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Rise of the mid-priced DAC/amps: Mojo/iDSD Micro/M9xx vs Others

Discussion in 'Portable Source Gear' started by WilliamLeonhart, Oct 27, 2017.
  1. WilliamLeonhart
    Disclaimer: I don't intend this post to be the ultimate "mid-price" buying guide. It will only include my very own impressions about the DAC/amp mentioned, there will be no graphs nor detailed reviews – many great head-fiers have done that before me.

    The idea only stemmed from my sudden realization that there are way too many great products in the mid-price segments. What's a mid-priced product, you may ask. Well most of these retails at about $500, some of them might be a few hundreds more expansive, some of them already discontinued, a lot of them frequently discounted. So my generic definition of "mid-priced" is just that, they ain't hoping for the ODAC/O2's audience, and they are not real Chord Hugo competitor, either.

    So, read on and pray tell me (and the other head-fiers) about your own experiences as well. I'd happily include some more "mini-review" for the units in this posts, especially those in the "honorable mentions" section.
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    The beginning of my journey was humble, but proud: O2 + ODAC (and in the background, Little Dot I+).
    It was almost 2 years ago and I just got recently married, happily enjoying my solid entry-level set up. I got an ODAC plugged into my Little Dot I+ and a Modi 2 for my powered speakers. At the moment, I thought the audiophile has reached its reasonable end. Both of my DACs were well-praised, not too expensive and both offered huge improvements over the standard headphone jack. My upgraditus had slowed down greatly, with me giving up on the higher mid-range choices (like RS1i) and thinning up the whole headphones lineup.

    That was my endgame. And it didn't last.

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    Roughly 1 month after I got the Modi 2, I was bored with it. Sure it was one of the more solid choices in the < $100 level, but there was honestly no reason to own both the Modi 2 and the ODAC. In fact, having gone through quite a number of entry-level DACs myself, I was quite amazed at how close they sound. Most of the time they make you realize your laptop's headphone jack is S#@%!, and they offer just enough that you'd think you don't need anything pricier.

    Oh how wrong I was. A friend lent me the Grace m9xx – which, funnily enough, costed $200 according to his wife and $500 according to Massdrop. A big realization came to me: great as they were, the ODAC wasn't everything.

    THE HOLY TRINITY

    The m9xx: Truly Gracious

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    It will be a few months before I get a m9xx of my own, but as it was the one thing that changed my mind about somewhat expensive equipment, I'd go into it first. To me, the m9xx has a neutral but somewhat soft-edged sound. During my (third) 325e's burn-in period, it never tore my ears apart – which was the case with the O2+ODAC.

    To me the improvements from the O2+ODAC to the m9xx was almost like when I first bought the O2+ODAC themselves. The sound opened quite a lot – which was clearly discernable on my powered speakers. It is smooth without cutting out too much of the high-mids or the trebles, a trademark of the AKM sound that I've come to love since. In retrospectives, this might have been the softest of the Trinity (m9xx, Mojo and iDSD).

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    The power was great too: while my Mayflower O2+ODAC would clip when driving the Q701 on high gain, the m9xx had no problems with the AKG 7 series. Having a separate USB power supply was certainly a plus, though I'm not sure if it made any difference on my AKG.

    Build quality was top-notch (it looked and felt great), but usability wasn't as great. You really have to read the manual. I'm serious. In this day and age, there's still a DAC that I can't operate without consulting the manual.

    iDSD Micro: Swiss Army Knife

    Before I could get a m9xx of my own, I bought the iDSD Micro. It was my first $500 DAC, actually. Which is because shipping from Massdrop to Vietnam/Singapore is a chore when the iDSD was readily available. I also had good impressions about iFi with the iDAC2, so why not?

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    Thankfully it was one of the rightest blind buys I've ever made: while the iDAC 2 was warmish, the iDSD Micro has a somewhat analytical sound with extremely clear trebles. It was really natural and yet did not cause any fatigue at all. If you needs something to give your Grado real energy all the while still afraid that your ears can get shredded, go for the iDSD Micro. It's the most neutral-like of the bunch, providing bass that's just enough and mids that don't close you in or push you faraway either.

    One other thing to notice about the iDSD Micro is that its amp unit is really, really strong, easily driving even the most demanding cans. This is due to the fact that the iDSD Micro share the same amp design with iFI's famed iCan Micro.​

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    You know, I really like iFi.
    That could also have been its greatest downfall: I've heard hisses on all the 16ohm IEMs that I threw at it. Thankfully there was IEMatch to the rescue - no hisses, no imbalanced anymore. Crossfeed ruins the sound while the bass boost is next to non-existent. If you listen really really closely you'd see that perhaps they do something, but in comparison to what the iCan can do, don't get your hopes too high.

    Which IMHO make senses, because: 1, you should buy the iCan SE (and the iTube, iLink and especially the iUSB3.0) and 2, the DAC alone justifies the price of the iDSD Micro. If a neutral sound with natural but energetic highs is your thing, go for the iDSD Micro.

    Chord Mojo

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    I think it can be fairly said that for the past 3 years (or whatever it is since the Hugo burst on the scene), an audiophile discussion wouldn't be complete without mentioning a Chord product. Which is the same for this one.

    Straight to the point: those who looks for a mini version of the Hugo must be disappointed. Well I was not, because the Mojo offers a smoother, more mid-centric sound signature. I think neutral-heads would prefer the iDSD Micro or the PS Sprout. It's not that the Mojo is clearly colored, but it certainly doesn't sound as, well, bland as the Hugo to me. Think, what would it takes to turn a pair of Grado 325is into an enjoyable experience? The Mojo definitely.

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    As someone who listens to a lot of slower, more melodic music, the Mojo to me was to me an instant hit. However there's still a lot of room for improvements: the battery life is really short and the unit runs really hot. I would have no problem if Chord made a product twice the size of the Mojo to solve all that.



    Aune S16

    Despite the fact that we are a huge community spanning the globe, we Head-fiers still haven't given some great products the attention that they deserve. The Master Dynamics MH40, the Aune S16, the PS Sprout are among the first names that I can think of at the moment. I mean, look at their threads.

    20171020_152746.jpg
    On the right.

    Let's talk about the Aune S16 first: to me, it's a perfect example of how far Chinese engineering has come. At least in terms of DAC, anyway: the amp section sucks. I mean it really, really sucks, it sucks so much that my dirt cheap (albeit a bit modded) Little Dot I+ still do a much better jobs at driving my low-imp Vietnamese made earphones AND my 600-ohm Sennheiser HD540.

    But the DAC is a whole different story. I've let go of all the "holy trinity" (iDSD Micro/Mojo/M9xx) just to keep the S16. Aune's implementation of the AKM chip gives a very clean, detailed yet butter-smooth sound. It pairs perfectly with my Denon + JBL speakers system, giving the set a bit of musicality to go against that dreaded "Denon dryness".

    So it can be said that someone would pay $700 for the Aune S16 only to use the DAC function. Well, I am using it that way (though I paid only ~$350 for it, used). But if you're already having a solid amp or a powered speakers system, I'd say it's worth every penny. I know for sure that I can't get a better more suitable DAC at that price.

    PS Sprout

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    Surprise: at $500 someone can outdo iFi in terms of functionalities. If the iDSD Micro is the "Swiss army knife of DAC/headphone amps" then the PS Sprout is the "Swiss army knife of DAC/amps", simply because it can amps both your HD600 AND your speakers. Including those 50 times bigger than it. I tried, it worked.

    And the Sprout also has Bluetooth, something that I don't expect at this price range – obviously we are now all thinking of the $1500 Hugo. To sum it up, the amp has a Phono function for your vinyls need.

    How great is the sound? To me it's quite similar to the iDSD Micro (and thus to the Mojo as well), with very clear and detailed DAC and an overall neutral-leaning sound. However, the Sprout suffers from a huge flaw: the noise ground is too prevalent when paired with IEMs. Normally the iDSD would have the same flaw, but iFi has this tech called "IEMatch" which I found to be working perfectly ( iDSD Micro with IEMatch turns on = no noise).

    I guess that's the price to pay when you have a phono amp and a speaker amp in the same packet. Worry not, though: if your main gigs are belong to AKG K/Q7, Sennheiser HD6 or even low-imp BUT full-size cans like Fostex TH-X00, then the Sprout might be perfect for you – i.e. all your cans and your speakers.

    Burson Play

    [​IMG]

    What makes the Play interesting is that it comes with multiple option, ranging from $299 to $549. The cheapest one has its own merits - and in Burson's tradition it'd still play your Sennheiser HD58-HD6 series perfectly. But the most expensive ones come with Burson's famed op-amps and ME would rival the Jotunheim in terms of raw power and sound quality. And yet my favourite combination of them all is with MUSE 8920 and AD97, economic but still very clean sounding.
    The remote control (with more expensive versions) was quite a good addition to my couch listening experience and Burson didn't hesitate to throw in a lot of high quality accessories. The only downfall? Well the DAC could be of better resolution. I wish it had been an AKM-based DAC instead.


    Honorable mentions

    The mid-priced DAC/amp that I've never owned/used for extended periods but have experienced and greatly enjoyed.


    Theorem 720

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    Photo from Cypher Labs.

    This DAC/amp puts the honorable in "honorable mentions". It easily rivals the "Holy Trinity" of iDSD/Mojo/m9xx. The sound is 90% neutral and 10% relaxed. The level of details is good, but what make it shines is the holy soundstage when you're using it as a DAC.

    Here's the catch: the Theorem 720 retailed at $900 and is discontinued already (now you see why it got me sing praises). The reason it gets mentioned (honorably) is because some time it'd pop up on our local online forums at around $500 or $400, depending on how good it looks.

    TEAC P90SD

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    Photo from TEAC. Can you feel the Japanese vibe?

    It looks great on paper. It comes from a Japanese brand. Hell, it sounds good (in this case, good = neutral, natural, any fancy words that're going to be repeated in a DAC/amp review), though the soundstage is not as big as the other products mentioned here. After a few years on the market, the price also got reduced from $600 to around $330. There's no reason not to buy and use the P90SD as a quality DAC/amp for your PC.

    Except that it's a DAP. It's marketed as a DAP and people buy it thinking they're going to use it as a DAP. And as a DAP it sucks, sucks, sucks. I've never seen any DAP with such a terrible UI. Even products that come from clearly-Chinese company with names like "xDuoo" or "Cayin" don't suffer from UI this bad.

    Well, just buy it as a DAC/amp for your PC. Might run a bit hot, but what amp doesn't?

    Schiit Jotunheim

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    Photo from Schiit.

    I have a love-hate relationship with Schiit. To put it simple, some of their products don't sound good (to me) at all.

    But some others are terrific. The Jotunheim AMP is one of those. With a balanced DAC, the unit reaches $499.

    It's exactly there that the "honorable mentions" part come in. The balanced DAC module is not on par with the amp unit. Do yourself a favor: if you want a Schiit DAC/amp combo that still counts as "mid-range price", get a Modi Multibit with the Jotunheim amp. This combo will costs around $650.

    Sony PHA2
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    Photo from Sony.

    Sony's approach towards the audiophile market has been very questionable. They discontinued the MA900, which is arguably among the best $200 headphones I've had. Then in 2014 they made waves with a $1000 DAP. Seems like Sony is somewhere in between "We want to make stuffs for those specific people" and "We want to make stuffs for the popular market".

    That's also my observation about the PHA2 (and). It's not as detailed or as neutral as the other DAC/amps in the price range, but it definitely sounds more high-ends than your average phone, laptop, DAPs... With more warmth than the Mojo, PHA2 is a great choice to start your audiophile journey – that is, if you had $600 to spend.

    (Btw, build quality is flawless)
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2018
    trellus likes this.
  2. artpiggo
    How do you compare ifi micro idsd with grace m9xx?
    I have auditioned ifi but I didn't have chance for grace since it is on massdrop's blind buy only for me.
     
  3. WilliamLeonhart
    To me the iDSD is brighter. The m9xx have softer edges that are quite similar to the Mojo. Among the three from "bright" to "soft" it's iDSD > M9xx > Mojo.
     
  4. RamblerBoy
    Hey thank you for this useful comparison..
    Did you ever have a chance to compare the mojo with ifi idsd using an hd 800s?
    With your hd600, do you feel that the mojo drives it equally as good as the idsd? I.e. the difference you hear in sq can only be attributed to the dac sections and not because mojo doesnt power the hd600 thoroughly.
     
  5. WilliamLeonhart
    Sorry for not noticing your question earlier as I've barely had time to visit head-fi lately.

    I definitely prefer the iDSD to the Mojo when driving the HD600 as it has more "bites" in the highs, but whether it's in the DAC or in the amp I can't really tell. I could say that between the 2, for the HD600, it'll all be about preferences on sound signature.

    What I'm sure is that the Mojo, while still giving enough volume, has quite short battery life for ALL headphones. For the HD600 it'll be shorter. The iDSD might be 1 or 2 hours longer.

    For the HD800 it's an entirely different story. It's very hard to find an amp for the HD800 that I can actually enjoy the music with. I've tried desktop class, mobile, tubes, solid state... So far only the Violectric V200 has done the job for me.
     
    RamblerBoy likes this.

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