First listen: RHA's punchy and powerful portable DAC/headphone amp

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We got the distinct impression that the Dacamp L1's "motor" was just idling during our quick demos(Credit: Paul Ridden/New Atlas)

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Around this time last year, Scotland's RHA introduced us to a prototype of a portable digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier then called the Dacamp M1. The given specs and capabilities seemed to tick all the right boxes for high fidelity music enhancement on the move, but as it was a non-working design reference model, we couldn't plug our earphones in for a listen. We rectified that at an IFA 2016 launch party in Berlin for the now re-named Dacamp L1.

Reid Heath Audio (RHA) says that the Dacamp L1 has been designed to "replicate full hi-fi experiences on the go." The company told us that despite the same outward appearance, the Hi-Res Certified Dacamp L1 on display at IFA 2016 is quite a different beast to the prototype previewed last year. Some of the specs we were given at the time were prematurely released and others have since changed completely, so before we get onto our brief first listen, let's take a quick look at what's now inside the box, so to speak.

The heart of the 118 x 73 x 20 mm (4.65 x 2.87 x 0,78 in), rather weighty 233 g (8.2 oz), Dacamp hasn't changed from last year, comprising an ESS Sabre 32 ES9018K2M DAC chip and a crossover distortion-bashing Class A/B amplifier for each stereo channel. Their job is to decode incoming digital audio signals, convert them to analog and then output to the user. The unit supports PCM audio formats up to 32-bit/384 kHz resolution, and up to 11.2896 MHz DSD. Total harmonic distortion is rated at 0.0018 percent, and dynamic range reported to be 111 dB.

One of the three dials on the right side of the tough-looking dark gray aluminum housing – a design that's reminiscent of hi-fi equipment from years past – is a three step gain switch, the low, medium or high settings selected depending of the power needs of the plugged-in ear candy. RHA says that the Dacamp L1 should be powerful enough to comfortably drive anything from low impedance mobile earphones to high end 300 ohm headphones. And with gain and volume at the max, the few 600 ohm cans available should also be within reach.

Rather than drain the source device's battery like an energy vampire, RHA has included a 4,000 mAh Li-ion battery in the Dacamp for up to 10 hours of playback per charge. This internal battery can also be used to top up a connected smartphone/tablet battery. Useful. The Dacamp L1 comes supplied with silicone bands so that it can snuggle up to a smartphone in the pocket.

The other two dials on the right of the road-ready housing are for adjusting bass and treble response to suit personal tastes. Ins and outs come in the shape of a 3.5 mm line in, USB and mini TOSLINK optical inputs, and a 3.5 mm audio out jack, USB out and four-pin mini XLR (balanced) port – the latter for improved dynamic range and low distortion.

And so to our brief first listen. We connected our Galaxy Note 8.0 to the Dacamp L1 via the supplied USB OTG cable and launched the USB Audio Player Pro app, which includes its own USB Audio driver. For familiarity, we plugged our T20s into the 3.5 mm jack helpfully marked "headphones" and started playing a 24-bit/192 kHz FLAC of REM's Feeling Gravity's Pull.

We rolled the knurled metal volume control up from the power off position and set the gain to low, and started the bass/treble at the lowest settings. Comfortable listening levels hovered between the two and three positions on the dial. We only managed to nudge the volume dial up to just below four before reaching uncomfortable levels which were doubtless not good news for hearing health.

The lead riff on this track can be a touch harsh through some setups, but, while Buck's fretwork still dominated the mix, it seemed more resolved, smoother. Vocals remained back in the mix but came through clear and defined, bass was solid and the percussion spread tight and precise. Overall, we detected a goodly amount of detail retrieval, but not at the expense of musicality.

We followed the REM track with another favorite, an MP3 of Eric Johnson's Ciel. No upsampling wizardry has been mentioned by RHA, yet a sound quality bump up was evident during playback. There was a roomy feel to the atmospheric reverb, for example, a natural quality to the note decay of the picked strings, and a richness to the synth sounds that kick in about two minutes from the end. Quite vinyl-like, in fact.

We got the distinct impression that the Dacamp L1's "motor" was just idling during our quick demos with the T20s plugged in, waiting patiently for its opportunity to show off with some more demanding ear candy cabled up. That opportunity was provided courtesy of some new in-ear monitors developed alongside the Dacamp and due to be released at around the same time. The two audio devices have quite literally been made for each other.

As the name suggests, the 150 ohm impedance CL1 Ceramic in-ear monitors are encased in a high-density ceramic housing, but also feature a ceramic plate driver for precision upper frequency delivery. The rest of the frequency range is handled by a second driver, a CL Dynamic transducer.

The CL1s come with two detachable audio cables, one to plug into the Dacamp L1's 3.5 mm audio jack and the other for mini XLR port. As they've been designed specifically for use with source equipment like amplifiers, the company currently has no plans to introduce a version that includes inline control.

In the end, we only got the very briefest of listens through the CL1 Ceramic in-ear monitors and the music was unfamiliar, but the delivery appeared detailed, clear and well-rounded. We'd definitely have to get the Dacamp L1 and the CL1 Ceramic IEMs in a quiet room before commenting further, but early impressions are certainly positive.

The Dacamp L1 is due for release next month and carries a US$549.95 price tag, which will likely place it beyond the reach of many mobile music lovers who can get pretty decent (though nowhere near as capable) pocket performers from Cambridge Audio and Schiit Audio for much less. And it's also priced much higher than devices offering similar specs, such as Oppo's HA-2.

The CL1 Ceramic earphones are also being pitched at the higher end consumer, costing $449.95.

They're both introduced in the promo video below.

Product pages: Dacamp L1, CL1 Ceramic

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