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Shanling UA4 Full Review

Introduction

The Shanling UA4 is the latest addition to the company’s line of portable USB DACs and AMPs, promising stellar sound quality and an intuitive user experience in a compact design. At $99, it enters a fiercely competitive market, aiming to carve out a niche for itself with its distinct features and performance capabilities. In this review, we’ll check every aspect of the UA4, examining its design, technology, sound quality, and overall value proposition.

Disclaimer: This review reflects my honest opinions only. I haven’t received any compensation to influence my thoughts. All ratings consider the product’s price point.

Shanling UA4

Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP (Image via hifigo.com)
Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP (Image via hifigo.com)

Specifications

  • Weight: about 20.8g
  • Size: 60X25X11mm
  • Supported specifications: 768kHz/32bit, DSD512 and MQA
  • Gain compensation: high, low
  • DAC conversion chip: ES9069Q
  • Digital filter: 8 different filtering methods
  • 3.5mm PO output
  • Output power: 2.1V@32Ω(137mW@32Ω) | Frequency response: 20Hz-40kHz (-0.7dB) | THD+N: 0.0008%@32Ω (A-Weight @1.5V) | Dynamic range: 120dB@32Ω (A-Weight) | Channel separation: 71dB@32Ω | Signal-to-noise ratio: 124dB@32Ω (A-Weight) | Output impedance: <0.4Ω
  • 4.4mm BAL output
  • Output power: 2.1V@32Ω(227mW@32Ω) | Frequency response: 20Hz-40kHz (0.7dB) | THD+N: 0.0006%@32Ω (A-Weight @ 1.5V) | Dynamic range: 116dB@32Ω(-Weight) | Channel separation: 106dB@ 32Ω | Signal-to-noise ratio: 120dB@32Ω(A-Weight) | Output impedance: <0.8Ω

Individual ratings

Build Quality

The anodized aluminum chassis, sleek design, and solid construction give the UA4 an excellent build quality that feels premium and durable for the price point.

0/5
Technology

The use of the ESS ES9069Q DAC chip and support for MQA decoding, other advanced features like programmable filters is impressive, though it loses half point for lacking any wireless connectivity options.

0/5
Sound Quality

With its warm, rich, and musical sound signature, superb bass response, clear midrange, and smooth treble, the UA4 delivers an engaging listening experience that still retains good technical performance.

0/5
Power Output

The ability to drive demanding headphones from the balanced 4.4mm output while keeping noise low with sensitive IEMs is commendable for a portable DAC/amp in this price range.

0/5
App Integration And Usage

The on-device controls and menu system are intuitive, but the lack of native iOS app support docks it some points. The Android app integration is a welcome addition though.

0/5
Unique Features

Things like UAC 1.0/2.0 compatibility, multiple selectable filters, and impressive power efficiency make the UA4 quite feature-rich for its compact size and affordable pricing.

0/5

Overall Rating

0/5.0

Bottom Line

At $99, the Shanling UA4 represents outstanding value for money, delivering a level of performance and feature set that defies its relatively modest price tag. Whether you're an audiophile seeking a compact upgrade for your portable setup or a newcomer looking to take their first step into the world of high-fidelity audio, the UA4 is a compelling option that deserves serious consideration.

Pros

  • premium build quality with a sleek, angular design
  • intuitive on-device menu and controls
  • powerful ESS ES9069Q DAC with MQA support
  • rich, warm, and musical sound signature
  • exceptional bass response and midrange clarity.
  • wide, naturally portrayed soundstage
  • Low output impedance and noise floor
  • Impressive power output for a portable DAC/AMP
  • Support for UAC 1.0 and UAC 2.0 modes
  • Nine selectable DAC filters

Cons

  • A slightly rolled-off treble may not suit treble heads.
  • Balanced output may exhibit slight hissing with ultra-sensitive IEMs.
  • No dedicated app for iOS devices (Android only)
  • No analog input for use as a headphone amplifier

1. Packaging

Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP (Image via hifigo.com)
Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP (Image via hifigo.com)
  • Shanling UA4
  • cables
  • adaptor
  • paperworks

2. Design And Build Quality

The UA4's design immediately sets it apart from its predecessors, sporting a sleek, rectangular aluminum chassis with sharper edges and a more angular aesthetic. Available in silver or titanium finishes, both variants exude a premium feel, thanks to the anodized aluminum construction and seamless integration of the OLED screen. Speaking of the screen, it's a standout feature that enhances the user experience, providing at-a-glance information about volume levels, gain settings, filter configurations, and sample rates.

Build quality is exceptional for a product in this price range. The solid USB connector, tactile buttons, and rigid headphone sockets contribute to an overall sense of durability and rigidity. The gold accents around the 3.5mm and 4.4mm headphone outputs add a touch of flair without being overbearing. At around 20–25 grams, the UA4 is also remarkably lightweight and portable, making it an ideal companion for on-the-go listening with in-ear monitors (IEMs).

3. Technology and Decoding Capabilities

Under the hood, the UA4 packs some serious audio hardware. Shanling has opted for the ESS ES9069Q DAC chip, a relatively new and powerful addition to ESS Technology's audiophile lineup. This chip features integrated MQA rendering capabilities, programmable FIR filters, and improved Hyperstream IV modulators, promising exceptional sound quality and compatibility with various high-resolution audio formats.

On the amplification front, the UA4 employs dual Ricore RT6863 op-amps, capable of delivering an impressive 227 mW of power per channel into a 32-ohm load via the 4.4mm balanced output. The 3.5mm single-ended output is no slouch either, offering 137 mW per channel into the same load. Complementing the robust amplification are six Kemet tantalum capacitors and low-noise LDO regulators, further enhancing the audio signal's purity.

4. Sound Quality

Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP
Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP

Tonality

The Shanling UA4's sound signature can be described as warm, rich, and textured—a characteristic that permeates the company's audio products. Despite housing an ESS DAC, which is often associated with a more analytical sound, the UA4 manages to strike a delightful balance, delivering a musical and engaging listening experience without sacrificing technical prowess.

Bass, Midrange, and Treble

The bass response is undoubtedly the star of the show, exhibiting a voluptuous, well-rounded character that extends deep into the sub-bass regions. The mid-bass is equally impressive, imbuing the overall sound with a warm, punchy quality that pairs exceptionally well with various genres, from rock and metal to electronica and hip-hop.

The midrange is where the UA4 truly shines, presenting a smooth, detailed, and resolving reproduction of vocals and instrumentation. Male vocals, in particular, benefit from the UA4's slightly emphasized lower midrange, lending them a sense of authority and gravitas. Female vocals, on the other hand, are rendered with a velvety smoothness, revealing intricate nuances and textures.

Treble response is well-controlled and fatigue-free, with a gentle roll-off in the uppermost regions that contributes to the UA4's overall smooth and refined character. While it may not be the most extended or airy treble presentation, it strikes a pleasing balance, avoiding the harshness or sibilance that can plague some analytical-leaning DACs.

Technicalities

In terms of technical performance, the UA4 impresses with its wide, naturally portrayed soundstage, precise imaging, and effortless instrument separation. The transient response is snappy, and the overall presentation is one of clarity and resolution without veering into analytical territory.

5. App Integration And Usage

The UA4 is compatible with Shanling's Eddict Player app, which allows for further customization and fine-tuning of the device's settings. However, even without the app, the UA4's integrated buttons and on-device menu provide a user-friendly and intuitive experience.

The central button serves as a multifunctional command center, allowing users to cycle through various settings, such as gain levels, filter options, and volume control modes. The ability to toggle between hardware volume adjustment, host volume control, and playback functions adds a welcome layer of flexibility to the UA4's operation.

6. Unique Features

Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP (Image via hifigo.com)
Image of Shanling UA4 DAC And AMP (Image via hifigo.com)

One of the UA4's standout features is its support for both UAC 1.0 and UAC 2.0 modes, enabling compatibility with a wide range of devices, including older hardware and gaming consoles. Additionally, the UA4 boasts impressive power efficiency, with Shanling claiming a 65% reduction in standby power consumption and a 40% decrease in power draw during playback compared to its predecessors.

Another noteworthy aspect is the inclusion of nine different DAC filters, allowing users to fine-tune the sound to their preferences or tailor it to specific headphone or IEM pairings. From linear phase to minimum phase slow roll-off, the UA4 offers a wealth of filtering options to explore.

8. Power Output and Drivability

With its impressive power output and low output impedance, the UA4 is well-equipped to drive a wide range of headphones and IEMs. In my testing, even demanding planar magnetic headphones like the HiFiMan HE1000SE were driven with authority, albeit with some limitations in terms of overall volume headroom.

Sensitive IEMs, such as the Campfire Audio Ara and Dita Perpetua, exhibited no audible hissing or noise, a testament to the UA4's clean and well-designed output stage. While the balanced 4.4mm output packs more punch, the single-ended 3.5mm output is no slouch, delivering ample power for most portable applications.

9. FAQs

Q. Who should buy these?

Audiophiles seeking a warm, musical, and engaging sound signature
Individuals looking for a versatile, high-performing portable DAC/AMP
Those who value intuitive on-device controls and customization options
users seeking a compact, well-built solution for their portable audio needs
Individuals with a diverse music library spanning multiple genres

Q. Who should avoid these?

Listeners who prefer an ultra-analytical or treble-forward sound signature
Those seeking a dedicated headphone amplifier with analog inputs
Individuals who require native iOS app support for advanced settings

Q. Can the UA4 drive high-impedance headphones effectively?

Yes, the UA4's impressive power output and low output impedance make it capable of driving even demanding high-impedance headphones with authority.

Conclusion

The Shanling UA4 is an exceptional portable USB DAC/AMP that punches well above its weight class. Its combination of premium build quality, intuitive user experience, and warm, engaging sound signature make it a compelling choice for audiophiles seeking a versatile and high-performing portable solution.

While it may not satisfy those craving an ultra-analytical or treble-forward presentation, the UA4's rich tonality, exceptional bass response, and midrange clarity make it an ideal companion for a vast array of genres and listening preferences.

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Overall User Rating

4.0
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