In this review, we listen to the Khadas Tea, which is a slimline portable amp and DAC that fits discreetly on the back of your iPhone or Android device. It is priced at $199.99.
Disclaimer: This was sent to us as a sample for our honest opinion. Headfonics is an independent website with no affiliate links or services. We thank the team at Khadas for giving us this opportunity.
To read more about other Khadas products we covered before on Headfonics click here.
Note, this article follows our latest scoring guidelines which you can read up on here.
The Khadas Tea tonal balance leans towards being more energetic and engaging, only lacking in the last bit of overall texture and resolution. This is a great option for longer listening sessions, particularly with less demanding loads such as IEMs.
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Although Khadas started as a company that mainly manufactured single-board computers, the release of their DAC board, called the Khadas Tone Board brought them to the attention of many audiophiles and audio reviewers. In 2020, Khadas released the Tone2 Pro, a more polished desktop DAC/Amp which we reviewed early last year.
This time, Khadas developed a DAC/Amp that’s designed for portable applications with the very unique-looking Khadas Tea. With the track record of their 2 previous products, I’m hoping that they can bring the same level of quality to a fully portable solution.
The Tea is a portable DAC amp with a single ESS ES9281C DAC implementation that can decode PCM streams up to 32BIT/384kHz and up to DSD256 natively with MQA rendering.
It’s also equipped with a Qualcomm QCC 5125 Bluetooth receiver chip which offers up to aptX and LDAC codecs, with a maximum decoding resolution of 24BIT/96kHz.
The Tea does not operate quite like popular dongle DACs either. Instead, it has its internal 1150mAh battery which is rated for 8h of continuous playback so it won’t suck the juice out of your phone.
It is also MagSafe compatible, which simply means that it can be attached to anything that has a metal plate making stacking devices with rubber bands a thing of the past.
One of the highlights of the Khadas Tea is its form factor which makes it uniquely convenient, particularly for those who have the latest iPhones, or those who already have metal plates attached to their smartphones.
At less than 6.25mm, the Tea has a surprisingly thin profile that makes it more pocketable than most DACs. The width and depth of the Tea are a bit larger at 95.5mm x 63.8mm, which isn’t particularly small, but it can easily be hidden away behind your phone.
The chassis of the Tea is made with aluminum and anodized with either a black or a blue finish. There are only 3 buttons on the Tea, one on the left, and then there are 2 on the left. Both input and output ports are located at the bottom for convenience.
Being a device that’s designed to be portable and stealthy, the Tea has a more streamlined set of inputs and outputs, which includes a USB C input and a 3.5mm jack output.
The only other input option for the Tea is the Bluetooth connection, which supports LDAC and AptX HD, aside from the standard Bluetooth codecs such as SBC and AAC for iOS users.
The Tea prioritizes Bluetooth connections on initial boot-up, so having already previously paired the Tea to my phone, it connects to it by default.
I would typically need to disconnect my phone from the Bluetooth connection to the Tea, and then plug in a USB C cable and an IEM or headphone into the 3.5mm jack for the Tea to register as a DAC on my phone.
The left button on the Tea works as a power button and will turn the device off if you press it for 6 seconds. Then the 2 buttons on the right work as a volume up and down button.
Pressing the left button and the up button will allow the volume rockers to work as the next track/previous track. Then pressing the left and down button would toggle device charging. To go into Bluetooth pairing mode, press the left button for 3 seconds, and it will be ready for pairing.
Aside from the buttons, the Tea is also equipped with a single LED light on the lower-left corner. This is made to work as an indicator for the status of the device, it blinks quickly in blue when in pairing mode, then turns into a pulsating blue light when it has established a Bluetooth connection.
The LED is also used to indicate the file being played back, the battery status, and mode configuration confirmation.
When my phone is near the Tea, the Bluetooth connection is rock solid, and latency is very difficult to detect. It’s only when I’m watching a latency test video that I can discern a small amount of latency, maybe up to 5mS, but not much more.
With the Tea being designed to be magnetically attached to a phone, I would presume that it wouldn’t be far away from its source that often. However, it’s also possible to listen to it while it’s in your pocket, so I tried walking around with it around my house, and in my tests, I needed to walk around 5m away to the next room before the signal started dropping.
Packaging & Accessories
The box that comes with the Tea is small, and the front and left side shows a picture of the Tea, then the back of the box has a write-up about what the Tea does. Overall, the box of the Tea isn’t much to look at, but it clearly shows that it’s supposed to while being hard enough to protect the contents effectively.
Inside, the minimalist aesthetic continues with a paper mache tray that protects the DAC while it’s in storage or transport while the top of the box has foam to protect the DAC as well.
Underneath the DAC, there is a small leaflet that shows all the information required for the operation of the Tea, which is very helpful and easily comprehensible.
Then finally, there are 2 10cm cables underneath that are terminated with USB-C to lightning and USB-C to USB-C which can be used to connect the Tea to your phone without being obtrusive when the devices are stacked.
On first listen, the Tea maintains some neutrality while having a more full-bodied presentation, particularly with mid-bass centric tracks. Although not the most detailed, textures and spatial cues are still apparent when you know where to look.
When it comes to the soundstage, the Tea isn’t particularly wide, but it can create a generally accurate sense of dynamics and scale when called to do so. Interestingly, imaging can be considered one of its strong suits, as it can easily recreate an accurate center image, as well as scale and location.
While I would still consider the Tea to be within the range of being neutral, there is a tilt towards a slight bass emphasis. This allows the bass on the Tea to have a more full-bodied and larger presentation making bass hits sound more palpable. Surprisingly, both the attack and decay behind bass notes are also accurate enough to make each hit snappy and natural.
When playing vocal-centric tracks, the Tea can present them with a good amount of texture, allowing the texture of the vocals of raspy voices from vocalists like Adele to sound realistic. While the vocal range tends to err towards the warmer side, some euphony and vibrance still shine through when it’s in the track, to begin with.
This warmer tonal balance also translates to midrange instruments, where tracks with a lot of pianos have a more full-bodied presentation. Guitars similarly have a full-bodied presentation reflecting the cavernous nature of the guitar. However, when there are passages that emphasize a crisp guitar strum, the Tea still manages to let that shine through.
While I’ve mentioned that the Tea leans on the warmer side, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have much treble. Instead, it’s a result of a thinner treble presentation, since there is less body behind treble notes.
That means that cymbals have some bite when they are hit, but there isn’t much heft behind each note. Similarly, wind instruments also lack body and dimensionality despite having enough edginess and extension.
Staging & Dynamics
The Tea doesn’t introduce too much in terms of soundstage width, but the location of the instruments and images within the stage is generally accurate. Images aren’t that chiseled but the depth and layering within the stage are immediately apparent.
Dynamics on the Tea are also immediately apparent, allowing softer tones to come through with a sense of gentleness. Larger crescendos from orchestral recordings come through with a believable amount of energy and power.
Much of the tonality is retained when going to the Bluetooth connection, however, there is an evident drop in overall sound quality. Particularly notable is how the bass is presented, where Bluetooth ends up being more rounded off comparatively. In contrast, much of the vocal texture and treble sparkle is retained.
Another significant change is how the sound stage becomes more 2D comparatively. While the lateral definition and positioning of the images remain similarly accurate, the layers within the soundstage overlap more often as a result.
Based on the specs sheet, the Tea is capable of 165mW into 32Ω, so I started off my testing with some easier-to-drive loads. The first ones I tried were IEMs, such as the Mangird MT4 which only needed about 55% to get loud, and the FiiO FD3 only allowed me to reach 40% without the risk of hearing loss.
I then moved over to some full-sized headphones, which turned out to be more of a challenge for the Tea. With the Austrian Audio Hi-X65, I needed about 85% to reach my normal listening levels, while the Sennheiser HD600 needed about 90%, then the Sendy Apollo needed about 95%.
Despite maxing out the volume on the Tea with the Apollo, there is still a perceived lack of control and speed.
With full-sized headphones that require more power, it’s immediately apparent that the full capabilities of the Tea are stifled by the additional load. With the HD600, there is a perceived midbass emphasis, but the dynamic qualities of bass notes are slower than expected. The Apollo, on the other hand, sounds much more rolled off than it naturally is.
It’s a different story once I plug in IEMs into the Tea, as it masterfully takes control over the drivers of most of the IEMs that I paired up with it.
With the Mangird MT4, there is a touch of warmth and euphony to complement the drier and precise character of this IEM. Also, the accuracy of the imaging and sound staging allows images to be accurately placed within a more confined space.
What surprised me the most though is the pairing between the Tea and the FiiO FH3, as this pairing truly played to each other’s strengths. The overall presentation is engaging with a tasteful emphasis on the mid-bass region while having a textured midrange with a splash of euphony. The soundstage is surprisingly wide, while images within the soundstage are well placed and sculpted.
Audioquest Dragonfly Red
Being an older DAC/amp, the Dragonfly Red is powered by a more dated ES9016 DAC chip working in conjunction with an ES9601 headphone amplifier IC.
This allows the Dragonfly Red to have a maximum output of 2.1 volts into most headphones, which translates to having around 137mW into 32Ω, which means that it can comfortably drive most IEMs and more sensitive headphones.
What makes the Dragonfly Red seem even more dated than it really is, is Audioquest’s decision to limit the decoding capabilities of the Dragonfly Red. With PCM decoding maxing out at only 24/96kHz, DSD decoding capabilities are off the table.
The Dragonfly Red only has MQA rendering capabilities instead of full-decoding capabilities on other DACs such as the Tea.
Looking strikingly similar to an old USB thumb drive, the Dragonfly Red is a much more portable device. However, the full-sized USB A connector makes it bulkier when being used in conjunction with a phone, since the USB C to USB A converter would add a lot of its heft.
Also, having the relatively large Dragonfly Red dangling out of my phone’s USB C port is a lot less elegant and pocketable.
Functionality on the Dragonfly Red is also more limited, as it can only function as a dongle DAC, as it doesn’t have any Bluetooth functionality or even a battery.
Also glaringly absent are any buttons, so there’s no power button or even volume controls, with the only thing on the DACs surface being the dragonfly-shaped LED light that changes colors according to the sample rate.
Instead of a more emphasized bass region, the Dragonfly Red has a midrange emphasis that allows the vocal range to shine through more vividly. This makes it easier to pick out the textures in the vocal range, while similarly having a more planted fundamental with midrange instruments.
However, this comes at the cost of being comparatively more rolled off at the frequency extremes, making bass notes less palpable, while treble instruments have less body and sparkle. Consequently, wind instruments also have a thinner timbre making them sound less natural.
Although the staging performance is similarly narrow on the Dragonfly Red, it’s immediately apparent that the images are less delineated. This results in a comparatively flatter soundstage presentation where most of the images would typically stay at the outer edges of the soundscape.
Khadas Tone2 Pro
Despite coming from the same company, the 2 DAC/amps target very different audiences. The Tone2 Pro sports an ESS 9038Q2M DAC chip, with a more ubiquitous OPA1612 headphone amplifier chip.
Being a mini desktop DAC/Amp, the Tone2 Pro has more input and output options, even an option for coaxial input, and an expansion port for a Bluetooth receiver.
Also, the Tone2 Pro has balanced connections where the standard RCA line level ports can be used with the proprietary balanced RCA cable from Khadas, and then there’s also a 4.4mm balanced pentaconn connection.
Both DACs however have the same decoding capabilities so they can both decode 32bit/384kHz PCM files, DSD 256, and MQA decoding capabilities.
While the 2 DACs don’t share much in common internally, the design language of the 2 DAC/Amps makes it obvious that they come from the same stable. This is most evident with the finish of the DAC/Amps, as they both have an anodized aluminum finish.
However, the design of the Tone2 Pro is oriented towards desktop applications, though a similar amount of care has been put into the design to ensure that it will fit nicely on a desk with a large rubber underside. Also making it more desktop-oriented is the volume dial on top of the device, which makes it easier to make selections in the menu and change the volume of course.
The Tone2 Pro has more ports, with the RCA ports protruding from the rear. This makes the Tone2 less portable, and more transportable instead.
Coming from the same company, I was expecting that the 2 DAC/Amps would have many similarities, particularly with the tonal balance. Surprisingly, the Tone2 Pro has a comparatively flatter tonal balance, particularly with the mid-bass region. However, this doesn’t detract from the ability of the Tone2 Pro to engage the listener, since it can more readily present details.
The vocal presentation on the Tone2 Pro is also thicker, allowing vocalists to sound more powerful while having better vocal texture. Treble may seem less prominent since the Tone2 Pro steers away from being sibilant, but it turns out to be sweeter and edgier, making cymbals sound more believable without being intrusive.
Both DAC/Amps cast a similarly sized soundstage, so they don’t make the soundstage wider than it already is. Imaging, on the other hand, is crisper on the Tone2 Pro, but it comes at the cost of having a less layered soundstage.
Listening to the Tea leads me to believe that it’s a well-rounded product that’s designed for a portable audiophile experience. While the tonal balance leans towards being more energetic and engaging, only lacking in the last bit of overall texture and resolution, the presentation makes it a great option for longer listening sessions, particularly with less demanding loads such as IEMs.
In terms of design, the Tea is one of the more innovative designs for a portable DAC/Amp solution because of the thinner profile and the magnetic backing that makes it seamlessly attach to iPhones with MagSafe or other phones with a metal plate.
This makes the Tea a convenient and well-thought-out solution for longer listening sessions that will work seamlessly physically while having an engaging sonic presentation without the risk of fatigue even with lesser recordings.
Khadas Tea Specifications
Type: USB DAC + Headphone Amplifier + Bluetooth
Chipset: Sabre ESS ES9281AC Pro
Bluetooth: Qualcomm QCC5125
Amplifier: Amplifier RT6863D (Buffer Stage)
Frequency range: 20 – 40 000Hz
Compatibility: PCM up to 32bit/768kHz – DSD up to DSD512
SNR: 112dB / 116dB
THD: < 0.0007%
Output impedance: < 0.3dB
Battery: 1160 mAh Lithium Polymer Battery
Battery life: up to 8h
Size: 95.5mm (l) x 63.8mm (w) x 6.25mm (t-min) / 7.95mm (t-max)