The eye in the sky. Because of WiFi allergy, our household also differs from homo digitalus generalis in barely using cellphones. Our two home offices actually still have an old-fashioned landline through the same fiber-optic router as our Internet. It implies that I'm not at all up to date on sundry Android/iOS versions which will be so familiar to Mr/s Smartyphone. While I was surprised by the progress made over my old Questyle QP1 and Soundaware Esther DAP since Shanling run current Android 10, regular buyers will expect all related functions of multiple screen swipes and various pull-down/up sub menus. Phew. I needn't parade my general ignorance on such matters by gushing over Shanling's GUI other than say that it and the SnapDragon processor behind it should be perfectly familiar and intuitive to Android phone users. I'll just cover certain basics whilst utterly disregarding wireless and in-car features. [The following three images are larger than shown so right-clicking each can open them in a new tab to show at full screen size and beyond.]
Press the volume wheel to launch the display. Hit the familiar 'settings' icon to set up the device. Drag'n'drop music to microSD card then run 'library update' so the OS can quickly build its table of contents. Library search functions include by song, folder, album, artist, genre, hi-res, playlist, WiFi transfer, NAS and SyncLink. On the same scroll page you'll also find a secondary 'settings' menu with functions like sleep timer, playback resume, automatic library/playback transition, folder/album skip, EQ, gain, cover-art modes, UV meter themes, general theme and more. Whatever library search mode you select, a swipe along the right screen edge brings up the alphabet to quickly skip ahead or back. Thick fingers will only manage a general vicinity but with thousands of tracks loaded, jumping from A to ~M to then scroll to the intended O is close enough. Being able to access 'folders' is important when you drop pre-made playlists to SD card in custom folders. Say such a folder contains 200 tracks. In album/artist view, it will split out into 200 different artists and albums even though each only accounts for a single track. In those modes you never actually get to hear your playlist. But in folder view, it all shows up and plays as imported.
I imported .aiff files from my iMac library, .flac files from my Windows workstation. All album art migrated and displayed perfectly. Should files lack album art, Shanling inserts attractive placeholders from a built-in small cache. In standard playback mode the display's top bar shows volume setting/mute, file type, battery charge and time. The secondary bar has icons for various drop-down menus. One of them replaces album art with a VU meter. That's informative to anyone who wants to see the recorded dynamic range of their music. Uncompressed files will flicker between -40 and -10. The rare peak might nearly hit 0. Compressed fare will never move past -10dB. It mainly just redlines. Bad dog. Below album art shows 2/17 for current/total tracks, track/album/artist name, a progress bar with elapsed time to the left and total time to the right, a heart icon to set favorites, back/pause/play/next icons, a mode icon for list/repeat 1/repeat all/shuffle play and another sub menu to add the current track to a playlist or delete it from the device. A down swipe from the top brings up direct-access buttons for WiFI, Bluetooth, headphone/line-out, Android/Prime mode, gain and DAC single/dual mode. Swiping down once more expands that menu to include USB mode, screen off, screen sharing, night light and a volume cursor. In short, even to a smartphone alien like myself, it all was perfectly self-explanatory and quick. Likewise for the first library scan when my card was 50% populated. Convenient too for next-to-chair server mode is that a short press on the volume knob blacks out the display and another press or double tap on the screen revives it. A tiny light next to the USB port changes color depending on outgoing sample rate and also turns an embarrassed red whilst charging.
Yeah but. I hear dropping peanut shells in the galleries. Are you really telling us that your fancy system is off none the worse for starting out with a €469 digital transport when that's what you paid for your 6m AES/EBU cable alone? Guilty as charged your honors. That's what I'm saying on my dead triodes. Then prove it and use it in your downstairs main system. I would if I didn't already have a big 27" maxed-out iMac there. Well okay. I guess we best change channels to bitch somewhere else then. Happy trails to you too. Remember that upstairs the M3 Ultra runs into a big Soundaware D300Ref. That includes a full-size SD port, basic grey-scale display without cover art and an IR remote. It's what I used as digital transport before the Shanling arrived. In fact, I wrote an industry feature about Shanling's €2K+ EM7. For today's focus that becomes massive overkill by adding the functionality of my existing COS Engineering H1 headphone amp but server-wise just copies its stablemate DAP. What the M3 Ultra's modernity adds to Soundaware's last-century folder-tree GUI is the touch screen, full-color album art and far more interactive search/nav features. And sonically there's no demerit between €3'150 Soundaware or €469 Shanling though admittedly the latter runs through the former for an extra round of clocking. I simply already own the D300Ref and need its DDC function to run a 6m digital cable. Hence the double trouble that's no trouble. USB direct out of the Shanling wouldn't span the 6m distance. If I didn't already own the Soundaware, I'd move the DAC in its place to reach with the current 2m USB cable, then run 6m analog XLR into the preamp instead. Where there's a will there's always a way.
A forthcoming conversational podcast review with John Darko will revisit the M3 Ultra to add the much bigger usage half of cloud streaming. That'll be John's corner. As an avid WiFi enthusiast, he'll be able to discuss how close Shanling's Android 10 OS duplicates that of equivalent smartphones. My corner shall counter with an impromptu version of the above plus compare headphone drive findings with John. But regardless of how ill-fitting he might regard my promotion of the M3 Ultra as hardwired digital server to his own needs, I'll stick by it as tight as the gnarly bark of an old hickory tree. If you live in my kind of vintage tower, the M3 Ultra is a very cost-effective solution for getting locally hosted files into offline systems without a PC/Mac. It's why it already appeared in my Year 2022 favas then prompted this feature on the elephant asking the naked man whether he can really breathe through that thing.
Yes I can!
Where the M3 Ultra breathes uneasy is on gapless. Tracks which on the same files via Audirvana on my PC/Mac transition seamlessly over Shanling's OS hit a small 'pause' before the next track starts. That is not what the artists intended so a small red mark on the M3 Ultra's scorecard. Will there be any more from John's time with it? Wait and see. As for myself and how I use it, I'm all Gollum about it: My precious!
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