Well, it’s been about a month now since I’ve taken delivery of the Aune X1 DAC and I thought I’d provide a follow-up as promised in my unboxing post. But before I get started, let me remind everyone what my intend was in purchasing an outboard DAC along with setup used.
First and foremost, I want to qualify that I am on a budget. I have spent ridiculous amounts of month over the years on stupids things and I am in the mode of “simplifying” my life. I have over $20k in electronics in my living room that were once considered “high-end”. I’m sure a $500 Costco receiver can kick the pants out of my $10,000 Classe SSP 75…Well..maybe not for all things, but still, it’s a bit long in the tooth at this point. What was I thinking?
But I digress..You have most likely stumbled upon my blog because you too are on a budget and looking to get the best value possible in music listening from a digital source. In my case, that source is my Macbook Pro (mid 2010). Perhaps yours is your desktop PC or laptop as well. If you are here looking for a DAC to match your latest Bryston purchase, then move along..these are not the reviews you are looking for.
Again, I am only going to focus on MY own listening impressions and I will NOT go into technical details like THD and the like. I really don’t give a ^%#% (any more) about THD, S/N, RMS and any other acronym you can think of. At some point in my life I did, and it really doesn’t matter. Just trust yourself and don’t get caught up in the marketing.
Ok, so you’re on a budget and while $250 for a chinese made DAC could be a bit of a gamble, it was for me, but someone had to take the plunge. I’m sure you’ve gone through eBay and searched the ends of Goggle to narrow down your decision to the Aune X1, Aune Mini DAC (does not include optical out), Topping, Music Streamer, or even something from Fiio. I’ve looked at all of those too but I decided to roll the dice and go for the X1 because, “I too like to live dangerously”, it was the only one of the bunch that had an optical input, it was the newest, had a pretty good set of components on paper, and it looks pretty.
For those of you that don’t know, the Macbook Pro has an optical output inside the headphone out. So what I did was connect the X1 via USB as well as through the toslink out using a mini toslink to toslink cable. They sell these at the Apple store but costs $40. I ordered mine from ebay for $5 shipped. took almost 3 weeks, hence the delay of this review. For those of you with a Macbook Air, you are out of luck. The Air does NOT have a “hidden” optical out like the Pro’s. You will be stuck with USB, which isn’t neccessarily a bad thing.
The speakers I am using for this review are the AudioEngine2′s. They are excellent for their size and price. For $150, they are the best speakers on the planet.
So I connected the AE2′s to the Aune x1 using Ultralink Audiophile RCA interconnects which I had lying around from years ago. Again, the only digital music source is from my iTunes that has been configured to maintain lossless audio..in some cases 24bit/96khz source files.
In my first test, I connected the X1 via USB and the speakers directly to the Macbook Pro’s headphone out using a regular mini-jack cable. I wanted to first compare the quality the MacBooks internal audio processing compared to the Aune first. You can toggle between the two outputs in the Sounds section of System Preferences. I won’t waste your time. The quality between the two are night and day!. The Aune X1 blew the pants of the regular analog output, which, without comparison sounds pretty good. So mission 1 accomplished: The outboard DAC of the X1 is superior to internal Mac DAC. The range, depth of soundstage, separation created from the X1 is terrific. Really very happy with the USB performance of the X1.
After confirming the merits of an outboard DAC, I wanted to compare the differences if any, to the Aune X1′s processing capability from it’s optical input compared to USB. So using the mini toslink cable, I toggled between the optical and USB digital outs of the Pro to the X1. I would like to test the coax input one day, but I will most likely never use that as the X1 will be used 99.9999% of the time with my current or future mac. This is what the output toggle pane looks like:
I gotta be honest, I cannot tell the difference between the USB and the toslink outputs with the X1. Some will talk about jitter and other theoretical reasons why one might be better than the other, but my humble ears cannot tell the difference. Both are excellent and you can’t go wrong with either connection methods. So this was test confirmed to me that when connected DIRECTLY to the X1, either USB or Toslink sound great. So you Mackbook Air people need not worry.
Ideally, when I come home and plop my Macbook onto my office desk (my home office PC is the Macbook), I want to plug as few cables as possible into the laptop. So I have the mandatory magsafe power plug, USB printer cable and..well, that’s about it. I don’t really want to plug in anything else. With the Aune x1, I would have to use up the second USB output on the Macbook, or get a USB hub. But I may want my speakers placed elsewhere at some point and time in the future…Maybe on a shelf somewhere (I am in a temporary workspace at the moment in my wife’s craft room). A solution to this is to use an Airport Express unit. You may not know this. but the mini plug audio out on the AEX has a built in optical output when using a mini toslink! The USB does not output audio in the current generation of the Airport Express.
So this is wonderful, an optical out that I can use Airplay with from my Macbook iTunes that will eliminate one more wire. Super. Or so I thought.
So with the Macbook streaming to my AEX and then via toslink to the Aune X1, I was expecting similar performance to the direct wired connection with USB or optical. Well, after firing my beloved Natalie Merchant’s “Ophelia” (excellent production btw), I was expecting an truly immersive experience. Far from it. I was very disappointed with the flat and soft sound stage when streaming wirelessly with the AEX. Maybe it’s the fact that the volume was about 30% lower when connected in this fashion compared to direct wire. But I cannot fault the Aune X1 in this case. After some research, I realized that the AEX is only capable of outputting 16 bit/44.1khz. Maybe that’s the reason, but while the sound from the Aune X1 when streaming sounds great at a decent volume, it sounds less full when compared to direct connection via USB or optical. I won’t waste to much time as to why this is, but my ears tell me that streaming to the Airport express with the X1 should only be reserved for desperate times….like when I need a pair of speakers in the backyard for a BBQ, I can plug the AEX into the patio outlet and bring my speakers outside. Other than that, I will be sticking to directly optical or USB connections.
Also, the Aune X1 drops the connection sometimes when I pause a song and then ski to another one. I’m not sure if this is a fault with the X1 or the Airport Express. I think it’s the X1. I solve this by toggling the input button on the X1 until I get back to “optical” and the music plays again. But this is annoying. I cannot live like that. The AEX and toslink should only be used in emergency situations.
Airport Express and Aune X1 via Toslink
At $250, the Aune X1 is not the cheapest DAC out there. But then again, there are others out there that cost 2,3,and even 10 times as much. I doubt they can be significantly better sounding than this little unit. at the same time, the X1 has an excellent headphone amp.
Note that the volume control only works when used as a headphone amp. It cannot be used as a preamp volume control when using speakers despite what the company’s literature might allude to. My powered AudioEngine2′s have their own volume control, or you can use the volume control built into iTunes.
I highly recommend the Aune X1 if you are on a budget and want an excellent headphone amp that is more than capable of handling the best headphones you can throw at them (Beyer, Grado, AKG, Sennheiser, etc). No Dr Dre users please =).
A gripe that I have is that the X1 does not have any feet. I am currently sourcing some rubber feet that I will screw on myself. Without feet, the slick aluminum chassis just slides around. It’s a minor upgrade cost-wise, so I’m surprised that this was overlooked by the designers. Otherwise I love the black powered coated aluminum enclosure and sleek lines of the design.
Are there cheaper DAC’s? Yes there are. I’m sure the previous generation Aune mini-usb DAC is just fine too. But I cannot comment on that as I’ve never heard it. I have bought a lot of things where I experience immediate buyers remorse. Not so with the X1. I can happily recommend it if you are looking to maximize the quality of your lossless audio files. I would not spend any more than $250 for it though. Frankly I think it’s a touch on the high side and think the “correct” price should be around $200-220, but it’s priced at what the market can bear I guess. So with the DAC, AudioEngine2′s, a decent set of interconnects, you too can enjoy the best sound possible for less than $400 in my humble opinion. I have recently purchased Aune’s 2 channel mini amp that pairs aestetically with the X1 which I will review in the near future.
Aune’s done a great job with the X1 and for the price, you really can’t go wrong if you are going to be using it in a similar way that I am. My iTunes library has never sounded so good. I’m enjoying every minute of my old vinyl rips thanks to the Aune X1.
P.S. My project for the fall is to build a pair of concrete speakers. yes, concrete. I am currently designing the enclosures and figuring out the best way to conduct the pour. I will post progress when I the process starts. They will eventually be replacing the AudioEngines on my desk. Stay tuned.