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Modern magic: Shanling’s $109 M0 DAP

  • Any accomplished photographer will tell you: the best camera is the one you have with you. A big expensive full-frame Canon is no doubt vastly superior to an iPhone’s in-built camera, but if the iPhone allows you to capture a beautiful sunset while the Canon sits at home on the shelf, which is the better camera at that moment? Similarly, if one stores a megabuck-DAP at home whilst frequently listening via a smartphone when on the go, something has gone awry.

    There was a time when the bulk of my music enjoyment took place on the go. True, I had a decent system at home, but I just wasn’t around very much to actually use it. So I had to make do with a portable setup… which back then was embodied by a Sony Discman CD player and the classic Etymotic Research ER4 in-ear monitors. The combo sounded tame by today’s standards but at the time it was fairly state-of-the-art, and I loved every minute I spent with it because it went wherever I went.

    Then came a revolution: memory-based music players. Back then we used various terms – “Portable Media Player (PMP)” was a popular choice, along with the technically incorrect but almost universally understood “MP3 Player”, and eventually “iPod” – used in the same non-specific way some folks say “Coke” to describe all cola drinks.

    The term DAP (Digital Audio Player) has since become something of a standard but early players from iRiver, Creative Labs and Archos delivered the rush of carrying dozens or even hundreds of albums in my pocket – all before Apple’s first iPod even hit the market. So long, CD player.

    And who can forget such beloved post-iPod classics such as the Creative Zen Vision:M or the iRiver H120? These DAPs (playing lossless files whenever possible) paired with the era’s best in-ear monitors (Shure, Westone or Ultimate Ears) really brought the portable experience to the next level. What a time to be alive; and on the go.

    Almost twenty years down the line and I can understand why a lot of folks are over the whole DAP thing. When the average smartphone can store gobs of music, offer every music streaming service under the sun and generally sound halfway decent – or in some cases pretty darn impressive (hello LG V20/30/40) – it falls to the most die-hard porta-philes to keep the DAP scene alive, many of which ignore streaming in favour of music played back from an inserted microSD card. If the idea of spending $500-2000 (or more) for the privilege of carrying around a bulky dedicated player just to listen to music downloads sounds like a good idea to you then go for it, but I’d suggest keeping an open mind. Ask yourself – is it really necessary?

    Some DAPs bring enough to the table to justify their existence. And if the user takes full advantage of the feature set or superior sound quality, a dedicated DAP can still be worthwhile. It follows that for more casual use, or if streaming is your thing, a decent smartphone is likely adequate in most situations.

    Shanling’s ultra-compact M0 (US$109, preview here) is something of an outlier in the whole DAP-or-smartphone discussion. It doesn’t aim to compete with traditional DAPs from Astell&Kern et al. The Shanling is small enough, light enough, and sonically impressive enough to justify carrying around all the time, irrespective of whatever else you have in your pocket.

    How so? The M0 is an extremely compact device by current standards. 45mm by 40mm by 13.5mm and a mere 38g. That translates to off-the-charts portability. The form factor brings to mind the classic Sansa Clip family, or perhaps the 6th gen iPod Nano. We’re talking matchbox size, small enough to slip into any pocket, purse, or even most headphone/IEM storage cases. If the brief were to make a DAP as unobtrusive as possible, Shanling absolutely nailed that goal.

    Despite its diminutive size, the M0 sacrifices little in terms of functionality. An aluminum shell (in your choice of several vibrant colors) accommodates a microSD card slot (for music), a 1.54″ touch screen, USB-C port and 3.5mm headphone socket.

    This tiny device seems to have most everything we need and nothing we don’t. Gapless playback? Check. Low output impedance? Yep, significantly less than 1 ohm. USB DAC functionality? Of course, and it actually works both ways – M0 can act as DAC or ‘Transport’. Clever. There’s also support for the vast majority of file formats, including DSD128 and hi-res PCM – an area where plenty of smartphones have limitations. The headphone jack can be set to line-out mode for use with external amplification, whilst headphone-out mode delivers 80mW into 32 Ohm loads. This means power-hungry full-size cans are probably off limits, which in my view is an acceptable compromise for a device this tiny.

    Fun fact – Shanling utilizes the same ESS 32-bit quad-DAC chipset found in such super-phones as the LG V30 and V30+. The ES9218P has an integrated headphone driver which can deliver up to 2Vrms. Arguably the most important aspect: volume is digitally controlled but takes place in the analog domain, meaning bits are not thrown out as SPLs go south. This is crucial for a device which will often be paired with extremely sensitive IEMs. (And yet the LG V30 and the Shanling M0 do NOT sound the same – Ed).

    Interactions come by way of the surprisingly sharp 240 px x 240 px touch screen combined with the clickable volume wheel. Navigating the M0’s menu system becomes second nature after the first few minutes of playing around. Attention was obviously paid to the finer points. For example: Shanling cleverly allows for customizing the volume wheel functionality. I have mine configured for a double click as pause/play, whilst three clicks skip to the next track. This is very effective in practice, and the M0 rarely leaves my pocket until an album/playlist is finished.

    Recognizing the growing trend of decent-quality wireless headphones hitting the market, Shanling had the good sense to pack in fairly robust support for wireless connections. Alongside the mandatory SBC sits support for higher quality options like AAC (as demanded by iPhones, iPads), aptX (supported by many but not all Android devices), and Sony’s LDAC (for Android smartphone running Oreo 8.0 and above).

    As with the M0’s USB data travel, Bluetooth here (aptX excepted) is bi-directional, allowing users to stream to the Shanling from a smartphone or other device. This seems counterproductive to me but I suppose some might use it for streaming Tidal/Spotify/Qobuz from a less capable smartphone, thus tapping into the Shanling’s superior headphone out. My streaming preference still involves going from the M0 to Sony’s LDAC-equipped WH-1000XM3 headphones but I’ll get into that later.

    While not boasting the broad range of aftermarket accessories enjoyed by Sony or Astell&Kern devices, Shanling at least gives M0 users a few options. The leather case ($15) is quite nicely done, acting as both protection and a grip-aid for those with oversize paws like myself. The clip ($9) is less successful – a lack of hinge on the actual “clip” portion makes usage awkward, and I’m not confident it would stay put during a brisk workout. The armband case ($25) looks to be a better solution for active use but I haven’t tried it myself.

    On the wired-headphone front, I began my sonic appraisal with the 64 Audio A18t – a US$3000 flagship custom IEM paired with a $109 micro-DAP? I realize the absurdity of the combo, and yet there’s no better tool in my arsenal for this situation. The A18t is a sonic scalpel, revealing every wart in the audio chain. I routinely use it for judging high-end DACs or transports at up to 100x the Shanling’s price — it has earned its stripes.

    As I queue up favorite tracks from such varied acts as Pinback, Angus & Julia Stone, Marc Houle, Eiji Oue & Minnesota Orchestra, Idris Muhammad, Bad Brains, and Purity Ring, I quickly get a sense of what the little Shanling brings to the table. In contrast to a Samsung Galaxy S8 – which is merely decent despite Samsung’s 32-bit “UHQ” audio solution – the M0 brings a welcome sense of tonal heft, resulting in a more convincing sense of timbre and rhythmic drive. While the S8 does its best impersonation of a squeaky-clean “audiophile” sound signature, the M0 strikes as more natural. Treble is less piercing yet still extended and realistic. Vocals take their proper position in a nicely delineated mix. Crucially, the Shanling offers more effortless drive, whereas the Samsung gets rough around the edges at higher levels. Maximum volume is potentially an advantage as well. I consider myself a relatively low-level listener, but I can get the Samsung near the top of its volume range with certain recordings. I rarely exceed the halfway mark on the M0, and that’s using its low gain mode.

    Searching for a more price commensurate earphone, I settled on Sennheiser’s new budget in-ear monitor – the IE 40 Pro. Their $99 USD price tag makes them an obvious choice for use with the M0, as does their surprisingly high audible performance. The Shanling again does a superb job of extracting full flavor from the transducer, while adding very little editorialization. My Galaxy S8 makes a reasonably acceptable partner but I note distinctly splashy highs on The Temper Trap’s debut album Conditions. I also hear a lack of engagement in the midrange, making Dougy Mandagi’s unique vocals lack the proper bite. Meanwhile, the little M0 has a hearty presentation that better fleshes out the sound.

    Moving on to full-size headphones (which I never use on-the-go, but recognize that some people just might), the M0 displays an even more pronounced advantage over the more costly smartphone competition. Whilst not driving big cans like the Sony Z1R or Sennheiser HD650 to anything like their full potential, the M0 puts in a valiant effort. Volume on high gain mode is generally adequate but reminds us that these headphones are capable of more when fed via stouter amplification. The Galaxy S8 does no such thing – the HD650 end up sounding like cardboard cutouts, displaying a complete lack of depth and practically zero tonal weight. And headroom for quiet jazz or classical recordings? Fugetaboutit. I don’t normally disparage the Samsung’s performance so sharply – it’s far from the worst sounding phone I’ve owned. But this really feels like a valid complaint with anything but fairly easy to drive headphones.

    One noteworthy dance partner I simply must mention is the Meze 99 Classic. I consider them “transportable”, and the Shanling tucks nicely away inside the bundled Meze hard shell case. I threw this duo – loaded with a 200GB microSD – into my travel bag on several occasions and never felt wanting for more over a weekend getaway. Sonically, this pairing go together like Sweden and Death Metal. From the melodic onslaught of Amon Amarth to the complex polyrhythms of Meshuggah, the Shanling/Meze combo sound beautiful enough to make the Galaxy S8 feel lifeless and uninspired. This is not a matter of sensitivity either, as the Meze 99 Classics are quite easy to drive.

    Lastly, I broke out the exceptional Sony WH-1000XM3 for some wireless action. My S8 got an upgrade to Android Oreo last year which brought LDAC capabilities (among other things), so it should be on par with the M0 in that regard. And in practice, both devices do perform very nicely. I can’t say I notice a distinct advantage either way, whether in sound quality or range. That said, my S8 does have an intermittent bug where it wants to drop back to basic SBC Bluetooth for some reason. This behavior happens seemingly at random, while the Shanling has always performed flawlessly. That alone is reason enough to justify ownership in my particular situation.

    The other factor is battery life – my S8 takes a decent hit when beaming music to the Sony cans. The Shanling pays a price via Bluetooth operation as well, but I still feel more confident that it will make it through a full day of use. A skewed comparison no doubt — the smartphone is used for so many other activities beyond Bluetooth audio streaming. This brings us back to another key point of the Shanling: why not use it for music (wireless or not) whilst preserving the smartphone’s precious go juice? The M0 hits our pocket with such small penalties to weight, size and wallet that it makes a convincing case for music fiends to add one to their every day carry inventory.

    As I survey my collection of higher-end DAPs to see what the little Shanling might be missing, I really don’t find anything that kills the appeal of the M0. Battery life, while not competing with outliers like Sony’s ever-lasting ZX2, hits double digits worth of hours pretty easily. There’s no balanced output, dedicated line-out, or digital output beyond the USB port, and I think that’s a valid compromise to achieve such a compact size. And while I do love streaming options like Tidal and Qobuz, I don’t see how that would possibly work on the M0.

    Ultimately, the amplification stage seems to be the M0’s primary strength. If you intend to use relatively power-hungry cans on a regular basis, the Shanling won’t be ideal, but most reasonably portable transducers should be fair game – it easily powers anything that I’d actually take on the go. For home use with harder to drive cans, I just grab a 3.5mm to RCA cable to send a proper 2V signal out to something like the Rupert Neve RNHP. The Shanling performs as well in this role as any sub-$500 disc spinner I’ve encountered in terms of sonic satisfaction.

    To these eyes and ears, Darko’s thinking that the DAP Days Are Over holds water. Many devices just don’t make a lot of sense for the majority of users. If you’ve gone the route of a high-end SQ-oriented phone like LG’sVXX series, the Shanling M0 won’t necessarily add much to the conversation. (The Shanling sounds bolder and brighter than the LG – Ed).

    Likewise, if you demand nothing but the absolute highest caliber sound paired with the most robust feature set (and are willing to pay the premium), get thee to a flagship DAP like the $3300 Cayin N8. For everyone else, I think Shanling’s ultra-portable M0 makes a very compelling case for itself. The sound, the user experience, the build quality and durability, and of course, the reasonable price. They all add up to something that has become a staple in my daily life. After all, the best DAP is the one you have with you.

    Further information: Shanling

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    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear.

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