DAPs, Reviews

REVIEW: FiiO M11 – A Modern Marvel

REVIEW: FiiO M11 – A Modern Marvel

Sound impressions 

The M11 is first and foremost a music player. From the precision-machined volume dial, the play/skip buttons, array of output options, and fatter-than-a-smartphone heft, you’re unlikely going to mistake it for anything else.

Not only that, the M11 has very obviously been musically upgraded from its current and previous-generation siblings, both in hardware and software. With a far more powerful processor and more onboard RAM than all the X-series DAPs (including the X7 Mark II flagship), FiiO Music is quicker to load, smoother to run, and visibly nimbler. Inserting an mSD card with more than 100 lossless albums (many of them high-res rips), the M11 scanned and populated the FiiO Music library in minutes. I could even switch apps and surf the web or play a trailer in Netflix while this was happening, and it didn’t skip a beat or slow down at any point.

Once loaded, navigating the various categories in FiiO Music – tracks, artists, albums, genres, folders – is almost instantaneous, as is scrolling through long lists of songs. One click, and the chosen track begins to play without pause, clicks or skips.

FiiO Music is a simple, spartan app with a fairly limited menu of configuration options, so aside from a tweak here or there, there’s not much you can do to change how it looks or behaves. That’s a pity really, because as-is the app is sometimes clumsy, often restrictive, all depending on how demanding you are of your music software. For example, the home page of the app is oddly split into three sections, with a gallery-like display of current album tracks up top, a midsection of source choice (local, playlist or DLNA), and a bottom section that lets you toggle between Recently Played, Most Played, and Recently Added tracks.

You can’t swap out one section for another, assign any other category or function to the home page, or change the type of list in the bottom third. What you see is what you get, like it or leave it.

The single biggest advantage of FiiO Music, however, is that for all its quirks, it’s currently the only app that I’m aware of that can bypass the default Android music stack and play high-res music at native bitrates without upsampling. That means that for now, FiiO Music is your best option for getting the best-possible sound quality from your high-res music files on the M11.

The good news is that the quality is there in spades. Straight out the box without any ‘burn in’ (if you believe in that pseudoscience), the M11 is immediately more neutral sounding and more resolving than the M9 I used before and the Cayin N3 I used before that. I’m no engineer or expert, so whether that’s because the M11 sports twin dacs and newer generation AK dacs than the AK4490EQ in both my previous DAPs, I can’t really say. It’s likely a sum of its parts – newer dacs, more and better amps, better audio circuit components (if you believe the marketing specs), a more powerful and efficient CPU, more RAM headroom, better power management. Whatever it is, the M11 just plain sounds better, using the same IEMs (the FiiO FH5), than does the M9 or N3.

Better still, the M11 is powerful enough to drive my high-impedance desktop headphones – the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD800 and ZMF Auteur – not only loud enough (90 out of 120 on the volume dial and both headphones are louder than I’d usually listen to them), but also with enough control that I’m not left wanting. Does it drive them as well as $1200 4-watt desktop amp/dac? Of course not, but you wouldn’t expect it to. The HD800 choked on the M9, and I didn’t even bother trying it with the N3.

The point here is that the M11 will comfortably drive lower impedance and more sensitive desktop headphones, of which there are many (including the likes of Focal’s Utopia and Meze’s Empyrean), as well if not better than some similar-spec desktop amps. Remind yourself that this is a $450 do-it-all DAP and you’ll get where I’m going with this. The M11 can, if you want it to, serve as a desktop replacement. I don’t want it to, but the option is there if I ever did.

Want specific examples? Let’s see: Heidi Talbot’s hauntingly beautiful ‘If You Stay’ from her Love + Light album. The opening sequence of guitar riffs tells me everything I need to know about the bass response of my headphones – and by extension how well they’re being driven. That’s followed by the first passages of Heidi almost whispering into the microphone, so close you can hear the nuances in her breathing. Or at least you should, and it shouldn’t sound sticky or sibilant. The detail the M11 pulls out of this sequence, and the control it has over the FH5’s variable bass response (it can sound slow or muddy with the wrong source) is exceptional. Tight and controlled is how I’d describe it, the vocals soft and far less forward than the FH5 is often inclined to render the upper mids.

One reason I really enjoy the FH5 is its ability to project a stage far wider than you’d think possible with IEMs. On some tracks you’d swear you’re wearing open headphones. Angels of Venice’s ‘Trotto’ from their Angels of Venice album is a perfect test for staging width, layering, imaging and separation. The various mediaeval instruments jostle for position across a wide stage, appearing first here, then there, then everywhere at once. The drums, when they hit, should sound and feel deep and textured, and project a sound consistent with their size. The highs of the whistles should be crisp, clear and easily identified in their space. The M11 renders the soundscape of this track perfectly. I don’t hear any sense of soundstage restriction, or rolloff at either end of the spectrum. The bass is big when it needs to be, but never boomy. Again, the word control comes to mind. With only 40 points on the volume dial – a third of its full range – the FH5 is more than loud enough and perfectly clear. The power here is visceral, but the control of that power is what’s most impressive.

I could go on – I have notes on at least a dozen more tracks, including Rosie Thomas’s quirky ‘Why Waste More Time’, Katie Melua’s ‘The Love I’m Frightened Of’, Def Leppard’s ‘Love Bites’, AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young and Beautiful’, Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Story’, Neil Diamond’s ‘Hello Again’, Allen Toussaint’s ‘St James Infirmary’, Anna Nalick’s ‘Wreck of the Day’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Final Cut’ – but we’ll be here all day if I had to review them here.

The takeaway is this: the M11’s sound profile is, for want of a better word, both refined and accurate. With a reference headphone like the HD800, everything sounds like I know it should, perhaps missing only the last few percentage points of speed, the verve of a far more powerful amp and the smoothness of a NOS R2R dac (my desktop setup of choice). It drives the FH5 IEMs with the power and authority the spec sheet suggests, perhaps with a little less of the ‘fun factor’ I found when using them with the slightly warmer sounding M9, but truer to the reference sound of the tracks (which to me means more neutral). That’s not to say the M11 will turn your fun headphones into reference headphones, but it may sacrifice some thump for finesse, so keep that in mind when pairing.

Is this consistent with FiiO’s ‘house sound’? Honestly, I don’t know, nor can I tell you how it compares to the ‘house sound’ of its competitors like HiBy, Cayin, Cowon and iBasso. But I’d venture that any differences in the sound between the M11 and its peers, some of which cost up to twice as much, is more a difference in the tuning of those players rather than the raw sound quality as an objective measurement.

As a source, is it comparable to a good desktop-grade amp and dac? Of the ones I’ve personally owned – ifi’s Micro iDSD, and Audio-gd’s R2R-11 and NFB-11 – I’d say very much so, albeit with less amping power to drive more demanding headphones like Audeze LCDs.

It’s easily better – more refined, resolving and powerful – than the two less advanced DAPs I previously used, as it should be, best demonstrated by how far the same IEMs and headphones scaled upward with the M11. If you’re wondering whether upgrading to the M11 from one of the lower-end FiiOs is worth it purely from a sound quality basis, then yes, it is. Throw in all the other features and functionality, and it’s a no brainer.

3 comments

  1. Hey, I am trying to access Plex on mine. Do you need the Plex pass? It only allows me to play like 5 seconds of audio. On my smartphone, I just paid the one time access fee for the app, but can;t do that on the M11 as their is no play store. Thoughts?

    Thanks.

  2. Hi Tyler – that’s a good point. I only tried it very briefly on the M11, and what you say is true. This is a limitation that, unfortunately, can’t be overcome without some ‘dark arts’. If you need Play Store-linked apps or services, the M11 is not your best choice currently.

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