Looking for a slimline, portable DAC? Paul Rigby reviews the tube-shaped Spectra from NextDrive
The popularity of the DAC knows no bounds, it seems. DACs now arrive in a host of shapes, sizes and capabilities while hosting a wide variety of complementary features. Some DACs are desk-bound affairs while many others are designed to be used while on the move.
Being mobile is what the NextDrive Spectra is all about. Sitting in a slim, black aluminium tube that spans just over 7.5cm plus a short lead terminating in a USB plug (I tested the version with a Type A plug but you can order a micro USB instead for no extra cost), the tube also hosts a mini, 3.5mm headphone socket on the other end.
The DAC shape is ideal for mobile use as there are no edges to catch on clothes or bags. It’s also ideal to plug into a laptop or, indeed, a smartphone, to listen to the music of your choice.
Handling up to 32Bit/384kHz in PCM or 5.6MHz DSD, the 17g Spectra portable DAC features an ESS 9018Q2C DAC chip with, says the company, “…patented HyperStream Modulator, Revolver DEM and patented jitter eliminator.”
The Spectra is a straight-forward device to use with no buttons or switches. Plug one end into your music-loaded device, the other end receives a pair of headphones and you’re away. But how does it sound?
I began by plugging the device into my iPhone 6S and played a simple MP3. High resolution files are lovely and will be utilised with this DAC, of course, but you dismiss MP3 at your peril, they still swamp the devices of many music fans. Any DAC has to handle MP3 satisfactorily to pass muster. I played a MP3 version of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me.
I was impressed by the Spectra’s performance on this track, mainly because it rounded off the MP3 file’s harsh edges and made the entire track far more listenable because of it. Yes, the MP3 file was inherently crippled but the Spectra added warmth and richness to the bass, giving is a pseudo-organic feel while Gaye’s vocal presentation was kinder to the ear, being slightly more fruity and approachable. Secondary percussion offered a slightly sepia-tinged glow, removing any hint of harshness. In terms of the translation of basic MP3 files, the Spectra is a definite winner, markedly reducing listening fatigue via MP3 files.
I turned to my MacBook and a bit of jazz with the 24bit/96kHz version of St Thomas via Sonny Rollins. This was the first real test for the Spectra and I was surprised how easy the Spectra found it to drive my ‘hard to drive’ HD800s. In sonic terms I was also impressed by the dynamic extension of the midrange. Rollins’ own sax playing had an admirably humanistic approach. You felt that a human being was behind the instrument as the reedy feel to the sax came to the fore while the double bass, organic and characterful in terms of lower frequencies, also tracked the subtle nature of the strings on the instrument as the strings’ grating string-against-wood sounds could be heard during play.
Percussion was precise and strong with a slightly warming flavour to it. Now, if there is a bone of contention in terms of the sound output of the Spectra then this track highlighted it in the percussive section. Contention in terms of style, though. There was nothing wrong in how the Spectra tracked the percussion but it did give this section a slightly warming overall presentation. Other DACs, the reference Cozoy included, provided an arguably more neutral sound, if not then leaning a touch towards the digital in terms of edge and accuracy. The Spectra offered a more analogue direction.
Hence, while the ear was provided with a wealth of detail, that detail was provided with ever so slightly rounded edges. Some will love this presentation, others might hear it as a veiling of detail. I wouldn’t see it in such critical terms, though. The Spectra just adds a soft sheen to the music that is appealing to the ear and, if anything, aids long term listening sessions.
I turned to blues/gospel and DSD 64 with Eric Bibb’s Meeting at the Building. The Spectra provided a wide and expansive soundstage while successfully tracking the rich and complex musical arrangement, packed with stringed instruments and vocalists, offered to the ear in multiple layers. The Spectra had no problem tracking the intricacies of the music, its’ slightly warming nature adding a rich glow to the presentation. Detail remained in abundance, though, through acoustic guitar strums and an active bass to an energetic harmonica. Yes, the Spectra could possibly have had added a touch more focus to the upper midrange, its warming effects did roll off the upper mids a tad, but the effect remained a pleasing one.
Playing the same track at DSD128 did improve matters, adding a solidity and clarity that was not particularly present before, while the warming aspect was now removed. The Spectra handled the extra data well, giving the music greater authority and confidence.
I wondered if I was into something and so loaded in the 24bit/176kHz version of Keith Greeninger & Dayan Kai’s Looking for a Home and was happy to hear a confident and accurate and wholly convincing arrangement of voices and plucked guitars. Subtle movements such as breathing actions, string bending and foot tapping were all captured easily while instrumental and vocal separation flagged the spacious and airy nature of the midrange.
I then loaded in the 24bit/384kHz version of the same track. Here, plucked strings were sharply metallic, voices offered a greater textural feedback while those subtle motions I mentioned above were further enhanced and obvious to the ear with an impressive sense of clarity that allowed the music to flow with striking ease.
The Spectra is a dual personality DAC. It provides a pleasant, slightly warming music response to MP3 and continues that feel up to 24bit/96kHz. A warmth that will appeal to many while many ears but might find objections for those looking for more attack in the upper midrange. Once past that figure, though, higher into the PCM resolution and above DSD64, the Spectra offers a more balanced and neutral presentation. That is, the Spectra needs rich data files to work at its very best. A startling DAC that loves top quality music.
NEXTDRIVE SPECTRA DAC
GOOD: build quality, styling, higher resolution music performance, price
BAD: warming presentation at lower resolutions might not appeal to all
MacBook Pro (SSD)
Sennhesier HD800 headphones
Atlas headphone cable
Cozoy Aegis DAC