FiiO FW3 review: good low-cost earbuds... that you shouldn't use outdoors

 The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.

FiiO FW3: Two-minute review

The FiiO FW3 are the second true wireless earbuds proposition from FiiO, after the inaugural FW5. They are relatively entry-level earbuds (although it really depends where you live, as we’ll get onto below). The Chinese company's heritage is in IEMs, portable music players and larger audio streamers and, other than a few loop earbuds, these are its first true wireless earbuds update. Can they challenge the best earbuds in the business? Well, not quite… but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

FiiO's relative inexperience in this type of product could explain why the FW3 are pretty good if you're using them indoors – and really struggle in other real-world use cases. If, for instance, you’re listening to the FiiO FW3 in a sound-controlled room, you’ll be hearing audio that’s pretty decent for the price. It’s a little bright and pretty tight, but the FiiO Control app lets you take matters into your own hands. Here, not only is there an in-depth EQ tool, but you can add low pass filters and pan sound between your left and right earbuds. Nice!

But leave home and the FiiO struggle. When out and about, I had persistent Bluetooth issues with the FW3. The buds would lose connection and even turn off for no reason. Sometimes they’d reconnect with tweaked audio settings. Sometimes they wouldn’t turn back on at all.

There’s no noise cancellation here, neither active nor passive, so honking horns and angry bus drivers will ruin your lovely customized music. Think you can drown out background noises with the FW3’s admittedly high max volume? Feel free to try, but you’re about to encounter as much peaking as someone trying to climb all of the Seven Summits.

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.

A final nail in the coffin of the FW3’s outdoorsiness is a total lack of an IP rating – better remove them when rain clouds start to gather.

The case is bigger than rival wireless bud charging cases, though it’s not overwhelmingly huge. However, it feels cheap in the hand and, most importantly, frail. I could probably crush it in one hand if I tried.

The battery life is pretty weak too, as during testing the buds lasted for noticeably less than their seven-hour stated time. I found this out the hard way when they conked out on my half way through a journey.

So the ideal audience for the FiiO FW3 is people who’ll use them indoors, without the burden of the big case, low battery life or the need for noise cancellation. I enjoyed them a lot more during the testing period when I was sat at home, rather than commuting or in the office.

If that’s you, you’ll find these to be decent value buds with some useful features. And if you live in the US, where the buds are a lot cheaper than in the UK, you can upgrade that ‘decent’ to a ‘good’.

FiiO FW3 review: Price and release date

The FiiO FW3 logo.
The FiiO FW3 logo.
  • Unveiled in June 2023

  • Costs you $69.99 / £95 (around AU$100-$180)

It’s hard to place the FiiO FW3 in terms of market segment as it depends on price; in the US they cost a very reasonable $69.99 but in the UK their £94.99 asking price raises them a price bracket (that coverts to about $120, so nearly twice as expensive!).

Some sites report that the FW3 originally retailed for $99 in the US; at the time of writing this review, $69 is the official listed RRP on FiiO's website, so it's what I'm going with.

As with most of its true wireless earbuds, FiiO doesn’t sell the FW3 in Australia, but for some context the US price converts to $100, while the UK one converts to $180. So depending where you live, the FW3 are either competitive low-cost earbuds, or are verging on being mid-range ones.

The FW3 went on sale at the end of June 2023, several months after their pricier siblings, the FW5.

FiiO FW3 review: Specs

FiiO FW3 review: Features

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
  • Bluetooth connectivity issues plague listening

  • FiiO Control app brings loads of features

  • Underwhelming battery life

Sadly I've got to mark the FiiO FW3 down for a very annoying aspect: the Bluetooth connection was unreliable.

The first blemish on the record is that they kept glitching and cutting out during multiple testing periods. This was always when I was out and about, with my phone in my pocket and the buds in my ears. Music wouldn’t stop, but it’d flicker and temporarily drop out, like a small candle flame that I’d blown on.

The second black mark was when I wasn’t outside, but at home, with buds and phone in close proximity. Several times both earbuds would turn off, unprompted, and turn back on again. I’d have to resume music myself. A few times only one earbud turned off, and would automatically reconnect. And, before you ask, it wasn’t a battery issue, as they had sufficient charges.

If you can’t rely on your earbuds to stay connected to your phone, it’s hard to enjoy using them. I’ve seen other reviewers and testers comment on this issue so it’s clearly not just an issue with the testing pair I used.

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.

The buds have Bluetooth 5.2, which is supposed to maintain a reliable connect of 10 meters, and yet these drop-outs were happening when they were within a single meter of each other. Most annoying, though, was that the L/R balance seemed to change sometimes between these cut-outs, and I’d have to fix it in the app.

Speaking of the app, it’s called FiiO Control – and frankly it’s a game-changer for letting you tweak and fiddle audio to your taste. For audiophiles, you can fiddle with an in-depth EQ, balance sound between the left and right earbuds, change the max volume of both music, alerts and calls, add a low pass filter and even change the Bluetooth codec you’re streaming with. That’s a lovely range of features.

Non-music toggles exist too: you can turn the bud indicator lights on or off, turn on a game mode for improved latency, and also turn on a battery health mode that stops your buds overcharging, to increase their longevity in the long run.

Earbuds aficionados will find several common features missing here though. The main one is active noise cancellation – your only way of avoiding background noise is to drown it out. Another is wear detection, so when you remove the buds, they’ll continue to play music. They won’t stop until you both put them in the case and close the lid (or pause your music). You also can’t customize what the buttons on the buds do, and you’re locked to the default control scheme.

In terms of battery life, the FiiO FW3 weren’t really impressive. FiiO’s official stat is seven hours of use but in my testing I didn’t get quite that far – let’s all it an even six, although even that seems optimistic. The official stat for the case itself is 21 hours, which struggles to hold up to the competition. What’s that giant case for if not to house a chunky battery?

  • Features score: 3/5

FiiO FW3 review: Design

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
  • Distinctive earpiece top-plate pattern

  • Lots of eartips included in box

  • Bulky, cheap-feeling charging case

The FiiO FW3 are certainly compelling-looking earbuds. Or should I say ‘com-shell-ing’?

They’re small in-ear buds that you pop right into your ear. There's no stem to speak of, and instead the bulk of the non-tip part of the buds are a round, bottle-top-looking shape with a pattern on top. I’ve been comparing this pattern to a shell, though maybe that’s just my desire to head to the beach speaking; you can decide what you think they look like yourself.

The buds are fairly light, weighing 6.2g each, and with eight pairs of eartips included in the box, you’ll almost definitely be able to find a fit that’s suitable for you. I never had the buds fall out, though vigorous head shaking did threaten to dislodge them. My advice would be: don't do that.

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.

FiiO’s website doesn’t state an IP rating for the buds, so it’s best to assume they don’t have one. Don’t wear these in rainy weather or while rolling around on the beach.

Each earbud has two physical buttons; it takes a little bit of getting used to in order to naturally find them in relation to each other, and early on in testing I kept pressing the wrong one. However, they’re physical clicky buttons, which makes them a lot easier to use than haptic or sensor ones, and I eventually got used to the process of pressing them. I always had to use two fingers though, one to press and the other to stabilize the earbud, otherwise I’d end up just pushing it out of my ear.

Unfortunately, the FW3’s case doesn’t seem to have had the same design consideration that the buds do. It’s pretty chunky as far as charging cases go, weighing 68.4 x 43.9 x 33.5 mm, though it weighs only 57.2g with the buds inside. It’s also made out of cheap-feeling plastic, and has the USB-C charging port as well as four LED indicators to tell you the remaining charge.

  • Design score: 3.5/5

FiiO FW3 review: Sound quality

  • V-shaped sound with high max volume

  • Some peaking, especially in mid

  • In-depth EQ options in app

The FiiO FW3 in a man's ears.
The FiiO FW3 in a man's ears.

The best thing to say about the FiiO FW3’s sound is that it’s very customizable, using the aforementioned app. You can eke out some extra bass or elevate the treble line to suit your taste, so they could be a good first pair for people who aren't sure what exact kind of sound they prefer.

That’s doubly the case given that these buds won’t exactly impress audiophiles if you stick to the default settings. The sound is roughly V-shaped, but in a very shallow ‘V’, with lower- and higher-frequency sounds lifted a little bit over mid, but not so much that mid is totally lost. Just mostly.

Fortunately, that equalizer rides to the rescue: you can really pull out a lot of extra bass, focus on the mids, or throw the trebles into the stratosphere. You’ll need to spend quite a bit of the time in the EQ settings, though, with few presets and all your toggles split between a few different menus.

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.

The FW3 has a nice high max volume, a trait you’ll find yourself utilizing in lieu of ANC in order to drown out background noise. However, doing so will (as you might imagine), reveal peaking issues that are less audible at lower volumes.

These issues mainly affect mid sounds, which can at times sound tinny, and bumping up that volume can see it affect treble to a lesser extent too. The audio isn’t terrible though: it’s largely on par with what you’d expect for headphones at this price.

At least the buds have a nice bustling spec sheet. The FW3 are compatible with various higher-resolution Bluetooth technologies such as Snapdragon Sound and let you choose your Bluetooth codec from options including aptX Adaptive, aptX, AAC, LHDC or LDAC, though the app notes that the latter is ‘experimental’. Essentially thugh, you’ll be able to notice a difference when listening to higher-res audio on here.

  • Sound quality: 3/5

FiiO FW3 review: Value

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
  • Misses many features of similar-priced buds

As mentioned in the above price section, the value proposition of the FiiO FW3 depends on where you live, as they’re a lot cheaper in the US. So UK-based readers, do me a favor: pretend I'm saying the below paragraphs after several pints at the pub. It's not wrong, but I might be being unduly positive about some things.

The FW3 mostly match other same-price rivals in terms of several features, including their music quality, their battery life, their design and their range of non-audio features like gaming latency. The EQ and touch controls beat out many other similarly priced earbuds I've tested.

However, they miss out on a few features that rivals have, which some users might consider mandatory. The lack of an IP rating, active noise cancellation, wear detection or the ability to customize the bud button controls could rightly have you looking elsewhere.

  • Value: 3.5/5

Should I buy the FiiO FW3?

Buy them if…

Don’t buy them if…

FiiO FW3 review: Also consider

How I tested the FiiO FW3

The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
The FiiO FW3 on a grassy backdrop.
  • Tested for over 2 weeks

  • Tested at home, in the office, on public transport and on walks

I tested the FiiO FW3 for over two weeks to write this review.

The buds were used at my home, in my office, on walks around my neighborhood and also during a weekend getaway, which included lots of public transport use. They were paired to my Xiaomi Mi Note 10 for most of the time but I also connected them to my iPad Pro for TV streaming.

Testing included watching TV on Prime Video on the iPad, listening to music streamed from Spotify and saved on my mobile, playing games, listening to podcasts, making phone calls and doing video chats.

I've been testing gadgets at TechRadar for over five years, which includes loads of low-cost earbuds, including some mentioned in the competition section. And the FiiO FW3 were tested back-to-back with the OnePlus Buds 3, which are priced similarly.

  • First reviewed in May 2024