Last week I found out Samsung will be the latest to pull the headphone jack from their flagship smartphones.
That means if you want to listen to music on their latest and greatest devices, you’ll have to choose between Bluetooth headphones, USB-C wired headphones or a USB-C adapter (also known as a dongle) with a 3.5mm jack.
If you go the adapter route, it’s essential to know they all aren’t created equal.
All of them have a DAC built-in to convert digital audio from your phone over to analog for your headphones. However, the quality of that DAC will partially determine how good the sound going to your headphones will be. The quality of the amplifier circuit will also play a part.
That’s where so-called “Dongle DAC Amps” like the $65 Zorloo Ztella come in. Unlike cheap general-purpose USB-C headphone jack adapters, they’re designed to provide audiophile worthy sound by incorporating more powerful headphone amps along with audiophile-oriented DAC chips.
Most importantly, they do all of that while maintaining a similar footprint to a standard USB-C dongle! These slender devices plug into the bottom of a phone or the side of your laptop and upgrade the sound without taking up a ton of space.
Ztella Features at a Glance:
- USB Type-C interface to connect to your mobile phone or computer (also has lighting adapter for Apple phones and USB-A adapter for laptops)
- Supports Hi-res files with PCM sampling frequency up to 384kHz, DSD up to 5.6MHz (MQA also available)
- Automatic output level based on headphone impedance (1V for < 150 ohms, 2V for >= 150 ohms) means it can drive full-size cans
- Uses audiophile-level ESS Sabre USB DAC chips-ES9270 in the standard version, ES9281PRO in the MQA version
What We Like:
While this isn’t the first time I’ve used a “dongle-style” DAC Amp, I still marvel at how they fit such a powerful headphone amplifier and robust DAC technology (PCM and DSD?) in such a small device. Despite the Ztella being less than four and a half inches long and weighing less than an ounce, it can drive most full-size cans to ear-splitting levels.
The build quality is impressive, as well. Both ends of the Ztella are made of metallic gray aluminum joined together by a nylon covered cable. On the USB side, there is an LED that indicates the sampling rate: Blue for SD audio < 48kHz, or Red for HD audio > 48kHz, then Magenta for MQA content if available. It feels like it will stand up to daily use.
I also love how easy the Ztella is to use. USB Audio Class 2 compatibility means it’s plug and play with Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows 10. I used it with my laptop and my Android smartphone, and I was up and running in seconds.
The sound is also excellent. I used the Ztella first with my Focal Elear, and like most ESS DAC chip implementations, the sound was crisp with a tad bit of warmth on the bottom end. I was also amazed at how black the background was. Most sub $100 DAC amps are a little noisy, but not the Ztella. I also liked the imaging. Vocals especially were rock solid within the soundstage.
I also tried them with the Mr. Speakers AEON Flow Closed Planar headphones, and it drove those somewhat hard to drive cans very loudly at about 50% volume. I was able to get them up to a comfortable listening level at about 35% volume on my HP Envy laptop using TIDAL software. As I said before, power was quite impressive.
What to watch out for:
When listening to the AEON Flow Closed with the Ztella, they weren’t quite as dynamic as they are when I listen to them on a desktop amp. That’s where the small digital amp’s limitations driving planar magnetic headphones were apparent. However, I still loved the depth of the music and the top end detail.
Also, like other inexpensive ESS based DACs (Dragonfly Black, Anyone?), the Ztella can be a bit bright with certain headphones on certain songs. If you are treble sensitive, then you need to take care when selecting cans to use with it.
My favorite headphones to use with it were the Meze 99 Classics. The warm and smooth nature of those cans made them a perfect match.
The soundstage is not the widest; most songs remain “in the head.”
If you’re looking for an inexpensive solution to improve the sound quality of your laptop or phone, or you want to add a headphone jack to your smartphone, the Ztella is an excellent option. The price is right. It has nice power, and the compact form factor is significant because it doesn’t take up a ton of room in your bag.
Unfortunately, I got the regular version, and not the MQA one I requested, so I can’t vouch for the upgrade, but I have read some good things about it on Head-fi. If the headphone junkies over there dig it, then it must be decent. Both options are available on Zorloo.com, $65 for the standard one, or $99 for the MQA equipped one.
Where to buy:
Click Here To Buy: https://www.zorloo.com/ztella
I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.