The thumb drive USB DAC has become a market with a lot of entrees but one of the first was the M2Tech HiFace DAC. A little orange USB stick that featured a DAC capable of converting PCM files all the way up to 32/384kHz. It done pretty well but Japanese outfit Aurorasound (whose HEADA we looked at earlier this year) obviously thought it had more to give because they gave it a slightly bigger box (with it’s own USB input) and retuned it before putting their stamp on it. Don’t worry they aren’t ripping M2Tech off, there is an agreement here and with the differences physically in the final product, they are actually a different type of product, too a degree anyway. Brought into the UK by PureSound (www.puresound.info) it goes for £369.95.
The box is 97x39x31mm and has a USB-B port one end and a ¼ inch headphone jack on the other, a Neutrik jack to be specific. It is simple in function; you plug a USB cable in one end, select it as your output device and plug your headphones into the other end. On top you have a little yellow LED that shows everything is in order and working. Now one thing that you may or may not like is that it has no volume attenuation or remote control so the only way to control the volume of the headphone you plug into this is with whatever computer software you use, be it JRiver like Josh does on his PC or Audirvana + or Tidal like I use on my iMac. It isn’t hard to do but I like a tactile volume control and don’t find dragging a virtual bar accurate or satisfying.
Inside it uses a Texas Instruments PCM5102A DAC chip, similar to many devices such as the Meridian Explorer and is known as a solid chip choice at this price range.
Now the changes to the original M2Tech unit other than being put into a die cast aluminium chassis seem to be related to the power supply, well this is all Aurorasound have to say on the matter anyway. There is now a built in power supply filter circuit that gets rid of some of the noise that the USB bus power likes to add too the sound and that can be further improved with one of the associate products we will look at later.
The HiFace DAC was once a funky orange looking USB stick but is now much more understated. I must say it is a little on the clunky side because it is deceivingly heavy at its size. It does look rather DIY and is nowhere near as stylish as the HEADA, this is a device made for purpose and nothing more. While it may look rather basic, it is well built and other than the LED, I don’t see any areas that could go wrong.
It Has Some Associates Too:
Designed along with the DAC-Pro, you also have the BusPower-Pro and ASX-01, which are both £99.95 and are companions that make sense to own along with the DAC-Pro, I think so anyway.
The first is the BusPower-Pro, an identical looking box with the same USB-B import as the DAC on one side and a little USB cable coming out the other to input into the DAC. It also has a little input so you can connect the BusPower to the mains through an AC adapter. It allows you too supply your DAC with high quality 5 volt DC, which should in most or even all cases be a clear step up cleaner and better than what ever your USB host is outputting. To make things even better I plugged it directly into my Audioplan FineFilter S and Powerstar combo.
It is a similar idea too the dual headed USB cables (I have a Audiocadabra Optimus) I have tried that let you connect the power line to a separate power source but this is almost an enhancement on that. While you still have to use another USB cable between your USB source and this and the data and power lines are held together, the power that is supplied is not just from an external source but is a dedicated power source. With the dual headed USB cable I would just connect the USB cable to my Noontec USB host that has 5 USB ports but it doesn’t do anything special to make sure the power is of good quality. The BusPower-Pro has the following implemented.
“As well as being external to the AC adapter to eliminate the all-too high-frequency noise in switching power supplies, we use a transformer type and not a switching type, the internal body has a built-in choke coil, OS capacitor, semiconductor type regulator, to supply high-quality DC5V.”
This taken direct from the Aurorasound Japanese website and in my understanding should be a clear set up to anything I could plug the Optimus USB cable into.
Now the BusPower is not something you can just use with the HiFace DAC-Pro, it is something you can use with any USB bus powered DAC you may own, or even with a different type of device like the HiFace Two-Pro, which is Aurorasound’s USB to SP/DIF converter. Something I have found that is annoying is that some USB DACs that use USB bus power have a smaller USB input than the USB-B that this uses but you can get adapters to help the versatility of this product but I have found that a pain and is one of the reasons why I have not got round to using the BusPower with my Henry Audio 128 Mk2. I wont be going into too much detail on what the BusPower does but I have found it to shrink the noise floor and allow a better canvas for my music to be painted on and for that reason I used the BusPower for the entirety of this review, 5 pennies under £100 seems like a fair deal and if you do end up getting a HiFace DAC-Pro I don’t see why this shouldn’t be accompanying it for the journey with the delivery courier.
For what the ASX-01 is, the price seems a little less thought out. It is a handy accessory but you get something that does an identical job included with the Aurender Flow for free, even if it isn’t as pretty. The ASX-01 is an adapter that turns your ¼ inch output on something like the HiFace DAC or Flow into RCA terminals. It has a short bit of cable then a pretty metal box that has the RCAs on. Yes it is a well polished product and the terminations are all rhodium and top quality but in reality, you can save yourself quite a bit of money and get something that does as effective a job much cheaper off eBay or get a boutique cable manufacture to make something at a similar price using high grade materials.
You have two choices on how to use this device; the first is to plug your headphones straight into it, using it as an all in one solution. This would be a great use but I found it very iffy. The main reason was that sometimes it had the ability to output with decent volume and then sometimes I could put it on max volume and hardly get audible sound with my Sennheiser HD800s and it only be loud enough with my most sensitive custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs). I have no idea why this is, but I never got it at a good volume with my headphones when using Audirvana but I did with Tidal.
When it was working correctly it would sound good at 9/10 of Tidal’s volume with my HD800 and at around half way, sometimes less with my CIEMs. Although it was ok with my HD800s, I found its power capped out when you get to planar magnetic like my ZMF Blackwood, that was just asking too much of the little box. Thinking it would be better suited to easier to drive earphones I started out with a pair of CIEMs, mainly the Hidition Viento-R custom in-ear monitor because it is pretty close to reference level and rather transparent, showing up what it is used with.
One of the main things I found was that vocals seemed a little bit weak and lacking in body. Listening to “Did You Hear The Rain” by George Ezra where the first minute or so is a cappella I found it a bit dry and thin, even wispy at times. It lacked body but even more so emotion; I wasn’t captured or drawn in. When the music comes in, things are better, I find bass a little bit enhanced but maybe that is noticeable because the slightly weaker midrange. I found decay to be short as well. All this totaled up to a sound that was weak, lacking in dynamic but fairly balanced because even though I found bass presence to be a little more than the rest, it lacked decay so didn’t seem over the top. The sound was rather grainy, and just didn’t every really seem to get going.
In honesty I really wasn’t impressed with how it performed with the Hidition’s or any of my IEMs for that matter including other such as the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor or the universal Earsonics Velvet. It actually sounded oddly better with the HD800 (and other higher impedance dynamic driver cans like HD580) and maybe it just didn’t have the control to deal with IEMs or maybe it has a high output impedance and was skewing the frequency response, that may be the reason I found poor decay in the bass with my multi armature CIEMs.
So switching to the HD800 things seemed a lot smoother, I found the sound to still lack a bit of body in the midrange, especially in the upper mids but it has quite an easy tone and was still very much in the mix. The bass also was clearly in front like found with the Hiditions but instead of a lack of decay, we now had plenty of it and some warmth and bloom in the bass, which I found quite pleasant with the HD800s, making them warmer than I am used to. I did find the deep bass to be a little lesser to what I can find with my dedicated amps but nothing too extreme. The midrange, which I found to be a little laid back, continued a slight down hill tone into the treble, which was also rather calm in its presentation and the HiFace done a good job of really containing the HD800s brightness, which is something I am not a big fan of happening as I like it for the brightness but I know some don’t, I did find with headphones already a bit weaker in the treble that this took a bit too much away. With the very bassy Apollo Audio Lab X1, we was left with great bass but a real lack of upper mids and treble, it wasn’t a good pairing.
I think we can determine that this may very well have a high output impedance and not bode well with multi armature IEMs that have difficult impedance curves. With headphones though of most impedances this may actually have the ability to drive them, they done all right with my HD800, displaying a darker, warm sound signature that if paired with the right headphone can be nice. Don’t let me fool you into think that is a super capable headphone amp though, it did not have the speed or finesse of some dedicated components, nor the detail, even models coming at a similar price but it really didn’t do horrible at the same time from a sonic only perspective.
With the BusPower this comes in at £460, which is quite a bit but then you are getting a DAC and a headphone amp but I found the headphone amp did not always work with my software and lack of a real volume control just became annoying, I think this can work with headphones but is not ideal, I think other solutions could be a lot easier. I mean the Centrance HiFi-M8 (just one alternative) is £30 more, comes with balanced headphone outputs, is also a DAC and you can change the output impedance, gain and use it with pretty much any earphone or headphone, this just lacked any sort of versatility or ease of use with headphones and that just turns me off way to much.
I moved away from using this directly with headphones, as soon as I was confident in my opinion and I decided to set it up with the ASX-01 ¼ inch to RCA converter and along with some Charleston Cable Company RCA cables, hooked it up with some of my full sized headphone amps, namely Aurorasound’s very own HEADA and the Questyle CMA800R, using them with such headphones as the HD800 and Blackwood. This was much easier to do because without playing around with volume control and the likes, it has a line level output that goes into my amp and it was plug and play working as you would want every time, very easily. It surprised me with its ability to give a strong signal into my amps, and from there it gave me an easy ride with my music.
In all honesty, the way I heard my headphones through this is pretty much in line with the sound signature I found this to be as a DAC, which makes sense as my headphone amp is just amplifying the signal that my headphones were getting, there is not a completely different signal between the headphone and DAC output like there is on my Exogal Comet.
So it is a DAC that is best characterized by having a chilled out treble that is on the easier going side of neutral and having a similar presented and smooth midrange. The bass has a slight bit of emphasis over the rest of the spectrum but this is not as obvious as with the Henry Audio DAC.
Vs. The Henry Audio 128 Mk2:
The Henry always takes your breath away with its bass, both power and quantity, but the HiFACE surprised me and had almost as much, but it was just a little weaker, but more controlled and tighter. The HiFACE also seemed softer in the midrange, and a little more resolving but the Henry was airier and also had a bit more emphasis, in a slightly shouty way, it had less finesse without doubt.
The HiFACE also managed to cope with more textured and faster stuff a bit better. We said in the Henry review that it just sometimes lacked speed and coherency through the ranges, the HiFace shows off a clearer, more integrated sound. The treble was well pronounced on the HiFACE and rather creamy and smooth, the Henry responded with a bit more sparkle and detail but also a little sloppier. The dynamics seemed better on Henry and so did the sense of space by a very minute margin and overall I think the HiFACE is easier going, smoother while the Henry is edgier but more powerful and impactful, in all the ranges and also shows of a great crispness.
Vs. Exogal Comet:
The Henry is much more similarly priced but for those wondering if was going to make claims like this is a giant killer or punches miles above its weight I thought I would let this comparison do the talking. Now one of the Comet’s best sonic traits is how wide and spacious its soundstage is. I find a DAC able to make a hell of a lot of impact on a soundstage and that is something that I think separates a great DAC from a good DAC. The Exogal is a great deal wider, it is the most obvious thing you will find during a comparison, mainly because it is quite a shocking difference. I am not meaning this has criticism for the HiFace because the Exogal is 5 times the price so you expect some pretty extraordinary differences. That being said while I do very much like this DAC, I don’t think it is a giant killer like some people make out for some DACs in this price range but at the same time I have not found a single sub £1000 DAC that I would be confident in giving a tag like that too. Other reasons for this would be a sense of ease, natural details and speed that I also get in better quantity from the Exogal. That is not to say that the HiFace isn’t composed because it really is and very resolving on top of that, it doesn’t have the biggest dynamics though but in terms of the micro nuances it can be really impressive. It suits Jason Mraz’s 5/6’s more than it does anything from Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, for example.
Other differences I have found was a less compressed midrange that was airier and more forward and a more energetic treble that stayed composed and easy to listen to on the Comet. I did find it to be less bassy though.
Tuned Just Right?
Perhaps, I can tell you when I look at the tiny body of the Aurorasound HiFace DAC-Pro I am impressed by the sound it is putting out, it certainly performs strong in its price, the best? Well it depends what sort of sound your after, something the Yulong D200 will give a more aggressive treble and midrange, less warmth and bass but also a bigger soundstage, a completely different sound signature and why I did not even bother comparing the two devices, both are good but for two different people. This for those who want something easy to listen, a little bit darker, controlled, resolving and polite, it nails that signature on the head.
There is no hiding the lack of features and a poor usability with this device, especially if you plan on using it directly with headphones, where I found it straight up frustrating. But if you want something with small footprint, that you can chuck in your laptop bag and use on the train, a plane, in the office or at home, this can be perfect. You don’t necessarily have to use this with mains power and that is not something to be said by a lot of DACs in the price range that I have looked at and that alone can put this at the front of the running.