The DAC v No DAC debate

I submit the following evidence m’lord….

With grateful thanks to those lovely people at Fiio who have sent this over to Subjective Review’s Headquarters in return for our in depth analysis and no holds barred breakdown of all that is good (and bad) in the audio industry today, we bring you the ultra portable Dac/Amp, the Jade Audio KA1.

Jade Audio is a cut price subsidiary of Fiio. Designed for the budget end of the market, nevertheless there could be something here for the sceptics among you who wish to dip their toes in the water, to see what the fuss is all about with this portable audio malarky. The KA1 will only set you back £41.99. Sit back, reading my version of events and listening to the evidence I shall be providing, safe in the knowledge that you have not committed too much risk into your audio investment.

Dac v no Dac? What are you talking about?!!!

First of all, let me be straight with you. I was a little loose and fast with my wording at the top of this review. All digital audio products need a DAC. DAC stands for digital to analogue converter. Music stored in a digital format as a series of 0000s and 1s. It is decoded by a DAC chip and sent through analogue outputs and that’s what you listen to. All digital products that you listen to have a DAC chip; yes, even your very cheap smartphone. What I mean by the “Dac v no Dac” is the argument that there is no need to add anything to your smartphone, ipod, dap, ipad, laptop or cd walkman. Just plug in your earphones and go! What could be simpler? Most smartphones have pretty decent on board processors and seperate dac chips. For instance, my Samsung A52 has built in Dolby Atmos through it’s stereo speakers, an Octa Core Processor, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G, which does pretty much everything from video rendering to audio output. It has a micro sd card slot to store your FLAC files and a 3.5 mm headphone jack, marking a retreat from the wireless only versions of their predecessors in the Samsung range. As far as specifications go, the dac output from an internal chip has almost ruler flat distortion levels. In other words, the measured sound should be perfect. These are all convincing arguments. The graphs look good, the smartphone is equipped with everything it needs to listen to music. The engineers at one of the biggest brands in the World would not skimp on audio performance and risk losing business now, would they?

Smartphones are jacks of all trades. The sales generated from say, having a good camera, will be significant when compared to having a high end audio performance. People just don’t care about how good the sound quality is from their smartphones. Not as a rule. And wireless tech is making that gulf ever wider. Bluetooth headphones have their own Dacs built in. The DAC in the smartphone is obsolete when the cans are being worn. The wireless market is going through the roof, and will continue to gain popularity as every audio company tries to have a slice of this lucrative pie. The headphone jack is seldom noticed, and if used, it is not being used by powerful, full sized headphones. In many cases it will be cheap, high sensitivity earphones which are easy to power to loud levels.

When it comes to using decent earphones or headphones, people will find that they have to turn their smartphones up to the highest volumes to listen to music. Once that is being done, even if you can hear the music loud enough, you are probably introducing levels of distortion from the 3.5mm jack into your listening experience which will not be affecting the music in a pleasant way. Most people will probably accept this and go wireless if they’re not happy with their sounds. But some know different…. A significant % know that wireless does not beat wired. Sound quality is higher with a wired device. A wired headphone or earphone £ for £, will outperform it’s equivalent bluetooth device in terms of sound quality alone. In this debate we must forget convenience and features and concentrate on what we are listening to. Audio companies have known this for many years and have many wired products to suit every audiophile’s taste. From ultra portable Dac/Amp dongles, which need no external power, to huge R2R Dac’s with seperate power supplies and no outputs and everything in between. Popular products include the Chord Mojo and the Dragonfly Black, Blue and Cobalt series. I have owned both the Cobalt and the Mojo, but have long since sold them on.

About the KA1

The KA1 is essentially a lower powered, stripped down version of the KA3. It still has a lot of good stuff going for it. It uses the ES9281AC PRO for a heart. That is the Dac chip. The engineers at Fiio have then tuned the chip to the following spec. It has an output impedance of 1.5 and a output power of 45 mW at 32Ω. These 2 specifications are an essential tool in evaluating the dac/amp’s power capabilities. If the figures are too high they may cause hiss in your earphones, if too low you will not be happy with the results. The results, if too little power is being fed to your headphones will mean that you can’t listen to your music at loud enough volumes to enjoy the sound quality waiting to be untapped by the sweet spot, where dB and distortion live together harmoniously. The next thing you need to do is to find out the sensitivity and impedance of your headphones or earphones. Once you have these 4 things you need to ask our friend Google – how much power do my headphones need? That will take you to sites like iFi or headphonesty. Tap in the information and voila! You now know whether your headphones have enough power for the KA1 to work with them. See how scientific this is getting? Awesome, isn’t it? However, we’re not going to get nerdy enough that we are going to start putting our head down some very dark holes. Some of these holes have some very suspicious (but tempting) titles like “headspace”. For now, let’s put that to one side and deal with descriptions such as “quiet” or “loud”. That, we can all understand, and we can all deal with. I fed in the details on the Sennheiser HD800, just for laughs. And yet….. The answer came out that the HD800’s would be “moderately loud” at an output level of 49 mW. If you remember, I can get 45 mW from the KA1. A “Real World” test by yours truly shows that, yes you can play the HD800 through the KA1 at 75% volume to loud enough levels that you would not wish to dial up the volume any further, with only minor evidence of distortion creeping in. Bear in mind, this is a 300Ω headphone and was probably not intended to make sweet music with a £41.99 dac/amp. But, you have my assurance; it can…

More Science

I used the Deva Pro full sized over ear headphones from HiFiMan for my testing. They have a sensitivity of 93.5 dB, which isn’t great for low powered dac/amps, but they make up for it with a forgiving impedance of 18Ω. There is enough juice in these that we can even plug them into my headphone jack of my Samsung A52. Folks; that is exactly what I did. I have tested these in the A52 headphone jack. I then plugged the KA1 into the USBC slot of the A52 and had a listen. In fact, (as any scientist would do) I had several listens. The results of that extensive evaluation have been captured for posterity. Using a set of professional binaural in ear mics made by Roland, a professional PCM recorder made by Olympus, Audacity editing software and a Macbook Pro Retina, I’m able to render the results, as heard by my ears, in as accurate way as is currently possible, as I am not proficient in telepathy.

Provided you have your favourite in/on/over ear devices at the ready, you’ll be able to hear the test as I heard it. You’ll not hear properly using speakers; it’ll sound strange. You’ll also need to keep an open mind and be patient; wait for your senses to attune themselves to the nuances of the 2 recordings, and the differences will begin to emerge. If you don’t hear the difference; that’s fine. Congratulations! You don’t have to spend £41.99. Listen, I’ve expounded my theory for long enough; it is now high time for you to become part of the experiment. Take a look at the WAV files contained below:

Yeha Noha using headphone jack of Samsung A52 5G
Yeha Noha using headphone jack of Jade Audio KA1

The song, Yeha Noha, is from the CD Instrumental Moods. The subtitle is “wishes of happiness and prosperity”. It was recorded by Sacred Spirit, in 1994. This came at the same time as Deep Forest brough the sounds of lost Amazonian tribes to life, and Enigma brought Gregorian Chants to the attention of the World. Sacred Spirit are a German collective who put the song of the Native American Indian Chants into the present day. The song takes the form of a chant. It was sung in the Navajo language by Navajo elder Kee Chee Jake from Chinle, Arizona. The literal meaning of Yeha Noha is “the giant says give it to me”. You now know some Navajo! I chose the song to bring it to a new audience, and because it uses voice, synthesizers and haunting ethereal effects, all of which should show some of the qualities present in the Deva Pro headphones.

I’m wrapping this review up

The KA1 is about as low as I’d go if you want to improve the sound that comes from your phone. It will play anything you can throw at it, including DSD and MQA files. It has a tiny little colour coding system which shows the bitrate of the file being played. It can’t get much simpler than this: you choose your dongle, as either a lightning or usbc connection and you plug it into the bottom of your phone. On my A52 it instantly recognises there’s an OTG device for listening to audio and it takes over the duties of the speakers or the earphone jack. It’s well made, it’s metal, not plastic, it’s got 1 of the latest dac chips which means more efficient use of power, and therefore less drain on your phone battery, it’s cheap at £41.99, it’s powerful enough to run many efficient headphones out there, (and I’ve told you how to find out whether yours will work), it comes with the build quality and reputation of Fiio, who I can vouch for, having used a few of their products including the M11 DAP, the M11 Pro DAP, the BTA30 and the UTWS5 bluetooth products, all of which can be found in my previous reviews.