This is a subjective review of the SONCOZ LA-QXD1 DAC from Shenzhen, China.
A) Description, heritage, presentation, functionality
The Soncoz DAC has received some praise and some ridicule from some well regarded reviewers throughout this year, and I got interested in it especially because in the latest batch the so called ESS-Hump had been tamed by the former designer of the Khadas Tone Board DAC (KTBD). Actually this little SONCOZ marvel, available at a price point of 168 Euro/199 USD could be seen as the long desired upgrade for the KTDB, sporting an elegantly designed case, a balanced output stage with XLR outputs and single ended RCA, a hardware volume control, personal filter settings and accepts up to 32bits/768kHz and up to DSD512 natively.
The LA-QXD1 offers the new standard in the sub 200 $/€ class:
3 digital inputs, 2 analog outputs, one of them balanced and 1 digital output coaxial S/PDIF. It uses Thesycon drivers for the XMOS USB powered USB input stage under Windows(7/810) and has upgradable firmware. The manual for the FW update is straightforward and can be found at the SONCOZ homepage. Here's the download.
The packaging includes the DAC and two USB cables for media and power source connection. As part of the new green deal SONCOZ omits - which I personally appreciate a lot - a printed manual (download it here) and a PSU because you can run it with any solid 5v/2A smartphone charger or a power bank you have at hand. Alternatively, you could use any linear boutique LPS that fits the specifications.
The device comes in three different colored designs, black, grey and silver. The case, is a single block of CNC machined anodized aluminum, and the overall quality of the inputs and outputs at the back end of the device breath a premium feel & look.
During this covidien summer I have seen a sufficient number of complaints about the unit's build quality and functionality, which led me consequently to the point where I was unsure if the review should make it to the front page. After all Chris made the pro choice!
In my opinion these quality problems are the risk we need to take if we choose a product from a new player in these hard battled Chi-Fi DAC markets, certainly the consumer profits from the downward spiral in pricing. However, this DAC isn’t a failed device or any bad engineering, to the contrary, it is a unit that still develops in the hand of its owners through firmware updates. Although, it had some problems with the first line of production.
SONCOZ is actually the brainchild of Ben Da, who designed the Khadas Tone Board DAC (KTBD) and has - as of today - introduced two balanced DACs to the sub 500$ marketplace:
- the "low cost - high quality" LA-QXD1 and
- the more mature dual mono design DAC and digital Preamp SGD1.
If rumors are to be believed another product line is in development.
Why all these details ? It is an argument for a young company that is supposed to learn from some early failures in the production line/supply chain (under Covid-19 conditions) but has to accept some bad calls for the brand. This may be the reason the product is already 15% down from the price at market entry.
The product itself, referring here to my personal experience with the LA-QXD1 at hand, a device that took over different tasks in my system, performs pretty well in most disciplines and imho has its biggest flaw by the absence of convenience in the form of a remote control for on/off and volume control. This limits the comfortable use case of the device basically to the one at arm's length - as a desktop unit or as part of a mobile system. If you don't mind getting up and pressing tiny buttons for volume/mute, input & filter and power on/off selection you could consider it perhaps for your main system. Although, there might be hacks available, i.e. a wireless power plug controlled by tablet/phone and basic digital volume control if you deploy the Thesycon driver App menu under Windows.
This DAC sports one of these omnipresent ESS Sabre 9038q2m DAC chips which is implemented here for up to 32/768 PCM and 8xDSD native. It allows a choice of manual filter settings for each input through a combination of buttons to press according to the filter settings manual you'll find here.
I usually settle with minimum phase / slow roll off filters and then have one round of listening in PCM mode with headphones if I can distinguish any other filter for the better. For what it's worth, it did not happen yet to me on the hardware side, while I've got a strong subjective preference when using DSD upsampling with Roon: Precise minimum phase and 7th order SDP. DSD hardware mode usually does not use the hardware filter settings. The SONCOZ needs to be set to full volume in order to use the DAC’s direct mode bypassing the DSP settings. When sending a DSD stream via XMOS the driver sets this mode automatically.
If you use playlists with changing formats (i.e PCM - DSD - PCM - DSD etc.) you should be advised to use the newest firmware with max output to avoid running into problems. Here we are back to reality: I had informed Ben during the first week of November about that problem and he issued the newest FW with the fix on Singles Day (11/11).
B) Short Schiit Magnius comparison run-through
At first I thought I would review it together with the ALLO Revolution DAC, however, it would not have been suitable for either of them to be put into direct competition, even though both use the same DAC chip, the ESS 9038q2m, as it would have been like comparing a Swiss army knife to an elevated hunting knife. Multi versus single purpose competition wouldn't give justice to either one.
Given the saturation of DAC technology noted above , I'd reckon that features and functionality are nowadays a far greater differentiator than DAC chips itself. For example: the SONCOZ LA-QXD1 has been measured with nearly identically results compared to the Schiit Modius Balanced DAC, its most probable competitor for in the sub 200 $/€ category, a unit which may incline no audible differences when used with the same fashion, files, inputs & outputs.
Therefore I reckoned I may review the SONCOZ in direct competition with the Schiit DAC, an audio product designed and built in California, because the up-powered Modius also plays at the exact same price level as the SONCOZ in the USA and 15 % above it in Europe and seemingly with a perfect fit. For anyone looking at a sub 200 $ balanced DAC with balanced output from USB and SPDIF input, these units should imho cover the top of the list.
However, this didn't materialize in the timeframe , which leaves me with the alternative of a short look on the specs:
As notable differences, the SONCOZ uses the ESS SABRE 9038q2m DAC while the Magnius sports an AKM4493. Both chips are marketed as premium though they aren't the TOTL chips of their manufacturer. While the SONCOZ uses an XMOS USB based interface, Schiit manages the USB input signal with a refined version of the in-house USB UNISON solution, that doesn't include the galvanic isolation of it's more expensive siblings. The UNSION interface supports Windows 10 only and is fully UAC2 compliant, which should allow the use with recent releases of Linux and Apples OSX 10.7 and IOS 7. Soncoz's Thesycon driver for the XMOS interface provides compatibility down to Windows XP.
It could have been fun trying to distinguish their sound signature, but hey - that's life. If I understand correctly the opinions about these units I've read recently, the main difference between both have been attributed to their provenance and availability, which leaves me kind of undecided as obviously not all markets are of same importance for every company.
Both devices use TI OPA's for the output stage that can drive balanced/single-ended simultaneously. For the LA-QXD1, Ben Da has selected the OPA1612a output, which we already know as PuRiFi's choice for the Eigentakt evaluation kit. Schiit deploys for the single ended output the TI OPA1662. Both DACs are missing the remote control, a display and do require an external power supply. Stop right here: According to their Q&A, the Schiit Modius does work with USB bus power alone, with battery packs, 5v/1A phone adapters as well as with the provided universal switching power supply. Soncoz however, strongly advises to not power their DAC from a computer USB port.
What's left for a discernible difference aside from the manufacturer's provenance is the S/PDIF throughput of digital signals with the SONCOZ Dac and the Schiits's AES input, plus USB-B port vs. micro USB (Schiit) input. The Modius is a non-DSD DAC that uses the PCM signal transfer of the AKM4493 which allows audio files up to 24bit/192kHz. Soncoz deploys the full potential of the 9038q2m chip with 32 bit/768 kHz PCM, 4x DSD with DoP and up to 8xDSD native.
At the time of writing I could see a price fork between 169 Euro (SONCOZ via HiFiGo) and Modius for 229 Euro (via Schiit Europe) for European customers while the price remains equal at both sources (HiFiGo / Schiit) at 199$ for US customers.
This comparison of details (or the absence thereof) is made on the available specs and considered as time saving service for people seriously interested in both Dacs.
C) Designer Talk
I used the active participation of Ben Da in another forum to conduct a small interview about the most significant questions for (future) owners.
AS: What would be the solutions of choice you'd advise for best performance with your unit?
Ben: A 20000mAh power bank must be my first choice for LA-QXD1. The second is to choose reliable HiFi power supply, and the last is the power adapter of big brands, such as Samsung and Huawei, which are very reliable
AS: Could you please explain in a quick manner the different DAC modes?
Ben: A modern DAC basically comes with the Pre-Amp function (volume adjustment), when the user does not want to use the Pre-Amp function of DAC (volume adjustment), (the way) generally is to turn the VOLUME of DAC to the maximum full output, that is, pure DAC mode, the reverse is DAC+ pre-amp
Pure DAC mode that means maximum volume without adjusting volume.
Pre-amp modus that means volume can be adjusted and the output amplitude of the analog signal can be adjusted.
AS: Does the device remember that choice after changing the input selection or does selecting another input resets the filter choice?
Ben: No, each input channel switch will reset the filter mode.
AS: Do the filters work as well in Pure DAC/DSD mode?
Ben: (When) Setting Volume to MAX (->Pure DAC mode), Led lights will change but have no actual effect. DSD files have default filtering mode. DSD has DSD default filtering mode and the volume of the DSD can be adjusted by pressing the button.
AS: Is it correct to assume that I can choose the instantly available (after power on) DAC mode by flashing the corresponding firmware?
Ben: Yes. We provide two versions of the firmware, allowing users to choose the default output volume size. If you use the default output volume maximum firmware, you will start in pure DAC mode.
AS: Would the DAC then memorize that mode after the power cycle ?
Explainer: This means in any other scenario than max volume the DAC chip's DSP (Filter settings) are available. As a consequence for DSD bitstreaming, the volume needs to be adjusted to max volume (in the audio driver application at the computer source) in order to play without distortion.
AS: But you could adjust as well the output volume in pure DAC mode?
Ben: The volume adjustment function of OS/DSP will be disabled when PLAYING DSD, but LA-QXD1 can still adjust the volume with the volume button (analog output amplitude).
Explainer: The USB Panel does not allow control of the analog output during DSD playback, if you try anything other than 100% volume you’ll hear only white noise.
D) The listening tests
During my listening tests, which were non-blinded but manually SPL-metered & level matched for headphones and main system. I felt (hey, this is still subjectively perceived) that especially using the balanced output the device had a less bright sound signature with less artifacts than his older sibling the KTBD, perhaps profiteering from the better power source ( a power bank) and the advanced balanced output stage.
The presentation was quite analytical & detailed with a good separation and a wide soundstage, which supports generally the type of music I listen to. However, it lacked the depth of image I am used to from the iFi iDSD and the advanced musicality I've attached to the Allo Revolution.
In the final listen set, I listened intensively to my selection in comparison with the ALLO Revolution USB DAC, having ROON upsampling the playlist for the LA-QXD1 to max PCM (768kHz) or DSD256 and DSD512. While I listen to the Revolution DAC all the time upsampling to DSD512, I found the same with the SONCOZ was a lesser experience related to some minor sound artifacts which I couldn’t connect to the ROON upsampling process. However, using DSD26 and PCM768kHz, always provided great pleasure. All in all the LA-QXD1 has a big heart for detailed presentation,
Let the Music Play
Some personal impressions listening to the SONCOZ QA-LXD1 with Toslink and USB
The first incarnation of converted digital music came via TOSLINK from my TV where I use the Big A's Prime service for video streaming. In my country this is a byproduct if the expedited Prime delivery service and my TV happens to have an app to use it. Given my personal taste in cinema and music there isn't very much use for me and the way they have it organized their service menu doesn't suit my sense of enjoyable personal experience, alas - it's for free and infrequently I find something I enjoy looking at and the video and sound qualities are quite decent.
VA - Sound City - Real to Reel : David Grohl - “If I were Me” (Qobuz) (Prime Video- Toslink)
To test the little DAC I chose a documentary, that were well reviewed at CA at its time, the "Sound City" studio documentation, directed and produced by David Grohl from Nirvana and Foo Fighter provenance around his purchase of the "Neve Electronics 8028 Console" for his own studio 606. Sound City has been a major stopover in his own career path when Butch Vig recorded "Nevermind" with Nirvana there back in 1991.
While all the musical impressions I got from the documentation were talking history to me, I came to understand that the Sound City studios were certainly a major part of my socialization with the sound of music. Before I turned 16 I already owned a couple of records that were recorded in these premises, starting with Neil Young, Rick Springfield and Fleetwood Mac. In retrospective I determined that 3 of my top 20 Rock records ever came to light and reel at Sound City: Nevermind, R.A.T.M & B.R.M.C. In short, the documentation was a pleasure to watch for me.
The songs recorded at Grohl's own 606 studio through the Neve console are a pretty nice jam in the spirit of Sound City. I voted for "If I were me" by Grohl, Jessy Greene and Rami Jaffee for that special acoustic atmosphere underlined by the sophisticated laid back percussion and drumming by Jim Keltner, the hitman with possibly the biggest address book in modern rock music. Especially over toslink performing into the main system I loved the deep soundstage and the space available for the instruments. Over headphones the song's layers came to shine and small details stood out, always ruled by the percussionist (drummer).
VA - The Commitments : Mustang Sally (Qobuz) (Prime Video - Toslink)
Second attempt for the Toslink connection had been watching the Alan Parker film "The Commitments" about "Southern Soul" in "Northern Ireland" which I saw first back in 1991 when it hit the cinema audiences. I love the powerful on stage performance from Andrew Strong and the funny and detailed realization of the story by Parker and his cast.
The signature song from the film - in my opinion - is "Mustang Sally''. A modern version with all ingredients of the Wilson Pickett adaption, produced with emphasis on separating the instruments in the sonic space. I listened to the Pickett rendition delivered by Qobuz, with almost the same instrumentation, however I found it to the contrary as sounding overly focussed and cramped to the focal point. The transparency of the Soncoz paved the way for Mr. Strong's dynamic qualities to deliver up to my contentment.
Será Una Noche - Será Una Noche : Nublado (MA Recordings) (Youtube/Toslink)
Lastly, I listened to Nublado from Santiago Vasquez in the "Sera Una Noche" version from Todd Garfinckle's MA Recordings, which was recorded in the Monasterio San Jose Gandar, about 100 miles away from Buenos Aires. This MA recording is already a classic audiophile tune. I used the youtube version for the toslink testing on my TV to listen to this wonderful track because It is unfortunately not available on Qobuz or other streaming services. Nonetheless, MA Recordings do have a HiRes download of the first "Sera Una Noche" record on their website and Santiago Vasquez offers mp3 dl on his sound cloud page.
The HiRes download now tops my xmas list, though.
What did the Soncoz do with this almost otherworldly performance? Well, It offered a wide soundstage, although it gave me the impression of inappropriate timing and misplaced instruments, collapsing on the way to the final. Perhaps, this is indicating some missing information related to the format? Some tonality just didn't resonate with me to my surprise as the artistic performance is above any question. Overall, from the SONCOZ’s presentation I did get a pretty good impression about the musicians’ and the track's excellence, though it left me truly longing for a much better version of it.
Mazzy Star - So Tonight That I Might See : Wasted (Qobuz) (PCM 24/96 - USB)
David Roback, the mastermind behind Opal, Rain Parade and Mazzy Star founded his first Band at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in the late 1970s. He died February, 24th 2020.
He was influential for the alternative L.A. music scene when he introduced the psychedelic potion into the "Paisley Underground'' and his Mazzy Star's 94' hit "Fade into you" from the album " So Tonight That I Might See " may retrospectively account for the moment Dream Pop gained real significance at MTV. Personally, I regard it as the essence of what I classify as Dream Pop.
While "Fade into you" and "Into Dust" are obviously the emotional highlights of this record, I’ve selected the often overlooked "Wasted", a piece of electrified blues about (imho) the mystic triptych of belief, religion and sin, projecting an unfriendly blues riff with a marvelous Hope Sandoval voice and sweet reverberated musical punctuations throughout the song’s five-and-a-half minutes.
The presence of details is what I am looking for and the LA does a pretty good job finding these little hidden gems: While this is raw, slow blues starting with some audible amplifier buzz (Marshall?), it features some low key bass notes, joined by delicately hushed bossanova percussion injections (perhaps a large egg shaker?) and some distant Wurlitzer flicks, a stoic beat for more than 4 minutes, some more "psychedelic" guitar solos, swift keyboard sequences & a blues riff for which Mr. Thorogood might have destroyed not only one scotch and some beers. Religion doesn't come easy as a “solution” they say.
Again, the Soncoz delivers plenty of information, but somehow cuts short in the lower departments. In my perception, the bass lines are less distinguishable than with my iFi and the Allo DAC.
Jade Jackson - Gilded : Motorcycle (Qobuz) (PCM 24/88.2 -> USB)
Jade Jackson has remembered David Roback as a "hero of mine" on her Instagram.
Another hero had been her producer and mentor, Mike Ness from the SoCal originals "Social Distortion". His son Julian joined Madame Jackson last year as lead guitarist.
Jade Jackson is a young singer/songwriter from Santa Margarita / California (just some 15 minutes from Wyred 4 Sound's HQ!) with an exceptional biography, who - guided by Ness' experience and management - was tipped for success in American country rock last year. This stage of her career looks kinda postponed to the post Covid 19 times for promoting her music on the road where she will definitely take her chances.
"Motorcycle" from her first album "Gilded" (2017), published by Anti/Epitaph, is built on mesmerizing acoustic and electric guitars with a haunting tender but energetic voice. It's a piece of self empowered female lyrics in three verses, not only is she the one at the helm of the single-seated bike, in the last strophe she celebrates a fine baseball phrased pitch which is (pun int.) nothing less than a direct hit. I was immediately sold when I listened to the song the first time.
Depth of soundstage, natural timbre of female voice, dark background, convincing lyrics, shivering guitar layers. The qobuz 24/88 stream via Roon upsampling either to 768k or DSD 512 towards the gentoo-fied RPi4 outputting into the LA's USB input did almost rival the Allo Revolution and the iFi iDSD, but stopped short before. My perception of the latter two being more musical is perhaps ascertainable to the advantages of a lower noise floor.
Kronos Quartet with Natalie Merchant - Folk Songs : Johnny has gone for a soldier (Qobuz) (PCM 24/44.1 - USB)
As a sucker for female voices I am in love with Kronos Quartet's collaboration with Natalie Merchant on their 2017's oeuvre "Folk Songs". The old Gaelic hymn “Siúil A Rún” about the loss of love and everything that matters for a war that can never be won. A tune which became "Johnny has gone for a soldier" with a strong connection to Buttermilk Hill in Pennsylvania. a tune that is a beautiful but tragic favorite of mine.
Merchant, who had interpreted a copious number of my most beloved tunes during her almost 4 decade career, offers simply a phenomenal sensibility induced intonation of that chant, and the 4 Kronos musicians are perfectly aware of this. They have no need to play pretentious, the stage is all set for her perfectly emotional and tender vocals.
With both setups, the B&W 805s in the room and the Hifiman 400i (2020) at my desk, the balance does swing in favor the upper registers of tonality (for female voices especially), where the LA gave me the impression of being a bit too sharp and detailed which again may cut of a tiny part of the musicality in comparison to my go-to dacs.
From all formats I used, I liked the DSD256 upsampling via ROON most with the SONCOZ.
E) VS - A short comparison to the DACs I used in the last 4 years
LA-QXD1 vs. KTBD
The most important variables are the same: designer & DAC chip, though it is a different beast by design, performance & feature wise.
LA-QXD1 vs. Allo Revolution
Single purpose unit against multifunctional device. I'd always vote for the Allo's musical reference, because I can. If there would be a limit for only one DAC in my house, I'd go with the SONCOZ, because it has more options on offer than single USB input, just for functionality.
LA-QXD1 vs. iFi micro iDSD BL
Again, if it wouldn't be in favor for my different conversion needs, it would always be the iFi for its performance.
LA-QXD1 vs. Topping NX4
Different beast by design, same chip under the hood, I'll vote clearly for the Soncoz device against the almost flawless NX4 headphone amp. Transparence and details make the difference here.
LA-QXD1 vs. AQ Dragonfly Red
Today almost at the same price level, the simplicity of using the Red can be a gem for some use cases, however, a severe difference in SQ and functionality speaks for the SONCOZ
(These comparison aren’t all results of side by side listening, Topping and AF are not any longer in use)
At barely 170 Euros the versatility and the very good performance in sound reproduction are serious bullet points for the SONCOZ. You need to acknowledge that not everything is bliss, and some shortcomings may create headaches. If these minor flaws are not in the realm of your personal use case, the LA looks like a perfect investment, especially as it offers better SQ and so much more possibilities than the KTBD, the Topping NX4 and the AF DF Red.
Given the critical but subjective listening to my playlist, I don't believe the LA is at the same level as my go-to DACs, however this implementation of the ESS9038q2m sounds extremely fair and performs well to me. The minor flaws aren't that important for me, therefore considering price and functionality, I can recommend the SONCOZ DAC to anyone who puts versatility over perfection.
PS. Recently the new Tone2 pro portable & desktop DAC was announced, If you are interested in portability and you have time on your side, you may check it out. It will be distributed via Hifigo as well.
Hardware, entangled in the listening process
The SONCOZ LA-QXD powered by:
- poweradd 20k mAh powerbank (standard)
- iFi iPower 5v, 5v from HDPLEX and unbranded 2a 5v telephone charger (black)
Headphones / Desktop system
HP AMP: JDS Labs Atom
DAC: iFi micro iDSD Black Label / Khadas Tone Board DAC
Streamer: RPi 4b/4GB w/Gentoo
Cans: Sennheiser HD650, Hifiman HE400i-2020 w/ 4.4 balanced cables / RHA T20
Speaker: Airpulse A100 blanc
Speaker: B&W 805S on Norstone stands, 2 x XTZ 10.17 Subs (EDGE)
Amplifier: PS Audio S-300 (still on Loan), NAD c275BEE
Pre: NAD c165BEE
DAC: Gieseler Audio Klein Dac, Allo Revolution (Loan)
Streamer: CAPS Zuma v3 based, WIN 10 PRO / 750 GB SSD / 16GB
AO 2.20 with ROON / AUDIRVANA / JRIVER
Deck: Rega Planar 3 w/24v upgrade kit / MM Rega Super Bias
Sources: Qobuz, Bandcamp, Discogs for CD
NAS: UNRAID NAS on ASROCK RACK - C2550D4I MB
Control: Micromax Cube Talk9x U65GT Android Tablet w/JREMOTE/Roon/Audirvana
Switch: Netgear GS108T Switch / CAT7 Ethernet Cabling
Power: HDPLEX 100w LPS, iFi 5v, ALLO Nirvana (Loan)
Cables: Dynavox, Sommer, Curious, Supra, Audioquest, in-Akustik & Oehlbach
Room: Room Treatment, mainly Absorption on ceiling, first reflection points and behind listening position