The $320 Portable DAC/Amp: Matrix Mini-Portable


Disclaimer: I received this sample unit free of charge from Matrix. Moreover, my store probably will import some units in since the local crowd seems to like the sound of the Matrix. 

I think Matrix did such a good job on the build quality of the Matrix Portable, that it’s one of those devices that made me very excited upon receiving it. In fact, even before I received the portable, I was enthusiastically looking forward to it simply after I have seen pictures of it on Matrix’s website. The Portable comes in three different colors, and while they all looked very nice, I opted for a more standard yet classier, black. When the unit finally arrived, it was exactly as good looking as it was on the photos, and even more it felt very nice on the hand. All these impressions were so positive, I think for certain that it had already gave me a positive bias toward the product. Still, who wouldn’t have a positive bias toward a well-built product?



The Matrix Mini Portable, as it is officially called, is basically a “portable” all in one DAC & Amp device ala the Fiio E17. I added the “all-in-one” phrase because like the Fiio, it comes with all three digital inputs that are familiar to us: S/PDIF Coaxial and Toslink, USB, and not to forget an analog input as well. The output meanwhile comes in the form of a 1/8″ TRS jack. It was really an upgraded Fiio E17, looking either from the price ($320), build quality (though without the screen), and sound quality.

I can assure you that the sound is good (more on that later), but the beauty of the Mini-Portable is how they have designed the product to be very efficient and user friendly. On the front panel you have the volume button which unlike the Fiio E17, comes in a form of a smooth-turning, grooved volume control (I love volume knobs more than digital up/downs). Next to it is a three way toggle switch that selects the input between the Coax, Toslink, and USB. And below the toggle is a tiny dip switch that though tiny and well hidden, does not require a pair of tweezers to switch. Where is the power switch? It’s conveninently built in to the volume control. Very nice user interface design, I must say, and to me works better than the E17’s digital UI. On the back you have the digital inputs, as well as a switch to turn on USB charging. As I use the Mini-Portable mostly as a portable device, the USB charging switch is always turned to on. But if you’ll be using this mostly as a USB DAC/Amp, turning the charging off would probably be better on the batteries.



I have to be honest in saying that I really don’t see the need to have Coaxial and Toslink inputs on a portable device. Most people these days usually rely on USB for their digital inteface, and since the Matrix seemed to be built to be a portable device, the Coax and Toslink are really moot point for 99% of all portable applications. Except, if you happen to have a portable player with an S/PDIF out like the Hifiman HM-801 (except that the DAC on the HM-801 is way better than the Matrix’s), or like me, you happen to love your CLAS + Ipod combo too much. Yes, all these years, I’m still stuck with the beauty of the Ipod’s UI, so for me using the Mini Portable goes on like this: Ipod > CLAS > Matrix Mini Portable. For those of you who are wondering, the CLAS comes not only with an analog out, but also with a digital. So I used the digital out on the CLAS to feed data into the Mini Portable’s Coaxial input. Now you are asking me, “How is the DAC quality on the CLAS compared to the Mini Portable?”. Well, the CLAS has the more spacious and cleaner sound, so I think the advantage is mostly to the CLAS. But the Matrix, though it was smaller in soundstage, had a more analog sound and a fuller mids which I like. In all, if you already have the CLAS, you probably won’t be bothered to add in the Mini Portable (why carry two DACs in a portable stack?), but I just did that so I can conveniently assess the Mini Portable’s sound quality.

The other day a reader asked me about finding a DAC that connects to his Macbook’s optical out (I think a lot of Apple laptops come with optical out), and that reminds me that there is still a segment for the Matrix. Of course, the same Apple laptop would certainly have a USB input as well, so perhaps the S/PDIF are going to be redundant in a lot of cases. You can take the Matrix to hook it up with a desktop CD Player which in most probability won’t have a USB data interface, but in those situations I would prefer to use a desktop DAC and out to a desktop amp. So again, S/PDIF inputs in a portable device, unnecessary in most cases.



Let’s start with the headphone amplifier first. The Matrix Mini-Portable is a high quality device, but you don’t get to hear any airy sound out of it simply because this is one really dark sounding amp. The darkest I’ve heard in a while, in fact. My point of comparison in this case is my current favorite amp, the ALO National which already ranks pretty dark among all other portable amps. I did some comparisons with a bunch of headphones and IEMs, among them Aurisonic’s ASG-1 and AS-2, and it surprises me how the National comes out as the brighter sounding amp. So, we’re talking about some really dark sound here, because I don’t even remember any RSA amps which have always been famous for their dark sound, being darker than the ALO National.

So, no airy sound, but the bass weight and the full mids which comes out even fuller than the National’s never fail to make me toe-tapping and head-banging. The amplifier section is also extremely clean and free from any grain. The background is quite black, and one of the darkest I’ve heard on portable amps.

Yes, I dig dark sound, but for me it has to have PRaT as well, and the Mini-Portable has that. Though not extremely spacious, the sense of depth is excellent, and so is the definition on each instruments. Bottom line: the amp is dark, but with excellent depth, definition, and an extremely weighty and hard-hitting bass. One of the reason I love the National is for the weight of the bass that amp produces, which betters a lot of the portable amps on the market, but the Matrix Mini is even weightier on the lows. It’s not a bassy amp, or a bass-boost amp, but it just has a lot of quality bass weight. If you’re into dark sounding gear, I think this is certainly something you should try. Or if your headphones can use some extra bass weight (i.e Grados), this is also the amp that I would recommend.

Now I’m not saying that this amp is solely for bright sounding headphones (since it’s all dark and stuff). I’ve been pairing the Mini-Portable with some seriously dark stuff like the HD650 and even darker the ASG-1 Aurisonics IEM, and though the result is über dark, I love it. Heck I even paired it with the Sansa Clip Zip once, which is even darker than your average Ipod and I enjoyed that thick black sound. Of course I need to tell you that my ears have been drifting more and more toward dark sounding gear, so this may just be my personal preference.
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The $320 Portable DAC/Amp: Matrix Mini-Portable
5 (100%) 1 vote

  • Trent_D

    This seems like it might pair well with the K550. And that is a really nice price. Where can it be bought?

    • The soundstage compared to a Cmoy or a National.

      Being darker and less airy, that would affect the soundstage perception that it’s less spacious than the Cmoy or the National. However if you can hear past the lack of air, you’ll find that the depth is excellent, more than on the Cmoy or the National. Also the background is very black, more than the Cmoy or the National.

      Where to get it? I will ask Matrix where you can get one. Ebay, perhaps.

  • Sashaw

    How does it compare to iBasso D12?

    • I didn’t do a direct comparison to the D12 Sashaw, but the last time I listened to the D12, I thought the sound was quite average. Tonally the D12 is not as dark and would be generally more acceptable to listeners, but technically, it didn’t blow me away the way the Mini does.

  • Not related to the Matrix and perhaps a bit late, but why did you stop putting in-line pictures in reviews? It’s annoying when I hear you talk about the S/PDIF and optical inputs and have to go all the way to the end of the review on the next page to see what kind of connectors are being used and layout etc.
    Plus your photography is gorgeous and breaks up the review nicely. 😉

    Anyway, great review. I’ve always been interested in Matrix equipment, but have always ended up building/buying something cheaper and roughly equivalent before getting around to them.

    • L.

      That is one of the disadvantages of the image gallery indeed.

    • Thanks for the input, Benedict. Why did I stop putting in-line pictures? I don’t have a good reason for that, to be honest. I’ll try to put the pictures back on.

  • Bookaboo

    Hi mike, great review! Which would you suggest for the ms pro and hd600. The national or the new matrix mini portable. I was set on the national until I read this review:)

    • The National has a tonality that I think is less extreme, and generally more acceptable to the crowds, while still being very full bodied on the lows. The Mini is darker. I think either one can be a good pair for the Senn and the MS-Pro. But if you feel that the Senn is borderline dark for your ears, then don’t go for the Mini cause it’ll make it even darker. The MS-Pro is brighter tonally than the Senn and should be great with the Mini.

      Then you need to also consider if you need a DAC section which the National doesn’t have.

  • Andre Sneed

    Hey Mike,

    Great review, but I have a off topic question first than one on the amp if thats ok.

    The pictures you took are amazing and I was curious what the surface was underneath the amp. I know weird question but my wife is a serious blogger and she needs a better back drop and surface to take pictures on and what not and I’m trying to be a good husband and help her out 🙂

    Now on to the amp.. It was wise for me to wait on this review because I really like what I saw but between the Matrix Mini and the Headstage Arrow which do you personally prefer? Price, sound quality, style, functionality, and portability which do you think will work best. I’ll be using them with the He-400 (thanks to you) , DT990/250, and Atrio in ears.
    Thanks again and take care

    • Andre,
      The surface for the pictures on this review is some sort of a plastic net that I bought from a local hardware store for really cheap. I’m not sure what they use this for exactly, but I just saw the plastic net and I decided I wanted to use it for the shot. Beneath the plastic net is a wood board that I painted white.

      • Andre Sneed

        Yet again you proof your awesomeness. Thank a bunch

  • Hey nice review! I am wondering, how does this sound with the ASG-1, more specifically and especially the treble section.

    • And the ASG you are using, is it the 1st version or the rev 1.2?

    • Jodeya,
      It’s a super dark sound, and I don’t think it’s going to be for everyone but my ears have been enjoying that sort of a tonality lately.
      I think the dark sound of the ASG-1 is quite extreme, while the dark sound of the Matrix is still something that many, especially with bright headphones can still appreciate.

      In fact I’m also writing an ASG-1 review and that’s one of the points on the review. I love the way the dynamic driver resolves music, but it’s extremely dark and it’s not for everyone.

      • What I meant is that how the matrix dac/amp will change the sound of the ASG-1. I own the rev1.2 so I know how the IEM sounds like 🙂

        • Yes that’s what I meant. 😉

          The Matrix is dark, and the ASG-1 is also dark. I love the sound, but I’m not sure if the combo is for everyone. I think if you enjoy the ASG-1 as it is, then you probably have a taste for dark sound as well and should give the Matrix a try. If you feel that the ASG-1 needs more treble, than I would recommend going with some other amps.

          • Oh i see now. I actually find the ASG-1 to be a tad dark and EQ-ing the treble slightly would make it perfect. So I guess I should look at other portable DAC+amp. Any recommendations?

            • I haven’t quite tried the ASG-1 with something else.. ummm… I can give it a try with the HRT HeadStreamer, I think that may work quite well.

  • Thanks, Darku

  • Sem

    Hi Mark, I enjoyed reading your review but I’d like to get a more precise idea as to how dark the Matrix really is. Is it comparable to something like a Fiio E11 or are we talking TMA1-like darkness?

    I own both of them and with the right music I enjoy the TMA1 a lot but when I listen to it with the E11 things really get too much for me. I know you can’t compare amps and headphones, but as a measure of ‘darkness’ how would you compare these to the Matrix?

    I’m looking to pair the Matrix mainly with a DT-1350 and Ultrasone Pro-550, but I would like to be able to listen to it with my TMA’s every now and then.

    • Sem,
      The E11 is not that dark compared to the Matrix. To me the E11 is just warm. I wouldn’t say the Mini is TMA-1 dark, but it’s easily the darkest amp I’ve listened to.

      • Sem

        Thanks Mike, I think I will be giving the Mini-Portable a try 🙂

  • Thanks for the review! How does it compare to the DacPort, at a similar price point?

    • Damián Bonadonna

      +1 for this! And LX + C421

  • Thanks, Mampus

  • Trent_D

    What was the burn in time on this?

    • Almost none.

      • Trent_D

        Almost no burn in time, or almost no treble?

        • Almost no burn in time. In fact I don’t remember hearing any changes at all.

          • Trent_D

            and the treble is still there right? Sorry for harping on this point.

            • What do you mean the treble is still there?

              • Trent_D

                This is why I should never post a question before bedtime. I am worried it would be too dark, and that the highs would become too recessed to be noticed.

                • Treble is still there, just dark. But I’m loving the sound. 🙂

                  • Trent_D

                    Well, my finances took another hit and this or the national looks like all will be able to afford for some time. Being that the build in DAC here looks better then the headstage DAC cable I have, I might go with this. The clean sound will match will with the K550, as will the full low end as these phones could use a good kick in the bass. Thanks for the review.

  • jack

    Mike when this thing available in your store? i wanna ask in forum but, idk why i cant login there:(

    • Hi Jack,
      You have to register to be able to login. Did you have any problems with the registration?

  • Thanks for the review, I’m actually pretty anxious to read the review of the M-Stage DAC, it’s important to pair it with the M-Stage Amp, since the DAC is advertised as “designed for the M-Stage Amp” so we can read about the synergy of the two. Thanks.

    • Yes George, thing is I don’t have the M-Stage amp anymore.

      • Thanks for the reply, but come on, can’t you loan it from someone close to you. If it’s designed for the M-stage amp, everybody will want to know how does it pair with that particular amp, does it make a big difference compared to other pairings and so on. Good luck.

        • Alright, George.

  • Hi Mike,
    Do you get better SQ through the digital coax input over the USB route?

    • Mate,
      I enjoyed the sound out of the Toslink best.

      • I see. Thanks! Which portable source would you recommend to go with the matrix mini portable? (besides iPods)

        • Anything. I enjoyed it with the Sansa Clip Zip.

          • ok. Do you think it is better than the FiiO E17?

            • What is, the Mini Portable or the Sansa Clip?

              I think Mike already mentioned that the Mini is better. Only go for the E17 if you need driving power for high Z cans.

            • The Matrix is better than the E17..

  • Trent_D

    I know this involves a trip through memory lane, but how would the amp here compare to the SR-71a?

    • From memory lane, the 71A is more transparent, more airy, more spacious.

  • WARNING: Bone head question coming up……..

    does the dac function still work when you are plugged in via spdif cable? or does spdif only support amplification like a mini to min connection does.

    • Aric,
      SPDIF is a digital connection. That was a pretty bone head question indeed. 😉

  • Awww.. too bad. I dont need the DAC.

    Just wanna drive the He-500 decently with portability/transportability in mind.

    Ibasso P2B is too damn big

    • If you want portability and an even better SQ than the HE-500, get the FitEar 334 ToGo, Wilson. It works just great out of a Sansa Clip or a standard iDevice headphone out.

      • Remus

        Are the 334 To Gos really that good? Will you be doing a review of it soon? 😉

        • L.

          I asked for a review sample but I didn’t succeed… right Mike? :p

        • Well first of all the 334 Togo is a universal so no hassle if you don’t like and want to resell it.

          My store, we’ve been selling quite a few 334s, and everyone who’s heard it pretty much are sold.

          I really have no plan to do a review for it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely good.. but I don’t want to be pushing for stuff that my store sells. I’m going to be doing a review on a different IEM called the Aurisonics, and that’s a ~$300 IEM that my store also sells, so for now that should be enough.

          What I’m saying is, if you like the HE-500, you’ll definitely like the 334 (I’m guessing) since it has the same open signature, and in some ways even better than the HE-500.

          • Remus

            Well then, I’m curious about how they compare to the HD800 and T1s.

            • The sound signature is different than the HD800 and the T1, so I don’t think there is any point trying to describe the differences.

              Again the reason I mentioned the FitEar is that you were looking for a portable solution for the HE-500, which I feel is quite hard to find.

  • Benjamin Benito

    The Matrix Mini-Portable has the AD8620, which you did not like in the JDS Labs c421. I have read many reviews which state the AD8620 is bright and lively. My question is this: How can the Matrix Mini-Portable sound dark with the AD8620 inside it?

    • Benjamin,
      I really can’t answer precisely “how”. The variables are too many.

  • Hello, I have no clue if this a moronic question, but I have a Cowon Z2 with a s/PDIF audio out (HDMI). Could it be connected to this amp with it ? (to go with custom iems) Would it be a good pairing ? Thanks.

    • Michael,
      I looked up the specs for the Cowon Z2 and I don’t see any S/PDIF out, only HDMI. The two are not the same and are not compatible.

  • Would you say that this amp is better than the National or worse? Thanks

    • M/L?

      • Trent_D

        Mike likes this over the national. Better or worse is up to the individual. The National isn’t quite as dark and is more spacious. The Matrix is cleaner, deeper and very dark. More bass weight and fuller mids.

  • john wood

    Hi Mike,

    I listen from my laptop with an E17 and AKG K550’s. For my taste I always have the bass setting on the E17 at +6 or +8. Do you think the Matrix would give me a more basscentric sound with my phones? Thanks.

    • Yes, though not going to be as bassy as the E17 with +6 or +8 bass. And there is no EQ on the Matrix.

  • Mike what do you think if pairing with Grado PS500? Or with my old SR80i?

    • I think it would be nice. Soften the treble and adds bass.

  • ryan

    Another question, I need more bass on my shure 535. Is this amp going to help? Or am I better off getting another iem like the aurisonic asg1 ?

    • I don’t know how much bass you need.. If you like everything about the 535, but only need more bass, then try an amp. If you’re welcome to trying other sound signatures, give the ASG-1 a try. I like using my IEMs with no amp, keeps things simple.

      • ryan

        Already have the vestamp but bass light. Would you consider the 535 as bass light? I got no other iems for comparison…

        • I don’t think it’s bass light.. A bass light is something like the ER4 Etymotics. It just doesn’t have gobs of bass.

          I think you should try the UE900. It’s a more mainstream oriented IEM.

          • ryan

            What about se215? Which is the difference between the old and new blue ltd edition?

  • Stephane

    Hi. What do you think about this Matrix mini portable compared to the CEntrance DACport? Thanks, regards.

    • Stephane, I think the two are comparable
      The Dacport has a more mid centric sound while the Matrix a darker sound with weightier lows.

      • Stephane

        Hi Mike, thanks for your response .

        And what about the Fostex HP-A3?? It seems to be great too!!

        My headphones are french IEM Earsonics EM6 and Grado PS500. I want PRaT, lively and articulated sound but without bright and artificial treble section.

        What’s the best dac/amp combo USB powered for this sound signature??

        • The HP-A3 is quite weak in Prat. I recommend either the dacport or the matrix.

          • Stephane

            Ok but I think the Matrix will be too warm for my IEM. Out the HP-A3 if it is quite weak in PRaT.
            And what about Audioquest Dragonfly??

  • Ryan

    Hi.. Mike,
    Which one do you think will be a better pairing with my Q701 + SRGii?
    Matric Mini or HRT MS2+?

    • HRT MS2+

      Or the Dacport LX.

      • Ryan

        How about Topping D20?

        Can you help me compare the quality of impact and depth
        between HRT, Dacport, and Topping?

        I’m desperate to know. :))

        • Trent_D

          Out of curiosity, what is your current dac? Your best bet might be a new pair of headphones, because to my understanding, the Q701 are not known for their deep soundstage or bass impact. If I am not mistaken, they are known for not having that.

          As for the dacs, I haven’t heard the D20, but Mike felt it had a better soundstage than the LX (and that should give it a better soundstage than the ms2+ as well), that it was too laid back for him, so impact would probably not benefit from that one. As for the other two, the MS2+ has more bass body but the LX’s bass is tighter. I prefer the latter myself. I can’t comment on one having more punch than the other since my setups were so different. Using the MS2+, I had the K550. Using the LX, I had the HD650. No matter the amp, that simply isn’t a fair fight on bass impact.

          • Ryan

            I actually don’t have a DAC at the moment, I’m directly plugging my SRGii into PC onboard sound card.

            Yes, Q701 lacks soundstage depth and impact. I have no plans for buy a new pair of headphones at the moment, but I’m thinking about getting HE500 or LCD2 in the future.

            For now, I’d rather find $300 DACs that stand out in terms of impact and depth to cover up. I think it will be between the MS2+ , the LX, the HM-603 and the D20.

            Which one would you recommend to me, or any other suggestions?

            • Trent_D

              Of these, I would go with the dacport, as the SRGii is suppose to be a laidback amp to begin with, so I wouldn’t go with the D20. The LX has better depth than the MS2+. I can’t speak about the hm-603, however.

              • Yes what Trent said, I think the D20 is going to be too laid back, too mellow with the SRG 2. Unless you like that kind of a sound.

                The LX has the best impact out of the three.

  • greg

    Hi Mike,
    Do you think the Matrix Mini would pair well with the DT 770 AE or does it require a more powerful amp/dac that’s less dark to sound it’s best.

    • Dave Ulrich

      It doesn’t need any more power. My ipod’s built in amp drives it easy. I have never heard the Matrix mini, but even with the National, which isn’t suppose to be as dark, I found the bass to be a bit too much on the DT 770. I would go with something more neutral.

    • Greg,
      The Matrix Mini paired beautifully with the 770-80Ω when I listened to it, but I don’t remember having used it with the AE. It should work pretty nicely as the AE is extremely easy to drive.

  • Matthew

    Hi Mike,

    Terrific review! Can you please clarify one thing? Does the Matrix Mini take a true digital signal from a 30 pin/Lightning to USB connector, bypassing the iPod’s internal DAC?


    • Dave Ulrich

      No. It can’t bypass the Ipod’s internal DAC.

      • Matthew

        Thanks so much for the quick response. I am looking for a darker sound to pair with my JL IEM’s. Any suggestions similar to the Matrix that can actually utilize the DAC in an external DAC/Amp combo? I’ve been looking at the Fostex HP-P1, HeadAmp Pico, and ADL X1. I appreciate any guidance you can offer.

        • Matthew

          I meant UE IEMs

          • Dave Ulrich

            Well, I’m not an I-DAC guy, but Mike loves the dark sound, and he seems to like the Sony PHA-1 or the CLAS.

        • The darkest sounding i-Device DAC is either the Cypher Solo or the Sony PHA-1. Sony has a built in amp so that’s a good selling point while the Solo is more detailed.

    • Hi Matthew,
      No can’t do the pairing with iPod. Need a special chip to get the digital out of i-devices.

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  • Cyril Agas

    Hi Mike,

    How would you rate this against Jdslabs C5D? In terms of amp and dac..?