3 headphone Dac Amps compared
A Comparison Review by a Normal User Searching for the Right Gear
3 Portable DAC/Amps, 1 Pair of Headphones, a Headphone Cable, and a USB Cable
The primary focus on this review is on 3 DAC/Amps. By the time I had gotten to the amps and decided to share my experience in a written review, I had already chosen the headphones, though I will mention a bit about that as well. Then, as I am looking for a complete system, I will discuss my experience with the 2 cable upgrades.
Gear discussed in this review:
Oppo HA 2SE
Audeze EL-8 Titanium (briefly)
Moon Audio Black Dragon USB Cable
Lavricables Reference Silver Audeze Sine Upgrade Cable
This search for headphone gear began with a realization that my headphones suck, and that the sound in my home office also sucks. I have an outstanding home audio system that I have been refining, upgrading, and enjoying for many years. One day I just realized that I have been neglecting the other areas where I can enjoy music - travel and my office.
As I mentioned, the focus of this comparison review is on 3 portable headphone DAC/amps. But before I realized that I even needed a DAC/amp, I selected the Audeze Sine headphones. So here is a brief bit on that process and how I came to choose these headphones.
When I set up my office, I used a nearly abandoned Bose sound dock, the one with the old style iPhone connector, attached to my computer, providing a little music while I work at my desk. I am a photographer, and I spend a good deal of time at my home office desk in front of an apple computer.
The Bose sound dock set the bar pretty low. At some point I realized that headphones may be more enjoyable than that speaker, and I began to listen to my equally old, Bose QC-15 noise canceling headphones. Any headphone enthusiast will cringe when I say I was listening to CQ-15’s. They sound simply, awful. In my defense, I was spending an inordinate amount of time on airliners when I bought them, and their noise canceling ability is impressive.
The Headphone Choice
So, I listened to my inferior headphones for a while, and realized that I needed to trade up. I went to Best Buy to take a listen to some of the latest stuff on the market. I listened to Sennheiser, B&W, Sony, AKG, Beyerdynamic, and a few others in the price range of $250 - $500. After that I went to a good local hifi shop called Sound Components in Coral Gables, Florida, and I listened to Grado and Focal. I was not blown away by anything I heard that day. When I A-B tested my noise canceling Bose headphones to the others, I wanted to be blown away! Of course I noticed that several of these headphones sounded better than mine, but not enough to justify the expense. Keep in mind, this is not the most scientific of processes, it is just my story.
Not satisfied, I decided to check out the Planar Magnetics. I read every review I could find on the Audeze entry level sealed headphones as well as the Oppo in the same price bracket. I ordered 2 pairs of Audeze headphones from Razordog Audio, who has great deals on demos now and again. Brian from Razordog knew I only planned to keep one of the pairs I bought, if anything, and he was fine with that - really great service and nice guy. The Sine closed-back, on-ear headphones, and the EL-8 Titanium over-the-ear-headphones, also closed back, arrived at my home for testing.
I was finally blown away! The Sine with the cipher cable, or even connected to the headphone jack on the mac, sounded great. The larger, over the ear EL-8 TI were nice, but they seemed a little more power hungry, and certainly larger and heavier than the Sine. In fact, I even thought the Sine sounded better on my mac and my iPhone with the Cipher cable. The closeness in performance was enough to write off the larger, heavier, and more expensive EL-8. I sent back the El-8 Titaniums for a refund (excellent service at Razordog Audio) and kept the Sine’s.
One of the reasons I was attracted to the Audeze in the first place was the Cipher cable. Built in DAC and headphone amp, with a lightning connector to boot, this is a good thing. But I realized to get the volume that I wanted at times, I had to have the volume control all the way up with the Cipher cable, and up all the way on the mac as well connected with the normal cable. A little research told me that the MFi certified Cipher cable only has a 32mW output. When I looked at the Audeze site, they report that the optimal power requirement for the Sine is 500mW – 1W!
So, wanting better amplification and definitely more headroom on the amp, I realized that I need a DAC/amp. A lot of the listening will be at my desk, but I also want to use the headphones on the road, so a portable solution is what I decided was best for me. The Cipher cable will be great in a pinch, or when I know I will be also talking on the phone, but on a transatlantic flight or a lengthy work session on a laptop in a cafe, I’ll prefer a good amp.
The DAC/amp Comparison Review
Let me begin by saying all three of the DAC/amps I am testing sound remarkably good. I expected an easier task when comparing their sound quality. The Audeze Sine headphones that I am using sound great driven by all three. The difference between the MacBook or iPhone headphone jack and these amps is huge. There is no denying that a DAC/amp is an essential purchase for the best sound with the Audeze Sine.
There are a lot of sorts to chose from. If you look at the web retailers for headphone amps, you will find dozens available in different form factors and design approaches. There are the usb dongle type that draw power from the computer or phone. In this category I was considering the Audioquest Dragonfly Red or Meridian Explorer 2. My research and whims led me to decide that for me, drawing power from the phone or computer was not ok. USB power from a computer can be robust enough, but a phone just doesn't have the juice in my opinion. I wanted an onboard rechargeable battery. On the road, in my opinion, the phone will not be able to deliver sufficient electrical power, to an amp and DAC, or at a minimum, the designer will be limited in what he or she can do with that low power level. The battery powered option seemed the right one for me. After much searching and research about the models I was considering, I narrowed down the options to the CEntrance DACportable, Chord Mojo, and Oppo HA 2SE.
The reviews that I read on these devices were well done, but I needed to hear for myself, so I bought all three. The winner will get the gold star and live at my house!
To be as fair and impartial as possible, I am trying to level the playing field as much as possible with the equipment I am testing. The main reason for the evaluation of this gear is for me to select the right product for me! This review is simply a documentation of my own experience for the benefit of my fellow enthusiasts. I have read a ton of reviews on a ton of audio products, I now feel it is my turn to contribute.
I have burned in all of the devices to 100+ hours. It’s a simple thing, just let them run day and night and in a few days you’re there. I used real music for most of the time and pink noise for a night or two. The headphones have at least 200 hours on them, and each of the DAC/amps ran for 100+ hours.
I am testing them using an iPhone and a Mac Mini. On the phone I am using the Tidal app with a Tidal HiFi subscription and Onkyo’s HF Player with high res files. On the desk in my office I am using a mac mini (dedicated to music delivery only for my home audio system and now, headphone amp) with Roon supplying the music. Roon is not only great music software, it makes comparing these amps really convenient. I can run all 3 at the same time, all receiving the same music. At my desk, via Roon, I am listening to all kinds of music from standard redbook CD quality up to 24/192 and DSD.
Build Quality & Design
They all sound great! Its going to be hard to test these! I am going to start with a few thoughts on form factor and build quality. That is my way of procrastination; the sound quality comparison will be more difficult. I enjoy good design and aesthetics, so if the sound is very close, design differences will factor into my decision.
The Mojo and the DACportable are shaped like tiny bricks, while the HA 2SE is shaped like a mobile phone. There are pros and cons to the form factors, and it was not until I really began to use them that I could get a feeling for what these pros and cons were.
The Oppo is actually MFi certified (Made For iPhone), so connecting it to an iPhone is easy, by way of a single short lighting cable. Awesome. The Mojo and the DACportable require the Apple camera connector kit cable, which means one needs two cables to connect the amp to the phone. Slightly clunkier and less desirable, but not a super big deal.
To begin, both the Mojo and the DACportable will fit into the little accessory pouch in my headphone case. Because the Audeze Sine did not come with a proper case, I found one (amazon link) that held them well, and in the center of that case, situated just below the headband, is a little zipper pouch that is secured by velcro. Putting the amp in this case is extremely convenient and safe. The Oppo will not fit in this case, but it is slim and will be easy to place somewhere I suppose. Points scored for the Mojo and DACportable
Aesthetically and structurally, the Mojo surprised me. I am not a huge fan of the avant guard design style of the Chord products. I prefer the old school industrial simplicity of Audio Research and Wilson Audio. That said, the unorthodox shapes and colored marbles in the design are actually quite pleasing to the eye, the touch, and help the functionality as well. The amp is built exceedingly well. It is quite clear that the Mojo comes from a company that assembles equipment to a high standard. The seam tolerances of the metal parts, the quality of the anodized surface, the printing, the funny marbles, the ports, the power switch functionality and the design itself are all absolutely top notch. It is a joy to touch and operate. In a contest as close as this comparison test is, these are not unimportant aspects. The rubber feet on the bottom are outstanding! Its a small thing, but makes a large difference. On my desktop, on an airplane tray table, on the dash of a car, the Mojo does not slip and slide around when I touch the controls, unlike the other two. I can adjust the volume with one finger. This is not the case with the other two.
The CEntrance DACportable has a vaguely similar form factor, but it is a bit more rectangular in shape. The DACportable clearly comes from a company that has great functionality in their products, but struggles a little in the actual design and assembly. This is not surprising. Chord builds extremely expensive audiophile gear. That marketplace demands fine sound first, but at the price level of the gear, the consumers also demand fantastic design and construction quality. It makes complete sense that the Mojo benefits from this heritage and rides on the coattails of the bigger more expensive gear, probably built in the same workshop.
CEntrance has a different heritage. They are a small company and they make comparatively inexpensive products. I would guess that if they designed and built a product with the design, fit and finish of the Mojo, it would be cost prohibitive for them to bring to market. So, clearly I favor the design and build of the Mojo. That said, the DACportable is a solid little device that fits nicely in the hand. It is all metal, has a power switch with a good feel to it, battery and charging lights that are small and well placed. The anodized surface is not up to to the level of the Chord. It is more prone to small surface scratches, and the printing on the device is not as high end as the Chord. The fit of the top plate that encloses the internal components on the DACportable does not have perfectly precise fit. Rub your fingers on it, and you know there is a lid screwed onto the box. The weakest point in the DACportable design is the volume control. It is recessed in the corner of the box, and that is kind of cool. Gripped in the palm of your hand, you can use a finger to raise and lower the volume. The dial itself though is a little cheap feeling, and the resistance is not very smooth or even.
For the DACportable and the Mojo, with their similar form factors, the Mojo is far superior in design and quality of manufacture. The DACportable though is still a fine piece, especially as the price is quite a bit lower than the Chord.
Moving on to the Oppo, with its very different form factor. The mobile phone shaped device is nice looking, and has nice feeling switches. The volume control is also the power switch. It has a fairly precise feel to it, and is smooth to rotate. The numbers are hard to see though, and it does feel like it can wiggle a tiny bit. I often find myself trying to see which way is up and which way is down on that dial before adjusting the volume because I cannot read the numbers easily. The leather covering is ok. It is not like a supple piece of coach leather, but rather a bit more hard and durable with a stipple. Not bad, and it looks nice. I like the natural aluminum color to the metal body.
On the desk, I need to touch the DACportable and Oppo with more attention to make adjustments to the volume due to the lack of rubber feet and the placement of the volume controls on these 2 amps. The Mojo, as I mentioned, stays in place with its rubber feet, and the volume buttons push downward with a click, and do not move the device at all. On the desk, the Mojo wins. On the go, it depends on how you carry the device, and what kind of player you have. The slim Oppo with the lone cable will appeal to many. I didn't like the DACportable that much for walking around with, carrying in my hand. It felt a little fiddly, and I knocked the volume now and then by mistake. The Mojo was surprisingly ok to carry back to back with my iPhone, but not perfect. All 3 are fine for sitting in an airport, on a plane, or at a desk. To be truly mobile with any of them, I would want a little pouch or bag. I am a photographer so I have a ton of tiny bags designed to carry a spare lens or a small camera. When I am listening on the go, I will be using such a bag. The bonus is you can keep your cables, wallet, keys, and sunglasses in there as well.
I listened to all 3 DAC/amps on a flight across the country for a photo shoot. Now, back home from my travels, all 3 amps burned in for 100+ hours, I began to listen critically. I connected all 3 amps to the USB ports on my mac mini, and used Roon to supply the same music to all 3 simultaneously. I adjusted the volume on all 3 to be as equal as I could from listening via my Audeze Sine headphones.
Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac in high res 24/192 was the first track I listened to. I began by listening to the song in its entirety on each of the 3 amps. I then repeated the track and did some A-B and A-B-C testing.
The DACportable and Mojo sound better than the HA 2SE. But when I switch from the DACportable to the Mojo, there is no doubt which is better. The Mojo seems fuller, posses more bass, and more space between the instruments than the DACportable. The HA 2SE seems a little closed in and bloated in the bass comparatively to the other two.
Note: I am using the amps without any equalization. The HA 2SE has a bass boost and the DACportable has both a bass and treble boost. These are all switched off for this test.
Ok, on to another track: Boom Like That by Mark Knopfler from his Shangri-La album in 24/96.
Starting with the Oppo, it sounds good enough (remember, all three of these are good performers), but when I switch to the Mojo, there is more magic to the vocals, more bass, more space between the instruments. I also seem to notice that the Mojo has more clarity in the details than the Oppo. Now to switch to the DACportable on the same track. The DACportable sounds flatter and a little less interesting. When I switch back to Mojo, that magic in the vocals is back, not to mention the better bass and detail.
It is seeming clear that I favor the Mojo so far. For the next track, I’ll play No Sanctuary Here, by Chris Jones, in standard CD quality 16/44.1. This is a great track with awesome bass, very well recorded, and excellent vocals. I start with the DACportable. I switch to the Oppo. I switch to the Mojo. My observations are the same. The Mojo is the leader, with the Oppo and the DACportable vying for second place.
Ok, last track for this session. Come Away, Death, from 2L records, album with the same name. Super well recorded and in 24/192, this is an operatic track with lean piano and vocal. I listen to the first 19 seconds with a calm, sparse handful of piano notes, followed by a slow lyric of 5 words. I press pause, repeat. I am plugged in to the Oppo at the moment. Now the DACportable. Back to the Oppo. The two sound remarkably similar. Now for the Mojo. The results and my judgement are similar. The piano has a little more depth and air, the vocals more life and magic to them.
DAC / Amp Conclusions
I paid $450 for the Mojo (demo from Audio Advisor), $300 for the DACportable (b-stock with some light scuffs direct from CEntrance), and $300 for the HA 2SE (full price, from Audio Advisor). The Mojo lists for $600 but is commonly sold for $500. The DACportable lists for $350, so I was able to save $50 by purchasing the b-stock directly.
After listening to all 3, I can say that I would be pleased with the sound from any of them. They all drive my Audeze Sine headphones well, and completely blow away the standard headphone jack in my macbook pro and iPhone 7 (via apple adapter). All 3 amps also out perform the Audeze Cipher cable. Despite this, I am happy I have the Cipher cable as it serves a purpose. Extremely portable, does sound good, and has the inline microphone for phone calls.
The Mojo simply outshines the other two in critical listening tests. A casual listener may not even be able to make an opinion on the difference between the three. Though an audiophile, audio nerd, or headphone enthusiast would be able to see what I am referring to with the qualities in the Mojo over the other two. Apologies for the use of the word magic when describing the vocals. It just seemed that way!
The Mojo also outshines the other two in build quality. I didn't think I would be so happy with the quirky colored marbles, but in fact I really like the design. The fact that it has rubber feet, and just 3 large buttons makes it really great on my desk. One handed operation is also possible. Even while in my jacket pocket, attached to my phone while walking in the airport, I was able to control it well without looking at it.
I am not a fan of the volume control on the Oppo or the CEntrance. The latter is cheap feeling, and the Oppo’s volume control, while better built than the DACportable, still is not perfect.
As you may have guessed, I decided to keep the Chord Mojo and return the other 2 contenders. I am super pleased with my new headphone audio system at my computer desk! Now that I have a young baby at home, I am unfortunately listening to my 2 channel home system far less frequently. Having a good set of headphones with a proper little amp has been a huge boost to my musical appreciation. I am listening to so much more music on a daily basis! The Audeze Sine is perfect for blocking out the sounds of the house and family while I am working and of course for travel, but I am certainly interested in adding a pair of Audeze LCD-2’s to get a no holds barred headphone experience when I am not traveling or in need of isolation.
And now for the cables. I figured out which DAC/amp was for me, I have chosen my headphones, now I want to be sure I am not degrading the music with crappy cable. The 2 cables I will talk about are the Moon Audio Black Dragon USB Cable and Lavricables Reference Silver Audeze Sine Upgrade Cable.
After I received both, I burned them in for 150 hours. This was pretty easy as I was also burning in the amps. No big deal, just let them run overnight for a week.
Moon Audio Black Dragon USB
Compared to a standard, cheap-o cable.
Roon, Mac Mini, Audeze Sine with standard included headphone cable.
Cable has 150+ hours on it
running Mojo on a full battery, without power cable plugged in.
Track 1: Fleetwood Mac Rhiannon 24/192
Track 2: Rebecca Pidgeon Spanish Harlem 24/88
Track 3: Willie Nelson Georgia On My Mind 24/88
Track 4: Beyonce - Daddy Lessons Tidal Masters
As much as I wanted to tell a significant difference between a standard USB cable and the Moon Audio Black Dragon, I was hard pressed to discern a qualitative difference. My listening tests were largely inconclusive.
Lavricables Reference Silver Audeze Sine Upgrade Cable
150 hours of burn in
Compared to the standard headphone cables supplied with the Audeze
Roon, Mac Mini, running Mojo on a full battery, without power cable plugged in
Track 1: Rebecca Pidgeon Spanish Harlem 24/88
Track 2: Chris Jones No Sanctuary Here 16/44
Track 3: Willie Nelson Georgia On My Mind 24/88
Track 4: Beyonce - Daddy Lessons Tidal Masters
The cables that are supplied by Audeze, by my ears, are not bad in fact. The differences I noticed in the Lavricables upgrade cable are subtle. That said, on most tracks, I detected more sparkle in the vocals and more space around the percussion instruments. There seemed to be a bit more clarity in the dark passages, more air.
The construction of the Lavricables is quite nice. They are extremely light weight and attractive. The braid is very well done. The termination is impressive and has a high end feel to it.
The one area where there is room for a potential problem, that being the 90 degree 3.5mm jack entrance to the headphones themselves, is handled quite nicely. There is a semi translucent stiffening sleeve that is employed on all three points of termination as well as the point where the left and right sides of the cable branch off from the main strand. In the case of the insertion point to the headphones, Lavricables has bent this stiffening sleeve to guide the silver cable in a gentle arc, alleviating the risk of bending or breaking the cable. A simple and impressive solution.
I probably should have returned the Moon Audio Black Dragon USB. I really couldn't any meaningful difference in sound. I ended up keeping it none the less. It is well constructed, and seems like it will last longer than a cheap cable. That and I was just lazy about it.
The Lavricables upgrade cable on the other hand was a winner. Though the differences between the Reference Silver Audeze Sine Upgrade Cable and the standard cable were subtle, they were certainly there. The upgrade cable is well constructed, very fairly priced, attractive, and sounds great. It is a keeper for sure.
I hope you have found this review helpful. It was my first ever review of audio equipment. Time will tell if I ever get around to this again. It was a lot of work in fact! But an enjoyable process none the less.