The M11 is an Android-based DAP and as such booting up the player can feel a little different from traditional players and a lot more like booting up a phone. You don’t go straight into a music player, but instead you get the familiar Android environment. A few apps have been pre-installed of which the FiiO Music app is of course the most important one. This is a fairly basic app that has some neat features such as changing background colors based on the color of the album art, but it is not fully refined yet, as (for instance) album art loads inconsistently. I have had times where only a few songs from the same album showed the album art and other times where it was only shown for the main album, but not individual songs. Of course because the M11 is Android-based there is always the option of using a different music player app. I installed the Hiby Music app, which is not significantly better, but I found it a little more intuitive to use.
In either case it was less than optimal and did not feel as intuitive as using traditional DAPs like the AK70 or Plenue 2. For all the versatility that Android brings, it feels like the music player apps focus too much on looking flashy and adding non-essential features while neglecting their core task of managing music libraries and playback, which is what you buy a DAP for in the first place. Using an app for playback also means that some settings are integrated in the app, while others are found in the settings menu of the M11 itself. The settings menu has various options that will be familiar from your Android phone (if you have one) such as connection, storage and security, but there is also a specific Audio menu where you can find DAC filter settings and the ‘All to DSD’ function. I feel this creates the risk of the M11 getting cluttered with too many apps and losing the simplicity of a pure DAP. As such, I can imagine that some people might like the option of booting the M11 up in a pure music player mode. Sure that would defeat the purpose of having a smart-DAP in the first place, but the M11 offers enough performance and value outside of Android that it might still be interesting for some users. I would quite like the option of switching between two modes in order to have a clean and simple interface when I only use it for music and going back to Android mode for enjoying all the benefits that offers. And let’s be clear here, it offers an awful lot.
Before looking at apps there is something that needs to be clearly stated here: The M11 does not offer Google Play store support at this point in time. This is something that is very important to be aware of because it means apps need to be side-loaded and not all apps will work optimally. As such the user experience will feel different compared to an Android phone with full Google Play store support. I think that this is easy to underestimate and has led to some users being disappointed with the M11. FiiO have clearly been working on ways to make it easier, such as the FiiO Market, where some of the most popular apps such as Tidal and Spotify can be found, as well as third-party app markets such as APK Pure. This helps to make it easier, but can still feel cumbersome for people less well versed in the Android environment. Remember, I am strictly analogue when it comes to this and so I will admit that for me there was a learning curve, although definitely rewarding once I got the hang of it. Mind you, I have not emerged as the “Grand Wizard of all things Android” either.
Another thing that is good to be aware of is that the M11 comes standard with ES File Explorer installed. This app might not be secure and has recently been removed from the Google Play store as a result of various problems. It might be good to look at an alternative instead.
Although I will say that the Android platform is not yet running seamlessly on the M11, it does offer a lot of extras and I had a great deal of fun trying out different things (yes, Solitaire works too!). One of the Apps I really enjoyed using was SoundCloud. The app gave an error, warning me that it would not work without Google Play store support, but being the rebel that I am I just ignored it and contrary to the dire warning it worked just fine. Here the M11 was definitely able to give me more use out of my DAP because SoundCloud allowed me to explore new music more easily. For instance, I was finally able to listen to one of Stormzy’s albums that was freely available on SoundCloud. Having lived in London for a few years, I was curious about it, but I generally don’t listen to grime and so I was not immediately going to blind buy the album. This was a great way to give it a try. I strongly support this type of platform with decent free access because it does help to explore new music, after which you can support your favourite artists by buying their album. Sure, SoundCloud still injects ads to “stimulate” (read: pressure) you to go for the paid Go+ subscription, but it beats free Spotify as that was completely useless when I tried it.
Not all apps I tried would work well and for instance the YouTube app immediately closed every time I tried to start it up. Watching YouTube through the Chrome browser would work and going full screen would rotate the picture to fill the M11’s screen (the M11 does not have the ability to automatically rotate the picture based on how you hold it), but there were serious issues with synchronization. The delay was in the order of several seconds, making it unacceptable to watch.