As more and more music streaming services introduce lossless or high definition audio into their offerings, interest in DACs (digital-to-analog converters, or “headphone amplifiers”) has accelerated. So we created this guide. What was once the audiophile’s stash is now becoming a must-have gadget for those who want more than their phone and AirPods can offer. But they are not without caveats. For one thing, they’re often expensive, and sometimes they’re not much smaller than the phone you’re connecting them to. Enter the DAC tea by Khadas.
Khadas started out making media-friendly single-board computers (think SBC… media-specific Raspberry Pi-like things) before moving on to desktop DACs. Tea is the company’s first mobile DAC, and it appears to be primarily aimed at iPhone users, although it is also compatible with Android. The reason I am suggesting that it is more suitable for Apple phones is that it is compatible with MagSafe. Combine that with the slim, iPhone-like all-metal design and it solves one of the biggest problems with mobile DACs – having something heavy hanging off the back of your phone.
With the Tea, it sticks to the back of your phone and its low profile makes it barely more visible than Apple’s MagSafe wallets. You can, of course, find MagSafe compatible cases for Android, but your phone and your budget will be a factor.
Beyond the smooth form factor, the Tea doesn’t skimp on its codec support. On USB / Lightning, the Tea can handle audio up to 32 bit / 384 kHz. Since most mainstream music services don’t offer anything above 192kHz, streamers will be more than covered. Likewise, the Tea can decode MQA (Tidal) with DSD, AAC, FLAC, APE, OGG and all standard formats (WAV / MP3 etc.). If you’d rather go wireless, the Tea also supports LDAC and AptX HD via Bluetooth.
Here I have to mention that, despite all its iPhone usability, Apple does not offer LDAC or AptX HD support in its flagship phones. You can still use the Bluetooth functionality in Tea, but you will not be able to enjoy the higher quality formats. Although that at least means you can charge your phone while using the DAC or you can walk around with the smaller Tea connected to your headphones rather than your mobile. There are many Android phones that To do supports LDAC / AptX HD, but you will need to check the manufacturer’s website to confirm (most Pixel, Samsung, and OnePlus phones offer LDAC / AptX HD decoding).
There are a few things you won’t find here, but most of them fall into the high end of audio. For example, there is only a standard 3.5mm headphone jack – no option for balanced 2.5 or 4.4mm cans at this point (although rumor has it that a version “Pro” with this on the way). There’s also little commentary on the 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 will work with your phone and PC, but no line.
This puts tea in an interesting category. It’s perfectly suited for people who want to get the most out of their streaming service, and should even appeal to audiophiles looking for a low-key option that covers most of the basics. But at $ 199, it’s a reasonable expense. Perhaps its most obvious competitor is Fiio’s BTR5. It is also a portable DAC with high resolution Bluetooth support as well as a similar selection of wired formats (also up to 32bit / 384kHz with MQA support). Oh, and the Fiio also has a balanced (2.5mm) headphone option. When you factor in that the BTR5 also typically sells for $ 159, you have to really want that slim, MagSafe design.
This is not to underestimate him, however. I tested the BTR5 and the Tea side by side, and the practicality of the Tea was obvious. With the Fiio, your phone feels strapped in, almost weighed down by the DAC. With the Tea, it’s similar to using one of those iPhone cases with a battery – a bit thicker, but you can still use the phone as you normally would.
The Tea also has a much larger battery capacity – 1160mAh compared to the Fiio’s 550mAh. This is obviously not an audio benefit, but it quickly becomes so if you plan on listening for long periods of time or stepping away from a charging option for more than a few hours. Which, given the mobile nature of these devices, seems like a reasonable possibility.
I’m not a huge fan of the user interface, however. The Tea has three buttons: one on the left and two on the right. The single button works as a power switch or to call your virtual assistant. The two knobs on the other side control the volume or skip tracks. You switch between volume mode and jump mode by double-tapping the power button and the top button on the other side. It works… good, but it’s not very elegant. Also, if you leave it in track skip mode and adjust the volume, you’ll be on the next track before you know it. A minor, but frustrating thing.
In wired mode, the Tea diffuses a powerful, powerful and clear sound. It might not be as loud as some other DACs. Even the tiny Firefly gives tea a run for its money there. But, the sound you get is clean and full of gain, and that’s the point here: take a good signal and let it be heard without colorization.
Beyond its primary function of DAC, it will not interfere with taking calls either. A pair of microphones on the base of the Tea allow you to speak without having to fall back on your phone’s microphone. Plus, the Tea’s mics are several leagues better than the iPhone’s, especially when spoken to while sitting on the desk. You can also configure the Tea to charge via your phone if you run out of juice, or deactivate this function so as not to tax your handset’s battery if you prefer.
Overall, tea is a welcome addition to a growing category. At $ 199, it’s not the cheapest for the feature set, but its thoughtful design and aesthetics make it quite practical and understated as well. Unfortunately, if all of this tempts you, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. While Khadas is clearly ready for production, the company chooses to move to Indiegogo course, with the campaign due to go live in the coming weeks.
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