REVIEW: Palab M1-Mini Portable Computer USB DAC/amp with optical/coax input
Feb 7, 2021 at 7:08 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 4

HeadphoneAddict

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PALAB M1-mini Head-Fi Review:

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I've been trying out the PALAB M1-mini MQA decoding USB-C DAC and Amp for a few weeks using Tidal lossless on my 16 inch MacBook Pro. Burn-in for more than a day or two is probably overkill with this device, and the balanced output sounded great right out of the box, although the 3.5mm output wasn't as good I've noticed improvement over time. I gave it 200 hours of burn-in balanced and 60 hours single ended just to be sure.

I've been behind and busy lately, so I'm sorry this took so long. I posted a partial review here and on Facebook previously, and now I am finishing it. During this review, I am not sure if setting Tidal to do MQA decoding on the device is better than MQA decoding on the MacBook, but my imagination wanted to believe that was the case. Note that "SoundSource" tweek conflicts with "Exclusive" mode and can crash tidal and Audio Midi Setup until you reboot. I left Exclusive turned off, but didn't do a new screenshot.

Tidal Palab M1-Mini Exclusive Passthrough Mode.png

Right away I was impressed that the Palab M1-Mini sounds absolutely wonderful with my Drop.com HD-6XX on a balanced Drop.com 2.5mm TRRS cable and Moon-Audio 4.4mm TRRRS adapter (the ddHiFi adapters on Amazon work quite well too). For some people this could be their END-GAME headphone rig on a tight budget! For $800 combined for DAC/amp, cable with adapter, and HD-6XX headphones even I could be very happy for a very long time with this setup.

There is excellent impact and body, good vocal presence, good detail, and a decent soundstage with HD-6XX, where usually on a lot of amps these HD-6XX/650 can sound veiled, bloated, and poorly controlled (both to me and to my son). My HD-600/6XX don't have the huge immersive soundstage of the HD-800 or newer HD-800s, but this combo is a bit more more forgiving of bad recordings and more versatile with a wider variety of genre.

The M1-mini digital volume control has a bazillion steps to fine tune the volume level, and pressing and holding the volume buttons raises or lowers the volume faster. The mute button was very handy when needing to silence the music quickly to take a phone call or listen to someone talk, which would still take a couple of seconds to lower when just holding down the volume button. I didn't really have to go over 50-60% of max power with this setup which could play quite loud and punchy. I listened to folk, electronic, house, jazz, and rock, that were all well suited for this combo. I'm going to have a hard time sending this back!

The M1-mini is not bad with the original Sennheiser HD-800 from launch day, when paired with a Moon-Audio Black Dragon cable, but the stock Sennheiser 4.4mm cable loses some low-end impact with any amplifier. Regardless it's not shrill or grating as the HD-800 can be with many amps. The M1-mini is also good with the warmer sounding new HD-800s, but again not with the stock cable. The original HD-800 and my newer HD-800s on stock cables are not quite warm enough sounding with most amps, so I can't fault this unit for that.

The separation and wide open space of the M1-mini with HD-800(s) is impressive, as is the speed, detail and clarity. With the right cable this could be very enjoyable considering it's a tiny portable amp. It wont hit as hard with HD-800s as with the HD-6XX, but in return you get greater micro-detail, air and space, and soundstage. I especially like the Moon-Audio Black Dragon and my Locus-Design Hyperion cables, but I'm certain that any available Danacables.com cable would be a good choice for HD-800 as well. With the stock cables certain genre were still very enjoyable, such as BB King and Eric Clapton "Riding with the King" or Jack Johnson with most of his albums, and various jazz and new age albums.

The only portable DAC/amp on hand to edge past the M1-mini with my difficult HD-800s is my HiFi-M8 V2 via high output 4-pin XLR jack, although this PALAB M1-mini sounds noticeably better with HD-800s than my older HiFi-M8 V1. Interestingly, the best amp in this house for any HD-800 or HD-800s is our Pioneer home theater receiver being fed from a mid-level or hi-end DAC (regardless of cable used). But I can't say that my very expensive $3000 Eddie Current ZDT desktop tube amp does much better with HD-800s than the M1-mini, because HD-800(s) are so darn picky about the amp!

With the HD-800(s) the M1-mini in balanced mode performs similarly to my little Schitt Audio Magni 3 and slightly better than CEntrance DACmini SE desktop amp using the DACmini as source. It is not my favorite with the HD-800(s) but not bad, and still enjoyable. In comparison, my full-size Cavalli Liquid Carbon X amp does a better job with HD-800 and HD-800s than any of these compact portable amps, except maybe the HiFi-M8 V2. However, in return the PALAB M1-mini is better with the HD-6XX than the Cavalli Liquid Carbon X desktop amp, and the M1-mini/6XX paring sounds as good doing the excellent job that the DACmini does when driving the HD-6XX.

Basically, I'd have to say that as nice as my portable Encore Hi-mDAC, CEntrance BlueDAC, HiFi-M8 V1, and V2 drive my Sennheiser HD-6XX with my MacBook Pro 16 inch, the PALAB M1-MINI IS MY FAVORITE COMPACT DAC/AMP for MY HD-6XX. I don't have a lot of amps that can make the 6XX sound as good as my preferred HD-600, but the HD-6XX with the M1-mini sounds as good or better than the HD-600 on the HiFi-M8 V2, which is to say simply fantastic.

The only other button than for volume up/down/mute was for input (to switch USB, optical, coax) and optical/coax share the same 3.5mm jack that is separate from the 3.5mm analog audio out. It comes with a toslink adapter to use with an Apple MacBook while powering it from a power-only USB-C jack, but I could not get optical input to work with my MacBook. I then discovered that Apple dropped optical output support from the 2019-2021 16 inch MacBook Pro headphone jack, which irritates me to no end on a 9-month old $4000 laptop!

I have high quality adapters to use my 2.5mm balanced headphones on the M1-Mini 4.4mm balanced jack, as well as adapters to use 4-pin XLR terminated headphones with the 4.4mm jack, so I could try any of my balanced headphones with this. My HiFiMan HE-1000se, HE-1000 V1 both sounded quite good with the 4.4mm output, beating out the HD-800 and HD-800s. My Edition-X also sounded quite good on the balanced output too, and all of them sounded a bit better in balanced mode than single ended, except for the Edition-X which scale up less than the others.

I then moved on from testing the 4.4mm balanced output, which is best with my high-impedance or very hard to drive headphones above, to using the 3.5mm single ended output. There I found that the Palab M1-Mini is still great with my HiFiMan Edition-X and HE-1000se, as well with as some of my Westone and JH Audio custom IEM. While balanced mode is my favorite with these headphones, it is still very good in single ended mode with low impedance or easy to drive headphones.

The HifiMan HE-1000se and HE-1000 V1, and Edition-X V2 all were good with the 3.5mm output they all had noticeably better impact and speed via the balanced output, with greater dynamic range. I also felt that the sense of space and air was a little greater with the balanced high-end headphones, although less so with the Edition-X which are more up front in the mid-range.

Using the HD-6XX/600 and HD-800/800s on the SE 3.5mm jack seems like a waste of the M1-mini capabilities, considering how much better they sound via the more powerful 4.4mm balanced output. If you are going to spend the $449 for the M1 to listen to HD-600/6XX you should invest a little more for a decent balanced cable - even the $40 drop.com 2.5mm balanced HD-6xx cable with a 4.4mm adapter sounds quite good with this little DAC/amp. The 3.5mm output will drive them better than an iPhone and many DAPs, but the 4.4mm balanced output drives these so much closer to their potential than I could have imagined. You just have to experience these phones balanced, which with the M1-mini gives you desktop class performance.

While the Edition-X V2 sound good with the 3.5mm SE jack and stock 3.5mm cable, and improve some with the 4.4mm balanced jack, my Grado HF-2 V1 sounded much more impressive out of the 3.5mm SE jack. Frankly, I was taken by surprise at just how well the M1-mini could drive my Grado HF-2 v1 single ended, with stock fixed-cable and a Penon Audio 1/4” to 3.5mm adapter (not the cheap Grado adapter). With BB King and Eric Clapton, “Three O’clock Blues”, the sense of space and extension was pleasant the 1st time I tried it. My first thought was "where did the Grado big wall of sound go?" I have not listened to the HF-2 in quite a while because on many amps they sounded a little flat in the soundstage and grainy in the highs, but with the M1-Mini I could use the HF-2 every day! The bass was strong, mids rich, and treble was smooth and detailed, with a bigger soundstage than I was accustomed.

My JH Audio Roxanne had the biggest improvement of the low-impedance high-sensitivity IEM when moving from the 3.5mm SE jack to the 4.4mm balanced jack. I’m using a Moon-Audio black dragon 2.5mm balanced cable, with either a black-Dragon 2.5mm-3.5mm SE pigtail, or a 2.5mm-4.4mm solid balanced adapter to listen on either jack. On the 3.5mm output the sound was perfectly fine but nothing stood out with them; however, after switching to the 4.4mm balanced jack they just opened up and came alive! It was another “WOW!” moment with balanced JH Audio Roxanne!

The Roxanne are the most picky IEM I have in my collection regarding the amp and source choice, and while an iPhone can drive my JH13/16 Pro or Westone ES5/60 quite well, the Roxanne can sound more bland on a lot of sources and only shine and become competitive when used with a good DAC/amp. I was extremely pleased with this combination.

My Westone ES60 custom IEM on the 3.5mm single ended jack sounded noticeably better than the JH Audio Roxanne on the 3.5mm jack, as expected, but not as good as Roxanne on the 4.4mm balanced jack. The ES60 have a better sense of space and air on the 3.5mm jack than the Roxanne had on 3.5mm, with very good bass impact and extension. Vocals and cymbals are slightly more withdrawn with this configuration than with the Roxanne as well. Switching to my 2.5mm balanced Silver-Dragon cable with 3.5mm adapter was a noticeable step up in mid-range detail and treble extension, so cables do have an effect, and in fact the Roxanne on Black-Dragon cable are a step up from the stock cable (both made by Moon-Audio).

But, switching the Westone ES60 to the 4.4mm balanced jack with a 2.5mm-4.4mm adapter was another huge upgrade over the 3.5mm jack! Everything opened up more and became more energetic and alive, and despite being an IEM the soundstage moved outside of my head. Vocals and cymbals came alive again as well. I didn’t do a rapid A-B comparison, but I’d say that the Roxane and ES60 are both equally impressive sounding via the 4.4mm balanced output, and less so via the 3.5mm jack although the ES60 have an advantage there.

All of this was with one USB-C to C cable connected to the data port of the Palab M1-mini and my 16” MacBook Pro, listening to Tidal HiFi and Master tracks, with MQA decoding done on the Palab DAC. Unfortunately, even if connecting the USB-C power delivery port to power, the iPhone USB camera connection kit cannot be used with the M1-mini via the data port. The iPhone just didn’t see the DAC as a source in the selector, even though the M1-mini was powered up via USB power port.

When I pull the USB-C cable out of the MacBook, Tidal which was set to use the Palab as the MQA device alerts me that it there was another "MQA Device Detected: MacBook Pro Speakers". This tells me that when the 1st MQA device was removed, that it looked for another.

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I hope this review helps get people excited about this great new portable balanced DAC/amp that came out recently. I certainly am excited about the M1-mini and it's simplicity. I'd call it a jack of all trades, master of none; but it seems to have mastered the hard to drive HD-6XX quite well, and also impresses with HD-600 too. Easier to drive headphones like the Edition-X, Grado HF-2, HE-1000 V1 and HE-1000se also perform great with this amp on 3.5mm, and some will really shine when using the 4.4mm balanced output, while some do not fare nearly as well when using the 3.5mm output. With the 4.4mm balanced output, the JH Audio Roxanne and Westone ES60 can sound just about as good as they ever could with any other DAC/amp.

If you can’t afford a balanced headphone cable, I found the Grado HF-2 and HiFiMan Edition-X V2 to be an excellent choice for the 3.5mm output, as well as JH Audio JH13 Pro, JH 16 Pro, Westone ES5, and Westone ES60.


Here are the specifications of PALAB M1-mini copied from the manufacturer:

Inputs:
• PWR : External 5V Power Supply Input (for coax-optical use). Ext Power shuts off power to Data USB for cleaner signal.
• Audio : USB Type-C to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, Windows OS with
ASIO Driver : data stream up to 384KHz/24Bit and Native DSD 256.
USB Type-C to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, Mac / Lunix OS : data stream up to 384KHz/24Bit and DOP DSD 128.
• COAX and OPT : Supports PCM 44.1KHz ~ 192KHz/24Bit and DOP DSD 64.
• DAC is an ES9038Q2M with decoding for MQA, PCM, and DSD

Outputs: Low gain mode ( L / G ), High gain mode ( H / G ).
• 3.5 mm stereo jack: THD < 0.1%
Output power: 32 ohms,180 mW( L / G ), 180 mW ( H / G).
Output power: 100 ohms,155 mW( L / G ), 310 mW ( H / G).
Output power: 600 ohms, 27 mW( L / G ), 55 mW ( H / G).
Output power: 600 ohms, 27 mW( L / G ), 55 mW ( H / G).
• TRRS 4.4 mm balanced jack : THD < 0.1%
Output power: 600 ohms, 55 mW( L / G ), 110 mW ( H / G).

GENERAL:
• Dimensions [W x H x D]: 48.5mm x 19mm x 86.5mm
• Weight: 113 g
• MSRP: $449

EDIT - typos. More typos, added bold
 
Last edited:
Feb 14, 2021 at 1:42 AM Post #2 of 4

HeadphoneAddict

Headphoneus Supremus
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I was hoping people would be interested in something like this - hope the review was helpful. I know I took a break from reviews, so many people don’t follow me anymore. Sorry.
 
Sep 30, 2021 at 5:21 AM Post #3 of 4

Dobrescu George

Reviewer: AudiophileHeaven
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The DAC/AMPs our world designed are better and better, with M1 Mini from PALAB Audio & PALAB Audio Taiwan 台灣 being simply excellent.

It is fairly rare to hear something so impressive from a newer company, but it managed to deliver everything I was looking for in a DAC/AMP, great driving power, Balanced 4.4mm output, Type-C input, optional Power input, Coaxial input, and MQA support!

This is an in-depth review with comparisons to the best DAC/AMPs out there, as we'll try to find out if M1 Mini is the right choice for you ~

https://www.audiophile-heaven.com/2021/09/palab-m1-mini-dac-amp-beats-the-chord-in-music.html

Pablab-M1-Mini-DAC-AMP-Portable-No-Battery-Review-Audiophile-Heaven-13.jpg
 

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