The idea of a battery-driven, portable DAC and headphone amp is exciting for an audio enthusiast in a world of bluetooth everything. Could this give you the fidelity of great wired headphones on the go?
The FiiO Q11 gets a few key things right, but also gets one or two things pretty wrong in my opinion that make me question whether I can ultimately recommend it.
Let’s dive in.
The Sound Quality Is Good.
Not great. Not as precise as the Sound BlasterX G6 I regularly use or other amps like the Schiit Hel, but for $89 it gets close enough that headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 & 1990 don’t seem like they’re being underserved.
The midbass sometimes sounded a little crowded to me, and the deep bass a bit less full than my G6. Instrument separation isn’t quite as clear either, but of all the portable DACs I’ve thus far used it did a respectable job, and definitely packs more depth and heft than Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm dongle.
In short, for a pure DAC and headphone amp there are better options, but bearing in mind the price point I think it’s a good buy in this area.
Headphone Amping Seems Sufficient For A Lot Of Headphones
The spec sheet says these will put out 165 mW at 32 ohms, or 19 mW at 300 ohms on a regular, unbalanced 3.5mm connection. (More for balanced.)
By those numbers, I’ve calculated that with my headphones’ 250 ohms this amp can produce 21.16 mW in the unbalanced output.
A lot of knowledgeable people in the audio world say a rule of thumb is you want your amp to be able to get you to 110 dB. Not that you’ll listen at anywhere near that level, on average. But transient peaks can sometimes be 20-30 dB louder than the rest of the music, so playing music as loud as ~80 dB average would still be able to hit those peaks.
So can the FiiO Q11 manage this?
With headphones like the DT 1770 with a 102 dB/1 mW sensitivity rating, that means if we trust the specs the headphones are outputting an average of 102 dB at 1 milliwatt. Each doubling of power means 3 more dB. 105 dB at 2 mW, 108 dB at 4 mW, and around 110 dB at 8-ish dB.
So on the DT 1770 @ 250 ohms, we need 8 dB to hit the 110 dB mark and the amp can output 21 mW.
That more or less matches my anecdotal experience, where I often had the Q11’s volume at 40-55% for engaged listening volume. Not the highest comfortable max I would use, but the loudest I would comfortably listen to for an extended period of time.
I’d call that sufficient headroom.
Not many headphones are higher than 300 ohms, so this amp should be plenty for most headphones except low sensitivity ones (lower than 96 dB/ 1 mW).
For most people, this amp should be fine.
Battery Life Is Pretty Much What They Promise.
The specs promise 13 hours, and I’d say that’s probably more or less what I got the couple times I ran them all the way down. Generally, though, I would charge when I knew I’d been using them awhile at the midway point, as most people probably would.
The Connection Cables & Charging: The Real Weak Spot Of This Device.
FiiO includes 3 cables: a USB-C to Lightning, USB-C to USB-C, and USB-C to USB-A. That’s great, and it means you should be able to connect this amp to basically anything.
But here’s where the real drawback comes in.
Devices like phones and tablets won’t connect to a device they feel draws too much power, like this amp does when it charges through the USB-C port.
To deal with this FiiO’s included cables are data-only and don’t allow power to go through.
For my iPhone this worked fine and I had no issues, but what happens when this cable eventually wears out like all cables do? Especially since it’s meant to be bent and carried on the back of the phone?
There don’t seem to be replacement cables readily available.
When I tried to use this amp with my iPad, the included cable was too short and the amp hung off the side, putting pressure I didn’t like on the USB port. I used a USB-C extender cable which worked for a day or so, and then inexplicably didn’t anymore.
I have plenty of longer USB-C cables, but obviously I can’t use them since the iPad would then consider the FiiO a high-draw device.
And if I need to connect this amp to a powered hub on a desk? Well, then I’m better off using my Sound Blaster G6.
Why couldn’t FiiO just have a charging on/off switch near the USB port? Then you could use regular USB-C cables and decide whether the amp is in charging mode or not. That one feature would’ve made this amp a win, but without it…
It to me feels like the cables are a ticking time bomb. All cables wear out, and they wear out faster when bent regularly. And you don’t have an easy way to get replacements, and you can’t use regular cables.
And really, even if you could get replacement versions of these special cables, why should you need to? If FiiO included a simple switch like they have done on some of their other amps, that burden wouldn’t fall to the customer at all.
I can’t recommend an amp where this is at play right out of the box, where I know it will be a clear downside for other people as well.
It’s a real let down, since this amp has a lot going for it otherwise.