“Earbuds” - it’s not a term you hear thrown around much these days when it comes to what’s making waves in the world of head-fi. While this particular sub-branch of in-ear headphones might have fallen out of fashion in recent years, they were all the rage a couple of decades. Hey, they used to be pretty much the only form of in-ear listening back in the day. If you owned a Walkman in the 90’s, or perhaps one of the first few generations of iPod back in the early 2000’s, there’s a good chance you might still have a pair or two of them tucked away somewhere in the back of your desk drawer. If you dig a little deeper, you might even find a tangled pair in the back pocket of a pair of flared jeans that you’re hanging onto on the off chance that they *might* come back into fashion one of these days.
I totally get it - earbuds aren’t exactly as versatile as In-Ear Monitors, their snugger-fitting counterparts that essentially took over the portable audio mantle from earbuds a couple of decades back, and which tend to reign supreme these days. Because IEMs stay firmly affixed in your ears with the help of silicone or foam tips, they do a far better job of blocking out ambient noise. This seal also helps IEMs to create a more pronounced sense of low-end impact, and also has the more practical effect of helping them stay firmly fixed in your ears.
However, there is a small but passionate minority of on-the-go audiophiles who are doing their best to keep the earbud torch lit, which has kept a few manufacturers continuing to innovate and bring out new designs to this day. Earbud aficionados continue to swear by this form-factor due to their less “invasive” fit and for their airier and more spacious-sounding presentation. I’ll be honest - the last time I had a pair of earbuds on my wish-list I’m pretty sure John Howard was running the country. Maybe it’s because I remember the tinny sound of the little white pair that came with my iPod shuffle, but I’d say it’s mainly due to the fact that I’ve never thought of a particular listening situation where they’d be that useful compared to either IEMs or a pair of full-sized headphones. But, like everything in audiophilia, I’m always happy to be proven wrong and pleasantly surprised.
Introducing the FiiO FF3
Prolific personal audio manufacturer FiiO has produced a string of hits in recent years which have made them a firm favourite with portable-oriented audiophiles, and they have an IEM, DAC, DAP, or headphone amplifier to suit nearly all tastes, budgets and circumstances. When I opened up a package that arrived on my doorstep containing the new $179 FiiO FF3 Dynamic Earbuds I was equal parts curious, and surprised - curious to understand how an earbud released in 2022 might perform, and surprised that a large manufacturer like FiiO believes there’s a market for this form of earphone.
The FF3 is a traditional “earbud” in the sense that it has a large, flat driver that rests in the “concha” (the concave cavity in your outer ear), with cables that go straight-down rather than wrapping over and around the top of your ears. The FF3 is also somewhat un-traditional looking due to the large-ish flat cone-shaped protrusion on the rear of ear driver that makes the FF3 almost look like they’re “reversible”.
The FF3’s shells are built from polished stainless steel, and finished via PVD electroplating to ensure a seamless and comfortable finish. This review pair is finished in “Elegant Black”, but there is also a “Cosmic Silver” colour scheme available as well. The rear of each driver is capped with tempered glass, displaying a fetching copper-coloured geometric pattern underneath that appears different at each glance depending on the way that it catches the light. A small blue and red notch on the stem of each earbud helps you quickly identify the left and right sides respectively. Overall, the FF3 feels well-made, durable, and looks elegantly understated - a far cry from the disposable-like plastic buds of yore.
At the heart of the new FF3 lies a new driver - a rather large 14.2mm dynamic driver which is made from a combination of a Polyurethane gasket and Beryllium plating. This 105dB/45-ohm driver has been specially-developed by FiiO to be both lightweight and rigid in order to reduce unwanted vibrations whilst being able to deliver an energetic performance right through the frequency range. The FF3’s driver is coupled with an ultra-fine copper-clad “Daikoku” voice coil, which is super lightweight thanks to being only 0.033mm in diameter.
The FF3’s unusual shape is somewhat reminiscent of a drum, and that’s by design. FiiO has implemented a “Drum type bass cavity” within the outer cone-shaped section of each earbud which is designed to allow bass frequencies to resonate for a more textured and pronounced sense of low-end. The drum cavity is connected to the driver chamber via a “bass-enhancing acoustic flute”, which increases airflow around the inside of the FF3 and lowers the drivers’ resonance point to help deliver their FF3’s signature voicing.
FiiO FF3 - cable and interchangeable terminations
While the FF3 doesn’t have detachable cables per se, the cable solution that FiiO has used here is actually pretty great - especially for a relatively affordable pair of earbuds. A total of 152 strands of high-purity silver-plated monocrystalline copper have been wound and sheathed beneath a soft-to-the-touch and flexible coating of silver plastic. The 1.2 metre cable is lightweight, tends to avoid tangles, and does a great job of avoiding cable microphonics - especially important for a “straight-down” cable arrangement that sits on your shoulders and will rub frequently against your clothing.
The cables are permanently attached at the business end of the earbuds, but FiiO has used an interchangeable locking mechanism at the cable termination to allow you to swap between 3.5mm single-ended or 4.4mm balanced jacks. Swapping them out is a simple affair - simply screw back the silver sheathing, pull out one plug, pop the other in, and screw it back together. It’s a pretty ingenious solution and it means that you don’t need multiple cables if you want to switch between different sources. Because the quality of the affixed cable is pretty great, you probably wouldn’t want to “upgrade” it either with one of a different construction…if you could, that is.
FiiO FF3 packaging and accessories
The FF3 arrives in a nice hinged black cardboard box that’s par for the course with other FiiO products that I’ve encountered in recent times. Inside, you’ll find a nice protective clamshell case with a clear lid for keeping your new earbuds safe while travelling or storing them.
As well as the 3.5mm and 4.4mm interchangeable plugs, FiiO also provides three pouches filled with three different types of foam “cushions” which are designed to fit over the driver of each earbud. As well as helping them stay more firmly in place in your outer ear, the three different types of cushions provide differing levels of filtering to help customise the sound of the FF3 to your preference:
- “Bass”: emphasises low-end response
- “Crisp”: allows higher frequencies to shine through
- “Balanced”: a neat balance between the former two
The “Bass” and “Balanced” cushions each cover the entire outside face of the FF3’s drivers, while the “Crisp” ones have a round cut-out in the middle that essentially keeps the airflow from the driver fully open to your ears. It’s also possible to use no cushion at all, although this does make keeping them in place in your ears a little trickier, unless you’re sitting still.
FiiO FF3 comfort and user experience
Unlike IEMs that require you to wiggle them into place and navigate the cable around your ears, you simply pop the FF3s into your outer ear, where they gently rest through a combination of gravity and friction from the foam cushions (if you use them, that is). The diameter of each earbud is pretty much a perfect fit for the shape of my ears, and they sit there quite snugly and comfortably. I recall having some aches from keeping earbuds in my ears in the past, but the smooth rounded driver faces of the FF3 are comfortable both in terms of their shape, as well as their polished stainless steel finish.
It is possible to listen to the FF3 while you’re on the go and walking about - they’ll stay in place so long as you don’t yank on the cable or move around too much, but you’ll probably find that you’ll need to readjust them from time to time to keep them in place. I think that the FF3 is best suited to stationary listening while you’re relaxed and sitting down - gym earbuds they ain’t.
The FF3 doesn’t go into your ear canal - in fact, it barely covers the outside of your ear canal at all. This means that they essentially have no noise isolation whatsoever - you’ll hear everything going on around you so they might not be the best solution for public transportation or air travel. I’d describe the experience as basically similar to wearing a pair of open back headphones, but this also has sonic benefits, as I’ll go on to explain. In terms of more practical benefits, the low isolation of the FF3 can actually be pretty advantageous if you prefer to have a little bit of “situational awareness” while you’re listening to music. Say, for example, if you’re in an office environment and want to keep an ear out for conversations while discreetly listening to music, or perhaps for staying aware of traffic while you’re out walking around. In my case, I actually found them useful for enjoying music at home while waiting for a delivery - there’s nothing worse than missing the doorbell and finding a courier’s calling card in your letterbox!
Listening to the FiiO FF3
Given that the marketing materials of the FiiO FF3 emphasises their “drum-like” bass performance, I decided to first give them a whirl using the “Bass” foam cushions to get the fullest sense of their low-end prowess. I haven’t listened to any LCD Soundsystem for a while, so I queued up This Is Happening streamed via Qobuz on a suitably-matching FiiO component, the FiiO M17 Portable High Resolution Audio Player. The opening track Dance Yrself Clean has a much longer introduction than I remembered before the good stuff kicks in (3 minutes, to be exact), but immediately the FF3 was already impressive with the way that it brought the simple percussion at the start of the track to life with lifelike clarity and a very interesting and open-sounding soundstage with a surprising sense of layering. So far, so good.
And then, at the three-minute mark, my perceptions of what earbuds can do were completely shattered. When the synth and drums kicked-in, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a genuinely big sound. Not just big for an earbud - properly big. Those 14.2mm drivers have some serious shove and some very real low-end extension. And it’s not just muddy “one-note” bass either, there’s some real agility and cleanly-textured notes going on here too. As impressive as the bass from these mini “ear-speakers” are, it’s not that part that’s most impressive. The treble resolution and clarity is far better than a pair of earbuds this price has any right having - the FF3 has a wonderfully crystalline texture to the highest octave, as has the decay and shimmer from cymbals and higher synth notes is both natural and exciting.
To compare apples with apples, I switched over to the “Crisp” cushions and played back the same track. The bass still had decent impact, but traded overall weight and tonal mass for a degree more levity and briskness. Removing that tiny little amount of foam covering the drivers opened-up the treble even more, which sounded as though I’d given my ears a good cleaning-out. The “Crisp” cushions sure makes things crispy, alright. Now, the FF3 had an even greater sense of shimmer and airy extension, and made their sense of space feel even grander. To round out the cushion comparison, the “Balanced” filters are just what I expected - pretty much smack-bang in the middle. I get the feeling that many listeners will enjoy the added fun-factor of the “Bass” cushions, but for me it’s “Crisp” all the way - the FF3 sounds more balanced in this configuration, and it lets their remarkably resolving informational capabilities shine through.
The FF3’s mid-range is lush, expansive and wonderfully expressive. I came across a 2017 solo album from Mark Eitzel (frontman of American Music Club), Hey Mr Ferryman, a couple of years ago, and the FF3 is the perfect vessel for conveying his breathy baritone performance in my favourite track on the record, An Answer. The way the FF3 richly conveys the tone of the instrumentals parts reminds me more than a little of the Sennheiser HD600, which is very much my benchmark when it comes to the dynamic driver timbre. And that, my friends, is a Good Thing. Whereas the HD600 has a dense, intimate presentation, the FF3 broadens proceedings out a degree further with a greater feeling of immersive space.
The FF3 is super easy to drive as in-ears go, and performed strongly with basically any source that I threw at it. The new FiiO BTR7 Bluetooth DAC & Headphone Amplifier is a terrific option for taking the FF3 on-the-go with you, and with its LDAC-capable Bluetooth streaming it didn’t give much up at all by way of resolution and control over those highly-capable 14.2mm drivers.
The FF3 is remarkably resolving, and will yield incremental detail gains depending on the quality of the source and production-values of the music that you’re listening to. The AK4499-equipped Astell&Kern A&futura SE200 Digital Audio Player was my preferred pairing for the FF3, and when using a 4.4mm balanced cable adapter it lent an even greater edge to the imaging and layering capabilities of these little earbuds.
One unexpected talent the FF3 revealed was that it’s an exceptionally great pair of in-ears when it comes to gaming. Being easy to drive, simply plugging it into the my Xbox controller was all I needed to enjoy an immersive and entertaining session of PUBG. Thanks to its wide presentation, excellent imaging and revealing treble, the FF3 was easily able to help reveal footsteps, the direction of incoming fire, and present all the explosions and drama that ensued with aplomb.
As I was first taking the FiiO FF3 out of their box, I was struggling to place exactly where and when these earbuds might make a case for themselves, and to whom they might appeal. Sure, they might not have the intimacy that comes with the isolation of a pair of In-Ear Monitors, but while they’re similar in size, the FF3 isn’t really designed for shining “outside”. I think it’s best to think of them as miniature open-back headphones, with a few more benefits: 1) you can take them anywhere with you - open-back headphones on holiday? Awesome! 2) they’ll drive on just about any source with terrific results, and 3) they make it easy to simply enjoy music at home when the mood strikes. Simply take them out, pop them in your ears, and off you go - no bulky headphones or amplifiers required.
If you like to enjoy a range of different headphones and IEMs, the FiiO FF3 is the kind of product that can add a new dimension to your listening repertoire, and can genuinely help you to enjoy music in more circumstances by virtue of their compact form-factor and immersive, detailed and rich tonality. And given their asking price, they’re a stone-cold bargain in that regard. If you’re curious to hear just how far earbuds have come, I can promise that you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I reckon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.