If you’re not already familiar Fiio, you really should be. Fiio is a Chinese company best known for their range of portable and desktop headphone amplifiers, DACs, and digital audio players. Fiio may not be a household name outside the audiophile community, but that may soon change (or at least it should) as the company releases its new line of MFi-certified products. The first of that line is the i1 ($40), a universal Lightning to 3.5mm headphone adapter. While it certainly does the job, the limited features it adds over the Apple adapter might not be enough to justify its price for everyone.
Not to deny Fiio their own identity, but one of the things we like most about their products is how much they remind us of Apple’s design – simple, elegant, and clean. Most of their gear comes in sleek black aluminum housings. Their portable audio players fill the gap left by the now-discontinued iPod classic, but with more features and more powerful output. Their portable amplifiers can drive a wide range of headphones, and are priced low enough for those just starting their audiophile journey. We have owned plenty of Fiio products in the past, and we plan to review as many as we can get our hands on.
The i1 is technically a portable DAC and amplifier combo. It ships in simple packaging, with no accessories except for a small plastic alligator clip. Its construction is classic Fiio – a sturdy black aluminum tube with a tasteful chamfered ring at the bottom – it puts the Apple adapter’s plastic construction to shame. Top-to-bottom, we find a 3.5mm headphone jack, microphone, familiar three-button controls, and an 80cm cable terminated in a Lightning plug. Its design is deceptively simple – inside, Fiio packed high-quality components that can be upgraded to add features in the future.
The i1’s controls are satisfyingly clicky and work exactly as you’d expect, albeit with a slightly longer lag than we are used to. The i1 worked with all our apps, call quality was excellent for both sides of the conversation, and we had no problem using its microphone to talk to Siri. In our testing, we experienced occasional blips and hiccups, and a few times had to unplug and re-insert the i1 to get the microphone to work. We are hesitant to blame this on the i1, however, because we have experienced these types of anomalies with other Lightning accessories as well. In any event, a restart of the iPhone always seems to clear things up. One oddity, however, is that there seemed to be a large jump in volume between the 9th and 10th volume step on our iPhones; the Apple adapter’s volume steps were more linear in our testing.
We think the most polarizing feature of the i1 will be its cable. It is undoubtedly of higher quality than that of the Apple adapter (about 1mm thicker in diameter), but it’s also 80cm long. At that length, it extends the cables of most portable headphones to over 6 feet in total. We found this to be nearly unmanageable when out walking with headphones and the i1; we had to repeatedly coil the cable or stuff it into our pockets to avoid having it catch on things around us. We don’t blame Fiio for designing the i1 this way – in order to add controls and a microphone, it would not have made sense to make the cable as short as that of the Apple adapter. Ultimately, we found it best to wrap up the excess cable with a twist-tie when walking, and use the extra length only when we needed it.
Fiio claims that users will be able to change various settings on the i1 using a free companion app. We tried the app, but did not find any such features in the current version. Fiio tells us that a version of the app with more functionality is currently pending approval by Apple but, for now, the app doesn’t add anything to the experience. Fiio’s website says that the i1 “automatically detects if you are using a standard headphone or one with in-line controls.” We’re not exactly sure what this means – when we used headphones with inline controls, the controls did not work when connected to the i1. Based on our prior experience with Fiio, we’re inclined to give them some leeway on missing features – Fiio tends to be good about adding features and supporting its products long after launch.
For this review, we felt it was especially important to compare the i1 to the Lightning adapter that iPhone users already have. For this test, we set up two iPhones playing identical tracks at the same volume and connected them to an A/B switch; one using the Fiio i1, the other using the Apple Lightning adapter. Honestly, we did not expect to hear a difference. To our surprise, after trying a variety of headphones and tracks we found an audible difference between the two devices – the i1 has a slightly more balanced sound than the Apple adapter which, by comparison, has a slightly more V-shaped sound (bass & treble boost). According to the specifications available, the two adapters have about the same power output, so maximum volume levels were about the same on both. We think that the more neutral sound will be appealing to audiophiles, who often prefer to avoid coloration in the signal chain.
Nearly everyone who is using a current-generation iPhone needs this kind of adapter, and Fiio has a rare chance to beat Apple at its own game. However, the biggest challenge facing the i1 is that it’s competing with a product that most of its target market has already received for free. The i1 offers tangible benefits over the Apple adapter – a more balanced sound, better build quality, a longer cable, and the ability to add inline controls and a microphone to regular headphones – but costs more than four times its price. If Fiio fixes some bugs and delivers additional features in firmware updates, the i1 will probably become an even more compelling product. Until then, however, we would limit our recommendation to those users who really need its functionality. For everyone else, keep an eye on the i1 – it’s got plenty of potential.
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