Hilidac Atom 2 MQA USB Portable DAC/Amplifier Review
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The Hilidac Atom 2 MQA USB Portable DAC/Amplifier Review
The death of the headphone jack has let headphone fans down. There’s no shortage of dongle DACs to fill the void, but great smartphone audio and a simple headphone adapter are more. That’s where Hilidac’s Atom 2 comes in. With an ES9281AC Saber DAC that supports all the latest HiFi formats, including MQA for Tidal, a healthy dose of power and an exceptionally fast sampling rate in a small, ultra-portable package, this $79.99 DAC courtesy of Shenzen Audio is the way to go for you?
Since Shenzen Audio also shipped the Tanchjim Tanya, today we’ll also be taking a look at this affordable IEM for part of the listening experience. Coming in at $21.99, we’ll see if it hits up or is “just another” twenty dollar pair of headphones.
Hilidac atom 2:
Current price: $79.99 (Shenzen Audio) DAC chip: ES9281AC Headphone port: 3.5mm Single-end plug: Type-C/Lightning optional Frequency response: 0.032dB@20Hz-40kHz Output power: ≥30mW (16Ω) ≥62mW (32Ω) ≥7mW (600Ω) S/N Ratio: -118dB THD+N: 0.0004% Sampling Rate: Supports up up to 32bit/768kHz DSD Supported: Up to DSD512 Weight: 18 grams Dimensions: 28 x 14 x 11 mm
Current Price: $21.99 (Shenzen Audio) Impedance? 16Ω ± 10% Frequency Range: 20-42 KHz Sensitivity: 12dB@1KHz 1K THD<0.3% Wire: Litz Oxygen Free Copper Wire Transducer: 7MM Moving Coil Transducer Diaphragm Material: PEEK Plug: 3.5MM In-line (Gold Plated)
Hilidac Atom 2 – Overview and First Impressions
The Hilidac Atom 2 is not your average dongle DAC. In fact, it’s not a dongle at all – at least not in the traditional sense. While most dongles have a length of cable below the USB jack, the Atom 2 is essentially a small metal brick with a USB Type-C header on the top and a 3.5mm jack on the side. Whether this design is an improvement or not varies from user to user, but you should consider a new block at the bottom of your phone. While that’s probably how most users will use a device like this, Hilidac also includes a USB-C to A adapter for use with PC to quickly improve computer audio as well.
Under the hood, the Atom 2 offers an excellent DAC and enough power to power all but the most power-hungry earphones and even many headphones. It delivers up up to 30 mW power at 16 ohms and 62 mW at 32 ohms. How loud your listening device will get depends on impedance (resistance) and sensitivity (how each mW translates into decibel volume). In general, however, most consumer earphones speak of 16-32 ohms and the Atom 2 allows them to reach their full listening potential. Headphones can be harder to drive, so this DAC/amplifier is best suited for in-ear headphones, but there are still loads of them that work extremely well with the Atom 2, such as the Audio-Technica M50X.
The DAC portion of the Atom is an ESS saber. In particular, it is the ES9281AC chip. This unit can operate at an exceptionally high resolution – 32-bit/768kHz – which goes far beyond even most Hi-Fi audio files today and what the vast majority of listeners would consider an improvement. What this means, however, is that you have headroom for pretty much any music files you’d want to load up and hear in complete fidelity. More important for your listening is the support for MQA.
MQA is the file format embraced by Tidal for its Master Quality tracks streamed over the Internet. MQA has come under scrutiny recently, but if you’re a Tidal listener, the only way to access the songs he believes are the highest quality is to have a device that can receive them. Fortunately, over time, these devices have become more accessible and more abundant. It’s good to see it appear here on such a small, portable device. If you believe in and enjoy the benefits of MQA, you can experience them anywhere with the Atom 2.
The biggest question I hear with devices like these is a simple one: why? Our phones after all, they have built-in DACs, so why invest in a separate device? Similar to a computer amplifier/DAC setup, removing audio processing from the rest of the components minimizes any external electrical noise that may enter your listening room. In addition, separate amp/DAC hybrids have one job, so the quality of the components is usually better. The result is an improvement in sound quality that’s as much about what you can hear as what you don’t. With the Atom 2, it’s the lack of extra noise that helps reveal details you might otherwise have missed.
Oh, and the headphone jack too. Most of us will get stuck buying some sort of dongle when we have a pair of wired headphones that we like. A normal dongle DAC has minimal or no gain. The brick size provides more space for components and better heat dissipation, allowing it to double the gain of most cheap dongles at 32 ohms.
As for the Tanchjim Tanya, this affordable pair of earphones was sent out by Shenzen Audio at the same time, so I thought it would be fun to check them out in conjunction with the Atom 2. They are a simple, single-driver IEM that uses the bullet design to fit directly into the ear canal. They use a 7mm dynamic driver. The Tanya is only $21.99 so is very affordable but still manages to come up with a good amount of accessories and metal shrouds for the bullet portion of the shell (the nozzles are plastic). In total there are S/M/L pairs of narrow bore and wide bore silicone tips slightly different from each other (narrow offered more bass in my ear), some replacement filters in case your original pair gets clogged, and a cloth carrying case. The cable is not detachable, but for this price I think that’s fine. A decent replacement cable costs almost the same as the earbuds themselves. Hilidac Atom 2 – Listening and Using Impressions
Amplifiers and DACs differ in how they sound. Some do their best to be invisible and do their job without coloring the sound. That’s not the Atom 2. In my listening tests with the Tanya, as well as the Fiio FD5, the Atom 2 definitely adds warmth to the sound. Bass sounds thicker and fuller, and high frequencies sound softer. The change isn’t big enough to completely transform the sound of your favorite headphones, but it can certainly improve them. It’s a common quality of ESS Saber DACs and it’s a sound I really enjoy. Applied to headphones I already enjoy, the Atom 2 adds a layer of opulence that is very pleasing.
I was also happy to find that it broadened the soundstage of my FD5s. Like the color it adds to sound, the improvement is mild but noticeable.
In short, adding the Atom 2 to your portable listening system is certainly an improvement, but there are a few caveats. First, the form factor allows the use of the phone clumsy and makes me concerned about damage to both the DAC and mine phone. On my Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (6.9-inch), the Atom 2 was just big enough, requiring me to squeeze into the corners when typing a text message with a small torque. It was inconvenient for my hand, but, most importantly, without a cable from the USB connector, that would connect directly to the internal port on my phone. It might not work, but maybe it won’t, and that’s a concern.
Second, that coloration for sound may not be welcome if you prefer a treble-focused sound. The Atom 2 will soften the impact and brilliance of those tones. It’s small, but if you’re not into a warm sound, your best bet would probably be to look elsewhere and outside the world of ESS Saber DACs.
Tanchjim Tanya Impressions
Wrap up Hilidac Atom 2 MQA USB Portable DAC/Amplifier Review
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