Quick Look: Shanling BA1 Desktop Bluetooth Receiver 4

Quick Look: Shanling BA1 Desktop Bluetooth Receiver

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Introduction

Shanling Logo

Shanling as an audio brand has been making waves for years now with wired headphones and accessories for the same, so I was intriguing by the company now tackling the ever-growing wireless audio market with energy to spare. We saw this with the MTW300 true wireless stereo (TWS) earphones adopting an IEM-like ergonomic fit to distinguish the MTW300 from the thousands of similarly priced TWS sets today. That set, incidentally, had shipped along with another Bluetooth accessory, the Shanling BA1 desktop Bluetooth receiver, and we take a look at it today courtesy Shanling providing TechPowerUp a review sample!


The feature set of the Shanling BA1 may have you believe it's quite similar to a portable DAC/amp, such as those from FiiO, EarMen, and Qudelix we have seen thus far. It too features an ESS Sabre DAC, the ES9218P, and has power output on par with those more mobile units. What makes this a desktop implementation is the lack of a battery, meaning it is only powered by USB, and the form factor is more conducive to adding Bluetooth functionality to your otherwise excellent but wired audio gear. Think of it as a means of making your nice set of bookshelf speakers wireless, or even a standalone DAC/pre-amp/amp stack. This is the unique selling point of the Shanling BA1, and we now delve into the receiver in more detail.

Packaging and Accessories


The product box comes with a plastic seal all around, and removing it reveals a smaller box than expected, with the company logo on its front in a shinier black for some contrast against the matte black. The size of the box led me to the realization that this desktop receiver was going to be small, too. I had a larger item pictured in my mind. The back and most of the sides of the packaging are bare, with a sticker confirming the specific model inside, as well as contact information for the company itself. Two side flaps and a central single flap keep the contents in place on their way to you.


Opening the box, we see a lot of thick foam ensuring everything arrives in pristine condition. There is a deliberate cutout in the middle for the items, including a cardboard accessory box above the main event itself. We get a warranty guide that confirms the year-long manufacturer warranty against defects and a multi-language quick start guide going over the setup, pairing, and operation of the BA1 for different use cases. This is a useful guide to read through, especially if you are new to using such devices. Lastly, Shanling includes a fairly basic USB Type-A to Type-C cable with the expectation that you use the BA1 with a powered 5 V USB source. The BA1 comes inside a thin wax wrap, which is more to keep the surfaces clean than for protection.

Closer Look


The Shanling BA1 is indeed tiny for desktop receivers, coming in at 12.0 x 12.0 x 2.6 cm. This is with the more mobile hardware inside, and Shanling deliberately went this route to tackle a different use case. The build is pretty to look at, with polished black acrylic all around that makes for a small centerpiece should you wish it to be since it is also tucked away behind other components easily enough. That said, it is a dust and fingerprint magnet, so the former will result in regular dust-wiping sessions with a microfiber cloth. The top surface has the Shanling logo in the center, and the back all the certification logos, confirming this is capable of Hi-Res audio both wired and wirelessly. This is also where the 5 V/1 A input to make the most of the device is confirmed. As such, USB 3.2 Gen 1 (USB 3.0) is recommended as a starting point. Qualcomm is the Bluetooth chipset provider, and brings with it native aptX and aptX HD codec support in addition to Sony's LDAC, which will come in handy for the wireless connectivity options and standard AAC/SBC. On the back, we see these are all on an inset panel, which helps the BA1 appear somewhat floating in use. Four small, circular rubber pads on the corners raise it off the resting surface and prevent scratches to the acrylic casing.


The first image above is how end users will typically view the Shanling BA1, with the front being clean and functional. There is a physical on/off metal toggle switch on the left, LCD screen under the acrylic panel in the center, and 3.5 mm output to the right for headphones and earphones alike. The BA1 branding also shows up here on the bottom-right corner, and the rest of the I/O is on the back for easier cable management. There is a single input for both power and data, with the Type-C port all the way to the right as seen from the back. Analog out via RCA is how you can add Bluetooth connectivity to separately powered speakers and other sources, and optical out also exists for the few target customers of the BA1 using it.


After all testing was completed, I attempted to disassemble the BA1 for a closer look inside and failed almost immediately. There are the expected hidden screws on the back under each of the four rubber pads, as well as two exposed screws on the back. The back panel is machined with space for the solder points and connections to fit without affecting the fit of the panel itself. But all this does is reveal a clean PCB back with the rest of the components on the other side. Access to those requires removing some of the locking nuts around the RCA outputs, but the soldered switch is where I stopped lest I damage the device irreparably. I suppose what little of the solder quality I can see is good enough, and we see a daughter PCB for the LCD screen itself. The markings on the PCB also confirm this is a custom piece for the BA1 as opposed to a regurgitated design, so that's good, too.

Setup and Audio Performance


Regardless of whether you plan on using the Shanling BA1 in wired or wireless mode, the USB Type-C port on the back has to be connected to a power source. USB 3.2 Gen 1 (USB 3.0) helps with the 5 V/1 A maximum intake, and this is where I should point out that the lack of a voltage transformer inside means that anything other than 5 V won't work—at least when tried. The desktop application suggests connecting this to a PC perhaps, at least for power if not data too. This in fact allows for you to have the BA1 in wired mode to your PC and still paired via Bluetooth to a mobile device. The default operation with the BA1 as you switch it on is pairing mode, allowing the Bluetooth connectivity to be set up. Once done, the screen works as a status indicator more than anything else. In the absence of physical volume controls, the screen does feel like a feature added for the sake of it. It's also red as opposed to the white on black indicated on the product page. The resolution of the screen is adequate enough, with an appropriate font size for all the indicators on the screen.


Wireless connectivity is really why you should be considering this receiver, and pairing to the Shanling BA1 is simple enough. It enters pairing mode the minute you first power and turn it on, and shows in the list as seen above. You can pair the BA1 with two sources simultaneously, although only one is active at a given time, of course. The BA1 uses the excellent Qualcomm CSR8675 SoC that has been rated highly and used in far more expensive wireless products in addition to the FiiO BTR5 and Qudelix-5K we saw before. It relies on Bluetooth 5.0 and has integrated support for aptX, aptX HD, active noise cancellation, and Qualcomm TrueWireless stereo. There is native 24-bit audio processing courtesy the Kalimba DSP, and the Shanling BA1 as promised supports several of the usual suspects when it comes to codec support, with LDAC chosen by default on my Android phone.


Unlike the MTW300 TWS earphones, the Shanling BA1 is natively supported by the first-party Shanling Controller mobile app available on both Android and iOS. If the mobile device is already connected to the BA1 via Bluetooth, chances are the app will already see it on the home page. If not, a quick search will find it and pair the BA1 to your phone/tablet at the same time. There are a couple of language barriers to jump over, including the home page itself with the BA1 shown on it if it is already paired to the mobile device. A green light indicates as much, but then the button below reads "disconnected." Pressing it actually disconnects the earphones from the app, so this should actually read "Disconnect." The hamburger menu on the left brings up three option menus, including checking for any firmware updates, pulling up a brief user guide, and finding out more about the app. Firmware updating worked flawlessly here with a quick first 50% downloading the file and then a slower second half actually doing the update itself. I will also say that when the BA1 is indeed disconnected from the app, it reads "Connection" for the red light, which at least makes more sense.


The home page as it pertains to the device can be accessed by pressing on the thumbnail seen earlier, and this is referred to as the "Status" menu where you can get a quick visual confirmation of the present status of the Shanling BA1, change volume if in wired USB mode, account for any channel imbalance, turn on/off applicable, available codecs, and switch from low to high gain as needed. There is also a very handy 10-band equalizer which, when turned on, allows the user to pick between several genre-specific presets and a custom one to make your own. The presets can also be customized at any time, and there is a slider action to change the frequency range, which unfortunately is a bit finicky and can result in inadvertent EQ changes instead. Keep in mind that the BA1 does not allow for EQ over LDAC, and a pop-up tells us as much. Only Qudelix has thus far managed to allow this feature, although there isn't much to worry about if you want EQ and end up going to aptX HD. AAC is all you get with iOS, although it is a very good implementation there to be fair. There is also a handy digital filter selection with diagrams conveying the exact roll-off you desire, and the instructions tab is basically the quick-start guide again, but in a handy format.

A single ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC is used, which makes sense in the absence of any balanced outputs. This allows for up to 32-bit/384 kHz sampling over stereo output with its Quad DAC technology rated for an SNR of 115 dB on the available 3.5 mm output. Channel separation is plenty adequate at 73 dB, although on the lower side compared to the portable dual DAC units we saw before. In practice, LDAC will get you up to 24-bit/96 kHz playback, which I can't differentiate from a wired connection and FLAC sources on most headphones or earphones anyway. Output power is 1.4 V on the headphone jack, presumably at the typical 32 Ω this DAC is rated at, and the 2 V rating for the analog line-out over RCA pretty much confirms as much. This is sufficient to drive most consumer headphones and earphones, and RCA/optical out allows for merely using the Bluetooth connectivity with independently powered speakers or more powerful amplifiers. There is Plug and Play USB connectivity too, but without any WASAPI or ASIO drivers from Shanling. Not that it matters much since the DAC is only capable of 16-bit/48 kHz playback here anyway. Once again, I don't think anyone is going to really notice the difference, but figured it should be pointed out. The Shanling BA1 is first and foremost a Bluetooth receiver. You can get better value for money if simply using it in wired mode.


Seen above is an example to show how the BA1 compares to a basic sound card, where it adds more dynamic range and presence and is more representative of the earphones I used than a bog-standard Realtek audio chipset on most motherboards/laptops today. The listening experience was significantly better through the BA1, and I did also separately test this out with a soundbar that fared very well in practice, too. If anything, you may want to have the gain set to low first to avoid things being too loud. This is an otherwise transparent DAC without any perceived coloring of the sound signature. Follow the volume control instructions as suggested by Shanling, which in turn is different depending on whether you are using this wired or wireless. The DAC also played a bigger role than you would think, and past this is where you start getting into highly diminishing returns. There was no perceived difference using the BA1 in wired or wireless mode, so this is good in that it does the intended use case quite well.

The Shanling BA1 is a product with a very specific use case, but it does it well enough to where the absence of a battery makes sense. This allows for a permanent power connection and making your old "dumb" speakers "smart," paired with a PC and/or mobile phone. It also allows higher-power DACs and amplifiers to be wireless, although your mileage may vary on how effective you believe this compromise to be. There is not much portability on offer, so you need to be absolutely sure this is for you. If so, you can find the Shanling BA1 for $169 from retailers, including Audio46 in the USA. Prices in other regions end up being €169 (incl. VAT) and £149 (incl. VAT) in the UK.
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