USB DACs are nothing new to the market and I have only really paid attention to one of them the D3 from AudioEngine last year. Mike swears by his Aegis from Cozoy, others disagree but by and large my laptop has been a USB stick DAC free experience. I got what they are about and I understand the iGadget guys can benefit from a greater audio experience than what they current get right out of their on-board soundcard but apart from the D3 I have felt these sticks do not offer a huge step up to justify getting them as well as the fact DAP’s have a DAC function these days built right in there that can often be superior.
But I could change my mind. Especially when Sonic Unity asked me to try their $99 Encore mDSD stick, which I actually think could be the best yet in terms of sonic reproduction at the stick level and certainly the most capable in terms of specs for the price.
What is it?
It looks like a large USB stick and to the uninitiated you will probably think it is an oversized memory stick. Much like the AudioEngine D3 it packs an audiophile punch as a micro sized DAC/AMP that is designed to allow you to digitally bypass the rather inferior cacophony of audio from your on-board PC or laptop soundcard. In doing the resulting critical expectation is that it will output a symphony of joyous melody at a much higher bit and/or sample rate and thus you will have a much better audio experience with the headphone of your choice stuck into it. Hurrah!
Unlike other USB DAC sticks though the Encore mDSD decodes at fantastically high rates including 32-bit/384kHz PCM and native DSD 256 decoding which puts it out there almost in a league of its own in terms of future proofing and reproduction capability compared to the other mere mortal sticks in the market. Both the D3 and the DragonFly hit the decode ceiling at 24-bit/96kHz so modern hi-res file formats such as PCM and DSD are off the menu. They are also priced at $99 to $149 meaning value wise on paper the mDSD packs a lot more for the same price or less. Only the LH Labs Geek Out 100/1000/V2 USB DACs, priced at around $200 plus, are capable of DSD and even then its DSD128 as opposed to the mDSD which sails onto DSD256 without stopping to catch it’s breathe.
That being said it is one of the fatter USB DAC sticks out there in the market today. Those with an array of USB ports might not be too fussed on the fact that when plugged in the dimensions of the mDSD case actually prevent any adjacent USB ports from being used by other cables and gadgets such is its girth. Of course if you have a single USB port just sitting there then this is not an issue, but for a laptop such as mine, an Alienware then technically I need a USB extension cable to allow maximum use of all my USB ports. Luckily I have such a cable. It is odd how you acquire these things over the years and when they become rather useful.
The casing though is rock solid aluminum 2 piece joined at the center and feels plenty sturdy. It comes in two colors, black or silver. The silver matches up pretty well to Mac laptops in terms of color coding and the black should do for everyone else. On the bottom you have 4 small hex key screws holding everything together. The mDSD can also be sold without this case at $69 for those who want to tinker and build something a bit different than what is offered by Sonic Unit as the finish piece.
Everything else is well laid out though minimalist in aesthetics. To the left side you have two volume control buttons plus and negative labelled and to the bottom you have the dual 3.5mm/optical jack out. This dual jack I quite like. It makes the mDSD something more than just a standalone closed circuit DAC/AMP. SPDIF out gives me system connectivity.
The Encore mDSD is not only a DAC it’s also an amp as well as potential system component with SPDIF out, but there is more. It can also connect with iOS and Android devices using the Apple camera connection kit and any USB OTG cable and USB OTG digital audio capable phone. In fact, when speaking to Sonic Unity on this they mentioned that this was primary aim of the mDSD and what, they hoped, would set it apart even further and that was its high degree of flexibility in connecting to mobile class devices such as iPhones and Android phones.
The mDSD is built around the Sabre ESS 9010K2M DAC chip with XMOS USB chip. I have a warm feeling for this ESS chip. It’s a highly regarded mobile class DAC chip with a stable and low power draw and when implemented well can sound very clear with plenty of detail. Codec decoding is excellent with most lossless and lossy formats including DSD support. Quite a lot of the audiophile grade portable DAC products on the market today come equipped with the 9010K2M including the Resonessence Labs Herus and the NuPrime uDSD and at a higher price than the mDSD. The fact it can be stuffed into a $99 DAC speaks volumes for how much prices have dropped now on this chip.
Since the mDSD is not battery powered, instead drawing from the source power supply, Encore have wisely designed the draw from mobile devices to be less than 20mAh, below the max allowable from iOS gadgets and should avoid heavy or fast drainage from your phone or mobile source. That being said, resolution of files, volume of output and whatever else you are up on your device during playback, can and will affect battery life so this is not a hard and fast rule.
Page 2: Sound Impressions