FiiO FA9: The Pantologist

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out something truly special, that being the flagship for FiiO’s armature-only lineup, the FA9.

While probably best known for their amps, dacs, and DAPs, FiiO has been humming along nicely with their earphone releases. Single dynamic, hybrids, and armature-only models abound. The FA9 is their new armature only flagship with some features that help set it apart from other products in the price range, like the use of all-Knowles armatures (one of which was custom designed for FiiO), a unique 80.6mm long sound tube, and an electronic tuning system via three switches built into the rear of the earphone.

I’ve been using it regularly over the last three weeks and have come away quite pleased with the performance, especially upon comparing to some strong competitors. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

What I Hear I didn’t really know what to expect from the FA9 going in. While I’ve got plenty of experience with tunable earphones, they all use various physical filters to mask or release frequencies. Since the FA9 alters from the crossover itself, I was curious to see how effective it would be, and if it would end up as more of a gimmick than a useful feature. And since it’s much easier to flick a switch than fumble with tiny filters, would it be something that is actually used on the regular. I can tell you now that the switches are not a gimmick and ended up being useful, even if they were left alone more often than not.

Tuning Switches The FA9 features a tuning system that is still fairly novel. Unlike most which require swapping out various filters, the FA9’s sound can be changed with the mere flick of a number of very tiny switches, three in total. The first makes the FA9 easier to drive but also raises the noise floor. Personally I just left it off the whole time since I listen quietly and the FA9 doesn’t need a ton of power to get up to volume anyway. The second switch handles treble response. It doesn’t do much to the presence region but does add a few extra dB of life to the brilliance region making the FA9 a bit more lively and improving the sound stage slightly. The final switch handles midrange and bass perception. When off it raises the low end making the midrange feel less prominent. When combined with the 2nd switch in the on position, gives off the closest thing to a v-shaped signature the FA9 will output. Turn the 3rd switch on and the bass drops bringing forward the mids to make the FA9 a vocal powerhouse. Overall the switches do not make massively sweeping changes to the signature, but the alterations are definitely enough to be noticeable, especially if you make changes to one side and forget to alter the other. I’d be very curious to see just how far a company could take this tech if they wanted to make a truly flexible, jack of all trades earphone.

Listening with my preferred settings (1:off, 2:on, 3:off) Set up like this, the FA9 provided a very engaging sound that offered just enough low end thump and upper range sparkle to keep me entertained, regardless of what I was listening to.

Starting with the treble the FA9 provides a very smooth and refined experience that is not unlike what you would expect to hear from products a step up the price ladder. The brilliance region is subtly elevated and gives the FA9’s presentation clear sparkle and shimmer, though not to the point of nuking note weight or leading to ear fatigue. Lower treble sees a polite bump that compliments the upper range energy. Everything is presented with plenty of detail and excellent clarity with no smearing or bleeding of instruments/effects into each other, but falls short of being overly analytic. Notes are presented with a satisfying speed that sits somewhere been the uber quick attack and decay typically experienced with armatures, and the slower, more natural feel of a dynamic driver. Overall it is pleasant and just as capable with Eminem’s “Monster” as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of “Night Ferry”.

The midrange sits slightly back compared to the treble and in line with the low end, unaffected by any form of midbass bleed. With a small upper mid bump, vocals have a satisfying warmth to them and remain very coherent with neither male or female vocals getting preferential treatment. Such balance can be heard on the mellow, relaxing duet “Quando, Quando, Quando” featuring Michael Buble and Nelly Furtado. Alongside this, you can add the more varied vocal stylings of the RTJ boys, Big Boi, and Phantogram’s Sarah Barhel on Big Gram’s awesome “Born To Shine” and “Run For Your Life”. The good times continue thanks to the FA9’s outstanding timbre which is absent of the plasticy texturing or breathy dryness (a quality I actually like) common to armatures. Instruments sound as they should. Pianos have the right body with notes subtly lingering, guitars have the right amount of grunge and zip, and drums feel plenty rich.

Bass performance is where that 80.6mm long sound tube comes in, at least according to the marketing material. While I don’t have a version of the FA9 without that monster sound tube available for comparison, I can say that the FA9 kicks nicely when called upon. I’m generally somewhat underwhelmed with the low end presentation of Knowles products, but FiiO dialed the 31618 in very nicely. Extension is great for an armature with the FA9 able to provide a sense of visceral feedback often missing from armature-only earphones. While I find the texturing and detail fairly smooth, I could use a bit more grunge with bands like Tobacco and The Prodigy. For the most part there is enough information and depth provided to satisfy across various genres. In typical armature fashion things move quickly, though again not quite as fast as I’m used to from armatures, thereby giving the FA9 a slightly more natural presentation. This doesn’t hinder articulation though, with the FA9 easily taking on the crazy, messy bass lines oft found in heavy metal tracks.

Sound stage is where the FA9 pulls things back a bit. Sizing is good with plenty of width and moderate depth. This gives the FA9 adequate room to toss sounds off into the distance, but limits layering capabilities leading to tracks sounding less dynamic and diverse when facing some of the competition. Separation is quite good though, and I never came across any instances where the FA9 sounded congested or compressed. Imaging is about the only area where I could levy the term ‘underwhelming’ at the FA9. Just off centre (ex. eye-to-eye) there isn’t a lot of movement so subtle tracking from channel-to-channel lacks nuance. Move past this and it cleans up quickly. I personally don’t think any of this matters all too much with music, but if you’re planning to game with the FA9, or enjoy watching movies with earphones, it can be slightly distracting in my experience.

Overall I find the FA9 a pretty stellar performer. Their implementation of Knowles drivers for the low end has been handled very well, and the treble quality is outstanding. The sweet midrange is also plenty satisfying on vocal-centric tracks. Start playing about with the tuning switches and various ear tips and you can get a lot of mileage and variety out of this earphone.

Compared To A Peer (volumes matched with Dayton iMM-6)

Fearless S6 Rui (389.00 USD): Like the FA9, the S6 Rui features 6 balanced armatures per side, though Fearless left out any form of tuning system so you’re left to experiment with tips and EQ for that. Treble out of the S6 Rui doesn’t place as much emphasis in the brilliance region resulting in a less airy, less sparkly sound. More emphasis is found in the presence region giving the S6 an edge in detail and clarity at the expense of a drier sounding presentation with a hint of grain. The S6 sounds faster and more aggressive with instruments having more initial impact and a shorter decay, though it handles complicated passages no better. Mids on the S6 Rui are more forward compared to the FA9 (though you can bring emphasis more in line with the 3rd switch in the up position) where they do a better job of sharing space with bass and treble frequencies. The FA9’s mids are warmer and smoother with a slightly leaner feel. Where the S6 has the edge in detail in the treble region, the FA9 easily matches it in the mids, while also touting a more natural sound and realistic timbre. Bass on the two is very similar though I hear the FA9 as more linear with better extension, less mid-bass presence, more physical sub-bass, though neither offers dynamic driver levels of feedback. The S6 Rui’s low end doesn’t offer quite as much warmth and has a meatier, slightly slower feel to it. Texturing is pretty similar in that it is quite good. Sound stage size is comparable, though strengths are different. The S5 Rui lacks the width but provides more depth. It images better than the FA9 (due to that off centre vagueness) but doesn’t quite layer or separate instruments as impressively.

When it comes to build the S6 Rui is outstanding, but the FA9 has an edge in a couple particular areas. First is the connectors. Fearless went with a 2-pin system and while that is generally my preferred connector, this one is unreliable with a right earpiece that routinely detaches unexpectedly. Not an issue with the FA9’s rock solid MMCX connectors. The other area I prefer the FA9 is in the housing construction itself. The S6 Rui is just as neat and tidy inside, but it’s hollow. The FA9 is solid providing additional protection from drops and crushing. The FiiO’s metal grills also offer more protection from ear wax and gunk than the S6 Rui’s open sound ports. Fit an comfort is pretty much a wash. The S6 is a little thicker but not quite as long so it might offer a slightly better fit for smaller ears. The FA9 isolates outside noise more effectively.

Overall I prefer the FA9 thanks to it’s more natural sound and innate tuning capabilities.

Dunu DK-3001 Pro (469.00 USD): The DK-3001 Pro is a five driver hybrid so it’s not surprising to hear it bests the FA9 in the bass department, though the FA9 puts in a pretty darn good showing. I perceived the Dunu to have more emphasis in both mid and sub-bass with slightly better extension, impact, and texture, likely due to lack of treble to counter. The FA9 is slightly faster and more articulate with rapid bass lines. The Dunu’s midrange is thicker and more linear with a better balance in the presentation of male and female vocals. The FA9 sounds cleaner and more articulate though. Timbre is close with the Dunu’s armatures doing a better job with instruments versus the FA9’s more accurate vocal renditions. Treble out of the DK-3001 Pro offers less extension and sparkle in the brilliance region instead focusing more on the lower treble. The FA9 ends up with more space between notes and provides a lighter, more detailed, and airy experience against the DK-3001 Pro. Personally I prefer nearly every aspect of the FA9’s treble presentation, which is slightly more nimble to boot. Sound stage is also in the FA9’s camp providing a wider experience, though depth is pretty similar. Imaging is cleaner and more nuanced out of the Dunu and I found it to be slightly more layered but with similar levels of instrument separation.

When it comes to build they are both class leading examples so in my opinion it comes down to your preference for metal or acrylic, and your ear size. The Dunu makes the FA9 look positively massive and defies logic cramming by cramming five drivers (one of which is a relatively large 13mm dynamic), MMCX hardware, and a crossover into such a tiny housing. The FA9 is more stable and better isolating, though the size will limit who can wear it. The DK-3001 Pro is the more universal of the two in that regard. Each earphones’ cable is also outstanding. I prefer the FA9’s tighter braid and generally more durable feel, though Dunu’s Quick-Switch modular system gives it a clear edge in terms of flexibility. Instead of changing the cable entirely to access 2.5mm or 4.4mm balanced options as needs to be done with the FA9, you just swap plugs. FiiO has a similar modular cable out now, the LC-RE. It would be great if the FA9 came with it or a variant out of the box.

Overall I find these two to compliment each other quite well. The Dunu’s low end provides an experience the FA9 can’t match, while the FA9 provides improved treble quality and the flexibility of it’s inbuilt tuning system. My pick would be the Dunu, but it lines up slightly better with my personal tuning preferences.

HiFiMan RE800 Silver (599.00 USD): The RE800 is a single dynamic earphone with a signature that matches up nicely with the FA9 in the 1:down, 2:up, 3:up tuning setting, so I’ll be comparing in that layout. Starting with the low end, the FA9 is warmer and more emphasized with the RE800 besting it in terms of impact, extension, and texture. It also feels a bit quicker and even more articulate on rapid passages. The RE800 has slightly leaner, more detailed mids with very similar emphasis, until the upper mids. The FA9 brings in a hint more warmth and with it a slightly more natural tonality. The FA9 has a cleaner, better controlled treble presentation with a more even balance of upper and lower regions. The RE800 is more detailed and has a more accurate attack and decay pattern that really resonates with live recordings. Sound stage also goes to the RE800 which sounds slightly wider and deeper. Imaging out of the Hifiman’s single dynamic is cleaner and more nuanced with better instrument separation, though layering is in the FA9’s camp.

The RE800 is nicely constructed and made with nice materials but it wouldn’t feel out of place on the 50 USD product. The FA9 bests it in every way except fit which comes down to the RE800 being extremely small, light, and of a more traditional barrel shape. It can’t compete with the FA9 in terms of isolation or stability during heavy movement.

Overall I prefer the FA9’s slightly warmer, smoother, and more refined presentation.

Campfire Audio Andromeda (1099.00 USD): The Andromeda features five armatures per side and is one of my reference armature-only models. The FA9’s low end is slightly warmer and more emphasized with better extension. It has a smoother texturing and lesser impact when compared to the Andromeda, but it a little snappier and more responsive. Midrange presence is very similar with the Andromeda’s vocal clarity and coherence being a step up though slightly thinner. Timbre is also in the Andro’s court. Treble on the Andromeda is cleaner and but less linear with a heavier presence in the brilliance region. It provides more space and air without relying in a leaner, lighter note weight, and in general just sounds better controlled and more crisp. Sound stage is also firmly in the Andromeda’s camp, which is no real surprise given it’s somewhat known for it. The FA9’s stage isn’t quite as wide nor as deep, with imaging that falls behind (quite a bit just off centre). The Andromeda’s improved note spacing also helps it really stand out in terms of layering and separation, areas in which the FA9 is no slouch.

When it comes to build we find ourselves in a similar situation to the Dunu; it comes down to your preference for metal or acrylic, and your ear size. Both are basically flawless in terms of fit and finish and the Andromeda has that iconic design, oft copied but never replicated. For me the Andromeda is the better fitting earphone thanks to a more compact design and shallow fit. The angular edges lead to no discomfort. The FA9 isn’t far off though, and with its superior isolation and stability during movement might be better for you. The FA9’s cable is thicker and more durable and looks much more impressive, but I’m one of those weirdos that like thin, light cables which the Andromeda has. The FA9’s cable is the better of the two though, hands down.

It should be no surprise to hear that I prefer the Andromeda, but the FA9 serves to highlight the law of diminishing returns and how good products in the 500 USD price range really are. You get near TOTL performance at half the price, and in the case of this comparison with more features and flexibility thanks to that handy tuning system.

In The Ear The FA9 takes on what has become a very familiar silhouette within the last few years with its custom-like shape. This is a good thing because such designs have been crafted from the average of thousands of ears and as a result provides as close to a universal a fit as it gets, at least for a large, low profile earphone. The FA9 is a fairly hefty earphone, understandable given what has been crammed inside each 3D printed shell; 6 Knowles armatures, 4-way crossover, tuning switches, 80.6mm long sound tube (plus two shorter tubes), and the MMCX hardware. Even being as large as it is, the FA9 fits wonderfully. It fills the outer ear ensuring an even weight distribution and therefore a stable and secure fit. Since it fills so much of the ear and is a sealed design, passive isolation is outstanding. Note that there is a small vent on top of the FA9 by the face plate where the earphone tapers in. I suspect it is an artifact of the printing process because the vent seems to arch into the back of the face plate and end there. Since the rest of the shell is solid acrylic, I don’t see how it can be used to ease pressure, hence saying the design is sealed.

As I’m writing, a lawnmower is going full bore outside my apartment window and I can barely hear it, with no music playing, preinstalled medium Spinfits in place. Trade those out for some foam tips and the FA9 becomes one of the most highly isolating earphones I’ve used to date. The only trade off is pressure build up upon initial insertion thanks to that sealed design. This is a pretty common observation with fully-sealed, armature-only earphones and can be mitigated a few different way; foam tips, putting the FA9 in slowly, and/or pulling on the top of your ear with your mouth open while inserting. Sure you look ridiculous for a few seconds, but it eases the pressure so you can listen comfortably.

When it comes to build quality, the FA9 is top tier. Their budget minded FA1 is one of the cleanest looking 3D-printed earphones I’ve seen. The FA9 builds on this foundation resulting in an even more impressive product. The acrylic is completely transparent allowing you to clearly see all of the innards, where the FA1 was semi-transparent with a cloudiness to it. The layout of the drivers, crossover, switches, and various tubing is extremely neat and tiny with zero sloppiness or misaligned units. The switches are positively tiny though, hence why FiiO suggests using the prong on the included cleaning brush to move them. The nozzle is well formed with a small lip, though it’s not quite prominent enough to hold on tips of every style. All the included tips stay in place though, and since you get so many of them, and of varying designs and styles, I don’t see any reason beyond curiosity to dip into third party options. The MMCX ports on the FA9 are very firm, though not so much so you feel like you’re going to break something when attaching and detaching the cable. This firmness is welcome because it keeps the cable oriented in the position you set it. The earpieces cannot freely swivel around on their own which can be very annoying and wears out the connectors faster than normal. Overall fit and finish is basically flawless. Not complaints about how this earphone is constructed.

That goes for the 8 strand monocrystalline silver-plated copper cable too, which is every bit as premium as the rest of the presentation. The silver shines through the clear sheath giving off visual appeal in line with the price tag. In addition to looking great, the sheath is soft and flexible with effective tangle and noise resistance. The chosen hardware is of good quality too. The MMCX plugs are smoothly angled with red and blue metal rings at the base ensuring right and left channels are clearly marked. The preformed ear guides that lead out of them are smooth and flexible, much nicer than the stiff plastic tubes used for the FA1’s otherwise excellent cable. Travelling down towards the y-split we find a metal chin cinch. The cinch is just tight enough around the cable to remain in place when used, but not so tight as to make moving it a challenge. Some are so tight they pull uncomfortably at the cable which is not an issue here. The y-split is a simple aluminum ring with FiiO laser-etched on it. It acts purely as a place where the 8 strands divide and lead up to each ear piece. The 90 degree angled jack is another solid piece of aluminum with pronounced knurling and a hefty protective strain relief. While the jack is definitely thicker than average, the 3.5mm output is extended so you shouldn’t have to worry about your phone or DAP case getting in the way.

Overall a gorgeous looking earphone with outstanding build quality both inside and out.

In The Box The FA9 arrives in premium packaging befitting it’s stature in FiiO’s lineup. At first glance it looks like nothing more than a large black box. There is a very cool aspect to it though, which is the rainbow colouring that appears when light hits at an angle. The face of this otherwise large, unassuming package is adorned with nothing more than the FiiO logo in silver foil dead centre with a Hi-Res Audio logo present in the top right corner. On the left is a lone authenticity sticker. The back contains visual representations of the the FA9’s switch-based tuning system and how each switch affects the sound output, along with logos for Knowles, HeyGears, and Spinfit. The entirety of the right side is an opening to slide out another textured black box contained within, this one adorned with only a glossy black FiiO logo centred on the lid. It’s all very reminiscent of a high quality book tucked into a decorative sheath.

Upon removing the lid from this inner box you find the FA9 with cable attached, neatly stored in a thick foam insert. Lifting out the insert reveals the rest of the accessories. In all you get:

  • FA9 earphones
  • 8 strand monocrystalline silver-plated copper MMCX cable
  • Spintfit tips (s/m/l)
  • Vocal tips (s/m/l)
  • Balanced tips (s/m/l)
  • Bass tips (s/m/l)
  • Bi-flange tips (m)
  • Foam tips (m x 2)
  • Faux leather, hard shell carrying case
  • Soft shell cloth carrying case
  • Magnetic cable tie
  • Cleaning multi-tool

Overall a pretty darn impressive and extensive accessory kit. You get a ton of tips with no redundancies so surely you can find something that fits well without needing to dip into third party options. If they all fit you can use them in conjunction with the switch system to further tailor the sound to your preferences. I also love how they are neatly stored and displayed in their own, fully labelled foam insert. You don’t have to mess with any tiny plastic bags and risk dropping a tip, or hunting for two of the same size. This insert may seem like a relatively insignificant deal but as someone that has tested hundreds of earphones, it greatly improves the user experience and I would love to see this become the standard. Lastly, the inclusion of two different storage cases is appreciated. You can use the large hard case while at home, and take the smaller soft case with you on your travels.

Final Thoughts The FA9 has shown itself to be a well-rounded and versatile earphone thanks to it’s strong low end performance, natural midrange, and refined treble. It is all controlled by a tuning system that, while subtle, makes enough of a difference to frequency emphasis to enable users to tailor the sound to their preferences. Imaging just off-centre could be better, but this is all that mars what is otherwise a very refined and capable auditory experience.

Build on that solid foundation with an attractive, well-built design, a quality cable, and an extensive accessory kit that is packed with various tips and useful extras like two different carrying cases, a cleaning tool, and a handy magnetic cable tie, and the FA9 is a package that should ensure you don’t need to spend extra “upgrading” or compensating for cheap add-ins out of the box. About the only thing FiiO could have improved upon is that nice cable, instead providing one that takes advantage of their new modular plug system.

Overall the FA9 is a very strong mid-range offering. While it doesn’t quite hit the same high marks as your typical kilo-buck flagship, it gets very close at half the price. That is something FiiO should be very proud of, and potential customers should be happy to hear. This one is absolutely worth adding to your auditioning list if hunting for a new product in this price range.

Thanks for reading!

– B9

Disclaimer Thanks to Sunny with FiiO for reaching out to see if I would be interested in reviewing the FA9, and for sending over a sample for the purposes of review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on almost a month of testing. They do not represent FiiO or any other entity. At the time of writing the FA9 retailed for 499.99 USD: https://www.fiio.com/fa9 / https://www.aliexpress.com/item/4001035600968.html

Specifications

  • Impedance: 16~32 Ohms @ 1KHz
  • Sensitivity: 110~113dB @ 1mW
  • Frequency Response: 15Hz~40kHz
  • Maximum Input Power: 100mW
  • Drivers: SWFK-31736 (highs) EJ-33877 (mids), HODVTEC-31618 (lows)

Gear Used For Testing LG Q70, FiiO M3 Pro, Earstudio HUD100, Earmen TR-Amp, Asus FX53V, TEAC HA-501

Some Test Tunes

Supertramp – Crime of the Century

Slipknot – Vol 3 (The Subliminal Verses)

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black

Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma

The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy

Steely Dan – The Royal Scam

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dreams

Fleetwood Mac – Rumors

Tobacco – F****d Up Friends

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