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Mini Gear Guide: DACs, Preamps and Digital Audio Players

November 30, 2016

Recently, I wrote about some sub-$600 headphones offering engineers and other critical listeners precision, portability and versatility. And while it is possible to pair any of those selections with smartphones, laptops and other convenience/convergence devices, high-fidelity personal monitoring really benefits from an investment in dedicated source gear. Here I’ll look at a few digital audio converters (DACs), amps and digital audio players (DAPs) that can help scale up that return on investment, concentrating on three over-delivering prosumer ecosystems.

Oppo Digital Inc.
has long contributed a cornerstone to my preferred playback signal chain, first with the Mountain View, Calif.-based company’s $1,299 BDP-105 flagship Blu-ray disc player. Don’t let that name fool you, however; sure, it’s a benchmark machine for physical formats (Blu-Ray, SACD, DVD-Audio, HDCD), but it’s just as multifaceted when it comes to digital. I’ve been routing up to 24/192 WAV, FLAC and DSD64/128 files (as well as lossy MP3/AAC codecs) through the BDP-105 for years. Whenever I want to check out a freshly authored stereo or surround session, the BDP-105 acts as a patch bay delivering honest, uncolored decoding whether feeding its internal headphone jack, an external amp or powered monitors (through RCA or balanced XLR outputs).

The BDP-105’s ESS SABRE32 Reference ES9018 still facilitates a high-performance transport, but media file containers and chipsets have evolved since it was introduced and an upgrade (the UDP-205) is coming in 2017—just one of several Oppo devices taking advantage of the latest iterations of DACs.

Though I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, I’m excited by Oppo's soon-to-be-released standalone $799 Sonica DAC, which integrates an ESS ES9038PRO SABRE DAC to support even higher bit rates and dynamic range as the Sonica reads from physical drives and/or networked devices. It’s not a headphone amp, just a source for one, but it does feature an innovative function: it can wirelessly distribute the files or analog input it is fed to another member of the Oppo family -- the $299 Sonica Wi-Fi speaker.

The Sonica Wi-Fi speaker I have experienced firsthand, and I can say that anyone looking to sample tracks in real-world circumstances with far better than average results will be impressed by the resonant bass, silky midrange and bright but not brittle top end of this compact, sharply detailed component (which can be used standalone or linked in stereo pairs). Music (your own, or Spotify/TIDAL) can be streamed to the tabletop, wall-powered speaker via Wi-Fi, AirPlay and Bluetooth from any smartphone/tablet/computer. And the Sonica’s USB input supports onboard decoding up to 24/192, so in a way it’s a graceful DAP matched to a trio of fleet, fleshy drivers and dedicated amps.

Coming full circle back to headphones, Oppo has also updated its $299 HA-2SE portable, rechargeable USB DAC/amp with the ESS SABRE32 Reference ES9028-Q2M DAC chip (at left), which adds support for up to 32 bit/384 kHz PCM and DSD256 from iDevice, Android and computer sources. In addition, circuitry improvements to the AB amplifier have reduced the noise floor and signal-to-noise ratio of the sleekly machined, easily pocketable special edition, making it even more agile whether powering sensitive in-ear monitors or demanding full-sized cans. Featuring a low/high gain switch and a bass boost, the HA-2SE maintains the ability to deliver an articulate, commanding presentation while improving transient expression and taut bass. Neutral, but not boring, the HA-2SE’s dynamics swell without feeling stretched and its timing and imaging remains on point. Even the bass boost is tastefully implemented, offering bloom without blur or bloat.

So, if you want to preview your high-resolution mixdowns on-the-go, the HA-2SE paired with an iPhone (plus advanced bit rate compatible apps) gives mastering-grade headphones like the beyerdynamic DT 1770/1990 a toothsome quality. As an added bonus, the HA-2SE can be used as a 3000mAh battery backup for when you’re rushing between sessions.

Chances are you always have a smartphone, and therefore music with you. But maybe you want a playback device without all the distractions and potential RF interference and quickly draining batteries that come with a pocket computer. Plenty of companies, particularly Asian ones, are producing DAPs that range from value-focused to luxury. A pioneer in this sector is HiFiMAN, a Chinese manufacturer with a stellar track record for packing sound quality into increasingly more elegant, affordable form factors. And one of HifiMAN’s latest entries is the $399 SuperMini (right), a simple purpose-driven player that lets you focus on the music’s feeling, not settings, loading applications or pairing accessories.

This diminutive powerhouse, a durable tab of matte black machined aluminum far smaller than a candy bar, champions usability and authority over bells and whistles. There will be no playlists, EQs, external DAC functions, line out, etc. The SuperMini offers a monochrome OLED screen, minimalist UI and three buttons (up/down/select) on the front, with 32-step volume and back buttons to one side. There is no touchscreen, no gestures, no software learning curve.

The SuperMini boots in seconds, and can be mastered in less than a minute. Supported formats include most of the usual suspects from lossy to 24/192 -- WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, DSD64, MP3, AAC, OGG, etc. -- and battery life falls between 15 and 22 hours, so chances are if you can comp it, bounce it, export it you can hop a plane and delve in and out of a mix whether flying across the country or the ocean. It’s not the most clinical reproduction, but featuring a sound signature trickled down from the company’s $999 HM901 player it’s robust, impactful, disciplined and holds just the right amount of sparkle. One caveat: the SuperMini doesn’t support gapless playback as of this writing, but a firmware update correcting this has been promised by early 2017.

So, once you intuitively navigate to an artist, album, folder or genre, the only hard decision is deciding how to listen, as the range of headphones that can be powered by the SuperMini’s four op-amps per channel (delivering up to 320mW at 32 ohms) is impressive. Some of the more top-tier headphones are capable of being driven to admirable levels, with analytical cans benefitting from the warm silicon’s sweet, headroom-rich sonics.

And the SuperMini’s key distinguishing feature is offering both single-ended output and a balanced jack, the latter of which delivers more power, soundstage and detail retrieval against a blacker background (revealing static to only the most sensitive IEMs). There are more technical writers out there if you want the minutiae of how a balanced jack differs, but the simplest thing to say is it delivers more punch and it’s highly unusual for the price point.

It’s important to note that no internal storage is available and no memory card included, so to load files you have to purchase a microSD card (best formatted through the SuperMini then loaded through USB to assure compatibility). But what is in the package is a pair of more than competent balanced in-ear monitors.

This unbranded in-ear (theorized to sit between HiFiMAN’s previously released RE-400 and RE-600 models) have a very organic presentation, with well-extended low end, a slight hump in the mid-bass, a smooth transition through the mids and pleasingly airy treble contributing. Their sonics are relatively open, edgy only when needed, and both clarity and musicality are compelling for a lowly bundled component, ratcheting the SuperMini’s value up substantially.

The balanced output also means you can get the most out of other HiFiMAN products, such as the $299 HE400S, which are efficient, open-back planar magnetic headphones compatible with an optional $129 “crystalline” balanced cable purchasable through the HiFiMan online store. This increases the instrument separation and invitingly emotive textures of an already stellar mid-fi performer, another great budget option for fluid response in more contemplative environments, especially when listening to genres that balance silk and slam.

HiFiMAN definitely knows how to deliver bang for buck, but when it comes to market disruption in the typically cost-heavy audio community it’s impossible to not highlight one very memorable name: Schiit Audio. This Valencia, Calif.-based company focuses on custom-designed yet surprisingly affordable DAC and amp architectures that pack complex concepts into straightforward gear, all proudly made in the USA. And the company’s latest solid state headphone amp, the Jotunheim, has achieved a new level of performance:price in a small footprint.

Starting at $399, the Jotunheim (left) is a configurable desktop amplifier offering both single-ended and balanced outputs, as well as optional balanced DAC and phono modules. One front-panel switch selects the input, another high/low gain, and the discrete, differential topography inside delivers unbelievable power (up to 5W at 32 ohms balanced) with wide bandwidth and low feedback (meaning sensitive in-ear monitors to powered monitors can come out to play).

Fed from various sources (including the BDP-105) and used to power everything from the single-ended $499 AKG K712 Pro to balanced $1,699 Audeze LCD-X headphones and all manner and cost of balanced armature and dynamic driver IEMs, the Jotunheim delivered a stable, strong, well-positioned though slightly forward sound with sinewy bass, spacious midrange and nimble highs. The overall image, regardless of what was plugged in, remained linear and transparent with body and lengthy decays (though noticeably widening on the balanced output). And that focus can be further tightened, or made spirited, based on DAC selection (Schiit’s own standalone $599 Bifrost Multibit is another proprietary marvel, removing any bottleneck).

If you’re not planning to get out from behind the console, but want to be transported nevertheless, the Jotunheim turns even the most inefficient headphone into a vivid, percussive joy than never sacrifices accuracy nor animation.

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