MUSE HiFi M3
- DAC: ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M with ES9603Q Amp Module
- Headphone Ports: 3.5mm Single-ended and 4.4mm Balanced
- Resolution: PCM 32Bit/388Khz
- Power (3.5mm Single Ended): Under 2 Vrms
- Power (4.4mm Balanced): 2 Vrms
- SNR: 122dB
- Line-Out: 2Vrms Max
IEMs and Earbuds:
- Etymotic ER4SR (Single BA, 45 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Shure KSE1500 (Single Electrostatic 200V, KSA1200 Energizer)
- Kinera Idun Golden (2BA + 1DD Hybrid, 32 Ohm, 112db Sensitivity)
- VE Azure (Single DD, 16 Ohm, 105db Sensitivity)
- VE Monk GONE SPC
- VE Master
- FOSTEX T40RP MK3 (Magnetic Planar, 50 Ohm, 91db Sensitivity)
- VE Pro Supernova (Single DD, 32 Ohm)
- Windows 10, Foobar 2000 (USB 3.0 Power)
- Xiaomi Redmi Mi9T (HiBy Music, USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- Sony Xperia X Compact (HiBy Music, USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING
Out of the blue, MUSE HiFi joined the dongle war that has been picking up pace since the turn of late 2021. I have used their M1 series previously and those were just a prelude of what’s coming. While the M1 series were designated as entry level budget dongles, M3 on the other hand is a full-fledged unit designed to compete on the upper tier of highly portable DAC/Amps.
Suffice to say M3 came fully loaded with tons of features of which I will talk about in details later. Possible with the implementation of a very well established ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M, which is the staple of ESS DAC that has proven quite successful over the years.
Build, Functions, Usability
First off, M3 is an absolute tank of a dongle. Premium metal chassis with premium finish. End to end full metal jacket. The dongle assembly notched an astonishing 59gm of weight, almost double the weight of Cayin RU6. Even the bigger boxed Questyle M15, is only 39gm. My all time favorite dongle of CEntrance DACport HD at 43gm.
So it is only fair to consider this factor when getting the M3, the indestructible dongle is designed to take abuse, but it also meant it is officially the heaviest dongle to exist now.
M3 comes with dual option to connect it to both USB C or Apple Lightning. A clear indication that this device has been designed from the ground up to offer great flexibility between different systems. No need to buy separate adapters as everything essential for this purpose comes included. MUSE even included some O ring spacers for 4.4mm plugs that may need it (usually HiFiMan standard 4.4mm plugs). I appreciate this thoughtfulness on MUSE side to make things easy and convenient for the users.
The next highlight of M3, 60 steps of independent volume adjusters. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Over the years, with M3 being my 125th dongle I have ever owned, I have learned to appreciate the comfort of being able to adjust volumes without the need to fiddle with my phone. I don’t have to tap the screen of my Android device and press anything (especially when used with HiBy Music App, USB Exclusive mode which can only be adjusted with screen on). Adjusting the simple volume bar on the M3 makes all the difference.
With 60 steps of volume levels, M3 is refined enough to offer the ability for fine tuning the right loudness. However I must say that the likes of Lotoo PAW S2, Cayin RU6 (90 steps) and CEntrance DACport HD offers better resolution with volume scaling. Especially DACport HD with that linear micro level adjustment which is simply unmatched by anything in existence. Nonetheless, I find M3 volume feature to be amazingly useful. To a point that I feel less keen to use any dongles that does not have this feature integrated.
Next big feature of M3, 7 levels of digital filters that are innate to ES9038Q2M. M3 brought filter switching to another level with simple long press of the volume down button. The indicator will blink corresponding to the numbered filters.
Now, the filters does not behave like an EQ. Instead it offers dynamic and timbre temperament bias which for the most part will not be immediately evident especially on less than resolving listening devices. After switching the filter modes, it seems that the subtle changes will materialize after a while, a short period and gracefully. But this will require experimentation because different partners will behave differently.
It does not end there. M3 even offer true Line-Out feature to serve as AUX out to feed amplifiers. By my estimation, the Line-Out feed seems to be fixed at 2 Vrms. While connected to my Shure KSA1200 Electrostatic Energizer unit, I can clearly see distortion warnings from the Shure Amp indicating it goes too high over 1.5 Vrms. So I was forced to use digital volume on source level to tone it down to eliminate the distortion. Is this a bad thing? NO!. It simply means that for most amplifiers that are optimized to work with 2-4 Vrms of AUX will find M3 a fitting partner to pair with.
To toggle the Line-Out mode, just press the Vol UP and DOWN together (don’t do this while earphones are connected to the ears).
For my own usage, I have found the sweet spot between Filter No.2 and No.5 depending on what music I am playing. But for the most part, I feel that No.2 being the most neutral and balanced. No.5 being big and open sounding (but may sound a bit odd with some genre of music).
So what else M3 has to offer? Ah yes there’s an option also to pause/play when the volume UP is long pressed. I am just impressed of how much feature MUSE was able to cram into this single long button.
Just like most respectable and powerful dongles, M3 gets a bit warm to the touch after prolonged usage, especially when paired with power demanding partners. But I would say it is quite acceptable. DACport HD in contrast runs a LOT hotter, hot enough to fry some eggs. M3 seems to run slightly cooler than Cayin RU6 and Hidizs S9 Pro (which also uses ES9038Q2M).
Finally, for such a massive dongle, M3 is quite commendable with battery drain to the host. Tested on my Sony Xperia X Compact (now running 4700 mAH battery), M3 scored 7.5 hours of runtime continuously. With volume set at 50% pushing 32 Ohm Kinera Idun Golden.
Last but not least, as with many offering nowadays, M3 came with both 3.5mm Single Ended and 4.4mm BAL ports. Now this is super important. M3 seems to offer equal level of loudness be it from the SE or BAL port. Switching between the two, I don’t have to adjust the volume at all and this is actually amazing. It means M3 pay equal attention to both ports. Not like some dongles like Luxury & Precision W2 which totally ignore the importance of 3.5mm SE. These were tested with Etymotic ER4SR and normally I would be able to tell the difference immediately when switching between 4.4mm to 3.5mm SE. But M3 just works as great on both. Kudos to MUSE HiFi.
The sound output of MUSE HiFi M3 lived up the expectations. It is generally neutral and well balanced. Exhibiting mature tuning. Totally free from any element of typical ESS Sabre Pinna Glare or brightness. To give some perspective, comparing M3 to the implementation of other ES9038Q2M devices, M3 sounds close enough to Hidizs S9 Pro, except that M3 exhibited smoother transients and less aggression, more controlled energy from one end of the frequency range to the other. Compared to E1DA 9038 series (which also offer filters swap, but need to do rocket science to do it), M3 definitely is the more organic sounding unit, E1DA 9038 is a prime example of bright-ish Pinna Glare of ESS. Those loving bright digital sound will prefer E1DA 9038 over M3, those preferring a more organic and natural timbre will find M3 much preferable. Compared to DragonFly Cobalt, M3 is simply a much better unit end to end. While Cobalt is slow and sluggish with unnaturally thick Mids (Cobalt is permanently stuck with Slow filter), M3 exhibited more graceful sound practically with any partners.
However I would say M3 is not without caveats. Perhaps most prominent would be the handling of fast and complex upper frequency decays. Best example I can give, M3 seems to struggle a bit with the composition of cymbals/Hi-hat of “Harper Lewis”, a song by Russian Circles which contain concurrent cymbal attacks from left and right and interchanged at fast pace. It is complex as it is fast. This indicated some minor deficiencies on M3 side to handle speed and resolution under extreme load. I did not get this issue from CEntrance DACport HD, Cayin RU6 and Questyle M15. Not sure about the rest but I had limited times to do repeat tests. But that’s enough to give me clear indication of M3 weaknesses. Is this a deal breaker? No. Not by a longshot. For the most part, M3 behaves like a top tiered dongle it was meant to be. For as long as it is not used to something exceedingly fast and complex at the same time. Something like Modern Jazz, Pop, Dance, Folk, Vocals and anything else in between, M3 sounded flawless.
Dynamic and timbre handling, just like how a good DAC/Amp should be, should always strive to sound neutral and natural. The difference that separates them, richness and density of sound. For instance, up until this point nothing can compete with the natural and airy richness of DACport HD or Cayin RU6 (which comes 2nd) and M15 comes 3rd – at least from my personal ranking. All of them are truthfully neutral. M3 can proclaim itself as a neutral sounding unit, especially when filter No.2 and 4 are selected. The measure of how neutral it sounds tested with Etymotic ER4SR, Kinera Idun Golden and VE Monk GONE – all of which natively uncolored and flat. For depth and richness of texture, I used Shure KSE1500 – of which everything will be revealed and the limit being the amount of details fed by the source. Admirably M3 stood up to the occasion and did not faltered to satisfy the ultra-resolving Electrostatic IEM.
Comparatively, I would say M3 sounds similar to Questyle M15 in many ways, perhaps the differences being, M15 offer slightly better edge resolution and energy, a more polished and sharper sound compared to M3 smoother edges which is velvety yet detailed. So this will boil down to preferences – as both are equally competent technically – especially with micro details. With M3 seemingly less pronounced on the imaging due to focus on smoothness. What M3 does prominently better than M15, the staging feels wider and more spacious – a bit more air. This especially evident when Filter No.5 is selected.
For the rest of the sound element, I would say M3 is highly versatile and will sound great regardless what type of partners connected to it. Be it highly sensitive IEMs, single BA, single DD, multiple Hybrids and even legitimate 200v Electrostatic IEM, M3 handles them all gracefully without any hint of strain.
For the most part, I find M3 to offer ample power to drive my highly stubborn magnetic planar of Fostex T40RP MK3. I do need to crank the volume almost to the roof but when proper loudness is achieved, the sound is wholesome and amply rich. No distortion or strain detected. I estimate that compared to the true capabilities of what that T40RP capable of sounding, the output is close to 70%. Which is amazing considering this is a portable dongle we are looking at.
Personally, I would keep the load for something higher than 95db of sensitivity and up to 300 Ohm of resistances for 100% output richness. Anything above and it will still sound good but not as dense.
In the wake of highly competitive dongle wars, MUSE HiFi M3 have proved itself to be a device to be reckoned with. Superbly built with premium features all over, and equally impressive sound to match. In the search for synergy of sound, M3 positioned itself as highly versatile and practical. The features offered all meaningful and effective. Despite being a jumbo of Swiss Pocket knife, M3 make use of all the beefy build to pack everything that matters.
What I appreciate the most, M3 despite being built on ESS Sabre platform – it is free from any unnatural digital brightness. M3 is truthfully neutral, natural and organic. Immaculate tuning from MUSE HiFi is evident end to end, the sound being effortlessly smooth, musical yet never sacrificing details and resolution the ESS Sabre are known for. Again kudos to MUSE HiFi for this mature and polished sound that M3 delivers.
I should also mention, the all metal build somehow helps with resisting RF interferences better when paired with phones. I can recall than even some of the more prominent dongles I owned to exhibit high sensitivity to picking up RF interferences, but M3 fares better.
Best Pairing: Highly flexible and adaptable to most IEMs & Headphones