(Last Updated On: January 2, 2020)

With more smartphones removing headphone jacks, Bluetooth headphone DAC/amplifiers like the Shanling UP4 shine even brighter than before.

Thank you, Nappoler Hu from HiFiGo for sending me the Shanling UP4 Bluetooth headphone amplifier. It was provided to me free of charge in exchange for my honest review and opinion.

Introduction

Shanling was founded in 1988 in China as a headphone amplifier manufacturer. With much effort, Shanling obtained a series of patented technology qualifications, such as Sony LDAC, Bluetooth Qualification Body (BQB), and Hi-Resolution (Hi-Res) Audio certified by the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) and Japan Audio Society (JAS).

In describing their philosophy in designing products, Shanling stated: “We believe customer’s satisfaction and quality of products are the highest priorities; the realization of user’s dream and sharing profit with our partners are our development power.”

In 2019, Shanling launched a series of new products; the UP4 Bluetooth headphone amplifier being among them. Understanding the increasing trend of Bluetooth audio devices, Shanling first launched UP2 in 2018 with the desire to turn smartphones into Hi-Fi players.

To further fulfill the cravings of the audiophile community, they took a leap and released the upgraded version – the UP4. How is it different from the UP2 and other competitors? We will find out that answer and more in this article!

Shanling UP4

Shanling UP4

"The Shanling UP4 is a great DAC/AMP for audiophiles who are looking to improve the sound quality and balanced output for their smartphone at a reasonable price. This could be one of the most affordable options on the market that features a dual dedicated audio DAC chipset and supports almost all types of Bluetooth codecs."

Pros:

  • »Compact
  • »Classy design
  • »Accurate bass
  • »Emotional mids
  • »Neutral and uncolored sound signature
  • »Supports various Bluetooth codecs
  • »Powerful output

Cons:

  • »Harshness in highs
  • »Complicated set-up for differing functions
 

Unboxing

Shanling’s UP4 comes in a small packaging box. The box is printed with photo of UP4 and 2 Hi-Res Audio logo – Conventional Hi-Res Audio and Hi-Res Audio Wireless. At the side of the box, there is a list of Bluetooth codecs supported by the UP4. You will immediately notice that the UP4 supports almost all codecs currently in the market. The technical specifications are listed on the back of the box.

The “Hi-Res Audio” stamp of approval is applied to headphones with frequency response performance of 40 kHz or above.
2 Hi-Res Audio stamps can be found on the packaging.
2 Hi-Res Audio stamps can be found on the packaging.
Bluetooth codecs that are supported by UP4 - almost all the codecs are supported!
Bluetooth codecs that are supported by UP4 – almost all the codecs are supported!
Technical specifications are listed on the back of the box.
Technical specifications are listed on the back of the box.

Opening the box, the UP4 makes its first appearance with a glossy surface, which caught my attention immediately.

UP4 comes with a glossy black surface - another classy design from Shanling!
UP4 comes with a glossy black surface – another classy design from Shanling!

Underneath the UP4, users can find the accessories section. This includes:

  • USB Type-C charging and data transfer cable
  • A plastic clip cover
  • User manual
  • Warranty card
The accessories box.
The accessories box.
Accessories included in the box.
Accessories included in the box.

Technical Specifications

Design and Build

The Shanling UP4 is the big brother to the UP2. The design is similar with a volume knob at the side and rounded-off corners. The size is slightly larger than the UP2 to offer space for dual DAC chipsets that support a truly balanced output. Nonetheless, Shanling reserved the thin and sleek design to fit in your pocket. And it comes with an additional clip-on case to attach your UP4 to a belt or bag.

The UP4’s glossy surface gives it a classy and modern look. However, the glossy surface is a fingerprint magnet. I am constantly wiping away smudges. Other than that, the design is perfect.

UP4 with glossy surface.
UP4 with glossy surface.
The volume knob at the side of UP4
The volume knob at the side of UP4

On top of the UP4, users can find 2 output ports – a 3.5mm unbalanced and a 2.5mm balanced. The 2.5mm is able to deliver the full potential of the UP4 due to the engagement of both DAC chipsets embedded in this amplifier. Besides the output port, there is a “mode” button. I will further explain the function of this button in the upcoming section.

UP4 offers balanced and unbalanced outputs to cater different needs.
UP4 offers balanced and unbalanced outputs to cater different needs.

Moving to the bottom of the amplifier, Shanling used a USB Type-C port for charging and data transfer. The user can connect the UP4 to computers and use it as a conventional digital analogue converter (DAC) with an embedded amplifier.

USB Type-C is used for charging and data transferring.
USB Type-C is used for charging and data transferring.

At the back of the amplifier, there are two Hi-Res audio stamps. The back of the UP4 has a glossy surface, identical to the front surface.

The glossy back of UP4 with two Hi-Res Audio stamps
The glossy back of UP4 with two Hi-Res Audio stamps

With the clip cover on, the thickness increases. However, this offers the users the convenient option of clipping their Bluetooth on a bag or a belt.

Clip Cover enables users to clip UP4 onto bag or belt.
Clip Cover enables users to clip UP4 onto bag or belt.

Connectivity

The UP4 offers two options in terms of connectivity – Bluetooth or USB Type-C. For Bluetooth connection, users simply need to press and hold the volume knob until the LED on the surface turns into blue and red shining alternatively. Choose the device from your smartphone or computer.

Connecting my LG G6 through LDAC to UP4 is as simple as ABC.
Connecting my LG G6 through LDAC to UP4 is as simple as ABC.

For USB-Type C connection, it is even easier. Connect the UP4 to your computer with the provided data transfer cable and your computer should be able to recognize the device within seconds. No driver is needed to establish the connection. The UP4 has proved itself to be a user-friendly device in terms of connectivity.

Working on the review and listening to music with UP4 concurrently.
Working on the review and listening to music with UP4 concurrently.

Features and Functions

There are a total of two buttons on the UP4:

  1. the multifunctional volume knob
  2. and the mode button

Both buttons have their own features and functions. For the multifunctional volume knob, here are the functions that can be activated through a series of gestures:

  • Power on: Long press for 3 seconds
  • Power off: Long press for 3 seconds
  • Pairing: Long press for 5 seconds when the UP4 is turned off until the indicator flashes red and blue alternately
  • Play/pause: Single click
  • Next track: Double click
  • Previous track: Triple click
  • Answer call: Single click
  • End call: Single click
  • Cancel call: Double click
  • Volume control: Turn the wheel clockwise to increase and counterclockwise to decrease.

Moving to the mode button, different functions can be achieved with different gestures:

  • Displaying current amplifier gain mode: Single click
  • Switching between amplifier gain mode: Double click
  • Switching between DAC digital filers: Press and hold the button for 3 seconds.
Shanling UP4 on my laptop.
Shanling UP4 on my laptop.

Indicators

The LED indicators on the glossy surface will tell users various information. When playing back through wireless connection, the indicator will flash regularly telling users the codec that is currently connected:

  • SBC: Blue
  • AAC: Cyan
  • aptX / aptX Low Latency (LL): Violet
  • LDAC: Green
  • LHDC / HWA: White
  • aptX HD: Yellow

While switching the amplifier gain mode, users can know the mode from the indicator:

  • Low gain mode: Blue
  • High gain mode: Green
  • Boost mode: Yellow

These are the LED indicator for switching digital filters:

  • Linear phase fast roll-off: Blue
  • Linear phase slow roll-off: Green
  • Minimum phase fast roll-off: Violet
  • Minimum phase slow roll-off: Yellow
A size comparison between iBasso DX220 and Shanling UP4.
A size comparison between iBasso DX220 and Shanling UP4.

Sound Analysis

Coupling with the dual ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC, twice the DAC chipset of the UP2, the UP4 aims to provide a fuller and more balanced presentation to the users in the balanced mode.

The sound signature of the UP4 is relatively neutral with good emphasis on details and resolution. The legacy of Shanling’s sound signature is partly inherited, too – having a fuller body in the presentation. Unlike other digital audio players (DAPs) from Shanling, the coloration in the presentation is the bare minimum – the most original form of music is retrieved and delivered to the users with slightly thickened notes.

A full-bodied and uncolored sound signature makes Shanling’s UP4 a great contestant within the price range of USD$100.

The power from this small device cannot be underestimated. Rated at 160mW at 32Ohms on the balanced output, the UP4 can deliver decent music quality to most of the in-ear monitors (IEMs) on the market without any difficulties. Personally, I believe this power output can drive most of the headphones in the market decently.

My daily commuting setup for now.
My daily commuting setup for now.

Lows

Fast and powerful could be the best words to describe the lows of the UP4.

The lows attack and decay at a fast speed, resulting in a tight and accurate presentation. Overall fidelity is improved by this aspect, too. Although the lows are fast, the body is not compromised in any aspect. The overall body of the lows is full and punchy. This combination prevents the overall sound signature to fall into the “dry zone”, being too analytical and clinical.

Pairing the UP4 to my Moondrop Blessing, the dynamic driver in the In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) is well-driven, creating a coherent bass. Although the Moondrop Blessing is an easily driven IEM, the driver needs to have sufficient power to be activated. The UP4 can do the job decently. I have been using this combination and am really enjoying it.

Pairing Simgot EK3 with Shanling UP4
Pairing Simgot EK3 with Shanling UP4

Mids

Emotions are there – well-controlled and not exaggerated.

Emotions are always the key to a good midsection, especially for vocals. The UP4 has a good injection – creating lively and emotional singing. It has very good control without letting the emotion overflow, causing the overall presentation to be too colored. This is where the UP4 stands out as compared to other DAPs from Shanling.

The instruments are presented accurately, too. With good layering in the vertical direction, mid frequency instruments and vocals can co-exist without collisions and congestion. The UP4 changed my original thoughts on the ESS Sabre DAC chip – it is not always cold and dull; it can be sweet and lively, too!

Shiny, glossy surface reflects my phone cover.
Shiny, glossy surface reflects my phone cover.

Highs

An airy, spacious, and well extended high section is one of the key factors that yields the good resolution and fidelity of the UP4.

The highs are well extended, with a good amount of air injected to create decent spacing. When ItsFitLab Fusion is paired with the UP4, the strength of its treble is fully unleashed.

This is where the UP4 stands out differently again – the treble remains close to the original sound with a minimum of coloration or touch-up. However, you may hear some sizzling in the highs at times. Nothing is perfect, right?

Pairing my Moondrop Blessing with Shanling UP4 - fidelity overflown.
Pairing my Moondrop Blessing with Shanling UP4 – fidelity overflown.

Conclusion

The Shanling UP4 is a great DAC/AMP for audiophiles who are looking to improve the sound quality and balanced output for their smartphone at a reasonable price. This could be one of the most affordable options on the market that features a dual dedicated audio DAC chipset and supports almost all types of Bluetooth codecs.

Despite its misleadingly small size, the UP4 is able to deliver a sufficient amount of power when needed and promising sound quality to its users.

The Shanling UP4 retails for USD$99. It can be purchased through HiFiGo.