Easily Lost: "Portable" DAC/amp Comparisons

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Torq, Feb 8, 2017.

  1. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    Overview:

    My intent when I started this was to do a review of the iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label, with very high-level comparisons to Chord’s Mojo and the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red and, maybe, a Schiit Modi MB for good measure (and as a well-known reference point).

    A few things have happened since then …

    First, Tidal started streaming MQA content, and I picked up a Meridian Explorer 2 to have a cheap/convenient way to explore MQA a bit. This proved to be quite the diversion (more about that in another thread), but on top of the MQA aspect the Explorer 2 turned out to be interesting enough to warrant more commentary. So, I figured I’d include it in my comparison with the iFi unit.

    Next I picked up a Geek Out V2+ Infinity, a unit I’d been wanting to hear for a while but had never gotten my head around actually managing to buy. A little time with this meant it wouldn’t really be cricket to not include this in the comparison as well.

    So, what was going to be a relatively focused review is now a five-way portable DAC/amp comparison, with a couple of extra bits in for reference/comparison:
    The extra bits being Schiit’s Modi multi-bit and the Apple Lightning to 3.5mm dongle.

    They-Are-Breeding.jpg

    This has resulted in this being a rather long write-up (single-post-breakingly long) and, as a result, I’m going to break it up into several posts, over a couple of days. The first (this one) will cover the overview and core information for the above units. The second will be a focused on sound and results, and will likely received additional “color commentary” - this will be the most useful I expect. The third will cover comparisons to the Schiit Modi Multibit etc. And a final post will include some comparisons to other players/DAPs.

    Headphones/IEMS Used:

    Most of my critical listening on these units was done with the Shure SE846 and original ER4-S, with a quick round of impressions using the Campfire Audio Vega, in keeping with their nominally portable-bias.

    However, I also let them loose on my full-size cans to determine broader relevance and capability. And to maintain as much relevance to as many SBAF members as possible, I used the HD-650 as a baseline there, but I’ll include notes on how things faired with more demanding cans as well and as appropriate.

    About the Units in Question:

    I’ve listed these in order of descending price. Prices are based on manufacturer’s current claims so it’s entirely possible that they will differ from what you’ll actually pay. Any comments relating to price vs. value are based on these MSRP figures.

    Commentary here will address features, ergonomics, packages, and other basic information, but will not cover how they sound; those comparisons get their own section.

    LH Labs Geek Out V2+ Infinity ($649):

    The basic features include a high-quality ESS Sabre-based DAC coupled with an amplifier offering multiple levels of gain, yielding different potential power-output levels (100 mw, 450mw and 1000mw), three different digital filters, balanced (3.5mm TRRS) and single-ended (3.5mm TRS) outputs, independent micro-USB signal and power connections and a decently sized internal battery.

    I’m not actually sure about the pricing on this. But then, beyond the crowdfunding campaign, and the occasional appearance on Amazon, I was never able to figure out how I was supposed buy a specific version of one (short of buying used, which is what I ultimately did).

    The finish is, honestly, extremely poor. It looks awful and doesn’t feel much better. I say this not to knock the unit, just to set proper expectations if you buy one. The build is not going to impress you, but knowing what to expect might save some disappointment. Or, in other words, you don’t buy this unit for how it looks.

    Note: Newer units have a different finish entirely, but I've not seen one of these in person so can't comment further.

    Chord Mojo ($599):

    Initial impressions are of serious solidity coupled with quite polarizing styling (which will be a Marmite thing for most people). Spending a bit of time with the unit brings about the rapid realization that it’s just the heavy metal shell that gives the feeling of outward solidity. Actual sockets are, apparently, just soldered to the internal PCB.

    Despite the heavy metal casing, Mojo is surprisingly susceptible to EMI. For a device that is intended to be used with a phone, this is unfortunate. While the degree of interference is dependent on what radio bands your particular phone is using and, as a result, can change markedly depending on where you’re using it, there’s a good chance you’ll need to put your phone in “Airplane” mode if you want a clean listening session.

    It’s curious to note that none of the other units I compared here exhibited these issues at all.

    Also, I think this has the worst USB implementation I’ve come across. It results in frequent dropouts when playing multi-rate DSD via every macOS machine I’ve tried and some Surface devices, and seems excessively affected by electrical noise on the USB connection.

    Think twice before buying one of these if you run an Apple machine and want to play DSD.

    There are three input options … USB (of course), a 3.5mm COAX S/PDIF connection and a standard TOSLINK optical S/PFID input. And then you get two, identical, 3.5mm SE (TRS) headphone outputs.

    Volume control is on the DAC itself and is both controlled, and indicated, by two big translucent balls. You press them like buttons to actuate them, and they light-up to show status. The power-button does the same thing and is used to indicate on/off as well as the current sample rate/mode of the data it is playing.

    High-bit rate PCM (768 KHz) and quad-rate DSD (DSD256) are supported, though DSD is only accessible via DoP (even using the native ASIO driver for Windows).

    This unit runs quite warm and, well, downright hot if you play and charge at the same time. This is normal and not a cause for concern (well, not about whether its “supposed” to be like this at least).

    Battery life is quoted at eight hours, but six is closer to my experience … a bit less with low-impedance transducers. Charging is supposed to take four hours. It’s usually five for me. And most of the time it takes ALL of that time even if I’ve only run it for an hour. Some units exhibit what amounts to “coil whine” when charging … this is NOT audible through the headphones and is a physical thing … supposedly fixed in all new units, but mine definitely does it. Doesn’t bother me, but it does some, so be aware.

    iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label ($549):

    This thing is huge. Twice the size, effectively, of Mojo … if not quite twice the weight. While it’s actually a bit more convenient to use with a phone than Mojo (due to a clever cable arrangement on the iFi unit), and doesn’t exhibit the EMI issues that Chord’s unit does, it’s still a bit impractical as an on-the-go solution. Though if you did use it like that, you wouldn’t be limited in what headphones you could drive!

    It offers a built in Octo-Rate DSD (DSD512)/768 KHz PCM capable Burr-Brown based DAC, the outputs of which can be accessed via RCA jacks at line level (bypassing the amp) or as a pre-outs. There are three selectable digital filters for the DAC section.

    There’s a headphone amplifier with three gain settings and enough grunt to drive the Abyss or LCD-4 and this can either feed straight off the internal DAC or it can take an external input (via a 3.5mm TRS jack).

    It’s quiet enough to drive the most sensitive IEMs without issue and has a built in “iEMatch” capability that improves compatibility there still further. This allows for impedance matching/attenuation to get the best out of highly or ultra-sensitive transducers … and it can be turned off completely too. It is effective enough that if you set it to Ultra, you get a totally silent background even on Turbo (high) gain into SE846.

    Then there is a cross-feed circuit called 3D+ and a bass-enhancement/boost function, both of which have their uses, but I’ll come back to in the “how does it sound” part.

    Inputs are USB, COAX S/PDIF and mini-TOSLINK S/PDIF, there is a variation of iFi’s “purifier” technology on the inputs, and it can be used as a USB -> S/PDIF COAX DDC (and does a decent job of it too).

    Oh, and it has a comparatively huge internal battery that’ll power the unit for about 12 hours and that can be used to charge any other USB device. And it’ll run either off that internal battery (even when connected to a USB source, allowing it to be isolated from USB power noise) or can be fully USB powered.

    Flexibility and capability are major factors with the iFi Black Label.

    One unmissable issue, which seems to be quite commonly reported, is channel imbalance at low-volume settings. While by no means a unique thing for units using an actual analog potentiometer in this role (this is the only unit in this comparison that does), it is the worst example of such imbalance that I’ve seen. Even driving the Fostex TH-X00 I am at almost 10:00 on the dial before it is completely gone, and at initial switch-on one channel is audible while the other is silent.

    Battery life and charging times are essentially right where iFi claims they are.

    Meridian Explorer 2 ($199):

    This is an outwardly simple device. One mini-USB 2.0 input, and two 3.5mm outputs … one variable to drive headphones and the other fixed-level as a line-level output. Beyond that it’s small, elegant, nicely finished, and sports three LEDs that indicate what mode and sample rate it is currently operating in.

    This is the only unit that currently supports MQA decoding, although the AudioQuest Dragonfly units are supposed to get this by way of a firmware update any day now. Whether you care about MQA or not, it’s really the only distinguishing feature of this unit

    Input supports PCM only at bit-rates up to 24 bits/192 KHz (though it can handle MQA streams that contain high-resolution folded data). There is no DSD support.

    This is the only device here that will not work directly out of an iPhone. I am sure the usual “powered hub” trick will work, though I haven’t actually tried it.

    AudioQuest Dragonfly Red ($199):

    Tiny, convenient, and even simpler than the Meridian Explorer 2. There’s a standard USB connector on one end and a 3.5mm TRS SE connection on the other. It offers PCM decoding for files up to 24-bit/96 KHz and, in the near future, it will gain MQA high-resolution decoding via a firmware update.

    Output power is quite reasonable … more than enough for any IEM I can imagine, including the not-very-efficient original Etymotic ER4-S, but struggling a bit if you wanted to run HD-650 off it. Not bad with TH-X00, but not ideal either.

    This is really designed for use with phones and laptops. In the former category, integration and behavior with iPhones and iOS is hassle free and works exactly as you would expect it to. All you need is the Apple Camera Connection Kit (cable) and you’re in business. With Android you should plan on using UAPP, as there are myriad reports of issues controlling volume on the Dragonfly and not being able to get it loud enough with many Android phones/builds.

    Apple Lightning to 3.5mm Dongle ($9)

    If this is relevant to you, you have one already. And it’s cheap enough to buy one for each headphone and just leave it connected to the cable.

    Compared to the native output on my former iPhone 6S this is better behaved with high-sensitivity low-impedance IEMs. In particular, with my multi-driver BA IEMs, it is noticeably more tonally even in its presentation and bass is tighter and more coherent.

    If you’re using something like the Vega or SE846 straight out of an iPhone 6S, you’re probably better off adding one of these adapters and bypassing the built-in jack.

    Headphone/IEM Matching - Power and Output Impedance:

    Excepting the Apple Lightning Adapter, which I’d reserve for use with IEMs/ear-buds or super-efficient cans (and I’d skip trying to use it with the original ER4-S), all of these units have anywhere from reasonable to serious power. Beyond that, any of them will work with things like the TH-X00, though the Dragonfly and Explorer 2 are hitting their limits before you’re in to serious volume with, say, the HD-650 and dynamics and control suffer there too.

    Raw numbers follow, taken from manufacturer specs where available and roughly measured when not (they’ll be in the ballpark if not definitive):

    Output-Power.jpg

    Mojo, iDSD and GOV2+ Inf can all drive everything shy of the Abyss and LCD-4 with no particular problem, though with the HD800S the Mojo is not as convincing as the other two. Balanced output from the GOV2+ Inf can drive both the LCD-4 and Abyss, but I don’t think you’d want to do that very often. The iFi Micro iDSD BL does have the grunt to drive both of those headphones with useful authority – it’s not the last word in control but it’s the only unit here that I can honestly say you could use, regularly, with either of those cans.
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2017
  2. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    Performance and Sound:

    Noise/Hiss:

    Since this is whole affair is very relevant to portable usage with IEMs, I’m going to tackle this part first. Don’t worry, it won’t take long …

    All amplifiers produce noise at some level and some are better than others in this regard, sometimes notably so. It is also worth noting that people have quite widely differing levels of sensitivity to low-level sounds and as a result some are particularly sensitive to “hiss” where others simply might not be able to hear it.

    I’m one of the unfortunate buggers that is very sensitive to hiss. By which I mean that I hear it even at ultra-low levels, not that it bothers me more than it does anyone else.

    One of the first tests I performed was to see how these devices faired in terms of the blackness of their backgrounds and how much hiss they produced. Testing was both with nothing at all playing, just the units being powered on and with a total silent track playing (as some devices simply turn-off their amp stage when not getting a signal).

    The results are as follows and are stated in relative terms and were evaluated using my most sensitive IEMs (SE846). “0” indicates no discernible hiss at all (i.e. lower is better), with all other scores referenced, and relative, to that:

    Hiss-Chart.jpg

    It’s worth noting that NONE of these units exhibit problematic levels of hiss (annoying in some extreme cases, perhaps) – again, these are simply relative numbers. Once the music starts, unless there’s a long silent/extremely quiet passage, it is completely masked. In most cases any hiss from an original recording/mastering will hide the native hiss from these units.

    For additional comparative purposes, an AK120 scores a zero here and the Sony NW-WM1A scores a two.

    How Do They Sound?

    This might jump around a bit, but I’ll start with the unit that I’m most familiar with …

    Chord Mojo:

    Chord’s Mojo is a mostly smooth, inoffensive and quite musical, if not super-compelling, listen. Despite having more-than-average power-output, I find it’s at its best with IEMs. And due to its low output impedance, it mates pretty well, FR-consistency-wise, with whatever you’re likely to pair it with.

    However, over time, and with more comparisons/listening, I’ve come to find some issues in the treble, notably it lacks a proper sense of air and space. Additionally the lower-end, at least with suitable dynamic cans, lacks slam and extension. If you’re running bass-emphasizing cans or reasonably efficient (relatively speaking) planar-magnetics, this might not be a problem, but it gets shown up quickly with better dynamic transducers.

    There’s some macro-dynamic compression in evidence as well. And, micro-dynamically, it is, for me, perhaps surprisingly, outclassed by everything else in this list.

    Timpani lack some sense of gravity. Serious electronic bass (Beyoncé’s “Partition”, Trentemøller “Chameleon”) doesn’t hit with the force I’d expect, or want it to. Krall, Del Rey and Jones exhibit a sleepier, less engrossing, presentation. Nicks is pretty compelling though (I’m a bit too much of a Stevie-slut, though). Kate is less convincing here; disappointingly so. Cymbals don’t quite “splash” quite right, though the initial impact is right on the money. Perhaps more steel than brass than is realistic.

    Imaging, in my speaker rig, was, oddly, very convincing. On par with Schiit’s multi-bit gear.

    There was a time when Mojo would have been at the top of my mobile-listening recommendations (though it’s never been my pick for desktop use). That time is past and at this point I’d take the iFi Micro iDSD BL or GOV2+ Inf over it without hesitation.

    iFi Micro iDSD Black Label:

    In contrast, the iFI Micro iDSD BL is a much more exciting and “fun” listen. That excitement comes at a cost … it can become fatiguing. Turning on 3D+ will boost the treble to an unmissable (even un-ignorable) degree and, for me, didn’t really do anything to improve/expand staging. X-Bass is a bit over-done for my tastes … even with relatively even-keel/balanced headphones/IEMs. It’s positively obnoxious with the SE846.

    Used just as a DAC then iFi unti is a bit more civilized. I wouldn’t call it polite, but it’s less excitable than it is when used as a DAC/amp. And, of note, while I’m not a big believer in burn-in, this unit took almost three-hundred hours of continuous play before some obvious “splashiness” in its treble (again only in DAC/amp mode) abated.

    I found the Micro iDSD BL to be a particularly enjoyable pairing with the TH-X00 Purpleheart. Very entertaining. Not at all neutral, but entirely fun! And I couldn’t do that for more than a couple of hours at a time. But it was unfailingly musical and engaging … just a bit “overloading” after a while. Regardless, your head will bob, your feet will tap and you’ll be drawn into the music … at least for a while.

    With my normal “audition” favorites, the iFi unit was quite captivating and, once it had quit being splashy, was quite a treat, even with female vocals. No longer was Diana wearing her garter rather too tight, or Stevie having a really bad-day at Sound City. Anything I played was engaging and exhibited a rich, musical, soul that might not be the last word in fidelity but has certainly been most enjoyable.

    Bass is rich, textured, deep, and not at all shy (if there’s any emphasis going on, it’s down here, possibly to the extent that it intrudes on the lower-mids a bit at times). The mid-range is generally lucid and sonorous. It’s what I’d expect from the better Burr-Brown chips (I am, in general, a bit of a Burr-Brown fan-boy). We’re not talking tube-levels of liquidity here, but it’s quite seductive nonetheless.

    At first I found the treble rather splashy. Not really problematically so, but enough that you wouldn’t be able to ignore it. It took about 300 power-on hours (without me listening) for that to fully abate. I should state that this was ONLY in effect if used as DAC/amp … neither the amp or DAC sections, used independently, exhibited this. Once this calmed down, while not best-in-class (or even in this list) it was properly extended and mostly non-fatiguing.

    Ultimately I found myself listening using the “Bit Perfect” filter setting more than not.

    I will stop short of calling the Micro iDSD BL “excitedly romantic” in its presentation, but that’s the direction I feel it is heading in. It certainly provides an emotional conduit to one’s music, though perhaps not in the most honest sense possible. Whether this is for you depends on where your biases lie.

    And if it’s musical truth and accuracy you’re after, then you’re going to want to give the LH Labs GOV2+ Infinity (or whatever version of it is shipping now) a listen.

    LH Labs GeekOut V2+ Infinity:

    I was highly skeptical about this thing initially, but that skepticism was, as it turns out, entirely misplaced. It’s the most neutral unit here, has proper extension at the extremes, exhibits suitable slam both as a DAC and a DAC/amp (with reasonable headphone pairings), and manages not to fall foul of the classic “Sabre woes”.

    Oddly I get on better with ESS Sabre implementations, especially the 90XX series, in portable scenarios than I do in desktop/fixed rig units. But, that aside, this is a fully competent and quite inspiring implementation. While many 90XX implementations have left me cold in fairly short order, listening all-day with this thing has not been a problem. That puts it in similar territory, enjoyment-wise, to the Auralic Vega and the Merging NADAC … and well outside my normal experiences with ESS-based products.

    I wound up settling on the “Green” filter setting (FRM – Frequency Response Mode)) for most of my listening. I tried TCM mode (Time Coherence Mode, blue) in my speaker rig and it improved imaging over the FRM mode at the expense of making the top end a bit less coherent and contributing to some fatigue.

    The “streaming” SSM filter setting (red), however, sounds like arse.

    Instrumental timbre is the most realistic of all the units here. Dynamics are excellent, both macro and micro. Bass is rich, textured, nuanced and extended. The mid-range is a little dry compared to either the iFi or Chord units, but it is more realistic for it. It might rob Lana of a little (possibly artificial) moist-breathlessness*in some cases, but we’ll leave my personal fantasies out of this …

    Layering and instrumental separation are excellent. You can clearly hear when, say, two violins are playing just slightly out of sync and the subtle shift in tone that results from the interference patterns that result from that. This was more apparent in FRM mode than TCM mode. Following a variated melody between violins and viola, and keeping those lines separate, is relatively easy.

    Most surprising was the very detailed, but natural and unfatiguing top-end. This has long been an issue for me and ESS-based DACS. There’s none of that nonsense on exhibit here. Just solid extension and a great sense of air, space and natural sparkle. This helps impart a real sense of agility and dexterity to the presentation of music, especially when it gets very complex (e.g. big orchestral pieces, or multi-layered complex contemporary tracking … e.g. a lot of Prince’s engineering work).

    All of this is delivered in a manner that remains musically coherent and engaging, while still managing to cater to what I would describe as “audiophile” sensitivities. You can easily get lost in, and seduced by, the music … and seamlessly transition to a more mix-laid-bare attention to details type of listening if you wish.

    Meridian Explorer 2:

    As previously stated, the principal point of interest I had with this unit was as a way to play around with hardware/full MQA decoding without spending very much. I’ll save most of the MQA commentary for a dedicated thread and stick to my normal PCM sources for this.

    The Meridian has a very slightly rich tonal presentation with a smooth and lucid mid-range, good extension at the extremes and decent dynamics both macro and micro. It is not on the same level as the GOV2+ Infinity, but it is a bit more honest than the iFi Micro iDSD. Detail also falls behind the LH Labs unit, though you likely wouldn’t notice unless you compared them back to back.

    If you run MQA versions of some tracks through this thing there is an increase in apparent detail. It’s hard to know if this is just an increase in brightness and a reduction in actual dynamic range (given the lack of useful common-source MQA/PCM material), or if there’s really more information there, but superficially at least this will seem more detailed.

    Timbre is realistic with instruments having appropriate attack and decay, though transients aren’t as fast as one might expect, but there’s a good sense of body and it’s generally easy to separate similar instruments. Slam suffers somewhat, particularly with more demanding transducers (it’s fine with most IEMs), especially compared to the LH Labs and iFi units, though it is clearly ahead of the Dragonfly in this regard.

    There’s no addition of “excitement” here (excepting with MQA content) and nothing seems exaggerated or suppressed, though the sins committed here are generally benign omissions and it doesn’t romanticize the sound as I hear it. The mid-range is where this unit really comes into its own compared to the Dragonfly, though again it’s not quite on the same plane as the iFi and LH Labs devices there.

    While I do like it’s overall signature and performance better than the Dragonfly Red, this probably only makes sense if you have an interest in MQA – as the difference is slight and your signature preferences could easily sway you to the DFR.

    AudioQuest Dragonfly Red:

    I find this a bit less neutral sounding than the Meridian. While I’m sure it measures flat, I consistently hear a slightly/shallow-but-broad U shaped presentation, which makes things a bit more exciting than perhaps they should be. This is emphasized with my SE846 … where the bottom-end is really solid (a bit too solid, actually – with no lack of slam) though the top-end works better there as the SE846 with the blue-filter works well with sources that have a bit more treble energy.

    The mids are present and relatively flat and don’t have quite the liquidity of some of the other units here, but at the same time that seems to work quite well overall with this unit. It winds up being a little more interesting to listen to than the Explorer 2 even if it is less truthful overall. It is not as musically engaging as the LH Labs or iFi models, even just as a DAC, though it renders a sense of air better, I feel, than the Mojo. And it seems to go in the opposite directions to Chord’s DAC at the extremes as well. Consequently, this can be more fatiguing than any of the other units here if it’s not paired sensibly. I wouldn’t put it with bass-heavy IEMs nor would I run it with something bright.

    With the Campfire Vega I found that it was a very fun listen initially, but it got tiring quite quickly … the Meridian and the LH Labs were much better matches there.

    Resolution and detail are good and, despite a slightly elevated top-end, this doesn’t come across to me as being artificial detail. Unlike something like the Gustard X20, which feels exaggerated and, at times, a bit crunchy, the DFR remains pretty smooth and isn’t portraying an “over-sharpened” result.

    The Meridian is probably an easier match with a broader array of IEMs, and is more even-handed in its presentation, but it’s less “fun” as a result – and it’s less flexible … you can’t run it directly from a phone.

    At a pinch this’ll run more sensitive full-size headphones, but it wasn’t convincing with, say the HD-650, even though tonally it wasn’t a bad match. You might find it’s signature a bit too much with the TH-X00, though again it’s not really a properly suitable match for such things even if it does a better job there than it does with the Sennheisers.

    Summary:

    These are all viable units … for various values of “viable” at least …

    A lot, here, is going to depend on your preferences, the music you listen to, and your favored transducers. Got something with a bit too much bass and a hot treble? Mojo is the probably the way to go. Something neutral, resolving but balanced? GOV2+ Infinity. Need more excitement or power and don’t mind carrying a brick? iFi Micro iDSD BL. Need something smaller and host-powered? Either the Meridian (smoother and more detailed) or the AudioQuest (works with your phone, if lacking a bit of refinement) will fit that bill.

    My initial impressions of Chord’s Mojo were a lot more positive than they are today. That’s not to say that I think it’s a bad unit – at the time it was the best portable DAC/amp I’d heard – and I still think it comfortably beats out any of the AK DAPs … but I’ve heard more since then …

    I’m going to rank these things in a couple of ways, as their respective value and performance changes markedly depending on your priorities (e.g. raw sonic performance vs. flexibility vs. value).

    Evaluated as a DAC only, irrespective of price/value, and focusing purely on achievable sonic performance I’d rank these units as follows:

    GOV2+ Inf > iDSD BL > Mojo > Explorer 2 > Dragonfly Red​

    If evaluated as a DAC/amp, again irrespective of price/value, then things change a little bit:

    iDSD BL > GOV2+ Inf > Mojo > Explorer 2 > Dragonfly Red​

    The quieter and much more powerful amplifier section in the iDSD unit makes it a far more flexible unit and it can drive a broader array of headphones with real authority, from super-sensitive IEMs all the way up to the Abyss. And I’ll further qualify this by saying this switch in ordering only applies if you actually need the lower noise floor (with or without iEMatch) or the extra power … if you don’t the GOV2+ Inf is still sonically superior.

    If I consider the full feature sets, how and where these things are intended to be used, and all up price/value factors then things change quite a bit:

    Dragonfly Red >= Explorer 2 > iDSD BL > GOV2+ Inf > Mojo​

    While there are clear differences in the sound quality and signatures of these devices, there are, as always, rapidly diminishing returns in price-to-performance. Whether you can exploit those progressively smaller benefits depends a lot on how you’ll be using the unit.

    If you can’t/don’t ever listen in a good environment, the additional performance offered by the iDSD BL, GOV2+ Inf or Mojo are hard to realize and harder to hear. On a plane, particularly if you’re between or aft of the engines, unless you’re running particularly well isolating (C)IEM (or triple-flanged Ety’s jammed in as far as they’ll go) I doubt you could tell the difference between any of them – I couldn’t.

    However, if you’re using them in mixed environments, both transportable (between desks/houses) and on the go, then the “bigger” guns definitely deliver better results.

    Note: I listed the Dragonfly Red ahead of the Explorer 2 here purely because it’s smaller, more convenient to use, and it’ll run straight out of an iPhone w/ CCK without additional faffing around. That's a direct convenience/practicality vs. sound trade-off.

    --

    *This is a distinctly-non Fang Bian/HiFi-Man type of moistness!
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2017
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  3. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    Portable DAC/amps vs. Schiit Modi Multi-Bit:

    This post deals purely with the comparison of the units in this thread to Schiit’s Modi Multi-bit DAC. It is not intended to be a specific review of the Modi MB itself, but may be somewhat useful in that guise as well.

    Evaluation Context:

    For the purposes of these comparisons I used each unit purely as a DAC - since the principal comparator here, Modi MB is just that … a pure DAC. It is worth noting, upfront, that this is likely to have some interesting effects when it comes to evaluating value, as some of these units offer a lot more functionality than just being a DAC or DAC/amp and such functionality will be unused in this comparison.

    Another point of note is that over time I have found my preferences are heavily biased in favor of multi-bit DAC implementations. In fact, as of the completion of the listening tests and notes I made for these posts, the only non-multi-bit DACs I still own are the Meridian Explorer 2 and AudioQuest Dragonfly Red (neither of which are strictly “pure” DACs … both are DAC/amps).

    This is definitely something to bear in mind when reading my specific impressions in comparison to Schiit’s Modi Multi-Bit!

    Evaluation Setup:

    I used two primary evaluation systems, one for headphones and one for speakers. The speaker system was employed here primarily to assess the imaging/staging capabilities of each unit.

    In all cases the source was Roon with lossless FLAC files feeding an Auralic Aries (full version with femto-clocks and LPS). Since the Auralic Aries can output USB, AES, S/PDIF (COAX and TOSLINK) it simplifies evaluations and provides common, high-quality, clocking schemes for the three most important interfaces (USB 2.0 Async Audio is essentially clock-insensitive) and one of the best USB outputs available.

    The best-available input was used into each DAC, and the best-available output was used from each DAC to the amp/pre-amp. This means that a DAC like the GOV2+ Infinity used its USB interface as an input, as that’s all it has, where as Mojo or Modi MB used optical and COAX respectively (there will be brief comments on interface differences if/where relevant for suitably equipped units). And for outputs, for example, the GOV2+ Infinity was tested using it’s TRRS output and the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label was using its RCA connection.

    To avoid any potential “house advantage/synergy” I used my WA5-LE as the headphone amplifier. This is a single-ended design with convenience balanced-inputs/outputs (via transformers). Headphones used were primarily Focal’s Utopia – I threw the Abyss and HD800S in here and there for some headstage comparisons. The speaker setup is an all-Linn Akurate-level system which projects a vivid and stable three-dimensional image when fed with a suitably capable source. I am confident that in all cases with these two setups it will be the DAC that is the weak link.

    Listening <DAC> vs. Schiit Modi MB:

    Chord Mojo:

    Best input here is via TOSLINK (then COAX and finally USB – which seems very sensitive to electrical noise); only output options are via SE 3.5mm TRS connections; output set to 2v (the default “line-level” setting is a rather hot 3v).

    As I’ve said before, more than once, the more I’ve listened to Chord’s Mojo, the more my impressions have changed. Initially I was a lot more impressed with it than I am today, and it has gone from being something that I would happily recommend to something that’s just one item on a list of options.

    The most immediately obvious differences between Mojo and Modi MB are in FR extension – at both ends. The lack of air and space in Mojo’s presentation can really impact the ambience of a venue for live recordings and it can make things sounds a bit closed-in in other cases (play Bjork’s “There’s More to Life Than This” on both units and you’ll see what I mean … even though the ambience is there produced rather than authentic).

    Next you’ll find better dynamics and slam with the Modi MB. Listen longer and you’ll start to become aware that Mojo seems to exhibit some dynamic compression, and it can gloss-over some of the micro-dynamics that make some instruments what they are.

    Modi MB provides a more solid foundation for music with a firmer, stouter, bottom end which while not apparently emphasized in anyway, does stand out compared to Mojo – particularly with music that has real sub-bass content. The low, guttural, rumbling you’ll find from Modi MB (when appropriate) is not as present, and starts higher, in the Chord unit’s presentation. Another way to put this, without stealing phrases from other people, is that where Modi MB seems to have just downed half a bottle of Viagra and can’t wait to get home with its date in terms of its bass-performance, Mojo apparently sipped a bit too much Tequila and is now looking for excuses “not to come up” when its date finally becomes amorous.

    Tonality favors Modi MB for faster, harder and/or harsher instruments (percussion, discordant brass, most electronics instruments, plucked strings), whereas Mojo is a little more convincing with bowed strings. Piano rendition, as (seemingly) ever, goes to Schiit’s multi-bit implementation.

    In general, detail and resolution is similar, which is not the impression I had when originally listening to Mojo directly into headphones. Mojo does a nice job keeping its composure when there is a lot going on, but it isn’t quite as composed as Modi MB, and it’s slightly harder to follow individual instruments/sections.

    The only area in which I felt Mojo consistently matched or slighty-beat the Modi MB was with soundstage when feeding speakers. Here the image is slightly better delineated (layered) with a slightly greater sense of depth. Not big differences, but audible … at least with speakers … these differences were much harder to hear via headphones (requiring the HD800S or Abyss to do so) and I can’t say they translated well enough to call out there.

    Mojo is not a bad listen. In fact, it can be very relaxing. It’s generally quite smooth; perhaps too much so (though over USB you typically won’t hear that). But over time it has failed to engage me in the music to the extent that the Schiit DAC routinely does. Instead of being a “compelling” listen it is, well, just “relaxing”. I tended to fall asleep listening with the Mojo (I don’t mean that to sound like it’s a bad thing, specifically) whereas with the Modi MB I was far more likely to queue up another album and just keep listening.

    And that’s another difference. Mojo was more likely to get used with playlists, whereas I often favored the Modi MB when I wanted to listen to complete works/albums. What that really says, I’m not sure … but it’s something I noted.

    Taken purely as DACs I no longer think Mojo presents as strong a challenge to Modi MB as I used to, especially if value is a consideration. If you’re going to use the thing on the go as well, then it makes more sense, but I still think it’s a bit over-priced given the advent of Modi MB. At $349, maybe $399, Mojo would be about where I think it should be at this point (again, IF you’ll be using it on the go as well).

    Also, Mojo is something of a pain on the desktop. Yes, it has USB, COAX and TOSLINK inputs, but the COAX input requires a 3.5mm cable. And while the unit is heavy for its size, by the time you’ve got a decent signal cable, power cable and a 3.5mm TRS -> RCA cable hooked up, well, good luck getting it to sit the way you want it to and stay there. It’s charging behavior can be annoying too.

    iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label:

    Ultimately, I settled on the COAX input on this unit as my preferred way to drive it on the desktop. It’s USB input is actually pretty solid, and already filtered, though it sounds better if it’s not also drawing it’s power from USB when you’re playing (which is an option … just turn the unit on before you connect it to a USB source).

    As a pure DAC the Micro iDSD has a somewhat more neutral presentation than it does when used as a DAC/amp combination, but it’s still a bit more “exciting” than “pure” in my opinion. It’s also worth pointing out, again, that the “treble splashiness” that I mentioned when considering this as an integrated unit is not, and was not, present when used purely as a DAC.

    I find this to be a more engaging listen than the Mojo, even if it doesn’t play to my preferences quite the way Modi MB does. There’s no apparent roll-off unless you’re using the bit-perfect filter, but even then I find it handles the top-end of the frequency spectrum more convincingly than the Chord unit.

    Open venues retain their open sound and there is a proper sense of space to the recording, even if it does not project as palpable an image or soundstage as Modi MB when used in a speaker setting. There is, however, good air, without harshness, at the top-end – more so, again, if you don’t use the “bit perfect” filter setting.

    Bass is full, tuneful, extended with good impact and articulation, though not really reaching quite the levels that the Schiit DAC manages. You won’t need a bass-biased system to enjoy the lower-registers with this thing, but if that’s your thing you’re still probably better served with Modi MB.

    Tonality is mostly realistic though the mid-range can tend towards the “romantic”, even if it isn’t really fair to fully apply that designation to its sound. I did find it a fairly seductive listen though … it had a tendency to draw me in more than the Mojo, for example.

    Value here, as a pure DAC, is a significant challenge however. It makes no sense, from my perspective, to pay $549 for the Micro iDSD BL for desktop use as just a DAC when it’s, at best, on par (though different to) the Modi MB and, in some cases, is outdone convincingly by the much cheaper Schiit DAC. Of course, iFi offer less feature-rich DACs that might be a better and more direct comparison if it’s just a DAC you’re after.

    LH Labs GeekOut V2+ Infinity:

    Right out of the gate it’s clear that this is the most serious competition for Modi MB here, at least in terms of raw performance. Even as a multi-bit convert, and generally someone that’s not a huge ESS fan, I have to say that this turns in a very solid performance.

    I feel this is the most “technical” DAC here … in that it’s presentation, while musical and engaging, still manages to do the “technicalities” a little more cleanly than the other offerings. It feels the most neutral and trades largely even blows with the Modi MB when it comes to instrumental timbre. Again, I prefer Schiit’s DAC for piano, and for plucked-strings, but as things head north in the frequency realm I am finding the LH Labs unit is a little smoother. And it does that without giving up air, space or sparkle and without emphasizing any sibilance.

    In the lower registers, I prefer the Modi MB’s presentation - it has a little more solidity and tunefulness to it, though extension is similar between both units. Mid-range is a bit drier, again, with the LH Labs unit, but I wouldn’t actually call it “dry” per se.

    Running these units back-to-back I will say that there is a very slight sense of “veil” with the Modi MB that is not present on the GOV2+ Inf. I think the LH Labs DAC is the most resolving unit here, though this is mostly noticeable higher up one’s scales. A little more plankton than the Schiit DAC, but a bit less body … which you find better is going to be a matter of taste I think.

    When listening to the GOV2+ Infinity as a DAC/amp I found it to be quite neutral, so I was surprised to find I was hearing a subtle warmth to the presentation vs. the Modi MB. This effect did not manifest itself when using the other units so I am not going to ascribe it to my amplifier.

    When it comes to soundstage and imaging I found the GOV2+ Infinity to fall a bit behind both the Mojo and the Modi MB. This was more obvious using the “Frequency Response Mode” (green) filter; switching to the “Time Coherence Mode” (blue) filter improved the staging to a useful degree but didn’t do the tonality of the unit any favors. For headphone listening, at least, it’s an easy choice to remain in “FRM” mode here.

    Musically this is a really enjoyable listen. It draws me into the piece, conveys emotion, and doesn’t call attention to itself while doing so.

    For some reason I find I connect more easily with my music, and enjoy listening more, with multi-bit DACs. It is entirely possible that this is purely down to bias, although in blind(ish) comparisons I choose multi-bit sources as my preference at a far higher rate than one can attribute to chance. However, I didn’t find myself strongly favoring the Modi MB over the LH Labs unit – nor vice versa. I was quite content to sit and listen to either, and on more than one occasion simply got distracted from my “evaluative” listening and just sat enjoying the music.

    For pure-DAC use, in a desktop system, the GOV2+ presents a couple of challenges. The first is due to its small size and weight – cables will tend to pull it around on the desk. The second is one of value, which is a hard act to match when Modi MB is your point of comparison. At $249 I would think that the Modi MB is going to be a better value choice for a large number of listeners. If multi-bit is not your thing, you’ll be using it (trans)portably, or you want things like DSD support as well then the GOV2+ Infinity easily deserves consideration – as the choice, based on how they sound, is going to be more about signature preferences than anything else.

    Meridian Explorer 2:

    While timbre is good the overall tonal presentation leans towards a richer one than Modi MB. Despite this, Modi MB maintains an edge in its delivery of low-frequency information and tunefulness. It’s the mid-range that is the musical highlight of the Meridian being very lucid with a very smooth feel to it, though it is still out-done, on a technical level, by the Schiit, iFi and LH Labs units.

    Transient response is not on the same level as Schiit’s offering, and the Modi MB slams harder and faster in every track I tried. This comes across as slight softening of attack with things like a plucked harp, even though I would nominally say that attack and decay were realistic. It play quite coherently, and works musically, on it’s own … but stacked up against the little Schiit it is outmatched.

    The soundstage projected here is a little narrow, is shallower than everything except the Dragonfly, and is not nearly as well delineated or layered as the Modi MB or Mojo. On speakers it’s depth is reasonable, but it’s largely flat and up-close with headphones.

    I don’t want to dwell on this unit further … while it has been reduced in price to $199 recently, it just doesn’t stack up against the Modi MB as a pure-DAC. Value wise it’s not too bad compared to the two most expensive offerings here, but it does not approach their technical performance. So, for something to use on the go, and maybe plug into an amp now and then it’s quite good, and it will give you the ability to explore MQA (if you care about that), as well as being a solid portable DAC/amp, but I can’t recommend it against a Modi MB in any other context.

    AudioQuest Dragonfly Red:

    The first thing that I notice with this vs. Modi MB is that the Dragonfly appears to have a less-than-neutral presentation. When I listened to this with IEMs I thought that might be down to how it mated with multi-BA drivers, but there’s still an apparent, if shallow, “U” shape to the overall presentation when simply feeding and amplifier.

    I will say that the very strong bass-emphasis that I encountered with my SE846 (9 ohms, 114 dB SPL/mw) was not present using this just as a DAC – still U-shaped but not to the extremes I heard without an amp in the chain. And while we’re talking about bass … the Dragonfly is properly extended it does not match the Modi MB in terms of slam, articulation or tunefulness in the lower registers.

    The top end, also, seems a little emphasized. This was never as pronounced as the bass was, but there is a little excess energy here compared to the Modi MB and while it stops short of being “over sharpened” or “exaggerated”, it did get a little uncomfortable with higher-pitched female vocals at times.

    Staging is wide but shallow on speakers and it’s harder to pinpoint instruments or vocals in space than with the other units. With headphones the image remains relatively wide but collapses front-to-back and generally comes across as three broad blobs rather than an even, but delineated band of sound.

    This has a slightly more “fun” presentation than the Schiit DAC, unless you’re a bass-head, but it is less honest, less believable and results in listening fatigue in situations where the Modi MB simply keeps you engrossed in the music.

    The value story here is similar to that of the Meridian. Neither really make sense without portable-usage factored in when they are compared to the Modi MB.

    At some point, shortly, the Meridian’s MQA “advantage” will be erased with a firmware update to the Dragonfly. This will leave the Meridian with a more natural presentation, and support for higher-resolution source files as its sole advantages.

    Summary:

    It should be clear that from a value perspective, I believe Schiit’s Modi MB is the front-runner, by some margin, when considering these units simply for their DAC functionality and performance.

    This pure-DAC focus is clearly a massive handicap for some of these units, especially the multi-functional iFi Micro iDSD Black Label. So the first take-away here is that if you’re just looking for a desktop DAC … it’s probably better to compare like-for-like!

    If we take value off the table, however, things are a bit more complicated …

    While my personal preference is for the presentation of the Modi MB I think, at an overall technical level, the GOV2+ Infinity takes it. Both are eminently listenable, musical and enjoyable, but in “audition style” listening there LH Labs unit just comes out ahead.

    Even without the value factor, any without my personal bias, I think most will prefer Schiit’s entry-level multi-bit offering to everything else here. Though detail/transparency-junkies will likely lean towards the LH Labs still.

    Next up I would put the iFi Micro IDSD Black Label. It’s a different type of presentation to the either of the aforementioned DACs, and whether you went for this or one of the others, sound-wise, is going to be more about signature preference than technicalities.

    The Dragonfly and Explorer 2, while solid options for on-the-go use, are simply outclassed by Modi MB here. And if you were in the market for ANY of these devices (meaning you had the budget to buy any of them) you’d simply be better served buying the Modi MB for desktop use and adding either of these units, to taste, for portable use.

    Finally there’s Chord’s Mojo … and the only thing it does “best” here, in my opinion is imaging with speakers. Otherwise, Modi MB takes it to task in the lower registers, particularly in terms of sub-bass, and exposes better overall tonality, impact and presence, while maintaining proper frequency extension and yielding a more engrossing, emotional experience.

    I’ll try and summarize this further using a spider-chart. The categories are a bit in flux, and some are combined (perhaps less than ideally) and not exactly the same as, for example, those I applied when comparing amplifiers. I may refine or expand this in the next day or so:

    Portable DAC Spider Chart.jpg

    Note that all values on this chart are relative only to each other. Do not, for example, assume that something scoring a 10 on this chart would still score a 10 if I added Yggdrasil to the mix. Also, do not add the scores to try and get a “total” … it doesn’t really work that way. And, again, these scores are mine, based on my preferences, biases and listening …your mileage may vary signifcantly!

    So …

    … if you’re buying on value, and don’t need portability, buy the Modi MB and enjoy your music. However, if you only care about audible-results, then I’d rank these units, as pure-DACs, as follows:

    GOV2+ Infinity > Modi MB >= iFi Micro iDSD BL > Mojo > Explorer 2 >= Dragonfly Red​

    And, hopefully obviously, if you can get good deals on some of these units then their value proposition becomes rather different depending on what you actually pay. For example, I sold my GOV2+ Infinity for $155 … which would make it top this value ranking quite easily.

    Other Thoughts:

    It’s worth noting that off the five portable DAC/amps I started off with for this process, three have since been sold:

    • Chord Mojo – I sold this primarily due to having become progressively less satisfied with its performance over time.
    • LH Labs GOV2+ Infinity – sold as I only bought it because it was well regarded and I felt it should be included in this write-up; it was not something I ever intended to keep (was not looking for another portable DAC/amp).
    • iFi Micro iDSD BL – I bought this on a whim after being impressed with the iFi Pro iCAN. After getting it, and rather liking it, I thought I might use it on the boat … which didn’t work out so well with wires (so I went with a DAP and wireless cans there instead).
    So, really, the only one that was sold based on how it sounded was the Mojo. True, I was looking to consolidate some anyway, but after listening to all of them it was clear the Mojo was the third-place performer of the three.

    --

    Errors, omissions,humor and freedom from screw-ups excepted!
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2017
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  4. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    Portable DACs/Amps vs. DAPs:

    It has taken me a lot longer to get around to writing this up than I had anticipated … actually about two months longer. And a lot has happened in that time, including selling some of the items in the original comparisons and acquiring some new ones.

    For those with short attention spans, I’ll get to the initial point unusually quickly (for me); I don’t think there are going to be many surprises there. And then the longer narrative expands into some additional thoughts/gear. Again, for the TL;DR; types – I can’t say you’re likely to be shocked by the outcome …

    I was … but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

    Some Things to Note:

    While the majority of the listening that drives my comments here was performed with all of the units simultaneously on hand and something I was able to do with back-to-back comparisons, that is not the case for a couple of the more recent arrivals. This is mostly relevant when considering comments about the Sony WM1Z and the FiiO X5iii, as there may be some triangulation of impressions and comparisons involving those.

    My expectations for sound quality and convenience in portable listen have gone up quite a bit. Significantly in fact. I was already heading towards a more convenient portable setup; stacking transports/DACs and amps had long-since worn thin. Even just using a phone with something like Chord’s Mojo had also pretty much outworn its welcome. I was expecting to have to deal with lower quality results overall going down the simpler path, but it turns out that hasn’t been the case.

    Anyway, on we go …

    Stirring the Pot: New Arrivals

    New arrivals since I started this nonsense:
    • FiiO X5iii
    • Sony WM1Z
    • Empire Ears Zeus-R (Universal, non-ADEL)
    • Advanced AcousticWerkes W900
    Excepting the AAW W900, I bought all of these units. The EE Zeus-R is probably the most directly responsible item on the list for my renewed interest in truly portable audio, but it was the AAW W900 that really set the cat among the pigeons – but I’ll come back to that.

    As shown below, I have the two Sony units and the Fiio X5iii all together, so any comparisons between those will be direct:

    Current-DAPs.jpg

    How Do They Rank?

    Somewhat uncharacteristically, I’m going to cut right to the summary for the units that I’ve had the ability to do back-to-back comparisons. This isn’t the whole story here, but I should get it out of the way as it is the fundamental reason for this part of the thread:

    WM1A > GOV2+ Inf > iDSD BL > Mojo > AK120 > Explorer 2 > Dragonfly Red > iPod Classic​

    The little Apple Lighting-to-3.5mm dongle, while better behaved with the SE846 than the AK120 (which I’ll back to in a moment), and completely silent as it is, falls behind all of these. Not far behind, in some cases, and not badly enough to be something one wouldn’t use (especially as it’s either free or $9), but it’s only suitable for IEMs/ear buds and is more of a “convenient-must-have-for-iPhone 7” than something that’s particularly beneficial elsewhere.

    At least that’s how things stack up driving IEMs or headphones directly out of those units and, in general, I have preferred Chord’s Mojo to Astell & Kern’s entire line-up, all the way up to the “AK380 Cu”.

    In those comparisons, I’ve generally auditioned them using their direct headphone outputs. In hindsight, I think part of this was down to the funky interactions with A&K’s amp section with the sensitive, low-impedance, multi-BA driver SE846 that I used most commonly for portable listening. These IEMs seem to have pretty wild swings in effective impedance across the frequency range, and this is exacerbated by the A&K’s output stage.

    Running their outputs into an external amplifier put the AK120 ahead of the Mojo with the SE846. While there’s still a sense of warmth to the presentation of the AK120 here, it does not exhibit the roll-off at the frequency extremes that I hear with the Mojo. The issue with the SE846 sounding unfocused and lumpy, compared to directly out of the AK120, goes away. I tried the AK120/SE846 combination with an iEMatch unit as well, and that also fixes the frequency response anomalies, however it also robbed the music of life compared to the AK120 -> amp -> SE846 setup.

    How Do They Sound?

    Let’s start with the easy part here … and tackle hiss first.

    Hiss/Noise:

    The AK120 and the iPod classic (and the Apple Dongle) are the quietest units here. Silent, in fact. Everything else has hiss at some level, even the iDSD Black Label will hiss with the SE846 (which is, admittedly, known as being a bit of a hiss-monster) unless you engage iEMatch, though it is quieter than everything else even without it.

    The WM1A exhibits very low levels of hiss, comparable to the Mojo and Dragonfly Red and, even with the SE846, it is not problematic at any level. Interestingly, and something that wasn’t expected, is that the WM1Z appears to have slightly less hiss than the already very-quiet WM1A. It’s hard to be sure there, but that’s the impression I have so far.

    Signature and Presentation:

    The AK120 has a very slightly warm, full-bodied, presentation, not uncharacteristic of other WM8740 implementations, though perhaps more rounded than the 8741. It doesn’t exhibit the dynamic capabilities of the GOV2+ Infinity, nor does its top-end have quite the sense of air that the LH Labs unit delivers. But it is, when paired with less finicky transducers, an engaging and musical little thing.

    If pressed I would say that the raw signature of the AK120 remains my favorite in A&K’s lineup. I don’t care for any of the CS4398 based models at all. The 3XX series units, which are AKM4490 based, take the pleasant full-bodied sound of the AK120 a bit too far – whether this is an artifact of the “Velvet Sound” tuning of those ICs or something else I don’t know. But the bass takes on bloomy character that intrudes higher up.

    Compared to Mojo the AK120 has a more linear and, still, full-bodied signature. While nicer in tuning than other Chord DACs, the Mojo falls behind the AK120 and some of the other units with its apparent roll-off (even if that’s not what’s necessarily really happening). The upper registers aren’t as cohesive with the rest of the presentation either, sounding more closed in and while not necessarily congested do seem restrained and a bit “close”.

    For a while I ran the AK120 as a transport feeding the Mojo via TOSLINK. This eliminates one of the major woes of the Mojo – it’s USB input, which seems unusually sensitive to any kind of electrical noise. It also gets away from the Mojo’s high sensitivity to EMI, which can make using it with a phone a major pain in the arse.

    It’s worth noting that, as of right now (4/23/17), if you use Apple devices and you’re thinking about buy a Chord Mojo … you probably want to wait. Beyond the on-going issue with the thing not working properly with multi-rate DSD output in OS X builds newer than 10.11.2, the latest iOS update (10.3.1) has the Mojo exhibiting significant playback issues there as well. Specifically, it’ll play for a bit, then stop, and that “bit” can range from a few seconds to a few hours.

    Mojo is not, in point of fact, the only device affected by the external-DAC issues in 10.3.1 – I’ve seen it reported with the Dragonfly Red as well, but there’s more noise around the issue for the Mojo at present.

    The iPod classic winds up being inoffensive, enjoyable, but doesn’t really excel anywhere. It’s pleasantly rounded in its sound, but lacks some detail and dynamics are not on the same level as the other units here. I included it because I have one laying around, but it isn’t something I’ve used for serious listening in a very long time. It spent most of its time simply feeding the iPod input on my fun-car.

    This brings us to the Sony WM1A. As already stated, I think this is the best sounding unit in the original line-up. It’s clean, natural, dynamic, highly-but-not-artificially-detailed, very even in tone and timbre and compared to everything else on this list is the most neutral. Listening in “Direct Sound” mode, which is a one-touch way of disabling all special sound processing, it is involving and resolving, and while closer to “analytical” than “romantic” in its delivery is not something I would actually describe as analytical, nor cold or clinical, and it maintains a musical and emotive presentation with everything I’ve thrown at it both in terms of source material but also when it comes to transducers.

    It was the arrival of the WM1A that was the real catalyst behind my selling the Mojo, the AK120, and the iDSD BL. The GOV2+ Infinity fills a use-case I don’t really have and wasn’t purchased with an eye to keeping it, so that was sold simply because I only bought it for comparative purposes.

    The New Guys:

    This really refers to the Sony WM1A, WM1Z and the FiiO X5iii. These three units I’ve compared directly, but comparisons to the other units in this thread are based either on triangulating my thoughts by way of the WM1A (and, to a much lesser extent, the Explorer 2 and Dragonfly Red), or from listening notes. As it happens, going back to those listening notes isn’t really that necessary … even given the breadth of market position that these three units span.

    It would be fair to see that I like all three of these units better than the other items on the list.

    FiiO X5iii:

    The X5iii is a near text-book example of a properly-done AKM4490 implementation – which means it retains that device’s “Velvet Sound” tuning (and your only ways to navigate around that either by playing with the built-in filter options or, to a lesser extent adjusting EQ). You either like that or you don’t – there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. It’s not my preference with desktop gear, but it works quite well in this context*.

    It’s warmer/more romantic sounding than it is neutral. It is a bit more dynamic, overall, than I have found the AK3XX units to be. However, it is quite a bit noisier than the other DAPs here, particularly the silent AK120. FiiO turn the output stage on and off in response to what the DAP is actually doing so this is less apparent than with, say, the GOV2+ Infinity. Regardless, you’ll definitely know when that output stage is operating or not with sensitive IEMs. It doesn’t impose itself on the music unless you’re dealing with lots of quiet passages or moments of silence, and it’ll be below the noise-floor of most recordings, but inky-black with IEMs it is not.

    For $399, however, the FiiO X5iii offers some pretty serious bang-for-the-buck. Yes, it has firmware/software issues and the pace of resolution of those has slowed markedly since its introduction (firmware updates moving from weekly to more than a month since the last one), but if you want a high-capacity (dual-slot) player, that’s streaming capable, runs Android, has balanced output and a nice, responsive, UI, I can’t name anything else that’s really in contention currently.

    I have more thoughts on the FiiO X5iii here.

    Sony WM1A:

    I would classify this as being the closest thing to a true “reference” player here. It’s the most neutral sounding unit in the entire lineup. It is effortlessly dynamic, detail is top-notch, tone is pure, instrumental timbre is natural, separation and layering approaching better desktop units. There are plenty of options to fiddle with in terms of tuning the sound, but put it in “Direct Source” mode and those all go away and you’re left with a genuinely wonderful result – and “Direct Source” mode is how I enjoy using it most.

    While it’s not particularly uncommon for me to find something “impressive” sounding right out of the gate, it is a lot less so for that to be an enduring response. Often “initially impressive” tends to give way to either fatigue or finding other problems with the sound over time. That has not been the case with the WM1A. The more I’ve used it, the more I’ve wanted to use it. That lead to me exploring more advanced IEMs for portable use and, in conjunction with a recent move, has had me spending more time listening on the deck with my ears stuffed with bits of pricey-plastic than I have been to my main rig.

    This is as close to “perfect” as any portable player I’ve ever had my hands on. It’s solidly built, but not overbearing. It looks and feels classy. Recent firmware updates fixed the early lag/responsiveness issues and it’s otherwise been entirely stable. Battery life is exemplary (knocking the AK120 and Mojo’s typical 6 hours, and the Fiio X5’s ~10 hours into a cocked-hat). In fact, other than wanting more storage on it, and an option for native streaming capability, it’s very hard to fault at all.

    It’s not cheap at $1199 (officially) but I don’t think it’s at all out of whack for what you’re getting.

    Sony WM1Z:

    Sonically, other than exhibiting a quieter background than it’s cheaper brother, this is really a slightly romantic sounding WM1A. It retains all of the strengths of the WM1A but swaps raw neutrality for a somewhat more organic rendering. When I first heard the two units back-to-back I preferred the WM1A. I’m not sure that I don’t still prefer the WM1A to be honest, at least if I’m evaluating things critically, but with the higher-performing IEMs I’ve been running with these newer units, I have found myself listening to the WM1Z more than anything else.

    My real draw to the WM1Z over the 1A was, in real terms, about storage. 512 GB really is the minimum I can get my “travel” library down to and not keep running into stuff I want not being available. I hate fiddling with card-swapping, even though indexing on the Sony units is quick and reliable (and part of that dislike is the relative fragility of microSD card slots … especially the sprung “push to eject” type on the Sony). So, I tracked down another WM1Z and bought it.

    That storage comes at a significant cost … both in monetary terms ($3,199 vs. $1,199) but also in terms of raw mass. The WM1A feels pretty substantial … until you pick up the 1Z, after which the 1A feels more toy-like (and it absolutely is NOT). The 1Z is comically heavy/dense … so much so that there will be times when I want to “travel light” to the point that it’ll stay home. I considered keeping the 1A around for those kinds of trips … and I do wish Sony would just offer the 1A with more storage as a result, but WM1Z is getting more listening time than the 1A and regardless of what’s driving that, it means that the WM1A will be going to a new owner and my primary portable player is now the WM1Z.

    The FiiO X5iii and/or my iPhone + Dragonfly Red will fill in the gaps for those sparse excursions.

    The Influence of New IEMs:

    Buying the Empire Ears Zeus-R (universal, non-ADEL) really spurred a new interest in portable audio. I enjoyed the SE846, but they did complicate my portable listening somewhat. With both the Sony players and the FiiO they’re quite well behaved and a lot more enjoyable than they ever where with the AK120 or Mojo. But they’re not on the same level as the Zeus R, which quickly became an addictive listen. They also got my interest in more recent IEMs spurred somewhat. In truth, all the chatter about the Campfire Audio Andromeda had thrown more than a few sparks on to that particular pile of tinder too … though as of yet I’ve not gotten my hands on a pair of those**.

    And then came the AAW W900, which is a hybrid dynamic/BA IEM. I’ve heard hybrids before and while fun, they’ve always had coherence/integration issues. Pure dynamics (e.g. the Vega) get the coherence and phase stuff bang-on, but I’ve found they tend to suffer a bit in terms of air, space, stage, absolutely detail and micro-dynamics. Pure BA … the bottom end lacks some of the slam, extension and tunefulness of the dynamic and hybrid models.

    W900.jpg

    The W900 seems to manage to bring the best of both worlds together, while delivering bass/sub-bass performance that’s hard to believe. It doesn’t fuck up the upper-bass/lower-mids. It’s coherent. It’s tuneful and driving. Slam and impact are amazing. It seems like you can actually feel the impact in your head, more so than anything else I’ve had in my ears. And the articulation and detail present in that bottom end is first-class. As good as anything else I’ve heard. The mids are present, lucid, sonorous and addictive. Extension is excellent and the treble goes on and on, while remaining totally smooth. In fact, the only place I can fault these to date is that that there’s less air, and a reduced sense of tinkle/sparkle in the highest registers than with, say, the Zeus R.

    And the practical upshot of this is that my expectations for portable audio have been elevated significantly. The degree of both engagement and enjoyment, as well as raw technical performance, these latest units are delivering is a MUCH bigger step forward than I would have expected (I’m far more accustomed to incremental, often hard-to-discern, improvements).

    Getting Back on Track:

    So, wild asides excepted, where does this leave things? Well, let’s recall the original ordering I have for these units first, just so we can see what changes here:

    WM1A > GOV2+ Inf > iDSD BL > Mojo > AK120 > Explorer 2 > Dragonfly Red > iPod Classic​

    Adding in the Fiio X5iii and WM1Z to the mix makes it look like this:

    WM1A >= WM1Z > GOV2+ Inf > FiiO X5iii >= iDSD BL > Mojo > AK120 > Explorer 2 > Dragonfly Red​

    The WM1A is, still, in my opinion, more of a neutral reference than the 1Z, is much saner in terms of weight AND price and looks better (the gold is interesting and well-finished but the basic black 1A looks more business-like and, really, far classier). As a result, the 1A is significantly better value, easier to live with and might well be liked more, sonically, by a wider range of listeners with a broader array of transducers.

    The FiiO X5iii is the best Android-based DAP I’ve had my hands on so far, but that’s by no means all of them. It has its good and bad points, again covered more thoroughly here. At $399 it makes quite the mockery of the A&K stuff (noise level notwithstanding), but the Sony units still best it without too much trouble.

    Overall:

    The 1Z has won me over with the newer IEMs, managing to make me listen longer, with more involvement, courtesy of whatever mechanisms might, or might not, be at work there. So that’s where I’m sticking … the WM1A will shortly be with its new owner and I’ll be immersing myself in a rapid-fire series of TOTL IEM auditions.

    Listening to the X5iii just isn’t going to happen if the 1Z is around – and I’m likely to find ways to bend weight/size limits when travelling to make sure the 1Z can come along, especially with the W900 (or whatever I find that bests those). Which is not something I’ve ever done before.

    --

    *I also find I do better with ES901X based portable units than with their full-size counterparts.

    **At this point, absent coming across a set at a meet, it is unlikely that I'll bother. I don't do back-orders, which seems to be the perpetual state of the Andromeda, and I've not seen any B-stock availability recently. I was willing to buy used, but the ones I've seen available there are cosmetically damaged AND used yet the sellers want effectively new-B-stock prices for what is, as far as I'm concerned, a used-B-stock item.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2017
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  5. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Two quick points:

    You listed the balanced on the GOV2+ as 2.5mm TRRS but it should be 3.5mm TRRS. Additionally it looks like you have a first production unit that is entirely 3D printed, while the current production version has two metal plates attached to a 3D printed shell.

    If your version really does have a 2.5mm balanced jack, that's now 3.5mm on the current production models.
     
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  6. TRex

    TRex Wow, I made it this far without being a friend?

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    This thread worth a sticky slot. Great review as usual, @Torq !

    100% agree with Mojo. Two ways to stop RFI: airplane mode and put your hand (or pork chop) between phone & Mojo. And the USB (feature & physical quality-wise) is plain poor.
    I wish you had GO2A instead of GOV2; GO2A looks better.

    PS: Considering the amount of gears you got (recently), major clearance isn't far ahead. :p
     
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  7. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    Nice catch! It is, indeed, 3.5mm TRRS for the balanced output.

    I bought this unit used, on here (from @PoochZag) and I think he got it used from someone else, so I'm sure it's an older unit. The link in the unit-list should go to the current page, so whatever is "current" will show up there.
     
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  8. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    I wouldn't have pointed it out except you specifically mentioned the aesthetics of it. Either way I look forward to reading more on this comparison!
     
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  9. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    No worries, it's an entirely fair point. I added a note to the effect that new units are differently finished.

    I expect there will be quite a few other little corrections/adjustments necessary. Hell, even as I re-read the sound-part I want to make changes (and I've read and re-read that many times while I've been procrastinating on finishing this). So there will be some additions (rather than changes) there too. Just wanted to get it posted ...
     
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  10. Kattefjaes

    Kattefjaes Mostly Harmless

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    Hah, working out which GO model is which is possibly the only thing harder than working out how to actually buy one, it's a bit of a mysterious business, especially if you're not yet a fully-informed obsessive with the right contacts.

    I know that I ended up buying a damn Mojo as despite seeing enthusiastic writeups for the kickass sound of the GO series, not only could I not find any for sale over here, the official website didn't appear to have any units for sale (of any type) thus sidestepping having to untangle the potential confusion.

    At the time I didn't know any of the "right people" who could instruct me in the necessary secret handshakes, and so gave up. I'm not blessed with a lot of patience.
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2017
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  11. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    For those wondering why I'm now selling 3 out of the 5 units in this comparison, and the three best-sounding at that, the rationale is simple:

    The Meridian is sticking around so I can continue to screw-around with MQA. The AudioQuest is staying because it's tiny, it works well with the QC20i I always have with me when I travel, I HAVE to have an outboard DAC/amp with my iPhone 7 anyway, and I want to see what the MQA-update for it does to things. And for everything else, I'm switching to an all-in-one solution in the Sony NW-WM1A!
     
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  12. loplop

    loplop Acquaintance

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    Thanks for taking all the time to write up your thoughts, @Torq . That will be a helpful reference for a lot of folks, I think.

    FWIW, I often use my iDSD BL with Roon feeding HQPlayer @ DSD256. It takes on more depth, image solidity, and harmonics seem more fleshed out, giving it a bit more body and a sense of refinement. I don't get fatigued listening to the BL, even for hours on end, but I most often pair with LCDX which may take a little of the edge off. DSD seems to help, as well, removing a bit of the flatlander-artificial sheen. Even if you don't like resampling to DSD (and I know not everyone does), you might try upsampling to 384khz or above. You'll preserve more treble that way, and the treble can be pretty enjoyable; bit perfect otherwise rolls off pretty aggressively on 16/44.

    I mostly don't use the XBass/3D switches, although I do use XBass on occasion for very bass light tracks. 3D+ can be pretty neat on cheaper phones without a good stage, but it sure sounds funky and bright on some headphones. It's better on speaker-based hifi's, IMO, where I have used and enjoyed it on more than one occasion. You need to make sure to switch off Direct if you want to do that (keep gain on eco and peg the volume pot...), or the switches have no effect on line out.

    I like the iDSD BL, although it's more useful around the house and on trips than as a pocket device.

    Really looking forward to the Schiit comparo. As I await the iDSD Pro, and ponder a Gungnir Multibit/Yggdrasil instead, I'm using my BL often as a DAC (along with the better-sounding iDAC2), so I'm curious what tradeoffs I'd make if I just went to a Modi MB.
     
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  13. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    I've played with this via HQPlayer with a number of DACs and a number of different resampling schemes (to DSD or just regular over-sampling) and it's never really yielded results that I have cared for. I think it's worth experimenting with for those that are interested in such things, but with my Yggdrasil I've found it is at its best just left to it's own devices (true for me with all of Schiit's multi-bit DACS - of course part of the point of those units is to take advatange of Mike's special oversampling and filtering implementation), and with the Spring DAC I like it best in it's NOS mode fed un-molested PCM.

    I should get that posted tomorrow; it's written, just needs some final editing.

    I liked it too. I was going to keep it to use on the boat. But it's now on its way to it's new owner ... trailing wires on the boat turned out, somewhat predictably I suppose, to be a less then smart scenario!
     
  14. Robert777

    Robert777 Facebook Friend

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    Amazing write up. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for taking the time to put them together so succinctly.

    I was recently eyeing the BL over the Mojo but in the UK the prices are reversed and the BL is considerably more expensive.

    Thank you again. DFR it is for me.
     
  15. Rotijon

    Rotijon Friend

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    Hey Torq,

    Is there any difference sound wise between the super expensive sony and the cheaper one?

    Great write up btw
     
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  16. Aleatorius

    Aleatorius Friend

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  17. feinan

    feinan Rando

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    Great Review! I hate and love you because you convinced me to spend money for audio gears again... I just paid for iDSD BL Excited to feed my HD650s! :headbang:
     
  18. gixxerwimp

    gixxerwimp Professional tricycle rider

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    Fantastic work! Eagerly awaiting your comparison with Modi Multibit so I can have a reference against my (silver) iDSD.
     
  19. jowls

    jowls Never shitposts (please) - Friend

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    Great write up as always @Torq. Did you get a chance to use Mojo via optical/coax? I agree, it's USB implementation sucks balls, but for me most of its treble weirdness was ameliorated by coax input.
     
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  20. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    I did.

    Most of the time my Mojo was driven out of an AK120 via a SysConcepts form-fit TOSLINK cable. It generally sounded its best that way too. Was a definite improvement over USB (excepting one case where I was stuck using a long, nasty, plastic Monster TOSLINK cable at a mini-meet).
     

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