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Review: Shanling UA5 – When Dongles Grow Up

The Shanling UA5 is more than just a simple dongle.
The Shanling UA5 is more than just a simple dongle.

The lowly dongle matures and evolves into a premium portable DAC/amp.

Thank you to Shanling for providing the UA5 for review purposes.

What differentiates a portable DAC/amp from a dongle? An internal battery? Output power? Features? Size?

Typically, a dongle is characterized by its small size, a lack of internal battery, and somewhat limited output power. On the other hand, a portable DAC/amp is usually far larger, offering more features and outputs and containing a battery to allow for higher output power and less source device drain.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The high-power, huge, and inexpensive Venture Electronics Megatron mega-dongle is a case in point.
The Shanling UA5 is more than just a simple dongle.
Bottom Line

The Shanling UA5 is neither clearly a dongle nor a portable DAC/amp. Rather it seems an evolution that provides many of the benefits of both categories – with few drawbacks. It’s small in size, yet feature-rich, boasting an impressive technical design and format support, as well as including an internal battery to reduce source load. The premium build and sound quality certainly go a long way towards justifying splurging for something better than merely average.

What We Like
  • Legible OLED screen
  • Volume/option knob provides a great tactile interface
  • High-quality construction
  • Internal battery blurs the distinction between a dongle and portable DAC/amp
  • Tons of features and menu options
  • Clean, uncolored sound
  • Silent background
  • Sufficient power to drive most IEMs and headphones
What We Don't Like
  • No play/pause buttons or play controls beyond volume
  • Not Apple friendly. No included Lightning to USB-C cable or adapter. The Eddict Player app is not compatible with the UA5 on iOS.

Today, we’ll explore another outlier, the UA5, Shanling’s TOTL dongle – or is it a portable DAC/amp? The US5 features such unusual features as an internal hybrid battery, OLED display, SPDIF output, balanced circuitry, and a rotary wheel controller.

Somehow all this is shoehorned into a tiny package, looking far more like a standard dongle than the VE Megatron.

I (perhaps arbitrarily) decided that the Megatron must be a dongle because it doesn’t have an internal battery. So, it follows that I have to rule that the UA5 is technically a portable DAC/amp. Although Shanling further muddies the water by allowing the UA5 to bypass its internal battery and run off USB power like a standard DAC/amp.

However, unlike the budget Megatron, the UA 5 is nearly five times more expensive and features a design and construction befitting a higher-end product.

The Megatron is the antithesis of the UA5.

Dongles have become increasingly popular – especially since the death of the 3.5mm socket – due to their promises of providing higher-quality audio and more power to better drive inefficient headphones. It now seems that every portable audio company has a variety of models, all promising to best the ubiquitous 3.5mm Apple dongle.

Unquestionably, the UA5 differentiates itself from the competition with its range of unusual features and options. But the question remains, does this feature set justify paying a premium price?

Let’s find out.

Company Overview

Founded in 1988, Shanling’s main offices are located in Shenzhen, China and the production factory is in Dongguang, China. They produce digital music players, portable amplifiers, headphones, SACD/CD players, and a variety of other audio products.

Shanling has obtained a series of patented technology qualifications, including SONY LDAC, Bluetooth BQB, Japanese Audio Association Hi-Res, Microsoft’s HDCD, Dolby Laboratories’ Dolby Digital, DTS and DVD, SACD, and CD patent licenses.

From the Shanling website,“…for over 30 years, Shanling’s employees kept integrity, innovation, team spirit and hard work in mind. There is no doubt that our employees are our treasure and that without them, we would never get to the Shanling of today. We believe customer’s satisfaction and quality of products are the highest priorities…”.

Technical Specifications

  • Form: Portable DAC/amp.
  • DAC: Dual ESS ES9038Q2M, 32 bit / 768 kHz and DSD152, 7 user selectable digital filters
  • Amp: Dual Ricore RE6863 Opamps
  • Removable Cable: USB-c
  • Outputs: 3.5mm SE, 4.4mm balanced
  • Power: 3.5mm: 1V @32 Ohms (137mW), 4.4mm: 6 Volts @ 32 Ohms (211mW)
  • Frequency Response: 3.5mm: 20Hz to 50 kHz, 4.4mm: 20Hz to 50kHz (-0.5DB)
  • THD+N: 3.5mm: 0005% @32 Ohms A-weighted, 4.4mm: 005% @ 32 Ohms A-weighted @ 1V
  • Dynamic Range: 3.5mm: 122DB @32 Ohms, 4.4mm: 120dB @ 32 ohms
  • Channel Separation: 3.5mm: 77dB @ 32 Ohms, 4.4mm: 110dB @ 32 Ohms
  • SN ratio: 3.5mm: 121dB @32 Ohms A-weighted, 4.4mm: 116dB @32 Ohms A-weighted
  • Output Impedance: 3.5mm: 8 Ohms, 4.4mm: 6 Ohms
  • Digital Output: 3.5mm SPDIF Coaxial, 24-bit/192kHz
  • Battery: 220mAh, Hybrid power mode
  • Battery Life (hrs): 3.5mm: 6 hours / 4.4mm: 3 hours
  • Weight (g): 29g
  • Dimensions: 68(l)x27(w)x13(t)mm approximately
The packaging is simple and attractive.
The packaging is simple and attractive.

Packaging

The UA5 comes in a suitable black cardboard box with a silver line drawing of the device on the top and specs on the bottom. The UA5 nestles in a foam cut-out sheet alongside a USB-c to USB-a adapter. Underneath are the accessories, including a short OTG USB-c to USB-c cable, guide, warranty card, and Hi-Res Audio decals.

Pop off the top, and here's what you'll see.
Pop off the top, and here’s what you’ll see.

In the box

  • UA5 portable DAC/amp
  • USB-c to USB-c cable (110mm)
  • USB-c to USB-a adapter
  • User guide
  • Warranty card
  • Hi-Res Audio decals
A simple set of accessories.
A simple set of accessories.

Cable

The included 11cm, black, nylon-sheathed, USB-c OTG cable is intended to tender the UA5 to an Android device, or to a computer using the USB-c to USB-a adapter. The cable can also charge the device and appears plain but well made.

Apple iOS users are left out, as there is no Lightning to USB-c cable or adapter included in the box.

The good news is that, unlike many other dongles, the UA5 doesn’t seem too picky with cables, and every one of the Lighting to USB-c cables I have on hand worked fine (JCally, Meenova, xDuoo, FiiO LT-LT1, and the ddHiFi TC28i adapter). Something I can’t say for the VE Megatron.

An assortment of lightning to USB-c cables that all work with the UA5!
An assortment of lightning to USB-c cables that all work with the UA5!

Design

The UA5 is slightly larger than many dongles but is far smaller than most portable DAC/amps. The popular Hidizs S9Pro dongle is 3-8mm shorter in all dimensions and about 1/3 the weight of the UA5.

But this doesn’t mean that the UA5 is overly large, as it’s only about the size and shape of a BIC lighter in your hand.

The bottom cap is made of plastic and houses the USB-c socket.
The bottom cap is made of plastic and houses the USB-c socket.
I have a theory that Shanling may draw inspiration from famous lighter designs. The MTW200 TWS I use nearly daily have an unmistakable Zippo-inspired case design.

The all-aluminum construction (minus one plastic end cap) is smooth and seamless, and the UA5 feels more premium when compared to the S9Pro. It’s available in black or red, and various leather case options are offered.

Just in case you are looking for additional accessories, Shanling has you covered.
Just in case you are looking for additional accessories, Shanling has you covered.

The front of the UA5 features a 1.4” monochrome OLED screen, while a handy, and frankly great feeling, volume/menu golden metal wheel/button is cut out of the side. The top end has the 3.5mm and 4.4mm pentaconn headphone outputs, while the USB-c socket is centered in the bottom end.

The USB-c 3.0 input is backward compatible with USB 1.0 and 2.0 sources by holding in the volume wheel while connecting the UA5 to the device.

The small screen legibly serves up lots of helpful information, including volume level, sample rate, DAC mode, battery level, gain, etc. Additionally, paired with the single adjustment wheel, it serves as the method of selecting a surprising number of menu options.

It is good that all the menu options are easily accessible from the screen, as the iOS version of the Shanling Eddict Player app doesn’t support the UA5. Apple users are out of luck again.
The screen is small but legible.
The screen is small but legible.

Menu ItemOptionsDescription
DACDual/SingleEnables one or two ESS DAC chips depending on the headphone output.
ChargingOn/OffEnables charging from the USB-c port.
GainHigh/LowHigh gain has more volume output.
PowerUSB power/HybridAmp and DAC circuitry are powered from the internal battery (Hybrid) or all from the source device (USB power).
FIRHybrid, Apodizing, Mini Slow, Mini Fast, Linear Slow, Linear Fast, Brick WallThese are the standard filters for current ESS DAC chipsets. In my experience, they make minimal sound changes. You can play around with them, but I tend to leave it at the default apodizing fast roll-off filter or brick wall filter.
Channel BalanceLeft/RightBalance adjustment.
SPDIFOn/OffEnables/disables the 3.5mm socket to function as a coaxial SPDIF output.
Screen Off0-60 secondsChange the time before the screen powers off in 5-second increments.
BrightnessLow-HighChanges the screen brightness.
Rotate0/180Flips the display.
Ver01.94.04Displays the current firmware version.

Rotate the wheel to adjust the volume level. Long press to enter the menu. Rotate to adjust the menu option and quick press to select. Double press to lock or unlock the volume adjustment.
The menu options are easily selectable via the wheel.
The menu options are easily selectable via the wheel.

Internals

The digital signal from the USB port goes through a crystal oscillator, a CT7601 USB bridge chipset, and a custom FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array). From there, the signal enters the dual ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chips (selectable single chip or dual mode) to be converted to analog and amplified via dual mono Ricore RT6863 op-amp chips.

Impressive for a tiny device? You bet!

The UA5 supports 32-bit/768 kHz PCM and DSD 512 but does not support MQA decoding.

SPDIF output

Including a coaxial SPDIF digital output is very unusual for a dongle-sized device. It may be a nod to the fairly limited power output of the UA5 and used if you’d like to pair its rather high-end DAC components to a more powerful standalone amplifier.

I can’t quite fathom a case where I’d use it, but, as they say, it’s better to have and not use than to want and not have.

The SPDIF connection is limited to a maximum of 24-bit/192kHz and requires purchasing an appropriate cable with a 3.5mm TRRS connector.
The 3.5mm analog SE output/coaxial digital output (left) and 4.4mm balanced output (right) on the top end.
The 3.5mm analog SE output/coaxial digital output (left) and 4.4mm balanced output (right) on the top end.

Battery

The user may choose to run the UA5 in USB power or in Hybrid mode. USB power mode means the source device powers the UA5, while Hybrid mode uses the internal 220 mAh battery to run the dual DAC and amp chips and circuitry, while the source device powers the USB and FPGA modules.

Battery life depends on the source file, volume level, and headphone output. It can range from 5 hours+ using the single-ended output to only about 2.5 hours using the balanced connection. A full charge takes about 30 minutes.

No stickers here! All writing is engraved in the aluminum case.
No stickers here! All writing is engraved in the aluminum case.

Power output

Beyond its small size, the main differentiator between the UA5 and a typical portable DAC/amp is the output power. Dongles that rely on the source device for power are typically more limited in output power than devices with internal batteries.

The relatively modest 137/211mW SE/bal @32Ohms power rating for the UA5 isn’t much more than the source-powered Hidizs S9Pro at 100/200mW SE/bal. This is, of course, more than enough for most efficient IEMs and headphones, and I found leaving the UA5 in High gain mode fine for all uses.

The digital volume control has an impressive 100 steps of adjustment!

UA5 Sound

I listened to my typical mishmash of genres and formats. Anything from Spotify to high-resolution DSD files. Of note, thanks to a recommendation from a friend, I’m really digging Phoebe Bridgers lately. Check her out.
32-bit/768 and DSD 512 decoding.
32-bit/768 and DSD 512 decoding.

With most dongles, I tend to find less is more in terms of sound. I don’t want the device to have a distinct sonic character. I want it to have enough power to drive the transducers of choice cleanly, then to simply get out of the way and allow the sound of the headphones or IEMs to shine through.

If you are looking for a bold personality, you will likely be disappointed. However, the UA5 is up to the task if you want clear and uncolored sound on the go.

The UA5 has an essentially silent background, a must for tiny portable amplifiers that drive highly efficient IEMs. With the Thieaudio Monarch, I can not detect a noticeable noise floor at any reasonable listening level. The sound comes across as unaltered, and I feel I’m hearing the full potential of these excellent IEMs.

I used the UA5 primarily in dual DAC mode, High gain, and with the Hybrid battery feature enabled. The Hybrid mode is intended to clean up the signal as compared to potentially noisy USB power – but to be honest, I don’t notice much difference other than source-drain between the two power options.

The UA5 is clearly up to the task for efficient loads. But what about with harder-to-drive headphones? I’m also currently testing the interesting new full-sized, dynamic driver cans from Sivga. The SV023 are 300 Ohm/105 dB, so while not especially inefficient, they provide a far higher impedance load.

The Sivga SV023 pair very nicely with the UA5.
The Sivga SV023 pair very nicely with the UA5.

I enjoyed this pairing so much that they received most of my listening time with UA5.

Without spoiling anything from the upcoming review, the SV023 have a great warm and smooth sound signature that is sublimely easy to listen to. The uncolored nature of the UA5 proves to be a terrific matchup.

Power-wise, the UA5 has to be north of 50% on the internal volume control (with the source volume near maximum) to provide a medium-loud listening experience, but there are reserves still to go if desired.

Essentially the same can be said for the power-hungry HiFiMAN Ananda. The mighty little UA5 does a good job with these monster cans as well.

I used the 4.4 balanced connection and its inherently higher power output with the SV023 and Ananda headphones.

The unboosted nature of the UA5 translates to crisp and controlled bass, with good instrument separation and space. It’s a detailed sonic presentation free of blur or haze.

Where to Buy

Conclusion

The Shanling UA5 is neither clearly a dongle nor a portable DAC/amp. Rather it seems an evolution that provides many of the benefits of both categories – with few drawbacks. It’s small in size, yet feature-rich, boasting an impressive technical design and format support, as well as including an internal battery to reduce source load.

Sure, the UA5 commands a premium price for this sort of typically budget-oriented product. Still, the premium build and sound quality certainly go a long way towards justifying splurging for something better than merely average.

Dongles are – almost literally – a dime-a-dozen these days and are typically designed to appeal to budget-conscious consumers on the go. More serious audiophiles are often recommended to jump to a less portable, less convenient, but more fully-featured portable DAC/amp.

The UA5 makes a strong argument that perhaps, this time, one can actually have it all.

 

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