For most Fiio Daps need little introduction. Fiio was the pioneer of bringing high quality digital audio players to the masses with its groundbreaking X1 and has been improving its line up every since. With listening preferences changing, the latest models now pack Bluetooth, Wifi for streaming, balanced outputs, and a host of features that were not even drempt of yet when the original X1 was released. To say Fiio has done a good job keeping pace is an understatement as they have released new models seemingly every 6 months or so and firmware updates even more frequently. Fiio has also kept pace with the market on its line of DAC/Amps as well as introducing a now comprehensive line of in-ear monitors. About the only things Fiio hasn’t done is an over-ear headphone, and my suspicion is that day will come. When Fiio offered the M9 for a review tour, I quickly jumped in as I have owned several Fiio DAPs, Dac/Amps, and earphones and have found all to be of good value.
This latest model Fiio M9 is an interesting product introduction. The M9 is the flagship of the M Series of DAPS that now includes the M3K, M6, and M7 beneath it. the X series is tougher to position as the M9 fits above the X1 ii and X3 Mk3, is similar in many regards to the X5 iii and sits below the Flagship X7 ii with its interchangable amp modules. I suspect the reason for this is the X1, X3, and X5 models may soon be dropped from the line-up as they overlap the M3k, M6, and M9 respectively, thus leaving the M-series as the entry level products and the X-series as the no holds barred flagship.
As of this writing, BH Photo has the M9 for sale at $299 which puts it in the same general price range as the Opus #1, Shanling M3s, Cayin N5ii, and Fiio’s own X5 iii. To say that is tough competition is an understatement as all of the listed players have some good attributes. Let’s see if Fiio has managed to top them with the M9 and claim the best under $300 DAP title.
The tour sample arrived boxed in a white pressboard box with the player in a foam tray and the cables in a small box at the lower end of the box. Manuals are hidden beneath the tray. While at first the kit seems a bit sparse, it contains everything needed as the player has the screen protector and clear case already installed (this may not be true of retail packaging but it was for the tour unit so keep that in mind).
The metal case is rounded on the left and squared up on the right side. The screen occupies roughly 3/4 of the total space on the front panel with a larger area below the screen that above. The Fiio LED below the screen is used as an indicator of file type, charging etc. The clear polymer case if protective of all sides except the screen and remains unobtrusive while working well.
All jacks are on the bottom of the player as shown hear with the 3.5/Spdif to the left, followed by the 2.5mm balanced connector, then the USB-C data transfer and charging.
All controls are on the left side, from top to bottom (left to right below) Power, volume, play/pause, forward/back rocker switch, and the Micro-SD card slot. All other surfaces are smooth.
The M9 uses the Exynos 7270 CPU with 768Mb of RAM powering its customized android 7 operating system. The display is an LG IPS display of 3.2 inches and provides excellent picture clarity.
Audio playback is handled by dual AK4490EN DAC chips and an A3P030 FPGA chip that handles clocking and DSD decode (up to 128 natively). These feed a system of TI op-amps that provide both Single ended and balanced outputs as well as line out (SpDif Coax).
Connectivity is provided by USB-C for attachment to computer or phone, 2.4gHz wireless (g,n,ac), Bluetooth 4.2 (Default SBC as well as AptX, AptX HD, and LHDC) To learn more about LHDC, click here. LDAC (the new Sony Standard), and Apple Airplay.
The M9 houses a 2350 mAh battery giving it ample power. Fiio lists playback time at 10 hours and I found this to be realistic if using the Single ended output with the screen turned off for the majority of the time. Use of the bluetooth or wifi did bring down the battery life to roughly 8 hours and the use of the balanced output also caused the battery to drain a bit quicker, but even at worst the player managed a full work day without needing to recharge in the middle. This puts it in an elite group as many players overstate their battery life considerably.
UI / Navigation
Boot time is between 40 and 45 seconds from the time you press the power button until it displays the time and allows you to unlock the screen. From there, we reach the Main menu shown below. It is well laid out and easy to manipulate. Inserting a micro-SD card automatically starts the scanning media task which is a nice touch as not all players do. Scanning my 256gb card with 8500 tracks took roughly 10 minutes so the M9 is capable of scanning nearly 1000 files a minute. While not the fastest I have seen, it certainly isnt the slowest either.
If you wish to rescan files after the initial load, you’ll need to open the Fiio music application. and the click the gear in the upper right corner as seen below left. This opens the “Fiio Music” Settings which is distinct from the settings button on the main menu. (This creates a bit of confusion when the manual says to look in settings as it rarely specifies which one). The Fiio music app itself is also well thought out and makes songs, artists, genres, or playlists. There is also a folder view option in the Music app as well as from the file management tab on the main menu.
The File management application is more android oriented than the folder view in the music application as it shows songs, pictures, and documents as well as the internal storage and the Micro-SD card. Opening internal storage shows all the folders associated with android so some caution is warranted as deleting the wrong thing can impact player function.
The Photos function in the File Management app also overlaps the Gallery Application which displays all photos (not just album art). While Gallery lets you peruse the album-art, it does not allow manipulation of those files as no options for deletion or addition are available directly from the Gallery app. This must be done through File management. (Honestly I found this the least useful menu option).
The Technical Support button is more a collection of links than a true application. Fiio did release a major firmware revision while I was in possession of the tour sample so I did get the opportunity to use the Firmware update tool. Once connected to wifi, this was one of the easiest update processes I have used to date. No need to tether the player, no need to copy a file to an SD etc. Just connect and go.
The Settings button is the busiest of all the buttons on the M9 with several levels of options beneath the top menu. At the top level, Wifi settings are first and very easy to use to join your wireless network. Bluetooth is equally easy to setup and pair with headphones, or you can turn on the bluetooth DAC mode and use the M9 paired to your phone to play content from your phone. I found it worked well with Spotify when tied to a LG v40.
Audio options allow you to select line out or headphone out, change the Spdif output, set the Gain level, adjust the filters, etc. The main functions (LineOut/PhoneOut, Gain, and Filter adjust) can also be accessed by swiping down from the top on any screen.
The next category “LED” is an oddball, it only controls the brightness of the Fiio LED at the bottom center of the player. To adjust the brightness of the screen, you’ll need to instead to to the General category and select brightness.
The KKbox option gives users in areas where KKbox is available a built in streaming service. For those of us in the US, the Tidal app is much more useful. If you scroll up from the bottom (this may take a couple tries to get right), it exposes the Tidal, NetEase, and Moov apps. Other 3rd party apps can be sideloaded to the player but Fiio has a limited list of supported apps. Hopefully others like Qubuz will join that list soon.
The M9 being the sub-flagship in the Fiio Line (currently on the X7 betters it), expectations were high going into my listening sessions. I was not disappointed. The M9 had no problem with playing any file type I threw at it from the lowliest Mp3 up through 32 bit FLAC and DSD128. When compared to other players on hand, the M9 was slightly thinner sounding then the Opus #1s with its dual 43198 dacs, while the AK70Mk2 seems bit more sterile by comparison to the M9. Detail levels were good on the M9, but not on par with the either the Opus or AK as micro-detail was sometimes smoothed over just a bit. The M9 did a better job of playing nice with poor recordings than either of the other two players so considering its position in the entry level line, this may have been a conscious decision by Fiio to make the M9 a bit smoother while making the X7 a bit more clinical and detailed while being a bit less forgiving of source quality. I found the M9 had no trouble powering pretty much anything I threw at it until we hit at least 300Ω or extremely low sensitivity planars like the T50rp. The M9 did struggle with the T50rp more than the HD650 but both were limited in total volume. The HD650 was very listenable at moderate levels but those wanting to “get loud” will find the M9 struggles to do so. On the T50rp, the M9 lacks the potency to get good the most of them and this pairing should likely be avoided.
Good Pairings with the M9 were the Eartech Quint, Ibasso IT01 and 03, Flc8s. I also found the M9 paired well with the Meze 99 Classics and the Campfire Cascades for those who prefer over-ear to in-ears.
The Other comparison I felt like I needed to make was to Fiio’s other mid-line product the X5iii as those looking for a new DAP will likely wonder why one would choose one over the other. Again both sport dual AK4490s, but the X5iii uses the RK3188 chip (a generation older CPU) and shipped with Android 5.1 vs Android 7 on the M9. The X5iii has considerably more output power than the M9 but suffers from hiss with some sensitive IEMs as a result. The X5iii sports a larger display (about an inch larger) of equal resolution. To my eye, the M9 is a bit brighter but detail level is equally good on both models. My suspicion is we will see the discontinuation of the X5iii shortly as the M9 does a good job of replacing it. Unless that single inch of screen or marginally better output power are the priority, the M9 again shows what a generation newer player can bring to the table with way better protocol support (AptX HD, LHDC, LDAC, and Airplay).
The M9 offers a lot of flexibility for the price. As a DAP, it offers balanced and single ended wired use along with bluetooth, LDAC, and Airplay wireless. AS a DAC it can be used as either a bluetooth or USB connected DAC. If offers native streaming support for several of the most popular services with others being available and more to come. The Few drawbacks it does have are only having a single micro-sd slot, and lacking the resolution of the flagship daps on the market. I think both of these are forgivable considering the retail price of $299. A couple years ago, a dac with this feature set would have been a flagship and commanded nearly double the price. Today, the market for mid-level DAPS is very tight and several companies have stepped up their game to compete in a space that was originally owned by Fiio with its X3 and X5 DAPS. With the M-series, Fiio has fired back with the M6, M7, and M9 all offering fantastic value. The M9 offers most of features of a flagship in a very solidly built package at a price much more reachable than most flagship DAPs. What’s not to love?