Okay –let’s talk Fiio. It’s a fast growing Chinese audio company that seems intent on dominating the portable market. Whether it’s the X7 or the budget X1, Fiio’s got something for everyone. Cue General Motors of the audio world. My last run-in with Fiio came in the form of the E11K, which left me fairly impressed with what the company was able to achieve with a hundred dollars (street prices float around sixty nowadays). Fiio’s latest release is the M3 DAP with a casual fifty-five dollar price tag –for the record I did double check the price on Amazon. Decent chipset set, color screen, backlit buttons, and even earphones included. Skip a moderately expensive meal or two, and you too could be the proud owner of a new M3. Color me intrigued –very intrigued for that matter.
DISCLAIMER: This unit was provided by Sunny @ Fiio for the purposes of this review. We are neither affiliates nor employees of Fiio. All media rights are reserved.
M3 comes in a very simple cardboard box with plastic blister packaging. A bit Spartan –but good to know that the money was spent mostly on hardware. There are the included earphones (more on that later), a charging cable, a couple of screen protectors, the player itself, and a carrying strap. Overall, a very coherent package, with the exception of the rather confused carrying strap. The strap itself is large enough to be worn around the neck, which makes its purpose questionable and use utterly impractical. Unless you intend on wearing the M3 as a piece of jewelry. Which wouldn’t be unjustified by Head-Fi standards.
The first thing that I noticed out of the box was just how light the M3 was. Compared to my DX50, the M3 felt like a feather. The overall design of the M3 is very nice. As one member mentioned, the M3 with its red backlit buttons did indeed seem reminiscent of older Bang & Olufsen gear. But design is one thing and an execution another. The plastic body has a cream tinge and is not the snow-white IPod finish that the packaging would have you believe. The white M3 will probably experience yellowing as it gets older. Some have said that the plastic is high quality, but I do politely beg to differ. The back plate is a yellowish gray and only emphasizes the off-white color of the player. On the upside, the M3 does come with various color options –and if I were buying one myself I’d definitely go with the black option.
The buttons are tactile and nice to the touch, but I did find that sometimes my clicks didn’t quite register. The power button is tucked away on the left side and the lock button on the right. On the bottom of the player is the headphone out, MicroSD slot, and charging port. You’ve really got to use your fingernails to insert the MicroSD as the locking mechanism is pretty far into the player. A minor annoyance but one that will probably be sorted out in later models.
A bit on the internals (information mostly from Cirrus’ website). The DAP comes with 8 GB internal storage and is expandable up to 64 GB. The DAC is a Cirrus Logic CS42L51, which is unsurprisingly aimed at reducing power consumption and minimizing device form factors. For 16 ohm headphones, the CS42L51 is rated to deliver 46mW of power (Fiio’s official specs put this at 50). Battery life of the M3 is rated at 24 hours, which is very good compared to the power consuming monsters that are most DAPs nowadays. Overall, a decent chipset configuration that’s focused more on form and overall design balance than purely no holds barred performance.
Turning on the unit, I was greeted by a pleasant startup animation. However, I did immediately notice that the screen was rather dim. For active use outside in the sun, I do suspect that there’ll be more than a good amount of squinting done. The UI itself is fairly simple and unobtrusive. Those familiar with audiophile DAPs should have no problem navigating it. The only thing that bugs me is the font, which is unsightly to say the least. A little note – you do need to be on the music screen to access the settings (which is done by pressing and holding the upper left button). Updating the player is easily done through the settings manual and can be completed in less than a minute. Much faster than my iBasso DX50, which seems to struggle with updates (sometimes up to three minutes). Not to mention that the DX50 has weird little stutters after fresh updates. The M3 does have a bit of an organization problem though. Hopefully this’ll be fixed in future firmware. The player automatically has a fade-in and out between tracks, which can be turned off by once again accessing the settings menu.
Basic functionality is excellent, and the M3 achieves admirably in this regard. Very simply, it plays music –and that’s a good thing. Far too many self-declared “audiophile” players have weird quirks or awkward designs that seriously hamper their ability to do even that. On a small aside – the earphones are pretty good. Nothing to write home about, but if you haven’t got much lying around or need an expendable piece of listening gear, it’ll do the job more than competently.
I’ll start by saying that the M3 sounds very good for its price. It does a lot for very little. Much more than something like the IPod Shuffle. To put my following observations into perspective, I’m currently coming off the DX50, which is substantially higher priced than the M3. To start, the M3 does have some grain when turned on and at rest. It’s a far cry from the black background of my DX50. Having said that, the grain goes away for the most part once music is played and is effectively covered up. Not an ideal situation, but definitely not a deal breaker by any means.
In the bass department, the M3 definitely struggles a bit with extension and control. Lower frequency micro details aren’t exactly present and this becomes increasingly obvious with headphones, where the M3 begins to lose control of the lower frequencies. For fun, I did plug in my 470 ohm R70x, and the above issues were only magnified.
The mids and the highs are slightly forward and this lends itself to a more immediately engaging sound, and I do have to say that the performance in the midrange is very impressive. Slightly warm and sweet, I found this aspect of the M3 to be very agreeable to my ears. The highs were at times a little too tinny and emphasized in my opinion. Detail retrieval and clarity are good, and the so-called Cirrus house sound (and its existence is debated) is definitely there. Soundstage is definitely moderately sized, which when combined with the mid and high characteristics can make for a somewhat tiring experience when sessions get longer. Compared to the DX50, the M3 is more of an exciting listen, but one that is rough around the corners at times and overall not as smooth.
Given the fifty-five dollar asking price for the M3, the SQ is definitely where it should be. And while it doesn’t stack that well against more expensive players, the overall form and utility of the M3 makes it an extremely compelling purchase. I’d say the M3 excels in its amazing blend of function and form. I could see this being a great player for those who’d rather not lug around an audiophile power-brick but still need good sound on the go (think exercise). If you’re in the market for a tiny DAP with awesome battery life and a solid SQ, and don’t want to break the bank, then the M3 is definitely the choice for you.