Back in 2014, Philips made quite an impression with their then-new range of Fidelio audio products, which we first sampled at CES in Las Vegas that year. They’re back with new products under the Fidelio brand, and here’s why we’re thinking that the Fidelio X3 is going to be our favorite general purpose set of headphones for 2021, at least in terms of audio performance and comfort.
Of course, much has changed since 2014. Philips has moved away from the development of consumer electronics, and TP Vision now leads the charge when it comes to Philips-branded TV and audio solutions. They’re embracing innovation and excellence in performance and design though, so there’s a lot to love for old time fans of the Fidelio range.
As with previous headphones in the series, the Fidelio X3 is an open back-model, which has noticeable benefits but also disqualifies it for travel and most sports. From that perspective, our “general purpose” comment in the intro might seem a bit misleading, but what’s important is that the X3 works great for gaming, music and even movies, as long as it’s in the comfort of a relatively quiet (home) environment.
First impressions and build
Without connecting the headphones, it looks like a lot has changed when you first inspect the Fidelio X3. Where the older models has a more metallic/industrial look to the ear cups, they’ve now been covered with a fabric to (quite literally) give them a much softer look – one that fits great with the ‘relaxed home environment’ which these are best suited to. The fabric itself is acoustically transparent and comes from Kvadrat, so besides looking good the material is also of a high quality and performs great, letting air (and sound) out as if the fabric wasn’t even there.
The Kvadrat fabric isn’t the only change when it comes to ear cups though. Unlike the X2, the X2HR or the L2 (which we reviewed here), both of the ear cups on the X3 now need a cable jack, resulting in a split cable being needed to power it. The cables are included, and you get both a standard 3.5mm version and a balanced one for 2.5mm connections. Prefer to use a 6.3mm with your hi-fi amp? You can do that as well, thanks to an included adapter for the 3.5mm cable.
While a split cable solution can be bothersome in some cases, the included cables are long (3m) and the connectors are placed far enough from the skull to make sure that the cables don’t brush against your face. We experienced no issues, and because this solution doesn’t require any wires running inside the headband, it makes for a very sleek looking headband and suspension strap – both of which are lined with high quality Muirhead leather, which (according to the included insert) is a carbon positive company as well.
The only small gripe we had about the build was that, because of the split cable, it can be tricky to instantly tell which ear cup is the left hand side and which is the right hand one. There are L and R indicators inside, but because they’re as elegant as the rest of the headphones, there can be a short moment of “which is which?” before putting them on.
Other aspects of the build include (as you’d expect) 50mm drivers and cloth ear pad covers – which are very soft and comfortable but as we all know are amazing at collecting dust. To help with this, Philips has included a cloth bag that fits the X3 and keeps it clean, though it offers little protection if you decide to take your headphones on the go. Between an aluminum frame, the leather lining for the headback and straps and the high quality cloth on the ear cups, this is a sturdy and premium build – as well as quite the looker.
Despite its sturdy look and feel, the Fidelio X3 is very comfortable thanks to a lightweight construction, an automatically adjusting headband and the leather lining for said back. The cloth covering on the inside of the ear cups can collect dust and hair, but together with the cushions inside them they feel very nice to wear.
What helps in this sense of that the Fidelio X3 doesn’t feel like it’s too loose or tight thanks to an expertly tuned amount of clamping force, making the X3 a joy to wear for hours on end. We’d probably prefer leather ear cushion covers over the included cloth ones, but that’s probably more of a personal preference, exchanging comfort for ease of cleaning.
Performance and sound
In any pair of headphones, how they sound is the most important element. The Fidelio range has always excelled in this area, and the X3 is no exception. The open-back ear cups obviously make for a larger and more open soundscape than what you’ll find in most closed models, but it’s the midrange where this one really shines.
Offering a neutral sound profile, the X3 is a good pick for nearly any audio source. Being an open back model there’s less emphasis on bass-heavy frequencies so that’s something to consider if you want to pick this one up for gaming, but slightly tweaking the equalizer settings means you get all that heavy bass thud from explosions as well as the subtle nuances of sounds you might not otherwise pick up on.
With a sensitivity of 98 dB at 1mW and an impedance rate of just 30 Ohm, the Fidelio X3 might have the look and feel and the performance of a hi-fi pair of headphones, but it runs just as well on a PC, gaming console (even though the gamepad), smartphone or even standalone MP3 player. Obviously you will experience better results with a mini DAC if your prefer a semi-wireless/streaming experience with a smartphone, but the versatility on display here is something that’s hard to find in the studio/audiophile range – which is normally far more expensive than the X3 but with a similar neutral soundscape.
After a bit of breaking in (we used these for two weeks straight with a variety of inputs and music styles), the X3 demonstrates its ability to deliver crystal clear details – especially in genres like classical music, jazz or tracks with strong vocalists. The headphones also don’t shy away from a full orchestra delivering a rousing piece, or a powerful guitar solo. Treble response can feel a bit lacking, but this wasn’t an issue when combined with a DAC solution or when connected to a hi-fi amplifier or a PC sound card solution like the Creative AE-7.
The X3 will fit best with users who have a diverse taste in music and/or use their headphones for more than just gaming. Because we test across a wide range of videogames genres and love listening to music and movies, these are wonderful for us. A lot of headsets and headphones feel like they were made with a particular niche in mind (like bass-heavy music, or shooters) but the Fidelio X3 and its neutral soundscape can lean in many difference directions. This is going to feel like a weak point to those who are used to a “particular” sound already, but for a clear and authentic sound it’s hard to find a better option than the X3 – it delivers a hi-fi experience both in build and audio quality.
But while the soundscape is neutral and versatile, the open-back nature of these headphones means that the X3 itself is a bit more particular. With outside sound coming in and your own sound being shared with those around you, this is a choice for those who enjoy their audio in quiet conditions, listening out for those finer details or just relaxing as you take in the rich vocals and instruments of the high quality tracks that normally you’d have to pick up a high end audiophile solution for. If you want to treat yourself (or someone else) to a high end experience like that, but without the need for a massive budget, then the Fidelio X3 should make your holiday shopping shortlist.