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Shanling M3 Ultra: A reliable digital audio player

Today, we will be discussing an affordable and popular audio player from Shanling. It’s worth noting that even before I had the chance to test it, many readers had already asked for my opinion on this new device. It seems that Shanling has been quite productive lately, releasing new products one after another. Just recently, I wrote about the Shanling M6 Ultra, and now it’s time to talk about its younger sibling.

In today’s modern world, where mobile DACs are becoming increasingly popular, it’s quite a challenge for manufacturers to convince audiophiles to choose a dedicated Hi-Res player instead. The Shanling M3X was already well-received by the audience, and now the developers have decided to upgrade it to the Ultra version. I must say, they have gone above and beyond expectations, making it quite intriguing.

The Shanling M3 Ultra is priced at $480, which, in my opinion, falls within the minimum price range that is worth considering when comparing compact DACs with players. Cheaper players simply don’t offer the same level of performance. But let’s delve into the details gradually.

Design

Shanling M3 Ultra Photo Screen

The Shanling M3 Ultra arrives in a compact orange package, which is undeniably bringing a touch of vibrancy to our lives. The front cover showcases the key features of the device, while the company’s motto, “Life is short, play more,” is prominently displayed.

Shanling M3 Ultra Photo Box

The player’s set of accessories is minimalist, consisting of a USB-C/USB-A charging cable and 4 protective films, with 2 already applied at the factory. Unfortunately, there is no cover included, as Hi-Fi brands rarely include it in their stock sets. However, despite the simplicity of the accessories, the design of the M3 Ultra is impressive. The body is crafted from a combination of aviation aluminum and glass panels, resulting in a sleek and well-assembled device. The edges are slightly tapered for a comfortable grip, and the choice of materials and quality production are commendable. The player is available in two color options – green and black. Given my preference for green, I highly recommend it for its elegance and charm.

Moving on to ergonomics, the M3 Ultra truly excels as a pocket-sized device. With dimensions of 109×70.5×18 mm and a weight of 200 g, it is incredibly convenient to carry around. This makes it an ideal choice for those who frequently travel. The player features 3 physical buttons for track switching, each with a distinct shape for easy tactile recognition. Additionally, there is a volume wheel with a satisfying click for starting/locking the device. Of course, there is also a touch screen, although its size of 4.2 inches and resolution of 1280×768 may not be ideal for watching movies. Nevertheless, the display provides comprehensive information and offers acceptable brightness.

Alongside the USB Type-C port, which serves as both input and output, the player offers the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a 4.4mm balanced connector. It’s always a pleasure to see the inclusion of a Pentaconn release.

Functionality

The Shanling M3 Ultra has incorporated the same ES9219C DACs found in the M3X. It offers a maximum signal resolution of PCM 32 bit/384 kHz and DSD256. The binding utilizes ELNA Silmic II capacitors once again. However, the updated model places emphasis on the amplifier circuit, which now features a pair of RT6863 op-amps. The standard output provides 140 mW of power, while the balanced output offers 260 mW. Both outputs have a resistance of less than 1 ohm. It is worth noting that this player is primarily designed for IEMs and may not deliver the same level of performance with full-sized headphones. Nevertheless, it ensures a noise-free experience when used with sensitive headphones.

Shanling has successfully addressed a major concern with affordable Hi-Fi players in the M3 Ultra. Not only does it deliver impressive sound quality, but it also operates swiftly. This is made possible by the inclusion of an 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor and 3 GB of RAM. While not extravagant, these specifications are sufficient to maintain a responsive and stable system. Consequently, I can confidently recommend this multifunctional device to my friends who are seeking a reliable option outside of the top-tier segment.

Shanling M3 Ultra Photo Cover

Furthermore, the M3 Ultra has received updated versions of Android and Bluetooth. I recall criticizing the M3X for lacking in this aspect. However, the new model offers the latest Android 10 operating system with the exclusive Android Global Lossless Output (AGLO) architecture. With dual-band Wi-Fi, users can access any applications from Google Play and enjoy streaming capabilities, including Roon certification. Tidal enthusiasts will also appreciate the full MQA decoding support. In terms of Bluetooth, it features version 5.0 with SBC and LDAC codecs for reception, as well as aptX, aptX HD, HWA, and LDAC for transmission. Other notable features include 32 GB of built-in memory, support for a MicroSD card up to 2 TB, the ability to function as an external DAC or digital transport.

Additionally, the M3 Ultra boasts impressive battery life. Its 3500 mAh battery allows for up to 14.5 hours of continuous playback in balanced mode. In Single DAC mode with an asymmetric output, it promises up to 20.5 hours of playback. However, it’s worth noting that the player’s sound quality is compromised in this economy mode, so I question the necessity of prolonging battery life in this manner. I recommend opting for the Dual DAC mode, especially since the actual battery life is quite close to the advertised figures. When using Bluetooth, the player can last up to 45 hours on a single charge. It also supports fast charging with QC3.0 18 W technology.

Shanling M3 Ultra Photo Complete set

Sound

Main testing was done on 64 Audio tia Fourte, Noble Kublai Khan, Bionic Sound Oxygen and Dunu DK-3001 Pro headphones.

The M3 Ultra is a highly sought-after device for a reason. Upon listening, I, as a budding audiophile, experienced unexpectedly positive emotions. While not perfect, it is a strong contender for the top spot in its category. In comparison to the M3X, the sound of the M3 Ultra is less resonant and thin, offering improved resolution and a more comfortable listening experience while maintaining Shanling’s signature melodic and harmonious sound. Overall, it is a versatile model that is not fatiguing, suitable for various genres, and offers a moderate level of excitement and honesty. While I cannot guarantee the Ultra’s performance, it certainly delivers good value for the money.

The review highlights the M3 Ultra’s dynamic presentation, rich acoustic picture, and recognizable warm timbres. The device handles melodies with ease, providing a pleasant listening experience without any digital harshness. While it may lack overly bright accents, the M3 Ultra gradually adds depth to the sound. The vocals are deep and sensual, the instrumental parts are weighty and voluminous, and the tonal balance is carefully maintained. Additionally, the device’s forgiving nature towards poorly recorded tracks is a plus for many users. Overall, the M3 Ultra is designed for enjoyment rather than capturing minute details.

In terms of drawbacks, the review mentions the device’s limited soundstage and average upper high frequencies that can occasionally sound dry or hissy. However, considering the price range of the M3 Ultra, these shortcomings are to be expected.

The bass exhibits a dense, rounded, and natural quality, with a smooth texture. While the sub’s soundness is not extreme, it is acceptable, and the speed of attacks could be improved. Surprisingly, the variety of textures is very good, with tactile feedback present but well-controlled to prevent mid-woofers from overpowering.

The mid frequencies are calm, smooth, and rich. Instrument separation is clearer than in the M3X, and the notes’ elasticity adds a tactile element to the music. The sound is informative, with a vintage touch that does not compromise legibility. While I personally prefer a more neutral and detailed sound, I cannot deny the appeal of the model. The M3 Ultra smoothly navigates sharp corners, blending liveliness, energy, and subtlety in a harmonious way, making it enjoyable for extended listening sessions.

High frequencies are warm, defined, and non-aggressive. They are expressive without being harsh on the ears. Although there may be a lack of crystallinity in the upper layers, the spectrum remains somewhat simplified. However, the quantity of high frequencies is sufficient for the M3 Ultra to perform well in live genres, and the tube tone will be appreciated by many listeners.

Competitors

Let’s begin with the predecessor, the Shanling M3X. It was a more affordable and compact option compared to the M3 Ultra. While it offered the same power and longer battery life, it had outdated versions of Android and Bluetooth, as well as slower firmware. The presentation of the M3X can be described as solid, smooth, colorful, transparent, and sparkling. In terms of stage size and three-dimensionality, the M3 Ultra surpasses it. It sounds more informative, with textured bass, natural treble, and better separation in the mid-range frequencies. On the other hand, the M3X played softly and emotionally, but somewhat synthetically, with bright high frequencies that could be harsh to some listeners. The updated version of the M3 has improved handwriting, making it more comfortable.

Now, let’s talk about my favorite player, the iBasso DX170. It is a player that offers contrasting features. On one hand, it operates slower and is less stable compared to our hero, the M3 Ultra. It also has lower battery life. However, it boasts more power and I appreciate its design and beautiful 5-inch 1080×1920 screen. In terms of sound resolution, it surpasses the M3 Ultra. The DX170 has a smooth, fast, and detailed handwriting, although it can be perceived as dry and lightweight. It emphasizes microdynamics, draws melodies with thin lines, and highlights nuances. The timbres of this model are neutral and barely illuminated. In addition to being analytical, it also adds a fun drive to the music, bringing liveliness and aggression. The upper frequencies are extended, the middle frequencies are legible, multi-layered, and flexible, and the bass is fast and technical. The scale is not extreme, but very good, and the power is evident in the sound. Compared to the iBasso player, the M3 Ultra appears more friendly, soft, and charming. Ultimately, the choice depends on personal preferences. However, there is a question regarding the combination of sound and stability firmware for the DX170.

Conclusion

The Shanling M3 Ultra is a formidable contender in the realm of mobile DACs. It boasts reliability, compactness, durability, and a wide range of functions. With its balanced output and pleasing warm sound, this model not only performs admirably but also operates swiftly. The only drawbacks are the absence of a cover in the package and relatively low power. However, apart from these minor issues, I have no complaints. It is undoubtedly a high-quality product that deserves consideration if you are looking for IEMs in this price range.

Shanling M3 Ultra
8.5
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