Disclaimer: The units used for this review are in-store demo units from AnalogHead.
The pioneer of i-Device DACs is now back with new and updated Solo devices, and these updated models instantly replace the old Solo as my new favorite i-Device external DAC. Moving from the Wolfson based DAC of the first Solo to the new 24 bit AKM4396 based DAC of the new Solos, I find the sound of the new Solo to be much more analog and natural to my ears. You get a fuller midrange, a beefier low end, and a softer treble region with the new Solos. Soundstage width remains roughly the same size, but depth, coherence, center image are all much improved over the old Solo. It’s a better DAC section to be sure, and though it may not be a huge leap in overall technicalities, the change is significant enough that it’s hard for me to go back to the old Solo after getting a taste of the newer ones.
Briefly on the new Solos
You can now get the Solos as either the -R or the -dB model. The Solo -R sells for $499 and offers only single-ended output. The Solo -dB sells for $699 and offers fully balanced output as well as a USB DAC function for PC and Macs. As a USB DAC, the -dB supports up to 24/192, which is quite a step up from the commonplace 24/96 USB DACs. The new Solos are also compatible with lightning dock i-Devices.
I think CypherLabs did good in creating two different models at the two price points. Some people may not need the balanced output as a lot of amplifiers in the market only support single ended, and so it would’ve been too much to force them to go with the $699 -dB if single ended is only what they’re going to use. The -dB may be a little steep at $699, but by adding the USB DAC functionality (and we’re talking about a pretty upscale mid-level USB DAC here with the 24/192 capability), I think it gives people a better value for the money.
Another welcome feature is the ability of the Solos to charge the i-Devices simultaneously while playing music through it. Battery has been upgraded to a 5800mAh Lithium Polymer (that is HUGE), and for that reason I sort of understand if the Solo comes out to be a little bigger than what I would like it to be. Not unpractical, transportable big, but it would be nice to have a slimmer Solo device. Battery life is claimed to be as high as 14 hours, though I personally haven’t had the chance to check on real-world usage. Assuming a 10% margin of error from the claimed playtime that still gives the new Solos a very respectable playtime that’s higher than a lot of the other hi-quality DAPs in the market.
iDevice DAC comparisons
The competition is much fiercer now than when CypherLabs first released their 1st-generation Solo. You have the Fostex HP-P1 which is quite a solid device by itself. Sony also entered the market with their PHA-1 DAC for i-Devices. You also have the Go-Dap from Venturecraft which also looks like a serious contender. The Go-Dap is a more casual product that offers good sound in a fairly compact factor (especially the 4.0 when paired with an Iphone 4). The Sony PHA-1 had a lot of potential, and coming from a huge company like Sony, should easily be able to top the audio quality chain, but it turns out that the PHA-1 is quite a disappointment to me and a lot of my friends. So we’re left with only the Fostex HP-P1 as the only serious contender to the new Solos.
I think Fostex really knows how to build great DACs. The HP-P1 sounds very clean, smooth, and spacious. The HP-A3 which is a mid-entry level USB DAC is also one of the best in its class. The Japan only HP-A7 supposedly is also a very solid performing DAC for the price. And finally you have the HP-A8 which is currently my favorite desktop DAC. Throughout all these different models, Fostex has consistently kept the same smooth, clean and spacious sound trademark. Who doesn’t like a smooth, clean, and spacious sound? I know I do. The “problem” I have currently with the HP-P1 is that the Fostex sound is too relaxed for my taste. I need more low end weight, a stronger impact, a stronger PRaT. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a weakness on the HP-P1’s part, but rather a conscious house signature that the engineers at Fostex choose to have.
While the Solo is more grainy and less smooth than the Fostex, I enjoy its sound better as it gives me that bass body and impact that I need for almost all of my music. Another factor that also keeps me with the Solo camp is the necessity to add an external amp to the Fostex HP-P1, as I constantly find the built in amp to be too soft in impact for a lot of the headphones I use. Yes, you still need to add an amp to the Solo as well, but with the Solo at the end I got a slimmer stack than I do with the Fostex. I do think that these factors that make me go with the Solo are relatively subjective and ignoring those subjective preferences, I would rank the two devices as being equal in the sound quality department.
More DAP Comparisons on the next page…