Technophile

A mini amp that makes big sound, on the go

S Muralidhar | Updated on January 17, 2018

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The FiiO A1 is one of the best value-for-money headphone amps for your mobile

The music playback landscape has changed dramatically during the past two decades. It was not just the media sources, but also the very concept of owning the rights to the music we play and the way we share it which have seen incredible changes. The Walkman days faded away, so did the compact disc, and even as the iPod seemed like the future, the smartphone and a new wave of music streaming services have pushed the Apple player to the brink of extinction.

One of the consequences of this change is the new breed of disloyal, experimenting listener who is happy streaming her music on the go rather than buying and storing quality content. Much of the stored content also consists of compressed music files that have long lost their fidelity to software that focuses only on the file size.

So, while most of us are oblivious to the poor quality of the music being streamed and the limitations of the smartphone’s in-built decoding software, we are content investing in expensive headphone hardware. Obviously the expensive ‘cans’ will remain underutilised. Enhancing the quality of the music being played back, whatever its source, is the only option if you are expecting to really put your audiophile grade headphones to use.

An option for PC users is a digital-analog converter (DAC) which enhances the quality of the sound that is decoded by the computer’s inbuilt unit. The same job can be done for the smartphone by an in-line, mini amplifier such as the FiiO A1. Mini amplifiers are quietly becoming capable and are rightfully becoming popular amongst audiophiles who are unwilling to compromise on the quality of the listening experience while they are on the move.

Build

The FiiO A1 is not the first digital mini amp from the Chinese brand. It already had two different iterations during the past about six years. But, the A1 came to our shores earlier this year. Basically, like a few other mini amps, the A1 is a tiny chocolate block sized (more like a Krackjack biscuit) device which connects in-line between your smartphone or other music source and your headphone. It weighs just 20 grams. Of course, having a 3.5mm jack on either side increases its versatility to use with multiple devices, but its best use scenario is likely to be your phone or other portable music player.

The A1’s build quality is quite good for a digital amp which is priced at ₹1,899. Sandblasted aluminium body panels, Alps micro switches for volume control and power on/off make it quite neat to look at and use. The only other slot other than the 3.5mm sockets (one aux-in and the other out) is the micro USB charging socket at the bottom. A simple transparent, slide-out clip attempts to make sure that the amp remains stuck to your pocket while you go about your business.

Performance

The A1’s power button lights up with a tiny red LED glow while charging. A full charge takes 90 minutes and the 160 mAh battery is said to be capable of delivering 13 hours of audio enhancement. The power button turns blue while in operation and the same button also doubles up as an equalizer activation button with four pre-set modes – flat EQ and three Bass EQs – including, surprisingly, the last Bass 3 pre-set being a bass reduction setting. The setting comes in handy while listening to high bass tracks in fairly noisy ambient conditions; such as we encountered mid-flight while using on-ear Bose headphones without active noise cancellation.

The boost in decoding performance that the A1 amp provides when measured is just a few decibels, ranging between 2-6 dBs, but the improvement in reproduction at the ear cup is quite pleasing. The other pair of earphones we tested the FiiO A1 with was the B&O Earset 3i, an iconic in-ear unit with capability beyond its dimensions.

There is a distinct improvement in the quality and the quantity of enhancement that the A1 delivers whether the played back music files were mp3s or flac files. Our test included selected tracks across genres and from multiple sources – from device storage, online music services, YouTube videos and WhatsApp forwards.

Bottom line

The A1’s spec reads like the serious equipment that it is designed to be. Frequency response ranging from 20Hz to 20KHz, output power of 78mW and a wide headphone impedance range of 16-100 ohms makes it versatile.

If you are looking for a solution to improve the reproduction quality of the music from your smartphone, the FiiO A1 is one of the best value-for-money devices out there. There are more capable amps and DACs in the market at much higher prices, but as a mini amp, the A1 should work well for the mobile generation.

Price: ₹1,899

Love: Build quality, enhancement range

Hate: No battery discharge protection

Published on August 24, 2016

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