Published on January 4th, 2015 | by Greg0
Encore mDAC: Tiny, Tough New DAC
Over the past month or so, we’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling- along with testing out new gear. From trolleys and ferries in SF to transcontinental plane flights, from lengthy bus rides and plenty of subways to hundreds of miles walking, we’ve had lots of time to listen to new music. As with most people, our libraries are now based on smartphones, tablets, and computers, which means we depend on good digital-to-analog convertors (or DACs) to take the MP3 or lossless FLAC files and turn them into something our ears can enjoy.
The best DAC would be invisible, and for many people, using most consumer headphones or listening to streaming music, a DAC is probably overkill. But if you’re an audiophile, a musician, or even simply someone who cares about fidelity, then you’ve noticed that earbuds are fairly mediocre and have upgraded to monitors, whether on, over, or in-ear. If you’ve spent over $100 on headphones, and picked up any of the many monitors we suggest- Grado, beyerdynamic, Bowers and Wilkins, Master and Dynamic, Sennheiser, Mr Speakers, HiFiMan, Fostex- then you’re ready for a DAC. Desktop ones are ideal for stationary use, but portable DACs help get you on the road without sacrificing (much) quality. The Encore mDAC is from some of the same folks behind NuForce and their excellent line of DACs, and it’s their first product in the new brand.
First impressions were mixed- it looks a little harsh, with mixed plastic and aluminum aesthetics that combined with large screws, visible seams, strong edges, and a relative lack of external design polish. Two traditional USB ports is unusual, for instance, and seemed a bit unnecessary- one is to connect and the other to charge the battery. We were also worried about the six hour battery life, a bit too short for longer trips. But the mDAC is smaller than you might think from the pictures, and quite handy, plus works with not only OSX and PC computers but also Android and iOS via the Camera Connection Kit. And the build quality is good- it held up to drops and shakes without issue. Plus, it’s among the least expensive DACs that we’ve seen, and boasts decent specs too (96kHz/24bit).
And the internals, judging by the acoustic results, are excellent. Capable of driving all but the most sensitive IEMs (5.6ohm output impedance), we burned the mDAC in for a few dozen hours and then took to the streets and skies. The first thing you’ll notice is no noise or hum even during silent tracks, the sign of a good piece of hardware. The next obvious thing, regardless of your music preferences, is the extra air or headroom that music gains, more distinction and separation on instruments, more depth in the vocals, less fatigue thanks to less compression. FKA Twigs and Sylvan Esso’s electronics sounded detailed and rich, and the Bowerbirds more present. It won’t quite hit the roominess of a desktop amp, nor the detail and presence from larger and more expensive portable DACs- but the Encore mDAC is nonetheless impressive and a great way to inexpensively improve your portable audio experience. Available in black or silver, the Encore mDAC runs only about $100 online, a great value.