Apple's recent announcement of Lossless Audio streaming for Apple Music might have sparked interest in improving the quality of sound in your personal audio setup, but audiophiles have been finding ways to make this happen for many years now. The easiest and most affordable solution is to use a portable digital-analogue converter (DAC) with a good pair of wired headphones or earphones. A particularly interesting option in this segment is what I'm reviewing today: the Shanling UA1 portable DAC-Amplifier.
Priced at Rs. 3,999 in India, the Shanling UA1 is part of a general category of products jokingly termed ‘Chi-Fi'. Much like the Shanling M0 digital audio player and Shanling MTW100 true wireless earphones, the UA1 is affordably priced and promises full-fledged DAC and amplification capabilities despite its compact form factor. Find out how it performs, in this review.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the design of the Shanling UA1 is its size; this portable DAC is so small and light that I could easily balance it on just one finger. It weighs just 8.3g. Its small metal casing contains the 3.5mm headphone jack and the actual DAC itself, and there's a fixed 5cm USB Type-C cable that extends from the other side. A USB Type-C to USB Type-A adapter is included in the sales package for additional connectivity options.
What also makes the Shanling UA1 impressive is itsease of use. You just have to plug it into the source device, and it automatically takes over audio output. This can be most devices with a USB Type-C port such as Android smartphones and tablets, and select iPad models such as the iPad Air (2020) or other iOS devices using the right adapter, as well as computers with USB Type-A ports.
While some source devices might require some setup, I didn't need to do anything beyond plugging the Shanling UA1 in, when using it with an Android smartphone running Android 11 and a MacBook Air running MacOS Big Sur. You will need to install drivers to be able to use the Shanling UA1 with Windows devices, and some Android devices may need to be set to output audio to USB through their settings for the UA1 to work.
The Shanling UA1 has an ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC chip, which has been around for a while now but is still a capable option that fits into its compact body. The device supports up to 32-bit / 384kHz resolution audio, and the DSD256 format. It draws power directly from the source device through the USB connection, and has a rated frequency response range of 20-50,000Hz.
The most important component in any audiophile setup is the output device, that is, the headphones or earphones you use. The source device and bridge are, of course, important in their own regard, but they serve more to support the output device than to influence the output significantly on their own. The Shanling UA1 has the specifications and capabilities to do this with ease, but its basic DAC and amplification capabilities mean that it suits budget headphones and earphones – typically, entry-level in-ear monitors.
Although a recommended headphone impedance range for the Shanling UA1 isn't mentioned, it can drive even high-impedance headphones. That said, it's meant to powerfully and impressively drive easy-going headsets and IEMs, rather than just about manage to drive high-end, high-impedance headphones. I found that performance was decent with basic IEMs such as the KZ ZSN Pro X and Blon BL-03, offering a decent boost in terms of gain and drive, while retaining the clean, detailed sonic signatures of these two headsets.
Listening to a high-resolution DSD recording of Astor Piazzolla's Anxiety, the sound was loud even when set to around the 40 percent volume level on my Android smartphone, and increasing it to around the 60 percent mark made it louder without any audible distortion or reduction in sound quality. The grunt and definition of the double-bass that I've always loved about Anxiety was present and real, with the KZ ZSN Pro X managing to recreate all of the detail and definition in this excellent track with ease.
Even with this basic setup – the total cost of which would be less than Rs. 6,000 – the sound quality was impressive, and expectedly better than what even the best true wireless earphones can achieve. This is the point of a wired setup; you're striving for sound quality rather than the convenience and comfort of a completely wireless solution.
The Shanling UA1, serving as a bridge between the source and output, does its job quietly and efficiently. However, its amplification abilities are best suited to budget audiophile earphones, rather than even somewhat high-end kit. With a Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear wired headset, the sound felt almost dull and droning. These headphones are a bit warmer-sounding than the IEMs I tried the UA1 with, and this low-end drive did seem to get a bump that occasionally felt a bit excessive. The Shanling UA1 is therefore best used with budget IEMs that have a neutral approach to their sound.
All of the talk surrounding the launch of Apple Music's Lossless Audio tier has sparked interest in audiophile kit, and we're likely to see many buyers investing in basic equipment such as DACs to take advantage of the improvement in stream quality. The Shanling UA1 is the first step in this direction; it's a capable bridge between the source device – either a smartphone or a laptop – and your earphones.
That said, it's best suited for use with budget IEMs such as the KZ ZSN Pro X or Blon BL-03, both of which cost around Rs. 2,000 each. If you're looking to set up a basic audiophile kit on a budget, the Shanling UA1 is worth considering.
Price: Rs. 3,999
Ratings (out of 10):