Shanling M0: M0 to Hero

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out the M0 from Shanling Audio.

Shanling is a well-versed audio company that has been developing products under one name or another since 1988. In the portable audio world, they are revered for their affordable, high quality audio players. My first introduction to the brand was through the M1, a tiny, feature rich player that I had on loan as part of a review tour. To my benefit, the Canadian leg of the tour consisted of me and only me, so I bought that tour unit from Shanling. I liked it too much and there was no way in heck it was leaving my possession. Fast forward over a year later and the M1 is still my primary player, though it’s little brother, the M0, has been accompanying me on my travels for the last few months.

The M0, announcer earlier this year (2018) basically took everything I loved the about the M1 and shrunk it down into an even more pint sized package. I was pretty darn impressed with everything Shanling crammed into the M1 without it feeling compromised, and they’ve done it again with the M0.

Let’s take a closer look at this miniature marvel of technology, shall we?

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Disclaimer:

A massive thank you to Frankie at Shanling for the wonderful communication and for arranging a sample of the M0 for the purposes of this review. The opinions within this review are my own based on my time with the M0 and do not represent Shanling or any other entity. No financial incentive was provided to write this review. At the time of writing, the M0 retailed for 109 USD.

You can check out the M0 here on their site; http://www.shanling.com/Product/Detail?id=f009f9f9c6304359a99bc7d0d51a7d46

Be sure to follow them on Facebook too so you can stay up to date on firmware and other product updates: https://www.facebook.com/Shanling-Audio-603230783166845/

This review is based on just shy of three months of near daily use of the M0.

What I’m looking for:

When it comes to portable amps and DAPS I take a pretty casual approach. If you’re looking for an in-depth look at this thing with measurement graphs going over THD, sine waves, etc. you’ll want to look elsewhere. None of that matters to me, nor do the components inside that make the device tick. All I really care about is ease of use, how well it can drive my headphones and earphones, and if they still sound good to me plugged into it. Great battery life is a bonus. So is above average build quality. This review will go over my subjective impressions and experiences with the M0 and how it has served me over the last month and a half.

Testing Sources/Devices:

USD DAC mode was testing with my ASUS FX53V laptop. Bluetooth was tested with a number of products; ADVANCED Evo-X, PlusSound EXOBT cable module, Radsone ES100, and the Optoma NuForce BE6i. For more general listening, it was paired with a wide variety of earphones, from the super sensitive like the Astrotec Delphinus5, to more demanding sets like the Havi B3 Pro I. Some headphones used for testing were the Brainwavz HM100, thinksound On2, and the Philips SHP9500S.

Specifications (from Shanling’s product page linked above):

  • Size: 40 x 13 x 45mm
  • Screen: 1.54 inch 240 x 240 high definition touch screen
  • Weight: ~33g
  • DAC model: ESS Sabre ES9218P
  • Battery Life: ~15 hours (depending on the use)
  • Standby: ~ 30 days (depending on the situation)
  • Charging time: ~ 2 hours
  • Battery capacity: 640mAH lithium battery
  • Storage: maximum support 512G TF Card
  • Output port: headset output (3.5 mm)
  • Output power: 80mw@ 32 ohms
  • Output impedance: 0.16 ohms
  • Channel separation degree: 70dB
  • Recommended earphone impedance: 8-300 ohms
  • Frequency Response: 20HZ~20KHz
  • Distortion: 0.004% (A-Weighting, output 500mV)
  • Signal to noise ratio: 118dB (A-Weighting)
  • Bottom noise: <3uV (high gain)
  • Format Support: DSF, DFF, ISO, DXD, APE, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, AIF, DTS, MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, ALAC, MP2, M4A, AC3
  • Bluetooth: SBC, AAC, aptX, LDAC (aptX not supported if being used as a receiver from another device, such as your cell phone)

Be sure to visit their product page for a more in depth spec list.

Packaging and Accessories:

The M0 comes in a reasonably compact package. At 13.5cm x 10cm x 4.5cm, it’s about as large as your average earphone package. The exterior sheath is mostly white with the M0 lineup and it’s various color adorning the front, surrounded by the usual branding for Hi-Res audio, various Bluetooth codex options, model information, and some stripes of color to lighten things up. It’s all very cheery. On the back you find a small listen of specification in nine languages, along with some contact and location information for Shanling.

Sliding off the sheath reveals a simple matte black box with Shanling printed in glossy back on the lid. A lot of companies have been doing this lately, but I like it. It looks classy and fairly upscale. Lifting the lid off reveals the M0 set within a dense, felt-coated foam insert. A ribbon is present, acting as a pull tab to remove the M0. Below is a smaller, Shanling branded cardboard box containing the fabric sheathed USB-C cable used for charging and the M0’s ability to act as an external sound card. I like this cable a lot more than the one that original came with the M1. Seems to be much, much more durable. In all you get:

  • Shanling M0
  • USB-C cable
  • Manual

Not as hugely in depth kit, but you have to remember this thing is a tech and feature powerhouse, yet it only costs 109 USD. That said, since they’ve moved to a touch screen with this model, a screen protector either preinstalled or included in the package would be nice. I suppose I can pick up one for a discontinued cell phone from a discount bin for a couple bucks and cut it down to size. Not a big deal.

Build, Software, and General Usage:

The M1 set my expectations for what to expect from Shanling when it comes to build quality, and the M0 certainly did not disappoint. The M0’s CNC machined aluminum shell features a unibody design making it extremely solid and free of flex. The compact size doesn’t hurt that feeling of solidity either. The machining is absolutely flawless with rounded edges that conform naturally to the hand with the satin finish of the paint job giving you some extra security in your grip. The general shape means it looks quite similar to the M1, but in-hand it’s a lot nicer to hold. The hardened, tempered curved glass protecting the screen beneath looks fantastic, should resist scratching fairly well, and fits perfectly in place without any unsightly gaps or misalignment.

On the base of the unit you find the USB-C and 3.5mm ports. The top is bare. The left side of the unit contains the SD card slot, covered by a rubber-ringed plastic door. On the right is the new scroll wheel design, doubling as a button. On the M0, it sits horizontal to the side of the unit. It’s not quite as easy to spin the wheel here as it was on the M1 due to the way the top of the wheel tapers in. That is despite the heavy knurling for grip. That said, it’s not something you’re going to be using consistently anyway since it’s only used for volume control. The button is only used for turning the device on and off, and if you have the function set, either playing and pausing your music, or, skipping back or forth (not both) through tracks. You can decide on this alternative function from the ‘System’ menu under the ‘Double click’ option. The only complaint I can levy at the otherwise flawless build would be at that SD card cover. You have to wedge it in a very specific way, at least on my unit, to get it to close flush with the rest of the body of the unit. Again, not really much of an issue.

The screen in use by the M0 was provided by LG and looks absolutely fantastic. At 240 x 240 it’s not particularly hi-res, but the small size plays to the resolution on hand quite well. Album art is crisp and colors quite vibrant. Side by side with the M1 and it’s higher res screen, you do see some pixelation on the M0 around fine detail on the same images, but overall it’s pretty darn impressive. I didn’t have much of an issue viewing the screen outside in bright light either. Viewing angles aren’t amazing, but they’re not terrible either. Straight on, tilting the device forward and back there isn’t much loss of function. You see some minor discoloration but everything is still plenty visible. Tiling side to side sees colors fade or change, and a decrease in brightness. Visibility is better viewing from the left than the right. Since this is a touch screen unit I found myself looking straight at the M0, so the limited side-to-side viewing angles never came into play. Overall, it’s a really nice screen. Probably better than it needs to be.

The M0 uses a completely new touch-based UI designed by Shanling called MTouch OS. I was worried about how it would perform given the size of the M0. In use it is not only easy to navigate, but intuitive and quick too. I can live with a sub-par menu layout, which is not an issue with the M0, but speed is key. I have zero patience for sluggish interfaces that halt and stutter, or take a moment to register inputs. MTouch is plenty quick and smooth enough to satisfy my occasionally unrealistic expectations. On startup, you’re taken through a very brief tutorial that guides you through the navigation process. Shanling didn’t over-complicate things by adding a wide variety of gesture options. There isn’t much more to it than tapping what you want to select, and swiping left-to-right across the screen to go back to the previous menu. I initially found scrolling up and down a little sensitive, often overshooting my desired track, but I quickly got used to the way the interface built up acceleration. I also found myself needing to swipe a few times to go back in the menus, but that was more a combination of my dry hands not being registered (something I have an issue with on most touch-based devices) and starting the swipe too far to the right. This device needs only one hand to navigate, and it won’t take long for pretty much anyone to be zipping around through menus without a second thought.

So far we know the M0 is well built and comfortable in the hand with a great software package and intuitive GUI. How does it all come together in general, everyday use. As you probably guessed, really well. Within the first hour of use, I was swooping through menus like it was second nature. Gapless playback isn’t something I miss, or even use on my other players, but when enabled it proved itself to be a valuable feature. I enjoy listening to albums front to back, especially those intended to be enjoyed that way. The Crystal Method’s “Community Service Vol. 1” is one of them, and the M0 handles the near invisible track transitions over the first half of the album without missing a beat. The small size of the M0 meant I could chuck it in my pocket, or that weird little one above the right pocket on my jeans. For the brief period I tested out the clip case, I attached it somewhere easy to access, like the top of my pocket, collar of my shirt, or the front pocket on one of my sweaters. Regardless of where it went, the M0 stayed out of the way, but easy to access. I also found myself setting the double-click feature to skip to the next track. Originally it was used to pause/play, but the M0 was leaving the pocket to skip tracks more than I felt the need to halt playback, so the switch was made.

Like the M1 before it, the M0 can act as an external sound card. In order to use it in this mode, you need to first install the USB driver which can be downloaded from Shanling’s site. The instruction file was in Chinese characters so I winged it to see how easy the process would be. I extracted the files, opened the .exe file, and at the end of the installation followed the instructions provided via a pop-up window and plugged the M0 in. Before that, however, I hopped into the ‘System’ menu to swap the USD mode from USB to DAC. As soon as all that was done, the system picked up the M0 as a sound device and starting piping my music through it. I then translated the instructions via Google and found out I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Super easy. Does the M0 work well as a USB DAC? Unfortunately, not really. At least not for video. For music it’s fine. Audio is slightly de-synced when using the M0 for video content. It’s watchable, but the delay is significant enough to be annoying. The older M1 does not have this issue so hopefully this is something Shanling can address with a future firmware update, if it’s not a quirk limited to my particular sample.

The M0 is rated for up to 15 hours of battery life. While I never did any formal measuring of battery life, I can say that it comfortably handled a few days of routine use at a time before charging was necessary. Running Bluetooth on a higher quality codec did seems to cut into battery life a fair bit and I found myself charging every other day when performing my listening over Bluetooth exclusively. Overall battery life seemed decent and more than fair given the size and feature set of this player. It charges pretty quickly anyway, taking around 2 hours from near empty.

Bluetooth and Radsone ES100 Comparo:

The M0 has pretty decent codec support ( SBC, AAC, aptX, LDAC) and when paired with either a quality pair of Bluetooth headphones like the ADVANCED Model 3, or an excellent receiver like the Radsone Earstudio ES100, can provide a fantastic wireless experience. I had no issues with connection stability and range seemed to be around 33ft. Unimpeded, a distance that seems to be the standard nowadays. Sound quality is absolutely fantastic, particularly when connected to an LDAC supported device, and does not feel like a compromised experience compared to running your earphones wired. However, achieving the rated 15 hours of battery life isn’t going to happen if you’re going wireless on the routine, especially with the LDAC HD codec selected. Another really nice aspect of the M0 and it’s Bluetooth functionality is that it accepts inputs from your headphone or receiver allowing you to control volume and change tracks without needing to pull out the M0.

The ES100 has been my go to device for months now, running most of my gear. With the two devices connected, they defaulted to SBC which sounded satisfactory at best, lacking in dynamics and failing to provide the outstanding experience I have come to expect from these devices on their own. Diving into the Bluetooth menu, I found there were six quality options available, three of which were LDAC variants; SBC, AAC, aptX, LDAC Connect (Auto), LDAC Normal, and LDAC HQ. I’m assuming those three LDAC options refer to the three different transfer speeds available with LDAC (330 mbps, 660 mbps, and 990 mbps). LDAC HQ provided the auditory experience I had come to expect from the M0 and ES100 and was definitely the way to go when pairing the two. It was every bit a pleasant experience as running your earphones wired.

A lot of people, myself included, were interested in how the M0 stacked up to the ES100 since they cost about the same and serve a number of similar functions. In favor of the M0, it is a more flexible device in some ways because not only does it offer Bluetooth capability, but it is also a fully featured DAP. However, the M0 can only serve as a Bluetooth receive for other devices, like a phone or laptop, with limited codec support. Even though both it and my LG G6 ThinQ support LDAC and they were both set to prioritize quality over efficiency, AAC was the highest quality connection that could be achieved. This leads to a decent, but slightly compromised, auditory experience. Connecting the ES100 to the same phone, an LDAC connection is possible and provides a cleaner sound. The M0 also showed itself to suffer from higher latency when acting as a receiver, with audio lagging behind video when compared to the ES100 which came across nearly 1:1.

Both of these devices can also act as an external USB driven amplifier for your computer. The M0 connects at 48Khz/24bits while the ES100 connects at 48Khz/16bits. When it comes to sound quality, I didn’t notice much of a difference between the two so choosing came down to signature preference. The ES100 has a more neutral and less colored stock signature, and as such I found it a better pairing than the M0 with a wider variety of products. It’s volume rocker was also more convenient to access and use than the M0’s scroll wheel. That said, the biggest reason to use the ES100 over the M0 was for media other than music, like music and gaming. Oddly enough, audio lags behind when used for these applications which is, as you would expect, quite distracting and certainly not ideal.

Those physical controls on the ES100 in general gave it a huge edge over the M0 when used for the same tasks since the M0 is reliant on the touch screen for the vast majority of it’s functionality. As a Bluetooth receiver the M0 is good, but the ES100 is great. As a USB amp, the M0 is good, but the ES100 is great. The M0 cannot replace it in the areas the ES100 is designed for and as a result they are better thought of as complimentary products, which they are, as opposed to competitors. I bet no one saw that coming 😉

Sound and Select Comparisons:

The M0 is good sounding player with a silky smooth presentation. It’s not entirely neutral and uncolored, adding some warmth and extra bass to your music. Clarity and texture from top to bottom is quite good without any significant smoothing over of micro-details. Note separation and spacing is just fine allowing airy earphones to retain that quality. End-to-end extension is excellent with the M0 showing none of the early sub-bass roll off found in some cheaper products, like the Ruizu X02. When it comes to pairing the M0 with various earphones and headphones, I found it was quite flexible and wasn’t really suited best to any particular signature. Be it powering the mildly u-shaped RE2000 from HiFiMan, the slightly mid-forward Delphinus5 from Astrotec, or the v-shaped Campfire Audio Polaris, the M0 was equally at home with any signature. If I were going to skew it anywhere, it would be towards neutral to bright earphones that are on the bass-lite side, something the M0 naturally compensates for somewhat. Bass-heavy options like the GT3 Superbass from ADVANCED might come across a bit heavy handed in the low end when paired with the M0, though you can always use the various EQ settings to compensate.

HiFiMAN MegaMini: Compared to the similarly priced MegaMini from HiFiMAN, the M0 is much more compact comfortably fitting within the space beneath the MegaMini’s buttons. The M0 is much thicker though, by nearly 1/3rd. The MegaMini looks fantastic and is still one of the cleaner, more mature designs I’ve seen, but it is made from plastic and doesn’t feel quite as solid and durable. I do prefer holding it though since it fits better in the hand. The M0 is wonderful to hold, but those with larger hands will probably have troubles interacting with it’s minuscule design. When it comes to software, the M0 is leaps and bounds ahead. Not only does it have tons more functionality, but the difference in speed is embarrassing for the MegaMini. Remember earlier when I said I have no patience for sluggish software. The MegaMini is the perfect example of this. The M0 does everything so much faster. It turns on in half the time. Once in the menus, with the Megamini you press a button and wait for a response. Rinse and repeat until you eventually get around to listening to music. And it’s so much better now after some firmware updates. When I first got it the lag was unbearable. The M0 is seamless in comparison, responding to your inputs much more swiftly. In terms of sound, the M0 and MegaMini have a similarly warm feel but I’ll give the edge to the MegaMini. It has a more airy, balanced presentation with tighter, more prominent treble, more full mids, and a less dominant low end bump without sacrificing extension. Treble control is similar. Bass impact through the M0 is more satisfying. MegaMini is slightly more detailed.

Shanling M1: The M0 is similar in shape and design but obviously smaller and more compact. Both feature lots of metal and glass and feel like quality products, with the M0 seeing some improvements made to the design of the scroll wheel and integrated button. Speaking of buttons, where the M0 has a touch screen interface for navigation with minor involvement of the scroll wheel/button, the M1 makes due with a three physical buttons and it’s somewhat awkward scroll wheel for all navigation. While I prefer physical buttons, I can’t mince words in saying that I like how Shanling handled the M0’s interface more, except when it comes to fine movements where the M1’s buttons have an advantage. In general it is smoother and faster to navigate, feeling much more natural, especially if you’re used to navigating smart phones. A combination of the two would be ideal but I’m sure that would add a fair bit to the cost. When it comes to sound the two a very comparable. The M0 shares the same smooth, organic presentation of the M1 but with a slightly bassier, warmer sound. The M1 produces a little more air between notes and comes across a touch more detailed. The M1’s lighter sound is more suited to my tastes and preferred earphones.

Suggestions for Improvement:

  • Would love to see a feature that allows you to adjust the scrolling acceleration. It’s a little too quick for my preference, and slowing it down would make scanning through my music more convenient.

  • Would love to see a slight redesign on the scroll wheel to make it easier to spin. The way it tapers in makes it tough to get a handle on it, especially when it is within the leather case. Reducing that taper would be helpful.

  • A custom EQ option would be nice. In Shanling’s defense, the presets are all quite varied and unlike the vast majority I’ve used on other products, can be useful since they alter the sound tastefully. In most cases. ‘Lobby’ just seems to turn everything into a muddied mess with no mid-range. Not sure why they included that one.

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Final Thoughts:

Shanling knocked it out of the park with the M0. How they managed to cram most of the M1’s functionality into a much smaller shell, while also integrating a usable touch screen from LG is pretty impressive. Also impressive is Shanling’s new UI to make use of this responsive touch screen. I found it quite intuitive and simple to navigate. While I would like to see a couple tweaks here and there to make movement a bit more fluid and accurate, I can find little fault in how it currently works. My patience for mediocre software is essentially nil, and the M0 does very little to annoy. If I were to levy any qualms at the M0 here, it would be towards the delayed audio when using the M0 as a USB amp, though I don’t imagine a ton of people will be using this feature anyway.

The aluminum shell is wonderfully crafted with a neatly integrated, curved glass screen. The new scroll wheel design with an integrated power/alternative function button is compact and satisfying to use, though the tapered top makes it difficult to grip sometimes. This is especially true when the M0 is set within one of the optional cases. You can use it with just one finger, though I found that resulted in me pressing the button unintentionally more often than not. Overall the build quality and ergonomics are to be applauded, with yet another positive nod going towards the use of USB Type C.

In addition to the nice UI and great build quality, the M0 doesn’t disappoint with it’s sound quality offering a lush, slightly warm signature. It also has decent output power for driving demanding earphones and headphones, with a high impedance mode coming in the clutch if needed. It really is a jack of all trades and for 109 USD offers up some pretty insane value, especially when you compare it to some other similarly priced devices.

Well done yet again, Shanling. Thank you for giving me the chance to spend an extended period testing out this device, and thanks to YOU for reading!

– B9Scrambler

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