Remarkable Wireless Sound For The Money!
It wasn’t long ago, the phrase “Hi-Fi Bluetooth Receiver” would’ve been considered something of an oxymoron. Even a couple of years back, the sound quality of Bluetooth was pretty poor, and most audiophiles would’ve scoffed at the idea of “Hi-Fi Bluetooth.”
But in the last year or so, new Bluetooth versions like BT 5.0 along with upgraded BT codecs like LDAC and aptX HD have changed all that. High fidelity Bluetooth connections are now a possibility, and audio manufacturers are coming up with myriad ways to take advantage.
That includes new Bluetooth receivers designed for use with hi-fi rigs, like Shanling’s new BA1 Desktop Hi-Fi Bluetooth Receiver, which is available at retail for $169.
This compact unit (about five inches long and one inch tall) not only outputs high-resolution Bluetooth streams into your stereo system but also doubles as a USB DAC/Headphone amp, which is in contrast to its peers that only do digital or line output.
The BA1 doesn’t just perform these functions, but it does both well, making it an intriguing option for someone looking to play music from their cell phone, laptop, or both. In reality, I may be tempted to call it more of a DAC/Amp with Bluetooth instead of a simple Bluetooth receiver. If you’re interested in finding out more about this versatile device, then read on.
Disclaimer: The BA1 was sent to us by Shanling in exchange for our honest review.
The BA1 is basically a small plastic box with an on/off dipswitch, 3.5mm headphone jack, and screen in the front. There are two digital connections (1 USB-C input, 1 Optical output), plus an RCA line output in the rear. There are no balanced analog or coaxial digital outputs, which means the connections are basic but practical. Even though the build is all plastic, it’s hard plastic with a glossy finish, making this affordable piece of gear look pretty snazzy.
The small LCD screen in the front gives you an indication of the Bluetooth Codec in use (ex. LDAC), along with the Bluetooth connection status or the sampling rate when in USB DAC mode. Even though the screen is tiny, the red on-screen font is sized for decent legibility even several feet away.
Speaking of BT Codecs, the BA1 supports just about every one imaginable, including LDAC, aptX HD, aptX LL, aptX, AAC, and SBC. That means you have access to some of the highest data rates available via Bluetooth, giving you full CD-Quality sound if your device is compatible. Bluetooth 5.0 gives you an extended range (about 130 feet indoors) if you use a BT 5.0 device to send your tunes.
To gain access to all of the BA1’s settings, you need to install the “Shanling Controller” app (Android or iOS) on your phone. The app lets you adjust parameters on the ESS ES9218P DAC/amplifier chip, like selecting digital filters to tweak the sound or adjusting the gain on the headphone output.
The app also lets you set the headphone amp volume when in USB DAC mode, set L/R channel balance, or pick a particular BT codec, just if your phone doesn’t default to the one you prefer. You can also pick an Equalizer setting from six preset selections or set your own custom EQ if you so choose. There’s also a handy online user’s manual.
The BA1 only comes with a Quick Start guide and USB-C power/data cable in the box; no power adapter is included. You can power it up via USB power on your laptop or purchase a standard USB power for use with a power outlet. Like most USB DACs, you can use the unit while it’s getting power from a laptop.
Listening to the Shanling BA1 In USB DAC Mode
I started my listening tests with the BA1 in USB DAC mode, connected to my laptop with the included USB cable. It’s plug and play, meaning the computer should automatically recognize the device and install the proper driver. This is good for those who don’t want to fuss with pesky audio drivers. However, this also means resolution support over USB is limited to 16/48.
I played music from the TIDAL desktop app, and the BA1 registered the sample rate on the front screen. I used the Beyerdynamic T5 3rd Gen ($999) plugged into the 3.5mm headphone jack and noticed right away this little box had more than enough gusto to drive full-sized headphones. This unit is rated at 2V output through the 3.5mm jack, and with the headphone amp set to high-gain (the default), it was actually too loud for the Beyerdynamic headphones (100db at 1mW sensitivity).
I switched to the low-gain setting, which was a better match for those cans, providing a gradual lift to a proper listening level. (tip: if you still find the gain too high on the low gain setting, you can make further adjustments using the “USB Volume” setting in the app.)
To see how the BA1 did with a less sensitive headphone, I tried it with the Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed (the original version with 93db sensitivity), and it drove them much better than I thought it would. The sound was a tad bit compressed but still very crisp and open. I was missing a little of the punch you would get from a more powerful amp, but it still produced a tight, detailed bottom end without cranking the volume too much.
This was one of the few times I could get satisfactory sound out of the AFC with anything other than a dedicated headphone amp (the very first time with a device under $200). I also had a good result with the higher impedance but similar sensitivity Hifiman Sundara ($349), which wasn’t as resolving, but more dynamic and fuller sounding. I actually liked the Sundara better with the BA1 at the end of the day.
After the two planar headphones, I went back to the T5, which gave me the best combo of resolution and dynamics. Overall, I found the BA1’s sound nicely balanced. However, with certain songs, the top end seemed to be a little too “sparkly,” almost like it was trying too hard to reveal details in the music. If you’re sensitive to treble, then that’s something to think about.
That said, there was some good detail to be had in the lower highs and midrange. Vocals sounded quite clean and natural on the Beyerdynamic, as did strings. I felt the BA1 really allowed the T5 to shine. As the BA1 trends very neutral, Bass is detailed but restrained out of the box. If you want a little more excitement, you can set an EQ, or for finer adjustment, you can select another digital filter.
On to Bluetooth!
So after spending a ton of time testing the USB connection, I finally got around to Bluetooth, which is funny since the BA1 is advertised primarily as a wireless device. To test the BT connection, I paired it with Shanling’s M2X Digital Audio Player, which has its own TIDAL app. It also has LDAC compatibility, which I set to the HQ setting (up to 990 kbps) for the highest audio quality. That bitrate put me firmly in the Redbook CD range.
Via wireless, the sound was actually very close to the wired presentation. There was a (very) slight loss of detail, but the music actually sounded a little more open through the midrange, and there was the slightest bit of additional warmth on the bottom end. The highs were actually a little less edgy, which was a good thing.
Next, I connected the BA1 to my hi-fi, an Audiolab 6000A Play integrated connected to a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 11.2 standmount speakers. I first connected the optical output to the 6000A Play’s optical input to hear it through the Audiolab’s DAC. The Audiolab is known for its neutral disposition, a sweet top end, and open midrange, along with well-controlled bass.
The Shanling receiver, with its considerable top-end detail, played nicely with the 6000A Play since it’s slightly restrained up top, and I found the BA1’s sound scaled up nicely thru the speakers. I listened to one of my favorite albums for vocals and instrumentation, “Sides” by Emily King, and when a system is working well, her voice comes through brilliant and natural.
This is exactly what I got when I played her music with the Shanling on LDAC; her vocals were emotive and alive, as was her guitar licks. Things were nicely separated, and the imaging was good. There was even some good depth. It was an excellent showing for a wireless source, and I really enjoyed it as a relatively inexpensive streaming option for my hi-fi setup.
I then connected the BA1’s RCA out to the 6000A Play to check out the sound coming from the BA1’s DAC, and I must say it was a little more diffuse than the optical output going into the same amp. It still sounded good, but overall the sound was just slightly softer; things were just a little more rounded off.
Compared to the iFi ZEN Blue Bluetooth Receiver
Next, I did an A/B of the BA1 to the iFi ZEN Blue ($129), my previous pick for an affordable Hi-Fi Bluetooth receiver, and felt the ZEN had a warmer, more natural sound than the BA1. More Velvety (is that a word?). The BA1 was more clinical and hyper-detailed than the iFi product, something you may like if you want a source with a little more sparkle and liveliness on the top end. It takes a scalpel to the material, digging out every transient. They are both good, but I preferred the extra warmth and openness coming from the ZEN Blue.
That said, the BA1 has a headphone jack, USB DAC, and an on/off switch, things the ZEN Blue lacks. On the other hand, the ZEN Blue has a coaxial digital input, plus a balanced output, things the BA1 doesn’t have.
With the Shanling BA1 Desktop Hi-Fi Bluetooth Receiver, It was hard to know whether I just reviewed a USB Headphone Amp/DAC with Bluetooth or a Bluetooth Receiver with an Amp/DAC. Still, either way, you get a nice combo unit that you can carry from your desktop over to your hi-fi system and enjoy a crisp, clear listening experience with headphones or speakers. The top end is a little bit edgy (especially via the headphone jack), but there are good detail and musicality throughout the audio band, which scales very well through a hi-fi system.
The control app is also a nice touch with several useful features. However, I wish you could also access the same features without opening up your phone every time. That said, the app provides a lot more control over the BA1’s functionality than you have with other products of its kind.
The powerful headphone amp section and great-sounding Bluetooth output make the BA1 a versatile little box with many use cases. By the way, you get all of this for only $169. If you’re looking to add Bluetooth to your hi-fi system or stream music from your phone to a nice set of headphones, or both, then this product is worth checking out.
Bluetooth Chip: Qualcomm CSR8675, Bluetooth 5.0
Supports: LDAC, aptX HD, aptX LL, aptX, AAC, SBC
Hi-Res: Up to 24 bit / 96 kHz with LDAC
DAC/AMP: ESS Sabre ES9218P
Outputs: 3.5mm Headphone jack, RCA Line-out, Digital Optical Out
Output power: Headphone jack – 1.41V / RCA Line-Out – 2.0V
SNR: – 115 dB
Channel separation: 73dB
USB DAC: Plug-n-play setup, up to 16/48
Power supply: USB powered, 5V/1A. Power supply not included in packaging.
Dimensions: 120 x 100 x 26 mm
Where To Buy
Shanling BA1 Desktop Hi-Fi Bluetooth Receiver
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.