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The Bucket Machine - FiiO M9

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Introduction FiiO was established in 2007 and has experience in researching and developing countless portable music products of different types and sell FiiO-branded products through sales agents worldwide. The brand name FiiO is composed of Fi(fidelity from HiFi) and iO(number 1&0), representing the real feeling and convenient life that digital brings to life. Meanwhile, the Chinese “飞傲” is the transliteration of FiiO, indicating the positive and innovative spirit as thriving as spring.

As usual, FiiO surprises the community with the launch of M9 – the TOTL DAP in the M series. M series has been in the market for long, started with M3 – an entry level DAP that is affordable for beginners. In 2018, FiiO took a big leap to add another 3 DAPs to the series – M7, M9 and M3k. I always assume that the M series is catered for beginners while the X series is designed for more serious listener. However, FiiO proves me wrong this time with the new release. The new DAPs are audiophile’s level.

FiiO has described this DAP as a “bucket machine”. This title is named after the “Bucket Theory”. The amount of water can hold by a bucket is dependent on the shortest side instead of the longest side. To achieve an overall great performance, each composition of the DAP do play a part. Any shortcoming part will pull the performance down. Therefore, when a certain device is termed as a “bucket machine”, it generally means that it is a device that is well-balanced in all aspects with no obvious shortcomings.

Design The design of this new DAP from FiiO can be described accurately with elegance. The design is minimalist, modern and sleek. FiiO chose to have a full touchscreen on this DAP instead of the usual scroll-wheel. Actually, FiiO has been using touchscreen frequently in the recently launched DAPs – X5 3rd Gen, X7 MkII and M7. With the touchscreen, M9 looks simpler and nicer.

The new M9 has a gold horizontal facing volume control knob. It is attached firmly and steadily. I believe it is very durable. Besides the volume control knob, there are:

  • The power button

  • Play/Pause button

  • Next/Previous Track button

The micro SD card slot is located after all the buttons. This time round FiiO chose to use a push in micro SD card slot instead of using a tray. This is easier for user to remove or insert the micro SD card. There might be some compromises – dust maybe collected if the slot is not used.

The screen of FiiO M9 is nicely done. Adorning the front of the M9 is a vibrant, clear 3.2-inch IPS screen capable of 16 million colors and supporting 5-point touch. This IPS screen allows you to easily operate your device with its ability to show even the finest of details. Attractive colour and relatively responsive touch response as compared to a lot of the DAPs which equipped with touchscreen in the market. FiiO chose to leave wide bezels around the screen. At the bottom of the screen, there is a “FiiO” LED indicator. Unique to the FiiO M9 is RGB light indicator status that shows what audio format you are listening to! Instantly know what audio format your M9 is playing as well as its overall status, with the indicator status showing red to remind you to charge your device. This looks cool and the LED is definitely a value add to the DAP in term of physical appearance. The wallpaper of FiiO M9 can be changed by user – this is rare!


Unboxing The bundle in the box adopted the same minimalist as the player – simple but useful:

  • FiiO M9

  • Coaxial to 3.5mm adaptor

  • USB Type C cable

  • Quick Start Guide

  • TPU protection case

  • Pre-applied screen protector

User Interface In the heart of the M9 lies the Android operating system, deeply customized by FiiO. This allows you to navigate through menus at an astonishing speed and with amazing ease due to the carefully thought out customized user interface. The user interface of the FiiO M9 is smooth and user friendly. No more changing between Android mode and Pure Music Mode like what you can find in X5 3rd Gen and X7 Mk II. FiiO Music is now the core of the player. This is a good decision made by FiiO – smooth and free from crashing like X5 3rd Gen. Well done FiiO!


Streaming Services The FiiO M9 does not support Google Play Store but streaming services can be installed and supported by this DAP. It is a little confusing at first but after the first try it is pretty easy. Basically, you need to download apk file for the supported app from website using computer. Then, connect your M9 to the computer and copy the apk file to the storage. To install the app, go to file management and tap on the apk file. The app is now installed. Simple as that. I use Spotify frequently. M9 supported Spotify well. The speed is slightly slower as compared to phone, but it is considerably stable. If you need a dedicated DAP for streaming, M9 is a good choice.

Battery Life Under normal usage the M9 can last around 10 hours. This is advertised by FiiO on the website. True, the music playtime is around 9 hours using 2.5mm balanced output playing MP3 files. It is sufficient for me because I always have a habit to charge all my devices at night. M9 supports deep sleep mode. While in deep sleep (standby) mode the M9 can be still be used after a whopping 45 days! And being in deep sleep mode does not mean sacrificing convenience – just hit the power button, and the M9 instantly is ready to go. If you are pairing this DAP with a Bluetooth headphone, the battery life will surprise you – 30 hours on SBC codec. The battery can last as long as WH-1000XM3. One point added for M9 to be the on the go choice!


Bluetooth

The M9 uses Bluetooth 4.2 and supports virtually all Bluetooth formats including the high-resolution ones for your ultimate listening pleasure, including: 24-bit aptX HD (also backwards compatible with aptX), LDAC, and HWA. The DAP can act as a Bluetooth receiver too. FiiO has very good reputation built on Bluetooth connectivity by the launch of the BTR series. It is glad to see this DAP has the capability to do this too.


Output and Input (Both Digital and Analogue) The M9 utilizes the modern USB Type-C connector, which allows it to not only be used as a USB DAC but also allows output of digital audio signals to other devices through USB. Of course, USB Type-C also enables charging and file management on the M9 when connected to other devices. The M9 supports USB audio out (send digital audio bits through USB), with even support for DoP/D2P. Also, the M9 is one of the few players that can receive Bluetooth audio and output it through coaxial (SPDIF) out. I tested both USB out and Coaxial out of M9, they work flawlessly with the correct choice of cable.


The M9 contains both single-ended 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm audio jacks, for even more ways to listen with your headphones. The M9 also supports in-line controls in both CTIA (common with Android headsets) and iOS headsets. (With iOS headsets, only play/pause functionality is supported.)

The M9 can be used as an asynchronous USB DAC with both Macs and Windows PCs. With Mac computers, you can just plug-and-play the M9 with no drivers needed. With Windows PCs, a simple install of drivers by FiiO is needed. The M9 can also act as your computer's Bluetooth transmitter – simply hook the M9 up to your computer as a USB DAC, and then have the player transmit Bluetooth audio to your headset!


Specifications

  • CPU: Exynos 7270

  • RAM: 0.768 Gb LPDDR3

  • Rom: 2 Gb (+ 2Gb for the system)

  • DAC: 2x AK4490EN

  • LPF: Ti OPA 1612

  • BUF: 2x Ti OPA 1622

  • Sample rate: PCM: 8Hz – 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits) native – DSD64/128

  • System clock: Full synchronization technology with FPGA processor

  • Outputs: 3.5mm headphone out – line out – coax out / 2.5mm TRRS out

  • Digital Input: USB Type-C

  • Screen: 3.2″ 480×800 IPS Screen from LG

  • Micro SD: SDHC / SDXC (single slot)

  • USB DAC: Exynos 7270 Soc

  • WiFi : 2.4 GHz support

The specification sheets can be found on FiiO Website. For those who are interested can read from there. https://www.fiio.com/m9_parameters

The two AK4490EN DACs employed in the M9 feature a high signal-to-noise ratio, exceptional dynamic range, and low distortion – making for a precise yet exciting sound signature. Inside the M9 is a high-performance A3P030 FPGA, responsible for ensuring your music (whatever sample rate) is played back accurately by stabilizing digital clock signals. The FPGA also decodes DSD64/128 in hardware, which the M9 supports in ISO/DFF/DSF formats. The TI OPA1612 is used as the LPF, while the TI OPA1622 serves as the current buffer. To achieve single-ended and balanced output, there are two OPA1622 op-amps used that provide up to 77mW of power under a 300Ω load under balanced output.

Sound Finally, after so long we have arrived at the most important part of this review – sound performance. To examine and share this, I paired this DAP with my Campfire Nova (with Effect Audio Eros II 2.5mm terminated).


Being the TOTL of the M Series, M9 exhibits the house sound signature of FiiO. The overall sound signature is considerably balance and neutral. There is slight emphasis on mids. As a Mandopop lover, I might be a little bias here. I like such tuning. The spacing and soundstage of this DAP is moderate. With my Campfire Audio, the soundstage is acceptable. For those IEMs with slightly narrower soundstage, congestion might happen. The pairing is very important here. The presentation is clean – without noticeable hissing or noise. This made M9 surpass a lot of players in the market because this is one of the common issues for the new players in the DAP market. M9 is power and energetic. It should able to unleash the potential for most of the IEMs in the market without any problem. I will include some comparison after this part of the review.

Lows The FiiO M9 is different from the elder brother, X5 3rd Gen and X7 Mk II from series. Both of them from X series have more emphasis on the lows while M9 is more balanced. The lows attacks and decays in a fast pace without disturbing other region of the frequency spectrum. It is not a bass head choice but if you want a neutral and balance DAP, M9 is a good choice.

Mids This is the sweet spot of this DAP. Well-tuned. M9 has a rich and smooth mids. I love how’s the vocals, for both males and females are presented – Fill with souls, full of emotions and no compromise on the synergy. Basically, nothing bad to say about this region.

Highs I find there is a slightly early roll-off for this DAP. I think it will be better to extend a little bit and roll-off smoothly afterward. This could potentially cutdown the sharpness of IEMs if you are using a bright IEM. With my Nova, I wish the highs to be extended more. The highs are not harsh, very gentle to the extend of slightly shy. This will prevent fatigue causing after long listening.

Comparison

Opus #3 The soundstage of Opus #3 is wider as compared to M9. In this comparison, I find M9 is a more musical DAP because Opus #3 is slightly technical and analytical as compared to M9. The presentation of details is better for Opus #3. Opus #3 does not have Bluetooth receiver mode and coaxial output, but it has an optical output. This could be a factor to be considered when user choose between this 2. M9 is thinner and more pocket friendly as compared to Opus #3. FiiO has a very good design here.


Sony NW-ZX300 Tough choice. I like the implementation of 4.4mm balanced output by Sony because it is more rigid at the jack. The screen of M9 looks more attractive as compared to Sony because of the choice of screen. Sony used a matt screen to prevent fingerprints collection. In term of sound, the performance for low frequency of Sony is more pronounce and present. If you love kicking at the lows, Sony will be a better choice. Both of the DAPs have Bluetooth receiver mode and can be used as USB DAC. Sony has no optical or coaxial output, so the only way is to go through the 22 pins USB out.


Astell & Kern SR15 To be honest, this is an unfair comparison because the price of SR15 is almost twice of M9 is Singapore. Both players support 3rd party applications but M9 can support more variety of applications as compared to SR15. I find SR15 to be warm in the sound presentation. I am not a warm lover so I could be bias towards M9. The choice of USB port is a win for FiiO over here too. SR15 still using Micro-USB instead of the smarter and better USB-Type C. The coaxial output enables FiiO to be a great transport when attaching to external DAC.


FiiO X5 3rd Gen I always treat M9 as the upgrade of X5 3rd Gen although the price is lower. I have very bad experience with X5 3rd Gen especially the user interface - Non-stop crashing. This is disastrous. Although X5 3rd Gen supports Google play and user can download whatever applications through the service, I will rather opt for a smoother and more stable user interface which is equipped by M9. In term of sound, the soundstage of M9 is wider as compared to X5 3rd Gen. Overall, I prefer M9 as compared to X5 3rd Gen.


FiiO M7 M7 is the younger brother of M9 – a dedicated DAP with less function. I always love the sound of M7 – Clean and balanced. M9 has similar sound signature as M7. Go for M9 if you need streaming. If streaming is not your main concern, M7 is a good choice too. M9 has additional 2.5mm balanced output and coaxial output is supported. Value added!


Conclusion Being the bucket machine, FiiO saw that there wasn't any one player that combined all of the functions people want. Was there a player that could transmit the HWA/aptX/aptX HD/LDAC lossless Bluetooth codecs, even when used as a USB DAC? What about something that also contained a highly optimized audio circuit for excellent sound quality? Did any players also give the user an experience worthy of a flagship, capable of many features including Wi-Fi music streaming all in a slick interface? FiiO sought to change that with the M9 – which does all of this and more.

Well done FiiO!