AKM is back
Pros: + Realistic tonality & natural timbre
+ Musical and engaging
+ Minimum digital glare
+ Not lacking in overall fidelity
+ Dead silent and well shielded will not pick EMI
+ Excellent build quality
+ Detachable cable of good quality
+ Hardware buttons
+ Powerful headphone amplifier and energy efficient
+ Stays cool to the touch
+ Accompanying application
Cons: – Not the most resolving or transparent
– Detail retrieval could be better
– A little bulkier than the competition
– No MQA decoding (if you care)
The review sample was kindly provided free of charge in exchange for my honest and subjective evaluation.
I didn’t receive monetary or any other kind of compensation and I don’t use affiliate links.
The price is $109 and you can order yours from Shanling Amazon official store.
Faithful Shanling fans will certainly know that for many years, AKM DACs were the core part of Shanling’s audio designs, as they played a crucial role in delivering their house sound.
But following the fire at AKM’s factory in 2020, they had to look for alternative solutions, being unsure about AKM’s future, something that affected most of their releases in 2021.
Thankfully in early 2022, AKM relaunched their line of DACs and Shanling immediately started working on new designs, diving into the possibilities of this updated generation of DACs.
UA3 is the first of these designs, utilizing a freshly released AK4493SEQ DAC, for the first time bringing the sound of AKM into the UA line of portable DAC/AMPs.
Shanling UA3 features the brand new AKM AK4493SEQ DAC chip together with two dedicated Ricore RT6863 (the same used in FiiO’s KA3) amplification chips combined into a powerful balanced output.
The UA3 is delivering 211mW/32Ω from the 4.4mm balanced output and 125mW/32Ω from the 3.5mm single, thus being able to drive a variety of full-sized headphones.
Furthermore the UA3 employs clever USB power management to draw significantly less power from the host device.
An advanced low-dropout voltage regulator is used for low noise and black background.
Additionally, a built-in high precision ultra low jitter clock can process all input data with an improved accuracy and enhanced performance.
The UA3 is compatible with Windows, Android, Mac, and iOS devices (Lightning cable not included), supporting PCM 32-Bit/768kHz and Native DSD512 but not MQA.
The UA3 supports both UAC1.0 and UAC2.0 USB modes so it is compatible with a wide range of host devices.
Design and build quality
The UA3 has a rectangular shape with beautifully curved sides and is made from a single aluminium block with a matte black finish.
The small part that covers the USB type-C port side is made from plastic and not aluminium.
The other end houses two headphone outputs while at the upper part of the chassis there are three physical buttons and a tiny notification LED that changes color according to the sampling rate.
The three buttons are used for controlling volume level and play/pause while their actions can be further customized through the compatible Eddict application.
You can also long press the central button for two seconds to switch between hardware and software controls.
Measuring 60x25x13mm and weighing 20.5g the UA3 is somewhat larger and bulkier than similarly sized devices like the FiiO KA3 but still compact enough and lightweight to fit inside your pocket or earphone carrying case.
The UA3 comes with a, 5cm long, copper USB type-C cable of good quality with aluminum plugs and heavy strain reliefs at both sides plus a USB-A to USB-C adapter.
An elegant leather case is available as an extra purchase.
The UA3 is compatible with the Shanling developed application called Eddict player that allows access for six kinds of digital filters, gain setting between high/low and customization of the external buttons.
Associated gear and power output
The UA3 was burned about 50 hours before listening sessions.
I used various earphones and headphones to test the performance, including the FiiO FA7S, Meze ADVAR, Sennheiser HD660S and even the Focal Clear Mg.
Power output from the balanced output is enough to drive a lot of headphones like the HD660S albeit with the Clear Mg something was left to be desired.
The unit stays relatively cool even after a prolonged time of use and power consumption is quite low.
There is no audible internal noise while the unit is well shielded so it seldomly picks up EMI interference.
The black background allows for good micro-detail retrieval but the UA3 is not the most detailed or resolving USB DAC among the competition.
At last, after the slightly bright and forward-sounding UA1, the UA3 brings back the favorite Shanling house sound.
The UA3 sounds mildly warm, smooth and analogue-like yet transparent and accurate as a modern DAC ought to be.
There are no tonal shifts or nonlinearities and the sound signature is forged with the aim of the natural timbre and the lack of digital glare which is kept on a surprisingly low level.
The instrumental texture is rich and harmoniously intense with great tonal accuracy, both instruments and voices sound natural and quite close to reality.
At the same time the UA3 is fast and agile with all the necessary bite and grip that are needed for electronic tunes.
Bass extends deep and is tight, controlled and well defined, not that visceral but still full bodied and weighty.
Dynamic behavior is convincing, the UA3 is impactful and rumbling without sounding hollow or boomy.
Mid-range is flat regarding the frequency response but it has a smooth, zesty and lush texture that makes for a very engaging and highly enjoyable experience.
It is about harmonics and overtones that are colorfully painted with a variety of color shades that add an organic quality to the sound.
The highs are well extended, they are airy and sparkling but without sounding bright or forward, the sound is pleasurable and easy to the ear, nonetheless the UA3 is not lacking in overall transparency and precision.
It might not be the most resolving, analytical or crystalline clear sounding DAC but articulation is always kept on the highest level while note decaying has the perfect timing, not fast nor too slow, just balanced.
The soundstage is well organized, it is more wide than deep and not that holographic but it has accurate imaging and an open sounding, large scale presentation.
The UA3 feels at home with all kinds of music and it can match well with all your favorite earphones..
I found it very convincing with classical music where I mostly enjoyed the naturalness of the timbre and the organic texture like when I was listening to the following Beethoven symphony cycle.
Vs the FiiO KA3 ($90)
These two are more similar than different, they have an almost identical form factor, they can be configured through an app, they share the same amplification stage with the only major difference being the DAC chip.
ESS vs AKM and as you have probably guessed, the FiiO KA3 is somewhat more open sounding, cleaner and more resolving with a touch deeper detail retrieval.
Sound is a little leaner on the KA3 but it manages to sound more dynamic and bolder, treble is more sparkling and while not bright, it is slightly more forward and not velvety smooth as in the UA3.
Mids sound more organic, lush and harmoniously intense in the UA3 and while the KA3 has minimum digital glare and a mostly natural timbre, the UA3 has the edge in overall naturalness and timbre realism.
The KA3 is just slightly more powerful but it is something that gets really noticed and makes a difference when driving full size headphones.
In the end
AKM is back to business and Shanling engineers must be more happy than anyone else.
Their favorite DAC brand has new chips available and they are back to the drawing board designing with them.
The first born child, the UA3, is an excellent sounding USB DAC dongle with a very musical and organic sound signature that is going to reward the happy owner with endless pleasures.
Well build, powerful, energy efficient and competitively priced it gets an instant recommendation while I can’t wait for more products to come.
Copyright – Petros Laskis 2022.