Nowadays you don’t often come across open hi-fi headphones like the new Fidelio X3, not at this price point and from a mainstream brand. The big names, such as Sony and JBL, mainly release headphones intended for mobile use. Most of them are wireless and often equipped with noise cancellation. However, the Fidelio X3 is resolutely different, as it really is a headset intended for people who want to listen to their music at home in a relaxed manner. The open acoustic design and the use of a cable seem to be something very old-school, although the Philips headphones look anything but antique or old-fashioned. On the contrary, because for 349 euros you get headphones that look very fashionable and even hip.
Kvadrat and Muirhead
Are you looking for a hi-fi headphones to connect to your audio devices at home or to your computer, you quickly end up with established names such as Denon, Sennheiser or Beyerdynamic. Your choice is greater if you dive into specialist brands and spend a little more; you will come across brands like Audeze or Meze. Whatever you end up with, chances are you will come home with headphones that look rather traditional. In that sense, the Fidelio X3 provides a fresh new wind in affordable headphone land. It remains a great over-ear headphone for the home, but smart material choices make it seem much more modern and fashionable than most of its rivals. A subtle eye-catcher are the driver housings, which are covered with a fabric from Kvadrat. How do we know that name again? Yes, from a previous review – or ten. After all, the textiles of this Danish manufacturer are highly sought after by furniture builders and are increasingly finding their way into audio products. The Samsung HW-Q950T soundbar that we recently tested was covered with a Kvadrat fabric. Bang & Olufsen and Harman Kardon are also very close to the Danes.
Less important than the origin of the dust is how Philips completely covered the housings with it. There are no markings or metal grilles (like the X2HR), just one seamless textile covering. The housings, in turn, ‘hang’ in matte black metal rings that form one whole with the headband. Since the band is pliable and the cases tilt in their rings, the X3 adapts well to any head and ear shape. Without the need for complex hinges.
The metal headband does not touch your crown. A second, adjustable strap on the inside does this. Philips opts for a proven system that automatically adapts to your head and always fits well. Comfortable too, thanks to the Scottish Muirhead leather with which it is covered. This makes it pleasant even on a bald crown.
Only for indoors
Thanks to the enveloping Kvadrat fabric, the Fidelio X3 looks like a closed headphone. But it is an open design. The proof: if you hold your palms to the sides for a moment, you immediately hear the sound change. While you cannot see (or feel) this, there are openings on the outside of the enclosures. This is acoustically interesting because you get a more open, more spacious view that goes ‘outside’ the headphones. The downside is that open headphones let in noise from the environment. In short, on the train or bus you will not start much with the X3. It is really a pair of headphones to use in the living or study room. And at the office? Maybe, as long as it is very quiet there and you don’t have any colleagues to disturb you. Because of the open design, your environment also hears the played music very well.
That may all sound like an absolute deal breaker, but it really just depends on how and where you want to listen to music. Closed-back headphones are more flexible, but a model like the X3 will sound much more natural in certain genres. With pop the difference is less noticeable, with classical or live recordings even more.
SE or balanced
The Philips Fidelio X3 headphones is versatile. Thanks to its lower impedance of 30 ohms and sensitivity of 100 dB at 1 mW, you can connect the Philips headphones to a smartphone as well as to a hi-fi amplifier. With a mobile device it is worth considering a small mobile DAC / amplifier, genre Audioquest DragonFly or iFi Audio hip-dac. We are surprised to find that, in addition to a (single-ended) standard cable with a 3.5-mm jack, Philips also supplies a balanced cable with a 2.5-mm jack. This is a gift for audiophiles, because balanced outputs like this one can only be found on some DAC / amplifiers and certain music players. It is really special to meet this option at this price point. In the stratosphere of the head-fi world, a balanced cable is something more common, but not at these price points. It is not a must to do with the X3, but it is nice that Philips gives you the option.
The Philips Fidelio X3 headphones is clearly an heir to the previous X models. Something that Philips does not deny – and why should it? The X1, X2 and X2HR were all well received by the press and consumers. Coincidentally, we still have these old Philips headphones at home, which makes it possible to check how close the X3 is to these classics. It is a comparison that is especially fascinating for people who are engaged in headphones collecting, because in the store you will rarely meet the old Fidelio models.
In terms of appearance design, there is little similarity, but you can see that in the photos in this review. When it comes to the sound character, we were already told by a designer at Philips that they strived for the greatest possible resemblance between old and new. There are quite a few similarities on paper, both in terms of driver size and controllability. Still, a new driver was designed for the X3, which was then tuned to closely resemble the X2HR. If we compare the two headphones A / B with a Chord Hugo 2 (which has two headphone outputs) and 2go as a source, we indeed notice that the Philips Fidelio X3 headphones does not suddenly sound very different. But there is something or some difference to note. Walking through our test playlist in Roon, we note in Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ that the sub bass on the X3 is slightly thinner but also tighter. The ultra-low percussion of Max Richter’s ‘War Anthem’ is also a bit purer with the new Philips, even during the after-vibrations of those basses. We also find the voice of Natalia Clavier on ‘Water under the Bridge’ by Thievery Corporation better presented on the X3, a little less in the foreground but therefore less aggressive. That makes the new Fidelio just a bit more ‘smooth’; it all sounds a bit more pleasant.
Listen for a long time
The Fidelio X series has always stood for laidback and comfortable listening. That basic recipe has actually remained unchanged with the Fidelio X3, we notice very quickly. Although Philips included a Cowon music player (with a balanced connection still), we mainly listened to our computer while working, with the Chord-DAC or a Sony PHA-3. Thanks to the thick memory foam ear cushions and velvet cover, this was also possible for hours without hindrance. The X3 is not particularly light, but because of those comfort elements you can wear it for hours on end. It is a headset for quieter rooms. When the municipal green service moved through the street with a battalion of leaf blowers, we could hear it clearly over the music. You have to take this into account, because a small danger with open headphones like the X3 is that you turn up the volume to compensate – and thus listen louder almost unnoticed than is good for your ears.
It is a nice renewed acquaintance with what Fidelio stands for: a warmer reproduction that is not too dull but also not too clear, so that you can listen for a long time. Although Philips is a major premium brand – and that is no different in the current line-up, where TP Vision builds both the TVs and audio products – the audio department has always had a very distinct vision and approach, which was reflected in a Golden Ears program to train staff members to speak accurately about audio properties and a lot of benchmarking with competitors. That means that the Fidelio products always stood for something. The ambition is to work this way again with the X3 and future products, we understand from conversations with Philips.
The Fidelio approach once again yields a pair of headphones that are as good as an all-rounder that likes to play Satie’s ‘Gnossienne No.1’ (Hélène Grimaud’s version is our favorite) as well as the thumping beats of Stromae’s ‘Papaoutai’. It is true that the X3 excels most at music that is presented on a wider soundstage. The ‘Devil’s Dance’ theme of The Witches of Eastwick, like the excellent version on ‘John Williams in Vienna’ with the Wiener Philharmonik, for example. The Philips does that very well for its price. Yes, it can be even more open and natural, but you will quickly spend a lot more money.
A new direction in industrial design provides a refreshing reinterpretation of a classic concept. That’s the Fidelio X3 in a nutshell. The Philips Fidelio X3 headphones offers for its price excellent sound quality, a character that allows long listening and a high level of comfort. Ideal with a glass of whiskey, we think.