I find that about 75% of the time, DAC performance tends to correspond with their price. Whether they incorporate a galvanically isolated async USB port or some other kind of noise reduction approach (e.g, powered off battery), you generally get what you pay for. Unlike my previous portable DAC shootout, where I compared DACs at wildly different price points, I wanted to evaluate three portable/transportable DACs around the $500 price point. My experience tells me the law of diminishing returns applies at about the $500 mark so it made a bit of sense. I was also bored and sober on a Friday night so listening to 30 second clips of music over and over seemed like the most sensible thing to do.

Setup

All listening was done through Tidal.

  • Purist Audio 30th Anniversary USB cable (Yes, a USB cable worth more than all the DACs combined at $1,800)
  • Chord Company Silver Plus USB cable
  • Audioquest Jitterbug
  • Late 2013 Macbook Pro
  • Headphones/IEMs
    • JH Audio CIEM
    • Meze 11 Neo
    • Meze 12 Classics
    • Meze 99 Classics

Build

  • iFi Micro Black Label
    • Unsurprisingly, the most feature rich and versatile DAC/headphone amp of the bunch.
    • By far the most powerful amp of the cast, with 4 watts @ 16 ohms (non-continuous)
    • Definitely a transportable DAC.
  • Chord Mojo
    • The most portable out of the cast.
    • Really great solid build quality, has great weight & feel.
  • Wyred 4 Sound uDAC-HD
    • This thing is heavier than it looks but not really a bad thing. You could definitely use it as a self-defense tool if someone attacks you at the coffee shop.
    • With the conspicuous line-level outputs, this device was probably directed more at desktop users.

For features and tech specs please take a look at their respective pages. I’m just going to dive into the sound because that’s most important.

Sound Quality

Here are a few of my raw notes during my listening sessions.

Dianne Reeves – Feeling of Jazz

  • uDAC
    • Very smooth, fantastic timbre, very silky
    • Mids are more recessed vs the Mojo
    • More laid back and coherent than the BL
  • Mojo
    • Much more resolving than the uDAC, every nuance of her voice is present
    • Much more texture and body vs uDAC. uDAC sounds very flat (without DC)
    • uDAC sounds smoother and more coherent than the Mojo.
    • Mojo more euphonic and lifelike but I like the tone of the uDAC more for this recording.
    • uDAC has more air over the Mojo.
  • Micro BL
    • Sounds really good, lots of air, clarity, and quiet background.
    • Best of both worlds, Mojo sounds a bit too lush in comparison.
    • On the brighter side of neutral
    • XBass offers some amazing punch
    • Lots of sparkle and air all around
    • Mojo and uDAC has a more accurate and natural timbre
    • Sounds incredibly good, even with the stock USB cable,
    • uDAC in non-DC code has a more natural timbre but is flat and lacks textural cues the BL provides.
    • Sounds more open and spacious than the Mojo. Mojo sounds a bit closed-in.

Chick Corea – Spain

  • Mojo
    • Mojo is definitely a warm DAC.
    • This sweet signature bores me after some time. Too cozy.
    • Has more “artistic intent” than the other DACs. Tone probably closer to what was intended.
    • Better tonal density than the rest of the cast.
    • Sounds a bit veiled vs the uDAC. A bit too much bleeding in the lower-mids.
    • Grey to dark-grey background vs the rest. The BL and uDAC have this openness that I like.
  • uDAC
    • So smooth and analog sounding. If I had an outlet, I would use this as my portable wherever I go.
    • Easy listening, more neutral tonality, and fantastic timbre.
    • Great for long-term listening sessions.
    • Very addictive sound, especially in DC mode.
    • I think this DAC is the most coherent of the batch. It doesn’t have to try hard and just allows the music to flow. It provides just enough detail, air, and musicality to be a pleasure to listen to.
    • Unlike the Mojo, you could clearly hear all parts of the music without any smearing. It doesn’t have the punch, texture, or body of the Mojo but it isn’t required for it be musical in this case.
  • Micro BL
    • An extraodinary level of micro and macro dynamics and detail. You don’t know what you’re missing until you hear the recording from the BL. The trade-off is a bit of a tilt to the brighter side.
    • XBass gives you a level of sub-bass you won’t get on the other DACs
    • Much higher energy DAC, a good compromise between Mojo and uDAC.
    • Has the right amount of textural cues. The uDAC has too little and the Mojo has too much.

Giacomo Puccini – O Mio Babbino Caro

  • Micro BL
    • The most detailed of the bunch with the most extension in both directions.
    • Doesn’t sound as natural or smooth as the uDAC but sounds like it has more air and clarity.
  • uDAC
    • Really really silky (good thing)
    • Doesn’t emphasize any particular part of the frequency, just sounds so coherent.
    • Probably more neutral while the other two DACs color the sound warmer or brighter (Mojo and Micro BL respectively).
    • Does lack some important textural cues but not really noticeable until A/B.
  • Mojo
    • I like the clarity and separation the other two DACs provide better.
    • Quite honestly, it does sound a bit veiled compared to the others
    • Definitely has more meat on the bones so those who prefer a more romantic sound would like the Mojo.

Chris Botti – Emmanuel (Live)

  • Mojo
    • Sounds like a hot mess at time with some bleeding on the lower end.
    • The uDAC (DC) has much better delineation and air.
    • Sounds like too much chocolate at times. So sweet I think I’m going to get diabetes.
  • uDAC
    • A very analog sound, lacks body but so musical.
    • A very honest and precise presentation.
    • So addictive.
    • The transients are cleaner and more defined vs Mojo
    • Very articulate
  • Micro BL
    • Just an absolute detail monster. With the Mojo and uDAC, you could tell they’re the same recording. With the Micro BL, you get presented with so much more resolution, dynamics, and air.
    • Once again, amazing performance, only trade-off is a leaner tonality, less coherent, and less natural timbre.
    • Impressive soundscape that has limitless air and dimension.

Youn Sun Nah – My Favorite Things

  • Mojo
    • Definitely sounds more lifelike but has this unnecessary bloom that masks some of the emotional cues in her voice.
  • uDAC
    • Sounds bigger and more detailed. It’s a bit thin but musical. That seems to be the theme. I gravitated towards this sound more than the Mojo.
  • Micro BL
    • Once again has some impressive resolving ability. The granularity of her voice is clearly audible. It is by far the quietest DAC with the most sparkle. It is also the DAC with the most air.

Emeli Sande – Next to Me

  • Mojo has a lot more energy and sounds much more dynamic.
  • uDAC (USB) sounds a bit hollow without DC
  • Vocals are smoother on the uDAC but lacks musicality without DC
  • Lots of shine and energy with the BL

Blubell & Black Tie – It’s Oh So Quiet

  • Mojo is most euphoric and rich sounding of the bunch.
  • iFi has more clarity and treble energy. A lot more air. A more heightened sound. Not bad.
  • Mojo as a ton more meat than the iFi. Sounds more like lifelike.
  • The uDAC is very smooth and soothing. It’s a bit flat but timbre and tonality is quite enjoyable.
  • The uDAC is very neutral sounding vs the Mojo. The uDAC is very transparent regardless.

Rodrigo y Gabriela – Foc

  • Mojo comes off warm & soft but much more dimensional sound than the uDAC
  • uDAC actually sounds more coherent and not as smeared as the Mojo in this case. More shine.
  • The iFi delivers a bit too much energy for this recording at times but will keep your head bobbing.
  • iFi has much lower noise floor and definitely on the brighter side of neutral. This DAC sounds great with strings, just lacks a bit of bass weight. Very clean.

Paramore – crushcrushcrush

  • Micro BL
    • A very clean and tight sound, lacks warmth.
    • Realistic treble energy, guitars sound great.
    • Overall very well-controlled and lots of sub-bass detail and slam.
  • Mojo
    • Has a more humanistic tone over the iFi. Just more meat but not as insightful.
    • iFi has a larger soundstage and image than the Mojo
    • iFi is cleaner and actually has more bass weight and tightness over the Mojo. Mojo is almost tube sounding in comparison.
    • When I switch between Mojo and iFi, I actually like both for different reasons.
  • uDAC
    • Very smooth midrange, the vocals are quite nice.
    • More liquid sounding than the other DACs
    • A bit grey sounding overall but the tonality and timbre isn’t bad. Neutral but accurate.
    • At this point I wanted to unleash the Class A portion of this DAC by plugging it in
      • This mode opens up the sound to another level. The flatness disappears and there’s more dimension to the music.
      • Much better bass slam.
      • A superbly transparent but fun sound. It doesn’t try hard to impress, it just sounds superb.

Lenka – The Show

  • The uDAC is really easy to listen to, the Mojo has a lot more meat. Mojo has a realism the other DACs can’t match.
  • The uDAC is more detailed on the vocals. It’s a more balanced and neutral sound while the Mojo is just a lot more body.
  • Mojo just has more tonal textures. The thing about the uDAC is that vocals come out clearer than the other DACs.
  • Her voice is much clearer and detailed on the uDAC vs Mojo.
  • The uDAC has a very nice sweet vintage sound that’s addictive.
  • The Mojo just has more texture, dimension and richness over the uDAC and will probably provide more enjoyment for my ears in the short-term. That said, I would say the uDAC probably is more honest and has more midrange clarity. The Mojo’s mids come off fuzzy in comparison sometimes.
  • Everything sounds right with the uDAC, just needs more texturing. It doesn’t do anything wrong but lacks some of that roundess. If it had that, I would say it beats all the DACs in this line-up. It’s still very musical, smooth, and very enjoyable. I think it’s akin to an adult coloring book, all the beauty is there, just needs some textures from crayons.
  • I think the timbre off the uDAC is more accurate than the iFi. iFi is just more textured, energetic, and shiny. The uDAC has this coherence and fluid sound that is very addictive. It’s very honest just lacks textures. The other two DACs sound a little too busy sometimes.
  • BL has more meat than the uDAC but not as smooth and coherent. uDAC is better at conveying emotions.

J. Cole – God’s Gift

  • The uDAC resolves all the micro-details, I don’t think I’ve ever heard those details. Not sure if it’s the iFi’s USB cable but I found the uDAC easier to listen to, the iFi came off a bit abrasive with this song. The uDAC lacks all dynamics and tonal density is pretty much nonexistent (in USB mode). The uDAC sounds like a completely different DAC in DC mode, and I will say I like it more than the iFi in DC mode. It has enough sparkle, bass, detail, and smoothness to be very enjoyable. It’s not fatiguing at all.
  • I think the uDAC sounds more natural than the iFi. The iFi sounds a bit over sparkley. The iFi definitely has more bass heft though. Enormous and tight with a sub-bass that the other two can’t compete with. There’s this grittiness in the vocals. Sounds too excited overall.
  • uDAC keeps it simple but musical. That’s the bottomline.
  • Mojo is the texture king. Much more melodic than the other two. Smaller image and soundstage though. Even the uDAC in USB mode has a larger sound.
  • Mojo sounds a bit soft but lush and enjoyable. uDAC everything is crystal clear. You could hear all the words, all the instruments. Mojo is more fun with body and richness.
  • In USB mode, the uDAC just doesn’t cut it for this song. It just lacks dynamics in every way. In DC mode, I prefer it over both the Mojo and iFi. The larger image, resolution, coherence, and just enough of everything makes it better. It’s a great sounding DAC in DC mode.

Conclusions

In my previous shootout, the differences in sonic performance were obvious. When given an even playing field with regards to price, it’s not so apparent. Usually I look for a clear winner and if you couldn’t tell from the comparison, it wasn’t as easy this time around. All these DACs really did have their pros and cons at around the same price point and I would say it not only comes down to preference but mood. I really hate doing Pros/Cons but here goes:

Wyred 4 Sound uDAC-HD

  • Pros
    • Bigger soundstage, image, and coherence/smoothness.
    • Has just enough of the good things in DC mode
    • Very transparent and smooth sounding in both DC and non-DC mode.
    • Surprisingly detailed without being distracting.
    • I could listen to this DAC for hours and never get fatigued or overwhelmed. The other two have the tendency to do that after some time.
    • It really doesn’t do anything wrong.
    • Very analog sounding, no artifacts, even in USB mode. Most liquid of any portable DAC I’ve ever used.
    • Mirco-details are more easily audible, even more-so than the Mojo.
    • Sounds bigger than the Mojo in DC mode. Also, much cleaner and coherent without bass bleeds. The Mojo is just overly warm and congested sometimes.
    • Better resolution and overall more natural sounding. Mojo has a more natural weight which gives it that lifelike sound.
    • Both Mojo and iFi have this grittiness that the uDAC doesn’t have.
  • Cons
    • Not enough power for more demanding headphones, but perfect for all headphones considered portable anyway.
    • Lacks a bit of texture and density in its presentation
    • Flat sounding without the DC. uDAC just isn’t as musical or authoritative without the Class A amp activated.

Chord Mojo

  • Pros
    • Probably sounds more like the real thing than any of these other DACs due to meaty sound.
    • More aligned with what the artist probably wanted you to hear
    • The Mojo has the most impact and slam out of the bunch.
  • Cons
    • When you hear this DAC, you know it does a lot of things right. Over time however, I found it a bit too lush sounding.
    • Doesn’t delineated or sound as open as the other DACs. Needs more sparkle up top.
    • Due to its warmer tone, delineation isn’t as obvious. Has this bloom, kinda like tubes.

iFi Micro Black Label

  • Pros
    • Has a nice balance of detail, warmth, and energy.
    • Beautifully textured, especially vs the uDAC
    • Best at layering and separation
    • Quietest background out of the bunch
    • Like most iFi gear, it’s like an X-ray to the music. Very vivid and resolving at the same time.
    • More depth than the uDAC and more exciting than the Mojo
  • Cons
    • Tone tilts to the treble side
    • Not as smooth or coherent as the other two DACs
    • Timbre isn’t as natural as the other two

Assuming you don’t want to plug your DAC into an outlet, most would probably prefer the Chord Mojo or the iFi Micro Black Label over the uDAC-HD. However, if you’re willing to bring the adapter with you or use these DACs in a desktop setting, I would highly recommend giving the W4S uDAC-HD a listen. This thing is a completely different beast with the Class A portion activated. It caught me by surprise with its amazingly smooth, natural, and musical delivery. It doesn’t try to impress you with coloration but maintains its tonal integrity across all genres of music. I regret not auditioning this wonderful DAC/headphone amp earlier. Admittedly, I gravitated towards and spent most of my listening sessions with the Wyred 4 Sound uDAC-HD. It’s just a pleasure to listen to with no glaring faults.

That said, I still like each one for different reasons.

  • The Mojo goes well with brighter headphones and paired very well with my JH Audio Angie CIEM. The warmer and thicker textures give way to a very romantic and full presentation. Mojo is also the most portable and will probably start more conversations at a coffee shop. 😉
  • The iFi Micro Black Label pairs well with most headphones due to it’s adjustability. It’s great if you have a large array of IEMs and headphones that you swap in/out often. Also great if you enjoy ample amounts of micro-details, sub-bass, and features. It is the most insightful and resolving DAC in this comparison. Like many other iFi products, you get a lot for your money.
  • The Wyred 4 Sound uDAC-HD goes well with anything, especially in DC mode. If you’re mostly on a desktop and prefer a more analog-ish, coherent, and natural sound, this is the DAC for you. I was addicted to the easy listening qualities of this DAC and especially enjoy its more honest tone and natural timbre. Even in non-DC mode, there’s plenty to appreciate.

If there are any portable DACs you’d like to be included in the next review, please let me know in the comments!