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Shanling M0 Review – Versatile, Capable, Affordable

Pros –

Excellent build and design, Fast yet feature-rich UI, Clean sound with wide soundstage, Extremely low output impedance, Zero hiss, Awesome value!

Cons –

No user configurable eQ, Screen tearing, Questionable battery life with Bluetooth enabled, No in-line remote support

Verdict –

With an excellent form-factor, quality audio hardware and affordable price, the M0 is versatile, capable and simply a bargain.


Introduction –

Shanling are an audio manufacturer that date back to 1988 with a rich heritage of audio amplifier design. More recently, they reached international fame with their portable audio players that sports unique designs and a focus on superb sound quality. Their more recent devices have made a huge stride forward, assuming a very sleek form factor with the same quality internals.

The Shanling Audio M0 exemplifies this, generating huge interest with its affordable $110 USD asking price and hyper-compact design. Running a proprietary touchscreen interface, Shanling fill the active-lifestyle MP3 player niche very nicely, however, with a slew of audio-related features and some very quality hardware inside, it appeals to enthusiasts too. After months of daily use, here are my detailed impressions.

You can read more about the M0 on Shaling’s website here and treat yourself to one here.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Shanling very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the M0 for the purpose of review. I also purchased another M0 at full-price as a gift as I enjoyed the DAP so much. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving my review unit free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 

Accessories –

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The M0 is well-packaged, but fairly bare-bones in terms of accessories, this is to be expected given the price. Included is a manual, warranty papers and a very nice braided USB type-C cable.

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Shanling don’t provide any earbuds or a case, though a leather flip case and clip case are available aftermarket. They have also just released some in-house developed in-ear earphones.

 

Design –

The M0’s defining trait is its size. Measuring in at just 4 x 4.5 x 1.5cm, the M0 is absolutely tiny and roughly similar in size to a 6th generation iPod Nano. Despite this, it feels very solid due to a unibody aluminium construction and tactile matte finish. It sports a 1.54″ LG touchscreen with reasonable bezels and curved glass that feeds seamlessly into the similarly sculpted housing. This provides a terrific swiping experience that makes it feel as if there’s a little more screen real-estate than there actually is. Particularly impressive is the aluminium volume wheel. All of these design touches genuinely enhance the user experience and certainly wouldn’t be cheap to manufacture, it’s an impressive feat at such an affordable price.

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In use, I found the player fairly easy to hold and very well finished with rounded edges and smooth corners. Amusingly, due to its lightweight, the attached headphone cable almost acts like a lanyard in case of accidental drops. Due to its size, the M0 has a fairly basic control setup with only a single volume wheel/power-button on the top right. The button can be configured to operate another function via a double click, however, no other media controls are present here. Despite being so minute, I found the wheel to function very well, with defined clicks and a concise button feel. Still, as it protrudes from the housing, accidental pocket presses can be an issue.

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The left hand side houses the micro-sd card slot. It’s covered by a plastic flap that lies flush with the side housing when closed, very nice. Interestingly, the flap has a rubber grommet which should add some ingress protection; these hyper-portable DAPs are usually used for exercise and this small addition demonstrates the thought that went into the M0’s design. At the bottom is the headphone jack that, of note, does not support remote commands. It’s also great to see Shanling adopt USB Type-C which is reversible and more reliable than micro-USB. The M0 may be cheap and compact, however, it’s clear that this is a very well-considered and well-realised device!

 

Usage –

The M0’s size isn’t a novelty but a strength, especially for consumers who use their DAP in conjunction with a smartphone or those looking for something that won’t weight them down during active use. The M0 excels in the pocket where it almost disappears, and it easily slides into the most space constrained compartment within running shorts. With Bluetooth receiver capability, the M0 is a great augmentation for users of headphone jack-less smartphones. Connected over LDAC, I found the M0 to offer superior sound quality to some dedicated receivers with zero hiss or noise, ample volume and, of course, a low output-impedance perfect for multi-driver IEMs.

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As an Android user, my phone immediately connected to the M0 via LDAC which yielded a noticeable increase in high-frequency extension and detail over SBC. I was able to confirm this by toggling high-quality audio on and off on my phone. Another notable feature includes the M0’s superb connection strength, maintaining an uninterrupted connection with my phone even on a crowded peak-hour city train (where most BT devices suffer). Shanling claim 15hrs of battery life which is pretty impressive all considered. I did notice that figure to take a considerable hit when functioning as a BT receiver where I achieved anywhere between 8-10hrs, I would suggest that those wanting to squeeze the absolute maximum longevity out of the M0 turn off Bluetooth. The M0 also provides a positive experience when it comes to the screen, which has fairly mediocre contrast and quick washout off-angle, but strong maximum brightness. This makes it easily usable outdoors without having to shield the screen from the sun.

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One thing to note is some screen tearing when navigating the home menu. Shanling state that this may be fixed in an upcoming update, however, the fix relies on the manufacturer of the display so it is not promised. Still, it’s more of a minor annoyance, not an experience breaking issue. Otherwise, the M0’s USB type-C port is very versatile supporting audio out to an external DAC such as a Chord Mojo in addition to digital input enabling the M0 to function as a USB DAC. The M0 functioned perfectly with both my Windows laptop but did not work with my Android phone. As a source, the M0 will drive un-powered external DACs such as the Cozoy Takt Pro, however, those without in-built volume control will default to maximum volume. Otherwise, powered DACs such as the Fiio Q5 work perfectly making this a fine, inexpensive transport DAP.

 

Software –

The M0 provides a surprisingly responsive user interface that isn’t especially smooth, with frame skips here and there, but can easily be considered fast. This wasn’t always the case, however, as the initial firmware that shipped with the M0 was very sluggish; each wipe and touch was accompanied by half a second of hesitation and touches sometimes failed to register. Shortly after, Shanling released the 2.0 update that made a world of difference, all users should upgrade ASAP. In addition to bug fixes, the update hugely improved UI speed in addition to supporting LDAC and AAC in BT received mode. The UI still isn’t as smooth as an Apple or Sony player, but touch lag is almost eliminated entirely and taps feel very responsive. I would now classify the M0 as one of the faster proprietary OS DAPs I’ve used and gladly use it on a daily basis.

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I should also note that I didn’t experience any significant freezing or issues during my testing on the 2.0 update and later, on 2.1. My only notable issue was a single instance where the DAP froze in BT received mode, however, this was easily solved with a reboot. This is especially impressive as the M0’s software is very capable in terms of features with wide audio settings and configurability. Upon power on, the user is greeted with a simple icon based UI with clean labelling. There are 5 icons that open the music library, a folder-based browser, audio settings, system settings and a shortcut to the now playing screen.

The system settings are quite extensive, enabling users to update their music library (which is quite fast compared to most DAPs), toggle/pair Bluetooth both ways and choose desired codec, adjust screen brightness, screen-off timer, clock, theme, language and system update. There are also sliders to toggle between USB storage and DAC mode a volume lock when the screen is off, a line-out toggle and configurable double-click gesture. Users will find the audio settings just as comprehensive, with a user-defined max volume, resume mode, gap-less, huge selection of eQ settings (but no user defined option unfortunately) in addition to filters, channel balance and play mode. The player also supports replay gain and DSD. Altogether, this is a capable hyper-portable that’s a delight to use.

 

Sound –

The M0 utilises ESS Saber’s 9218S, the same chip used in the LG V30, in addition to the integrated Saber amplifier. I quite like its sound, and definitely prefer it to the low-end to midrange AKM DACs as it sounds a little cleaner and more transparent while still providing a little extra warmth that helps fill things in when on the go. Power output is also very commendable at 80mW into a 32ohm load, offering significantly more power than competing models from Hidizs, Apple and Sony. Moreover, it does so without introducing any hiss on top, the M0 is absolutely noise free, even in BT receiver mode, and doesn’t pick up EMI either, terrific! Max volume is also very high and its fine 100 step volume control provides a wide range to suit a variety of gear.

Combined with a very low 0.17ohm output impedance, the M0 is perfect for low-volume listeners and users of low-impedance multi-driver IEMs like the Campfire Audio Andromeda. This spec is especially impressive as certain portable DAPs like the Hidizs AP60 can skew the sound signature of certain IEMs due to a higher output impedance, which is often raised to reduce hiss. As such, most hyper-portable DAPs either have a fair amount of noise, a high output impedance or both, it’s impressive that the M0 manages to excel in both regards. In terms of power output and control, the M0 delivers a positive experience with the majority of in-ear monitors and most portable headphones but did lack some dynamics on my full-sized headphones, this is to be expected and will be further explored in the pairings section below.

 

Tonality –

The M0 is quite a clean sounding player with a slightly warm low-end similar to the Fiio M7 combined with a little more control that maintains definition. This is also counteracted a slightly enhanced detail region all set to a neutral background. This can be slightly altered using the in-built filters, I used Brick wall for this review. Of note, the M0 received over 100hrs of burn-in to ensure optimal performance. As with every source review, the degree of deviation from neutral is significantly smaller than the differences between headphones, please take this into account when reading my following comments.

 

Bass –

The M0 possesses a well-extended low-end with slightly enhanced slam at the very bottom. Mid-bass is elevated by a hair while upper-bass is more neutral, feeding into a transparent midrange. Besides its lightly warm tone and enhanced slam, the M0 is well-controlled with rather impressive dynamics for such a compact and affordable device. Bass notes are nicely defined and well-separated despite being enlarged and bloat or muddiness never creep in as a result. Speed is moderate but hardly sloppy though you still don’t receive the fine texture and detail of higher-end DAPs. Still, this is a commendable performer that imbues pleasing musicality into the attached earphone without introducing any bloat or muddiness.

 

Mids –

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The M0 has a linear, neutral midrange that is a delight to the ear. The lower-midrange feeds evenly from the upper-bass, imbuing vocals and instruments with a natural sense of body. Upper-mids aren’t brought forward to enhance clarity nor are they attenuated to compensate for a lack of low-end quantity. Instead, they are linear with excellent extension, creating an open female vocal presentation. This also aids treble instrument body, avoiding an overly skewed timbre despite local emphasis. As bass is slightly enhanced, mids are occasionally a hair warmer then neutral, though they remain transparent for the most part. Detail retrieval is good and timbre is realistic. Listeners will enjoy the M0’s neutral vocal placement and accurately bodied notes.

 

Highs –

A slightly more pronounced lower-treble defines the M0’s high-end that, in turn, delivers a crisp and slightly aggressive presentation. Detail retrieval is fairly strong and details are brought forward, but not to the extent of sharpness or fatigues. Meanwhile a neutral middle-treble produces a similarly neutral background that, in conjunction with the M0’s black noise floor, creates an especially clean sound that aids instrument separation and the discernment of fine detail. Still, the M0 does present a few weaknesses, one being treble extension. It is great for the price but expansion of the soundstage and greater micro-detail retrieval are clearly evident when switching to a higher-end source (though I can say the same for any budget source). The M0, therefore, provides a treble presentation that augments its sound, with an impressively clean background and a crisp, if slightly thinner instrument presentation.

 

Soundstage –

The M0’s soundstage expansion is very good. Width is especially strong but depth is more intimate. One thing I did note was a tendency for the M0 to push width into height, with higher-end DAPs providing a more stable presentation. Regardless, imaging remains strong at this price on behalf of its neutral midrange, great separation and defined layers. Separation is also strong mostly due to its well-controlled low-end and transparent midrange. It’s hard to convey the exact quality of the M0, as it is so cheap you still can’t expect TOTL performance, but in many regards such as soundstage expansion and imaging, it does keep up with most lower-midrange sources which is quite a feat and will surely impress the majority of listeners.

 

Pairings –

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Comparisons were made using an inline switcher connected to the M0 and an iBasso DX200 (AMP5) which has a sub 1-ohm output impedance. Comparisons were volume matched using an SPL meter. Given the M0’s extremely low output-impedance, it should not skew any of the earphones below, however, we can observe differences due to power output and damping, filters, tuning and more. Select pairings below:

iBasso IT01 ($100): The IT01 is a popular single dynamic in-ear, it has a low 16-ohm impedance and a high sensitivity, its impedance is just high enough that it should experience no alteration in signature, it is also a single-driver in-ear. Tight low-end, well-controlled and defined. Sub-bass isn’t quite as extended or hard-hitting. Most neutral midrange with natural vocals. Organic treble, slightly detail forward. Wide soundstage, more intimate depth but well-separated and accurate imaging.

Fiio FH5 ($250): The FH5 represents a nice midrange hybrid IEM that is also very sensitive and with a very low 12-ohm impedance. Mostly untouched sound besides a slightly greater weighting on the mid-bass than sub-bass. Otherwise, the low-end is nicely defined and controlled. Slightly more pronounced lower-treble provides crisp but slightly thin instrumentation. Midrange is linear and transparent. Impressively wide soundstage with accurate imaging.

Dunu DK-3001 ($500): The DK-3001 is a higher-end hybrid that is similarly very efficient with a low 13-ohm impedance. Mostly untouched sound signature. Bass is slightly less controlled, with a touch of mid-bass bloom. Otherwise, it is nicely defined with just slightly enlarged notes. Mids are slightly warmed but maintain an accurate timbre overall. Slightly crisper treble, nicely detailed. Good soundstage expansion with accurate imaging, good separation.

Hyla CE-5 ($940): The CE-5 is one of the most output impedance sensitive earphones I’ve ever come across. Higher impedances accompany huge increases in bass quantity in addition to general muddying of their sound. That said, this pairing really legitimises Shaling’s 0.17ohm specification; with the exception of micro-detail and the individual tunings of each DAP, the M0 sounds very, very close to the DX200 in signature. Strong bass extension, high-control and definition. Linear midrange with neutral vocals. Well-detailed, slightly thinner and crisper. Missing some micro-detail. Very wide soundstage.

Advanced Sound Alpha ($499): The Alpha is a full-sized planar magnetic headphone with a 34ohm impedance and 90dB sensitivity. The M0 did an admirable job, but still didn’t provide an optimal experience even in high gain. Here, the immensely more powerful DX200 provided a very noticeable advantage, providing greater bass extension, a lot more definition and greater dynamics, the M0 sounded a bit flat. Mids were lacking some depth and body while treble became small and thin. The M0 also wasn’t able to fully capitalise on the Alpha’s open-back design, restricting the soundstage, with almost non-existent depth. The M0 was clearly not designed to drive full-sized headphones but will do in a pinch.

 

Comparisons –

iPod Nano 7G ($200): The Nano is the quintessential mainstream hyper-portable DAP. It measures in at twice the height but under half the width and it’s a little lighter too, but neither struggle during active use or within small pockets. Of note, the Nano supports remote input, something that I find very useful during runs and commute. It also has a 3-button volume rocker with centre button that controls play/pause and skip track where the M0 only supports one gesture at a time via double tap. The Nano is easier to use with its larger screen and taller dimensions, its screen is also much brighter with better viewing angles.

In typical Apple fashion, the UI is super smooth and responsive, a pleasure to use, but it also has essentially zero customizability and supports none of the enthusiast features the M0 has out of the box, it has only basic eQ presents and replaygain support. File support is also paltry where the M0 decodes just about any file under the sun. The M0 is just as fast to use in reality, it just isn’t as fluid as Apple’s player. For the enthusiast, it’s clear which device is the winner, for the consumer, they may appreciate the brighter, larger display and slightly more responsive UI on the iPod.

The iPod’s bass sounds quite ill-defined next to the M0, it lacks power and control. The Shanling is considerably more extended and clearly more defined but both are quite clean tone wise. The M0 is noticeably faster while the iPod is quite soft with a smooth texture that glosses over fine details. The iPod has a sort of sucked out lower-midrange, creating a cooler midrange with less body. This is especially noticeable with male vocals where the M0 sounds appreciably more natural. Meanwhile, the iPod has smaller, more laid-back male vocals. The iPod is also slightly brighter within the lower-treble, however it is not as detailed as the M0 nor as extended. It also has a brighter background. The iPod doesn’t extend as far, it doesn’t have the same kind of resolution nor the soundstage expansion. I used to love the Nano due to its black noise floor, however, it’s clear that hyper-portable DAPs have come a long way, the M0 takes an easy win.

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Fiio M7 ($200): When I released my M7 review, many were turned off by its higher price point, however, it does provide some advantages. The most notable difference is the size, with the M7 being considerably larger. In turn, it provides greater screen real estate and the panel itself is of much higher quality. It’s easier to hold and use, making it a better daily driver, where the M0 is a better secondary DAP/Wireless receiver due to its small screen. The M0, however, has a much more feature-rich operating system, despite the Fiio running Android. In return, the M7 runs smoother and it provides much better battery life, especially with Bluetooth enabled. Still, it’s just a bit too large for active use where the M0 is in a league of its own. Build quality is also comparable, impressive for the little Shanling at half the price.

In terms of sound quality, the M7 also provides a slight upgrade featuring a higher-powered DAC chip (ESS 9018 vs 9218S). Despite this, its amplifier is actually slightly less powerful, but both have zero hiss, though the M7 achieves this through a 2ohm output impedance that can slightly skew especially source sensitive earphones. In listening, the M0 is has a slightly warmer low-end with a touch less sub-bass extension. However, it is more controlled and, therefore, both are similarly defined. The M7’s warmth continues into its midrange where it provides a slightly denser, fuller voicing.

Meanwhile, the M0 is more neutral and transparent with greater upper-midrange extension. Treble is where the most pronounced differences manifest, the M0 boasting a cleaner background but also a more aggressive foreground that lacks the fine detail of the M7. The M7 extends further, providing higher resolution and it has more air. It also provides a more rounded soundstage and greater foreground/background separation. The M0 provides almost as much width, but lacks the vocal projection of the M7.

 

Conclusion –

Every compliment I give puts my reputation on the line, so I tend not to falsely embellish. However, at just $90, I have no issue dubbing the M0 one of the best value propositions I’ve come across in my time reviewing. Yes, it’s cheap, but it’s not compromised; the M0 is a very well-rounded device and something I’ve wanted from the industry for many years. The form factor and effective touchscreen UI well justify that price alone, even just to use as a transport for a dedicated DAC/AMP; for reference, you would have to pay a lot more for to get a superior touchscreen experience with a similar level of portability from Sony’s A30/40 and Apple’s players don’t support external DACs at all. It goes without saying that the M0 containing some pretty excellent audio hardware on top is quite a feat.

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This DAP will surely be a hit for runners and cyclists, and for general commute, however, it also caters perfectly towards enthusiasts wanting wide file support, noise-free high-quality wireless and a headphone out that does just about every in-ear justice. Sure, I could do with a more flexible eQ system, its limited controls irk at times and battery life is just okay with Bluetooth enabled. However, these minor annoyances quickly fade behind the M0’s black noise floor, earphone agnostic output impedance and strong driving power. The M0 isn’t a perfect reference source, but it also isn’t nearly as coloured as most entry-level DAPs and is miles in front in terms of usability too. Ultimately, these factors all make the M0 versatile, capable and simply a bargain, high recommendation!

The Shanling M0 is available from Amazon (International) for $110 USD and Amazon (Australia) for $160 at the time of writing. Please see my affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.

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