Pros – Clarity and transparency, sexy design, neutral
Cons – Scroll wheel
Purchase Here: MusicTeck (currently a case is included)
Manufacturer Website: Shanling
Also for sale here: Shanling M3S
A Little Technical Stuff:
-MRSP: $279; case is included on MusicTeck website
The M3s is the bigger brother to the Shanling M2s. I reviewed the M2s and really enjoyed it’s size, build quality, power and warmish sound. There is a certain excitement to review it’s bigger brother and see if the apple falls far from the family tree or if they share sound similarities. The big brother, the M3s is taller in stature which gives the illusion it is a thinner player, but both units are the same width. The similarities between the two begin to widen at this point. One has a warmer personality and the other is more neutral in it’s personality. Kind of reminds me of the differences between my brothers and myself. I am impressed with both DAP’s from all aspects and will leave it up to your discretion as to which Shanling may suit your purposes and tastes more. Let’s take a look at what you can expect when spending your hard-earned money.
A Little Marketing Hype:
- Fully balanced audio circuit based on dual AK4490EN DAC, followed with dual MUSE8920 and dual AD8397 headphone amps.
- Low output impedance, to assure best compatibility with sensitive multi-driver IEMs – 0.3 ohm on single ended and 0.6 ohm on balanced output
- Support of DSD256 and PCM up to 32/384
- Multifunctional USB C port, allowing M3s to be used both as external DAC with your computer or smartphone, or as USB transport for external DAC. (best matched with our L2 USB cable)
- Bluetooth 4.1 with apt-X support
- Compatible with HiBy Link feature, control everything from your smartphone over Bluetooth
- Comfortable size at 113 x 53 x 14.5 mm, reasonable weight at 135 g
- 3-inch retina screen with 480*800 resolution (300 PPI), newly with Oleophobic coating to reduce finger prints
- Improved battery life with over 13 hours on single charge (balanced output reduces battery life to 8 hours)
- Standby/hibernation/deep sleep mode
- Beautiful construction from two 2.5D glass panels and aluminum frame
- Available in three colors – Black, titanium greyand royal blue
- Supporting format: MP3、WAV、WMA、FLAC、AAC、ALAC、APE、IOS、DSF、DFF、cue、m3u、m3uSampling rate: 44.1kHz–384kHz
Unboxing and Accessories:
As is usual with my reviews I will include a few photos and give a brief description, but you can see for yourself what is included with your purchase from the photos. The sleeve surrounding the box has a photo of the M3s on the front and some of the features listed on the back. The sleeve surrounds a black box which holds the M3s and all of the pack-ins.
Upon opening the box lid, you will see the M3s nestled in a foam cutout and laying on top of a ribbon for easy removal. If you remove the foam cutout insert you will see an enclosure which holds all of the accessories, very similar to the M2s.
The included accessories are a couple of sets of screen protectors, a microSD card reader, a pin to reset the device, USB-C charging cable, warranty, manual and quick start card. As appears to be a trend with Shanling there is no case included with the purchase of the M3s. I truly wish the companies producing DAP’s would include some type of protection, even a silicon case to avoid scratches when placing your player on the table would be nice. The leather case, sold separately, is $15 and is actually pretty nice. It allows easy access to the scroll wheel and all of the ports. Purchasing a case is recommended as the device is super sleek and sexy and slippery to the touch. Glass front, glass back and a slippery frame sounds a lot like a recipe for heartbreak or you can just buy a case and have a bit more insurance.
Design and Build:
As mentioned above, the M3s is a very sleek looking device. Compared to it’s little brother, M2s, it is the same width but taller, which gives an illusion it is slenderer. It is comfortable in your pocket and is extremely lightweight so it doesn’t weigh you down while you go out and about. It weighs in at 137g while the M2s weighs in right at 100g. While the device is taller than the M2s, which is 85.6mm the M3s is 113mm, the actual viewing size of the screen is the same in both units, my assumption is that the M3s needs the additional length to help house the 2.5mm balanced output amongst other things. The DAP that I am reviewing is a cool looking cobalt color that Shanling calls Royal Blue, I really like the color. The M3s can also be purchased in Midnight Black, Titanium Gray, and as a Christmas special they released a Red version.
*Some portions of the review regarding the layout and connectivity of the unit will be taken from the M2s review as they are identical in many regards, my apologies but there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
The aluminum frame has a nice top class feel, albeit slippery. The upper right side of the DAP has the power button. To turn the M3s on, press and hold (long press). The power button is also used to wake up the device, with only a brief press, when the screen turns itself off.
The right side of the unit has the scroll wheel and below the scroll wheel is a button to return you to a previous menu screen. The scroll wheel on the M3s is well built, without any looseness or play. The sensitivity of the scroll wheel is iffy. Sometimes it registers one turn and other times two. In my experience, the scroll wheel is very important in function because the screen of the M3s is not a touchscreen. You depend on the scroll wheel to cycle through and select your options, pushing the scroll wheel “enters” the selection. I would really like to see Shanling migrate to a touchscreen format. Not all users report sensitivity issues with the scroll wheel but I know I found myself backing up or moving forward one more selection after I turned the wheel to what I thought I was selecting.
There have been some reported mechanical issues with the scroll wheel, please see the link below:
I have not had any mechnical issues with the scroll wheel on either the M2s or the M3s. Shanling has appeared to be very communicative with the potential “issue” that some users are having. While these types of things can be an inconvenience, when a company stands behind their product it is only an inconvenience and it doesn’t diminish all of the good that this DAP brings to the listener. As stated above it may be another reason to support touch screen models in future releases.
The left side of the device has a reset hole a play/pause button as well as a back and forward button used to advance to the next or previous music track. Further down the left size is where you can find the microSD slot. The largest microSD card I tested was a 256gb card and found the device read the card flawlessly and quickly. I need to mention that there is no internal memory so you will have to use a microSD for storage. This doesn’t bother me as I usually keep all of my music on some type of removable storage, but it certainly needs to be mentioned so you can make arrangements for a card that will store your music catalog.
The bottom of the M3s has a USB-C slot to be used for charging as well as data transfer and a 3.5mm headphone jack which also works a line out when selected from the software settings and unlike it’s little brother this has a 2.5mm balanced output.
The unit has Bluetooth and allows the user to connect headphones and cellphones without any stress. It works flawlessly and with ease in finding and maintaining a Bluetooth connection. I successfully connected to multiple devices and all connected easily, quickly and without issue. All connections were solid and stable and allowed for good distance before crackling.
The cellphone pairing allows the listener to stream their favorite streaming app, from the cellphone, while keeping your wired headphones plugged in to the M3s the same as with the M2s.
The M3s, like the M2s has the HibyLink feature. To utilize HibyLink you will need to download the Hiby app to your cellphone. Once you pair the Hiby app to the to the M3s it gives you control of the M3s using your cellphone. To make this clearer, you can keep DAP in your pocket and use the cellphone as a sort of “remote control” for the DAP. Some the things listed that HibyLink can do are control playback and volume, browse through folders, albums, artists, genres and songs loaded on your Shanling player, add songs into your playlists, edit playlists, use search function to quickly find and view details of played files.
The M3s plays most of your favorite file formats including Native DSD. I put it through its paces listening to a varied selection of musical files and never had a hitch, stutter or lag while playing music, including gapless. For a lengthy rundown of the file formats the M3s plays look up in the technical section near the top of this review. The M3s can also be used as a USB DAC.
I found the M3s has the ability to drive any IEM I threw at it, with a black noise floor for the most part, if there was any hiss you certainly couldn’t hear it with the music playing. I attempted to drive my HD650 as well as my Aeon Flow Open and the M3s could drive them but to no surprise it required some serious volume.
The UI of the M3s is another area that is similar to the little brother M2s so I am not going to rehash the GUI. For the most part I use folders to select my music. I will say the GUI in the Shanling players provides a good, bug free, consumer experience and if you have used Hiby software in the past you will feel at home. I will include some photos below of the UI so you can get the idea. For those of you that utilize an EQ it does include a 10 band EQ. There are also low and high gain settings and I found low gain to be powerful enough for most of the IEM’s I connected, but many times I left the unit on high for easy switching between IEM’s and headphones. One other aspect to discuss is the low pass filter mode. The options available in this area are sharp, slow, short delay sharp and short delay slow. I found the short delay slow setting to be my preference. To get an idea of how the menus function please look closely at my photos embedded in the review.
Moving on to the sound:
If you asked me to use a couple of words to describe the Shanling M3s, I would say clear and clean, transparent and neutral. Okay that was more than a couple of words but those are the ones that came into my mind as I write this. It is smooth like it’s younger brother but the signature is very different and they go about achieving their positive results and smoothness differently. The M2s has a warm smoothness and the M3s, while clear and clean has a rather smooth treble that is not harsh or fatiguing. I found it a very good pairing with the IE800s and it’s DD bass and smooth treble. I feel the M3s would be a really good pairing for any warm IEM’s or headphones you may have in your collection, unfortunately I don’t really have the warm signatures that I have in the past to test the device with.
Where the M2s and the M3s have the widest gap in their sound similarities is with the stage. The stage with the M3s is very large. It’s notes have air and transparency as well as above average width and height in the stage however it is an average depth. Overall, I think the stage and clarity are the showstoppers here. With so much clarity you can visualize the placement of the instruments on the stage and it certainly is never congested. Male and female vocals do not sound thin they sound rich, full and indeed vibrant. It has a musical quality that is incredibly enjoyable and not dry or stale.
I found that the true character of the IEM or headphone will be allowed to be showcased as opposed to any additional coloration from the DAP, thus defining it as neutral. In essence, if you are listening to a bright IEM and are expecting the M3s to add warmth that more than likely isn’t going to happen. It is rare to find a DAP that has the transparency and clarity of the M3s without presenting itself thin or even hollow sounding.
How does this DAP stack up to some of the others in my possession?
In comparison compare it to the M2s ($199) I would say that the overall tone is of a Shanling house sound. Specifically, the M2s is warmer and more congested in it’s stage when compared to the M3s. The sound of the M3s is more polished and refined overall with better treble extension.
The LGV30 ($800, price I paid) and it’s quad dac, have quite a few similarities to their tone. Both have an increased clarity and a wide stage as well as wonderful extended treble. I would say the two sources are more alike than different in their delivery, with the LG V30 being a touch fuller in body.
Differences between the Opus #1S abound. The #1S is more of a warmish tone, with a rich, full texture. The M3s is more transparent and has a touch more clarity. Not to say the Opus#1s is not clear, because the details are certainly evident.
As far as sublime pairings with the M3s I feel there are many safe bets. My favorite pairings I have in my possesion would be with IE800s and the Custom Art Harmony 8.2. The DD of the IE800s deliver a sublime bass with scads of layering and texture. The overall smooth treble and tone of the Sennheiser pairs so well with the clarity and transparency of the M3s.
The CA Harmony 8.2 is a wonderful warm IEM with delicious amounts of bass that is wonderfully layered with the M3s. The treble of the 8.2 is also smooth and overall the M3s pairing is listenable for extended sessions as it is never fatiguing.
Zeus XR was not a pairing I can recommend. I love the Zeus and I love the M3s but the extended treble of both the Zeus and the M3s kind of overloaded me. While it wasn’t harsh or strident it did cause fatigue after only a short session.
As far as my full-sized headphones are concerned I felt that the HD6XX was a wonderful pairing and while it took quite a bit of volume for my old, tired ears, once I hiked the volume it was a wonderful paring which showcased everything that has been lauded time and time again about the Sennheiser HD650 or HD6XX.
The M3s and M2s are brothers, they have a similar Shanling house sound and both approach the same goal from different angles. The M3s easily pairs with so many different IEM’s and headphones. It is exceptional at delivering clarity and transparency without adding any color. The M3s is more neutral by nature and thus the reason it pairs so easily and effectively. If you are already setup in the 2.5mm ecosystem you will be able to utilize your cables and of course you can utilize a single ended output(3.5mm).
There have been some noted scroll wheel issues, sensitivity as well as mechanical, but Shanling has recognized the mechanical issues and said if you have issues return it to your retailer or to them directly. Personally, I have had no mechanical issues and this wouldn’t dissuade me in the least from purchasing the Shanling, but I feel I need to mention this.
The UI is virtually bug free and I never have to reboot the device to stop any gremlins. It uses USB-C as well as will take at least a 256gb microSD card, I don’t have a 400gb to test.
This is the second Shanling device I have had the pleasure to review. The M3s comes in at under $300 and at that price is quite the sound masterpiece. Shanling is on to something here and I look forward to hearing some of their TOTL offerings.