EARMEN DONALD DAC
+ Plug and play; wide format support; forgiving on lesser tracks; coherent presentation.
– Slight reduction in imaging on busy tracks; nothing else at this price point.
Impressive. The EarMen Donald DAC, at US$99, was a pleasant surprise. Though it came only in a minimal box with the unit and the teardrop-shaped stand, its pedigree shows in its sound. The unboxing experience was brief at best, and the unit itself is quite utilitarian.
The Auris Audio/Serbian-made DAC is housed in an aluminium case with plastic face and back plates. The front plate shows the brand and model name with an illuminated EarMen logo that glows in blue when only data is connected and red when connected to an auxiliary power source.
Round the back, there’s only a pair of RCA out and two USB ports (one for data which also powers the unit and the other, an auxiliary power port.) You can cross check the serial number on the back plate with the one printed on the box – which made me wonder why this US$99 product has a serial number while the $249 TR-Amp does not?
The unit sits on the desk either flat or vertically in its stand, and does not take a lot of space. The lack of any other digital connection shows this unit is intended to be a companion for your computer instead of an all-round DAC for your various transports and sources. It helps to keep the size and cost low too so there’s a little trade-off to fit that bill. The size is 114mm x 80mm x 59mm, roughly the same with the TR-Amp, minus the volume knob at the front.
EarMen seems to not be cutting cost in the specs department with the 32-bit Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chip. The flagship chip is a fresh departure from the mountains of AKM and even its sibling’s Sabre-based DAC chip. File support is also abundant – PCM up to 384kHz, DXD (352.8 kHz/24-bit), and MQA. All fed by a XMOS 200 series USB controller. No THD+N or S/N ratio is listed in the website but with those chips, I’m not worried.
The Donald DAC plugs and plays without requiring any drivers, and upon playback, I was greeted by the familiar signature as the TR-Amp’s line out. How did they manage to achieve this with two different DAC chips? That I don’t know, but I’m a believer.
While being budget-friendly, the Donald DAC does extract a lot of detail in the music. While playing Get Lucky from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album, I noticed the additional subtle decay of the snares in every other hit of the drum in the beat. There’s no smearing of the bass notes into the mids, same for the clear mids and highs.
There’s no harshness in the treble, and although I wouldn’t say this is a bright DAC, it does have clarity up top. Bradley Cooper’s Black Eyes has some eclectic mixture of guitar distortion mixed with busy cymbals. While the Donald DAC did a good job of retaining the texture of the instruments, it feels like a 2D plane wall of sound when the track gets busy.
While busy parts might congeal, less demanding songs are an absolute delight. I had no problems noticing everything in Muse’s Madness from its The 2nd Law album. The subtle synth backing cut through the mix, giving a full-bodied presentation.
The Donald DAC stayed on my desk for a little while after I took off my analytical glasses and continued to listen to it as it is intended to – a budget, fun little DAC, and that’s when I started noticing the subtle things.
It glosses over modern pop mixes and is very forgiving. The smooth delivery rounds off any edges and roughness one might come across in more analytical pieces of equipment. With it, I am a lot more comfortable revisiting my lower bitrate albums ripped from long-lost CDs.
THE LAST WORD
There’s always a little something for everyone, and the Donald DAC is an excellent example of it. A small cigarette box sized space is all it’s asking from you to prove itself, and the Donald DAC is worth your time.
EarMen has gotten its priorities right in making a straightforward plug-and-play desktop DAC, and the price certainly wouldn’t chase away anyone looking for budget equipment. While I cannot sell the promise of David killing Goliath, the EarMen Donald DAC quacks along as one of the best bang-for-buck DACs available on the market.
Sources: Acer Aspire V5 573PG, Vivo X21, Tidal Master/ DAC: Chord Hugo V1 / Amp: Lovely Cube Premium, Pass Labs Whammy / Headphones: Sennheiser HD525, Final Audio Pandora Hope VI, JVC HA-S500 / IEMs: Beyerdynamic Beat Byrd, Shure SE846