USB DAC/amp (dongles)

Discussion in 'IEMs and Portable Gear' started by Stuff Jones, May 17, 2021.

  1. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    Well, I ordered it.

    No travel expected in foreseeable future, but what might come much sooner is getting a new phone which does not have 3.5. Sure, there's bluetooth, and my wife uses it all the time, but I'd rather just use the wired things I have already, at least for now.

    What happens with a pair of HD600 plugged in? ...just wondering.
     
  2. Brause

    Brause Friend

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    Another word on the ifi GO Link. It features the ES9219 System on Chip ("SoC"), which delivers a prefab sound as DAC and amp are...as it is implied...on the same chip. This saves space and is safe, as the audio engineer cannot screw the output stage. But there is only so much the audio engineer can do to manipulate the sound...and ifi did a bit of that.

    The ES9219 SoC is in many dongle DACs (e.g. iBasso DC-05, Qudelix-5K, Hidizs X0, Truthear Shio...) and daps (Hidizs AP80 Pro/ProX, many Shanling devices...) and even in the TempoTec Serenade X desktop streamer.

    The ES9219 is the successor to the ESS9281P (both all-in-one DAC/amp chips have effectively the same specs, but the ES2919C features hardware-level MQA decoding and it has a lower battery consumption at no load).

    Most ES9219 SoC devices sound very similar, if not the same, as it is ESS Tech that creates the sound. They certainly all have the same specs (power etc.).

    Questyle found a way around this by adding their own amplification circuits to the (ES9281) SoC in their M15 dongle. They told me it is impossible to bypass the amp on the SoC itself. It is also impossible to add software to a SoC (for re-clocking, for example).

    ifi Audio engineers did a similar thing to what Questyle did: they added something after the SoC...a jitter clock and some dynamic range enhancement. And it shows as the GO Link sounds very articulate with great resolution/separation (Biodegraded's quick transients in the upper mids).

    As to GO Link's other main tech claims (Quad DAC, Hyperstream III architecture...), these are taken straight from the ES9219 specs sheet - and apply to all of the above mentioned devices.

    A general problem with dongles is that they are either powerful (and then draw lots of current from the source - like the ifi GO bar), or they are are limited in their current draw, which makes them useless for most low-impedance iems/headphones.

    I compared the current drains of a few dongles [values only valid relative to each other]:

    [​IMG]

    My standard for "current draw vs. performance" is the DragonFly Cobalt, simply because the designer recommends not using it for iems/headphones below 24 ohm impedance (the manufacturer lowered this value to 16 ohm). Reason is the higher current draw of less-sensitive low-impedance iems. The first thing that one experiences is a mushy, uncontrolled bass, as transducers are moved by current [and bass requires the most current].

    The GO Link offers only marginally more current than the Cobalt and I expect it not to work well below 16 ohm...and cause loss of bass control.

    In my limited testing so far, the GO Link is very articulate ("relatively fast transients") across the frequency spectrum. I cannot recognize any colouring. Will have to do more testing to confirm this.

    The Helm Bolt is of similar physique...a small dongle that sports the aforementioned ES9281 SoC. Helm do not release much detail on their specs. Comparing the GO Link and the Bolt, they sound very similar. Differences are really small, the Bolt sounds "sweeter" in the upper midrange/lower treble, but is not as articulate. Maybe GO Link's additional jitter clock and added dynamic range make the difference (and explain its higher current drain over the Bolt).

    What's interesting is the GO Link's price. At $60, it is half the price of the Bolt at a very similar sound quality, output etc. In addition, the GO Link comes with great accessories, namely a quality USB-C to USB-A adapter - and a lightning adapter for iOS devices. Hidizs are selling this lightning adapter separately as "LT03 iPhone OTG adapter" for $13 (on sale).

    It is this complete package that makes the GO Link attractive.

    UPDATE: another opinion (from a friend in Italy): he finds the GO Link "soft" sounding, definitely coloured. He thinks low-end extension is good, but upper-end extension is somewhat missing. But he also says the GO Link's sonic characteristics change a lot depending on the iems he uses them with.

    This requires more testing with more iems.
     
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    Last edited: Mar 2, 2023
  3. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    A great contribution. Thank you for that.

    It's a pity that some of our money for this thing is going to MQA. I certainly shan't be using that function!
     
  4. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    They likely also did something of their own in front with the USB input circuit / chip choice; and of course they'll be using their own filter. Also, they have their so-called 'S-Balanced' output wiring (which is just independent L & R -ves). Having a 4-pole 3.5mm adaptor, I did listen to it this way but didn't detect any difference from using a standard 3.5, whereas I thought I did get better clarity/resolution using 'S-Balanced' from the nano BL.
    @Brause has more useful data on battery consumption of various dongles, although much of it was measured somewhat differently (battery drain on a phone over a set time; more potential variables, but which I find easier to imagine in 'real world' terms than the current-draw measurements above). There's an example in his Helm Bolt review (good reading in itself given the GO link comparisons): scroll down to and expand the 'Power Consumption Test' box here:

    https://www.audioreviews.org/helm-bolt-review-jk/

    The Apple dongle and Shanling UA1 are included.
    Wouldn't be the first time either of us have disagreed with Alberto :D
     
  5. Brause

    Brause Friend

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    The problem with my long-term draining tests is that they rely on the phone's battery capacity, which decreases over time. Hence I cannot compare the GO Link to measurements from last year.

    A quick summary of my 3 favourite dongles.

    Apogee Groove (2015; $200): very powerful but very high current drain, does not work with iPhone, has a very high output impedance of 20 ohm (which means you should not use it for headphones below 160 ohm...theoretically...but you can). Does not work with BA drivers at all. But but but...wonderful with headphones, slightly coloured...incorporates special technology that works even with headphones that don't satisfy the 1/8 impedance rule....as discussed here.

    Fantastic with the Sennheiser HD 600 series (used to be sold as a set)...superb spatial reconstruction...replaces a desktop stack.

    AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt ($2019; $300): pricey but good. Designed for very low current drain, hence with limited power. Very natural sound, slightly coloured. Does not work well with very low impedance iems (below 16 ohm). Smoother sounding than the DragonFly Red.

    Cobalt and Groove are no competitors: one compliments the other.

    A Cobalt is currently in the mail for Biodegraded.

    Questyle M15 (2022; $250): whatever Questyle do is brilliant. Their secret is their proprietary "Current Mode Amplification", which is integrated in all their products. Questyle gear sounds extremely crisp. The M15 features a 3.5 mm single-ended and a more powerful 4.4 mm balanced circuit. Current drain is still quite reasonable.

    I use the Cobalt the most, because it is small and therefore handy.
     
  6. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    I’ve heard nothing but raves about the M15. Two things have kept me away from it: The bulk and the price. I believe it’s one of the largest dongles on the market and one of the highest priced as well. Especially after experiencing the quality of sound from the iBasso DC03 Pro, I’m loathe to spend more than around $100 on a dongle and don’t want the dongle to be so big it stops being effectively portable. I’d honestly rather have a bigger, heavier DAP than a bulky dongle because at least I can put the DAP in my left pocket while my phone stays in my right and if I need to use the phone it doesn’t have a big honking metal and glass device hanging off the end of it.

    That’s just me, I know we all have different preferences and use cases.
     
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  7. Brause

    Brause Friend

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    True, the M15 is bulky, and I have not used it outside the house...just with my notebook computer. I prefer it over the ifi GO Bar, which is more expensive than the M15. Both are not handy in one's pocket.

    DAP has the advantage that it doesn't have to deal with a phone's jitter.

    I combine the Hidizs AP80 Pro X (2*ES9219 SoCs) with the DragonFly Cobalt. Sounds better to my ears than iPhone and Cobalt.

    I somehow feel the need to fit dongles to my MacBook Air rather than to a handheld device...both are reasonably small for a desk setup.
     
  8. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Definitely if I were working or spending significant time in a space where I didn’t have my main gear I’d want a more powerful/capable device to hook up to my computer. Totally get that and in that scenario I’d absolutely justify getting the M15.
     
  9. Josh83

    Josh83 Friend

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    Does the M15 offer a choice of filters? If not, do you know what kind of filter it uses?
     
  10. Brause

    Brause Friend

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    M15 does not offer a choice of filters. We therefore don't know the filters used.
     
  11. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    I got the ifi Go.

    I'm a deaf old guy whose hearing falls off at 1k, and I can't hear anything over 4k --- so I'm useless as an audio reviewer and I don't do it. But here's a few words about the experience.

    Earphones: $$ RHA MA390.

    1. I plugged it into my Mi 1A phone, and listened to a bit of Paul Simon's Graceland (my album-of-the-month) from Spotify. The sound was louder than direct connection (if it wasn't the device would not be an amplifier!) but doesn't go very, very loud.
    Sound was very clear. I could hear every word. Given my hearing, something must be boosting that vocal range a bit.

    Not bad, but not great either. Somewhere along the line, there is a touch of digital feeling: a 2D thing, a something-missing thing. But not so badly as to mean no toe tapping.

    Given the cost of components: not bad at all.

    2. There is USB-C to USB-A adapter in the box (also one for that Apple thingy for iphone folk). It works fine with a USB-C-to-micro adapter plugged in to an OTG thingy.

    Listening on my low-cost Lenovo tablet, from memory card (I think its a rip from my CD), using Android app Folder Player Pro, with some EQ set...

    A better experience; richer sound. Enjoyed it, and didn't get so much of that digitisis feeling.

    Of course, it could be better. For 100-quid (GBP) phone, 50-quid DAC/AMP, 10-ish-quid earphones, it's a convenience package for occasional use that I can happily live with.

    "Would buy again"
    as they say on the internet :)
     
  12. Brause

    Brause Friend

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    Dongles are one thing, laziness another. In order to minimize clutter in my pocket (on the road), I found a handy alternative: a pair of TWS earphones.

    Principally, I grossly dislike the idea of devices with non-serviceable batteries. TWS incorporate planned obsolescence. Once their batteries have been consumed, they go in the landfill. Not good. And that's why I like dongles: they don't have a battery...and will theoretically last a long time. Between 2016 and 2022, I was perfectly happy with the DragonFly Black (like Biodegraded).

    Next, the TWS' (Qualcomm) chips are typically not very...good, sonically and power wise.

    But, this one pair has made me throw all my principles overboard: the Final ZE3000. You won't hear/read much about this Japanese company, as they do not rely on the usual online reviewers. And the few that got their hands on Final products, typically rate them as meh. The company sells tons of gear domestically and does not rely on the smaller western markets. I also have 4 different wired Final iems, as they have this organic sound (while being affordable).

    The ZE3000 have superb spatial reconstruction - and they sound natural. The only thing they lack in comparison to, let's say the GO Link, is a bit of heft. They could be punchier.

    But, as said. I am lazy. GO Link works well in one's pocket, too.
     
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  13. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    I’ve heard some Final stuff over the years, and if you jive with their sound there’s nothing else really like it. The most exposure they tend to get out here is at shows like Canjam.
     
  14. purr1n

    purr1n Desire for betterer is endless.

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    It's been a while since I've felt an iFi product sounded like meh. TBH, I didn't feel the GO Link sounded any better than the $12 iPhone dongle.

    The GO Link was rolled up top and muddy down low. And yes, generally soft sounding. With the CFA Ara IEM, I much preferred the cheapo iPhone dongle, which was better balanced tonally and had the necessary crunch and incisiveness (even though the iPhone dongle is still on the wimpy side). The GO Link maybe had a very slightly edge in plankton, but everyone else was worse where it didn't make up for it. The iFi GO Blu from BT was significantly better than both dongles.

    Entirely possible that the iPhone dongle just had magic synergy (maybe impedance interactions) with the Ara.
     
  15. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    Did you find it had that digital something-missing thing?
     
  16. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    Interesting, with the Massdrop Plus I felt the opposite: iPhone dongle was muddy down low and softer throughout (although the MD+ does seem rolled at the top with the GO link).

    I don't think it's impedance, AFAIK the iPhone dongle is 0.4 Ohms and the GO link spec is '<0.4'. I do think certain dongles have good or bad synergies with certain earphones though, the differences when hearing different combinations side-by-side are surprising.
     
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  17. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    I've even using an iPod touch for the last 3 years for music discovery like listening to band camp or listening to artist radio stations or "similar artists" on streaming platforms. I listen to one of these for usually an hour or 2 a day looking for new music. (I know I'm a whore).

    But it's gotten too old, it's just too slow and buggy so I'm replacing it reluctantly with an iPhone mini which is bigger than I need and has no headphone jack (f**k you apple)

    so I'll need a dongle to use all the time. The RU6 is just too inconenient with the volume buttons that you can never figure out and you have to look at the thing to adjust, and the size and it eats up so much battery life.

    Can anyone recommend something that is small and either uses iOS volume control or has easy volume controls and doesn't eat up much battery and sounds better than the Apple adapter and natural-warm sounding (nothing bright or etched or digital-ish)

    I'm mostly using it for band camp so it's' compressed music anyways I just want it to get out of the way. I'd get the iFI Go Link if they made one with a lightning port (again, f**k you apple for not switching to USB C sooner)

    Thanks
     
  18. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    iBasso DC03 Pro https://a.co/d/1M7376F
     
  19. jexby

    jexby Posole Prince

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    Exit stage left....
    for IEMs-
    am currently trying the iBasso DC04Pro, connected to an iPhone 13, and streaming services- lossy and lossless.
    pretty decent so far, good width and separation, not a lot of depth and spatial magic however even with Solaris2020.
    the hardware volume control buttons are very well implemented, and there is zero hiss with Solaris2020.

    (Note however, that some manufacturers are "muting" audio-out if no input signal so you need to play a near silent track for his detection.)

    can not truly gauge bass/mids/treble yet until some more listening occurs.

    However, I am returning it because there is NO WAY any IOS user can access the DC04Pro UI to adjust: gain, filters and other settings! yes, an Android app is available to adjust everything.
    so if I can't access a single customizable feature of the dongle, am not paying for it.
     
  20. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Your description of this as "neutral-analytal" a few pages back made me think this was a bright sounding dongle. Anytime I see the word "analytical" it is not something I usually like. I don't like bright or lifted upper frequencies to mimic detail or etched sharp transients. Is it natural sounding or does it have natural warmth? It doesn't need to be colored warm, but I need natural tonality for survival purposes :)
     
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2023

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