Review: Audioengine D3 DAC and Headphone Amp

Introduction

As I wrote in my review of the two AudioQuest Dragonflies back in March, the market for “dongle DACs” (USB connector on one end, headphone jack on the other) is now fiercely contested, and one player looking to make a name for themselves in this space is Audioengine. If that name rings a bell, it’s probably the company’s powered desktop speakers that you’re thinking of, which Alex has covered on a few occasions. Speakers are definitely their primary focus, but AE has also produced a few DACs and headphone amps, and currently sells the B1 Bluetooth streamer, D1 desktop DAC/headphone amp, and the subject of this review, the D3 portable DAC/amp.

The Nitty Gritty

Though the D3 ($99) is priced to be a direct rival to the Dragonfly Black, in a lot of ways it has much more in common with the older, more expensive Dragonfly 1.2. Like the 1.2, the USB receiver chip is the old workhorse TAS1020B, operating in asynchronous transfer mode. This means that driving the D3 straight from your phone is not going to happen, but it will work just fine with any major desktop operating system. However, just like the other Dragonfly versions, it operates as a Class 1 USB audio device. This means the party stops at 96kHz (it will downsample higher resolutions than that), but it also means no drivers, period. Again, thank Microsoft for their incessant foot dragging on native Class 2 support for making this an issue.

In terms of design, the D3 is definitely much more restrained than the AQ DACs with their curves and glowing dragonfly symbols. Here you get a very minimalist aluminum case featuring the Audioengine logo, and two inset LEDs, one for power, and one to indicate HD sample rates (88.2 or 96kHz). One definite difference between the D3 and the Black is the amount of power on tap. The D3’s LME49726 op-amp can dish out a very healthy 2V, neatly splitting the difference between the old 1.8V DF 1.2, and the current higher-end 2.1V DF Red. If you have dreams of using it with your HiFiMan HE-6, stop, there’s nowhere near enough current here for that kind of thing. 600 Ohm Beyers though will be just fine, as should be just about any other dynamic headphone ever made, and plenty of the more reasonably efficient planar magnetics as well.

Another big difference between the D3 and the Flies is AE’s choice of DAC, the AKM4396. Though the Asahi Kasei has recently been supplanted by the 449x series, it’s still a very capable chip, and a good alternative if you’re not a fan of the ESS Sabre. Interestingly, while the AKM4396 has a built-in, 256-step digital volume control, AE opted not to use it, instead going for a digitally-controlled analog setup with an unspecified number of steps (Read: Volume knobs suck! -Alex).

I was pleased to see that Audioengine did not neglect the D3’s power supply – an important factor when the source of that power is a laptop USB port, which can be 50-100X noisier than a typical switch-mode ATX computer power supply, and as much as a thousand times noisier than a high-quality linear DC power supply like my Teddy Pardos. Incoming power goes through two stages of regulation, and the power supply actually sits on its own dedicated circuit board within the D3’s case. With all of the audio geek stuff out of the way, let’s get to the listening, shall we?

I’ve been in a Týr mood lately, so I began my testing with “Blood Of Heroes.” After a brief bit of experimentation to determine that, yes, the D3 obliterates my Asus Zenbook’s built-in headphone jack, it was time to give it an actual challenge. Bringing in the DF Black for comparison, both DACs brought similar improvements of the Zenbook’s headphone jack – much deeper, much more impactful bass, a larger and more enveloping soundstage, greater detail, etc, but diverged into their own separate characteristics.

Switching to “Starlight Slaughter” from Grand Magus’ The Hunt, the differences between the DF Black and D3 reminded me a lot of the differences between my Sony MDR-1A headphones and the Meze 99 Classics that I reviewed a couple of years ago. The DF Black is the more neutral of the two, and doesn’t alter the Sony’s presentation in any significant way, rather it enhances what the Sony already does well. Driven by the D3, the Sony sounds a lot more like what I remember of the Meze. The soundstage is a fair bit wider than what I’m used to from the MDR-1A, and certainly wider than what the DF Black delivers. The D3’s sound is a bit mid focused, and this has the effect of pulling the guitars to either side of your head, giving you an “on stage” presentation, whereas the DF Black sounds more like you’re in the first row.

Also much like the Meze vs. the Sony, the D3 gives up a shade of refinement to the DF Black in exchange for its more “fun” sonic signature, though this was only really noticeable with well produced material. Another important difference between the two is how they handle volume. The DF Black’s volume control is tuned in such a way that it gets very loud very quickly. When using it with my Zenbook, I have the OS volume one notch above zero, and Foobar’s volume control about a third of the way up for a comfortable listening volume. It works with the MDR-1A, but I could definitely see how very efficient headphones, particularly IEMs could have an issue where the DF Black is just too loud to be usable. Using the D3, I kept the OS volume the same, and pushed Foobar’s volume a bit past the halfway point to reach roughly the same perceived volume level. So while neither offers anywhere near the level of fine volume adjustments as the DF Red, the D3’s bit of extra breathing space might be just enough to make the difference.

Final Thoughts

The D3 is an interesting product, and whether you should consider it over the AudioQuest DF Black depends on your needs. The Black’s hat trick is being able to plug straight into a phone, and that’s something that the D3 simply can’t match. However, the D3 counters with a somewhat more practical volume control making it better suited to very easy to drive headphones, and substantially more output voltage, making it better suited to very hard to drive headphones. It also has its own sonic signature compared to the Black’s more “just the facts” presentation, and it could do wonders for headphones that sound a little closed in out of the box, or have the very common “smile” type of frequency response. Bottom line: if you’re in the market for a dongle that won’t break the bank and offer a substantial improvement over your notebook’s stock headphone jack, definitely put the D3 on your short list.