Pros: Refined sounding, small, compact, runs on USB alone, very precise volume control
Cons: Can't accept analog input, power limited by USB, no line out
I posted a review in the Computer Audio and Source forum in Feb 2010, but with the newer 2010 forum layout it was recommended that I should put a copy of the review in the gear review section. I updated this a little bit since it's being reposted 3 months later, but most of this is verbatim for what I wrote initially.
The DACport definitely a nice source and amp worth investigating. I've previously posted a little about the DACport in my Nuforce HDP thread when comparing them as 24/96 USB DAC/amps, and I want to give DACport it's own review since it really stands out on it's own merits. Before the review I spent a couple of weeks playing with it driving IEM and full size phones, and also some time using it as a DAC/preamp to feed a full size amp like my eXStatA electrostatic headphone amp with Stax O2 Mk1.
I met Michael Goodman of CEntrance at RMAF and liked him, so I felt bad that they only had an inefficient DT-880 to pair with the DACport for people to demo. I felt compelled to loan him my re-cabled RS-1 for the weekend, so that people could hear just how good the DACport really was. Many people were surprised by the sound coming out of such a small package. It was certainly plug and play, as I also brought over my Macbook Pro at RMAF to listen to some of my own 24/96 hi-res downloaded music and it worked with no settings adjustments needed.
Vs a Pico amp/DAC or Apogee Duet the original $500 price was somewhat reasonable considering the improved sound quality over them, except that you give up the Pico's analog input and battery power if you get the DACport. Likewise, the Duet was fairly equivalent to the Pico in side-by-side comparison even with 24/96 music, but you also get an nice analog>digital converter and line out that the DACport doesn't offer for the same price. So, I applaud them for trying out the new $399 price. It came with a nice felt carry bag, a nice solid 1/4" to 1/8" adapter, a USB cable, and belt clip that I suppose is for walking around with a netbook while listening to music. Fortunately I'm just not that geeky.
Sample Rate96kHz (Also: 44.1 kHz, 48kHz and 88.2kHz)
Resolution24-bit (Also supports 16-bit)
ConnectionUSB1.1 or 2.0, driverless
CommunicationAdaptiWave™ - our proprietary USB technology
Local clock10 ppm precision, 1 ps jitter
CompatibilityAny computer running Mac, PC, or Linux
Dynamic Range120 dB
Frequency Responce20Hz...40kHz +/-0.2dB
THD+N-97 dB (-0.5dBFS, 1kHz)
Audio OutputStereo 1/4" headphone jack
Heaphone AmpDirect Class A, no caps in the signal path
Maximum Output Level+9dBV @300 Ohm load (8.5V peak-to-peak)
Output Power1.5W (total)
Output Impedance10 Ohm
Input powerUSB bus (no external power supply needed)
Internal power supplies±9V, super-clean, dual analog rails; +3.3V, +5V.
Unit Dimensions:4.5" (11.4cm) L, 1" (2.5cm) W, 1" (2.5cm) H
Weight:2.4 ounces (68 grams)
Custom-designed belt clip
6' (1.83m) low-EMI USB cable
Carrying pouch made out of felt
I have tried the DACport with Westone 2, Westone 3, Monster Turbine Pro Gold, Westone ES3X, UE11Pro, JH13Pro, Grado HF-2, HiFiMan HE-5, Sennheiser HD600 and HD800. I'm using my Macbook Pro with iTunes and 24/96 Hi-Res downloads from HDTracks.com, with the Audio MIDI setup set for 24/96. I also tried several Apple Lossless CODEC 16/44.1 CD rips, and some 128K AAC protected music from the old days. However, the majority of my listening was with 24/96 and 24/88 downloads.
My impressions: The DACport has no hiss with sensitive IEM, and it has very good extreme low volume channel balance with IEM. This was one of the first things I noticed when I fired it up. With my most noisy IEM (Westone ES3X) when the DACport is activated and music is paused (or I am playing a digital silence track), whether the volume is at zero or max there is nothing heard. With the DACport I cannot tell when the phones are plugged in ot not, because it is so quiet. With music playing and the volume knob at zero, there is a very tiny amount of music that leaks through that is so quiet that for me I cannot understand the words they are singing. With the HDP I can barely tell at all when the ES3X are plugged in, but I can tell. With the ALO Amphora it it quite obvious there is background hiss.
The DACport handles low volume IEM listening with no channel imbalance near zero volume, and in this area it is better than my Nuforce HDP which is my other 24/96 USB DAC on hand. And it's better than most of my portable DAC/amps in that area as well - if I recall correctly, only the Predator and HR Micro Amp have a volume control this precise, followed by the Pico and 3MOVE. However, the caveat is that the HDP volume can be reduced by the system volume, so that you can keep the HDP outside of the area of channel imbalance simply by lowering the system volume. At volumes that low, the reduction in bit depth will be inconsequential. So, in that sense they become equal. (the DACport and most USB DAC don't have their volume affected by the system volume)
It's also one of the few amps that sounds great with UE11Pro by giving them well controlled bass and full mids. However, good performance isn't limited to just IEM, and while the output power is a bit less than many desktop amps, it's voltage swing is decent and it still manages to work well with Grado HF-2 and HD600/800. Even the very demanding HiFiMan HE-5 can be enjoyed at normal volumes without maxing the volume knob, just don't expect to play them very loud. The DACport bass and treble extension are very good, while the mids are full and rich without becoming forward. Overall I find it to sound very balanced and refined. I liked it right out of the box and only felt it open up slightly and smooth out a little with a few hours. Extensive burn-in will not be required, but it doesn't hurt either.
The DACport (as a DAC/amp) beats ALL the portable DAC/amps that I have had come through here for review, but some by a larger margin than others. This includes the Pico amp w/ DAC, and opamp rolled D4/D10 which all have very resolving resolving DACs plus nice built-in headphone amps. The DACport's detail retrieval is excellent. The DACs in the Predator, 3MOVE and XM5 don't have nearly the micro-detail or refinement of the DACport, so I wont discuss them here and will focus on the ones with the most detailed DACs.
In comparisons to what some consider the benchmark, I found that the Pico was very detailed and spacious like the DACport; but with slightly recessed mids vs the DACport. And the DACport sounds slightly warmer and fuller, or more complete. I also felt that I could hear deeper into the music with the DACport, with better micro-detail on these 24/96 files. With the extra micro-detail I experienced a little extra ambience, space and air in the recordings. And, the DACport sounds a bit better with UE11Pro than Pico, which could sometimes allow the UE11Pro bass to become a little too much and also show sibilance more in some recordings. This is not to say the Pico was bad at all, just that I was more involved in the music and it was more believable with the DACport.
Vs the D4 with my "P-51 clone" opamps, the D4 is slightly more aggressive sounding than DACport, and also doesn't have quite the same micro-detail and depth of the DACport, although it does more closely match the warmth of the DACport. In my other reviews I've mentioned that the stock D4 sounds like a cross between the Pico and P-51; but I did not return it to stock opamps for this comparison since after multiple opamp swaps it was clear to me that the D4 sounds better with the OPA1611A class-A biased opamps. With the stock D4 opamps the gap between DACport and D4 would certainly change, and while it would become narrower in the area of upper midrange transparency, it would widen in the area of lower midrange warmth or bass and energy where I feel the DACport leads.
I felt that the differences between the DACport and Pico were bigger than the differences with the upgraded D4, but the DACport was still slightly more refined and fuller sounding than the upgraded D4, with less tendency toward sibilance with my UE11Pro. The upgraded D4 is very good, and up until the DACport the D4 was my favorite portable DAC/amp (I still enjoy it very much). But the D4 upper mids don't have quite the same degree of neutrality and transparency of the DACport. Having compared the Pico Slim to the P-51 last year, I would not be surprised if the Pico Slim comes closest to the sound signature of the DACport. When my Slim arrives I'll be able to compare the Pico DAC-only > Pico Slim vs the DACport, and I expect it to be a close race since the Pico DAC-only has had more detail and depth for me than my Pico amp w/ DAC. (Addendum May 2010 - with Westone ES3X the Pico Slim does sound very close to the DACport, but with my JH13Pro the DACport's headphone out detail and balance is better than the Slim, and it is more powerful than the Slim.)
Another nice USB/DAC amp out there that I have been enjoying a lot lately is the Nuforce uDAC, but it is noticeably less detailed and a bit more forward and warmer sounding than the D4 or DACport, being colored in a musical but less transparent way. While the DACport is not as warm sounding as the uDAC, it's still a little to the warm side of neutral and just the way I like it. The DACport's treble is also a bit more detailed and present than the uDAC's, falling between that of the Nuforce uDAC and HDP. It may not be fair to compare a $400-500 DAC/amp to a $99 model, but they should appeal to the same market - the portable laptop usb DAC/amp buyers who want to be "off the grid".
Desktop DAC/amps compared: The DACport also beats my non-portable Apogee mini-DAC's headphone-out (at 24/48 USB and 24/96 optical), as the DACport sounds more refined (less grainy) with a deeper soundstage. As a baseline, the Apogee mini-DAC headphone out is usually on the level of the Travagans Red with Sigma 11 PSU or Grahm Slee NOVO with Sigma 11. The DACport actually makes the Apogee headphone out sound a bit more 2D in comparison than it usually sounds. In previous comparisons, the Apogee Duet was very close to the mini-DAC headphone-out and Pico headphone-out, except the Duet had some hiss with IEM which the others don't have. So, the DACport by extension should also beat the Duet, even though I don't have one here to compare anymore. I don't have a Style Audio CARAT-TOPAZ here anymore, but the DACport is a whole level of performance above the TOPAZ, of that I am sure, since the D10 and HR Micro DAC were better. I don't have a Zero to compare to, although I am constantly being asked about that one, sorry. I have not compared the Headroom Micro DAC/Amp combo because in previous reviews it was very similar to the Pico and Duet, although with more power from the 15v power bricks.
However, the DACport is surpassed by the Nuforce HDP 24/96 USB DAC/desktop amp headphone-out by a very small margin in perceived micro-detail and treble presence, and a larger margin in power, but that's vs a desktop DAC/amp with a 15v power supply. The HDP is tied to the wall but DACport isn't, so the DACport is a better choice for mobile laptop use and traveling. At first there is the illusion of more detail in the HDP, but with more extended listening sessions the DACport stands right up there with it. The main difference in sound signature between DACport and HDP (other than power) is:
(1) the HDP has slightly better upper treble sparkle and presence without being too much,
(2) the HDP has a little bit more impact in the bass (especially with Westone 2), and
(3) The HDP has a little bigger and deeper soundstage, with the DACport being just slightly more forward sounding (although possibly wider).
Power Output: Keeping in mind that this is a portable DAC/amp running off a 5v/500ma USB port, the DACport acquits itself well enough with full size phones. The DACport has slightly more power for HD600 than the Nuforce uDAC, D4 or D10 running at at 5v). The DACport also has more power for the low efficiency current demanding HE-5 than the uDAC or D4/D10 at 5v. At normal listening volumes the DACport does not seem to lack power with HD600 and HD800, but when you want to crank it up and rock out you will notice the lesser power more easily because you are already at 80% of max with little room to go higher. Still, it's enough power that I would not tell people with HD600/800 to avoid it as a portable solution, because few other portables are optimal (but DACport feeding the 3MOVE or Protector in balanced mode would do the job).
However, the 3MOVE or D4 running on a 9v battery do have noticeably more power for HD600 and HE-5, but both are a little more aggressive sounding as well (like the Protector) and don't often benefit from being played that loud with something like the HD800. Like I said, at normal listening levels the DACport is about 80% of the way to max with these full-size phones, but there is no clipping when turned up higher. Wall powered amps like Nuforce HDP are noticeably more powerful with the full size headphones, but the DACport will still play loud enough to become fatiguing after a short while at 100% volume.
DACport as a 24/96 DAC/preamp feeding a full-size amp: I have a nice short but high quality ALO Audio 1/4" to RCA cable, and I have tried the DACport as a DAC/preamp feeding my Woo WA6, ALO Amphora and Cavalli Audio eXStatA, and in my limited and brief testing I find it to do a very nice job. It's works at least as well as any other $400-500 DAC driving a full-size amp, after just one evening of listening (Headroom Micro DAC, D4 and D10 DAC, Pico DAC only, Nuforce HDP).
I successfully used the Pico amp w/DAC for a year to feed my Woo GES with good results, and the "double amping" by using the headphone out into a high impedance load didn't seem to hurt the sound. The same is true with the DACport. People have complained about the DACport's lack of line-out but this may not be an issue after all.
There is a definite step up in sound quality switching from DACport headphone out to feeding it into my maxed Woo WA6 with Sophia Princess 274B rectifier and listening to HD800 via the WA6. But that's also a $1250 amp after upgrades, so I'm not surprised. What is nice is that the DACport headphone-out in comparison does not sound like a toy, but more like a real musical instrument like the Woo.
Summary: Overall the DACport seems to be solid and well made 24/96 USB portable computer DAC, with excellent sound that matches or beats other $450-500 DAC/amps, although with fewer features or options. At $399 I would call it a must buy, especially for those who want to take it with them and their laptops and not have to worry about plugging it into the grid. It also makes the perfect "sit on the back deck and watch the sunset" music rig for me, once it gets warmer outside. So far that rig has previously been my Pico DAC > ALO Amphora, but that is a lot of extra gear to haul around for a small improvement in sound. The fact that it does a respectable job feeding a full size amp as a DAC/preamp is just icing on the cake.
PS: I'm not sure I understand the new rating system, so I rate this vs other portable dac/amps. But is a 5/5 the best I have heard, or is a 5/5 left unassigned in order to leave room for something better in the future? Am I rating this vs other amps, or dacs, or only combinations like this one? I just don't know.