||105 x 59 x 12.5 mm
||1 800 mAh
||PO > 160 mW (32 ohm)
||BAL > 330 mW (UAC mode, 32 ohm)
||BAL > 370 mW (Line In mode, 32 ohm)
PRICE R4 490.00
IMPORTED BY CPlan Audio 083 212-4599
WEBSITE www.cplanaudio.co.za / www.fiio.com
At long last I have a product from FiiO that’s not so small that I’m afraid I’ll end up losing it or leaving it in a pocket of some pants that get washed. Although that said, I’m the guy who managed to wash his brand new cellphone a few years back and never heard the end of it from the AV Forums crowd…
Now before starting this review, I need to get some stuff out the way, which I believe may be of help to those looking at buying the Q3 MQA. Because to be honest some of this is a bit confusing, and I think FiiO could have avoided the confusion by giving this DAC a completely different model designation.
So, there is the FiiO Q3, released around 2020 I think, and there is the FiiO Q3 MQA released in 2022.
My impression therefore was that the Q3 MQA was the successor to the Q3.
However, if that was the case, then the following stats make no sense:
DSD Support (USB in) DSD64/128/256/512 (Q3) DSD64/128/256 (Q3 MQA)
USB Sample Rate Support 768 kHz/32-bit (Q3) 384 kHz/32-bit (Q3 MQA)
Why would a ‘newer’ model have specifications less impressive than its predecessor?
I have to give FiiO support credit for quick answers, in which they replied that the Q3 MQA was not a newer or updated version, but a completely new version built with a different version of the AKM DAC chip due to the shortages in AKM chips caused by that factory fire, as well as adding the added advantage of MQA decoding.
But is having MQA worth losing the better DSD support and sampling rates (and no real answer from FiiO why those were dropped), when surely for a completely new model it could have just added MQA support? Ask on audio forums about MQA and you really do get a mixed bag of responses: Yes, it’s awesome / No, it’s a waste of time and money / Yes, it can be great, but not all tracks sound as if they have the same quality.
Personally I’m in the latter category – I’ve heard some awesome tracks, and then others I honestly couldn’t detect anything special at all. And having been blown away by FiiO’s Jade Audio KA3 with its higher sampling rates and 512 DSD support, I’d have preferred to have been spoiled rotten and had all of it on this version!
Be that as it may, let’s take a look at FiiO’s Q3 MQA DAC/Amplifier.
Now, there are many aspects to FiiO that makes me a fan. There are far more important ones such as the high quality construction, incredible sonic value for money, but what gets me every time is quite simply the presentation.
I have always enjoyed the unpacking process of a FiiO product, and with the Q3 MQA it was taken to a new level. Every single step of the process tells you that a huge amount of planning and care went into this. It’s plain, understated, yet bellows ‘quality’ at you each and every step. For the enjoyment alone I got out of unpacking the Q3, I’d give FiiO 1000+/10.
The DAC itself is typically FiiO. Black, understated (almost plain, you could say), but somehow with its solid, quality feel, it conveys a soft but clear statement of high performance. Equally typical of the FiiOs I’ve reviewed, it’s a simple, small RGB light that conveys what music formats it’s playing, and I have to admit that I always get a bit of a musical thrill when I see the light changing colours between tracks (small things, small mind and all that…).
Inside the box you’re going to find a plethora of useful accessories, apart from the Q3: USB A to Type-C data cable, 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm audio cable, Type-C to Type-C data cable, Lightning to Type-C data cable (for those who still insist on staying on the Dark Side of Apple), X-type silicone strap, Silicone straps (long), Silicone straps (short), Silicone anti-skid feet, warranty card and Quick start guide.
Now let’s get onto some of the more pertinent specs of the Q3 MQA. The unit’s controller chip is the next-generation XMOS XU316, featuring 16 cores that allow support for up to PCM 384 kHz/32-bit and DSD256 high-res audio formats. It’s also due to the XMOS chip that this version of the Q3 supports full MQA decoding and rendering.
Thanks to the afore-mentioned factory fire, FiiO’s tech heads switched to the AKM AK4452, adjusting its performance to be as close as possible to the sound of the original Q3, but with improved power output. Two THX AAA-28 headphone amplifiers add to the unit’s muscle, allowing for a maximum power output of 330 mW (370 mW when using Line In mode).
With a dual power supply, the FiiO can be used in both portable as well as static scenarios by switching options via the Charge switch on the bottom of the unit. Charge On for computers with power supplied by the USB port, or Charge Off with power being delivered from the Q3’s battery when listening to music on headphones through a cellphone. Talking of power, the one aspect to this device that I was unhappy with, was that there’s no indication of battery charge. And in this country with its endless load-shedding, it’s preferable to have some sort of warning as to how much listening time you have available.
FiiO bundles the Q3 MQA with a pretty ingenious strapping kit that straps the unit safely and securely to your cellphone, with a non-slip pad that sits between both devices, acting also to prevent any rubbing or scratching.
The FiiO’s ADC volume control is another aspect worth mentioning here. Its curve reconstruction method for adjustment of the volume is claimed to work in two areas: it solves the problems of channel imbalance and noise, as well as improving the accuracy when adjusting the volume. And, well, it just feels nice to use.
Sharing the bottom of the unit with the Charge option switch are the Bass Boost switch and Gain button, both of which give you the option to further tailor the Q3’s music delivery. The Bass Boost switch ups bass by 6 dB without affecting the higher frequencies, while pressing the Gain button lets you switch between Low and High gain.
I did have my doubts about the Bass Boost, that it might overwhelm the mid and high frequencies, but one of my go-to tracks, Pink Floyd’s High Hopes dispelled that concern immediately: the bass clean and punching hard, yet the electric and acoustic guitar work was as clear as always. The only problem with using it, is that when you turn it off you abruptly feel that the music has lost something and it takes a while to tune back into ‘normal’ listening.
Turning on the Gain setting seems to give the overall music a boost across the entire frequency spectrum. It may work to your advantage if you’re using a set of headphones that are harder to drive, like the AKG K 240 Mk II studio headphones I used in addition to my usual Sennheisers. However, what’s important to note here is that increased volume never equates to sound quality remaining constant. Some devices can give you plenty of volume, but music quality takes a back seat. With the Q3, everything that boosts its volume does nothing to lessen the quality of the music – it keeps a firm grip throughout.
This was my first time putting some dedicated listening time for MQA tracks, and at the end of it I was still in my initial corner – some of it great, some of it no different from any other track. On the good tracks, there’s definitely more to the music. It’s like the soundstage has suddenly opened up around you, and instruments that were previously part of the mix have moved position and you can actually place them in their individual positions, whether it’s above or below to the left or right.
Some of the standout tracks for me were Disturbed’s The Sound Of Silence, Tove Lo’s Thousand Miles, Michelle Williams’ Tightrope, the Eagles’ Hotel California, as well as Never Enough by Loren Allred.
I also spent quite a bit of time on Spotify, where most of my music is currently stored, and to be honest after a track or two I’d forgotten the MQA sound because the Q3 was doing such a sterling job.
I’ve frequently read comments over the years about a DAC sounding warm or clinical (the latter apparently favoured by the more discerning, critical listeners), yet my opinion of the FiiO DACs has always been that quite simply they make the music sound great, turning every listening session into one where you find yourself spending more time with them than what you planned on doing, scrolling through your playlists and finding more and more music that you need to listen to. This is exactly what the Q3 MQA does – it makes you fall in love with your music all over again.