Once seen as cheap throwaways, earbuds seem to have become the new phenomenon in the audio landscape. Since they don`t produce a strong seal and have a very loose fit, they are seen as having very limited uses, but these attributes can also permit a unique sound that`s not too dissimilar from the in-ear equivalent of open back headphones. As such, we are seeing a rapid increase in the number of quality earbuds on the market, mostly from upcoming Asian brands employing innovative technologies such as hybrid driver setups commonly used in much more exclusive and much, much more expensive western flagships.
Fiio is probably the best recognized Asian Hi-Fi company, and constantly impress with affordable and innovative products. The Fiio EM3 is a high performance budget earbud with an RRP of $10 USD that represents Fiio`s first step into earphones using their experience with sources and amps. They use a custom Fiio designed driver and an extensive filter system to deliver a sound that is “warm and full-bodied”. Fiio have specifically aimed these earphones at the pop loving mass market with an integrated mic and multi-function button and sound signature focused on vocals. In this article, I`ll be looking at the Fiio EM3`s which were sent to me by Fiio for review however I`ll try to be as objective as possible in my verdict. For reference, I`ve owned my Earpods for about 2 years and my E100`s for just under 1 year.
I would like to thank Fiio very much for providing me with the EM3 in exchange for my honest opinion. I am not in any way affiliated with Fiio and will be as objective as possible in my review.
About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases
I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.
The EM3`s come in a minimalist box with well designed graphics, authenticity sticker and basic specifications. Inside is a slide out tray, manuals and a small box containing three foam covers. A matte film incites allure with the earphones lying behind the frosted cover.
I would have preferred for Fiio to include at least one pair of doughnut foams since they have a lower impact on midrange clarity, but the stock covers are easily modified with a hole punch.
For $10 I wouldn`t expect much more, Fiio did a great job and I`m glad they invested more in the earphones themselves which are of great quality. The packaging is a step above other Chinese buds such as the Baldoor E100 Earbell`s but it is still less refined than the Apple Earpods molded cable winder, they are almost five times more expensive however.
Fiio hasn`t used generic earbud housings like Yuin and Venture, instead they have designed a custom shell that seems like a shallower fitting Earpod with larger vents. The bold mesh fascias tease the audio prowess of the 14.8mm drivers they protect and the housings leave a positive impression both visually and kinaesthetically with a matte finish and gloss accents. The Earbells also use custom housings, but they are large and not particularly well shaped which is why many resort to the rotated fit.
Thicker plastics and less creaks result in a better feel than both the E100`s and Earpods. They are also lacking the long stem of the Earpods and protruding housings of the E100`s, making them more ergonomic to use when sleeping (lying on the side). They are not very stable in the ears, but no earbud is without foams or rubber wings. This loose fit will benefit those who do not like the sensation of iems, and they work very well at home or in a quiet area.
The cables are the nicest I`ve seen on a budget earbud, avoiding the tacky feeling and springiness that most low quality cables possess. They are noticeably thick below the y-split and still generously thick above it, all the while remaining decently supple. The highlight is the particularly well relieved right angle plug. All junctions are solid, well molded and thickset, the plug is gold plated for less crackling and is case friendly. I don`t see the EM3`s failing any time soon but the remote and y split could be better relieved. The Baldoor E100`s by comparison have a cable that resists tangles well with a triangular design, but is tacky and quite springy, refusing to accept a case or stay put in my pocket. And despite having the thickest cable of the lot, minimal strain reliefs on the earbuds and jack produce spots of tension (the jack failed on mine after a few months). The Apple Earpods are even worse. The cable by far the thinnest and has a very rubbery texture. It is prone to splitting and the strain reliefs are too soft to adequately alleviate stress (Mine have a sheath over them due to splitting). The jack is a very common point of failure so Fiio have put in extra effort to make sure you won`t have to re-terminate down the road.
All EM3`s have a mic and multi-function button that works with both android and ios, it looks to be a three button controller but there is only one. Only the E100 “a” model has a remote, it is of the three button with mic variation but only works on android, and for some reason the muti-function button doesn`t work reliably on ios. Moreover the triangular remote is hard to distinguish as all sides are smooth and the buttons are all part of a single piece of plastic. The Earpod remote is similar design wise to the EM3`s but has volume buttons too. Through the single button on the EM3 you can play, pause, skip forwards and backwards. It`s a nice feature to haveFiio knows their target demographic well.
The EM3`s use a custom driver with a filter system that reminds of the renowned JVC FX lineup. They have a 47ohm impedance to prevent sound digression from sources with high output impedance (it should sound the same from all sources). They are using a dual vent system to augment bass and treble response, somewhat like the Earpods, but the vents are much larger and resist blockage better. Fiio is pursuing a full bodied signature and the design elements they have chosen are well suited towards their desired sound.
I agree with Fiio 100%, full bodied and mid-centric is an accurate description of the EM3`s sound signature. They sound smooth, organic and rich but slightly veiled. I would not use the included covers as they are already very full sounding and ere on congestion with foams. Doughnut foams provide a happy medium between bass response and clarity but they are still too bassy for me, they sound rich enough without any covers at all. It`s nice to have the option in case you prefer more bass slam
The earphones immediately impressed me with a very spacious soundstage, much more so than the Earpods or E100`s which are already quite good on account of their form factor. They did sound dull and a little too full-bodied at first, but after some listening, they are growing on me. I realize that they sound just good for most genres but downright great for others, they are more specialized than the Earpods or E100`s, and remind me of lower range Westone earphones. The sound is practically the opposite of the E100`s and they should be a good alternative for those who find its sound too fatiguing but want an earphone with similar technical proficiency. While the E100`s are V-shaped with abundant clarity, the EM3`s are more laid-back, full bodied and dark. The Earpods are more neutral than either, but the quality of the sound is only mediocre.
They are actually decently sensitive despite their impedance, about one volume notch less than the Earpods, but the E100`s are quite a bit louder at the same volume. They benefit from amping or at least a decently powerful source; They sound strong from my HTC M8 for example and produce a cleaner sound from my Fiio Q1, but struggle a bit with congestion on my iPod nano 7G.
The EM3`s have good bass extension for an earbud, even without foams there is still rumble and slam. They are very similar to the E100`s (w doughnut foams) quantity wise without foams, the E100`s have a stronger sub-bass response and also extend more (with foams they will create decent sub-bass), whilst the Earpods with their half in ear design just about match the EM3`s but roll off stronger. The E100`s are more textured and punchier, they have the best bass quality of any earbud I`ve tested. The EM3`s on account of their midrange focus are a little less direct with their bass, the quality is much better than the Earpods and only slightly behind the E100`s. They have decent slam and punch without foams but far too much even with doughnut foams. They still have very good texturing but decay times are slow. The lower-bass is over-boosted for me whilst the mid-bass is relatively neutral. Elevations in the mid and especially upper-bass responses warm the mids. This signature is befitting of a weak sealing earbud and produces a somewhat powerful sound.
Although the E100`s impress with oodles of clarity and detail, the EM3`s overall portray the mids just as well. The Earpods are not even close, they are very grainy and tinny sounding, lacking in refinement, detail and body. The E100`s and EM3`s provide a much smoother listen. However of the three, the EM3`s portray the most detailed listen. Vocals are smooth and detailed, this is their forte. Their large soundstage further enhances the listen; acoustic and string instruments sound fantastic and jazz/pop is well rendered. Rock music is less flattered, sounding a bit overbearing and more suited towards the E100`s. The midrange is slightly too full and warm and will take some adjusting, the cooler, brighter sounding E100`s and Earpods can make the EM3`s sound congested by comparison. The E100`s can also overdo it at times, they occasionally sound a bit harsh and over bright. The EM3`s have a slight recess in the upper midrange which explains the dull sound description. It depends on preference but even for fans of brighter earphones such as myself, they can be an interesting, less fatiguing listen. Ultimately I think they work well for what Fiio has intended and that is pop and vocals which sound superb. Quality wise, they are similar to the E100`s, they just pursue a different kind of sound. They don`t have the typical clean audiophile sound, but it`s not offensive, I think the general consumer will enjoy the sound.
This is where most earbuds falter, either at the high end, the low end or both. The treble response is the harmartia of the E100`s and Earpods. Both of their treble responses are brittle and grainy and they do not portray great resolution. The Earpods roll off at the very top whilst the E100`s are more airy and shimmery. Although the E100`s have such a characteristic, the EM3`s are by far the best in the treble region. They can initially sound dull, but their treble, like their mids, is smooth and very textured. It is neutral in quantity and well extended, but can get overwhelmed by the mids. Although it does not achieve the air of the E100`s, they do carry more information. The treble response is top quality for an earbud.
With the EM3`s, Fiio gives you a lot of product for not a lot of money. Because the EM3 is in house designed (whilst other earbuds are generally much more generic), I don`t see how Fiio could have made them any cheaper. The only problem is that the competition is, in fact the E100`s can be had for under $10 shipped and the VE Monks are even cheaper. Overall Fiio have provided a great alternative to these budget wonder buds, they have a less audiophile friendly sound, but it is a sound with certain appeal and I do think that they Fiio have done a good job. The build is by far the best of all budget earbuds and the added functionality from the remote is welcome. I found that their full sound actually works really well with movies and videos so they make from a great all purpose bud. The combination of build, sound and practicality result in a well rounded product, something that many Chinese manufacturers don`t provide. It may not be the best sounding $10 earbud (it still sounds good), but it very well may be the best.
My sound ratings do not take into account price, it is on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is un-listenable and 10 is as close to my perfect sound as possible. My final verdict will factor in price and all other qualities.
EM3 – 9/10, Well done, could come with doughnut foams or a simple case, I wouldn`t even expect that for the price.
E100 – 9/10, Comes with a pair of regular and doughnut foams plus a small storage bag. They are of poor quality but at least they offer the functionality.
Earpod -8/10, No accessories per say, but the packaging doubles as a decent cable winder/case.
EM3 – 10/10, Well designed and ergonomic. Visually pleasing everything seems well thought out. The cable is fantastic for a budget bud. Remote is easily found and operated.
E100 – 7.5/10, They may look interesting, but they`re not very ergonomic, the housings stick out from the ears too much and the faceplates pop off too easily which can result in driver damage (irreparable). The cable is thick enough, but strain relief is not adequate. The controller is impractical.
Earpod – 7/10, Ergonomic, but cables are terrible. The remote works well but the mic is muffled. Could do with a gold jack.
EM3 – 5.5/10, Good extension, quality is also good. Decent slam and impact is easily increased with foams. Takes a back seat to the lower midrange presence.
E100 – 6/10, Great extension, amazingly textured and punchy. Foams are a must.
Earpod – 4/10, Good extension. Fast decay times and rounded bass notes work well. Due to the unorthodox design, foams cannot be used, they can be cut to fit but fall off too easily.
EM3 – 5.25/10, Smooth, detailed and focused but on the periphery of being overly warm and full bodied. Works for some things better than others, but are technically proficient. Laid back and dark but still carry plenty of information.
E100 – 5.75/10, Lots of clarity and decent detailing. Can be overly harsh/bright at times.
Earpod – 3.5/10, Tinny and thin, I don`t like the midrange performance at all.
EM3 – 6/10, The highs are top performers for an earbud and best plenty of iems too.
E100 – 5/10, Airy and extended, shimmery but too brittle.
Earpod – 2.5/10, Roll off at the top end, very grainy and lacking detail.
EM3 – 10/10
E100 – 8/10
Earpod – 7.5/10
EM3 – 8.5/10, Very good overall, well balanced between design and sound. Fiio needs to tune the EM3`s a bit more, tone down the upper-bass and increase the upper mid presence very slightly to add more clarity and it`ll be a gem. The build seems strong so far, the cables and strain reliefs are the high points, they are very cost effective. They are my new favourite earbud for podcasts and casual music around the house. At around $20 USD shipped or less, the EM3 are a great earbud you can just impulse buy and add to your collection simply for convenience.
E100 – 8.5/10, The build is good, but they do have points of failure. It doesn`t matter if they sound perfect if they only last for a month. The sound is strong for an earbud but ergonomics are unreliable. My set had slight channel imbalance and the plug broke after a few months which was disappointing. I did like them a lot when they worked. They are about equally cost effective as the EM3.
Earpod – 5.5/10, They are decently ergonomic and have good bass performance, the rest of the sound is lacking however and the build quality is very weak. They are not cost effective at all and there are abundant fakes.