The 2001 invention of iPods was a brilliant thing. Suddenly you were able to listen to your own music library on the go. With the appearance of smartphones and their ability to store your music library, this kind of specialised portable music player initially disappeared from the shelves. For some years now, however, they have been made a comeback, offering a wealth of technical possibilities that are almost as good as home stereo systems, focusing on increased sound quality. Has the portable music player’s time come again?
The little-known manufacturer Shanling is no stranger to the hi-fi scene. The Chinese company was founded in 1988 and has been developing high-end hi-fi products ever since. Their wide range of products includes tube amplifiers, high-end CD players, headphones and, for some years now, portable players. The unit we reviewed is based on the flagship M8 but has smaller dimensions and a lighter weight.
High demands are placed on a portable music player since it has to be able to compete with the ubiquitous smartphone. On the one hand, it must be robust enough for daily use and be able to survive minor knocks and even being dropped. At the same time, the size should be compact, and the weight should be low enough to fit in a trouser pocket. And finally, it needs to be able to play as many audio formats as possible, has high-resolution codecs and offer “lossless” cable operation.
The M3X comes in a classy-looking box that resembles a book slipcase. Padded on the inside with hard but velvety foam, it is suitable for safe transportation, and contains, among other things, a connection cable and two protective films for the touchscreen, in addition to the device. I would have also liked a protective carrying case, but this is offered separately by the manufacturer.
The device itself is small, handy and compact, measuring 109 × 72 × 15.9 mm and weighing only 168 grams. At first glance, it is not possible to tell which side houses the touchscreen, as both have a glass panel. The device is completely made of black matt plastic with white writing or symbols to describe the connections and functions. The M3X looks classy, high quality and delivers an appealing design that immediately reminds me of a modern, more expensive edition of my old Apple iPod Classic.
The connections are on the short sides, while the transport and control functions are on the long sides. There is an unbalanced mini-jack (3.5 mm stereo) and a gold-plated 4.4 mm output for connecting balanced headphones. A USB-C port is used for data transfer, charging the powerful battery (3,200 mAh) and can be used as a D/A converter. There is also a slot for a memory card in microSD format. If you prefer an analogue feel, the 4.2-inch touchscreen (1280×768 pixels) has buttons for transport functions and easy-to-grip volume control. The latter reminded me of the winding mechanism of a mechanical wristwatch.
The M3X uses a customised version of Google Android 7.1 with built-in AGLO (Android Global Lossless Output) technology, which bypasses the typical Android limitations on playing audio files, allowing for high-quality conversion as an audio playback device. This ensures that, in addition to the manufacturer’s own player app, other music apps can also use the best possible playback quality. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor with eight processing cores, 2 GB RAM and 32 GB music memory is available to the small computer. The memory can be expanded to up to 2 TB via microSD card – this should house even the largest music collection. Furthermore, the Android user interface can also be used to run games or create and view a photo library. Many other applications are available via the Pure-APK app store. Tidal, for example, can also be found here.
The ESS Sabre ES9219C DAC/AMP is responsible for the essential conversion, and it is possible to switch between single and dual DAC mode. The latter mode uses the internal music player developed by Shanling and delivers the highest possible quality. The single DAC mode offers playback options via the above-mentioned Android user interface with reduced sampling frequency. The D/A converter processes linear PCM data with up to 32 bits and 384 kHz, DSD and DSD256 and also encodes the audiophile MQA codec hardware-based. In addition, the M3X is, of course, capable of playing many lossy formats such as AAC and MP3 (see “Technical Data”). Finally, external devices can be connected to the M3X via USB to use it as a high-quality D/A converter.
The wireless bi-directional connection to the outside world is made via the older Bluetooth standard 4.2. The LDAC and SBC codecs are supported on the receive side, and the LDAC, SBC, LHDC, aptX HD and aptX formats are on the transmit side. With the help of the player developed by Shanling, the 2.4 and 5 GHz WLAN network is used to access music files from a NAS server via DLNA. AirPlay and Synclink are also supported.
According to the manufacturer, the M3X offers a runtime of about 23 hours on a single battery charge when using the unbalanced interface (about 19 hours with a balanced interface). In practice, the player actually played non-stop for almost 22 hours with the unbalanced connection. This figure refers to pure music playback while using other apps changes the playing time as expected.
Lastly, there is the question of sound and added value compared to a smartphone. The neutral preamplifier Funk MTX Monitor served as a playback device for us to make direct comparisons. Other playback devices were a Cambridge Audio CXN V2 streamer/network player, a CD player (NAD 512) and a smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S7). The headphones selection was covered by models from Stax, Focal and Sennheiser. Last but not least, a Lavry DA11 was used for testing the converters.
To explore the sonic limits, the M3X was first put into Prime mode, which uses the built-in player and almost completely bypasses the Android operating system. In this mode, the player sounds particularly open in both directions of the frequency spectrum and overall more balanced and refined in its sound representation. In fact, the single-mode is more limited in comparison, with a subtle emphasis in the mid frequencies, more coarse-grained and less immediate. For this reason, the Dual DAC mode was chosen for all further tests.
In combination with different headphones, the headphone amplifier was able to supply all models with sufficient power due to its well-designed output power of 240 mW at 32 ohms. This manifests itself in a powerful sound image that was never too quiet. The player sounded particularly good in combination with the Stax headphones, which are also high-resolution and include a dedicated preamplifier.
The M3X is not a specialist for particular styles of music but is capable of reproducing all genres as they were recorded. Nothing is embellished, corrected or distorted here. However, you won’t hear an emphatically analytical sound. The powerful bass sounds warm, the finely structured mid-range is charming, and the open sound sparkles like the sun’s rays in a summer sea. In short, listening to music with the M3X is a lot of fun!
Drums sound spacious, tidy and evenly distributed over the entire frequency spectrum, basses push even the deepest notes forward powerfully, while voices sound vivid and lush. The mid-frequency range, which many instruments have to share, also sounds impressive. Here, the contours of the instruments are precisely drawn and finely graduated. The virtual stage that appears never sounds overly wide and also opens out a depth gradation in which the position in the room is clearly recognisable and delineated.
In direct comparison with a Samsung smartphone, the differences are clear and unmistakable. The virtual stage described collapses, the contours of the instruments blur, and there is a lack of airiness. Once you have listened to the M3X, you will not want to do without it.
Shanling continues its own tradition of high-resolution portable players with the M3X and delivers a sonically remarkable result. For an attractive price, the device offers high-resolution sound on the move, but it can also be used stationary with a hi-fi system. There it can serve as a high-quality player for an extensive music library with supplementary streaming services. Paired with high-quality in-ear headphones, hours of music enjoyment are guaranteed. With a recommended retail price of 339 euros, I can only make a special recommendation.
- Ear couplingAmplifier
- Frequency response (headphones)20 Hz - 40.000 kHz (-0,5 dB)
- Weight without cable168 g
What's in the box
- USB cable
- 2 protective foils for the touch screen
- BT codecs: LDAC, LHDC, aptX HD, aptX, SBC
- BT version: 4.2
- Supported files: DSF, DF, ISO, DXD, APE, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, AIF, DTS, MP3, WMA, ACC, OGG, ALAC, MP2, M4C, AC3, M3U, M3U8, OPUS, Iso (except DST)
- Dimensions: 109 mm x 72 mm x 15.9 mm
- Screen: 4.2 inch, 768 x 1280
- System: Open Android 7.1
- Hi-Res: Up to 32 bit/384 kHz & DSD 256
- Memory: 2 GB RAM + 32 GB ROM + microSD card slot
- Audio chip: ESS ES9219C x 2