Given the battery life isn't great on the Fiio and the OS is old (Android 5), I decided to look for a newer one. The M3 Ultra design and green color catched my attention for some time but for a long time I said to myself I don't really need another DAP as I have plenty of the simpler ones without Android. But at the end of day, I do prefer the Android ones, especially given the battery life of the M3 Ultra is getting comparable to my SONY NW-A45.
But at the end of day the bigger screen, volume knob and overall better functionality of an Android DAP wins.
In fact, from all the DAPs I have, it's the Android ones that I use the most despite the typical usage scenario is offline playback of DRM-free music.
After some research, the 2 main DAPs that I was considering were Hiby R5 mkII and Shanling M3 Ultra.
The Hiby is a nice device, but comes with some major dowsides:
- older OS and older CPU (even the Shanling is not as fast as I'd hoped);
- battery life isn't as good as on the Shanling;
- has no volume wheel;
The lack of a volume wheel is an important one for me as that's one of the reasons I want a DAP.
While I could live without one, I much prefer it to be there. And on the Shanling M3 Ultra the volume control is top quality, really love the feel of it.
In fact, the only real concern I had about the Shanling was output power. But as you'll see in the next paragraph, it's really not a problem for most use cases.
Unlike a SONY DAP (like the mentioned NW-A45), the Shanling has more power than you actually need in typical use cases.
The SONYs stock are limited to 2 x 1mW of output power which is really low and will be suitable only for IEMs and very sensitive headphones.
Given the Fiio X5 III does have 240mW of power on the single ended, the 140mW on the Shanling was a bit of a concern in the beginning.
Of course it is up to debate how these power specs are exactly measured, because every manufacturer seems to have its own way of measuring in which case the values
cannot be compared directly as we would be comparing apples to oranges.
Watching SuperReview on YouTube I noticed he stated his Senheiser HD600 could be driven well from the single ended jack on low gain.
While I tend to agree with him, there is definetely room for more especially if one wants to listen very loud for short periods of time.
For something like the HD600 I do prefer to use a balanced cable with this DAP as there is a signifcant improvement over the single-ended.
Another thing that has to be considered here is this: if you need to listen to tracks that are not normalized to 0dBFS you will need to crank volume higher than normal.
This is also true for music with high dynamic range, such as SONY 360 Reality and DSD.
This means you will need more output power than normal, even though some of it is actually "wasted".
Thing with power is this: for low to medium volumes you don't really need much power at all, even on lower sensitivity and high impedance headphones.
However, the need for power will increase exponentially as our hearing of loudness is logarithmic meaning a doubling in power won't double the SPL (we need 4 times the power to double the SPL). https://geoffthegreygeek.com/amplifier-power/
IEMs: just don't worry at all, most (if not all) can be driven very loud on the single ended without getting more than 30-35 volume.
On balanced, using very sensitive IEM (110dB/mW), a 15-25 volume is more than enough for normal use.
I really have no concerns whatsoever regarding IEMs driveability with this DAP.
But of course the concern wasn't in regard to IEMs from the beginning as most IEMs can be driven from pretty much any source with ease.
Over-ear headphones: on very sensitive and low impedance ones, the situation is similar to IEMs, meaning you will have more than enough power
to drive them even at ear shattering levels even on single ended.
The suitability of this DAP to one's needs only comes into question in regard to high impedance and low(er) sensitivity headphones.
If you only want to listen at low to medium levels output power is more than enough for pretty much everything.
However, if you want to listen loud or very loud you will need to use the balanced output on some headphones.
So planar magnetics and high impedance headphones do need a balanced connection for loud and very loud and there are headphones out there on which even the 240mW won't be enough to drive them very loud.
Power is enough for the vast majority of situations, but I do see why the higher end DAPs would make sense, power being one of them.
For me, the price difference alone makes the higher end ones not worth it just for power alone, but those DAPs definetely have their use.
One thing I really like is how the volume setting is implemented: our sensitivity to SPL is logarithmic (as mentioned earlier) so it would make sense to make a volume control that's also logarithmic in order to perceive a linear increase in volume.
On the M3 Ultra the entire volume range is usable, unlike devices with linear volume control where pretty much all of the adjustment is concentrated on the upper range (60-100). The linear control only makes sense if the displayed value is in dB, which is not the case on most devices.
I much prefer this logarithmic control and wish more manufacturers would implement it like this.
This gives the feeling you have enough headroom in regard to power (which you do), as in the majority of cases you don't even get close to 100.
On many other DAC/amps and DAPs using a 70-80 volume (out of 120) is common despite many have significantly more output power than the M3 Ultra.
In regard to sound quality, it's hard to say too much as to my ears the differences between devices are pretty subtle.
Given I didn't listen to the previous version of this DAP, can't really say anything in regard to sound in this regard.
Do like the sound on this DAP a lot: it's clean, crisp, noise floor is inaudible even in the most demanding scenarios (109dB/mW IEMs plugged into the balanced output), power is more than enough for my use cases.
Really not much to say here, apart from the fact I really like how the DAP sounds.
It is to be noted I disabled all the Google apps (including some hidden system ones), so my device is clean having only the Shanling app, Tidal and a browser in order to listen to SoundCloud or Bandcamp (tracks I don't own) at times. WiFi I keep turned off unelss I stream music.
I personally don't need any of the Google apps as there are other simple ways to install the apps I want. Battery drain these services cause is simply not worth it in my opinion and this is ignoring all the data they collect about you (some usage data is collected even if not using them).
So contrary to what many people believe, having Google Play Store is NOT necessary to install apps like Tidal, Spotify, YouTube music, Apple Music, etc.
One thing I noticed pretty quickly is battery life does vary quite significantly between playing local files and streaming, which is to be expected.
As stated in other parts of this review, in my opinion a DAPs main function is to listen to DRM-free music offline so that is where I set my expectations.
It is also to be noted I'm mainly talking about using this device wired.
Bluetooth offers a huge improvement on battery life, which is to be expected since the DACs and amps are not used, but this is more of a bonus than a feature to me.
Because if I wanted to use it as a digital transport only, I would have bought a much cheaper DAP since the analog circuitry won't matter.
The BT transmitter I mostly use when listening in my car, while otherwise I find the receiever functionality more useful.
Given the battery gauge doesn't work correctly at the point of writing (and probably never will), my experience is just an approximation and not the real battery life.
After charging the device to 100%, the stats are shown correctly for a short period of time then they reset and come back after the gauge drops a couple of percents.
This is a bug in the software, most likely related to the bug of gauge not climbing during fast charging.
Given Shanling's statements on the forum and the fact they didn't fix it until now (there were 2 updates released in this timeframe), I don't think they have any intention in fixing it, considering it "only a visual bug".
In the above mentioned conditions I get more or less the 20 hours of playback in the stats (offline) depending on listening volume and balanced/single ended.
However, based on how often I need to charge the device, the real battery life is probably a couple of hours worse than what the stats are showing.
Another thing that has to be kept in mind is this: for battery health it's best to not discharge it below 20%, in which case you will have even less useful capacity.
A gross estimation in regard to battery life is it will likely last 10 hours even when used on balanced port at higher volume settings, while on single-ended it can probably achieve something like 15hours.
All in all, the battery life is good on this unit and I find myself charging it anywhere between 3 days to a week depending on how much I use it.
Compared to the Fiio X5 III, which even with a new battery would barely last an entire day, the Shanling M3 Ultra is a very significant improvement.
At the time I did my initial research, Shanling was offering a free case on their AliExpress store (it was a summer sale).
When I decided to actually buy the device, I didn't want to wait for the device to arrive from China, so searched for it somehwere in Europe.
The only distributor that had it in stock was Muziker, so I ordered it from there.
Unfortunately they didn't have any cases for it in stock, so I had to order it separately from Shanling store, which is inconvenient.
However the case itself is of very good quality and fits the device well.
In my opinion, this is the perfect form factor for a DAP that's supposed to be portable. By portable I mean to be able to carry it in a pocket without being too big or too heavy.
The screen is big enough for a music player, even if one wants to watch YouTube videos on it. Although for such I would use my phone instead and use the DAP as a BT amp in such a scenario.
A remark about the touchscreen: it seems (and this has been mentioned in other reviews) the touch is not very sensitive and there are many times when it won't register unless there is a firm press on the screen.
In the beginning this was pretty annoying, but in time I got used to it. To me it seems related to the screen protector that comes pre-installed.
For the time being I want to keep the protector on the screen, but it's very likely that removing it will solve the problem.
I like the fact that the device is thick as it gives a feeling of sturdyness. The 3 buttons are the right amount for a DAP and the fact the play button is bigger is a very nice touch as I can reach it while the device is in a pocket.
The volume knob is very nice on the Shanling M3 Ultra, actually much better than I expected it to be. Clicks are very precise with a metallic-like sound giving a sense of precision and quality. The outside part has a lot more grip than you would think by looking at pictures with the device, being nowhere near as recessed in the case as it looks in the pics (those can be deceiving).
The only minus is the flap that covers the microSD card slot, which does not seem to be very well built and doesn't close as firmly as I would like.
For me it's not a big deal as I installed a large card and forgot about it. But if you want to take the card out regularly, this flap might become a weak point.
While for me personally Bluetooth is not the main feature of a DAP, I am interested in two aspects regarding BT: good codecs (LDAC, aptX HD) and the ability to work both as a transmitter and as a receiver.
The receiver functionality is what I use the most, since it offers me the convenience to swtich between the player itself and my phone at the press of a button.
While I do have dedicated DAC/amps with BT, having the option to use the M3 Ultra as one means I don't have to take one with me if I want to mostly use the DAP functionality and maybe occasionaly listen to something on my phone.
As a transmitter, there's not much to be stated as this device will work as a digital transport, so the DACs and amps won't matter at all in this scenario.
Battery life specification is more than double in BT mode, but do keep in mind that this value will only be reached with local playback not with streaming.
If streaming is your main way of listening to music, a DAP is probably not what you need anyway.
Bluetooth range is good, but not the best. If you have a mid-range or high-end smarthphone, that will likely do better than this DAP.
WiFi connection is decent, but nothing spectacular. Hence why, if you want this DAP mainly for streaming, it's better to think twice about it.
While it's not terrible, my phone (which is not the newest generation) has significantly better WiFi connection. So again, if I was only streaming, I would think twice about a DAP for that, but rather a DAC/amp that I would use in combination with my phone.
I do have both DAC/amps and DAPs and they're clearly designed for different purposes: a DAP is mainly a device for offline playback (usually of DRM-free files), while a DAC/amp is for streaming.
One of the reasons I bought this player was the newer OS, so the fact it has Android 10 is a plus despite the current version is 13 and 14 already on the horizon (not quite the standard yet, but it will become soon).
So technically the version is outdated by a signficant margin, but it's still much better than older versions.
For me there are a couple of aspects of why I care about the newer Android version:
- some added privacy features (new permissions, limited access to identifiers, etc.)
- background apps can no longer jump into the foreground
- dark mode
While I would have preffered a newer version of Android, the features that those bring in are not really that relevant for a DAP at the end of day.
As far as app support goes, I'm really not concerned at all since I mostly use a DAP for offline listening and such apps will work forever.
Even streaming apps will continue to work for the foreseeable future and it will be many years until such apps will drop support for Android 10.
If you buy a DAP for streaming only, my advice is don't buy one. Get a DAC/amp or dongle instead.
I do like that the M3 Ultra doesn't come with bloatware installed (by bloatware I understand privileged apps that cannot be uninstalled): the few installed apps can be uninstalled easily and the Google apps can be disabled. At the end of day I can have a very clean OS.
While I would have preffered a pure vanilla version of the OS with no Gapps I do realise many people do want these services to be there so Shanling must do something to satisfy both crowds.
The bootloader seems to be unlocked by deafult, which is another plus for future mods.
Prime mode: there's not much to say about it. If the Android OS is kept clean with no active Internet connection (when not needed) and no apps running in background, this mode won't be needed. It's good that it is there, but personally I never use it despite in 95% of the cases I only listen offline using Shanling app.
What I don't like about the OS is a bug in the battery gauge: when I charge the device with anything more than 5V@500mA the gauge doesn't climb until the very end of the charge. If I restart the OS the gauge shows correctly, but if it's not at 100% it will do it again if you start charging it.
For some it might be a minor thing, to me it's something that really should be fixed as I want to be able to know how much charge I have left without restarting the OS after every charge. I also don't want to fully charge the battery every single time.
Shanling is aware of this problem (I mentioned it twice here on the forum) but they don't seem to be willing to do anything about it.
The Shanling app:
At the time of writing this review, I only used this app. Poweramp would be a good alternative, which is way more feature packed but the problem is it resamples all the audio.
So from this point of view, I prefer the Shanling one, even if it's not as good overall.
The app, for the most part, does what it's supposed to do without problems but it's also pretty basic with nothing fancy going around. EQ is too basic to be useful for tuning your headphones to a preffered target curve (like Harman). You just need a lot more bands (or manual input of frequencies) for that and this app simply doesn't offer that. The EQ is only meant for a very basic tuning and that's it.
So for me personally, I would need a dedicated app such as Poweramp Equalizer to do EQ and even that is missing the Q factor.
The lack of gapless playback is not a deal breaker for me, but I would have liked it to be there.
There are no plans to add it according to Shanling, so do keep in mind that if you need it you will have to use a different app.
One aspect I don't like about the app is sometimes after starting the DAP and pressing the play button (or the virtual button in the widget or app) it doesn't remember the exact track it was playing before and it starts to play another one next to it.
Another problem is the app tends to crash if playback is started immediately after boot. While this issue is rarer on the latest firmware, it still happens occasionaly. Not a deal breaker, but again something to be improved.
Yet another issues I've come across recently are these:
- sometimes the app gets stuck to a track when I'm playing an album, repeating that track forever even though the settings is list play.
Only way I've found to fix this issue is re-scan the library. Pretty annoying, although it doesn't happen that often.
- recently noticed that some albums despite having the tracks numbered in the file names, they're played in a random order.
This is something intermittent. Sometimes it works as it should, sometimes it doesn't.
- if using the "Albums" menu, some albums have the tracks in a random order. This doesn't happen when going to the folder.
I have this DAP for some time now (close to 6 months) and have been using it on a regular basis.
Let's start with the positive things: I do like the looks, the volume wheel distinct clicking feel, the sound quality: especially the completely black background with no audible noise floor.
What I don't like is the software isn't very refined: there are quite a few bugs both in the OS and in the Shanling app. Ok, I understand Shanling's software team is small, I understand this is not a high-end DAP (but still not cheap) and their team's focus is not necessarily here, but still.
Overall, I will recommend this DAP as compared to what's available on the market at this price point, I think this is a good choice.