Shanling M0 Portable Audio Player and Bluetooth Amp Review
Come for the stored files, stay for the Bluetooth
What is the Shanling M0?The Shanling M0 is a dedicated portable audio player. This is a category that has never truly achieved the success, post iPod, that many manufacturers felt it was due - it seems that, not for the first time, Apple was right to call it a day. For the most part, we have been content to let our phones take the strain and for the really committed, the rise of portable DACs like the Chord Electronics Mojo, iFi Audio xDSD and the recently departed and much missed Oppo HA-2SE have covered off the quality angle.
The Shanling M0 takes a different approach to relevance. It is cheap, it is tiny and it has a party piece that we will cover in due course. It also arrives with a degree of auspicious timing as the shift in mobile phones away from having their own headphone sockets may or may not gel nicely with it. Equally, there will be a few ‘active sorts’ reading this who have iPod Shuffles and Nanos held together by tape and willpower who might be interested too. Is this the portable audio player you might actually need? Assuming I can go long enough without losing it down the side of the sofa, let’s find out.
Specification and Design
The Shanling is a compact portable audio player (and as we shall come to, it is very compact indeed). It is built around an ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC. This particular version of the Sabre (and it's worth pointing out that the only thing to which more different devices can be referred to with a single term than ‘ESS Sabre’ is ‘Porsche 911’) is interesting and absolutely key to why the M0 can be the shape and size that it is. As well as offering decoding, it is, in effect, its own output stage. By the time it has finished processing, there is a potential 2V RMS of power at your disposal. Combine this with an integrated digital volume control and the chip is itself the basis for an audio player.
It also has the customary wide selection of supported sample rates. The M0 can support 32/384kHz files and DSD 128 and has format support for pretty much everything bar WMA Lossless. Effectively, there is nothing that the bigger and more ornate players can do that the M0 can’t, on paper at least. What the Shanling doesn’t have is any built in storage but again, developments in this field have rather come to its aid. It supports micro SD cards up to 512gb in capacity and while cards of this size are still rather expensive, the price of a 256gb unit is at the time of writing (October 2018) hovering around the £60 point. This would endow the Shanling with the ability to stow roughly 700 lossless albums of 40-45 minutes. That is, in short, a lot of music.
So far, this is normal enough - if adorably dinky. Where the Shanling moves things on is the extra functionality it offers. The first piece of additional spec is one we’ve seen before but is handy and useful nonetheless. Attach the Shanling to a PC or Mac and it will function as a USB DAC, able to process the same range of formats and sample rates. As a means of avoiding doubling up on devices (or, as the Shanling uses one USB socket for both charge and signal, charging it for the journey home and using it at same time), it is very handy.
The most interesting feature is the Bluetooth though. Now, many players we have tested have Bluetooth but not in the manner that the M0 has it. First up, as you might expect, the M0 can transmit a signal via Bluetooth to a receiver like a Naim Mu-So Qb or similar. All very convenient, I’m sure you’ll agree but Shanling isn’t done there. The M0 is also a Bluetooth receiver. This means that if you have an iPhone X, Google Pixel or even an Essential PH-1, you can connect them to the Shanling and use it as a mobile headphone amp. Neither is this a low quality connection. The Shanling supports Apt-X and the LDAC system which means that lossless files should be broadly unaffected by the process. It also means that the lack of onboard streaming service support is irrelevant as you can simply use your phone as the receiver and storage point.
The Shanling wraps all this cleverness into a very small chassis. How small? Think 4.5 centimetres tall, 4 wide and less than 1.5 thick. Small enough, it has to be said to require a frantic pat down from time to time to work out where you’ve actually put it. This is the spiritual successor to the iPod Shuffle and given it weighs 33 grams, it can fulfil a similar role, being strapped to an arm during a workout, run or other form of selective torture you might elect to undertake. You can, of course, also do this without then physically wiring to your earphones either.
Where the Shanling differs from the old Shuffle is that it has a full menu and control system. You can browse content, adjust settings and pair the Bluetooth via the 240 x 240 full colour display. Now, I probably don’t need to tell you that there are some limitations to this as an interface. At least initially, the Shanling needs care, delicacy and patience to operate and certain features like the Bluetooth pairing are unavoidably fiddly. You soon get used to it though - or if you’re using it as a Bluetooth receiver, pair it and never touch the screen. Nobody at Apple is going to be losing any sleep over how the Shanling works but the fact it works at all is a minor miracle.
It is also a very well made piece of kit. The compact chassis feels sturdy and well finished and little touches like the bevelled edge of the tiny volume control to make it easier to grip all work well. One of the more notable features of the M0 is the ‘Deep Standby.’ This allows it to sit around for days seemingly switched off and be ready to go again pretty much instantly. Shanling seems to recognise that the requirement for any device like this is to be ready the moment you need it and this is something it does extremely well.
Many players we have tested have Bluetooth but not in the manner that the M0 has it
How was the M0 tested?The Shanling has been used as a standalone player with the Audiolab M-EAR 2D and Sennheiser IE800S earphones. This has been playing music via a Samsung 128gb Micro SD card. It has then been used as a Bluetooth amp connected to a Sony Xperia XA2 and Essential PH-1 smartphone. The same earphones have been used here too. It has then been used as a Bluetooth transmitter to a pair of AKG N5005 Bluetooth earphones. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF and DSD with Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz also being employed.
Sound QualityStarting off with using the Shanling as a conventional, wired audio player, the first thing you need to do is remove any idea from your head that the size of the M0 has any effect on the performance. The Audiolab M-EAR 2D is a sensitive earphone but even so, the amount of headroom on offer is very considerable indeed. The all-in-one wizardry of its chip imbues it with power sufficient to ensure that no pair of earphones is going to be a challenge and that most sensibly designed headphones should not be either.
This means that there is enough power to do proper justice to the vast and decidedly angry Monsters Exist by Orbital. This is a piece of music that thrives on low end grunt and the M0 has plenty of it. There’s more than brute force on offer too. There are a few of the standard traits of ESS based products present in the way that the M0 makes music; impressive fine detail retrieval and a sense that what you are hearing is very much what the file should be like. It isn’t the warmest or sweetest sounding device going and this is noticeable even against some of the larger players that make use of an AKM DAC chip and separate output stage.
The good news is that as the presentation of the Shanling is fundamentally neutral, the output can be tweaked effectively by your choice of earphones (or, to put it another way, if you are adding an M0 to an existing choice of earphones it won’t significantly impact on what they do). If you want warmth, it is an easy enough thing to add via the right partnering equipment. No less importantly, even if your earphones have a very forward presentation, it is tricky to make the Shanling sound overly harsh unless you are pushing the levels to the point where your hearing is in danger.
Is it perfect? Compared to the more expensive iFi xDSD or Chord Mojo, there isn’t the feeling of rhythm and drive that these products do so well but you can have four M0s for the price of either. Once again, it’s responsiveness to partnering equipment is key here. The Audiolab is a superbly cohesive and lively sounding earphone and it pretty much nullifies the issue. The more ruthlessly accurate Sennheiser is more prone to making it felt. The number of people who elect to partner a £100 player with a pair of earphones that cost nigh on £900 is likely to be low though.
Little of this basic behaviour changes when you use the Shanling as a USB DAC. Connecting it up is simple enough and used direct with Tidal and Qobuz Sublime+ it sounds rather more than half as good as the dedicated standalone DACs for a quarter of the price. I don’t feel that the Shanling does as well with hi-res material as some of these other DACs but this is as much a reflection that the presentation doesn’t meaningfully change almost regardless of the material you put into it.
Used with Bluetooth earphones, the M0 also works well. The overall performance will be largely decided by the decoding and amplification of the earphones (and in this case, the N5005 is truly outstanding) but the stability, range and general feeling of how it works are all extremely convincing for £100. As I have stated on a few occasions, I am not big on exercise but a sub 40 gram player you could fit into pretty much any exercise gear short of Speedos (and it isn’t waterproof anyway) and that it doesn’t need a cable to your earphones, has to be one of the best devices going for the active fraternity.
And for those of us - active or otherwise - the party piece of the Shanling is when you reverse the Bluetooth and connect it to your phone. First up, the performance does not change significantly. Using lossless files on Tidal against the same albums on the micro SD throws up impressively few differences between the two. With the excellent Bluetooth implementation of the Essential PH-1, the M0 is as good a Bluetooth receiver as it is a transmitter.
You might reasonably ask, what is the difference between this is and a significantly cheaper USB to 3.5mm headphone adapter? Beyond performance - I think that that Shanling has the edge - it comes down to practicality. With winter now here, I can put my phone in a trouser pocket and the Shanling in an inside coat pocket. There is no wiring going into the phone and it is free to be used and accessed as I see fit. If a call comes in, it is automatically handled only by the phone - the Shanling makes no effort to be part of the process. I can charge the phone and keep listening and I can enjoy wired designs that sounded OK but not outstanding via the adapter in a much more convincing way. The only caveat I’ve found is that I’ve had to remember to power the Shanling off before I get in the car so that my phone pairs correctly for safe use on the move.
The first thing you need to do is remove any idea from your head that the size of the M0 has any effect on the performance
- Rich, lively and engaging sound
- Excellent features
- Rock bottom price
- Fiddly interface
- Slight lack of rhythmic ability
- Easily lost
Shanling M0 Portable Audio Player and Bluetooth Amp ReviewWe live in inflationary times. Barring televisions which seem to be able to defy all pricing logic, most things are getting more expensive. The Shanling isn’t so much a breath of fresh air in this instance as a hurricane. If it was just a wired audio player for £100 it would be impressive. The fact it has additional functionality that lets it take on all manner of unexpected rivals and do so with far greater success than you might expect is truly outstanding. If you’ve been nursing an iPod Shuffle into 2018 wondering what you might possibly replace it with, look no further. If you are looking at phones without a headphone socket but really like your existing equipment, it solves that as well. This is an absolute bargain and something that is an unquestionable Best Buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £99.00
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