Fiio M11 Plus ESS Review

In the world of high-end audio, it’s all about the chase. Enthusiasts lust after audio purity, hearing every tiny detail in its purest form, eliminating all sources of distortion or interference. It’s about high-quality components, premium DACs and amps, and being able to play back lossless music files with the utmost clarity. We’ve seen high-end amps and DACs, both portable and made for your desktop, but in this edition of Golden Ears, we’re diving into new territory: the digital audio player.

Today, we’re looking at the Fiio M11 Plus ESS digital audio player. Retailing for $699 as of this writing, it’s an impeccably designed product, inside and out — as you would expect at that price. What do you get for that hefty investment? Two high-resolution ESS ES9068AS DACs, powerful THX AAA-78 amps, balanced and single-ended output, Android 10 for instant compatibility with streaming apps (including full Tidal MQA decoding), a big high-detail 5.5-inch screen, DSD support, Bluetooth with LDAC, external storage support, intricate engineering developed entirely for audio purity, a fast Snapdragon 660 processor, and more.

In fact, this little device is much closer to a modern smartphone and the iPods of yesterday, but with a focus on audio-first, it’s one of the premiere audio devices for users who want to take high-res audio on the go. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at what all of those bullet points actually mean and whether it’s worth the hefty investment. 

Specifications

Current Price: $699 (Amazon

Fiio M11 Plus ESS –  More Than an MP3 Player

The Fiio M11 Plus ESS is a digital audio player, or DAP, but this is far more than the iPod Touches of days past. Looking at the price tag ($699 for this unit), it can be a little breathtaking if you’re living outside the world of audio enthusiasts, so this article is intended to take you behind the curtain into what the M11 Plus is and why it (and its predecessors) have become one of the most popular choices for dedicated listeners today. While most of the world has shifted to listening on smart devices, why might you choose a dedicated digital audio player in 2022. 

Let’s start with the basics. The M11 Plus is a smartphone-sized device, but instead of having radios for calls and texts, it features dedicated, high-end audio components. It features two premium ESS ES9068AS DACs, and two THX AAA-78 amplifiers, both sets combining to deliver audio quality that’s on par with dedicated desktop audio setups but is small enough to be slipped into a pocket — and, in fact, you can connect it to a computer to become that desktop setup. It features a big 5.5-inch HD screen that’s flanked by dedicated track controls on the right and volume and power on the left. It supports single-ended and balanced and high-resolution (aptX HD, LDAC) connections and has enough power to drive everything from small IEMs to full-size over-ear headphones that require a lot of power. It can play local files or stream through all of the leading services thanks to its Android 10 operating system. It also has a 6000mAh battery and quick charging, so you can listen through an entire day before needing to recharge.

Even though it seems expensive, the fact is that in the world that M11 Plus competes in, this combination of features actually makes it an excellent value. The world of digital audio players is often one of trade-offs unless you’re willing to spend a thousand dollars or more. Many DAPs allow you to connect a balanced set of headphones, but they’ll limit you to playing local files only. Others allow you to stream from Spotify and Tidal, but limit the power output. Most, even on the expensive end, also use outdated versions of Android and weak hardware. While a DAP doesn’t need the latest Snapdragon chipset, the combination of aging hardware and outdated Android versions even on new products raises the real risk of performance feeling sluggish or streaming apps not longer that version sooner than later. The M11 Plus ESS side-steps all of that. 

The reason it and its predecessor, the original M11, is so popular is because it’s an incredibly well-rounded option that covers virtually all of the bases the average listener might want in a digital audio player. It’s a platform for outstanding sound quality, whether you’re listening on efficient IEMs or demanding planar over-ears. In fact, as this is being written, I’m listening to a pair of Dan Clark Audio AEON Open planar magnetic headphones, which require a good amount of power to drive and the M11 isn’t even breaking a sweat.

So why might you choose the M11 Plus when most of us carry smartphones? The most obvious is that you want a dedicated Hi-Fi system that can go anywhere with you. A simple dongle DAC isn’t going to have the drive of a dedicated DAP and a separate DAC/amp like the iFi Gryphon, while amazing, doesn’t offer the same array of features and capabilities; the M11 Plus is essentially a phoneless-smartphone, after all. If your phone has a headphone jack, it’s probably not very good, and the M11 Plus is going to open up a whole new world of sound quality.

But I think there’s a bigger reason. I’d like to return to the point about this device being a platform. This is a device you choose when you don’t want to leave performance on the table no matter what you throw at it. If you’re considering it, there’s a good chance you’re already fairly deep in the audio hobby and want something that can push your headphones to their potential and give you a baseline to compare different sets and really see what they have to offer. When you look at the features and see that competing DAPs typically cost even more, it’s easy to see why it’s become so popular. 

Fiio M11 Plus ESS –  Build Quality, Features, and Use Impressions

The M11 Plus ESS feels exceptionally premium. Even though its screen is a similar size to a medium-sized smartphone, it’s quite a bit thicker to accommodate the heat-generating components inside. Typically, thickness would be a con, but it’s completely standard for DAPs, and I appreciate the sturdy “brick” feeling of the M11 Plus. It’s not something you’ll want to drop, however, as Fiio has outfitted it with a full glass back with a striking polygon pattern.

There is an excellent attention to detail throughout this device. The back is only one example, but it’s truly a remarkable example of industrial design with complementary angles and material shifts. The buttons all follow a hexagon pattern, which helps to unify the design. On the right side are play/pause, track forward, and track back buttons. A hold switch flanks these, locking the inputs when clicked. On the opposite site is the power button, a programmable multifunction button, and the volume control. The volume control is patterned in carbon fiber and can be controlled by sliding your finger up and down or clicking either side.

Fiio also includes a tempered glass screen protector (pre-installed) and a leather case in the box for added protection.

Despite the similarity to a smartphone, the whole design of the M11 Plus revolves around the listening experience. Swiping down from the top reveals the usual Android control panel, but expand it and you’ll find the shortcuts include an array of custom options. You can tap the Gain Mode to cycle between low, medium, and high for different kinds of headphones, swap from headphone output to line out if you just want to use the M11 as a source for dedicated speakers, swap the function of the volume pad (enable or disable touch and control when it deactivates so you don’t tap it in your pocket), or convert all of the audio to DSD. Dig into the menu’s further and you’ll find more advanced options. This includes an EQ, but I was surprised to find this was just the standard Android EQ which just isn’t very good.

When it comes to actual listening, the M11 Plus supports everything you would hope for. For local files, it has you covered with everything from WAV to MP3 to DSD256 and FLAC. For online streaming, it can decode MQA files, so you can enjoy Tidals highest quality Master tracks.

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Performance is also very snappy and satisfying to use. It doesn’t use the latest chipset, but instead opts for a Snapdragon 660, which is a couple generations old. A DAP doesn’t have the same demands as a smartphone, however, and this is sufficient to run Android and any apps you would like except for demanding games without lag. And yes, you can use the M11 to browse the web, chat on Discord, or watch YouTube, as well as download any other apps you might like. 

Finally, we have battery life. Fiio has equipped it with a 6000mAh battery, but with such a big screen and high power output, that goes quicker than you might expect. It’s officially rated for 11.5 hours of listening, but depending on your gain, brightness, and what else you’re doing when you’re listening, that could vary quite a bit. It’s been consistently enough to get me through an 8 hour work day, but I’m often finishing the day at about 20% battery, so you should plan on charging nightly.

Fiio M11 Plus ESS –  Sound Quality

All of this would be for naught if the M11 Plus didn’t sound great, and thankfully it does. The ESS in the name indicates the use of ESS Sabre DAC chips being used. This is actually the second version of this DAP as the original, the M11 Plus LTD, used AKM chips, but due to the AKM fire, that model has been replaced with the version we’re testing today. While that version has been highly sought after due to its limited quantity, the ESS holds its own in a major way.

The M11 Plus ESS uses two separate ESS ES9068AS chips. This allows each channel to have its own DAC, improving channel separation and reducing phase distortion, increasing clarity. These chips are able to reproduce audio up to 32-bits and at a sampling rate of 384kHz and have excellent specifications for low distortion and noise. The frequency response is also incredibly expansive at 5Hz-90kHz, which will pair well with any headphone you would care to pair with it; there won’t be any unnatural limitation because the M11 can’t match the capability of the headphone you’re listening on.

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Paired with each of these are two THX AAA-78 amplifiers. THX’s AAA (Achromatic Audio Amplifier) amplifiers are esteemed for their exceptionally quiet and distortion-free design. They use feed-forward error correction and emphasize completely neutral sound. That means the amplifier won’t color your headphones to make them warm or bright and won’t introduce any additional noise, even though they’re quite powerful. The M11 Plus isn’t the most powerful unit you can buy for the money, but it’s still respectable at 206mw of output power into 32 ohms over single-ended and 588mW over balanced. Based on these specs, it’s clear that the unit has been optimized for balanced connections, but still sounds great over single-ended.

The combination of these features leads to an excellent listening experience. The ESS DACs don’t color the sound much at all, so you’re able to hear exactly what your headphones have to offer. What they do provide is excellent dynamic range, imaging, and a low noise floor which allows you to hear greater detail in your tracks and games.

I was able to live with the M11 Plus for several weeks before publishing this review, and was able to listen to a wide array of types of music and even use it as an external soundcard on my PC for gaming. The layering on the device is excellent. You can clearly hear every element in what you’re listening to, even if it’s playing quietly in the background. Things that might otherwise get lost underneath louder sources, like guitars or basslines, come through clearly here to enhance what you’re listening to. This is also true in movies and games, increasing your sense of realism and immersion. It’s the same kind of effect you get from a high quality external DAC like the Gryphon, but is cleaner here.

Soundstage and imaging are also great with the M11. The biggest impact on these elements will be the headphones you’re listening on, but like other elements of this DAP, it’s not going to get in the way and limit your headphones in any way. The subtle increases to clarity can also enhance the effect, though, again, it’s subtle — the exact type of quality, however, that audiophiles tend to listen for. 

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Final Thoughts

The Fiio M11 Plus ESS is an excellent device for audio enthusiasts. That’s an important caveat and one Fiio knows well: the market for this kind of device is really limited to audio enthusiasts who still want the magic of a dedicated audio player instead of accessory DACs and amps. As a result, you have a device that is at once finely tuned for the market it serves and priced to address the smaller market share. Despite that, the M11 manages to be reasonably priced against other devices of its type, so while, yes, it’s expensive, it also feels like a great value compared to competing products.

Everything from its internal components and excellent listening experience, to its gorgeous design and stellar build quality, combine to make this a truly outstanding piece of gear. It’s one explicitly for audiophiles, to be sure, but if you consider yourself one among the fold, it’s hard to think of a better option at this price.

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The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

https://www.mmorpg.com/hardware-reviews/fiio-m11-plus-ess-review-2000124648 Fiio M11 Plus ESS Review

Fry Electronics Team

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