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HiFime 9018D Asynchronous High resolution USB DAC

Rating:
4.5/5,
  1. HiFiChris
    Value + ES Sabre + fine-grained volume control + ultra-low output impedance = HiFime 9018D
    Written by HiFiChris
    Published Sep 19, 2015
    4.5/5,
    Pros - value, ultra-low output impedance, display, sampling rate indicator, fine-grained volume control (0.5 dB steps, sound quality
    Cons - no rubber feet, buttons' pressure point is somewhat undefined, quite high hiss with super sensitive BA IEMs
    Preamble:

    Before I start with my actual review, I want to thank Nick from HiFime for providing me with a sample of the 9018D in exchange for my honest evaluation. Please note that I am not affiliated with HiFime or HiFimeDIY in any way.

    At HiFime, all started with the production of the Tripath TK2050 speaker amplification chip. Nowadays they are mostly known for their portable DACs that use valuable electronics, but remain a good price-performance ratio.
    With the 9018D, the team of Chinese and Europeans has developed a semi-portable DAC that uses the highly appreciated Sabre ES9018K2M chip.


    Technical Specifications:

    Volume attenuation: lossless digital with 0.5 dB steps (overall 255 steps)
    DAC: ESS Sabre ES9018K2M
    Sample Rates/Bit Depth: up to 384 kHz/32 bit
    USB: asynchronous
    Output: 3.5 mm stereo & optical SPDIF
    SNR: 112.5dB @ 1kohm, 109dB @ 600ohm
    THD: 0.0035% @32ohm, 20mW
    Crosstalk: 1kHz, 10kOhm: -125dB, 1kHz, 32ohm -125dB
    Output Power: 3Vrms@1kHz. 2Vrms / 125mW @ 32ohm
    Output Impedance: 2ohm
    Power Consumption: stand-by 180-200 mA, max. 280 mA
    Dimensions: 90mm x 60mm x 13mm


    Delivery Content:

    There’s not much to say here, as the air cushion envelope contains solely the 9018D and a micro USB cable. A quick-start guide on paper, rubber feet or traveling pouch are not included, but I can’t blame HiFime for it due to the very fair retail price and the good amount of features.
     

     

    P1020648.jpg   P1020649.jpg
     



    Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

    The relatively small and lightweight DAC has got the form factor of a cigarette box, but is just half as high (I am a non-smoker, but had a cigarette box at hand during evaluation). The actual enclosure is made of black metal and has got the HiFime logo on top; front and rear are made of semi-transparent black plastic and have got white labels above the buttons and connectors.
    Build quality is pretty decent for the price; solely the buttons’ pressure point is somewhat undefined and feels loose. Headphone plugs snap into the 3.5 mm port with a rich sound and sit very securely and tight, which is pretty nice.
     

     

    P1020639.jpg   P1020643.jpg
     
    P1020645.jpg   P1020650.jpg
     
    P1020651.jpg   P1020653.jpg
     



    Features, Connectors:

    For use with Windows computers, drivers have to be downloaded and installed from the HiFime website prior to using the DAC, but installation is pretty easy and self-explanatory. After a reboot, the 9018D can be selected in the Windows control panel’s audio settings.

    On the front, there’s an orange illuminated LC-display with large digits, as well as two buttons for controlling the volume, which operates lossless with 0.5 attenuation steps from -127.5 to 0 dB. The 3.5 mm headphone output (that practically also features an optical digital output) is located on the rear’s left; a micro USB input and a switch for USB Full Speed (12 MPps) and Hi Speed mode (480 MBps) are located on the right.

    When connecting the DAC, one can chose between two digital filters by pressing the left (“Volume down”) button and select between seven levels of display brightness by pressing the right (“Volume up”) button.
    When in use, the LC-display shows the current volume when pressing the buttons and then goes back to showing the played sampling rate, which is very handy. After just a few seconds, the display’s brightness is being automatically dimmed. A little sad is that digital filters and brightness can only be selected when powering on and not when in use, however filter settings, brightness and volume are stored when the 9018D is disconnected, which I find very useful.
     

     

    IMG_20150910_184120.jpg   IMG_20150910_184239.jpg
     
    IMG_20150910_184338.jpg   IMG_20150910_184343.jpg
     

     
     

    Sound:

    I used the 9018D with my Windows 7 laptop and Foobar as audio playback software. In-Ears I mainly tested with were the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10, Shure SE846 and Sennheiser IE 800, along with MP3, regular FLAC and Hi-Res files.

    Output Impedance, Frequency Response:

    Let’s take a look at my measurements of both digital filters below (unloaded):

    comparisonnoload.jpg
     
    Frequency response is commendably flat and the slow roll-off filter is rather gently implemented, which I find nice.


    HiFime on its website claims the output impedance to be 2 Ohms – which is not true, as it is joyfully much lower and even lower than 1 Ohm, as my measurements with the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 as load show, which obtains a drastically altered frequency response due to its non-linear impedance response the higher the source’s output impedance gets, but not with the HiFime:

    comparisontriplefi.jpg
     
    These are excellent measured values which show that the DAC’s output impedance is in reality around tiny 0.1 Ohms and lacks decoupling capacitors in the signal path as there is no bass roll-off with low-impedance IEMs.

    Hiss:

    This is the only little criticism  I have regarding sound. With very sensitive IEMs like the Triple.Fi 10 or the extremely sensitive SE846, there is audible hiss from the 9018D, which is around the level of my BlackBerry Q10 (just in case if anybody else has already connected his/her sensitive IEMs to one of those smartphones), but slightly below, which means that it is audible in quiet passages of the music and also at low to moderate listening levels. With IEMs that have got dynamic transducers, which are generally less sensitive, there’s only very slight audible hiss with empty audio files and logically none even in rather quiet passages of the music. With full-sized headphones, there is as expected no hiss, as those are less sensitive and the 9018D’s hiss is far from being extremely high.
    Therefore it isn’t fully recommendable for people that are very hiss-sensitive and use IEMs with high sensitivity for listening to music that also contains quiet passages.
    Even with the enormously sensitive SE846 hiss isn’t very loud, though still audible when music is being played.

    Resolution, Precision, Soundstage:

    Now to the more subjective part of my review. My opinion and experience regarding the sound signature of source devices and amplifiers goes like this: there is an existing audible difference between various devices, but it shouldn’t be overrated – as the basic character of a headphone won’t be completely changed (if the circuit follows a clean design philosophy), but sometimes rather “shaped” a bit and in many cases is extremely subtle.
    Now let’s continue with my subjective impressions (the comparisons were made volume-matched but not blinded):

    In short, I would describe the 9018D’s sound as a mixture of the iBasso DX90 and LH Labs Geek Out IEM 100 with a closer tendency to the iBasso.
    Resolution is on a high level and has got an excellent clarity. Sound signature is, typically for the Sabre chip, on the analytical side and the soundstage’s lateral expansion is wide, but with a balanced depth and well instrument separation. Compared to the Geek Out, 9018D’s treble is brighter and also faster, but not harsh, therefore comparable to the iBasso’s. Soundstage is bigger than the Geek Out’s and in my ears pretty much identical with the iBasso’s.

    I really like this analytical and high-resolving sound character.

    With the slow roll-off filter, treble sounds a tad smoother, but isn’t noticeably recessed, therefore just like the Geek Out with the slow roll-off filter, wherefore it is a good choice for old and bad recordings with sharp or distorting treble.
    With the slow roll-off filter, soundstage gains some more spatial depth in my ears.

    Overall resolution and coherency isn’t as good as with the superb Geek Out, but on a very high level and much better than I’d expected for the price.


    Conclusion:

    The 9018 actually doesn’t make any mistake – it features a gorgeous fine-grained volume control with a good display, an extremely low output impedance, a very detailed, precise and analytical sound, premium components, an optical S/PDIF output and a small size.
    My only criticism is the lack of rubber feet, the somewhat undefined pressure point of the buttons and the in comparison to some other devices rather high hiss with very sensitive IEMs – but these are just some small criticism details compared to the otherwise perfect overall package.

    For its price, the HiFime 9018D is a little insiders’ tip and gets a big thumbs up from me.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Haden2866
      You may certainly ask, but I haven't spent much time with it yet and haven't AB'd so I'm not sure whether I'm getting a placebo effect. I don't think so - the sound stage seems to have improved using Flare Audio R2PRO IEMs. Leave it with me and I will do my best. I like it, I know that much.
      Haden2866, Oct 9, 2015
    3. HiFiChris
      @Haden2866

      Thanks for your input, Haden. I trust you and have experienced myself that a good ground isolation, clean power supply and re-clocking (which the USB Isolator does not, as it seams) can improve soundstage and bass speed/aridness. Not night/day differences, but audible.
      HiFiChris, Oct 10, 2015
    4. Haden2866
      9018D inbound... can't wait.
      Haden2866, Oct 15, 2015
  2. BorisH
    D For Delightful
    Written by BorisH
    Published Apr 13, 2015
    4.5/5,
    Pros - (micro)detailed sound - clarity - design - price - DSD support - Android 5 support
    Cons - still benefits from a separate amp for high impedance headphones - no bumpons provided
    Overview
    At a retail price of $119 the 9018D has a lot going for it. The high resolution Sabre ES9018 chip coupled with an asynchronous USB receiver provides a crystal-clear sound and is a significant upgrade compared to the sound card of my MacBook Pro. As an owner of the regular 9018 the most apparent upgrades of the 9018D are a higher max volume output, digital volume control and the aluminum casing. As a company previously known for DIY products HiFime has stepped up their game with this DAC. Forget about plastics and enjoy the high quality feel & finish of the 9018D.
    IMG_20150409_104739.jpg
    Sleek looking 9018D
     
    Using the 9018D 
    On Mac OS X the unit is plug-and-play. No drivers, no hassle. The slightly backlit display shows the sample rate in a subtle way and lights up when using the volume knobs to clearly display the volume setting. The provided USB cable is of high quality. I do miss bumpons to protect the DAC against scratches. It would be nice to include these so the owner can decide to install them or not (as with the Fiio E10k for instance).
     
    Update (April 19): I just found out that you can adjust the screen brightness and PCM filter frequency response by pressing the volume knobs during start up. Really cool to have these features which enable you to customize the DAC to personal preferences.
     
    Sound signature and pairing
    My setup:
    mix of FLAC/DSD/TIDAL/Spotify > 9018D > SMSL sAp II Pro > Beyers DT990 250Ohm/Sennheiser HD600
     
    The sound produced by this DAC is (micro)detailed with great clarity. It delivers music with a superb air and with the right amount of space between the instruments.  Overall I did found it to be slightly bright which I believe Sabre chips are generally known for.
     
    I did not find it a good match with my Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro 250 Ohm. The slightly bright 9018D did not complement the “V-shaped sound” of the Beyers. Please note that I am very treble sensitive and the DT990’s treble did not suit me very well to start with. After some time I decided to exchange my Beyers for a pair of Sennheiser HD600s. Now this is a perfect match! The HD600, which is considered to have a somewhat “veiled” sound, is complemented very well with the detailed and slightly bright 9018D. I would also consider this to be a good match with the darker Sennheiser HD650.
     
    The volume goes loud enough to drive high impedance heaphones but the output power is not sufficient to reach the full potential of 300 Ohm headphones. Connected to a proper amp the soundstage will significantly increase and according to me the 9018D is still not a perfect all-in-one solution for high impedance headphones.
    IMG_20150409_105034.jpg
    Match made in heaven
     
    Volume control
    First off all I would like to report that volume is controlled in two ways with this DAC. The system volume will control the volume at the USB receiver’s level and works in 8 steps only (behaviour of SA9227 USB receiver). Secondly you can adjust volume with the build-in 255 step digital volume control (0 to -127.5db in 0,5db steps). This wide range ensures that the DAC can be used with anything ranging from sensitive IEMs up to high impedance headphones.
     
    Digital volume control is generally regarded to be inferior to an analog volume control. In the case of the 9018D the digital volume control has access to the DAC’s datapath and this removes noise associated with digital volume controls (more info here). It works perfectly and you can actually hear a tiny amount of noise if you change volume when no music is playing (only with sensitive IEMs). As soon as you then play music and hit pause the noise is completely gone.
    IMG_20150409_1050102.jpg
    Display while using volume knobs
     
    DSD support
    DSD files sound really good. Overall you get a smoother more relaxed sound with even more micro details and great resolution. If you want to play DSD files the system volume must be set at 100% and listening volume controlled with the digital volume control. This is because the system volume will alter the signal before going into the DAC chip. With any setting below 100% playback of DSD files is impossible and instead you will hear hiss. The system volume should also be kept at 100% to ensure the full dynamic range of your recordings.
     
    So basically keep the system volume at max and adjust the volume with the digital volume control. Or if coupled to an amp you can adjust the volume on your amp. In my setup the 9018D’s digital volume is fixed at -25db to stay below the maximum input voltage of my amp on which I set the actual listening volume.
     
    Comparison
    The 9018 and 9018D sound identical to me. I would say the big difference between the two is heat dissipation. The aluminum construction of the 9018 dissipates heat much better than the tiny plastic 9018. You also cannot adjust volume on the 9018 during DSD playback for reasons explained above as it only has the volume control at USB level. This means that with headphones connected directly to the 9018 you are stuck at the highest volume level which might be a deal breaker for some.
    IMG_20150413_175752_122.jpg
    Tiny vs small
     
    Compared to the Fiio E10k the 9018D sounds more detailed, airy and has a wider/deeper soundstage. The Fiio sounds warmer and seems to have a slightly better amp. The choice between the two will depend on your sonic preferences. The E10k does not warm up in use while the 9018D can get fairly warm, if you mind that sorta thing... 
    IMG_20150416_1358282.jpg
    Two great value DACs
     
    Conclusion
    The Hifime 9018D is a budget friendly and capable (AMP/)DAC. It sounds great, has an attractive design and proper digital volume control. The capability to play high resolution and DSD files is remarkable at this pricepoint. It can be used with sensitive IEMs up to high impedance headphones, although the latter still benefit from a more powerful amp. If you are going to use your DAC to feed an amp with volume controI I suggest looking into the regular HiFime 9018. As a standalone DAC which supports DSD playback the 9018D can’t be beaten! 
      volly and skingg like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. guido
      does it work with a CCK off an iPhone or iPad?
      guido, May 18, 2015
    3. Nick Gomez
      Did you try to EQ the DT990 to reduce the treble sharpness? I have a DT 990 and bought the DAC (to be used with a Fiio E12) but now I'm afraid I made the wrong choice reading your comments on it.
      Nick Gomez, Jan 19, 2016
    4. HiFiChris
      @guido 
       
      I know my reply is quite late, but no, it does not work with the CCK off an iPhone (don't know about the iPad, but I think it's the same). However, it works with many Android devices.
      HiFiChris, Feb 23, 2016