FiiO EH3 NC Review – When Noise Annoys

Overall Score 87/100
Sandu Vitalie Headphones

My video review:

Disclaimer: FiiO EH3 NC were sent to us free of charge in exchange for our honest review. We thank team FiiO for this opportunity.

By announcing their first wireless and noise-canceling over-ear headphones in July of this year, FiiO entered a very topical segment of the headphone market. It is mostly dominated by the US manufacturers but FiiO bravely decided entering the den of wolves. I welcome this decision, a fiercer competition always leads to better, more polished products and to lower prices too.

Their newest headphones are called EH3 NC and NC stands for noise-canceling. It is clear to me that FiiO is working on this one for quite some time now as in March of 2018, James Chung – FiiO’s CEO shown a prototype design of their first ever over-ear and wireless headphones that was called internally as just EH3. More than 2 years FiiO is polishing this one and instead of going the simpler wireless route they added ANC capabilities too. To stand out from the crowd, FiiO wanted to offer some additional features compared to its competition at a lower price tag and this is exactly what they did with EH3 NC. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s check them out.

Unboxing & Package contents

I think FiiO outdid themselves in terms of packaging. It is cleverly packaged (see my unboxing video) and it is triple boxed. Last two boxes are part of the actual product packaging and they put their best-looking quick start guide I’ve seen in years. It is thick, colored and very detailed when it comes to all its features and how to properly set it. Inside the smaller box you’ll find a very nice hard carry-case, it looks very much like the one Sony WH-1000XM3 is having, a very good sign in my book since that one was the best hard-case I’ve seen in a wireless headphone. Inside it, EH3 NC are folded to be really compact and portable, there is a simple USB type-C charging cable and a 3.5mm (on both ends) headphone cable and that is basically it.

Looks & Build Quality

This is a very subjective matter, EH3 NC for me are looking simple without a courageous or striking design. FiiO chosen a safe design that should work for most people. It has clean and smooth lines, without rough edges, very humanly looking and doesn’t attract a lot of attention. They might look from the photos as being 100% symmetrical but that is not the case. The ear-cups have an elongated, ear-shaped design that is tilted backwards so they will completely hug your years. It is an over-ear design and a very comfortable one.

EH3 NC is mostly made out of plastic, but it is a high quality one that doesn’t make squeaky noises when adjusting the comfort level or the height position. The headband is wrapped in a very soft protein leather, I can’t feel them once I put them of my head. The ear-cups are also super soft and deep and they apply little to no pressure at all. Those are detachable and FiiO is even selling mesh ear-pads made out of soft-fabric in case you want to use them in sunny summer days.

The side panels of the ear-cups have a glossy fiber-glass looking pattern, this is where the NFC chip is located, just approach them to your NFC enabled smartphone and they will pair in an instant.

The ear-cups can be turned sideways so you can lay them flat on the table and you can even fold them for a very compact look, very much like WH-1000XM3 or Momentum 3 that I tested recently.

Slowly but surely EH3 NC started growing on me with their design, high comfort levels and very lightweight body. At only 293 gr, with those soft ear-pads and headband I can wear them for hours without any listening fatigue. They have a simple adjusting mechanism with 10 smooth steps, I use the smallest position so big heads should not worry with this one.

The right ear-cup carries the ANC switch, the On/Off button, the headphone jack and 3 buttons from which two will increase or decrease the volume and the middle one is a multi-function button that will play/pause, answer, decline or end a call – this is also the pairing button and the voice assistant button. The left ear-cup has only the USB Type-C input for charging.

Technology Inside EH3 NC

First of all, FiiO went with a big 45 mm dynamic driver that is also titanium coated to increase rigidity, detail retrieval and speed of delivery. All other noise cancelling headphones that I know of have smaller drivers, including MW65 and Momentum 3 and some of the desktop headphones are carrying 45 mm drivers so I expect great things coming out of them, will see about that really soon.

Using them wired the impedance is a low 32 Ohm and sensitivity is a lower than usual one at 98 dB – due to bigger driver size I am sure. Driving them is not a problem even for lower powered sources as smartphones, tablets or smaller DAPs. If the internal battery dies on you, your smartphone will sound just fine with them.

In terms of Bluetooth capabilities EH3 NC is having the latest Bluetooth version 5.0 and by employing the best Bluetooth chip on the market: the Qualcomm CSR8675 - it supports all the audio Bluetooth codecs available today as SBC, AAC, AptX, AptX-LL, AptX-HD and LDAC. In terms of wireless tech EH3 NC has the latest and the greatest tech and with a plastic body the wireless signal is super strong even with two concrete walls between them and the source.

I counted 4 microphones that will pick ambient noise, the built-in DSP chip will analyze that and emit a reverse audio signal to cancel out that noise. FiiO is using them in a feed-forward hybrid active-cancellation design, this is the best approach to cancel the unwanted noise.

FiiO put NFC capabilities in them to quickly communicate and pair with compatible devices, bring your phone closer to the right ear-cup and pairing is finished, it’s convenient and easy.

In terms of battery life, FiiO went with a big 1000 mAh capacity one that will offer up to 50 hours of wireless playback time with ANC turned Off at moderate volume levels and 30 hours of playback time with ANC enabled. I think those are great numbers, on the same level or better than the competition.

FiiO Music App

FiiO updated its App to support AH3 NC and control some of its featured directly from there.

You can select the power off timers, audio codec indicators, you can manually select the desired Bluetooth codec which is neat, you can have a user defined preset for the EQ. I like that is starts from 31.5 Hz and not from 50 or 60 Hz how some of the competition is doing, the last band that can be adjusted is the 16 kHz one.

Another good feature of the app is that it incorporates a detailed user manual for EH3 NC, if you forgot how to enable or disable some of its features, the manual will show you that.

FiiO Music app can be also your default music playback software, plus a full integration with EH3 NC will offer a complete package for traveling audiophiles. I am personally using steaming services as Tidal Hi-Fi + Spotify and those worked as a charm with them.

Test Setups

I used them in four different setups:

  • Connected to my desktop Corsair One i160, playing a youtube video and then playing a racing game
  • Connected to my smart TV and watching a movie
  • Connected to my Android smartphone and streaming Tidal Hi-Fi
  • Connected to Matrix Audio Element X + Benchmark HPA4 in wired mode and listening some Hi-Res and DSD tunes.

My desktop PC is the weakest in terms of wireless tech. It uses Bluetooth version 4.2 and doesn’t support fancier codecs as AptX-HD or LDAC. I had some lip-sync issue with other wireless headphones I have tested while watching a youtube video and I was skeptical that EH3 NC might have them as well. I played a youtube video and to my surprise everything worked excellent, the image was always in sync with the movement of the lips, so the audio latency was really low even on SBC codec with BT 4.2. I then played a 20-minute racing game and again everything was in sync and I didn’t lose a single beat, they worked as intended.

Watching a short 20-minute episode on Netflix on my TV was again problem-free, I could change the volume position, I could pause the video with them, they worked as a small remote for my TV. I really like watching movies with wireless headphones a lot. After my kid goes to sleep, I can’t use speakers anymore around the house so using headphones is the only solution. I can have all the explosions I want from the action movies without bothering anyone, super nice!

Sound Performance

I. Wireless Performance with ANC turned OFF

My smartphone is Bluetooth 5.0 and LDAC/AptX-HD compatible so I could use the best wireless tech EH3 NC can offer.

My general impression is that FiiO chosen a very safe tuning for them, they have a linear sub-bass, a slightly elevated mid-bass, a very present, musical and warm sounding midrange, a slight drop in the mid-treble to shoo away the brightness and an extra topping up top to wake up the sub-sonic treble area. A bigger driver created an impression of a bigger sound, for a closed-back headphone they are sounding quite open I think.

The more I listen to them the more I realize FiiO actually went with the same tuning Sennheiser, Sony and Master&Dynamic went with their headphones. This is a non-aggressive type of sound, quite relaxed, very voluptuous, it’s heavier in tone, with tons of midrange and mid-bass presence and has a grain free-treble. This is a relaxing tuning that works really well for longer listening sessions and frankly with any type of music.

Sub-bass is actually very neutral, I can hear the right dose of presence and impact, it is never overwhelming and doesn’t overflow the mid-bass. It is not the cleanest sub-bass, nor the most layered or detailed but I think it is up there with the rest of wireless and noise canceling headphones I have tested of late. In general, closed-back designs don’t have the cleanest and the most distortion-free bass and EH3 NC is sounding like that. On the other hand, this is a pleasing, harder hitting with a good rumble sub-bass that will shake your head nicely if the track has a lot of information in the sub 50 Hz area.

Mid-bass is clearly enhanced a bit and takes the spotlight most of the time, it is really groovy and very present. This is not a linear mid-bass performance but an enhanced, deep reaching and longer rumbling type of bass. Can’t lie, I enjoyed my time listening to some drum’n’bass like Noisia and Pendulum. Daft Punk with their great dynamic range tracks woke up those drivers and shown their truest potential in terms of energy and kick. Those big drivers can move large amounts of air so slam and bass impact was always impressive. If you like bass, these will be right your alley.

Midrange performance resembles a lot that of the Sennheiser Momentum 3 and 2 for that matter. Midrange is natural, very present, outlined, enhanced and pumps a lot of soul and smoothness into my songs. I think the highlight of this headphone is actually the midrange area that takes the spotlight most of the time. It is the one that grabs my attention the most. It is by a hair more present than the one on Sennheiser Momentum 3. This is the reason I think EH3 NC is warm and inviting sounding, quite smooth as well. The voices are sounding fuller, have a longer vibration and even are going lower in frequency. Male voices are really strong sounding, even scary at times. Try listening to some Leonard Cohen with EH3 on your ears and you will understand my feelings.

In terms of treble performance, on one hand there is a slope in the low treble and a drop in the mid-treble to create a smooth and grain-free presentation with brightness nowhere to be found. On the other hand, the upper treble is actually crispy, with clean sounding cymbals and bells. The notes are decaying naturally and have the right amount of zing. Past 6Khz I have actually close to zero complaints, it sounds extended, pretty clean and have the right amount of detail without being bothersome. Again, this is not a linear type of treble, but a relaxing type without killing those top-octave notes.

Transient response is pretty good but due to a closed-back design, there are few reflections in the ear-cups and sometimes I have the feeling that speed is not top-notch. Slam is awesome because of the large diameter driver but speed is not the fastest.

Testing soundstaging capabilities it was a must listening to some 360° Reality Audio files. Tidal Hi-Fi was updated about a month ago and included a couple of 360° Reality tracks (for Android and for iOS devices only) that I recommend checking out. Even my favorite Take Five by Dave Brubeck and Stoned Soul Picnic by Laura Nyro were updated with soundstage enhancing DSP. Listening to those two songs it is like listening to normal versions of those songs on a Sennheiser HD800S paired with a fancier tube-amp. With the right music these will sound out of my head, very holographic and wide-spread. In terms of soundstage EH3 is at least on the same level with the best wireless headphones. Momentum 3 are basically sounding the same and WH-1000XM3 are sounding more up-front than that.

Judging EH3 NC as a closed-back headphone, they get high-marks in terms of soundstage size and holography, I have no complaints here.

II. Wireless Performance with ANC turned ON

I tested the ANC capabilities in a crowded shopping-mall and I think these are blocking a good amount of noise. About on the same level with Sennheiser Momentum 3, Master&Dynamic MW65 and less than Sony WH-1000XM3 that are still the ANC kings in my book. ANC tech is working nice and most of the chat is going away but some of the higher pitched sounds in the upper-midrange and treble is not 100% canceled and few sounds are passing by. However, constant sounds, like a car-engine, a jet-engine or anything else that emits a constant cyclical sound will be blocked almost completely which is nice.

However, I will mention that their overall tuning is changing with ANC enabled, it makes them boomier sounding, the sub-bass and mid-bass is more elevated and everything else drops a few decibels that creates an even warmer and smoother presentation. Maybe too smooth and too warm for my tastes. I don’t think it was intentional by FiiO engineers.

With ANC engaged the soundstage shrinks a bit and everything is somehow closer sounding to me, like the sound is coming from a barrel. I personally like EH3 NC a lot more with ANC turned Off, only in noisy environments when there is no other way around, I will engage the ANC, otherwise it stays Off most of the time. Out of curiosity I will measure them in wireless mode with and without ANC and see for myself if there are changes in the frequency response.

III. Wired Performance

A. Via the 3.5mm headphone cable

I tried squeezing out maximum performance out of them so I plugged them directly into the reference Benchmark HPA4 that was connected to Matrix Element X DAC. I used the internal player of Element X and its internal streamer since it sounds better this way to me.

What I really liked from the start is that you don’t need to turn them On if you want to use them passively in wired mode, Momentum 3 for example will work in wired mode only by powering them On, I don’t like that since the battery is draining and with FiiO EH3 NC it is not. If M3 has a dead battery, it will not work in wired more #notcool.

As I was expecting, EH3NC sounds a bit better in wired mode, because their internal DAC and stereo amp modules can’t outperform a serious desktop setup. Sound is definitely faster, kicks even harder and they sound even more detailed and wider spread. The difference is not that big but it’s a noticeable one in favor of the desktop setup. Everything is just cranked up to eleven and bass is better controlled too. Sound is more linear and closer to reality; they are not as smooth and relaxed anymore but transient response improved a lot.

I tested them with multiple sources including two DAPs and any source can drive them to really loud levels. Hiss and background noise of the source is nowhere to be found, EH3 NC is not picking that up. Overall, EH3NC are scaling nicely with a decent desktop setup.

B. Wired via the USB Type-C cable

It can work wired via the headphone cable or via the USB type-C cable. It worked that way with smartphones too. I tested the USB connection with my smartphone and with my desktop PC and in both instances it worked great.

My PC recognizes it as an external audio device, it is obvious EH3NC has a DAC (digital to analog converter) chip inside.

I was pleased to hear a really nice performance via USB Type-C that stays somewhere in-between their wireless and their wired performance. They are sounding a bit faster and clearer this way, but not as clean as connecting them to a better desktop setup. I strongly recommend trying them at least once wired via USB-C, it’s worth a shot.

IV. Measurements

For measurements I used a MiniDSP E.A.R.S (Earphone Audio Response System), of course with calibration files for HEQ (headphone compensation for flat EQ) and for HPN (original headphone compensation) but I felt that HPN compensation gave me the best results.

Their wireless performance (with ANC turned OFF) is really close to their wired performance, almost indistinguishable. As you can see from the graph, their mid-bass and midrange is elevated and that can be easily heard. The drop in the 4kHz area created that warm, cozy and smoother feeling. The upper treble is much better and has information even past 20 Khz. There is a bit of deviation from the left and right channel, especially in the treble area, but in real life I can’t hardly spot that.

I then measured their wireless performance with ANC turned On, I again used a 300 Hz sine-wave at 85 dB, exactly how was the case with ANC turned Off and this is what I’ve got.

There is a quite a difference, notice how much more mid-bass there is compared to the graph above. Actually, starting with 50 Hz and up everything drops few decibels that created that warm and boomy effect.

Overlaying them this is what I’ve got. (Red and Blue is with ANC disabled)

What a difference… If ANC is engaged, then midrange and treble drops by about 10dB, that is more than I expected. This is exactly what I was hearing, they sound bassier with ANC enabled, boomier and warmer. You might like this kind of approach but I personally don’t, I like them more with ANC disabled.

I recorded the total harmonic distortion with and without ANC and this is what I’ve got.

Quite good THD numbers, starting with 60 Hz THD drops to 0.2% and even lower than that. With ANC enabled the THD rises a bit, especially in the treble but not by much.

Spectrogram readings are showing a clear difference with ANC enabled and disabled. The red zone represents the frequency that is elevated. You have a lot more bass and midrange with ANC engaged and everything is more linear with ANC turned Off.

Waterfalls are also different and their spectral decay is slightly different too, in favor of ANC turned Off. All in all, EH3 NC are measuring fine and the drop in 4 kHz area doesn’t bother me that much.

V. Comparisons

FiiO EH3 NC ($199.99) VS Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless ($399.99)

Build quality wise M3 is ahead with leather ear-pads and headband and with an all metal headphone structure. Technology wise EH3 NC is much better since it supports BT 5.0 and the widest selection of codecs. M3 is limited to BT 4.2 and its best codec is just AptX, not even AptX-HD. Another plus for EH3NC is that it can be used wired with a headphone cable without powering them on, battery level is not important at all, M3 can’t do that and even in wired mode it needs to use some battery power.

When it comes to sound, while listening to them wired both are more alike than different. EH3 NC is by a hair warmer and smoother sounding, with a bigger emphasis on mid-bass and midrange, whereas M3 is tiny bit more linear and more extended on both ends. M3 is a bit more resolving and transparent sounding too.

In terms of soundstage size both are identical but sometimes I feel that EH3 NC is deeper sounding and wider as well.

When it comes to wireless performance but with ANC Off, EH3 NC pulls ahead a bit especially on LDAC codec and streaming Hi-Res content. M3 sounds mellower and not that resolving or detailed.

When I am engaging ANC, EH3NC becomes warmer, boomier and its losing speed and control, while listening to music with ANC I prefer the M3. ANC capabilities alone are on the same level and microphone quality is top notch on both. I did make some phone calls with both and they worked just fine while doing that.

Overall, when it comes to sound both headphones are more alike than different and that is a compliment for EH3 NC since it is at half the price of Momentum 3.

Conclusion

EH3NC is a great addition to FiiO’s portfolio, it is their first over-ear, wireless and NC headphone and I think they did a good job with it considering its price of just $199.99. It stood shoulder to shoulder to much higher priced products and didn’t embarrass itself.

It carries the widest codec support, the strongest BT signal with version 5.0, add NFC and FiiO Music app support and suddenly EH3NC becomes a really serious and grown up product. I am overlooking their performance with ANC engaged since at $199.99 there is nothing else that comes even remotely close to them in terms of sound quality.

PROS:

  • Clean, smooth and simple design
  • Long battery life
  • Extended frequency response
  • Has a rich tonality, sounds warm and involving
  • No harshness/brightness whatsoever
  • Decent detail retrieval
  • Wide soundstage
  • FiiO Music app integration
  • Good mic quality, excellent at making calls
  • Can be used with a wide variety of devices (Smart TVs, laptops, desktop PC, tablets, smartphones and so on)
  • Excellent value!

CONS:

  • Not the best ANC I have tested
  • Sounds different with ANC engaged

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT:

  • Sources: Xiaomi Mi9T Pro, Corsair One i160, Sony Bravia 65XE9005
  • DACs: Matrix Audio Element X, Keces S3, Burson Conductor 3
  • Headphone amps: Benchmark HPA4, Erzetich Bacillus
  • IEMs: FiiO FH7, Simgot EN700 PRO
  • Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Arya, Quad ERA-1, Sennheiser HD660S
  • Portable headphones: Erzetich Thalia, Sennheiser Momentum 2
  • Wireless headphones: FiiO EH3 NC, Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
  • Loudspeakers: KEF LS50W
  • Interconnects: QED Reference XLR, Aune AL3 XLR
  • Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x2)
  • Balanced Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC 400, KECES BP-600

Overall score 87/100

Wireless Tech 98/100
Resolution 83/100
Dynamics 89/100
Frequency Response 87/100
Stage Size 76/100
Comfort 88/100
Build Quality 89/100
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