Shanling's EM7

As a professional voyeur—yes, pervy that—I obviously come across wildly more product sightings than I could ever review, own or even aspire to. Most of it goes in one ear then out the other. In-between some lands in our newsroom. Even fewer turn into formal reviews. While I don't really need it, occasionally one will cross my path which sets off lust bumps and unseemly calculations of rice 'n' beans vs. hifi. One such sighting happened this weekend with Shanling's new €2'099 EM7. To appreciate my occasion, remember that I'm WiFi allergic and against overpriced audiophile streamers. As such the upstairs of our rental is a WiFi/PC-free zone. Without vinyl and CD, how do we do tunes? Via SD card transports. To most that obscure category in these days of constant cloud streaming visualizes as a DAP aka digital audio player. Hello portable device for on-the-go headfi. For a good percentage of readers who easily connected these dots, it's actually a smartphone, end of. But if you now muddy those waters with my particular allergy and preference for local tunes, then subtract mobile and headfi just because I've got plenty of that already – what are you really left with?

Very few options. They're stationary SD card players from the likes of Aune, Soundaware and smsl. Think smaller displays, IR wands and folder-tree file surfing. Digital outputs including AES/EBU and I²S over RJ45/HDMI serve a DAC; and clock inputs can even slave to a DAC's matching clock outputs. Voilà, no moving parts, no massively paralleled processing computer, no WiFi, no Internet for a purist high-performance digital source. If one picks the right one, there will still be cover art and memory up to the current limits of SD cards; or an external drive. And pricing will be mostly peanuts versus the majority of audiophile-approved servers/renderers with WiFi tablet remotes.

To get a fancy smartphone-type GUI until now relied on converting a slick DAP from the likes of Astell&Kern, Fiio, iBasso, Questyle, Shanling & Co. into a stationary source via a dock. Years ago Questyle had a very fancy 'dock' shown top left. Today Fiio's €1'799 M17 über DAP shown middle left comes with its own fan-cooled desktop stand, a DC input and a plethora of outputs including a full-size digital coax. Astell&Kern have their ~€2K Acro CA1000 shown bottom left. It's a chunky headfi dock with RCA i/o and a coax out plus DAP-style screen. Unlike the older Questyle, that tilt display doesn't spend money on a full-blown DAP with digital/headfi electronics which the 'dock' then replicates at higher power. Devices like the Questyle and AK attempt to bridge mobile and stationary listening by integrating a DAP with a regular system via quality analog outputs of standard voltage. Until now, if one wanted a bigger touchscreen and USB out to crack coaxial's 24/192 glass ceiling, options were slimmer than a sheet of burning paper.

The D300Ref next to the listening chair serves as digital transport for the speaker system and the COS H1 headphone amp. It just doesn't do cover art or touch-screen scrolling.

Into this wilderness now step Shanling with their new silver or black EM7. Its tiltable Retina touch display mates to massive Susvara-ready 2.3W/32Ω single-ended, 7W/32Ω balanced headfi power across four frontal outputs, XLR/RCA analog outs in the rear then not just coaxial and Toslink digital outputs but USB. The SD card slot hides beneath the tilt display. Without hands-on experience, I don't know how slick/quick this GUI will be to navigate the contents of a large SD card. Perusing the currently available information—I've not been able to Google the actual owner's manual yet—I'm simply quite sure that close to my upstairs listening seat, the EM7 could be my personal bomb feeding my existing USB bridge into the Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC.

Do I really need it? No. Soundaware's super-reliable D300Ref does the same job already, just without cover art or touch screen but legacy infrared remote.

Do I want one? Absolutely. Men and their toys. This Shanling is the only machine I'm currently aware of that does everything I want it to the way I want it to for my particular application. In this spot it'd also retire the H1 by incorporating its functionalities.

Will the A or B side of my argument win? Let's see how this year's tax return splits groans and grins. If anyone wants to loan me a short-term sample to formally review in the interim, I'd be all ears.