F.AUDIO FA1 REVIEW :
Price value: 8/10
F.Audio is a music player brand from Xunsound chinese company that create the quite well receive Xunsound XS-01 wich is a very interesting DAP using excellent AK4490EQ dac chip and having lot of nice features like a line out and easily changeable dual Opamp. For 100$ sale price, Xunsound try to offer incredible price value on the DAP market, and with this company sound is the priority. With F.Audio S1, an 60$ entry level budget DAP, they push value concept even further by adding Bluetooth 4.0 audio as well as high res music decoding and incredible battery life of 35 hours, this player too did have a good reputation but is still mostly unknow by mainstream consumers. I did not have personally tested any of those two, but take the plunge for their big brother : the F.AUDIO FA1.
Let’s begin by why I was obsess to try this player, to the point I get offered a little discount by nice DD.AUDIO aliexpress store after asking him bunch of questions, thanks to this discount because otherwise I would not have been able to buy impulsively a new DAP as i’m far from being rich, in fact, i’m very poor and even the price I pay (180$) was a very big investment, so all my toughs will be supremely objective when it come to price value : this wasn’t a free review sample as 80% of my reviews are product I buy because i’m a neurotic audiophile. So why? Why exactly THIS player? Well, its simple, because of the flagship AKM japanese DAC chip hide in his heavy metal body : the famous AK4497EQ, the same DAC that can be found in the luxurious Astell&Kern Ultima SP1000 that cost 3500$ and that I will surely never be able to hear in my life. Even If I was rich, I would not spent 4K on a DAP this big, because the goal is to be portable (as the term specify) and the SP1000 is way too heavy and big for that, so if I was rich I would buy 4k of home audio (hifi DAC & hifi AMP & perhaps a pair of HIFI headphones too) that will not depend on a poor battery life (another unacceptable aspect at this price range). SO, when I know that this sound decoder can be buy for 250$ in a real portable DAP, a price that even mid level DAP frequently exceed, yes, I became hysterically obsess by the sound potential of this player and without having been able to find any review or impressions, I take the plunge and buy it. Look like a bunch of russian buy it to and while I was waiting for delivery I read a (google translated) russian forum thread dedicated to the FA1 DAP, feedback wasn’t bad at all, especially for sound quality, but about the rest like UI and QC it was kind of mixed so I was worrysome a little.
One very cold winter day, at -30 degree celcius, postman arrive half freezed and lend me the famous package. I open it up and take the big block of very cold metal. It was heavier and smaller than I was thinking, very portable for its size. First thing I do was pluging my beloved Zhiyin Z5000 iem and listen to Julia Holter last album, a jazzy album with bass, violin, interesting percussions and female signer, my first reaction was : god damn sound good! After this it was : what the hell, never heard this little details so easily and it’s not agressive at all, details are there like yellow flowers in a white daisy field! After this it was the texture, naturally presented, smooth but spot on, that wow me another time. Saying that the FA1 sound excellent is an understatement, it sound lushly sublime, the DAC simply decode more music information, it is factual as well as audible. If your music sound like miracle FA1 make it sound like a fullfilling miracle, if it sound bad, it will sound correctly bad. Comparatively to a very detailed sounding DAP like the Ibasso DX90, I can say that details retreival are better because of linear sound presentation while DX90 have a little bass bump as well as harsher highs and treble, about treble, even if FA1 dig secrets details, it is a smooth gentle treble, that will mostly benifit your music but not low sound pressure headphones-earphones as it will not help with dynamic. Here, I search some drawback in sound presentation, way harder than owner of 4K AK SP1000 perhaps, its really subtle i-want-the-best-possible-sound that I underline, and its because of the high end DAC chip that I permit myself to be as severe that I will be in this review. It’s perverse epicurian hearing in search of absolute sound experience that will investigate the potential as well as the promess a DAP of this caliber can offer, for final toughs, I will take the price in account, but for the rest, I will unconsciously judge the FA1 as if it should have cost or 600$ (YinlvMei A1) or 3500$ (A&K Ultima). I would have love to compare it to the very promising YinLvMei A1, because comparatively to the SP1000 that receive hate or love reviews, the A1 feedback aren’t negative at all and the cost is 6 times cheaper. Anyway, the FA1 is in another league in term of price, and it do not have Android touchscreen, wich isn’t a problem as I never ask for this with FA1. So, for the review, I will compare this DAP with my 360$ Ibasso DX90 and 200$ Xduoo XD-05, as well as the Xduoo X10 and X3 just for fun.
CONSTRUCTION, DESIGN & ACCESSORIES :
The FA1 can sit in the palm of your hand without feeling it’s too big or slippy, it feel good and solid in hand, like a precious chunky piece of finely industrialize metal. It weight 195 grams, wich is a little heavy but not that much, Ibasso DX90 weight 142 grams and I never feel cumbersome. Screen is little but easily readable, and all butons are in front panel : 2 at the side of ‘’scrolling whell’’ (music setting & back menu) and 1 in the middle of it (play-pause), and finally ‘’scrolling whell’’ do not scroll as its just 4 butons with arrow above it, use for volume control and tracks changing. Construction feel really good, like it really protect like a nuclear bunker the precious audio component inside, the weight is reassuring as well as the feel, back cover have somekind of special glass above it that give a classy finish to whole DAP design. In another hand, the butons, even if make of quality metal as well, feel clicky and if one drop of water fall at wrong place on this DAP it will seriously worry me. Screen, can’t test durability, but its perhaps the only fragile part of the DAP if it fall with all its weight, but all in all, this DAP look like a TANK ready for War! About size, its thicker than Ibasso DX90 as well as Xduoo X10, and it have on top a Power Out-Line out and a Balanced out (not try yet), at the other side it have usb conenction and micro SD card slot as well as reset hole and a strange window (remote control receptor that work perfectly at distance).
So, now about the UI, as a not very demanding guy about this (not into cue, special folder or album image) but just straight fowards practical option and user friendly interface, the FA1 do not feel bothersome or frustrating, its minimalist and average fast. In main menu it only have 4 options, explorer (folder), setting (including L-R output, timde shutdown, line out option and other basic settings), now playing and playlist (that include All songs playing). Navigation isn’t ultra intuitive but this is mostly due to a lack of option, like, if you go backward you must go up to menu to go back to Playing Music, like it happen with Xduoo X3 but not with (genius) Ibasso DX90. Still, if you hold backward boton it go straight up to main menu wich is a step up from Xduoo X3 in term of rapidity.
A 64g microsd card take 1.30 minute to be scan, wich isn’t very long, and after this it take 3-5 seconds to read a folder, quite average too but still no problem here.
The fact that power out and line out are in same output can be a drawback for some, as it need to go into setting each time you wanna use line out, and about this concept, I’m not sure its a real line out, need to read more about this, but it feel just like an standard output with blocked volume at 50. About TRSS balanced out, it have very good impressions about how it sound from people that use it, but I still do not have receive my cable for this, wich is a shame cause I feel dynamic will even be better trough this output.
I did not encounter any bugs or freezing with this DAP, never have to use reset buton, it just do is job well.
The battery life isn’t bad at all, because competition with big powerfull DAP isn’t particularly impressive, so we got between 10-12H depending of your usage, as I listen to high volume with high quality flac going up to 96khz, its very very impressive compared to Ibasso DX90 or Xduoo X10 wich never go above 8H.
Power output is quite impressive tough, but the fact it do not have gain mode is a BIG drawback for me, as it will inflict dynamic rendering, but strangely no hissing with very sensible Iem, wich is due to a unknow technology (from me)that calibrate power output with OHM of earphones-headphones.
Remote control work great and is very pratical when you wanna pause music at distance, now I can change tracks of my soundsystem from the kitchen: niiiiiice with a bowl of ramen!
All in all, conception of this DAP is far from being disastrous like unknow chinese audio company can make, the firmware do not freeze and work perfectly, the design isn’t the must intuitive and setting lack some interesting option like gain and sound filter, but it have an Equalizer as well as Balance control wich is very nice.
SOUND IMPRESSIONS :
Tha FA1 take full advantage of his sound chip, and just by reading this AK4497EQ official description you can have a little idea of what kind of special soundsignature you can have with this magical DAP :
(copy-paste from official akm.com website)
”The AK4497 is a new generation premium 32-bit DAC based on AKM’s VELVET SOUND architecture that has been widely adopted by well-established high-end audio companies. High signal to noise performance is achieved by improving VELVET SOUND technology by supporting a larger current drive capability. The performance of an audio DAC using switched capacitor is expanded to the limit with the AK4497. In addition, AKM has developed an original process that has greatly improved low noise performance and electric margin for audio devices, increasing data amount and enhancing original acoustic sound that can be found in the sound strength.
Premium DAC VERITA AK4497EQ
● Dynamic Sound Playback with Large Amount of Playback Information: VELVET SOUND architecture is improved
Not only circuit designing but also the LSI manufacturing process was newly developed at AKM exclusively for AKM’s audio devices. The AK4497 is the first device to utilize this process in AKMs foundry. 32-bit processing is integrated for the IRD (Impulse Response Designed) Filter, reproducing a detailed and natural signal wave. A low-dispersion short delay filter was newly added to the other five filters found in our previous generation device. So, six different digital filter types are selectable according to the user audio and system preferences.
● AKM’s Best Performance D/A Converter
Low-distortion technology achieves industry’s best performance of -116dB THD+N DAC with 128dB S/N characteristic. The AK4497 has the best performance among AKM’s D/A converters. In addition, OSRD (Over Sampling Ratio Doubler) technology greatly reduces out of band noise.
● Supporting High Resolution Data
The first in the industry, a 22.4MHz DSD input is supported. The digital input supports up to 768 kHz PCM and 22.4 MHz DSD (Direct Stream Digital), recreating high-resolution sound that is as close as possible to the original acoustic source.
High-end Audio, Professional Audio, AV Receivers, CD/SACD Players, Network Audio, USB DAC’s”
The F.Audio FA1 can sound surprising and even destabilisant for people that are use to listen to very colored DAP or phone, where bass, mids and highs are tweaked to create an impact on eardrum that give extra excitment to whole sound, not because FA1 is ultimately neutral like a monitor audio system were everything is flat and analytical, but it try to be just by giving little extra push to mid bass and upper highs, I think the goal was to achieve a very relax but super detailed soundsignature that give to listener the impression he have absolute ears without having to turn volume too high as well as attacking him with razor sharp highs or too fast dynamic that will distract him too much when hes on the go. No doubt that FA1 cover 20hz to 20Khz frequencies easily, but he do it in a digital way and we must accept it, now, as it his ‘’magical’’ sound decoding offer ultimate resolution, its up to your IEM to deal with all this informations he give, but good news : velvet sound isn’t doing much damage and even heal some sibilant or distorting earbuds or iem, yep.
Soundsignature is smoothly bright, with ultra wide soundstage and extremely layered sound details, it isn’t very deep or airy, more a gently fowards musicality with thick bass and sparkly highs, mids are ultra clean, lush and textured but not in front seat, it lack a little overall brillance and attack but never to the cost of loosing articulation or crispness in details.
Thick, textured and impactfull, bass go deep without making your bone vibrate. Body of cello is mesmerizing and textured, while sub synth and kick are round and never shouty.
Alway easily hearable but never forced, they will follow your earphones soundsignature, so mid centric will sound phenomenal while V shaped will have extra clarity in mid region. Imagin is spot on with the FA1 and vocal stay in the middle without being drowned in surrounding instrumentals.
We have bat ears with the FA1 and we don’t even know it. All details are there from low to highs, and there extra sparkle around 10-15khz wich make the details more lively but in a subtle way and give teeth to more textured sound like electric guitar.
COMPARAISONS with 2 DAP :
IBASSO DX90 :
My all time favorite, the DX90, offer so much for the price (350$) that I will begin with the aspect where he’s fondamentaly better than FA1. Changeable battery : this is still the only DAP with his little brother the DX50 that have this ultra practical feature that unfortunately these days with garbage consumerist isn’t a must for buyer, even when spending lot of money on a DAP, as if collecting different DAP that will pass 5 years owning isn’t a good idea. My DX90 still work like new because of changeable battery and I never have to charge it, while with the FA1 charging time is VERY long so I take the habit to charge it everytime I don’t use it, this way he will not shut down on me. DX90 do not have balanced line out but have a true line out with volume control, were the FA1 have a 2-1 audio out-line out that will be block to 50 out of 100 volume level, wich can be problematic with portable amp as it will not benifit in power and sound less loud than directly plugin the headphone to audio out. DX90 have coaxial out and FA1 doesn’t have it, he have as well a switch for 3 type of gain control that is utterly usefull, where FA1 have zero gain mode. It have a USB DAC that work flawlessly and charge the DX90 at same time, FA1 doesn’t have that neither. Yep, it make a lot of features that make the DX90 stand appart, as its lighter and smaller too and have better overall UI with a practical touchscreen. FA1 have a 32G internal memory where DX90 just have 8G. SO now about SOUND, DX90 sound exquisite with his dual ES9018 dac, ultra clean and detailed, with great low end impact and highs sparkle, textured vocal, airy soundstage and deep black background, while the FA1 sound is more mellow and muscular, thicker and less deep but less U shaped than DX90 as well. Sound rendering is more 3D like with the FA1, every sound feeling more bodied and heavy, where the DX90 feel airy with great attact the FA1 is more about impact of weighty sound, As the DX90 have a more black noise floor, sound have more decays in air space and even if it do not give better instrument separation, it feel more realist if not a little colder as well. FA1 can dig more details but present it in a way that you don’t really know it, while the DX90 sharp dynamic and brilliance give extra highs sparkle as well as undesired sibilance to bright IEM. FA1 is a better all arounder in term of different soundsignature pairing, but do not sound as exciting and transparent as the Ibasso DX90 must of the time. Yeah, I adore my DX90, and consider it as the best purchase I ever made, FA1 is so different and sound so good too that I feel these two complement each other and aren’t really in competition, if I wanna listen DSD music it will be with the FA1, and each DAP will give me a different musicality that will make shine different music.
Xduoo X10 :
DX90 was costing 100$ more now this DAP cost 100$ less than the F.Audio FA1. Both have ultra sturdy metal construction and feel good in hand, X10 is thinner but little longer and way lighter, screen is bigger and same quality, it have a real scrolling wheel but i prefer a false one like the FA1, it have ZERO internal memory where FA1 have 32G but have 2 microsd slot instead of one for FA1. Only feature that feel a upgrade from FA1 is a gain switch. Now for sound where in another league with the FA1 even if the warm musical presentation of X10 is very enjoyable. The FA1 have a more dynamic and full bodied sound, with plenty of layers and details where the X10 feel analog with a little wider soundstage with less deepness and highs roll off, it make it a ultra smooth listening that will never assault you, vocal are more fowards and float on a dark instrumental while FA1 have his vocals at same level than rest of music in a clean but not very way. For signer songwriter X10 can feel more emotional, because your submerse by the voice, so for folk or guitar based signer perhaps its better, but for all th rest like jazz, classical and pop or electro FA1 will give more excitment. All in all, the X10 is far from sounding bad but feel dark and veiled comparatively to F.Audio FA1.
With CAMPFIRE AUDIO POLARIS :
These are really a personal favorite of the few high ends IEM I have in hands, and this is due to there ultra wide and analytical soundstage, now, as you can imagine, with Faudio FA1 it take to another level of details retrieval and this with a smoother approach that cancel few sibilance issue that the rather bright and ultra impactfull Polaris can have. The overall sound is thicker than with all other DAP with no congestion anyhow and good deepness. The bass is tigh, thick, trebly and thunderous : TTTT, kick a round punchy impactfull and well separated of others lows register sound that can play, its textured but not sharpy. Mids wasn’t especially vocal centered with the Polaris but now came a little more in front seat and feel more authoritative, as placement is spot on with this IEM it make, in a neo-classical track from Tarkovsky quartet, all instruments play slowly are so realisticaly rendered and feel its play in wide hall, piano note take the center attention and every note is precise and well rounded, impact and delay flow perfectly and around it violin go from one ears to another, sometime saxophone fly lightly above all of this phenomenal music presentation, the Polaris give more air that is quite needed to make shine at his full potential the FA1, and clarity is so extreme and smooth that you really feel having a end of game pairing with this extremely musical sinergy that entertain as much as it can be contenplate. With a hint more dynamic impact and sharper imagin FA1 will sound as perfection with the Polaris.
With HIFIMAN RE2000 :
Yeah, this is quite an exquisite pairing as one would guess with such a pricey IEM, but the Hifiman do not sound THAT good with any DAP, if audio source is too warm or doesn’t have full dynamic range and clarity, well, it will inflict on rendering of the RE2000 for the worst for sure. It sound very good with the Ibasso DX90 too, but more peaky and imprevisible than with FA1.
RE2000 sound utterly detailed and layered with the FA1, all layers have there own texture to it, sound feel slightly less warm and sirupy than with Xduoo XD-05 Dac for example, but the thickness of RE2000 is still weighty even if there less air between instruments because of this thick dynamic sound wich make DX90 sound thin, organic and even distant compared to FA1 rendering. Treble is little bright but never harsh, its just craving extra more texture upper deepest sound info, this make extremly impressive result with finely tuned IEM that have wide deep soundstage and balanced warm musical sound like the RE2000, with classical especially, we can feel body of instrument in a vibrant way that never feel sibilant and give a weighty presence to musical performance. This too can be heard in bass heavy track, where synth feel chunky & complex while with other source (and IEM too), can feel just like a simple noise that lack bunch of texture layers. RE2000 just have exploit his full potential in term of sound information, bass is thick, mids are fowards and weighty, piano never sound that good and lively wich FA1 render well with near any IEM, and none other DAC give me this revealing but never harsh piano rendering, even if it have more weight and attack than air and decay, this is a very refreshing way of hearing all piano register that with some other DAP can be drown with other instruments, and the highs is were you get more decay, wich make piano even more magical and energic.
Now let’s see what FA1 can do with a 25$ budget IEM that I cherrish alot : the overlooked ZS5. First thing that hit is the wide soundstage and excellent instrument separation, now we hear more sound layer than with Xduoo X10 or even Ibasso DX90 and that in a warmish kind of way, impact is bass is round and fast, ultra tigh comparatively to other DAP, it do not feel harsh sounding at all as it can do with Xduoo X3 or DX90, but another time even if extra wide soundstage lack in deepness cause of a not completely black background floor from both ZS5 (some hiss) and FA1 (some strange thick silence, hard to tell, but its a big part of his soundsignature, silent is a ‘’noise’’ too with this DAP). Wihout being congested, ZS5 feel les free sounding than with DX90, like if the AK4497EQ DAC force the music to sound HIS way, wich 90% of iem, earbuds and headphones will benifit from. The ZS5 being prompt to little highs peak, without feeling veiled because of more details, is now feeling more digital sounding in a musical way, dynamic range being fully exploit but without a punchy muscular musicality, it is more smooth and retained in sound pressure impact, without loosing a big bass impact, cause of a rather U shaped soundsignature leaning towards neutrality from FA1.
With Musicmaker MrZ TOMAHAWK earbuds :
Wow, just wow. You know what, I wasn’t using the Tomahawk since 6 months cause it have rattling noise in one side that appear with bass, making undesired distortion with every DAP I own. Now with the FA1 I even can listen to focking gangsta rap with big sub and it will not create any distortion. Please, somebody explain it to me how its possible? This is a fact and just for that FA1 became a GOD to me! Pure magic and that’s not all, as soundstage is immense and airy, Tomahawk sound incredibly wide and detailed and even loose his hissing problem as well, this is were the strange FA1 sound rendering is a hit or miss for some, but the advantage of this type of ultra resolved sound decoding that create sound instead of throwing them to you is a must for people that have lot of different music style, its like the ultimate all arounder DAP that will neither push sibilance of bright iem or mess with rumble or too bassy ones. Tomahawk still have his soundsignature proeminent, vocal are fowards and enveloping, bass is punchy and go now deeper and DO NOT distort, details are more sparkly and present, texture is delicious, imagin and deepness is extra layered and nothing is sibilant anymore. Alleluia!!!
-Excellent sound resolution, clarity and layering.
-Out of this world level of details retreival with vivid presentation.
-Read high variety of music format including DSD
-Good sturdy construction
-32G internal memory
The bads or so so:
-Average battery life
-Not deepest sound presentation
-No gain option or switch
-So so Interface
Even if not perfect this DAP is not far from it in term of sound rendering, being able to have this type of ultra detailed musical presentation at such an affordable price is a real luxury for the little pocket like me. The FA1 offer ALOT for 250$, and its not just a high end AK4497EQ DAC , its 32G internal memory don’t make you feel the urge of having a microSD or being dependant to have one and the battery life hold charge quite long. Amping section is quite powerfull and versatile with its 2.5mm output, if perhaps heavy the construction is just near too much solid looking. If you are all about sound quality in a real portable package, I think the FA1 will fascinate your ears in a strange addictive way.