Audiolab M-DAC Nano DAC/Headphone Amplifier Review
Portable DAC / Headphone Amplifier
AUD $289.99 RRP
Ever since that first iconic Sony cassette Walkman launched just over four decades ago, people have been enjoying what's come to be called 'personal audio'. The beauty of it is that you can listen to your favourite music on the move, or simply play what you want to in the privacy of your own space indoors. In today's world of smartphones, when you seemingly carry your whole life on a single portable device, it's easy to forget what a liberating thing this once was!
Still, there's always a trade-off. Mobile music machines may set us free, yet still we get tangled up in their wires. That's why, since the advent of Bluetooth, the hi-fi world has been battling with wireless headphones. I reviewed some of the first examples, and they were terrifyingly bad. They made music sound like a black-and-white facsimile of what it was supposed to be. These days, wireless phones are way better – yet they're still not quite there yet, compared to wired devices.
The ingenious thing about Audiolab's M-DAC Nano is that it spares us the need to use sonically compromised wireless headphones, by putting the wireless bit in the DAC where it's better placed to perform. This makes for a sort of 'halfway house' that's neither Arthur nor Martha – and yet in my view, it works rather well. This dinky portable wireless DAC/headphone amplifier does not give you as good a sound as – say – the excellent, conventional, wired iFi Audio hipdac. Yet, it's far easier to use, and a much more liberating mobile listening experience. No more faffing around with USB leads from your smartphone to your portable DAC, and no more need to use expensive and/or sonically compromised Bluetooth headphones – what's not to like?
The M-DAC Nano has a built-in rechargeable battery giving up to eight hours of playback, plus a little wireless recharging/docking station called the Qi that juices it back up in around two. Both amp and charger feel plasticky compared to rivals like the iFi, but they're not exactly designed for military use; lightness and portability is of the essence here. The amp itself is made from a combination of plastic and aluminium and is well finished at the price. It works well ergonomically, with a handy turnwheel volume control on one corner.
Inside, there's an aptX Bluetooth receiver and Cirrus Logic CS43130 DAC chip, plus a headphone driver stage and tiny rechargeable battery. The unit has switchable 32-bit/384kHz upsampling, but this gobbles up battery power. Measuring 44x44x14mm and weighing just 28g, it's great to carry around – but one unexpected bonus is that you can dock it in the Qi and use it as an inexpensive Bluetooth adaptor for a conventional home hi-fi system.
The Audiolab is neutral enough to make music listening fun. It retains the basic sonic signature of the headphones you're using, without adding or subtracting too much from the mix. It delivers a crisp, clean and open sound with a decent degree of power and a low noise floor – at this price, there's not much more you can ask for.
Cue up some pounding nineties pop from Blur in the shape of Parklife, and you're struck by its innate smoothness and evenness. The M-DAC Nano sifts out a tiny bit of tonal colour, but it's not excessive and still gave a realistic sense of timbre to Damon Albarn's cheeky lead vocals. It's got decent – if not muscular – bass, an even midband and none of the treble harshness that wireless audio was once famous for.
Most surprising is the Audiolab's rhythmic prowess. Absent is the sat-upon, strangulated sound that sometimes still curses wireless Bluetooth audio products. Instead, it delivers a bouncy, upbeat rendition of whatever music you play. Bassheads' Is There Anybody Out There? was lots of fun, the M-DAC Nano pushing the song along with gusto to give a really rousing rendition of this classic dance track. Instead of presenting as processed and artificial, the rhythms were genuinely infectious, making this a great little listen.
As a died-in-the-grain, old school' real hi-fi guy, I didn't have great expectations for Audiolab's M-DAC Nano, fearing it to be more of a toy than a functional device. I was wrong; it's not the sonic equal of a similarly priced wired DAC/headphone portable, yet it's not that far off – and is way more practical to use when out and about. If you're still sceptical about wireless audio but can't stand getting tangled up in a mess of wires, this could be for you.
For more information, visit Audiolab.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.