• Audioengine D3 DAC Review


    The plot continues to thicken around USB-stick-sized micro DACs. The release of the AudioQuest Dragonfly and subsequently the Meridian Explorer pushed the burgeoning genre even further into the audiophile consciousness. The lowly (by audiophile standards) cost of entry beckons the question, how far is this game going to go? The answer from Audioengine is another step in the southern direction with their newest release called the D3 ($189).

    While Audioengine is perhaps know best for its affordable computer audio loudspeaker setups, its reasonably priced D1 DAC unit ($169) has not gone completely unnoticed among the budget computer audio faithful. The followup micro DAC here keeps the company on pace with current industry trends and further challenges the idea that high fidelity listening has to cost an arm and a leg.










    The actual size of the unit harkens back to the gum-sized USB sticks of yesteryear. A single mini-jack analog out serves as a feed for both headphones and line-level output. Indicator lights are limited to two. One serves as a power indicator and the other as a “HD” indicator for file resolutions above 48kHz. The DAC section is capable of 192kHz input but output tops out at 96kHz similar to the Dragonfly. Audioengine stuck with a rather bare bones approach from a cosmetic vantage point with its simplistic silver-metallic two-piece chassis. After significant usage some heat can be felt emanating from the compact component, but nothing above and beyond the usual warm dissipation of your typical audio component. All-in-all the product looks quite content attached to my Macbook Air, matching the style and colorings of the silver casing with a single circular Audioengine logo gracing the top of the small device. Its overall weight seems both sturdy and compact enough to toss in your pocket or computer bag without a worry.

    The very straightforward website clears the way for several interesting technical tidbits. Output impedance: 10 ohms. While the overall effect of impedance on sound quality for headphone listening is still up for some debate, the power from the D3 and its LME49726 headphone amplifier was sufficient to gracefully push all but the hardest-to-drive headphones. From the Audioengine site: “The D3 is powered directly from the USB bus and power is passed through two stages of regulation to ensure no USB bus power variations affect the audio quality. This low-noise, low-ripple power supply is located on a separate circuit board for extra isolation and thermal management.” The background through the D3 proved to be dead silent. I wasn’t even remotely able to pick up the all-too-common hum that plagues so many devices via the sensitive JH Audio JH16s custom in-ears. Audioengine chose the AKM4396 chip for decoding responsibilities in tandem with a TI1020B USB controller. While ESS Sabre DAC may currently be the popular choice for full-size digital components this year, AKM chipsets have made a few appearances in some more premium-priced mobile devices (including Centrance’s Hifi-M8, $799). “The heart of the D3 is the AKM4396 DAC, well regarded for its low noise and high fidelity. Due to the high signal-to-noise specs of the AKM4396 and the added benefit of double redundancy power source conversion and filtering, the D3 presents impressive low noise and low distortion characteristics. The D3 can process digital audio at any bit depth up to 24 bits and any sample rate up to 192kHz. D3 pads (upsamples) all bit depths internally to 24 bits, thus achieving a higher signal-to-noise ratio.” Indeed, Audirvana Plus did identify file resolutions up to 192 entering the device, but output was limited to 24/96. Volume control is done via your computer’s operating system, and proved to work quite simply with both Audirvana Plus and my Macbook Air’s internal controls. In order to avoid some of the quality pitfalls of a purely digital control system, the Audioengine D3 employs a stepped analog volume control which is then manipulated digitally from your computer. The end result works just as well in execution as it does on paper. The D3 suffered no major shortcomings in control as either a headphone amp or a source when connected to an external amplifier or loudspeaker system. The LME49726 amp was surprisingly transparent in its lower volume translations of the DAC section, which turned out to be quite a blessing as sensitive IEMs listening levels were most comfortable at the lowest three or four steps of the volume control. The overall sound signature from the digital chipset at lower levels ran parallel to the sonic output through an external headphone amplifier with little deviation. That’s not to say that your favorite premium-priced headphone amplifier won’t bring a little more to the table, but rather the overall feel and characteristics of the DAC itself remained intact across the volume sweep to line level output (full volume from the D3).

    The D3 sounds like any good DAC should, uncolored and linear. Its even handed frequency response is further complemented by detail retrieval that is as good, if not better than most of the micro-DACs currently on the market, many of which cost a good deal more than D3’s current asking price. No major flubs here, just a solid, compact unit that can pull what you need from your digital source files.

    With the entry-level/gateway-drug pricing it seems more appropriate to start comparisons from the bottom up. What do you get for your hard earned funds? Improvements over the internal Macbook Air headphone amplifier and soundcard were significant, appropriate, but most importantly - immediately noticeable. It didn’t take any length of time to recognize the more natural texture of the D3 over the coarse flow of the Macbook headphone jack. Even the 24-bit high resolution file of the Beatles Here Comes the Sun jumped to life under the D3’s supervision. Harrision’s voice floated delicately in place along the right channel, far more in focus and clear than the sub par default output of the laptop. The experience is slightly akin to looking through a freshly cleaned window to see George waving back at you, a bit eerie almost. In addition this fresh-faced acoustic refinement, the usual sonic “upgrade” fare were all in place. Improved staging, tight response and heightened dynamics all contributed to the visibly superior output of the D3.

    The closest current competitor to the D3 is the Audio Quest Dragonfly. Similar in size and execution, the thumb-sized black unit has always shared a somewhat unique sonic texture that made it stand out from the rest of the herd. Extended usage with the unit as both a DAC and a headphone amplifier has revealed a bit of an energy burst that stretches from the upper mids into the treble. You could call it a more intricate sonic fabric on which to lay your music, or you could call it just a hint of color on an otherwise unseasoned acoustic retrieval. It’s subtle, but its there and makes the device slightly unique. The D3 is different. The mid to upper response is more or less uncolored and feels just as linear in its response to the rest of the spectrum. That is not to say the top end doesn’t sparkle and the mids aren’t rich, both of these niceties are plausible, but they do so with just a little less artificial sweetener than the glass of Diet Pepsi the Dragonfly occasionally serves up. As a result, the D3 sounded slightly less processed on some of the test tracks by comparison. The separation between the two units became a little more apparent as observations turn to low-end response. This is where the D3 really performed outside its price bracket. Definition and tightness of the bass section through the tiny DAC produced surprising results. Bass drum and bass guitar were easily identifiable as separate entities. Very little smearing or bloating were audible across the mid to low bass and was instead replaced with an interesting blend of responsiveness and pitch definition. One of my favorite tracks to test bass on is the lumbering blues track Everything is Broken by Billy Burnette. The bass guitar here really stands out in the lower region of the sonic kingdom and allows you and interesting perspective on your gear’s performance. The D3 delivered in rare form, handling the pronounced bass line with firmness and grip. The fidelity rendered from the bass guitar delivered clear picture of the bass string vibrating back in forth, as if the listener could feel the rapid timing of the frequency interval as it swung quickly between fret and bridge. The final result accumulates in a delicious rumble of tempered sonic control in a region that is often troubled with loosey-goosy deliveries.


    Conclusion

    As the market continues to tighten around this white hot segment, you will inevitably see even more products introduced and perhaps even prices that continue to drop like a LCD TV. If we are indeed heading for a plateau we haven’t hit it quite yet. Another round of revisions and upgrades for the original cast of products is already hitting the streets with a nearly annual timeline. For an initial entry, Audioengine has hit their mark with the D3. A good price, great delivery and well kempt sound quality round out the tiny package for the computer desktop junkie and budget audiophile alike. It’s DAC is highly resolving for a compact component and the headphone amplifier should fit the bill for a very wide range of headphone usage, should you choose to go that route. Even though there is a large selection of choices in this category, going with Audioengine’s solution is not a bad one. I highly recommend an audition if you are given the opportunity, Audioengine’s in-store distribution is actually fairly robust for an audio company. If you can’t find a store near you that offers their products, the Audioengine team can usually be found at all the major audio shows that appear across the US.

























    Product Information:



    • Product - Audioengine D3 USB DAC / Headphone Amp
    • Price - $189
    • Product Page - Link







    Associated Equipment:










    About The Author

    Brian Hunter
    I’m a recovering musician turned audio reviewer. I currently manage and write reviews for Audio-Head.com and freelance with several other publications. I love tech and the tools of music, especially the ones involved in reproduction. After I finished my undergrad degree in business I went to the local community college and got one in photography, which was way more fun. I like it when people have unbridled enthusiasm for something and I have the utmost respect for individuals who try to create, even more for those who are good at it.






















    Comments 12 Comments
    1. NOMBEDES's Avatar
      NOMBEDES -
      Now, maybe, we can forget about all of those + 10K $ DACs?
    1. QMarkES's Avatar
      QMarkES -
      I recently discovered the joy of music streaming for discovering new music. However, sound quality is generally not there (I'm on Rdio). Would the D3 (or the Dragonfly for that matter) improve sound quality. Even if the signal is 320 kbps, I figure the D3 would supercede the computer's internal dac. Is it the case?
    1. One and a half's Avatar
      One and a half -
      Nothing to do with the SQ for now, but for a change, please mini-USB DAC manufacturer's take a little notice.

      A notebook has very limited space, often the USB ports are fitted so close to one another side by side separated only by 2-3mm, if you are lucky. This only allows the mini-USB DAC to fitted with very little else. To use all USB ports, it means a hub, or an extension cable to the mini-USB DAC, so much for portability.
      The Geek is in the same boat, but they went even bigger making this issue even more obvious.

      The larger the mini-USB DAC is, the easier the leverage is, so it can break while being moved or accidentally knocked. This may (and does) damage the USB port.
    1. Brian's Avatar
      Brian -
      The D3 does indeed supersede the internal DAC of your computer. From my experience, the D3 helps a improve overall sound quality, but will not resurrect a horrible digital file (or stream) from the grave. Try to start with the best quality you can and go up from there.

      Quote Originally Posted by QMarkES View Post
      I recently discovered the joy of music streaming for discovering new music. However, sound quality is generally not there (I'm on Rdio). Would the D3 (or the Dragonfly for that matter) improve sound quality. Even if the signal is 320 kbps, I figure the D3 would supercede the computer's internal dac. Is it the case?
    1. mikemercer's Avatar
      mikemercer -
      GREAT job Brian. As always.
      Good to know we're both LOVIN the D3! I think it's Audioengine's greatest sonic achievement thus far.
      and YES!! @NOMBEDES
      maybe we can start to forget about those 10K DACs!!
    1. wgscott's Avatar
      wgscott -
      Any direct comparisons between this and the Dragonfly (old or new version)?
    1. phatoldsun's Avatar
      phatoldsun -
      Quote Originally Posted by wgscott View Post
      Any direct comparisons between this and the Dragonfly (old or new version)?
      From the review:

      The D3 is different. The mid to upper response is more or less uncolored and feels just as linear in its response to the rest of the spectrum. That is not to say the top end doesn’t sparkle and the mids aren’t rich, both of these niceties are plausible, but they do so with just a little less artificial sweetener than the glass of Diet Pepsi the Dragonfly occasionally serves up
    1. viggen's Avatar
      viggen -
      Thanks for the review. I bought this on TG and it's been my dac/amp at work powering up a pair of JVC HAFXT90 since. This is my first headphone amp/dac anything and found it to be irreplaceable as an IEM amp.

      It does a really good job with large phones too. I don't quite like it as much with Beyers DT990-pro/880-600 (a bit sterile for my taste) but is sounding great with Hifiman. I am utterly surprised that this little thing can do the HE500 justice (within budget/reason).

      My other rig sounds warmer, more textured, better bass control but is about 20x more expensive. (kora pre/greatech amp/audisector dac)

      Happy to finally find another review of this dac.
    1. Greggles's Avatar
      Greggles -
      I am a bit disappointed with this little device. It doesn't sound terrible by any means and is quite well put together for the price. Refreshingly, the local distributor doesn't impose the dreaded "Australian Tax" as another plus. However, I can't find a use for it in my system. If anything the gain is too much for my ATH-AD700's and I just cannot detect any sound improvement over the headphone socket on my old Acer laptop with either iTunes or high definition flacs from Linn with the Audio Technicas. My AKG Q702's sound flat and lifeless through the D3. Arguably, even my old Sound Blaster HD external sound card does a slightly better job of driving the 702's but both pale against the Lead LA100 which is my go to box for computer audio currently - admittedly twice the price but still reasonable for audio gear. So I'm still lookin' for a truly portable solution for my 702's.
    1. artmaltman's Avatar
      artmaltman -
      Questions: 1. What does this leave on the table compared to higher priced DACs? This is a crucial question. If I spend $400, $800, etc., what more do I get?
      2. I love my Audioengine A5+ speakers but was hesitant to get into their DACs because they don't reclock from USB (async). In my experience, even very high end DAC's suffer greatly without USB reclocking. Did you pick up any distortion, which is the hallmark of lack of reclocking?
      3. What speakers did you test this with? We need to know how resolving is your test system.
      Thanks,
      Art
    1. Brian's Avatar
      Brian -
      Hey Art,

      For the asking price the D3 performs very well. Higher price points will generally get you better overall resolution, dynamics and a heightened sense of air and space, but as with many things in high end audio, 2X, 4X the price rarely projects equal leaps in quality.

      There was no noticeable distortion from playback through the device.

      Re: #3, See the "associated gear" section after the review.


      Quote Originally Posted by artmaltman View Post
      Questions: 1. What does this leave on the table compared to higher priced DACs? This is a crucial question. If I spend $400, $800, etc., what more do I get?
      2. I love my Audioengine A5+ speakers but was hesitant to get into their DACs because they don't reclock from USB (async). In my experience, even very high end DAC's suffer greatly without USB reclocking. Did you pick up any distortion, which is the hallmark of lack of reclocking?
      3. What speakers did you test this with? We need to know how resolving is your test system.
      Thanks,
      Art
    1. Tucker26's Avatar
      Tucker26 -
      From Audio Engine D3 specifications:

      USB transfer mode


      Asynchronous (dual clock)

      Am I missing something, or are you?





      Quote Originally Posted by artmaltman View Post
      Questions:
      2. I love my Audioengine A5+ speakers but was hesitant to get into their DACs because they don't reclock from USB (async). In my experience, even very high end DAC's suffer greatly without USB reclocking.
      Art