I don't want to double up on packaging and physicals, and focus on sound.
You find the rest at https://www.audioreviews.org/shanling-ua1-jk/
Equipment used: Macbook Air/iPhone SE first generation; Sennheiser HD 600 & HD 25; Sennheiser IE 400 PRO, JVC HA-FDX1, TRI I3 Pro.
The Shanling UA1 features the ESS ES9218P (dac + amp), a “System-on-Chip” (SoC) that leaves the audio engineer little room for tweaking, it comes down to mainly filtering. This means devices with this SoC will actually sound alike or very close.
The UA1 is close to neutral, but has a faint tone colour with a slightly boosted bass, but also with an elevated upper midrange/lower treble, which adds some grain to the top end top-end that can be fatiguing to some in the long run – and that’s the UA1’s only downside. There is a companion app for Android phones that allows filtering which may mitigate the issue, but it does not work with a computer or iPhone.
Presentation is leaner compared to a $100+ dongle, but not in a bad way. Staging is fine. Midrange is clear and clean, and resolution is pretty good. Nothing sterile or analytical. I also did not record any hiss.
It drives my 300 ohm Sennheiser HD 600 with some pain but any iems, including the power-hungry planar-magnetic TRI I3 Pro earphones with ease.
The $99 Helm Bolt and Shanling UA1have a very similar general sound signature (and even a very similar build; the Bolt decodes MQA, the Shanling does not). The Bolt has less bass, which is a tad tighter and cleaner, it sounds more open and the vocals are more up front because of it, and it is a bit more dynamic. The UA1 has more low-end rumble whereas the Bolt is more composed and “sweeter” at the top end. These differences are not earth shattering but the Bolt appears o be better balanced by more sophisticated filtering.
When going up the ladder, the $85 Shanling UA2 has a richer, bassier sound, better staging, better 3D rendering, more punch, and the corners are smoother.
At $45, the Shanling UA1 is an impressive performer with a warm-bright, organic signature, good staging, dynamics, and resolution that does justice even to $200-300 iems (I have not tested any higher-priced ones as I don’t have any). The only polarizing feature may be its hot upper midrange/lower treble glare, other than that it plays one league higher than its price and comes close to the $99 Helm Bolt that shows a few better rounded corners. However, the Shanling’s lively top end will bring some life to iems with an early treble rolloff.
I am a particular fan of the great haptic and build of Shanling’s UA1 (and also the UA2) that compare even to the most expensive models.