Fiio F1 Review – New Budget Benchmark?
Fiio make some really great players and amps, however their only in-house designed earbud so far is the EM3; as many know, their EX1 was a recabled and more affordable Dunu Titan 1. So before listening to the F1, I was essentially expecting an in ear variation of the EM3. But upon testing, I was actually quite surprised by the F1 and couldn’t be happier that I was; while it does carry the darker Fiio house sound, it is still considerably clearer than the EM3 with foams and also more refined.
While the EM3 still holds numerous strengths over the F1 due to its open earbud form factor, the F1 is an evolution of that same sound, bringing a more neutral tuning and overall quality to the next level. That being said, these are a $20 AUD earphone, so they are not without their shortcomings; but long story short, I have found them to offer a very pleasing sound that is at least comparable to the best hyper-budget earphones out there. Keep reading to see where the F1 excels, where it stumbles and how it stacks up to its closest competition, the Xiaomi Pistons 3’s and Origem Dual Drivers.
I would like to thank Sunny from Fiio very much for sending me a unit of the F1 for review. There is no monetary incentive for a positive review and despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
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.
Fiio’s packaging is constantly evolving to deliver a more unified and premium unboxing experience. The F1 represents a huge step up over the EM3, which was similarly priced and came in a simple card box with a plastic cover.
The F1 on the other hand, is showcased with impactful renders and sits nestled within laser cut foam beneath a frosted cover, much better! Upon opening the box, a tray slides out containing the earphones within
Upon opening the box, a tray slides out containing the earphones within foam and the accessories housing within another compartment below.
Not only are the F1’s well showcased, they also come with a neat semi-hard carrying case with a carbon-fiber texture, a very nice addition.
Fiio also include 2 pairs of tips, one small and one large in addition to the medium sized tips equipped on the earphones from factory. The quality of the tips is very good, they are perfectly moulded and are both comfortable and well sealing in the ear. Once again, the tip quality is very impressive for the price, the tips included with the Pistons and Dual Drivers both are considerably more flimsy, especially those on the Xiaomis.
Overall, Fiio provide the buyer with the right accessories to stretch the longevity and enhance the quality of the earphones. Correct tip selection and a carrying case are especially important at this price since the primary demographic won’t want to spend $30 on a pair of Spinfits for instance. The quality of the included accessories is very well considered, great job Fiio!
Continuing on the strengths of the EM3 that I reviewed before, the F1 has absolutely stunning build quality for the price. While the plastic housings aren’t the most premium I’ve felt, the cable and strain relief is fantastic, especially considering the meagre asking price.
The earpieces themselves are compact and softly styled for ergonomics. While I initially wasn’t sure about the square shaped housings, in the ear, the F1 is exceptionally comfortable, even for long periods of time. The nozzle is also angled for comfort producing a stable and comfortable fitment that the similarly designed Xiaomi Pistons 3 could not achieve due to sharper angling and sharper housing design that forms discomfort.
They are similarly comfortable to the Origem Dual Drivers and just as stable, staying put in my ears during my usual 6km run. That being said, despite having small vents on the bottoms of the housings, they do seal better than the Origems. They produce stronger passive noise isolation than the Origems, roughly equal to other medium depth sealed earphones, making them more than adequate for use on a train, bus or around the city. I would still prefer a more isolating earphone for plane travel though the F1 with a foam eartip would be sufficient.
My attempts at winding the Origem’s up for photos were futile
Nothing frustrates me more than a great earphone with a poor cable. Fortunately, the cable on the F1 carries over from the EX1 MKII, a much more expensive earphone, and this is definitely reflected in its superb quality. The cable is reminiscent of that on the ie800 with the dark greens swapped out for a burnt orange. It is supple and soft, with a smooth texture that doesn’t catch or knot when routed through clothes and shoved in pockets.
Thickness is perfect (they’re actually a bit thicker than the ie800 cables), neither thin nor cumbersome and its tangle resistance is only accentuated by the inclusion of an inbuilt cable strap similar to that included on Dunu earphones.
I’m going to go off topic for a bit, but I love this feature, and it’s something that should really be included on more earphones. It reinforces good cable habits, forcing people to wind their cables rather than fold them and prevents the coiled cable from becoming knotted up in your pocket/carrying case.
Fiio have outfit the F1 with a right angle 3.5mm plug, great for pocket usage. It’s incredibly solid, grippy for easy removal, case friendly and has awesome strain relief.
The y-split has no strain relief but is well moulded with Fiio embossed on its front face. Both the earpieces and remote have small rubber strain-reliefs that are not the best I’ve seen, but better than most earphones that have no form of relief at all.
The cable has an inbuilt remote, it’s well located for calls, the microphone is above average in quality and the buttons are contoured, even if they are a bit too close to be immediately discernible. Interestingly, both volume and multi-function commands registered on my HTC 10, usually only the centre button works; all buttons also functioned perfectly with my iPod Nano and Touch. Perhaps my only complaint with the build is the remote. The buttons tend to rattle within the remote housing which diminishes the quality of the earphones on a whole, I was initially worried that the driver was loose within the housings. Luckily, you can’t hear the noise when you’re wearing the earphones, but it’s still something that could be fixed in a later revision.
Microphonics are just average for a cable down earphone, they aren’t as noisy as the ie800 and Klipsch X10’s, but they aren’t as quiet as the JVC FX series earphones either. Luckily, the included chin slider functions smoothly and clips into place to prevent adjustment over time. Overall, the cable is much better than most $100 earphones and worlds better than the rubbery mess on the Origem Dual Drivers and the overly thin and rubbery cables that come with the Piston 3.
Smooth, laid-back sound, u-shaped but with greater bass than treble emphasis. They are probably the most balanced budget earphone I’ve tested in a while and have a very even midrange. They lose composure with faster tracks, but are really no worse than any other $20 earphone in that regard.
Soundstaging, imaging and separation –
The F1’s have an above average soundstage for their price. The Origem Dual Drivers sound more separated on account of their brighter sound, but the crisp treble response of the F1’s prevents them from sounding overly intimate even if they do sound congested during more complex tracks. Their soundstage is quite well rounded between width and depth with just a little more width over depth. As a result, imaging is quite accurate though the centre image isn’t the strongest I’ve experienced. As aforementioned, separation is good but not outstanding for a $20 earphone, but the Origem’s still have a superior sense of space and air between instruments. Both are superior to the Pistons 3’s who’s rolled off treble response and warm, thick sound severely hampers separation and space.
The F1’s are quite bassy, they have decent sub-bass extension for the price but still lack visceral sub-bass slam considering their bass quantity with a roll-off beneath 50Hz. They have a more mid/upper bass focus (peak at 120Hz) as opposed to the Origem Dual Drivers which are more lower-bass focussed and don’t suffer from the same lack of slam. Quantity wise, the Origems have slightly more quantity and the F1’s are more balanced in the low-end as a result. Though I would consider the F1 to be a generally well –tuned, relatively bloat free earphone, it is still missing definition in the low-end. The Origem’s, on account of the nature and larger size of their bass emphasis have considerably more slam and generally sound more textured too. The F1 is a warm, non-fatiguing and smooth sound, the bass response slots in perfectly with the organic nature of the sound, providing a warm response that doesn’t overly spill into the mids and doesn’t overbear with its emphasis but still fails to be truly insightful and engaging due to the nature of the emphasis. The F1’s are easily lost on more complex tracks, but that goes for the entire sound not just the bass response, they are laid-back and more suited towards slower genres of music such as jazz over rock. If you primarily listen to faster genres, then the more impactful, faster Origem Dual Drivers are a better bet, if you want more balance, then the slower F1’s are really impeccably tuned for a budget earphone even if quality does leave me wanting more than some of the better competing models.
As far as tuning goes, the midrange is pretty neutral, in between the darker Pistons 3 and the brighter Origem Dual Drivers. They are slightly darker than ruler flat and have opposing strengths and weaknesses to the Origems as a result. Male vocals are slightly more prominent in the mix, though they still sit behind the bass and female vocals sit the most behind in the mix. Lower mids are slightly warm and perfectly present, vocals sound smooth and clear, bass rarely spills unless the track is quite bassy itself. The upper midrange is unfortunately, more mediocre. The F1’s are missing a bit of detail and clarity with slight veil to female vocals and strings even if they aren’t particularly recessed. Acoustic songs sound slightly duller than I would like but the crisp treble manages to pull in some excitement. That being said, the F1’s are smooth and laid-back, they are very forgiving of poor recordings and work well with most genres even if they don’t put details front and centre. The Origem Dual Drivers, being a bright earphone, have considerably more clarity and also retrieve slightly more detail. In addition, details are more forward on the Dual Drivers, making for an engaging, if less natural and more fatiguing listen. The Shozy Zero’s have similar tuning to the F1’s, combining a warm low-end with a dark midrange and crisp high-end, though they manages much more clarity and detail without sounding unnatural yet they are also more expensive.
Given the F1’s strong lower midrange performance and style of upper midrange tuning in addition to my personal preference for brighter earphones, I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily inferior to the Origem Dual Drivers; they are more natural and pursue a different kind of sound entirely, it’s an apples and oranges dilemma. Rather, I would propose the F1 as a more neutral, more laid-back alternative to the engaging and clarity driven Origems since quality wise, they are very similar. Ultimately, you really won’t find much better for the price, the Xiaomi Pistons 3’s for instance, pursue the a somewhat similar kind of sound; They are muddier and darker in the midrange but also a little more textured in their bass performance, it’s a fair trade-off based upon the buyer’s priorities.
As previously stated, the F1’s are quite smooth in the midrange, however this lack of clarity and more laid-back detailing is somewhat salvaged by their treble response. Here, the F1’s are quite identical to the Origem Dual Drivers, with the same kind of airy and extended treble response. Treble does roll off in the upper treble and just a little earlier than the Origems but they are similarly detailed and just very slightly less emphasised overall. Certain high notes do sound a little unnatural, and sometimes thin, cymbals often do not have adequate body and sound splashy, however these instruments are much better portrayed than the vast majority of budget earphones. In addition, treble notes do sound a bit grainy, especially lower treble, something that is not uncommon at this price, but still aggravating. The Origem Dual Drivers had a similar response, both in tuning and quality and the F1 is mostly comparable making them just as impressive. Both of these earphones are much more refined than the Pistons 3’s which I found too polite and dark, resulting in a considerable loss of detail, even if they sound slightly more natural overall. The Pistons 3’s avoided issues such as thin body and grain by simply rolling off the treble to the point that these imperfections become inaudible. While I do respect the bass and midrange performance of the Pistons for the price, the newcomers have very rapidly caught up and are constantly pushing ahead, redefining the definition of budget earphones.
In the past, whenever someone would ask me for a great budget earphone, the Xiaomi Pistons lineup was always my go to recommendation. However, it’s no longer so easy to make recommendations, since there are simply so many great budget earphones out there. The Origem Dual Drivers were a truly impressive $15 earphone and the similarly priced F1’s are just as impressive. Fiio provide not only a smooth yet detailed listen, but also class-leading build quality and a more comprehensive accessory suite. Even if budget earphones are rapidly improving in the sound department, build quality still seems to be a common weakness. As a result, I really can’t compliment Fiio enough for pushing above and beyond in this field with the F1’s. The F1 are easily the best-built earphone at this price and even shame some much more expensive earphones.
Ironically, as with the darker EM3 and the brighter Baldoor E100, my main comparison between the Origem Dual Driver and the F1 has provided similar results. Here though, the gap is not quite as large and the F1’s are just slightly less engaging to my brighter tastes. However, both the Origems and the E100’s failed me due to poor build quality, both requiring a new jack. Yet the EM3 and F1 still function perfectly fine, despite receiving daily use, I’m especially impressed with the EM3’s since they have served me reliably for over 6 months of relatively heavy usage without issue. I expect the F1’s to be no different.
Accessories 9/10, Unboxing is some of the best in the business, maybe slightly less premium than the Pistons. Nice selection of quality tips and a practical but protective case. Could perhaps do with some generic foam tips for travel.
Design – 9.5/10, One of the best cables I’ve felt on an earphone under $200. Integrated cable strap is practical and promotes good cable habits, all connectors are incredibly solid. Integrated remote/mic will suit more diverse usage. Very comfortable, well-sealing housings are great for both home usage and commute. They are more comfortable than the Pistons lineup and isolate better than both the Pistons 3’s and Origem Dual Drivers.
Bass – 5/10, Nice, relatively linear emphasis for the price, reasonably textured and has better extension than most earphones. Quite slow and easily lost with complex tracks though very rarely sounds muddy or bloated.
Mids – 5/10, Laid back and smooth, lower mids have nice presence, upper mids are slightly veiled. Detail retrieval is good and clarity is above average.
Treble – 5/10, Moderately rolled-off, though treble is sparkly and quite detailed. Adds some excitement to the otherwise laid-back sound.
Soundstage, Imaging and Separation – 5/10, Soundstage is average though average is more than good enough at such a low price. More width based and centre imaging is a little diffuse. Imaging is accurate enough to portray a convincing soundstage.
Verdict – 8.5/10, Simply put, build is the name of the game and the Fiio F1’s feel built to last. Add to that a comfortable and well-isolating fitment in addition to a very convenient in-built cable strap and the F1 has become my new recommendation for a cheap earphone that won’t let you down either in sound nor comfort nor build. The F1’s are a great replacement for the Xiaomi Pistons 3’s, they are not a huge upgrade in sound but the build quality is in another class entirely. If you want a brighter sound within a similar budget, the Origem Dual Drivers are a very accomplished listen though their build is far more compromised.
The F1 is currently available from Amazon (US) for $15 USD and Penonaudio (International) for 20, please see my affiliate links for the most updated pricing and availability.
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