The most striking performance from the M9 comes in the sound-stage and separation departments. The instrument separation is just fantastic. In terms of stereo imaging, this is as good as it gets. Everything is separated very sharply and you can point out any instrument of a song from multiple directions. And it gets even better because it also has a great sound-stage performance. The stage is very wide and deep, together with excellent layering ability. In addition, the mid-range I think has the biggest upgrade over the M8 in terms of transparency and spaciousness. The vocals and instruments sound exceptionally clean.
Resolution is on par with flagship player standards. I think it’s on the SP2000 level, if not better in the mid-range, with a refined and spacious/clean presentation. That’s also the case for other super-flagship DAPs, so the M9 is certainly among the best in here.
Flowing and Natural
Another great thing about the M9 s sound is the naturalness. The sound is liquid and smooth without any uncomfortable nature even with bright IEMs such as Shozy Elsa or VE7, as it gives wonderfully relaxed and flowing music. It presents you with a very rich and lush sound, and it does that with good dynamism and clarity. The micro-resolving ability is excellent as well. The tiniest details in the recordings are presented effortlessly. Having a great background performance certainly helps in that regard, which the M9 has.
The output power from Balanced is sufficient to drive most headphones including the HD800S. And, it is also very silent with sensitive IEMs. So apart from its versatility regarding the software and overall usage, it is also a versatile device when it comes to pairing with different gear. Over-Ear Headphone mode helps greatly in that regard, and you can even try that mode with relatively high impedance IEMs. You’ll be surprised as it improves the dynamism and PRaT even further.
The M8, as I’ve remarked in the article so far, sounds warmer and more euphonic than the M9. But the cost is the loss of air, spaciousness and definition. The M8 is a spacious sounding device on its own but not so as the M9. The resolution and transparency in the M9 are better, especially in the mid-range. It has better layering too, which is the highlight of this new flagship without a doubt. You can still hook up a relatively bright IEM and have a great sound from the M8, but it’s not as refined nor spacious as the M9.
In terms of experience, as I already mentioned, the M9 has a faster CPU with 2x RAM. It also has Android 10 versus the 7.1 in the M8. The headphone socket system is mechanically better. Its size is significantly bigger though, so if you have an M8 and prefer portability more, you can as well keep it. But the sound and hardware upgrades are hard to ignore, especially when you actually listen to the M9.
Astell & Kern SP2000
Who else is waiting for an upgrade for the flagship A&K DAP? When A&K release that one, I hope they can introduce a much faster CPU and a more refined UI. The other Android flagships provide better hardware in terms of operation, and a more modern looking UI. The M9 in this case is much faster, especially when connecting streaming services. The A&K’s UI is getting a bit older these days so a new upgrade would be fantastic.
For sound, the SP2000 is still a benchmark but I think the M9 is equally good, if not better in the mid-range in terms of clarity. They both have amazing sound-stage as far as portable DAPs go, and the supreme layering of the M9 is actually similar to the SP2000. If you remember I mentioned I was expecting M9 to be a non-sound update to the M8, and so I didn’t expect it to challenge the SP2000. The M8 was a great DAP for sound but not on the same level as the big boys like the SP2000, or the WM1Z. Now I can comfortably say that Shanling has reached that level with this one.
Of course, the SP2000 doesn’t have full Android support like the M9 with Google Services. And it’s not as fast as the M9 nor does it have that glorious display. Yet, it has a more premium feeling with the steel/copper chassis, ”crown” volume dial and carbon back. It’s more compact too. So the main factors here are the size, CPU, UI and structural quality. But again, the sound quality of these two are very very close and I think the M9 has even better mids. It’s not a question of sound quality but features and design.
When Shanling introduced the M9, I thought it would be a design and operation improvement only. Turns out it wasn’t true. The sound quality has a distinctive upgrade too, which has been a surprise for me. The M8 is still a great player but it has a warmer sound than most DAPs so you need to match it properly. The M9 on the other hand performs great with many different IEMs/headphones with good consistency and great technical performance. I know many people found the price increase hard to swallow, but when you listen to the device, it impresses.
Sure, if you already have an M8 with good synergy with your IEMs/headphones, you don’t need to pay that much money for the M9. Likewise, if you have the SP2000 or DX300 Max, or FiiO M17 (those are not really portable but maybe you’re looking for a transportable desktop device), you don’t need the M9.
But if you’re looking for a TOTL portable DAP with an excellent screen, good battery life, fast operation and full Android support, this is one of the best players in the market. I don’t know if the regular version will be as good as this one, but regardless, I recommend the M9. If the regular version turns out to be great for the price, I’m willing to change my opinion. But for now, the M9 is a strong recommendation.