Fiio M11 Plus (ESS) Review: Is This The Best Hi-Res Digital Audio Player Under 1K?

TL;DR

The Fiio M11 Plus (ESS) is a great-looking and excellent-sounding player, only let down by some (minor) usability issues like slow music loading and the complexity of the settings menus. However, it also has many remarkable features for the price, making it an excellent value at the end of the day.

Intro

Once a ubiquitous part of a music lover’s everyday carry, the dedicated portable music player has gone the way of the dodo bird for most folks.

Even Apple, the company that put them on the map, has quietly retired their digital audio players in favor of iPhones and iPads, and most people didn’t even notice.

Moreover, even audiophiles, the last bastion of digital audio player devotees, are debating the utility of a dedicated portable listening device versus a smartphone combined with a USB DAC Amp.

That said, some, like myself, still see the usefulness of a music player separate from your phone.

First, today’s digital audio players can combine the power and utility of the best smartphones with DAC/Amp/Streaming sections comparable to expensive rack components.

In addition, most are capable of sound quality your Android phone could never achieve, and some can also function as a high-quality Bluetooth receiver for your hi-fi system or a DAC/Amp for your PC.

While some companies like Astell & Kern (and iBasso) concentrate on making opulent luxury players that double as status symbols, other companies like Fiio focus on creating players that are a little less luxurious (yet still attractive) and still provide all the features audiophiles desire. (that’s not to say Fiio doesn’t have high-end players as well)

Fiio M11 Plus (ESS)

For example, we have the Fiio M11 Plus (ESS), the Android-based portable audio player we’re looking at today. It has Android 10 onboard, a beautiful 5.5-inch screen, dual ESS DAC chips, a speedy Snapdragon 660 octa-core system chip to keep things humming, and a lot more. It’s an impressive package for $699, undercutting much of the competition on the basis of capabilities. 

Ed. Note: The M11 Plus is not to be confused with the Fiio M11 Plus LTD (discontinued), released before the M11 Plus. The latter utilized AKM DAC chips manufactured before AKM’s factory fire, which halted production. This is the model I use to test headphones, and it’s the same player save for some sonic distinctions created by the difference in DAC circuitry. Both are descendants of the M11 Pro, which we reviewed (and loved) a while back.

So the M11 Plus is a good-looking player with many enticing features, but is it worth your hard-earned cash? Or should you save up for one of the more expensive brands? Or use your cell phone with a dongle? Read on, and I’ll give you the scoop!

Fiio M11 Plus (ESS) Build/Features

As soon as I opened up the box and picked up Fiio M11 Plus, I was greeted with the same solid build and satisfying heft I liked on the M11 LTD. That makes sense since both utilize the same sturdy aluminum frame combined with glass panels front and back.

The Plus also carries many design flourishes from the LTD, including the alluring diamond cut pattern on the rear panel and the honeycomb-shaped buttons on the sides.

In addition, the M11 Plus carries over the volume touch slider from previous M11 models, and it gains a new carbon fiber weave pattern for some extra interest. It’s an added touch I like. As well as that, you get the brilliant (almost) bezel-less 5.5-inch touchscreen from the M11 Plus LTD, which looks just as sharp and colorful as before. 

For some reason, I found the touch control to be a little more responsive on the Plus than the LTD when adjusting volume (a good thing), and I’m assuming this was due to software/hardware upgrades.

Above the volume slider, you also get the programmable shortcut button from the Plus LTD, a nice smartphone-like feature. You can use this button to do many different things with a single button press, like switching EQ, entering USB-DAC mode, or changing digital filters.

Inside the M11 Plus lies the same modular construction first seen in the LTD, with separate shielding for the Digital and Analog sections. This reduces interference between the two sides, thus providing a cleaner signal.

Fiio M11 Plus (ESS)

As mentioned earlier, the M11 Plus has the Snapdragon 660 SoC (4 cores) for smooth operation and low power consumption, and it does the job. At no point did I find the player to be slow or sluggish. On the contrary, it switched between apps or scrolled through the menus effortlessly, something you couldn’t say about some older Android-based music players.

The M11 Plus uses the THX AAA-78 amp circuit, the most potent mobile amp THX manufactures, an amp that’s super clean with almost inaudible background noise. Fiio used it to significant effect in the LTD, and It’s the same in the new model. In addition, there are two amp chips to allow for fully balanced operation.

Along with the THX circuitry are two ESS ES9068AS DAC chips replacing the out-of-production AKM chips in the LTD model. I have to say, while I like the smoothness of the AKM sound in the LTD, the ESS chips seem to have a little more depth and top-end detail. After listening to both in an A-B-A comparison, I was drawn more to the M11 Plus sound.

The ESS chipset allows the M11 Plus to support PCM files up to 384kHz-32bit and DSD files up to DSD256, not to mention full decoding of MQA, which should make Tidal subscribers happy.

The player can also convert PCM files to DSD, which sounds good, and is a cool parlor trick, but I’m not a big fan of this type of conversion. It also made the player a bit warm to the touch when in use.

Like Its predecessor, the M11 LTD, The M11 Plus can leverage Its DAC section to function as a USB DAC for your laptop, which is a pretty nifty feature. This is also something I wouldn’t use much, as I would rather play songs from the player itself, but if you wish to play music from your computer, you have that option.

The Fiio M11 Plus is capable of 206mW (32ohms) via the 3.5mm single-ended output and 588mW (32ohms) via the two balanced (4.4mm and 2.5mm) outputs so that it can power most headphones out there. The player does have high, medium, and low gain settings, so you can match it to the headphones you’re using.

That said, if you want to get the most out of low-sensitivity headphones like some of the larger planar models, you want to stick to the balanced side because the single-ended output will probably be too weak in those situations.

On the wireless front, the M11 Plus has two-way Bluetooth 5.0, so you can play music both from the player out to a pair of headphones (SBC/AAC/APTX/APTX-HD/LDAC) or the player from a Bluetooth source like a smartphone (SBC/AAC/LDAC). Moreover, as you can see, many BT codecs are available so that you can get optimum sound quality in Bluetooth mode.

iPhone and iPad users can take advantage of the M11 Plus’ “AirPlay Mode,” where you can bypass Apple’s AAC Bluetooth limitation and transmit higher bitrate signals to the player via AirPlay.

Fiio M11 Plus (ESS)

You can also stream music to the player via DLNA, a feature that gave me access to all the music on my local network drive. My local hi-res music files loaded quickly into the Fiio Music App, complete with Album Art. (I have Gigspeed internet, YMMV) They sounded outstanding, to boot.

Battery life is excellent at about 11 hours of playback on high-gain and 1000 hours of standby per charge. That’s because the M11 Plus has a massive 6000mAh battery. I found myself charging it only about once per week when I listened to music for an average of an hour per day. When I did set it, it took about 3-4 hours using the same Quick Charge 4.0 USB-C charger I used with my Samsung phone.

The only drawback with such a huge battery is that the player is a little heavy, about 295g as opposed to 240g for the largest available iPhone with a 6.7″ screen.

As this is an Android-based player, you can use any music player available on the Google Play App Store, and I downloaded a bunch, including USB Audio Player Pro, TIDAL, and Qobuz. While they all worked great, the pre-installed Fiio Music Player is excellent and allows you to take advantage of the M11 Plus’ advanced features, like DLNA playback, Fiio Link remote control from a smartphone, and Wi-Fi music transfer.

This player has so many features that it would take way too long to go through every single one. But that’s part of what makes this player such a good value; there’s not much it can’t do.

On the other hand, that brings up my main complaint about the M11 Plus. That would be the complexity of the menus (mostly the fault of Android) and the steep learning curve needed to access some of the signature features like the USB-DAC mode or Wi-Fi music transfer. For example, to use the latter, you almost need to be an IT professional; it is not intuitive at all.

That said, you probably won’t use many of those features very often, and at the end of the day, they work as advertised. In addition, Fiio has some nice tutorials on their YouTube page.

I should also mention how long the music took to load on the 64GB internal memory. It’s a bit of a nitpick, but it took much longer to transfer music from my computer to the player than from the computer to my phone. By the way, the player also has a micro SD card slot that supports up to 1 TB cards.

Listening to the Fiio M11 Plus (ESS)

As I said earlier, the Fiio M11 Plus swaps out the AKM-based DAC section of the similarly equipped Fiio M11 Plus LTD player with a Dual-ESS Chip setup, and as I expected, the sound of the newer M11 Plus took on a brighter character than the older Plus LTD.

Like the LTD, the Plus had a quiet background that I attribute to the THX Amp section, but the AKM-based player had a more nuanced, velvety smooth sound which may sound more natural to some folks. Conversely, the ESS-based player had a more forward perspective with a more “in your face” upper midrange that added more presence and openness to the sound.

Listening to “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, the M11 Plus played the song with a lot of energy over the Hifiman Arya headphones. I loved the openness and dimensionality of the presentation, along with the precise placement of the elements in the mix.

The vocal and instrumentation weren’t as silky smooth as on the Plus LTD player, but I could hear better separation and resolution from the ESS-based M11 Plus. I felt like I could hear more depth and emotion in the M11 Plus, plus the song had such a “live” quality I felt like I was sitting on the front row of a concert.

The M11 Plus has a wonderfully balanced and clean sound that should please most listeners coming from a smartphone or an entry-level DAC, as it will provide a nice upgrade in sound quality.

The Wrap Up

Once again, with the M11 Plus (ESS), Fiio has developed an excellent portable audio player that provides great bang for the buck. It has a fantastic screen, great sound, and more features than you’ll ever use, which means that most folks will never outgrow it.

It could use a little more power on the single-ended output, and I wish some of the features were easier to use, but at the end of the day, this is an excellent player that’s built well and will give you hours and hours of musical enjoyment! Highly Recommended!!

Buy This If You:

  • Want a player with a large, beautiful screen
  • Want a player with a great build and battery life
  • Want a player with a crisp, clear sound

Don’t Buy If You:

  • Want a super thin player
  • Want a super lightweight player
  • Want a ton of power from the single-ended output

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