Audiolab’s most compact M-DAC yet is
beautifully formed, Ed Selley checks out
this ultra-flexible desktop model
ince the introduction of the
M-DAC back in 2011, its
descendants have had
praise heaped upon them
from 2016’s range-topping M-DAC+
(HFC 410) to the M-ONE integrated
amp/DAC (HFC 416). As the fourth
addition to the M-DAC family, the
Mini is built around the ubiquitous
ESS Sabre DAC – in this case the
ES9018K2M, which grants it decoding
abilities in keeping with what we’ve
come to expect from a DAC in 2017.
The USB connection supports PCM up
to 384kHz and DSD256, while the
supporting digital input connections
are capable of handling signals up to
Additional connections take the form
of a single coaxial and Toslink input as
well as aptX Bluetooth for wireless
connectivity, which makes this among
the more flexible options at the price
(see How It Compares). One
interesting addition is a USB-A port
that allows the Mini to charge a
portable device that you might happen
to be using as your music source. More
unusually, you get a digital coaxial and
optical output, too.
The M-DAC Mini can operate both
as a DAC/preamp and a headphone
amplifier. On the front, there’s a
6.35mm headphone output and a
small volume control – which works in
the analogue domain via an ALPS pot
and is unusual for a product of this
nature – plus a selector button that
cycles through each of the inputs.
Around the back, there is an RCA
connection for integrating it into a
system, although the volume control
can’t be switched out of circuit.
I have some reservations about the
Mini’s portability. The internal battery
claims seven hours of use and my time
A fabulously versatile device,
but is the Mini really portable?
M-DAC Mini
136 x 34 x 178mm
l 32-bit/384kHz
and 24-bit/192kHz
capable DAC
l Digital inputs:
micro USB-B;
USB-A; optical;
coaxial; Bluetooth
l Outputs: 6.35mm
headphone jack;
line-level RCAs;
optical; coaxial
l Quoted battery
life: 7 hours
01480 452561
confirms this is attainable. The catch is
that it just isn’t that mini. Compared
with devices like Chord Electronics’
Mojo and Oppo’s HA-2SE (both in HFC
423), that do without digital outputs
or RCA connections, it feels somewhat
hulking and is far from pocket sized.
It’s perhaps better suited to being
carried around in a bag rather than
with a portable music player.
Sound quality
Initially connected up to a Naim
Supernait 2 and Neat’s Momentum 4i
speaker and taking a USB feed from a
Melco N1A (HFC 394), the Audiolab
displays many of the qualities that
have been present in other M-DAC
models. The way it a handles the
24/88.2 download of Lynyrd
Skynyrd’s Second Helping is a fine
balance of force and delicacy. The
superb guitar work in I Need You is
captured with weight and emotion
and there is enough space around
the performers to make them easy to
distinguish from one another. This
doesn’t affect its ability to deliver the
intimacy of the track, where it is also
very impressive.
With the more potent outpourings of
the 24/96 download of Underworld’s
Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining
Future, the Mini continues to impress.
The bass response is extremely good
with plenty of detail and definition to
the low notes of Ova Nova as well as
the necessary low-end heft. There is a
slightly matter of fact nature to the
way it makes music, but this doesn’t
get in the way of engaging material
being just that.
Switching the output to the AV
bypass of the Naim and allowing it to
run as a preamp shows it to be no less
capable. The analogue volume control
has a very linear gain, and while the
control itself is a little on the small
side, it allows for good levels of fine
adjustment. If you wanted to use the
Audiolab as a DAC in a fixed system,
with or without the volume control,
it puts in a good account of itself.
To do this would be to miss out on
the star aspect of the M-DAC Mini,
Seriously capable
when used as either
a line-level device
or headphone amp
though. This is a very talented
headphone amplifier indeed and
one that has some very admirable
technical qualities. With both the
Audeze iSINE 10 in-ear headphone
(HFC 423) and Bowers & Wilkins
P9 Signature headphone (HFC 421),
the background noise at idle – even at
higher volume levels – is negligible
to the point of non-existance. There
is more than enough power to drive
the substantial P9 to very high levels
indeed without any sign of evident
strain and this gives the 16/44.1 Tidal
stream of Public Service Broadcasting’s
The Pit a truly huge sense of scale and
power that doesn’t overshadow the
use of real instruments woven into
the massive swells of electronic
sounds. Sending the same track via
Bluetooth demonstrates the wireless
implementation is very good too,
with no sign of dropouts or
unwelcome noise.
No less noteworthy is the sense of
space and three dimensionality that
is present in everything that you play
through it. The P9 is a naturally
spacious headphone, but the
Audiolab manages to open out the
presentation still further and go a
long way to nullifying the sensation
of listening in a constrained
environment. This is also largely
unaffected by the listening level you
choose, which again benefits from
the extremely linear control.
The performance with in-ear
headphones is, if anything, even
more impressive. The Audeze iSINE
is a demanding partner for sources
– it requires a surprising amount
of power for an earphone and the
superb detail retrieval will show up
limitations in the signal it is being
sent. Combined with the Mini’s
spacious and refined performance, it
delivers a superb rendition of Daft
Punk’s Adagio For TRON. There
is plenty of separation among
the mass strings and it is easy to
discern individual instruments
in the brass section where all too
often you’ll simply hear a dense
mass of instrumentation.
Once again, the excellent
performance at lower volumes is a
The Audiolab gets
fairly close to the
performance of
Chord’s Mojo (HFC
423) which is pretty
impressive given it
costs £100 less. As a
line-level DAC, it offers
the same physical input
connectivity (and has
a full-sized coaxial
connection as well) as
the Chord and adds
aptX Bluetooth and
benefits from a full-size
pair of RCA connections
instead of the Mojo’s
3.5mm socket. The
volume dial is easier
to use as well.
As a headphone amp,
Mojo eclipses the
M-DAC Mini. There is a
sense of ‘being there’
that almost nothing
else near the price can
challenge. It is also
much easier to carry
around than the
Audiolab Mini.
great help to the overall perceived
ability of the Mini as even the
relatively insensitive Audeze needs
little more than a quarter of the
available power.
There is no doubting the capabilities of
the Audiolab. There is enough of the
qualities that we’ve observed in the
more expensive models to see this is
still a very capable piece of hardware.
It’s seriously capable used as both a
line-level device and even more so as
a headphone amp, and it is entirely
competitive with rivals at the price.
The only problem is if you are looking
for a truly portable DAC, it is just too
bulky. If, however, you require a
desktop device that can be easily
moved from place to place, the
M-DAC Mini is a product that
definitely warrants an audition l
LIKE: Detailed, refined
and involving sound;
comprehensive spec
DISLIKE: Not really
that portable; slightly
lightweight build
WE SAY: A bit chunky
to be truly portable,
but a very capable
DAC and headphone
amp nevertheless
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