Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: the most versatile headphone amp ever

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The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is a versatile model that can be used as a network player, a USB DAC, a preamplifier and a headphone amplifier. It benefits from an exemplary finish, with a glass upper panel and touchscreen for easy navigation through the Android operating system and numerous streaming applications, as well as through your music library stored locally or shared via DLNA. Its popular AKM DAC supports PCM streams up to 32-bit/768kHz, as well as DSD512 and MQA files. Finally, the triple balanced and unbalanced headphone output coupled with an amplification of 1620mW into 32 ohms ensures a perfect power supply for any pair of headphones or IEMs. Priced at €849, can the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center become the new reference for headphone listening?

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center (here with the Meze Lirics) is an ultra versatile headphone amplifier compatible with streaming services, as well as your digital music and sources.

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: packaging & accessories

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier comes perfectly packaged and protected inside a plain cardboard box. It is accompanied by a power cable, a USB-A to USB-B cable, a 3.5mm mini-jack to 6.35mm jack adapter and a quick start guide.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center comes with a power cable, a USB-A to USB-B cable, a quick start guide and a mini-jack to jack adapter.

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: presentation

Design 

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center’s design is directly derived from that of the Shanling EA5 Streaming Music Center connected amplifier. Like the latter, the level of finish is exemplary, with a chassis made entirely of aluminum. The upper panel features a smoked glass plate whose edges curve elegantly towards the interior of the chassis. The upper part of this plate is decorated with the electronic diagram of the device.

The finish of the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier is exemplary, notably the upper panel with its glass plate and electronic diagram of the device.

The glass plate of the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier also features a 4.7” (11.9cm) color touchscreen. With the Astell&Kern Acro CA1000, it is the only headphone amp to have this feature. It is a major advantage in terms of ergonomics, allowing you to control all the features by touch. The screen is responsive and it is easy to navigate through the apps, settings and music libraries. During playback, it is possible to display the album artwork, the song lyrics (compatible streaming service required), or even two VU meters, which adds to the charm of the amp. The VU meters can be personalized with orange, white or blue backlighting, echoing the look of a well-known hi-fi brand.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier has a large touchscreen for easy control and to display information about the music being played, as well as a VU meter.

However, you have to have good eyesight to see the information on the screen and the numeric keypad is small and requires a certain amount of dexterity. This isn’t a huge problem though and we quickly got used to using it. It is also possible to control the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center from its dedicated smartphone app. Finally, the volume control is even easier to manage thanks to the large potentiometer on the front panel. Its shape and golden color are reminiscent of the Sony DMP-Z1 headphone amp.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amp and preamplifier’s volume can be adjusted using the touchscreen, the mobile app or the large potentiometer on the front panel.

AKM4493EQ DAC

At the heart of the electronic diagram adorning the top of the Shanling EM5 is an AKM DAC. The manufacturer’s chips are renowned for their ability to combine musicality and smoothness. However, since the AKM factory fire, the brand’s DACs are rare and have become real collector’s items. It is therefore a big surprise that Shanling has decided to equip its Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amp with an AKM4493EQ chip. This high-end convertor provides optimal support for PCM streams up to 32-bit/768kHz, as well as DSD512 and MQA 8x files. To make the most of this DAC, the streams are synchronized by a KDS Crystal clock to limit jitter. The result is a smoother, purer and more accurate reproduction of digital audio files.

Amplification 

At the output of the DAC, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center features a high-quality amplification stage. In order to offer the best performance from the latter, the Shanling EM5 has a dual power supply: one with a toroidal transformer for the analog stage, and a second designed specifically for the digital stage. Each channel has its own Texas Instruments TP6120A2 chip to amplify the channels separately. This module is able to develop up to 570mW into 32 ohms in unbalanced (6.35mm jack) and 1620mW in balanced (mini-XLR and 4.4mm jack) configurations. A high power output that allows you to use the EM5 with the vast majority of headphones and IEMs on the market. To make pairing easy, the gain can be adjusted over four different levels in the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center’s settings.

Thanks to its three headphone outputs and high output power of 1620mW into 32 ohms in a balanced configuration, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center can easily power any headphones or in-ear monitors.

Connectors 

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center’s wide range of connectors is a perfect example of its versatility. The headphone amplificator section includes three outputs: one unbalanced 6.35mm jack output, a balanced 4.4mm jack output (also called Pentaconn) and a balanced XLR output. The back of the box features four inputs and four outputs. The inputs include a USB-B port for the DAC mode, a USB-A port to connect a hard drive or a USB stick, as well as two digital inputs (coaxial and optical). The latter allow you to connect a CD player or a 4K UHD television, for example. Regarding the outputs, the Shanling EM5 provides two digital outputs (coaxial and optical) and two analog outputs (an unbalanced RCA and a balanced XLR). The level of the latter can be adjusted: fixed to use the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center as a source with a hi-fi amplifier, or variable to use it as a preamplifier with an external power amp.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is equipped with many inputs and outputs to easily connect several digital sources, but also so it can be added to an advanced hi-fi system.

Android 

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is one of the only headphone amps on the market to feature the Android operating system. The version used by the amplifier is specially designed for audio playback, with direct audio signal transmission to the DAC. Coupled with dual WiFi and Ethernet network connectivity, this operating system opens the doors to streaming, with the ability to share tracks over the local network and access many online music services. Although the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center can’t access the Google Play Store, it offers an alternative catalog that allows you to install the applications of the main streaming platforms: Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Amazon Music, Deezer and Apple Music, among others.

Thanks to the Android system, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amp can access a wide range of online music services.

LDAC, aptX HD and LHDC Bluetooth

The tracks played by the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center can be transmitted to the various headphone outputs, as well as the analog and digital outputs, but they can also be streamed wirelessly via Bluetooth. It is possible to connect a pair of Bluetooth headphones, Bluetooth in-ear monitors or a pair of wireless speakers. Depending on the compatibility of the paired receiver, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center streams music using LDAC, aptX HD or LHDC Bluetooth, which allows you to benefit from high-speed transmission. Consequently, it is certified Hi-Res Audio Wireless. It is important to note that the Bluetooth module is bidirectional in order to receive music from a smartphone or tablet. Last but not least, wireless streaming to the headphone amp is also possible via AirPlay from an Apple device: iPad, iPod, Mac, iPhone or Apple TV.

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: key specifications

  • 32-bit/768kHz and DSD DAC
  • WiFi, Bluetooth, DLNA and AirPlay
  • Balanced and unbalanced outputs
  • Color touchscreen
  • Output power of 61mW to 1620mW into 32 ohms (balanced)
  • 4 digital inputs
  • 2 analog and 2 digital outputs

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: configuration

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier offers a real plug and play digital audio solution. Once connected to the mains, you switch on the power switch at the back of the device, then press the volume potentiometer for 5 seconds to turn on the system. A relay is activated and the screen lights up. You are then prompted to select the language of the menus, then to enter the WiFi password if you wish to connect to the network. The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is then operational.

Unlike Android for smartphones, which features all the installed apps on the homepage, the version used by the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is more minimalist. The main interface features six icons. The first, named “Update Library”, allows you to index music from a USB-B key, a hard drive or a micro SD card. The second one called “Local Music” provides access to your music library with the selection by title, artists, albums, genres or playlists. A third icon named “Internet Service” allows you to install and access compatible online music services. Then, the “Change source” icon lets you switch between the device’s music modes, and the USB, coaxial and optical DAC modes. Lastly, the “Folder” icon lets you know the available space on the device’s 24GB of internal memory, and the “Options” icon provides access to many additional settings.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center’s homepage features several icons for access to music, streaming services and the amp’s settings.

From the “Options” menu, it is possible to configure the main playback settings, such as the VU meter display (white, blue or orange), the screen saver, the brightness, etc. We also have access to the headphone output gain, the playback mode and the 10 band equalizer. It is possible to configure several curves, but also to activate presets for many musical genres: jazz, rock, pop, live, classical, house, and so on.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center allows the user to configure their own EQ curve and offers multiple presets to adapt the reproduction to their preferences or the associated equipment.

For our review, we used the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier with the Meze Empyrean Elite and Audeze LCD-5 open-back headphones, as well as the Meze Liric closed-back headphones. We tested the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center with Hi-Res and DLNA music stored on the local network, but also with the Qobuz and Tidal music services to enjoy high resolution streaming. Finally, we used the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center as a source to enjoy our hi-fi system’s streaming services. To do so, we connected a Pathos New Classic One MKIII amplifier to the XLR output.

With a high output power and excellent transparency, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center’s amplification stage proved to be a good match for the high-end Audeze LCD-5 headphones.

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: listening impressions

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier provides a linear and very balanced reproduction. It displayed great definition across the entirety of the reproduced sound spectrum. Each frequency range was incarnated with conviction and naturalness and without any coloration. The bass was well structured, powerful and tight. However, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center sometimes lacked fullness and warmth in the lows, favoring a neutral and clear sound with a rigorously accurate reproduction of the original musical message. A quality that allowed us to hear every note exactly as it was played and recorded by the artist.

Used both as a headphone amplifier and a source, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center offered beautiful transparency and clarity. Its excellent analytical capabilities enabled it to extract details and nuances from the music with a high degree of perfection. The amplitude of the instruments was reproduced in its entirety and with exemplary precision. The musical space of the concert hall or the recording studio was also rendered with great realism. Each instrument was embodied with wonderful presence, whether it was the clash of cymbals, the whisper of brass instruments or the subtle nuances of the strings.

With its neutral character, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier effectively harnessed the transparency and clarity of the Meze Empyrean Elite headphones.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center headphone amplifier reproduced each frequency range with musical richness. The mids were delivered with rigor, reaching a high level of perfection. The details displayed great finesse, mainly thanks to the complete lack of background noise, which made the acoustic image perfectly clear and ensured that the details were pronounced. The vocals were strikingly natural and were beautifully rendered.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center handled the highs with fluidity and transparency. This frequency range was devoid of any shrillness and, on the contrary, had a smoothness that was sometimes flattering. There was no unpleasant roughness or sibilance, allowing for prolonged listening sessions without any fatigue. We enjoyed a nice brightness, bringing a lot of clarity to the highs to effectively highlight each detail. Like the other frequency ranges, the highs were reproduced with an authority and neutrality that honored the work of the musicians.

Paired with the Meze Lirics, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center handled the highs with fluidity and transparency. This frequency range was devoid of any shrillness.

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: compared to…

Astell&Kern Acro CA1000: available for €2,299, the Astell&Kern Acro CA1000 isn’t in the same category as the EM5, but it is currently the only other headphone amp equipped with a touchscreen and the same streaming features. However, the screen of the A&K amp is slightly smaller and its operating system lacks responsiveness. The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center’s Android system is much more reactive. Soundwise, the Astell&Kern Acro CA1000 offers an even more transparent and spacious soundstage. The bass is slightly rounder, while the mids are warmer. As a result, the sound can seem more flattering than that of the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center, which is more neutral. Lastly, the Astell&Kern Acro CA1000 also has the advantage of incorporating a rechargeable battery, making it easier to carry from room to room. 

The Astell&Kern Acro CA1000 (here with the Meze Liric headphones) is the only other headphone amp equipped with a touchscreen. Its OS isn’t as smooth, however.

iFi Audio Neo iDSD: sold for €799, the iFi Audio Neo iDSD can be used as a headphone amplifier, a preamplifier and an Audio DAC. However, it isn’t as versatile as the EM5, as it lacks a network connection. It is only possible to stream music via Bluetooth. The 1000mW into 32 ohms amplification stage isn’t as powerful and is paired with a balanced and an unbalanced output, compared to the Shanling EM5’s three outputs. That said, the USB DAC mode is just as good, with support for PCM streams up to 32-bit/768kHz, as well as DSD 512 and MQA files. When it comes to sound, the iFi Audio Neo iDSD is slightly more dynamic with a more robust character in the lows. However, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is more neutral. 

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: who is it for?

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is one of the most versatile solutions available for headphone listening. It combines a network player, an audio DAC and a high-quality headphone amplifier in a single device. This means you can build an ultra comprehensive headphone system from a single piece of equipment that fits on your desk. With its neutral sound, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is designed for music lovers who want their music to be as faithful to the original recording as possible, without coloration or distracting artifacts. A quality that will allow you to discover the true sound signature of your headphones and listen to your favorite albums with authenticity.

The Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is ideal for creating a full headphone system capable of playing both digital music and physical sources.

Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center: conclusion 

With the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center, the Chinese manufacturer offers a device that appeals with its design as well as its versatility and simplified operation thanks to its touchscreen. With this single piece of equipment, Shanling covers all the requirements of a whole installation. It can be used as a dedicated headphone amp, or as a source or audio DAC with a hi-fi system. It’s a real pleasure to use the various features of this device, although the screen could be larger for better readability. In terms of performance, the Shanling EM5 Streaming Music Center is neutral and uncompromisingly natural. A musical purity that always honors high-quality recordings and reveals the true sound of the associated equipment.

We liked

  • The exemplary finish
  • The extreme versatility
  • The neutrality
  • The transparent soundstage

We would have liked

  • A larger screen
  • A 3.5mm headphone output

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