Last week I reviewed the $69 Zorloo Ztella, a “dongle” DAC/Headphone Amp that improves upon the sound from your cellphone or laptop by plugging into the USB port and using it as a digital output. It then passes that signal to a built-in audiophile-grade DAC (digital to analog converter), then a built-in amp, and then on to your headphones.
The $199 Audiolab M-DAC nano DAC/Headphone Amp I’m looking at this week does the same job as the Ztella, but it’s wireless, meaning it doesn’t directly connect to your phone or laptop. Instead, it uses Bluetooth to wirelessly “pair” to your device, pulling the signal from the air, passing it through a DAC, Amp, and on to your headphones.
Conventional wisdom says that a wired connection should sound better than a wireless one, but my experience with the M-DAC nano has shown me that nowadays, things aren’t so cut and dry when talking about wired vs. wireless. Read on through my review, and you’ll see what I mean.
The M-DAC nano was sent to me by Audiolab’s U.S. distributor in exchange for an honest review. The unit is a loaner and will be returned once my evaluation is complete.
Features at a Glance:
- Ultra-lightweight and compact aluminum build (Dimension 44 x 44 x 14mm Weight 28g)
- Bluetooth 4.2 (with support for aptX, aptX Low Latency, and AAC)
- Cirrus Logic 32-bit DAC compatible with files 16-bit/44.1kHz up to 32-bit/384kHz (Upsamples 16-bit to 32-bit)
- Wireless charging (Qi Compatible)
- Drives in-ear or over-ear headphones of various impedance levels (8 ohms to 300 ohms)-Power output: 30mW per channel @320 ohms (1 Vrms output)
- Works as a Bluetooth Reciever with your hi-fi stereo system
What we dig: Most Bluetooth DAC/Headphone Amps are made of plastic and look pretty nondescript. But the Audiolab M-DAC nano with its glossy top/bottom and aluminum frame looks like a luxury timepiece. It’s like the Rolex of DAC Amps. The volume control wheel is also made of metal, and turns smoothly, reminding me of the crown on a watch. It’s very well put together.
The accessories that come with the M-DAC nano are equally as luxurious. First of all, it charges wirelessly like a high-end smartphone, using the common Qi standard. It comes with a wireless charging pad made of faux leather, which looks nice. It also comes with a faux leather clip holster so you can attach it to your clothing when out and about.
Audiolab also made the M-DAC nano overall very easy to use with just a few buttons needed to turn it on, pair, change volume/tracks, and upsample your music. When you pair it, voice prompts play through the headphones to let you know what’s going on.
This DAC/Amp is powerful, driving both full-size headphones and IEMs with ease. I was even able to drive my somewhat hard to drive Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed louder than I had any business listening to. This was also the first portable DAC Amp that was able to produce some of the low-end heft you get from a desktop amp.
I also love that it shuts off automatically after being idle for 10 mins to save battery. It’s the little things, you know?
Look out for: The M-DAC nano is easy to use, but you have to push in the volume knob to start/stop the music, skip tracks, and enable Google Assistant/Siri on your phone. It could be too much to ask from a rotary switch because the wheel is mushy and rolls around when you press it.
That makes it hard for it to do what you want it to sometimes. It takes some time to get used to it.
I’ve read some complaints about battery life. I averaged somewhere between six and seven hours of use per charge, which was ok for me. However, if you use a hard to drive headphone, or use the 32-bit conversion that will probably drop by an hour or so.
It also doesn’t support higher data rate codecs like apt-X HD or LDAC. There’s also no Bluetooth 5, so you don’t get the enhanced range it offers.
Sound: So I know I just talked about this unit not supporting high data rate Bluetooth codecs like apt-X HD or LDAC, but man I’ll be damned if you can tell. Audiolab is known for making excellent affordable DACs, and it shows here.
Despite the M-DAC nano not having some of the stuff you expect to see on a spec sheet these days, it probably has the most natural sound out of all the portable DAC/Amps I have tried. It’s very transparent. You can hear into a recording. Strings sound like strings, not the approximation of strings. Horns sound like horns.
There’s a real depth to the presentation. You don’t just hear singing; you hear the emotion of the singer singing. Imaging is entirely credible, and the soundstage is nice and wide. When I listened to “Jesus Is Born” by Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir, I could hear the choir spread across the soundstage, and the horns in the back and off to the left. Amazing.
The overall tonal balance is pretty flat, with a slight emphasis on the high end. When I used the Focal Elear with it, they were a little too revealing for my taste. However, with a warmish headphone like the Massdrop/Sennheiser HD 58X Jubilee, it was heavenly. The synergy was close to perfect. I also liked it with the Meze 99 Classics.
When I turned on the 32-bit upsampling, there was a considerable jump in volume, like a boost in gain. I didn’t hear a huge difference with it on, possibly a slight boost in treble and an increase in the openness of the sound. I left it off most of the time, thinking that the slight improvement wasn’t worth the tradeoff in battery life.
Most importantly, when listening to the M-DAC Nano, I didn’t miss the wires one bit. There were several times I thought, “This thing sounds better than a USB DAC!” That was remarkable because I’ve never thought that about a portable Bluetooth DAC/Amp before.
Conclusion: When it comes to the M-DAC Nano, the sound is the star of the show. As I said earlier, conventional wisdom would tell you that a wired DAC should sound better than a wireless one, but this portable DAC/Headphone Amp turns that assumption on its head. It sounds every bit as good as a wired DAC/Amp at its price point, which is crazy. I haven’t heard another Bluetooth DAC that sounds quite as good.
If you want a lightweight, portable amp that can bring the best out of your full-size headphones or IEMs without being tethered to your phone or laptop, then you need to check the M-DAC nano out.
Where to buy: