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Shanling M2X Review – The Wonder

Pros – 

Excellent build quality, Snappy UI, Wide soundstage, Well-controlled sound

Cons – 

Sub-bass lacks the extension and power of higher-end portable sources

Verdict –

The M2X is an easy recommendation on behalf of its fully-featured design and excellent value for money.


Introduction –

Shanling Digital Technology Development sprung to life in 1988 with the development of a Hi-Fi stereo amplifier. They have since achieved a coveted international reputation with their portable audio players. The M2X is their latest development, following up on the immensely well-received M0 with a similar design language scaled up to match its higher $219 USD asking price. The M2X features higher-end internals, a more capable feature-set and the same sleek touchscreen UI. It marks the continuation of Shanling’s winning formula – immaculate design, musical sound and reasonable pricing. You can read more about the M2x here and purchase one for yourself here.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Shanling very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the M2X for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the DAP free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 

Accessories –

Like the M0, the M2X comes packaged within a clean and colourful box that opens to reveal the player within a foam inlet with a box of accessories underneath. In addition to the player, buyers receive a braided USB-C cable and manual. Reviewers also received a soft faux leather case though this will not be included with retail units, rather, available at the additional cost of $20 USD.

 

Design –

The M2X has a design language congruent with past Shanling devices but refined to conform to the hand better during use. It features sleek curved tempered glass on the front and rear that merges almost seamlessly into its CNC milled aluminium frame. The front is adorned with a 3.2” touchscreen with a modest 320×480 resolution that keeps the UI fluid while offering enough information to display art and small text.

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Shanling showcases a high level of finish here with smooth edges and a tactile texture. It represents a clear step up in quality over the M0 and excellent value in its price class. Their signature scroll wheel/power button makes a return, harkening back to the analogue gear of years past. On the left-hand side, users will find the 3 playback buttons, each gently curved for tactility. All buttons are aluminium and possess a crisp actuation, contributing towards an outstanding in-hand feel.

The interfaces are at the bottom, a USB-C charging/data port that supports external USB-DACs in addition to enabling the M2X itself to function as a USB-DAC/AMP. Also present are two outputs, a 3.5mm single-ended output in addition to a 2.5mm balanced output. A micro-sd card slot is also located on the left, it is covered by a plastic flap with a rubber grommet to provide dust ingress protection. The M2X demonstrates how far industrial design and manufacturing have come, offering impeccable design and realisation at a modest price point.

 

Usage –

Unlike its smaller brother, the M2X supports WiFi in addition to Bluetooth. On the latest firmware (v2.3 at the time of review), this enables Tidal support in addition to convenient OTA updates, Airplay and WiFi file transfers that are significantly faster than Bluetooth. In terms of Bluetooth connectivity, the M2X supports both BT transmitter and receiver functionality, it also supports a wide variety of codecs including AAC, LDAC and Apt-X. The latest update also enables USB BT Transmitter functionality whereby the player can be connected to a PC as a USB DAC then stream to a pair of Bluetooth headphones or speakers utilising the wider codec support to provide greater fidelity than the PC itself.

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Via the USB-C port, the M2X can also function as a USB DAC and power external DACs. It had no issue connecting to a powered DAC/AMP such as the Q5, nor powering the Cozoy Takt Pro which has no internal battery. An internal 2400mah cell offers 10.5hrs of playback through single-ended output or 7.5hrs through the balanced output in addition to 39 days of standby. In real-world usage, these figures were very attainable at the lower volumes I prefer to listen at and, of course, standby is heavily affected by Bluetooth and Wifi. If both are left on, it will drain after a handful of days even when not in use.

The screen is a 3.2” LG panel with a 320 x 480 resolution. It is bright enough to be used outdoors and has a great contrast ratio which permits greater text legibility. Colours are vibrant and the display, despite its lower resolution, portrays an otherwise high-quality image with defined text and album art. The lower resolution permits a responsive UI with negligible touch and swipe latency. The UI does not run at a fluid 60fps with some frame skipping evident, however, the experience is premium overall with smooth animations and no visual glitches. I experienced no freezing or reboots during my months of testing, demonstrating the maturation of Shaling’s MTouch OS.

 

Software –

With the M2X, Shanling debut MTouch 2.0, a continuation of the touchscreen-based operation showcased on the M0. It’s a fairly straight forward UI reminiscent of the Android-based system used by Fiio. The new version features a radically expanded feature set and denser UI to suit the M2X’s larger screen size. Upon boot, users are greeted by 3 home screens, with up to 6 icons. The M2X also has a pull-down menu that lets users quickly toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, button lock and gain. Deeper adjustments are offered via the settings app that lets users adjust the theme, clock, USB settings, update music library and import via WiFi.

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A playback setting app offers adjustment of gain, a 10-band eQ, DSD mode, digital filters and channel balance. The player also supports replaygain, benefitting those that like to keep volume consistent between tracks. Shanling provides 5 filter options, I opted for the slow roll-off setting for my review. The device was stable and zippy during my months of testing, experiencing no odd battery drainage, freezing or spontaneous reboot. For all intents and purposes, the M2X is a reliable and dependable daily music player.

 

Sound –

The M2X utilises AKM’s 4490EN in addition to a custom FPGA and dual independent KDS oscillators to process audio while amplification duty is handled by a TI OPA1612 + dual ADI AD8397 opamps with Panasonic capacitors. Shanling also put an emphasis on shielding with copper plating around essential components of the audio circuitry. Indeed, the M2X resists EMI interference and it produces a sound that is spacious and clean. Power output is a respectable 106mW into a 16 ohm load or 120mW through the balanced output. The M2X is noise-free like the M0, and it has a lower 1-ohm output impedance through single-ended output and 2-ohms through the balanced out that makes it an excellent choice for sensitive multi-driver IEMs.

 

Tonality –

Similar to my impression with other 4490-based sources, the M2X creates a well-balanced listen with a slight warmth and smoothness. To reiterate, the differences are not enormous but can be appreciated upon AB with other sources. I used the single-ended output for the purpose of review except where otherwise stated.

 

Bass –

Lows extend well, lacking the last iota of kick provided by more powerful sources, but delivering ample slam and tightness for a midrange portable. Nonetheless, sub-bass sits slightly behind permitting the mid-bass more room to breathe. A slight mid-bass bump creates a warmer tone and enlarged bass notes. As such, the M2X does not have a neutral or hyper-defined low-end, but it is euphoric and musical. Decay is natural and control is impressive for the price and form factor if still producing a slightly smoother texture on most gear. Still, the M2X has does not skip over any details.

 

Mids –

The midrange is smooth and a very slight warmth permeates from the bass. Vocals are nonetheless clear and presence is accurate. Its smoother character is derived from that low-end warmth while clarity is retained via excellent upper-midrange extension. Nonetheless, the M2X remains sufficiently dense and it has plenty of body. The result is organic, slightly full-bodied vocals while retaining a high level of transparency as the tone is not overly skewed. As lower-treble is neutral, vocal articulation is spot-on and the M2X impresses with its rich yet natural vocal presentation.

 

Highs –

Most impressive is the M2X’s treble extension, delivering excellent resolution and detail retrieval. It isn’t quite as resolving as TOTL DAPs, of course, however, listeners are rewarded with ample detail presented in a smooth manner. Meanwhile, the background is clean and dark, providing great contrast and distinct layering. There is plenty of micro-detail present and no truncation of sparkle in the highest registers. The M2X may lack the foreground treble instrumentation texture of TOTL gear, but its sound remains highly detailed.

 

Soundstage –

With very solid treble extension, the M2X has wonderful soundstage expansion for a midrange DAP. Width, in particular, is truly excellent. No, not TOTL quality, but it can extend beyond the head like a more expensive player. Depth, however, is not so flattered though it is adequate. Meanwhile, imaging is interesting, compared to my reference source, the DX220, the presentation is pushed laterally, robbing the sound of a solid centre image. Vocal positioning is slightly hazy, and though instruments are pushed wide, they are easy to locate and pinpoint. Great separation is afforded by its large soundstage despite the slight warmth of its sound.

 

Pairings –

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iBasso IT01 ($100): A snappy single DD IEM and popular entry-level. The IT01 is well-serviced by the M2X, bass is well-controlled with just a little smoothness through the mid-bass. Meanwhile, sub-bass is a hair reduced which helps to balance out this IEM. Highs are well-detailed and well-bodied, but a touch smoother in the foreground. The soundstage is wide and well-separated though depth is more intimate.

Fiio FH5 ($250): The Fiio is a hybrid with a low 12ohm impedance. Signature was identical to my other low impedance sources through the single-ended output. Sub-bass extension was moderate and the sound, balanced overall. Highs were very detailed while bass became slightly cleaner as compared to my desktop setup, redeeming greater definition. Overall control and resolution were strong, delivering a punchy, concise and well-balanced sound.

Campfire Audio Andromeda ($1099): A venerable multi-BA IEM renowned for its temperamental matchability on behalf of its extreme sensitivity and low impedance. The M2X delivered an exemplary pairing here. Bass extension is moderate, but it is controlled and musical. Mids are slightly warmer which aids body, and the sound is overall, pacey and detailed. Highs are slightly smoothed which suits the Andro’s lower-treble peak. The soundstage is very open, width is excellent and depth is strong too, imaging is sharp and precise.

Hifiman Sundara ($400): A full-sized planar magnetic headphone. The Sundara actually sounded quite terrific out of the M2X. Compared to my desktop Khadas Tone Board + JDS Atom setup, it was immediately evident that the Shanling did not have the same sub-bass extension and slam, but bass was well-controlled and highs were well detailed. The desktop setup provided a generally fuller and smoother sound while the M2X was crisp but also slightly brittle. Still, a tremendous effort for a compact source. The soundstage also impressed, especially imaging and width, while depth was noticeably more intimate.

 

Comparisons –

Shanling M0 ($100): Though the M0 is a mightily good hyper-portable, users are likely curious what they are stepping up to with the larger M2X. The M2X has more dimension to its sound and it generally sounds more transparent and refined. The M0 is slightly bassier down-low, while the M2X is more controlled and delivers a tighter impact. The M2X has more transparent vocals and greater upper-midrange extension where the M0 is warmer but also sounds slightly veiled by comparison. Both sound similar up top, the M0 being slightly more energetic while the M2X has better separation and greater detail retrieval. The M2X immediately has a wider soundstage, both have similar depth, but the more balanced M2X has greater separation.

Fiio M7 ($200): The M7 is a similarly sleek device, taller but slimmer. The M7 has a generally smoother sound while the M2X is slightly more engaging and textured. The Shanling has a slightly softer sub-bass, but its mid-bass has better definition. Both are similarly tuned down-low besides the sub-bass, though the M2X strikes as being more controlled and it is cleaner in terms of tone overall. The midrange presentation is also similar, the M2X is slightly clearer with better extension while the M7 is slightly warmer and denser. Up top, the M2X is more detailed and this is mostly apparent with strings that have more texture and body than the M7. The M2X has an immediately wider soundstage and superior separation.

 

Verdict –

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The M2X is one of the most impressive midrange DAPs I’ve tested recently on behalf of its well-rounded design and performance. Undoubtedly, the device is a looker with build quality that belies its asking price much like the smaller M0 before it. The UI is intuitive and fluid, the device also has a high screen to body ratio than previous Shanling DAPs granting it a more modern aesthetic. The controls are intuitive and the addition of a balanced output brings real benefits to power output and, to my ear, soundstage. I am especially enamoured by this DAP’s sound; its clean background and hint of inviting warmth and smoothness that makes it perfect for long listening sessions. And yet, its presentation does not falter under scrutiny, revealing a resolving presentation with a wide soundstage. The M2X excels not on by a single merit, but the combination of many, making it an easy recommendation at its asking price.

The Shanling M2X is available from Amazon (International) for $219 USD at the time of writing. Please see my affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.

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