Today we’re checking out a new digital audio player (DAP) from FiiO, the M3 Pro.
The M3 series has been a staple in FiiO’s budget DAP lineup for a few years now, seeing two versions prior to the Pro model we’re checking out today. First there was the M3 in 2016, the M3K in 2018, and now the M3 Pro here in 2020. Each update has improved the specs and updated the interface with the M3 Pro culminating in the most advanced and modern feeling M3 to date.
I’ve been using this DAP daily since the end of April, testing it with a variety of products ranging from sub 10 USD earphones (ex. KZ ED9) to triple digit premium headphones (ex. Campfire Audio Cascade), and have come away plenty impressed. In my time with the M3 Pro it has proven to be a versatile device and a solid daily driver.
Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Packaging and Accessories The M3 Pro comes in a reasonably compact package that is perfectly sized and set up for retail stores. The exterior sheath displays a clean image of the M3 Pro on the ‘now playing’ screen, alongside the usual branding, model info, and Hi-Res Audio logo. Flipping to the rear you find pretty much nothing useful, minus dimensions (95.8mm x 45.4mm x 10.4mm) and approximate weight (70g). Sliding off the sheath reveals a tough plastic tray inlet with a foam insert protecting the M3 Pro, and a smaller cardboard box containing a long Type-A to Type-C USB cable. Beneath everything is a compact cardboard sleeve within which you find a thick Quick Start guide in multiple languages. In all you get:
- FiiO M3 Pro media player
- USB cable
Yes, this is a very simple and straightforward unboxing without many extras or flash. That said, major props to FiiO for preinstalling front and rear screen protectors. The M3 Pro is built like a modern device with an aluminum frame and glass front and rear panels, so screen protectors are pretty much mandatory. It would have been nice if they included a basic silicone case too, but at this price point it can certainly be excused.
Battery The M3 Pro is rated for up to 15 hours of use, with a charge time of around 2 hours. During my testing, I was able to complete almost two full work days with the M3 Pro running at 12 out of 60 volume paired to FiiO’s own FA9. It died just after passing the 14 hour mark. Charging via the USB 3.0 port on my laptop took about two hours, within what I would expect. Overall a solid performer on the battery front. With casual listening you could easily get through most of the week before needing to toss it on the charger.
Build and UI The M3 Pro takes queues from modern smartphone design. The front and rear panels are smooth glass surrounded by a black aluminum frame. While the screen does not stretch from bezel to bezel, especially down low where there is a prominent chin, I’m glad. Personally, that is a design goal I detest since I’m always unintentionally touching stuff. None of those problems here. On the bottom of the device is a pinhole for the microphone on the left, a USB-C port in the middle, and a 3.5mm output on the right. The top and right sides of the device are feature free, while the left contains the power/screen lock/unlock button, volume up/down/track advance and play/pause buttons, as well as a micro SD card slot. Overall build quality is quite good with impressive fit and finish, and buttons that provide a solid tactile response upon depression. It would have been nice if the power button were a different shape than volume up, as I occasionally mispress, but as-is the setup works well. The play/pause button also has a raised dot to single it out and since it resides between the volume up/down buttons, can be used for finger orientation.
In addition to buttons, the M3 Pro allows interaction via touch screen. The screen is 3.46 inches in size with a resolution of 340×800. Colours are vivid and images crisp, though the fairly low resolution does lead to pixellation with some album art. It still looks very good though. At lower brightness settings (3 and below out of 10) the screen will wash out in direct sunlight. At full brightness it remains plenty visible. While for the most part it is quite responsive to touch, I did find myself having to press or swipe a couple times to get it to register actions.
Compared to something similarly priced (79.90 USD), like the XDuoo Nano D3, the M3 Pro feels like it should cost a whole heap more. Despite having an all-metal shell, the D3 feels nowhere near as sturdy with panels that easily flex when squeezed. Compare that to the rock solid M3 Pro and the difference is quite significant. The M3 Pro’s physical buttons are also more stable and provide more direct and noticeable feedback when pressed. The screen of the M3 Pro is also larger and higher resolution with touch support, something the D3 could benefit from given the design of it’s software interface.
A more comparable device to the M3 Pro in terms of build would be the Shanling M1 (179.99 USD). It’s a little thicker and wider and about 2/3rds the height. Like the M3 Pro it utilizes an aluminum frame with glass front and rear panels. Instead of a hybrid touch/physical UI, the M1 utilizes a rear facing scroll wheel with a number of physical buttons that provide a similar level of feedback when pressed. It works, but it’s definitely more cumbersome than the M3 Pro’s intuitive design. One edge the M1 has over the M3 Pro is the screen and surrounding build. Noted earlier, the M3 Pro lacks a plastic surround for the screen that provides additional protection from drops. The M1 has this extra protection, a good thing because it carries more weight in that compact frame. Screen quality goes to the M3 Pro with it’s more vibrant colours and slightly higher resolution.
Another device that is comparable would be the Shanling M0 (109 USD). Glass screen and an aluminum shell, but unlike the M3 Pro with it’s hybrid interface, the M0 is touch only, minus a scroll wheel for volume control and some additional functions when the screen is off. The M0 is also about half the size which is impressive in itself, made even more so given the feature set. While the M3 Pro’s screen is a higher resolution, due to the size of the M0 it ends up looking a bit more vibrant, though the lack of real estate makes menu navigation a little more difficult. Note that Shanling included the plastic shock ring around the screen here too, which is again impressive given the size of the device.
As you can gather, the M3 Pro is a very well built device thanks to its use of quality materials and outstanding fit and finish. Add to that an excellent hybrid UI system than makes use of a touch interface and physical buttons, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
GUI and Features The M3 Pro is generally a nice device to interact with. Menus are laid out in logical ways and clearly marked, while navigation through the touch interface is a familiar experience to anyone that has used a smart device in the last ten years. Moving down through menus requires a simple tap on the icon or menu you wish to select. Moving back through menus is as simple as a swipe from left to right, starting from the bezel. Skipping all the way back to the home screen is as simple as tapping the house icon in the top left corner. For the most part navigation is smooth and snappy with things slowing down only once you have large lists open. Scrolling through an entire track list is a bit choppy. This is especially the case when utilizing the alphabet down the right side of the screen to scroll by letter. Maybe I don’t have enough tracks in each category, but I found it to be quite the challenge to select the letter I wanted, instead having to settle for something close, then scrolling normally the rest of the way. In general though, the M3 Pro’s interface is nice to move through and has basically no learning curve to it. Good stuff FiiO.
Now, let’s go through each item and feature on the home screen.
Category Within this menu item you can move through your music thanks to a wide variety of menu options; all songs, artist, album, genre, favorites, playlists, and recently added. All the staples are there and everything is self explanatory.
Now Playing Selecting this option takes you to the track currently playing, or list of all songs if you have not yet selected a track and do not have the option to resume the last track turned on. While on the now playing screen you are presented with a lot of information; track, artist, album, overall song number, bit rate and file type, and an image of the album art. At the bottom of the screen you find a track progress bar, the play/pause and track skip buttons, play mode (sequential play, loop play, shuffle play, single play, single loop), favourite, add to playlist, and an extra menu button (three dots). In this menu is A-B repeat, an equalizer, more track info, and a delete track option. An EQ is nice since you have seven presets. Moving between selections is done gradually so you can hear clearly what each preset does. A nice touch. Unfortunately, there is no custom EQ option so this setting has limited usefulness for me.
Browse Files A surface level file browser that allows you to view all e-book, music, and sound clips captured through the in-built recorder. Nothing worth going into in depth here since the title is self explanatory.
Recording I was surprised to see the M3 Pro was capable of recording sound clips via its own in-built microphone. This would be a really useful feature for students since they could record lectures with ease. Just start the recording and set your M3 Pro on the desk/table. The recording quality is pretty decent too with voices sounding full and meaty, though the mic sensitivity is quite high and it doesn’t take much to cause clipping, hence why I feel this would be good for tackling lectures. The prof/teacher is usually a ways away, so clipping will be less likely. Make sure you’re pointing the mic away from your mouth when speaking, or talk very quietly to ensure a clear recording. It would be nice if FiiO added some control options to this feature, namely the ability to turn the mic gain down.
Settings The settings menu is broken up into three options. Update Media Library updates your library with anything newly added to the SD card. The Play Settings and System Settings options are a lot more in depth. Under Play Settings you find a number of helpful options, some of which are duplicated on the now playing screen. Play mode allows you to cycle between sequential play, loop play, shuffle play, single play, and single loop. Resume mode enables you to either return to the beginning of the last song played, or your position within the last song played at the time the device was shut off. Playback gap allows you to remove any gaps between tracks. Awesome for albums meant to be played front to back. Max volume lets you select the maximum allowable volume. I dropped the limit to 32 out of 60 which is still way higher than I’ve needed to go with anything I’ve plugged into the M3 Pro. This little player has plenty of volume headroom available. Fixed volume setting selects the default volume upon startup. With Balance you can adjust channel bias to counter imbalanced earphones or headphones. Equalizer makes another appearance here and gives you the same eight options (Off, Rock, Classical, Jazz, Pop, Dance, Vocal, Metal). Lastly we have Play Through Folders which you can turn on or off. I actually don’t know the function of this one since it doesn’t seem to make a difference during playback and isn’t covered in the Quick Start Guide.
System Settings This menu is packed with options starting with Screen Brightness. Next up is Screen Timeout which gives you a number of options from 30 seconds to 120 seconds. Idle Standby gives you options from Off to 8 minutes and is a handy feature for preserving battery life if you forget to turn the M3 Pro off after pausing your music. A Sleep function also exists and is helpful for limiting listening session length. USB Mode allows you to put the M3 Pro into storage or DAC modes. Since I am constantly swapping cards between devices, I just leave it in DAC mode. Next we have Recording Quality which allows you to select between high and low to save some memory card space during those long lectures. The next option is Lock Screen Clock. With this on, turning the screen on brings you to the lock screen which contains the time, date, track and basic controls (play/pause and track skip). Swiping from left to right unlocks the device. Select Output allows you to change the 3.5mm output to line out for pairing with an external amp. Don’t plug headphones in with this on… The rest of the options are all pretty straightforward; time, date, and language settings, storage formatting for the memory card, factory restore, system updates, and About M3 Pro in which you find the device name, firmware version, memory card and device capacities, number of tracks loaded, as well as SN and NB numbers.
E-Book The M3 Pro is capable of displaying e-books. I don’t have any to test this feature with but I see no reason why it wouldn’t work. I can’t imagine I’d want to read an entire novel on such a tiny screen, but hey, I’d rather have the option than not. And since it can handle images, maybe loading up some picture books and handling it off to your kid during a car ride would be a feasible option.
Calculator Click on that icon and you find a simple, straightforward calculator. No graphing or advanced options here. Just your basic addition, multiplication, division, and subtraction. Perfectly serviceable if you need a calculator in a pinch, and again it goes back to this being a useful device for students.
Gallery Lastly we have the gallery option which allows you to peruse all of your images and album art. Honestly, this feels like the only aspect of the M3 Pro that received next to no attention and as a result is basically useless in my opinion. Unless you have gone through and clearly named every file, good luck finding a specific image. There are no previews, and no quick way to sift through the list of images. You get one long list in alphabetical order with no option to scroll by letter, or if you select a file, you can flick through each picture one at a time. It is very slow and cumbersome. I would love it if in a future update FiiO gave the gallery some attention to make it more user friendly since as it is right now, it is barely functional.
Overall quite a lot of features and options for a fairly straightforward device, accessible through a well designed graphical interface. I truly appreciate the volume control options which help develop safe listening habits. If FiiO introduced some parental control options that would lock out the menus, this could be a good device to give to a child to start them off in the hobby; bright graphics and an intuitive touch interface combined with volume limiting could teach them to listen responsibly and help with the development of fine motor control. Add in the image gallery and e-book options and you’ve got yourself a winner. The addition of the microphone and calculator options also make it an attractive device for a student to carry around, or an adult that makes audio notes throughout the day. I can think of plenty of situations where the M3 Pro’s feature set would be useful.
How does it compare to some other devices? Well, it’s miles ahead of the Nano D3. The interface on that device is not fun to interact with. The home screen for one is a grid based system similar in looks to the now defunct Windows Phone, but only navigable left to right and vice versa. This is why I said earlier this device would have benefited from a touch screen; the GUI has clearly been designed for it. Once you get past the home screen, the rest of the menus are laid out in a logical manner, you just have to be very patient moving through them. Unlike the M3 Pro which is reasonably smooth and quick to move through, the Nano D3 is very laggy. In terms of features the M3 Pro offers a lot more. The Nano D3 is a music player first and foremost, lacking all the extras you find in the FiiO; microphone, gallery, USB DAC, etc. Some will argue that stuff isn’t necessary, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but given the small price gap… I’d rather have it than not, especially when it works pretty well. Plus, you can’t adjust screen brightness on the Nano D3. Really XDuoo?
The Shanling M0 is more alike the M3 Pro with its touch based interface, though the lack of screen real estate limits the amount of items that can be displayed at any one time. That just means there is a lot more scrolling and swiping involved when compared to the M3 Pro. In the M0’s favour, it’s GUI is quicker and more responsive so pending your fingers aren’t too thick, navigation times end up being similar, if not a little quicker, especially when perusing all songs and similarly long lists. When it comes to features, the M3 Pro is a bit more rich, though the lack of Bluetooth has me favouring the M0.
Sound The M3 Pro is a powerful device (75mW) with a clear, noiseless output thanks to a very low output impedance of 0.3ohms. You can pair it with the most picky of sources, such as the Campfire Audio Solaris, and the resulting sound is silky smooth, free of any background hiss. This trait is extremely desirable and something few DAPs I’ve tried can brag about, especially when they’re as capable of such a vast volume output. I have the volume limiter set to 32 out of 60 since there is nothing I own that requires more (per my listening habits), let alone anything close to what 32 will output. Rarely do I exceed 15. The limit is in place more to restrict accidental volume changes since it can be adjusted via the physical buttons, and the on screen slider that appears after making an adjustment with the buttons. A few times I meant to tap the screen to remove the slider, but instead maxed the volume in an instant. Ouch…
In terms of sound signature, the M3 Pro has a warm, bassy inclination, inline with something like the Shanling M0. Bass is thick and powerful with good extension, easily overshadowing the lean, rolled of presentation of something like the XDuoo Nano D3 or Ruizu X02. Texturing and detail are somewhat glossed over though, so if those traits are already present in your earphones you might find the M3 Pro too smooth. The midrange is fairly neutral in presence with vocalists and instruments sounding naturally weighted, though slightly warm thanks to that low end bump. Clarity and detail fair better here with subtle nuances coming through just fine. This device pairs pretty well with vocal forward products like the Fidue A85 Virgo as a result. Treble sings much the same song with good extension, though the warm-ish presentation carries through. This exacerbates earphones with an already mellow treble presentation and can take away too much of the already limited emphasis, such as with the Massdrop x Mee Audio Planamic. Detail and clarity remain satisfactory though. Due to the M3 Pro’s warm, mellow sound, I found it to pair best with neutral to bright leaning products, such as the FiiO FH1s and TinHiFi T4. It also sounded pretty fantastic with some top of the line gear like the Campfire Audio Andromeda thanks to that clean, output and warm tilt.
USB Audio Since the M3 Pro supports audio out via the Type-C port, you might be tempted to plug in a dongle like the Cozoy Takt C. This works well and may improve the overall sound quality, but keep in mind the M3 Pro has a much cleaner output than most of those dongles so you’ll likely be introducing some background noise into the mix where previously there was none. Also to note, make sure you turn off the M3 Pro prior to removing a dongle. The volume locks and can’t be adjusted, regardless of what the on screen indicator is telling you. Lastly, if you are using a dongle with volume and media controls you may find they do nothing. At least, that was the case when trying the M3 Pro with the Takt C and XDuoo link.
USB DAC While I found the M3 Pro enjoyable enough as a portable DAP, it really hits its stride when being used as a USB DAC. While it has a warm, overly smooth sound in portable mode, as a USB DAC the M3 Pro has a more balanced and lively signature. It also picks up the ability to handle DSD128. Texture and detail improve, bass feels more dynamic and less one-note, and treble smooths out fewer imperfections. I found myself using the M3 Pro more and more in this role through my month of testing, simply because it sounded so good. The easily accessible volume controls and output that is significantly cleaner than my laptop didn’t hurt either.
Final Thoughts The M3 Pro is a fantastic sub-100 USD DAP. It feels like a modern, up-to-date device in both software and physical design thanks to the touch screen interface and beautifully constructed smartphone-like build. Unique features like a voice recorder, calculator, and e-book reader may not be useful for your typical audiophile, but this device seems like it was designed more for a student anyway. For that market, the M3 Pro is way more useful than all but much more expensive Android-based DAPS. Add to those positives tons of power and a very clean output as well as good sound when used as a mobile device, and great sound when functioning as a USB DAC, and you’re getting a lot of device for your dollar.
There are some aspects that could be improved upon, such as the lack of a custom EQ (presents only), a picture gallery that is about as far from easy to navigate as it gets, and some choppiness when scrolling through long lists. The lack of Bluetooth support may also be a negative, since if you’re like me you find interacting with a tiny Bluetooth module like the BTR3K more appealing. Still, despite these areas of improvement the M3 Pro remains a great device and a joy to carry around on the regular.
Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer A big thanks to Sunny with FiiO for reaching out to see if I would be interested in reviewing the M3 Pro, and for arranging a sample for coverage. The thoughts within this review are my own subject opinions based on just over a month of daily use. They do not represent FiiO or any other entity. At the time of writing the M3 Pro retailed for 89.00 USD: https://www.fiio.com/m3_pro