Recently we looked at the current state of the DAP market, more specifically, the mid priced arena. Obviously with so many models kicking about nowadays we barely scratched the surface in that specific but broad price range of the market but still think we covered the latest talked about models. It did get me thinking though what about if you fancy spending even less, or what something even smaller. Although I know once again there are plenty of options if you want to spend under, say £50 but I have narrowed it down to just two, the Fiio M3 (£49) and Hippo Mu ($71.65 which is roughly £49). I thought these were ideal to talk about, Fiio for their absolute domination of budget section of portable audio for as long as I can remember and the Hippo because I loved the sound of the previous DAP of Jaben’s house brand.

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Features

I’ll be honest I had not an idea what to expect coming into two models priced so modestly and when they arrived were so much smaller than I had envisioned I couldn’t help but think they surely couldn’t be doing as much as the more expensive and much larger players. First and foremost when it comes to outputs, these are certainly much simpler, both packing just a single 3.5mm jack for listening and a micro USB for charging, no line or digital outputs but I doubt that is a cost limitation, more so size. Moving onto file formats and that is certainly one of the limiters if you want loads of hi res files on the go. Hippo are straight up, it does most file types such as FLAC, WAV & MP3 but is capped at 14/44.1-48. That is fair! While the FIIO can of course do the usual suspect formats as well, it likes to boast its ability of 24/96, while at first that may impress you, it is much more disappointing when you find out that is only for WAV so if like me you have all music in FLAC, that would be a lot of time messing around to get it playing your 96kHz tracks. For FLAC it still does boast 24bit ability over its competitor.

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With the limitation of relatively smaller files of mainly rebook PCM vs DSD, you won’t be needing quite as much memory but they both come packing a micro SD slot with the M3 having a cheeky 8gb extra on board. They also both have great battery life, with an estimated 24 hours for the Fiio with a 550mAh batter and the Hippo also putting up a good fight via its 450mAh cell. For the sound side the M3 uses a combo DAC/Amp chip in the CS42L51 while the Mu has an Actions Semiconductor MCU chip that integrates a DAC and then uses a rail to rail op amp from Texas Instruments.25 May 2016-18

I would say these two units go pretty neck to neck, maybe with the Fiio always slightly taking the edge but they both have respectable feature sets for price and size and that is good to see!

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I probably should mention that the M3 actually comes with a pair of earbuds as well, for listening right out the box, if you know, don’t already own a headphone!

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UI

Surprised and expected. They are my thoughts towards the user interfaces of the two models. Surprised by how sophisticated and advanced the Fiio is and expected was the simplicity of the Hippo.

The Fiio’s 2 inch colour TFT screen does everything I can ask for. It shows album artwork, can give you all the advanced details of the track you are playing and simply sorts out its files into the simple categories you know and expect. Why am I surprised? Well, if you have owned half of the DAPs to come out of China while they may perform very impressively sonically, you will know the hell that is the UI and how it lacks even the simplest of pleasures. That’s why I am so happy with M3. On top of that it has a basic parametric EQ and  playlist creator. The 6 buttons all have clear purpose and become intuitive and easy to use making navigating a blessing. In all my use it has never once glitched out or had lag, something than even the more sophisticated AK and Opus UI’s can struggle with. One of the biggest annoyances I found was that when you have music on both internal and external memory, they are separated and don’t just integrate, becoming a pain when trying to quickly change artist.

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The Hippo is and always was going to be a more basic player, considering its predecessor was without even a screen, this will still have much simpler navigation. The OLED panel is just under an inch and glows a bright blue and orange. To give it some credit it still has much more consistent function than the HiSoundAudio S6 and also has a few more advanced features such as some basic EQ presets. It also has 6 buttons which function very closely to the Fiio. It doesn’t deal with meta tags so you will have to just browse folders. My biggest tick off with it was actually when you select a song you then have to press play again, which I often forgot and sat there waiting for music. It is not the most complicated but gets the job done.

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Build

This is the first area that the Mu can really stand ahead. It is a metal brick with bold mechanical buttons that have a real clunk to them. It has some cool design quirks like the extra two slots to hold spare SD cards (I wish they were actually readable slots) but for the most part looks pretty simple. Obviously it has some weight to it but doesn’t actually seem much heavier than the much thinner and plastic M3!

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Even though the Mu is a tank, the M3 is not really a worry, its just not going to be as solid as metal when using plastic. The back plate creeks a little with a squeeze but in honesty it’s such a small thing I can’t find where it could go wrong. In terms of looks the M3 does seem to be a bit more modern and also comes in a plethora of colours if you want something brighter than my white unit. There is a little bit of metal decorating the M3, in both the power button and lock switch. There is also a little loop in case you want to attach a lanyard.

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Even though both units are very small, by being that much thinner the Fiio always deceives you into think it is much less than the Hippo but in reality they are the same with and the Hippo with its smaller screen is actually shorter. The extra depth of the Hippo actually makes it a little bit more ergonomic to hold and get to the buttons, and with Fiio designating less space for buttons it is the fiddlier unit.

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Sonny Trigg
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