RHA Dacamp L1 DAC Review
If some portable DACs feel a little… underpowered, boy does RHA have the solution for you
What is the Dacamp L1?The RHA Dacamp L1 is a portable DAC and headphone amplifier – a sub category of digital decoding that has become rather popular of late. As a product sphere, I personally don’t feel that the reality of sales will ever completely match the promise – while phones are shedding their headphone outputs at a rate of knots, the gap is being filled by Bluetooth rather than an external DAC for all but the most committed of portable audio fans. This being said, it's nice to have some capable decoding and amplification to use out and about.
RHA has come a long way in a fairly short space of time. When we looked at the 750i in 2013, it was the opening product and while they were extremely good, there was nothing at that point to differentiate them from many other startups from the same period. Fast forward to the present though and the company has been impressively busy. As well as expanding their range of conventional earphones including the highly distinctive and capable CL1 Ceramic we looked at recently, they have also increased their wireless options. Now, the Dacamp L1 is their move into electronics.
My reservations about the growth potential of this category notwithstanding, it is hard to ignore that there are some very fine options present here already. Chord’s Mojo is still near enough state of the art, Oppo’s HA-2SE is superbly designed for portable use and Audiolab’s M-DAC Mini might not be that mini but it works brilliantly for mobile desktop audio. The RHA therefore has its work cut out but there are enough interesting parts of the specification to suggest that this little box of tricks might be able to plough its own particular furrow. Let’s see how that pans out.
SpecificationsGiven that the function of these devices centres around a single basic function, there is an amazing amount of variety to how manufacturers have approached these requirements. On the other hand, there is one facet of these DACs that is (with the noble exception of Chord Electronics) almost a nailed on certainty. That is that buried inside the RHA is an ESS Sabre DAC. In the RHA it is the 9018K2M which is designed with a view to mobile use so makes sense here. More unusually, there are two of them running in dual mono. This means that the Dacamp L1 can decode frequencies up to and including 32/384kHz and DSD 256 via the USB input. As ever, these are formats that barely exist but it does mean that it shouldn’t struggle with any commercially available content.
RHA has taken the decision to ensure that the Dacamp L1 is more than a single input device though. Firstly, the USB connection is split across a micro A and normal A connection. The micro A is the standard interface to computers and Android devices, while the larger connection allows for the simple connection of an iOS device. No less usefully, it can also be used to charge mobile devices too. The internal battery is quoted as 4000mAH which is enough to give a normal phone a fairly significant boost if you need it. Like the Oppo HA-2SE, the RHA charges via the micro-A connection which means it will run connected to a computer without running down this battery – something which the Mojo cannot do without adding a second USB connection.
As well as the USB connections, RHA has fitted the Dacamp L1 with an additional combined line and optical input (a 3.5mm type optical connection will be needed to make it work). This gives it the ability to work with some additional source equipment. The optical input isn’t quite as flexible as the USB connection but it is indisputably a useful thing to have.
It is the outputs of the RHA that are most notable though. There are in fact three of them and they give the L1 a level of flexibility that no rival can easily compete with. First up, there is the ‘expected’ 3.5mm variable output for normal earphones. There is then a fixed 3.5mm line out for use into a conventional audio system – something that anyone who had connected earphones to a maxed out headphone output will appreciate as being genuinely useful. The last input is by far the most interesting though and something that shows some joined up thinking on RHA’s part.
On the other side from the 3.5mm variable output is a four pin mini XLR. This provides a variable output signal that is true balanced – a function of there being two DACs as well. This is a very unusual connection but crucially, it exists on the RHA CL1 earphone (and comes with a cable to that effect) making for a ready-made pairing. Some discrete inquiries also revealed that a few other detachable cable earphones can be used with it. Balancing the connection should reduce the noise floor and resistance to interference, and with a device designed with at least half an eye on use on the move that is potentially very handy.
The other area where the Dacamp L1 differs from rivals is lurking down the side of the chassis. Rather than adjustable filters, the RHA has rotary trim controls for bass and treble. These are six position, ranging from -3 to +3 and offer a fairly hefty level of adjustment, particularly when used in co-operation with one another. This is joined by a three position gain control which – as we’ll cover in a bit – is a little more of an unusual fitment.
DesignRHA has managed to establish a reputation for good use of metal and a distinctive but generally user friendly industrial design. It should come as little surprise then to find that the Dacamp L1 makes good use of metal and has a distinctive but generally user friendly design. Firstly, the shape and size has been carefully considered. The resulting chassis should fit into pockets and bags without issue and thanks to rounded edges and other elements of attention to detail, it should avoid harming other things in that pocket.
The industrial design is good too. The RHA feels rugged but in a well engineered way rather than a sort of brutal, overbuilt fashion. Everything feels like it will last the course and stand up to use on the move. I like the general lack of unnecessary flourish on the chassis too. Pretty much every aspect of the design is there because it needs to be rather than because someone feels it will look good. Some of these touches are no less impressive in use. The volume control is on a rotary control recessed into the top of the chassis. It is very, very hard to snag it or have it move unless you want it to. Conversely, the rotary bass, treble and gain controls are a little easier to move so some care will need to be taken with these.
One final point with the RHA is that since it has been released, the price has dropped by £100 to £300. This feels much more like the correct price for it too. It puts it on an even footing with the Oppo HA-2SE and undercuts the more sophisticated decoding of the Chord Mojo. You feel you are getting a fair bit of DAC for your money and that you aren’t paying a huge amount extra for features like the balanced output which might not be of any use to you if you don’t have earphones that can be made to use it.
The RHA feels rugged but in a well engineered way rather than a sort of brutal, overbuilt fashion
How was the Dacamp L1 tested?The RHA has been used with a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad running Foobar, Tidal and Spotify as well as a Motorola Moto G Android Phone and an iPad Air. Earphones used have included the Noble Trident, RHA CL1 Ceramic (via the balanced connection) and Sennheiser IE800S and full size headphones in the form of the Oppo PM-3 and Bowers and Wilkins PX. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC, AIFF and DSD material as well as Tidal, Spotify and some limited used of Netflix.
Sound QualityBefore any considerations on the sonic quality of the Dacamp L1 are made, it is worth pointing out one operational quirk of the design. Even compared to the Mojo which can go very loud indeed, the RHA has herculean levels of gain. This has two results – one entirely positive and one that needs a bit of care. The positive one is that with three gain settings available, there isn’t a pair of headphones I’ve ever tested at any price that the RHA won’t have a decent stab at driving to any level that takes your fancy. The less advantageous side of this is that with earphones in particular, even in the lowest gain setting, the range of adjustment between ‘off’ and ‘bloody hell that’s loud’ is between increment 1 and just over 2 (out of five). You’ll soon learn to adjust the volume with the delicacy of a bomb disposal expert.
Once you are dialled into this idiosyncrasy, the performance the RHA offers is impressive. Perhaps as a result of the grunt it has at its disposal, the amount of background noise is higher than that of the Mojo or the (considerably less powerful) Oppo HA-2SE but once up and running, it generally doesn’t seem to matter. This is a potent and capable sounding product that will take headphones or earphones and get a firm grip on them. Listening to the phenomenal Harmony of Difference by Kamasi Washington, the RHA does a fine job of creating a meaningful space for the musicians and arranging them in a believable and three dimensional way. There is also excellent bass on offer – not simply percussive impact bass but the sort of weight and extension generated by a large number of musicians.
Pick the tempo up and the response is no less encouraging. The presentation of the RHA doesn’t have quite the sense of snap and drive that the Oppo HA-2SE has that means I still find myself reaching for it as a go to earphone amp but it never fails to sound together in a way that means that even when you are asking it to do something genuinely complex like the double drum sequence of the Cinematic Orchestra’s Ode to the Big Sea, it all hangs together extremely well.
No less impressive is that the balance between forgiving poorer recordings and showing all that is good about better ones. The RHA is quite content to do a good job with the internet stream of 6Music before helping me to compile the article on high res albums without sounding adrift with either task. Compared to the Chord Mojo which can sound almost other worldly with some recordings, there is a more definite ‘ceiling’ to the sort of performance on offer but that ceiling is attainable with a very wide selection of material.
The only curiosity I would add to this- and something so subjective as to be merely anecdotal – is that I find myself not tending to use the RHA for much more than two hours at a time. This is in contrast to the Mojo where I can run through playlists for periods of up to four hours without being conscious of any sense of fatigue. This was less of an issue with the Noble Trident than it was with the astonishing but slightly ruthless Sennheiser IE800S. Exactly what the Dacamp L1 was doing is hard to pin down as nothing specific leaps out as being wrong but this does seem to be the case on a regular basis.
If you are shopping for both DAC and earphones at the same time though, it is only fair to point out that the combination of Dacamp L1 and the C1 Ceramic is cumulatively greater than the two units are working independently of one another and very clearly they were designed with each other in mind. The noise floor drops and the CL1 – which as noted in the review, is one of the least sensitive earphones I have ever tested – comes alive on the end of the Dacamp L1’s considerable reserves of power. As a pairing for £650 or so, this is something that I’d struggle to beat for similar money – even the HA-2SE and Noble Trident together can’t always match the huge scale and drive that the two RHA components have when working together.
the RHA has herculean levels of gain
- Exceptionally powerful
- Comprehensive spec
- Very well made
- Over sensitive volume control
- Can be slightly fatiguing
- No shortage of competition
RHA Dacamp L1 DAC ReviewAs noted right at the beginning of this piece, this is an increasingly busy sector of the market and there is plenty of choice available to you. Despite this, at its £300 price point, the Dacamp L1 makes a compelling case for itself. It combines, an excellent spec with an industrial design that is solid and easy to live with. It also offers the very useful ability to drive anything you are likely to connect to it. Finally, as a duo with the CL1 Ceramic, it is a seriously accomplished device and one that helps both products make more sense than they do on their own. The Dacamp L1 isn’t a knockout blow in this category but it is an impressive product nonetheless and one that warrants recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £300.00
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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