I like Kawaii stuff. I’m a 31-year-old man and proud of it. When I first opened this Spectra’s box and realized just how small it was, I truly did not expect the product could possibly sound as nice as it does. The world of Hi-Fi seems to be shrinking, at least when it comes to great middle tier amps and DAC’s. With such a wide selection of fantastic products in the sub $300 range these days, I am very curious to see just how well the Spectra performs against the competition.
When I opened the package, my family had been sitting around nearby at the dinner table and my youngest niece wanted to know why I just plugged a pencil into my laptop. She giggled at me and called me dumb, straining to raise an eyebrow and sipping on her juice box.
Truly, the Spectra is the size of a small marker or an old school, thicker than the usual No.2 pencil. At 89mm x 11mm and 17g in weight, I did not think a very long and extremely thin board could be produced in this manner that also sounded fantastic…especially not one that is 32bit and DSD enabled.
College students working on laptops are going to love this design, as they can easily stash it away in their pen holder or inside their portfolio for safe keeping and not worry about it being an eyesore. Having an all aluminum USB DAC that you can freely carry around is pretty much ideal, don’t you think?
The DAC Tech
They’ve implemented the ESS Sabre 9018Q2C DAC extremely well. As I was hinting at earlier, I am shocked that they were able to grant output power enough to satisfy 150ohm headphones, retain a very small design and also a 32bit DAC. What more can you ask for outside of it cleaning your house and taking the dog for a walk?
The DSD 11.2Mhz functions perfectly, thankfully. I don’t have any issues, although this DAC does not have the power output to make 300ohm usage with DSD files viable. The volume will be too low, so you’ll need an amp for sure. IEM users will not have an issue, I think in software volume will be more than sufficient for proper listening levels.
Watching The Raptor Egg Hatch
Truth be told, Elliot sent me this Spectra a very long time ago, I had received it when it was a beta model. I watched the firmware grow and become more complete as time went on, adding new features and functionality every other week or so until it became a full-fledged production unit. I was impressed how fast this company was working and just how much they’d accomplished in so little time. I think this Spectra takes the win for the longest I’ve ever had a product prior to release.
How I’ve Been Using It
Before I get into the qualities offered, I wanted to jest a little about how and why I use it the way I have been. For those like me who have more than a few DAC’s already and are running out of desktop space (which is a lot of us, it seems) I’ve opted to use this Spectra as my home-primary DAC to connect to my Speaker amplifier, primarily only for Speaker usage. I am using an Audio Engine HDP6 and I feel absolutely elated by the combo.
I do not require more out of it, I do not need more power from it, it is small and sits nicely where it is sitting among the rear wires I have tied up behind my desk and this is truly exactly what I want. I do not want a front facing USB DAC that sticks out of my computer any more than the head of the USB does. Especially not if it is a laptop. Personally, I believe this is an ideal DAC for usage with most speakers because it is a no mess, no fuss setup that doesn’t require me to toggle anything manually.
Great For Frequent Travelers
Travelers will understand my plight here, in that extra space of the design of the physical unit itself catching on stuff, or your worry for clipping it, accidentally, and bending the metal portion of the USB input. I do not want that. I would much rather the DAC have a standard USB lead head that plugs into the USB port and then has a fabric cable that lets me rest the DAC alongside the edge of the laptop. I’ve not been able to do that until I got this Spectra.
All the other DAC’s I use on the go or even at home that are small, all jet out of the USB port too much. This Spectra is, at least so far, the safest design I’ve come across. I also prefer this type of a design, immensely so, over standard USB DAC’s that stick out of the USB port so far! My apologies for that subjectivity, but I felt this incredibly important to highlight here. Because this Spectra is basically a pencil design with a fabric cord that connects to the USB head, it can be safely stored or even strapped to the side of a laptop, or even the desktop PC itself, perhaps, with some felt or double sided tape. It never gets in the way, is what I am getting at.
I consider the Spectra reference/clinical in setup when it comes to all things low ended. Quantity is an issue for me on a subjective level, it won’t satisfy bass heads unless you are using a proper DSP with Foobar2000 (realbassexciter).
With that cranked to +10dB, you’ll get solid quantity at the cost of shearing off quality. I normally keep it at a +5dB value, seems the best of both worlds to my ear. I’d call the stock, un-EQ’ed sound of the Spectra to house the first steps of bass-moderate in quantity offered. Meaning, not much, but not quite what I’d consider truly lacking in heft and a physical amount in a literal sense.
As for quality, the Spectra offers excellent bass clarity. Enough to satisfy my HDP6 ($500) speakers and then some. So long as you are sticking to middle tier headphones or speakers, I wouldn’t worry. The purity of the Spectra’s DAC is just fine and agreeable towards the price of the unit. Mid-Fi setups will sound good with this, Hi-Fi setups will be bottle-necked by the Spectra.
So, stick to excellent Mid-Fi headphones and speakers in general and you’ll get the most of this DAC for the duration of your time with it. Bass, in general, seems quite fast and precise, I do not detect any decay slowness, nor any boosted feel to it on a 0 EQ value setup inside any software I ran tests in. This is a good thing if you want to keep things “reference” in tone and setup. But do note, bass enthusiast headphones are not well suited here unless you are willing to raise the bass EQ to a +5dB or beyond level.
Thankfully, no recessed sound exists on this product. I can’t tell you how many DAC’s in this price tier have a slightly recessive tendency towards the midrange experience. It is upsetting and one of the primary reasons I avoid buying sub $300 DAC’s these days.
The Spectra is not the most forward DAC that I’ve come across, but it is still well within the boundary of “forward” enough to call it as such. My ear wants slightly more forwardness on a subjective level, so those vocalist enthusiasts out there with very forward midrange headphones (LCD-3 types, for example) might just slide by to a home run with this DAC if this is all your budget allows for.
Quality is again, on the purer side and lacking bloom and never straying outside of moderate heft in tonality and substance. Meaning, the Spectra is not thick sounding, nor is it overly thin and megaphone-like. It is a solid “can do most things well” type of a product so far and I can’t find a headphone that sounds bad with it.
My relaxed midrange HD6xx from Sennheiser still sounds relaxed enough, my very forward Custom IEM’s sound a little less forward than usual on my Cowon Plenue M, for example. But, that isn’t an issue at all for me, as the difference between the physical locale of the midrange is nominally different between them. For $300 and under, the quality offered is excellent. Especially so with DSD in the mix and when filtered through a proper amplifier in the chain to help my more inefficient headphones in my collection.
Ah, the weak link. I consider the upper end of the Spectra the only real downfall of the product that I could find. While it isn’t poor in the slightest, I do consider it a bit dry, lacking that sparkle in tone and further still lacking enough quantity to do justice to an HE-500 from Hifiman, for example. It certainly rates well, but not great.
The very nice bass and mids are taking center stage in the quality department and you can hear a bit of a drop off up top as a result: very nice bass, very nice mids, just okay treble. I suppose that is because they may not have wanted an overly clinical appeal up top as well as is in the bass and midrange, which would certainly make the DAC harsh sounding and not as well rounded for headphone and speaker pairing as it would be, as is, with a more subdued treble response.
Thank the audio spirits that this DAC doesn’t have a nasal upper midrange and lower treble issue…which many DAC’s in this price tier often showcase as a severe problem.
Bite factor is a non-issue as well. Meaning, the DAC isn’t hard to listen to and is relatively non-fatiguing. I can say that my Dragonfly from AudioQuest (another small DAC) is quite noticeably more harsh up top and harder to listen to for prolonged periods of time.
This becomes very evident with harsh treble sets I have laying around here, such as the Fostex TH-X00 from Massdrop. With that headphone in play, along with the Spectra, I can feel at ease knowing I won’t be wincing so much as I would be with various other DAC’s, such as my Schiit Modi/Magni combo and that Dragonfly DAC.
I wouldn’t expect much out of this DAC in regards to soundstage vastness. It is relatively low key in that sense, but once again, I do not feel it overly lacking. I’ve heard worse, but I’ve also heard much better.
The depth of field is the best aspect of the unit’s imaging potential and it plays well with very good imaging headphones in the middle tier, such as the Philips Fidelio series or even the HD650/6XX from Sennheiser. It is height and width that are a bit problematic by comparison to the very good depth of field for a $129 DAC such as this. I can’t expect this to be on par with a full-size DAC, something like the Schiit Bitfrost.
Separation of instruments and spaciousness overall is still within good parameters, but pairing this with only an HD800 (a headphone with the best imaging available) is probably unwise. Although, still fine if you chain the Spectra as a pure DAC to a great and spacious amplifier for usage with the HD800. I’ve been doing that with my Airst Audio Heron 5 amplifier and getting good results from it.
Well, this is a heck of a little DAC, if you ask me. Complete with DSD and 32bit functionality, a tiny design that is pocket-friendly, well thought out and very quiet on hiss factor. Elliot and his team over at nextDrive worked tirelessly ongoing from the Beta model I received so long ago, to full on production models currently available.
Being there every step of the way was incredible and Elliot has kept me updated with every piece of new information since the day I received the first unit. That, in itself, is a testament to how dedicated this company really is. With that in mind, I expect incredible things from this company in the future.
I am impressed with what this is capable of. At $129, with some different adapter head versions available, USB2.0/Lightning and a Micro USB version coming soon, I am absolutely shilling this as one of the best DAC’s on the market for the price tier. Finally, we have a budget-friendly DAC that does DSD that keeps travel-prone users in mind. Thank the audio gods. Someone finally listened to me.
I thought this product was good enough to use as my primary DAC for speaker usage even when I had the beta model in pre-production. With the final release production version, I am positively astounded you guys were able to input that much data and functionality so fast. Great job, team nextDrive.
- ESS Sabre 9018Q2C
- Supports input data Up to 32bit 384kHz PCM data DSD-11.2MHz data
- Frequency response 20Hz ~ 40kHz
- >= +121dB DNR
- <= -110dB THD +N: 2Vrms @ 300Ω load
- <= -100 dB THD +N: 49mW @ 32Ω load
- MAX. Power Output
- 2Vrms @ 300Ω, 49mW @ 32Ω
- Input Connector USB 2.0 TYPE A
- Output Connector 3.5 mm (1/8″) gold-plated stereo mini jack