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REVIEW - Encore mDAC portable headphone DAC/amp with 24bit/96kHz USB input - for Mac/PC, iPhone with Camera Connection Kit, and Android - 2 THUMBS UP

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  1. HeadphoneAddict Contributor
    * High performance Digital-to-Analog converter with headphone amplifier turns your smart phone or tablet into a high-end digital audio player
    * Advanced performance via Asynchronous USB communication for  harmonically accurate and detailed presentation
    * Rechargeable lithium-ion battery power design improves playback performance by acting as a potent noise filter
    24-bit, 96 kHz Discrete USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC)
    Asynchronous operation provides double jitter-reduction at data input and over-sampling filter stages for harmonically accurate and detailed presentation.
    No capacitors in the audio signal path
    A high performance, digitally controlled analog volume control provides utmost in transparency and precise channel tracking at low listening levels
    Advanced DC-to-DC conversion boosts the analog circuit voltage to improve dynamic performance and overall headroom
    Rechargeable lithium-ion battery power design improves playback performance by acting as a potent noise filter
    Input: 1 x Micro USB input
    Output: 1 x headphone output
    Power On/Off – Push the side button to toggle it on and off
    Volume Up/Down – Push the volume buttons labeled + and –
    Input: USB 1.1, 2.0 compatible                                             
    Native Bit Rate: 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz, 24-bit                                           
    Dynamic Range: 90 dB                                             
    S/N Ratio: 102 dB                                          
    THD+N: 0.008%                                             
    Headphone Output: 80 mW x 2 @ 16-Ohm                                         
    Power: USB Bus Powered, 80 mA/5V                                    
    Dimensions: 70 x 40 x 16 mm                                    
    Included Accessory: OTG USB cable 15 cm  
    MSRP - $129

    I compared the new Encore mDAC with my Headamp Pico DAC + Pico Slim combo ($700 when new), and my CEntrance HiFi-M8 ($700 when new).  I did not compare to the Audioengine D3 which I have found in the past to perfectly mimic the Pico DAC + Slim sound, because it wont work with the Apple Camera Connection Kit (which is unfortunate due to it’s tiny size).  
    I burned in the mDAC with 150 hours of music before my review - the main difference I heard vs upon arrival was that my ATH-A900 sounded overblown in the bass and dark in the treble when it first arrived, and it was noticeably better after the 150 hours.  I did not listen to the mDAC again during the 150 hours of burn-in, so it might have only needed a couple of hours to turn around, I don’t know.  
    I started out with listening to my Macbook Pro with iTunes, with the mDAC set for a max of 32 bit/96 khz, the M8 set for a max of 24/192, and the Pico DAC set for 16/44 (upsampling to 24/96 internally). I started out with some 16/44 Apple Lossless audiophile jazz music, including Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Smooth Jazz Festival - Over the Rainbow and Misty.  I also used Kent Poon’s Audiophile Jazz Prologue - My One and Only Love and You’ve Got a Friend.  I then moved on to a wide variety of lossless and 256K audio files of various genres.  
    When I first received this I was under the impression that the price would be right under $200.  So, I set my expectations for that level of performance.  The first thing I noticed was that impact, speed and articulation with pianos and plucked string bass music is excellent with all three DAC/amps that I compared.  But my overall impression was that the mDAC sounds slightly warmer than CEntrance HiFi-M8 but also slightly less open and airy.  On the other hand the mDAC is just as warm sounding as the Pico DAC + Pico Slim while itself being slightly more open and airy in the treble than the Pico combo. I didn't expect it to sound this good, having set expectations for something more like the Nuforce uDAC2 or Audioengine D1 (still not bad).
    With my V-MODA M100, sometimes the bass can be a little looser or less controlled with a 10 ohm output or higher desktop amp, but all three portable amps kept the bass under good control, even with the M8 in 2 ohm or 10 ohm mode.  In one ohm mode the M8 again had slightly better bass control than the mDAC and Pico Slim, at the expense of a little loss in bass impact.  The mDAC did not seem to run out of juice with portable headphones, and even at very high volumes with my M-100 the bass did not break up.
    With the HiFi-M8 set for 2 ohm or 10 ohm output impedance the midrange warmth is more similar to the mDAC and Pico Slim, but the 1 ohm setting makes the M8 slightly cooler sounding and less inviting with saxophones. None of the amps were particularly forward or recessed in the midrange, with the mDAC being slightly more present in the midrange than the other two.  
    This made the mDAC’s mids very inviting and seductive, and female vocals sit right there in the room with you. Reediness and breathiness with saxophones was great with all three, but the M8 in 10 ohm mode was my favored choice, followed closely by the mDAC and then the Pico DAC/Slim combo.

    The sense of space is the greatest with the HiFi-M8 but the mDAC still slightly beats out the Pico DAC/Slim combo in that area, which is impressive since the Pico DAC/Amp carried the torch for portable excellence for a long time. Treble articulation, detail, and presence again was best with the M8 but the mDAC was very close, and my 52 year old ears preferred the mDAC over my Pico DAC/Slim combo.
    Plugged into the iPhone 5s with camera connection kit, they all sounded very much like listening to the Macbook Pro retina via USB and iTunes.  It was difficult to appreciate any degradation in sound quality with an iPhone or iPad, unless they were compared to Amarra Music Player on the Macbook, which offers a bigger soundstage and sense of space and more out of head imaging than plain iTunes or iPhone 5s with camera connection kit.
    Overall the mDAC was able to get out of the way and present the music in a fairly transparent manner with just a little added warmth and energy, so that it was never cold and clinical sounding, nor abrasive, but also never slow and thick.  I would say that the Pico Combo (or CEntrance DACport) would be considered slightly more laid back sounding and more forgiving, with this sounding closer to the DACmini or HiFi-M8 in terms of PRAT and ruthlessness.
    Synergy with the HD800 was not bad but not as good as the more laid back sounding CEntrance DACport or Pico Stack, both of which are still a bit underpowered with the HD800 (DACport did better than Pico). In a similar manner, the HiFi-M8 was also not optimal with the HD800, but still fairly enjoyable like the mDAC.  I preferred all my portable headphones and IEM with the portable gear tested, followed by my Grado HF-2 and Denon LA-7000, and then HE-560 and LCD-2 rev 2, before I'd pick the HD800.  And still, you wont hate the HD800 out of the mDAC at all, but it does make the HD800 sound a little more aggressive (as they sound with so many amps).
    The mDAC has just enough power to comfortably drive my LCD-2 rev2, HD-560, and even the 300 ohm HD800 to decent levels. But don't expect desktop amp power levels.  With the V-MODA M-100 and JH Audio JH16Pro custom IEM the mDAC will play louder than I can stand to listen, and synergy was excellent.
    I’m guessing that the mDAC output levels are about 2-4 dB louder than the Pico Slim, while the CEntrance HiFi-M8 adds another 3-4 dB of volume levels over the mDAC.  Most of the time I would be listening to the mDAC at less than 40% of max (as a guess).  But in the longterm as a desktop replacement amp, with hard to drive full-size headphones you might want to feed the headphone output into a more powerful amp like the Nuforce HAP-100 if concert level listening is a frequent thing.  However, most normal people would not feel the mDAC lacks power with their full size headphones.
    Also, the mDAC is totally silent and free of hiss during quiet or silent musical passages, when using my very sensitive JH16 Pro custom IEM.  I can play a silent track in iTunes, and when I plug-in and unplug the IEM from the amp I can’t tell a difference, i.e. no hiss when plugging in. Take this with a grain of salt since my ears are 52 years old and fading a little.
    DETAILS in Operation / Suggestions
    Now, it seems that I have nothing bad to say about the mDAC, and I don’t.  But there are a few little things I’ve noticed that I wish could be changed. 
    One thing is that the digital volume attenuator doesn’t go to super low volumes before it shuts off the sound.  If I’m going to sleep with music while wearing my V-MODA M-100 or JH16Pro IEM, I find that the iPhone+CCK with mDAC will go low enough. But with my Macbook the OS X system volume doesn’t affect the mDAC, and the lowest volume setting is slightly louder than with iPhone, so I have to turn down the volume slider in the iTunes software to about 70% to go as low as the iPhone+CCK will go.
    Also, while it’s nice that you can move the volume up or down in tiny steps by making single presses on the volume buttons, or that pressing and holding the buttons down will make the volume smoothly sweep up or down, there is no way to mute or turn the volume to zero instantly, short of turning off the mDAC or unplugging the headphones. When my wife is calling for me I’d rather switch off the volume instantly to hear what she is saying than take off the headphones to hear her.  
    If my Macbook screen is locked while I’m listening at normal volume levels, the fastest I can silence the music via digital volume control is about 3 seconds (it takes longer to log into the macbook and find iTunes and hit pause, or find the mute button). By then I’ve missed part of what my wife or son is asking me, and I have to ask them to repeat it. So I find myself having to pull the headphone plug out to instantly silence the music, adding to the wear and tear on the headphone jack.  I’m a big fan of rotary volume knobs for this reason, to allow quick jumps in volume without overshooting the desired level.
    It’s not as much of an issue with the iPhone which I can wake and pause the music fairly quickly from the lock screen. And with IEM which I play at lower volume levels it only takes about 1 second to lower the volume to zero from a comfortable listening level without unplugging.
    Also, there are two micro USB ports on the back, one for the USB DAC and one that I believe is just to charge the 6 hour internal battery without activating the DAC. When I first used it I couldn’t get the DAC to work because I was using the wrong USB port.  My fault, but it’s part of the trouble shooting process now. I still need to read the manual :)  Note - when you turn on the power button (hidden on the side) the red LED stays on and a second blue LED in the same hole lights up as well.
    When either USB port is plugged into a power source a red LED in the top cover lights up.  The red light also comes on when you plug the iPhone+CCK into either port, making me wonder if it’s drawing power from the phone.  So, I need to confirm this, because I am thinking it has a 6 hour battery inside so that the iPhone would not be drained too fast. I haven't been feeling well and have not tested total run time yet, but in the 2-3 hours at a time that I would listen I did notice that my iPhone battery would drain a bit faster with the Pico combo.
    I can have the mDAC plugged into a wall AC adapter with one USB port, and the mDAC plugged into the iPhone 5s+CCK with the other USB port, and then I can listen to music via the iPhone CCK.  But there is no special indicator to me that the mDAC is charging from the external power source and not from the iPhone, since either device will make the red LED light up when connected.  It doesn’t seem to charge the iPhone/CCK that’s plugged at the same time it has wall power, which is a shame and the only thing keeping it from being perfect.
    The mDAC came with a short mini-mini USB cable for android devices, but I have not tried it yet on my wife’s work Moto X because she has no music on it.
    The Pico DAC/Slim has long been my benchmark for small portable audio gear for years, especially since it’s compatible with the Apple camera connection kit and reduces jitter via upsampling and re-clocking.  Most of my other USB DACs either didn’t work with the CCK or they sounded much worse with the CCK vs the same DAC being used on the computer (more jitter with CCK).  I was happy with my Pico DAC/Slim combo, but I had to velcro the two together and find a high quality braided interconnect cable. 
    When I first received the Audioengine D3 USB Stick DAC last year I thought it sounded amazingly like a clone of the Pico DAC/Slim with both IEM and full size headphones, in sound quality and power output. But it didn't replace the Pico combo due to it's inability to work with the iPhone and camera connection kit (same with DACport).
    Although I felt the newer CEntrance HiFi-M8 improves upon both the Pico setup and mDAC, the M8's larger size and shorter battery life than the Pico combo renders it less useful for travel - and so the M8 has mostly been used as a transportable desktop replacement amp in my bedroom and back patio.
    But the new mDAC is half as big as the Pico combo without worrying about an interconnect, and it takes up about 1/6th of the volume of the HiFi-M8.  After just the first few minutes listening with the mDAC I felt that it could definitely take the place of the Pico DAC/Slim amp combo as my travel companion, at a fraction of the cost. I just don't know how they did it.  And if size is a consideration it can also be happily used at times when I would have used the HiFi-M8, with minimal impact on my audio enjoyment!  The more energetic or vivid sound of the mDAC wins me over vs the Pico setup, as does the size, and it doesn't make me miss anything if I can't bring along my larger and better gear.

    Overall the Encore mDAC is a great sounding portable USB DAC regardless of price, that works well with Macbook via USB and iPhone via camera connection kit (or Android). The size is quite good, making it truly portable with the iPhone/CCK.  You’d have to spend 3x as much to improve on the performance, but as-is it leaves little to be desired.  I highly recommend this product.
    UPDATE - 10 14 2014:
    I like to talk about synergy between two pieces of gear, because one person might try a headphone on one DAC or amp and love it, and another person might complain about the headphone's faults because they have different gear, etc.  Many things can contribute, including combined frequency response of the paired devices, or headphone impedance vs amp output impedance comflicts.
    I wanted to note that I bought a new pair of V-MODA XS at RMAF, and I tried them with the Pico DAC/Slim, CEntrance HiFi-M8, and both the iPhone 6 & 6+ headphone jacks.  I thought they were dark and forward with the Pico DAC/Slim and the HiFi-M8 was best, because I could change the output impedance and treble boost switch to suit them.  But for listening without any EQ I felt that the iPhone headphone jack suited them the best, and gave the benefit of being able to use the microphone button to control the music or talk on the phone.
    When I had Michael at CEntrance try the XS headphones on Saturday night, I paired it with the mDAC for the first time and he hated the sound and thought the phones were junk, until we switched to the HiFi-M8.  I was confused, because I hadn't spent much time at all with the mDAC + XS combo yet. He then went on to compliment Val Kolton on the XS and thought they were a good bang for the buck.
    Tonight I tried the XS with the mDAC for a good hour, and got the same result that I got with some other amps - the XS sounded a bit dull and mid forward. But when I switched to my CEntrance DACport, which I had never tried, the improvement in sparkle and soundstage depth of the XS was remarkable. The XS and mDAC just don't pair as well as I or Michael would like.
    So, I have two points to make - the XS are a fine budget portable headphone that can sound poor with the wrong amp, and the mDAC is a fine budget DAC/amp that can sound less than optimal with the wrong headphones.  If you buy an mDAC and don't like it, it's likely that you will with some other headphones, but I can't make any promises.  I admit that with the DACport I have yet to be diappointed when using any of my headphones or IEM, but I am disappointed that it doesn't work with the camera connection kit like the mDAC.

    Dopaminer likes this.
  2. TonySunshine
    Thanks for the review. I might just pick one up and see how it compares to the other bang for the buck dac/amps in its class like the Fiio E17
  3. imackler
    This looks really tempting. The only thing is I wish the battery life were a little bit longer for a long plane ride, but still, looks like a great portable amp/dac.
    Have you looked inside? Is the battery soldered to the board?
  4. vcup
  5. Jakkal
    Thanks for the review. It looks interesting, but I wonder what the output impedance might be?
  6. quantiques
    Sounds good, with that price
  7. CharlesC
    I'd be interested to know if it will play with a dead battery when plugged into a 5v usb port. 
  8. Sasaki Contributor
    Very nice review as always. Well informative yet easy to read. Interesting gear.. :)
  9. Mike Walker
    One tiny nit to pick. DAC stands for digital to analog converter, not digital audio converter. Conversely ADC stands for analog to digital converter.
  10. JacobLee89
    This certainly leaves me at the fence between this rigged up to my phone "android otg", and the Fiio X1. The Fiio X1 has potential to be improved upon via portable amp, but the mDAC has the ability to both reduce the amount of devices I will own, as well as provide additional use.
    I only use my HD25's as portables, so expenditure seems to be similar no matter which direction I go (assuming that the Fiio can provide enough power for the HD25's)
    The only barrier I have right now is that the mDAC is not avaiable in the UK.
  11. jasonl Contributor
    I want to mention about the history of this Encore mDAC.  It is actually designed after the NuForce uDAC-3 and due to the custom charging circuit design, and further performance improvement over the headphone amp, it is really good for the price.  The mDAC was then transferred over to the Encore brand where it focuses on high performance "entry level" audio products.
    mDAC has won a top award in France and you can see the review (might need Google translator if you can't read French)
    I will offer a 25% discount as an incentive for you to write a short review on Amazon.com as well as posting it here on head-fi.  This introduction discount also helps to  promote Encore mDAC to bring awareness of the Encore brand.
    You can use the claim code DDM95CWX when ordering from Amazon.com (this promotion starts at 7:00pm PDT Oct 6 and ends Oct 31)
    For those of you who have ordered before the promotion is activated, I will give you a refund.
  12. TonySunshine
    So I posted this over at amazon. I received a 25% refund, even before I posted the review. I was going to write a review anyway because I was very impressed with this little dac, and the refund just inspired me to stop being lazy and post it
    so stuff I used to review this dac
    JH Audio JH16FP IEM with toxic cables silver poison cable
    Surface pro 3 with media monkey
    Xperia Z2 running CM11, poweramp, google play music, and UAPP

    I gotta say that for the price this is an incredible amp/dac. In comparison to the HRT microstreamer, Fiio E17, JDS labs C5D, and Fiio E18 this is definetly the best bang for the buck. To my ears this has a similar sound to the microstreamer, albeit a bit more veiled and bass heavy. I caught myself upping the 2khz-4khz as well as the upper 10-12khz to get the sound I like out of it(with the hrt I did no EQing at all). It has a fairly spacious sound stage, much wider than the Fiio's or the JDS C5D. in terms of lushness and musicality the C5D and hrt microstreamer beat it out, but it is more than half the price of either. SQ to SQ I would pick the mDAC over either of the fiio's, with the only disadvantages being the functionality features(no line in, no treble/bass controls.) Overall I am very pleased with the sound, and hope the highs will come in a bit more with burn in.

    A couple of comments not on the sound
    - form factor - its much smaller than I thought. The pictures make it seem on par with a RSA tomahawk but its much smaller. Still a bit thicker than I would like for a portable android smart phone rig. The JDS labs C5D is as thick as I can go and still be able to fit it in all in my pocket.

    - charging - it charges when you are using it with a computer! hurrah!

    - volume control - +1 for the tactile buttons, makes it a lot harder to accidentally turn up the volume compared to a roller or pot knob. Only downside is theres no way to tell what level the volume of the amp is at except by plugging in phones and listening to it

    - fit and finish - the mDAC has an aluminum housing and feels really nice and premium. The edges where the ports are are polished giving it a shiny look. The black one I got has a brushed metal finish and looks very nice

    - haven't tried this yet, but looks like the thing is held together with 4 socket head cap screws, so it can be taken apart and the battery replaced/upgraded

    - android functionality - works great with xperia z2 running both stock roms and cm11/aosp based roms. Doesn't require UAPP. Though on my HTC one m8 it only works with stock based and GPE based roms or by using UAPP(which is the case with all the other portable amp/dacs I have). No issues with EM interference or excessive battery drain

    so yeah not really any complaints given the price point. It does exactly what it set out to do: a portable budget dac/amp for IEMS. Oh and it sounds really good. Only issue I can forsee running into the short battery life of 6 hours.
    HeadphoneAddict likes this.
  13. Jakkal
    Jason what is the output impedance of the mDac?
  14. Sasaki Contributor
    Hi Jason, That French site mentions about DSD compatibility on mDAC. (chart tells but I don't read French text body)
    Does mDAC has a native DSD compatibility via DoP or ASIO?
  15. Sasaki Contributor
    I got the answer by myself as mine has arrived :)
    Click to enlarge picture.
    Size comparison to iPhone5S.
    iPhone5S > CCK > USB cable microB > mDAC > Edition8
    Walkman ZX1 > NWH10 > USB cable microB > mDAC > Edition8
    Yes this is tiny yet build quality is very nice especially considering the price.
    The mDAC sounded very good even just out of box. I feel mDAC delivers fast, articulate, detailed sounding. I also feel good bass impact. I like this silver box sounded musical rather, it is not dry. I think this is transparent/open/airly enough but I hope further burn-in would improve them more.
    Both of iPhone and Walkman works well though not tried hires yet. I connected mDAC to my Mac mini and invoke Aurdirvana Plus to see PCM/DSD capability. Audirvana tells me mDAC does not support native DSD. Though I get nice sound from MAC and PC anyway. This is well worth the money. Thank you for sharing the info.
    HeadphoneAddict likes this.
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