The tonality of the D14 is a real treat for a portable amp at this price range or perhaps even higher. I would class the D14 as having actually a neutral and speedy tonality which favors clarity over any overly lush or wet signature. Detail freaks will enjoy the D14.
Having said that the tuning is just on the right side of smooth with a very spacious and open sounding, much more so than the DX90. There is also bit more presence, sparkle and detail up top and slightly more controlled and realistic bass response than the DX90.
My favorite aspect of the D14 though was its clean and clear midrange with an excellent vocal presence that remained sibilant free and very natural sounding indeed.
A Sabre Sound
This is an ESS Sabre DAC though and true to form on some of these implementations the treble on the D14 has a slight glare and sheen particularly with the lower treble response and percussion work. That slightly hard edge to the treble is a thing of taste for many.
Whilst detail and articulation are clear, tight and easy to pick out, those looking for a slightly softer percussion work or cymbal work that doesn’t draw your attention too much might not find this to their taste.
Thankfully the D14 has not overcooked the treble to the point where I would start being critical. It doesn’t have that harsh metallic aftertaste of the FiiO X gen 1 or the even more pronounced treble glare of the equally priced Creative E5. On balance, the vocal and instrumental timbre remains accurate and well-paced rather than overly bright and peaky.
Yet the D14 is actually quite a versatile amp tonally speaking. It’s a real pleasure with vocals, ambiance and spartan arrangements that need space to breathe.
At the same time, the D14’s deep and wide soundstage combined with above-average imaging and dynamics sounds convincing on the opposite end of the spectrum with genres such as fast-paced melodic metal.
Agnes Obel’s “Beast” from Philharmonics with its sparse musical background and delicate vocals sounded really natural and sibilant free. Battle Beasts’ “Iron Hand” sounded bombastic, tight and speedy with fantastic detail over a deliriously fast rhythm guitar section. Overlapping solo guitar shredding never once lost their ground or impact either. Being able to handle complexity may well be the D14’s calling card.
The D14 on paper should handle both IEM and mid powered portable/planar headphones reasonably well give than 0.01 impedance, 116Db SNR and 400mW/32ohm load. The reality wasn’t too far from the theory either. Planers such as the HE400S and the PM-3 on high gain had plenty of play left on the volume pot.
Easy To Drive Planars
The HE400s ran more than adequately on high-gain at 11am on the D14 pot though tonally it felt a bit thin and lacking in bass oomph that even the FiiO Q1 could tackle with the obligatory FiiO bass boost.
Having said that the D14 had oodles more resolution than the FiiO Q1 and really did flow with the HE400S’ expansive midrange and excellent headroom. Soundtracks such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sounded more convincing and engaging than top heavy synth rock outs from the likes of Brother Firetribe that came across as too bright on the HE400s/D14 combination.
The PM-3 was an altogether superior matchup than the HE400s. It was slightly easier to drive with more body and a superior midbass body and response. The top end never sounded too bright in comparison to the HE400s.
Yes, it had a touch of glare but it was far better controlled and more forgiving sounding with the PM-3 than the HE400s. I also found the slightly smaller closed soundstage of the PM-3 paired with the D14 to be a better choice for rock and pop with a slightly more forward vocal presence and a thicker sounding signature suitable for metal guitar and RnB bass work.
Pretty much most IEM’s produced a very nice black background with next to no noise or background hiss. BA setups such as the midrange Westone 4 sounded excellent, engaging and full sounding with only a slight peak in the lower treble range but nothing distracting.
Flagship dynamic setups such as the IE800 paired with sources such as the Paw Gold sounded “big” with a capital B though slightly hot in the treble response but then that’s the IE800 for you. Tonally it’s not a pairing I am fond of to be fair.
Once the treble gets pumping on say Dash Berlin’s Fool for Life, synth work is just a bit too thin and bright to really get me going using the D14 and the IE800.
More budget orientated IEM users take note the RHA T10i and T20 performed excellently with the D14. Both have a slightly more muted and smoother top end than the more nimble but hotter IE800 and it suited the D14’s tonal traits very well indeed.
Both came across as full sounding with the T10i benefitting in particular with the more expansive top end given I have always found the T10i to be slightly shelved down in that area. I absolutely loved the T20i with the D14 and the Paw Gold with EDM. Soundstage performance was excellent, an arena like almost with fantastic atmospherics and more than adequate headroom.
iBasso DX90/Cayin N6
The D14 is tailor made for pairing with the DX90 physically with the SPDIF of the D14 sitting just below the coaxial output of the DX90. Easy stacking right there. Sound wise though I thought the Cayin N6 just edged it slightly in terms of resolution, clarity and treble top end control.
Lower treble percussion just sounded that bit more natural and smoother whereas the DX90 had a slightly harder edge in comparison. Both had an excellent vocal presence and both made excellent use of the D14 spacious soundstage as sources with the N6 edging it slightly in terms of overall width and instrumental separation.
The drawback of the N6 though is that it simply swallows the D14 size wise making the physical stack awkward to the point where I really wouldn’t call it that portable at all. Transportable is how I would term that duo especially if you are using the stock coaxial cable which looks far tidier on the DX90.
The FiiO X5ii is also an excellent stacking partner to the D14 though, like the N6, the I/O’s do not match up as well as the DX90 for cable connections. The pairing though very capable didn’t quite have that sweet vocal presence and excellent command of the sound stage of the N6 and felt a tiny bit flatter than the DX90.
Tonally it is quite a flat presentation, so accurate but just lack a little oomph and dynamics compared to the other two. FiiO’s treble performance was excellent though even on bright as hell synth laden tracks from Brother Firetribe’s first couple of AOR albums In all it just lacked a some balls to really convince as a rock pairing.
Lotto Paw Gold
Perhaps the smoothest and creamiest (Thanks Mike!) pairing with the most impactful bass response, the tightest and most detailed vocals and neigh on perfectly clear and clean treble performance was the Lotoo Paw Gold.
That line out on the Paw Gold is a joy to behold. It combines a smooth warm to a neutral sound signature from the Lotto with that expansive D14 soundstage and accurate timbre to sound utterly compelling. This combination works with just about any genre I threw at it from EDM, prog rock, metal, and acoustics.
The only slight concern is the lack of play on the pot making micro changes to the volume a bit harder to control. The Paw Gold/D14 combo on low gain topped out at 10-11am using most 16-30ohm IEMs and a little higher for harder to drive ones such as the Harmony.
There are a few amps at the $200 range that are vying for your money such as the FiiO E18 at around $180 and slightly higher up the HA-2 from Oppo which sports the same DAC chip and similar features but at a slightly higher premium.
You also have dedicated IEM amps such as the RX and Picollo from ALO and Cypher Labs that we just loved in the office. Right away I can tell you that the E18 looks positively obsolete in terms of resolution capability compared to the D14.
For DSD decoding at this price range, you have to switch to the E17k or FiiO X3ii and even then the D14 amping is just on another level with superior power handling, less noise and higher levels of detail retrieval than either FiiO products.
The HA-2 is perhaps the biggest barrier to the D14 given its modern and sleek profile which I think is more appealing to smartphone users, its fast charging system at 1.5 hours and DSD256 capabilities. Not to mention the HA-2 sports the exact same DAC chip, as the D14 with similar treble glare tendencies.
However, battery life on the HA-2 is considerably shorter at 7-13 hours and is roughly $70 more so that will be something to consider. Personally I would keep the HA-2 with smartphones and throw the D14 in with DAP’s – they just seem a better fit physically and can make better use of the SPDIF functionality.
iBasso D-Zero MK2
Those on the D-Zero Mk2 wondering if you want to upgrade well that is a more interesting question because tonally they are slightly further apart.
The dual Wolfson DAC implementation is far more forgiving than the D14 but with a more intimate soundstage and more colored lower end in terms of slam. It also has a rolled off top-end that doesn’t convey anywhere near the headroom and articulation that the D14 is capable of.
But why hesitate in saying upgrade right now if the difference in performance is clear? That amping life cycle on the D-Zero at 120 hours is pure killer, nothing can touch it. If you just want a quick and simple upgrade on your smartphone’s DAC capabilities with a very slim profile for pairing then the D-Zero Mk2 is a great choice for those wanting lossy on the go at half the price.
You want something that sounds far more resolving, with better codec handling and with good bit more power then go for the D14. Personally, the D14 gets my vote but that top-end ESS Sabre treble heat might not suit everyone and it does not stack as nicely as the D-Zero MK2 with smartphones nor has the same battery life.
Notable Mentions – The RX and the Picollo
Personally I found the D14 to be more of a competitor to the RX IEM analog amp from ALO Audio than the smoother and more intimate Picollo from Cypher Labs.
I think people yearning for a richness in the mids and bass will consider the DAC/AMP on the Cypher Labs to be more to their taste tonally. However, you can’t help but wonder how a $300+ DAC/AMP is churning out 16/44k even with OTG when the D14 at $229 is DSD256 without breaking a sweat.
The D14 seems to target what the RX is all about with the focus on dynamics and soundstage but with a more powerful amp thrown in, excellent output figures and a competitive performance on IEM’s.
I give the nod to the RX for micro control with a bit more play on the volume pot for sensitive IEM’s than the D14. The treble on the RX is a touch more subtle but then again at $150 less, the D14 is packing a DAC, DSD decoding and digital inputs so in terms of value for money the D14 is way ahead.
Tonally it is not a clear win for the D14. People have their tastes tonally that might differentiate on what to buy sound wise, but in terms of what it can do, decode and power the D14 pulls away from these admirable but more limited amps for less cash.
The D14 is what iBasso does best – feature-packed portable amps at a more than competitive price. It always appeals to the nerd inside me and serves as a timely reminder that well-executed amps can always add a little something extra on top of a good DAP.
With the launch of the DX80 just around the corner iBasso does have the challenge to retain an interest in the D14’s more classic look and feel but audiophiles will appreciate that big soundstage, spacious arrangement and excellent resolving power and sensitivity for both IEM’s and headphones alike.
That being said the choice of DAC and implementation is quite similar to the likes of the Oppo HA-2 and in some ways that the Achilles heel. Those sensitive to treble glare or a slightly hard edged lower treble performance might not enjoy the D14 as much as something like the Cypher Labs Picollo even if its miles behind in the resolution stakes.
Tonally it’s fast, clean and clear and something I quite enjoyed but the match can make a bit of a difference and in some respects, even the DX90, physically the best match, was not the perfect match sound wise as that treble glare was more present.
Genres with swathes of synth or percussion at times just came across as a little too hot with that paring. DAP’s such as the Cayin N6 and the Paw Gold from Lotoo had that slight edge even if never totally smoothing things over. It is as always a question of choice and personal taste with these things so as always try before you buy.
That being said at $229 I can’t think of a DAC/Amp that presents so many features and codec handling capabilities outside of the FiiO X3ii and E17k and even then the amping capabilities of the D14 outshine both with ease.
D14 Technical Specifications
Sabre32 ES9018K2M DAC chip
XMOS USB audio controller, takes up to 32bit/384kHz PCM signal, and up to 256x native DSD signal from Windows PC and Mac computers
Asynchronous USB transfer
OPAMP+BUF design, ensures high current and high power output
Flexible inputs, takes Windows PC and MAC computers USB digital signal (USB Soundcard), OTG audio signal from Android 4.1 or above device, digital signal from iPhone/iPad with camera kit cable, takes coaxial input and optical input
Works as a DAC+AMP Combo, a standalone AMP, or a standalone DAC (Line out function)
2-Setting Gain Switch for impedance matching
Rechargeable Li-polymer Batter
Power Source: Built-in 4.2V Li-polymer Battery or external power supply.
Frequency Response: 17Hz~20 KHz +/-1dB (DAC)
17Hz~100 KHz +/-0.2dB (AMP).
Signal to Noise Ratio: 115dB (DAC), 116dB (Amp).
Crosstalk: 106dB (DAC).
Total Harmonic Distortion: 0.0018%@1kHz/-10dBF (DAC)
0.0012%@1kHz/max volume (AMP).
Output power: Up to 400mW+400mW into 32ohm.
Gain: +3dB and +9dB (AMP).
Battery Life: 13 hours AMP+DAC or 25 hours if amp only.