I’ve listened to the M3s with the Oriolus MKII, FiiO F9 Pro, Clear Tune Monitors VS3 and InEarz Nirvana. Almost all of those are warmish IEMs so that played very well for matching. And I would prefer just that, warm or close to warm IEMs. Also you may want to pair it with IEMs that have good bass response to compensate the quantity. If you love energetic and treblish sound, you can also pair up with some neutral or open sounding IEMs, as the M3s puts up a great job controlling the sound. But again, my advice would be warm pairings.
Shanling M2s – M2s has looser, warm and boomier bass. Separation is not at the same level but it can give “more” bass to you if you love that. Mids and trebles are simply better with the M3s as well as all technical aspects.
FiiO X3 Mark III – I liked the new X3. It also has a very nice sound for the money you would spend. But it comes a little short here for the sound part. FiiO doesn’t sound natural like the Shanling, but the difference is not substantial. The important thing here is the treble response. The Shanling has more extension in this part, and it has more separated highs from mids. X3 has just a little more bass rumble than M3s, but M3s gives more quality in terms of control and layering. Sound stage is similar, resolution is very close but Shanling comes on top to me. The biggest difference, I repeat, is the treble. FiiO cuts the extension earlier so it has roll of compared to Shanling.
FiiO X5 Mark III – I’m going to take this to another level. I think in a technical manner, Shanling M3s sounds better than the X5III. FiiO doesn’t have the great noise floor the M3s has, and it sounds digital, compared to the neutral and effortless sound of the Shanling. For sure FiiO has more bass, more energetic feel in it but it doesn’t impress me no matter how many times I listen to it. Naturalness is very important in my book. So I would choose the Shanling just for sound. The X5III has more features and better usability, but in terms of pure sound, the M3s is the better DAP to me.
HiBy R6 – The new bit-perfect Android player is one of the best in its price range right now. It has more bass and also retains the control to some extent, having musical and darker mids but rolled of treble. That of course is the case from the Single Ended output. From Balanced, it sounds simply better than the M3s, especially for dynamism. But the M3s still has a great tonality, neutral character and very good staging in its advantage. The stage depth is better on the R6 though. All in all, the R6 triumphs from Balanced, but M3s is actually (technically) great, when you compare the Single Ended outputs.
Sony WM1A – Sony has the upper hand in everything, as you can guess from the price range. But I wanted to include it because I think they share a similar sound character. Shanling M3s also manages to sound highly natural while maintaining the technical sound, without giving any digital feel. That’s exactly what the Sony does. So I’m impressed by the M3s here.
There’s not a big difference between the balanced and single ended output of Shanling M3s. The difference is there, but it’s nothing huge. From balanced, you have a little more width in the sound stage, and separation of treble becomes a notch better. Yet, that’s only noticeable in a quiet listening session. The sound overall becomes a little more cleaner as well. So I think investing on a 2.5mm cable for this DAP is not vital.
Tiny in size may be, but this is a huge DAP from Shanling. They surely know how to create an effective audio circuitry and great sound quality with that. The design is very charming and attractive, form factor is great, usage is good (although I think they should shift to a touchscreen later) and the sound is an absolute joy for this price.
I’ll ask Lieven to take out their M2s DAP and replace it with the Shanling M3s to our beloved DAPs list. Without a doubt, I think it’s worth the extra money over the M2s, unless you’re looking for ultra mobility.