Under the Hood.
As I indicated before, I was initially a little skeptical about the M8 because I have previously seen DAPs with on paper excellent specs, only to find out the implementation of the different components was suboptimal. The M8 immediately draws attention to its dual AK4499EQ flagship DAC chips and often times people don’t look beyond that. However, implementation is key to getting the most out of those DAC chips.
Shanling clearly have done the work to optimize performance of the DAC chips and every other component they have included, the sound is testament to that. I am not one to dissect the circuitry, as I am more concerned with what it sounds like and how it works in practice, but you can find details on the internal tech on Shanling’s website. Some key features are a newly developed current-to-voltage conversion stage and a graphite cooling system that dissipates warmth through the chassis of the M8. That does mean the M8 can run quite warm if pushed to the maximum of its performance. I found no real issues even after streaming lossless music for several hours and the M8 in its leather case. It was just slightly warm to the touch. That will likely be different with something like MQA in combination with a lot of screen time.
The M8 is a very powerful DAP capable of putting 840 mW at 32 Ohms out of its balanced out. Single ended, although connected at the same socket, automatically uses different circuitry and is limited to 260 mW at 32 Ohms. I did some tests with my most sensitive IEMs, the Empire Ears Phantom and Campfire Audio Ara, and both showed no signs of any noise. Three gain settings also help to adjust to whatever IEMs or headphones you might connect. Perhaps the M8 won’t do hard to drive planar or high impedance dynamic driver headphones, I was not in a position to test it because I don’t have a balanced cable for my HD650 yet, but I expect a lot of full size headphones will work just fine from the balanced out.
The M8 is without doubt a power-hungry DAP, but thanks to a 7,000 mAh battery it is possible to get up to 9 hours of playback while using the balanced out. In my experience that is about accurate, although I used the screen and WiFi a lot, which decreased battery life a bit. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised by the battery life, which is usually a pet peeve of mine ever since I stopped using my old Sony that came with an insane 30 hours of battery life.
The M8 is an open Android-based DAP with at its core the Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor with 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of internal memory. Shanling have developed the M8 with what they call their AGLO system, which stands for Android Global Lossless Output, that allows all apps to fully benefit from the M8’s sound quality without Android dragging it down. One thing to note here is that the M8 is based on Android 7.1 and that is starting to feel like it is getting on a bit. I mean this in the sense that some apps might possibly not support it anymore in the near future. I am really not sure about that because I don’t know how such cycles work, but it would have felt better if it were a newer version. For a DAP in this price range I hope they might be able to update this to a newer version at some point, just to get more milage out of the DAP should app support become an issue. Then again, popular streaming services such as Tidal still support Android 6, so it likely won’t be an issue any time soon either and maybe I am just being a little bit of a digital hypochondriac.
Booting up the M8 immediately tells me that it is an Android-based DAP because it is a lot slower than the pure music DAPs I am used to. In fact, both switching on and off takes a fair amount of time more than I am used to, although still a lot better than my Android phone. Once up and running though the M8 feels fast and smooth.
The interface will be familiar to anyone who owns an Android-based DAP or phone. It has the familiar drop down menu with a number of quick access buttons such as for the gain setting, audio settings, mode (Android or Prime), headphone out/line out, switching between DAP and USB DAC and things like WiFi/BT/AirPlay. The settings menu is also fairly standard for Android and so is easy to navigate. Also available on the home screen’s bottom right corner is a button for support that will take you to a menu from where you can easily update the firmware, find the user guide, an FAQ and details for contacting Shanling. I really appreciate that menu.
For playing music the main interface will be Shanling’s own Music app. While you can opt for a distraction-less Prime mode, that mode is essentially just the Shanling Music app running outside of the Android environment. The M8 will boot up in Prime mode if you switch it off with Prime mode active and so the M8 can feel more like a pure music player. Beyond that there is no difference in the interface when playing music.
The Shanling Music app is nice to use, but in my opinion fairly basic and with a few refinements still needed. For one, I had issues with it not loading my music library properly. Shanling explained this had to do with how the library is loaded soon after booting up the M8 and their software team is working on ironing that out. Another feature that I usually did not worry about, but found myself missing while listening to classical music, was gapless playback. This too Shanling told me is a high priority for the software team. The app itself works smoothly and offers basic functions, including a 10-band equalizer with three custom settings and a few presets.
Of course, being open-Android, the M8 will allow you to install any third-party app you might prefer instead of Shanling’s own Music app.
The Shanling M8 now comes with something very important, full Google Play store support. That means you can buy and use all the apps to their full extent. I usually don’t really use any of them, but with the M8 I ended up using several.
Because the Shanling Music app did not yet offer gapless playback, I tried out several apps as alternatives: Neutron, Hiby Music and FiiO Music. I bought Neutron on my phone and it took a little while to figure out how to activate it on the M8, there is a setting in Neutron that needs to be activated before other devices will allow Neutron to install without having to pay twice. Nothing to do with the M8, just Neutron being weird. Both Neutron and FiiO had functional gapless playback, but unfortunately Neutron had a terrible waterfall hiss that made it unusable. Hiby offers gapless in theory, but that did not work consistently and I could not figure out what was causing it, as a friend had no such issues on his Shanling M6. In the end I ended up using the FiiO app for whenever I needed gapless.
For the first time I also got a subscription to a streaming service called Idagio, which specializes in classical music and offers lossless streaming in their Premium+ subscription. I have used it extensively and never had issues with streaming. The M8’s WiFi worked well to keep up with it and the only problems I encountered were with the Idagio app itself, which kept crashing every time I was browsing and listening at the same time. Apparently, the app is not much of a multi-tasking talent.
Video playback using YouTube was great, as the M8 has such a nice crisp and vibrant screen. It also takes advantage of the AGLO system to get the best possible sound quality.
All-in-all I found myself using the M8’s full Android features a lot more than expected and did not run into too many problems. For Neutron it might simply be that the app is not yet compatible with the M8, where the M6 and M6 Pro are already listed as supported.