The M3X is Shanling’s latest Android Hi-Res based portable digital audio player (DAP) which aims to capture the interest of the entry to mid-level arena. The compact $399 DAP makes use of an ESS Sabre ES9219C DAC/amp combo (a latest generation of a popular chip employed in both the M0 and UP4 models).
The Shanling M3X is the successor to the M3s and M3 DAPs and now comes with enhanced battery life, a new-gen 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor and a switch between single or dual DAC mode. Designed as a scaled down version of Shanling’s flagship M8 DAP, the M3X will no doubt be of interest to fans of the already respected audio brand.
The packaging of the Shanling M3X is very clean and sports a blue/white color combination with an outer white insert and slide out blue box. Inside, users are greeted with the M3X DAP itself resting on a foam insert. Included beneath is a standard USB cable, user manual as well as preinstalled and extra screen protectors.
Unfortunately, you will not find the innovative interchangeable headphone sockets that come with the Shanling M8 but that is to be expected at this price point. The leather case also needs to be purchased separately – while it offers a nice and striking blue design it would have been nice if this was included in the original packaging.
The Design & Build
Shanling have borrowed design elements from their very own flagship M8 DAP to create a scaled down player. The overriding rounded aesthetics coupled with the indented grooves aid ergonomics really pay homage to the Shanling house look. This time, however, the DAP is more wieldy to single-hand use compared with its elder brother. Further similar traits include the right-sided positioning of the scroll volume wheel and rear glass panel with the Shanling logo and Hi-Res certifications.
On the top of the device, users have a choice between single-ended 3.5 mm connection or the balanced 4.4 mm out. This lies in stark contrast with the minimalist single port on the original Shanling M8 which can be niftily switched between 2.5 mm, 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm topologies with the dial tool.
It is interesting that the larger Shanling M8 sports this innovation in order to save space whereas the more compact Shanling M3X has completely foregone this feature (perhaps in order to push price down).
On the right of the device is the all-familiar volume scroll wheel which is purposefully positioned at the natural resting point of the thumb allowing for easy ergonomic tampering of volume levels.
On the left of the device, there are three distinct function keys allowing users to choose between next, previous and play/pause functionalities. The buttons are tactile and easily decipherable by touch allowing easy adjustments when not in direct sight. The same indented grooves aids overall handleability of the DAP.
At the bottom of the DAP, the M3X hosts a USB/DAC port as well as a single micro SD card slot (supporting up to 2TB of storage).
True to its form, the Shanling M3X weighs a relatively lightweight 168 grams which manages to shave around half the weight of the M8 DAP. Despite this, the M3X still retains a similar premium quality feel.
Despite its relatively smaller size, the Shanling M3X incorporates a relatively large 4.2-inch IPS Touch Screen display with 1280 x 768 resolution and 356 pixels per inch. The screen is overall great quality with good viewing angles and sharp quality. It is not the standard aspect ratio but this does make it much easier to use with a single hand.
Though its not a fully bezel-less display, the screen does occupy a large proportion of the device. Of course, DAPs such as these do not compare to the UltraHD standards of modern-day smartphones but this should be the case considering audio quality and battery life should be more important considerations.
The User Interface
Like the Shanling M8, the M3X is an Android-based DAP running on the latest Nougat OS (version 7.1.1). This allows users to obtain the all-familiar experience of the Android experience while also allowing the option of running in ‘Prime’ mode. The ‘Prime’ mode is a stripped back version with a ‘music-first’ approach incorporating 6 categories including: ‘Hi-Res’, ‘All Songs’, ‘All Songs’, ‘Album’, ‘Playlist’, ‘Artist’ & ‘Folder’.
The AGLO (Android Global Lossless Output) Technology is still very much present allowing music from 3rd party apps to be processed correctly at native sample rates. Where some DAPs have previously restricted the use of Play Store, it is nice that users are able to get this from stock rather than downloading .apk files.
On daily use, the Shanling M3X is overally zippy and smooth in its performance with no jitter experienced with scrolling or app loading. Since it is an Android-based DAP, it may not have the fastest load times as Lotoo’s PAW 6000 but is still decent nevertheless.
The Shanling M3X incorporates new gen chips from ESS which is a stark departure from their previous AKM DAC chips. Part of the reason for this move has been due to the AKM DAC supply being affected following a recent fire in the AKM factory in Japan.
However, the new ESS ES9219C DAC/amp chips are extremely efficient enabling superior battery life. In addition, the chips have no additional circuitry since they include a dedicated headphone amplifier circuit and a final output stage. As a result, the ESS Sabre chips function with both DAC & amp capabilities and operate in dual-mono configuration.
Large capacity tantalum capacitors for the audio circuit were chosen for its enhancing effects on the lower frequency profile and two Japanese KDS active crystal oscillators for an improved accuracy, decoding capacity and reduction of overall jitter. The M3X is a bit of decoding powerhouse with its ability to render 32-bit 384 kHz PCM files, native DSD256 as well as having the potential to natively unfold and decode MQA files.
For its smooth performance, an octa-core Snapdragon 430 processor is running under the hood of the M3X with 2 GB of RAM & 32 GB of ROM in its arsenal. As for its wireless capabilities, the Shanling M3X supports two-way Bluetooth connection with supports for AptxHD and LDAC.
Shanling have opted for a relatively subdued 3200 mAh battery for the M3X. While this may seem smaller compared to the trend for larger batteries, it has been an overall wise decision considering the highly efficient ES9219 DAC/amp topologies and the portable form factor. As a result, the M3X achieves a staggering 23 hours when the single DAC is used and 20 when dual DACs are employed. This no doubt eclipses quite a majority of other Android-based DAPs in this size and form factor.
Even with the ESS DAC implementation, Shanling have avoided a ‘digital’ sound with glare and treble sheen. However, this is not the rich analog sound you will find in the flagship Shanling M8. Instead, the M3X presentation conveys a largely balanced sound which is linear throughout with some retention of musicality.
This can typically be seen in the midrange and bass frequencies where some even harmonic tones add to a rounded and smooth signature. There is some treble lift which is especially evident in the ‘Dual DAC’ mode which add some transparency and greater level of resolve in the overall sonic soundscape.
Where the Shanling M8 possesses great visceral depth and authority in its bass, the M3X is much more modest in this aspect. Here, the low frequencies decay faster and there is more of a linear approach with no elevation of sub-bass compared to mid-bass and vice versa. Having said this, while the M3X does not dig particularly deep in its bass, the body coupled with the texture and decay do give tracks a pleasant underlying rhythmic character.
An example of this is in ‘Sativa’ by Jhene Aiko & Swae Lee, where the more modest delivery of bass complement the overlying vocals and accompanying instruments. For those who yearn for deeper and more authoritative bass, the M3X may not suffice.
The midrange, akin to the bass, is linear with a touch of lushness to keep things from sounding clinical or dry. Like a lot of their line-up, the Shanling M3X’s midrange offers a great tone and timbre. There are some subtle differences between the ‘Single DAC’ & ‘Dual DAC’ modes where the former presents a slightly ‘slower’ sound with more smoothness and body whereas the latter presents a slightly ‘faster’ sound with a tilt towards an analytical signature.
While the treble is proficiently snappy with its speedy decay, there is a bit of roll-off present compared to some more expensive DAPs. This does limit its potential in tracks which call for more sparkle and air. Again, the ‘Dual DAC’ is better in this regard compared to the ‘Single DAC’ mode which conveys the more relaxed sound.
The M3X does not possess the largest of soundstage dimensions, though there is a generally good degree of instrument separation. Balanced mode does widen the landscape further but in general, the M3X does not deliver a ‘desktop’ level performance. However, this is to be expected at its price point and some may argue that it would be harsh to compare this with its flagship brother.
Cayin N3Pro ($479)
The Cayin N3Pro is a hybrid DAP implementing dual AKM4493 chips & a JAN6418 vacuum tube. Like the Shanling M3X, the N3Pro offers users the ability to switch between tonalities. The differences in the N3Pro ‘switches’ are more evident, however, with its solid-state and tube modalities. In all modalities, the N3Pro offers a warmer sound compared to the M3X.
This difference is substantiated in the N3Pro tube mode compared to the solid-state of the M3X. While the M3X is not the most analytical and ‘hyper-clean’ sounding DAP, it comes across as more energetic with better instrument separation than the N3Pro. However, the N3Pro achieves better musicality with its euphonic vocals and more impactful bass.
DethonRay Prelude DTR1 ($599)
The DethonRay Prelude DTR1 is a ‘no-thrills’ DAP which implements a sound-first approach with a focus on its clean power circuitry. Compared to the Shanling M3X, the DTR1 boasts better micro- and macro-dynamic slam. It is a highly dynamic DAP and certainly takes no prisoners here compared with the M3X. However, a downside to the DTR1 is its relatively narrow soundstage which is bested by the M3X. The DTR1, owing to its audio circuitry, is able to drive more power-hungry headphones and hence scales better in this regard compared to the M3X. User interface wise, the M3X is the obvious choice here with touchscreen capabilities and its Android OS.
The Shanling M3X carves out its own little niche in the DAP arena with its beautifully ergonomic form factor and feature-packed Android OS. The sound is also great for its price point and while it may not possess the widest of soundstages, it demonstrates a pleasant linear tone interspersed with technicality and punchiness.
Equipped with MQA playback, 2-way Bluetooth and speedy processor, the M3X is one of those most complete DAPs in the entry to mid-fi portable audio space. The DAP also plays well with a range of IEMs and boasts an incredibly vacant noise floor.
For all these reasons, the Shanling M3X is a true value for money proposition and certainly earns a place in our highly recommended DAPs list.
Shanling M3X Specifications
- System. Open Android 7.1, with AGLO.
- Screen. 4.2 inch, 1280 x 768.
- CPU. 8-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 430.
- Memory. 2GB RAM + 32 GB ROM.
- Hi-Res Audio. Up to PCM 32/384 & DSD256.
- MQA Support. Full unfolding, 16x.
- Outputs. 3.5mm jack Single Ended & 4.4mm Balanced.
- Wi-Fi. 2.4G / 5G.