The M5 has a smooth warm-to-neutral presentation with a slight mid-bass elevation, good extension at either end and throws out a very nice if slightly forward sounding vocal presence. This is a musical and forgiving DAP in keeping with the AK4490 DAC at the heart of this system but it resists being overly coated in bloated lows, syrupy highs or over lush mids. It remains impressively clear and detailed and works very well indeed with a wide range of genres.
The low-end elevation is subtle rather than upfront and brash so whilst you feel the weight and fullness it still very coherent, snappy, and well defined. The M5’s bass signature does respond pretty well when connected to the likes of the Fidue A91 and that awesome hybrid dynamic driver and whilst not a bass head dream it does make a very convincing stab at bass heavy EDM.
The mids on the M5 are clean, clear with good instrumental separation and timbre. Staging on the M5 isn’t as spacious or big sounding as say the Alien from Shozy or the Paw Gold but the detail and imaging is excellent. Vocals, in particular, are very engaging with the M5, more so than the X7 for me when using the more aggressive amp modules. Female lower pitch vocals such as Anggun sound clear, with excellent texture and presence, male vocals such Glenn Shorrock just flows real easy.
The M5 outperforms the M3’s treble presentation in so many ways. Whilst not being the last word in natural decay, the M5 lower treble is far less sibilant and peaky with a much smoother and less uneven treble presentation. I always though the M3 could get a touch too peaky, but the M5 seems to have a more refined approach with excellent detail and articulation. It is not as smooth sounding or warm as the Alien, it does have a sharper edge to its attack but it easily outperforms the even sharper sounding Cayin N5 and the flatter sounding Opus#1 and definitely more spacious sounding than the old M3.
The M5 has impressive noise control even with the most sensitive of IEMs in my collection including the Andromeda and Jupiter from Campfire and the Primacy from Oriveti. Dynamics are excellent also with impressive resolution and clarity. The M5 does not need a huge amount of power for these type of modern sensitive BA IEMs with the Primacy sounding comfortable on the stock volume setting and, for me, the sweet spot around 45-50 on low gain. The Andromeda, in particular, sounds excellent with the M5 with a thick weighted but very detailed presentation and an excellent tonal control on the M5’s above average vocal delivery. The Primacy lacks a little upper midrange and treble presence to sound as engaging and natural as the Andromeda.
Dynamic drivers such as the CA Lyra and the IE800, though showing impressively low noise levels, do need a bit more juice on low gain with the Lyra hitting 60-65 digital steps and the IE800 on similar levels. Both of these IEMs really pair well with the M5 for bass delivery with the Lyra showing a taste for EDM and rock orientated recordings and the IE800 going more sub-bass delivery and classical pieces.
The M5 has a power rating of 300mW @ 32 ohm/20mW @ 300 ohm. That is an increase in power ratings over the M3 by roughly 20% and whilst I wouldn’t say it will get the best out of your flagships or hard to drive mid-fi headphones it should do pretty well with portable headphones sitting around the 30-50 ohm marker on high gain.
That being said it’s not all hit, there are a few misses such as the K812 which is a 32-ohm headphone but can and does scale and requires some careful matching. It sounded reasonably competent on slower paced vocal passages with the M5 but once things got a bit busier with rock and metal it never really got on top of the peaky and sharp treble of the K812 as well as sounding a bit thin and lacking in dynamics.
I actually felt the M5 was more comfortable with neutral or smoother sounding headphones such as the PM-3, HE400s, and the Nad HP-50. These are the type of headphones that are either more natural sounding than the K812 or fairly easy to drive without compressing or sucking the dynamics out the M5 sound signature
The N5 and the M5 share quite a few similarities including iterations of the same software and the use of the same DAC chip, the AK4490. The N5 though trails the M5 a little in terms of speed as well as having a more traditional form factor and the smaller screen which makes navigation a bit of a pain. Though the N5 also uses IPS glass the M5 has the slightly more vibrant color tones with perhaps much of that due to better use of colors in the theme choices.
The N5 does have a balanced out which the M5 does not but whatever benefits are on the N5’s top panel is taken away with the very irritating bottom panel rubber flap for the dual memory card slot and charging port. The N5 and M5 have similar battery ratings and both can squeeze out up to 9 hours from their li-poly batteries though the N5 uses a much bigger 4200mAh battery to the 3400mAh in the M5. The N5 has no OTG capability unlike the M5 though both have DAC out options.
Both have a musical tonal presentation in keeping with the AK4490 DAC they share, however, the N5 is the slightly brighter and more forward sounding of the two with a sharper attack and a weightier bass response than the smoother and slightly more balanced sounding M5. Vocals on the M5 are a bit more natural sounding than the N5 and benefit from the superior spacing in the M5’s soundstage making the N5 sound just a bit flatter and two-dimensional in comparison. The N5 seems to lose a bit of pace and separation compared to the M5 once you move beyond the upper mids.
It is pretty tough to beat the X7 in terms of form, function, and usability. Plus, it has that big full-size ES9018 DAC chip stuck inside of a touch sensitive open Android platform which makes life a serious breeze. Both the M5 and X7 do have a DAC out though and you can slave the M5 to the X7 which is hilarious for OTG though highly unlikely to be seeing that as an everyday common stack. Both have coaxial and line-out options and both have single microSD card slots.
Volume on the X7 is on the side panels with a digital attenuator, unlike the M5 which houses everything control related on the command dial. Of course, the X7’s huge advantage is the numerous apps you can download to playback music, and not just on the car but streaming and BT whereas the M5 is pretty much just a hardcore music player. It does, of course, cost almost $300 more than the M5 once you factor in the various amp modules you can use with the X7.
Tonally this simply comes down to which module you prefer to use on the X7. Compared to the AM1 module the M5 is more musical, smoother sounding and far more engaging with outstanding vocal performances. The AM2 is the most competitive against the M5 with a more aggressive tonality, excellent bass weight, and improved dynamics. The AM5 is even more bombastic with a powerful output signal that can handle a few more headphones than the M5 but again M5’s vocal voicing is preferable with a touch more presence. The AM2 and AM5 shorten the battery life considerably though compared to the M5. The AM3 is perhaps the middle road in terms of output/performance of the FiiO modules. It has a slightly more dynamic presentation to the M5 and a touch more clarity especially in balanced mode which really puts some pop into the X7 performance.
An upgrade in every way with a smaller form factor, faster processor, a better GUI with a higher usability factor and a higher grade of quality materials. The M3 started this process, the M5 matures heavily on the M3. I enjoyed the M3, I thought it superior to the X3ii but not quite as good as the DX90 and it has perhaps faded in terms of relevance even after 18 months. The M5 does so much more now than the M3.
While both the M3 and M5 are tonally quite musical, the M3 is just that bit brighter with a rougher voicing from the upper mids to lower treble. Vocals suffer from a little bit of sibilance on the M3 compared to the M5’s silky smoother gorgeous vocal presence. Treble on the M3 is a bit more forward and lacking in control compared to the M5 as well as having a bass response that is not as weighted or refined as the M5. The M3 a good performer but not as balanced or refined as the M5’s presentation.
Granted the ZX2 is a whole lot more expensive than the M5 but I would call the ZX2 a breakout DAP in much the same manner as the X7 from FiiO with the open Android platform, 128Gb onboard memory, and the ability to BT, stream and add new music and other apps to its system. It is faster than the old ZX1 but still not quite as fast as the X7 and does get a bit slower the more apps you load up which is a shame.
You do have to buy a ton of accessories to get digital audio out and make it as openly compatible as the X7 and even the OTG of the M5 is easier to achieve. You can do digital to analog out with the proprietary connector to 3.5mm if you want to stack with portable amps. Battery life on the ZX2 is killer at up to a rated 33 hours compared to the paltry 8 hours on the other DAPs including the M5 and it can decode up to DSD128 so it’s not skimping on heavy duty tasks either.
Tonally the ZX2 is a more neutral presentation than the M5 (that is with ALL musical filters turned off on the ZX2) but it does have a more refined response than the M5 and is even more balanced across the FR. In comparison, the M5 takes the musical route with a bit more bass elevation (though you can adjust that with ClearAudio+ on the ZX2). Initial impressions would give the M5 the edge with its peppy and more immediate engagement but it’s the ZX2 that is the more resolving of the two with excellent control and a more accurate timbre.
The Shanling M5 is an excellent mid-range DAP for those that like a musical yet clean and clear presentation but do not want to spend the earth to get it. It competes very well indeed with similarly priced DAPs, has a broad range of modern codec capabilities and whilst not amazing with full-size cans it really does suit a wide variety of earphones. It is noise free, with good dynamics and super sensitive IEM’s have no issues when paired with the M5.
The OS of the M5 is super stable and whilst not touch sensitive or as innovative as Android it is actually fairly speedy and efficient. I do hope though the M5 will be the last of the non-touch capable DAPs from Shanling. With Cayin jumping to the very interesting Android-based i5 and FiiO dumping the old wheel based OS, Shanling could get left behind. The AK4490 is a modern chip with a pleasing sound but as nice as the M5 looks and sounds it will all look a bit dated very soon with those mechanical controls. If there is an M7 let it bring everything onto a touch-sensitive screen.
The price for the M5 is fair value though I think you can get it for a bit cheaper now if you shop around. Pitched against the DX80, DX90, FiiO’s X3ii and X5ii the M5 is competitive and slightly cheaper than the more neutral and detailed N6 from Cayin which has a very similar workflow. I do actually prefer the M5 over most of the mid-fi DAPs for vocal performances and its smooth delivery is just right with some cracking earphones such as the Andromeda. Despite its slightly old-school approach, it does deliver on some very good sound.
M5 Technical Specifications
Display:3”IPS HD screen(480×800)
Format Supported: DSF、DFF、ISO、APE、FLAC、ALAC、WMA、AAC、OGG、MP3、WAV、AIFF
Decoding: supports 384kHz / 32bit
Output Level: 1.3Vrms
D/A converter: AKM AK4490
Headphone amplifiers: AD8610 as voltage amplifier, BUF634 as current amplifier
Low pass filtering: JRC MUSE8920
DAC: supported up to 384KHZ/32BIT
USB:USB Micro-B[data transferring and charging(MAC and PC)]