Shanling - MTW100 Balanced Armature: A Rarity among the Rare!

by Sahil Santosh March 17, 2020 11 min read

Shanling - MTW100 Balanced Armature: A Rarity among the Rare!

Introduction & About the Product/Brand

Shanling is no new name, especially among the audiophiles, and when it comes to making some of the best DAP’s (Digital Audio Players) out there, Shanling has time and again proven its mark to be among the very best in the industry, if not the best. Some of its noteworthy DAP’s that have become ever so popular are the tiny Shanling M0 and the extremely capable Shanling M2x amongst its other devices such as the M6, M5s and so on in the upper tier. When it comes to True Wireless earphones, it would be Shanling’s first venture into this foray and they went absolutely bananas, throwing everything at that they could, without a ridiculous price tag! At less than a 100$, these are any millennials party piece, with tech such as Wireless Charging, Surrounding Awareness Mode, 24 hours battery life, a variety of extravaganza colour selection and so on! Launched in 2 different iterations, there is a Dynamic Driver based MTW100 aimed at the casual listeners and targeted to the mainstream crowd, and a more focused Knowles Single Balanced armature based MTW100, to bring a little grin on the face of those despondent audiophiles. The latter, BA version is what’s under scrutiny in this review, and to be noted: Comes in a fantastic choice of colours, Black with Orange accents and Red with Black accents…..a peach to look at!

Design, Build Quality, Comfort and Fit

The unboxing experience of the Shanling MTW100 although very simple, is remarkably special. The glossy black charging case is very stylish and eye catchy even though it is a fingerprint magnet and am unsure how the glossy finish will age with time as it will tend to pick up scratches. That said, the case is ergonomic in terms of its overall dimensions and is very pocketable. Open up the case and you are greeted to an equally eye catchy, yet subtle and classy looking left & right buds tucked neatly into what looks like a sliced section of an Orange, albeit in a very deep orange-ish in color which pops irrespective of the lighting. The first thing that came to my mind looking at the Black & Orange colour scheme was the paint palette picked straight of a Lamborghini Huracan Evo! Fit of the buds is excellent and its shaped perfectly to snugly stay put without falling off, even with forceful tugs, which is good news for those joggers & sprinters! Comfort on the whole is nice and fatigue free inspite of using these continuously for 4 hours straight. The tip insertion is not too intrusive / deep nor too shallow and it provides a decent seal overall. The bundled accessories include the eartips, a neat looking short charging cable, a wrist tag to hang the case in your wrist or hands if you want to do so, and the paperwork.

Usability and Functionality

Battery Life on the Shanling MTW100 is long-lasting, with both the buds as well as the charging case. Real-world usage saw the buds last about 6 - 6.5 hours before dropping dead, and the charging case was able to charge the buds nearly to the brim, for about 3 more times which is an additional 16 to 17 hours. The trick up Shanling’s sleeve is its ability to wirelessly charge the charging case which is does deserve accolades for to be able to integrate such tech even at thus budget price point.

Connectivity is handled via Bluetooth 5.0 which is compatible with both SBC & AAC codecs but misses out on the more popular AptX codec which would have been awesome to see at this point, but the Shanling performed both general connectivity and music transmission without much fuss or latency. The L&R buds can be used in both Stereo and Mono mode, however, only the right bud acts as the master in this case and can be used independently of the left earbud, but not vice versa. That said, the touch controls of the Shanling were a breeze to use and very intuitive, although volume controls are missing from the gesture-based controls, and I would have personally liked the overall gestures to not include too many taps to get things done.

Call Quality is surprisingly poor for a true wireless iem, given that its convenience giving form factor falls completely short in terms of call recording quality. The person at the receiving end of the call made though the Shanling MTW100, never heard things clearly or separated, always complained of the sound being heard like as if it came from a ‘well’. Echo-y and muffled with poor noise isolation when being recorded. Not sure if this a DSP thing or hardware issue, but Shanling should take note of this issue and rectify the call quality issues as soon as possible.

Surrounding Awareness Mode works well in a decently noisy environment too and everything comes across as natural and above average in terms of picking up everything in the near proximity. However, wind noises send the awareness mode into overdrive where it tries to push in all the wind noises also through to the ear, instead of fighting and canceling the wind noises out. If you are jogging or sprinting in a very windy place, the MTW100 in awareness mode might set off a headache in the awareness mode, so its best to leave it OFF. In most other scenarios, it works very well.

IPX7 rating is something that makes the Shanling stand head and toes above its competition and also provides a reassuring feel, as not only can it handle your sweat and small rain splashes, it can be completely submerged in water if you really intend to do so, maybe for those crazy YouTube videos? Nevertheless, a definite push-through of the latest technology on the MTW100 gets a double thumbs up.

Shanling - MTW100 Shanling MTW100

Sound Impressions:

To put it bluntly and in simple terms, the BA version of the MTW100 is a different breed w.r.t its tuning compared to the plethora of True Wireless iems available in the market today. That said, the tuning is not mainstream and having a liking towards the Shanling’s tuning is pretty much an acquired taste. Unlike most crowd pleasing tuning out there with a typical fun sound signature or as we audiophiles like to describe it….a ‘V’ sound signature, Shanling has gone with a more mature, balanced tuning which is trying (too hard at times) to emphasize its prowess in bringing out details and texture along with above-average dynamics from a setup, that most people dub as impossible to get right from an iem at this price point, let alone from a True Wireless earphone. It’s a big risk dwelling into a market with a niche user base (audiophiles), who in general swear against anything wireless, again, let alone a True Wireless Product and for good reason because, let's be real here, if you are looking for the maximum audio fidelity in terms of an immersive experience, dynamic range and the last drop of the technical resolution, you will want to stick to wired stuff because although technology has come a long way since the inception of wireless Bluetooth Audio tech, it still isn’t at a stage where you can negate the realization of differences going from wired to wireless, wherein wireless is a step back.

Fast forward back to the MTW100,

Bass Performance:

The tuning is shaped in such a way that the bass is positioned qualitatively than quantitatively. Its not bass light by any means but it isn’t going to win over any bassheads in the slightest. The overall tonality is warm in a good way and is much needed on the MTW100 which I will get to why in a bit. Mid bass is lean and well pronounced but shy of creating an immersive depth by a few notches. Mid bass to lower mid transition is pretty good and there seems to be no bass bleed thanks to the quick decay from the BA at play here and there is a good clean sense of clarity in to the mid-range transitions.

Midrange Performance:

The mid-range is where the party piece of the MTW100 is. Its forward in terms of placement with a plateauing rise towards the upper mid-range, specifically towards the 2.5kHz to 4kHz. Male vocals sound natural and clean overall but lacks the heft and note weight of a well-tuned dynamic driver. This lack of heft isn’t all that surprising from a single BA implementation where the focus is on speed and timing rather than tonality and being immersive. Upper mids is where the MTW100 makes everything sound exciting and energetic, making female vocals stand out and shine with brilliant detailing and texture. Well mastered tracks with good dynamic range flow across effortlessly out of the MTW100 in a manner where you are pushed into paying attention to nuances and details all around.

Treble Performance

Treble is where the MTW100 maybe a hit or a miss for quite a few people. Its not that the treble is overly bright or peaky like some of the KZ’s we have come to know of, but there are some odd harmonics that come into play with brighter & complex recordings, which seem to make the overall tonality sound a bit wonky. Muffled at times, sizzling other times. I cannot pinpoint to a particular frequency as such, but when those odd harmonics do play out, those tracks become a un-listenable mess. I am skeptical about this, but I think this issue has somewhat to do with the design of the nozzle and the BA mounted right at the edge of the nozzle opening. Trying out a bunch of ear tips with the MTW100 did make a lot of difference, but the main underlying issue is, the stem of the nozzle where the ear tips are mounted as so short, and the bundled tips are so shallow in-depth, it creates a very short sound passage to the ear making the overall presentation sound a little off and a bit too shallow. And just to get this out of the way, I didn’t have any seal issue where most tips bundled with the MTW100 had a perfect seal for me. Trying out some aftermarket double flange tips and foam tips did help here, but the issue is persistent and a hit or a miss at most times.

My whine time:

And that, brings me to the overall issues with the sound of the MTW100. Even though the tuning is balanced and very tastefully done, you can’t run away from the cons of having a single BA being tasked to do everything right from deepest lows to the highest highs and faltering nowhere. The mid-range position being forward and the bass not being all that weighty / deep, makes for an intimate and boxed in listening experience. You can’t deny when listening to the MTW100 that you do have 2 buds stuck to each ear because everything that’s coming from them revolves between your ears and doesn’t really spread out.

Dynamic range

It is although way above average, is still let down by the typical BA tonality and the lack of depth and weight in the mid-range notes lend it a slightly thin, less engaging but more intense listen, especially over longer periods. This is a set that wows you with its dynamics and details, provided you find a relaxed volume level. Crank up the volume to a 10 and you can see everything starts to falter and the MTW100 can be a handful in the wrong ears.

Imaging

It is about average on the whole considering how intimate and not so airy the presentation is, but thanks to the quick transients and short decay, the imaging is at least pin-point and accurate.

Instrument separation

is on par with most True Wireless buds in this price range although it does have an edge on really complex tracks, pulling ahead by a nose.

Staging

It is more vertically expansive than wide, and the depth is also about average and pretty shallow and on par with what you would expect from a single BA implementation.

Timbre

It is affected by the BA tonality in a very perceivable manner, and although everything seems to sound natural, it does come off a touch edgy for my liking at least and a lot of the people out there might actually like this kind of timbre for a lot of different type of music.

Comparisons:

SoundMAGIC TWS50:

SoundMAGIC is also a newbie like Shanling when it comes to having prowess in the True Wireless iem category and the TWS50 is their first baby. Although a touch cheaper than the Shanling here, they do compete in more ways than one. SoundMAGIC uses a dynamic driver for its holy grail and they do know a thing or two when it comes to tuning some of it's previous bestsellers and award winning wired iems. The TWS50 is no different here if you have heard or liked the SoundMAGIC house sound. Its rich, smooth and expansive with just the right amount of details and sparkle thrown in to keep everybody from a mainstream crowd to audiophiles in contention. SoundMAGIC has gone for a slightly different presentation compared to the Shanling, with a mild V emphasis. It’s a warm, fun and smooth take on the signature along with the much-needed width expansion and airiness which is lacking in the MTW100. Although the SoundMAGIC does have the fun part covered, it remains supremely balanced and composed even when cranked up to a 11. However, the MTW100 pulls ahead if you start getting technical with your sound. Detail retrieval, dynamic range and mid-range prowess is what the Shanling is all about whereas the SoundMAGIC seems to not bother about those aspects and just gives you a soothing smooth musical experience. Which, begs to ask the question, what do you really want in a True Wireless iem? Outright critical listening ability, or a fun balanced and smooth signature without probing into the nitty-gritties of technical ability? Answer that and you know which one is for you!

Creative Outlier Air:

Creative hit it out of the park when they launched the Outlier Air and Outlier Gold trios into the market which really set the stage on fire for upcoming True Wireless iems to be launched thereafter. The Outlier air is positioned and priced similar to the Shanling here, so its fair enough to compare the two directly. Where Shanling went all out and added features like Wireless Charging to its charging case and a single Knowles BA setup, Creative added AptX support and a Graphene Dynamic driver setup for their True Wireless iteration. And the result is that, the differences couldn’t have been bigger between the two. Creative clearly has the lead when it comes to sounding really big in your ear. Yes, it still sounds like 2 buds stuck into your ears, but it doesn’t sound as 2-dimensional as the Shanling. That said, Shanling still has the better detail retrieval and dynamic range overall, and Creative has the most tastefully tuned bass performance for the money, yes, basshead satisfying levels of bass with the low-end rumble. Creative has more or less an ‘L’ shaped signature, where the bass, mid bass and lower mids have a rich overtone with a slightly contrasty and less energetic upper mid to treble response in comparison to the lower half of the frequency spectrum. Shanling is the more balanced of the duo for sure, but Creative will still wow you with it’s mellow and a slightly dark overall tonality, which suits a lot more genres if you are into up-beat genres for the most part. If you were to travel a lot and go to the gym exercising and lead an active lifestyle where you are subjected to surroundings that are loud and distract a lot, my pick would be the Outlier Air because of the added bass rumble and depth to drone out outside noisy artifacts, and keep you engaged into your music / activity, far longer than what you would get with the more critical sounding Shanling. That said, if you are the type who enjoys critical listening all the time and find a peaceful place to fall back and pay attention to what you are really listening to, The MTW100 from Shanling will still wow you with details and nuances, which will go amiss with most other True Wireless buds out there.

Shanling - MTW100

Final Thoughts:

On the whole, the MTW100 is geared more towards orchestral pieces, instrumentals, classical music, classic rock and vocal-centric music over up-beat hip-hop, dance, R&B and pop where it either starts to falter or pick out too many flaws from your favorite music, that you start scratching your head on what artifacts you begin to hear, if its actually poorly mastered, or is the Shanling just trying too hard to pull details from a track that only had mush to begin with.

 

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Sahil Santosh
Sahil Santosh



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