I was loaned 6 portable DAC/Amp to play around with. Most of them are products that have been in the market for quite some time. However I think all of them are affordable in terms of price.
This is the first time I encounter more than one product to critically listen to, and to be honest, I found it hard to do. So instead of making reviews, I decided to write impressions of each one of them. The impressions are meant for those seeking convenient and affordable solution for their mobile audiophile need.
All impressions were based on a simple setup: laptop (foobar with wasapi) to DAC/Amp to headphone, in this case I used my Mad Dog T50RP. Please take note that although the T50RP has a low impedance number, it is also orthodynamic which makes it kind of tricky to drive properly.
Here we go…
Vs the on board sound card (mine’s Realtek btw), I noticed that the sound smooths out a bit. The bass is laid back a little bit. Midrange is thicker, noticeable from the sound of guitar distortion. Overall it has a more forward presentation. The background is not black, I can still notice noise when not playing music. The HifimeDIY doesn’t include amp, so volume changes must be done from the audio player or the OS. On WASAPI setting, it works on 24 bit.
To sum it up, it really is a simple solution if you just want a better sound than your on board sound card. It can also be useful in the case of dead sound card (like my colleague’s here at work).
iBasso D-Zero (link)
I understand why a friend of mine recommended this DAC/Amp for me over the Hippo Cricri+. The overall sound presentation is rather big or in your face. The DAC section smooths out the sound a bit. It is also sounding a bit spacious. It is somehow mid centric to my ears. The bass has good extension but not enough punch for my preference. The highs felt boosted, but maybe it’s because of the overall sound presentation. However I notice noise from the USB connection, though I didn’t notice it when music started to play. On WASAPI setting, it works on 16 bit only.
To sum it up, if you’re listening to modern music, then this might be suitable for you. The sound is big and fun. It honestly made me forgot about other things such as depth, imaging, and other tid bit.
Headroom Total Bithead (link)
I wasn’t impressed the first time I try this amp, paired with a Vsonic GR02 IEM. However, pairing it with my Mad Dog brought a different impression. The most noticeable character of the Bithead is the bass with good solid punch. I noticed there’s a bit of depth to the sound stage. Width wise was also quite okay, meaning it’s not narrow. However, the imaging was rather confusing for me. On WASAPI setting, it works on 16 bit only.
To sum it up, I believe that this DAC/Amp is more suited for modern music. I prefer it for electronic music. Those kinds of music tends to ignore technicalities and just bring fun to the table.
Audinst Hud Mini (link)
This DAC/Amp is probably the one who sits in the middle of the intersection out of all 6 gears loaned to me. The sound is grainy. I couldn’t tell for sure if the midrange was smooth or a bit laid back. It added a little bit of spaciousness to the sound. However the overall sound is a bit slow or mellow if you’d like. I assume that it was caused by the lack of current to drive an my Mad Dog. The synergy was a lot better when I plugged my GR02 IEM to it.
Those being said, I do like it as a convenient mobile solution for audiophile. It has two headphone out jack, 1/4-inch and 1/8 inch, which eliminates the need of an extra converter. The build quality is nice. I can easily notice where the volume pot pointed at compared to most of the bunch. And 4 small rubber feet to keep it steady on the table. Tid bits but really nice to have.
Fiio E17 / Alpen (link)
I used to crave for this compact portable solution. I finally got the chance to play around with it. However, pairing it with the Mad Dog did not make a shining synergy. I felt a spacious sound created from the lower frequencies. But the punch was felt after I increase the volume from 20/60 to 40/60. Alas, I didn’t get the preferred weight in the punch. Thankfully, the Alpen came with an internal EQ system for bass and treble,
though I didn’t play around with it for the sake of giving impressions from ‘out of the box’ state. Okay, I finally tweak around the settings. I found that I like to add 6 db gain, bass boost to 4 for that added oomph, and treble boost to 8 for a little bit of sparkle in the high. Volume is at 28 and I felt that I got loud enough to have an enjoyable sound.
To sum it up, the Alpen really is a convenient all in one solution. The overall sound is on the safer side of the bunch. I think it’s also tilted a bit towards laid back.
Topping D1 Mark II (link)
I was suggested that the D1 will have the most synergy with my Mad Dog. After hearing it myself, I have to agree with the suggestion. It has a quiet, black background. The sound stage was not wide, but rather has depth. Layering was obviously felt by my ears. It makes the D1 more versatile from modern music to acoustic music (such as jazz). The sound was warm, dark, quite fast, but less in your face than the D-Zero. It has a weighty bass punch that I can’t soon forget.
As you may have noticed that I like the D1 best among the bunch. But it also come with some downsides. One, being 16-bit resolution only, giving more space for noise which makes the music sound grainy. I wish it came with a built in battery for portable use with a DAP. The build quality, though looking fine, is actually very prone to dent from accidental fall.
To sum it up, I think I’ve found the bang for my bucks out of this little DAC/Amp. It’s quite convenient, and the additions of a line out port and a s/pdif port are pluses.
My overall ranks:
1. Topping D1 Mark II
2. iBasso D-Zero
3. Headroom Total Bithead
4. Fiio E17 Alpen
5. Audinst Hud-Mini
Please remember that this is a one man’s opinion. YMMV and I’m not sorry about your wallet. :)