In this review, I’m looking at the FiiO KA3 USB DAC. It’s equipped with an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip and comes with both 3.5mm and 4.4mm headphone outputs. It retails for $89.
FiiO has become a giant in Chifi and is one of the most recognized and successful portable audio brands to come from the East. So it’s surprising that they’ve never produced a dongle DAC. Until now that is. Let’s check it out.
Disclaimer: This sample was provided by FiiO for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs
Dual 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs
Resolution and soundstage depth
No onboard volume controls
Chassis gets a bit warm
No included lightning adapter
ES9038Q2M ESS Sabre DAC chip
Supports up to 32-Bit/768kHz PCM and native DSD512
The FiiO KA3 comes in a sleek looking plastic box with a kind of holographic 3D image that changes colours with your viewing angle. Inside the box is the KA3 DAC, a USB Type-C interconnect cable, a USB Type-C to Type-A adapter and a quick start guide.
Something I’ve come to expect from FiiO products is good build quality and handsome aesthetics and the KA3 doesn’t disappoint. The KA3 looks and feels great, especially considering its price. The unit has a rugged metal chassis with gold highlights mixed in a retro but modern design.
On the front of the KA3 there’s a small circular RGB LED indicator that lights up in different colours depending on the current sample rate being played. There are 3 colours that signify the following:
Blue – 48kHz and below sample rate
Yellow – 48kHz and above sampling rate
Green – DSD
On one end of the DAC are the 3.5mm single-ended and 4.4mm balanced headphone jacks. On the other end is the USB Type-C port. Internally, the FiiO KA3 has an ESS E59038Q2M DAC chip with support for up to 32bit/768kHz and DSD 512.
In terms of output power, the KA3 pushes 130mW@32R from the 3.5mm out and an impressive 240mW@32R from the balanced output. It can comfortably drive just about any IEM and a good number of full-sized headphones, especially when using the balanced output.
A lot of people were wondering if FiiO would ever join the dongle DAC market. After hearing the KA3, I think people will be glad that FiiO finally jumped on board. In terms of tonality, this DAC takes the neutral route. The sound is transparent and uncoloured – the KA3 turns those 1s and 0s into an analogue signal and then amplifies them without embellishment.
The bass is fast and controlled. It sounds peppy and tight, delivering punchy bass notes that are well-defined and textured. You won’t hear any added warmth or weight in the low frequencies; This might have you thinking it’s a touch on the thin side if you’re coming from a warmer source. But give it some time and you’ll soon discover it’s not thin – it’s just neutral and transparent.
The KA3’s midrange is highly resolving and detailed. Empty air on recordings populates a pitch-black background. Even with sensitive IEMs, I don’t hear any kind of background noise at all. The spacing between instruments gets even better when listening from the 4.4mm balanced output.
Vocals come to the forefront to create a truly emotive experience. Instrument separation is some of the best I’ve heard for a USB DAC in this price range too. I wouldn’t hesitate to pair the KA3 even with high-end IEMs: this little device delivers a true high-fidelity adventure.
Listening to Antimatters “The Judas Table”, the rich male vocals are upfront and articulate. The acoustic guitar strums with a natural tone and the bass guitar is clear and textured but polite. Kick drums sound punchy but clean and the overall resolution here while listening with good headphones is mesmerizing.
In the high frequencies, the KA3 produces great timbre and airiness. The tone of the treble is neutral and even with a slightly brighter IEM like the FiR Audio 5×5, it never sounded sharp or biting.
The KA3 has a reasonably wide soundstage coupled with fantastic depth and natural boundaries. With some good IEMs plugged in, the stage can become holographic, almost as if you were walking through a live performance.
Tempotec Sonata E44 ($89)
The Tempotec SonataE44 is one of the few other portable USB DACs under $100 with a balanced 4.4mm output. Unlike the KA3, E44 only has a single 4.4mm balanced output but it comes with onboard volume controls.
In terms of sound, I find the E44 to have a little more weight in the lows. Bass lovers will appreciate the extra authority there but those looking for a tighter response will favour the FiiO. E44 has a subtle lift in the upper mids, great for female vocals. In comparison, the KA3 is more neutral in the mids and has a little more resolution.
The E44 is slightly less airy in the treble, focusing more on the lower treble while the KA3 is more even across the upper bands. This is a contributing factor in KA3’s definition and resolving midrange but those who prefer a smoother presentation will appreciate the E44’s extra dab of warmth.
E44’s soundstage is a tad wider but the KA3 has better depth and forward layering. The FiiO has a significantly higher power output than the E44 (240mW vs 170mW) but as a result, the chassis gets quite warm, especially when it’s idle and plugged into a laptop.
The FiiO KA3 is a strong first foray into the dongle DAC market. Its combination of both 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs is sure to be widely appealing. On top of that, the KA3 has very high output power and can comfortably drive a huge array of full-size headphones.
Furthermore, it handles sensitive IEMs with finesse, so you don’t need to worry about having enough power or dealing with background noise. Wrap that up in a handsome, rugged body and FiiO has got a winner on their hands. Recommended.