After testing the incredible Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, we will be reviewing a less expensive and sincerely competitive DAC: the Encore mDAC. The very recent Encore brand is actually the low-cost branch of the U.S. brand NuForce, which is no beginner in this game. Last year, we particularly enjoyed its 100% digital amplifier, the NuForce DDA-100. The Encore mDAC is an OTG compatible asynchronous USB DAC with aluminium case. It is battery powered and can handle PCM audio streams up to 24 bits and 96 kHz.
Encore mDAC USB DAC: the magic formula
Last week we were praising the Zodiac Platinum DSD by Antelope Audio and its marvellous audiophile Voltikus power supply, which works wonders by delivering stable high quality power to the DAC and headphone amplifiers. Encore did something similar with the mDAC as it is not powered by the computer’s USB port but by an internal battery, which delivers extremely stable power, far from most USB ports.
Encore mDAC USB DAC: ESS Sabre 9023 microchip at work
Another strong feature of this USB DAC is the N/A converter it uses – an ESS Sabre 9023 model with integrated sync clock buffer. Yet, it is limited by the asynchronous USB port which only allows the streaming of PCM files up to 24/96 from a computer. It is true that Encore could have used a controller compatible with 24 bits and 192 kHz audio stream, but it would have required the user to install a driver to use the mDAC with some computers, therefore preventing it to work with other sources (a NAS for instance). This way, the Encore mDAC is completely plug and play.
Encore mDAC USB DAC: Android, iPhone, iPod and iPad compatible
Encore announces the compatibility of its device with Android OTG (On The Go) smartphones and tablets. In other words, the Encore mDAC can be connected to any Android OTG device (including Windows Phone) via a micro-USB port. We weren’t able to verify this feature as our Samsung Galaxy Note is not officially USB OTG compatible. We couldn’t test the compatibility with Apple mobile devices either, as the Encore mDAC can be used with an iPhone, iPod or iPad when used with the Camera Kit (in theory).
Encore mDAC USB DAC: use with a computer
During our tests, we connected the Encore mDAC to a PC with Windows 7 using an average micro-USB cable (similar to a smartphone or tablet cable). No driver was required to install the device. Yet, we downloaded NuForce’s µDAC-3 ASIO drivers as well as the DSD plugin for Foobar2000. After installing everything we were able to listen to our DSD64 files. We used the Sennheiser PX-100 headphones for this test.
Encore mDAC USB DAC: first impressions
This DAC should be used for quite a while before being able to enjoy the full extent of its possibilities. Nevertheless, the character of the Encore mDAC is perceptible from the very first notes: voices stand out from the mix, the stereo is well defined and there is a clear overall smoothness. Let’s not forget to mention a surprising dynamism for such a device. After two days of continuous use, the smoothness we first heard was unchanged and the treble was flowing even better. The delivery was punchy and balanced throughout the whole sound spectrum. It’s a good sign, and we happily turned the volume up. The headphone amplifier was still well under control too. This headphone amplifier offers a warm analog sound with a well balanced lower-medium and higher-bass. A little more presence at both ends of the sound spectrum would have been a nice plus, though.
Encore mDAC USB DAC: after breaking-in
The Encore mDAC was broken-in after 4 days of continuous use. After this period, the balance was just as good and the sound flow was even better.
Although the Sennheiser PX-100 is an open model, the proximity with the sound stage is undeniable: the listener is fully immersed and feels like he/she is surrounded by his/her favourite music.
Such proximity with the sound stage is not even tiring.
Money for Nothing, Dire Straits, PCM 24/96 (FLAC, HDtracks)
Disappointed by the dull SACD version of Brother in Arms, we decided to go for the HDtracks version of this album as it offers an infinitely superior 24 bits and 96 kHz FLAC version. The mDAC delivers a very convincing performance with absolutely no harshness and the sound stage is immersive without ever being stifling. The electric guitars are a real treat, but the drums lack impact, yet the snare and bass drum are still well balanced. We feel like we are getting close to the limits of what a battery powered device can offer.
Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie, DSD64 (ISO SACD)
This track benefits from the same great acoustic pressure as the previous one. The overall balance is flawless and the linearity of the medium range is very enjoyable. Bowie sounds like he is right next to us.
The Payback, James Brown, PCM 24/96 (FLAC, HDtracks)
There is no doubt that the Encore mDAC is very skilled with human voices. James Brown’s vocals are delivered with a lot of power and honesty. Even at a high level, everything is well balanced. The backing vocals, the two guitars and the bass guitar are never crushed by the percussions.
Giorgio by Moroder, Daft Punk, PCM 24/88,2 (FLAC, Qobuz)
Always a difficult test to pass. If you can listen to the whole song at the same volume without hearing any harshness or aggressiveness, you can consider that you are using a good quality system. In our opinion, the Encore mDAC passed the test.
Pacific Rim, extracts (ISO Blu-ray, DTS HD Master Audio)
Interesting capacity to extract dialogues from an explosive sound environment. The waves of infra-bass are smoothly delivered and the balance is extremely good. You can even hear the seagulls flying between two collapsing buildings.
Are there any drawbacks?
For this price? None. The Encore mDAC puts a lot of its more expensive competitors to shame. The sound signature is unique with a good presence of the higher-bass and lower-medium frequencies and a slightly more quiet treble.
We really appreciated such a well defined sound balance which doesn’t downplay the high-mediums just to give an artificial clarity to the sound stage.
All in all, the Encore mDAC’s qualities have their shortcomings. Its small size makes it slightly more challenging to deal with the volume buttons and a more powerful battery might have resulted in a better airing between the different layers of the sound stage. This last comment is probably influenced by last week’s test of the Antelope audio DAC.
The battery of the mDAC lasted for about 4 and a half hours of music listening. It is also possible to listen to it while charging.
The excellent DAC ESS Sabre 9023 microchip, the warm sound of its headphone amplifier, the battery power, the possibility to use an ASIO driver for Windows and finally its attractive price.
Who is the Encore mDAC aimed at?
It is aimed at those who want to get really good sound quality out of their computer, OTG smartphone or iPad with Camera Kit without spending too much money. Musical immersion enthusiasts will also truly appreciate this DAC as the Encore mDAC takes the listener to the heart of the sound stage.