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Earmen Donald DAC Review – No Quack

Pros – 

Excellent value overall, Coherent presentation with clean transients, Resolving midrange

Cons – 

Slightly woolly bass, Resolution isn’t the highest in its class, Limited inputs

Verdict – 

The Donald comes into its element with regards to the overall package, sporting an appealing design and natural, refined sound with clean transients.


Introduction –

You might not be familiar with Earmen besides a handful of articles on the net, however, the company has deep-rooted heritage from its parent company, Auris. Miki is the brains behind the operation, a passionate audiophile with heaps of experience hand-crafting multi-thousand dollar desktop amplifiers in Europe. Yet, where most companies start low and work their way up the price tier, Auris has taken the opposite approach; with Earmen consisting of purely portable, value-focused products. The off-shoot of the brand also serves as the US branch of the company in order to ensure greater communication with their main consumers alongside better support. By leveraging great industry experience, Auris have successfully diluted the price without diminishing the experience. The adorably named Donald DAC is one of their most approachable products, coming in at $100 USD and sitting squarely in the budget DAC category.  You can read more about the Donald DAC on Auris’ website and purchase one for yourself here.

 

Tech Specs –

Supported Formats: PCM 384kHz/32bit, DSD256, DXD, MQA Rendering

DAC: 32-bit Cirrus Logic CS 43198

USB: XMos 2XX

Input: USB-C – DATA/Power Supply

USB-C – External Power Supply

Output: RCA

Dimensions: L * H * W (mm) 114 x 80 x59

 

The Pitch –

Dual Power Supply

The Donald DAC features two power inputs via USB-C, one that also supports data and one that supports pure power. This design is reminiscent of high-end portable designs such as the Chord Mojo, and it serves to reduce noise introduced by the source. For instance, those with a grounding issue in their setup or home electricity may experience a buzz or hum and will be able to power the DAC from a portable battery instead to alleviate this issue.

Flagship DAC

The DAC supports PCM up to 384KHz and 32 bits, native DSD up to 11.2 MHz. DXD and MQA decoding. Auris tout a strong implementation of the Cirrus Logic CS 43198, which is an evolution of their form flagship CS4399 DAC chip and the same used in the very widely coveted AK SR15; albeit, the AK is using a dual DAC implementation for balanced output. It boasts some impressive specifications such as 32-bit resolution, 130dB dynamic range and lower noise than its predecessor, bolstering the 4399’s -108dB noise level to -115dB THD + N on the new chip.

 

Design –

DSC08155

The Donald DAC’s design is fundamentally quite simple yet draws the eye with its upright form factor, sitting atop a sleek teardrop stand. The bulk of the housing is satin black aluminium with gloss plastic end caps that house the inputs/outputs on the rear and illuminated branding on the front. It’s a very clean design that will complement a wide variety of PC setups but can also be hidden away in a cable management box without the stand. It has modest dimensions but is hardly portable despite that being a focus for the company; the Sparrow seems like a much more portable solution for interested consumers. Some may want to see more inputs available here, the Donald is rather spartan, favouring simplicity over versatility. Though not many sources in this price offer much wider connectivity, competing Topping DACs do offer more options.

 

Usability –

Much like its design, the Donald DAC is simple to operate, just connect a USB-C input and RCA outputs. The DAC was plug and play on my Windows 10 laptop and functioned perfectly without requiring a driver. What’s unique to the Donald, especially in this price class, is its dual USB-C inputs. There’s a dedicated power only input in addition to a data + power combo input. As such, the user is able to run the DAC off just one cable or two if they’re experiencing noise or grounding issues through the combo port and want a little extra fidelity. The illuminated logo glows blue to denote function and red to indicate that the DAC is receiving external power. Interestingly, external power or not, the DAC was not recognised by my Google Pixel 4 so it will likely be limited to desktop applications.

 

Sound –

Axillary Power Supply –

Testing Methodology: AB Data through eGPU, axillary power from power bank+ blind testing

My house seems to have a well-grounded power supply, my subwoofer and speakers don’t hum, I haven’t experienced noticeable issues with any DAC/AMP with regards to power either. In terms of my normal setup, I have my laptop connected to an eGPU that is not connected to a power board but its own outlet, and my DAC of choice interfaces with one of its 4 USB ports. This setup gives me no grief. To test, I connected the data port to the eGPU and the power input to a 36W power bank. This let me quickly AB between single and dual power supply by connecting and disconnecting the power bank, I also ensured the status LED was switching between red and blue.

DSC08157

To test, I had a family member switch between the two while I was blindfolded and was reliably able to tell small when the power was introduced. Specifically, I hear sharper transients and imaging though this is very track dependent and took a good while for me to isolate by ear. There was a touch more separation and notes had slightly higher resolution but again, it’s subtle as there is no perceptible change to signature or tone, simply a slightly sharper sense of direction and slightly higher note definition. Still, the feature is good to have as it will also serve to maximise compatibility with older USB standards and ensure noise isn’t introduced from the user’s power supply. The subjective analysis below will be with axillary power connected as I felt this most fair and feasible for its intended use cases.

 

Subjective –

Testing Methodology: SPL volume matched comparison through an inline splitter to Khadas Tone Board. Both powered by JDS Atom.

This will serve as both an analysis of the Donald DAC in addition to comparison to one of its closest and, undoubtedly, most popular competitors, the Khadas Tone Board ; which has received wide recommendation over at Audio Science Review for its superb measurements. The Tone Board implements the ESS Saber9038Q2M DAC chip alongside XMos 2XX USB chipset for similar file support. It features a low-noise power supply with just a single USB-C input. The obvious differences are with regards to the build and design. The Donald DAC is a complete product, the Tone Board has no housing and, therefore, will be a little more susceptible to noise (though I haven’t personally experienced issues here) and damage without the user supplying one themselves. Both come in at a very palatable $99 USD.

The Donald DAC provides a lightly warm yet coherent presentation. It’s a slightly smoother and denser sound with a wetter midrange and clean, concise high-end. Meanwhile, the Tone Board is more tonally transparent and dynamic but also drier through the midrange without the same euphony and note resolution. Bass is slightly woollier on the Donald DAC, having a touch more mid-bass warmth while the Tone Board is cleaner and more linear with higher separation. In particular, the Tone Board has more aggressive note attack which grants it a well defined low-end with more sub-bass kick. Meanwhile, the Donald DAC is more smoothly textured and a touch fuller but it has more diffuse transients.

The midrange is where the Donald DAC excels. It’s gossamer smooth in its articulation, dense, well-bodied and linear. There’s heaps of information with coherent, filled-in notes and vocal timbre is spot on. The smoothness, in particular, is what strikes the listener. The Tone board has a touch more clarity and is more neutral in tone and note body. However, it also introduces some grain that the Donald DAC lacks entirely. Therefore, one could posit that the Donald is more forgiving of a wider range of music and it surely represents the more euphonic source. Contrarily, the Tone Board is more separated and neutral in tone but also has less note resolution and is more susceptible to exacerbating artefacts.

DSC08158

Up top, there’s also an interesting duality to be observed; a cleaner transient response on the Donald and a similar transient response to the single-power Donald on the Tone board. This highlights how subtle the differences are. The Donald has slightly sharper note attack in the foreground, making it sound a bit crisper with slightly better detail retrieval. The background is darker on the Donald which is also a source of its overall smooth and refined sound. The Tone board has better extension and I hear more resolution too. As such, its background is cleaner with a bit more sparkle and micro-detail in the background.

This yields also a wider soundstage on the Tone board which tapers off more naturally at its extremities where the Donald hits a sort of hard limit to width. Imaging is a touch sharper on the Donald due to its cleaner foreground transients and slightly higher detail retrieval here, but both are very stable and accurate with regards to positioning. The Donald is more coherent while the Tone Board has better separation throughout on behalf of its higher resolution and more neutral note size.

Suggested Pair-ups

The key thing to consider is the smoothness of the Donald DAC, therefore, pairing with gear that is already smooth and forgiving such as tube amplifiers may overly blunt clarity and note definition. As such, it’s a good match to solid-state amplifiers where it yields a very natural timbre and upholds a highly coherent presentation where the Tone Board can become a touch clinical and sterile with amplifiers that are also highly transparent. I also find the Donald to complement BA earphones especially well. In particular, it smooths the midrange and background while upholding a clean, agile treble response and high detail retrieval.

 

Verdict –

DSC08159

Looking at two of the highest specced products in the budget DAC category, it’s safe to conclude that cheap sources are getting pretty darn good. Beyond specification, both tout sound implementations. The Donald DAC takes this one step further with its dual power supply that yields a slightly more defined sound. Though resolution and absolute transparency don’t yet achieve parity with high-end sources, the Donald gets impressively close to the extent that differences must be closely scrutinised. Sure, some may want more inputs, in which case, the Topping DACs will have you covered. The Donald also pairs best with neutral amplifiers, while the Khadas Tone Board offers a bit more resolution and balance overall. The Donald, therefore, comes into its element with regards to the overall package. The design is appealing the sound is natural and refined with clean transients. Earmen’s first DAC is a thoroughly designed product and very reasonably priced, perhaps all the DAC most listeners will ever need.

The Donald DAC is available from on the Earmen Store (International) for $99 USD at the time of writing. I am not affiliated with Earmen or Auris and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.

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