FiiO BTR3 review: the best bluetooth amp for music lovers

FiiO BTR3 – Bite-sized powerhouse

Too Good:

  • Immersive sound
  • Great battery life – 11 hours
  • Eminently portable (and pocketable)
  • Headphone jack
  • Price
  • Codec support – SBC, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC, HWA – you name it!

Good:

  • USB-C – one less cable to carry 
  • USB DAC support – for those audiophiles in you

Not so good:

  • Desktop support only for Windows, not Mac
  • FiiO music app needs more development

Bluetooth headsets and me

I’m not going to pretend to be an audiophile. I’m not.

What I am, is a lover of good music. And I don’t discriminate against genre – I’ve got pop, dance, rock, jazz, EDM, classical, Indian, you name it – on my playlists.

And I love bluetooth – been using bluetooth headsets for streaming music for nigh on ten years now. Running and generally moving around is great with bluetooth headphones, and I can’t be bothered with the hassle that wired headphones bring to day-to-day listening. And bluetooth over the years has gotten progressively better at streaming quality. 

Also, I don’t have the patience (or the disposable income) to buy hi-fidelity music players and in-ear monitors – not to mention the FLAC files – to get the best listening experience. I carry too many gadgets as it is. But I’ve wanted better streaming quality for many years now. That desire led to many misguided purchases.

Enter the FiiO BTR3 Hi-fidelity Bluetooth amplifier. At $80, this has been my best music purchase to date. 

Sound

Let’s get to the number one reason to buy the BTR3. Listening to music with this device is a pleasure for the ears. I used it with the reasonably good Audio-Technica ATH-IM50 in-ear monitors. And yes, the BTR3 doesn’t bundle earphones. If you are serious about music, you have at least one pair of IEMs with good driveability, and you’re expected to use these with your BTR3 – makes sense. 

So obviously you need to pair your BTR3 with a good pair of earphones. The ATH-IM50 are a safe bet with their dual-symphonic driver (an audiophile friend says ‘they’re ok’. That translates to very very good for me).

You can hear all sorts of detail in the music that you previously didn’t, and it makes for immersive listening. I simultaneously use Apple AirPods, Jabra Elite Sport (2nd generation), and Soul X-Shock, and the BTR3 beats all of them comfortably and by a long distance. A dedicated chip from Qualcomm (CSR8675) makes connectivity a cinch – more on this later.

Codec support

This is where the BTR3 outshines the competition (and also in build quality – we’ll come to that later). Almost all major codecs are supported, which means the device gives you the best listening experience possible irrespective of the streaming source. For iPhones, this means AAC is supported and sounds fantastic. For Android phones, aptX, aptX LL, aptX HD, even LDAC and LHDC support is available provided your manufacturer has baked in software support. I have a Google Pixel 2 XL and get LDAC and am very happy with the music through the BTR3. 

The indicator lights that change colour according to the codec supported are a welcome design flourish. I found out that my laptop could stream aptX LL and my Pixel 2 XL could stream LDAC by observing these.

Battery Life

Very good – way better than most other options available out there. You get pretty close to the advertised listening time – 11 hours, and charging the FiiO BTR3 is a quick. Considering the size, this is great.

USB-C

Lifesaver. Means I need to carry one less cable. And obviously all the technical niceties that come along with it.

Connectivity

Overall, pairing the BTR3 with my various phones and PC/Mac, as well as Bluetooth 4.2 – very good. NFC on Android makes it super convenient to pair. Just bring your NFC-enabled Android phone and the headset together and pair effortlessly. And on iOS, the connection is rock solid. 

FiiO BTR3 – NFC connectivity in addition to Bluetooth 4.2 and Qualcomm CSR8675

Dedicated chip from Qualcomm – the CSR8675 brings low power connectivity and stability to improve the overall listening experience. 

The chip and Bluetooth combine to provide solid connectivity as well as an enhanced audio experience. And calls are reasonably good for a device at this price range, although the BTR3 expects you to use the single microphone next to the power button on the device. Any integrated microphones or other buttons on your wired headset won’t work (i.e., pass through is not supported). And call quality is ok – this is a music streaming device first.

USB DAC

I look at wired connections as a novelty at this point. When connected to my laptop, however, the FiiO BTR3 won me back effortlessly with the awesome audio experience. I was pleasantly surprised.

For anyone that spends a major part of their day interacting with a PC or Mac, the USB DAC on FiiO BTR3 is a godsend. Not to mention it keeps the amp charged and ready for when you’re on the go.

Design and Build

With a matt aluminium and glass finish, I’ve only received profuse compliments about the BTR3. It is cool and comfortable to hold. The size and weight are just right, and the overall footprint the device leaves is small and light. The integrated clip gives so many options to carry the device with you. The design and build quality exude the craftsmanship of a device far more expensive than what you pay for the FiiO BTR3. And the colour-changing (according to codec) ‘FiiO’ moniker lights are a fantastic design flourish that only add to the premium feel.

Design – the buttons are thoughtfully designed and ideally clustered.

I like that all the buttons are placed on one side of the device – and are shaped and sized differently to aid with managing your music without having to fiddle too much. The controls are simple and easy to learn, especially the multi-function button at the centre.

Comparison with AirPods and their kind

Will be entirely incorrect. If you’re looking for reviews on the FiiO BTR3, you know about the need for headphone cables with 3.5mm jack and that AirPods and Jabra Elites and their other ‘truly wireless’ earbuds cousins out there will beat the BTR3 hands down on portability. What you’re looking for, is the sound that the FiiO BTR3 is capable of that none of those TWS wannabes can get close to (yet) – although the Master & Dynamic MW07 and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless are getting a little close. Then again, the MW07 and their Sennheiser opposites cost about 4 times the BTR3, and will render your wired headsets collection useless.

Gripes

Firmware updates are available on desktop only, and only through Windows. This meant I had to dust up my 2-years old Windows laptop and spend a couple hours getting it back to shape in order to do the update. With a dedicated FiiO music app available on both iOS and Android, you’d imagine firmware updates will be a cinch. Apparently not. Hopefully FiiO will fix this soon.

The other gripe is the FiiO music app – no idea why it exists, and what benefits I can derive from it. On Android, I got a pop up asking if I wanted LHDC support for my music. I will try this and let you know if it is worth the hassle. A ‘coming soon’ sign is posted when you try the in-app equalizer. Hopefully it will. The app can’t break through to Apple Music for my downloads, so I’ll need to go back to my old mp3 collection to test. 

FiiO BTR3 – USB-C makes for one less cable for you to worry about

Should you buy it?

Yes! If you want to listen to high quality music over bluetooth, there isn’t a better option. The Radstone ES100 is a distant second, and nothing else comes close. For the price, the FiiO BTR3 will give you the best value you can get in the market. If you are keen on good music at a budget, look no further. And if you have good-quality wired headsets suddenly challenged by the absence of the headphone jack on modern smartphones, this device will give your headsets a new breath of life. 

Portrait mode on the Mi A1 camera

Xiaomi Mi A1 review: the best Android smartphone on a budget!

VERDICT – 9/10

The Android One Mi A1 from Google and Xiaomi is a lot of smartphone for its price. If you’re on a budget, look no further – the Mi A1 is hands down the best smartphone that your money can buy.

PROS

  • Stock Android experience – just wow!
  • Promised and faster Android updates for minimum 2 years
  • Simple, sleek and handy design
  • Great music with Dirac HD Sound
  • Dual Camera – great for portraits!
  • Google Photos – unlimited high-quality storage
  • All day battery
  • Headphone jack – yay! especially to enjoy the Dirac HD sound.
  • Price! It’s a steal!!

CONS

  • Low light photography
  • No OIS
  • No NFC

OVERVIEW

I am an ardent Apple fanboy.

Although I originally started out as a staunch supporter of Android and the reasonably priced smartphones that manufacturers churned out regularly. I was even suitably pissed when Apple took Samsung to

Google Pixel 2 XL: the best Android phone, and yeah, the display is very good

This is a live review, and will be updated regularly. 

Internet reviews about this phone have been cruel. The reviews put me off from buying the Google Pixel 2 XL for a while, but I decided to take the plunge. Boy am I glad I did?

Display (8/10)

First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room. Other internet reviews have overstated the blue shift issue. So much so, that I constantly find myself tilting the display in all directions to see if it’s is as bad as they say.

Good news: you’ll barely notice the blue shift, unless you are staring at an all-white screen at an angle you generally wouldn’t. For good measure, I checked the blue shift on my wife’s Samsung Galaxy S8. Even the S8 has this issue, but nobody seems to be bothered about it. So if the hue and cry on the internet about the Google Pixel 2 XL’s blue shift bothers you, don’t let it anymore – it’s not an issue.

Screen burn-in: is a non-issue. I have used the phone heavily for the past four months – the Pixel 2 XL is my daily driver – and I haven’t seen any screen burn-in. It also helps that Google released software updates designed to prevent any such issues.

Overall, the display is very good. It isn’t in the league of the Galaxy S8 – and that’s an indictment. I do expect Google to give me the best display out there. One for Google to fix with the Pixel 3. Having said that, you’ll do nicely with the Pixel 2 XL’s display.

Tip: If you want the colours on the screen to pop (a la Samsung), then head over to Settings > Display > Advanced > Colours and choose Saturated. In my experience, this is the setting people like the most.

There is a software bug with the phone, when you use it in a dark room (think bed-time) with adaptive brightness on. The adaptive setting feels so aggressive it switches off a lot of the pixels on screen. And in a dark room, this leads to a poor experience. Videos are so dark you can’t make out parts of the frame. So Netflix in the dark wasn’t fun. Games are also affected – some of the caves in Asphalt 8 Alps route were pitch dark. Really Google?

I took to dialing up the brightness of the display all the way to 80% or even 100% to offset the software bug in the hope of ‘seeing again’, but to no avail (note adaptive brightness was still on).

Solution: Then I found the solution one day when I simply switched off adaptive brightness when it was dark. Even at the lowest manual brightness setting, I found that switching off adaptive brightness fixes the issue with dark patches on the screen, and everything feels normal. I’ve raised a ticket on the Pixel Community forum – and have been patient for 3 months as Google grapples with this issue. One might argue this isn’t as much of a deal, but think about it – some/most of us go to bed with our phones daily, and you have to either keep the lights on or remember to switch adaptive brightness off in the dark and switch it back on in the morning. That’s not something I’m willing to put up with when I’ve paid for a flagship from Google.

Price (1/10)

That’s right – I’m reviewing Price as a feature.

This is a Google phone. It’s top of the line. It’s got probably the best smartphone camera out there. As of this edit (29 April 2018), you have the Samsung Galaxy S9+ with its variable aperture and the Huawei P20 Pro that are supposedly better at photography, but I doubt they can challenge Google’s camera software chops, or the dedicated visual core that works its magic on photos.

Android is at its purest, and I found that I didn’t even need TrueCaller anymore – Google was getting reasonably good at identifying spam calls.

We’ll look at the other features later, but 850 to 950 dollars (US) for a phone? That’s what pushed me away from the iPhone X in the first place – exorbitant pricing.

When OnePlus is selling their flagship for 500 USD, I expect Google to be responsible toward Android fans and charge a reasonable price. Sure, don’t charge just 500 USD. But how about 700? The point is, the Pixel 2 XL is priced so high it falls into the same price bucket as the Samsung Galaxy S phones and the iPhone X. I then expect a level of refinement to match the build and software quality of the S8/9 or the X. And that’s missing with the Pixel 2 XL.

Battery Life (9/10)

Very very good. And I’m tempted to change this to Excellent and give the Pixel 2 XL 10 out of 10 if I get more juice. Being my daily driver, I’m still playing around with the phone so my usage is more than it would normally be.

For the heavy usage I currently put it through, the Pixel 2 XL gives me great battery life. I don’t ever worry about the phone lasting me through the day. Rate at which the battery drains is extremely reliable, which is fantastic for an Android phone. I can easily get through the day and go to bed with between 30% and 40% battery remaining. On busy days (I have a day job, you know), I go to bed with more. My average daily usage is a mix of streaming (Netflix, I hate you!), social media, music, messaging, that awesome camera and mails. The screen is big and bright so lets me do more with my phone, which is fantastic (although not so good for impulse shopping).

So why am I not giving it 10/10 already?

Using the camera tends to put a dent on the battery life. I am an avid (albeit rookie) smartphone photographer, so I tend to spend a lot of time taking pictures when I’m out and about. The battery drain I see when I’m using the camera is on par with any other smartphone – including the iPhone.

Having said that, I expect more from Google on this front. With a dedicated visual core (more on this later), I expect Google to do more to optimise power efficiency of its devices. Google Pixel devices are rated the best smartphone cameras on the market. I expect this to also mean better power management.

Update – 29th April 2018: I’ve grappled with some battery drain issues in the last 2 months with the Pixel 2 XL. This period has coincided with me trying to access office emails on my Pixel 2 XL as part of a pilot to allow BYOD access to Android devices other than Samsung. Incidentally, I recently learnt how I can switch off office emails during weekends and holidays, and found that when the BYOD mail access was paused, then the battery drain issue disappears. Today, I’ve got 1 hour 45 minutes SOT and still have 70% battery left with BYOD switched off – which is spot on around the 5 hour SOT that I’ve grown to expect from the Pixel 2 XL.

With that, let’s look at the best thing about the Google Pixel 2 XL – its Camera.

Camera (11/10 – if that were possible)

Pixel 2 XL’s camera is the best you can get out there today. Unless you have a serious need for a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera, the Pixel 2 is all you need.

The photos this beast spits out are truly gorgeous, and eminently useable straight out of the camera. That visual core does a lot more than I could imagine.

Colours render perfectly naturally. Contrast and details in the frame are captured evenly. The ‘Auto’ enhancement setting brings out the scene mostly as you see it with your eyes.

Panorama and Photo sphere are on the mark almost all the time.

The biggest differentiator is the single sensor camera at the back. Portraits are excellent, without the second sensor being present. That’s some true Google magic. As if this weren’t enough, the selfie camera acquits itself admirably, with a portrait mode of its own.

Pair it with Snapseed or Adobe Lightroom, and you have a very powerful camera that provides eminent edit-ability on your smartphone itself. Have a look at some of the snaps from the Pixel 2 XL below.

Music

I don’t really miss the headphone jack. Been a wireless headset kind of guy for close to a decade now. Having said that, the fidelity of wireless music on this phone is on par with iPhone- which isn’t saying much. The Xiaomi Mi A1 and OnePlus 5T give better music output with DiracHD. Google does have a trick up it’s sleeve- support for wireless LDAC from Sony, but it is too early to expect OEMs to adopt this standard. I’m looking for headphone manufacturers that support LDAC streaming quality in the future to make the most of audio on the Pixel 2 XL. For now, only Sony supports LDAC on (some of?) their headsets. Will keep you posted if I find a headset that makes a difference to listening. Good news is that the technology is there, and is part of Android Oreo so we should get to see wide support soon enough.

Bluetooth streaming

Bluetooth connectivity is rock solid, on par with iPhone – and that’s saying a lot. In a review for Xiaomi Mi A1 earlier, I had mentioned how Bluetooth struggled when paired with truly wireless earbuds like three Jabra Elite Sport. I faced no such issues with the Google Pixel 2 XL.

With the Mi A1, I chose streaming from the iPhone when I was out and about in Hong Kong. With the Pixel 2 XL, I didn’t have to make this ‘sacrifice’. Carrying just one phone in the pocket for my streaming needs makes life easy.

Speaker grill and the design

Lack of Dual SIM (1/10)