What Are the Best Digital Audio Players in 2023?
Unlocking the World of Digital Audio Players (DAPs): Your Ultimate Guide
Digital audio players are one of those audiophile staples that seem excessive from an outside point of view. However, they are known for bringing great technology that can significantly bolster the fidelity of your music. Companies like Astell&Kern, IBasso, Shanling and Fiio have been developing portable players with Android operating systems that make it easier for audiophiles to listen to hi-res music on the go. But how do you choose the best one for you, and which DAP truly stands out in terms of sound quality?
How do I choose a Great Digital Audio Player?
Selecting the right DAP involves considering several crucial factors. First and foremost is your budget. DAPs come in various price ranges, so finding one that suits your wallet is essential. Whether you're on a tight budget or willing to splurge, there's a DAP out there for you.
Now, let's explore the best DAPs in different price ranges, addressing the question: "What are the Best Digital Audio Players in 2023?
What is the Best Budget DAP in 2023? (Under £400)
Shanling M3X HI Res Portable Player: Unleash Your Music at an Affordable Price
In the world of hi-res Digital Audio Players (DAPs), it's no secret that quality often comes with a hefty price tag. Audiophiles and music enthusiasts are frequently faced with the dilemma of choosing between top-tier audio fidelity and their budget. However, within the realm of high-resolution music, the Shanling M3X emerges as a beacon of affordability, without compromising on the essentials.
An Audiophile's Delight on a Budget:
When considering a DAP, the price range is undoubtedly a crucial factor. While there are renowned brands like HiBy and Cayin offering options at various price points, the Shanling M3X stands out as a prime example of exceptional value. Priced at a modest £369, this compact marvel delivers a remarkable package that goes beyond its cost.
Unmatched Performance at a Fraction of the Cost:
For those who crave sonic excellence without breaking the bank, the Shanling M3X is a revelation. Its price point, below the £500 mark, positions it as a cost-effective solution for music enthusiasts eager to venture into the world of hi-res audio.
But what truly sets the Shanling M3X apart is its ability to provide an uncompromising audio experience. The dual-DAC design integrated into the device elevates your music to levels of clarity and precision rarely seen in this price range. With sound resolution reaching an impressive 32bit/384kHz and DSD 256 support, the M3X transforms every note and beat into an immersive journey of sound.
Beyond its audio prowess, the Shanling M3X doesn't skimp on user-friendliness. Navigating your music library is a breeze, thanks to the familiar Android OS that powers the device. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor ensures that the user interface is snappy and responsive.
The device's 4.2-inch touchscreen is both compact and comfortable to hold, making it an ideal companion for your musical adventures on the go. It seamlessly merges the world of high-end audio with modern convenience, offering you a powerful tool to access your music collection effortlessly.
The Shanling M3X HI Res Portable Player not only defies the notion that quality always comes at a steep price but also sets a new standard for affordability within the realm of hi-res audio. With its remarkable dual-DAC design and an intuitive interface, it's a testament to the fact that you can have an audiophile-grade experience without breaking the bank. So, if you're looking to elevate your music listening without emptying your wallet, the Shanling M3X is a compelling choice that ensures you get the best bang for your buck in the world of portable hi-res audio.
IBasso DX170: Where Sleek Design Meets Audiophile Precision
In the realm of budget Digital Audio Players (DAPs), the IBasso DX170 emerges as a true gem that seamlessly marries aesthetics and sound quality. If you're in pursuit of a DAP that not only looks sleek but also delivers impeccable audio accuracy, then the DX170 should undoubtedly be on your radar.
A Visual Marvel:
One glance at the IBasso DX170, and you'll be captivated by its sleek and modern design. Sporting a generous 5-inch screen with exceptionally thin edges, this DAP is a visual marvel that mirrors the elegance of a premium smartphone. The slender bezels surrounding the screen enhance the device's aesthetics, making it as much a joy to behold as it is to listen to.
Precision in Sound:
While aesthetics are important, it's the DX170's audio performance that truly steals the spotlight. IBasso has gained a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to neutral sound tuning, and the DX170 proudly upholds this tradition. This means that the DX170 strives for sonic accuracy, faithfully reproducing your music without any artificial coloration or distortion.
Your Gateway to Audiophile-Level Sound:
For those who value precision and accuracy in their audio experience, the IBasso DX170 is a top choice in its price range. It excels in providing a clear and unadulterated representation of your music, allowing you to hear the subtle nuances and details that artists intended for you to discover.
Whether you're listening to a symphony, a rock ballad, or the latest electronic beats, the DX170's neutral sound signature ensures that each genre is faithfully rendered, allowing you to appreciate your music in its purest form.
Beyond the Sound:
The DX170 doesn't stop at delivering top-notch audio quality; it also provides a seamless user experience. Powered by Cirrus Logic DAC chips and RK3566 processors, this DAP ensures that your interaction with your music library is smooth and intuitive.
Navigating through your music collection, adjusting settings, and accessing your favorite tracks is a breeze, thanks to the device's well-optimized user interface. The DX170 makes it effortless to immerse yourself in your music world.
In the budget DAP arena, the IBasso DX170 stands tall as an embodiment of precision, both in design and sound. Its sleek appearance and commitment to neutral sound tuning make it a standout choice for audiophiles and music lovers alike.
If you crave accurate sound performance and a visual aesthetic that complements your musical passion, the DX170 should be at the top of your list. It offers an exceptional gateway into the world of audiophile-level sound, making your music journey an exquisite and immersive experience.
What is the Best Mid Budget DAP in 2023? (£450 - £1000)
The Shanling M3 Ultra – Your Ultimate Digital Audio Companion
Are you on the hunt for the perfect digital audio player? Look no further than the Shanling M3 Ultra. This exceptional portable player combines cutting-edge technology with a sleek design, delivering an unrivalled audio experience.
The M3 Ultra operates on an Android-based, open system, offering full support for third-party applications. What sets it apart is the AGLO platform, a proprietary development by Shanling. It ingeniously bypasses Android's built-in sample rate conversion, ensuring lossless decoding even in third-party apps. Personalisation is at your fingertips, as you can customize your audio experience by downloading various hi-res players from market apps like Google Play and APKPure.
Now, let's delve into the hardware specifications of the M3 Ultra. Under its hood, you'll find the Snapdragon 665 chip, an entry-level powerhouse, backed by 3 GB of RAM and a capacious 32 GB of ROM. Shanling has thoughtfully incorporated a substantial 3500 mAh battery, ensuring your music never misses a beat.
When it comes to audio components, the M3 Ultra doesn't compromise. It boasts dual ESS Technology ES9019C chips and Ricore's RT6863 amplifiers in a dual configuration. The inclusion of 4 ELNA capacitors and Panasonic Tantalum-Polymer capacitors elevates the sound quality to new heights. The device is further enhanced by FPGA and KDS oscillators, featuring a fully-balanced architecture. Here's a snapshot of its key specs:
- - Snapdragon 665 CPU, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB ROM, Android 10
- - Dual ES9019C DAC + Dual RT6863 AMP, with ELNA & Panasonic Caps
- - Shanling’s Proprietary FPGA with KDS Crystal Oscillators
- - 3500 mAh Battery with QC3.0 18W Quick Charging
- - 4.4mm BAL 260mW @32-ohm | 3.5mm SE 140mW @32-ohm
- - Bluetooth 5 LDAC, AptX HD, SBC, AAC + Wireless 2.4/5Ghz
- - USB DAC Feature + 16x MQA Support
- - Expandable MicroSD storage up to 2TB
- - 4.2-inch 1280×768 Touch Display
- - Dimensions: 109x70x18mm, Weight: 199g
Design and Craftsmanship:
The M3 Ultra is not just about performance; it's a work of art. Shanling's expertise in creating visually appealing and durable players is evident. The aluminum body exudes sturdiness, and the curved edges offer a comfortable grip. Despite its compact form, it's eminently portable. The 4.2-inch touchscreen is responsive, if slightly less dense than premium models like the M6 Ultra, but still offers clear visuals.
A USB-C port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a 4.4mm balanced output grace the device, all exuding quality. Notably, the slightly protruding front and rear panels add a touch of sophistication, especially under direct light. The M3 Ultra's unique blend of aluminium and glass is a tactile delight. The only minor gripe is the plastic cover for the microSD slot, but that's a small price for such a stylish device.
A Symphony of Sound:
The M3 Ultra's audio signature is a blend of warmth and precision. With a subtle emphasis on the bass and mid-bass regions, it offers a pleasingly warm sound. The mid-range benefits from the amplifier section's touch of warmth, resulting in a smooth, ear-pleasing tonality. This sound signature follows Shanling's signature tuning, ensuring a universally appealing listening experience.
The low end is thick, powerful, and well-controlled, making it perfect for a variety of music genres. The midrange is rich, detailed, and musical, with breathy and articulate vocals. Guitars and other mid-based instruments feel dynamic and fluid, with a hint of warmth in their timbre. The treble is smooth, avoiding any harshness.
The M3 Ultra doesn't just sound great; it's a technical marvel. While it may not have the most expansive soundstage, it offers accurate imaging and a focused stage, making it highly engaging. Vocals are center-stage, and tracking individual instruments is effortless. It handles complex musical passages with ease, ensuring a spacious and clear presentation.
Balanced vs. Unbalanced:
For audiophiles, the balanced output is where the M3 Ultra truly shines. It offers more space, detail, transparency, and improved dynamics compared to the single-ended output. The imaging and instrument placement are notably superior. If possible, opt for the balanced mode. If not, the single-ended output is still respectable.
In a showdown with the M3X, the M3 Ultra comes out as a different beast altogether. Despite sharing the same DACs, the M3 Ultra offers a more musical and effortless sound, while the M3X leans towards a linear and dry signature. The M3 Ultra boasts significant improvements in CPU, RAM, and connectivity, running on a newer Android OS with Google Play readily available.
The Shanling M3 Ultra is not just a digital audio player; it's a masterpiece. Its robust build, rich feature set, and unique tonality make it a standout choice in its price range. Whether you're a seasoned audiophile or simply seeking a top-notch portable music companion, the M3 Ultra should be at the top of your list.
Its extensive connectivity options, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB, offer flexibility galore. With its AGLO-enabled Android 10 platform, customisation knows no bounds. You might find yourself enjoying your streaming services even more than your local tracks.
All in all, the Shanling M3 Ultra is an exceptional entry/mid-tier digital audio player that promises outstanding performance and versatility in a compact and portable package. It's the perfect choice for those who savour a smoother, more musical listening experience compared to its more analytical competitors.
Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 : An Evolution in Portable Audio
When unboxing the Astell & Kern A&norma SR35, you can't help but experience a sense of déjà vu. It's a bit like watching a classic movie you've seen countless times. This feeling is not unfounded, as the SR35 marks the fourth iteration of this portable music player in as many years. Its appearance hasn't changed much either, akin to Mickey Mouse's timeless design. One might wonder if Astell & Kern is competing with the annual smartphone launch cycle or simply striving for continuous improvement. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and opt for the latter.
Compared to its predecessor, the A&norma SR25 MKII, the SR35 has indeed undergone significant enhancements in features and performance. However, it comes with a price increase of £100. While the Astell&KErn SR35 might push the boundaries of the "entry-level" category, it remains a more budget-friendly option compared to Astell&Kern's higher-end Kann Max (£1199 / $1300 / AU$1899).
What sets the SR35 apart is its incorporation of Astell & Kern's in-house-designed New Generation AMP technology and a quad-DAC arrangement, allowing you to harness all four Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chips for a more immersive audio experience. Alternatively, you can select Dual mode for times when power efficiency takes precedence over sound quality. These technologies are part of Astell & Kern's "ultimate sound" Teraton Alpha platform, designed to minimize noise and maximize performance.
- - Music files: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
- - Storage: 64GB
- - MicroSD slot: Yes
- - Charging: USB-C
- - Battery life: 20 hours
- - Dimensions: 10.8 x 6.4 x 1.6cm
- - Weight: 184g
The SR35 also introduces Dual Band Wi-Fi (2.4/5GHz) for enhanced network stability, making it ideal for Roon Ready support and streaming from platforms like Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music, Apple Music, and more. Two-way Bluetooth now supports the 5.0 standard and comes with aptX HD and LDAC codecs. Additionally, a new user interface has been implemented.
Aside from these functional upgrades and performance enhancements, the SR35 retains the features that made its predecessor an award-winning player. These include three headphone outputs (3.5mm, 4.4mm, and 2.5mm), native playback of MQA, DSD256, and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz files, 64GB of built-in storage (expandable up to 1TB via a microSD card), and the ability to use the player as a performance-enhancing DAC device between your wired headphones and a laptop.
The SR35 maintains its 20-hour battery life, but this claim is based on continuous playback of CD-quality music at moderate volume in Dual DAC mode. Expect slightly lower endurance if you're indulging in a hi-res library at high volume in Quad DAC mode.
Overall, the SR35 is a well-equipped player that strikes a balance between functionality and simplicity. Unlike some portable music players that adopt full Android operating systems and a plethora of apps, the SR35 focuses on essential device settings and integrated streaming service support. While the interfaces of the integrated streaming services may differ slightly from their Android and iOS counterparts, they are still user-friendly and familiar.
Visually, the SR35 maintains the geometrically quirky aluminum casework and sleek finish that has become its signature. Its compact dimensions (108 x 64 x 16mm) make it pocketable and easy to operate with one hand. However, the increased price tag does little to enhance its perceived value.
One consequence of its size is a relatively small 3.6-inch screen, which means limited space for touchscreen controls. While this is generally sufficient for playback and navigation, precision is required when typing in login credentials for services like Tidal.
The SR35 introduces a new crimson red and black interface, which is visually more appealing than the previous grey. According to Astell & Kern, this color combination "lowers visual fatigue."
In terms of sound, the SR35 delivers a punchy and rhythmically engaging performance that keeps you tapping along to upbeat tracks and delves into the nuances of calmer ones. This is characteristic of Astell & Kern's signature sound, which remains consistent across its models. The tonal balance leans slightly towards richness, offering a blend of power and finesse that most headphones will complement well. When used as a budget-level DAC with headphones, it performs admirably, sitting somewhere between the AudioQuest DragonFly Red and Cobalt DACs in terms of quality.
The SR35 effortlessly handles various music genres, conveying dynamic expression and capturing finer details, particularly in 24-bit/192kHz PCM files. It strikes a balance between verve and control, ensuring nothing feels rushed or messy. While its soundstage may not be as expansive as that of the cheaper FiiO M11S, it compensates with greater clarity, subtlety, and rhythmic cohesion. The SR35 offers a sophisticated, next-level performance that surpasses most budget players.
In Dual DAC mode, there is a noticeable drop in clarity, dynamism, and subtlety, so it's best reserved for situations when battery life is a concern. For optimal performance, Quad DAC and Normal AMP modes, with the 'Low Latency Fast' DAC filter activated, are the preferred choices. Balanced connections also enhance the experience, particularly with high-quality balanced headphones.
While Astell&Kern may no longer cater to the budget music player market, the A&norma SR35 excels in the mid-range category. It may not look like its price tag suggests, but there's no doubt about its performance. If you're building a serious personal listening setup or looking to enhance your hi-fi system, the SR35 is a reliable choice.
What is the Best High End Flagship DAP in 2023 (> £1000+)
The iBasso DX320: A Familiar Marvel in Modern Design
When it comes to the iBasso DX320, it's hard not to notice the uncanny resemblance it bears to its predecessor, the DX300. This striking device is nothing short of a monolithic masterpiece, carved meticulously from aluminium with bonded glass panels on both sides, available in a sleek dark blue or black hue. Compared to its forerunners like the DX220 and DX240, the DX320 is a significant step up, solidifying its position as one of the most opulent Digital Audio Players (DAPs) on the market – it even challenges my mighty A&K SP1000 in certain aspects.
One of the standout features of the DX320 is its impressive screen-to-body ratio, surpassing that of FiiO or Astell&Kern devices. The front panel is nearly entirely covered by the expansive display, with only a small bezel at the bottom, a far cry from the notch on my new MacBook Pro. In terms of ergonomics, the DX320 excels, although there are two small gaps at the lower part to facilitate amp card changes, which might not be visually appealing to everyone. Nevertheless, iBasso has undoubtedly succeeded in the design department with this player.
In summary, the DX320 maintains the same design with a few minor alterations, like the absence of gold on the scroll-wheel and the addition of a geeky LED window on the backside for the new KORG amp module, which we'll delve into later.
Layout-wise, not much has changed from its predecessor. The scroll wheel is still present, albeit with a silvery finish instead of gold plating, offering the same satisfying semi-haptic feedback that emulates the feel of a true analog wheel. Just below the wheel, you'll find the familiar trio of playback control buttons – play/pause, next song, and previous song – enhancing usability, especially in blind operation. On the opposite side, the micro-SD port is easily accessible, avoiding the need for a rubber cover or tray-cart, making card swaps on the go a breeze. On the top side, you'll spot the USB-C port for data and charging, along with a mini-coax port to connect the DX320 to an external DAC.
It's worth noting that the DX320 no longer supports previous-generation modular amps, which might disappoint some users. However, the device ships with a versatile stock amp that offers 4.4mm Pentaconn, 2.5mm TRRS, and 3.5mm outputs.
Now, let's shift our focus to the screen. The DX320 continues iBasso's tradition of offering one of the finest displays on a DAP. The new 6.5-inch 2340x1080 LTPS IPS screen is nothing short of breathtaking. To this day, no other player can match the DX320 in terms of display quality, and iBasso has exceeded expectations once again. While the pixel density of 397ppi is slightly lower than the DX160's 445ppi, the higher resolution and larger screen size make the DX320 the clear winner. The screen's brightness is impressive, colors are vibrant, and it can easily compete with some modern smartphones in terms of visual quality. With a 19.5:9 aspect ratio and minimal bezels, the DX320 stands out as the best-looking player currently available, regardless of category. Album covers appear crisp, fonts are sharper, and the overall user experience is simply outstanding.
With the screen covered, let's explore the contents of the DX320 bundle before delving into its specifications and user interface.
In The Box
The iBasso DX320 bundle is well-rounded, including:
- - The iBasso DX320 itself
- - The AMP13 amp card
- - An USB-C cable
- - A coaxial cable
- - A glass screen protector
- - A quick-start manual
- - A new leather case
User Interface & Usage
One significant upgrade is the integration of Android 11.0, setting the DX320 apart from other DAPs. While this doesn't dramatically change the user interface or usage, it noticeably improves the responsiveness of the interface. The Qualcomm 660 CPU, supported by 6GB of RAM, ensures swift navigation across apps, making the DX320 feel remarkably snappy. This improvement is particularly appreciated by DAP users like myself, as it sets the DX320 apart from its competitors in terms of day-to-day usability.
The inclusion of a new WiFi chipset supporting 2x2 MIMO and 5GHz is another standout feature. This enhancement provides a seamless wireless experience, eliminating the bottlenecks often associated with DAPs. The DX320's WiFi capabilities are akin to upgrading from ADSL to Fiber, allowing for on-the-fly music downloads. Streaming apps like Qobuz, Spotify, and Amazon Music work seamlessly, and for those wondering, Apple Music functions on the DX320 once Google Play services are installed.
The DX320 offers a choice between the new Android experience and the proprietary Mango Player. Mango Player, now in its 5th generation, serves as both a third-party app and a separate operating system developed by iBasso, based on Linux-HiFi. While it was once possible to completely turn off the Android experience, this option is no longer available. However, the Mango Player has seen significant improvements in terms of usability and bug fixes, making it a solid choice for music playback. It offers various sorting options, excellent equalizer settings, and stability improvements, thanks to software updates.
In terms of connectivity, the DX320 adopts a USB-C connector, which offers excellent transfer rates with USB 3.1 support. The DAP is compatible with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, Power Delivery 2.0, and MTK PE Plus Quick charge, ensuring fast charging capabilities. The device provides 128GB of internal storage, on par with some Astell&Kern players, and relies on micro-SD cards for additional storage, supporting various types and sizes up to 2TB. Be cautious of counterfeit micro-SD cards in the market and verify their authenticity before purchasing.
Notably, the USB-C port supports two-way transfers, allowing the DX320 to function as a DAC when connected to a computer or as a source when paired with an external DAC.
Battery Life and Charging
The DX320 boasts a unique Dual Battery Power Supply Structure, with separate batteries for the Digital and amp sections. These batteries are rated at 2000mAh and 4000mAh, respectively, and take approximately 2.5 hours to charge. In single-ended mode, they offer an impressive 15 hours of playback time. Even with WiFi enabled and using my customary CIEM, the device came close to achieving the claimed 14 hours of playback time. Charging times may vary depending on the type of USB port used, with modern USB-C ports providing significantly faster charging than traditional USB ports.
Equipped with apt-X, AAC/SBC, and LDAC support, the DX320 features a Bluetooth 5.0 chip. While LDAC, AAC, and SBC offer bidirectional support, apt-X (HD) is limited to transmitting music to headphones or speakers, not receiving. Overall, the Bluetooth functionality works seamlessly, offering a convenient option for those whose smartphones lack a headphone output. When compared to DNLA, the DX320's Bluetooth capabilities provide direct control on the device but may result in the loss of album cover display.
The DX320 maintains the same overall signature as its predecessor, offering exceptional sound quality with rich textures, impeccable layering, and a refined sound profile reminiscent of the A&K SE180. In fact, the DX320's sound quality places it closer to A&K than FiiO in terms of detail retrieval, with sharp highs and neutral mids.
Compared to the DX300, the DX320 slightly emphasizes the bass while dialing back the highs, resulting in a more relaxed sound signature. This adjustment, although subtle, contributes to a less dry listening experience. Overall, the DX320 retains its flagship-level sound quality, capable of delivering astonishing results with the right tracks and headphones.
The DX320 excels in dynamics, especially when using the 4.4mm output, although it narrows the gap between single-ended and balanced outputs compared to its predecessor. The 4.4mm Pentaconn output offers a spacious soundstage, but the 3.5mm output maintains natural, well-controlled vocals and instruments, especially on headphones like the HD800S. The device's substantial power reserve ensures solid bass performance.
The DX320's sound signature shines when paired with high-quality headphones, offering precision, clarity, and a pitch-black background. It excels at capturing nuances and details, enhancing the overall listening experience. Compared to other players like the FiiO M11 Plus ESS or the Shanling M6 Pro 21, the DX320 injects a touch of magic expected from a player in its price range.
For those who prefer streaming apps, the DX320, with its new software, eliminates Android's usual sound processing, resulting in a more faithful representation of the original recording. When compared head-to-head with its predecessor, the DX320 exhibits a more natural and less congested sound, although the difference is not drastic.
The iBasso DX320 is an exceptional performer, offering a sound signature that competes with the best in the market. It excels in highs with sharp distinction, maintains a powerful yet clean output, and delivers a captivating listening experience. Priced at £1399, it may not be budget-friendly, but it outperforms many players, some of which are significantly more expensive. Its only drawback is its substantial size, resembling two iPhone Max devices merged together. However, if you prioritise audio quality and feature-rich performance, the DX320 is a compelling choice.
FiiO M17 TOTL Flagship Player : Unleashing a Portable Audio Powerhouse
In a realm of its own, the FiiO M17 emerges as a trailblazing player from the renowned brand. This latest addition ushers in a new era of portable audio devices, boasting enhanced performance, a larger display, a robust build, and an array of geeky features like RGB lighting and a separate DC input.
FiiO's M17 redefines the high-end player category, pushing the boundaries of what's possible. It's a heavyweight contender, both figuratively and literally, with a design that sets it apart. The M17 dwarfs even the iBasso DX320, making the latter seem diminutive by comparison. FiiO has gone all out with this player, crafting a thick, imposing aluminium chassis with sharp corners and eye-catching RGB lighting, reminiscent of a gaming PC.
In terms of dimensions, the M17 is massive, measuring 156.4 mm in height, 88.5 mm in width, 28 mm in thickness, and weighing a hefty 610g without the leather case. This makes it nearly twice as heavy as the FiiO M11S and around 30% larger. Holding the M17, it feels like a powerful tool, ready for any challenge.
As expected from FiiO, the build quality is impeccable, with no visible gaps and premium materials throughout. The front panel is protected by Gorilla glass, while the back panel boasts a sumptuous diamond-like finish. The case itself is meticulously CNC-machined matte black aluminium. The volume knob is substantial and offers precise control.
While the M17 is undeniably substantial, it's built to stand the test of time.
Layout and Display
At first glance, the layout of the FiiO M17 closely resembles that of the M11 Plus, with a few notable additions. On the left side, you'll find buttons for previous/next track, play/pause, a non-tray micro-SD card slot, and a versatile "do-it-all" button. There's also a hold switch to lock all the buttons. On the right side, you'll find the classic power on/off button, volume controls, and a DC/Batt switch for those using the DC power supply.
With a larger body, the screen has also received an upgrade. The M17 features a 5.99-inch wide IPS screen, one inch larger than the M11S. It boasts a 2160x1080 resolution, 16.7 million colors, "retina" 300PPI definition, and a remarkable 92% screen-to-body ratio. FiiO proudly touts its nearly borderless screen, though a small black bar remains at the bottom. The screen also offers a wider viewing angle, faster refresh rate, and vivid colors, all powered by Android 10 and a more capable CPU.
Bundle and Accessories
The FiiO M17 arrives well-equipped. Inside the box, you'll discover the M17 itself, a leather case with an aluminum grille, a USB-C cable, a micro-SD card ejector pin, an external DC adapter, and an intriguing cooling stand fan. Yes, you read that correctly, the M17 comes with a cooling stand fan, or ventilated cradle if you prefer. This dock, powered by a USB-C port, is designed for users planning to integrate the player into a desktop setup, connecting it to a power amp or high-end headphones. However, note that the port only accommodates a single USB-C cable, preventing simultaneous charging and refreshing of the player.
User Interface and Usage
The FiiO M17 runs on Android 10.0, similar to the M11 Plus ESS and LTD. This ensures a smooth user experience, complete with features like dark mode, gestures, and access to the full Google Play Store. You can install third-party apps, including popular music streaming services like Qobuz, Tidal, and even Apple Music, for those seeking true Hi-Res streaming. FiiO's own market app is pre-installed for users who prefer not to create a Google account.
Compared to its predecessors, the M17 offers a significantly improved user interface. It boasts faster boot-up speeds, quicker firmware upgrades, better app compatibility, and a more seamless overall experience. In summary, it's a substantial enhancement in terms of UI and usability.
The FiiO M17 retains the familiar navigation menu found in other FiiO players, now in a larger form factor. This consistency is a positive, as previous FiiO players excelled in this regard.
What's particularly noteworthy is the noticeable increase in responsiveness. The new CPU and UI combine to provide a snappier performance, smoothing out every action, from downloading tracks to exploring new apps or navigating within them. It's one of the best user experiences available currently.
Streaming, DNLA, and FiiO Link
With Google Play Store certification, installing third-party apps on any FiiO player is a breeze with a Wi-Fi connection. FiiO Link remains available, allowing you to control your player via Bluetooth pairing with your smartphone. It offers a seamless experience, similar to the Hiby Link on Hiby and Cayin players, albeit limited to Android devices.
AirPlay support is also present, although it's not as prominently displayed as in earlier M11/M15 models. To access AirPlay mode, you'll need to swipe from top to bottom, click on "Mode Choose," and then select the AirPlay mode. Once activated, you can stream your music directly to the M17, with a maximum resolution of 16bit/48kHz, surpassing Bluetooth but falling short of direct access to your HD streaming service.
The FiiO Music app, while not the only option, stands out as a smart choice for the M17. It's fast, reliable, easy to use, and among the best player apps available. The app allows you to scan your SD card or internal storage to access your music, provides NAS access for network play, enables wireless file transfers between your player and other devices, and includes an equaliser. It's a potent app, particularly with the HiBy UI.
Battery Life and Charging
The M17 takes the already substantial battery of the M11S and takes it up a notch. With a massive 9200mAh lithium cobalt oxide battery, it surpasses most competitors, even those with dual batteries. Charging is lightning-fast with USB-PD and QC4.0 compliance, delivering up to 30W of power. However, a full charge still takes approximately 4.5 hours.
FiiO claims 10 hours of continuous playback and up to 1000 days of deep sleep. In real-world usage, the player approached these figures, reaching about 10 hours and 30 minutes with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth active, although using single-ended output exclusively.
In terms of connectivity, the M17 boasts the standard USB Type-C port for fast data transfer and quick charging. Additionally, it includes a separate USB-C port labeled as USB Host, dedicated to providing a clean USB channel from a digital source.
The M17's size and weight make it less than ideal for daily carry. While not impossible, it's challenging to accommodate in your pocket or jacket without hindrance. It adds a considerable bulge to your bag, akin to carrying a flagship smartphone with an oversized battery pack
Once settled, however, the M17 reveals its charms. The analog/digital volume controller has been significantly improved, offering an exceptionally smooth potentiometer. Side buttons provide an alternative for volume control, but the knob proves more enjoyable to use. The new, larger screen enhances the user experience, making navigation through playlists and apps a breeze. The honeycomb-shaped buttons add a touch of style, and the "shortcut" button offers extensive configuration options, such as filters, playback modes, and USB DAC functions.
The FiiO M17 delivers on its promise of being a true flagship. Its sound signature combines exceptional power with balanced lows, clear highs, and vibrant vocals, offering a harmonious blend of fun and neutrality.
One of the standout features of the M17 is its immense power, surpassing all previous players tested by the reviewer, even in single-ended mode. It comfortably competes with desktop gear like the HiFiman EF400 and SMSL DO200+HO200 setup. A wide range of headphones, including the Audeze LCD-X, Sennheiser HD800S, Meze Empyrean, and HiFiman HE-6, posed no challenge for the M17, especially when using the 4.4mm/2.5mm output. The enhanced mode, if ever needed, can be overwhelming. Additionally, users can utilize the provided power supply to bypass the internal battery, increasing the analog circuit voltage by 35%, further unleashing its potential.
The M17 offers four levels of gain (low/mid/high/bazook) to accommodate various headphones and IEMs. The low-level gain proved sufficient for most IEMs, while the mid-level gain worked well with headphones. The player delivers one of the cleanest and blackest soundstages available in a portable player, with only Tempotec offering slight competition in this aspect.
Dynamic performance is superb, especially when using the 4.4mm/2.5mm output. With headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT900 Pro X and Sennheiser HD800S, vocals sound natural and precise, easily distinguishable in the soundstage. The upper mids are more pronounced compared to the previous M11S, enhancing micro-details and overall clarity.
While Cirrus Logic and AKM have made significant advancements, the ESS sound signature remains a favourite, offering richer mids, greater authority, and enhanced realism, especially with the 9038pro series. The M17 handles various music genres with ease, from electro and jazz to classical and rock, presenting an accurate and engaging audio experience.
In a league of its own, the FiiO M17 rivals larger, more expensive DAC and amp combinations, offering high-end audio quality in a portable form factor.
The FiiO M17 transcends expectations, setting a new standard for portable audio players. Its robust build, user-friendly interface, and exceptional sound quality make it a true flagship device. While its size and weight may challenge daily portability, the M17's performance and feature set more than compensate for its bulk. FiiO has once again proven its dedication to delivering premium audio experiences to discerning enthusiasts.