Review Date: 29 March 2022
Dual ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M
Dual dedicated Ricore RE6863 amplifier chips
Fully Balanced Circuit
Physical volume wheel for independent volume control
In-built 220mAh battery
Switchable operating modes, full USB power + Hybrid Battery power mode
Digital SPDIF coaxial output(through 3.5mm port)
3.5mm+4.4mm Headphone output ports
Supports both UAC2.0 and UAC1.0 modes
Works perfectly with Android, Windows, Mac, and IOS Devices
Monochromatic 1.44” OLED display
PCM decoding: up to 32-Bit/768kHz
DSD decoding: Native DSD512
Output Power: 137mW@32Ω(single-ended), 211mW@32Ω(balanced)
Connector type: USB Type-C
IEMs and Earbuds:
- Etymotic ER4SR (Single BA, 45 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Shure KSE1500 (Single Electrostatic 200V, KSA1200 Energizer)
- TRN VX Pro (8BA + 1DD Hybrid, 22 Ohm, 106db Sensitivity)
- TIN HiFi T3+ (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 105db Sensitivity)
- Kinera Idun Golden (3BA + 1DD Hybrid, 32 Ohm, 112db Sensitivity)
- TANCHJIM OLA (Single DD, 16 Ohm, 126db Sensitivity)
- Tripowin HBB Olina (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 110db Sensitivity)
- DUNU Titan-S (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 110db Sensitivity)
- VE ZEN 2.0 SLQ (Single DD, 320 Ohm)
- FOSTEX T40RP MK3 (Magnetic Planar, 50 Ohm, 91db Sensitivity)
- Beyerdynamic DT880 (Dynamic Drivers, 600 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Windows 10, Foobar 2000 (USB 3.0 Power)
- LG V50 ThinQ (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- Sony Xperia X Compact (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- HiBy Music Player App (USB Exclusive Mode)
LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING
Shanling UA5 is the continuation of UA lineup in the wake of UA2 which has been widely liked by many. UA5 took some time to present itself, and apparently with some very interesting features to offer, vastly different from what we get from UA2. The most innovative being, battery support. A feature not available with any Dongle class DAC/Amp until now. Shanling opted to stay with ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M DAC, now in dual discrete format as opposed to single DAC design of UA2.
Build, Functions, Usability
From the ground up, UA5 has been designed to be a premium device. Exquisite and elegant, made of aluminum chassis that looked super solid and convincing. The biggest change from UA2, now with a LED display much similar to what we see from the likes of Luxury & Precision W2, Lotoo PAW S1/S2 and Cayin RU6.
Most prominent is the special rotary volume adjuster never seen anywhere else on any Dongles, or even DAPs for that matter. Meant to be easily operated with the thumb, the volume dial offers very smooth movement. Admirably the volume steps are very refined and this alone is something I appreciate a lot. Being able to adjust volume at refined levels will enhance listening pleasure – adapting to the state of the listening sensitivity to sound depending on the moods and conditions. The volume wheel also serve as Functions button. Pressing it inward will toggle the functions menu which will allow the user to adjust desired parameters.
Once in the menu mode, available options: (Long Press on the Volume Wheel)
- DAC: Dual (It will only show that UA5 is in Dual DAC mode, no toggle)
- Charging: ON/OFF (charging UA5 internal battery when connected to host)
- Gain: High/Low (simple toggle for high or low gain)
- Power: Battery or Hybrid (Battery, DAC/Amp gets power from internal battery. Hybrid, power from host directly)
- FIR: Filters selection (Specific to ES9038Q2M, mildly alters the sound timbre)
- Channel Balance: Adjuster for each channels Left/Right
- SPDIF: On/Off (For connecting to external DAC using Optical link)
- Screen OFF: Specify LED timeouts
- Brightness Adjustment
- Rotate: Flip the display to suit the user preferences
- FW Version
The effects of High/Low gain mode are quite audible. It is evident that the Low gain mode is to be used for highly sensitive IEMs, otherwise I prefer to set it always on High Gain. The truth is, even with my most sensitive IEMs I see no reasons not to use the High Gain mode to ensure the fullest power from it.
Power selection does impart subtle differences especially when used with highly resolving partners. What I am hearing, with internal Battery option selected, better sense of space and openness to the sound with a touch more pronounced imaging. However it must be noted that this is only evident when I set myself to critical listening mode with some of the most resolving IEMs I have in my possession. Something like Etymotic ER4SR and Shure KSE1500. Less prominent with the rest. Be it on Battery or Hybrid Mode, the sound signature and overall presentation remained the same, subjective to the characteristics of each connected partners.
Filters selection. Now this is very interesting. Not many ES9038Q2M devices offer the option to switch these settings. UA2 does allow the user to change the filters with Shanling own app. UA5 on the other hand offers direct Filters switching. For my own usage, I have settled on “LinearSlow” filter – simply because my primary listening gears are natively neutral and somewhat bright-ish. From my past experiences with ESS filters, Slow filters on ES9038Q2M will appear less edgy, more balanced to my ears. Using fast filters will result in something which I consider unnaturally bright and aggressive on timbral balance and dynamic transients.
On the subject of power, I have conducted extensive tests with my Sony Xperia X Compact (Android 8, 2700 mAH, UAPP, Airplane Mode, driving TRN VX Pro in High Gain) with the following results:
- 6.00 Hours for the Host (USB Hybrid Mode, Charging ON)
- 5.30 Hours for the Host (Battery Mode, Runs on Battery, Charging ON)
- 5.00 Hours for UA5 (Battery Mode, Runs on Battery, Charging OFF)
For UA5 to score 6 hours on Hybrid mode, it is quite acceptable. Precisely on par with the likes of Cayin RU6 and Lotoo PAW S2 which scored 6 hours too, under similar operating loads. What I do like, UA5 capable of easing the host from power drain burden when charging is set to OFF, the host device will then run on its own course of battery drain while UA5 powered itself on DAC/Amp operations.
PS: I did not test the SPDIF feature as I don’t have any legacy DAC that could benefit from such options.
I will be very upfront on this. I expected more of UA5. My experience with UA2 has been great. That UA2 offered very well balanced AND organic (warm, as most people would term it) sound. UA5, to my ears sounded like a typical ESS Sabre tuned device. Yes it is super clean, crisp and resolving. But on timbral balance I feel that it lacks the natural sense of organic touch. For someone like me who prefer analogue sound, this is not exactly what I consider as pleasurable. But that’s me being subjectively selfish and stubborn to my own listening preferences – I came from the cassette, vinyl and analogue amps background after all. It is evident that UA5 is a properly tuned unit to emit something very neutral and uncolored. I really appreciate that element a lot, of being neutral and transparent. But the problem is, I have also heard similarly neutral and transparent DAC/Amps capable of presenting something more organic and even analogue-ish. What I can tell, it seems a trend nowadays for manufacturers to tune their devices for this “Hi-Fi” sound that many would appreciate. It has that modern and digital characteristics that would jive very well to equally modern music. I can totally understand that, it is just not my sort of thing, subjectively.
To be fair, that digital and less than organic sound is only evident when paired with something natively neutral, something closer to being bright-ish. For example, with my primary IEM Etymotic ER4SR, UA5 sounded edgy, lean and a bit more aggressive than I prefer it to be. I observed that similar results to be had from the pairing of UA5 with TANCHJIM OLA, DUNU Titan-S, Beyerdynamic DT880 and TRN VX Pro – all of which will have tendency to sound equally metallic, dry and lean when subjected to typical ESS Sabre sound tuning. There was even mild hint of the infamous ESS Pinna Glare that some may find annoying (me included).
But enough about me ranting on with my personal listening preferences. To counter what I mentioned above, UA5 is amazingly great when hitting the right synergy with partners that are natively organic sounding. And I must admit I have been having great times with UA5 when paired with Shure KSE1500, TIN HiFi T3+, Kinera Idun Golden, VE ZEN 2.0 SLQ, Fostex T40RP MK3 and Tripowin Olina. There’s the sort of natural and balanced sound that I consider as realistic yet highly technical. Even good sense of musicality that is free from that sterile timbre as observed with bright sounding partners.
Dynamics wise, UA5 lived to the expectations. The range is admirably extensive to even synergize amazingly well with Shure KSE1500, the most resolving, beautiful IEM I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Superbly articulated details even on the lowest or highest frequencies. Airy smooth Treble with realistic decays, deep and engaging seismic responses for Sub-Bass, tidy and discipled Mid-Bass, highly textured and natural sounding Mids – UA5 has it all to allow my KSE1500 to shine like a true champion that it is. To a certain extent, I can say the same for Tripowin Olina and Kinera Idun Golden as well – both of which seems to be quite at home with UA5.
Technically, I am just glad that UA5 does not inherit the tall but narrow soundstage as observed with UA2 – or most ESS based Dongles for that matter. UA5 has good width and expanse with proper sense of spacing. Imaging and resolution being top notch. Spatial imaging being very holographic and precise. It was easy to track individual instruments or layers, for the separation lines are well defined without any hint of fuzziness. It is crispy clarity all over. Similarly, depending on the prowess of the paired partners, details retrieval being great too. Macro and Micro details resolved admirably. Very satisfying for any details junkie for sure. Last but not least, UA5 has the speed and agility to resolve even the most complex of passages, or something outright speedy. It will not sound sluggish or congested even with slower partners.
Shanling did not mentioned specifically the VRMS rating of this UA5, but I believe is is definitely something at the mark of 2 VRMS at least.
Pushing it to the max, I subjected my UA5 with the likes of Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm DD and Fostex T40RP MK2 91db Magnetic Planar headphones. While UA5 does need the volume cranked up all the way almost to the roof, when proper loudness is achieved, the output is actually very usable coming from a portable device.
Here’s how it panned out:
DT880 = Vol 75/100 High Gain
T40RP Mk3 = Vol 68/100 High Gain
I would say, compared against my desktop stack of iFi ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN Can, UA5 emitted an output close to 75% of what those two monsters capable of. Anything above 65% is more than adequate in my book. UA5 would appear to lose some energy, dynamics density and headroom. Otherwise it is as pleasurable as it can be (without being critical of comparing it to desktop setup). However, I would say that the optimal threshold of UA5 is at approx 320 Ohm. With VE ZEN 2.0 SLQ, I was pleasantly surprised to hear something very engaging and rich. It is not easy to make ZEN 2.0 sound great when the driving unit lacks power. But UA5 definitely fits the bill in this instance.
SE and BAL Differences: (Tested with Tripowin Olina)
Vol: 26/100 4.4mm BAL High Gain
Vol: 32/100 3.5 SE High Gain
The output appeared crisper and with more pronounced dynamic transients on BAL, softer edged from the SE port. Otherwise they are identical in everything else. Definitely the 3.5mm SE should only to be used with something less demanding or scalable.
Ultimately, Shanling UA5 is a very well tuned ESS Sabre DAC/Amp and will appeal a lot to those already liking that sort of sound signature. There’s maturity and refinement all over especially when it comes to technicalities. However from my own subjective listening perspective, I wish UA5 could have done better with timbral balance and tonality – a bit more of organic touch that I consider as realistic. This too much focus on HiFi sort of sound is pushing it close to being sterile, almost lifeless. Not sounding that great with my Etymotic ER4SR is something that I feel detriment to my sonic indulgence. But enough of that. UA5 when paired correctly with matching partners, will then reveal how great it can be. With the likes of Shure KSE1500, Kinera Idun Golden and Tripowin Olina especially, I will admit the output being satisfyingly amazing. UA5 will then live up to the expectations. There’s exquisite balance that I consider as properly musical as it is technically competent.
What I do know, UA5 will also appeal greatly for those liking the rich features offered. That volume adjustment alone is a wonder in itself. Being able to fine tune the loudness is something I consider a must have feature, especially if the listener is the type that prefer listening at slightly lower than normal loudness. All in all, Shanling UA5 is like a Swiss Army Knife – sharp and purposeful.
- Great neutral, uncolored DAC/Amp
- Very well-tuned native ESS Sabre HiFi sound
- Great technicalities
- Adequate driving power
- Crisp, clean and coherent dynamic transients
- Good battery endurance to the host and itself
- Rich in functions
- Tone and timbre a bit still digital for my taste
- Does not sound that great with natively bright partners
Best Pairing: Prefers natively organic sounding partners
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