single Electrostatic 200V, KSA1200 Energizer)
- VE Asura 3.0 FE (Single DD, 155 Ohm)
- VE ZEN 2.0 SLQ (Single DD, 320 Ohm)
- Windows 10, Foobar 2000 (Native USB Drivers)
- LG V50 ThinQ (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- Sony Xperia X Compact (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- Tidal Masters (via UAPP)
Comparative Reference DAC/Amp:
- iFi ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN CAN Stack (15.1 Vrms)
LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING
FiiO KA3. FiiO entered the ever growing Dongles scene with this neat and solid looking device. A partnership effort between FiiO and Jade Audio. Look at it from one side and it is FiiO KA3, flip it over and it became Jade Audio.
As with what is quite common nowadays, FiiO/Jade opted to use the proven and tested ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M DAC. A very versatile DAC chip that can be found among some of the best performing #donglemadness counterparts.
Build, Functions, Usability
Minimalism is the theme for KA3. CNC machined aluminum body with flat black powdercoat. The construction suggests that KA3 is built to last. Solid, firm and spartan exterior with just a hint of elegance with two end caps both end anodized in flat gold. Admirably beautiful in its own way. Not forgetting the USB cable that came in twist braid setup which I find equally beautiful, finished in gunmetal hue.
The other prominent physical feature of KA3 is the single indicator for source resolution. Blue for ≤48kHz PCM, Yellow for＞48kHz PCM and Green for DSD
KA3 does not have any hardware volume adjuster. But it does offer options for fine tuning of volume on Android via FiiO Control App. Which also provide the means to adjust the desired Hi/Lo Gain, Channel Balance, Device Volume and Lowpass Filters.
Endurance wise, KA3 scored 5 hours 30 minutes from 100% to 1% on my Sony Xperia X Compact (Android 8, 2700 mAH Battery, Airplane Mode), running UAPP bitperfect mode in High Gain with TRN VX Pro. KA3 fell short 30 minutes from matching the mileage clocked by Cayin RU6 and iBasso DC05 of which both scored 6 hours. But this is still better than CEntrance DACport HD which only managed 3.5 hours.
With prolonged usage, the aluminum body of KA3 will emit mild heat which I find quite common among many Dongles. But definitely less heat than Hidizs S9 Pro or A&K PEE51.
Before I proceed any further, it’s worth to mention that the entirety of my impressions are done on Apodizing Fast Roll-off or Slow Roll-off filters. I use Apodizing Fast for matching with natively warmer sounding partners and Slow Roll-off with natively bright sounding IEMs/HPs. These filters, they don’t actually alter the sound. They influence the temperament of timbre handling. This is similar to what can be found on Shanling UA2 and E1DA 9038D – a built in feature of ES9038Q2M which allows user to adjust the effective filters. Not all ES9038Q2M provide access to this. Hidizs S9 Pro, Audioquest Cobalt and REIYIN DA-Plus runs on fixed filters with no user configurable options provided. Being able to adjust the filters is something I find very useful and with FiiO providing proper app for it, makes the whole experience even better.
KA3 is a very well tuned ESS based Dongle. Tonal balance hovers closer to being analogue with slight hint of organic warmth – warm for a normally bright sounding ESS DAC. For example, KA3 has better sense of organic warmth when compared to Hidizs S9 Pro or E1DA 9038D, both of which are ES9038Q2M as well. I would place KA3 alongside Shanling UA2 and Audioquest Cobalt on the same segment for tonal approach (another two with ES9038Q2M). This interpretation of timbral and tonality presentation can mean differently for different listener. To me it means KA3 is geared to please those appreciating their music smooth, resolving and crisp, without any element of fatigue especially for those dreading the notorious ESS Sabre Pinna glare. Not an easy thing to achieve, so I will give credit to FiiO and Jade Audio for keeping it naturally balanced sounding on KA3 tuning. I have been enjoying my time with KA3 polished and highly resolving dynamics. While being warm, it is still admirably resolving and transparent. I would even say that the level of maturity exhibited by KA3 equals Questyle M12 and REIYIN DA-Plus (both being 5 Stars performers).
Dynamic range frequencies presentation of KA3 is nothing short of amazing. Mids exhibited great texture, imaging and well rounded density, vocals remained transparent to the nature tonality as per intended, Treble very polished with natural sounding sparkle and air, it is detailed, crisp as it is smooth. Bass with great extensions and rumble, it is fast, tidy, natural and believable, Bass decays truthful to the capabilities of the paired partners.
I get the very best of results from the pairing of Shure KSE1500 and TRN VX Pro. The fidelity level produced were simply mind blowing with succinct articulation of details and tonal balance that makes it hard for me to pin down as being warm or bright – a sound spectrum that is so very well balanced and addictive. Shure KSE1500 is without a doubt among the most resolving IEM in existence and will exhibit every single aeons of the source characteristics. With less than competent partners, KSE1500 will reveal all the weaknesses that exists in the the feed. KA3 thankfully is almost free of any worrying artifacts that the KSE1500 would have already picked up. So does the TRN VX Pro to a certain degree, being slightly finicky with source pairing, the VX Pro can sound odd with some dongles, but with KA3 it sounded amazingly articulate to my ears. What pleases me the most, of how forgiving still KA3 with Lo-Fi recordings. It is already great with Hi-Fi stuffs from Diana Krall, Alison Krauss and Sinne Eeg, but to my surprise it also sounding equally amazing playing Toilet-Fi quality Black Metal recordings from the likes of Burzum! Anybody familiar with Burzum will know how appallingly piercing and peaky Burzum is. With Varg Vickernes wailing and shrieks full of misanthropic vocals, recordings as if they were done inside a basement toilet. Yet I am enjoying the sound immensely and not getting my eardrums singed bloody. So yes credit to KA3 for being able to handle both Hi-Fi and Lo-Fi.
Technically KA3 exhibited great prowess too. Especially on the projection of soundstage. Unlike most other ES9038Q2 implementations, or most ESS DACs for that matter, KA3 is admirably wide and spacious with soundstage. It is free from the tall but narrow feel as can be observed from the likes of Shanling UA2 and E1DA 9038D. Imaging and resolution being sharp and crisp. Separation lines all laid out neatly in their own space. KA3 has the speed to avoid getting congested or compressed. Macro and Micro details equally great, the more resolving the partners the better the resolution. Spatial positioning however seems to be average at best, it is definitely not sloppy or fuzzy, but just lacking a tiny bit of precision and clinical sharpness. But this also mean it has smoother approach to imaging. KA3 is also a very tidy and clean sounding source, I have not heard any hint of floor noises even with the most sensitive IEMs in my possession.
Synergy wise, I already mentioned that KA3 pairs amazingly well with Shure KSE1500 and TRN VX Pro, KA3 also pairs great with TIN HiFi T3+, Etymotic ER4SR and VE Asura 3.0FE. The caveat being, best to re-tune the filters to suit the partners. T3+ will shine the best with Apodizing Fast Roll-off, ER4SR and Asura 3.0FE with Slow Roll-off filter. Once the filters are set, the results are equally satisfying. This flexibility offered by KA3 is something I find very valuable and useful in actual practice. It must be noted, that to reset the filters, the KA3 must be released from the hold of UAPP USB handling so that FiiO Control can implement the change. Best to disconnect, connect, allow FiiO Control exclusive access (deny UAPP), change the settings, exit, disconnect and then re-connect to allow UAPP to resume. Yes I know it is tedious but it is something that does not need to be done frequently……unless you are as insane as I am with so many variant of listening devices ahahaha.
As part of #donglemadness 2022 standard procedures, driving tests with two of my most difficult to drive Headphones. My desktop stack of iFi ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN Can (15.1 Vrms) used as a reference to ascertain how close KA3 able to drive those two juggernauts. With the ZEN stacks providing 100% experience, this is how KA3 compares:
FIIO KA3 4.4MM BAL (HIGH GAIN)
- Fostex T40RP MK3: 50% (Vol 98/100)
- Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm: 40% (Vol 100/100)
The percentage being indication of how close KA3 to that iFi ZEN Stack. Of which the criteria for comparison as follows:
- Listening loudness (proper level)
- Dynamic transients and density
- Headroom spacing and staging
- Imaging strength
- Details articulation
I must admit that the biggest letdown for KA3 is the absolute driving power for demanding partners. KA3 is simply unusable for DT880 600 Ohm and borderline useful for T40RP MK3. It just doesn’t make sense to expect KA3 to drive anything above 300 Ohm. I get disappointing results too from VE ZEN 2.0 (320 Ohm).
However! KA3 will not be heavily penalized for this shortcomings, FiiO legitimately mentioned that KA3 is optimized for anything up to 300 Ohm and I wholeheartedly agree with that. In fact the results I get from the 155 Ohm VE Asura FE 3.0 solidified my findings of where the sweet spot is for KA3, keep it below 300 Ohm and all will be great!
FiiO KA3 is an amazing unit. Use it sensibly within the limit of up to 300 Ohm and I can attest that the flexibility of KA3 will not fail to impress. The general theme for KA3, being organic sounding yet very technically competent. The overall presentation well balanced end to end with dynamic range. KA3 is free from any element of being edgy or granular. It is as polished as can be expected from a well tuned ES9038Q2M.
The biggest appeal to me, KA3 surprisingly competent at being an AUX source for my No.1 IEM, KSE1500. That one element alone could have earned KA3 a 5 Stars rating but alas #donglemadness is all about pushing it to the max in all areas. And what’s holding back was the limit of KA3 driving power. Otherwise it would have been a total success for KA3.
- Well balanced neutral and natural timbre, clean and crisp
- Mature & polished dynamics
- Clean background with zero floor noises
- Works great up to 300 Ohm load
- Great technicalities
- Weak for a 2 Vrms rated dongle
- No MQA support
- No hardware volume adjuster
- Slightly higher battery drain than the next competitor
Best Pairing: Anything below 300 Ohm, highly flexible
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