As someone who cares a lot about sound quality, sometimes listening to a pair of the best wireless earbuds connected to my iPhone 12 Pro or OnePlus 11 Android phone just doesn't cut it. Don't get me wrong, I listen to plenty of music on the best headphones via both smartphones, but sometimes I find they're not enough and I need to up the quality with a dedicated music player tethered to one of the best wired headphones.
Although I've experienced several ways to boost audio quality from my iPhone and get studio sound via an affordable DAC add-on, the best way to get hi-res audio on the move is a portable Digital Audio Player (DAP). Sometimes known as MP3 players, the outdated term refers to a playback device capable of storing music files and today's models deliver seriously high-quality audio. For anyone who cares about listening to the highest quality audio possible, a dedicated music player is the only way to go, but you'll need to have the cash to splash.
FiiO M15S music player: Like an iPod on steroids
Like many who enjoy listening to music on the go, I started out with the original iPod before moving to the iPod Mini when it launched, and then back to an iPod Classic before transitioning to listening to music via a smartphone when it properly took off. Today, all of what an iPod could do is integrated into our smartphones, and I dare say that the majority of us don't feel the need for a dedicated music player. But if you're serious about your music on the move and getting the best sound quality is your goal, then you may be interested in FiiO's M15S music player. I was lucky enough to get some hands-on time with one recently, and I've been very impressed.
I've used a digital audio player before, but few are as flexible as the music playback powerhouse that is FiiO's M15S. Priced at $999 / £979 (approx. AU$1,500 at today's exchange rate), it's just as costly as one of the latest iPhones, and considerably more so than many flagship Android smartphones I've encountered.
Even so, I think the FiiO M15S is worth it with audiophile specs that run to dual desktop-grade ES9038PRO DACs (one for each stereo channel) and support for up to 32-bit/384kHz high-resolution playback as well as DSD256 audio files. These are seriously good credentials for audiophiles and hugely better than any smartphone and many other portable audio players I've encountered at the price.
What's more is that there's also support for streaming MQA files from Tidal Masters, or stored in your own library, as well as aptX HD, LDAC, and LHDC audio codecs to boost data rates over Bluetooth wireless. Speaking of which, the FiiO can even receive audio from a smartphone, PC, or other device, and be used as a Bluetooth DAC/amplifier.
Meanwhile, the onboard 2.4GHz/5GHz Wi-Fi allows for Apple AirPlay, and DLNA streaming. It's Room Ready too, meaning it can be wirelessly integrated into a home networked music system to connect with compatible components.
For wired headphones, physical connections run to a 3.5mm jack socket output, as well as high-end 2.5mm and 4.4mm 'balanced' headphone outputs. Battery life isn't the greatest and claims just 10.5 hours, which is possibly due to a power-hungry 5.5-inch multi-touch HD display. The supplied desktop stand is a good reminder to keep it topped up with juice, though, and was a handy reminder to return it to its cradle and give it a recharge every time I returned from a trip out with it. A USB charging cable is supplied.
The 64GB onboard storage capacity is fairly standard in terms of music file storage, and for those wanting to carry more of their music files around with them, there's a micro SD card slot with support for up to 2TB cards.
The M15S performs well as both a portable and desktop playback device and it sounded terrific with the Campfire Audio Andromeda wired in-ears I tried out with it. When in the dedicated desktop mode, and in USB fast-charging, the M15S operates without using the internal battery and claims to output up to 21% more power as a result. This makes the M15S more flexible than most when it comes to handling pro headphones and in-ear monitors. Additionally, it has five levels of gain to choose from to help it accommodate any fussy headphone designs that are more difficult to drive.
Android Mode uses the Android 10 operating system, which features a global SRC bypass, meaning music streaming apps such as Tidal, Qobuz, and Apple Music etc. can be downloaded to the FiiO to allow listening in full lossless quality. A USB-DAC Mode adds to the FiiO's already impressive list of extensive capabilities.
Although I spend plenty of time listening to music using an iPhone connected to whatever pair of wireless headphones or earbuds I have on hand, I’m finding that I am increasingly gravitating to dedicated playback devices with the audio credentials to satisfy my audiophile aspirations.
I confess that I am fortunate to have access to the kind of audio experiences that maintain the integrity of audio signals, and I can't praise FiiO enough for the way it goes about handling music and its capabilities at driving a wide range of high-end headphones and earbuds. In this regard, the FiiO is a must-own pocket audio system and something of bargain for all kinds of audiophiles.
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As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.