The Shanling M3s is about two main conceits: Clarity, and smoothness. What struck me first was just how fluid the sonics were, without relying on warmth to achieve it. Because the M3s is not very warm at all. In fact, it’s really quite neutral. And it uses this tuning to further its second agenda of immensely clean, transparent audio. The overall tone is airy and light, but the M3s is not without serious richness.
There is impressive refinement and maturity to this player. The rough edges are sanded smooth. All signs of digititis are cleared up. We’ve stepped beyond budget performance, and things like depth and layering are on full display. The M3s does an admirable job of giving you a vivid image of the elements, where the singer takes on proper dimensions and is sharply defined. Vocals have weight and truth to them and sound very much like they’re in the room with you.
Dynamics are strong enough that the M3s never gets dull or anything less than engaging. However, it is going for a smoother, more laid-back sound. Aggression is not in its character. It walks the line between energy and smoothness like a champion. The M3s creates a profoundly transparent sound, where the “device” disappears and all that’s left is the music. It’s natural, conveying more of those overtones and atmospheric effects than you get in lower tier products. The space/venue is rendered well. The background is good and black with most headphones, though super sensitive IEMs may pick up some very low-level hiss only noticed when the music is not playing.
Soundstage is quite big, capable of giving you great width and height, and moderate depth. Depending a lot on the headphones of course. Yet I’m pleased to say, it delivers a grander hall than most DAPs I’ve tested. Combine that with the excellent imaging and layering, and a real gift for high resolution rendering, and you have all the ingredients for a tremendously lifelike performance.
All that is fine and good, right? But it’s hard to parse my heinous gibberish without solid context. So here are some pertinent comparisons with which to plague your conscience:
The Shanling M2s ($199, Review HERE) is really very close in tuning. When I first heard the M3s, I was sure it was brighter than the M2s. But after conducting an A/B test, using a line switcher for immediate changes, I found them nearly identical in tone. The M3s may have slightly better treble extension, however. Where it really struts its stuff is in soundstage, being noticeably larger. Also, it creates a greater sense of depth and three dimensional form. The M2s comes off rather flat in comparison. The M3s is more organic, with lingering notes and fuller overtones. Energy is a bit more in-your-face with the M2s. Finally, the M2s is rougher and less smooth, sounding a tiny bit more “digital”.
Cayin’s N3 ($149, Review HERE) is indeed warmer. The treble is a little rolled off, and the bass is enhanced. It achieves its smoothness the easy way, whereas the M3s does so by rendering with finer skill. Soundstage on the M3s is wider and deeper. The image is clearer and more vivid. The N3 feels kind of dull in comparison. Once again, the M3s outclasses with a holographic presentation, causing the N3 to sound utterly 2D. They are both kind of laid-back in dynamics, but compensate for it in different ways: The N3 throws a party with slamming bass. While the M3s thrills you with crystalline treble and transparency. Here also the M3s fills in those empty spaces left by Cayin with more complete harmonic overtones, resulting in greater realism and musicality.
The new Cayin, the soon-to-be-released N5II, is inarguably an upgrade. The price is yet to be set, but it should be around $400. And it sounds like it. The tuning is very much in line with Shanling, aiming for neutral with maybe just a hint of warmth. Performance wise, though, it is a step up. It’s a more dynamic, punchy motherf**ker, while being just as smooth and refined. Clarity and transparency is increased in the N5II, taking things to a whole new level. It resolves at a higher degree, with blacker backgrounds, greater depth, and cleaner separation of elements. While the M3s is good at dimensionality, the N5II is better, illustrating a more compelling, holographic hall. And finally, yes, the soundstage on the N5II is a touch wider. So it’s an upgrade, but one you’ll have to pay for.