Disclaimer: The FiiO FA1 was sent to us free of charge in exchange for our honest review. We thank FiiO for that!
My video review can be found right here:
Last week we reviewed the impressive FA7 IEMs from FiiO, this week FA1 entered the spotlight and we are putting them under our magnifying ears (glass).
Developing FA7 and FA1 for the first time FiiO used a 3D printing technique that in theory should make them easier to manufacture at a larger scale.
FA1 are not your average earphones because it is using a single balanced armature driver in detriment of a dynamic cellulose driver that takes care of the full frequency response
In the FiiO’s line-up this is the simplest design as it doesn’t have a complicated crossover, multi drivers with difference impedances, nor a dynamic driver that takes care of the bass. There is a big plus-side to this approach and a big downside.
Think of it this way: a single core CPU will struggle with complicated workloads and cannot handle multiple operations per second, a Quad-core CPU will manage its work load in a more organized manner and could do multiple operations per second no problem.
More or less same can be said about single armature IEM designs versus multiple armature designs as in the end a single driver will struggle with crowded music and crazy dynamic swings, more on that later.
FA1 comes in a nice but plain looking card-board packaging.
FA1 comes with 6 pairs of ear tips, 3 sizes split in two categories: normal silicone tips that is sounding fairly balanced with good comfort levels. The next ones are the bass ear tips (smoky ones with a red sound tube) – now, there is a big reason behind this decision, you see with stock white silicone tips the sound lacks bass depth and slam and the bass ear tips will almost solve this problem as it adds a bit of bass bloom and presence.
There is also a waterproof hard plastic case and an ear-tips cleaner.
I think FA1 look quite cool and as FA7 they resemble custom IEM designs very much, I just wish the face plates could be more colorful and customized. How cool it could be if next generation FA7 and FA1 would have detachable and customizable face-plates? Über cool!
Its shape is very comfortable for my ears and due to much smaller size than that of FA7 and due to slippery resin, they slide very easy into my ears and are very comfortable to wear. They are much more stable inside my ear than their older offerings such as F9 and FH1.
FA1 is also featherweight and sometimes could be forgotten once inserted onto your ears.
Cable is of course detachable, MMCX connectors are reinforced this time around, much like how FA7 is having, this was a big problem in their older designs, the cable will no longer fall down if you are jogging or having a workout at the gym.
Tech inside FA1
FA1 is using a single balanced armature from Knowles, the exact model is ED-33357 that was customized by Knowles according to FiiO specs. It has a very low 15 Ohm impedance, so basically you can drive them with absolutely everything that has a headphone jack.
Of course, a single armature driver means it is a single bore design as well and the sound will pass just thought it. A single driver also means there isn’t a complicated crossover inside, the good part is that sound should be faster and cleaner as the crossover always adds a bit of flavor and slows down the sound performance a bit. Simpler the circuitry means the sound should remain cleaner and faster, will see about that very soon.
Bad news is that a single driver will have problems with crowded passages and in general have weak and rolled-off sound extremities, I am talking about lowest sub-bass and upper treble.
FA1 has a crazy sensitivity of 111dB per 1mW of power so please adjust your volume accordingly before pressing the play button. Having a very wide-bandwidth balanced driver it is however very sensitive to hiss and background noise so I do recommend a hiss-free music source with a blackest background possible.
For the record I’m using a desktop Gilmore Lite Mk2 that in my opinion has a very black background, sadly with FA1 there is a faint noise on the background, with a Burson Playmate or xDuoo TA-10 it is even worse!
FiiO’s own portable solutions worked well, their M6 and M9 are recommended if FA1 is on your radar.
If you own a DAP that has a balanced output, FA1 was among the very few earphones that didn’t scale as much with better power. With A M9 on the 2.5 mm balanced connection I’ve got a better pin point imaging and that basically was it. Going balanced is not a must with FA1 and that is a good thing, student audiophiles rejoice!
I will start with the worse and that is the bass response.
There is a very clear reason why FiiO put in the package 3 pairs of bass ear tips and didn’t put voice enhancing ear-tips.
With the stock ear-tips FA1 are especially weak in the sub-bass area and cannot be awoken even with desktop or balanced power, it is what it is.
There is little to no information up to about 40 Hz, even my usual rock tunes had much less weight to them and sounded a bit thinner than my typical headphones.
Going into mid-bass zone there is clearly much more information, FA1 are not having a mid-bass hump and it is not following the Harman curve, so the smile-inducing frequency area is not boosted at all.
Mid-bass is fairly neutral and sometimes even lacking, I really recommend the bass ear tips with this one. Bass tips will help especially in the mid-bass and will do close to nothing in the sub-bass area, think of a leaner F9 if you tried that one.
For fun I also tried a pair of memory foam ear-tips that I borrowed from the FA7 and…now we are talking!
The thing is my ear canal has an unusual shape and the standard silicone tips are not making a great seal so this is why I am losing a lot of bass information. With memory foam tips bass is improving considerably in energy, depth and control. There is just much more of it quantity and quality wise. If you feel FA1 is not passively attenuating a lot of noise, you might have my fit issues, FiiO is separately selling the memory foam ear tips (called FiiO HS17) and I strongly recommend these ones to you.
With memory foam tips bass is becoming much more present and pleasant, it is much more linear this way, it is still not overdone but has a right amount of energy and slam.
FA1 are not having crazy bass slam levels as FA7 and FH5 are having, for bass lovers there are better solutions, but much more expensive as well.
Since FA1 is having reversed V shape frequency response, midrange performance is its best part.
Moving from upper bass to lower midrange is done in a smooth fashion without drops, there is a clear rise in the lower midrange area as it is emphasizing the vocal performance a bit.
Vocals are always centered and are talking the spotlight more than everything else. FA1 midrange performance is fairly good, voices are sounding full and weighty, without being boomy or overdone.
String based instruments have defined plucks and a very life-like natural texture.
As with all armature-based IEMs bass and midrange notes are decaying much faster than dynamic driver based counterparts.
Treble resembles a chameleon like creature as it can be biting, clear and sometimes there is not much of it.
I think FA1 have a very solid lower treble performance, maybe it is elevated just a tiny bit as in the 6-8 kHz area it can be tiresome with some tracks. Especially with fast rock and metal music there is clear emphasis in this area.
Going up in the treble the information level drops quite fast, especially in the upper treble there is clear roll-off for a very natural and easy-going presentation. As was the case with bass and midrange, treble is decaying pretty fast and doesn’t have a lot of sustain and will not bother with long sibilant notes.
FA1 has a good overall treble performance and will kick ass with drums and not as much with cymbals but that’s Ok, for 99 USD you can’t get better.
IV. Soundstage & Depth & Imaging
Now, this is where FA1 really impressed me and actually exceeded my expectations
FA1 are imaging very good and have a better than anticipated pin point imaging. Sounds are very clearly positioned around the listener, have a very clear outline and definition.
Depth performance is helped a lot by that 3D imaging and sounds are coming from a fair distance to the listener. With FA1 music is not happening in your head but somewhere around your head, for me it is around the shoulders. FA1 are not forward sounding and will not put you on stage with your favorite band.
Soundstage size is normal to fairly wide, not the widest in the IEM world. All-in-all FA1 sounds airy and well spread for my tastes.
V. Transient Response
Now, the lack of that complicated cross-over FH5 and FA7 is having made the overall performance speedier and snappier than usual. FA1 have among the best transient response as it is always fast ‘n nimble, maybe too fast sounding at times.
There is single drawback to this kind of sound and that is the decay of the notes. With FA1 it’s like live fast and die young. Every note is decaying pretty fast and bass notes are not having sustain for a longer period of time. As a result, bass slam suffers and will not impress EDM & RAP & Electronica lovers.
VI. Background & Source requirements
With the right source FA1 have a very nice black as night background. With my desktop sources (All of them!) FA1 have a bit of hiss, that is the issue of said sources not of FA1. With portable devices FA1 is playing better, I do recommend the FiiO M6 as they worked pretty well together. ESS Sabre chipsets in general should awaken a bit of upper treble the FA1 is struggling with, that is IMO the right combo.
FA1 are very, and I mean VERY easy to drive, no power requirements whatsoever, drive them with everything you want, but a clean output is a must have.
I have on hand just a pair of older F9 (non PRO version) so here is goes:
FiiO FA1 (100 USD) VS F9 (100 USD)
F9 are not staying very comfortable inside my ear and MMCX connector strength is much worse than that of FA1.
F9 has a better extended treble response, for me it is a bit too much, it is hot and sibilant sometimes. Midrange performance is just a tiny bit more natural but it is also not as clear sounding, textures are lost and notes don’t have a sharp outline.
Bass is more natural with F9 and have a better sustain, it is however slower and boomier, not as snappy.
FA1 has a better shape and are staying very comfortable, cable quality is basically the same but the MMCX connector is much better.
FA1 have an easier-going treble performance, it is almost never sharp or sibilant, it is really too much treble with F9 for me.
Midrange on FA1 is sharper, has better texture, notes are better outlined, FA1 is also airier and have a deeper performance. FA1 have a better imaging capability and will put your imagination to the test.
Bass notes are speedier but are decaying faster as well, put the memory foam tips and it will improve.
Overall FA1 is clearer and more defined sounding, F9 is sibilant in the treble and (too) smooth in the bass and midrange.
Both are very close performance wise.
I really love the looks of FA1, that smoky transparent shell is cool looking and comfortable to wear in a listening spree.
Packaging wise you will find everything you need inside the box; unboxing experience is quite positive considering the price point.
In the end I think FA1 were made for modern, full of energy music where speed and attack are needed. FA1 are not too forgiving in terms of bad mastered music or noisy background sources, so be careful with that. I think the slight subdued sub-bass performance could be overlooked considered everything else they done well and are offering a lot for a 100 USD IEM.
Though, considering the price, FA1 are great for the technical sound they are capable of. In their price segment FA1 will be definitely hard to beat.
- Good packaging and a wide range of accessories
- Great fit and finish, excellent comfort
- Good depth and soundstage, airy presentation
- Natural and vivid midrange
- Awesome transient response
- Transparency and detail retrieval are at a high level
- Great price for a good performance
- No memory foam tips in the package
- Picky when it comes to source noise
- Rolled-off in the sub-bass and in the upper treble
- DAPs: FiiO M6, M9, X7 MKII
- DACs: Matrix X-Sabre Pro + X-SPDIF2, Burson Playmate, xDuoo TA-10
- Headphone amps: Headamp Gilmore Lite MK2, Pico Power, Burson Playmate
- Headphones: FiiO FA7, FA1, F9, Quad ERA-1, Sennheiser HD660S, Momentum M2.0