fiio q3 is a portable thx balanced dac/amplifier utilizing an ak4462 dac with native dsd512 decoding and output power up to 300mw. it is priced at $149.99.
disclaimer: the fiio q3 you sent us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion in this review. We thank fiio for this opportunity.
Reading: Fiio q3 headphone amplifier dsd512
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Please note that this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read here.
The new fiio q3 carries the frontier thx series aaa amplifier circuitry, with an upgrade over the q1 mark ii to the latest akm ak4462 dac that can natively decode up to dsd512, and has its i/o expanded. it’s been over 2 years when we last saw a fiio q series device, at that time a 4.4mm connection and usb-c were not yet popular in affordable equipment.
The Q3 has been revamped in many ways, and like its siblings, it supports 3.5mm line-in and digital connectivity. Coming in an incredibly sleek form factor, just 6mm longer than the Q1 Mark II, it fits right in with much of what fiio means in 2020.
by placing q3 along m15, q1 mark ii and k3, you can see some design similarities. the rounded anodized aluminum bodies and knob placement of the latest fiio products are based on the same design aesthetic.
The front panel of the Q3 adds a 4.4mm connection, with room also for 3.5mm and 2.5mm balanced terminations, making it compatible with most upgraded balanced cables on the market. accessories.
fiio has cleverly tweaked the design with a red ring on the front of the knob, as well as an LED indicator that shows the sample rates of any audio signal. with 48khz it will show blue, beyond 48khz it will show yellow and dsd will make you green. there is also a low battery indication with a flashing red light when it almost runs out of power.
by flipping down on the back panel you can find 2 screws. there is a bass switch, a gain button with led (green light on when switched to high gain). you can also switch between two digital filters by double clicking the round switch. A USB-C charging port sits in the middle with a switch to the right that you can use to turn off charging so it doesn’t drain your phone/laptop.
As the form factor might suggest, the Q3 weighs incredibly light at just 110g, very similar to the Q1 Mark II (101g). it looks much more elegant than in the photos to the point where you can easily slip it into a pocket after pairing it with a phone.
packaging & accessories
fiio’s packaging style is consistent and professional. A sturdy internal case with separate compartments fits the main unit and accessories, including a soft pad to place between the phone to prevent potential bumps and damage.
There are also two sets of elastic bands for you to attach the Q3 to different gears. Inside the smaller box, you’ll find a Lightning to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-C cable, and a 3.5-3.5 cable for analog line-in connections.
the q3 feels like a great upgrade after the q1 mark ii. key components are reworked while keeping some op amps (eg opa1662) in the amplification path. the peak output voltage on q3 is even higher than the more expensive q5, so we expect good power.
the q3 uses an akm ak4462 with a velvety sound architecture that allows the q3 to decode up to 32bit/768khz or native dsd512, with improved thd performance and higher snr than the q1 mark ii.
Last but not least, the xmos xuf208 usb driver is used. this is a mature solution that has been seen in other fiio designs and offers high snr and up to date decoding performance.
according to official information, the q3 is apple certified, usb-if usb c compatible, hi-res audio certified, and comes with an official thesycon usb audio driver.
the q3 encloses a fully balanced thx frame amplifier module under the frontier aaa series. Officially, it claims to be the “world’s most linear amplifier technology for headphone and car audio systems.”
Dual AAA 28 chipset design promises low noise, distortion and power consumption. it is also capable of generating high power with low voltage power supplies. So far, I’m very positive about all the amps that use thx aaa technology inside, like the m11 pro. they always seem to offer good power and good control at the start.
You can read more about aaa technology here.
adc volume control
fiio has continued its adc digital volume control design in the q3 which eliminates channel imbalance issues at low volume with sensitive iems.
This is a useful feature, especially for very sensitive elements, allowing much more precise bass volume control using a traditional round knob, but not digital volume which can reduce dynamic range.
with such an implementation, there will be no unbalance issues allowing you to enjoy sensitive elements i.e. shure se846 in a quiet room without the volume tilting to one side.
Channel balance issues have always been a nightmare for quiet listening, especially with very sensitive multi-drum devices. sometimes the volume can get too high before the sweet spot is found, so it’s very helpful for sensitive ears.
there is no pop sound when you turn on the q3 with the knob. the resistance is just right, making it easy to fine-tune volume levels. I personally prefer the digital volume control, but a nice implementation on the retro knob gives it a more analog feel and is much easier to control in a pocket.
Because the q3 is designed to be stacked behind phones, we tested whether signals from phones would introduce a level of electrical interference to the q3 signal. high frequency hum from emf interference still plagues a lot of the newer products, so that’s something I wanted to make sure q3 avoided.
In testing with my iphone and android phones, there is no signal noise when a call comes in. According to fiio, the q3’s body is machined from aluminum and has an alloy protection cover over key components to block out the exterior. interference.
The design works well to avoid unwanted noise and I have no problem with single-ended and balanced output.
the q3 allows users to switch between two digital filters: one with a faster roll-off that offers a rounder sound and the other more open and extended in the treble.
by double-clicking the bass boost knob, you will be able to switch between the sharpest attenuation filter and a slow attenuation filter. having only 2 filters may sound limiting, but I find the sharper roll-off filter handy for taming sensitive, sharper-sounding elements.
if you prefer more rounded highs combined with warmer elements, the slow roll-off filter will be better as the other filter limits the opening in the highs.
A few more filter options would be nice, but it could be confusing if there’s no way to show which one is in effect, so the two provided filters seem like the right balance.
this is a fairly large battery relative to the size of q3 allowing up to 10 hours of playback. tests with 3.5mm output last between 8-9 hours with a mix of files, while with balanced output you should expect playback time to drop quite a bit.
if you’re using balanced iems and the q3 as an adapter, in low power emergencies you can also get some juice from the hosting device, so it’s even more flexible. however, the battery time is sufficient for 2-3 days of use during round trips.
line-in mode/digital decode mode
the q3 prioritizes digital connections and when there is no signal from the usb input, it can automatically switch to a 3.5mm line input to amplify incoming analog signals.
In this mode, only the balanced outputs can be used, as the 3.5mm jack is taken to accommodate the input signal. As long as digital signals are input, the Q3 will automatically turn back and stop the 3.5mm line-in signal.
the thx aaa equipped professional m11 player proved its worth in the market with its excellent linearity and overall sound performance compared to the original m11. an amplifier circuit from the same thx series is also inside the q3 and shares some of those sound characteristics. with most iems the q3 sounds wider on stage with improved clarity compared to entry level daps/phone output.
the tuning sounds quite natural without a strong signature. those that have body and are capable of extracting more details in the bass have better synergy, especially in 4.4 mm termination. the q3 isn’t fussy, in fact quite forgiving of genres and different types of elements that add more space between the instruments and the listener.
3.5mm output sounds smoother and more compressed than balanced 2.5mm/4.4mm outputs, which are used by both thx aaa amplifier modules and higher power outputs. on the 3.5mm output, the sound cuts off faster in both the lows and highs, and the attenuation makes it squarer, less natural than the balanced output.
however, this could tame some sharper sounding elements while sounding even more punchy with higher output power. the 2.5mm/4.4mm outputs, on the other hand, offer cleaner bass impact, separation, and resolution. in general, there is a better quality with a higher treble extension. in any case, the 2.5mm/4.4mm connections are recommended as they are optimized.
you can use the q3 as a preamp/volume booster for 3.5mm analog inputs and it packs a punch for adding dynamics and bass energy to small portable devices like the ath m50. it struggles to power demanding cans, but considering its size, it’s pumping out satisfying power with decent performance with more sensitive items.
The output is quite authentic compared to the original source, perhaps a bit warmer. little noise is picked up and it’s a safe tuning that doesn’t magnify any frequencies for clarity.
the driving power of the q3 is significantly higher than that of mobile phones and twice what the q1 mark ii offers, with a peak of ≥160 mw into a 32 Ω load, which is comparable to some level daps basic or medium.
While the balanced options offer a bit more punch than the single-ended output, the gain knob offers an extra boost to the dynamics, adding more volume and punch to the output. this works best with dynamic elements or small cans or when you want the output to be cleaner.
The bass boost toggle option is very well implemented with little bleeding in the vocal range after turning it on, raising the low/lower vocal range when activated. also works well with youtube streaming and trending content, especially in noisy cafe or outdoor settings.
with some harder to handle elements or cans, the power in the bass can be lacking. the bass boost option could give it a little oomph and add some welcome body to the notes. this is a useful option, but if you prefer more quality you can try adding some db in the bass via any source eq.
using the fa7 through the q3’s 2.5mm balanced cable, there’s enough power to enable fast, deep bass performance while still delivering a smooth, rounded voice. the soundstage is noticeably more widened, and as a result the vocal positioning is pushed back a bit.
fa7 sounds smooth and less slanted in bass compared to iphone or any android smartphone output. resolution is improved as a result of cleaner bass, and increasing the gain helps open up the treble clarity a bit more.
with the q3, the fa7 sounds less contained than entry level phones/daps, opening up the stage and pushing all instruments further out. it also improves dynamics and control at the same time, making it go better with classical music.
the me700 is a unique item that was released not too long ago. offers a smooth, full-bodied, retro sound signature.
This 5-driver iem consists of a 10mm gold-plated dynamic driver that has thick low-mids and super rounded highs, which works like silk with old melodies, especially male vocals. it requires a fair amount of power to clean the thicker mid-bass and drive it to its full potential.
defying the q3 with the me700, the combo sounds spacious, much less stuffy compared to phone outputs which can sound quite losy and muted. the q3 helps make the mid-bass faster and lighter without drawing too much attention, while the vocal image blends smoothly into the background.
percussion instruments and acoustic instruments have a more natural weight with the q3. however, at the same time, the dynamics improve when you focus less on the mid-bass.
The gain switch helps bring out more of the highs and the slow roll-off filter opens up a little more room for vocals to breathe. the bass knob is too low for the me700 to hear indoors, but can be useful for compensating for outside noise when traveling, but in this case it’s hurting resolution.
this isn’t the best combo and don’t expect the q3 to be as powerful and responsive as high end rigs that are made to handle iems like the me700. it’s enough to handle most low to medium level items and is best suited for the most sensitive.
The er2se is a unique and dynamic element that sounds super clean and snappy with its fast and light bass attack. it has good power to recover details in the higher registers and sounds extremely smooth in the vocal range. this complements well with the thx aaa amplifier module design which has little coloration and unaltered response while maintaining low distortion.
the q3 allows for a heavier er2se vocal performance that sounds less thin with male singers or darker voices. genres including trance/club music that involve extensive use of digital bass elements now sound more complete. turning on the bass knob further strengthens the bass.
The q3’s 3.5mm output has richer bass than balanced outputs and offers more warmth to the output. this is a smoother option than the balanced output but not as clean and detailed.
Overall, the q3 adds a little bit of warmth to the er2se’s output, kicks deeper and sounds roomier. makes it more enjoyable outdoors with the voice more pronounced and weighted. the voice is also a bit more relaxed, more relaxing and softer when it comes to clean or instrumental voices.
lotoo paw s1
The s1 is an innovative device-powered dongle with many digital filtering options that you can use to add flavor to your rigs. it’s small and powerful while maintaining a spacious stage.
putting it with the q3, you’ll notice that the q3 is more self-conscious about reshaping the output for emotion, instead it’s flatter, more controlled and loyal to the source. With more power, the Q3 is creating a more vivid, 3D image while keeping more detail in the mix. you might notice more detail and energy on the bass, as well as softer articulation on the q3.
I like how the s1 adds a bit of extra sharpness and air with its filter which is also very flexible to switch between different presets, for me it works great as an adapter for high end headphones.
In contrast, the pure q3 performance in power in the bass ensures stable performance in most cases and will be friendlier to entry-level or mid-tier players that need a boost in power while adding a Fuller staging with better dynamics.
the btr5 is priced similarly to the q3 and offers hi-res wireless audio decoding, excellent power in terms of a small bluetooth receiver, has clean bass punch, and sounds fairly balanced across all frequencies with its balanced output.
on the balanced output the q3 has a richer mid bass with more detail captured overall compared to the btr5 it seems the cable transmission still gives the q3 some edge allowing it to deliver more power in the bass .
the btr5, however, sounds cleaner and faster when listening indoors, more refreshing and exciting in general, and the q3 is fuller, rounder and focuses mainly on the low-mid/midrange.
i prefer to use hybrids with the btr5 to get more natural bass response and sharper texture at the same time, the more bass sensitive elements in the tuning also make good pairings. as for q3, it has a better synergy with iems which produces a stronger texture.
Items with a higher pitch voice, such as the ikko oh1, also work well with the q3 and sound more natural. In general, the Q3 has fuller bass and is capable of handling heavier loads and sounds more spacious, while the BTR5 is more refined but has more limited power.
the k3 and q3 look quite similar and both offer a usb-c connection, also indicated by “3”. however, when you put them together, the new q3 beats the k3 by a second in terms of sound quality, detail recovery, and power.
the level of detail and separation is two steps up from the q3 with the same usb output, where the q3 has better extension/treble control, a more distinct vocal image and also better articulation which makes it sound more natural.
Unless you need a device powered dac and amp, I can’t think of any reason not to choose the q3, which is just as portable, more flexible in connections, and offers better amplifying and decoding qualities. however, the k3 could be useful if you need its usb to coaxial output conversion feature or just require a working sound card with basic features.
new akm ak4462 dac chips, implementation of thx aaa 28 amplifiers, a generous set of accessories and extensive i/o support make the q3 a flexible and practical dac and adapter option, turning phones into a dap instantly.
It has good synergy with several entry-to-mid-tier iems that need a little boost in power to shine and it balances features and output quality well without costing a fortune. quick access to change digital filters is also a good tweak option when using some sensitive items.
With a rich feature set and enough power, plus a form factor perfect for pairing with a phone, the q3 is an all-rounder, a swiss army knife of its kind, and a safe bet if you want to find your iphone and amp or you are planning an upgrade to a 4.4 trrrs system.
specifications fiio q3
- audio input: usb type c
- 3.5mm single-ended
- 2.5mm balanced
- 4.4mm balanced
- channel balance: ≤0 ,2db
- battery capacity: 1800mah
- charging time: ≤2 hours
- support native dsd: 64/128/256/512
- maximum supported sample rate: 32-bit/768 khz
- dac: akm4462
- amp: thx_aaa28
- lpf: opa1662
- xmos: xuf
- 3.5mm: ≥114db
- 2.5/4.4mm: ≥115db
- 3.5mm: <0.0012%
- 2.5/4.4mm: <0.0012%
- 3.5mm: 1.2Ω
- 2.5/4.4mm: 3Ω
- weight: 3.8oz (110g)
- dimensions: 4.1 x 2.3 x 0.49” (105 x 59 x 12.5 mm)
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