Xcellent sound on a budget.
PROS: Great sound, good build quality, a good selection of up-to-date features, price.
CONS: UI is a little rough around the edges, only Tidal runs natively, sensitive on/off button, long library update times.
I would like to thank Shanling for providing me with the M2X in exchange for my honest opinion. No incentive was given for a favorable review.
M2X Specifications at a glance
- Screen: 3.2 inch touch screen with MTouch 2.0 system
- Dimensions: 98 x 60 x 16 mm
- Weight: 147 g
- Memory: Single micro SD card slot
- DAC: AKM AK4490EN
- Amp: 2 x AD8397
- Low-pass filter: TI OPA1612
- Decoding: PCM up to 32bit/384kHz, DSD up to DSD256
- Battery: 2400 mAh, fully charged in 2.5 hour
- Playback: 10.5 hours (SE), 7.5 hours (Bal)
- Output 3.5mm: 180mW(16Ω, high gain)/106mW(32Ω, low gain)
- Output 2.5mm: 212mW(16Ω, high gain)/120mW(32Ω, low gain)
- Output impedance: 1 Ohm (3.5mm), 2 Ohm (2.5mm)
- SNR: 117 dB (3.5mm), 116 dB (2.5mm)
- Channel separation: 70 dB (32 Ohm, 3.5mm), 107 dB (32 Ohm, 2.5mm)
- Bluetooth 4.2, two-way connection
- USB DAC function
- Price: US$219
Shanling is a Chinese Hi-Fi company that is well known these days for making high quality portable audio products at an affordable price point. I have had a few products of them in for review now and have been very pleased with what I have experienced. In fact, the Shanling M0 DAP has been, and still is, one of my favorite pieces of gear. I use it for training, commuting and any other time that I want great quality music with me while I do not have much more space available than the pockets of my jeans or a coat. So when the opportunity came to have a look at the M0’s bigger brother, the new M2X, I was very interested in seeing how it would compare.
Like the M0, the M2X came in a box with a white sleeve that included some basic information on it and images of the different color options available. It looks like the M2X has three options, black, titanium and red, whereas the M0 had a couple more with purple and blue as extra options. Removing the sleeve revealed the same classic mat black box with a glossy Shanling logo on it and it looks very nice, so no reason to change that. Popping the lid also popped out the very bright red M2X player contrasting sharply against the black background. Definitely a bit of a glamorous entrance there and although a strikingly beautiful color red, I am not sure if I have the right personality to carry it off. That’s just me being a little self-conscious, and hardly an issue as other color options are available. Included as well was a good quality USB-C cable and a very basic manual and warranty card. It is all very similar to the M0 and as I said in my review of that one, it is precisely what I would expect at this sort of price point. Also included for the purpose of this review was a matching red pleather case that will be offered as a separate item.
Design and build quality.
I have been a big fan of the design of the M0, which I thought was really well thought out and implemented. The M2X has the same sleek type of design with a few notable changes. The screen is now a 3.2 inch touch screen and the overall size has grown to 98 x 60 x 16 mm, which is very similar to my Astell & Kern AK70 (Mk I) be it a little thicker. I find this size very good for portable use and it feels perfect when I hold it in my hand either with the case or without. The right side still has only the volume button that doubles as on/off for both the screen (single push) and the device (hold). On the left side is the micro-SD card slot, which supports up to 2TB cards that is the only memory you will have (no on-board memory). On the same side the M2X also offers three physical buttons for playback control. On the bottom the USB port and 3.5mm headphone out have been joined by a 2.5mm balanced out.
The build quality I find really good and the way I usually measure that is by how much I feel the need to use a case. Shanling of course sent along a case and it is very nice, fits snugly and does not impede use except for the fact that the hole for the balanced out is not big enough to accommodate the plugs from my balanced cables by Effect Audio and PlusSound, two of the more popular brands of aftermarket cables. However, I have had no qualms about using the M2X without the case, which for instance is something I never liked doing with my AK70. The AK70 for some reason did not inspire the confidence I have with the M2X and that could simply be psychological, as the AK70 is very well built (mine has the dents and scrapes to prove it), but I tend to attribute it to the way the M2X is designed. The edges are nicely rounded, seams feel very smooth and it gives the impression of solidity. I still would not recommend dropping it from a roof or tossing it from a running start, but I feel it can take the type of light bumps that would occur with regular use and without babying it. It does look very nice though, so I would not be surprised if some people baby the M2X just to keep it in that pristine condition.
I said with the M0 that I thought it was an award winning-level of industrial design, and the M2X is very similar. It is a minimalist design, yet fully functional, and my only point of criticism would be that the on/off function of the volume dial is too sensitive. It is too easily pushed and responds quickly, meaning that I often accidentally turn it on while, say, removing it from its case, or turn on the screen while it is in my pocket. It seems to happen less with the M2X than the M0, but that could also be simply down to size because the M0 is so small it is very hard not to accidentally touch the dial. In the case of the M2X there is no risk though of the player accidentally turning off though, as it asks for confirmation after the off button is held for a few seconds. Still, I have had a few times where the M2X screen came on in my pocket and suddenly tracks started changing causing general confusion and mayhem in my brain.
Under the Hood.
While I am comparing the M2X with the M0 a lot because I have that one around, under the hood the M2X is said by Shanling to actually be much closer to their recently introduced flagship M5S. Not sure if that is indeed the case and I do not have the M5S to compare, but that one sports dual AK4493EQ DACs, while the M2X has a single AK4490EN DAC. The M2X also uses a single OPA1612 low-pass filter, rather than dual, and both use dual AD8397 op amps. Now, I am the last to claim I have any technical know-how, I am in this hobby as a music lover first, so I will simply state the specs as I know them and let the reader be the judge here.
Power output from the Single Ended (SE) out on low gain seems modest at 106mW into 32ohm, but switching to high gain does not add a heap of power either at 180mW into 16ohm. I understand that this is an intentional choice by Shanling in order to minimize noise. Using my Empire Ears Phantom, which are quite sensitive, I can indeed confirm that those have no issue with hiss whatsoever. The M2X really is a very clean DAP in terms of noise. I do question the reasoning here though, because I just end up using high gain all the time, as the volume level barely differs and it helps with more difficult to drive IEMs. Balanced too offers only a marginal improvement in power over SE with 120mW into 32ohm and 212mW into 16ohm. Here again I have had no issues with hiss of any kind and I just leave it on high gain, making the low gain function rather superfluous. Overall though I think this is really decent for a DAP at this price point and it is great that the M2X will play well with sensitive IEMs, while having enough power for more difficult to drive IEMs.