A few weeks ago, we tested Fiio’s flagship dedicated audio player, the X7 MkII. Last year, we tested their X3 MkIII. Those two players, although widely disparate in price, are related in that they’re from Fiio’s “X” family of DAPs, which are designed with audiophiles and enthusiasts in mind. Fiio has a second line of DAPs — their “M” line — which are designed to appeal to consumers, with more focused feature sets and more accessible price points. Today we’re trying out Fiio’s brand new M7; though this is DAP is extremely simple, we think it has appeal for both enthusiasts and casual listeners alike.
At first glance, the M7 looks it’s been made upside down. The front of the device, free of branding and buttons, has its display oriented towards the bottom, with nothing but a blank space at the top. The display itself — and the bezels around it — can’t hold a candle (or candela) to the high-res, edge-to-edge OLED displays we’re seeing on smartphones today. There’s no home button — the M7 features just three clicky playback buttons (forward, back, play/pause), a volume knob, a power button, a 3.5mm dual-function headphone/line-out jack, and a USB-C data/charging port. The M7 is very pocketable, at just 52mm x 109mm x 113mm and 116 grams; its housing is about double the thickness of the iPhone X, but its 90-degree angles don’t exactly sit naturally in the hand. Much of the M7’s design might seem downright regressive compared to modern smartphones, but we love it. Where the design of Fiio’s X3mkIII was a clear throwback to the iPods of old, the M7’s minimalist aluminum housing feels modern and fresh. Its display, though far from retina (292 ppi) and flanked by chunky bezels, is more than adequate for music playback under its pre-installed glass screen protector (and worlds ahead of the X3mkIII’s display). The M7 has something better than a “Hold” button — its track control buttons and volume knob can be individually disabled when the M7 is locked. Even its upside-down configuration is well-suited to music playback — when mounting the M7 to an external amplifier or DAC with silicone bands, none of the screen is blocked. The M7’s Bluetooth is at the same time excellent (aptX, aptX-HD, and LDAC are supported) and slightly disappointing from an Apple user perspective (AAC is not supported).
The M7 is built around a Samsung Exynos 7270 processor — a seemingly odd choice, since the 7270 was designed by Samsung for wearables and is limited in performance in kind. For example, the 7270 runs at 1.0ghz and supports displays up to 960×450. If we were evaluating a phone or tablet, a smartwatch processor paired with just 768MB of RAM and just 2GB of onboard memory in 2018 would be a serious problem; luckily, we’re not testing one of those. We’re testing a dedicated audio player, which needs only to get digital music to the user swiftly and faithfully. In that regard, the M7 does well — it’s not the fastest touchscreen device we’ve ever used, but it is responsive and moves fast enough for the M7’s intended use (though not officially supported, the experience is made even better by the old trick of disabling animations in Android’s developer options). The M7 runs a heavily customized version of Android, apparently scaled down to only the bare essentials — only the Fiio Music app, FM Radio, photo gallery, tech support, settings, and basic file management apps are included. There’s no Wi-Fi or Google Play Store on the M7, which means no streaming — surely a dealbreaker for some. The M7 does, however, support microSD storage cards up to 512 GB (which is more than most people shopping at this price point will ever need), Line Out for pairing with external amps and, though the M7 uses the competent ES9018Q2C DAC (and ES9601K amplifier), also supports USB audio for pairing with external DACs (officially only with Fiio’s DACs, but there are unofficial workarounds). Just about every music file format is supported. The FM radio works if you’re using wired headphones, but not all that well — we found reception to be lackluster, and the lack of radio data surprising in 2018. One disappointment about the M7’s Android implementation, however, is that it does not appear to support USB file transfer natively on macOS, instead requiring separate installation of the aging “Android File Transfer” app.
The M7 handles its core function — music playback — very well. In our review of Fiio’s flagship X7mkII, we found the Fiio Music app to be very good, and the same holds true with the M7. It’s miles ahead of the X3mkIII’s interface, but not perfect: embedded lyrics don’t work, getting back to the home screen of the Fiio Music app can require multiple swipes, and the new search function, though very much appreciated won’t allow you to drill down into results (search for “Pearl Jam”, and your only option is to tap the “Pearl Jam” result and listen to all the band’s tracks in alphabetical order). Battery life on the M7 is excellent — from its 1880 mAh battery, we got close to the advertised 20 hours playback and 40 hours standby in our testing. Its headphone power output is adequate for most portable headphones (70 mW into 16 ohms, 40 mW into 32 ohms), but not so much with harder-to-drive headphones. The M7 is Hi-Res certified and, from the measurements posted on Fiio’s website, has extremely low distortion. To our ears, the M7 sounds transparent, and pairs well with mobile headphones like our trusty MSR7. It’s not quite on the level of the X7mkII, but very competent for its price point, and there’s always the option of using the M7 as a transport with the Q5 or with any portable amplifier. The M7’s Bluetooth performance is also very good, and somewhat unique in that it allows the user to select the codec — the “LDAC-Sound Quality First” sounds the best, but we experienced a few glitches even at close range.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this review, perhaps the best word to describe Fiio’s M7 is: focus. The M7’s physical design is monolithic, with nothing more than is necessary to control music playback. Its minimal implementation of Android and simple, efficient processor may not run the latest apps or support streaming, but they do maximize battery life and stability. Fiio’s X-series players might have more of the flexibility, power, and features that audiophiles demand, but the M7 has everything it needs to work with the headphones that its target audience — consumers — are likely to use. We think Fiio has done well with the M7. This could have been a plastic device with basic Bluetooth codec support and nothing but a reskinned version of Android’s built-in media player — but Fiio didn’t build a toy. Instead, Fiio made this consumer device something worth buying.
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