disclaimer: It comes as no secret that I have reviewed a good number of products by NiceHCK and speak with their representative fairly frequently via facebook and email. Recently when rumblings about a new planar in-ear started surfacing, I ask him when they would be available. He agrees to ship me one at a reduced but still fairly substantial cost to try out. The F3 is a listed as a Flagship for NiceHCK with a CNC machined Aluminum shell and a triple driver hybrid (dynamic, planar, ba) so is quite a departure from the all BA flagship they currently sell.
Unboxing / Packaging:
I have to admit, that packaging for the F3 was no different than for any of the other current NiceHCK lineup. The brown lift-top pressboard box has the rubber soft case inside with everything else nestled inside it. The package has the earpieces in individual plastic bags to help prevent scratching and the cable in a separate bag. Three sets of white silicone tips round out the package.
Shells are machined and polished aluminum both inside and out and the level of polish is fitting of a flagship model. Seams are tight, connectors are flush, surfaces are all smooth and mirror bright. It is hard to take pictures of the F3 without getting your reflection or that of your camera displayed in the photo. Those with the NiceHCK EP10 will recognize the finish. All surfaces are that highly polished. Nozzles are a seperate part based on the exploded diagrams but could pass for being a machined part of the inner shell based on color and polish level. I’d put the quality of the shell right up with the Magaosi K5’s custom molded resin or the RHA CL2 with its ceramic shell. The shells are on the larger side and are designed for tip-up wear but due to the level of polish and rounding of the corners makes the F3 a comfortable fit. With the heft of an all metal shell, once positioned, the F3 has little if any tendency to shift or move even during exercise. I did find that some tip rolling was necessary to get the best fit as none of the provided tips got a good seal and were comfortable for me.
The F3 sports 3 newly designed drivers, one each Planar, dynamic, and balanced armature. The planar driver is the largest at 10mm and handles the middle range with the 5mm dynamic added specifically for handling sub-bass and the balanced armature added for upper range. Nominal Impedance is listed at 16Ω with a sensitivity of 95dB/mW. The F3 can be driven very minimally by a phone or tablet but definitely is not at its best as it sounds thin and mid-shy. It prefers a more potent source and sounds better from things like the Opus #1S or AK70 Mk2 and even better from the xDSD or xCAN paired to those sources. The F3 really opens up with the Burson Fun, although it was possible to find the noise floor with the big Burson as a audible hiss developed as volume increased. This wasn’t so much evident during music playback, but gaps between tracks would have an audible hiss if I pushed above about 20% on the volume knob. (Not really necessary as 10-12% provided adequate volume for comfortable listening).
The cable with the F3 is a very pliable silver coated copper in clear sheathing. The jack is of the straight type and is gold plated with a brushed aluminum casing and a short strain relief at the exit point. I did find it a bit odd that the earpieces were high polished and the cable had brushed fixtures instead of matching the polish of the shells. A velcro cable tie is provided for storage without tangles. The Cable itself is a 6 wire braid up to the splitter (also brushed aluminum) then breaks out to 3 wire braids above it. A clear bead operates as a chin slider and above that pre-formed earhooks without memory wire terminate with brushed aluminum housed .78mm bi-pin connectors.
The F3 likes power. It is not the headphone for use with cellphones and tablets and may really tax some lower end DAPs as well. My sound notes were taken with either the xDSD or the Burson Fun providing the output power and the Opus#1s or Burson Swing acting as source/DAC.
The F3 is deceptive in that bass is only present when called for and while it can produce sub-bass, it will only be there when the track really calls for it. It does not add any emphasis of its own to the mix. This will give some the feeling it is bass light when in fact is very close to neutral if a touch on the warm side. My one complaint regarding sub-bass is that it is not particularly sensitive to EQ and it takes several dB of adjustment to hear any audible change in the range below 100Hz. Mid-bass is very cleanly presented and has good tonality but lacks authority at times as well. Mid-bass has impressive amounts of detail present and no bleed or bloom was noted. Overall, the F3 has the hallmarks of planar bass as it is very linear, has excellent speed of attack and decay, and good transients, it is just tuned a bit shy of neutral. Mid-bass reacts to EQ better than sub-bass and can be brought forward. Overall the bass is less tunable via EQ than many of its competitors, but unlike most that need the bass tuned back a notch or two the F3 is in need of a slight push forward at times.
Beginning with the transition from mid-bass to lower-mids, the F3 starts to reveal its strengths. Mids are very linear with great detail. This is helped by the planar speed of attack/decay as the clarity of the F3 is really on a level with things well above it. Mids are definitely the sweet spot of the F3. Vocals are well rendered regardless of gender or pitch. Strings are particularly nicely done with good tonality and timbre which is a very hard thing to get precisely right. Acoustic guitar is also very well voiced and separation of instruments is above average. This is well displayed by 40 Fingers – Flying ants with 4 guitars all very easily distinguished from one-another.
Lower treble begins to rise quickly as we move from the upper-mids and peaks at about 5kHz before dropping back slowly. The dip between 7.5 and 10kHz on the chart is nearly inaudible to my ear as I didn’t hear any gaps or recess in the upper treble range until you hit the roll-off above about 12.5kHz The forward push of the treble gives the F3 a bright signature and at times leads to a bit of fatigue. I found that pulling the 5kHz range down by 3dB helped immensely with the fatigue and didn’t detract from the signature notably. Cymbals are well presented without sounding tinny and snares have a nice sharp crack to them. Detail is quite good, even with the EQ correction. Another thing to note the BA seems to be very well paired with the planar mid-range driver as the speed of attack and the transients are not notably slower in the treble than they are in the midrange. Those who are treble shy will not appreciate the F3 as it is undeniably bright. I know NiceHCK has been given the suggestion to tweak the signature by myself and others and maybe a later revision will back off the brightness a bit. For now, they do respond well to EQ for those times you find them a bit on the bright side.
Soundstage / Imaging:
Soundstage is another deceptive aspect as it is very source dependent and will not show its true colors until you find a track that really forces it to open up. Tracks like the Cowboy Junkies – I’m so lonesome, or Keith Richards – Running too deep are both capable of really showing what the F3 is truly capable of. At its best, stage has good depth and is slightly wider than deep with a good sense of height. Movements around the stage are easily tracked and other spatial cues are equally well handled. With the clarity and instrument separation, it is easy to seat the orchestra in your head and little if any overlap of instrumentation occurs.
Kinboofi Mk4 – Build and kit wise, these two are close. The metal shell is definitely more eye catching on the F3, but the poured acrylic shell on the mk4 is no slouch either. Sound wise, both are near neutral with more mid emphasis on the Mk4 and more treble emphasis on the F3. The option to tune the Mk4 to your liking scores points in its favor and even the default tuning is more linear than that of the F3. Attack and decay are faster on the F3 if only slightly and detail also slightly favors the F3 probably partially as a result. The MK4 is more lyrical and easier to listen to for extended periods but doesn’t convey the energy that the F3 does especially on vocals. I continue to be really impressed with the Kinboofi, but can see a successor the the F3 giving it a serious run for its money if some adjustments are made to the treble tuning.
Brainwavz B400 – Build wise, the F3 wins hands down, not even close. Kit wise the B400 takes it with multiple cables, tips, a better case etc. Sound wise it is a mixed bag. The F3 is more dynamic for sure, while the B400 is closer to neutral. Extension is better at both ends on the F3, but control is a bit better on the B400 at the low end. What to me is the most interesting is that for two models that would seem to have a lot in common, they sound nothing alike. The F3 is bigger, more detailed, and more lifelike, while the B400 is more reserved, controlled, and a bit dull at times. When you say near neutral at the $200 price point, you have to include the b400 in comparisions, but here there is little common ground.
Moondrop Kanas Pro – Build is quite good on both so no clear winner here although kit may be slightly better on KP. Sound wise, the KP has more and deeper bass but isnt quite as clean as the F3 in its presentation. Mids are near neutral on both with the KP being a bit more fluid while the F3 is a bit more analytical. Dynamics and details favor the F3 as its transient response is better than that of the KP. Treble is the weakest area for both with the KP having a bump in the upper treble that will bother some and the F3 having a fairly large elevation at about the 5kHz range. The treble sensitive will probably shy away from both although the two bear little resemblance to each other except both are bright if for different reasons. Stage is good on both and imaging about equally good on both as well. Overall the KP is better for casual listening while the F3 is better for analytical work.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
The F3 is a visually stunning, technologically advanced design, that packs more detail into the sound than about anything else I have tried, at or near its $200 price tag. Transients are as good as any iem in my collection as the speed of attack/decay on the planar mid-range driver and BA treble driver are well synced and very quick. Bass is nearly neutral or just slightly shy of it which is a nice change of pace as frequently I am sent samples that are supposed to be neutral only to find a 4-5dB mid-bass boost. I can really appreciate the linearity of the F3 in the bass and mids. Treble is a bit forward, but yields both good detail and plenty of air and sparkle up top which is also a rare commodity in the $200 price range. The fly in the ointment is the 5kHz range which is just a bit too far forward and instead of adding life, contributes fatigue to the mix. This singular flaw prevents the F3 from being an easy recommendation as it requires that it be EQ’d or long listening sessions will result in a good deal of fatigue. As it stands, the F3 is a guarded recommendation as for those willing to tinker with EQ, it has a lot of good things going on. For those unwilling to EQ an in ear, either you need to like a very bright signature, or you probably will want to look elsewhere at least until a rev.2 comes out.
- Bass - 6/106/10
- Mids - 8/108/10
- Treble - 6/106/10
- Soundstage - 8/108/10
- Imaging - 7/107/10
Pros: Great build, extremely fast drivers with good transients, linear lows and mids.
Cons: Bass wont satisfy some, bright treble with notable 5kHz bump that can be fatiguing.