JDSLabs Portable DAC: The JDSLabs C5D

Disclaimer: Mike’s store sells JDSLabs products & Lieven received a free review sample of the C5D for this review. This is a double review but the biggest part of the review is written by Mike. Mike’s text is normal, Italic text is written by Lieven. Mike’s part is on page one, L’s on page 2.

The Android and iOS portable DAC market is getting into a bloody battlefield lately. but as I spend time listening to the JDSLabs C5D, I keep on thinking “What a sweet sound is this”, ans that’s the bottom line of any audio gear review, after all. Does the unit sound good? Does it ooze musicality? Is it candy to the ears? In this case yes, the C5D is here to stay.

While my feelings were quite lukewarm toward the Fiio E18 which is also a portable Android DAC, the C5D creates a totally different sentiment. The background is extremely clean and black. The moderately dark tonality is extremely musical. And while I wasn’t a big fan of the C5 amplifier, the C5D as a DAC/Amp combo is now my favorite second to the CypherLabs Theorem.

Comparing strictly amps to amps, the amplifier on the C5D though supposedly the same as on the C5, sounded different. I don’t know what the exact reason is, but it’s clear that the C5 amp is more resolving and more spacious while the C5D has an upper bass bump and is noticeably more congested. Maybe it’s the result of cramming more gear into the same space. Maybe it’s a different batch of components from the supplier. I don’t know what it is, but the C5D amp is really not something I would be using it on its own.

Where it gets interesting is the DAC comparison. The most obvious comparison being the Fiio E18 Kunlun that I have just reviewed last month. The Fiio is more spacious, but has a higher noise floor and sounds drier. The C5D’s blacker background projects a cleaner sound with very low grain, and while narrower in sound stage, has a better depth and three dimensionality. While I would rank the two DAC units as roughly being on the same class technically, my ears are drawn more to the tonality of the C5D sound while people looking for the more spacious sound should go for the Fiio. While I can’t isolate the C5D DAC due to the lack of a true line out, outputting the sound from the C5D to a separate amplifier and comparing it with the E18 through its line out, again yields the same conclusion. The E18 is more spacious, but other than that the C5D is blacker, less noisy, fuller sounding and is also smoother. I wasn’t too excited with the E18, but the C5D is something that sounds musical even as I shuffle through different headphones that are available for me to try.

I also compared the C5D to ALO’s The Island as well as Miniwatt’s N4. These two proved to be too tough of a competition as the ALO pretty much obliterated the C5D in terms of dynamics and sense of space. Though again, I do like the C5D’s fuller sound and darker tonality better. The Miniwatt sounds like a more mature Fiio E18 DAC with a very spacious sound that’s a bit grainy and noisy and is definitely out of the C5D’s league. The Miniwatt N4 makes for a very good DAC if you plan to pair another amp with it, but through its internal amp is definitely the least musical of the three.

It’s not a perfectly designed product however with the battery/charging switch at the back. What happens is that I would forget to flick the switch when plugging the C5D to a charger hence the C5D wouldn’t be charged. I also keep on mistaking the volume control as the logical direction should be to the right to increase loudness. But these are all minor complaints. On the other hand I love the new JDSLabs logo and likewise the improved finish quality on the C5D. I’m glad that JDSLabs have improved the finish of their amps to this level.

There was an issue with the early batch producing a hum with certain sensitive IEMs but I haven’t been able to replicate that issue even with the early batch C5D that I have in the store. Comparing it to the later batch that has the hum problem fixed, I notice no difference in the sound even when using extremely sensitive IEMs like the 1964 V6S and Lime Ears’ LE3. I am all for a warmer and bassier sound and most of the time I listen with the boost at maximum position. I like the sound that way as it gives me additional body at the lows without getting boomy. At the zero bass boost position, I actually find the sound far less musical and even slightly dry. The medium bass boost position is a good compromise though as bass detail don’t suffer as if you have the boost at max.

I enjoy the C5D with IEMs and relatively easy to drive headphones like the Fidelio L2, Sennheiser HD25-1, or Grados. While it has enough gain to power a HD650 or an Audez’e LCD-X, I do feel the music to be flat and lacking dynamics. The current package lacks any Android OTG or iOS digital cable, so it’s a bit of a hassle to try to connect to Androids. I was able to find a cable to hook the C5D to an Android, running through the USB Audio Recorder Pro software and the sound is extremely good, except that I get glitches whenever I move to another app (i.e the USB Audio Recorder is not on the screen. I don’t know if it’s an issue with my Samsung Galaxy S4 but it’s definitely something that needs to be set right. Regarding the Android cables, John mentioned that he’s gotten a hold of a supplier for Android OTG cables so I’d expect future buyers to receive that cable with the C5D. So far I haven’t been able to get the right cable to hook the C5D to an iOS device so I haven’t been able to test it on iOS.

Go to the next page for Lieven’s impressions & the pics

JDSLabs Portable DAC: The JDSLabs C5D
3.8 (76.84%) 19 vote[s]

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37 Comments

  • Reply December 19, 2013

    George Lai

    Sorry guys but I can’t get excited about this product as a portable device for iDevices and Androids when the former needs a CCK and the latter may or may not work depending on the Android model one has. If you buy this product for use with laptops and take the iDevice/Android as a freebie with limitations, then fine but to me it’s a half-baked solution. The sound quality is hence irrelevant to me. Sorry again.

    • Reply December 20, 2013

      JDS Labs Inc

      As C5D entered production, Apple released iOS7 with digital audio output. Yes, iOS support should absolutely be considered a freebie and not a designed feature. Even so, C5D works great with the CCK cable. There are certainly more “baked” solutions if you ignore cost.

      As for Android, here’s our C5D release note (see http://blog.jdslabs.com/?p=722):

      “We considered developing C5D for fully native operation with Android, and discovered the goal is presently futile. Even a DAC designed for native functionality via Android’s Open Accessory Protocol remains limited to 16-bit, 44.1kHz operation. And even then, support is not 100% guaranteed across all Android devices! Only an app like USB Audio Recorder Pro unlocks full 24-bit digital audio, by utilizing alternative drivers.

      C5D works with every Android device we’ve tested under USB Audio Recorder Pro. We met a few Android users at the 2013 CanJam who successfully used C5D natively (i.e., with any app). Some Android phones and tablets output UAC1 natively. Others require special ROMs or apps.

      Guaranteeing DAC operation with all Android devices is currently not realistic. Since Android is opensource, it’s definitely possible to enable 24-bit digital audio output on any Android device. Hopefully Google will make UAC1 output standard in future Android updates to simplify the user experience.”

      • Reply December 20, 2013

        George Lai

        Thanks for the clarification and I apologize if my words seem strong. I’m not an Android user but I still maintain that the C5D should have been delayed and gone for Apple MFI certification, even if that increases the cost to the consumer. CCK is an inelegant solution in my view, adding another piece of plastic into the cabling path. Cheers.

        • Reply December 20, 2013

          JDS Labs Inc

          We’ve applied for an MFi license twice in the past three years and have received no reply from Apple. Only 17 companies in the US have this status. Factoring in royalties, legal expenses, and contracting fees to work with an MFi agent, cost of such a product would be much, much higher. It’s not something we’re eager to pursue at this time. Thanks for the feedback!

          • Reply February 23, 2014

            Gabriel

            And that is why I hate Apple.
            The C5D just entered the race for the DAC/AMP combo upgrade I am about to buy for my Xperia Z Ultra!

            • Reply February 23, 2014

              JDS Labs Inc

              @disqus_GibW3T3MMN:disqus: This became more interesting when we blogged about Apple and Android cables earlier this month. Peter at Double Helix Cables is MFi certified, so he investigated further for us.

              According to Peter, Apple does not allow anyone to manufacture a Lightning-to-mini USB cable. The CCK hardware is off limits to developers and intentionally not disclosed in MFi developer documentation.

              So, the only way to build a 100% seamless cabling experience is to build a DAC with internal MFi authentication hardware (standard USB receptacle), and submit royalties to Apple. And that’s why MFI approved DACs carry a premium pricetag.

              • Reply February 23, 2014

                Gabriel

                That is seriously lame as the consumer ends up getting hurt by their greed. Glad that Android is taking over…they just need to fix the sound part of the OS still but at least is more open for smaller companies to offer products without paying Apple for their bs tactics.
                Thanks for the Info!

                I am trying to find out how the Bass boost of the C5D works. I was going to buy the FiiO E17 because I get bass and boost control since not all songs are the same, its good to have that so I was wondering how the boost works on your unit.
                Thanks!

                • Reply February 23, 2014

                  JDS Labs Inc

                  @disqus_GibW3T3MMN:disqus: Push the volume control forward to toggle gain (“boost”). Use the bass boost lever to switch bass boost between off, medium, or high.

                  There’s a chart in the instructions:
                  http://www.jdslabs.com/pdf/Instructions_C5D.pdf

                  • Reply February 23, 2014

                    Gabriel

                    Do you have information of how each one affects the frequencies? Like they are more like mid bass or lower freq bass being boosted etc.
                    Thanks!

                    • February 23, 2014

                      JDS Labs Inc

                      Yes, C5D effectively has four unique curves since bass boost changes with gain. You can find plots in the release article:

                      http://blog.jdslabs.com/?p=722

  • Reply December 21, 2013

    Marc

    I’m back to ask for another unfair comparison!! How is the C5D as compared to International as an Amp/DAC combo?? It should fare pretty well considering you mentioned that it’s your second favourite combo now

    • Reply December 22, 2013

      Dave Ulrich

      I would be surprised if Mike didn’t say the International was far better. The sense of space and dynamics should be quite similar between the Island and the International and the International has a darker tonality than the Island.

      • Reply December 22, 2013

        Marc

        Maybe the C5D with the National may be a better comparison but it would still be nice to hear a comparison between the C5D and the International as they both function as DAC/Amp units

  • Reply January 9, 2014

    Mabuse

    Hi! I’m looking for buying a portable DAC/AMP for my android phone. Til now Apex Glacier was my favourite (quality/price), but after reading this C5D review I seriously doubt. In your opinion, and strictly in sound quality, which amp/dac combo wins, Apex Glacier or C5D?

  • Reply February 23, 2014

    Gabriel

    Mike, you compared it vs the FiiO E18 but since you prefer the E17 and E07k over the E18, what are your thoughts compared to those. Is it worth all the extra $$$? I dont need portability and the source will be a Sony Xperia X Ultra phone.
    Thanks!

    • Reply February 26, 2014

      Randomly Inappropriate

      I was wondering the same thing, however I need portability as I do a lot of traveling and use my HTC One. So it all goes in my left pocket in airplane seats.

      • Reply February 26, 2014

        Gabriel

        Well I am getting both E18 and E17 on Thursday so I will be able to find out on my own.

        • Reply February 26, 2014

          L.

          Sorry guys I can’t help you out as I do not have the Fiio units.

  • Reply April 15, 2014

    Cyril Agas

    Hi Mike,
    How would you rate this against matrix mini portable? In terms of sound signature, SQ of both dac and amp?

  • Reply May 6, 2014

    Yubin Peng

    could you compare them to the sony pha-1, you mentioned them in multiple threads, how come you haven’t review them? 🙂

  • Reply June 19, 2014

    Barry Rosekind

    Hi Mike can you go into more depth in the comparison between the island and the C5D?

  • Reply July 7, 2014

    Nickjan Glas

    definitely a candidate for my iPod lightning cck set-up. hope to try it on canjam. as I ve read some others and your comparisons in this review, I notice a very little amount of devices that match this one in this price range, which also have a integrated power source. Since my budget for this setup will be around 300 dollars/euros this seems the best. It will be added to my ME explorer laptop setup.

  • Reply September 25, 2014

    Eric

    Hi all, I’m interested to know what would be the difference in sound quality between a S4/G2/M8 + C5D stack and a dx50/X5?
    The reason being for the price of a C5D, I could get a new dx50 or a second hand x5. These are the options I’m contemplating.

    • Reply September 25, 2014

      Headfonia_L.

      S4? G2? M8?
      No idea what you’re saying here.

    • Reply September 25, 2014

      willy vlyminck

      I use the iPhone 5s and in terms of sound these are exellent, No question the X5 and the DX-90 are better but you can´t stream and or phone with them 🙂
      I did upgrade my iPhone with the Beyerdynamic A200p, but have to admit that apart from the better dynamics the sound signature is pretty much the same. and with my IE80 the difference is not worth the 300 Euro extra for the Dac/Amp. On my Samsung tablet, the benefit of the little Beyer was more clear, as it did upgrade the dynamics and sound quality.

      • Reply September 25, 2014

        Eric

        Thanks willy for sharing. The iphones are pretty well known for the SQ amongst the high-end handphones so I guess in that perspective, a ext dac+amp doesn’t add much to the SQ. I don’t own an iphone anyway, but I was thinking of getting a new android flagship phone and there are newer models that were just released not too long ago. So maybe the added SQ won’t be noticeable to be worth the extra $ and that will play a part in my decision making.

        But If I don’t get a new phone and use my existing Xiaomi redmi, then I guess the c5d will be worth it.

        • Reply September 25, 2014

          dalethorn

          I can connect a small amp like the FiiO E17 or E07k (in analog mode), or the little PA2V2 amp, to my iPhone5 through the LOD port, and the difference with many music tracks is profound. It’s not that the bass or treble or dynamics change much – they don’t, but the overall quality and realism are much, much better. Try some different music tracks using the amp (through the Line Out phone port) and then after listening for awhile, switch to the phone by itself. You should hear the loss of quality right away. Going the other direction it’s not as noticeable.

        • Reply September 27, 2014

          willy vlyminck

          you are welcome Eric, if you want to stay with Android, I guess the new Sony S3 might be the best alternative soundwise for the iPhone.

      • Reply September 25, 2014

        Eric

        Thanks willy for sharing. The iphones are pretty well known for the SQ amongst the high-end handphones so I guess in that perspective, a ext dac+amp doesn’t add much to the SQ. I don’t own an iphone anyway, but I was thinking of getting a new android flagship phone and there are newer models that were just released not too long ago. So maybe the added SQ won’t be noticeable to be worth the extra $ and that will play a part in my decision making.

        But If I don’t get a new phone and use my existing Xiaomi redmi, then I guess the c5d will be worth it.

  • Reply September 25, 2014

    Eric

    S4 is the Samsung galaxy S4 smartphone
    G2 is the LG G2 smartphone
    M8 is the HTC M8 smartphone

  • Reply December 1, 2014

    Barry Cai

    Hi, I m looking for a portable amp for my Senn HD 650, I know E11K isn’t be the best choice, can you recommend some amps for me please? I m using iPhone 6 as music player.

    • Reply December 1, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      Well, if you can find a used C421, I can vouch for that. I’m sure the C5 would work as well. I really liked ALO’s the National with the HD650, but I haven’t heard the new National+. The JDSlabs cMoy makes a very nice pairing as well.mmm

  • Reply December 4, 2014

    Harley Chen

    This or Beyerdynamic A200P? I use Note 4 and usually stream 320kbps Spotify.
    Would be great for any detailed answers!:)

    • Reply December 4, 2014

      Headfonia_L.

      Are you sure this works on a Note? I have to say I’m not sure. Sound wise the C5D is better, yes

      • Reply December 4, 2014

        Harley Chen

        It worked on Note 3, I would assume it will support it natively on Note 4 🙂
        Could you quantify and maybe give it a percentage of the sound quality between the two? I am looking at a price difference between $180 for the A200P and $270 for C5D.
        Also, I have a few headphones on the go, including momentum over ear, custom one pro, M50X, DUNU N2000. Any inputs would be greatly appreciated. And thanks for the review! 🙂

        • Reply December 4, 2014

          dalethorn

          I don’t know how important the $90 difference is, but I don’t use my A200p because it just doesn’t sound good. It does improve an iPhone 4 or 5 slightly in soundstage etc., but tone quality is not great. With the iPhone 6-plus it doesn’t help at all.

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