Xiaomi Piston 3 Review
Thanks to GearBest for the sample.
First Impressions: Oh my word, there is some serious effort having gone into the box here. Not that the box is actually important but in giving a first impression, wow! The thing is so perfectly put in to its packaging. So exquisitely perfectly fitting. I am impressed. Taking them out, unwrapping from their cable wrap thingy they just seem so achingly neatly wrapped. You know there is no way they’ll ever go back in just the same. Oh and look, the tip selection is hidden underneath. Tips look plain unlike the Honor ones, though there’s a good chance I’ll just Comply’s on anyway.
In the ears they go and the clarity right off feels nice. Hmm bit heavy on the warmth, gosh there is a quite a bit. Lower vocal ranges are somewhat boosted in weight, heavy thick cloying. Granted I did put the Krall woman’s “Wallflower” on which isn’t likely what they were made with in mind. Swapping to Twenty One Pilots “Stressed Out” and the bass roars to life. Mids pushed back a bit but the instrument separation feels super enhanced. Weird. Oh god there is a big dollop of bass there isn’t there. Oh these are so tuned with bouncy pop in mind. Lol, these are either going to boatload of fun or that bass is gonna kill me. Hmm burn in time it is.
Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear.
Lows: There is a clear bump to the bass on these. It’s quite a hefty bump but not so much it sounds particularly imbalanced. Like something more “natural” but you’ve hit the bass boost button. While these are a bit of a W shape with the bass uptick the biggest. Actually it’s a little disjointed, there isn’t the mid/bass bump you’d expect from a bassy and cheap IEM. Their bump is lower down so it really doesn’t interfere with the vocals in the slightest. I’m kinda impressed, someone’s clearly done this deliberately and I think I’m little taken aback that what I think of as a “phone” company has actually put in some serious effort and someone clearly knows what they are doing. (Note I haven’t heard the 2 but I’ve read it was considerably more bassy, too bassy.) Here the bass it’s still large, not very much in the upper bass ranges but then rising before the lower ranges trail off. It holds on quite well though and it certainly likes to move some air. Slightly more bloomy than punchy though the more power you throw at it the more punchy it gets. Personally I’m fine with that, out of a phone it’s a little more soft and dark. Abundantly dark and rich. It moves a bit much air for my tastes but it’s tonally lovely. I like it much for vocally heavy, jazz type vocals, Nora, Erasures “Union Street” album are glorious, laboured and lingering, darkly swirling bass notes that drag out.
In more vigorously poppy stuff the bass ratchets it up in a fashion not unlike that of Sony where it does that punchy bloomy wallop. Like being smacked in the face with a big heavy pillow. There is that impact but it’s not hard, that slightly gentle initial impact but there is a lot of oomph behind it.
Mids: To go with its little W shape, mids are very clear and unbothered by the elevated bass. I’ve read the 2 had an issue here but the 3 is very clean vocally, much instrument separation. For me I think this works nicely with the Erasure album and anything by Nora. Still I suspect these are more charty destined IEM’s so firing up Now 89. A little track skipping and settling on “Fireball” with its big pounding bassline the vocals are, well it’s not Shakespeare, still they are highly distinct and again it’s the instrument separation. It’s really, really good on these. Vocals no matter how meh or muffled they are shine through with ease, even with that big, big bass pounding away.
Tonally they are a bit on the liquid and a fraction warm side. Breathy they don’t really have in them but come on, they are so cheap I can’t see them normally ever meeting much outside pop. They really excel at giving a cleanly cutting vocal despite the mountainous bass.
Highs: Quantitatively they are a bitty behind the mids most of the time. Thankfully most of the poppy things they will meet don’t really ever have much in the way of dazzling treble and that’s for the best. While good for the money, the money is so little when the treble starts to dominate it does break up, gets too brittle and sharp for me. They just don’t have the resolution to do them justice and when there is much else going on. You stick to that blond girl singing about how fat she is, the 3 suits it well, rip roaring bottom end excellent mids and passable treble.
Soundstage: Outstanding. These sound huge for what I think of as el cheapo’s. Dynamics always sound bigger than BA’s but these are really impressive. Great sense of size, scale, power and then when you throw in the level of instrument separation. They are so VERY distinctly and clearly defined. That little bit of W magic, the bass sound off the stage with explosive power and vocals are bang up front. So unencumbered by the bass, no midbass blending no matter how crappy the “music” I threw at it, no matter how appallingly bad the vocals they still sounded so cleanly distinct. Impressive.
Fit: Great. They aren’t so universal looking at their predecessors but up or down they worked fine for me. I wore up almost all the time and so long you swap the left and the right you’re good. The mic did sit a bit high that way but I don’t care, wearing them up alleviates any tugging on the ear which I loathe.
Comfort: Ditto with the fit. In the ears they went and that was they. I did opt to change the tips, not that there was anything wrong with the silicon’s but I like foams more and given the funny size, I think they might be the new T150 size, as is the Senn Momentum In-Ears. So I didn’t have any but…… I had a Shure olive and a little bit of push and a twist later, boom!!! Sure it was a little bit a squeeze getting it on there but I love olives. They last so much longer that Comply’s do and I like the tapered smooth shape more.
Aesthetics: From pics alone I’m inclined to say the 2 looked better than the 3. Not that the 3 is ugly or anything but it’s a just a bit so so. Plain, nondescript and a little uneventful. Though of course they do look considerably more grown up than some of the 2’s like the gold one or the pink and crystal backed one. These have a much more grown up sound and so they have dressed the part.
Microphonics: Erm, none. Granted I mostly wore up and with olives but even down there was not anything too bad. Though down the mic will catch on a collar as they are want to do, but then they all tend to do that. Not very much foot impact noise due to being fairly open.
Amped/Unamped: The more power you throw at them the cleaner and harder they become. While on paper that translated as “better” but given they shift a great deal of air I found my ears rathered them a little bit more tame. That hint softer rather than powerful you get out of a weaker source. I’d still be inclined to a cooler, crisper DAP as I found with the warm Iphone worm on warm gets a bit suffocating. Not that I actually expect the Pistons to come into contact with powerful sources in the wild anyway. They don’t particularly benefit from an amp anyway.
Phone Use: It was a little bit odd. The volume buttons didn’t work with the Iphone 5 or the Nexus 4 but were fine with the Nexus 5, Huawei P8 and the Lumia 735. Don’t ask why or how because I don’t know either, I’m just reporting what did or did not work. Otherwise everything was just as you’d expect and calls worked fine. Not really a shocker seeing as they are made by a “phone” company.
Isolation: A bit so so. As dynamics you don’t expect tons and even with olives on these are obviously fairly well vented. While that no doubt helps with their prolific bass response the trade is lower isolation. With music it’ll easily drown out most out and about noise but I’m not sure I’d be so happy on a bus. Yeah it’ll drown out everyone else but I fear you might end up being “that guy” blasting music out to the annoyance of others. Maybe I’m being over cautious as they are still IEM’s but you know. As ever, easily enough to get yourself run over with so please remember to use your eyes when out.
Cable: Seems rather nice. It’s all with a gentle weave coving that looks and feels nice, pretty flexible too. Jack and Y splitter are both very nice too, metal I think. It certainly looks and feels rather impressive for the money.
Build Quality: Exemplary. For a company that clearly puts so much into design it shows. The build and finish on them is as good as anything you might see at several times the price. Quadruple the price and you’d still be very pleased. I think it’s clear that the time of thinking “Chinese” as not meaning good quality, is so well and truly over.
Accessories: You get 4 pairs of tips and I can’t decide if the case and cable wrap innards count as accessories or not. They are of a size that you could certainly use them as such if you wanted. Personally I hate cable wrap things but if you wanted you could just pull that out and use the case on its own. Though there isn’t a fastener so it doesn’t really hold itself closed very well. Still once more, for the money I can’t complain, if you want a proper case hit up ebay.
Value: There really is no option but to say they represent quite spectacular value. I mean, just under US$15 or a hair over £10 and that’s delivered. I mean how do they even cover the postage costs never mind make a profit on the things???? Are Xiaomi maybe selling these at a loss to build up a bit of a brand name in the West? I mean I know you can get somethings crazy cheap in the capitalist behemoth that is modern Cathay but even still, how??? So yeah why not buy a pair, they are so stupid cheap and remarkably good, I mean they genuinely sound good. I’m sure these must be selling at a loss.
Conclusion: Wow. Yeah I know that Xiaomi have been getting some stellar commentary about the Pistons since their v1 launch and while I was interested, I wasn’t wildly so. I mean they are el cheapo’s and even the most amazing el cheapo’s are still going to be a come down from most of the stuff I use. Now they are a bit of a jump down for me, you know I have the Oppo PM-3’s two feet from me sitting and duh, they aren’t on the same planet sound quality wise. Lol, I mean the total cost of the Piston 3’s wouldn’t cover the posting of the Oppo’s in their box, it likely wouldn’t buy you their case with or without postage too. Yet the Piston’s in so many ways hold their own. Not in an A/B’ing session but as I listen to them I am not wretching in horror. You know I’m actually liking them. Sure they are too bassy for me and they are bit over eager to move air low down but it’s good.
In absolute term the bass is a really skilful blend of scale, exuberance, bloom and pith. It works, it works with almost everything too. Granted for aggressively bassed pop it’s too much for me. Their inclination to wallop you with its soft impact but backed up power wore me out. I was more at home with letting it roll and linger more rounded bass notes. Thick, weighty, lingering and dark. That plus the rich, focused vocal ranges really sang with the likes of Mr Buble. It also glossed over the craply mastered treble in his tracks. The 3 isn’t too forthright with the treble and given it hasn’t the skill to perfectly reproduce his scratchy cacophony of treble, it was more a gently warm wash of shimmer. It’s really how you want poor treble to be glossed over making it highly forgiving of such things.
The bass. I don’t know if it was my imagination but it seemed to grow as time went on. I can’t tell if it was some weird burn in issue but I suspect that it was down to its vigorous air movement. They raw amplitude of that movement doesn’t seem massive, it’s clearly well elevated of course but it seems to move so much air that the power feels stupendous. That sound stage, that breadth, that scale, that vast abundant power. It all grew tiring on my little ears. Still I suspect the mainstream individual will adore that. (A brief audition by a friend confirmed that adoration.) You see I’m used to strictly hearing bass, not so much the feeling of that air movement on the rest of the ear so I believe that’s what Xiaomi have done here. It’s potentially an incredibly skilful thing to do.
So, should you buy one? Well let’s be clear these are nothing short of a miracle. I mean I get that things for years have been getting ever cheaper. Not so much “better” but the price for the same sort of quality has been getting battered downward. Now I don’t know if Xiaomi simply see these as an accessory to their phones, so they don’t care if they make a penny on them. Maybe that’s why they are so cheap? Either way it feels like a value shift has just taken place. I mean, they are built really nicely, they look alright, they sound really good, they come with a mic at seemingly no extra cost and then they come in priced as they are. It just doesn’t add up. How can Xiaomi and a retailer and the postal service used make a profit on these? Is it a temporary introductory price they just haven’t mentioned? It all just seems too good, I can’t help but feeling like there must be a catch somewhere that I’m missing. It doesn’t seem like they can be so cheap and yet so good but they are.