Country of Origin


M3 Ultra

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen & John Darko
Financial interests: click here
Source: Soundaware Esther M1 Pro
Desktop system: HP Z230 Win10/64 workstation, Singxer SU-2 USB bridge, iFi iDSD Pro Signature DAC/pre, DMAX SC5 active speakers
Upstairs system: Soundaware D300Ref SD card transport, Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC, icOn 4Pro preamp, SublimeAcoustic K231 xover, Crayon CFA-1.2 amp, MonAcoustics SuperMon Mini monitors, Dynaudio 18S subwoofer
Headphones: Meze 99 Neo/109 Pro, HifiMan RE2000,
Review component retail in Europe: €469 incl. VAT

3.5mm + 4.4mm outputs, twin ES9219C DACs, MQA, lo/hi gain, 140/260mW/32Ω single-ended/balanced, Android 10, Snapdragon 665 processor, Bluetooth 5.0, Qualcom WCN3980 5G WiFi, MicroSD, sub 1Ω out

There once was a DAP by Shanling
which looked quite the dapper thing.
Cloud squeeze or local
same sonic total,
just no iPhone ring.

We live an hour from Limerick so (cough) forgive the crude attempt at audio rhymes. With our two units, John in Berlin and I in Kilrush are doing our stuff—he WiFi and Bluetooth, I the SD card-farming locals—before we'll gather 'round the podcast fire to chew the fat. How much fat does this deck have? Or is it all stripped-back lean? At €469 from French onliner, it's an entry-level digital audio player from a familiar brand well entrenched in the sector. As such it's primarily aimed at mobile headfi. Forget fixed line-level or S/PDIF outputs we'd get from models that go for more broke. In Asia, DAP remain a very big thing. Brands like Astell & Kern, Cayin, Fiio, Hiby, HifiMan, iBasso, Lotoo, Questyle, Shanling & Soundaware serve this sector. Spending €3K+ on a flagship isn't unheard of. But already the M3 Ultra must target better sound than dongled-up or solista smartphones priced alike. Otherwise it's a needless extra stone in the pocket to prompt one more limey rhymey lick:

KDS clocks | ELNA Silmic II coupling capacitors | dual-mono Ricore RT6863 opamps 

There once was a DAP called brick
whom most viewed as quite the hick.
Clunky and funky
plus overly chunky,
'twas neither slick nor trick.

That's so not what we expect from Shanling's latest. To be sure, we just need to get hands on then ears in. Inveterate desktoppers already realized that bidirectional USB-C easily turns the M3 Ultra into a stationary DAC's digital server. In such transport-only guise, spending more on beefier and more outputs goes entirely off-script. Now all of that becomes not just non but anti feature. Could the M3 Ultra be an ideal hardwired source for a small system in lieu of a PC? The answer would depend on the speed of the Snapdragon 665 when navigation meets high-capacity SD card; and what search/play functions Shanling's Android 10-based OS supports. For now this manual has the bare-boned story. John confirmed with Frankie at the factory that wireless radiation can be turned off by menu. That soothes my legacy brain which misspells WiFi 'headache'. As model year 1962, it never got the Y2K harmless memo. So hardwired is my religion. It's got very few believers. But it makes for nice oppo research on John's wireless fluidity. Four ears. Two identical loaners. And the winner is?