This is a review of the new Periodic Audio Rhodium portable DAC.
It’s meant to replace the cheap USB dongle that came with your phone. As you probably know, those dongle sound absolutely terrible so the bar is set pretty low. But can the Rhodium beat the popular $100 Audioquest Dragonfly Black or $200 Dragonfly Red? Keep in mind these Dragonfly DACs max out at 96 kHz but it’s MQA compatible. So you’re technically able to get higher res output (second unfolding).
The Rhodium was obviously meant for mobile use, either on your phone or your laptop. It’s USB-C but comes with a USB-A adapter. Now I’ve tested this on both my Pixel 3 phone and my MSI GS40 laptop. There are a few things to keep in mind.
The Rhodium can output 1 volt rms into a 32 ohm load. So this is not made for super high impedance or inefficient headphones.
Rhodium is recognized out of the box without the need for drivers. This includes the gen 4 iPads running the latest iOS. The only exception is the iPhone. Which requires the additional lighting to USB adapter.
For the Audioquest DACs, you may have to upgrade the firmware on them. I have version 1.07 for both Black and Red. The firmware you use could result in a different sound and from my notes, 1.06 had a brighter sound. Go figure.
Secondly, on some Android devices, if you want bit-perfect audio, including MQA, you need to download an app called USB Audio Player Pro. It’s about $8 and another $3 or $4 for the MQA add-on. Otherwise the OS will try to upsample before sending to the DAC.
If you’re using Qobuz or Tidal on your laptop, you need to enable exclusive mode. Otherwise you’re just wasting money on these DACs. You lose a ton of performance by sharing your output with other programs. There’s a workaround to get it to work with Spotify, but they’ll probably have an official feature when they release their Lossless subscription at the end of the year.
I’ll also be reviewing the DACs with the Periodic Audio Nickel. I’ve written a review a while back and this thing is amazing. It doesn’t just give you more juice, but improves the sound enormously.
Even the Audioquest Dragonfly DACs benefit greatly from this little device. Just be wary of your volume level. This combination will blow our your ears.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the headphones.
First these are the headphones I used for the review.
For earphones I have the Periodic Audio Carbon and Berrlyium. When I first saw these guys at a trade show many years ago, they were in white lab coats and their booth looked a bit whimsical. I thought it was all marketing and their earbuds didn’t look like anything special. But when I tried their Berillyum, I was blown away. They ended up being the only wired earbuds my wife and I listen to.
If you wanted to know my top pick for IEMs, it’s the Periodic Audio Carbons. Once they go in my ears, they won’t come out for a while.
Here’s the mini-review.
The Carbons have more soul, bass, and are overall more warm and natural sounding. It articulates with confidence, control, and transient clarity. It has speed and detail but very dynamic and impactful. The doesn’t have the most sparkle but enough of it.
The Be is more neutral, clean, and forward. It has a nice dreamy and silky sound. But to my ears, the Carbon is more fun and humanistic. I just hope my wife doesn’t hear these, because I’ll never see them again.
These don’t look like $300 and $400 earbuds but they will beat out most of the buds on the market. In fact, I think the Carbon is my top pick among every earbud I’ve heard under a grand.
Both of these earbuds are the same, the only difference is the material used for the diaphram. So Berrylium and Carbon. With these Carbons, no one will know you have diamonds in your ears. Super low profile, no microphone. Even the packaging is minimal. Periodic Audio prefers to only spend money where it matters – the sound quality and the earbuds themselves.
The man behind these Periodic Audio earbuds is a man named Dan Wiggins. And he has quite the resume. Chances are…you’ve heard his work before. He worked for Sonos, Blue Microphone, Rode, and he actually co-designed the drivers used in my LSA-10 Statement loudspeakers. Definitely one of the greatest ears in the industry.
The closed-back Audeze Sine, I think these are discontinued but they’re great headphones when you’re on the go. You definitely need the Nickel amp with these. They’re darker sounding headphones but is smooth and easy to listen to. They’re also well-built and could take a beating in the travel bag.
I also have my custom JH Audio Angies – the cable is now a bit green from oxidation. And they don’t fit my ears perfectly anymore. I need to get them reshelled. For enjoyment I’ll stick for the Carbons, but if I’m in the mood for something more neutral and resolving. The Angies have a ton of texture, precision, and insight but not very warm sounding.
Let’s start with cellphone playback.
As far as mobile phone use, I’m going to cut to the chase. If you don’t have a 3.5mm jack and only a usb-c port – like I do on my Pixel 3, then you have to buy one of these Dragontails, which will run you $30. That kind of sucks, but it gets worse.
The problem with this this cable is that in all my listening, the Rhodium performed better because it didn’t require it. The Dragontail cable basically coats the sound with a veil and softens up all the dynamics of the Dragonfly DACs. It’s slightly fuller and warmer but covers up all the benefits of having those Dragonfly DACs in the first place.
With the Dragontail attached, the Audioquest DACs, including the Red, sounds muffled as if a thick piece of cloth was blocking the sound. It’s much duller and flatter sounding. It just sounds very sleepy. Comparing this to the Rhodium, it’s just the cable this tiny adapter.
So for mobile phone use, it’s a swift victory for the Periodic Audio Rhodium. Not only for being compact and minimal, but the sound is far better than both of these Dragonflies in every way – because of the Dragontail adapter. Cute name, crappy product. $30 can almost buy you a Rhodium!
Alright so for a fair fight, the only real test I could do is to connect the Dragonfly DACs directly to the USB-A ports of the laptop. The Rhodium will be connected to the USB-C port. I’ve tried using the USB-A adapter on the Rhodium, and the sound was pretty much the same on this laptop.
As for the comparison against the Dragonfly Black, it was obvious which one I preferred. I have to give it to the Rhodium. The Black does have very good speed and a clear sound, but it was a little bit sharp and not very dynamic. Nothing really had weight or form. It has decent atmosphere but has too much sibilance and sizzle. I don’t hear anything special about this DAC.
As for the Rhodium, it’s better in every way. It has better slam, dynamics, and separation. You could hear the gradual layering of complex recordings. The tones are earthier and sweeter while remaining full-bodied. The Black is a little more detailed, but far from sounding natural.
For example, a popular audiophile recording. Diana Krall’s Devil My Care off the Live in Paris album. With the Rhodium, the piano notes have more weight and grunt to them. You could almost feel each key press. There’s depth and tangibility.
On the Black, everything is pancake flat. No gradations, lots of smearing, and not a very emotional sound.
The Rhodium easily wins this one.
Let’s get to the Audioquest Dragonfly Red. This DAC is much better than the Black. It also looks better. If you’re considering the Black, I’ll tell you now, it’s worth saving up for the Red.
Although it has a 2.1V output, it still sounds way better with a Periodic Audio Nickel amp. You get better separation, more micro-details, and it’s just very smooth. When I A/B’ed between the two, the Red sound pretty flat without it and the Nickel just gave the sound more meat and clarity.
It just goes to show the importance of the amp stage of a DAC. So having the Nickel in the chain for the review will show how both of the Dragonfly and Rhodium DACs scale.
As far as performance, each DAC has its strength and will appeal to different people. The Red has shinier and more present treble. It’s a brighter more vibrant sound. It has plenty of speed and air.
I think its strengths are in the highs. As for the Rhodium, it has more of a dreamy sound. It’s warmer with truer to life timbre and tone. Bass plucks are more tangible. It’s not as transparent as the Audioquest RED, but it sounds less digital and more lifelike. There’s a cohesiveness to the sound while the Red outlines and makes the sound more piecewise.
For example, Billie Eillish’s new single, Your Power. With the Red, the strings tickles the space with vibrance and shine. There’s a lot of reach and extension. It’s very expansive and dynamic sound. There’s plenty of depth. Decay and resonances are very clear. But when her voice comes in, it’s a little cold. You don’t know immediately that it’s Billie Eillish. She has a very distinct voice and tone.
On the other hand, her sultry, somewhat mellow, and warm voice is recognized immediately with the Rhodium. There’s just this presence and weight to her voice that makes the listening experience more soulful. Now this is a MQA track so only the Red could leverage certain qualities. These are transparency, depth, air, body, and resolution. The Rhodium with Tidal Master files played at 96 kHz, has slightly less of these attributes…but holistically sounds more natural anyway.
Pulling up another MQA track, “I could’ve danced all night” by Chet Baker. Who is an astounding trumpeter. And the experience is a little different. The RED is tighter around the edges and somewhat thinner sounding. Highs are clean and snappy. There’s this pristine and brilliant quality to the sound.
But on the Rhodium, while not as vivid or resolving, presents a warmer and fuller sound. Woodwinds, bass, and brass in the recording have a denser and more tonally variant sound. There’s more gravity and presence. Again, instruments sound a lot more realistic with the Rhodium.
Finallly, a non-MQA track, The Scientist by Tyler Ward, Kina Grannis, and Lindsey Stirling. The Audioquest Red presents wonderful spatial clarity and detail. It just sounds like more music is happening from every direction.
The Rhodium is more grounded, more melodic, and romantic. You could hear the individual instruments and voices more clearly. The Red sound a little too bright and shiny at times but separates and layers better. Treble quality is also more accurate on the Red, but it’s difficult to pick up the piano and violin at times. I describe it as a “fairtytale” sound. Very glittery and airy.
This is a stark contrast to the Rhodium. With the Rhodium, when the male and female vocals overlay and harmonize, it sounds more dense and sweet. Bass is also more satisfying when the kicks come in. Again, the tonality is much more natural with the Rhodium. But the Rhodium doesn’t sound as spacious or deep.
So which one should you get? Well, if you listen to a lot of MQA albums, only the Dragonfly DACs have that capability. But more importantly, what kind of signature do you enjoy?
If you like a brighter sound that’s more vibrant with sweet shiny treble, go for the Audioquest Red. It reproduces cymbal crashes and woodwinds very well. It’s more snappy, more energetic, and more open sounding. It’s also an uncolored sound and you could hear lower level details a little better. It’s a more hyped, focused, and heightened. There’s always a sense of liveliness, flair, and clarity. Reverbs tails are crisp and easy to decipher. There’s also more depth and layering with the sound that kind stretches far front to back.
But, if you listen to a lot of vocal recordings and prefer a warmer signature, go with the Rhodium. It just has a more natural sound at the expense of top end clarity.
As for me, I listen to a lot of hip-hop, R&B, rock, and pop. Although I like the expressiveness and treble of the Red, I found myself reaching for the Rhodium more often.
I just feel the Rhodium is more organic, effortless, and emotional. Piano and drums just sound more realistic to my ears. It just has more color to the music. Bass also has wonderful rumble, gradient, and punch. It’s tight and has plenty of slam. The Red has a more glassy sheen on the bass.
The Rhodium doesn’t have all the micro-details, but it has a more analog quality to it. It also seems to image better than the Red. It has more grip and mold to ensure a distinction in tonal density. Although not the most technical sound, it’s very lifelike in tone.
The combination of the Rhodium with the Nickel and Carbons…feels illegal. This sounds stupid good especially for being so portable.
This is just my preference so if you enjoy the signature of the Audioquest stuff, that’s awesome. Everyone’s different. I’m willing to trade a more present and extended treble for a richer midrange – and for me, that’s the Rhodium. At 1/4 the cost of the Audioquest Red and at a much smaller form factor makes this a no-brainer for me.
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