A Leap Forward!
PROS: natural tonality with a finetuned higher resolution in upper frequencies (relative to M8), high output power, solid build, modular headphone sockets, large 6” screen with a small secondary display, fast performance of Android 10 and Snapdragon 665 SoC.
CONS: price, size, leather case is optional, hassle of dealing with modular sockets gon the go.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
After posting the review of Shanling M8, last year on Tw6, we continue to receive many questions about this audio player, clearly showing that popularity of this DAP remains strong. Today, many DAPs strive to achieve higher resolution, tilting the scale toward a more revealing side of tuning. Shanling house tuning does the opposite, going for a more organic natural tonality with a warmer analog sound. And it looks like it resonated quite well with many audiophiles. The only thing holding M8 back was a slower processor and older Android version which came up in many review comments and some Head-fi discussions.
Of course, Android performance is subjective, considering some audiophiles don’t even care about streaming and want just a pure audio playback. But you have to stay competitive in terms of hardware performance and considering that many other DAP releases already aligned themselves with Snapdragon 660 SoC and optimized Android 9. Shanling answered the challenge with M9, leapfrogging to 665 SoC and moving to Android 10. The release still features a dual AK4499 since Shanling had a reserve of these flagship AKM DACs, though there is a limit to how many units they can manufacturer until stock is depleted and M9 is refreshed.
After finishing my testing, I have been using M9 DAP for a few moths already, and it became a regular feature in many of my reviews, as part of the comparison and source pair up examples. Today, I’m ready to shine the spotlight on this latest Shanling flagship release with its own dedicated review.
Unboxing and Accessories.
The unboxing experience of M9 is nearly identical to its M8 predecessor. The only difference I noticed is when you remove the top of the box, the bottom has cutouts on the sides for an easier extraction of the wooden storage box. I mean, in theory it should be easier, while in practice it was the opposite in comparison to what I saw in M8 unboxing pictures. Of course, all just minor details, and the wooden storage box is still the star of the unboxing experience. While the design of the box is identical to the one which comes with M8, the color of M9 wooden box is lighter, with a color shade somewhere between M8 box and SP2000 box.
Inside this premium giftbox quality storage, you will find a foam tray with a precise cutout for M9 and a leather case for headphone interchangeable sockets. While I personally don’t use packaging boxes for long- or short-term DAP storage, this is something I wouldn’t mind keeping on my desk. Though, for storage in the box you would need to make extra room to fit M9 with its own case. Furthermore, since M9 also carried over interchangeable headphone socket design, previously introduced in M8, the included small leather case, sockets, and socket removal tool are identical, with the only exception of 3.5Pro (a rare 3.5mm TRRS balanced standard) having black plastic jack inlay instead of a red one like it was in M8. Other included accessories were a high quality usb-c cable with a braided jacket, and a plastic screen protector. My review unit already arrived with pre-installed tempered glass screen protector, or at least based on its thickness I assumed it was tempered glass.
The only remaining question, what about the leather case? While not included in a stock packaging, the leather case is optional, but I noticed that from day one Musicteck offers it for free with every purchase of M9, though I can’t speak for other retailers. The case has a very interesting exoskeleton design, with a stiff shell and leather surface on the outside (smooth, aged) and inside (soft, suede) that wraps around the DAP, enhancing its grip rather than offering a drop-down protection. I personally like this design with a big M-cutout on the back and large cutouts on the sides, and full opening at the top and the bottom. I like it because it enhances the grip without hiding the details of the chassis design. Not too many other options are available, and I few I’ve seen add bulk and hide the sexy body of M9. The only nitpicking here is having too little clearance around the volume wheel. It works, but the wheel does rubs against the edge of the case.
With dimensions of 152mm x 82mm x 22mm and the weight of 409g, there is no denial M9 is a big boy. But the slick design and the manageable thickness of the chassis keeps this DAP portable in my hand. For me personally, if I can easily wrap my hand around the DAP, I consider it to be portable, rather than transportable, though the length of M9 makes it no exactly pocket friendly.
Surrounded by aviation-grade aluminum body frame, the top of the DAP has edge-to-edge glass screen with a gorgeous 6” high resolution (2160 x 1080) display. With such a large display, it is always a challenge to come up with a more original design without looking like another phablet. I think Shanling done a great job to overcome this challenge, introducing rounded sides with a sculptured wave pattern exterior. At the same time, they kept a traditional 3-button transport control (play/pause and skip) on the left side and multi-function volume/power wheel on the right side.
M9 vs M8
The volume wheel is a low profile and, in addition to controlling the volume with a precise click action as you turn in, also functions as push-button to control the power with a long press or turn the display on/off with a short press. Above the wheel you have a status led. At the bottom you have usb-c port in the middle and a spring-loaded micro-SD card opening with a dust cover to the left. The top features a clean design with a single modular headphone port, the same interchangeable port introduced in M8. As a matter of fact, these modules are backward compatible between M8 and M9 since they feature the same interconnect socket.
I do like the idea of a modular headphone port design because I mostly use 4.4mm terminated IEMs. But I can also see it being a bit of a hassle for those who are on the go and need to switch between 4.4mm and 3.5mm jacks. But overall, it’s clever since some people still have 2.5mm cables, while others switched to 4.4mm. Some still use 3.5mm, especially with full size headphones, and maybe a few were curious about 3.5Pro balanced plug (a standard that went nowhere). Plus, Shanling mentioned they might look into the feasibility of XLR socket in the future. Anything modular allows you to futureproof your design, including being able to easily fix a malfunctioning headphone jack.
And speaking of another interesting engineering idea, Shanling raised the bar again in M9 design. They decided to introduce a secondary small OLED screen located in the notch of the screen at the top of the display, to show the time, charging status, volume, or sample rate. The secondary screen could be turned off or stay always on before M9 enters a standby mode. Or you can select to keep it synchronized when screen is on, or have it reversed when screen is off. I found this secondary screen to be very useful, especially when controlling the volume with a main display off while secondary one shows you the value as you adjusting it.
Under the hood.
As I already mentioned, M9 features the same flagship dual AK4499EQ DACs as M8, supporting hi-res sound up to 32bit/768kHz as well as DSD512 and MQA16x unfolding. M9 also utilizes the same amplifier architecture as in M8, including OPA1612 and BUF634 opamps and ADA4610 precision amp. But despite of the same amp components, the output power scaled up, with SE going from 260mW@32ohm to 460mW@32ohm, and BAL being boosted from 840mW@32ohm to 920mW@32ohm, while still maintaining less than 1ohm output impedance. The sound tuning was updated as well, covered in the next sound analysis section.
While some could argue that sound improvement is subjective and a matter of a personal taste, there is no question about a huge step forward in Android performance of M9 by going from Android 7.1, Snapdragon 430, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of internal storage (in M8) to Android 10, Snapdragon 665, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of internal storage (in M9). Using both DAPs side by side gives you a clear picture of a noticeable improvement, which I also confirmed in my testing with 2.5x score improvement when running AnTuTu 3D Benchmark test. Carried over were 2-way Bluetooth 5.0 support with Rx (LDAC, SBC) and Tx (LDAC, LHDC, aptX HD, aptX, SBC), and dual band 2.4G/5G Wi-fi (featuring Qualcomm WCN3980 chip).
As already mentioned, screen was upgraded from 5” 1080×1920 (M8) to 6” 2160×1080 (M9). The battery capacity was upgraded as well, going from 7000 mAh (M8) to 8350 mAh (M9) which results in the improvement of SE battery life going up to around 18hrs and BAL battery life going up to about 10hrs. You get a more noticeable improvement in battery life using SE port which is impressive considering SE output power almost doubled. And when it is time to recharge, you can take the advantage of a fast 18W (9V, 2A) charging speed using QC3.0 compatible chargers.
The advantage of Android 10 and fast Snapdragon 665 SoC processor is not only in improvement of user interface performance, but also compatibility with many apps that were optimized to perform better using later Android OS and faster processor. Of course, you are still at the mercy of 3rd party app developers, just like when Tidal updated their app early this year which broke its compatibility with M9 until Shanling had to fix it. I have tested M9 with many different streaming apps, everything worked great. Plus, if you want to switch the default Shanling playback app to something else, Google Play store gives you access to all of that.