FiiO have slowly been advancing into the high-end market with their products encroaching onto new price brackets. The latest example is the new Fiio FA9 flagship monitor which adopts a pure 6 driver balanced-armature configuration with 3 sound-adjustment switches, an 80.6 mm long acoustic tube and a DLP printed shell.
The $499 monitors are a culmination of their research into in-ear monitor craftsmanship with new concept designs along the way. As with all their products, FiiO aim to maximise the price-performance value and the FA9 are certainly no exception. With the ability to fine tune the sound along with high-end custom BA-drivers, the FA9 stands tall as an offering in the circa half kilobuck arena.
The Box & Accessories
The FA9 uses a similar packaging to their lower end FH7 model. While not the most luxurious of unboxing experiences, FiiO have opted for a more utilitarian approach with a simple foam insert for the earphones and a faux leather earphone carry case resting beneath.
Also included are: 15 pairs of ear tips, SK-01 magnetic cable organizers, debris brush and a smaller soft zip pouch. The deep blue faux-leather carry case is a nice addition with plenty of room for storage and its own mesh insert for other accessory pieces.
The Design & Build
In keeping with their flagship in-ear monitor, the FA9 makes use of a diamond-cut faceplate integrated onto a translucent black resin shell. It is quite a unique geometric design effect which dazzles across different angles emulating stars of the night sky.
High-transparency skin-friendly resin makes a reappearance as Fiio’s choice of material for the FA9 earphones. They have used a 4th generation DLP 3D printing said to be extremely precise enough for fully optimized audio reproduction.
Expanded MMCX connectors feature on the outer edge of the translucent black resin shell. As with the EM5, FiiO have included a high-quality 8-strand monocrystalline silver-plated copper material providing excellent sound quality out of the box.
The FA9 incorporates 6 Knowles balanced-armature drivers in a custom set-up with a 4-way cross-over. A SWFK-3176 driver handles the higher/ultra-high frequencies, an EJ-33877 custom driver for the mid-frequencies and a HODVTEC-31618 driver outputs lower frequency. An ultra-long sound tube of 80.6 mm length is used as a low-pass filter while ensuring a seamless frequency response.
Rather than going for classic balanced-armature drivers, FiiO have collaborated with Knowles to produce custom EJ drivers normally used in high-end IEMs. They have also employed 3-way adjustable switches in their most ambitious move yet allowing users to fine tune the sound into ‘standard’, ‘strong bass’, ‘pop’ and ‘crisp highs’ categories. One of the switches enables users to switch from 16 ohms of impedance to 32 ohms (and vice versa) allowing the transducer to be more versatile across different sources.
The Fit & Isolation
Interestingly, FiiO have used the same approach as InEar have for their ProMission X to construct the universal outer body shell. Thousands of user-generated ear impressions have been averaged to create an ergonomically designed shell. The resulting experience being similar to a custom in-ear product with superior levels of isolation and comfort.
To this extent, the FA9 can be worn for prolonged periods without discomfort – this is aided by their relatively light weight of 6.2 grams.
The Fiio FA9 adopts a more natural than neutral tonality with its open and gently warm sound. One may be forgiven for mistaking this for a dynamic driver in-ear monitor as the attack and decay function are slightly slower than that of a typical balanced-armature driver. As a result, notes have a more rounded tonality with a smoother leading transient. The FA9 can of course be fine tuned with the adjustable switches. Though the presentation remains largely similar, the tuneable switches serve as a tactile equalizer with small boosts in either side of the frequency spectrum. FiiO have labelled these as ‘standard’, ‘strong bass’, ‘pop’ and ‘crisp’ modes. For the purposes of this review, the Fiio FA9 will be assessed in the ‘standard’ configuration unless otherwise specified.
The FA9 follows a dip from the sub-bass to mid-bass territories. As a result, the FA9 deters mid-bass bleed keeping the lower midrange frequencies unperturbed. Overall, sub-bass has good body and extension with a decent decay speed. It is not a particularly textured bass and could be improved in this aspect to create a more engaging listen. With the bass boost switched on, the FA9 conducts even more body and drive in its low-end while still retaining discipline. It is by no means the raw and authoritative bass of the 64 Audio Nio but does very well in depth and extension for a balanced-armature driver design. One thing worth mentioning is that the curtailing of mid-bass is quite noticeable. This is not much of an issue in tracks with a focus on the very low frequencies but tracks which employ bass guitar riffs do sound relatively light.
The Fiio FA9 does tend to smoothen vocals to the point of lacking some attack and transient speed. As mentioned, the sound does stray away from a classical BA tuning with a fuller body and a roundedness evoking a dynamic sensibility. Owing to the relative dominance of mid and upper mids compared to the lower midrange, the Fiio FA9 displays a preference for female vocals. Subsequently, male vocals centered around the lower midrange frequencies lack relative heft. In the overall presentation, vocals sit further back in the mix inviting an overall more spacious sound with better soundstage proportions than the Fiio FA7.
Like the rest of the frequency spectrum, treble notes sound full with a rounded character. There is more prominence in the upper treble compared to lower which allows extension to be present (perhaps not in the most linear fashion). In the ‘crisp’ mode, the FA9 picks up slightly sharper leading-edge transients with higher levels of clarity at the top-end.
The Soundstage & Imaging
The Fiio FA9 improves on the FH7’s imaging capabilities with soundstage proportions which are slightly better than average. This is aided by the larger sound format and the midrange which sits slightly further back in the overall mix. However, the FA9 does not have the greatest sense of separation owing to lack of supreme attack and definition. This is slightly mitigated with the treble boost feature turned on but is something which could be improved in the next iteration.
Fiio FH7 ($449)
The FH7 adopts a hybrid design with a 13.6 mm beryllium dynamic driver and 4 balanced armature drivers whereas the FA9 has 6 pure BA drivers. While the two are not far off in their pricing, the FH7 has a more natural and even bass response compared to the FA9’s relatively mid-bass light sound. To this extent, the FH7 comes across as the more musical IEM with a punchier and mid-bass heavy sound whereas the FA9 is closer to the Harman-neutral target. Across the midrange and treble territories, the FH7 employs more contrast with an edgier sound compare to the FA9’s smoother and laidback delivery. Where the FA9 encapsulates fullness tinged with light warmth, the FH7 demonstrates a more vivid and slightly brighter signature.
Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 ($1099)
The Andromeda 2020 offers a more engaging sound with mids that are more forward while also implementing a sense of spaciousness and air that the FA9 cannot match. The FA9 has the fuller sound with a smoother response than the Andromeda 2020 (albeit with less balance and refinement). As a result, the Andromeda 2020 possesses the more favorable tonal character but comes at twice the cost of the FA9.
Despite a quick succession of releases, FiiO can always be applauded for their strong work ethic and commitment to research and development. The Fiio FA9 employs a myriad of technologies which is rarely seen at its price point. The ability to fine tune the sound with a 3 way adjustable switch system as well as changing impedance highlights the transducer as an impeccably versatile offering. On top of a stellar design, high quality 8-strand cable and wealth of accessories – the FA9 is a real testament to the FiiO approach. There are room for improvements, however, and in particular – the tuning (while smooth) could do with a bit more immediacy and articulacy. While the sub-bass is full and extensive for a BA, the roll-off into mid-bass does create a bit of an uneven bass response. Hence, while the FiiO FA9 offers a whole lot for its price tag, a different implementation of its drivers has the potential to create a runaway product. I am really interested to see what they can come up with next…
- 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)
Available from: FiiO