The M0 utilises ESS Saber’s 9218S, the same chip used in the LG V30, in addition to the integrated Saber amplifier. I quite like its sound, and definitely prefer it to the low-end to midrange AKM DACs as it sounds a little cleaner and more transparent while still providing a little extra warmth that helps fill things in when on the go. Power output is also very commendable at 80mW into a 32ohm load, offering significantly more power than competing models from Hidizs, Apple and Sony. Moreover, it does so without introducing any hiss on top, the M0 is absolutely noise free, even in BT receiver mode, and doesn’t pick up EMI either, terrific! Max volume is also very high and its fine 100 step volume control provides a wide range to suit a variety of gear.
Combined with a very low 0.17ohm output impedance, the M0 is perfect for low-volume listeners and users of low-impedance multi-driver IEMs like the Campfire Audio Andromeda. This spec is especially impressive as certain portable DAPs like the Hidizs AP60 can skew the sound signature of certain IEMs due to a higher output impedance, which is often raised to reduce hiss. As such, most hyper-portable DAPs either have a fair amount of noise, a high output impedance or both, it’s impressive that the M0 manages to excel in both regards. In terms of power output and control, the M0 delivers a positive experience with the majority of in-ear monitors and most portable headphones but did lack some dynamics on my full-sized headphones, this is to be expected and will be further explored in the pairings section below.
The M0 is quite a clean sounding player with a slightly warm low-end similar to the Fiio M7 combined with a little more control that maintains definition. This is also counteracted a slightly enhanced detail region all set to a neutral background. This can be slightly altered using the in-built filters, I used Brick wall for this review. Of note, the M0 received over 100hrs of burn-in to ensure optimal performance. As with every source review, the degree of deviation from neutral is significantly smaller than the differences between headphones, please take this into account when reading my following comments.
The M0 possesses a well-extended low-end with slightly enhanced slam at the very bottom. Mid-bass is elevated by a hair while upper-bass is more neutral, feeding into a transparent midrange. Besides its lightly warm tone and enhanced slam, the M0 is well-controlled with rather impressive dynamics for such a compact and affordable device. Bass notes are nicely defined and well-separated despite being enlarged and bloat or muddiness never creep in as a result. Speed is moderate but hardly sloppy though you still don’t receive the fine texture and detail of higher-end DAPs. Still, this is a commendable performer that imbues pleasing musicality into the attached earphone without introducing any bloat or muddiness.
The M0 has a linear, neutral midrange that is a delight to the ear. The lower-midrange feeds evenly from the upper-bass, imbuing vocals and instruments with a natural sense of body. Upper-mids aren’t brought forward to enhance clarity nor are they attenuated to compensate for a lack of low-end quantity. Instead, they are linear with excellent extension, creating an open female vocal presentation. This also aids treble instrument body, avoiding an overly skewed timbre despite local emphasis. As bass is slightly enhanced, mids are occasionally a hair warmer then neutral, though they remain transparent for the most part. Detail retrieval is good and timbre is realistic. Listeners will enjoy the M0’s neutral vocal placement and accurately bodied notes.
A slightly more pronounced lower-treble defines the M0’s high-end that, in turn, delivers a crisp and slightly aggressive presentation. Detail retrieval is fairly strong and details are brought forward, but not to the extent of sharpness or fatigues. Meanwhile a neutral middle-treble produces a similarly neutral background that, in conjunction with the M0’s black noise floor, creates an especially clean sound that aids instrument separation and the discernment of fine detail. Still, the M0 does present a few weaknesses, one being treble extension. It is great for the price but expansion of the soundstage and greater micro-detail retrieval are clearly evident when switching to a higher-end source (though I can say the same for any budget source). The M0, therefore, provides a treble presentation that augments its sound, with an impressively clean background and a crisp, if slightly thinner instrument presentation.
The M0’s soundstage expansion is very good. Width is especially strong but depth is more intimate. One thing I did note was a tendency for the M0 to push width into height, with higher-end DAPs providing a more stable presentation. Regardless, imaging remains strong at this price on behalf of its neutral midrange, great separation and defined layers. Separation is also strong mostly due to its well-controlled low-end and transparent midrange. It’s hard to convey the exact quality of the M0, as it is so cheap you still can’t expect TOTL performance, but in many regards such as soundstage expansion and imaging, it does keep up with most lower-midrange sources which is quite a feat and will surely impress the majority of listeners.
Comparisons were made using an inline switcher connected to the M0 and an iBasso DX200 (AMP5) which has a sub 1-ohm output impedance. Comparisons were volume matched using an SPL meter. Given the M0’s extremely low output-impedance, it should not skew any of the earphones below, however, we can observe differences due to power output and damping, filters, tuning and more. Select pairings below:
iBasso IT01 ($100): The IT01 is a popular single dynamic in-ear, it has a low 16-ohm impedance and a high sensitivity, its impedance is just high enough that it should experience no alteration in signature, it is also a single-driver in-ear. Tight low-end, well-controlled and defined. Sub-bass isn’t quite as extended or hard-hitting. Most neutral midrange with natural vocals. Organic treble, slightly detail forward. Wide soundstage, more intimate depth but well-separated and accurate imaging.
Fiio FH5 ($250): The FH5 represents a nice midrange hybrid IEM that is also very sensitive and with a very low 12-ohm impedance. Mostly untouched sound besides a slightly greater weighting on the mid-bass than sub-bass. Otherwise, the low-end is nicely defined and controlled. Slightly more pronounced lower-treble provides crisp but slightly thin instrumentation. Midrange is linear and transparent. Impressively wide soundstage with accurate imaging.
Dunu DK-3001 ($500): The DK-3001 is a higher-end hybrid that is similarly very efficient with a low 13-ohm impedance. Mostly untouched sound signature. Bass is slightly less controlled, with a touch of mid-bass bloom. Otherwise, it is nicely defined with just slightly enlarged notes. Mids are slightly warmed but maintain an accurate timbre overall. Slightly crisper treble, nicely detailed. Good soundstage expansion with accurate imaging, good separation.
Hyla CE-5 ($940): The CE-5 is one of the most output impedance sensitive earphones I’ve ever come across. Higher impedances accompany huge increases in bass quantity in addition to general muddying of their sound. That said, this pairing really legitimises Shaling’s 0.17ohm specification; with the exception of micro-detail and the individual tunings of each DAP, the M0 sounds very, very close to the DX200 in signature. Strong bass extension, high-control and definition. Linear midrange with neutral vocals. Well-detailed, slightly thinner and crisper. Missing some micro-detail. Very wide soundstage.
Advanced Sound Alpha ($499): The Alpha is a full-sized planar magnetic headphone with a 34ohm impedance and 90dB sensitivity. The M0 did an admirable job, but still didn’t provide an optimal experience even in high gain. Here, the immensely more powerful DX200 provided a very noticeable advantage, providing greater bass extension, a lot more definition and greater dynamics, the M0 sounded a bit flat. Mids were lacking some depth and body while treble became small and thin. The M0 also wasn’t able to fully capitalise on the Alpha’s open-back design, restricting the soundstage, with almost non-existent depth. The M0 was clearly not designed to drive full-sized headphones but will do in a pinch.
iPod Nano 7G ($200): The Nano is the quintessential mainstream hyper-portable DAP. It measures in at twice the height but under half the width and it’s a little lighter too, but neither struggle during active use or within small pockets. Of note, the Nano supports remote input, something that I find very useful during runs and commute. It also has a 3-button volume rocker with centre button that controls play/pause and skip track where the M0 only supports one gesture at a time via double tap. The Nano is easier to use with its larger screen and taller dimensions, its screen is also much brighter with better viewing angles.
In typical Apple fashion, the UI is super smooth and responsive, a pleasure to use, but it also has essentially zero customizability and supports none of the enthusiast features the M0 has out of the box, it has only basic eQ presents and replaygain support. File support is also paltry where the M0 decodes just about any file under the sun. The M0 is just as fast to use in reality, it just isn’t as fluid as Apple’s player. For the enthusiast, it’s clear which device is the winner, for the consumer, they may appreciate the brighter, larger display and slightly more responsive UI on the iPod.
The iPod’s bass sounds quite ill-defined next to the M0, it lacks power and control. The Shanling is considerably more extended and clearly more defined but both are quite clean tone wise. The M0 is noticeably faster while the iPod is quite soft with a smooth texture that glosses over fine details. The iPod has a sort of sucked out lower-midrange, creating a cooler midrange with less body. This is especially noticeable with male vocals where the M0 sounds appreciably more natural. Meanwhile, the iPod has smaller, more laid-back male vocals. The iPod is also slightly brighter within the lower-treble, however it is not as detailed as the M0 nor as extended. It also has a brighter background. The iPod doesn’t extend as far, it doesn’t have the same kind of resolution nor the soundstage expansion. I used to love the Nano due to its black noise floor, however, it’s clear that hyper-portable DAPs have come a long way, the M0 takes an easy win.
Fiio M7 ($200): When I released my M7 review, many were turned off by its higher price point, however, it does provide some advantages. The most notable difference is the size, with the M7 being considerably larger. In turn, it provides greater screen real estate and the panel itself is of much higher quality. It’s easier to hold and use, making it a better daily driver, where the M0 is a better secondary DAP/Wireless receiver due to its small screen. The M0, however, has a much more feature-rich operating system, despite the Fiio running Android. In return, the M7 runs smoother and it provides much better battery life, especially with Bluetooth enabled. Still, it’s just a bit too large for active use where the M0 is in a league of its own. Build quality is also comparable, impressive for the little Shanling at half the price.
In terms of sound quality, the M7 also provides a slight upgrade featuring a higher-powered DAC chip (ESS 9018 vs 9218S). Despite this, its amplifier is actually slightly less powerful, but both have zero hiss, though the M7 achieves this through a 2ohm output impedance that can slightly skew especially source sensitive earphones. In listening, the M0 is has a slightly warmer low-end with a touch less sub-bass extension. However, it is more controlled and, therefore, both are similarly defined. The M7’s warmth continues into its midrange where it provides a slightly denser, fuller voicing.
Meanwhile, the M0 is more neutral and transparent with greater upper-midrange extension. Treble is where the most pronounced differences manifest, the M0 boasting a cleaner background but also a more aggressive foreground that lacks the fine detail of the M7. The M7 extends further, providing higher resolution and it has more air. It also provides a more rounded soundstage and greater foreground/background separation. The M0 provides almost as much width, but lacks the vocal projection of the M7.
Every compliment I give puts my reputation on the line, so I tend not to falsely embellish. However, at just $90, I have no issue dubbing the M0 one of the best value propositions I’ve come across in my time reviewing. Yes, it’s cheap, but it’s not compromised; the M0 is a very well-rounded device and something I’ve wanted from the industry for many years. The form factor and effective touchscreen UI well justify that price alone, even just to use as a transport for a dedicated DAC/AMP; for reference, you would have to pay a lot more for to get a superior touchscreen experience with a similar level of portability from Sony’s A30/40 and Apple’s players don’t support external DACs at all. It goes without saying that the M0 containing some pretty excellent audio hardware on top is quite a feat.
This DAP will surely be a hit for runners and cyclists, and for general commute, however, it also caters perfectly towards enthusiasts wanting wide file support, noise-free high-quality wireless and a headphone out that does just about every in-ear justice. Sure, I could do with a more flexible eQ system, its limited controls irk at times and battery life is just okay with Bluetooth enabled. However, these minor annoyances quickly fade behind the M0’s black noise floor, earphone agnostic output impedance and strong driving power. The M0 isn’t a perfect reference source, but it also isn’t nearly as coloured as most entry-level DAPs and is miles in front in terms of usability too. Ultimately, these factors all make the M0 versatile, capable and simply a bargain, high recommendation!