Pros: + Neutral and transparent
+ Musical and engaging
+ Smooth yet extended treble
+ Tight and controlled bass
+ Natural timbre
+ Good technicalities
+ Plug’n Play
+ Native DSD and MQA 8X
+ Compact and lightweight
+ Sturdy construction
+ Reinforced cable
+ Very low power consumption
Cons: – Lower power output than the competition
– Not compatible with the FiiO Control application
– You have to buy either the Android or the iOS version
The review sample was kindly provided free of charge in exchange for my honest and subjective evaluation.
The FiiO KA1 price is $50 and you can buy it using this non affiliate link FiiO.eu
FiiO was a little late to the USB DAC/amp dongle party but now they are doing their best to catch up as fast as they can.
It’s not been a long time since the FiiO KA3, a balanced DAC/amp dongle with great performance, as you can read here and now they have released it’s younger brother, the FiiO KA1.
Technical highlights and operation
The FiiO KA1 is a small sized USB DAC/amp dongle which connects to any USB port to further enhance the sound quality of the host device.
The cable is permanently attached to the main body of the device and there are two versions available, the one with a USB type C plug and the other with a lighting plug for iOS users.
The USB version, which is reviewed here, comes with a USB type C to A adapter and is compatible with Android, Windows and Mac OS.
Inside the KA1 there is the ES9281C PRO chip from ESS which combines USB audio interface, digital conversion and headphone amplification.
This is a low power consumption chip, found in a lot of similar devices like the Hidizs S3 PRO Ultra and ddHiFi TC35B Pro.
Power consumption is only 60mA but at the cost of power output that is limited to 45mW/32Ω but it can also handle 16Ω (43mW) loads without reaching a current limit.
However the ddHiFi TC35B Pro can output 62mW/32Ω so it seems that FiiO were a little conservative when configuring the power output, maybe to keep power consumption as low as possible.
The KA1 supports 32bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256 and MQA rendering.
A status LED positioned at one side of the device can display the current audio format and sampling rate.
Blue is for ≤48kHz, Yellow >48kHz, Green=DSD and Magenta is for MQA.
The KA1 can be used driver-free with Windows 10 or above but you can also install the FiiO USB driver which supports ASIO output and DSD256.
The KA1, unlike the KA3, doesn’t support the FiiO Control application so it is not user configurable.
The short, 4 clone, silver-plated monocrystalline copper cable is permanently attached to the main body and is protected by two stress relief points.
The main body and the USB type C plug are made from CNC aluminium with excellent build quality, the device feels sturdy and well made.
The KA1 is ultra compact, slim and lightweight, measuring just 40x15x8mm and weighing a mere 10g.
The KA1 is available in black and green color.
The KA1 has a relatively low power output, so I mostly used various easy to drive earphones like the FiiO/Jade Audio JD1, Hidizs Mermaid MS2, Meze Audio 12 Classics V2 and FiiO FD3 among others.
On the other hand, power consumption is minimal so the KA1 doesn’t get hot while it greatly preserves the host device battery duration.
The KA1 sound performance is actually very good without even considering the low asking price.
The sound is neutrally balanced, pretty transparent and clean while it stays organic and engaging.
There is a touch of warmth, treble is smooth and controlled, never sounding bright or harsh while the overall timbre is natural and lifelike, keeping digital artifacts as minimal as possible.
Bass is extended, tight and controlled, mid range is present and articulated, there is sufficient harmonic wealth while treble sounds airy and vivid with some great detail retrieval for the category.
The soundstage is spacious and mildly holographic with plenty of air around the instruments and a pretty accurate imaging.
The KA1 sounded inherently musical with all the earphones and all kinds of music I tested even while listening to more demanding material like the latest instalment of Beethoven’s complete piano concertos with Krystian Zimerman.
A few selected comparisons
There is plenty of competition around this price point and it would be difficult to do a comprehensive comparison so I will include some brief notes about a couple of the competitors.
The $50 ddHiFi TC35B and Periodic Audio Rhodium are both using an ALC chip, so they are smaller and more compact than the KA1 with even lower power consumption.
Of course, they are slightly less powerful and not very suitable for 16Ω loads and while they actually sound pretty good given their size, the KA1 is technically superior with a more effortless and engaging sound plus a little more powerful.
You have to spend about $20 more for the Hidizs S3 PRO which shares the same chipset with the KA1 and offers similar power output and sound performance but it has the advantage of the three different sounding firmwares that can be selectively installed and further tailor the sound to your liking.
The iBasso DC05 is only $10 more expensive than the KA1 and thanks to the double ES9219C chips you get a considerably higher power output, reaching 93mW/32Ω, 140mW/16Ω and MQA support is increased to 16X.
Sound performance is better, especially in the technical department while sounding organic, natural and engaging without any audible drawbacks.
The penalty to pay is the slightly larger size and the increased power consumption that will deplete your phone battery faster and makes the DC05 hotter to the touch.
In the end
The compact and lightweight FiiO KA1 is going to immediately improve your portable listening experience while keeping power consumption and heat minimal, greatly preserving the host device battery duration.
Slip it in your pocket together with your favorite pair of, easy to drive, earphones and you are going to be rewarded with some seriously great sound on the go.
Copyright – Petros Laskis 2022.