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Review and discussions - Audioengine D1 24/96 USB and Optical DAC/amp for laptops and computers

post #1 of 341
Thread Starter 

I've been working on a review of the Audioengine D1 that I picked up at RMAF, for which I'll post most of it now.  I'll add to this later when I am completely done, and also post it in the review section at that time.  I felt bad for taking this long to get any impressions posted, so I wanted to make this post while I'm still 80-90% done.  I put some of my key points in bold, in case you have to skim through quickly.

 

 

 

AUDIOENGINE-D1-24-BIT-DAC-SMALL-PIC.jpg

 

 

I didn't get to unbox it until a few weeks after I got it at RMAF so I'm still burning it in to my 300 hours standard, although they only recommend 50-100.  The amp sounded good out of the box, but seems to become more transparent with burn-in, without other major changes in sonic character.  So far I have used it as a USB DAC through Macbook Pro and Amarra Mini 2.2 audio player, with 24/96 and 16/44.1 lossless music.  It has both a USB and optical input, but needs power via USB to run the optical DAC.  I will report more on optical later, in my update.  

 

For those that can't read the whole review, I find the D1 to have a nice headphone amp and great sounding RCA line-out.  I think this DAC/amp should be a hit for the $169 price, if you don't need analog input with battery power for MP3 players.  I'd venture to say it could have been sold for closer to $250-300, or more, without too many complaints about it not being worth the expense.  I find the DAC and amp to be fairly uncolored, with good extension on the bass and treble, and no big dips or valleys in the sonic signature.  And power is not lacking for a USB-only powered device.

 

 

Some specs I have are:

 

- 24/96 operation in both optical and USB

- Headphone output is 2V rms max, output impedance is 10 ohms, so 32 ohm HP would run about 100mw, and 300 ohm would run about 12mw

- RCA is 2V max as well, variable

- The audio signal is dual word clocked, and all internal bus is I2S

- USB receiver is TI 1020B

- Standard warranty for all Audioengine products is 3 years.

- I'm fairly sure I read somewhere that the DAC is the AKM4396 (like Slim Devices Transporter)

 

AUDIOENGINE-D1-24-BIT-DAC-SMALL-PIC-FRONT-BACK.jpg

 

I've mostly been listening with some Jenna Labs re-cabled Denon D7000 (aka LA7000) and HiFiMan HE-300 from the second batch.  I've also tried the Westone 4 and ES5 IEM, LCD-2 with Silver Dragon cable, HD600 with APS V3 cable, and HD800 with Locus-Design Hyperion cable.  I still plan to try the D1 with my ESW-10JPN, HF-2, HE-500, and other more sensitive IEM.  Of the full-size phones I've tried, I preferred the D1 most with the LCD-2 and LA7000, then HE-300 and HD-600 similarly.  I really don't like the HD-800 with many of my other amps, except Eddie Current ZDT which drives the HD800 with absolute authority.  

 

Note - I'm a strong advocate of system synergy.  I don't even really enjoy the HD800 out of my beloved DACmini, and don't use them in my bedroom or laptop rig at all anymore.  So, it's no surprise that while the D1 can drive the HD800 fairly loudly that I don't think the HD800 have the best synergy with it.  I prefer the HD800 with a warmer sounding amp like the DACport or ALO Amphora, but even those still can't compare to the ZDT amp with HD800.  I found with the LCD-2 and LA7000 that the D1 almost has better synergy than my DACport, because the D1 acts like it has more current reserves for loud listening even though the voltage swing is less.  The DACport seems to peter out and run out of juice sooner than the D1 when pushing these low impedance phones to the limit.  At more normal volumes the DACport edges ahead, but I slightly prefer having the extra power and more filled in mids of the D1 with the LCD-2.

 

 

With my IEM - the Westone 4 were good with the D1 and not too sensitive, but they still have that laid-back treble with the D1, and work better with my iBasso D4 which along with the needed treble also adds some space to the soundstage.  The sonic synergy with my ES5 was excellent.  However, the ES5 were a little too sensitive to use with the D1 if I wanted to sleep listening to music.  At the lowest volumes that I could achieve before the sound would cut out suddenly, I found that the ES5 listening level was only about 2-3 dB below the levels that I would normally listen, so there was room to turn it up more, but not less.  There is no dot or mark on the volume knob to aid in knowing where on the "clock" the volume is set.

 

I had to use a Westone volume attenuator with the ES5 to go quiet enough to listen while going to sleep.  The system volume control does not affect the output volume for listening at extremely low volumes, so in that arena something like the uDAC-2 would come more in handy (at such low volumes lowering the system volume wont audibly hurt the sound).  The D1 volume knob doesn't have a low volume channel imbalance, but it would go from no volume and then jump to a low volume in a very short range of turning the knob.  In comparison, my original uDAC-2 had an imbalance at low volumes that necessitated using the system volume to go low enough to sleep with music, while the newer uDAC-2 SE has much better low volume control and doesn't need system volume attenuation to sleep with very sensitive IEM.

 

I also found that with the volume all the way down, with the ES5 I could hear a quiet high pitched whine if I plugged the D1 into my 8-port hub along with 5 others DACs, my EyeTV and external hard drive.  When plugged directly into the USB port on my Macbook Pro the D1 was silent.  With any of my full size phones the whine was inaudible, and pretty much gone with the less sensitive W4 as well.  Again, solved by not plugging it into my full 8-port hub.

 

In comparison to the DACport, the Audioengine D1 is more forward sounding and slightly less spacious, but still possessing good timbre, tone and great micro-detail. The D1 might even offer slightly better extension in the treble for me. The DACport still seems to open up the performance a bit more over the D1, but mostly via the soundstage enhancements.  It's this presentation where they differ most, so someone's tastes might even put the D1 ahead.  

 

The D1 Image placement is fairly precise, and layering of instruments was pretty good.  But the performance was more intimately placed and in a smaller venue than when listening with the DACport.  However, the D1's DAC RCA line-out did seem to open things up more than the headphone amp, and with the D1 driving something like my SR-71b amp with balanced headphones I didn't notice much of a difference vs my $350 Pico DAC-only or $399 DACport as a pre-amp feeding the SR-71b

 

In other comparisons I found that the D1's DAC is a bit better than the PCM2702E Japan DAC chip in my $250 Meier 3MOVE DAC/amp or Practical Devices XM5 (which is closer to $350 with optional BUF634 buffers and AD8065 opamps).  Both of those amps have a somewhat forward presentation like the D1, but when using their built-in DAC's the they offer a slightly grainy texture to the sound that the D1 doesn't have.  I've found in the past that these two amps are great but usually perform a bit better when using a better DAC via analog input, and with the D1 DAC it's no exception.  The D1 feeding these amps sounds smoother and offers a better sense of space, micro-detail and transparency, allowing these amps to shine vs with their own DAC.

 

Those amps run on more powerful 9v power supplies with similar sound characteristics, but their DAC's are simply not as resolving.  I also find that the D1 headphone output is good enough that the improvement in feeding the D1 into these portable amps is not huge, and may not be all that cost effective unless you really need their extra voltage swing or synergy for something like HD600/800.  The 3MOVE was one of my favorite single ended portable amps for HD600/800, and the XM5 bested the 3MOVE with the LCD-2 and LA7000.  However, the D1 seems to do just as well with the LA7000 and LCD-2 (and HE-300).  As for features, neither of those amps offer 24/96 USB/optical input or line-out, but they do offer analog input and battery operation for digital music players and such. 

 

My iBasso D4 uses dual Wolfson WM8740 DACs, and is upgraded with the HiFlight opamp kit.  The D4 has a better DAC than the 3MOVE and XM5, and as a whole it seems to fall between the DACport and D1 when driving headphones (in 9v mode).  The D4 has a similar soundstage to the DACport but slightly less warmth than D1 or DACport.  Although it's limited to 16/48, that's perfectly fine with redbook CD rips. The opamp upgrade makes my iBasso D4 sound identical to a $350 Ray Samuels Audio Mustang amp (which is not very different from the DACport). The D4 also runs on 9v battery, with a little more power than the D1, but I still didn't think it performed as well with the low impedance LA7000 and LCD-2 when pushing them to high volumes.  The 3MOVE and D4 both have a 5v mode in case your 9v battery is dead, but they really needed the 9v battery mode to perform their best.

 

The DACport obviously only runs on 5v USB power, but usually has a little more power output than the other 5v amps, although not as much as the amps in 9v mode.  However, with the Denon D7000 and LCD-2 the Audioengine D1 sounds noticeably less strained at high volumes than the DACport, D4, or 3MOVE.  It was closest to the XM5 in that regard.  The Sennheiser HD600 and HD800 are 300 ohm and present a bigger challenge than low impedance phones, due to their need for a higher voltage swing.  Not surprisingly the 9v amps offer more power to the 300 ohm phones, but those phones have an efficiency of over 100dB/mw and the D1's 12mw at 300 ohm provides very adequate volume levels.  If I only owned the HD600/800 I'd still pick the 3MOVE, but using an upgraded source like the D1.

 

As for upcoming comparisons, I'll still try the D1 optical DAC via my Macbook Pro, but so far with Macbook Pro and OSX 10.6.8 the USB mode is quite good for the price.  I also have a new Nuforce uDAC-2 SE with assynchronous USB mode, which I think sounds a bit more transparent and realistic/natural than the original uDAC-2.  I'll be posting my impressions of the new uDAC-2 in it's own thread when I have time.  But for now I'd say the D1 sounds at least as good as the more expensive assynch Nuforce DAC ($249), and both are a little better than my original uDAC-2.  With more time I can decide whether either one is better than the other, or basically a draw.

 

In my opinion the Audioengine D1 is strong competition to the best of the portable DAC/amps I've previously reviewed in my big USB DAC/amp thread http://www.head-fi.org/t/306883/updated-2-22-review-13-usb-dac-amp-predator-pico-2-3move-d10-d3-d2-viper-boa-d1-lyrix-microamp-vivid-v1-nuforce-xm5/1080#post_7905352And the RCA line-out DAC-only audio quality seems to be on par with more costly DAC's like my uDAC-2 and uDAC-2 SE, Pico Slim DAC-only or DACport (when used as a pre-amp).  

 

In fact, while my more expensive opamp rolled iBasso D4 is technically slightly better and leads the top of my old portable USB DAC/amp review, I find myself using the Audioengine D1 (and uDAC-2 SE) more, while the D4 and others remain stowed away.  This is partly because the D4 is mostly better in 9v mode, and at only 8-10 hours on a 9v battery (without internal charger) the D4 is not very convenient to use.  With full size headphones the D4 in 5v mode is not nearly as inspiring.  I also find the D1 is more versatile than my iBasso D4 because I can feed it's rear panel RCA line-out into my Audioengine A2 speakers, and then have the speakers shut off when I plug in a headphone.  And, I can control the A2 speaker volume with the D1 volume knob (same with uDAC-2 SE), while the iBasso D4 has a fixed 1/8" line-out in the front.  Plus the D1 still has better synergy with my LCD-2 if I want to listen at fairly stout volume levels (even if D4 is in 9v mode which benefits high impedance phones the most).  

 

The DACport was reviewed by me previously, and I found I preferred it slightly over the iBasso D4.  But it's even less convenient because I have to unplug the A2 speakers every time I plug in a headphone, and when I forget to turn down the speaker volume I hear a loud buzz as I unplug or plug-in the A2 speakers into the DACport.  For IEM and very quiet listening the DACport is still my first choice, as it has excellent low volume channel balance and is very quiet.  It's also still better with the majority of my full size phones, but not all of them (e.g. LCD-2 and LA7000).

 

So after this experience with trying different DACs in my Macbook Pro rig, I think for some people the choice may be made based more on features than sound, or based on synergy.  If you want a nice DAC/amp with excellent RCA line-out, and don't need 9v battery power and analog input for an MP3 player, the D1 will fit the bill for a small portable laptop rig.  It does have similar features to the new assynch uDAC-2.  They're both small and portable and don't need wall power, have 24/96 USB input and a slightly forward or intimate soundstage with imaging like the 3MOVE, with good sounding headphone amps and excellent RCA line-out quality.  And they can both handle low impedance and high impedance phones, although some better than others.

 

But they do have some different feature sets.  Where the D1 has a 24/96 optical input, the uDAC-2 SE offers a 24/96 coax S/PDIF output instead.  The uDAC-2 SE is smaller, but the D1 has a little more juice for the low-impedance LCD-2 and LA7000.  And the uDAC-2 SE will allow listening to very sensitive IEM at lower volumes before needing to resort to a volume attenuator, but only the most sensitive IEM will need the attenuator with the D1, and that's mainly if you go to sleep listening to music with them.

 

In my case, at this price point and level of performance, I think the D1 is a no-brainer.  I've sold half of the USB DAC/amps in my big review over the years, but the D1 isn't going anywhere.  While you can't feed it into a nicer DAC like with the uDAC-2's coax output, fewer high end DACs come without USB input.  And the optical input of the D1 could be more handy if you want to add a CD/DVD player to your rig to use when your laptop is asleep. 

 

EDIT - 07/26/2013 - I still really enjoy using the D1 often, and my teenage son keeps trying to take it from me.  I gave him a uDAC-2 but he seems to prefer the D1.  I have a Denon receiver that will only play analog sources through zone-2 to the backyard patio speakers, so we couldn't listen to music via the new Apple TV during a party recently.  But I was able to connect the D1 to the ATV optical out and send the D1's RCA out into the Denon, so that we'd get audio on zone-2 outside.  The Comcast cable box had a convenient USB port on the front so we could power the D1.  I'm out of AC outlets near the Denon receiver, so using my Nuforce HDP was not an option.


Edited by HeadphoneAddict - 7/26/13 at 10:32pm
post #2 of 341
Thread Starter 

post #2 reserved - note: this review has been updated some from the older one in computer sources.

post #3 of 341

Did you try this dac with the Earsonics sm3 ?

post #4 of 341
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by veracocha View Post

Did you try this dac with the Earsonics sm3 ?


No, sorry, I don't have that IEM.

post #5 of 341
Thread Starter 

I've been listening lately with my HE-5 LE and HE-500 headphones, and the sound is great.  The synergy is pretty good with these phones.  With the harder to drive HE-5 LE the uDAC-2 SE has a little more power and punch, but the D1 catches up with the more efficient HE-500.  Both will play louder than I care to listen.

 

It's also sounding great with my Westone ES5, JH13Pro, and UE11Pro custom IEM.  There is a little more noise than I would like with the Westone ES3X, and the ES3X were a little too efficient to enjoy with the D1 (I've found the ES3X are louder at a set volume than any of my other IEM at the same volume setting, and you can't go extremely low with the D1 volume pot).

 

If anyone has questions, let me know!

post #6 of 341
Thanks for your impressions Larry!
post #7 of 341

 

AK4396 hmm.

 

Nice price here.

 

So, do you happen to know what the opamp is behind the RCA outs?

 

post #8 of 341
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by kiteki View Post

 

AK4396 hmm.

 

Nice price here.

 

So, do you happen to know what the opamp is behind the RCA outs?

 


Sorry, I don't know if it uses opamps or discrete outputs for amp or RCA out.  I will see if I can get that information, but I think the actual sound is more important than what opamp or DAC chip it uses.  I've heard a few pieces of gear with the AK4396 and with the proper implementation it seems to do a nice job (CEntrance DACport for example, maybe even the DACmini).  

 

At RMAF I sold my iBasso D10, and I got this DAC during the same trip to replace the D10 because this can be left plugged into my iMac and left turned on 24/7 without worrying about overcharging or draining a battery (my main concern with the D10).  That's without giving up the optical input should I choose to use it, and without needing to plug it into the wall.  That D10 was at the top of my list for over a year as far as portable DAC/amps, and I think that this performs similarly to the D10 (from memory).  That's no small feat.  The only difference was the D10 was a little warmer sounding with the HD800, and the AE D1 is a little brighter with HD800 than I prefer.  But again, I really only like the HD800 with my $2500 ZDT amp, and I don't really enjoy them as much with any of my other dozens of amps.  So I don't hold that against the D1.

 

I'm finding that feeding the RCA out into my Audioengine A2 and A5 speakers sounds about as good as feeding my uDAC-2 SE or DACport 1/4" jack output into the Audioengine speakers.  And they all give the speakers noticeably better treble extension and air than my old uDAC-1.  Here the speakers could be said to be the weak link in the chain, not the DACs.  I have a special ALO Audio 1/4" > RCA cable that I use so the DACport can be used as a DAC/pre-amp.  But I'm using that same cable in reverse, with a 1/8" adapter to feed the D1 DAC RCA-out into the speakers.  A more fair comparison would be if I had the DACport LX with a pure line-out instead of headphone amp used as a pre-amp.

 

When feeding the D1 line-out into my Woo WA6 amp I can hear more micro-detail than with the speakers.  The problem in comparing the D1 as a DAC to other DACs while feeding a better amp is that it takes so much time to swap the sources into the WA6 (hard to reach the back in my rack), and by the time I'm swapped and listening again I can't remember exactly how it sounded with the other DAC.  Regardless, I would be happy with any of these DACs feeding a nicer headphone amp that didn't already have a DAC built-in.  The DAC does scale up with a nicer amp, but the built-in amp is still very enjoyable. 

post #9 of 341

ak4396 is a capable dac; sounds like Audioengine have another winner on their hands.  Larry you write long reviews ;)

 

When/where/how much can we get this guy?

 

Also, what's your take on r2r DACs and spendy ones?


Edited by Mr.Sneis - 12/2/11 at 12:13am
post #10 of 341
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr.Sneis View Post

ak4396 is a capable dac; sounds like Audioengine have another winner on their hands.  Larry you write long reviews ;)

 

When/where/how much can we get this guy?

 

Also, what's your take on r2r DACs and spendy ones?



- Sorry so long.

 

- You can buy them from ListenUp stores, which we have a few in Colorado.  Haven't looked online to see who else has them.

 

- I don't really have an opinion on r2r vs delta-sigma DAC's.

 

I find a lot of the USB DACs in the $200-400 price range (AE D1, iBasso D4/D10, uDAC-2, Pico DAC, DACport, HDP) are not terribly inferior to those in the $700-1000 range (DACmini, Digital Link III, Stello DA100, Apogee mini-DAC).  But I do clearly appreciate the improved refinement and sense of space/Imaging that the more spendy DAC's offer, especially with the Apogee or DACmini which have better sounding and higher resolution USB than the DLIII or Stello.  

 

It seems to me that these mid-level DACs mentioned still differ the most in their jitter rejection, for example I could not use the DLIII with an Apple TV via optical, but the Apogee handles it like a charm.  With a very good transport they seem to perform at a similar level.  

 

But, my Perfectwave DAC ($3000) is another noticeable jump in performance.  The sense of transparency and realism is astounding.  I can't believe that PS Audio is claiming the Mk2 version of the PWD is even another huge step forward.  We'll see, after I get the upgrade.

 

Still, even with awesome gear like Nuforce CDP-8 > PWD > ZDT > HD800, or PWD > WES > O2 Mk1, somehow I can just as easily enjoy the Macbook > D1 > LCD-2, HE-500 or LA-7000.

 
post #11 of 341
Sorry if this was answered earlier, I tried to read through most of the thread. When connected to a mac via usb, can the volume on the rca outs be controlled via the os(x)?
The setup I am planning (for gf): macbook pro>cinema display>d1 (via usb from cinema display)>A5's. The reason for this is, if she's not directly infront of the setup and has no direct access to the volume pot on d1 or the a5's, and is for example watching a movie, would control the os sound via the wireless kb (?).
I've looked at a bunch of smaller DACs, and they all seem to lack the ability to control the line out volume manipulation via the os, I am guessing due to the whatever implemented plug and play/usb chip. I've narrowed it down to 1 device that would help in the above mentioned scenario, which is the Javs nano v, a step up from the Javs nano s (which is the same thing as the ESI dac nano, or so is believed).
Any help or suggestions are welcome.

Thanks.
post #12 of 341
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by k1n0n3 View Post

Sorry if this was answered earlier, I tried to read through most of the thread. When connected to a mac via usb, can the volume on the rca outs be controlled via the os(x)?
The setup I am planning (for gf): macbook pro>cinema display>d1 (via usb from cinema display)>A5's. The reason for this is, if she's not directly infront of the setup and has no direct access to the volume pot on d1 or the a5's, and is for example watching a movie, would control the os sound via the wireless kb (?).
I've looked at a bunch of smaller DACs, and they all seem to lack the ability to control the line out volume manipulation via the os, I am guessing due to the whatever implemented plug and play/usb chip. I've narrowed it down to 1 device that would help in the above mentioned scenario, which is the Javs nano v, a step up from the Javs nano s (which is the same thing as the ESI dac nano, or so is believed).
Any help or suggestions are welcome.
Thanks.


You can control the D1 volume via software on the computer, like using the slider within iTunes or within a video viewer in Safari, but I mentioned that you can't control the D1 volume via the general Mac OSX volume slider.  So, for instance just now I started a full screen movie in iTunes, and when I move the mouse then the volume slider shows up along with the play and pause button, and I can adjust the movie volume down from there.  I just have to set the D1 volume knob at the highest volume that I might use it at, and then turn it down via software to the level I actually want to listen at.

 

The uDAC-2 on the other hand is controlled by the general OSX system volume slider and the volume buttons on the computer keyboard.

 

post #13 of 341
Thanks for the info, that is unfortunate, as with the keyboard vol up/down keys its is much easier to set an overall system volume rather than with individual software, i.e. Itunes, vlc, etc. With the general volume set to a specific level, there would be no surprises, or louder sounds coming from say in this example an im client, which if sounds are enabled would fire at full blast, vs itunes or something else playing with volume half way.
The D1 is a nice looking unit, so I will still keep it on the list for now.
post #14 of 341

 

Since the price of this USB DAC/Amp is so low and it uses the AK4396 chip, I'm curious how it compares to my current absolute favorite DAC which I've nicknamed the Asahi Texas - http://www.head-fi.org/t/571081/the-diary-entries-of-a-little-girl-latest-memoir-asahi-texas-finished-diy-dac/975#post_7937992

 

 

The only negative I can currently see on this one is the HO is 10 ohms, that will distort the FR of many IEM's.

 

 

post #15 of 341
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by kiteki View Post

 

Since the price of this USB DAC/Amp is so low and it uses the AK4396 chip, I'm curious how it compares to my current absolute favorite DAC which I've nicknamed the Asahi Texas - http://www.head-fi.org/t/571081/the-diary-entries-of-a-little-girl-latest-memoir-asahi-texas-finished-diy-dac/975#post_7937992

 

 

The only negative I can currently see on this one is the HO is 10 ohms, that will distort the FR of many IEM's.

 

 


I have several headphone amps with 10 ohm output impedance, and they all seem to do fine with low impedance phones and IEM (DACmini, DACport, uDAC-2 SE, D1, etc)

 

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