It's not often you see a company expanding their product portfolio in both flagship and entree level directions, and I’m talking about the expansion with brand new products rather than refresh or update. I can understand the need for a new flagship (FiiO was overdue for a summit-fi DAP), but their entree level $55 portable music player caught me by surprise. Is there really a market for it? Apparently, there is, if you consider a cult-like following of now discontinued original Clip+ mp3 player and its Clip Sport replacement. Using a dedicated DAP for audio listening is reasonable for those who want a better audio quality or need to drive demanding headphone. But when we want a basic music listening functionality during exercising or other outdoor activities, we might look into something smaller, lightweight, and minimalistic. In my opinion, this is a niche market for M3 which FiiO probably had in mind. So, was it able to accomplish this goal? Let’s find out!
Arrived in a small box, I’m glad the cover artwork includes a picture of M3 with earbuds next to it, putting its size in a better perspective and providing you with a teaser of what to expect. On the back you get a very detailed specification list which I found to be impressive for $55 audio player.
Inside you will find a plastic tray with M3 surrounded by included earbuds (the same one as on the cover picture), and other accessories in the tray and inside of the included envelope.
Even for such a budget priced product, I think it was very thoughtful of FiiO to include earbuds with accessories, especially the ones with in-line remote since M3 actually supports remote transport control. I'm not sure why earbuds rather than traditional IEMs were included, maybe because earbuds have a more universal appeal/fitment? To be honest, they are not bad, have some bass and open clear sound with a nice soundstage, but if you're into earbuds - get yourself $5 VE Monks which is out-of-this-world bang for the buck!
Furthermore, you will also find a nice lanyard, a pair of screen protectors, a quality usb to micro-usb charging/data cable, and a user guide. The only other thing I would have loved to see is a clip, maybe something similar to the one used in FiiO K1 usb dac. Coincidentally, I found that removable clip useless with K1, while I think it would have been a great addition to M3 to clip it to your belt or shirt pocket or maybe armband.
For such a small portable audio player, with dimensions of 74mm x 40mm x 9mm and weight of 40g, I found M3 to feel quite solid in my hand. Its unibody injection-molded construction features a quality plastic material shell with a front facing 2" 240x320 TFT color LCD. There is nothing at the top of M3, the left side has flush mounted power (long press) and screen on/off (short press) buttons and a loop for lanyard attachment. Right side has lock switch to disable front buttons control from accidental pressing. The bottom has micro-usb connector for charging and data transfer, metal reinforced 3.5mm headphone jack, and micro-SD card slot for up to 64GB (as recommended by FiiO) memory expansion.
Front screen doesn’t have the highest resolution or the best color contrast, but the screen is clear and you can see embedded song artwork (if available) without a problem. Underneath of the screen you have a tilting plate with 6 un-partitioned back-lit buttons. The idea of such control with physical click buttons while pushing/titling that plate is pretty cool, but it might not work for everybody. Everything is clearly labeled, and clicking in the upper left corner brings up a menu with either different sorting or settings (short vs long press), clicking in the lower left corner works as skip/scroll back, clicking upper right corner is Play/Pause, while lower right corner is skip/scroll forward, and clicking middle up/down will change the corresponding volume or navigate through menu choices.
I don’t have sausage fingers, but on a few occasions found mistakenly pressing lower vs upper corner buttons because the plate itself is as wide as my thumb. So you have to be careful how/where you press it because it’s a slippery surface. A solution is VERY simple – add some raised function symbols to the corresponding button areas. This way you can feel where you are pressing and can even do that without looking at M3. Of course, you can also operate the playback without pressing any buttons on this player. Just like FiiOs other X1, X3ii, and X5ii – you can control the playback with multi-function button from your headphone’s in-line control: single click to Play/Pause and double click to skip to the next track. I tested and confirmed this operation with both Android and iOS control headphones. Obviously volume won’t be adjusted, but using multi-function button works.
In terms of the actual internal design, unlike so many other cheap budget mp3 players with SoC single IC solution, FiiO choose to implement a discrete DAC/amp (output is rated with 16-100 ohm impedance and power of 50mW at 16 ohm) in order to have better control over the sound tuning. This is still a budget audio player so don’t expect anything fancy, but the sound quality was definitely on a higher level than most of the $20 mp3 players I have tested in the past. I will talk more about it in my Sound Analysis section of the review.
Also, you will find 8GB of internal memory which can be expanded further with uSD card where M3 will support the max 64GB uSD (according to FiiO). I got used to uSD card DAPs, and sometime don’t appreciate the value of built-in internal memory, until recently. My xDuoo X2 which supports only uSD card developed an issue with eject mechanism which I can’t fix, and as a result I had to super-glue the flash card to keep it inside permanently from popping out every minute like a toaster. Also, the battery longevity is quite amazing at close to 24 hour of continuous play with screen off and medium volume setting. At the same time, you are able to play only basic lossless and lossy formats, including FLAC only up to 48 kHz/24bit and WAV 96kHz/24bit. I’m pretty sure people won’t have high expectations for any kind of DSD support or higher sampling rate FLAC files.
Since I received M3 for review, I have already seen two firmware updates - a good indicator that FiiO is actively working on optimizing the performance and fixing the bugs. Regardless of this being their budget audio player, I have no doubt it will receive as much support and attention as their other DAPs.
In the main playback screen you will find a notification bar all the way at the top with a volume icon and corresponding value (out of a total 60 digital potentiometer steps), EQ preset name (is selected), an icon to indicate presence of uSD card, a Play/Pause indicator icon, the playback mode indicator, and in the right corner a battery icon with vertical bars indicating the remaining capacity. Majority of the screen will have either a default animated spinning record or the artwork embedded into the file. One strange thing, with a default animation you can see sampling and bit rate of the song, while it’s not shown when artwork is displayed.
Below that you have a song playback timeline with a current time position and a total time of the track. Then you have a song title and artist name (scrolling if it doesn’t fit in the screen), and a total number of tracks in the current directory and the track number of the currently playing song. Thanks to a large enough screen, all this info is easy to read.
In the main Playback screen, short press of upper left Menu button brings up a menu with a list of Favorites (tagged songs), List of all songs (in alphabetical order with “shuffleplay all” at the top to select that option within a list), Sort by artist, Sort by albums, Sort by folder (internal and uSD card at the top of the root). Within each selection, pressing Menu button takes you back to the previous screen, and then back to the Playback screen.
In the main Playback screen, long press of the upper left Menu button brings up a menu with different config and play settings. First choice at the top is a toggle between Play all in order, Play one song in a loop, Plays all in the loop, and Random shuffle play. Either of these choices gets reflected in the notification bar with corresponding icon. Next choice is “+” to add current song to a Favorites or one of the 2 Playlists. After that you have EQ selection where you have 6 genre specific presets, selection of which will also show the preset name in notification bar, or being able to dial in your own Custom preset using +/- 6 dB adjustment of 5-band graphic EQ (62Hz, 250Hz, 1kHz, 6kHz, 16kHz).
Down the list from EQ choice, you have Song Info where you get a very detailed info about the current song, pulling song ID tag with artist, song name, album name, genre, sampling and encoded rate, duration, and number of channels. After the Song Info, you also have a choice to “X” delete the song, and below that you enter Play Settings menu. In that sub-menu you have Resume mode (on/off), Fade in/out (when you start/stop the song a gradual fade in effect to prevent music from blasting your ears), Max Volume (capping the setting), Default volume (from memory or custom), Balance (for L/R), Preferred display (toggle between album and lyrics, I guess if embedded lyrics is available).
Once you reach Preferred display menu choice, the next scroll down click takes you to System Settings where you can select the Language, Update MediaLib (auto or manual), Screen timeout, Brightness level, Idle Power Off time, Sleep timer, Player info (fw rev, memory capacity and remaining space of internal and uSD card, S/N), Format internal memory and Storage formatting (helpful to format uSD to FAT32), Restore Factory default, and Auto Upgrade when you copy new .hex fw file. Once you reach the Auto Upgrade in System Settings and scroll down, it will take you back to Play Settings menu. To exit, you click Menu button again, and once more to get back to main Playback Screen.
In general, it takes a bit of time to get used to this menu access structure. I guess with a limited number of buttons, the access to all these menu choices got layered from within the same Menu button and you will have to remember when you Short or Long press it in order to access different settings. One thing I did found a bit annoying, while in the main Playback screen and if you want to get back to the list of songs in the currently playing directory (or album directory), you have to press Menu button and it takes you all the way back to the sorting screen where you have to start all over again from a Folder view to get back to the directory where you were just in. I hope FiiO is going to come up with some way of being able to get back to the list of songs in the currently playing directory without starting from scratch at the top of the root folder. It is a challenge because you only have a single Menu button, already used as short and long press for multiple functionalities.
Pictures of the display came out a little grainy due to my zoom, but the actual screen graphics is very smooth.
If anybody expects me to start with “OMG, It sounds better than most of the $200-$300 DAPs”, this will not happen. As I say in every DAP review, sound analysis is a function of headphones you are using to analyze it with, but you can always pick up a signature based on comparison. With that in mind, I hear M3 sound being clear and smooth, not as much depth and extension at either extreme sides of the spectrum, and more on a warmish side of a tonality. You are not going to find the same level of transparency and dynamics like in some other more expensive DAPs, but at the same time I wouldn't call M3 sound flat either, it's close to an average. Obviously, sound can be improved with a brighter portable amp or perhaps if M3 would have LO, but that is NOT the purpose of this little guy because it's not intended for critical listening - this is a FUN little audio player that cost a little over $50!!! And, as a matter of fact, its sound quality can go head-to-head with some of the other budget DAPs twice its price. Also, just because it’s rated at max 100 ohm output impedance and low output power, I was still able to test it with everything up to 470 ohm R70x, driving it without a problem. Don’t expect a stellar performance driving everything to a full potential, but you will be pleasantly surprised with a sound. By nature of its smooth sound signature it actually paired up great with brighter/harsher headphones.
Here is how it paired up with some of my headphones, and for the reference their corresponding volume level.
R70x - (40/60, 470 ohm open back) - nice pair up, expanded open sound, good retrieval of details.
PM-3 - (30/60, closed planar magnetic) - great pair up, detailed, expanded sound, great low end impact. This one was a surprise because PM-3 signature is warm to begin with.
EL-8C - (33/60, closed planar magnetic) – surprisingly good pair up, smooth detailed expanded sound, no hint of sibilance or metallic sheen. I actually like this combo a lot!
ZEN - (35/60, 320 ohm earbuds) - excellent detailed smooth sound, very organic tonality, great soundstage expansion. Another surprise, especially when it comes to soundstage width. It doesn't drive it to a full potential, but close enough. On the other hand, pair up with VE Monk was excellent - highly recommend!
DN2kJ - (22/60, 3way hybrid) - some hissing, sound is smooth and detailed, warmer sig of M3 works great in this pair up, upper mids/treble are clear and actually revealing (to an extent), and not harsh or sibilant. You will not get a typical analytical DN2kJ sound, but it's very pleasant and still detailed.
UE600i - (19/60, sensitive 1xBA) - some hissing (but tolerable), clear detailed revealing sound. No complaints here; and I like that I was able to use the iOS remote (only for playback control, no volume).
ES60 - (17/60, 6xBA driver CIEM) - noticeable hissing when you pause the song or in instrumental/acoustic tracks, but other than that drives them very nicely, clear/detailed sound with a great low end impact.
Savant - (23/60, dual BA) - great pair up, very detailed smooth sound, nice sub-bass rumble.
Comparison to other DAPs.
To get the idea how it stacks up against other DAPs in its own category, here is what I found.
M3 vs Clip Sport - similar warm sound signature/tonality, M3 sound has a little more transparency, a little better retrieval of details, but not by a mile. The bigger difference is in M3 being more dynamic while Clip is flatter. Soundstage is similar. M3 interface and controls are more logical, more features and configuration, though Clip is popular with audio book readers.
M3 vs xDuoo X2 - similar warm signature/tonality, X2 sound is more expanded (wider staging), and overall sound is a little tighter and faster, also a stronger mid-bass impact. Dynamics is a little better as well (separation/layering). X2 is a powerful little DAP, but its interface is beyond primitive and frustrating to use.
M3 vs X1 - M3 sound is a little crispier when testing with neutral and brighter headphones, slightly more detailed, a little more dynamic, and a little wider in soundstage. X1 has more features, but for music listening only, in my opinion, M3 has a little edge over X1, especially battery life!
M3 vs xDuoo X3 - X3 signature is more neutral (brighter in comparison), soundstage wider, sound is more transparent and a little more detailed, also a little better dynamic. X3 has more power and has LO, but it's lacking in features and can't display artwork (very primitive interface).
FiiO M3, xDuoo X2, Sandisk Sport Clip
I don’t want anybody to think that my review is being too critical or negative, because this is actually one fantastic little budget audio player! I just don’t want to hype it to a level where some might think it will be a replacement of a more mature and feature rich $200-$300 DAPs. But the mere fact that I tested it with a selection of my favorite in-ear and full size headphones, ranging from multi-driver CIEMs to high impedance open back and planar magnetic close backs, AND I actually enjoyed how it paired up with most of them – speaks a lot about how much I like this little audio player. It’s not fair to compare this $55 entree level DAP to some other full featured DAPs because its functionality is limited to a basic audio playback, but it does this functionality very well!