Review on THX Onyx
- Audiophile-grade DAC: THX's portable headphone amplifiers enable high quality digital/analog conversion. THX Onyxis equipped with the flagship ESS SABRE ES9281PRO with HyperStream II modulation, offering a dynamic range of 124dB DNR and -112 Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise (THD+ N). THX Onyx automatically detects 32bit 384kHz PCM, DSD, decoding, and rendering MQA.
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The Review on THX Onyx
The next time you’re at a movie theater, take a moment to appreciate THX. After all, the American company will somehow owe it to the audio presentation you experience.
THX was born out of George Lucas’ disappointment with the quality of audio systems in movie theaters where his Star Wars movies are shown. Members of his Lucasfilm team, including sound engineer Tomlinson Holman, were tasked with developing an audio standards certification program, and the first film to meet those specifications was the 1983 release of Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi.
Nearly 20 years after THX became a separate company, THX is celebrating another milestone with its first crack in the consumer electronics market in the THX Onyx, a DAC/headphone amplifier. The company’s Achromatic Audio Amplifier (THX AAA) technology is located at the heart of the THX Onyx, a compact, portable device designed to enhance the sound between your source device and wired headphones.
The THX Onyx is one of the most discreet portable DACs we’ve seen. It has a thin metal housing, longer and narrower than the average USB stick, at the end of a short, thick USB-C cable.
With that connection and the included USB-A adapter, the Onyx will work with any Windows 10 PC, Mac or Android device through one of those outputs. iPhone and iPads require the slim Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (not included), although it’s worth noting that your headphones’ in-line remote control function won’t work in this case.
Neither method requires specific drivers or installation – just plug it into your chosen device, select it as your device’s audio output (if needed), and plug your wired headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the other end of the DAC.
THX says the Onyx produces an output power comparable to that of entry-level desktop headphone amps, or five times more powerful than comparable USB DACs. The claim is that the feedback and feed-forward error correction method reduces distortion and noise up up to 40dB lower than conventional power amplifiers.
This amplification design works together with an ESS ES9281PRO DAC chip, which can handle files up up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD128, as well as a Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) renderer for full decoding and playback of MQA hard files and (MQA-encoded) Tidal Masters in their native quality – useful for Tidal HiFi subscribers who access to hi-res tracks in the Tidal catalog.
The metal housing of the Onyx not only houses the amplifier, DAC chip and MQA renderer: it also has LED lights that indicate the file type and size being played. Blue represents 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz PCM files and yellow represents sample rates above that, while red and pink light up respectively when DSD and MQA signals are played. It’s a handy feature, offering reassurance to those with hi-res music collections and adding visual interest to the design. Advertisement
Aside from the LED lighting and THX logo, the Onyx is as smart and discreet as the category demands, with both the case and rubber cable feeling solid. THX has magnetized part of the housing and cable so they can hook into each other. It can be a balancing act when plugged into the bottom of a phone, but a convenient method for cable management on a laptop or computer. Sound
However you arrange the Onyx, it delivers sound much more powerful than your source device – it’s also cleaner and clearer. We use a range of earbuds and over-ear headphones, from reference models to more price-friendly pairs, and various source devices including Android phones and Apple MacBooks. Compared to the sound coming directly from the outputs of the devices, the THX amplifies the music, making it much bigger, more direct and more engaging to listen to. A noisy and compressed sound, this is not it.
There’s a good dose of clarity and shine to the presentation that wasn’t there before, as the THX is certainly an improvement over the typically meager output of such portable or desktop devices. However, we are concerned about the inability to improve the sound of the source in every aspect – and so are other similarly priced portable DACs.
The five-star Audioquest DragonFly Red (£169, $200, AU$280) – the leading portable DAC at this price – offers a much wider window into a song, bringing out musical details and instrumental textures that the THX overlooks .
The THX is second best when it comes to conveying the dynamics and timing, and thus the rhythm and musicality of a song. Even the five-star Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC cable and Audioquest DragonFly Black v1.5, both about half the price of Onyx, do better on these fronts.
We play Destroyer’s Savage Night At The Opera and while the Onyx delivers Dan Bejar’s vocals with clarity and solidity, the DragonFly Red comes out more convincingly beneath its deadpan performance, revealing greater insight into, and a closer interplay between, the star nebula instrumentation. . It’s a more mature presentation that makes the Onyx sound rather coarse. And it’s this lack of transparency that makes his commendable efforts to support hi-res formats and MQA seem pretty pointless.
The THX Onyx has a logical design to serve a logical purpose, but the sonic execution lets an otherwise well-thought-out product down. It removes the first hurdle in amplifying device sound and provides greater clarity and cleanliness, but fails the all-important second by failing to deliver the level of detail or rhythmic quality required at this price point. Suffice it to say you can do better.
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