Being an old timer in battery powered portable audio, including everything from a brand new 1970 Panasonic transistor radio to the world's first portable CD player (Sony D5 in 1985) and toyed with Diamond Rio mp3 player (1999), I am truly impressed at these two under $100 offerings. While there's bragging rights with the latest and greatest (and overly heavy imho) 'reference devices' that are big, overly bulky, and frankly hard to justify at lofty $3000(!) pricing for some, FiiO's M3K portable Hi-Res Audio music player and BTR3 Bluetooth amplifier at $69.99 each give you two ways to enhance your enjoyment of music at very reasonable pricing. The M3K is a stand-alone music player with color screen and touchpad while the BTR3 is a wireless Bluetooth amplifier. Both units take advantage of the same Hi-Res Audio / H-Res Music capable modern AKM AK4376A DAC and amplification circuit, which FiiO chose after many hours of careful listening.
Both units are eye-catching, with the Bluetooth BTR3's aluminum alloy body wrapped in 2.5D glass with oleophobic coating that (hopes) to keep off fingerprints. Does FiiO know I slow smoke ribs while enjoying music, and thus fingerprints are more like 'Pitmaster' prints... and nothing can keep those from showing (LOL). Fortunately, both units can handle it (and subsequent cleaning). The usual array of buttons and operations are available for Bluetooth with the BTR3 including a mic for hands-free phone operation and volume adjustment. To further ensure crystal clear sound during phone calls, Qualcomm's cVc noise cancellation technology automatically adjusts the microphone and actively suppresses background noise.
For those seeking a stand-alone music player, FiiO's M3K music player has capacitive buttons plus a touchpad for operation. Five sets of backlit touch buttons for UI control are great for daylight or in dark areas and so make the M3K easy to use even when the main screen is off, thus saving precious battery power. FiiO's M3K also comes with a very nice plastic casing that covers everything but the front screen. With the case on the M3K, my Pitmaster fingers never touches most of this portable music player other than the front touchscreen; and thus easier to clean up my mess. Sometimes being an audio reviewer can get a bit messy (LOL)!
All the latest and greatest digital audio file types are supported with both units, with the M3K playing them natively (FLAC, DSD, MP3, etc) and the BTR3 doing what it needs to do Bluetooth-wise depending on your devices capabilities and connection speed. Fortunately, Samsung has always provided a great set of technologies within their phones including Hi-Res Audio support many years ago. For those curious, am using the Samsung SM-G950U, better known as the Galaxy S8, with the BTR3. Thus some of the best in Bluetooth codecs are available including Hi-Res Audio LDAC.
For the geeks like me, let's recap where we're at right now with Bluetooth here in October 2018. aptX is 16-bit/48kHz (352 kbps), aptX HD is 24-bit/48kHz (576 kbps), and yes LDAC may indeed be a lossy compression scheme yet it handles a throughput of up to 990 kbps, ~2x that if aptX HD, and so LDAC is far more able to play impressive-sounding 24-bits music files. For the young 'uns out there who might not know, those mp3 files (320 kbps) and Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, etc you are basically at Napster 1990's sound quality. So naturally virtually all my listening with FiiO's BTR3 was via 24-bit/48kHz or higher Hi-Res Music sent via LDAC with the Samsung S8.
To help drive the point home, the very beginning of Napster with it's 'free' mp3 music files (320 kbps at most), which again is Pandora, Apple Music, Spotify, etc territory, was barely a year or two before the Nintendo Gameboy was released! Why is it many music lovers are still listening to Gameboy-quality music is far beyond me. The music biz has done a horrible job at educating the general public about sound quality. Please allow me to apologize for that. Fortunately, deep-rooted music lovers, musicians, studio engineers, etc know that if you want near to full lossless master tape sound, you need 24-bit/48kHz (2304 kbps) or higher. While FiiO's M3K plays Hi-Res Music natively, the BTR3 Bluetooth unit needs to lossy compress for wireless music due to bandwidth constraints.
Am sure there's going to be quite a bit of talk about Asahi Kasei Microdevices' AK4376A DAC as used within both the BTR3 and M3K. It has very good specs to be sure, yet specs alone are far different than delivering sound quality. Will say right up front that both units sound astonishingly good, especially for being a $70 device. Yes, imho the FiiO M3K blows away all other inexpensive portable music players I have heard to date including the (unimpressive) Sony and the good-sounding tiny silver Astell&Kern AK Jr player (originally $499) from a few years back. My oh my has technology within the portable audio sector truly been on a major upswing! To the best of my memory over 40+ years, never before have I seen so many top-tier chip / parts producers competing with multiple chipsets / offerings for both professional and consumer portable audio gear. DO you hear that? It's called technological progress.
Can You Hear It? Listen....
Naturally both units are loaded with the latest firmware (as of September 22nd, 2018) by Yours truly. Instead of getting down to each and every tech detail, go visit their website -- BTR3 and M3K. Speaking of firmware, you'll need to update the Qualcomm CR8675 Bluetooth chip software downloadable from FiiO's website. You can also pair the BTR3 via NFC, a nice modern feature as is the USB 3.0 jack for high-speed external DAC use. Odds are you know how to work a portable music player and both FiiO units are relatively easy to use once you learn the button layout and basic operation. To make your life easier, the Bluetooth BTR3 can be paired via NFC.
The built-in amplifier in the Bluetooth BTR3 and M3K portable music player handles every IEM / CIEM and virtually every modern headphone save those super power greedy large planar magnetic headphones such as those from Audeze. Generally speaking, virtually everyone reading this with normal headphones and in-ear monitors can rest assured there's plenty of amp output to achieve (dangerous to the ears) loud volume levels. During normal listening volume you have plenty of headroom, which means all those deep bass notes have a solid foundation and never run out of 'gas' when the bass drops hard and deep. For jazz, classical music and other acoustic music lovers, there's good finesse, texture and feel. Harmonics are not strident, yet not overly lush.
When designing the ultimate sound of both units, there is indeed a 'family sound' as one would expect given both units are from FiiO and contain the same DAC / amp chipset. As said before, FiiO's M3K portable music player supports a wide variety of lossless audio formats and file types including PCM up to 384kHz/32-bit audio, DSD, CUE files, and LRC files for displaying lyrics. The M3K also supports fast file transfers with USB OTG-compatible devices. Naturally I loaded it up with Hi-Res Audio files on my SanDisk microSD, as the unit has a slot for a memory card (Apple take note here!), while for the BTR3 Bluetooth unit was fed the same Hi-Res Audio music files via LDAC (990kbps).
Both units had extremely little to no background hiss, a true testament to the overall design of both units. Highs were very clean and clear, yet not overly bright. Without using any equalization, the sound is very balanced overall for both acoustic and electronic music. While the M3K portable music player does have a few pre-set EQs, am hoping during a future firmware update there will also be available a custom EQ setting. For the Bluetooth BTR3, FiiO has plans to offer an app where you can do many things such as EQ and other sound / operational settings. Yet for now, both units are flat EQ for review.
What surprised me is how well defined bass notes come and go into the music's tapestry. Years ago many battery powered headamps struggled with Trap, Bass, and certain types of modern Pop music. With today's devices using modern chipsets, am happy to report there's plenty of amplifier power to drive your fave IEMs and sanely-designed headphones. Deep bass tones and textures came through without dynamic compression, including very fast bass notes during speed metal and EDM. Tempo and feel were also neutral.
Of course the midrange is the most important, since most music is midrange plus it is the frequency region that human ears are most sensitive to. I would peg the sound for both FiiO's M3K and BTR3 as a neutral. If you love to hear music as the artist intended, and have a limited budget, there is no other players I've heard to date that get so much right for under $200, let along the $70 price for each! Overall, from orchestral triangle highs to pipe organ lows... my ears come away amazed how these small, under $80 units I might add, have successfully achieved this high level of sound quality.
What truly blows my mind is that for under $70 the M3K battery powered portable music player delivers truly impressive sound quality within a small, lightweight package that also features a touchpad and color screen. How does FiiO do all this at such a low price point? Who cares, just shut up and take my money!
In conclusion, both FiiO's M3K music player and BTR3 Bluetooth headamp / handsfree phone unit get my highest recommendation! Am very impressed at the latest developments in low-powered DAC / amp chipsets and, as a result, smart companies are seeking to get the very best from them. Only a few years ago you'd probably pay upwards of $500+ for what FiiO has achieved here at $69.99 each. Furthermore, both units can work as a USB DAC for your computer too! Now is the time to throw away those old USB-only red/black colored 'fly units and get with the modern technology and sound quality of today!
Will say it again, I highly recommended FiiO's BTR3 Bluetooth unit with mic and M3K Hi-Res Audio portable music player for those seeking great sound for well under $100. Just buy it and try it! Am sure you'll come away very impressed for the price, and dare I say this in early October, they both make great holiday gifts too!
FiiO M3K Music Player Specifications
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