Published on June 25th, 2013 | by Greg0
Music Squared: The Matrix Mini Portable Amp
Sometimes, it can indeed be hip to be square. Analog junkies, your time came around- vinyl records came roaring back into fashion, and old school sounds with them, influencing every variety and genre of music. While the latest Daft Punk and Drake albums alike draw from classic tunes, they offer production quality that deserves attention, and that your $100 headphones can’t reproduce. If you’ve already dropped a couple of hundred dollars on a good set of monitors, then you really should explore spending a bit more to get them the power and sound they deserve.
Today’s piece of gear is the Matrix Mini-Portable DAC and headphone amplifier, that uses top-of-the-line 24 bit / 192 kHz conversion circuitry and a high-quality digital sampling processing chip. Using an external DAC, or digital-to-audio converter, may seem like a headache or an unnecessary hassle. But the fact is that most sources- your iPod or smartphone or laptop- simply don’t have the dedicated paths and power supplies to do your music justice. They’ll perform just fine with earbuds and audio books, but try to run high-definition audio through them and they wind up sounding cramped.
There’s a phenomenon called jitter that effects your tunes, and this DAC did a great job of removing it thanks to dedicated timing electronics. Built to drive headphones 300 ohms or below, we’ve seen quite a few similar units of various styles- other DACs that are portable and battery-powered as well as analog amplifiers and recently the Arcam audiophile amp that performs as well as any we’ve ever seen. And while a further exploration of the chipsets and such would seem excessive, the internal components appear both well-sourced and quite reasonable for models in this size and price.
In terms of build quality, the Mini-Portable feels decent, and a definite step up in aesthetics and design from the Graham Slee or many other competitors that we’ve seen. For starters, it comes in several colors. It is quite small, and the lithium ion batteries recharge quickly and offer plenty of playtime, up to 8 hours or so. The toggle switch control might seem a bit confusing, but is straight forward enough. The volume knob is large and solid, and we liked the external body with it’s fingerprint-resistant matte finish. The MP is a fairly versatile unit, accepting not only USB input but also optical and coaxial digital ones. A front headphone output is how we listened, and we used models including beyerdynamic and others. Of course, you don’t get nearly the level of quality, nor the output options as you would on the amazing-but-pricey Zodiac Antelope. But you do get a unit that you can fit into a large pocket, throw in a bag, and go anywhere with- with a weight of only 180 grams.
We burned the unit in for over 40 hours, and then proceeded to through a variety of music and movies through it over the course of a month. Initial and consistent impressions were positive- sounds were bigger, broader, deeper, and generally richer- as you’d expect from any decent amp or DAC. There was little to no audible noise, a great improvement over any direct connection. Nothing felt boosted or artificial, and it’s much nicer to listen to classical or jazz without the feeling of tightness and lack of range that can often be lacking in headphones without proper amplification and conversion, regardless of file sizes or types. Compared with the other two, more expensive amps, sound was tame and a bit wooden. But the Mini-Portable compared quite favorably with any portable headphone amp, and even outdid one of our old favorites, the Music Hall PH25.2 for orchestral music and pop music (though it seemed to offer less rounded bass and a bit more sibilance on rock).
As always, it’s worth considering your music choices and your headphone options carefully before settling on an amplifier or DAC. The Matrix Mini-Portable is quite sexy and stands apart from most others, it looks and works quite nicely. Solid components and competitive pricing make this a great budget unit- the Matrix Mini-Portable DAC and Amp is available now for around $320.