Fiio was established in 2007 in Guangzhou, China. The company markets high-resolution digital audio players, portable headphone amplifiers, DACs and earphones. The brand name is a combination of Fi (as in HiFi) and iO (number 1 & 0) the binary symbols representing the convenience of digital coding.
Over the last 16 years Fiio has built a fine reputation for sound quality, reliability and style. The company strives to provide products which lead the market in design, features and value. The FF1 is the latest earbud from the company and its design is inspired by models higher up in the range. It retails for around £25.
The FF1 comes in a flat rectangular box with silver and teal accents, continuing the design elements from the FD11. There is a large illustration of the earbuds along with the make and model number. The contents are stored in a black plastic tray which slides out of the box. This contains:
● Fiio FF1 earbuds
● Detachable 2-pin cable with 3.5mm plug
● Three pairs of full sponge covers
● Three pairs of sponge covers with holes
● One set of silicone wing hooks
● One pair white silicone anti-slip rings
● One pair grey silicone anti-slip rings
● 3.5mm female to USB-C adapter
Design and Build
The FF1 earpiece, made from a glossy black plastic, is open-backed and has a large flat head with a silver coloured grille with five apertures on the rear of the enclosure and a bass vent at the top of the casing. A silver coloured strip on the top of the capsule emblazoned with a Fiio logo adds a little bit of design detail.
The earpieces are lightweight and solidly built. The transducer is a dynamic driver with a 14.2mm Beryllium plated PU diaphragm and powerful Neodymium magnets. The detachable braided fabric cable has a straight gold-plated 3.5mm plug and 2-pin interface and the in-line microphone is fixed to the right channel.
Fit and Isolation
As with all earbuds, a good fit is essential to obtain a balanced frequency response. After some experimentation, I found the best fit for me was achieved with the “bass” foams and the grey silicone rings which helped to prevent the foams slipping off and hold the earpieces more securely in my ears, as I have large ear canals.
I found the ear hooks uncomfortable as the material was rather stiff. Similar hooks from the Smabat M1 Pro proved softer, but I did not employ them. Good isolation is not a feature of earbuds in general due to the design, and exterior sounds were best dealt with by using an increased volume, on average about double the normal level.
The FF1 was tested using an Xduoo X20 DAP as the primary source and a burn in period of 100 hours was carried out. A Samsung smartphone was used to test the USB dongle and further listening was done with a Ruark digital radio. The FF1 proved to be very source sensitive with noticeable variation in tonality between sources.
The supplied USB-C dongle was tested with a Samsung smartphone and worked very well. Used in conjunction with the Rocket Player app, the sound was clear and well balanced, in fact it proved superior to the sound via the 3.5mm jack with better detail, separation and staging. Adding a little extra bass via EQ gave a very pleasing result.
With the X20 DAP the presentation was airy, open and gentle. Unlike IEMs which are more intimate and intense, the FF1 produced an unforced, well-balanced sound profile with plenty of space and atmosphere, yet not lacking in impact when needed.
Bass, as expected from an earbud, was somewhat reduced in level with sub bass frequencies barely present, but mid bass possessed a natural and warm timbre with good transient attack. Midrange sounded natural and not recessed with good vocal expression and treble was clean and extended with little trace of harshness, although a little brighter than neutral.
As an earbud, I did not expect the FF1 to deliver a bass-focused sound. However, there was a good suggestion of the lower octaves, although the reduced level did impact on the reproduction of recorded ambience, and instruments like cellos and tuba suffered from a lack of warmth.
In the version by the LSO under Richard Hickox, Holst’s “Somerset Rhapsody” begins with delicate woodwind leading into a quotation of the main theme announced by the timpani which displayed a natural timbre and excellent definition. Later the melody is taken by the full orchestra accompanied by bass drum. The impact here was diminished but still showed a clean initial strike and natural decay. The FF1 acquitted itself well here with only a slight lack of depth affecting the presentation.
In 1989, Wally Badarou, perhaps best known for being Level 42’s keyboard artist, produced an album in the New Age genre entitled “Words of a Mountain”. The final track, “Words of Grace” is a melodic cameo performed on synthesisers.
After a gentle introduction it builds to a climax. Mastered on the Mitsubishi X80, the dynamic range here is impressive and the FF1 made a heroic attempt. The lowest notes were beyond its capability but there still was some weight to the presentation and the feeling of the music was preserved well. The final chord swells dramatically and the effect here was just a little lacking in impact.
The midrange was clear, articulate and finely detailed, transparent and revealing. The tonality was brighter than neutral with the lower region lacking some weight. Further up the range the timbre became brighter but sibilance was well controlled. Vocal performance was excellent with lyrics clear and intelligible.
“Java” is an instrumental featuring the trumpet of Al Hirt. The extraordinary fidelity and immediacy of the 1963 recording came over very well on the FF1, with the solo instrument clean and incisive, the saxophone displaying a satisfying growl with the percussion and rhythm section precise and well-defined. The stereo imaging here was also notable with everything combining to produce a very entertaining effect.
The late Richard Burmer was a master of the Emulator, creating a huge library of sound samples. “Invention” is his fourth album. “Curio Dance” is set in a bouncy 3/4 time with a colourful rhythmic accompaniment.
Various solo synth voices take the melody line in succession, all of which show a different character, and the FF1 made a good job of differentiating between them whilst keeping a fine balance with the backing details. Rhythm, pace and timing were the keywords here and the whole piece was presented in a lively and fresh manner with only a slight sharpness in the delivery from time to time.
The FF1’s treble was clean, clear and well-extended. There was a thinness of timbre at high volumes when the high frequencies tended to dominate slightly, but, as with the midrange, sibilance was dealt with effectively. Separation and detail, however, were excellent with a good depiction of “air” when present in the recording.
English ambient artist Kevin Kendle has produced a number of albums inspired by nature and the seasons, and has also ventured into spacemusic with his “Deep Skies” series. His music is always atmospheric and melodic. “January Sunrise” from his “Winter” album begins with crystalline tinkling sounds evoking ice and snow.
A gently flowing tune ensues and the FF1 conveyed a believable picture of the scene with a clean and precise portrayal of Nature in January. The high frequency sounds were delicate and well separated, forming a perfect backdrop for the melody line.
The third movement of Ernest Moeran’s Symphony in G minor is a bright and playful scherzo with a prominent woodwind presence. The FF1 made the most of it with a light and spacious presentation. Sir Adrian Boult’s superb interpretation in a sumptuous Lyrita recording came to life with lively pizzicato strings, bright brass and crisp percussion. The FF1 ‘s treble was airy and extended, adding to the atmosphere of the recording venue.
Soundstage and Imaging
Well-designed earbuds can present a soundstage and imaging which most IEMs can only dream of with an effect similar to listening to full-size headphones or speakers. The FF1 was no exception, with a wide, airy soundscape, excellent separation and precise location of elements in the production.
Gerry Rafferty’s classic “Baker Street” was a perfect example. The complex arrangement was portrayed in meticulous detail with guitars on the left, percussion on the right and a well-defined rhythm section in the centre.
The separation of the bass guitar and kick drum was very clear and the bright celesta in the bridge was placed high in the image. Throughout the track Gerry Rafferty’s voice remained clear with diction easily discernible. A little more bass presence would have been the icing on the cake.
“Keltic Lament” by John Foulds is a beautiful melodic piece featuring major parts for harp and cello, accompanied by a large orchestra. In the recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, the FF1 displayed a natural timbre of the two instruments with just a little extra sheen in the treble.
The ambience of the concert hall was well reproduced and the various instrumental sections all appeared in their correct locations. The large dynamic shift when the main theme is taken by full orchestra lost some of its impact due to the limited bass extension but nonetheless had a pleasing quality.
Smabat M1 Pro ($69)
The Smabat M1 Pro is a high quality earbud featuring a large 14.2mm diameter dynamic driver with a composite diaphragm, MMCX removable cables and the unique Maze bass enhancement system inspired by transmission line speakers. The build quality is excellent.
The M1 has a generally neutral profile and is more balanced in its presentation than the FF1, which has a brighter tonality and a moderate emphasis in the upper midrange and lower treble. The M1’s treble is more even and refined and the midrange is a little warmer.
The Maze bass system provides deeper and more textured low frequencies with more weight and the soundstage is wide and deep with an unusually fine depiction of height. The FF1 has a thinner tonality and a lighter presentation. However the M1 is twice the price of the FF1 so this must be taken into consideration.
Smabat ST-10s (Black/Silver) ($120)
The Smabat ST-10s replaces the former ST-10 and has an impedance of 40 Ohms. The driver is a 15.4mm dynamic unit with a triple sandwich configuration and titanium coated diaphragm. Like the M1 Pro it has the Maze bass enhancement system and MMCX interface.
The ST10s sits at the top of Smabat’s range and retails for four times the price of the FF1 so one would expect it to be superior and this is very much the case. Compared to the FF1 the bass is deeper with more impact and midrange is clearer and more detailed. Treble receives extra extension and the soundstage has added focus and separation. Overall the sound is very organic and natural and extremely musical. The build quality is even better than the M1, and the fit is improved.
Having principally used IEMs for at least the last eight years, the different presentation of an earbud takes a little acclimatisation. Getting a good seal was the key to maximising the potential of the FF1 and I achieved this by using the supplied foam covers and silicone rings. The lack of isolation was another difference and this was compensated for by increasing the volume.
In fact I found the FF1 particularly power-hungry and the best results were obtained with the amplifier volume increased by around 40%. As a result of the open back design and fit, bass does suffer and lovers of bass-focused music will need to look elsewhere, although judicious use of EQ is helpful.
However, the sound is different from an IEM and coming from a popular V-shaped earphone it may come as a surprise. However, extended listening will reveal the attributes of earbuds such as soundstage, comfort and an unforced delivery.
For the price, the FF1 performs well with a sound marked out by clarity, fast transients and an open airy staging. It is well made and presented with a good set of accessories and represents a good buy.