For the purpose of this review, I used the same sets of IEMs and headphones previously paired with the FiiO M11 and M11 Pro. For the IEMs, I kept my good old Onkyo IE-C3, the new Fearless Audio S8F and the BGVP DM7. The headphones? Sennheiser HD800S, Audeze LCD-X and a simple, but trusty, MSR7 from Audio-Technica.
Ok, is the FiiO M15 the new almighty player, capable of TOTLing its competitors? Yes… and no, let me explain.
Sound wise, the FiiO M15 is good, that is no question. Deep bass, smooth mids, exceptional layering – if you close your eyes you can immediately spot where every instrument was placed – but… it doesn’t sound as your usual FiiO. If the M11 Pro was mostly an upgraded version of the M11, the M15 is a totally different animal in my opinion.
I listened to The Spoils from Massive Attack and from the first second to the last, was engulfed into the tracks. On the left, slightly below my ear, I could feel a discrete buzz, never heard on the M11 Pro, but palpable on the Cowon Plenue L. That alone was, for me, a proof of how good this DAP is : when you can hear things once veiled behind.
However, the singer seemed ethereal, as if details primed over musicality. And, again, the M15 missed that little something, which makes you say : ok, that’s it, that’s my endgame player. Obviously, that’s because I expected the DAP to top up Astell&Kern SP2000 or Cowon Plenue L, even if the last one fell behind the M15 in many genres, in my opinion.
Still, I put on Ocean – Mahogany Sessions from Alice Phoebe Lou and was blown away by how natural that sounded. Every tone, every nuance, every breath were palpable as if you were in the same room. And this, would work on every headphone: the Creative, Sennheiser, Audeze, all gave various levels of definition, but the same breathtaking experience.
On the other hand, I put Ani Mevushal, from Infected Mushrooms, and the magic didn’t happen. Sure, that’s two completely different styles, but the sound accuracy couldn’t cope with the meager harshness I felt in the upper midsection. It’s (very) subtle, however, those small discrepancies never left and you know what they say : “once you’ve hear it you can”t unhear it…”
All in all, the FiiO M15, in my opinion, doesn’t offer the same adaptability found in the previous M11(Pro). It’s either excellent, either “very good but…”, and for me, a TOTL has to be excellent on every circumstance.
Highs : super crisp, but a tad too bright. The FiiO M15 sounds more like the M11 than the M11 pro, grandiose but a bit to hard on the highs. The soundstage is super wide, thanks to that, but sibilant headphones may pierce your eardrum, with no proper equalization. Still, if you like bright, explosive highs, you should definitely try this DAP.
Mids : excellent layering. Voices have always been good on FiiO players, and the M15 is no exception. This is especially true with big cans, as the sound pressure delivers superb vocals, when the track is well recorded. Surprisingly, my best experience was with the small Creative headphone, which paired really well with the FiiO M15.
Lows : deep and fast. This is where the M15 impressed me the most: whatever the track, the player was able to reach the deepest note, with ease. You don’t have to raise the volume, but if you do the bass will remain strong and steady, with no dragging sound.
Noise : nothing to worry about, the residual noise is absent. Even my hypersensitive Onkyo could not spot anything!
Astell&Kern Kann Cube : you can find this player for the same price It’s a behemoth with a mini-XLR output for maximum power and a very massive case for god knows the reason. Soundwise, the M15 sounds better in my opinion, with more control and faster transients, especially with complex tracks. On the other hand, the output power is, even more, deafening on the Kann Cube, in case you need more paaaaawer.
Cowon Plenue L : if I could match the Plenue 2 MKii against the FiiO M15, I think that the Plenue L is a better match. The FiiO gave me smoother mids and faster decay, but the Plenue is more versatile. It’s like a dignified sports car, you know you could go faster, but you won’t, and this is where you get your kick. Also, the Plenue L offers 256Gb of memory out of the box, plus those amazing BBE effects, still unmatched in my opinion.
Shanling M6 : if much more affordable, the M6 remains one of the top choices at the moment, in my opinion. The build quality outmatches the FiiO, and if the soundstage feels narrower and the bass less powerful, the price/quality ratio is on the Shanling side. If you want a high-end player, but not a TOTL player, check it out.
The FiiO M15 is good, if not excellent. Yet, compared to the M11 Pro that we previously reviewed, the difference isn’t as wide as I’d expect it to be.
Don’t get me wrong, the sound stage is great, power is deafening and you get that crisp, breath-taking precision once paired with an end-game headphone/earphones. But, I wanted more. Maybe not an SP2000 killer, but at least something that would replace my M11 Pro.
If you have big cans, such as the Sennheiser HD800S or an Audeze, the FiiO M15 will be astounding. It’s been quite some times that I heard a DAP this powerful while keeping so much dynamic range, whatever the genre and the track.
For IEMs and less-demanding headphones, check out the M11 Pro though or the Shanling M6. Those are less expensive options and, to be honest, I had as much fun listening to them as with the M15. So yeah, it’s the most polished player FiiO ever made, but for me, it lacks that subtle magic I found in their lower-tier products, such as the K3 and M6. Maybe the M15 Pro?