One of the many audiophile peripherals that have piqued my interest recently has been these DAC/Amp USB-C dongles. Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a look at products like the Astell and Kern PEE51 and the Questyle M12. These devices have brought a lot of interesting ideas about the accessibility of high-res audio for those on a budget. There’s also the issue of portability with high-resolution listening. Some of us don’t wish to carry around portable amps no matter how small they make them. A DAC dongle adapter is a lot more efficient for travel, and it feels like a natural accessory for any smartphone or laptop. Shanling is a brand that I’ve come to admire for producing such quality among a variety of price points. They have their own type C DAC called the UA2, going for only $85. Let’s see how it stacks up.
What You Get
These types of portable DACs don’t exactly need many accessories. With the UA2 you get the main device itself with the USB-C cable separate. I prefer it when the cable is detachable so that’s quite nice. You also receive a female type C to USB A adapter for more universal use.
The build quality can be important here since it’s most likely the device will be dangling from your smartphone for a while and should be able to withstand the environment more. Just holding this adapter I could tell it sustains a great level of durability. There’s a considerable amount of weight to it when holding it in your hand for such a small accessory. It’s a sleek black aluminum chassis that has the perfect size to fit anywhere. I also like how the fabric cable isn’t too long either, making it a little easier to sit with your device close by without the dongle hanging off a surface. I’ve also come to prefer the detachable cables as well, making connection options a bit more varied.
While the UA2 only comes with a single type C cable with an adapter, it’s also possible to find type C to lightning for iPhone, but that would have to be a separate purchase. Finally, the last edition of the UA2 that I enjoyed was the option of a balanced and unbalanced headphone input. Most DAC dongles only offer a standard 3.5mm connection, but the UA2 also offers a 2.5mm balanced connection as well. Both headphone inputs are placed right next to each other, with an LED light in between indicating which sample rate you’re currently running at.
On the inside of the UA2 is an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC Chip. You can find this chipset in multiple high-resolution portable players. It will definitely outdo anything your smartphone or laptop can handle, but the UA2 still has its own distinct qualities that help set it apart. The DAC is capable of achieving a sample rate of 768kHz at 32bits using DSD512 and has a powerful Ricore amp to match it. It features virtually zero delays, and no hiss or background noise could be heard.
That amp is very strong and contains a meaty output. The signal flow is more than plentiful for most smartphones and laptops, but it feels more natural than other powerful amps. I used both the balanced and unbalanced headphone inputs and while the 3.5mm showed some sufficient gain, it doesn’t come close to the balanced. In terms of amplitude, this is one of the most powerful DAC dongles in its price range, almost matching the Questyle M12 which I recently reviewed.
For the UA2 I tried both the balanced and unbalanced headphone inputs, which had subtle effects on the DAC’s overall sound signature. When it came to the soundstage, I definitely preferred the balanced. Using the BGVP DM8 I was able to get a wide stage, with a much grander spatial image. The DM8 without the UA2 still has a nice soundstage but doesn’t offer the same fullness that the DAC adds to it. It’s a much more solid image, with hard and accurate positioning.
The level of separation doesn’t seem so exaggerated this time around, which I found more interesting than being a negative because it doesn’t reduce the soundstage’s quality; rather, it enhances its sense of consistency. For another IEM, the Final Audio A4000, The UA2 exuded a lot more of those exaggerated qualities. The separation was wider, and the imaging was a bit more natural and elegant. You still got that grand sense of the stage, but with a more spacious response.
Using the A4000 with the UA2 proved to be a much more immersive experience compared to the very direct sound of the DM8. It makes the positioning a bit more open on the A4000, which accomplishes better articulation and layering. In terms of the timbre, low-end frequencies received a bit more texture in both IEMs. The punchiness of the DM8 received a bit more depth in its tonality, making the frequencies a lot more clear and defined. It remains a smooth response in balance with the sound signature, but never loses any edge. The A4000 was a bit more neutral, but its layering made all the difference.
One of the main attractions to the UA2 will be just how detailed the midrange is. Especially in the DM8, the mids were very full and brimming with subtle details that brought so much energy to the timbre. For the A4000, the mids were more lush and natural, bringing textured responses to many instruments, especially vocals. The vocal response beamed with life and brought an incredible amount of grace. It’s the treble that can be a little hit or miss at times. While the A4000 never showed many issues in the way of harshness, the DM8 could be a bit too peaky for me at times. Otherwise, the UA2 provided a ton of texture and detail to both IEMs, and I’m looking forward to testing out more.
I very much enjoyed my time listening to the UA2. It delivered on build, detail, and soundstage extension, and costs less than a hundred dollars. You couldn’t ask for anything more, except for some smoother treble maybe. Besides that, Shanling brings a lot of resolution and overall quality here. If you’re in the market for a new DAC dongle, this is definitely one to consider.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Great detail and texture, Build quality, Balanced and unbalanced inputs, Soundstage extension
Cons: Hot treble
The Shanling UA2 is available at Audio 46.