My Video Review:
With more than ~27 years under their belts, occupying every corner of HiFi with all sorts of audiophile-grade desktop components, Shanling rolled the dice and decided that on the world map they would be known for trendy looking portable digital audio players (DAPs for short). Rushing to the finish line with road-opening DAPs that carry the newest and latest tech was never one of their goals. I see them as late bloomers that are trying to squeeze the last drop of performance from current production hardware. Their M8 came late to the party and their flagship & ultra-limited M9 DAP was the last emperor of the AK4499 era, proving that the best was yet to come, as polishing and fine-tuning raw metal into shiny flagship devices takes a lot of time, effort and dedication.
After selling 500 units of their best, there were no choices left in replenishing their stock, either than completely remodeling the M9 into a smaller, lighter, cost-effective DAP that would carry a similar design language, sound signature and performance numbers, while dragging the price down as much as possible. Due to its limited nature and unlimited price point, M9 was a true crown jewel of the East. Its twin brother M7 feels very much the same, rocking matching performance numbers in a shorter body, without costing you an arm and a leg. From 2799 bucks, the price dropped to a more respectable $1249 - that seemed lower to current production flagship DAPs. Empowering it with dominant genes from their top-of-the-line M8 and M9 units, with a faster System-on-Chip (SD 665), more RAM and ROM memory, with a complicated but highly-desirable current mode DAC operation and discrete J-FET amplifiers, M7 already feels like a winner in disguise on so many fronts. This is one of those units that makes me excited to the core and I cannot wait to tell you more about it. Besides dwelling deep into its inner workings, I will be comparing it with an equally impressive Hiby RS6 in the latest chapters. Until that happens, lets rip its package open and sniff what’s inside.
When its predecessor hopped on my table some two years ago, I was surprised by a very different unboxing experience and it seems that Shanling altered their formula once again with a wider product box, leaving small hints all around about its specs and feature set. A leathery-like packaging follows that opens up like a book. The left door will reveal the unit itself protected by thick layers of foam, so you can be sure that it’ll arrive safe and sound to your front door. The right door will reveal an accessory compartment, where you’ll find: a high-quality USB Type-C cable wrapped in a textile outer jacket, a warranty card, a quick-start guide and two extra screen protectors, in case the preinstalled ones will go dark.
Several on-line stores are offering the official M7 leather case and if you’re already got the M7, then I wholeheartedly recommended getting its case separately for $38 – which looks like a steal if you ask me. It was made in such a way that all the heat building up around the unit would be cleverly dissipated. Its leather case doesn’t make it hotter, getting moderately warm if I’m not attaching desktop planar headphones to its 4.4mm jack. Its leather case seems to be well-made, it’s thick and smooth on the outside and soft enough on the inside, thanks to a velour padding. I don’t think you’ll ever need a third-party case after seeing this one, as it looks and feels premium to me. Seeing and holding the M7 for the first time was quite an experience, as it felt smaller to their M8 and considerably smaller to other behemoths as FiiO M17, while sporting an outstanding craftsmanship down to the smallest details.
This is pretty much it, just add a big capacity MicroSD card or connect it wirelessly to some of your favorite streaming apps and you’ll be ready to rock!
Design & Build Quality
Shanling M7 looks and feels like a premium portable DAP from any point of view. You get a fully CNC machined case, carved from a single block of aluminum, molded with smooth lines and rounder corners. Its smoothed corners remind about former Shanling devices, but thanks to wave-like patterns that were firstly introduced on the flagship M9, the newest unit feels spray painted with a future-fi flavor all over it. I didn’t know how I would react to its unusual looking case, but it grown on me ever since I started touching and playing with it. Instead of a spartan look that FiiO adopted with their entire portfolio, Shanling went with a calmer design language, reminding us once again why we’re listening to music in the first place with sound-wave patterns on both sides.
All in all, it looks like a smaller M9, having a similar streamlined look. If you owned a Shanling DAP by now, then M7 will feel very similar thanks to an ergonomic button placement. You can’t beat Shanling at their own game and their game is ergonomics and layout. M7 has only three buttons and a single volume wheel (that can work as an On/Off button). Seriously now, it can’t be much simpler than this. You have your play/pause, next and previous buttons, two headphone jacks, a volume wheel and that’s it! By comparison, all other DAPs feel clumsy and complicated. M7 is a well-though unit, that’s simple on the outside and complicated on the inside. You’ll find a glass sheet on top and on its back, rounded to the shape of its body, so that wireless tech as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth would perform as intended. You need exactly a minute to learn its inputs and outputs and I wish other DAP manufacturers would offer the same learning curve.
There are several details on its back that are adding a high-end flair to it. For example, the Shanling logo stays behind a sheet of glass and below it, Hi-Res and Hi-Res Wireless certifications got the same treatment. Another interesting aspect is that its volume wheel isn’t sticking out, sitting on the same level with the rest of its upper body, so you won’t accidentally turn the volume in your pocket, but if that’s still happening, you can always lock its buttons and volume wheel. Buttons are flushed, sturdy and firm, without wobbling at all, providing a satisfying click once pressed. M7 seems to be built like a tank and at 312 grams (by 30 grams lighter compared to M8 and by 97 grams lighter to M9), this is one of the lightest and smallest flagship DAPs I’ve seen in a very long time, a true portable flagship that could go anywhere with you. I quite enjoy its smaller form factor and knowing that I am getting a full-blown Android 10 experience makes me even happier.
Buttons & Layout
Besides increasing and decreasing volume levels, that wheel replaces an On/Off button, cleaning space for a sleeker looking unit. Besides the Play/Pause, Next and Previous buttons, a small LED light above will indicate its charging status. Gone are interchangeable headphone sockets that occupied a big portion of M8’s top side, instead we’ve got single ended 3.5mm and balanced 4.4mm headphone sockets, both of which can act as a SE or BAL line-out. Lastly, on its bottom you can spot a USB Type-C input used for charging, data transfer and USB DAC mode. Near it a microSD card tray can be spotted, covered by a plastic door – that’s the only piece of plastic you’ll find on it. I’m glad that Shanling used the 4.4mm Pentaconn as their main headphone jack, as this is my favorite balanced connector for multiple reasons (lower impedance, higher contact area, higher bandwidth). I wish all DAP manufacturers would embrace it at some point.
M7 uses a 5” Full-HD (1080P) IPS panel provided by Sharp, that’s bright, colorful, while providing great viewing angles. I find it sharper compared to their M6 V.21 and similar to their M8. While five inches won’t please your lady, for a DAP screen, it’s more than enough for light web browsing, gaming on the go and for casually watching Youtube videos. Third party apps looked crisp and sharp to me and there’s finally a much smaller chin below, smaller to the one found on M8, creating an almost bezel-less front panel. Do note that a bigger screen and a higher resolution would seriously downgrade its battery life and that’s the last thing you’d want in a Transatlantic flight.
Shanling went with a massive 7000 mAh battery – a similar one can be found on its older brother M8. Arming it with a high-capacity battery was mandatory as for its size and weight, M7 is one of the most powerful DAPs out there, draining a lot more power to entry and mid-level units. Obviously, it added some extra weight, but a few precious hours to its battery life too. It supports Quick Charge 3.0 and I strongly recommend using at least an 18-Watt fast charger, otherwise charging time can take up to 4 hours or more.
Shanling quotes a 10-hour battery life via the 3.5mm output and 8.5 hours via its balanced jack. In my case, I used only its balanced jack and I was able to squeeze 8 hours via low gain with sensitive IEMs, battery life dropped to 7 hours and a half when I moved a heavier tasks as Audeze LCD-4 and LCD-5, reaching a volume of ~80 out of 100 on its wheel. You’ll get better results via its single ended 3.5mm jack, but I couldn’t test it as all my IEMs and headphones are wired with 4.4mm Pentaconn connectors.
Under the hood of M7
Shanling moved away from the aging Snapdragon 430 SoC that was sitting in their former DAPs to a newer and much faster 8-core Snapdragon 665 that is also powering their flagship M9. That change was bigger than expected, as sailing through 3rd party apps feels much faster, like multitasking on a modern smartphone. Shanling migrated from an ancient Android 7.1, skipping several generations to Android 10. You no longer need to rely on APKPure or CoolAPK for the latest software updates, as you can use the official Google Play store and install any 3rd party app you can muster. Its UI is closer to a modern smartphone, it literally moves like one, it boots swifter, turns off instantly and more importantly: it loads any app considerably faster. I can multitask much easier with it, going from Shanling Music, to Qobuz, Tidal or Spotify is done in an instant. I can even play natively DSD files and multitask like a champ, something that M8 wasn’t doing so smoothly.
Shanling increased the RAM size from 4 GB (on M8) to 6 Gb, that helped with multitasking, with web-browsing, you can have multiple apps running in the background without ruining your listening experience. In all fairness, I can’t differentiate my phone from the M7, as they both move and respond to my commands instantly, never spotting a stutter in several weeks of testing. 64 Gigs of storage feels like a long-forgotten nightmare that haunted several flagship DAPs, it still haunts a few current production DAPs (cough FiiO M17 cough). Shanling doubled it and I can finally save a few lossless albums on the on-board storage, something that I didn’t bother doing with their M6 and M8. Considering its price point, 128 Gigs are decent enough and if you need a little more, just stick a MicroSD card up to 2Tb in size and carry your entire music collection. I have several 128 Gb and 256 Gb SanDisk cards, which worked excellent with it.
Now, here’s the interesting part, at the heart of M7 stays a desktop-grade ES9038 PRO DAC chip, that takes care of the digital to analog processing. M9 was a limited-edition model, as only 500 units were made due to unobtanium mature of AK4499 DAC chips. Shanling, swapped that one with an equally impressive ES9038 PRO which is the current flagship DAC of ESS Technologies and in many ways it’s the best DAC chip ever made. ES9038 PRO is a very interesting silicon, as it can work in mono, stereo or 8-channel mode with either current-mode or voltage-mode operation. Most ES9038 PRO designs that I know are using it in stereo configuration with a voltage mode operation due to a much lower cost, R&D and that is perfectly fine. However, if you want to squeeze maximum performance, this particular silicon gives a lower total-harmonic-distortion if current mode is being used. This configuration adds a lot to the cost, as a powerful I/V (current to voltage) conversion stage needs to be built around the ES9038 PRO. The better the I/V conversion stage is = the higher precision can be squeezed from the DAC chip and the same can be said about its operating mode, as in mono mode it will output a higher dynamic range.
For the I/V conversion stage, Shanling went with a pair of Analog Devices ADA4896-2 rail-to-rail amplifiers, carefully matched with high-precision resistors and with best-in-class Tantalum-Polymer capacitors. When making a high-performance D/A converter, the timing of the DAC is the second most important part and this is where M7 shines brightly, rocking custom femto-second crystal oscillators from KDS, fully preserving the timing of the DAC, leading to a higher-precision, to a lower jitter (noise) and of course to a purer sound.
Shanling went (once again) overkill with its headphone amplifier section, as warm and smooth sounding OPA2211 were used at the gain stage, followed by Muses 8920 J-FET high-current amplifiers and the by several BUF634A stages that are boosting its current output, so it could drive harder loads as desktop dynamic and planar-magnetic headphones. This isn’t only an impressive amp stage for the size, but probably their best headphone amplifier design, which stays in line with their costlier M8 and M9 units.
M7 has 3 gain settings and on the highest it will output some juicy 900mW into 32 Ohms on the balanced jack and 400mW into the same load via its regular 3.5mm jack, making it slightly more powerful than M8 and more or less the same with M9, which is kind of impressive.
As for wireless capabilities, it supports 2.4G and 5G dual-band Wi-Fi, plus all those fancy Bluetooth codecs not only as a sender, but also as a receiver. It can send and receive data in the best possible codec (LDAC) and thanks to Bluetooth version 5.0, the speed doubled and the distance quadrupled compared to their former devices.
As with their former flagship DAPs, they incorporated a full-blown MQA decoder. It fully unfolds MQA files (16X mode) not only in Shanling Music app, but also in third party apps like Tidal. Last, but not least, for a warmer tonality, a few audio grade Elna Silmic II electrolytic capacitors were added as power banks for higher dynamic swings.
Graphical User Interface (GUI)
M7 uses an unlocked version of Android 10, it was recently updated to FW 1.29 which added some quality-of-life improvements. Shanling lets you choose two working modes:
- Android mode, which lets you install and use any 3-rd party app. M7 still uses AGLO Technology, short for Android Global Lossless Output, meaning that the sound from 3-rd party apps will be processed correctly at its native sample rate. They disabled the stock Android ASRC, that unlocked the full potential of M7 even in the Android mode.
- Prime Mode, which completely disables its Android interface and lets you use it as an old-school music player. No more apps, no more notifications, no nothing, just you and your offline music collection.
Their own music playback software is called Shanling Music, it has all the important stuff a software music player should have, you can browse by anything you want, including by folder as I am doing, you can transfer your music wirelessly and even connect it to a UPnP (NAS) server.
As with all their previous DAPs, Shanling implemented endless shortcuts, swipes in different directions will access distinct menus, will change its volume or many other things. If you want to know them all, then I suggest checking its User Guide that can be accessed from the Support bubble. You can also check if a new firmware update was released, I recommend updating it via OTA (Over the Air) for convenience.
On FW 1.29, its GUI seems polished enough, moving much faster to their former devices, I didn’t encounter stutters or slowdowns even when playing 32 bit Hi-Res or DSD content. Streaming MQA files from Tidal and sending them to a Bluetooth headphone is simple and intuitive and as much as I’ve tried slowing it down, it didn’t happen, so no complaints in here. If you are curious how fast it moves compared to a Shanling M8, FiiO M11 Plus and Hiby RS6, I’ve ran the latest version of GeekBench on all four and I believe those numbers are speaking for themselves.
I. Preliminary Sound Impressions
Driving all sorts of IEMs and portable over-ear headphones with flagship DAPs feels so 1999 to me. Modern players and even tiny USB Type-C dongles are nowadays capable of driving much heavier loads, even desktop dynamic or planar magnetic headphones. I’ve put the AC on so I wouldn’t catch fire with a pair of closed-back Kennerton Rognir on my head, I’ve engaged Calm Like a Bomb by Rage Against The Machine (Qobuz / Tidal) - a regular track when I’m testing the pugilist nature of portable & desktop headphone amplifiers. Fifteen seconds later, a sinister Glasgow smile appeared on my face, a neck massaging session commenced shortly, as M7 didn’t only drove the damn things to rock concert levels, but added so much more energy in the lowest octaves and air in between the notes, while tightly controlling their drivers, that I couldn’t hold my emotions anymore. My son asked if I’m okay, while I was tapping my feet and banging my head. Am I at a loud rock gig around the city or is this thing so incredibly punchy and alive? It seems that Shanling’s M7 wasn’t crafted for the dead-neutral crowd that cares for linearity, you know…I was one of those folks too, but I’m no longer chasing numbers appearing on a screen. M7 was overdosing me with dopamine and positive emotions, as dynamics felt through the roof with this one. Shanling squeezed so much fun into a tiny package, it felt so agile, like I was watching seasoned Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater players stringing together 20 tricks in a few seconds, watching the show at ¼ the speed to understand what really happened. M7 overstimulated my senses, it will surely impress a music addict first and that’s the highest compliment I can give to a battery-operated device. Apart from dynamics, M7 sounded clean, transparent and noiseless with sensitive IEMs, but I cared more for the act of music listening and I believe it delivered on its promise to be technical and fun sounding at the same time.
Shanling knew that they’re dealing with the fastest, cleanest and most linear sounding chip-based digital to analog converter chip, that would need a special recipe to awoke a fuller midrange, a deeper bass performance and higher dynamics overall. I have their M8 DAP for two years now and I know how a pair of J-FETs can alter the overall performance by adding so much joy and energy into the mix. I went sky high and down to earth when I’ve seen J-FETs making a return on their newest M7 DAP. I’m not sure if this is the only DAP that houses such operational-amplifiers under its hood, but it looks like that, making the M7 just a little bit more special to me. If you ever tried their former-flagship M8 DAP, then you already know how important the musical involvement to Shanling really is. Yes, it’s technical, it’s clean, fast and impactful, but it’s also fun and so vivid sounding, starting with relaxing blues and finishing with angry metal. Instead of making it ultra-clean and ultra-revealing as FiiO envisioned their M17 DAP, Shanling went back to their roots and reminded us once again why we are listening to music in the first place. While M7 won’t outperform the M17 on a technical level, it’s a goose bump generator by comparison, pushing that midrange closer to the listener and delivering a fuller mid-bass performance across the board. They understood the limitations of the ES9038 PRO and worked around them, transforming a technical sounding silicon into a music making machine, reminding us again that everything that surrounds the DAP chip is by orders of magnitude more important.
Kennerton Rognir, Erzetich Phobos V2021 and Audeze LCD-5 felt revitalized and brought back to life, their soundstage didn’t collapse on me, as I was slowly walking thought my tunes searching for small imperfections, I’ve got deep reaching sounds that mid-tier desktop headphone amplifiers are known for and it felt very similar power wise! On high-gain and balanced 4.4mm output, the tiny M7 was providing pocket rocket levels of power, driving them close to their maximum potential, something that is usually reserved for big ‘n heavy desktop headphone amplifiers. There was a substantial headroom remaining on tap, so I could bring even top-grade DSD files into this discussion. As you already know, I’m trying to be as honest and as detailed as possible in all my reviews, it’s something that makes you come back and check what’s new around the crib, with M7 I’m putting my right arm on my heart and I’m telling you that this is the nicest sounding DAP that I’ve tried this year. It nicely balanced the flaws that ESS silicon is known for, they made it clearer and more detailed to their M8 DAP – which for the record inflicted heavier blows to your wallet and yet, M7 feels exactly as natural, as engaging, big and holographic sounding as it was before. It moves by orders of magnitude faster to M8, all apps are loading at least two times faster and I can finally multitask like a champ. Omitting its okay-ish battery life, there is close to nothing to complain about the little M7, it’s that good!
II. Noise Floor & IEM Pairings
As a respectable DAP manufacturer, Shanling puts on display an important information for IEMs users and by that, I mean its measured noise floor of 1.6uV on the regular headphone jack and a slightly higher 2.2 uV on its balanced output. M8 and M9 have similar measurements and knowing the noise free performance of M8, I wouldn’t be surprised for déjà vu levels of noise rejection. Armed with ultra-sensitive IEMs (113 dB per 1mW of power), I’ve went directly on its 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output, high-gain, I’ve paused my music and went all the way up, just to discover a pitch-black background. Can’t say I was surprised, as the newest DAPs that were tested around here, offered a similar noise-rejection tech. It didn’t matter if it was the 3.5 mil or 4.4 mil headphone jack, it didn’t matter the selected volume level, as M7 appeared noiseless in any circumstance. As usual, I needed to redo my tests with third party apps, as Qobuz, Tidal and Spotify and sure enough, M7 was inaudible as far as noise goes, it felt like it was turned off completely. There was a complete silence in between passages, musical notes were appearing out of thin air, so you can expect a pitch-black void of nothingness when music starts playing.
Everything else that was less sensitive as FiiO FH9, FH7, Meze RAI Penta, 7Hz Timeless and Little Dot CuKIS performed in a similar fashion. When it wiped the noise out of the equation, channel separation increased and the feeling of air traveling around improved as well, inner-details felt boosted, leading to a technical and engaging sound with all my IEMs. Attaching high sensitivity planar-magnetic cans as Erzetich Phobos V2021 and Kennerton Rognir didn’t increase the noise floor a single bit, meaning that you can use your entire IEM and headphone collection, without ever wondering if gremlins would be plaguing your listening sessions.
III. Power Output
Shanling’s M7 provides close to a watt of power (900mW to be more precise) on its balanced output, making it instantly the second most powerful DAP I’ve used so far, outperformed only by the FiiO M17 which is way bigger, heavier and costlier. Power wise, M7 is on the same level with their TOTL M9, it’s slightly more powerful than their former flagship M8 and it’s more powerful to a FiiO M15, M11 Plus and Hiby RS6. It feels so powerful on high-gain, that it can be easily compared to mid-level desktop headphone amplifiers. Driving all sorts of portable over-ears, IEMs and desktop dynamic headphones didn’t pose a slightest problem for the little guy, driving them all with unlimited headroom remaining on tap. Engaging high-gain on the 4.4mm output, I couldn’t go higher than 60 out of 100 with a Sennheiser HD800S and with something like Kennerton Vali, Erzetich Mania and Apos Caspian, I needed to lower the volume to around ~50 out of 100, leaving even more headroom for high dynamic range tracks.
Moving up the ladder to something more interesting as planar-magnetic headphones, Kennerton Rognir, Erzetich Phobos V2021 and Meze Elite were already loud at around ~65 and maximum I could go was 70, suggesting that power was never an issue with such loads. All of them were nicely controlled, getting an organic midrange, powerful kicks with bass intensive music and a relaxed treble delivery. M7 was swinging dynamics left and right, offering the highest engagement factor and transient response I’ve experienced as of late with portable devices. Their M8 performed in a similar fashion, but a clearer, see-through transparency of M7 sealed the deal for me, proving that M7 is ever so slightly better to its precursor.
The most difficult test lies ahead as Audeze’s LCD-4 and LCD-5 are no easy loads even for several desktop headphone amplifiers and yet at around 85 to maybe 90 out of 100, M7 was (again) pumping a healthy dose of dopamine, thanks to a livelier bass performance compared to a Hiby RS6 and FiiO M11 Plus. M7 was decompressing my music, pumping big chunks of positive energy along the way. Bass notes went a little lower to their M8, while kicking my eardrums with a higher force and in a blind test, I would never guess that a battery powered device was doing all this. As it was the case with Rognir, LCD-4 were driven close to their fullest potential and I’m so happy about that, as LCD-4 are still my second favorite headphones. On rare occasions, I could reach its maximum volume, but that was happening only with high-dynamic range DSD files, otherwise M7 had enough power even for heavy hitters as LCD-4 and LCD-5. Its power-overwhelming performance didn’t come as a surprise to me, as their former flagship M8 performed in a similar fashion, with the exception that M7 felt clearer, faster and punchier sounding in the lowest octaves.
The only headphone that didn’t work well was the Hifiman Susvara, dynamics weren’t there and there wasn’t enough power to adequately drive them, but we were already expecting this. From a plethora of portable devices that were tried around here, only FiiO M17 put in its DC Power Mode was able to drive the Susvara well thanks to an impressively robust output of 3 Watts per channel.
IV. Soundstage & Imaging
If you want the most spacious and the widest possible sound filed, then three simple quests lines need to be finished. First of all, you’ll need to push the digital to analog converter to its upper limits. Knowing that Shanling used custom developed femto-second clocks and that its internal ES9030 PRO works in a current mode operation (followed by a current to voltage conversion stage), already tells me how serious these guys are about its DAC section.
The second rule is that a strong and high-quality output stage is mandatory that will push the SNR a little higher. That’s one of the reasons you might want to use its balanced output for the best results. Third and last rule is that you will need a lower channel crosstalk (or a higher channel separation – it’s basically the same) compared to your listening volume, so that the left and right channel wouldn’t bump into each other, changing the location of the musical notes and murdering depth information. If you look closely, M7 offers a channel separation of 75 dB on the regular jack and a much higher separation of 115 dB on the balanced output, suggesting that the left and right channel will never cross their paths on the Pentaconn jack, as I don’t think you’ll ever go louder than 115 dB without permanently damaging your hearing. These numbers are telling me two things: that M7 is indeed a true balanced input to output device and secondly, if you want the most believable out of head experience, with music floating around your head, then you’ll definitely want to use its balanced output.
M7 met all those requirements and it can be described as quite spacious and deep sounding. Attach a higher quality desktop open-back headphone as Sennheiser HD800S or maybe some top-tier planar magnetic headphones and prepare for a massive sound that you would normally get from a desktop-class solid-state amplifier. The more I listened to it, the more it reminded me about several DAC/Amp combos, as the small fellow provided an abundance of power and control via its balanced output.
I tried chocking it down with the Audeze LCD-4, LCD-5 and Phobos V2021, but it refused hitting the brakes, never sounding overly shy or closed-in. M7 has an impressive channel separation and it shows when live music makes an appearance, adding a bigger void space in between the most right and left sound. In this regard, it sounded similar to their former flagship M8, it also reminded me about the FiiO M15 and to some degree, there is some of that airiness of the Hiby RS6. After putting it versus more affordable units as FiiO M11 Plus, Hiby R5 Gen 2 and Dethonray Prelude DTR1+, it was clear that M7 was playing in a higher league, always pushing the sounds and dynamics a little higher. In all fairness, this is one of the nicest soundstage and depth I’ve experienced from a portable device, as there’s no other way to describe its openness. FiiO M17 had a more precise imaging, with very sharp contour of the notes, while pushing everything ever so slightly farther away from me, but M7 came pretty darn close, while keeping the weight down and occupying less pocket space.
V. Transient Response
Considering everything I wrote in the first chapter; you already know that we’ve dealing with a highly entertaining sound. I’m not about Speedy Gonzales levels of speed or about an impressive slam in the ear drums, I’m about merging them together and putting that atomic energy into a pocketable unit that could be carried to your office and back home. On rare occasions a portable unit would provide you both, without halting dynamics or pressing the brakes with faster tunes, but I guess things aren’t always set in stone. The little fellow went with me to the Munich High End Show 2022 and back home as when it comes to dynamics and engagement factor, it will easily replace a mid-level DAC + Amp combo from the likes of Gustard, Topping, SMSL or Schiit Audio. I remember getting lightning-fast transients with FiiO M11 Plus and Shanling M6 V.21, but an above average impact into my eardrums. I also remember getting a visceral and impactful sound with a Hiby R5 Gen 2, especially after enabling its Class-A working mode, but a less impressive speed and I also remember getting a mellower, relaxed and almost polite performance with a Hiby RS6. When it comes to dynamics, there is always a balancing act between speed and impact and if I’m taking both into equation, then there was just a single unit that fully satisfied my needs and that my friends was the FiiO M17 put in its DC Power Mode, powered by a nicer iFi Audio iPower Elite power supply. The second most impressive unit was the Shanling M8 and it seems that the newest unit replaces its sibling, while mildly improving transient’s speed of delivery. Sporting outstanding dynamics with a good deal of power always remaining on tap helps in the long run, especially with modern tunes. Take their M6 V.21 and M3X as good examples, as I found them speedy sounding, decaying musical notes at the right time, but those were never pounding my eardrums with an incredible force when electric beats came out to play. Those were impactful only with IEMs & portable over ear headphones and barely okay with desktop headphones. M7 on the other hand never limited dynamics when electronica tunes were trying to impress with quick upbeats and tempo shifts. Long story short, if you need a fun sounding little DAP that is both speedy and impactful, then M7 seems like an easy recommendation to make!
VI. Detail Retrieval
Shanling didn’t economize with the M7, going with higher precision film resistors and higher-quality tantalum-polymer capacitors all around, wanting to preserve the signal’s purity as much as possible. Its D/A converter chip works in current mode, followed by a good I/V conversion and great amplifier stage. Dual channel J-FETs are ensuring a low noise and distortion and all of the things combined will lead you towards a clean, distortion free sound even at maximum volume. This is exactly what I did with a pair of Audeze LCD-4, I’ve went max power on high-gain and 4.4mm output and as much as I’ve tried, there wasn’t an increase of distortion, nicely holding together the integrity of those tracks, without mashing everything in a bowl of sounds.
I could easily focus on anything that played in the background and in this regard, it reminded about well-made chip-based D/A converters. It wasn’t as transparent, to a point of becoming dry and clinical as FiiO M17 could rarely become, but it felt clearer and less hazy sounding to a Shanling M8.
It was revealing an additional layer of information versus M8 and I could latch my attention towards low-level information much easier. While everything felt defined, outlined and clean sounding, I really liked that it wasn’t stealing my attention, trying to leave my music untouched, while infusing a higher mid-bass and midrange delivery, which worked as a cure for several headphones. M7 wasn’t poaching and screaming out loud: “Hey look there is a new micro-detail hiding in that corner, or look how impressively clean those double drums sounded behind my back”. It leaves a trail of technicalities in a very easy, natural way, so I would decide to follow that trail and hear the missing pieces or just enjoy the view and toe-tap to the rhythm of the music. M7 didn’t always feel like a magnifying glass for my tunes, it wasn’t clinical sounding as several ES9038 PRO designs might appear, as I believe they nicely balanced its clean nature, by adding more oomph down low and a lot more substance in the midrange, for a more enjoyable listen in the long run. So, No! This is not your mastering error sniffer (that FiiO M17 is known for), but it doesn’t need to, as often times the act of music listening is a lot more important and this is where M7 is glowing so brightly.
With all that said, it would still outperform a few dedicated DACs, as a good selection of components always leaves a mark when music does its thing. M7 will easily outplay a SMSL DO100, SU-8S and SU-9N, a Topping E30, E50 and D30 PRO, even if it has the size of my palm.
VII. Frequency Response
M7 will easily reveal the lowest and the highest octaves without too much hassle, covering our entire hearing range, but when it comes to sound signature and tonality, then this a very different story altogether.
Even without any burn-in, without updating it to the newest firmware and without attaching world-class planar-magnetics, M7 immediately rocked my world with a visceral and thumping bass performance. It wasn’t only very physical, visceral and fun sounding, but also highly technical and agile sounding. With M7 I’ve experienced a higher-quality bass, that was reaching for the deepest bass pits even with tiny multi-driver IEMs. Kennerton Rognir became so impactful and alive, that at times, I needed to lower the volume so I wouldn’t get punched in the face by powerful sub-bass notes. M7 is one mean sounding unit in the sub-bass and if you consider yourself a bass lover, then strap yourself in, as you’re in for a wild ride! Obviously, those J-FETs were adding a higher energy in here, so much so, that a big majority of mid-levels DAP felt boring sounding by comparison. Shanling’s M6 V.21, FiiO’s M11 Plus and even Hiby’s top-tier RS6 weren’t as visceral and hard pounding in the bass, instantly making M7 a more desirable unit for me. I’m reminding you that we’re talking about audiophile-grade bass, so forget about muddiness and In Da Club kind of bass, it’s far from that. Mid-bass notes were exactly as impressive, occasionally going a little higher, drawing most of my attention to this region, adding more weight, warmth and substance to a highly technical bass performance.
When ESS silicon hops on board, I’m already preparing my mood, making room for a clean, defined, but less involving midrange performance that would do more harm than good. However, everything that surrounds that silicon is way more important and I wasn’t surprised getting an overwhelming sensation of warmth, a higher density and substance with older rock tunes. Vocals had a higher saturation to them, leading towards a soul-grabbing performance with mid-centric music. I listened to more acoustic stuff on this one, as I couldn’t overlook that juicy midrange that filled my listening space immediately. It’s only by a hair less intimate and less involving to their M8 DAP, but it’s so close that you wouldn’t believe these are carrying world-apart DAC chips. M7 does have some of that velvety texture, as browsing through rock tunes went smoothly as a hot knife going through butter. In my humble opinion, the only unit that pose a threat is Hiby’s RS6 with its resistor ladder digital to analog conversion stage, but M7 felt extremely close to it, always trying to awake positive vibes with all sorts of tunes.
We are getting the usual affair that goes past 16 kHz, without causing nausea or ear-bleeding brightness. Think about a clean treble, that is fairly defined and sharp sounding, without causing troubles when cymbals and snare-drums are making a stage dive. Think about the sound of all discrete solid-state amplifiers and that’s pretty much how M7 sounded in the here, even if it doesn’t have an all-discrete output stage. M7 felt brightness free, while keeping up with fast double-drums, never messing with their cleanness and fast transients. There’s an easiness and softness that makes listening to rock tracks a breeze even with Hifiman headphones. It’s a highly technical treble, without the ringing associated with entry level converters. Overall, M7 revealed an extended frequency response with no drops or bumps along the way, with an exception that bass and midrange notes gelled together with my listening habits, putting a bit more energy and substance in there.
VIII. Wireless Performance
M7 uses a Qualcomm chipset that works as a sender and as a receiver. As a sender it supports all the nicest codecs as AptX-HD and LDAC and as a receiver, it is limited to SBC and LDAC only. M7 uses BT version 5.0 for a stronger signal and wider coverage compared to their older models. I connected a FiiO UTWS3 to it, the pairing process was straightforward and its BT connection was rock steady at less than 5 meters away. All my IEMs sounded decent to almost great, with an obvious downgrade as far as sound quality goes, owing it to a less impressive DAC and amp section of the UTWS3. With a DAP of this caliber, I would personally use only wired headphones for a better overall performance. However, if you’re jogging or going to the gym, where sound quality doesn’t matter that much, then for the love of Odin, M7 would do an outstanding job without draining the battery life of your smartphone.
As a receiver, I’ve connected my smartphone to it, I used Qobuz, sending all that goodness directly to it. The pairing process was again easy-peasy and BT connection was rock steady even at 10 meters away in an open environment. I don’t get why would you use it as a Bluetooth receiver, as you can use any streaming app directly on it, you can even use your NAS, DLNA and UPnP servers and those will sound by orders of magnitude better than any Bluetooth codec. But hey! Additional features never hurt; it’s always cool to have them around.
IX. An Important Comparison
Shanling M7 ($1249) VS Hiby RS6 ($1399)
I will be skipping their features & looks and I will be focusing my attention on their specs, user experience and sound quality. It needs to be mentioned that a slightly better SoC (Snapdragon 665 VS 660), more RAM memory (6 Gb VS 4 Gb), more ROM memory (128 Gb VS 64 Gb) and a newer OS (Android 10 vs Android 9) made the whole experience smoother on the M7. It has a higher sex appeal for me and it’s more future proof thanks to a better app support. RS6 didn’t feel sluggish or slow by comparison, but M7 was by a hair faster when loading and running multiple third-party apps and I could still store more music on its internal memory, which makes it slightly cooler in my eyes.
Hiby’s RS6 lags behind, losing the spec game and power ratings (~700mW VS 900mW), but it’s still a very unique DAP in its own way, something that no other DAP manufacturer did before. Instead of using off the shelf DAC chips, Hiby went with a ladder of resistors (R-2R DAC) that will be decoding zeroes and ones into sound waves, getting a more textured and natural sound to any other unit I’ve tried to this day. The biggest portion of its case is occupied by a ladder of resistors, leaving little to no room for an impressive amplifier stage. In this regard, M7 outperforms the RS6, providing higher quantity and quality power, as it isn’t only more powerful, but slightly clearer sounding along the way. In RS6’s defense, with the help of advanced plugins, adjustable FIR Filters and IEM specific tunings, you can you can deeply customize its sound and make it your own. Think about expanding the soundstage, making it speedier, thumpier, mellower or gentler sounding. Sky is the limit with RS6, I didn’t see a more customizable DAP before and if you like playing with dials, DSPs and all sorts of enhancements, then RS6 would be more interesting to you.
With M7, you are either liking its sound signature or not, as besides a few digital filters, gain and EQ, there’s aren’t additional sound enhancements to make it your own. However, after volume matching and comparing them for a few hours, I do slightly prefer a cleaner output of the M7 and it is still livelier sounding to me. RS6 will drive the Rognir really well, but will struggle in delivering a nicer headroom with Audeze LCD-4, something that M7 did better on all accounts. M7 was providing more power, it sounded clearer and more transparent and it was also more impactful in the lowest octaves. If you are into acoustic music of all sorts, where crazy dynamics aren’t needed, then RS6 might win you over with its mellow, yet organic presentation. I must confess that putting classical and older jazz tunes was a very relaxing experience via RS6.
While I find them equally impressive when repelling all types of noise, never increasing the noise floor with sensitive IEMs, M7 provided an additional layer of information that felt smoothed out a little on the RS6. Hiby’s best had a more relaxed treble performance, it didn’t highlight their contours, leaving an impression that bits of information were buried deeper into the mix. With RS6, everything is about midrange, as all the spotlights are moving towards it, providing a fuller bodied tonality, but a somewhat rolled-off sub-bass and upper-treble registers. M7 felt more extended by comparison, there was definitely more energy at both ends of the spectrum and I found it more expressive sounding, revealing additional information along the way.
Even if you can improve the sound staging capabilities of the RS6, in the stock form, M7 felt ever so slightly wider and taller sounding, preserving a little more depth information and providing a more three-dimensional sound. With open-back headphones, I could delve deeper with the M7, as RS6 was struggling in maintaining a similar scale and openness. It goes without saying that M7 was faintly bigger sounding on all axes, be it width, height or depth and it would infuse more air in between the notes.
In the end, RS6 felt less technical & powerful, somewhat warmer & mellower sounding and way more customizable along the way. RS6 was all about smoothness and relaxation of body and mind. RS6 wasn’t pressing the gas pedal to the floor with modern tunes and in my case, it worked better with acoustic music. Shanling’s M7 will be providing more power, more resolution, more refinement, while accelerating and decelerating dynamics as a sports car. It can be gentle with older tunes, but also mean and impactful with modern ones, covering more musical genres and carrying a higher engagement factor along the way. M7 boots and moves faster, offers a better app support and it’s also cheaper, what’s there not to like? While the final outcome might look as we got a winner and a loser, RS6 still has an ace under its sleeve, that makes it unique in its own way.
When Shanling released their flagship M9 DAP, it represented a massive step forward for the entire industry. They embraced a newer System-on-chip, they’ve put more RAM and ROM memory, opening windows towards a newer Android 10 ecosystem, all packed into a beautiful unibody case. A year later, their engineers went berserk, squeezing every single feature into a smaller, pocket friendly unit, while seriously slashing its price.
If you’re hunting for overachieving portable DAPs, that are up there with some of the best I’ve tried, without punching a hole in your pocket, then honestly, M7 feels overqualified for the job. Stop searching for a similar spec sheet, component selection, minimalist look and build-quality at $1249, as a similar unit doesn’t exist yet. I’ve added a single unit in the comparison above, only because at a similar price point all others wouldn’t stand a chance, not even its older and pricier sibling (M8).
It carries similar design cues, spec sheet and measurements with their TOTL $2799 unit, it still has the best layout (only three buttons!), the highest watt per dollar performance, making M7 a very easy recommendation to make. It was noiseless with IEMs, massive sounding with open-back dynamic headphones and always playful and engaging with my planar magnetics and for all of the reasons combined, it truly deserved my absolute highest, Gold Award!
M7 was kindly provided by Shanling, you can purchase it from their AliExpress Store, you can get it from their worldwide distributors right here, or you get it from HiFiGo right here. In case you’re getting one, please come back and leave a comment below, I’m curious to know how it performs with your headphone collection.
- Unique wave-like pattern, cool and modern looking
- Solid as a brick, top notch build quality
- Quite small and lightweight
- Rocks the fastest SoC in the DAP business (SD665), more RAM and ROM memory compared to its competition
- Great layout, ergonomic button placement
- Unlocked Android 10 with full Google Play Store support
- One of the nicest screens I’ve seen on a DAP
- Polished GUI, never had a hiccup or a crash
- Expanded soundstage, deep sounding too
- Great tonal balance across the board
- Great Bluetooth codec support
- Sounds clearer and more revealing to its pricier sibling M8
- Extended at both sides of the frequency-response
- Noiseless with ultra-sensitive IEMs
- Amazing transient response and driver control
- I won’t forget its playful bass and midrange performance anytime soon
- An amazing Value!
- Its premium leather case comes at an extra cost ($38)
- Unimpressive battery life on high-gain and balanced jack
- DACs: Audiobyte HydraVox & HydraZap, Chord Dave, Gold Note DS-10 Plus & PSU-10 Evo
- DAPs: Shanling M7, M8, Hiby RS6, R5 Gen2, FiiO M17, M11 Plus
- Headphone Amps: Trafomatic Primavera, Trafomatic Head 2, Enleum AMP-23R, Ferrum OOR + Hypsos, Flux Lab Acoustics Volot, Burson Audio Soloist 3X GT, several Topping, SMSL & Gustard units
- Preamps: Musician Monoceros
- Integrated Amps: Enleum AMP-23R, Burson Timekeeper 3i, Topping LA90
- Power Amps: Benchmark AHB2 (x2), Topping LA90
- IEMs: FiiO FH9, FH7, FA9, FD7, Meze Rai Penta, LittleDot Cu KIS, Kinera Skuld, 7Hz Timeless &others
- Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Susvara, HE1000SE, Arya Stealth, Audeze LCD-5, LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos V2021, Phobos V2018, Erzetich Mania, Sennheiser HD800S, Kennerton Rognir, Gjallarhorn, Vali, Apos Caspian, Sendy Peacock, Apollo, Aiva & others
- Loudspeakers: KEF Reference 3, Sound Of Eden Crescendo UNO
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Topping TCX1 (x2)
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3), iFi Audio SupaNova (x2)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC1500 (stereo setup), Elite BAC400 (headphone setup)