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

HEADPHONE PAIRING

The two level gain selector accomodates a lot of different headphones, from sensitive IEMs to big full size dynamics. While I was able to drive the Audez’e LCD-2 with the Matrix, the sound is quite lacking and is not really the combination I would recommend. So, good for all full size dynamics, but not the big orthos.

 

DAC SECTION COMPARISON

The DAC section of the Mini Portable is roughly comparable to the Audinst HUD-MX1, obviously both on a USB connection. The Audinst is more spacious and wider, but instruments are less well defined and three dimensionality is rather flat on that big spacious soundstage. The Matrix is a bit less wide, but I get a much better depth, a blacker background, and also superior instrument body and definition. You can tell I like the sound of the Matrix better.

Interestingly, if your computer comes with both a USB and a Toslink interface (some Macs do), you can give the Toslink interface a try. Toslink has long been branded as the least preferable and as the inferior digital interface. But recently I’ve started to give Toslink another listen, and while it gives me a narrower and darker (hence less airy) sound than USB or Coax, I begin to really appreciate and love the superior instrument definition, depth, and black background. Likewise on the Mini Portable, while the USB is good and sounds more spacious than the Toslink, the optical interface is cleaner and gives me a much better instrument definition than the USB.

Specs wise, I need to add that the Matrix does 24/96 over USB, 24/192 over S/PDIF, and is based on the AD1955 chip.

 

END WORDS

I’m always happy to find a new product that performs well and that I can recommend to Headfonia readers. The Matrix Mini Portable is another one. The asking price is $320, but I think you do get a good performance for the price. It’s funny because earlier on this article I was questioning the merit of having S/PDIF inputs on a portable DAC/Amp such as this, but once I start writing about the amp section and comparing it to the ALO National (which costs $299 and doesn’t come with a DAC), now I can imagine treating the Mini-Portable as mostly a high quality portable amplifier, and the rest comes as sort of a bonus.

Remember the Matrix M-Stage amp that I wrote about back a while ago? I haven’t written any Matrix related gear ever since, but I don’t remember me being this excited about the M-Stage and the Matrix Mini-i desktop amps. I also have a Matrix M-Stage DAC which sounds pretty good (also a review coming up), but I’m definitely not as excited about that desktop DAC as I am over this little portable. Not that the M-Stage DAC is inferior, but it’s just another desktop DAC in the sea of desktop DACs out there. Whereas this little portable, not only does it come with an excellent build quality, it also comes with a sound quality that I happen to love: dark, weighty, clean. The S/PDIF inputs, I would consider as bonuses. Keep in mind, however, that the dark sound is not for everyone. And as I’ve mentioned before, this amp is, as far as I can remember, the darkest sounding portable amp I’ve auditioned. Some people won’t be able to get past the dark sound, but once you do, you should be able to hear all the beautiful things in the sound. Not to mention that it works beautifully with a lot of headphones I’ve used it with: The Sennheisers including the HD650 (of course), the new Aurisonic IEMs, the Sony MA900 and Z1000, the Etymotics ER4P (very nice) and a few Vsonics, up to the AKG K495NC portable headphone.

 

GEAR USED FOR REVIEW:

Other than the headphones mentioned on the review: Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo, Ipod Classic, MacPro, and probably some other headphones I failed to take note on.

 

matrix_mini_portable_05 matrix_mini_portable_04 matrix_mini_portable_03 matrix_mini_portable_02 matrix_mini_portable_01

4.5/5 - (2 votes)

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103 Comments

  • Reply August 27, 2012

    Trent_D

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

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Mike

      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.

  • Reply August 27, 2012

    Sashaw

    How does it compare to iBasso D12?

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Mike

      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.

  • Reply August 27, 2012

    Benedict Brown

    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.

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      L.

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

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Mike

      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.

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    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:)

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Mike

      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.

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    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

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Mike

      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.

      • Reply August 31, 2012

        Andre Sneed

        Yet again you proof your awesomeness. Thank a bunch

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    Jodeya Fandy

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

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Jodeya Fandy

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

    • Reply August 28, 2012

      Mike

      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.

      • Reply August 28, 2012

        Jodeya Fandy

        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 🙂

        • Reply August 28, 2012

          Mike

          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.

          • Reply August 28, 2012

            Jodeya Fandy

            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?

            • Reply August 28, 2012

              Mike

              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.

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    Mike

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    Mike

    Thanks, Darku

  • Reply August 29, 2012

    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.

    • Reply August 30, 2012

      Mike

      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.

      • Reply August 31, 2012

        Sem

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

  • Reply August 30, 2012

    J-F Maion

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

    • Reply September 3, 2012

      Damián Bonadonna

      +1 for this! And LX + C421

  • Reply August 30, 2012

    Mike

    Thanks, Mampus

  • Reply September 2, 2012

    Trent_D

    What was the burn in time on this?

    • Reply September 3, 2012

      Mike

      Almost none.

      • Reply September 3, 2012

        Trent_D

        Almost no burn in time, or almost no treble?

        • Reply September 3, 2012

          Mike

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

          • Reply September 3, 2012

            Trent_D

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

            • Reply September 3, 2012

              Mike

              What do you mean the treble is still there?

              • Reply September 3, 2012

                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.

                • Reply September 3, 2012

                  Mike

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

                  • Reply September 3, 2012

                    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.

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    jack

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

    • Reply September 3, 2012

      Mike

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

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    George Vichev

    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.

    • Reply September 4, 2012

      Mike

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

      • Reply September 4, 2012

        George Vichev

        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.

        • Reply September 4, 2012

          Mike

          Alright, George.

  • Reply September 6, 2012

    Mate Mayer

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

    • Reply September 6, 2012

      Mike

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

      • Reply September 6, 2012

        Mate Mayer

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

        • Reply September 6, 2012

          Mike

          Anything. I enjoyed it with the Sansa Clip Zip.

          • Reply September 7, 2012

            Mate Mayer

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

            • Reply September 7, 2012

              Nick Tam

              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.

            • Reply September 7, 2012

              Mike

              The Matrix is better than the E17..

  • Reply September 10, 2012

    Trent_D

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

    • Reply September 11, 2012

      Mike

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

  • Reply September 13, 2012

    Aric Ross

    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.

    • Reply September 13, 2012

      Mike

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

  • Reply September 14, 2012

    Wilson Lim

    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

    • Reply September 14, 2012

      Mike

      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.

      • Reply September 14, 2012

        Remus

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

        • Reply September 14, 2012

          L.

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

        • Reply September 15, 2012

          Mike

          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.

          • Reply September 15, 2012

            Remus

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

            • Reply September 17, 2012

              Mike

              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.

  • Reply September 19, 2012

    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?

    • Reply September 19, 2012

      Mike

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

  • Reply October 30, 2012

    Michael Amouyal

    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.

    • Reply October 30, 2012

      Mike

      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.

  • Reply December 10, 2012

    Eli Segal

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

    • Reply December 11, 2012

      Eli Segal

      M/L?

      • Reply December 11, 2012

        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.

  • Reply December 15, 2012

    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.

    • Reply December 20, 2012

      Mike

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

  • Reply December 20, 2012

    Pinoi Sufi

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

    • Reply December 20, 2012

      Mike

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

  • Reply December 20, 2012

    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 ?

    • Reply December 20, 2012

      Mike

      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.

      • Reply December 20, 2012

        ryan

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

        • Reply December 20, 2012

          Mike

          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.

          • Reply December 23, 2012

            ryan

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

  • Reply January 27, 2013

    Stephane

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

    • Reply January 28, 2013

      Mike

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

      • Reply January 28, 2013

        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??
        Thanks.

        • Reply January 28, 2013

          Mike

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

          • Reply January 28, 2013

            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??
            Thanks.

  • Reply January 31, 2013

    Ryan

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

    • Reply February 2, 2013

      Mike

      HRT MS2+

      Or the Dacport LX.

      • Reply February 5, 2013

        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. :))

        • Reply February 6, 2013

          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.

          • Reply February 6, 2013

            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?

            • Reply February 6, 2013

              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.

              • Reply February 8, 2013

                Mike

                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.

  • Reply June 10, 2013

    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.

    • Reply June 10, 2013

      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.

    • Reply June 11, 2013

      Mike

      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.

  • Reply July 9, 2013

    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?

    Thanks
    Matthew

    • Reply July 9, 2013

      Dave Ulrich

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

      • Reply July 10, 2013

        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.

        • Reply July 10, 2013

          Matthew

          I meant UE IEMs

          • Reply July 10, 2013

            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.

        • Reply July 11, 2013

          Mike

          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.

    • Reply July 11, 2013

      Mike

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

  • Reply April 15, 2014

    Cyril Agas

    Hi Mike,

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

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