FiiO F1: An Everyday Companion

Greetings!

Today we are going to checking out an exciting new entry to FiiO’s expanding earphone lineup, the F1.

FiiO really needs no introduction given that their audio equipment has grown synonymous with quality portable audio over the years. Last year they took a serious step into the headphone market with a couple fantastic bang-for-your-buck products in the form of the EM3 earbuds and EX1, which was more-or-less a lightly revised Dunu Titan 1. The new F1 continues FiiO’s push into the entry level market, this time targeting sub-20 USD in-ears.

Disclaimer:

The F1 was provided free of charge by FiiO, but not necessarily for the purposes of a review. I was selected as one of a number of Head-fi’ers in a giveaway. As part of the description for their giveaway they noted that they would appreciate reviews, but they were not required. All comments and views within this review are my opinions and do not represent those of FiiO or any other entity.

The F1 sells for 14.99 USD. You can check it out here on FiiO’s official site; http://www.fiio.net/en/products/63

Packaging and Accessories:

The F1’s packaging takes the basic concept laid out by the EM3 and both refines and expands upon it in a way that I personally find quite appealing. The shock-white background highlights the images of the F1’s earpieces, name, and FiiO branding on the front. The sides give you a nice glimpse of the in-line remote/mic and the Dunu-esque 90 degree angled jack. On the rear you are provided lists of specifications, accessories, features, and a handy diagram showing off the remote’s various functions.

Sliding out the inner cardboard tray reveals the F1’s earpieces and remote on display under a lightly frosted sheet of plastic. Lift that off and you find the foam the F1 is set within is coated with an almost felt-like finish. It’s a nice touch. Lift a flap in the bottom half of the tray and you are treated to a spacious clam shell carrying case with a carbon fiber-like texture. Inside are the extra silicone tips. All-in-all the following accessories are included;

– 4 sets of silicone eartips in s/m(x2)/l sizes

– hard clam shell carrying case

– permanently attached cable tie

While you’re not provided a silly number of accessories or anything out of the ordinary, everything oozes a level of quality rarely experienced at this price.

Build, Comfort, and Isolation:

The feeling of getting a quality product for you buck carries on once you get the F1 unpacked and in your hands. The squared off polycarbonate plastic housings are certainly interesting to examine with the angling and shape of the stem bringing to mind the 2015 Reddot award winning, 3rd generation Xiaomi Piston. I like that they left the plastic translucent, giving you a glimpse at the inner workings of the earphone.

The F1’s polyurethane cable is the real star of the show. It’s thick and reinforced with threads that snake their way throughout. Strain relief is well-done at the beefy Dunu-inspired jack but absent at the y-split and leading into the housings. While I do consider this an issue, the cable feels durable enough for it to be merely a minor concern. FiiO advertises it’s tangle resistance, and for good reason; this cable rarely crosses up. The built in cable strap, which you might recognize from Dunu earphones (noticing a pattern here?), helps significantly as well. Microphonics are a bit of an issue though. When worn cable-down I found the noise of the cable bumping and sliding against my jacket overly intrusive. While the F1 has a very nice chin cinch built in, it’s effectiveness is restricted by the placement of the inline remote on the right side cable. Wear them cable up and the excellent chin cinch can slide to an effective position, drastically reducing cable noise.

The F1 nails ergonomics and as a result is very comfortable despite the squared design. The nozzle exits at a logical angle, any edges are rounded off preventing uncomfortable hotspots, and weight is minimal. There’s really nothing awkward or unusual in FiiO’s design to highlight. It’s simply a nice earphone to wear.

Isolation is acceptable, on par with what you would expect from a dynamic driver earphone. A bit of outside noise bleeds in when walking around outside, but not enough to ruin the experience. If using them alongside your computer you can hear the keys clacking away in the background while typing. Voices are dulled to a murmur.

The F1 is a well-designed earphone made from quality materials. Fit and finish is top notch, the cable is much better than pretty much anything you’ll find at this price, microphonics notwithstanding, and comfort is also a strong point. Well done FiiO.

Mic Performance:

This section really only makes an appearance in my reviews if there is something particularly noteworthy. I found the F1’s inline remote to be exceptionally well constructed and quite premium feeling, experiencing none of the rattling issues others noted. I had no issues selecting the right button, and ergonomics once again felt spot on.

While call quality alone was fine for those on the receiving end, there was a not-so-minor problem that made the F1 less than desirable for phone usage. For whatever reason it picked up and magnified the sound of the cable touching my cheek, making it near impossible for callers to hear anything else unless I held the cable away from my face.

I was speaking with my wife while driving and she questioned what I was doing that was so noisy. That was a pretty confusing question considering I was sitting still, driving down a straight, flat, smooth stretch of road; which is what I told her. She said she thought I was outside scraping ice off the window of my car. Huh.

Hopefully this is a one-off problem confined to my particular F1. Still worth noting though.

Specifications:

Driver: 9.2mm dynamic

Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20KHz

Sensitivity: 97dB

Impedance: 16 ohms

I found the F1 easy enough to drive from any source, however, given their reliance on high volume for the best performance a more powerful source is recommended.

Sound:

I am thankful to have access to a variety of earphones spanning a wide range of price, quality, and signature. Despite this, I find myself spending most of my time listening to hyper-budget gear that competes directly with the F1 which simply comes across as decent sounding. Not good, not bad, just decent.

I found the F1 characterized by a somewhat dry mid-focused, presentation that’s a touch mid-bassy with recessed treble. It rarely comes across as musical or inviting, until you crank the volume which for low-volume listeners like myself is a pretty disappointing characteristic. At low volumes the listening experience is quite dull. Treble has little presence and no sparkle to speak off. Their mid-range is thick and muffled. Bass extension lacks reach and speed, with limited texture.

When using them outside of the house and in noisy environments where you must raise the volume to drown out exterior noise, the F1 makes a stronger case for itself. While still recessed and touch on the dull side, it’s treble shows a hint of shimmer. It’s midrange loses some of the muffled presentation. Detail is still smoothed over too much for my preferences though. Bass sees the most improvement developing a nice low end rumble that keeps up with the mid-bass punch. Decay comes across sluggish for quicker tracks regardless of volume, leading to the F1 getting crossed up on more complicated tracks.

Despite them lacking air in the upper ranges, the F1 maintains a fairly open presentation behind the forward mid-range that avoids coming across congested. This really benefits them on tracks like Run For You Life from Big Grams. Skylar Grey from Phantogram mostly sounds amazing on this track.

For the most part I found the F1 to an underwhelming listen that really only excels at volumes I’m not comfortable listening to for any length of time. The smoothed over detail and relaxed treble presentation means that regardless of volume they are quite non-fatiguing, a nice quality to have when listening to music on the move.

DSC00838.JPG
MEMT X5 / FiiO EM3 / FiiO F1 / Xiaomi Piston 3rd Gen

Select Comparisons:

FiiO EM3 (9.95 USD): The EM3 is a pretty awesome little earbud and a fitting comparison to the F1 as they share a similar signature. That said, the EM3 comes across to me as the better sounding product, though you give up isolation, build quality, and accessories to get it.

The EM3’s treble is more forward and contains the sparkle missing with the F1. It’s mid-range is pulled back in comparison, but is clearer and more detailed. Bass lack the extension of that found on the F1, but is similar overall in punch and texture.

Xiaomi Piston 3 (14.99 USD): Xiaomi’s 3rd generation of the Piston series built on the success of the iconic Piston 2 with a more ergonomic design and balanced signature. They sell for the same price as the F1, they share design elements, and they offer a similar feature set. It’s only natural to pit these two against each other.

When it comes to the build of each respective earphones housings, Xiaomi’s combination of gunmetal aluminum and black plastic looks and feels more premium than FiiO’s monochromatic housings. Fit and finish is much better on the Piston as well with each part fitting together flushly without any gaps or edges. It’s pretty impressive actually. Both cables are microphonic, but FiiO’s exudes a level of quality and durability sorely missing from the Piston’s braided/rubber combo.

Where the F1’s sound quality is simply acceptable, suffering from the previously outlined issues, the Piston’s sound quality is excellent. It’s smoother and more refined and there is some sparkle to it’s treble at any volume, though not enough to be fatiguing. I found the Piston just as easy to listen to over long periods. While the Piston’s mid-range isn’t as forward it’s lacks the stuffiness heard in the F1. Bass on the Piston as has a better balance of mid- and sub-bass, with greater extension and control. Detail retrieval and separation on the F1 falls well short of what the Piston is capable of presenting.

MEMT X5 (~20.00 USD): The MEMT X5 seems to be a popular pick at the moment. While slightly more expensive than the F1, that money is well spent if sound quality is of primary concern though I’d still take the Piston’s similarly detailed but more balanced sound.

Build on the two is on par, with the X5’s cable being even more annoyingly microphonic while also adding in some additional stiffness. The lack of a chin cinch really hurts when compared to the F1. The jack is similar to the F1’s, but more compact and with a metal sheath to add some style and potential durability. The X5’s inline mic has only one button vs. the three found on the F1, but it doesn’t pick up noise to the same extent and works well on phone calls. Fit and finish on both earphones is just okay. You can clearly see and feel each individual piece that composes each respective earphone’s ear pieces. Neither is put together with the level of detail and tolerance of the Piston.

While the X5 has a more generic and consumer friendly v-shaped signature, it’s clarity and detail is a notable step up from the F1. The level of detail present in the X5 really highlights the F1’s muddiness. it sounds significantly more open, on par with the Piston. If forward mids are your thing though, the F1 would still be the better choice. I found the X5’s mid-range recessed a little too much, and as a result vocals have a tendency to be overshadowed by mid-bass. Speaking of bass, the X5’s is monstrous compared to the F1, and extension is much better. It can be a little overpowering, but for the most part is better controlled and significantly more punchy than what the F1 outputs.

Earphone stand provided courtesy of AuralLife

Final Thoughts:

If you’re looking for an earphone to run with you during your everyday life tasks, the F1 is near perfect. They are inexpensive, very comfortable and their build quality far exceeds what you expect to see at their low cost. The cable in particular is outstanding if you can look past the microphonics. It’s well relieved and the strong tangle resistance and lack of memory works wonders in keeping them neat in your pocket should you opt not to use the included case. On top of that, the built in cable wrap pretty much guarantees you’ll never have to worry about a tangled cable.

If strong audio performance is priority on your list of desirable features, other options should be up for consideration. The F1’s dry, mid-forward signature lacks musicality and unfortunately makes for a somewhat dull and uninviting experience. It’s works very well with podcasts and speech-focused media though.

In the end, the F1 has been a mix of highs and lows for me. While their sound quality fails to impress, pretty much everything else is top notch which in itself makes them worth a look. However, if you don’t need the isolation and want to stay within the FiiO family, the EM3 earbud is a respectable choice. Toss the F1’s cable setup on those and you’ve got yourself one heck of a budget product *hint hint, nudge nudge, FiiO*.

Thanks for reading!

– B9Scrambler

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Test Songs:

Aesop Rock – Saturn Missles

BT – The Antikythera Mechanism

Big Grams – Fell in the Sun

Big Grams – Run For Your Life

Daft Punk – Touch

Gramatik – Bluestep (Album Version)

Incubus – 2nd/3rd/4th Movements of the Odyssey

Infected Mushroom – Deeply Disturbed

Infected Mushroom – The Legend of the Black Shawarma

Jessie J – Bang Bang

Kiesza – Hideaway

Killer Mike – “Reagan”

King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black

Pink Floyd – Money

Skindred – Death to all Spies

Supertramp – Rudy

The Prodigy – Get Your Fight On

Witcher 2 Official Soundtrack

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