Panda ManReviewer at Headphone.Guru
- Apr 9, 2011
In 2019, daily useability and the notion of a hip modern headphone audio enthusiast has seemingly started a wave to remove the ideas of decades past that all audiophiles looked like Steve Guttenburg (I kid, I love you Steve) or Einstein. It’s simply not true in this decade where tech obsession has crept into every corner of the Earth and young tech enthusiasts seeking affordable high end audio want options that can ACTUALLY be used. Sorry, but the Colorfly C4 just ain’t gonna fly this time around. Non Smart DAPs that solely played music and had ancient decrepit UIs are out, and sexy touchscreens with intuitive GUIs are in.
Enter the FiiO M5 at $99. Everything about it speaks and yells Apple and iPod when you first see it. It’s not surprising seeing as how James (CEO of FiiO) breaths Apple’s industrial design, and human interfacing (see FiiO X5, other devices, and how the FiiO website looks and feels). The M5 drops onto the screen with a splash of friendly color choices (black, silver, red, blue) all with the large button icon style that smart watches utilize in this day and age.
The idea of the M5 is seemingly complex at first. What is it? It looks like a smart watch...but then it also looks like an iPod of sorts. Well, actually you’re almost right. It’s a combination of a FiiO DAP with their signature capabilities (BT Transceiving, DSD support, SPDIF output, high quality DAC/Amp) with Apple like intuitive menus and smartwatch (lite) features like a clock and step counter. It’s everything at once in a sense. But let’s focus in, this is a DAP made for headphone enthusiasts here and the official name “Ultra-portable High-Resolution Audio Player” should clue you in that first and foremost, the M5 means business and audio is its primary concern.
Packed inside, we have an Asahi Kasei AK4377 DAC and Qualcomm CSR8675 wireless chipset all powered off an Ingenic X1000E Single Core CPU at up to 1GHz. The Ingenic SoC contains its own audio interfaces with a built in ADC and DAC but FiiO is obviously ignoring these and instead going for their external AKM DAC instead. FiiO typically mentions the amplifiers used in their products in the specs page but they are missing this time. A quick search on the AKM DAC notes that the AK4377 DAC chiplet has a “built-in ground-referenced headphone amplifier” which is probably what FiiO is using to save on pcb space and power.
I’ve been reviewing FiiO gear since 2011 and have seen almost a decade of their product design and industrial manufacturing capabilities. Like a dad seeing their child off to college, the current generation of FiiO devices has the same level of finesse, tight tolerances, mixed material composition, and smoothness that you would find from any large device maker. The M5 is one of the lowest priced FiiO devices but FiiO has still given it the premium treatment. Like a smartphone, the M5 uses a glass front and rear with metal sides surrounding the device. Half a decade ago, this mixed material integration on FiiO devices typically left wide bezels, gaps, or noticeable manufacturing compromises all throughout. The FiiO of 2019 has raised the bar tremendously. The most surprising accomplishment on the M5 is how seamless and smooth the glass rounds itself and slides into the metal chassis. If it wasn’t for the different texture, I would not be able to tell the edge as I slide my thumb from glass to metal.
Do note that this is most likely not Corning Gorilla glass. I have previously shattered the glass on my FiiO BTR3 after it launched from my car and smashed into my driveway ground. You are SoL if that ever happens.
So let’s start off with the physical usability. The M5 is simply put a square. If you’ve held an Apple Watch or old round iPod before then you know what I mean. The bottom left (with screen facing you) is the USB-C port with the bottom right being the TF Card (SD Card) slot. Whereas previous FiiO models would have slight protrusion of the TF Card even when seated, the M5 accomplishes a fully flush insertion. This will mean you will need to have some nails or tools to push the card so it ejects however. The top has just the essentials with the top left being the multi output port (headphone out, and SPDIF output). Next to it in the middle is the volume bar and to the right finally is the power button.
Just like an Apple Watch, be expected to charge this if you use the M5 all day. I’ve used this at work three times and it has just made it past my 8 to 9 hour work days. Idle and auto power off on the M5 is pretty amazing. I moved across the country and forgot the M5 for a week and it still maintained its charge when I got to it with full bars; just like I left it. FiiO’s auto off and idle power management has certainly improved over the years.
The M5 comes with a clear clip case in the retail box. Remember those old commercials with the iPod clipped around your waist or on your shirt? We are coming around full circle and FiiO is bringing that back. For me, no thanks, it can sit in my pocket, I don’t run either way. I can see it being useful for the more active audiophiles however.
Alternatively, you can purchase a silicone watch band from FiiO. The version I have that shipped is no longer in production. My original review draft included how much I hated the silicone watch band but FiiO has noted to me that they heard loud and clear. They have a new bandand it is the SK-M5A and FiiO recommends picking that one up.
Despite how much I tried using it as a smartwatch or clip, everytime I would go back to using it as a traditional DAP. Simply the M5 by itself in the nude and in its natural habitat. That’s the best way I’ve been able to enjoy it so far.
One of the most dividing and sometimes controversial aspects of new products is believe it or not, the GUI and touchscreen. Let’s get this out of the way, yes touchscreens takeaway processing resources and are one of the highest priority (from system priority) interrupts a device has that is human noticeable. Then include how the electric capacitive touchscreen induces a field and more yada yada and you essentially have a 2 sentence overview of the no-touchscreen camp of audio. My two cents? …...eh. Products exist in the plenty for both, choose your poison. Me personally, I would rather want to use a device and quickly get to my favorite tunes.
Onto the graphical user interface of the M5. Let me be reminiscent again as I wipe some more tears. Early generation FiiO devices had some toaster oven level of navigating menus and moving around (E7 anyone?). It then improved with such DAPs like their first gen X3 and X5 but still had quite a bit of bulk and unnecessary movements and menus to access things. With the M5, we are now at the forefront of what I would consider to be mass market consumer ‘ready’.
The FiiO M5 sports a user interface in both fluidity and ease that would allow any random joe on the street to get working and running right out of the box. The icons are inherent to their operations, and menus have been overhauled to combine settings and song operations (add playlist, delete, scrobble, like, information). The four clicks and scrolling you had to do with gen 1 X5 is no more. Simply slide right on your song to get more information, scrobble, and perform operations.
I’ve recorded a quick video on the M5’s graphical fluidity.
As you can see, its fast with a very low amount of false positives. The times when false operations occur are more often due to user error with the wrong direction swipe due to the small screen real estate. One example being that you pull down the menu/settings by swiping from the very top while you are simply trying to just vertically scroll through your song list. Oh yeah, if you have large fingers and aren’t the best with fine motor movement, this device may not be the best for you.
But honestly, navigating music, quickly changing songs, and getting into the song has never been easier. Yeah, a full fledged DAP like the FiiO X and bigger brother M and M Pro lines would be even better experience but then you have to deal with a literal brick in your pants. One caveat of annoyance are the graphical popups that you cannot dismiss. You simply have to wait for them to timeout and disappear such as the volume change notification or other UI popups. Not a huge annoyance but in the days of ultra fast smartphones when go go go is the norm, having to wait the 2-3 seconds for a popup to disappear offscreen can trigger some users.
Feedback online have shown that some users are receiving M5’s that sometimes are not fluid and are lagging quite a bit. If your M5 isn’t as fast as the one in my video, reset it, record a video of you scrolling around, send it to FiiO to alert them of the issue. They’ll be able to get you sorted on your next steps.
Bluetooth transceiving (Receive/Transmit) is a nice feature on the FiiO M5 that can sometimes have hiccups when you are trying to receive (smartphone playing music -> M5 receiving BT signal -> Wired headphones connected to M5 headphone output). Getting the mode right and having it display and get connected with your smartphone takes longer than say the BTR3. Using the M5 to transmit its own local audio on the SD card to bluetooth headphones is a piece of cake however and easy to get going; it has a fairly strong connection as well. I’m happy that the M5 has the ability to transceive, but I wish FiiO made it more intuitive from a menu and amount of clicks point of view to get BT Receive working.
Overall, from my day to day uses with the M5 over a month with a 128GB mSD card, the device has been speedy, easy to operate, and quite versatile with the different functionality it has.
The M5 for day to day usage and listening was used as is. For the sound quality testing, to keep more consistency, it was used in USB DAC mode. The internal DAC and amp circuitry is still engaged the same but allows for isolating one of the source components. As for headphones used, I have the Hifiman Ananda, Hifiman Sundara, Moondrop KXXS, FiiO FH5, Moondrop Solis, Meze Rai Solo
used with the M5 over my time with it. The internal EQ was not utilized during this time.
The M5 is a ‘good’ sounding product. I wouldn’t mind using it if I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere or going about my day to day and pairing it with say the FH5 or Moondrop KXXS. But it also lags behind due to its size and electronics limitations. The mass majority of the device, the size of four Starburst cubes, is composed of the battery, UI buttons, and screen. After adding the space taken up internally by the 3.5mm jack, micro SD card, and full size USB-C, there is only so much room. Despite these limitations, FiiO has still done a damn good job given its size. I’m going to keep this section simple and clean.
“Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. More background noise and also the backing feels ‘closer’ to the listener. It’s not as transparent compared and slightly more claustrophobic. However dynamics are still good if not a tad too vibrant. The M5 pushes a slightly increased tenacity in the mid range with vocals and drums at the con of making them a bit saturated. Think TVs at Best Buy with the brightness and color set to max. To the average consumer it looks better, (man those reds look REALLY red) but its not accurate and takes away some of the ‘real’ detail. The M5 is like that here. Vocals are louder and more out there but also harsher and more scratchy compared to full desktop setups. But it still sounds fun and very dynamic, most consumers in the price range will like this sound signature.
“Hello” by Adele. To test resolution, sustainment and clarity with real human voices. M5 does a good job with that mid vocal forwardness and spike. But it's less resolving in that its more obfuscating the actual detail or voice naturless. It just doesn’t flow as smoothly like a foghorn losing pressure. In spite of this, I can’t help but like the moxie it has in its blood; the M5 has hot blooded sound, ready and eager to go and launch first into the race even if not the most experienced or ready of the group.
At the end of the day in these audio tests when I’m using four figure headphones and DACs to test a $100 DAP, PC DAC, BT Transceiver, and semi sporty touch screen gadgetry, I’ve noted that I’m really going way outside the M5’s range. Once you start figuring that I’ll be using $200 headphones like the Moondrop KXXS or iBasso IT01S with this device, I start to feel differently. The M5 sounds ‘good’, there are no real outstanding audio deficiencies with it. It can be a bit hot around the mids and punches and produces more peaks than it should but at the end of the day, I enjoyed my time with the M5.
The M5 is that battle buddy you bring with you wherever. Traveling? Grab the M5. Wanna go out and keep it light? Grab some sub $200 IEMs and an M5 and you’re ready to bounce.