Keeping it Simply Stellar, Shangling's M2s

Digital technology has come quite a long way in even the last 5 years. With advancements in small scale electronics manufacturing comes the allure of new found computing power. Which seems to invite the creation of a multitude of entry level products that can almost do it all! An as exciting as that is, I still find my self drawn back to my legacy products. Straight forward gear with only one basic function. They say the key to success is to keep it simple stupid. 

At only $150 the Shanling M2s amazingly gives us the best of both worlds, a device with a complex suite of connectivity options but a super simple physical user interface. An for some one like me, who already has such a large collection of gear the M2s fits in perfectly! It can do a lot, but it's most impressive function is it's primary function. That's not to say the M2S handles connectivity poorly, but rather the on board performance is at the level that I don't feel the need to try an improve it by feeding it either line out into a more robust amp, or digital out into a more robust DAC.

Here in the states you can purchase it via Amazon with the brown leather case bundled in. I'd also like to thank our friends over at Musicteck for allowing me the chance to demo and review the Shanling M2s. As always my thoughts and views expressed here are my own, an I haven't been reimbursed for them

Build & User Interface
The packing is clean, black cardboard with a hard foam insert to keep the DAP secure during shipment. Included is a little fabric bag, a charging cable and some screen protectors. My demo also came with the brown leather case, which added a little extra grip.  

Build quality is impressive, the 3 inch screen is easy to read even in direct sunlight. The placement of user interface buttons is absolutely stunning! This has to be one of the first DAPs I could easily and consistently operate with only a single hand. 
This little black wheel sits at the center of the interface, it's sensitivity is a little difficult to use at first though after a day or two I was able to master the use of half and full turns to speed up menu navigation. It's also used for volume controls, and operates smoother without as much responsiveness.

The power button is placed just above the control wheel, while it is a little small using the case makes it much more manageable.

The forward, play/pause and back buttons run parallel with the control wheel. The small size and button placement are what allow for super easy one handed operation. As I was able to operate the unit with either my left or right hand respectively. 

My only real gripe with the player is that the USB and 3.5mm output are on the bottom, I found my self operating it more upside down than right side up. The USB port it self is well built exhibiting very minimal cable play, the 3.5mm is much the same.
Graphic Interface:


Navigation between each of the different menu's is quick and painless, double clicking the power button takes you back first this lock screen then right back into the main menu. 

From here you can accesses your music library, the play and system settings sub menu's as well as get back to what's currently playing. 

 
A favorites option is available here, also rewinding a song works with a single press after 30 seconds or so, other wise if it'll switch to the previous track. I found holding the back button to be more consistent and often just as quick.
The volume control works without having the player on. How ever when your viewing the "now playing" screen it appears with a numeric value scale.
Specs
Output power: 130mW@32ohm
Frequency response: 20Hz--20kHz-0.2dB
THD+N: 0.003%A-weightingoutputing 500mV
SNR108dBA-weightingDynamic range: 108dB
Output impedance: 4.8Ω Sampling rate: 44.1kHz--192kHz
Supporting format: APE, FLAC, ALAC, WMA, AAC, OGG, MP3, WAV, AIFF, DSF, DIFF

Dimension: 53mm×14.5mm×85.6mm 
Net weight: about 100g Screen: 3 inches

During my time with the M2S I was tested it both stand alone and sourced from my mobile device. I did the majority of my listening with my Superlux HD 668B, now outfitted with Cosmos Velour Ear Pads for a more balanced frequency response.


Sadly I was unable to get the USB Drivers to configure for my Windows 8 laptop, so I was not able to listen from a Laptop/Desktop PC Source. However Bluetooth connectivity provided a convenient high quality output that, I was able to get to hook into my Windows 8 laptop. Thankfully I had no drop outs and only a marginal amount of added noise. 

Having the M2s tucked away powering my headphones sourced from my V20 was a convenient option, but honestly the M2s sounded best with hard cable connections. So I spent most of my time with it hard wired to external sources or it self, because of the unique button lay out I had no problems multi tasking with it. It's smaller size and simpler lay out actually make it a quicker more convenient to operate than my LG V20, seeing as I only need a single hand to take full advantage of the M2s functionality.  

Sound 

The Shanling M2s offers an energetic natural sound signature that's very agreeable to a wide variety of headphones. Overall, I found it to be very linear throughout it's entire frequency response. Good extension from top to bottom with spacious and exciting imaging. While it wasn't deficient with micro detail, it did add a touch of emphasis to ambient noise which can often overshadow some more complex transients. Overall I enjoyed the energy that the M2S presents alongside a more natural warmth.

Bass Quality: 
       The M2s offers a very lean low end, while not lacking power or sub bass response there were times I wanted a little more body from it. Larger instruments, like the Double Bass had a more hollow tone than what I consider to be natural. Non the less, bass guitars, cellos, kick drums and synths were spot on. In fact while listening to the large opening drum in the Eagles live rendition of Hotel California, I found the bass to be very articulate. With plenty of authority an enough resolve to present the unique vibrato within the decay of each strike. 

Mid Range Purity:
    Equally beautiful and clear, the M2s does an excellent job retaining mid range purity. It has just a touch of extra decay and mid range emphasis. Enough to take the edge off something shouty like my Superlux HD 668B without detracting from it's tactility and excitement. Igor Levit's presentation of Aria struck me the most with the M2S, a lot of entry level range players either present to much decay and ring or too little and lack weight. With the M2s, I got just enough body on the mids to preserve the beautiful quality of each note as it decay'd without having any excessive ringing present. Something that not even my HM 601 does!!

Highs:
   While only marginal, the M2S does have a touch of over emphasis and grain up top. While that emphasis does add some extra presence and energy, it also masks over some transient information and can create a very mild haze. Listening to Jazz felt the high hats had to much energy, to much tisssss as it were. It masked some of the energy of the percussion. Although, the added emphasis really helped resolve a touch more vibrato in bells and other small dense metal percussive instruments.

Resolve:
     That added emphasis up top does add emphasis to ambient noise and other macro details, which in turn does mask some more complex transient and micro detail. Additionally, the M2s had excellent macro dynamics but suffered smaller gradual volume changes. Going back to the live performance of Hotel California, the M2s didn't clearly resolve the gradual crescendo leading into the first verse. 

Imaging:
    Imaging was more spacious than I expected, sounds within the audible space moved quickly within it. The only fault of the M2S was a lack of a clearly defined rear channel and a tendency to sound a bit disjointed at times. The same quality that adds some excitement to the image it presents, can sometimes take away from the cohesiveness of that image. 

Speed:
        I felt the M2s presented a good sense of time and changes within that domain. While it had a small touch of emphasis on the attack of instruments, that emphasis didn't diminish the decay or release of notes. It's just fast enough to be tactile without sounding almost "un-real."

Line Out Pairings & Impressions:
         Through out my listening time with the M2s I found my self most impressed with it's on board amp! Running the line out was un-impressive with products within  that $100 price range. In the end I always found my self preferring the very balanced presentation of it's on board head amp. Ideally, you shouldn't need use the line out to adjust to frequency response, but rather provide ample power for harder to drive headphones. 
Schiit's original Vali 1 is by far my favorite sub $100 tube amp period! That said... it did NOT pair well with the M2s. The frequency response is similar to what's on board the M2s, and while there's better transient response it also adds just enough warmth and decay to completely rob the M2s of it's tactility.  I was though, able to gain immediate improvements in imaging namely a more cohesive sound stage and the appearance of a well defined rear channel. Still in the end the experience wasn't very engaging and didn't hold my interest. 
The Shanling M2S's line out is a bit of a double edge'd sword, in that it scaled beautifully with my Pico Power. An only scales with more robust amps in the Mid Range price point of the market. Such as the HeadAmp Pico Power and my G1217 Project Ember II. In this case pairing it with these amp netted me only benefits with no immediate drawbacks or compromises. Though, it's a little far fetched to recommend a $400 amp for a $150 source. 

Ultimatly, I feel that owners of the M2S are going to love the DAP's built in amp, the only situation that the Line out is needed would be to pair with a harder to drive headphones that need more power. An frankly I like that, it's very cost effective as a consumer to purchase a product that is already at 100% without adding any additional components.   


Though how does the M2s compare to higher priced DAPs and portable DAC/Amps? 

Comparisons:
     To answer that question I compared the LG V20's built in ESS Sabre DAC/Amp output to that of the M2s. Additionally I also compared the M2s to the Geek Out v2+. In each case, I used Neutron running on my Android as the interface, and compared the output of each hardware configuration. 
I've never been impressed with LG's Partnership with ESS Sabre, what should have been equivalent to entry level DAP or portable Dac/Amps, products around the $100 price point, has consistently proven to be worse. The M2S's out put was all around better in almost every aspect when compared to the V20's ESS Sabre output. The only advantage the V20 has was a tauter more defined bass. Other wise the LG v20 had a thinner mid range, an even harsher more accented top end, less micro dynamics, more emphasis on macro details alongside an even greater micro detail haze and by some miracle an even wider more spacious but disjointed sound stage. Ultimately the M2s dwarfed the V20 in terms of Audio Quality. Thankfully I can still enjoy the convenience and gambit of Neutron's DSP's settings via either a high quality wired connection or over blue tooth. Both of which offer an improvement over the wired output of my V20.  
I spoke earlier about how ludicrous I felt it was to pair up a $400 amp with a $150 DAP, given that at that price point there's some heavy competition. Well thankfully, I have just the competitor to put things in perspective! Sadly the M2S did not compare well in a head to head battle against the SE output of the Geek Out v2+. The V2+ had the edge in every metric I judge. A very literal and lateral upgrade to the M2S,  an frankly that's what I expect. Retailing for $499 the Geek Out v2+ is in an entirely different price bracket, an caters to a different customer base at that. 

How ever, an interesting comparison is how the M2S fed into the PicoPower compares to the Geek Out v2+.
The results were impressive, I didn't expect the M2s when amped through the Pico Power perform as well as it did. Honestly, the Pico Power/M2S combo had the most cohesive sound stage and best tonality. The M2s fed a beautifully natural mid range warmth into the Pico Power. The horns in Miles Davis so what were indescribably vivid, full with a from the body quality without losing some of the airy from the lips transients nor the echo of the room they played in! Feeding the Line Out into the Pico Power also  improved the micro detail and dynamics. Though the slight haze up top remained, the Pico Power allowed the distinct attack of the snare drum to shine through more vividly than before. 

Ultimately though, the Geek Out V2+ still had better resolve. Free from excessive emphasis up top with even more precise micro dynamics alongside a true to life presentation of complex transient information. All of this from the SE output of the Geek Out v2+, which is in reality a portable balanced Dac/Amp. Switching into the Balanced Output would undoubtedly push the imaging above that of the M2S ->PicoPower combo. 

That said, the M2s did astonishingly well as an analog source feeding into a more resolving amplifier.  It's also got the addition of Bluetooth connectivity, a fully function GUI, equalizer and media storage that the Geek Out v2+ doesn't offer. So price wise, it's quite competitive.
Truth be told, my various DAP reviews these days are all efforts to find a replacement for my previous go to recommendation, the Rockboxed Hifiman HM 601. I started with a 602 eventually sold it and wound up with another 601 years later that I still use as my daily driver. I enjoy the sound signature just that much, an rightly so. Compared to the Shanling M2s the HM 601 offers better micro detail and dynamics with a heavier more resolved low end without any emphasis up top. It also presents an intimate but extremely cohesive audible image. The only real draw back to the HM 601 is it's mellow organic sound can sometimes be a little romantic with headphones that share the same sound signature, and in the worse case scenario there is some audible mid range ringing. While both have some mid range emphasis and added decay, the HM 601 does very rarely over emphasis mid range frequencies. Interestingly, I didn't experience any apparent ringing throughout any of my listening sessions, in fact I was impressed with the level of both naturalness and polite tactility the M2s presented.  Still, all things considered the HM 601 is still one of the best sounding entry level DAPs in my book. Though it's flaws are becoming more and more obvious as it age's not so gracefully. The analog headphone out is rather noisy, so it doesn't like super efficient anything. Even worse it's not even that powerful, for now the line out is exceptionally clean and scales like a champion, but that amazing hardware is locked within it's chassis. The HM 601 does not function as a USB Dac, while the HM 602 does, you still need to find one. Even worse, neither of them work with Cellular devices as far as I know. So as much as I like how it sounds, the HM 601 isn't really practical recommendation these days. 

Finally, how does the M2S compare to the Cayin N3? While I don't have the N3 with me any longer, my impressions of it again'st my LG V20 and HM 601 are still logged. Bluetooth output from each is almost identical. I found no real discernible difference between the two. The biggest difference between the two is their function, with the Cayin N3 I actually really took advantage of the Bluetooth Dac/Amp functionality because of how much easier Neutron Music Players interface is to operate. The combined DSP settings I have in Neutron on top of the N3's digital filters allowed me to fine tune the sound for whatever headphones I was listening with. Without having to slog through the N3's exhaustive menu system.



On the flip side, the M2s doesn't have that level of fine tuning, but it undeniably simpler to operate all by itself. It has a slightly more natural sound and doesn't really need to be "fine tuned." I only need it and a pair of headphones to enjoy my music, where as with the N3 fine tuning was more of a necessity. Functionally the N3 is still the better jack of all trades, it's line out scales easier and it's digital filters allow you to dial in the sound that's best for you. If all you own is a pair of headphones, it's an excellent place to start as it's so much more than just a digital audio player. Where as the M2S is more impressive as a classic straight forward DAP, with the extra connectivity options as a bonus. So if your like me, and you have a couple of fully fledged desktop systems. The M2S makes for an excellent sounding, adaptable super easy to use on the go system.

Conclusion:
      Shanling has a real winner here in my book, it has some extra functionality and convenience but what ultimately impressed me was it's function as classic Digital Audio Player. Frankly, I don't really use my HM 601 as much, the improvements in sound quality aren't really worth the added hassle and fuss honestly. The exceptional build and sound quality pair with a phenomenal user interface that is by far one of the easier to operate DAPs I've ever used. An it's that combination of superb sound and ease of use that set the Shanling M2s as a standard for entry level DAPs in my book! 




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