In my opinion, the popularity of portable decoding amps is no accident. A decoding amp like the FiiO KA1 strikes a good balance between portability and sound quality. The price of less than $50 allows consumers who want to experience entry-level Hi-Fi to enter at a very low cost. Today’s TWS true wireless headphones have taken over more of our usage scenarios, but portable Hi-Fi products are still the choice for music lovers to obtain better sound quality, and decoding amp should be said to be the best solution at present.
01/ Ultra-small size for absolute lightweight portability
KA1 is FiiO’s second decoding amp product after KA3, targeting the entry-level market. It is estimated that everyone has also noticed that the KA1 product packaging and the front and back of the host are printed with the LOGOs of FiiO and JadeAudio. As a young and fashionable technology brand under FiiO, JadeAudio’s products have always been sold with higher cost performance and stylish design, and have indeed attracted the attention of many young people.
FiiO KA1 is the same series as FiiO KA3 in appearance design, both have a tough shape, aluminum-magnesium alloy shell and RGB ring lights. But the size is much smaller than KA3, and the weight is only about 10g. Using the FiiO KA1 for daily commuting, my most intuitive feeling is that the load is much lighter after plugging in the headphones. Compared with other full-size decoding amp products I have used before, the FiiO KA1 is absolutely lightweight and portable, which in my opinion can be regarded as a real experience improvement.
Of course, it is precisely because the size has been reduced a lot and the positioning is entry-level that the FiiO KA1 is not equipped with a 3.5mm single-ended + 4.4mm balanced dual interface design, but only retains a 3.5mm single-ended interface. In addition, the interchangeable wire structure on the FiiO KA3 has also become a one-piece structure on the FiiO KA1. However, considering the users of the two camps of iOS and Android, the official provides Type-C and Lightning interface options. At the same time, a USB-A adapter is also included in the product package, which is convenient to connect with a laptop or desktop device.
02/ Powerful internal configuration
Although it is an entry-level model, the FiiO KA1 uses the ESS ES9281AC PRO chip, which integrates a USB processor, decoding, and amp, and supports 32bit/384kHz lossless music decoding and DSD256. You must know that most other decoding amp products that use this chip are generally priced at around $100, which further highlights the cost-effectiveness of the FiiO KA1.
In terms of software, FiiO KA1 also brings some new ways to play. First of all, FiiO has specially customized the Windows ASIO driver for the KA1 (it needs to be updated to win10 and above), which can be played in the ASIO channel under Windows, and also supports Native DSD. This should be something that other competing products do not have at the moment. Another highlight is that FiiO KA1 supports MQA services, including FiiO music (currently supported in the beta version), TIDAL, or any other music services that support MQA, which is more playable than FiiO KA3.
03/ Neutral sound characteristics
First of all, from the positioning of this decoding amp and the design that only retains the 3.5mm single-ended interface, I believe everyone should be able to guess that its sound style will be more inclined to pop music. But at the same time, it is different from other decoding amp styles that I have used with more low frequency quantity. The sound characteristics of the FiiO KA1 are more neutral and the tri-band performance is more balanced. One word to describe it is “strong applicability”. In my opinion, this tuning style is a safer solution and more in line with popular tastes.
For a decoding amp product at this price, what everyone is more concerned about is how much substantial improvement it can bring to the sound. From my experience, first of all, compared with the 3.5mm interface that comes with my old mobile phones, laptops and desktops, the improvement brought by the FiiO KA1 is a cleaner background. In particular, noises such as current sound and noise floor have basically disappeared. This is a substantial improvement for the sense of hearing.
On the other hand, the increase in thrust is also obvious. For example, with JadeAudio JH3 and JD3 earbuds, which are relatively easy to drive, you can get a clearer, stronger sense of music lines, and a more atmospheric listening sense, which is especially suitable for listening to various popular music. In addition, when presenting jazz, strings and other repertoires, the sounds of various instruments are also clearly distinguishable. Although there is still a certain gap with the more expensive full-size decoding amp in terms of resolution and dynamics, compared with the direct drive of mobile phones, the improvement in sound details is still obvious.
Of course, in addition to the advantages mentioned above, there are bound to be disadvantages. As mentioned earlier, due to the relatively low power consumption of FiiO KA1, the thrust is still smaller than that of FiiO KA3. For earbuds such as FiiO FD5 and FiiO FH9, it is more difficult to drive with FiiO KA1. Therefore, if the earbuds in your hands are mainly high impedance and low sensitivity, the FiiO KA1 is not suitable. Consider the FiiO KA3 or other higher end products with more thrust and balanced ports.
On the whole, FiiO KA1 brings a cleaner, clearer sound and a richer atmosphere on the basis of taking into account excellent portability, balanced tuning and greater thrust (compared to mobile phones and computers directly driven). Although the performance in terms of resolution and dynamics is significantly different from that of high-end products and professional players, it has advantages in size and price after all. In addition, as long as you don’t listen to heavy metal rock or big symphony, there is no problem.
The launch of FiiO KA1 can be said to allow FiiO to further consolidate the entry-level HiFi market. The ultra-small size, better portability and the improvement of sound quality compared to the direct drive of mobile phones are very obvious. It also makes this decoding amp cost-effective for less than $50. FiiO KA1 will be very suitable for users who are looking for sound quality but don’t like the extra burden of a full-size decoding amp on their mobile phones.
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