This has appeared on their forums and Facebook page.
I read it and thought it deserved a larger audience and also in keeping with the Head Pie ethos thats its not just about the products, but the history and the people who design and make them.
A series of articles on early FiiO products - by James Chung
FiiO's first product back in 2007: Dock / loudspeaker PS1120 for Meizu players.
Unibody screwless design, powered by 4 AA batteries or USB power; dual 50mm high quality full-range drivers; high-efficiency Class D amplifier rated for 3Wx2; dock for Meizu mp3 players for sound amplification, data connection and charging.
The story behind the product and FiiO's founding
The year was 2006. I was retired, with a placeholder job as a consultant at a friend's loudspeaker business. I opined, “Meizu mp3 players are selling pretty well, we can probably make good money making a dock for them”. We contacted Meizu, and indeed they had the same plans, even including an exterior design already given by a Korean design house.
Everything came together immediately, with my friend's factory responsible for sound tuning, circuit design and production, to be branded Meizu and sold by Meizu. Things went south (as they inevitably do in real life) when, after several months’ of design and having bought all the components for the production run, Meizu told us they're not interested in buying anymore.
As I was very confident of the quality of the product-to-be, and we had already gone so far along in preparing to produce it—we'd already spent RMB40,000 in moulds for the various parts alone—I got a few of my friends to join me and establish a company for producing and marketing this dock—this is how FiiO was founded. This was the start of FiiO's team, brand and sales avenues.
All in all (including its derivatives), we sold several tens of thousands of these docks, recovering our R&D costs. Finally, we’d like to point out that we started off making loudspeaker docks, not PSU bricks for Meizu as some mistakenly think.
FiiO's second product: Portable loudspeaker PS1110.
World's thinnest speakers utilizing 2 AAA batteries; two 27mm high performance drivers utilizing neodymium magnets; no thicker than an iPhone 1. The front bezel was the world's first mirror finish loudspeaker grille made using stainless steel etching.
This micro loudspeaker was built to complement mp3 players, boasting tiny form factor and ultimate portability in a finely built body. The only regret was that the small size led to relatively poor sound quality. We sold about 10,000 of these, selling some overseas—but this was a commercial flop, relatively speaking. Even so, a few factories in Shenzhen went ahead and cloned our design grin.
FiiO had clear, well defined business plans when we started off. But some of those initial plans got shoved aside when this micro headamp, a “niche” product that most of us dismissed and sent to production “just in case”, came out of left field and bowled us over with its sales and opened the door to success.
The E3 was driven by a single AAA battery to output 70mW per channel, far more than your average mp3 player; a bass boost circuit was included. The headphone jack doubled as the on/off switch (i.e. It turns on automatically on headphone insertion); other than that it had no switches. The eyelet let you hook a strap to it, which helped you not lose this tiny device.
At first this device practically didn’t sell at all. Then Sennheiser’s distributor in China ordered 1000pcs for use as bundle gifts with its earphones. Then this happened:http://www.head-fi.org/t/323979/fiio-amps
A member of the largest headphone users’ online community in the world stumbled upon our product, bought it from eBay (from a HK seller) and found it to be good. Others gave it a try and most exclaimed upon its tininess, cheapness and goodness compared to other products at the price and other products from China.
Thanks to “sugarinthegourd”, this FiiO microamp went from selling nowhere for $1.30 ex shipping (ouch?), through direct sales to users and increasing reputation via word of mouth, to becoming a long running mainstay at FiiO that stayed in production until 2014 (not for lack of further orders!). Also thanks to this episode, we discovered all new methods of development and marketing, leading to our current leading position in sales volume of headphone amplifiers and sowing the seeds of our DAP business of today. The E3 sold over ten thousand units and was the pivot that turned FiiO from loss to profit.
The E1 was FiiO's 4th amplifier product, and also a very interesting device. It is an amplifier with in-line remote control, specially made for the iPod and iPhone. The E1 gets its power supply and receives the iDevices' line out signal by connecting to their 30-pin dock then amplifies and outputs the audio signal from the headphone port.
The E1 also supports in-line remote control functions, making it possible to play/pause and change volume on the E1.In this way, even iPods that didn't support in-line remote control from its headphone port could now be remote controlled.
The same went for HiFi headphones without in-line remotes—they also gained remote control, giving users good user experience as well as good sound.
Through the introduction of FiiO products, you may see that FiiO focuses on the improvement of key performance categories (such as sound quality), as well as the improvement of user experience; moreover, almost every product has its distinguishing feature and innovation. In fact, these characteristics together with an unfailing emphasis on quality control form the core competitiveness of all FiiO products, which enables FiiO to have steady development and achieve great success in different products fields. We don't mind sharing our secret to success here, because it's "easier said than done" ;)
The E1 was welcomed by the market soon after its release, especially overseas. There are several reasons for its high popularity: 1. It was specially made for Apple products. 2. It improved the sound quality and user experience. 3. The price was quite reasonable (with retail price at 20 something USD). 4. Lastly, there was no similar product on the market at that time. As such, sales of the E1 boomed and enabled us to expand FiiO's coverage to many chain stores that were originally beyond our reach.
Unfortunately, starting from the iPhone 5, Apple changed the 30-pin dock to the new encrypted 8-pin Lightning dock, and the encryption, backed by the threat of litigation, prevented 3rd party accessories from being developed by any third party without Apple's authorization. We have been applying for MFi certification since 2008, without success. As a result, the E1 was discontinued 2 years later.
BTW, a major Japanese company later developed a similar product with exactly the same function.
A1 had been well planned at the time we were manufacturing E7. What we meant to do is combining E7, E9 and A1 to compose an integrated sound system for both indoor and outdoor use. That’s to say we can use E7 as a portable headphone AMP outside and docked it with E9 to charge and work as a DAC home. If you still want to use your headphone then you can plug it in E9, or you can have A1 work as a mini digital amplifier to drive loudspeaker box.
So you might guess that logically there would be accompanying loudspeaker boxes coming out. Unfortunately, our brand was more known by headphone audiophiles, so our products that have nothing todo with headphones had always been unmarketable. A1 was discontinued after not too many productions.
Finally let me give you a brief introduction about A1. A1 is a mini Amp with full aluminum alloy shell. Its output power is 14w+14w, high enough to drive most of the desktop loudspeaker boxes. It adopts digital amplifier design and is featured by high efficiency,strong bass and clear voice. In addition, the price of A1 is affordable.
We’ve been hoping to build up connections between our products while making them. It’s something like Xiaomi’s hardware eco-chain. Regrettably we aren’t strong enough and our major products aren’t influential enough so far. Maybe in the future we can develop more peripherals when our players succeed.
Our 18th product was another classic.
2011was the year when we abandoned the loudspeaker product line and initiated our strategic focus. That focus is on portable audiophile products.
As you all know, from E1 and E3 to the E5 and E6, our headphone amplifiers were micro-sized and suitable for entry-level portable music lovers more than audiophiles. (except for the Chinese market, which seems to demand brick-sized products requiring a work out to carry at any price point…) Therefore, the market was calling for a portable headphone amplifier with better sound quality and stronger output power.
After one year of research and development, we launched the mid-range audiophile-class portable headphone amplifier E11 in May 2011. It became a hot-selling item and sold well until 2015, when it was replaced by the E11K and now the A3.
Compared to many DIY products in the market at the time, the E11 is distinctive. It retailed for 60USD,which was in a relatively unpopulated price bracket. So E11 was naturally sought after by our customers at the time of its release. Probably from the E11 on, the demand for our new products has always exceeded our supply. We have to experience months of ramping up to gradually meet the market demand.
The E11 applied a sandwich structure that rarely appears on headphone amplifiers. The top and the bottom covers are made of aluminum alloy while the middle frame is plastic. It came with a replaceable battery which is compatible with NOKIA phones. You could replace the battery by opening the top cover. In addition, a guard frame was introduced to protect the volume knob from inadvertent turns.
As for the circuit design, the E11 adopted a triple-channel design which can effectively lower the output impedance from ground wire and improve the left-right channel separation. The AD8397 opamp was applied to the left and right channels; this IC is very strong in current output and particularly suitable for headphone amplifiers. After the great success on the E11, we applied this design into subsequent products like the E17, X3 and E10, which were all well received.
The E11 was also equipped with our latest bass boost technique and supply voltage regulation function, so that it could provide more different timbres to consumers and better drive various headphones.
In virtue of its look, design, functions, sound quality and price advantage, the E11 soon became a best seller among its price bracket of medium-priced headphone amplifiers. It also had a great improvement in sound quality compared to our E5 and E6. It was recognized by more consumers in China at long last and became the backbone of our sales there.
FiiO’s nineteenth product is a USB decoder D5. It was designed for home use and couldbe used as an external mini USB sound card of laptops. The development was intended to complete a separate product line of Series D which is for average consumers.
The functions of D5 were simpler compared with other products in our company. It supported USB input, PO, LO, microphone input and coaxial output.
The positioning of D5 was not that accurate and therefore led to a dilemma: audiophile shardly had interest in it and ordinary consumers had no needs for it. It didn’t have an exact consumer group like D3 and the market feedback wasn’t satisfactory. At last, we discontinued the D5 after only two batch of production.
However,we found something interesting in it. Back In 2011, we were already known in the industry and had our distribution channels and sales agents in major markets all over the world. We found that we could sell a certain quantity of whatever new products. At least we could earn back the expenses on development. So no wonder those big companies can hardly restrain their desire to expand product lines. Because the risk of failing a new product is much lower and it’s not difficult to have the investment paid out so long as the product is barely satisfactory.
FiiO’s 20th product is E10, it’s also a classic work from us. E10 combines the AMP with AD8397 core used in E11 and the DAC with WM8740 core used in E7 , forms a mini USB DAC AMP. As the tuning style meets the requirement of foreign users, it was accepted and recommended by many audio celebrities. For example, Mike from Headfonia loves E10 very much. So it was warmly welcomed in the market after launching, and became a classic hot selling model of us.
What’smore important is that E10 is a connection link for the technology development.The development of E10 built a good foundation for the coming products E17 and X3. In fact, the AMP electric circuit cores of E11, E10, E17, X3 are the same, the DAC electric circuit cores of E7,E10,E17,X3 are the same as well. This makes us know about the potentials and features of the chips. Meanwhile, this makes sure there are no product quality problems from the source, so our product has been always very stable and excellent.
When the time came to 2012, FiiO has been founded for nearly 5 years. Basically, our company has put forward the main direction which aiming at the portable AMP market. The sale was growing well in oversea market.
In fact, we had a plan to develop a portable music player on the basis of E7 at 2011 and completed some preliminary work. But it was abeyant for some reason. In this condition, in order to enlarge the income, we had to expand the product line and enhanced the market share with the new products. So, we launched a portable AMP E17 with better feature and sound quality on the basis of E7.
E17 has relatively comprehensive features,can support the 96K/24B USB input and 192K/24B COAX input. Also it can be used as a pure AMP. It adopts the TE7022 USB input port chips from Taiwan. And theDAC chip is WM8740, AMP is AD8397 same as E11. It supports the desktop devices as well. It can work with E9 as a desktop DAC& system.
E17 inherited the mature and toning of a series of prior products, has more powerful features and became more mature and stable in quality. The sound is more suitable for the customers. It won a good reputation as soon as it released to the market, and became the main model of our product line. The sale value was the best among all the products as it had good selling and high price.
More important is that the price of E17 crossed 100 US dollars. This proved that we can win the market in the high price area. E17 improved the brand image and brand value of FiiO, and established a good basis for to get into the main market of HIFI in the future.
What’s interesting if that the customer in China started paying attention to FiiO products. Some Chinese customers started accepting and appreciating our products and became a loyal FiiO fan.
FiiO’s 22th product is E02i. We had designed a portable AMP E1 which was special used for iPhone and connected via 30 PIN connector. But Apple changed the 30 PIN port into the 8PIN lighting port from the model iPhone5. So we had to stop the production of E1.In this condition, considering we didn’t get the MFi certification from Apple,we started paying attention to the headphone output. In fact, the headphone output of iPhone and it supports the in-line remote as well. So we thought it’s a good idea to design a in-line remote portable AMP connected to the PO jack.
E02i was designed in this background.Different from its predecessor, the headphone output doesn’t support the power supply. So the E02i has the internal lithium battery. And it’s charged by USB cable. It supports the in-line remote like volume control, play/pause, next track/previous track. The output power increased 3 times than iPhone itself.The whole body is covered by aluminum alloy shell, a back clip is attached also. The shining aluminum in-line remote key is processed with the CD stripe.There’s a beautiful light circle around it as well.
The market response is average. After one year’s production, as we had entered the player industry, in order to reduce the difficulty of production management, we stopped manufacturing E02i. And this is the end of the in-line remote AMP special for iPhone like E1/E02i.
FiiO’s 23rd product G1 is a special model, because it’s a portable AMP designed for guitar. In US/UK,almost every young people play with guitar. But the electronic guitar is different with the classic (wooden guitar), it needs the amplifier. Usually, they use speaker when they play in the show. But if they practice at home, they need a AMP to avoid the influence to family and neighborhoods.
So there’s a considerable market in US for guitar AMP. Certainly, the style and features seem very old and in question because there’s no Chinese competitor.
As America is our biggest market, we noticed guitar AMP naturally when we search the market. We found that there is lots of room for improvement. For example:
1. Because every guitar AMP has a 6.3 plug, it very big.
2. Most guitar AMPs use the dry battery for power supply.
So we attempted to design the guitar AMPG1. The plug can be folded so that it easy to carry and store. We replace the dry battery with the rechargeable lithium battery. In other aspects, we kept the functions of volume control, motivation and the effect adjusting.
At last, because there’s no big inter section between the traditional FiiO users and the guitar AMP users, and there are some strong competitors in US market. Even a small guitar has more than ten models with different colors. So our G1 didn’t help us to develop the new market, new products and new customers.
I have introduced that our D3 is so popular in America market because the LCD TVs don’t have analog audio output. So people need a D3 to connect the LCD TV with the old music system at home. But we received some feedbacks; some of the digital programs are multichannel surround sound system. Especially for the high definition all adopt the Dolby multichannel audio encoding format. And D3 is helpless about this.
So, in order to satisfy the customers for their requirements, we developed a little multichannel decoder D7. It adopts ESS semiconductor chip, aluminum alloy shell, coaxial and optical input,standard 5V USB power supply, standard RCA and 3.5mm stereo analog audio output and the analog audio output by which multichannel Dolby /DTS signal can be transferred to 2nd channel.
E12 is out our plan, there is not this model in our former product map. The main reason is that the portable audio enthusiastic products have a small market. No one wants to go outside with a bundle. So we don’t think the high-end portable AMPs (price over 100 USD, which is 650RMB)have a good future.
But as the products like E11,E17 are hot in the market, we view and assess the market again. According to the communication and survey with the customers, we found the customers buy portable AMPs not only for outdoor using, they also desire portability indoor very much. And the desktop AMP is not suitable for moving. In the other hand, there’s no big brand get into this area in the market, so the market is lack of the high quality, high cost performance, high performance and high output powerAMP.
FiiO is a customer oriented company, as the customers have the demands, and the demand is available in business, then we will do it. So the E12 was born.
E12 was designed for the enthusiastic fans who demand for high audio performance and high sound quality. And especially for the big headphones, we improved the problem that the output power of mobile phone, IPod, player is too small. Compared with our former products, the advantages of E12 are as below:
In order to get higher voltage, E12 adopt 3 lithium battery connected in series to get 11V voltage, and use the way of DC/DC transfer to get the minus 11V voltage. We get total 22V voltage(plus-minus 11V voltage). Thus, the output power is stronger than the AMPs use the 9V battery, and the thickness was decreased to comparatively thin.
As the E12 has higher voltage, and it adopts the metal sealed LEM49600 audio op-amp, the output power reached 850mW each channel. This output power can be comparable with many desktop AMPs.
E12 adopts the best op-amp of TI, the OPA1611 to enhance the voltage and metal sealed LME49600 to enhance the electric current. And it adopts the ALPS audio taper and WIMA HIFI capacitance from Germany, etc.
In the other hand, compared with other AMPs, E12 improved so much user experience, like the fast smart charging,indicator light with breathing effect and improved the crossfeed features.
E12 get the buzz and loved in the market. In domestic market, E12 is also the best seller among all of our products. It’s better than de low level model E11. As the customers love this model so much, we derived the souvenir edition E12DIY (audio op-amp is replaceable) and the E12IEM for ear buds.
The 27th product is a characteristic DAC&. The Android started supporting the USB decoding from Android 4.1. And we didn’t get the approval of MFI, it’s very disappointed that we can not develop the DAC& for iPhone. So we can only develop aDAC& for Android phone.
In fact, the previous models like E7, E17also support some Android phones. But E7 and E17 are charged via USSB port. So it will cause many problems about compatibility. Even it’s compatible, the DAC& will get power from USB port of phones, it will make the battery life of phones short.
So we decided to design a DAC&for the situation that the mobile phones are used for resource and bundled with the portable DAC&. Compared with the normal portable DAC&, E18 has its special features:
1. E18 has the mobile phone decoding model. In this model, the power supply is from the battery inside it only, and will not consume the power from mobile phone.
2. E18 has the features for controlling play/pause, previous/next track by the DAC& itself. All the mobile phones support the USB decoding obey the USB audio rules, so we can do some operation of the music playing APP via the key on the DAC&.
3. E18 can be used as the power pan as there’s a big battery inside.
4. Compared with E7 and E17, we improve so much about the compatibility, so it can support more models of Android phones.
But we found the sale of E18 is not so optimistic after launching. The main reason is that we cannot solve the problem of listening to a call when we bundle the DAC& with the phone. So most people are not willing to bundle a AMP for listening music except few. In fact,most enthusiastic fans are more willing to choose a player for resource.Another problem is about compatibility. Include that the mobile phone cannot be connected because of the difference of hardware or firmware. Though it’s not the problem of E18, but to 99.9% factories, weather the mobile phone support the USB audio output or not, it’s not a problem worth serious and careful treatment. This limits the sale of E18 also.
Of course, as a meaningful attempt, a lot of customers love E18 very much. We wanted to stop this model once. But some customers call on continue manufacturing and selling E18. Though the people who bundle AMPs with mobile phones are few, but they are our loyal customers, we should fulfill their requirement anyhow.
The 26th product X3 is a milestone in FiiO history. Start from X3, the development of FiiO came to a new stage and we opened another gate for the future. It’s also a iconic product that makes FiiO return back to the domestic market. Meanwhile, it perhaps changed the situation of the industry.
X3 is a portable audio player which can support 192K/24B sample frequency and bit depth, non-native DSD decode, common lossless music format such as ALAC/APE/FLAC/WMA/WAV, etc and also some lossy music format like OGG, ACC, MP3 etc. Also, when it’s connected to the computer,it can work as an asynchronous 192K/24B USB DAC.
For the features and the formats it can support, X3 can defeat all the similar models in the market. X3 is smaller in size and lighter in weight, and the UI is closer to public products. Compared with The Brick, the output power is equal. More important is that the prices of the similar models are very high, but the X3 break the price range with the price of 1298 RMB. So it gained maximum attention and purchasing upsurge as soon as it released to the market.
Now, let’s check the records that X3 has made together.
Longest time in development, X3 project was started in 2009, but the trail sale started in June 2013.
Most users are involved into the discussion, we started asking for suggestions in Head-fi the biggest community of headphone enthusiastic fans in the world when we set up the project. The post got clicked and read by millions of times, more than ten thousand replies last more than one thousand pages.
The price was the lowest for 192K/24B portable music player at that time. The 1298RMB price was the sighting, and many competitors set the price around it.
X3 was the smallest and lightest of the players made in China with equal output power. The output power is about 550mW when impedance is 16 Ohm. This output power is not weaker than the similar product with one or two grade higher price. But it’s demission is 50*109*16mm,and weight is 122g.
Let’s review the background of X3 launching:
The X3 project was set up in the autumn of 2009. We have launched E17and completed the design of E7. The next step is to add the main control decode and develop the portable music player on the basis of E7. So, different with many people guessed. We didn’t follow the market blindly because others sell well. But, we had logic and previous plans of procedures.
At that time, the user experience of the portable music player for enthusiastic fans is not so good. They were heavy and big, so they were called The Brick. And because of the operation stratagem of other competitors, they gave us much space for price setting.
We can say that it’s obvious that X3 will be hot when it was launched in the market, because we aimed at the weakness of the competitors and advantage of itself.
In fact, except the special offer activity and the advantages of the product, good service is also the key for the success of X3.
1. We released new features continuously. X3 got 3 important improvements after launching by upgrading the firmware. Include USD DAC supporting, DSD decode supporting and all new UI graph interface. The former 2 upgraded features are advance in the industry. The last upgraded feature showed that we are responsible for our customers.
2. We optimized the system and repaired the BUGs by upgrading the firmware. Also we added more humanized features and improved the stability and speed of the system.
3. We designed many accessories for X3,such as leather covers, color silica covers, rinsing covers, binding parts,bags and so on. Of course, we are the first manufacturer who stick the screen guards and provide the silica covers when the products come out from the factory. In fact, few manufacturers can be so considerable and perfect as us,because this cost so much.
In addition, we never stop innovating in marketing. We provided the favorable combination by cooperative with DNK and Beyerdynamic. We held the tour audition and tail mall free audition. These innovative services and marketing activities helped the customers find the way to listen to our products, and buy them.
We have to say that X3 had taken the advantage in market. Within half an year after X3 was launched, many similar product came out. Their price was eye for eye with us, and changed the image of The Brick in features and performance. We can imagine that we cannot raise the hot wave and got the same popularity among the enthusiastic fans if we didn’t take the advantage in the market of 1000RMB class.
At last, I thank the old users of X3 by this chance. There are many disadvantages in design, modeling, manufacture,user experience, and UI because it was the first generation of players. Though we did many feedback activities to the old customers, but it’s not enough to express our thanks. Thank you for all your understanding and supporting again.
FiiO’s 31st product is also an upgrading model E10K. We intended to cut down the product line after we sold good in the player market. E10 was also in the elimination list. But the market appeals to us, so we launched the upgrading product to feed back the customer sand distributors support us.
The sale is good after E10 launched. But E10 is positioned to be a desktop product, it has no its own battery. So the sale is not good as the portable DAC$AMP like E17 and E7.
So we intended to discontinue the E10.When we published this news, some distributors feed back that many customers want such a product can be chosen. Though E10 cannot bring us much profit, but we always put the customer in the first place. So we upgraded on the basis of E10 and brought out E10K.
The biggest improvement of E10K is that we changed the USB receiving chip. And we changed the abused WM8740 to semi-conductive PCM5102 from American TI Company. The amplifier is also changed to LMH6643 same as X5/E11K to improve the performance. Compared with the predecessor E10, the sound is not so dignified and warm, but it’s more balanced and modern.
Other improvements only influenced a little in user experience, like the headphone jack was changed to the one we ordered when we start the model. The background noise is smaller and the delay of mute circuit when we change the track is improved.
Of course, every product has the end in the product circle. We got good sale of E10K in American market, but the contribution rate is smaller and smaller as the company grows. Maybe E10K will disappear in our product line.
X3 is the first portable music player of FiiO, and it has made a great contribution to make FiiO to be at the third place in market share after Apple and Sony.
But, we started the design of X3 in 2009 after all. There are many imperfections in appearance design, workmanship, man-machine interaction and UI. So we started the design for new X3 when we designed the X1.
Compared with the old X3, the X3II is improved overall except the output power is a little lower.
We added the DSD native decoding function to X3II. Because the master control is not in charge of DSD decoding any more, the X3II can support the DSD128 format and Blue-ray SACD image file in ISO format. This improved the DSD sound quality and solved the hanging problem for non-native DSD decoding. It’s more convenient that they don’t need to transfer the format as the X3II can support more formats.
X3II has the new function of deep standby model. Popularly speaking, we have improved the hardware design, so the standby current is very low. So the users don’t need to turn it off after listening music. And don't need to wait when it change to operative mode from standby mode. We are the first Chinese brand to improve this user experience.
For sound quality, the X3II replaced WM8740 with CS4389 chip which can support DSD native decoding. Compared with WM8740, the performance of CS4389 is better, and is more high-fidelity. We changed amp circuit from AD8397 to combination of OPA1642 and LMH664 produced by TI Company in America. We enhanced the definition and sound stage, and kept the warm one the basis of warm and fashionable sound.
X3II followed the design of X1 for appearance and UI. The back cover was changed to aluminum alloy. And it’s thicker than X1 because of it needs the larger battery to provide higher power. We also improved some other texture details. Like the key was made of metal, we added diamond effect to the frame, we used more match color with strong texture for the theme.
Of course, if the resource is enough for us. We’d like to make a new rather than use the same design as X1. But the good design is hard to get, We cannot put forward many new designs loved and welcomed by the customers in such a short time.