Shanling Audio was founded in 1988 in China. And they pride themselves on their R&D in house as well as their extensive range of products.
If you are reading this as a full size HiFi bloke, you will be more likely to have at least come across the Chinese brand Shanling than any of the portable guys that normally hang around here. They design and manufacture a wide array of high-end audio products, well, they manufacture most things audio actually, CD Players, media streamers, power amps which include mono blocks, integrated amps, portable amps, portable players, headphone amps and even music centres! They dabble in tubes too. Looking on their product page, I am not sure how many designers they have; there really isn’t much consistency, at all, between models. Some of the designs I absolutely love, the 25th anniversary models look great for example, some are ugly as hell (CD-T300SE) and some are simply a little boring.
What we have here up for review is the £250 (approx) M3. An aluminium music player at the more affordable end of the ever growing DAP market. Before we get into anything else, here are a few specs to get you an idea of the player. For a start, we get 250mW into 32 Ohms and 16mW into 300. We also have a 3600 mAH battery that I have found to last between 9 and 11 hours playtime depending on use and brightness. On board we get a rather miniscule 8GB of memory but thankfully we have the option to expand this using a 64GB micro SD. Dimensions are 69×21×125.5mm, very similar to the AK240 just half an inch taller. It’s a very comfortable weight in the hand too, with a net weight of approximately 220g.
The DAC section uses a single Cirrus Logic CS4398, the very same DAC chip the AK240 uses (although it uses two) but as you quickly come to realise when you have hold of a lot of DAC’s, it’s the implementation that really counts, not just the chip itself! We have the ability to decode up to 24/192, the lack of DSD is a shame but then it’s probably a good thing considering memory size! The M3 has an up-sampling capability too which is handled with the CS8422 Cirrus Logic chip.
I genuinely think the feature set is brilliant from this Chinese DAP. The first feature of the product I think is great is the single button, toggle wheel, control thing on the top right. Everything on the unit is controlled using this wheel except power and reset. I will tell you more about this wheel in the usability section, but it’s worth being aware of as it is a key selling point or complete turn off, depending on your personal preferences.
There is a line in and line out so you can use this product as not only a DAP but a standalone amp or a standalone interface and source, for running into the car for example. SPDIF ins and outs through these two 3.5mm sockets too, it’s very impressive versatility if you ask me!
Something I personally don’t use, but which is available, is the “EQ” settings which offer a range of +5 to -5 for both high pitch and low pitch giving plenty of flexibility for a potential owner. I have to admit I gave the low pitch a go to try and boost the disappearing sub bass of the UERM and whilst it did boost it, there was also a boost in the mid bass, something the UERM doesn’t need.
Another feature is the gain control which offers a little extra boost for harder to drive stuff, not necessary for iem’s at all but your hungrier cans might like it. In the same settings menu you have a few other interesting options such as something called “break point memory play” which basically allows you to choose when the device boots up (6s) whether you start from your home screen with no song in queue, at the beginning of your last listened track or at the precise point in that track you were at when you last listened. We also have maximum volume limit, the option to select a default volume at powering on as well as channel balance, play mode and a choice of playing surfaces which are simple and general.
UI and Usability
Shanling use a proprietry operating system to ensure a flawless operation via the single knob control. While it does take a little while to get used to, I have to say it works really well and feels very intuitive once you get your head round it! Turning the knob adjusts volume and it does so very accurately until you try to practically spin the wheel round as quickly as you can which causes it to either stay where it is or jump a one or two forward or backwards. Realistically though, it has a great stability and you are unlikely to accidentally turn it up or down. I would like double the increments though, I often find myself wanting a half-way setting between two volume numbers, this is me being fussy though, most of the time you won’t have any problems at all. Pressing the button down pauses and plays the current track; it doesn’t select anything which was the most difficult thing to get used too. Selecting anything is achieved by tilting and clicking the stick to the right and returning to the previous screen is the same action to the left. Scrolling through menus is the same movement but up and down, easy as you like and very easy to feel what’s going on thanks to the small mechanical click.
There is one problem with the control though, well if you are left handed that is! To be honest you can’t actually use it with your left hand. If you did though, you wouldn’t be able to see the screen let alone feel comfortable holding it. It’s pretty clear this is a right handed device, I think if the same knob could have been placed in the middle under the screen it would have been easier to use overall. But hey, if you are right handed, no problems!
Working your way around the device is really simple and crucially it’s very quick and responsive. The M3 gives no lag or delay in switching screens during navigation so you can almost forgive it for the very simplistic UI and the low resolution screen. To be honest though, I really don’t mind the low resolution screen, it genuinely doesn’t take anything away from the experience and it’s not exactly a luxury, premium item like the AK240 or 380’s and nor should it be! I think Shanling have done the right thing by making the product a music player first and foremost and just ensuring it works flawlessly which you have to say, the M3 does! It has a reset button on the top but not once have I needed it. If you want a bright, detailed, smartphone like display then this isn’t for you but if you are simply after an informative, quick looking screen then this is ideal. The M3 doesn’t try to be something it isn’t and I like it.
Usability is great as far as the interface is concerned, adjusting sonic settings and up-sampling is very straight forward, the same goes for input selection, you really can’t do anything by mistake which is very user friendly and avoids one of my pet hates on DAP’s.
The size is quite large for a DAP, it feels even bigger than the AK380 to be honest; it is taller and somehow feels just a bit bulkier. This is more of a problem for girls as I know they aren’t blessed with big pockets in their jeans like us blokes! I suppose the size is nothing if you compare it to people willing to lug around triple stack rigs though.
It’s fair to assume that I really enjoy using the M3, it’s unique in its controls but I think it works for sure. It’s rugged, solidly built and I just love how it works in its very mechanical and logical manor.
It’s immediately apparent that the M3 has a distinct signature, it doesn’t mess about. There is no smooth, euphoric softness, no way. This is an aggressive sounding player that excites and engages you. The upper mid-range and lower treble have a strong presence and well defined edges which lend to the aggressive forward sound as well. Speed is well executed in terms of decay and attack is excellent.
The general sound lends itself nicely to a more laid back, warmer sounding phone like the ACS Encore and the Heir 8.0. Shanling were using some FitEar models at Munich and there is no denying they do sound good together! I can see why the guys at FitEar like the M3 so much.
This bass of this product is rare compared to the products I have been reviewing of late which all seem to draw your attention to the lower frequencies (ACS Encore, NAD M12, Kennerton Algiz etc). Bass is not overwhelming, ever. It stays controlled and textured through the majority of genres and tracks you throw at it. The dynamism of the player stems from the bass and gives an underlying energy to the sound.
My only criticism is that when things get busy, the M3 sometimes struggles to keep up everything merges and becomes a little undefined, this is where the Shanling shows that it is a $350 player and not a $1000 one.
The mid-range is a little on the forward side, I like this, both myself and sonny do actually and this once again means it will give more laid back earphones a bit of a lease of life in a positive direction for our preference. In other cases the upper mid/ lower treble emphasis can occasionally make female vocals sound a little ‘shouty’ and unnatural, sometimes some sibilance too. It does make rim shots and leading edges very present though, keeping acoustic music informative and exciting. I’ve said that this player isn’t the smoothest, and the vocal band is where this shows the most where we can occasionally find it to sound a little gritty or classically more digital sounding.
They are far from boring though, even the AK380 can sound dull in fact it’s not a very exciting sound actually especially at low volumes, the M3 is energetic and dynamic at whichever listening level you choose and is actually a great low volume level performer.
Treble has a really solid presence; it’s fairly airy too, which is a characteristic that continues even when you adjust the high pitch setting. A fair amount of sparkle is accompanied by a dynamic agility that keeps the energy coming. Sometimes though it is too much and it can get a little splashy when the texture of the music gets thicker, it’s not forgiving of poor recordings either which give the same unwanted effects.
Darker earphones do benefit from this, so lots of mid-tier IEM’s will suit nicely with the M3!
Power, Noise Floor and Care with Matching
Matching is important to get the best out of the Shanling, the Lime Ears LE3 is a fantastic earphone but just doesn’t gel with the M3 the lower treble/upper mid spike is too much for the LE3 and it does sound a little uncomfortable. The ACS Encore on the other hand does sound more vibrant and I personally enjoy the combination, the same goes for the ASG 2.5 actually.
The VE6 from Vision Ears is a warm earphone that you might assume would suit well, but it doesn’t, for one very important reason. The noise floor is not one of the M3’s strongest points. If you have a sensitive earphone I would not advise pairing it with the Shanling. However, there is another side to this story. POWERRR
The planar ZMF Master models are not an easy headphone to drive, at all. I must reiterate again that by power I don’t mean volume, I mean control and energy. Now don’t get me wrong the Shanling doesn’t power these like a big powerhouse desktop amp, but for a DAP I can tell you that with the ZMF’s the M3 makes the AK240 sound ridiculous, seriously. In terms of sound the best thing about the Shanling is its ability to power headphones, I would without question recommend the M3 for portable headphone usage, the amp section is great for that application.
Concluding the M3
I have truly been quite harsh on the M3 it’s a great alternative to the likes of Fiio or iBasso because of the feature set and the lovely robust feel. It’s an aggressive sounding player that fairs best with low sensitivity IEM’s (warmer ones) and full sized headphones. I have a bit of a sweet spot for the Shanling, I really enjoy using it. It isn’t the last word in refinement, nor is it technically neutral or even easily matched, but if you can find something it synergises with and begin to appreciate what they have done, the dynamism, aggression and energy are hard to match.