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Best sub-$150 portable DAC/amp for sensitive IEMs

  1. mwillis
    After scouring the Internet all morning I've come up short and haven't been able to pull the trigger on anything. To set the stage, I just bought the Massdrop Plus Universal IEMs, which are very sensitive with an impedance of 10 ohms. I have been driving them with a Fiio E17K on my desktop setup, which seems to be doing the trick with the exception of a tiny amount of background buzzing which is only really noticeable between songs. I'm decently happy with this setup, but I'm thinking of trying the iFi IEMatch to see if that makes the blacks completely black, but now I'm digressing. I'm looking for a DAC/amp to use with my phone, mostly on flights. I know I could use the E17K, but the form factor is just a bit too bulky for my liking for phone use. The Dragonfly Red caught my eye, but after doing more research I have come to conclude that there are much better, cheaper options with a similar form factor.

    At the moment, I think the Sabaj Da2 / SMSL IDEA are leading the pack and what I'm leaning towards... but then I found this on Amazon. I also found another one by Weiliang Audio in a similar form factor, the ES9023. Would any of these necessarily be bad options? Being that this will be used only with my Android phone, power draw is a concern. I don't need a ton of output power since my IEMs are very sensitive, but output impedance does matter and will need to be <=1 ohm. Are there any other better options for less than $150? Any help or suggestions are greatly appreciated!
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2018
  2. jacknson123
    You only need one if your iem hiss with your android phone. I use the da2 to drive my im02 when I use it with my laptop only. Da2 has absolutely no background noise, but that's all it does, I dont hear any difference in sound between da2 and my galaxy s8.
  3. mwillis
    Unfortunately there is some hiss with my Galaxy Note 8 because my Massdrop Plus IEMs are very sensitive. If I could get rid of that, I'd be content (as far as my mobile setup is concerned).
  4. jacknson123
    Da3 has even lower floor noise, it should do the job.
  5. mwillis
    I actually am close to pulling the trigger on a Topping NX4 DSD, I could get one for $126 brand new through eBay with the 15% off deal they have going today. It has an output impedance of ~0.5 ohms, which would be perfect for my MD+ IEMs.

    EDIT: Well I just spent $200... got both the NX4 DSD and a Sabaj Da2. I'm going to compare them both, if they both get rid of the faint hissing then I'll probably try to resell my Fiio E17K and keep the NX4 as my desktop amp and use the Sabaj when I travel. Time will tell!
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2018
  6. SoundDouble
    Good luck with the SMSL idea. I purchased one and returned it. Wasn't working with my HTC 10. I did the firmware update they offer in order to make it work, but you lose some higher bandwidth formats, and it still stopped after every song in Apple music. unplugging and plugging in the smsl after every song warranted a return.

    I know Apple music isn't audiophile but my family wanted a streaming service and I'm the only one with android and better quality gear. Thinking of going back to Tidal without telling the wife.
  7. mwillis
    That's fair. Considering I got both the Topping and the Sabaj/SMSL (same thing) I think I'm planning on using the Sabaj only as a backup in case I get stuck somewhere and my Topping dies or something, depending on how they stack up against each other. Although to be honest, if they sound similar and the Sabaj doesn't drain my battery too much, I'll probably use that while traveling and just stick with the Topping for my computer... that is of course if the Sabaj even works, I know quite a few people have had issues with theirs on Android. We'll see!
  8. FunkeXMix
    How did it go with the Sabaj DA2?
  9. SoundDouble
    FYI. I figured out the issue between the smsl and htc. Some of the customization htc did with the OS.

    I later switched to Lineage OS on the HTC and smsl worked perfect. Silent background, more detail because it's more neutral sound but slightly smaller width than the HTC.
    slapo likes this.
  10. mwillis
    The Sabaj works great with my Note 9! I haven't been using it a whole lot because although there are ever so slightly blacker blacks with the Da2 there are no other major differences in the sound as opposed to plugging straight into my phone. I have kept it though because it is definitely a very noticeable upgrade when listening on my PC. The power draw is definitely noticeable on my phone but not a deal breaker. Only thing is I did have that common issue with Android (it's a Linux issue I believe, I noticed the same problem on my Linux PC) where you have to begin playing your music before plugging in the DAC, otherwise there is a loud hissing sound. But muting my phone, starting my music, and then plugging up the Da2 and turning the volume back up does the trick every time. A small little quirk but it didn't prove to be a deal breaker for me.
    slapo likes this.
  11. slapo
    How loud is the DA2 at lower levels?
    Basically everything I have at the moment is too loud for quiet listening with the more sensitive items I have.

    How do you find the Topping compared to the DA2?

    Cheers. :)
  12. FunkeXMix
    I am wondering that to, Hifime 9018 almost blew my eardrums out as it was loud on 3% volume already on these IEMs:
    Sensitivity: 107dB/mW @1Khz Impedance: 11Ω
    Impedance 11

    Well I am glad I didn't get permanent damage but a major health hazard.
    slapo likes this.
  13. slapo
    I should probably note that I have some high impedance adapters as a stop gap, but I'm not sure whether they don't affect frequency response, as some of the gear I have has sharp highs (and I like it sometimes), but goes blunt if I use one of the adapters.
  14. FunkeXMix
    slapo likes this.
  15. slapo
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