The EarMen Donald DAC is a budget-friendly portable pure DAC using a Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC and capable of MQA decoding. It is priced at $99.
Disclaimer: The EarMen Donald DAC sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion in this review. We thank EarMen for this opportunity.
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Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here.
A few weeks ago, I received another care package that contained two products from a company named EarMen. One is called the Donald DAC, which sells for $99 and the other is the TR-AMP, which is both a DAC and AMP combo in one that sells for $249.
Today, we will be taking a gander at the pure DAC called The EarMen Donald DAC, let’s see how this budget-oriented USB source stacks against the competition out there in the 2020 market.
Packaging & Accessories.
Often, we reviewers don’t get the full retail package for our articles. Sometimes, we get missing pieces and cables, as perhaps this specific sample was intended for reviewers before production started, and then it eventually made its way to me.
So, this DAC did not come with the stand that is seen on the EarMen website photos, nor did it come with any cables of any type. Just the small cardboard box. However, the TR-AMP came with a flat style USB Cable and it’s own box.
Do I even care that I didn’t get the cables? Half yes, half no. I have a ton of USB-C cables for Data and Power management of these devices. However, the EarMen Donald DAC has only an RCA output and nothing else…so…you will need RCA cables, or an RCA to 3.5mm/XLR interconnect, depending on your setup.
Truth be told, at $99? Probably better to keep costs down and not include things we audiophiles likely already had in abundance.
Earmen Donald DAC Design
The company says the chassis is made of metal, but it is very light and feels hollow. Compared to my RSA Shadow, a tiny little portable amplifier, the Donald feels like it is 3x as light.
As far as durability goes, I don’t see any issues in the build what so ever and can confirm the nice quality craftsmanship they stated about their design in the product description. Feels very, very light, and hollow to me, but the exteriors seem of an aluminum material so I am fine with that.
The RCA sockets seem standard and sturdy, as well as the USB ports. There is nothing else anywhere on the product to speak of, so it gets a solid pass in build from me.
USB Charging and DATA
This is a USB DAC that gets power from the USB port on your computer or your phone. Either or when used separately. You’ll need a second USB-C cable if you are running off your phone or laptop for data, but if you wish to have the unit powered separately via an outlet or power bank. That is a cool option to have.
The EarMen Donald DAC will be extra powered when plugged into a proper wall outlet via USB-C, or perhaps a portable battery pack when you want it to have that extra kick.
This is fine and a great option if you want to use it only via RCA out. Meaning, you need an RCA to female 3.5mm cable to plug your headphones into and then you’ll have to use the source music app/phone/laptop/etc to toggle the volume, as there is no volume knob on the EarMen Donald DAC.
I don’t have much experience with the CS 43198 Chip outside of the context of a DAP, as found in the EarMen Donald DAC. I do have experience with the Opus 1, which housed dual 43198’s inside of it though.
I believe the Luxury and Precision L4 also shared the same DAC chip here as the EarMen Donald DAC, so the DAC experience is solid and found in the last few generations of middle-tier portable music players that cost a few hundred USD at the time. For $99 now? That is a steal.
The tech behind the chip allows for 32bit/384 playback and DSD x128 native and x256 converted via a different codec to handle the output called DXD. You hardly ever see anyone even talk about this! That was surprising to read in the product info.
Typically, it is just stated as “this can handle x amount of DSD.”. I don’t want to get too into the DXD debate, but many out there agree its the best way to process DSD.
Don’t worry about this if you are a general consumer, odds are good you don’t even own DSD file types and the majority of your music is in MP3, Flac, or an occasional WAV file type. DSD is a higher resolution, that really is the gist of it. I should write an article on this…but that is for future Michael to write and not present-day Michael.
EarMen Donald DAC Sound Impressions
This chip is not known for exceptional bass depth and quantity, but it is somewhat regarded for excellent purity and fidelity factor. For the absurdly low price of $99? Heck’ good purity! I don’t have another DAC this price that can match it outside of perhaps a used Objective o2?
Implementation was well done in the EarMen Donald DAC, I am not a purist by any means when it comes to raw fidelity of the bass experience. Subjectively, I am a musicality enthusiast and prefer some texturing and colorations, gentle striations here and there that allow for warmth and depth to envelope.
The flip side of that is the clinical and accurate path that I find enjoyable enough now and then, of course. Basically, what I am saying is if you like exaggeration and some bass oomph, then this probably isn’t for you. This is a reference DAC, no doubt. The sound and tonality offered are one of a purist’s preference, at least in my opinion.
The DAC is less than moderately responsive to EQ and alterations via DSPs and software/app based source programs. Hiby, for example, has the MSEB system, which is lovely and I find the pairing of this Donald with the Hiby app to be shoulder shrug worthy at best.
Might as well not really even use any DSP or EQ with this system, as I’ve found the EarMen Donald DAC to not respond as much as I need it to. But then again, it’s a budget DAC so that isn’t really a travesty. This means that the Donald requires you to bump up the bass quite a lot before you can get an audible or physical change through your headphone experience.
Some DAC’s are very responsive and can audibly allow for a+2dB increase in the bass to be very noticeable. The same headphone and source material combined with a different DAC might not showcase as much leniency, instead, not having anything audible appear until a +5dB is set to a bass booster.
I am not complaining at all, the purity factor makes up for this and makes sense even, considering the tonal presentation is clearly for a purist.
The vocal experience is quite solid as well as placed physically in a neutral setting. Meaning, the location of vocals in the void of sound is not recessed, nor very forward and in your face.
This is not an intimate sounding DAC. Instead, it is more moderately placed between relaxed and what I would consider highly engaging in locale. Very forward sounding products are what I call highly engaging, they are set up for up close and personal recordings, where the artist or instrument feels very close to you, instead of relaxed and at a distance.
The EarMen Donald DAC is neither of those in physical placement. This is the preferred all-around good setup to have, especially so in a neutral tonality DAC like this.
As far as raw purity goes, this EarMen Donald DAC is a bit thin on the physicality aspect of the listening experience, which makes the entire spectrum from the midrange up to the treble feel a bit sharper than I would like it to be.
This is by no means a tamed USB DAC in sound type. So, if you are pairing with an amplifier beyond this, maybe shoot for something a little reserved in the upper midrange and treble quantity area, so you can negate the very plentiful upper mid and treble experience this EarMen Donald DAC offers. By no means is that a negative point I’ve just made.
Midrange Rig Pairing is Important!
Rig pairing is important. I think too much of the same type of sound makes that type of sound overly engaging. Meaning, powerful upper mids in the headphone + powerful upper mids in the DAC + powerful upper mids in the AMP = too much energy.
I bring this up because most of my Amps and headphones have powerful upper midranges because I love engaging mids. The EarMen Donald DAC offers a clinical view on fidelity, it is very pure sounding and a bit thin as well. But, in some reference sources like this, the offset appears in the upper midrange and too much of it in the chain of your rig can be negative.
As far as fidelity goes, the EarMen Donald DAC is probably the best overall sounding (in terms of purity) that I’ve heard lately for this price. The only reason I bring this up is that when I swap amps that are connected to this Donald, the experience is quite severely changed.
You can really alter the entire experience, depending on which amplifier you opt for and that is a lovely thing. We audiophiles want that type of a trait and not to have the product be super snarky with what pairs well with it. The EarMen Donald DAC is a can-do all DAC. No doubt.
As with most purist DAC’s, the treble side is usually bright and even a bit icy. I find that to be the case here with the EarMen Donald DAC. That gentle brightness factor is present in high-quality tracks but this Donald is immensely unforgiving with moderate to not well recorded audio tracks.
If you like treble quality and prefer a tamed experience, seek something known for a very tamed, warmer sound. If not and you are a raw purist who likes clinical appeal, then this is a great option for you.
The top end has some bite to it with regard to physical snap, but not overly so. Probably don’t mix this with something like the HD800 headphones, or something known also for unforgiving treble. NuPrime’s Hi-MDAC that I’ve recently reviewed had a gentle sheen to the top end, a glistening sparkle that I found to be quite lovely. I get very little of that sense with the EarMen Donald DAC and I don’t think that is a bad quality to exude.
Again, purists like one type of sound, musicality enthusiasts like the opposite of that purist sound. So, the EarMen Donald DAC offers what it should in a reference/clinical/accurate sounding DAC. I simply wish there were more substance factors to negate the thinness of the entire spectrum. If there is a weakness anywhere, it is in the treble physical tactility and substance quantity, which is less than desirable to me.
The EarMen Donald DAC sounds just like most budget DAC’s out there and I’ve yet to see this DAC chip implemented with a massive sound stage. In my testing, I’ve found that this DAC outputs a good and balanced overall sound signature with regard to imaging.
The overall height factor and width factor play ball with each other, neither opting for more scale than the other. The coherency factor is quite good on this model and depth of field is respectable. Plugging in my $400+ Hiby R6, while using the same music track with volume as close to matched as I could manage, results in the R6’s vastly superior realism and staging factor.
With that in mind, don’t expect the EarMen Donald DAC to outperform titans of imaging in the DAC world. By rights, the closest DAC that I have that sounds physically similar is the newer Xduoo XD05+, which sells for roughly $209. If anything, the air between instruments feels a bit overly strained and condensed, which I found a bit odd due to the plentiful treble quantity.
Typically, lots of treble = spaciousness in the airiness factor of the imaging experience, at least, to a certain extent. But, that is not the case here. For $99 though? I can’t complain. Odds are good you’ll be plugging into a dedicated amp anyway and that will improve the imaging experience, most likely.
The EarMen Donald DAC is one of the better budget DAC’s out there. I enjoy a load of purity now and then and I can safely say that this DAC is something purists will like a lot. You can also rig match quite shockingly well too.
By that, I mean the DAC really alters via your headphone depending on what Amp you pair with. It pairs with very clinical sounding amps, very warm ones, and also ones that are somewhere in the middle, like my Monolith THX amplifier.
Basically, this Donald is a bit of a chameleon when it comes to rig matching, so long as you are not looking for a truly warm rig overall, this is a good option in the budget tier. I really would like a 3.5mm on the front so that I don’t have to plug into an RCA to 3.5mm cable adapter.
I really wanted this model to be the all in one like the EarMen TR-Amp is from the same company. But, we are talking a super budget DAC that does well here so I can forgive that.
The EarMen Donald DAC is one of the better budget DAC's out there. I enjoy a load of purity now and then and I can safely say that this DAC is something purists will like a lot. You can also rig match quite shockingly well too.