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Miniwatt N4: A Fantastic $350 Desktop Hybrid

post #1 of 2
Thread Starter 

Hey all, so it's been almost a year since I last reviewed something so don't bash me for spelling errors or anything of the sort, I'll try and iron out everything! :biggrin:

 

 

 

Miniwatt is a very popular audio company that has slowly made a lot of headlines over the years. Their first popular product, the N3, was a very powerful, cheap speaker amplifier that sounded excellent for the money (not too mention that it could drive the least efficient headphones on the market, the HiFiMAN HE-6) that got absolutely eccentric reviews. Now, Miniwatt has released an extremely small solid-state DAC, headphone amplifier, and S/PDIF converter all in one leather wrapped package that is set to provide the all in one solution for the computer audiophile.

 

Design & Aesthetics

The first thing that you’ll notice initially about the N4 is how simplistic the design of the unit is, as the leather and aluminum are really all that take the stage, with no super flashy buttons or screws to turn off the onlooking audio head. The Miniwatt N4 encompasses a leather backing that can be seen all throughout the chassis of the N4. Now, a lot of people have emailed me and asked, “I’m really worried that If I go ahead and purchase the N4, that I’ll end up ripping and tearing the leather that’s all over, should I still get it?” I get questions like this all the time about a various number of products, and while the N4 does have a particular soft chassis, this is not even a slight issue, as the leather is quite tight and there is an under-frame that supports it and keeps the leather intact. As long as you’re careful with the device, you should be good to go!

 

The N4’s leather stitching is nice, but how do those aluminum faceplates and backplates hold up? Do they work well? Is it cheap aluminum? Are they thick enough? A lot of people have asked these questions and a plethora of others when it comes to the build quality of small desktop hybrids, and the N4 does an absolutely remarkable job when it comes to build quality of the aluminum, as it’s nice and smooth, and doesn’t tend to scratch very easily. In fact, I haven’t had any scratches at all appear on my N4, so that should be a good sign. As for the inputs and outputs, we have a few basic connections (the N4 itself is not basic when it comes to technicalities, but we’ll get to the excitement a bit later), with two plastic volume buttons on the front that are extremely tactile, and a 3.5mm input that works for IEM’s and earphones, so you’ll need an adapter for full sized headphones. On the back, we have two RCA inputs, a coaxial input, and a USB 2.0 input, all the bases are covered with the N4. 

 

The N4’s DAC, Amplifier, & S/PDIF Converter (Wow!)

The N4’s technical specifications are where things start to get extremely impressive. Let me say right off the back before getting into sonics, if you are a rookie audio enthusiast looking for a literal all-in-one setup, this may be it (that is, if things sound up to par). The N4 incorporates a Burr Brown PCM1795 DAC chip that is capable of 32/192 kHz, extremely impressive for a little desktop hybrid (did I mention it does that same processing over USB too). Additionally, besides the very well regarded LM4562 amplifier, the N4 is capable of asynchronous USB to S/PDIF conversion (just for the sake of knowledge, most S/PDIF converters cost hundreds of dollars). You’re quite literally getting the whole package with this desktop hybrid.

 

 

 

Sonic Impressions

Now, the most important question that has to be asked, what are the sonics capabilities of the N4? It’s really irrelevant if the N4 has all these fancy capabilities and then poor sound quality to match, because that means all that time and effort was completely lost while trying to make a killer desktop hybrid. Luckily, the N4 is a very solid sounding and powerful hybrid, with good sonics to match the technical capabilities. Does it push a few caveats? It sure does, at least for my personal listening tastes. But what might be caveats for me, might actually be a positive for others. So, what does the N4 sound like? Let’s find out!

 

When I first heard the N4, it was fresh out of the box (which does contain a USB cable, I forgot to mention that in the beginning of the review, so it would seem), hooked up to my iMac and using the built in asynchronous DAC, listening through my HE-500’s and my Double Helix Complement2 flagship cable. I’ll be honest, I thought the N4 was going to be the first really negative review I’d written in a long time (It’s rare that I ever find a piece of audio equipment that’s so dreadfully horrible). It was extremely sterile, with a very apparent treble peak, and made the HE-500’s soundstage sound like an LCD-2, less wide, airy, and more stiff sounding. Coupled with the overly bloated bass and recessed mid-range, I thought it sounded horrible. However, almost every audio product tends to change quite a bit with burn-in, so I let the N4 burn in for a couple of days, and boy, did it change for the better.

 

Gone was the overly sibilant treble, the mediocre soundstage, and the slow bass curve. Instead, the N4 sounded like a whole new animal, with a more airy and separated presentation, tighter bass, better transients, and excellent PRaT. To go into deeper detail, my HE-500’s sounded like they once did when I was using my Burson HA-160DS. That wide, open, and excellently layered soundstage that I had come to love from the HE-500’s had returned, and even a slight bit of height seemed to be added to the mix. So much more realistic and open, scores and other types of classical artists sounded absolutely fantastic. The midrange was no longer recessed like it originally was, and instead had been replaced with a more forward mid-bass hump and a sweet vocality presence. There seemed to be more of a lush presence than what I was used to with the Burson, and maybe an inch more forward. Take it like this, the Burson had a midrange hump that was about and inch or so more forward than both the treble and the bass, and the N4 doubles that by adding an extra inch. Weird way to interpret, but it’s the best way to describe it.

 

Down low, I noticed that a small amount of grain has been added to the bass, which made for a more liquid-y, and realistic bass presence. Before burn in, there seemed to be a slight bit of bass roll off at the very bottom octave, but it now stretches much further, extends lower, and is much faster than pre-burn in. To compare to my Burson, I felt like the bass was tighter, more articulate, and had faster attack and decay times, whereas the Burson still had more of a bass hump, while being more relaxing, so to speak. Basically, the N4 is a very capable, fast, and detailed desktop hybrid that excels well with anything you throw at it, although bass heads may want to hook up an external amp to get a more juicy low-end presence.

 

Final Thoughts

The N4 is an excellent all-in-one device, especially for the special $350 asking price. It has everything you could possible ask for in a small little chassis, and it even boggles my mind that Miniwatt thought it would be essential to put 32/192 kHz processing in something this small and affordable. Don’t let the bright and sterile pre-burn in sound turn you off, and give it a few days, because the N4 really is a bargain for the sonic capabilities as well as the technical capabilities.

 

Miniwatt N4 @Miniwatt

post #2 of 2

Did they change the N4? When I heard it, it was clearly on the warm side, and it wasn't at all "burned-in". Imaging felt a bit hazy to me as well. It was surprising, considering the fact that they use some pretty good parts inside, but the sound ended up being, frankly somewhat mediocre IMHO. Of course, it doesn't sound terrible, but to me, it was sort of blah and whatever. With that being said, I'm pleasantly surprised that Miniwatt releases full measurements for the N4 (which frankly don't look great). At least they're honest about what it can do on paper.

 

At the time, I thought it was a bit overpriced for its initial asking price, which was around $500 or so. At $350, the price is more reasonable, but to me it's still on the high side considering iBasso makes a similar unit in the D7 at $179, and the N4 is only marginally better, IMHO. I think the sweet spot for this unit is more along the lines of $249. It's interesting that they have it on sale at $199 which is a decent price, but at $350, I don't think so.

 

32-bit support is a bit of a gimmick, as few 32-bit music is recorded at 192 kHz sample rates, but they don't support 352.8 or 384 kHz. They advertise it as such simply because the CM6631A chip it uses does indeed support 32-bit transfer, but I've spoken to C-Media engineers before and they admit that it's just for show and has little to no practical purpose. With that being said, 24/192 is pretty much all 95% of all listeners "need", so it's good they have that covered.

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