Brief: Third generation of Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi’s hit in-ear
MSRP: 99 RMB (approx. $16) (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $16 from geekbuying.com; $15 from gearbest.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.1′ I-plug w/mic & 3-button Android remote
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down
Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes); plastic box doubles as storage case with integrated cable wrap
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The Piston 3 uses more plastic in its construction than the Piston 2 but still feels very solid and boasts various small usability improvements such as easier-to-see L/R markings and lower driver flex. The cable is similar to that of the older model – rubbery above the y-split and sheathed in nylon below to provide some resistance to tangling. The new remote is nice-looking but the narrow buttons are actually bit harder to use without looking compared to the previous version’s
Isolation (2.5/5) – Isolation is average thanks to the shallow fit of the earphones
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Audible, but not bothersome when music is playing
Comfort (4.5/5) – The Piston 3 is a large step forward in ergonomics over the older model, moving to a compact angled-nozzle design with strain reliefs that fully clear the outer ear, leading to a very comfortable fit
Sound (8.2/10) – The Xiaomi Piston 2 quickly became one of my favorite budget in-ears thanks to its ability to deliver good clarity, soundstaging, and overall refinement despite its plentiful bass. Combined with an extensive feature set (especially for Android users) and a very low price, this made the previous-gen Piston an unbeatable value.
The jump in sound quality from the original Piston to the Piston 2 was sizable – the first-gen model was bassier and had significantly poorer fidelity. Though the gap in overall sound quality between the 2nd and 3rd-gen Pistons is not as great, the new model maintains the trend toward a more balanced, less consumer-oriented sound. You will notice that aside from the Piston 2, the sets I compare the Piston 3 with are mostly in the $50-100 range – a fact that is itself a testament to the performance of the Xiaomi in-ears.
The bass of the Piston 3, while less enhanced than that of the Piston 2, remains quite punchy. Mid-bass impact is slightly lower than with some of the other not-quite-reference-flat earphones such as the VSonic VSD3S and Ostry KC06, but enhanced compared to flatter-sounding sets like the HiFiMan RE-400 and Etymotic MC5. Bass depth is pretty good as well, though sub-bass reach and presence lag a bit behind the VSD3S and VSonic’s higher-end GR07.
Like the previous model, the 3rd-gen Piston is tuned for a v-shaped sound. However, thanks to the tighter, less bloated bass, its mids are clearer despite not being very forward. With that said, they are still somewhat recessed and a touch muffled compared to higher-end, less v-shaped sets such as the KC06, RE-400, and GR07.
The Piston 3 picks up presence in the upper midrange and lower treble, giving it a cooler tone. It is a little less bright than the KC06, but more so than the RE-400, which tends to be very smooth and laid-back. Harshness and sibilance are generally not a problem – the Piston 3 is not as forgiving as the warmer-sounding models that preceded it, but it’s not as sibilant as any of the popular VSonic earphones, either.
The spaciousness of the Piston 2 is also preserved, though the lower bass quantity and cleaner, brighter sound of the Piston 3 makes its capable and precise presentation less surprising.
The Piston 3 offers a more balanced, less consumer-oriented sound than the model it supersedes. Its bass is significantly less enhanced and much tighter. In comparison, the bass of the Piston 2 is deeper and has more rumble and slam, but also sounds boomier. Cleaner bass with almost no bloat is actually the Piston 3’s biggest asset, though with the loss of bass quantity it also sacrifices some of the Piston 2’s appeal to the average listener.
On the whole, the sound of the Piston 3 is less colored than that of the older model. The upper midrange and treble are smoother. Clarity is better due to the tighter, less bloated bass, though it is still limited by the not-too-forward midrange positioning. The Piston 3 is also less sensitive than the older model, which fits with its less consumer-oriented sound because a non-audiophile listener is more prone to put value in both emphasized bass and the ability reach higher volumes more easily.
Technically, the Piston 3 is the better earphone – it is clearer, tighter, and more neutral. The Piston 2 is warmer and boasts bass that is deeper and more powerful which, admittedly, also helps it sound very dynamic and delivers a “wow” factor. As a result, it’s hard to call the Piston 3 a straight upgrade from the Piston 2 – it’s a more Hi-Fi earphone for sure, but I will still be recommending the Piston 2 in many situations and for certain genres. There are parallels here to the DUNU DN-1000 / DN-2000 situation, albeit with a greater magnitude of difference. There, the older DN-1000 model also provides a bassier sound and in many cases remains recommendable over the more expensive DN-2000.
The Zipbuds PRO are a surprisingly capable consumer-class earphone with a v-shaped sound profile. The main thing they do well is balance high bass quantity and good overall clarity. Indeed, the Piston 3 has significantly less bass but doesn’t gain any clarity over the Zipbuds. Its bass is tighter, however, and its highs are less bright and more smooth, making the Zipbuds appear overly harsh in comparison. On the whole, the Piston 3 is the more balanced and accurate-sounding earphone.
The Flux In-Ear is the closest match I could find for the Piston 3 when balancing sound quality and sound signature. The SteelSeries unit is warmer and has smoother treble and a slightly wider presentation. It’s more sensitive, too. The Piston 3 is a bit more v-shaped and has a cooler, brighter tonal character. It sounds thinner, but also a little clearer. It’s hard to say one outperforms the other, but that in itself is a big win for the Xiaomi – only two years ago the Flux was one of the absolute best in-ears one could get for $50. Now, the Piston 3 offers the same level of performance – albeit with a slightly brighter tonal tilt – for 1/3 of that, with better build quality and a 3-button remote to boot.
The dual-driver B3 Pro I is notable for having an even less consumer-friendly sound signature than the Piston 3, with lower bass impact and much lower sensitivity. The overall sound of the B3 is more balanced compared to the v-shaped Piston 3. The Piston is bassier, but the low end of the B3 is tighter and cleaner. The midrange of the Havi is clearer and more prominent while its upper midrange and treble are a bit more forgiving. The presentation is a bit more well-rounded on the B3 as well. Especially for those in search of balanced sound, the Havi is better than the Piston 3, but its low sensitivity and lack of bass enhancement limit its appeal in the mainstream.
The Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear is one the few earphones with 3-button Android remotes on the market besides the Piston line. It is also fairly similar to the Piston in how it fits in the ear, albeit with a slimmer profile and longer nozzles providing slightly better noise isolation. In terms of sound, the Momentum has a more colored, arguably more “fun” tuning than the Piston 3 but isn’t too far ahead in technical ability.
Both earphones have sound signatures on the v-shaped side of “flat” but the Momentum In-Ear unit offers up a warmer tone with better bass. Its bass delivers more depth and resolution while also making the Piston 3 seem a touch boomier in comparison. The mids of the Sennheiser unit are slightly clearer but it is a little more prone to sibilance and less forgiving on the whole. The Momentum’s presentation is slightly wider and more spacious.
Xiaomi has come a very long way since the original piston in terms of fidelity, too – while not a direct upgrade from the Piston 2 due to how different the tuning of the two earphones is, the Piston 3 provides a clearer, tighter, more balanced audio experience for those willing to trade away some of the previous model’s warmth and bass power. Going forward I can see myself recommending either of the two Piston variants, depending on the situation.
Pros: Very comfortable fit; fantastic sound quality for the price; 3-button Android remote
Cons: Remote is a bit less user-friendly than previous generation; mediocre noise isolation