With many phones ditching the 3.5mm jack you may think that wired headphones are a dying breed, but if you are an audiophile, it is unlikely you are going to give up your wires any time soon.
For me, one of the advantages of a wired earphone is that you get much more bang for your buck, and generally, there is less to go wrong with the earphones, especially if you opt for some without phone control.
However, depending on your phone, and it's built-in DAC, using a USB-C adaptor does not always provide the best results.
If you want to improve the quality of audio from your phone and don’t want to ditch your wired headphones or earphones then the Audiolab M-DAC Nano could be the perfect solution.
Audiolab is famed for their M-DAC range with the larger desktop DACs receiving universal acclaim amongst critics, and the Nano is the newest and smallest of their range.
- Hi-Fi audio quality :Bulit-in ultra Hi-Res CS43130...
- Multiple operating systems compatible:Compatible...
- Bluetooth receiver function :Connect it to home...
- Easy operation :Plug-in your headphones to...
The Audiolab M-DAC Nano is a tiny matchbox size headphone amp that will turn your favourite plug-in earphones into a Bluetooth pair, making it super simple to pair and go! It is not just a Bluetooth adaptor though, the DAC is designed to improve the audio from smartphones, tablets, computers.
Using a Cirrus Logic CS43130 DAC chip which is designed for low power applications the M-DAC nano able to up-sample the incoming signal to 32-bit/384kHz (at the press of a button) before converting to analogue.
It connects to your phone with Bluetooth V4.2 which supports aptX, aptX LL (Low Latency) and AAC codecs to ensure the highest quality data transfer for audio performance and it works.
The DAC also works as an amplifier too, allowing you to squeeze a bit more volume out of earphones that would otherwise be constrained to the limitations of the phone. It can drive some powerful headphones going up to 3000ohms with 7.5mw of power which is possibly one of the more important features, allowing you to use headphones with your phone that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get the most out of.
The device is extremely lightweight, at just 28g, it has a plastic casing and a sort of plastic/aluminium frame. This does give off the impression of something a little light and cheap, functionally there is nothing wrong with the build quality at all, it is well made, and its lightweight nature is one of its selling points.
It’s Bluetooth; it is as easy as every other modern Bluetooth device, you switch it on, and pair it up. However, it took me a little while to realise this works in two modes (I didn’t read the instructions) by default it does not apply any upsampling to the audio, so it sounds good but not as good as it should. Pressing the F button again changes the LED from blue to teal (I think), and the audio profile changes considerably, for the better.
Charging is done via a convenient QI charger, which should mean the DAC can charge from any other compatible QI charger.
The M-DAC Nano costs £150, and the earphones Audiolab sell start at around £350 plus, so the DAC isn’t really designed to plug your cheap earphones in. However, over the years, I have lost or broken most of my wired headsets, leaving me with a somewhat limited selection.
For this review I used a few options, most of which cost less than this DAC itself, this includes the 1MORE E1001 Triple Driver, Rock Jaw Alfa Genus V2, then over the head headphones including Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2, Anker Soundcore Life Q20, and finally probably the only headphones that can make the most of the M-DAC Nano, Blue Lola.
I was very sceptical about the ability to improve the quality of the audio, as surely the limiting factor is the Bluetooth connection between the phone and DAC. However, at least subjectively, it does do as advertised, in particular when I realised that I needed to switch on the upscaling, there is a noticeable uplift in perceived quality. The cheapest headphones, the Rock Jaw Alfa Genus V2 had a particular improvement, while I liked the earphones as they were, they were a little flat at times, I blamed the fit, but using the M-DAC Nano, they came much more to life with more rich pronounced lows.
This was reflected with all the other samples too, I tried the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 because the main issue they had was that they were not very loud, but with this, I was able to improve the volume considerably. Sadly, you can’t have the headphones in ANC mode and wired mode.
The Blue Lola headphones are perhaps the closest thing that can do the DAC justice. While they sounded amazing as they were, with the help of the M-DAC there was a noticeable improvement. In particular, keeping the phone volume down and using the DAC to control volume seems to make these shine.
During my test, the M-DAC Nano performs as advertised, I was quite sceptical about the improved quality of sound, but I feel like it did. Or at least it tweaked the audio profile to my tastes. The amp is perhaps what helps with the improved quality, you no longer need to have your mobile at max, instead a moderate level with the DAC handling amplification appears to provide the best results.
From what I can tell, there is no other product directly competing with this on the market, the iFi xDSD is the only one I can find even close to this, and costs £399. I would say the closest competitor would be a good quality wired DAC, but then you lose the flexibility of this lightweight Bluetooth design.
While £150 doesn’t sound very cheap, in the world of audio, this is barely touching the sides. Nearly all other portable (though much larger and wired) DACs cost considerably more than this, so relatively, it is quite affordable.
It feels like a very niche product, but with more and more people using mobiles for music, I can see the appeal. For audiophile commuters, which I am sure there are plenty of in London and other major cities, this is a great investment that can make your commute a little more enjoyable in the morning.
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Score
Sound Quality - 90%
Battery - 75%
Price - 80%
Last update on 2021-01-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API