Under $600 Portable DAC comparisons
Oct 14, 2016 at 2:06 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 1

Rish732

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Forgive me if this has already been started but I thought it would be good to have one place where people can post comparison reviews of portable DACs

I posted this in a Dragonfly Red and Black discussion (and if this is against the rules, just delete that post) but I feel this could be a useful thread for those hesitating between DACs in the sub $600 or so range. $600 since that's the MSRP of the Chord Mojo (the big daddy of this group, I feel)
 
This is for Portable DAC's that have some amplification built in or not. It's pretty wide open.
 
Here is my review/comparison of the Dragonfly Red to the Hifime Sabre 9018
 
1) Dragonfly Red
2) Hifime Sabre 9018 (not asynchronous, just the good ol' 96/24 version)
 
Now I know that they both use a sabre DAC - the Dragonfly being the 9016 and the hifime being the 9018km2 if I'm not mistaken but there are noticeable differences in implementation and amplification.
If anyone knows more specific details about these two sabre DACs I'm very curious.
 
Here are my thoughts on what I hear in a quick Showdown Listening session as I type this post.
 
Signal chain
Tidal Hifi streaming - CD quality 44.1khz 16bit
- Amazon basics USB 4 port (AC powered) - cheap but cheerful
- A) Dragonfly (DR)
- B) Hifime Sabre 9018 (HFM)
- Wireworld Pulse Minijack to Minijack 3 ft cable
- Output to Cayin C5
- AKG 7xx (Massdrop)
 
So no blind testing but here are my thoughts.
 
Tracks and albums
Keith Jarretr - For Richer or Poorer
Dave Brubeck - Take Five (album version)
Miles Davis - So What (off of Kind of Blue Legacy version)
Daft Punk - Get Lucky
Lorde - Royals
James Blake - the album James Blake
Dvorak- Ashkenazy, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, - Sympony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 from the New World: 1 Adagio, Allegro Molto
 
Sound
Dragonfly Red (DR) vs. Hifime Sabre 9018 (HFM)
 
By Genre
In Pop songs -  Daft Punk, Lorde, James Blake (though he's really in another realm, give him a listen, it's fantastic) 
The DR has more detail and more imaging by a hair
The HFM has a slightly easier signature to listen to for a while.  No harshness (the DR has an extremely light harshness) in cymbals or synthesized hits. 
 
Jazz
The HFM has the edge for me.  It lets me get into the intricacies of rhythm and musicality with a bit more bass (subjective tastes) I hear enough detail.
Though in the DR, Keith Jarrett's little musical squealings are just a little bit clearer if that's your thing.  Which I get, it's what makes him, Keith Jarrett. 
 
Classical
Here the DR edges out the HFM, since it has that detail and treble the soundstage feels wider.  Maybe you hear that baton on the stand more clearly.  Or maybe you hear the bows being picked up just a tad more resolved than the HFM. 
 
Overall sound notes
Pros of the Dragonfly
- I find the DR sound to be a bit more airy and less impactful in the bass.  I find detail to be slightly above the HFM. 
- the DR sounds a tiny bit more neutral with a clearer rendition of the highs
- Seems to power the K7xx slightly more easily than the HFM
- Slightly more holographic sound stage, feeling of increased separation (perhaps only perceived) I'm not well versed enough to talk of depth and height but I feel the soundstage a bit wider with the DR. 
 
Cons of the Dragonfly
- Slightly more strident sound in the highs, which can be fatiguing at higher volumes and after a long listening session.
- Driving headphones directly from the Dragonfly gives a bit more treble.
 
Pros of the Hifime Sabre 9018 (HFM)
I keep going back to the Sabre since
- it costs way less
- it renders a slightly more impactful bass and a slightly more neutral mid and high signature which makes continued listening easier on the ears.
- Driving headphones directly from the HFM gives some thickness, some body to the sound while still giving a decent soundstage.
 
Cons of the HFM
Slightly less detail and when I switch from the DR, my immediate thought is that it sounds muddied but powerful.  I'm exaggerating, the difference is extremely subtle but important to state.  In an AB (non-blind) test you will get this feeling.
 
However after less than 30 seconds I find myself slightly preferring the HFM
 
Appearance and Build
The Dragonfly Red is by far the better build. Save perhaps the fragile paint job.  It's solid, the usb cap feels like a proper cap.
The Hifime Sabre 9018 is in an inexpensive but sturdy plastic case with a single LED.
for looks the DR wins hands down.
 
Price
The HFM Sabre 9018 wins hands down.
The Dragonfly red is 2 times the price (used it's maybe $175 if you're lucky as I was)
 
Verdict
It really is a toss up based on personal preference. 
If you crave detail and like to jump into the soundstage then the DR is for you.
If you want just enough detail and a more relaxed and bass impactful listening experience than the Hifime Sabre 9018 is for you. The soundstage is there but maybe less clear since the bass is more present. 
After about 5 minutes though (and this is key) I forget which one I have in and I look to see.  So this may say a lot of this comparison.
I'll just end by saying the DR is ever so slightly thinner than the HFM. If you like your sound thin and slightly more dainty, resolved go for the DR
If you like your sound thicker and with a bit of ease and class go for the HFM

That being said if you have an amp with a bass boost (like the Cayin C5) perhaps the difference isn't as obvious.
 
EDIT - Listening to a song like James Blake's Retrograde really highlights the differences.  The DR is detailed and clean whereas I really do find the HFM more impactful and soulful in some way.  The Bass and mid Bass is more present while still giving a fantastic soundstage.  This is a tough comparison to let go of!
 
Hope that helps (probably not!) and please hit me up for clarification as needed. 
Thanks!
Rish
 

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