Here at Toneshift I am interested in the overall audio experience – and that means what you listen to and how it’s delivered. A few industry leaders have reached back to me to offer a trial of their headphones, portable devices and speakers and I will break them down in terms of what they offer to the average listener to the audiophile amongst us.
First up is FiiO‘s introductory earbuds which are extremely affordable, under $15, and include in-line controls and built-in microphone. The design is simple in a shiny black finish with a slightly rubberized finish to the cord. The company is best known for their DAPs (digital audio player) and portable amps, though many may not know that the company’s technology is used in many company’s headsets (Denon, Skullcandy, Samsung, etc.) – FiiO has a half dozen models now available. I’m listening with their EM3S HiFi Open Earbuds that boast large dynamic drivers.
My first impression was a bit impulsive, in that I have honestly only experienced few earbuds over the years. As a novice in the world of high-fidelity audio I balance my impressions with my extremely extensive utilitarian listening, and that’s a great word to describe these earbuds, utilitarian. At first they reminded me of the first generation of earbuds that came with the early iPhones, both in design and in output – but I no longer have those to compare them to, so I can only rely on my newer Apple earbuds to make such claims. The FiiO EM3S earbuds are best as a replacement pair for their affordability, these things retail for a skimpy $11.99, and that’s cheap for what you get in terms of sound. They offer a very clean and intimate sound flow, a warm bass, and good sound details. The overall mix when tested on both my basic daily devices, a Moto x⁴ and my iMac, and the results are vastly different, and I’ll say more in a moment. Comfort-wise these are a bit old-school. And without the (imported) soft foam earsleeves these things hurt, so it’s nice that they provide three pairs for use.
When listening on my phone I compared and contrasted these with my Apple earbuds, and got mixed results. They got lost in the mids and were a slight bit tinny for my taste. Now, mind you in terms of bass response these are absolutely perfect for my ears (I am NOT a lover of over-blown boom boom bass), they are warm and soulful, thanks in part, I’d venture to guess due to two things built-in: thee 14.8mm PET diaphragm dynamic drivers, and the gold-plated L-shape 3.5mm jack (CTIA standard) which fits snugly into the devices I tested it on. Oh, and these wired ‘buds are so lightweight, you’d hardly know you had them on, except for the circular earpiece design which does cause for minor discomfort over hours of listening time. Though if you are using these for an hour long workout or just a commute to work, these are fine in that respect. They are a convenient solution for someone who likes to listen to say soul, r&b, electronic music with a few nuances, and perhaps some pop music.
Next I popped on some tracks from my iTunes library. They sounded perfectly awesome when listening to ESG‘s A South Bronx Story and then on Funkadelic‘s (Not Just) Knee Deep they lost some treble and mids. Then I tried Ladytron‘s Aces High andwas slightly less impressed. As the track meanders with moodiness I experienced a bit of muddiness in the background, and this seemed worse when listening to Destroy Everything You Touch (one of my favorite songs of all time). I’m probably a little biased when it comes to cherished songs, but I think I have that right, as should you when you are jamming out to your tunes. But another caveat, and this is important, the bit rate I was sampling on those last two tracks was a meeny 253 kbps (VBR). So that is like tuning into AM radio.
But I have a FLAC file right here and now, in the form of Scissor Sisters with I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. Now, this is clearly a better sound, giving me a funky rolling rhythm and so much in terms of vocal detail. Surprisingly The Cars‘ remastered Candy-O sounded even a bit better than the last two, especially with sounds made by Fairlight and various synthesizers. The guitars wobbling was nice but the drums were too distant, and the vocal was just so-so. Percentage-wise the difference between the low bit rate MP3 and the FLAC file were, for me, like a 20% better experience, not enough to warrant either filling my library with huge storage issues, nor for using these earbuds alone as a sole listening option – I’d be missing out on a lot of shoulder shimmies and and sudden personal bursts of energy and shout outs. Yeah, I love music in many forms.
When I used these with my iMac I was much more impressed with the output and clarity. For instance, when I listened to a recording by Atom™ with many crispy electronic clicks, cuts, fuzz and drone I was able to distinguish various sounds within the scope of dynamic range. When streaming Andy Stott‘s album Faith In Strangers on Spotify I noticed a huge, noticeable difference with the dynamic range, experiencing the depths of drones and clean mids, and even the vocals had an air of anticipated moodiness. Crisp where necessary and you could sense a dimensional space to a certain extent. This proved the performance of these earbuds has more to offer than at first listen. They perform with a clean, clear sound but are not as punchy or varied as the Bowers & Wilkins P3 set I use on occasion, which is an apples/oranges comparison – but I’m one of those sticklers who wants to hear every last detail, and I do not mind if it comes out warm or chilly, I just want that stimulating range.
In the end the EMS3 does not bring new life to music as you have already heard it, but they are a good investment in a spare pair. These get 3.5 stars out of 5 for their class, and overall are a good back-up for those who travel frequently, or in case something might happen to your cherished pair these would be a good stopgap.
PROS: Affordable; works well with streaming services like Spotify; soul and electronic music sound quite good; great as spare pair of headphones.
CONS: Uncomfortable earpiece over lengthy periods of time; depending on original sound source file, may be a bit unreliable in terms of quality listening experience.