‘Get a good DAC first’, these are the words you may have heard from a seasoned audiophile before starting your audiophile journey. Now, what is the definition of a good DAC? The answer is pretty simple. The primary job of a good DAC is, producing clean analog signals from digital data without introducing any distortion simultaneously maintaining the highest degree of accuracy and resolution. A good DAC also should capable of handling a wide range of file formats and compatible across the wide verity of devices. So it is not easy to find a good DAC that comes with all the above-mentioned and very inexpensive. In search of a budget desktop DAC, I came across EarMen Donald DAC.
First I thought EarMen is probably a new brand but after some internet searching, it came out that EarMen is a sub-brand of Auris Audio from Europe. They are also the famous manufacturer of some high-end amplifiers and audio processing tools. Now Donald DAC is their entry-level product, but the specifications are very impressive for a 99$ DAC. I would like to thank EarMen audio for sending me a unit for this review. So let’s see how Donald DAC is performing in the real-time scenario.
- Model Number – Donald DAC,
- Structure – Metal Body and Plastic front and back,
- Input Plugs – 2 X USB Type C (One for power another for Data),
- USB Protocol – UAC1.0/ 2.0,
- Analog Output – RCA,
- DAC Chip – Cirrus Logic CS43198,
- USB Controller – XMOS 200 series (U3088XX),
- Distortion THD+N – < 0.0003% *,
- SNR – 110 dB *,
- Output Power – 2 Vrms *,
- Frequency Response – 20 Hz to 20 kHz,
- MAX Decoding – 384 KHZ/32 bit, DSD, DXD, MQA,
- Weight – 150 grams,
- Dimensions – 114x 66 x 28 mm (L X H X W),
- Compatibility – Windows, Mac OS, Android, IOS (I pad pro with Type C).
* Data has been collected from Audiosciencereview.com
Product Page – Here.
Buying Link – India.
What’s in the Box?
- EarMen Donald DAC,
- Plastic stand,
Tested External Power Supply
Windows 10 PC, Realme C2, TempoTec V1-A.
Sennheiser HD6XX, Magaosi K3 HD, Nature Sound NS3, Fearless Audio Crystal Pearl, and iBasso IT00.
USB Audio Player Pro, Foobar2000.
Tested External Amplifiers
Schiit Magni 2 and Fiio A5.
To showcase the presentation, I have made an unboxing video which you can watch below. A big shout-out to EarMen for using the Eco-friendly paper box and almost zero plastic.
EarMen Donald DAC doesn’t come with any accessories besides a plastic desktop stand. To use the device you need a USB type C cable and a pair of RCA cable. I have used my Anker powerline USB type C cables and Monoprice RCA cables with Donald DAC in this review.
Design & Build Quality
Design and build quality both are excellent. The size of the unit is smaller than other conventional desktops DACs and lightweight too. On the first appearance, Donald DAC looks like a black box containing some kind of poker playing cards. The entire body is made out of thick anodized aluminum and a smooth matt black finish has been applied to it. The front and backside of the device have been made out of black semi-transparent acrylic sheets which add a mirror-finish to it. EarMen branding has been done on both body and faceplate too. The front plate also has an EarMen logo that illuminates (Blue- USB Power and Red – External Power) according to the power inputs.
The backplate has all the input and output ports. Surprisingly when other brands still avoiding USB type C ports, Donald DAC supplied not only one but two type C input ports. One for data and the other for external power input. Other than type C ports two RCA output ports are also present in EarMen Donald DAC. Sadly for data input Donald DAC only have USB, it could be better if there are other inputs like coaxial and Spdif.
The thing I like the most in Donald DAC that, due to it’s a smaller footprint and boxy design you can use it with its desktop stand or simply on the desk in almost every direction. So stacking is just more hassle-free.
Driver & Firmware
EarMen Donald DAC is a plug and play device. As soon as you plug the DAC in your PC/Android/IOS the source detects it and set as a sound device. It also means that Donald DAC doesn’t have ASIO support but you can use WASAPI drivers in programs like Foobar2000 to achieve bit-perfect mode. Donald DAC also doesn’t have user-flashable firmware but the DAC is using XMOS 200 series USB controller, which means the dedicated driver and firmware support can be introduced later by the manufacturer.
Donald DAC supports MQA playback and acts as an MQA renderer. With Tidal you can enjoy the MQA songs fully which makes it the cheapest desktop DAC to support MQA playback.
Noise, Output Power, & Heating
EarMen Donald DAC’s output is totally clean and no noticeable noise is there. As per the measurements done by Audiosciencereviews, with an external good power adapter the jitter is lower in comparison to power via the data line. Please keep in mind that even with the USB power the jitter is beyond the hearing limit so you can use the USB power without any hesitation. Donald DAC is capable of outputting 2 Vrms which is a standard for standalone DAC and after prolonged usage, I haven’t noticed any heating issue.
While the entire DAC market is dominated by either ESS or AKM chips, having a DAC with Cirrus Logic chips is a new experience. This is not the first time I am using Cirrus Logic chips, previously I have used CS43131 in TempoTec Sonata HD Pro. CS43131 is a mobile chip where CS43198 is a dedicated DAC chip with better hardware specifications.
Sound-wise these Cirrus Logic chips are very much capable of challenging ESS and AKM chips. I am using the Donald DAC for almost 2 months now and entirely pleased by its sound output which I am going to discuss further below. BTW if you believe in DAC burn-in, it passed 100 hours burn-in point long before writing this review.
Sonically EarMen Donald DAC is neither too warm nor too bright, the overall presentation is the liner and natural. Donald DAC’s sound has a tilt towards musicality rather than being analytic but still capable of rendering a good amount of details and texture. The lower frequency part hasn’t boosted but can provide just the right amount of bass from your end gears. The quantity is not huge but the quality is too good. The speed is fast, accurate and the attack is on the point. With the tracks like ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ by Daft Punk, you can feel the thump too.
The midrange has been presented also in a natural way. It may sound a bit thin but the missing warmth can be achieved with the external amplifier. A mild boost is present in the upper midrange, so the female vocal sounds a bit sharp. Male vocal sounds a bit soft but not much to loose the timbre. The midrange of Donald DAC may not sound appealing to vocal lovers, but it represents the actual or very realistic representation of human voice.
In the higher frequency part, Donald DAC placed itself in a very safe place. It’s neither too bright nor smooth or rolled off. If your headphone/IEM are capable of quality treble then you would get it but if not then it may spoil your listening experience. With good external power supplies, the treble area is more polished and forgiving. With poorly mastered tracks the treble part may sound a bit harsh too.
The added imaginary soundstage is not super wide but ok for the price. The detail retrieval is good and instrument separation is also moderate. With busy tracks, Donald DAC struggles a bit that could be in 1 out of 10 songs you play from your playlist.
EarMen Donald DAC is an entry-level product, but it delivers much more than it’s price. Well designed and sounds almost like an ideal DAC. It pairs very well with most of the external amplifiers. As its sound doesn’t have any specific boost, you can experiment in the AMP section to match your taste. Feature like MQA playback and 2 years warranty, are added benefits from such a low priced device. If you ask me to give a point , I will give Donal DAC 7.5 out of 10. Missing 2.5 points for not supplying USB cable in the box and missing coaxial/Spdif input.