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?
WHAT IT DOES
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.
THE PART ABOUT THE SOUND
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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