Headphone Amplifiers

Sony UDA-1 USB DAC Stereo Amplifier Review

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The Sony UDA-1 USB DAC Amplifier In Use

My preferred setup for the Sony UDA-1 was situated on my computer desk, in USB mode, and hooked up to a variety of headphones that ranged from the HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-6, NAD HP50, and Audeze LCD-X. The UDA-1 is marketed as a versatile all-in-one intro into Hi-Res Audio with flexibility in mind, so the beastly Audeze and HiFiMAN planar magnetics were a bit of a stretch for this unit. If you are planning on running high impedance, high-end headphones, then the UDA-1 is not up to the task. However, the less revealing, but still rock solid, NAD HP50 headphones are a great match with the Sony UDA-1. I will say, the audiophile in me couldn’t resist also setting up the UDA-1 to output to a few high-end headphone amps as well in order to use the planar magnetics. In that case, the UDA-1 functioned only as a DAC.

Firing up Foobar2000 I simply added my entire music collection to the playlist and flipped on random playback. My first impressions of the UDA-1 were simply, that everything sounds great. Joni Mitchell at 192kbps MP3, 44.1/16bit ALAC Yann Tiersen, 96/24 FLAC Smashing Pumpkins; they all sound very good through the UDA-1.

Joshua Radin’s “You Got Growin’ Up To Do” starts with a quick soft strum of guitars both far right and left and then enters center stage, Radin and Patty Griffin, sounding full and lifelike. Those guitars are so tangible, they might as well be in the room with you.

M83’s “Intro” from their incredible album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is as dynamic as I have heard it. Turning on the DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) has the slightest smoothing effect, but it isn’t very noticeable. If your equipment sounds a bit bright, the DSEE might calm things down the slightest bit. Generally with headphone listening, I kept the DSEE off.

The 23 watt amp inside the UDA-1 is designed for a small setup and, with that in mind, I hooked up a pair of Epos ELS-3 bookshelf speakers. While not a huge sound, the UDA-1 was more than capable of driving the Epos to loud levels. The bass response on Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack was full, deep and well controlled. When listening to speakers off the Sony UDA-1, the DSEE was actually a bit more apparent. Engaging it smoothed out some of the harshness in lower res mp3 files, but it is was still a subtle change. Overall, with the Epos speakers I tended to prefer the DSEE on.

Unfortunately, where the Sony UDA-1 falls short is with.. Hi-Res audio! When I A-B’d a 16bit/44.1kHz lossless version of John Williams’ Jurassic Park to the HDTracks release of the 20th Anniversary 24bit/192kHz version, I could barely tell a difference via the Audeze LCD-X and UDA-1 headphone out. There was a slight increase in dynamics, but the clarity and liveliness I have come to expect from that Hi-Res version remained about the same between the two. Via the Epos bookshelf speakers it was nearly impossible to tell which recording was 24/192. This is not meant as a slam against Hi-Res audio, because I know I have heard a difference in file formats. In fact, I ran the RCA line out from the UDA-1 to a high performance ALO Studio Six headphone amp in order to bypass some of the electronics within the Sony. In this test I was able to easily identify the hi-res version of track seven “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

I used the DSD downloads of David Elias to test the UDA-1 with DSD files. In part due to a quality recording, the DSD clearly sounded better than your standard 256kbps MP3. David’s rich tonality played beautifully through the Audeze LCD-X headphones with wonderful clarity. As to what sounded better, the 88.2/24-bit FLAC or the original Pure DSD 2.8MHz recording, I did indeed prefer the DSD version. The bass had more depth and punch, and the acoustic guitars were a step more dynamic and tangible than the FLAC version. However, this review is not a debate about audio formats as I have heard plenty of wonderful FLAC recordings that aren’t even available on DSD. The real point here is that the Sony UDA-1 can handle anything and everything in your digital music collection.

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