Fiio M11 Plus ESS

Fiio M11 Plus ESS is the newest DAP released by Fiio. It's a redesigned and improved M11 Plus LTD, built around ESS Sabre ESS9068AS chips and it's priced at $799.
Price Chip Amplifier OS
$799
2x ESS9068AS
THX AAA-78*2
Android 10

Introduction

I’ll tell you a quick story… So one day I thought to myself – I’m just gonna get some TWS to listen to some music. It’s good enough. Well, later that changed – alright, maybe some nice IEMs that I’ll use with my phone. Well, I hear the difference, so a dongle might be a good idea… All that led me to try a DAP. 

I’m not gonna buy it, I’m just gonna try it. Okay, I just bought a DAP, and here is why it happened: I love music, but I also love comfort. If you are one of those people that actually pay attention to authors, you know I’m pretty fresh on Ear-Fidelity, and in headphone world in general. The whole thing started for me when our beloved, sacred founder Paweł, started slowly showing me that headphones are actually kinda cool. I’ve quickly started catching up and you know, appetite grows on what it feeds on.
Also, some big changes are coming in my life so I had to get rid of my stereo setup. All of that combined I quickly started looking for a really good IEM setup. Especially after I’ve heard Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 with Lotoo PAW 6000. That showed me what can I get soundwise and of course, I want it now.
Don’t look at me like that, you know how it is. But, there is a small drawback, as Lotoo player doesn’t support streaming services. It’s a deal-breaker for me (but if you want just a file player, it’s a killer DAP, get it). That’s when FiiO dropped the new M11. Previous models have had a great reputation among folks, so you can say that the new model was something that a lot of people waited for. Why a new model? Oh you know, big fire, the factory burned, AKM big sad, whole world needs to change to other chips to survive. Not many people heard about it, you know? A quick look at fiio.com proved to me, that it’s what I need function-wise. I was able to borrow it for a day, and after a listening session with Campfire Andromeda and Mammoth I decided to pull the trigger. Now it’s my EDC and here is what I think about it.

Packaging

This DAP comes in a very nice box. It looks kind of like some premium PC parts packaging. I lowkey expected RGB inside. It’s a black box with a player shape made with iridescent paint. Flashy, but good flashy. Also consistent with recent FiiO packaging of other products. Tickles my fancy.

Inside you will find the DAP itself, surrounded by thick foam. Nothing will happen in the shipping, trust me. One layer below is the land of accessories. We get a quick start guide, microSD card tray opener, USB A-C cable, 3,5mm jack to coax pigtail, and finally a leather case. On the manufacturers website a screen protector is also mentioned. I wasted 30 minutes of my life figuring out where it can be, or if they have forgotten to pack it.
It’s already on. It’s stuck so perfectly that I just didn’t notice. Extra points to FiiO for including basic protection (case and screen glass) in the package already. This way you just open it and go about your day. 

Build Quality

TOTL build quality. End of story. The newest M11 feels just like a monolith. Everything is fitted perfectly. No spaces around sockets, nothing. 

The front is dominated by 5.5”, bezel-less LCD screen. It has a ratio of 18:9, which is 2:1 don’t know why they say it like that. The resolution is 1440 x 720 and it stands out compared to even mid-tier smarphone. The sides of the device are filled with hexagonal buttons and switches. They all have a nice tactile feeling.
The left side is also home to quite a unique volume control. It’s a carbon fiber panel that can be both used as buttons (top and bottom), or as a slide touch panel. The second option is great when you need to trim the volume when songs on your playlist vary in loudness. There is a hold slider that allows you to block buttons and screen so it doesn’t do anything stupid while being in your pocket. I like that.
The whole backside of this unit is finished with a glass panel with a diamond like structure underneath the surface. That looks amazing and it’s a shame, that it ends up behind the leather case. Speaking of which, that is also top-notch. I’m not sure but it kind of smells and feels like the real deal.

Put together with DAP it looks great and safe. One thing that bothers me is that after some time the lip that closes the case might be kind of loose when leather wears down. The player itself weighs almost 300 grams and has dimensions of 136,6 x 75,7 x 17,6 mm. It’s big but manageable. 

Tech

Oh boy, that’s gonna be a long one. Let’s start with the computer part and then we’ll finish with the audio part. The brain here is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660, the same as in FiiOs top DAP M17. It’s used in the middle of the range smartphones. For DAP it’s a monster. It has 8 cores with 8 threads, each running, and decent 2.2GHz. Even though it’s over 4 years old it basically is overkill anyway. Adreno 512 is a GPU standing behind everything that displays on the LCD.
M11 uses 4GB of RAM to make that dragon snappy. It scores 335 single-core and 1618 multi-core in Geekbench. No, it won’t run Crysis. Doesn’t matter, but I know somebody will ask. Built-in memory is 64GB, around 48GB of it is usable for us. Onboard, you will find a new Bluetooth 5.0 chip, namely QCC5124 with aptX, and LDAC. It can work as both receiver, or transmitter for your convenience.
You also get Wi-Fi with a 2.4GHz band, and 5GHz band. It supports AirPlay and DLNA. For your files, you can use a microSD card with a capacity of up to theoretically 2TB. That’s what they said. Even if you use 1TB it’s probably more than enough for 95% of us. 

The first audio part that the signal encounters on its way is DAPS (Digital Audio Purification System). Under that name sits an FPGA centered buffering and reclocking circuit. It’s probably using FIFO buffering as the most appropriate thing to do, with some nice NDK femtosecond (I assume femtosecond jitter) clocks. The point of this stage is to isolate noisy, jittery central processor from DAC, and coaxial output circuit. It’s a nice touch and I really appreciate it. DAPS is also responsible for DSD conversion if you wish to upsample everything. Then the DACs themselves. 

Two ES9068 working in monoaural configuration. I want to talk about them for a little bit, as they are very interesting and stand out from what this company usually does. They are a very integrated solution, there is actually even ADC on board. Low noise voltage regulators, MQA decoding up to 8x (can MQA die already? It’s long overdue), everything is inside the chip. But wait dude, that’s awful! We want super audiophile parts! No, you don’t. Why a big part of our community absolutely can’t stand 80% of ESS DAC-based devices? Because their top DACs everybody loves to put in everything are extremely susceptible to layout and external components. JDS Labs mentions that in their blog post about Atom AMP+, but if you dig enough you will find much more on that. I wonder what Jason Stoddard has to say about ESS chips. I have a friend, who is experienced IEE and it took him 2 years to make ES9038PRO sound great. Most companies won’t take that long, especially when they base everything on measurements. A more integrated DAC chip from ESS seems to be much easier to implement, and here it sounds excellent without its usual problems.

The analog stage for DAC uses OPA927 which is an upgrade from previously used in M11 LTD OPA1662. Volume control is done in the DAC chip instead of a dedicated chip (NJW1195 in the last model). The headphone output is based on THX’s new technology AAA-78. This particular solution is on top of the audiophile mobile line in their portfolio. What makes it special is the error correction circuit that is a proprietary solution of THX. It works by isolating the errors on the output and feeding them in reversed-phase into the amplifier. Positive error summed up with negative error equals in no error at all. That’s how the whole series of amps gets such low distortion. I know it’s a vague explanation, but that’s what I have for you right now. 

Obviously, we have balanced outputs and single-ended ones. 4.4mm and 2.5mm will give you up to [email protected] and up to [email protected], both below 1% THD. That’s not too shabby, to be honest. Both can be used as line outputs, neat! Inside the M11 PLUS II has circuits sectioned out and protected by metal shields. I expect it’s as good inside as is the outside appearance of the DAP. All of those goodies are powered by a big 6000mAh battery supporting a quick charge of up to 27W. Most optimistic playback time is mentioned up to 14h, so expect around 10h depending on your use case. Practically it was something around that for me.

User Interface

It’s an Android, thank you for attending my TED Talk. Alright, alright, don’t get too excited. It’s Android 10, which means it should be quite future-proof. System supports dark mode, gestures, and third-party apps. Obviously, it gives you lots of ways to customize your DAP. You can even change the keyboard to something more convenient than the original one. The first stand-out feature of M11 is 5 modes the player can work in. 

Android Mode – self-explanatory. It’s like a smartphone without calls, but with good sound. You can use any music player or streaming service that is available on this system.

Pure Music Mode – turns off everything besides FiiO Music that plays from files on inserted SD card. It’s the most audiophile mode and probably the most energy-efficient. Two birds, one stone.

USB DAC Mode – obviously it can be used as a standalone DAC. Paired with line outputs it can absolutely work as not only a portable player but also a stationary one. No docking station for it, but I think that we all grew out of that phase.

Bluetooth Receiving Mode – receives Bluetooth.

AirPlay – receives music stream over Wi-Fi from Apple devices.

Well, you can clearly see that the new M11 is very flexible. Nothing missing comes to my mind. For external control, there is an Android app called FiiO Link working over Wi-Fi and BT, and simpler control over BT from iOS devices. The bad news is that I just can’t make FiiO Control on my Xiaomi Mi 10T Lite. It just won’t connect to the DAP. Pairing stops. Keep that in mind if that’s something you want. 

The basic music player is FiiO Music app preinstalled, the one that is found in Pure Music Mode. The #1 question is: does it make a difference to choose Pure Music Mode? Yes, yes it does. Is it a huge one? No, not really. If you listen to your files, just choose it. If you don’t feel it, at least your battery should last longer. The sonic difference is slightly cleaner and more dynamic sound. Oh, it also supports DLNA, a standard loved by so many and absolutely despised by me. I can never get it to work, I’m not even trying now. This one is on me. Can we just all go for Roons RAAT? It works, it’s easy. Come on… One unusual thing I’ve noticed was that some descriptions in this app were in Chinese. It got patched pretty quickly. Also in another part of the player, there was a French description, when I have English selected. Those are minor things and I can see they are getting steadily patched, so no sweat. There is a universal button on the left side of the DAP that you can program to access a mode or a function easily. 

The last section will be about third-party apps. You can use them as long as they are compatible with Android 10. My first choice is Apple Music, sadly it’s struggling a bit with short stops in playback when streaming. Just like its buffering for a bit. I’ve messed around in the settings but can’t get it to stop. I’ve issued a ticket in FiiO support, I think it will get resolved quickly, just like other bugs. Tidal on the other hand works flawlessly.

Sound

Well, it’s a great sounding DAP, if you are looking for one. Its price to performance ratio is excellent. Overall the sound is on a darker side with my favorite ink-black background. A great indicator of very good noise performance. If you, as I was, are afraid of ESS DAC-based sources don’t be. There is none of that infamous harshness. What we do get is the good ESS sound. Nuclear dynamics, insane detail, everything just pops freely all around. It still isn’t supernatural style of AKMs but it has its niche without its most annoying drawbacks. We will be back to AKM soon and boy it’s gonna be nuts.

 Looking at output power it’s obvious that M11 should be used with IEMs and that’s what I’m focusing on. My lineup consists of CA Andromeda (both), Mammoth, UM MEST, FiiO FH9, Shuoer S12 and more. The absolutely most important thing is that this DAP is capable of switching me into an emotional state of listening to music. It creates an illusion of sound that is so good that it allows me to just totally chill and open up for music. That’s what separates good and awesome audio gear apart. Me, being used to big audio, wasn’t expecting it for such a low price of $750. It’s not TOTL sound, but it gives you music, not only sound. As I’m writing the below paragraphs it occurred to me that mixed with various IEMs this revision of M11 can be the answer for lots of folks needs.

The bass is obviously a strong point, as it’s one of ESS DACs best features. If you are a bass-head get yourself CA Mammoths with a silver cable and you’re done. That’s it. Okay, UM MEXT is probably gonna be a TOTL for bass, but for around the price of them, you get this whole combo. Back to the DAP at hand (it’s hand-held, get it?). I really can’t imagine better bass at this price. It has everything: perfectly controlled, goes to the depths of hell, is amazing at showing textures, and is completely unchained. Wanna push it to the limit? Drop Blastoyz – Mandala it’s gonna blow your mind, what not that expensive DAP can do. Acoustic pressure is gonna blow your eyes out of their socket. THX has done an excellent job on their amp, especially that Mammoths at 8Ohm are greater load than recommended 16Ohms and up. Looking for something more sophisticated? One of the greatest bass lines for me is played by Justin Chancellor in Schism by Tool. Drums and bass are executed perfectly and M11 shows you that in full glory. You can even pick up how the fundamental resonance of a string changes while it’s moving after being struck by a musician. Yes, it’s that good, and it doesn’t feel one bit technical. Reference bass, period. 

Mids are actually great too. They share the same qualities as bass: they are detailed, have a great dynamic range, and are very rich with textures. Their tonality is neutral, but never thin, or lifeless thanks to players’ darker sound signature. Overall it’s a very mature sound, it’s not trying to win you with cheap tricks. I’ve always felt that Comfortably numb from my favorite Pink Floyds album has that holy sound to it. It’s a combination of a wide soundstage, weeping guitars, and delicate cymbals. In all of that flow David Gilmour and Roger Waters voices. It all feels relaxed and comforting. This DAP easily recreates that feeling with its clean and open mids. Another thing that sounds excellent with this device is the piano. Its great dynamic range and richness are not limited in the smallest bit. Listen to basically anything from Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio and see why I like them so much. They have the perfect mix of emotion and chill at the same time. Midnight sugar, the whole album, can be a prime example of that. 

Highs are on the backburner a bit. Darker tonality means they aren’t as present and fulfill more of a support role. What is significant for this range, they deliver very nice detail and resolution. It’s Sabre, and Sabre is a king of detail after all. Listening to The Division Bell by some unknown rock band is a pure pleasure. The sound is open and clean on the top end. It really creates that feeling of space all around you. Coming back again to Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio I can definitely tell that this model’s highs are a little hard. Don’t think of it as harsh though. It’s more a thing about not being as rich, and shiny as Cayin N3PRO offers. That probably goes about other non-Sabre DAC players. I feel like this range is the most difficult for ESS DACs overall. That’s AKM territory, no questions asked.

Comparisons

 

Fiio M11 Plus LTD

I’m gonna get a lot of flak for that. M11 PLUS II is a better player than M11 PLUS LTD. I know, some of you fan bois want to burn me at a stake now. But it is what it is. Even though I was actually expecting the opposite. Old M11 has less controlled sound. Bass doesn’t get as low and isn’t as controlled as it is in the new M11. It’s boomier while not having that amount of information. That is quite obvious. The big shocker is that the new player also has better midrange, and not by a small margin. It’s deeper, more involving, warmer, and has better dynamics. The older one sounds a bit flat in comparison and sometimes dryer. It’s the highs that are in favor of the older brother. They are more pronounced, more natural, intense, yet not tiring. The soundstage of the old DAP is wider, but not as precise. It also loses some points here for a less clean background. What might actually save M11 LTD in some cases is that’s a very smooth, and more forgiving source. 
In terms of interface, and the rest of the features they work basically the same.

Shanling M6 PRO (21)

Here is a direct competitor. Shanling is based on older Android 7, and you can feel that in the user interface. It still works nicely, but not as nice as FiiO. Hardware-wise it’ ‘s basically the same. The weaker CPU Snapdragon 430 uses 4GBs of RAM as well. Two DACs are ES9068 and I think that Shanling was the first DAP to use it. It uses top-of-the-line analog amplifiers inside. Output power on balanced out is bigger at a whooping [email protected] Damn. M6 PRO is doing the same stuff, but differently. Shanling sounds darker, has thicker bass and fewer highs than FiiO. With my Mammoths, it is just way too dark. It would go along nicely with MEST though. New M11 delivers a more exciting, lively, detailed, more open sound. It is overall a better player with much more longevity (Android 10 and better hardware). Shanling would be a good rival for older M11s as it is their quality level soundwise. The new release from FiiO leaves it behind at a slightly lower price. 
The comparison was made using hi-res files with both working in audio exclusive mode.

Pairing

Campfire ANDROMEDA (new)

Campfire Andromeda 2020 is a perfect match for this player. I dream about this mix and then my hands are under the sheets. Just play your favorite music and get instantly taken to your special place. Everything is just right in this combo, it’s one of the best combos that you can spend your hard-earned cash. The bang for buck ratio for this one is matched only by the synergy of this combo. Andromeda still is an IEM to beat at this price.

Unique Melody MEST

This one is extremely interesting. While Andromeda is a crowd pleaser and will sound awesome in every sane person’s mind, this hits different. Of course, MEST is a more expensive headphone. True. It also has more potential. Compared to a set with Andromeda, here we get much more open and interesting highs and enhanced bass thanks to bone conduction. Soundstage is bigger than with Campfires, and the sound itself is… Well, it’s wilder. It’s like a very big engine in a very small car. 

CA MAMMOTH

Bass-heads unite. This is the ultimate setup for you, with a price tag that doesn’t require you to sell your organs. Thanks to its power and low output impedance (thanks THX), the new M11 perfectly handles those IEMs. That isn’t easy, as their impedance is just 8Ohms. A balanced connection is a must here, don’t even argue. What you get is an insane amount of thick, powerful bass that will rock your world. Dynamic driver at its best, really. While its dominance is unquestionable, mids and highs are still solid. Two BAs work really hard and provide you with a good amount of warm sound. Warm sound from BA? Is he out of his mind? Well, with that amount of fur on this Mammoth everything gonna be warm, isn’t it?

FiiO FH9

FH series from FiiO is my favorite. Those hybrids are always on point in their tonality. A true everyday driver with a good set of features and a balanced sound signature. FH9 is everything this line represents. At its current price it’s one of the nicest IEMs to get. Especially for a beginners. It also gets along with the new M11 quite well. Its sound is the most reserved from this lineup. The dynamic driver allows it to go deeper than Andromedas, and its BAs are easily outperforming the ones in Mammoth. It’s smack in the middle, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take place of a go-to headphone at its price. 

Summary

With some amazing IEMs, it brought me to nirvana, or as close as you can get to it. Like, what else do you want to hear? I took my own money, from my strippers reserve, and spent it on some metal, instead of some skin. If you are looking for an excellent DAP to build your IEM system on, here it is. Android-based, solid hardware, great looks, even better sound. The new M11 PLUS II has it all. It’s a new release so it has some bugs, but they are fixed rather quickly, as seen with Chinese descriptions. It’s very flexible and can be used as both portable, and stationary music sources. Sounds and works better than the competition, or its older brother. JUST GET IT.

Highly Recommended.

Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:

  • Headphones – Campfire Andromeda 2020, Fiio FH9, Shuoer S12, Unique Melody MEST, Unique Melody MEXT, Campfire Audio Mammoth
  • Sources– Fiio M11 Plus LTD, Shanling M6 Pro, Cayin N8ii, Fiio M17

I bought the Fiio M11 Plus ESS myself with my own money, no manufacturer discount was applied. All of the above is my opinion and it wasn’t influenced by anybody.