Introduction - what is the Fidelio X3
The Philips Fidelio X3 is an open back, over ear headphone that replaces the Fidelio X2. In product terms, this is not unusual. We look at headphones on a fairly regular basis and have done for longer than I have been reviewing things for AVForums. What makes the Philips stand out in 2020 is that it is a £300 headphone from a manufacturer of smart things that eschews smartness (this is not to say, it’s simple, we’ll come to that) in favour of a pair of headphone cables and a requirement to - get this - wire it to a device that has a suitable headphone socket on it.
This now feels sufficiently unusual to border on the subversive. If we ignore the Grados of this world (and even Grado has recently discovered wireless is ‘a thing’), if I am pitched a pair of £300 headphones to review, my assumption is that the first thing I will have to do on receiving them is to pair them. To receive a £300 headphone from Philips of all people that is a classic wired design, feels a little strange.
As far as Philips is concerned though, this is logical addition to the range. There are still enough people sitting down for a spot of headphone listening that are doing so with something that is recognisably a piece of Hi-Fi equipment that it makes sense for the X3 to exist. Furthermore, it is not without precedent either. For the last thirty years, Philips hasn’t majored on Hi-Fi products but every now and again, they lob something into a product sector that serves to remind everyone that they know what they are doing. Is this another one of those friendly reminders? Let’s strap ‘em on and get testing.
Specification and Design
The Fidelio X3 is a dynamic driver headphone and one that relies on a single driver to get things done rather than any combination of them. One immediate advantage the X3 enjoys is that the classification of ‘home headphone’ is a shorthand and non explicit way of saying that it can be bigger than something that Philips expects you to use on the move. This means that instead of the ubiquitous 40mm driver that ‘nomad’ designs tend to use, the Philips gets a 50mm unit. Now, in the great scheme of things, an extra centimetre does not sound like a tremendous difference but in the context of a headphone driver, it’s quite significant. The increase is radiating area on a driver fairly close to the ear equates to a much larger jump in driver size on a conventional speaker.
In bald numbers this means that the quoted frequency response of the X3 is a not unimpressive 5Hz- 40kHz. As with so many of these figures, what this translates to in reality is not a headphone of use only to bats but a guarantee that across the range of your hearing, the Philips should be as flat as a relief map of the Netherlands. The material that the drivers are made from is a three layer composite. A layer of damping gel is encased between two layers of polymer. These layers are not equal across the driver, instead varying depending on the stress requirements of different points of it.
This means that a feature of the preceding X2; a number of ridges that served to strengthen the driver in critical areas, can be reduced as this new driver is naturally stiffer than before. This also apparently means that the breakup characteristics of this new driver are improved too. Hopefully, you won’t have to find out too much about those traits though because this larger driver, combined with an open back design gives the X3 very respectable sensitivity figures making it easy to drive and able to achieve a (very) decent SPL before any aberrant behaviour from the driver makes itself felt.
The enclosures are, as noted, open backed which means that listening to the Fidelio X3 in the same room as someone else trying to concentrate on something else may not be ideal. The notional benefits (which we’ll come to) are considerable though and have some intriguing benefits to the overall design. I’ll not waste any time here and state that, separate from the aesthetics, on which I have opinions, this is a truly great piece of engineering; a reminder that when Philips is of a mind to, they can show any other large company on Earth how things should be done.
Why such enthusiasm? Simply put, the X3 takes a few ideas that have been floating around (in one case, literally) in headphone design for a while and puts a slightly different spin on them. A headphone, broken down to its basic parts is a pair of drivers, something to contain them and a means of wearing them. What the X3 does brilliantly is look at the relationship between containment and wearing in a different way to most headphones. This means there is a frame that holds the drivers in place and in relation to one another and a completely different assembly that interacts with your head. As noted, I’ve seen versions of this before, Audio Technica has been using a variant for some time, but the Philips system is simpler and lighter.
And it’s this lightness that makes the difference. The X3 less cable weighs 380 grams. For a full size headphone, that is absolutely bonkers. The disconnect the first time you pick them up, between what you think they should weigh and what they actually weigh means you end up doing a sort of exaggerated, cartoonish snatch. It means that this is one of the most comfortable pairs of headphones I have ever used because you simply don’t feel you’re wearing anything so substantial. Despite this lack of heft, they also feel completely and reassuringly solid. This would be an achievement at any price, let alone £300.
Half of me would have liked Philips to have been a little bolder with the aesthetics of the X3 to emphasise that they’d made something a bit clever, but the old, cynical, part of me understands why they haven’t. The X3 looks fine if a bit dull. The driver enclosures are now coated in Kvadrat fabric (like 40% of everything else released in the audio sector in 2020 - if I could time travel, I’d be off to 2016 to tell past me to buy shares in Kvadrat) which looks fine if innocuous in grey. The pads are also Kvadrat but in black. Oddly, there is leather on the X3 and it’s rather posh Muirhead leather too but it’s relegated to the twin headbands. I’m just going to throw it out there that keeping the black fabric and dark metal frame and combining it with a more vivid coloured fabric would look outstanding but, as it is, the X3 is respectable enough.
In terms of supplied equipment, the Philips comes with two 3 metre cables, one with a 3.5mm jack for which a 6.35mm adapter is supplied and the other with a 2.5mm four pole balanced connector. If you have the new but increasingly popular 4.4mm balanced connection, there’s nothing in the box, but aftermarket adapters for the 2.5mm socket are available and keep the balanced architecture. There is also a bag that is about large enough to store both the headphones and the cables too. This isn’t the most extensive list of goodies but, at £300, it will do.
This is a truly great piece of engineering; a reminder that when Philips is of a mind to, they can show any other large company on Earth how things should be done
How was the Fidelio X3 tested?
The Philips saw some testing via the 2.5mm cable into the Astell & Kern SE200 before it went back and some limited additional testing was carried out via Onkyo DP-X1 with the same connection. More testing has been undertaken with a Chord Mojo and Poly running as a Roon Endpoint and some absolute performance testing has been via a Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 and Mscaler taking a feed from an SOtM SMS200 Neo, also running as a Roon endpoint and an LG 55B7 OLED using on demand TV services. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz and on demand TV Services.
More: Audio Formats
OK, buckle up chaps and chapesses, it’s extended metaphor time. You know when you use a substitute for something and become used to that? It could be anything really, alcohol free beer in place of beer, Quorn mince in place of mince, spreadable ‘butter’ instead of ‘I’m going to destroy this bread’ actual butter, whatever applies to you. Then, after a period of using the substitute, you try the real thing again and you go “wow, this is really beery/beefy/buttery” because, good as the substitute is, it isn’t the real thing. That’s what putting on a pair of open back headphones after a period of using closed back ones is like. From the most affordable, all the way through to the most expensive, open back headphones breathe in a way that closed back ones cannot.
This is absolutely integral to what the Fidelio X3 is about. Even before any of the applied technology is considered, the simple design decision that, as you will use them at home, they can be open back pays dividends from the moment you start listening. Enjoying the magnificent Incidental Music by W.H Lung, the Philips delivers this unique album in a way that feels unconstrained and effortless. This is music that needs room to breathe and the X3 provides it. Of course, any open back design has this advantage but the Philips isn’t done there.
The basic presentational balance of the X3 is extremely well judged. This is a fundamentally neutral headphone but it isn’t dominated by this aspect. Philips doesn’t describe it as being some sort of studio refugee and it delivers a presentation that is accurate but mixes a hint of sweetness and warmth into the balance too. This means you can drive the X3 on equipment that might be fractionally on the bright side and not have the whole result sounding a bit too hot to be truly enjoyable. Instead, with the neutral Mojo/Poly combination, you can enjoy the… distinctive… turn that The Young Knives have taken with Sheep Tick (thanks for the tip Tom, I think) and not want to edge the volume down.
Don’t assume that this makes the Fidelio X3 sound ‘safe’ though. This is an unexpectedly dynamic (and I don’t mean in a driver sense) partner for material that has a bit of get up and go to it. Sometimes with larger driver headphones, there can be a slight sense of reluctance when you push them. This is not the case here. The X3 will deliver the frenetic energy of My Baby’s Ancient Tribe without the slightest feeling of bloat or overhang and sound genuinely entertaining while it does so. This ability to deliver a bit of bite and attack is also very welcome with TV viewing too. When combined with the spaciousness of the presentation, this is a very cinematic piece of kit that can make more sense of the material on screen.
I’m not done there either, If you stop using the semi sensibly priced Mojo or Poly or Onkyo X1 and select either the fairly spendy SE200 or very spendy TT2 and Mscaler combination and this £300 headphone responds to the extra performance on offer. I’m not suggesting it’s some sort of all-conquering giant killer and you don’t need to spend any more. I am suggesting that this is an uncommonly talented bit of kit for the asking price. There is the slightest caveat to this that the best results with the X3 are gained once it is partnered with a source of reasonable quality but, by this, I mean that simply sticking into a phone adapter dongle won’t achieve all its capable of. This being said, an iFi Audio Zen DAC is more than sufficient - and at £420 all in, one of the most cost effective (new) audiophile experiences I can envisage.
I’m not suggesting it’s some sort of all-conquering giant killer and you don’t need to spend any more. I am suggesting that this is an uncommonly talented bit of kit for the asking price
- Sound excellent and rather more expensive than their price suggests
- Extremely comfortable
- Light yet very well made
- Need a basic level of respectable partnering equipment
- Very limited mobile capability
- Looks a bit dull
Philips Fidelio X3 Home Headphone Review
So, what’s the catch? Honestly, in performance terms, there isn’t one. This is a brilliant headphone for the asking price. I unboxed it with little in the way of preconceived ideas of what it might be capable of and I’ve been delighted with what the Philips has done from the moment I started listening. This is a great home headphone.
It’s that phrase, ‘home headphone’ that causes me a smidge of concern though. I’m not going to second guess the Philips business model here, obviously the X2 did enough business to justify the existence of the X3. If you don’t need a headphone to do anything other than work with you in a domestic setting, this is a superb option for £300. I have to point out though that some nomad designs at this price can at least keep the X3 honest in a domestic setting and then go to work with you the following day - something I suspect you’d only try with the X3 once.
I might be completely wrong about this though - I frequently am. What Philips has built here is a truly outstanding bit of sanely priced Audiophilia. This is a superb piece of industrial design that has no trouble delighting across a wide selection of music and with a healthy selection of source equipment. Taken on its own merits, this can only mean that the Philips comes Highly Recommended.
Related: Find out more about the Fidelio X3
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