In August 2018 Shanling Audio started work on the design concept for a new Digital Audio Player (DAP). Three months later they had their first working prototype. It would be almost a year until units started going out to Beta testers and reviewers. As luck would have it, I was one of the chosen few to get an early unit. So, in this review, I’m taking a look at the brand new Shanling Q1 DAP.
The Q1 is a direct descendant of the excellent Shanling M0, a tiny device that I fell in love with when I reviewed it just over a year ago. In fact, it has the same ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC chip and shares other similarities too. Running on Shanling’s MTouch 3.0, the Q1 has a 2.7-inch touchscreen display, bi-directional Bluetooth and battery life up to 21 hours. So how does it stack up to the M0 and other similar products? Let’s find out.
This sample was provided for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
Shanling Q1 Review
Superb build quality
Good battery life
Multiple custom EQ slots
Smooth and responsive user interface
Physical playback buttons easy to press unintentionally
Package and Accessories
Because I received a pre-production model, I did not get a box or retail packaging. However, I can tell you that the box contents will include at the very least a USB Type-C cable and silicone case in matching colour.
Build Quality and Design
Shanling describes the Q1 as having a “retro” design and those retro factors can clearly be seen. The body reminds me of classic cars from the 1950s, like the Chevrolet Corvette C1. But there are definite elements of modernity here too and the end result is simply gorgeous.
The Q1 body is simple yet sleek, curvaceous and smooth and it feels every bit as good in the hand as it looks. Weighing in at 136.8 g the Q1 has some genuine heft and feels substantial when held in my meaty paws. The Durable Zinc Alloy construction has new colourways too which to my eyes, looks even more premium than Shanling’s flagship models. Shanling actually had to develop a new manufacturing process in order to make these new colours possible.
On the left side of the unit are three physical playback buttons: play/pause, forward and back. The buttons are polished metal and perfectly match the overall aesthetic of the unit. I do wish the buttons had a bit more resistance though, as I found myself constantly clicking them accidentally when handling. Fortunately, the buttons can be locked when the screen is off via the system settings and once I did that I had no more trouble with them.
Over on the right side of the Q1 is the classic Shanling wheel and button. But it has been redesigned and is now better than ever. It has chunkier grooves than the previous wheels, making gripping easier. In addition, it has increased click resistance, meaning you’re much less likely to have unintentional clicks compared to the older wheel design.
The device’s bottom edge contains a USB Type-C port, 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro-SD card slot. A 2.7-inch touchscreen display adorns the front face of the Q1 and has a 360*400 resolution.
Functionality and UI
The Q1 runs on the Shanling MTouch 3.0 operating system which is now a mature and fully functional OS. In terms of the display, the Q1 has nice, vivid colours and is bright enough to use outdoors. Touchscreen controls function perfectly and the MTouch user interface feels fast and responsive to use with no signs of system lag.
Swiping up from any screen in the system takes you back to the home screen. The lockscreen (if enabled) displays the current time, date and battery level. USB volume out can be set to either volume fixed or volume variable, giving you greater control and more versatility.
From the home screen, there are 6 menu options as follows:
System: The usual system and operational settings.
Playback: Maximum volume, Equalizer, gapless and gain settings etc. relating to music playback.
Playlist: From here you can browse and configure your playlists.
Folders: Opens the structured folder navigation.
My Favorites: Browse and configure your favorite songs
My Music: Access to the media library where you can browse by All songs, Album, Artist, Composer, Genre, Hi-Res, Frequent, Recently played and Recently added.
With bi-directional Bluetooth, the Q1 can both transmit and receive wirelessly. You can also use it as an external USB DAC by plugging it into a PC, smartphone or tablet. Additionally, the Q1 can operate as a pure digital transport via USB-C.
Internals and Battery Life
Inside the Q1 is the same ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC chip used in the Shanling M0. Output power from the 3.5mm headphone jack is 80 mW @ 32 Ohm with an output impedance of <0.2 Ohm. This means the Q1 can drive a wide variety of headphones and also sensitive in-ear monitors. The frequency response is 20Hz ~ 40kHz and the device supports up to 384kHz / 32bit, DSD64 & DSD128.
Powering the Q1 is an 1100 mAh lithium battery which can provide up to 21 hours of music playback. Charging time is around 2 hours and the player can stay in deep standby for up to 20 days (depending on usage).
If you’ve heard the Shanling M0 you will immediately feel at home with the Q1’s sound. For fans or owners of the LG V30 smartphone, you will be pleased to know that it shares the same DAC chip as the Q1. Of course, a lot depends on the implementation of the chip too but Shanling has a proven track record with the ES9218P and they’ve worked their magic again with it here.
The Q1 starts with a silent black background, a clean and neutral midrange, a slight bump in the bass and crispy, neutral treble response. One thing I noticed is it does have a very good soundstage and paired with some good iems creates a 3D holographic space. Another thing to note is that the Q1 does have a working equalizer and you can also create and save multiple custom EQ profiles.
The bass is linear, uncoloured plus very clean and tight. Like many Sabre DACs, the Q1 has very good resolution and detail retrieval, along with a large soundstage. In the midrange, the Q1 sounds very open and organized with good separation and resolution.
As expected, the Q1’s midrange has a natural tone and presentation with good clarity and stereo separation. It’s really very good for an entry-level DAP at this price range and offers a substantial sound upgrade over most smartphone solutions.
The treble is transparent and the Q1 leaves it up to the transducers to reproduce them in their own way. At first, I thought they might be ever so slightly laid back but after switching to a different iem it was clear that it depends more than anything on what you pair with the player. Regardless of what you plug in, the Q1 sounds dynamic, resolving and fleshed-out. It might not be the most exciting and detailed sounding DAP but it is certainly one well suited for mobility and for use on the go.
Matchability and Pairing
The BLON B20 is a planar driver headphone with a neutral/bright signature. Although it has a fairly low impedance of 32 ohms, it does require a bit of power to perform at its best. Using high gain on the Q1 there is still quite a bit of headroom left in terms of volume and the little DAP can push these headphones louder than my ears can bear.
The bass extension can’t quite match that of my higher end DAPs but the overall resolution and dynamics are good. I wouldn’t rely on a small device like this for high impedance headphones but for anything up to 150 ohms and most in-ear monitors the Q1 has plenty of juice to drive them.
Shanling ME500 Platinum Edition
Shanling’s ME500 PE (review here) is a hybrid 1DD + 2BA iem with a dynamic sound ranging from a punchy, textured bass to its crisp, detailed highs. Paired with the Q1, the ME500 PE has a natural soundstage with good depth and great instrument separation. Q1’s black background plays an important role in this pairing, making the ME500 PE sound very clean and resolving with fast transients from top to bottom.
Tin Hifi T4
The recently released T4 (review here) has a neutral/bright tuning with an emphasis on the upper mids and lower treble. The bass is tight and well-defined but it gets a bit lost behind the upper frequencies. The T4’s large stage is more stable with the Q1 and makes it feel a bit more natural and accurate in terms of imaging.
Ultrasone Performance 860
The Performance 860 (review here) has a 40 mm single dynamic driver and 32 ohms impedance. It’s another fairly neutral headphone that is reasonably easy to drive but I found it sounded better with fuller bass in high gain on the Q1.
With its naturally wide soundstage, the Performance 860 pairs really nicely with the Q1. It’s smooth yet resolving with an airy treble and great timbre in the upper registers. Instrument separation and imaging are really good for a DAP in this class and the 860s are a perfect match for it.
The little M5 (review here) is more similar to the Shanling M0, being almost identical in dimensions and functionality. Therefore, it also shares a lot of similarities with the Q1 in terms of functionality. The Q1 obviously has a larger screen and battery but works in much the same way. Both devices have physical playback controls, however, the M5 shares multi-function buttons for volume and playback controls while the Q1 has dedicated buttons for playback plus the wheel on the side for volume control.
The M5 has more weight in the bass and laid back treble, making it sound warmer and a touch darker than the Q1. If you’re into working out or running then the M5 is ideal for that, especially with its pedometer and silicone wristband. One other advantage of the M5 is its built-in microphone that lets you make calls when paired with your smartphone. But if you value a larger display and longer battery life the Q1 is the way to go.
The M0 (review here) shares so much with the Q1 that they’re like brothers from another mother. Both have the same ES9218P DAC and both run on the MTouch operating system. Functionality is practically identical but the larger screen of the Q1 has some real benefits, such as easier navigation, better handling and album art displayed in the music library.
Spec-wise and also sound-wise there’s almost no difference except the Q1 has an improved frequency response (20Hz ~ 40kHz vs 20Hz~20kHz) and higher output impedance (0.2 Ohm vs 0.16 Ohm). There are some other minor changes too but they’re so small they hardly seem worth mentioning.
Although I still love the M0 the Q1 suits my preferences better: mainly because of the larger display which is much easier to use with my large fingers. I also really like seeing the album art when I’m browsing through my music files as well. The form factor and extra battery life are extra bonuses for me as well. Similar to the M5 above, the M0 is the better choice for sports or working out or if you just prefer a tiny little DAP. Otherwise, the Q1 is like an enhanced version of the M0.
There is no doubt that the Shanling Q1 is a fantastic little DAP and in my opinion, is now the best value entry-level player on the market. The build quality of this device is outstanding, to say the least. With its bi-directional Bluetooth, USB DAC capabilities and hi-res codec support it’s incredibly versatile and practical as well.
Even at the MSRP of $119 USD, the Q1 offers outstanding value but at the Kickstarter prices of $79/$89 it is an absolute steal and you would be crazy to pass it up if you’re looking for a standalone player or Bluetooth streaming device that won’t break the bank.
Dimension: 75*62*16.5 mm
Screen: 2.7 inch 360*400 touch screen
System: MTouch OS by Shanling
Weight: about 136.8 g
DAC Model: ESS Sabre ES9218P
Battery Life: up to 21 hours (depending on usage)
Deep Standby: up to 20 days (depending on usage)
Battery: 1100 mAh lithium battery
Charging time: 2 hours (depending on usage)
Storage: up to 2 TB Micro SD card (purchase separately)