For over 30 years, Shanling have continually pushed the boundaries of innovation with a series of global patented technologies in the portable audio space. While not as well-known their fellow adversary FiiO, their products have quietly impressed with many satisfied customers worldwide. Up until now, they have been solely targeting the mid-tier digital audio player scene with the Shanling M6 and M6 Pro. However, with the release of the all-new Shanling M8 DAP, the company aim to take a slice of the high-end DAP market.
The Shanling M8 is an Android-equipped DAP which incorporates dual AKM449EQ DAC chips, a snapdragon 430 CPU with 4 GB Ram processor, 64 GB of ROM and options for 2.5 mm BAL, 4.4 mm BAL, 3.5 mm SE and 3.5mm PRO outputs. Interestingly, they have employed a novel interchangeable socket feature which allows users to change between the different output options. The Shanling M8 retails for 1659 (USD/GBP/Euros) which places it direct competition with other audio players such as the Fiio M15 and Lotoo PAW 6000.
Shanling employs an outer box sleeve which has a multicolored glow in different lighting angles. A recurrent theme of late is the use of wooden hinged boxes for flagship DAPs and the Shanling M8 is no exception. Like the Fiio M15, the box comes in a walnut finish with golden hinges and foam inserts. The interchangeable headphone sockets come in their own high-quality leather pouch. Also included is a USB-B to USB-C cable, a warranty card, quick start guide and two screen protectors. While some companies have chosen to forgo the inclusion of a protective case, Shanling have not disappointed with their very own high-quality leather case.
The Design & Build
Shanling have always been front-runners with their design language and the M8 is certainly no exception to this rule. Machined from a block of aluminum, the Shanling M8 heralds a uniform design with the front-panel glass seamless integrated onto the top of the device with curved edges. The overall aesthetic is remarkably minimalist with only a single port, three buttons and a volume dial. This makes it a more elegant and seamless design than FiiO’s M15 which is comparatively more cumbersome.
On the top of the device, Shanling have incorporated a novel concept of interchangeable headphone sockets. The purpose of this being twofold; a cleaner and more minimalist interface and the second being the consumption of less internal space. Shanling have included 4 different sockets: a single-ended 3.5 mm with the rest being 2.5 mm, 4.4 mm and 3.5 mm balanced topologies. Changing between the sockets can easily be done with the included dial tool which latches onto each socket before you are able to pull it out. Each subsequent socket can then simply slide into the port. Some may describe this feature to be overkill but this type of innovation where form truly follows function should only be highly praised.
The left side of the device houses three buttons which function as ‘next track’, ‘previous track’ as well as ‘play/pause’. Each of the buttons are evenly spaced apart and can be tactically distinguished from each other when not in sight. Shanling have also improved ergonomics by placing the set of buttons in an indented groove for quicker access. A similar groove can also be seen on the right side of the device for improved device handleability. At the top of the right side, there is a volume dial which also functions as a power on/off button.
At the bottom of the DAP, the M8 hosts a USB/DAC port as well as a single micro SD card slot (supporting up to 2TB of storage) on top of the existing 64 GB of onboard storage.
Though the M8 is a sturdy DAP, it is relatively weighty at 342 grams which does slightly compromise overall portability of the DAP. However, it is a premium feeling DAP which lives up to its price tag.
While DAPs tend to compromise screen quality in favor of sound, the M8 abides by modern standards with its 1080P Full-HD 5” IPS-panel touch screen. The screen has great viewing angles and an overall sharp quality. It is not a fully bezel-less display but does occupy a significant amount of body real-estate. The M8 supports high levels of brightness and is effectively visible in outdoor lighting conditions and sunlight.
The User Interface
The Shanling M8 is an Android-based DAP running on the latest Nougat OS (version 7.1.1). Users have the choice to run the M8 in either ‘Prime’ or ‘Android’ mode. The ‘Prime’ mode is a stripped back version which runs the Shanling Music Player with 6 categories including ‘Hi-Res’, ‘All Songs’, ‘Album’, ‘Playlist’, ‘Artist’ & ‘Folder’. The Android mode is a familiar mode which allows users to run the M8 similar to the smartphone experience. The Shanling Music App is very intuitive to use with the ability to transfer music wirelessly as well a 10-band equalizer to tweak sound output.
By default, there is a Play Store where streaming apps such as Tidal, Spotify & Deezer can be downloaded. The M8 uses a proprietary technology (Android Global Lossless Output) to allow third party apps to run at their respective native sample rate. This allows music to play directly from the inbuilt audio circuitry circumventing the Android SRC and hence reducing interference.
Overall, the M8 is very fast and smooth with no jitter experienced when scrolling or loading up apps. It does not have as fast a boot up time as Lotoo’s PAW 6000 which uses its own custom linux-based OS. However, the convenience is second to none with the all-familiar Android interface and options for streaming.
Like FiiO’s M15, the Shanling M8 incorporates two AK4499EQ DAC chips in a dual-mono configuration. The chipset is the flagship product of AKM’s DACs and are often seen in desktop applications. Since they are current-driven, they do require larger power consumption and need for heat dissipation. Shanling M8 have overcome these two drawbacks with their own graphite cooling system as well as 7000 mAH of battery capacity. It is important to note that there has been a shortage of AKM’s DACs since a fire broke out at AKM’s factory in Japan. While the M8 currently ships with the dual AK4499EQ configuration, users should be on the lookout as Shanling may wish to switch to ESS Sabre DACs later this year due to these shortages.
Since the AKM499EQ DAC chipset output current, Shanling have redesigned the I/V conversion stage with the use of high-quality components to achieve a high-fidelity sound. They have implemented a high speed voltage feedback amplifier (ADA4896-2) along with high precision thin film resistors and high accuracy Tantalum-Polymer capacitors. To keep this all in check, the Shanling M8 comes with two Japanese KDS crystal oscillators with 3rd generation FGPA to reduce overall jitter and improve accuracy of the clock algorithm for the DAC.
For the amplifier themselves, Shanling have recruited the help of Texas Instruments OPA1662 opamps as well as JFET high-current amplifier and a BUF634A buffering stage. The end result being a sound which preserves the tonality of the M8 while delivering serious power for dynamic and planar headphones.
The M8 can also function as a true Hi-Fi USB DAC with Hi-Res support all the way up to 32 bit / 768 kHz and native DSD512. For this, Shanling have used the Xmos XUF208 USB Interface for a cleaner audio output out of a PC. A Qualcomm CSR8675 Bluetooth chip supports two-way LDAC lossless Bluetooth as well as SBC, aptX, aptX-HD, LDAC and HWA codecs.
Underlying the Android OS, the M8 runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 430 Octa-core processor with 4GB of RAM and 64 GB of ROM. The end result being a smooth and fluid user interface which keeps up with the modern smartphone experience. As if this was not enough, the Shanling M8 comes equipped with 5G Wi-Fi ready capability to allow for smooth streaming without interferences or drop-outs.
The Shanling M8 uses a relatively large capacity battery of 7000 mAh which is the same as Cayin N8 but slightly less than Fiio M15’s 7490 mAh battery. The M8 can last up to an impressive 14 hours of continuous playback from single-ended output and 9 hours balanced. Though the M8 incorporates ‘Quick Charge 3.0’, the M8 does fully charge the device within 3 hours which still may not be as fast compared to modern smartphone devices or more simpler DAPs.
From initial sound impressions, the Shanling M8 abandons the ‘traditional’ flagship sound where neutrality and a hyper-clean sound typically reign. Instead, the M8 favors a slightly colored sound with enhanced mid-bass, rich macro-dynamism and full sounding notes.
Where some lesser DAPs compromise resolution and detailing for this type of sound, the Shanling M8 artfully combines the best of technicality and musicality. Rather than details being presented upfront with ultra-high resolution and short decay, the Shanling M8 presents the same details with more ebb & flow and natural decay. It is incredibly impressive when source components are able to output high transparency and resolution without resorting to enhanced treble contrasting or artificially sharp-leading transients.
In “Astronaut In The Ocean” by Masked Wolf, the M8 handles the bass with effortless prowess. Sub-bass extends deep with both visceral depth and authority. Mid-bass is more elevated than the sub-bass and there is a fantastic sense of rhythm and musicality. Just as bass notes appear with immediacy they also disappear in the next instant highlighting the M8’s capabilities of a powerful yet refined low-end.
The midrange continues in the same vein as the low-end with notes sounding full, fleshed out and smooth. The overall tonality does possess some hints of warmth but is highly transparent at the same time with impeccable micro- and macro-dynamic swing. Though the midrange is slightly forward in the mix, the soundscape is very layered with great depth and separation.
The treble is extensive, detailed and linear given its smooth and refined performance. It is not a DAP which commands a lot of sparkle or air but simultaneously is neither dark-sounding or veiled. Again, it is an effortless performance which is very fatigue-free and pleasing to the ear.
The Shanling M8 has a deep black background and pairs well with a wide variety of monitors and headphones including 64 Audio Tia Fourte, Campfire Audio Solaris 2020, HiFiMAN HE-R10D, HiFiMAN Deva & Focal Stellia. At no point, was their any hiss or lack of power. The interchangeable headphone sockets worked a charm with balanced cables and the ‘Turbo Gain’ allowed more demanding IEMs and headphones to be driven with ease.
The FiiO M15 is the closest direct competitor to Shanling’s flagship M8. Both DAPs employ a dual AKM4499EQ DAC chipset with the use of powerful opamps and crystal oscillators. However, the tonality is quite different with the Shanling M8 being the more musical sounding DAP whereas the FiiO M15 sounding inherently more analytical. Both do share great extension of sub-bass with the M8 having more palpable impact and depth. The M8 sounds decisively fuller and more analog while still retaining similar levels of transparency and resolve as the M15. Up top, the M15 pushes more sparkle and air to tracks with that ‘traditional’ flagship DAP sound. However, the M8 is more laidback in this region with a less extensive albeit more fatigue-free treble performance. Both DAPs are powerful and can adequately drive full-sized headphones with ease.
Lotoo PAW 6000
The Lotoo PAW 6000 employs a single AKM AK4493EQ DAC chipset compared to the dual AKM AK4499EQ architecture of the Shanling M8. The Lotoo PAW 6000 is much more tonally transparent DAP which adds little in the way of coloration to transducers. The M8 is comparatively more analog sounding with its denser mid-bass, thicker notes and more musical sound. The PAW 6000 renders more apparent micro-details with an imaging that hosts excellent separation. While the M8 is more layered, it does not have the same pinpoint localization of cues that the PAW 6000 has. However, the M8 is more expansive in its soundscape with large projection of cues in the elements of width and depth. Of the two, the PAW 6000 is decisively more articulate with more shimmer and air in the treble frequencies.
The Cayin N8 is Cayin’s flagship hybrid digital audio player which utilises dual AK4497EQ DAC chips next to the Shanling M8’s AK4499EQ. The two form an interesting point of comparison as they are both more musically tuned compared to the FiiO M15 and Lotoo PAW 6000. Both the N8 and M8 share fantastic macro-dynamic abilities with powerful dynamism and notes with an overall weightier presence. The two sounds are slightly different however with the Cayin N8 possessing a more liquid and euphonic tone next to the M8’s more analog tonal character. While the N8 has an elevated bass presence, the M8’s is more captivating with both guttural depth and impact. Up top, the Cayin N8 does have a bit more extension to its treble which is softened with harmonic distortion in the tube mode. Generally, the Shanling M8 provided the more fatigue-free listen with its controlled and refined top-end. Imaging wise, the Cayin N8 possessed the larger soundstage with an overall more encompassing sound.
The Shanling M8 is an outstanding DAP with its own unique flair – a rich and mature sound with full-bodied tonality and dynamism. The dual AK4499EQ paired with the op-amp combo really delivers a musically-primed sound with fantastic balance amidst a pitch black background. Shanling have not taken any compromises either when it comes to functionality and the M8 supports streaming from all the familiar services out there including Spotify, Tidal and Deezer. For all these reasons, the Shanling M8 undoubtedly deserves to take a seat in our all-time best digital audio players list. While it is not the cheapest DAP out there, consumers looking to uphaul there portable audio collection should seriously consider the M8 to drive the very best of IEMs all the way up to full-sized headphones. With the release of this flagship product, the M8 has really placed Shanling on the map as a world-class contender in the digital audio player arena.
Shanling M8 DAP Specifications:
- DAC: Dual AK4499 DAC Chipset
- PCM Decoding: up to 32Bit/768kHz
- DSD Decoding: up to DSD512 Native
- Output Power (Balanced): up to 840mW @ 32Ohm.
- Output Power (Single-ended): up to 260mW @32Ohm.
- Internal memory: 64GB
- Battery size: 7000mAh