Every now and then we hear about the new product that’s supposed to change the way we look at things. While back, for example, the web community went crazy about small SMSL Idea dongle. It brought modern Sabre D/A converter chip down to the price of just $75 and everybody loved it. But ultimately, the sound was quite bright and analytical. Looking back at it today, it didn’t really bring anything new to the table. It was a decent product for the price, but in line with other decent products – adding a bit more to the budget you’d soon find better-sounding ones.
Fast forward to the present, and what we have here is a small USB stick. I purchased it for ~23 bucks on Chinese shopping portal AliExpress just out of curiosity (you can find it on eBay too). Twelve days later I received a small package with a neatly packed USB dongle. The body is mostly made of aluminium with a small piece of plastic covering the top around 3.5 mm jack. It feels lighter and less premium than Dragonfly Black but it’s still quite decent, especially considering 4 to 5 times lower price tag.
The device is based around Sabre ES9018K2M D/A converter and SA9023A USB receiver. It is a plug and play affair so driver installation is not needed. File support is capped at 24 bit / 96 kHz, which is same as Dragonfly Black and more than enough for the vast majority of people.
But let’s talk about how it actually sounds. I plugged it to my PC and connected Takstar Pro 82 – a very revealing pair of headphones. I was immediately struck by the amount of details this dongle was capable of retrieving from several tracks. My happiness only grew when I realized that the midrange body and bass notes are not lacking. Both male and female vocals were beautifully rendered and present in the mix. I found no harshness nor sibilance showing their ugly head. Bass notes struck with a sense of rhythm and speed, while the top register was airy and open. I tried cranking up the volume as far as my ears could take it and couldn’t hear any change in sound character. The sound didn’t get thinner or harsher the way SMSL Idea reacted to high volumes.
I was then curious about IEMs compatibility so I switched to a great pair of Moondrop Starfields. The sound coming from the dongle kept its qualities, there was no background hiss I could detect.
SOUND (LINE OUT)
I’ve decided to give it a spin in my room setup consisting of Cyrus 8vs2 integrated amp and KEF LS50 speakers. It’s an overkill setup for sure but good for testing the limits of this small dongle. So I cranked the volume in Windows to 100% allowing the full unattenuated DAC signal. Very quickly I noticed something was wrong as noticeable distortion could be heard with some louder notes and vocal passages. I checked all of my connections twice with no help. I finally decided to decrease the volume slowly and somewhere at 75 % it did the trick. No distortions any more, just pure sound coming from the speakers. Then I returned to listening only to once again confirm the same qualities observed with headphones. It was a lively and upfront presentation, with a punchy bassline and lots of details across the board.
My room setup tends to scrutinize lesser sources but nothing wrong was really coming out of this USB stick. At that moment I really wanted to compare it to other product as I was sure this device can punch much above its price tag.
The first and logical competitor was Dragonfly Black. Attached to several of my headphones, HiFi Fever DAC kept digging more details and offering better control of bass notes. The soundstage is also wider with this DAC and Black sounds more congested. DF Black offers an illusion of greater power because its volume control gets loud sooner but when you get to really high volumes I didn’t notice HiFi Fever lacking drive. I actually prefer this slower volume behaviour as it offers finer control at lower levels. Dragonfly Black always felt too jumpy and gets loud too quickly in my opinion.
Connected to my room setup the sound quality gap actually increased. Dragonfly’s evident lack of bass control and congested soundstage meant an easy win for the newcomer. HiFi Fever DAC simply resolves more details and has crisper edges, better bass control, and dynamics.
It’s pitty I don’t have Schiit Modi 3 at hands to do a direct comparison. But I bet this small DAC would be closer to Modi’s sound quality than it is to Dragonfly Black’s.
DRAWBACKS AND CONCLUSION
The only drawback I found with this small stick is that it refused to work with my Android phones (Xiaomi Mi8 lite and Mi5). Dragonfly Black doesn’t have any problems working with these same phones. The manufacturer claims that stick can work with some phones but there is no list of supported devices so that’s left to luck. This issue took some points from the final score through lower Features score.
Once you get over the phone support part and think of it as a home-only product, things look great. I really can’t praise this DAC stick enough. Its sound quality impresses and surpasses the likes of Dragonfly Black and even FX-Audio DAC-X6. All of that for the price of drinking a few beers in the pub. There are no excuses for putting up with a muddy and unresolving sound anymore. If there was ever a time to stop using your integrated sound solution and jump the external DAC train – this is it.ES9018K2M USB portable DAC HIFI fever
|LUSYA FEVER DAC – CHARACTERISTICS|
D/A Converter: Sabre ES9018K2M