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Review of the portable USB DACs (Audioquest Dragonfly, Meridian Explorer, Director, iFi iDAC, iDSD, Geek Out, Pulse)

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Disclaimer: For people who knew me, they all knew that I can be a bit critical, if you don’t like what you are reading, please simply ignore my reviews and enjoy the music.

 

There are already many reviews of those DACs online already, what I would like is to look at them from an audiophile point of view. Regardless of price, how do they stack up against the full size DACs that we have at home, can it truly be the heart and soul of a portable audiophile system?

 

Background:

It has been a while since I share some reviews on CA, for the past year, I spend more time overseas than at home… there is just no stopping this globalization thing. Due to the frequent travels, my main system is gathering serious dust. On the other hand, we man must have toys to play with and my life won’t be the same if I don’t have music.

 

So here comes a series of portable audio gear reviews including Audioquest Dragonfly 1.0, 1.2, Meridan Explorer, Director, iFi iDAC, iDSD, Geek Out and Pulse. Due to the manufacture defect issue, I still haven’t got my hands on my Geek Out, Geek Pulse is scheduled to ship in May; and due to the reason of being sold out everywhere, I have just received my iFi iDSD a few days ago, so the its review has to wait a little longer till I am familiar with its sound and it has been properly burned-in (but so far it is very promising). … I also had the HiFiMan Portable Player at hand, may do a separate review on that when I have time. I will update this review once I have the rest on the DACs here.

 

I tested those DACs with my Macbook while I am travelling, with Shure 535 and Sennheiser HD 800, also with a pair of QMS active speakers when I am in my service apartment in Beijing.

 

IMG_1237.JPG

 

I will post some photos of the DACs and also pull photos of the DACs from the web, those photos are more for identification purpose, not for eye candy. Because I am not into photography and I only have an iPhone for photos (audio alone as a hobby is bad enough, if I am into photography too, I will in no time receive a letter from the divorce lawyer for sure).

 

Audioquest Dragonfly v1.0, v1.2

 

dragonfly.png

 

The first one is the Audioquest Dragonfly (now v1.2), which was quite popular USB DAC for the past couple of years. It is quite small but surprisingly heavy for its size. I first had the original version when it first came out, then when the V1.2 came out, I bought another one and gave the original one to one of my colleagues. Built quality is good, the rubbery surface finishing is a nice touch.

 

On support sampling frequency up to 96kHz, doesn’t support 176/192kHz; and no support for DSD and DXD. This is the biggest concern for our audiophiles. Even 192kHz is getting the stick at the high-end, only supporting 96kHz just won’t cut it, DSD and DXD is the future. It also doesn’t support smartphones (iOS/Android), adding a powered USB hub in between doesn't count as this is surely not portable. This limited its application to computer notebook as the only source. More on this at the end of the review (See Sidebar).

 

Sound:

 

To cut to the chase, it does sound better the internal sound system from my Macbook, but that’s about it … don't expect much from audiophile point of view.

 

The Dragonfly really gets the pace and rhythm a bit wrong—which, given the company's insistence that how good the clocks were, this was a surprise and proves DAC is not just about clocks. Bryan Ferry's vocals on the Roxy cut were so flat and uninteresting. Robert Silverman's performances of Beethoven's piano sonatas sound quite open but lacked any real sense of scale and the harmonics of the piano was seriously lacking.

 

Version 1.0 of the Dragonfly had a digital glare which we audiophiles all hated, version 1.2 of the Dragonfly improved in this area but still sounded fairly digital. Audioquest did a pretty good job marketing wise and actually convinced me to buy the version 1.2 and I did hope for a significant upgrade, but it turned out not to be.

 

Conclusion:

The Dragonfly is getting old with the limitation of 96kHz, and no DSD, DXD support. However it is the sound that is really a letdown. Version 1.2 is better but still far from good from an audiophile point of view. It is better than my Macbook built in sound card, but it is nowhere close to high-end from an audiophile perspective. The Audioquest Dragonfly is like the Monster Beats headphones (now Dr Dre Beats), excellent marketing but come up short on real sound quality. After all, Audioquest is a company making good cables … and apparently good cables only.

 

Overall, I will rate the Version 1.0 a score of 45 out of 100, version 1.2 at a higher 50 out of 100, not recommended.

 

Meridian Explorer

 

Explorer.jpeg

 

The Explorer is bigger, much bigger than the Dragonfly, but it is still small when comparing to the other portable USB DACs. Built quality is good, but the two end caps are made of plastic and can be scratched easily. Once scratched, it does add a cheap plastic feel to the Explorer which isn’t very nice to look at.

 

Support up to 192kHz, soesn’t support DSD and DXD. 192kHz is getting old (even the LG G2 smartphone has a 24/192kHz DAC built-in, although terrible sounding). Doesn’t support smartphones (iOS/Android).

 

Sound:

 

This shows when an actual audio company (not some cable company like Audioquest) designs a DAC, they at least know what they are doing.

 

Compare to the Dragonfly, the sound has an overall solidity which the Dragonfly is lacking. Everything move at the right pace, it has the ability to reveal layers of detail without becoming aggressive or forward. The opening of the Mozart Symphony No.40 was a little more forward in the upper midrange, but the stereo stage was nevertheless presented in a convincing manner. Jazz vocal is reproduced with clarity but slightly on the clinical side. Bass is tight but not exceptional deep nor powerful.

 

Conclusion:

 

It is definitely quite listenable from an audiophile point on view, nice clean sound, resolution is fairly good, listening fatigue is much less when compare to the Dragonfly. Drawbacks are not very musical, a bit on the cold side and lacking soul. Sounded more like German hifi sound to me than British. I would give it 67 out of 100, not recommended.

 

iFi iDAC

IFIIDAC.jpg

The iDAC is even bigger, but still portable at <200g. Doesn’t support DSD and DXD and maxed out at 192kHz. Doesn’t support smartphones (iOS/Android). Built quality wise is very good, we man just love those full metal toys.

 

Sound:

 

This DAC is something of a cult, at first I had difficulty in pin-pointing it’s strength and weakness, it is very musical and fun to listen to, it had me time and time again forget about critical listening. I really had to concentrate on the sound quality to identify its characteristics. First, it is big and open sounding, sweet in the mid-range and quite airy in the highs. The bass is full and punchy, but doesn’t have the stun bass which Krell amplifiers are famous for. Violin sound offered the right balance of the instrument's wooden body, steel strings, and rosined bow. Overall very balanced and organic DAC, can use a touch more meat in the mid-range, but it is already the one of the best of the lot in this department.

 

Conclusion:

 

This is surely a DAC that can fit into an entry audiophile system, of course it is not as good as the $$$$ offerings, but it has the right audiophile DNA, very musical indeed. I would give it 73 out of 100, recommended.

 

Meridian Director

 

usb-meridian-director.jpg

 

The Audio Director is the biggest of the lot so far, close to 300g. Built quality is good, but I still don't like the plastic ends, feels cheap somewhat. Doesn’t support DSD and DXD. Doesn’t support smartphones (iOS/Android).

 

Sound:

 

The sound quality is better than the Explorer, quite significantly so. It is even more solid and most importantly, it is musical. Similar to the iFi iDAC, it makes music. The musical pacing and momentum were satisfyingly clear and undistorted. Joni Mitchell's Shadows and Light sounded great except a little in-your-face. The soundstage of the Leonard Bernstein's 1974 recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 is open and big but also sounded a little dry.

 

Resolution wise is very good and similar to the iDAC. So far it is the most extended DAC top and bottom, even better than the iFi iDAC, it is ever so slightly less musical than the iDAC, but enough to leave both the Explorer and the Dragonfly in the dust.

 

Conclusion:

 

This is another DAC which I will classify it is starting to getting into high-end sound, sufficient in quality that we audiophile won't throw it out of the windows right away. I will give it 75 out of 100. If it can match the musicality of the iDAC, it will even score higher.

 

Sidebar 1: The future is MAS (Mobile Audio Source) …

 

To become a truly portable audiophile DAC, now being able to connect to smartphone is a must.

 

You heard it here first, IMHO portable audio players are dying fast. Two main reasons: (1) Dinosaur user interface; (2) doesn’t sound as good as dedicated portable USB DACs.

 

As all the portable audio players I have played with (A&K, Fiio, HiFiman etc.), all had 1980s user interface design, it is just a nightmare to use. The exception of course being the Apple iPod Touch, which uses iOS7. However, even the sales of the Apple iPod has dropped a whopping 55% last year, who’s not taken the hint?

 

Worst still, sound wise they don’t sound any better than dedicated portable USB DACs, actually many of them sound worst, a lot worst.

 

So if I have to take an extra piece component on the go, I will surely take a portable USB DAC rather than a portable music player. I will then use my phone/notebook as the MAS.

 

None of the above DAC supports any smartphone, the new iFi iDSD does, but I am still trying to get use to it, so the review has to wait a bit.

 

Sidebar 2: The best upgrade for USB DAC

IFIiUSB.jpg

Power is everything and here proved correct again. The best upgrade is the iFi IUSB Power. It improved ALL the DACs that I have tested above (they all use USB power), the effect is pretty amazing, the improvement can range from significant to transformation. For example, the iUSB Power makes the Dragonfly finally listenable; it removed most of the annoying digital glare. It really bumped up the above Dragonfly's final scores by 15-20 marks if the iUSB power is added.

 

For the other DACs, they all benefit from the iUSB Power significantly; this just shows how important the power supply is. I would say from gut feeling, the improvement is around 15-30% sound wise, if not more, pretty much guaranteed. However, the downside is that the iUSB Power needs mains power, so the whole thing is not really portable. But for people who don’t need the portability of the DACs, then this upgrade is really a bargain.

IMG_1229a.jpg

Edited by DM

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Great reviews.

 

I've tried or owned three of the items you mention -- the Explorer, the Director and the iUSB Power.

 

And perhaps this says more about my hearing acuity than anything else, but after using the Explorer for several months, I thought to try the Director. And while the sound quality is better than its older sibling, I didn't think it that much better, especially at more than twice the price, so I returned the Director.

 

Just another perspective.

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Great reviews.

 

I've tried or owned three of the items you mention -- the Explorer, the Director and the iUSB Power.

 

And perhaps this says more about my hearing acuity than anything else, but after using the Explorer for several months, I thought to try the Director. And while the sound quality is better than its older sibling, I didn't think it that much better, especially at more than twice the price, so I returned the Director.

 

Just another perspective.

 

Cycleman, if put the price into consideration, I do agree with conclusion. I didn't factoring in the price difference while doing the reviews as I was trying to base the reviews on sound quality only.

 

Thanks for the inputs.

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It has been a while since I share some reviews on CA, for the past year, I spend more time overseas than at home… there is just no stopping this globalization thing. Due to the frequent travels, my main system is gathering serious dust. On the other hand, we man must have toys to play with and my life won’t be the same if I don’t have music.

 

I will not comment your review from a technical point of view because 1) I can't consider myself an audiophile and 2) the disclaimer was clear.

 

However, I can tell you that what you wrote in the Background section is hands down the most brilliant premise I read in a HiFi review! :-) I totally agree with it!

Cheers.

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DM, thank you for your excellent reviews. I'm not purposely trying yo make this project more expensive for you but have you given any thought to adding the Resonessence Herus to your collection of portable usb DACs to review? It meets your criteria for hi res as it plays 24/192, DXD and DSD files.

 

Also, I own the original Audioquest Dragonfly and the Sennheiser HD800 and I 've found that the two do not match well together. In fact, the HD800 is known for being particularly picky when it comes to matching it up with headphone amps. I would also expect that considerably more people use IEMs than use phones like the Senn HD800 when it comes go listening on the go. Just something to consider when planning future reviews.

 

Esau

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How about the new Chord Hugo?

 

I had a look before but decided it is too big for truly portable (actually the Geek Pulse is too big already), but if I have the chance (as one of my friends is thinking of getting one), I will sure add it in.

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DM, thank you for your excellent reviews. I'm not purposely trying yo make this project more expensive for you but have you given any thought to adding the Resonessence Herus to your collection of portable usb DACs to review? It meets your criteria for hi res as it plays 24/192, DXD and DSD files.

 

Also, I own the original Audioquest Dragonfly and the Sennheiser HD800 and I 've found that the two do not match well together. In fact, the HD800 is known for being particularly picky when it comes to matching it up with headphone amps. I would also expect that considerably more people use IEMs than use phones like the Senn HD800 when it comes go listening on the go. Just something to consider when planning future reviews.

 

Esau

 

I have the Shure 535 as IEM, but that didn't work too well with the Dragonfly neither.

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Thanks for the review. Just got a second hand Meridian DAC for £225. Have ordered a iusb power, wonder how much improvement it will make. Can not wait now.

 

Don't kill me for the question but what is the point of adding 200 Euros and 200 grams weight to an object (the Explorer, 300 Eur, 50 gr) designed for being portable? With the same money wouldn't a desktop headphone DAC/amp been a better solution?

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Don't kill me for the question but what is the point of adding 200 Euros and 200 grams weight to an object (the Explorer, 300 Eur, 50 gr) designed for being portable? With the same money wouldn't a desktop headphone DAC/amp been a better solution?

 

Sorry for any misleading. The DAC I bought is Meridian Director, not Explorer. Forgot to specify it. Although Director is much larger than Explorer, it is still quite portable.

 

Because I travel a lot, what I need is a relatively portable device, which can be easily put in suitcase. And I 've already got Earmax Pro as my amp. I just love it so much and wouldn't even think about giving it up at all. I have tried some desktop DAC/amps before, some really good ones, like Antelope Zodiac Gold + Upgraded PSU (£3000 plus). They can still be carried around with a suitcase, but to be honest, the sound was not as enjoyable as my current setup. I am quite happy with my current "portable' system, in terms of money saving and sound quality.

 

At the end, to avoid any further misleading, I would like to specify my system:

 

iMac/macbook air >-- ifi iUSB power >-- ifi double head usb cable >-- Meridian Director >-- Chord Cobra Vee3 >-- Earmax Pro >- Grado RS1i.

 

Looks a lot devices, but really easy to fit in a suitcase.

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do let us know your findings :-)

 

The following experience based on:

 

iMac 2011 >-- ifi iUSB power (Aqvox usb PSU) >-- Supra USB 2.0 cable >-- Meridian Director >-- Chord Cobra Vee3 >-- Earmax Pro >- Sennheiser HD800 (with DIY single ended cable).

Now I have 2 well known usb power supply in front. One is Aqvox power supply, borrowed from my friend. I have listened to Director with Aqvox for nearly 2 days so have a basic idea how the sound is with this combo.The other PSU is ifi iUSB power, which I received about 2 hours ago.

 

I would say, both of them, give significant improvements in every aspect. Really huge impact, very easy to distinguish. Darker, wider, smoother, better extension, more 3D stage, more detail. The improvement is just so big that you can't miss. If you want to me quantify the improvement, I would say, 25% at least. That is huge amount in hifi world. But that is just my point of view, maybe someone else has another opinion.

 

Between those 2 PSU, the difference is not that easy to tell. After 2 hour listening, I would say, the winner is ifi iusb power. For my system, it appears that, with ifi, the background is slightly darker, not too much, just a little bit. That is hard to distinguish. The dynamic seems to be a little better, but I am not sure if it is just my imagination. But one thing I am sure. With ifi, the sound is smoother, more natural, more musical. Apart from those, I can't tell any difference, in terms of detail, sound stage, extension.

 

Just to clarify myself, This conclusion is not bias because ifi is a little more expensive. You can find a cheap ifi iusb in asia for something like £115. And Aqvox PSU is 97 Euro. £35 difference is really nothing in hifi. And this conclusion is drawn from my personal hearing and my setup. It may vary with different person and setup.

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Looks a lot devices, but really easy to fit in a suitcase.

 

Hi hrooo2002! Thanks for clarifying, now I understand better the situation.

Though I have to say we have different ideas of "portable". I also travel very frequently and thought that the Explorer was just at the limit of portability.

But obviously this is very personal so...

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Hi all, thought I'd repost my post from another thread here. I just bought an iDSD, along with a dragonfly, idac, and iusb power supply from ifi. DSD isn't a real concern for me, but I'm enjoying a free track now and to be honest it sounds better than many hi-res pcm tracks I have. I guess that makes sense as it's marketed as a DSD device (which has pcm thrown in for good measure). I'll be making my decision shortly what to keep.

 

Pardon the long explanation, but here's why I went a bit OCD on this.

 

Step 1) I initially bought the dragonfly 1.2 for my imac to feed my mcintosh 275 amp directly. There was a shit ton of noise, so I tried connecting it to my macbook pro. Perfect. Sounds great for $150, though it lacks a little bass through my speakers (headphones were fine here).

Step 2) Well, shit. I wanted it for my 2011 imac, and it turns out this noise through the usb is very, very common on this particular model. Let me try ifi's iusb power supply. Very near perfect addition. I could still hear a very slight hum through my imac->iusb->dragonfly->amp&speakers path just before and after starting a track. Just enough to bother me. For what it's worth, when running through my macbook pro I didn't hear a great improvement in the sound by adding the iusb power supply, so if I only used the macbook pro I'd probably not spend the $200 there.

Step 3) The iDSD and iDAC arrived a couple of hours ago. They didn't show up straight away, and there was a bit of unplugging and plugging in and crossing fingers... but once they're a go they're pretty consistent. Again, I'm plugging my amp directly into the headphone jack of these units and using the volume control there. The reason I tried the iDSD is because the literature said the power supply was always run from the battery inside the unit, which was charged from the usb. I had hoped this battery might disconnect whatever noise was coming from the iMac, but it hasn't. On the plus side, that little bit of noise right before and after a track with the iusb power supply and dragonfly? Not present at all when replacing the dragonfly with the iDSD or iDac.

Step 4) Sound. The best might just be the iDSD when running DSD from very very early impressions, but I need more tracks to really say. And this would be by a smidge over the iDac running flac files. 320 mp3s also sounded great. I'd say with pcm only the iDac is best, followed by the dragonfly and the iDSD slightly behind that. However, the iDSD will do 192/24 (and more I think) while the dragonfly is stuck at 96. Good enough for me, but a no go if I can't eliminate the imac & dragonfly hum.

 

Step 5) Try to find a cheap way to fix my iMac's hum so I don't need a separate power conditioner and revisit the three dacs. The iDSD is just large enough to be burdensome on the go, with the dragonfly a clear winner there size wise. All sound great for the money, and for the iDSD specifically, if you're more infatuated with DSD I wouldn't hesitate. If PCM only for small home situations, the iDac, and for the road warrior, the dragonfly. Which is still quite good for home use (limited by 96/24).

Additional notes: All that said, for my speaker setup I need a certain volume to really find my foot tapping. So I may end up getting a much better dac / preamp combo which can handle lower volumes better. Also, more and more the iDac is the winner among my shootout, enough so to make up for the iDSD feature set and portability and price difference - for my needs. If you want like DSD, want it portable, compatible with iphone ipad etc, definitely get it.

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Nice reviews of those DACs! I suppose your purpose is to rate them purely as a portable device directly driving headphones? This is a fair position to take I think given their designs. But if comparing to real "audiophile" DACs I'd say you would need to be running any of them through a dedicated amp.

 

I am surprised by the fact you found the iDAC significantly better than the Explorer. I haven't ever listened to the Meridian pieces but my general take (purely from reading) was that they were probably a little more refined than the iFi pieces. (I'm definitely not biased against ifi either, I am happily using 3 ifi pieces for my desktop rig: iUSB, iDAC, iCAN.) So was all of your listening through the built in headphone jacks and not through a dedicated headphone amp? If this was the case it wouldn't surprise me that the iDAC won because it actually does have a decent dedicated amp built into it that some obvious effort went into.

 

The iUSB Power definitely takes things up a notch with any USB powered converter. With the iDAC I do think the difference is more noticable using the headphone out rather than the RCA line outs, probably because it provides more current to the headphone opamp than a standard USB port.

 

For the ultimate portable amp I would take a hard look at the CEtrance HiFi M8. At $700 it's in the same money category as the Director, but it gets you a battery for use with smart phones, and a MUCH more powerful headamp section (both SE and balanced outputs to boot), and good DAC. It's a super cute little package.

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I was looking for a good match for my "portable" Beyerdynamic headphones and finally found one; Resonessence Labs HERUS.

 

Very nice device worth giving a listen in mobile DAC category. A bit smaller than Explorer but with full size headphone connector.

 

To me, Herus sounds best when running at DSD128, but this wasn't a surprise.

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I was looking for a good match for my "portable" Beyerdynamic headphones and finally found one; Resonessence Labs HERUS.

 

Very nice device worth giving a listen in mobile DAC category. A bit smaller than Explorer but with full size headphone connector.

 

To me, Herus sounds best when running at DSD128, but this wasn't a surprise.

 

Thanks for the info. Resonessence Labs HERUS does have nice size.

 

Now I am enjoying the iFi iDSD nano (still under review) with its analogue volume control. I have tried digital volume controls on many DACs > US$5000 DAC for my main system (not just 32bit, including 64bit volume control ones: Zodiac Gold), and they all were a let down. On portable gears I sought I might just have to live with it, but with analogue volume control, the sound is so much more musical.

 

Also I am hooked on the battery power supply. The iFi iDSD nano's battery power supply mode (it has two modes, USB power, Battery Power) really made the sound very very sweet.

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One point to consider. I have taken a look at the USB output power supply on a few different computers, and the quality of the power varies considerably, very considerably. Enough so that I suspect USB powered portable DACs could sound fine with some computers' 5VDC USB power and some will sound terrible, and really need a separate supply like the iFi. Just saying, not everyone will benefit a whole lot form the iFi (or other external supply). Also, try different USB ports on the same computer to make sure you are using the best one, as they vary as well.

Anyone get their GEEK OUT yet?

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Hi DM - You said, "This shows when an actual audio company (not some cable company like Audioquest) designs a DAC, they at least know what they are doing."

 

I highly recommend fact checking before leading people astray with untrue comments. The DragonFly was designed by the "Godfather" of high end USB audio, Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio.

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The iFi nano iDSD's burn-in is pretty much done, will do a review soon. I also got my hands on the Sony PHA-2, now burning it in, so stay tuned :-D

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