The Swan Song Audio Mini DAC is a compact high-end portable amp/DAC using a TI Burr-Brown and Analog Devices implementation. It is priced at $950.
Disclaimer: The Swan Song Audio Mini DAC is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank the team at Swan Song Audio for giving us this opportunity.
To read more about DACs we reviewed on Headfonics click here.
Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here.
In what seems a very long time ago, Mr. Tony Crocker visited my home and dropped off some fantastic gear for me to experience.
Two items were gifted to me for review purposes, which included an open back woodie headphone that I’ve reviewed already, as well as a small USB DAC and amplifier.
Today, we will be looking into the DAC and amplifier that is known as The Mini.
The Box and Build
When Tony arrived and dropped off the gear for review, the Mini was included in a large hardshell case. At $950, I am glad to have some protection for it in the way of a lovely case that fits both the gorgeous headphones and also the Mini DAC and amplifier.
The exterior chassis is made of anodized aluminum with a ceramic coating, intended to prevent light scratches and scuffs over time.
I can safely say that this product is exceptionally well put together and saying it is “rock solid” makes me giggle a little because it is actually “metal solid”, (extra points to anyone who gets that reference).
Truly though, the build quality is stellar and vividly well designed. The power switch seems very stable, without any jiggle or play. Beyond that, the volume wheel is very sensitive, which allows for a more pinpoint accurate tailoring of the volume overall. This is a good thing due to the physical layout of the design.
Let me tell you a story. Long ago, thousands of years ago in audiophile time format, I had an argument with a portable amplifier company who called me up after I’d posted my review of their product. This was years before I even started writing for Headfonics.
This company was happy with my fidelity rating but was severely upset with me criticizing their physical design of the very small and portable amplifier that I purchased to review. After listening to a nonsense rant by this company’s owner for what seemed like an hour, it was my turn to explain why his product was just not well thought out and that the last hour of him bashing my review was pure nonsense.
That amplifier had the Input and Output headphone jack on totally opposite sides of the product. That means that your music source plugged into the top side and the headphone jack was on the bottom side. I said in that review “Great, so how the hell do I pocket this safely and walk around?!”
The answer is you can’t because the designer never used their own product and was unaware that people used “portable” amplifiers on the go and not only at home. I know, right? Baffling!
If the headphone jack is not on the same side as the input for the source plug, then the jack will bunch up and over time it will just place too much pressure on the input and output jack while jiggling around in your pocket, and, while gravity pushes down on the sockets. The Mini does not have this problem.
Tony’s amplifier and DAC has every major port on one side and I am so happy with him for this. That is a great design. Well thought out, caring even.
Input, Output, Volume, and the power switch are all front-facing. You can toggle the volume with the unit in your pocket and not worry. All the cable leads are on one side, making it more pocket friendly. The only port on the rear is for charging.
This is such a simple and overlooked design element in so many other DAC and “portable” amps. It has been a pet peeve of mine for 15 years. So, let us all thank Tony for being one of us and understanding that portable means portable.
Mini DAC Sound Impressions
The BB PCM5142 is an abstract DAC choice, one that is super rare out there these days to be implemented into a modern DAC. But, I understand why Tony opted for this one: amazing tonality.
Some audiophiles enjoy a straight and pure digital tone. Some others prefer the vintage tube sound, something very analog by comparison. Sweet tendency vs raw fidelity. As most of you know, I prefer the sweet and musical side on a personal level. As a reviewer, of course, I regard both sides equally as good if the product is in fact up to par.
This DAC experience, the overall tonality, specifically, is one of a vintage tube amplifier and something that sounds like it is from yesteryear. Do not confuse that with fidelity or the raw quality offered. Right now, I am only talking about tonality and the sense of the experience on a physical level.
This Mini is very sweet up top and the entire experience reminds me of the Sennheiser HD650. Something musical and fun, but that can scale up and sound quite good when used as a raw DAC that is hooked up to a very high-end pure amplifier. This Mini screams “I’m vintage and highly musical” and I enjoy the hell out of it on a personal level.
Tony’s open back woodie headphone has some of the best bass in a headphone I’ve ever heard, as does the Fostex TH909. Two flip sides to the same coin, one highly musical and the other raw and pure.
This Mini is slightly neutral on the bottom end, with regard to tonality. It plays very well with both types of bass tonality types and is something I consider to be highly well rounded in what it can pair with.
The fidelity experience is well-tailored for purity, but due to the amplifier (in my opinion) having a slight boost on the low end, it also pairs very well with bassy headphones. My Sony XB1000 sings with it, which is a headphone regarded as the best mid-fi bass experience money can buy.
As mentioned, the Fostex series headphones sound absurdly good and Tony’s own open headphone pairs magnificently with it but that last one is no surprise. I think they were meshed and tailored for each other on purpose, or tuned to work with each other very well, at least.
Dropping in more bass or taking away bass quantity, via an EQ or DSP source, showcases a moderate level of alteration. At $950, this falls right on point with what I expect in DAC’s of this price. I want to see, well, “hear” a physical change in the quantity or tonality when I add more bass to the experience.
With Foobar2000s realbassexciter.dsp, one of the best bass tailoring experiences out there and it is totally free, the Mini portrays less bass better than it does by adding more in. By that, I mean stripping off bass dB results in a more significant response than adding more dB on the low end to the spectrum.
Of course, you can still add in upwards of +6dB on the bass side before most of my headphones that I’ve tested with had some shake and negatively affected experiences. But that is actually way above average and again, perfectly on point with a $950 DAC and amplifier in today’s market.
Due to the light stock boost, I don’t really feel the need to go past +4db or +5dB anyway. Especially not with Tony’s open headphone and the bassier wood plate setup. You simply don’t need it and it isn’t common for Burr Brown’s in this family series of DAC’s to offer an exceptional response to EQ alteration.
Totally forgivable and that is coming from a sicko basshead who still drops in +5dB on top of a super bassy headphone setup.
This Mini is moderately forward in the physical placement of vocals, which is something I call “on the forward side of middle ground”. Not too forward, but not at all recessive or distant feeling.
My Audio Technica’s, which are known for very forward midrange, play just as nice as my Sennheiser’s, which typically are more relaxed in the mids in comparison. Thankfully, the Mini is properly thought out and tuned for a general all-purpose sound type that isn’t a specialist in one given area of the experience.
The Mini is forward enough to sound great with very forward headphones, although you might want to opt for something with blossoming midrange instead if your primary headphone is something like the ATH ANV closed-back (Audio Technica’s old school closed woodie), or the portable ATH-ESW11LTD.
Really, beyond those headphones known for super forwardness, you are going to be right as rain with the Mini. It plays very well with the moderately forward TH909 from Fostex, the more forward open woodie from Swan Song Sudio and even Dan Clark’s Aeon RT Closed back.
This is a generalist, no doubt there. As far as fidelity goes, at the $950 level and due to its design, I think this is a steal of a product in terms of value, which I will further detail my thoughts on in the Portability section of this review in just a bit.
Sweet vintage tube amplifier sound is what this is all about. There is a noticeable brightness up top that shines vividly, but not painful, thankfully. We, tube enthusiasts, understand this and it is a hard concept to explain in writing.
Our ears understand tonality when we gain enough experience in certain types of tone offerings over time. Our inventory of “oh, this sounds this way and that sounds that way” becomes more easily detailed by our memory and ears but, only through experience.
The “vintage tube amp” sound is something unique. It is not bright, but it has some bite to it. It is not sharp, but it is still fast sometimes and depending on the tube family used. It is sometimes fluffy and aired out, with low impact in a physical strike manner of speaking, but also is almost never boring or too soft.
This is a hard tonality to get right, especially in an amplifier that isn’t a tube amp, to begin with. A while back, Burson came out with the HA-160, which had a tubish sound to it. I believe Tony’s Mini here sounds similar in physicality and overall tonality up top.
Imaging and Power
While not grand, I support the Mini as offering just an all-around good experience. Swapping between this Mini and the much cheaper Xduuo XD05+, one can easily see that realism and depth of field are far superior on the Mini.
However, the left and right, height, and overall air margins are somewhat comparable between the two DAC amps. The biggest difference is power, which the Mini offers 0.2w into 30Ohm, while the XD05+ offers an absurd 1watt (5x the Mini) into 32Ohm on high gain.
This Mini cannot power the Dan Clark Aeon RT headphones properly, which are super demanding Planars. Believe it or not, Feliks Audio’s new super expensive ANV Tube amp also cannot handle the Aeon RT very well and instead have to divert down to the Burson Conductor 3 variant, or the Xd05+ to run the Aeon RT.
I’d have preferred a lot more power out of the Mini, but I don’t have any issues with power beyond absurdly demanding Planar headphones. Imaging on the high gain of the XD05+ feels lighter and more focused than it does on the Mini. I think that is because of raw driving power.
This is also noticeable with Bass in general, as the higher output of some other amps focus the bass and make it seem denser than the same source file and headphone on the Mini when testing. It really isn’t a big deal, most of us don’t have insane power requirements like that, nor need 1watt of power on the go.
I purchased an old Sony ZX1 compact phone just to use as a portable source that I can connect to amplifiers for testing and reviewing. I am so happy with it, one of the best android phones with an SD card slot!
I highly recommend it, you can get one under $100 these days and just use it for music via the headphone jack, or to connect to an Android/iOS-enabled DAC like this Mini.
When doing so, the Sony source pairs to the Mini without a hitch, although the old school and now 3x generations ago USB input source jack on the Mini is a head-scratcher. I’d love to see all future models produced with USB-C. You can get by with the right interconnect, but hunting for an old-style USB to a new-gen USB C was difficult, even for me. I went with an adapter instead.
This would be much less stressful with a USB-C or even the last-gen USB port that is very common still in 2020. The power charging port used the same very old USB socket type on the Mini. It is a big deal? Nah. The unit sounds great despite that. But, this is where the value of the $950 comes into play.
I’ve found this setup to offer more fidelity than the Cowon Plenue M DAP, which is a raw audiophile music player. If only Cowon would fix their Jeteffect source app for Android and iOS so we can get that amazing EQ on any device…been waiting YEARS Cowon…YEARS.
Anyway, the Mini + a phone is a great portable option and a great laptop DAC/amp as well. Students will love it who can afford it. The physical size of the Mini is spot on for a dorm and also someone who is okay toting it around campus, for walks with it paired to the phone source, and so on. In fact, it is one of the best portable small amps out there that I’ve heard.
My sister is a solid audiophile and knows her stuff. She helped me with the open back headphones from Tony via a paragraph detailing her thoughts on it. We are going to do that again, but this time with his Mini. So, here is another view of the product from another audiophile’s perspective:
I understand tube sound, I have my own set of tube amplifiers that I use every day, even a cute little one on my desk at work. I agree with my brother on this topic of tone.
I believe Mr. Crocker’s Mini sounds somewhat tube-like. I typically only use tube amps. I am not a fan of solid-state. But, having a tube sound in a solid-state amplifier is something I enjoyed. When I listened to the Swan Song Audio headphone, I was able to also listen to his Mini with it.
The combination seemed like it was made for one another. I enjoyed it. I think we all enjoyed it that day. I like wide and relaxed headphones, the few I own are recessed sounding. I do not think this is the best amplifier for me. But, the DAC function is quite good. I would like to use this while combined with a much more expensive small amp for my home use.
My personal setup is nowhere near this level and I wish it were maybe my bro can “gift” it to me? I like that the amplifier is small and packs a serious punch. I prefer the all in one’s like this and not having to stack amps on sources. But, the DAC sounds so nice out of my computer, that I would consider buying an even more expensive amp to stack on this.
Fun is a thing some might forget exists. This Mini sounds both fun and high end. And I like that. I had to borrow Mike’s headphones to make this assessment because my set up isn’t justified for the Mini. But, this makes me want a much better DAC sound than what I have.
Tony has made good on his promise on how not only his headphones sounded, but also this Mini. His impressions to me were spot on before I had heard the product. He knows his stuff. And he made his stuff to sound a specific way for us.
It is not a hodgepodge of components with a price tag on it. This is a personally tailored DAC and amp combo that was tuned by an actual human to sound a specific way. I certainly enjoy it.
As far as portable options go, students with a pension for audiophilia would be happy with this at the $950 price point. It is a great all-around DAC and despite topping at 24bit upsampled, the quality of the end result is fantastic.
It is very well built, but generally an old school design and sound offering. If I had to poke, I would want totally different input plugs in there, such as USB-C.
Beyond that, you might struggle to power demanding Planar’s and anything 600ohm in the way of a dynamic driver. So long as you don’t need a nuclear reactor’s worth of power, this Mini is a stellar product that has a vintage tonality to offer.
Swan Song Audio Mini DAC Specifications
- Chipset TI Burr-Brown and Analog Devices
- PCM files up to 24 bit 96kHz
- Headphone output impedance less than 2 ohms
- 1 USB Mini or
- 1 Optical
- 3.25mm headphone jack
- Power output is 0.2 watts into 30 ohms
- 11-hour battery life
- Dimensions are 2.75″ wide by 5″ deep by 7/8″ tall
- Weight is 8 ounces