The Encore mDAC ships with naught more than the unit itself and a USB micro B to micro B cable for connecting the mDAC directly to Android devices. I find it a bit odd that it doesn’t come with a standard USB cable for charging or connecting to other devices like a PC. It assumes that you’ll have one of those cables lying around.
To be fair, if you have an Android phone or…just about any device that recharges using a USB cable that isn’t an Apple product, that’s probably true. While I doubt this will be an issue for many people, a charging cable probably should’ve been included, in the rare case that someone might not have a micro USB cable lying around.
Design and Build Quality
The mDAC is simple and elegant in its design, featuring a brushed metal outer casing with laser etched logos and icons. Along the front is a 3.5mm headphone jack and two digital volume control buttons and on the left is a single power button. On the back is a set of two micro USB ports, one for data and the other serves as a dedicated charging port for the unit’s built in battery.
Supposedly, this setup allows the unit to draw entirely from its own power when connected to a smartphone or tablet but in practice, it seemed like my iPhone’s battery was draining much faster than it should’ve and I noticed the mDAC’s LED indicator would be purple rather than blue, indicating the charging circuit was still active alongside the audio stream. After a little over an hour of using my iPhone with the mDAC, about 50% of my battery was gone. That said, battery concerns were alleviated when I connected my phone to the mDAC using a powered USB hub.
There’s no dedicated line out, no gain controls and no input besides the micro USB port, as the mDAC strives for simplicity, and in that respect, it succeeds. It’s easy to use, the laser etched icons are easily legible and you’ll be up and running in no time.
The mDAC features its own internal amplifier, which while weak when compared to a standalone amplifier, gets the job done well for portable headphones I’ve tested including Audio-Technica’s WS99 and various IEMs including the T-PEOS H200 and HiFiMan’s 150 ohm RE-262. Another high point for the mDAC is the impressively low noise floor. I didn’t notice any hiss or noise even with my sensitive IEMs. The volume control is also a point in the mDAC’s favor, as it’s quite precise and works impressively well with sensitive IEMs that can sometimes get too loud too fast with certain devices, like Cayin’s considerably more powerful C5 portable amplifier.
Though the mDAC is obviously designed for on the go usage, I do wish it had a dedicated line out for connecting to a more powerful amplifier for home use. This limits the mDAC’s functionality as an all in one solution but then again, it’s clearly not designed for such use.
All told, the mDAC should work for most people who just want an improvement over the sound hardware built into many consumer devices, which often don’t prioritize audio fidelity. While I’ve found the iPhone is an admirable performer in the sound quality department on its own, some Android devices, like my 2nd gen Nexus 7 for example, are not so capable. Using the Encore mDAC with the benefitted quite a bit over the sound straight from the unit’s headphone jack. Connecting this to a Windows 10 powered HP Stream 7’s lone micro-usb port, there was a huge improvement simply from bypassing the electrical noise from the Stream 7’s poorly shielded headphone jack.
Sound Quality and DAC Performance
The sound signature is smooth and mostly transparent with a touch of warmth compared to the slightly colder and more clinical performance delivered by my iPhone 5S directly. Purely subjectively, I’d say I enjoy it a bit more than straight from the iPhone. There isn’t much that can be said about a good sounding DAC/Amp because it’s only really notable when it’s bad.
That being said, I do take issue with the quoted dynamic range. Assuming the technical specifications listed on the back of the mDAC’s own box by the manufacturers themselves are true, the mDAC only enjoys a dynamic range of 90db. That would mean that a 24 bit capable DAC actually delivers less than 16 bit ENOB performance (about 1 bit less), a slightly disheartening thought, to say the least. So even though I like the sound of the mDAC, I can’t help but think about the fact that it apparently delivers less dynamic range than my iPhone alone.
That being said, much of today’s music rarely surpasses the 10 bit threshold, and in my experience only classical and orchestral music come anywhere close to taking advantage of the full 16 bits of dynamic range CD-quality lossless encoding allows. So, the mDAC’s 90db dynamic range figure isn’t really as big of a deal as it would seem.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the equipment needed to test the mDAC’s true dynamic range, whether it delivers lower than 16 bit performance or not, but the published specs do give me cause for concern in making a final recommendation. This may have been a mistake or it may indeed be true; I can’t say for sure one way or another. I have to rely on my ears in this case and my subjective listening impressions, which were quite good. So, do with this information what you will.
The Encore mDAC is a solid and nicely designed piece of equipment that offers up subjectively pleasing sound quality in a portable package that will likely appeal to on-the-go Android device owning audiophiles. I mention Android devices specifically because the iPhone, like it or not, is actually quite the capable performer on its own and the additional bulk of carrying the mDAC, a micro USB cable and the required camera connection kit to bring them all together is less justifiable.
As I said before, my final recommendation does come with something of an asterisk but for what it’s worth, it’s a relatively small one. Even knowing what I know based on the rated specs, I still very much enjoy listening to the mDAC and I really do think it’s a well-designed piece of equipment and within its price range, you really can’t do much better than the mDAC. Other options to consider may be the Schiit Fulla or the Cozoy Astrapi, two mobile DAC and amp solutions, but I haven’t heard either one to compare, not to mention that they’re both more expensive at $80 and $130, respectively.
So the Encore mDAC is a pretty good little DAC and amp that will definitely find a place in my bag for when I’m traveling or listening to at work. It has its flaws but its issues are relatively minor in comparison to what it does right. It sounds good, it looks nice, it’s small and nicely portable and works well. If you’re looking for something like this to listen to your tunes on the go and your phone/tablet/laptop’s built in headphone out isn’t quite getting the job done, the Encore mDAC is a solid choice.