This article was written by Ali Pardiwala and first appeared on NDTV here.
Fiio has been one of the biggest proponents of high-resolution audio, and its range of audio players has enjoyed success the world over. Available at various price points, the Fiio X-series offers varying levels of sonic performance. The Fiio X1, X3, X5 and X7 have all received praise from us.
This is why we're looking forward to reviewing Fiio's most affordable model yet, the M3. Priced at Rs. 4,499, the M3 appears to offer a lot for your money, with support for high-resolution audio formats and up to 72GB of total storage. Find out if the M3 offers enough bang for your buck.
Look and feel
The biggest difference between the Fiio M3 and Rs. 7,499 X1 is size. The M3 is significantly smaller and lighter than the X1, which makes it easier to carry and store. Another key difference is the use of plastic as the primary construction material, which is part of the reason why the M3 weighs just 40g. It's also available in four colours: black, white, blue and cyan.
The device has a brick-like shape, with sharp edges and buttons that sit flush with the device itself. The left side has the power button and the right has the lock slider, while the bottom has the Micro-USB port for charging and data transfers, the 3.5mm socket, and the microSD card slot. The physical navigation buttons are placed right below the screen. On the whole it's a conveniently small and lightweight package that is easy to get used to.
The Fiio M3 also comes with its own earphones, but these don't offer much sonic isolation and are average as far as sound is concerned. We'd recommend you switch to a good pair of aftermarket earphones for the best performance. There's also a standard Micro-USB cable included in the box for charging and data transfers.
Specifications and software
The device has 8GB of internal storage, which is notable because the X1 has none, forcing you to invest in a microSD card from the start itself. The M3 does have a microSD card slot that supports cards of up to 64GB, which allows you to have up to a maximum of 72GB of storage space on the device. There's a 550mAh battery which powers the device for up to a claimed 24 hours, thanks to a low-power Cirrus Logic CS42L51 DAC.
The device has a small 2-inch 240x320-pixel screen for visual cues and controls, oriented in portrait mode. It isn't a very good screen, but then it doesn't need to be since you'll only be using it to control playback.
The device has limited support for high-resolution audio formats, supporting only up to 24-bit/48kHz FLAC files, and 24-bit/96kHz WAV files. MP3, WMA, OGG and M4A are supported, but this does not include M4A-encrypted Apple Lossless (ALAC) files, which is a bit of a disappointment. The device can drive headphones with an impedance range of 16-100Ohms.
The user interface is as basic as it gets, and is surprisingly even simpler than that of the Fiio X1. A short press of the menu button lets you browse through files, while a long press gets you to the settings menu, where you can set up the device. The directional navigation buttons are used to move around and select options or tracks, and also control the volume, depending on where you are on the interface. It isn't particularly easy to use, and we aren't fans of the implementation at all.
We used the Fiio M3 with its included headphones as well as with the RHA S500i and Trinity Atlas in-ear headphones during testing. Our test tracks included Bonobo's Days To Come, Michael Jackson's They Don't Care About Us and Gotye's State Of The Art.
Starting with Days To Come and the M3's own earphones, we found that the sound was fairly standard and ordinary, comparable to what we'd expect to hear from most smartphones. This is predominantly because of the low-power DAC unit, which is likely no more capable than what we'd expect to see on most mid-range smartphones. There is a fair amount of attack to the sound, although the M3's earphones don't do justice to the sound thanks to their outer-ear fit and lack of isolation.
Moving on to They Don't Care About Us with the S500i in-ears, we found that the sonic signature was fairly neutral, which is something we noticed through the audio range and with the other earphones as well. The Fiio M3 itself does not affect the frequency range much, instead allowing the headphones to decide the sonic flavour. In this case, we found a very slight spike in the low-end and mid-range, followed by a fairly noticeable drop in the high-end, which more or less corresponds to the sonic characteristics of the RHA S500i headphones.
Moving on to State Of The Art with the Trinity Atlas, we were treated to a generally acceptable sound with a fair sense of openness and decent separation, thanks to the qualities of the Atlas earphones and an aggressive signature. The soundstage is moderately wide, while imaging is good, but this can once again be credited to the headphones in use. In general, the Fiio M3 produces a sound that while certainly good, does not offer any tangible benefit over your smartphone.
The Fiio M3 may be the Chinese company's most affordable high-resolution audio player yet, but it's far from offering the capabilities of the excellent X series of players. Apart from file format incompatibilities, the M3's sound is only just about on par with what most smartphones will give you. There is no real advantage to using this device, and you would be better off using your smartphone in many situations.
However, its small size and good battery life might just make it worthwhile if you do choose to buy it, since using a standalone device frees up your smartphone for other purposes. You could use the M3 in your car, or as an alternative if your phone has limited storage or poor battery life. The low price of the device makes it worthwhile as a backup, and the neutral sonic signature and clean sound provide a satisfying enough sound that will work for everyone.
Price (MRP): Rs. 4,499
Ratings (Out of 5)