Some may find this section a little limited, so I’ll give you some insight into the way I’ve changed my opinion on how to describe the sound with any competently made DAC, DAP or amplifier. The problem with trying to break the sonics down to bass, mids and treble is that DAP / DAC / amp is designed (or should be designed) to be essentially flat across the frequency spectrum. If it has enhanced bass, then isn’t it adding colouration that should come from the headphones or EQ or recording?
Likewise, I won’t comment a lot on soundstage, as this is primarily a by-product of the actual recording, or the transducers you’re using.
So how do I go about describing it? Well I can’t measure it this time as I’d need to be able to isolate the signal from the M3, and I don’t have the equipment to do this – so instead I have shown Fiio’s graphed frequency response from a -5dB sinusoidal signal. This shows a pretty flat curve with slight roll-off below 50dB, and slight peak at around 16 kHz – but for all intents and purposes flat (peaks and roll off are less than 0.1 dB so at the extremes are essentially inaudible).
So instead, I’ll just say that I really like the sound from the M3, and will give you my (very) subjective impressions of the M3 compared to the X1 (as this will be probably the closest competitor and I don’t have anything else in the range to compare.
With this comparison, I used a 1 kHz test tone to exactly match volume, and used my Adel U6 to compare on tracks I know really well.
Warning – very subjective impressions ahead.
Fiio M3 vs Fiio X1
The first thing I noticed between the two DAPs is that the M3 seems to be very slightly warmer than my X1 (this was a trait repeated on both the X5ii and X3ii also). The second thing is that I think the X1 resolves small details slightly better. With this comments though, the difference is pretty small, and after volume matching, the only way you’d notice it is with critical listening, which is something most people won’t be doing when they are “out and about”. In terms of stage, bass, treble, mid-range – I’m not noticing a lot of difference – except for the fact that the X1 sounds slightly cleaner and clearer. What the M3 brings instead is a slightly smoother, more organic sound which some may really like, and others not. If I had to highlight the difference I would say that the M3 would be the Classic 5th Gen iPod vs the X1 being the Classic 7th Gen iPod (organic vs cleaner / detailed sound). I know a lot of people preferred the 5th Gen for the Wolfson DAC’s more organic sound – but I always like the 6th and 7th Gen for their cleaner more detailed sonics.
So on pure SQ alone, I’d probably lend my preference toward the X1 – but let’s see what changes when looking at some of the other features.
On size and true portability – no competition – the M3 wins easily, it is a fantastic little DAP to carry around, and whenever I am out and about now, it rarely leaves my trouser pockets. And ditto for battery life – the M3 just goes and goes, while the X1 is a little more limited (by around ½).
For the UI – I actually don’t mind either – but in terms of features within the UI, and the superior sorting and maturity, I’d take the X1 – and this is especially so when looking at things such as EQ. And the X1 also takes the crown for power, and also the ability to pair with an amp via line-out if required.
Finally – when looking at cost, the M3 is considerably cheaper, and for some this will be a big factor. Actual value will be a different proposition and largely dependent on the individual features of each unit and your own preferences. For me personally – for an all-purpose DAP on a budget, I’d probably take the X1 – but for a truly portable rig, then the M3 is extremely compelling. And in fact most of the time when I am heading out and about now, I usually take the M3 + either the Adel U6 or new q-Jays (depending on my need for isolation). And remember – I have the choice of M3, X1, X3ii, X5, X5ii, and a couple of top tier DAPs from L&P (the L5 Pro and LP5). The reason is simple – it’s tiny, sounds good, easy to use, and will last all day.
I waited a while before completing this review – mainly to see how the firmware matured, and whilst it has definitely improved, it’s still not complete yet, and may not be for a while. This does not mean it is not usable yet, and for some (me included) I’d buy it anyway – it still brings a lot to the table.
The M3 is a tiny little DAP with reasonable storage options, great form factor, fantastic battery life, and some pretty good features. It is also pretty cheap, and has a nice smooth slightly warm organic sound. It is a wonderful choice if you are very mobile, or need a cheaper “run-about” for gym sessions etc. It has a low output impedance which is ideal for IEMs, and enough power to successfully drive most portable earphones or headphones.
Where the M3 lacks is with its very rudimentary GUI, limitations with tagged library, and quirky organisation. Because of this, if you are a little “OCD” about everything being organised 100% and the GUI being completely intuitive and hassle free – then the M3 is not for you.
For those who are willing to make allowances though, I would thoroughly recommend it. My 12 yo daughter borrowed it for a few hours, and even in that short time she was using it like a pro, and was thoroughly delighted with the interface. For me personally, the M3 has become my default DAP for exercise or outdoor activities.
On a star rating, I’d give the M3 somewhere between 60-70%, which in my books is pretty good. If Fiio can smooth out some the wrinkles, then I can see the M3 becoming a classic over time.
My thanks and appreciation to the team at Fiio for this opportunity, and as always to Lieven for the opportunity to post on Headfonia.