We fondly remember our first-generation digital music players, most of which featured a small amount of storage, no display, no controls other than a volume control track forward or back, and a play button. But at least they played MP3s! Does anyone miss their Sandisk Rio?
The first Apple iPod brought it all together. The iPod was an actual disruptive product - not so much the iPod unit itself, but the ecosystem it spawned. The real revolution was that our need for carbon or physical sources for music was suddenly irrelevant. Jump forward a few years, and players of all sizes, costs, and features were abundant. But, for audiophiles or serious music lovers, there was a limited selection. Certainly a number of earlier models seemed more like prototypes than truly finished products. That all changed with Astell & Kern's superb players, providing not only a benchmark, but encouraging competition.
Enter FiiO, a Chinese company that emerged onto the scene with a reputation for feature-packed, quality products, at distinctly affordable prices. Their new FiiO M9 Digital Audio Music Player is a product that meets the competition head on. The M9 boasts a wide array of features and technology, including the new Sony LDAC wireless format, HWA, gesture operation, wi-fi streaming, a nifty RGB indicator for different formats, bi-directional Bluetooth, and an 8-layer HDI Printed Circuit Board, not that it matters. The circuit board is buried inside the M9 so you will never see it, and the heck with all those players with those crummy, old-fashioned 7-layer boards. It's comforting to listen to music while dreams of 8-layer boards dance in your dreams.
It is powered by Samsung Exynos 7270 14nm dual-core CPU running at 1GHz, which is also at the heart of several of their other models. By comparison, their flagship model, the M11, uses the Exynos 7872 14nm CPU. The DACs are two of the well-regarded AK4490EN chips. According to AKM, “The AK4490 is a new generation premium 32-bit DAC based on AKM’s VELVET SOUND architecture.” While some listeners feel as though they can readily tell the difference between premium DAC chipsets, we feel that it’s more likely they are hearing the implementation. Either way, the M9 boasts some serious hardware.
The 3.2-inch LG IPS screen is bright and colorful, with good saturation and contrast. We like the size - it’s not too large, nor so small that it would be easy to lose your grip and drop it. It has one Micro SD slot, 768MB of RAM, and a 4GB ROM, and runs a customized variant of Android as its operating system. It also has DNLA, DSD support, 4 output options - a 3.5mm mini jack, SPDIF, 2.5mm balanced output, and USB-Type C audio output. The M9 also uses the Type C port for charging. According to FiiO, headphone impedance extends to 300 ohms with 120 volume steps, and it weighs just over 5 ounces. You can order a silver or black model - we chose is black and appreciate its beautiful and robust fit and finish. Since the DAC is asynchronous, you can also use it as an external USB DAC with either Mac OSX or Windows OS.
It can decode just about any file format you throw at it, as well as lossless Bluetooth wireless codecs such as LDAC, aptX, 24-bit aptX HD, SBC, and HWA, and in our tests, the Bluetooth worked flawlessly. We used the 1MORE Triple Driver BT in-Ear Headphones, to test the LDAC codec functionality, as they are the only LDAC products we had on hand for testing, and our previous reviews found them to be a seriously musical product. For loudspeaker aptX HD testing, we used the reliable and excellent sounding Audioengine A5+ Active 2-Way Speakers. In all our tests, the M9 Bluetooth worked seamlessly, with audio quality that rivaled corded operation.
With the M9, and a set of lossless capable headphones or speakers, it’s clear why lossless wireless is where the industry is headed, even in that rarefied audiophile land. With so little audio loss, it’s a welcome development. The M9 is perfect for an audiophile grade portable music player with the latest in wireless connectivity.
The M9 ships with USB type-C cable, but no charger. It includes a clear rubber case, and a coaxial output. We were disappointed that FiiO didn’t include an RCA or balanced output cables, which limited our testing; many users will need to place an additional order. We plan to obtain those cables, and we will update this review with additional testing after we have the chance to try them out.
Ergonomically, the M9 represents a new design for FiiO, and a welcome departure from the past. The M9 fits nicely into the hand, with gentle curves, and a smooth texture. The gold-plated output jacks are a nice touch, both for aesthetic reasons (they break up the all black design) and audio connectivity. The buttons are all on the left side, and the touch sensitive screen makes it as easy to use as a mobile phone. It takes roughly a couple of hours to charge. We updated the firmware to the current version, 1.0.4, which be updated either wirelessly or using the SD card. We found it faster and easier to update firmware using the SD card.
The M9 comes with some preloaded apps, Tidal, MOOV, and FiiO Music. Two other apps, KKBOX & NetWase Music are only for China or Asian countries. You can add apps, but it’s a bit of a convoluted process, since users will lack the ease of the App Store. Adding apps isn’t difficult, but finding them can be a bit of a journey since there are so many sites offering downloads, it can be tough to figure out if you're actually getting clean, virus-free, and unmodified versions. As we mentioned before, if there's a file format the M9 doesn’t support, you probably shouldn’t be using it. The list of formats includes every one we have ever seen, so no need to list them here, and the dedicated FiiO Music app plays them without a hitch. We did have a problem updating the preloaded version of Tidal, which despite a notice that it was out of date and needed updating, the update process always failed. We're still working on updating it.
How did it sound? Great! We think of the M9's audio signature as flat and neutral, without a hint of coloration. This is one of the cleanest sounding digital audio players we have used to date, capable of subtle nuances and quick transitions. We ended up adding a bit of a bass boost when out and about in the noisy urban landscape, and a bit more of a subtle bass boost at home or in more quiet surroundings. When we reviewed the FiiO E-17 Alpen DAC/Headphone Amp some years ago, we found it a bit harsh in the high end, so the M9’s flat response, without a hint of grain or strain, was a lovely improvement. Some units have great specs, but somehow, feel fatiguing in use. Not so with the M9, which seemed to just disappear in use, especially when tossed in a backpack or zipped into a jacket. Once it was connected and streaming audio, all was well with the world.
Loading up a memory card provided hours of music, no matter the format, sampling rate, or bit depth, and we found the amplifier was able to handle some demanding headphones. Using the superb new flagship Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000 headphones ($2,000), the combination of the M9, and the ATH-ADX5000, reproduced every genre of music we listened to with ease, clarity, and astounding soundstage. The ATH-ADX5000 are quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best headphones on the market, and the M9 was happy powering them up.
Listening to the high-resolution version of “Jazz,” the new Casey Abrams title from Chesky Records, the tracks reveled in the subtleties of Abrams’ acoustic bass and vocals. Chesky is known for their meticulous production values, microphone placements, and spaciousness. Jazz not only showcases Abrams in his milieu, it does so with a sublime joy. Our favorite is his rendition of "Blackbird," which features the sparest of arrangements, just his bass and vocals. The plucking of the bass, the texture of Abrams' and voice, the all-enveloping ambience and warmth of the room were believably musical.
We wanted to switch to Qobuz, so we installed a recent release of the Qobuz APK, on our Kingston Micro SD card, then loaded it onto the player. Using the File Management app, one simply taps on the app, locates the app, and it will then install, with no hassles. A few minutes later, we logged in, set up the account, and away we went, streaming a variety of high-res titles. Favorites included the 2018 edition of the Beatles “White Album,”Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars,” and the new release from Bob Dylan, “Rolling Thunder Revue, The 1975 Live Recordings.”
To provide some down and dirty grit, we played one of our favorite albums, “Hard Again” with Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter and backed by guitarist Bob Margolin, pianist Pinetop Perkins, and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. Other backing members during the sessions were harmonicist James Cotton, who performed with Waters at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, and bassist Charles Calmese. “Hard Again” has arguably the best version of “Mannish Boy” recorded, and while we wait for a deluxe remastered treatment, the 44/16 version sounds great. Cranking up the M9 brought it to life, oozing the pulsing sexual energy that the song grooves on when played properly - the “Hard Again” version almost melts your headphones. Although Qobuz has yet to stream a fine shot of bourbon to go with the tunes, here’s hoping a future version will. We are fast fans of Qobuz, as they stream unencoded high-res files, unlike Tidal, whose high-res files require MQA unfolding to sound their best.
Frank Schramm, one of Mac Edition Radio’s most enigmatic and inscrutable contributors, was ready to fight us for the M9. Somehow, we were able to trick him by diverting his attention with a nice glass of Bordeaux. And while he was swirling the wine around his glass, endlessly pontificating about the vino, we grabbed the M9, and beat it out the back door. Coming from a vinyl and analog perspective, Frank is especially tuned to the musicality of the audio, not the tech specs, and he declared the M9 as sounding warm, musical, and inviting. He found it easy to use, and loved the long battery life. High praise indeed, from a tough critic, especially when his wine glass is empty.
For the music lover on the go who's looking for a feature-packed, no compromise, beautifully built, audiophile-grade digital audio player with the latest hardware, great specs, and superbly musical and non-colored sound, look no further than the FiiO M9 Music Player. The FiiO M9 Music Player comes highly recommended.
Harris Fogel, Nancy Burlan, and Frank Schramm, posted 6/17/2019
For more information on the FiiO M9 Music Player visit: https://www.fiio.com/m9
For more information on Chesky Records visit: http://www.chesky.com/
For more information on Qobuz visit: https://www.qobuz.com/us-en/discover
For more information on the 1MORE Triple Driver BT in-Ear Headphones visit: https://usa.1more.com
For more information on the Audioengine A5+ Active 2-Way Speakers visit: https://audioengineusa.com/shop/wirelessspeakers/a5-wireless/