For the purpose of this review, I used my Onkyo IE-C3 for IEM testing and the Sennheiser HD-800 for headphone comparison. All files were FLAC 16/44 or FLAC 96/24 from Qobuz, be it in USB DAC mode or pure player mode. Streaming comes from Spotify in “exceptional” mode and is sent directly though Airplay.
Straight out the box, the Shanling M5S is one of the driest players I tried these last months. The first time I thought my ears were defective and I lost the bass driver.
But, track after track, I/it retrieved the bass. It’s amazingly flat and unless you ever heard monitor speakers, it’s hard to describe how tight they feel. Every nuance or sensation is perfectly transcribed but the natural rumbling I’m used to is almost non-existent.
It took me no less than a full album to get my hearing accustomed, even more with classical music. A good track to test was “Aulos” from Vladimir Cauchemar – Orchestre lamoureux version, beginning pianissimo and rising steadily to a massive fortissimo.
And this is where the Shanling M5S outshines its direct competitors : dynamics. Soundstage isn’t especially larger than other players, but once you begin to upper the volume you can distinguish subtle nuances previously unheard. Separation is excellent and above all, the player never differs from its neutral path.
Compared to the FiiO X5iii, found at the same price, the FiiO seemed more engaging and less natural. The M5S offers more detail at the same volume, you can really feel it when the drummer hits his drum, as if you couldn’t hear the skin going back and forth before.
The output power in balanced mode is enough to drive my Sennheiser HD800. If the numbers were not clear enough, the test proved it : with the Shanling M5S stick to the balanced headphone output. It’s wider, by large, more dynamic and the transitions are far more accurate. In fact, unless you REALLY have no other way, always use the balanced output on this player.
Highs : neutral and pleasant. Even if the Shanling M5S feels dry, that doesn’t mean the treble is taking the lead. Instead, the DAP seems to be a bit shy in this range and if you like sparkles, you should look elsewhere. Everything is damn straight and no frequencies overlap each other. A trumpet sounds like a trumpet, a violin like a violin, that’s a fact.
Mids : flat (again). Nothing fancy either, Shanling knows their work and if you like to hear micro-details, this is the one you should consider in this price range. Vocals are great without any sibilance and I could hear some reverberation previously unheard on lower-tier DAPs. I still prefer the more engaging sound of the FiiO M9, but if you like flat-sounding DAP, take the M5S.
Lows : tight and accurate. If the bass is tight, it may trouble some of you by their dryness. Unfortunately even if you play with the EQ, that will not change. Personally, once you tasted it, it’s hard to listen to anything else. I had a hard time moving from “planar-tight-bass” to ‘boombox-wobbly-lovely” bass, and vice-versa. My advice : get two players, a M5S for neutral listening and everything else for the fun.
Noise : at low volumes there is a faint noise with highly-sensitive IEMs, but 99% of us won’t hear it.
A polarizing DAP, that’s what the Shanling M5S is. The splendid build quality alone is a vast accomplishment on its own, if you don’t take in to account othe low-resolution screen. The DAP is enjoyable on various levels :the fast UI and a straightforward and beautiful design.
The UI is nice and robust, even if the screen doesn’t do it justice. It can be plugged to a smartphone through WiFi or Bluetooth for even more versatility and most of all : it works all the time.
It’s a neutral sounding DAP and even on complex tracks it’s never lost. Strangely, for a newcomer in the audiophile world, this would be my first choice. This way, you can “clean” your ears and find what type of sound you like before getting a higher tier player.
A great player in my opinion, even if not for everyone.