ZiShan DSD: Old Look, Modern Sound

Greetings,

Today we’re checking out the ZiShan DSD, a budget friendly and very capable DAP.

ZiShan is a Chinese manufacturer known for inexpensive, no frills, high performance amps and daps, including the DSD we’re checking out today. With an old school look and quality components like the venerable AK4497 chip, the DSD makes for a compelling purchase to those who value performance over style.

Let’s check it out.

Disclaimer:

Thanks to Lillian with DD Audio for sending over a sample of the DSD for review. The impressions here are my subjective opinions based on three months of regular use and do not represent DD Audio, ZiShan, or any other entity. At the time of writing it was retailing for 139.99 USD and could be picked up here on AliExpress: https://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/Zishan-DSD-AK4497EQ-Professional-Portable-Lossless-Music-MP3-HIFI-Audiophile-DAP-Hard-Solution-DAC-Amp-2/2894006_32904831562.html?spm=2114.12010615.8148356.2.207779a2KieGHa

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, sinewaves, etc. you’ll want to look elsewhere. All I really care about is how easy is it to use? Is it well built and will it be durable long term? How’s the driving power and overall sound quality? Are the batteries going to run dry part way through a listening session? Is this the kind of player I’m going to take with me everywhere, or it is better suited to listening in the privacy of my home?

Specifications:

As always, take these specifications with a grain of salt. They vary depending on the site and much of it seems to make little sense.

  • Battery: Lithium
  • WIFI: No
  • Audio Format Support: ALAC,AAC,APE, FLAC,DSD,MP3, WMA, ASF, WAV
  • Battery Life: < 10 hours
  • Body Material: Aluminum
  • Balanced Out: Yes, 2.5mm
  • Storage Type: SD flash
  • DSP: STM32F7
  • External Memory: Yes
  • Ebook Support: No
  • Signal Noise Ratio: ≥96dB
  • DAC: AK4497EQ
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 58mm*80mm*24mm
  • Bluetooth: No
  • FM Radio: No
  • Built in Speakers: No
  • Built-in Audio Recorder: No
  • Screen: Yes

Packaging and Accessories:

The DSD doesn’t have any formal packaging from ZiShan, or so is my understanding. Mine arrived in a simple, durable, Linsoul branded cardboard box. Lifting off the lid you find the DSD set within a foam insert, a basic microUSB cable neatly wrapped and set atop it. And that’s it. No case, no instructions, nothing else. Those of you out there that have a vendetta against inefficient, unnecessarily flashy packaging will love this!

Build and UI:

In the style of previous ZiShan products, the DSD has a boxy aluminum shell with little in the way of frills or style going on. The black paint is neatly applied, as is the plastic cover for the LED screen beneath. Fit and finish everywhere else is simply functional. Cutouts are present for the microUSB input, charge LED indicator, and line out on the bottom. 3.5mm + 2.5mm balanced outs, a reset button, and a microSD slot cutouts are present on the top. The cutouts are slightly larger than the hardware leaving uneven gaps. This is only an issue because there is a fair bit of air between the screen and the protective plastic plate above it and as a result it is not uncommon for dust to work it’s way inside. Removing it is just as easy since the DSD can be disassembled in about 30 seconds, so while annoying and inconvenient, it’s far from a deal breaker. With products like this you have to go in with relaxed expectations. ZiShan is a small company in a niche market and I doubt they have the capital available to develop a player made with advanced tooling techniques. Along with the screen, the front of the unit contains five physical hardware buttons arranged in a diamond pattern with a button in the middle. They are placed intelligently and fall under the thumb without any awkward positioning required. They are all made of metal too so they feel good and depress with a satisfying click.

While the DSD isn’t going to win any awards for the build, and you’re unlikely to be showing it off to your buddies since it looks like it is straight out of the 70s, like other similar players I’ve used it really doesn’t matter. It’s tough and functional and that’s what matters. It’ll last a long time, and for someone that is building a budget portable setup on a tight budget, durability is more important than having something flashy and tech laden yet delicate.

Battery:

The DSD routinely got around 9 hours of use at my typically low volumes (~4-8 out of 31 steps in the DSD’s menus) and with mainly FLAC and 320 kbps tracks. Charging takes around 2 hours. It was used with a wide variety of headphones over the last few months, from easy to drive iems like the BGVP DM6 to harder to drive headphones like the HiFiMAN Sundara. Considering how much headroom the DSD has in terms of power and volume output, I think these numbers are perfectly fine. Obviously, a longer battery life would be better but I never found the DSD lacking. It would easily last through a day or two of regular use before needing a charge.

GUI and Features:

The DSD starts up VERY quickly. Hold the centre button for a second and it’s on. No time is wasted with a laggy, annoying boot animation as seems to be the case with 90% of players out there. Once the DSD is booted, you find yourself in a very simple, clean home menu with a battery bar and play/pause indication in the top right corner. Your options are: Play Now, Explorer, EQ, DAC, System, and About which puts some basic system info in the bottom right corner in teeny, tiny font. Overall the home menu is simple and self explanatory. Play now brings you to the track last played or that is currently playing. Explorer contains all your music folders. EQ contains a ten band EQ with tons of flexibility. Frequencies that can be adjusted range from 60Hz to 16kHz in 1dB increments, + or – 24dB each direction. It’s a fantastic EQ. Under DAC you can swap between five different digital filters, flip between default and high sound quality modes, adjust the cut off point for the filter, set up the DSD to act as a DAC when plugged in via USB, change the graphic that plays on the Now Playing screen from either a spectrograph, FFT, or album art. Lastly, there is a slow boot option. Not sure why that is there, outside of being handy in preventing the device from turning on accidentally when in your pocket. Under system you can set the DSD to car mode, adjust the sleep timer, the back light timer, brightness, system language, and speed. Not sure what speed does, nor a lot of the other features for that matter, mind you I probably wouldn’t use them anyway. From this you probably get that the DSD has a lot of options catered to the audiophile crowd as well as those that like to tailor their sound, and that is great. Navigating through the menus, however, is not.

On the plus side, the buttons and GUI are responsive. It’s all very snappy and quick with no delays switching tracks, entering and exiting menus or changing settings. It’s especially noticeable coming from something like the HiFiMAN MegaMini which is laggy at the best of times. The DSD has a more logical menu layout too though I couldn’t find any playlist support or way to build a playlist within the device itself. Instead you can just make individual folders with the tracks you want on the playlist, name them, and transfer them to the device. Takes up more space, but it works. The problems I have with the DSD are the lack of a dedicated back button, and button functions that change depending on the menu you happen to be in. Navigating through the DSD is not consistent so you have to rely on trial and error to find out what button serves which purpose in each menu and menu item, and eventually your muscle memory will kick in so you can navigate smoothly.

From the Now Playing screen you can do a number of things. The centre button acts as a play/pause option. Hold it and the device turns off. If you press the top button you’re brought to a four way menu. Up and Down adjusts volume. Left turns your EQ settings on or off while right adjusts shuffle options. Back on the Now Playing screen, a tap of the left button goes back to the beginning of the song. Follow that immediately by another tap and you go back a track. A longer press sends you to the home menu. A tap of the right button skips to the next track while holding it scans forward through the song. As far as I can tell, there is no way to scan back through a track since a longer press takes you to the home screen. Pressing down brings you to the album subfolder for the current track.

Running through other menus can get confusion since you select an option with the centre button which sends you back to the home screen. You can also hold the left button to also take you back, though the setting you changed won’t save. On other menu options with a slider, such as brightness, you can hold down the right button to move the slider, but try that with the left and you return to the main menu. Instead you need to tap the button a multitude of times, then hit the centre button to save the changes. It may not seem like a big deal, but this gets annoying and even after using the device for months I still press the wrong button at times since the functions change slightly from menu to menu, option to option. One more button dedicated to reversing through menus would have made the DSD much more user friendly to navigate.

Oh, and you can lock the device by holding the centre and left buttons at the same time for a few seconds. I found that by accident while looking for a way to scan backwards through a track. It’s a useful feature that in my opinion would be better addressed with a physical switch somewhere on the device.

Overall I find the DSD annoying to navigate. The lack of a dedicated back button means ZiShan had to program in workarounds which are inconsistent menu to menu, option to option. A sixth button would solve that problem. Regardless, navigating the DSD is at least bearable thanks to the responsive processor that responds rapidly to presses, and the logical layout of each menu.

Sound:

The DSD has a very bold, powerful presentation with a warm, coloured sound. Clarity and detail are quite impressive despite it’s warm demeanour and it easily outpaces similarly priced DAPs like the Shanling M0 and HiFiMAN MegaMini. Note separation and spacing is also above average letting earphones with large sound stages shine. The Havi B3 Pro I is known for a great stage and that is really apparent with the DSD. The DSD also offers excellent extension that won’t hold back your headphones and earphones, unlike the uber budget Ruizu X02 which rolls off well before hitting any truly deep notes. The DSD’s mid-bass warmth on default settings does tend to exaggerate mid-bassy qualities, but you can easily address that with the inbuilt EQ. So in general, pairing the DSD with a wide variety of products was quite satisfactory.

With the exception of overly mid-bassy earphones, I found the DSD to work well with nearly every signature I have on hand, be it the bright Echobox Nomad which gains more note weight through the DSD, or the near bass cannon Campfire Audio Cascade which becomes even more authoritative and powerful sounding. More neutral-leaning products like the Tin Audio T2 benefit as well thanks to the DSD’s low end confidence which compensates for the T2’s somewhat weedy bass. If I were to pick a certain signature to pair with the DSD, I would stick with something slightly v-shaped with a treble skew. The TFZ King Experience or Alpha & Delta D6 are good examples. That said, you do have that impressive EQ to fall back on if you find your headphone doesn’t line up 1:1 with the DSD’s signature.

Overall the DSD is quite an enjoyable sounding DAP. It makes everything you plug into it sound more grande and spectacular that it does otherwise, all without sacrificing detail and clarity. This is the sort of sound I would expect from a more expensive DAP, as experienced comparing to my HiFi E.T. MA8, but crammed into a more budget friendly player.

Final Thoughts:

The DSD is a pretty impressive DAP. In order to keep the price down it forgoes a lithe and sleek design for something straight out of the 70s. It is bulky and durable with some impressive power to back it up. Most headphones and earphones will be a cinch to get up to volume with tons of headroom to spare. This does mean more sensitive gear will hiss, but this is a device billed for pairing with harder to drive headphones anyway so that is to be expected. With the DSD, you don’t need to tack on an amp, something that makes the DSD’s bulk more understandable. Add to this an outstandingly capable, but coloured signature that is a joy to experience with most headphones and the listening experience with the DSD is top notch.

The DSD’s hardware is plenty powerful enough for the software inside leading to a very snappy interface that is smartly laid out. However, I would love to see them update the device with a sixth button dedicated to moving back through menus. The current five button setup works, but the constant function changes from menu to menu are irritating and lead to lots of mispresses and repeat actions. Another button would resolve all navigation issues and make the DSD’s menus quicker and more intuitive to move through.

Overall I’m quite pleased with the DSD and have no issues recommending it over more mainstream devices. Just keep in mind that the DSD is bulky and not particularly attractive and navigating the menus is an annoying endeavour. You might also notice spelling mistakes such as “Floder” instead of “Folder” in some menus. Since that is par for the course with products from a number of these obscure Chinese brands, it adds to the charm. Or maybe you care and that will ruin the entire experience. Either way, it doesn’t bother me. The device is durable, sounds good, can power pretty much anything you toss it’s way, and the battery life doesn’t suck (though it’s not amazing either). I like the DSD and it will continue to accompany my on my journeys beyond this review.

Thanks for reading.

– B9Scrambler

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