Audiolab M-DAC Mini Review
Audiolab shrinks the box but keeps the quality
What is the M-DAC Mini?The Audiolab M-DAC Mini is the latest member of Audiolab’s expanding M-DAC range. After the arrival of the original (and still extremely capable) M-DAC, Audiolab first took the opportunity to move upward with the range, giving us the M-DAC+ (and derived from that, the phenomenal M-ONE). While it did so, it wouldn’t have escaped the notice of the design team that there was some real movement at the portable end of the market. Products like the Chord Mojo and Oppo HA2-SE have been racking up the numbers as the smartphone market begins to phase out the headphone socket. Logically, this is the place for Audiolab to go next.
Except that if you’ve already had a brief look at the pictures of the M-DAC Mini, you will have already seen that this isn’t an exact facsimile of the portable DAC as we have seen them so far. Audiolab has in fact made a number of design decisions that are significantly different to those products and it is possible that what you see here might in fact be a subset of a subset of digital to analogue converters. Of course, we can get to the type designation in due course. Let’s first concentrate on whether the M-DAC Mini is any good and if you should buy one.
SpecificationsThe original M-DAC was one of the very first products to make use of the ESS Sabre DAC so given this and the ongoing ubiquity of the chipset, it should not be too surprising to learn that the Mini uses one too – in this case an ES9018K2M which is not quite as supremely capable as that seen in some other MDAC variants but still no slouch sonically. The advantage that this version has is that it is designed to work in portable devices and has a lower power draw than some of the beefier versions.
At the same time, the specification on offer is still entirely competitive with key rivals. There is a single Micro USB-A input and this will decode PCM at sampling rates up to 384kHz and also handle DSD up to DSD256. This USB connection is joined by a single optical and single coaxial connection that are 192kHz capable. So far, so normal. The Mini is capable of matching the Chord Mojo for connectivity and bettering the Oppo HA-2SE. You then get Apt-X Bluetooth thrown in as well which is always a useful extra function to have.
From here, the specification of the Audiolab starts to drift away from these two models though. Next to those digital inputs, you will find a matching pair of digital outputs – a rather rare fitment to any DAC in this day and age let alone one designed for a life on the move. The Audiolab also has a rather different power arrangement to rivals. It comes with its own 5v mains supply and the exact status of the USB input as a power supply is unclear but when the Audiolab is running on mains, a second full size USB-A connection can be used to charge your phone or tablet. A 5000mAh Li-ion battery is fitted with a claimed life of seven hours – something that the review sample has actually bettered on test.
The next area where the Mini is definably different to rivals is at the front panel. With its own dedicated RCA output, the Audiolab has a dedicated headphone socket on the front panel which, more unusually still – is a 6.3mm full size jack connection. In an absolute sense, this shouldn’t matter too much – the Chord Mojo is capable of delivering biblical current output from its 3.5mm connections – but it gives the Audiolab a slightly different feel. The company has had the good sense to ensure that the rear outputs will mute when the headphone socket is connected.
Another unusual feature is lurking inside the casework. Even though the ESS Sabre is perfectly capable of being used with a digital volume control, Audiolab has instead opted to give the M-DAC Mini with an analogue potentiometer. This is a good quality ALPS unit that incorporates the power on/off at the bottom of the dial and in practise it works well, offering both a very even volume ramp and no trouble in setting it so that you can use the M-DAC Mini as a line level device.
The M-DAC and M-DAC+ are rather sturdy devices made entirely from metal and possessed of a special sort of ‘feel’ that parent company IAG has managed to get down to a fine art. The M-DAC Mini doesn’t necessarily manage to convey the same sense of bulletproof build but this might not be entirely unexpected. Given the Audiolab has a wider specification with more connections and some design features that are absent from rivals and then comes in at a lower price, it is logical that something has had to give.
This means that the M-DAC Mini is a device made almost entirely from plastic. It still feels usefully robust and the Audiolab logo stamped in the top is a nice touch. The controls feel solid and while I’m not the world’s biggest fan of looped inputs, it offers a greater level of control than the auto sensing function used on some rivals. The general layout of the M-DAC Mini also makes it a far more practical to employ in a ‘normal’ system than many of its rival.
The flipside to this is that compared to the Mojo, let alone the Oppo HA-2SE which is still the best designed potable DAC out there, the M-DAC Mini feels rather large and cumbersome. This is a large product to truly be considered portable – it’s going to need a hell of a pocket to sit in for starters- and if you genuinely need something that will sit alongside your phone, I don’t think this is the DAC for you. If you need something that can move around in a bag with you though, the Audiolab has some extra functionality that makes rivals look parsimonious by comparison. Ultimately, having spent some time with the M-DAC Mini, Audiolab’s decision making processes make more sense to me than they did when I unboxed it for the first time for reasons that I’ll come to.
The general layout of the M-DAC Mini also makes it far more practical to employ in a ‘normal’ system than many of its rivals
How was the M-DAC Mini tested?The Audiolab has been tested as part of a complete system by connecting it up to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp via RCA cables and using a Melco N1A and Naim ND5XS with XP5 XS power supply as digital sources. A variety of speakers have been used. It has then been tested as a portable device with a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad, Motorola G4 Android phone and an iPad Air. Bluetooth testing has also been undertaken with these devices. Headphone and earphones used have included the Audeze iSINE, Noble Trident and the Bowers & Wilkins P9. Test material has featured lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, DSD as well as Tidal and Spotify with a small amount of Netflix used as well.
From the moment that the original MDAC appeared, Audiolab became one of the major players in the field of affordable digital. It and subsequent products have proved that there is more to great sound than simply using the latest and greatest digital chipset and hoping for the best. The performance of the M-ONE in particular is an interesting demonstration of what can be done with good design practise and careful selection of components. The good news is that the M-DAC Mini is able to keep up the good work.
What immediately stands out with the Audiolab- and this applies with both headphones and line level material is that the Audiolab never fails to engage you on an emotional as well as a technical level. Trying to explain what is going on when I say this is maddeningly hard but it largely stems from the absolute assurance with which the M-DAC Mini handles any time signature. Technical theory goes that any timing errors in digital can rapidly add up to genuinely perceivable problems in our perceptions of rhythm and time signatures. I have not wholly signed up to this view- not least because I have heard equipment with unapologetically high levels of jitter deliver an extremely rhythmic performance.
Nevertheless, there is a cohesion and sheer togetherness to the Audiolab’s performance that ensures you get pulled into what it is doing. It doesn’t matter whether the music is ballistic or utterly relaxed, it still has a time signature and with it. The M-DAC delivers this with absolute precision. People have differing levels of sensitivity to this phenomenon so it is possible you could listen to the Audiolab and be left indifferent to this but for people that do find it important, it acts as the basis for everything else.
And even if you don’t get too het up about timing, the sheer proficiency of the M-DAC Mini at other points in the frequency spectrum will probably appeal. Like its big brothers, the Audiolab is not about emphasising any particular part of the frequency response. There’s no ‘subterranean bass’ or ‘well lit midrange’ but instead a lovely sense that everything in the threshold of your hearing is absolutely even. Without emphasis being placed on anything, you can instead enjoy performances entirely as the performer and accompanying technicians intended. The stunning interpretation of Paint it Black in the soundtrack to Westworld is simply joyous. It thunders along with the orchestra laid out in a believable and spacious manner. Individual instruments are easily discernible but everything still hangs together in a manner that has you listening to the piece and not the details.
Most importantly, the M-DAC Mini does this in a impressively consistent fashion whether you are listening via the rear connections or the headphone output. After some time making comparisons between it and the Mojo into the Noble Trident, I find myself coming down fractionally in favour of the Chord – there is still a level of detail retrieval and sheer ‘being there’ sense to the Mojo that very little else can touch but there are aspects of the M-DAC Mini’s design that I have come to appreciate – and indeed miss using other devices. The volume knob allows for rapid and accurate volume adjustment and this is allied with plenty of gain. The performance of the M-DAC Mini with the Bowers & Wilkins P9 is consistently good. This is not a hard headphone to drive but it will show up flaws in the decoding and delivery and the M-DAC is largely free of them. It wouldn’t be my first choice for very insensitive headphones but anything at a remotely similar price should cause it no issue.
It is also usefully forgiving of less than perfect material. It monsters its way through Full Throttle by the Prodigy without finding all the (many) issues with the recording. Sources like Spotify and web radio stay listenable unless you really plumb the depths of quality on the latter. This is balanced with the ability to show the benefits of higher quality files. Listening to the Tidal master of Amadou and Mariam’s La Confusion is a truly fantastic experience. There is a warmth and almost analogue quality to the performance that has you stopping concentrating on anything else and just enjoying the music. No less welcome is the Bluetooth performance. As well as being stable and easy to connect, the M-DAC Mini delivers its many sonic strong points wirelessly as well as wired.
- Natural but engaging sound
- Excellent volume control
- Unique functionality for a portable DAC
- Rather large
- Can feel a little lightweight
- No 3.5mm headphone socket
Audiolab M-DAC Mini ReviewAs noted at the ‘Design’ point, unless you happen to be a wizard, dean of a university or a keen dungaree user, the M-DAC Mini really isn’t that Mini. If you are part of the brave new world of smartphone users looking for an ever present companion to your headphone jack free design, this probably isn’t the design for you. If your requirements are for a portable device – as distinct from a mobile one – the Audiolab starts to make more and more sense. For the task of accompanying me to a soft play centre and connecting to my laptop, it is no more challenging to stick in my bag than the Mojo or HA-2SE. This feels more natural as part of a portable desktop than it does a true mobile device and this also helps it sit more happily in a conventional system too.
More importantly, I can’t think of much – full sized or otherwise – that can challenge the M-DAC Mini for sheer musical ability. This is a fine reminder of just how capable affordable digital has become. For all my continued enthusiasm for vinyl, I will happily concede that there is nothing with a needle and platter that gets close to the abilities of the Audiolab for £300 and for these reasons, the smallest member of the M-DAC family is very much a Best Buy.
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
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