As more music streaming services introduce lossless or high-definition audio to their offerings, interest in DACs (digital-to-analog converters, or “headphone amplifiers”) has picked up pace — so much so we created this guide. What was once the reserve of audiophiles is slowly becoming a go-to gadget for those who want more than what their phone and AirPods can deliver. But they’re not without caveats. For one, they’re often expensive, and sometimes they aren’t much smaller than the phone you’re attaching them to. Enter the Tea DAC by Khadas.
Khadas started out making media-friendly single board computers (SBC – think… media-specific Raspberry Pi type things) before moving on to desktop DACs. Tea is the company’s first mobile DAC and it appears to be primarily targeted at iPhone users – though it’s also compatible with Android. The reason I suggest it’s more apt for Apple’s phones is that it’s MagSafe compatible. Combine that with the slim, iPhone-esque all-metal design and it solves one of the main problems with mobile DACs: Having something heavy hanging out the back of your phone.
With the Tea, it sticks to the back of your phone and the low profile makes it only a little more noticeable than Apple’s own MagSafe wallets. You can, of course, find MagSafe capable cases for Android, but your phone and budget will be a factor.
Beyond the slick form factor, the Tea doesn’t scrimp on its codec support. Over USB/Lightning, the Tea can handle audio right up to 32bit/384kHz. Given that most mainstream music services don’t offer anything above 192kHz, streamers will be more than covered. Similarly, the Tea can decode MQA (Tidal) along with DSD, AAC, FLAC, APE, OGG and all the standard formats (WAV/MP3 etc.). If you prefer to go wireless, the Tea also supports LDAC and AptX HD over Bluetooth.
Here I should mention that, for all its iPhone friendliness, Apple doesn’t offer either LDAC or AptX HD support in its flagship phones. You can still use the Bluetooth functionality in Tea, but you won’t be able to enjoy the higher-quality formats. Though it does at least mean you can charge your phone while still using the DAC or you can wander around with the smaller Tea connected to your headphones rather than your mobile. There are plenty of Android phones that do support LDAC/AptX HD, but you’ll need to check the manufacturer website to confirm (most Pixels, Samsung flagships and OnePlus phones offer LDAC/AptX HD decoding).
There are a few things you won’t find here, but most of those fall into the higher end of audio. For example, there’s only a regular 3.5mm headphone jack – no option for 2.5 or 4.4mm balanced cans at this point (though rumor has it that a “Pro” version with that might be on the way). There’s also limited feedback about what codec/audio quality you’re currently receiving, with just a simple color-changing LED indicating the format, which you can’t see unless the phone is face down. Inputs are limited to USB-C, so it’ll work with your phone and PC, but no line in.
This puts the Tea in an interesting category. It’s perfectly capable for people that want the most out of their streaming service and even should appeal to audiophiles looking for a discreet option that covers most bases. But at $199 it’s a reasonable spend. Perhaps its most obvious competitor is the BTR5 from Fiio. That’s also a portable DAC with high-res Bluetooth support along with a similar selection of cabled formats (also up to 32bit/384kHz with MQA support). Oh, and the Fiio offers a balanced headphone option, too (2.5mm). When you factor in that the BTR5 also typically retails for $159, you have to really want that slim, MagSafe design.
That’s not to undersell it though. I tested the BTR5 and the Tea side by side, and the sheer convenience of the Tea was obvious. With the Fiio, your phone feels tethered, almost weighed down by the DAC. With the Tea, it’s similar to using one of those iPhone cases with a battery in it – a little more thickness, but you can still operate the phone as you normally would.
The Tea also has a much bigger battery capacity – 1,160 mAh compared to the Fiio’s 550 mAh. This obviously isn’t an audio benefit, but it soon becomes one if you plan on listening for extended periods or being away from a charging option for more than a few hours. Which, given the mobile nature of these devices feels like a reasonable possibility.
I am, however, not a huge fan of the user interface. The Tea has three buttons: One on the left and two on the right. The single button works as a power switch or to summon your virtual assistant. The two buttons on the other side will either control volume or skip tracks. You toggle between volume and skip mode with a dual press of the power button and the top button on the other side. It works… fine, but it’s not very elegant. Also, if you leave it in track skip mode and go to adjust the volume, you’re going to be on the next track before you know it. A minor, but frustrating thing.
In wired mode, the Tea pumps out robust, loud, clear audio. It’s maybe not quite as loud as some other DACs. Even the diminutive Firefly gives the Tea a run for its money there. But, the sound you do get is clean and full of gain, and that’s the goal here: Take a good signal and let it be heard without colorization.
Beyond its primary function as a DAC, it also won’t get in the way of taking calls. A pair of mics on the base of the Tea allow you to talk without having to fall back to the mic on your phone. What’s more, the mics on the Tea are several leagues better than the one on the iPhone, especially when speaking to it while it’s resting on the desk. You can also set the Tea to charge via your phone if you’re running low on juice, or disable this feature to not tax the battery on your handset if you prefer.
All in all, the Tea is a welcome addition to a growing category. At $199 it’s not the cheapest for the feature set, but its well-thought-out design and aesthetic also make it pretty convenient and discreet. Unfortunately, if this all sounds up your alley, then you’ll have to wait a little longer. While Khadas clearly is production-ready, the company is choosing to go the Indiegogo route, with the campaign slated to go live in the coming weeks.
Fri, 14 Jan 2022 14:30:01 +0000