PALAB M1-Mini DAC/Amplifier Review

 

 

 

 

 

 

PALAB M1-Mini Portable DAC/Amplifier Review

 

 

Introduction:

PALAB was founded in the fashion capital New York, dedicated to a minimalistic, naturally perfect audio products. The letters “PA” are for Pure Audio and Power Advance.

The Motto of the Company is: Striving for Perfection

 

PALAB Official Webpage: http://www.palabaudio.com/

The PALAB M1-Mini is a High End full MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) decoding portable DAC/Amplifier with 3.5mm SE & 4.4mm Balanced, Coaxial/Optical outputs that features ESS4. latest generation ES9038Q2M 32-bit Stereo DAC Chip, which supports sampling rates up to 32Bit/384kHz and Native DSD256 decoding.

 

Disclaimer:

I would like to thank PALAB for providing me the M1-Mini DAC/Amplifier for review purposes. I am not affiliated with PALAB beyond this review and these words reflect my true, unaltered opinions about the product.

 

 

Price & Availability:

The MSRP Price for the PALAB M1-Mini is 449 USD, more in formations can be found under the links below;

 

 

 

 

Package and Accessories:

The PALAB M1-Mini came in a relative small black box that has the words (the motto of the company) “Striving for Perfection” on the top and was wrapped with a stylish cardboard sleeve in sliver with the PALAB branding on the top.

This box is including the following items;

  • 1 x PALAB M1-Mini DAC/Amplifier
  • 1 x USB Type-C OTG Adapter
  • 1 x USB Type-C to Type-A Cable
  • 1 x 3.5mm Optical Adapter
  • 1 x User Manual

 

 

 

Design and Build Quality:

The PALAB M1-Mini is a relative small and lightweight DAC/Amplifier with a stylish industrial design language that has dimension of 48.5mm x 19mm x 86.5mm and a weight of only 113 grams. The chassis of the device is in made of metal material with a black finish that has sandblasted surface.

On the top of the PALAB M1-Mini are 4 (four) multifunctional physical buttons, the Status Area (Front Panel) and the PALAB branding.

The Analog Status Area (Front Panel) is a screen that features Retro Style RGB Lights that gives you information’s about the Sampling Rates, Input Source Formats, Volume Levels and the actual Input Source.

For example, the 1x symbol lights up if the device decodes a sampling rate between 44.1KHz or 48KHz, while the 8x symbol is for 352.8KHz or 384KHz.

All Status Lights are Explained bellow;

  • No Light Up For PCM Format
  • Green For MQA Authentic Format
  • Blue For MQA Studio Format
  • Magenta For ORFS (Original Sample Rate) Format
  • Yellow For DSD Format

Volume Level and Input Source (15 level volume indicator):

  • Red Is USB Input
  • Blue Is Optical Input
  • Green Is Coaxial Input

At the rear side of the device is the USB Type-C External power input (PWR), the USB Type-C Audio (AUDIO) Input and the COAXIAL & Optical (COAX/OPT) Inputs.

On the front of the PALAB M1-Mini are the 4.4mm TRRRS (Pentaconn) Balanced and the 3.5mm TRS Single Ended outputs. Between those Connectors is a small Light Indicators that lights up in blue when you set the device to High Gain by pressing both Volume Up & Down buttons for 2 second at the same time.

At the bottom of the PALAB M1-Mini is the MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) logo.

The device looks & feels very robust in your hands and shows also a solid build quality.

 

 

 

Technical Specifications:
  • DAC (Digital to Audio Converter)       : ES9038Q2M
  • Digital Audio Receiving Processor      : AKM AK4118AEQ
  • Multi Core Controller                          : XMOS U11690C20
  • Sampling Frequency                           : PCM 16/32bit 44.1kHz-384kHz // DSD 64 – 256
  • Output Power (3.5mm SE)                  : 180mW @ 32Ω (Low Gain)
  • Output Power (4.4mm Balanced)        : 55mW @ 600Ω (Low Gain) / 110mW (High Gain)
  • THD+N                                                : < 0.1% (3.5mm SE / 4.4mm Pentaconn)
  • Input port                                            : USB Type-C (Audio)
  • Output ports                                        : 3.5mm SE, 4.4mm Balanced, Coaxial/Optical
  • Earphone Impedance                          : 16 – 600Ω
  • POWER Input (PWR)                            : External 5V Power Supply Input
  • Dimensions                                          : 48.5mm x 19mm x 86.5mm
  • Weight                                                 : 113g

 

 

 

Key Features:
  • ESS Newest Generation: The world’s highest performance 32-bit Stereo DAC, State-of-the-art DAC with warmer sonic characteristics.
  • Three digital inputs for complete system flexibility, Full microprocessor control with memory retention for all inputs.
  • USB asynchronous transfer mode.
  • Exclusive driver software for Windows.
  • USB supports DSD native playback by ASIO and DoP method.
  • USB supports native MQA playback.
  • Coaxial and optical support MQA and MQA-CD playback.
  • Three independent headphone amplifier circuits.
  • Individually adjustable volume on each input for precise level matching of sources.
  • Support TRRS 4.4 balanced output.
  • Support separate power supply system.

 

 

 

 

Hardware & Software:

The PALAB M1-Mini portable DAC/Amplifier that comes with some interesting hardware features like ESS latest generation ES9038Q2M 32-bit Stereo DAC Chip, a XMOS Chip for Native DSD decoding, AKM’s AK4118AEQ Digital Audio Receiving Processor with independent clock to improve the sound stability.

 

A) DAC (Digital to Analog Converter):

The PALAB M1-Mini features ESS Technology’s ES9038Q2M flagship 32-bit Stereo DAC Chip DAC Chip with the patented 32-bit HyperStream architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator.  This mobile audio DAC offers an unprecedented dynamic bandwidth and ultra-low distortion, with a high-quality operational amplifier that shows low noise and low distortion.

It supports the industry’s most popular high resolution and lossless audio formats including FLAC, ALAC, AIFF and WAV.

 

 

B) Amplification & Noise:

The PALAB M1-Mini is a small but quite powerful device. It is able to power demanding Planar Headphones like the SIVGA P-II or HiFiMAN DEVA and ANANDA.

Some detailed technical information’s are listed below;

Low gain mode ( L / G ), High gain mode ( H / G )

 

  • 3.5 mm stereo jack: THD < 0.1%
  • Output power: 32 ohms,180 mW( L / G ), 180 mW ( H / G).
  • Output power: 100 ohms,155 mW( L / G ), 310 mW ( H / G).
  • Output power: 330 ohms, 48 mW( L / G ), 100 mW ( H / G).
  • Output power: 600 ohms, 27 mW( L / G ), 55 mW ( H / G).

 

  • TRRS 4.4 mm balanced jack : THD < 0.1%
  • Output power: 600 ohms, 55 mW( L / G ), 110 mW ( H / G).

 

Both the 3.5mm Single Ended (TRS) and 4.4mm Balanced (TRRRS) do offer a pretty clean output when paired with IEM’s like the MEZE RAI Penta (20Ω – 100dB Sensitivity) and FiiO FD5 (32Ω – 109dB Sensitivity), while my white noise magnet the Campfire Audio ARA & Solaris 2020 do show an audible amount of noise over the 4.4mm Balanced output.

Please note that the M1-Mini warms up after a while If you use it with high impedance Headphones at higher volumes.

 

C) 4.4mm Balanced Output:

The L and R channels of PALAB M1-Minis’s 4.4mm Balanced output are equipped with two sets of independent headphone amplifiers with positive (+) and reverse (-) outputs to improve the separation between the L and R channels. Reduce the impact of ground loop power line noise to improve signal noise ratio.

 

 

D) Inputs Options:

The PALAB M1-Mini is a portable DAC/Amplifier with multiple input options that are listed below;

  • USB Type-C Audio Output:

USB Type-C to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, Windows OS with ASIO Driver for data stream up to 384KHz/24Bit and Native DSD 256. USB Type-C to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, Mac / Lunix OS – Data Stream up to 384KHz/24Bit and DOP DSD 128.

  • Coaxial & Optical Output:

Supports PCM 44.1KHz ~ 192KHz/24Bit and DOP DSD 64.

 

 

E) Separate Power Supply System:

The Power (PWR) input interface provides another power supply option, namely external power supply, Can be a 5V DC adapter or a power bank. When power is supplied from outside, the power of the USB audio transmitter will be completely cut off. Provide cleaner power to achieve cleaner sound.

 

 

F) XMOS Chip & MQA Decoding:

The integrated XMOS Chip is a high-speed processor to transmit USB audio using asynchronous transmission, and use an independent clock to avoid the impact
on sound quality caused by the clock jitter at the sending end, in order to restore
the highest quality of sound.

The high-speed computing capability also shows the processing capability of full MQA decoder, which enables you to play back MQA audio files and streams, delivering the sound of the original master recording. The front panel LED indicates if the MQA stream is detected.

 

G) Input Options:

  • USB Type-C Audio Output:

USB Type-C to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, Windows OS with ASIO Driver Data Stream up to 384KHz/24Bit and Native DSD 256.

USB Type-C to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, Mac / Lunix OS Data Stream up to 384KHz/24Bit and DOP DSD 128.

  • Coax and Optical Output:

Supports PCM 44.1KHz ~ 192KHz/24Bit and DOP DSD 64.

 

 

H) USB Driver Installation:

The PALAB M1-Mini works with MAC’s, Windows PC’s (tested with Windows 10), Android and iOS device without the need of installation of any driver, while older Windows Operating Systems may could need a driver installation. For more information please visit www.palabaudio.com and download the latest driver.

 

Equipment’s used for this review:
  • DAC’s             : PALAB M1-Mini, FiiO Q5s
  • IEM’s              : MEZE Audio Rai Penta, Campfire Audio RA, FiiO FD5
  • Headphones  : iBasso SR2, HiFiMAN DEVA, SIVGA P-II
  • Source           : FiiO M11 Pro, Hidizs AP80 Pro, Samsung Note 20 Ultra, ASUS TUF FX505DU

 

 

 

Albums & Tracks used for this review:
  • Dionne Warwick – Walk On By (Flac 24bit/48kHz)
  • Edith Piaf – Non Je Ne Regrette Rien (Flac 24bit/48kHz)
  • Aretha Franklin – I Say a Little Prayer (Flac 24bit/96kHz)
  • Diana Krall – So Wonderful (DSF)
  • First Aid Kit – My Silver Lining (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • London Grammar – Interlud (Live) (Flac 24bit/44kHz)
  • Laura Pergolizzi – Lost On You “Live at Harvard and Stone” (Tidal Hi-Fi)
  • Barry White – Just The Way You Are (Flac 24bit/48kHz)
  • Isaac Hayes – Walk On By (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • Sting – Englishman in New York – (Flac 24bit/48kHz)
  • Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight (Flac 24bit/96kHz)
  • Elton John – Rocket Man (Tidal Hi-Fi)
  • B.B. King – Riding With The King (Flac 24bit/96kHz)
  • Fazıl Say – Nazım Oratoryosu (Live) (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • George Frederic Handel –Sarabande in D Minor (Flac 24bit/96kHz)
  • Chopin – Nocturn No. 20 In C-Sharp Minor (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • Vivaldi – Le QuarttroStagioni “The Four Season” (Flac 24bit/96kHz)
  • The Dave Brubeck Quarted – Take Five (Flac 24bit/192kHz)
  • Otto Liebert& Luna Negra – The River (Flac 24bit/192kHz)
  • Armin Van Buuren – Vini Vici (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • No Doubt – Hella Gut (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • Lorde – Royal (Flac 24bit/48kHz)
  • Massive Attack – Angel (Flac 24bit/192kHz)
  • Twerl – Lishu (Spotify)
  • U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • Portishead – The Hidden Camera (MP3 320kpbs)
  • Metallica – Sad but True (Flac 24bit/96kHz)
  • Opeth – Windowpane (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • Megadeth – Sweating Bullets (Tidal Hi-Fi)
  • Rush’s – Leave That Thing Alone (Flac 16bit/44.1kHz)
  • Slayer – Angel of Death (Spotify)
  • Tom Player – Resonace Theory “Album” (Tidal Hi-Fi)
  • Liquid Tension Experiment 2 – Acid Rain (Spotify)

 

 

 

Sound Analysis:

The PALAB M1-Mini is a portable DAC/Amplifier that offers plenty of output power and a solid sound performance for such a small device. It has a pretty linear frequency response and a slightly warmer than neutral tonality.

This review is written after a burn-in period of about 80 hours and is based on my sound experiences paired with IEM’s like the Meze Audio RAI Penta, Campfire Audio ARA and FiiO FD5 and full sized headphones like the iBasso SR2 and HiFiMAN Ananda.

 

 

Bass:

The PALAB M1-Mini offers a natural and controlled subbass reproduction and doesn’t adds any additional weight and rumble to the paired earphones/headphones. For example the Campfire Audio ARA shows a pretty linear subbass character with average depth and intensity which has been reproduced unchanged when paired with the PALAB M1-Mini.

The midbass region on the other hand shows a tad of coloration that is not overdone. This region sounds detailed and has a great sense of authority, control and speed while listen to IEM’s like the Meze Rai Penta and FiiO FD3 or full sized headphones like the iBasso SR2 or HiFiMAN Ananda. Instruments like trumpets or the contrabass up to synthetic bass notes in electronic music do sound pretty controlled and do shows a good amount of weight, body and intensity.

The lower frequency region of the PALAB M1-Mini portable DAC/Amplifier is in general pretty controlled, detailed and offers a good level of layering and extension when paired with high end earphones of headphone without to show any remarkable negative conditions like a midbass hump, unwanted roll-off or situations like muddiness or mixings.

 

Midrange:

The PALAB M1-Mini shows an impressive performance in terms of airiness, detail retrieval and clarity of the midrange region. The tonality of this area sounds with all earphones & headphones that I have paired with it, slightly warmer than neutral due to a slightly coloration in the lower midrange area. The

 

Vocals & Instruments:

The lower midrange has a good sense of depth and body which is an advantage while listen to instruments like acoustic guitars and hi-hats or male vocals like Barry White and Isaac Hayes that do sound pretty emotional and intimate, especially with IEM’s like the MEZE Rai Penta and headphones such like the HiFiMAN Ananda.

The upper midrange of the M1-Mini offers a nice sense of transparency, openness and detail retrieval. It seems like that the sound engineers of PALAB where quite successful while tuning the ES9038Q2M DAC chip.

Female vocals from Dionne Warwick to Edith Piaf do sound lively with the ARA and FD5 and quite emotional and intimate with the Rai Penta and Ananda, while the upper midrange tuning adds instruments like pianos and organs a nice sense of presence.

 

Upper Midrange and Treble:

The PALAB M1-Mini has a very detailed and clear upper midrange presentation with an above average level of extension. The upper midrange of the M1-Mini gives the overall presentation a good level of vividness and transparency and shows also a pretty natural timbre.

The upper midrange transition did sound pretty controlled without to show any noteworthy audible negative conditions such as over sharpness/brightness with all IEM’s and Headphones I have paired with it, which is a remarkable plus point of the M1-Mini.

When it comes to the treble range I can say that the PALAB M1-Mini shows an above average performance in terms of speed, separation and extension. The lower treble area shows a nice sense of presence. Instruments like snare drums do sound crisp and clear with both the Campfire Audio ARA and HiFiMAN Ananda, while soprano voices are reproduced with a nice sense of presence and clarity.

The upper treble region of the PALAB M1-Mini offers a good amount of treble brightness and sparkle. The performance of the M1-Mini in terms of airiness and sparkle in this area while listen to the MEZE Rai Penta or FiiO FD5 was quite impressive.

For example, treble intensive instruments like hi-hats are distinctive and are presented with a pretty successful level of extension, while crash and ride cymbals do sound quite clear. What I really like about the treble character of the M1-Mini is that it shows a very good level of speed and control in complex genres like Metal and Jazz, and is also fatigue free with other genres like EDM or Pop music.

 

Soundstage:

The PALAB M1-Mini is a pretty successful portable DAC/Amplifier in terms of vocal & instrument separation and imaging. The soundstage of the M1-Mini sounds quite airy and spacious, with good sense of wideness and successful level of depth.

 

 

 

Comparison:

 

PALAB M1-Mini versus FiiO Q5s (with the stock AMP Module):

Both devices are portable DAC/Amplifiers with a wide variety of connection options, while the PALAB M1-Mini stands out with its smaller form factor, High End DAC Chip (ES9038Q2M vs AK4493EQ) and independent power supply port. The FiiO Q5s on the other hand offers BT connectivity, a build in battery and an interchangeable amplifier section.

When it comes to the sound performance I can say that both devices do show a performance that really stands out for their price (449 USD PALAB M1-Mini & 349 USD FiiO Q5s).

The lower frequency region of both devices shows a pretty natural and detailed presentation with good control and authority. The main difference is that the FiiO Q5s shows slightly more subbass depth and extension compared to the PALAB M1-Mini that has the slightly edge in terms of control. The midbass region of the FiiO Q5s shows a tad more intensity and fullness, compared to the PALAB M1-Mini that has a more linear response with better sense of authority in this area.

The midrange of the PALAB M1-Mini shows a slightly more neutral tonality and a more forward oriented and intimate character, along with a higher level of clarity and airiness compared to the FiiO Q5s that shows a warmer and more musical tonality.

The lower midrange of the Q5s has slightly more intensity, depth and extension, which is an advantage for male vocals or instruments like trumpets and acoustic guitars. The PALAB M1-Mini is the winner when it comes to the upper midrange performance that is more pronounced, detailed and has a better sense of extension. This makes it more successful with female vocals and instruments like violins and side flutes.

The treble range of both devices shows a very good performance in terms of control, detail retrieval and extension. The PALAB M1-Mini has the slightly edge in terms of clarity and definition of the lower treble region and airiness and sparkle that is produced in the upper treble region.

When it comes to the soundstage performance, I can say that both devices are successful for products under the 500 USD price range in terms of separation and placement of instruments and vocals. The PALAB M1-Mini has a slightly advantage when it comes to the soundstage wideness and airiness, while the FiiO Q5s has the upper hand in terms of depth of the stage.

 

Conclusion:

PALAB Audio is a relative young company in the world of Audiophile equipment’s. But this doesn’t change the fact that the M1-Mini is a small but powerful DAC/Amplifier with a great build quality and solid sound performance, thanks to well implemented components such like ES9038Q2M High End DAC Chip, XMOS U11690C20 Multi Core Controller, Balanced Output Design, etc.

 

 

Pros and Cons: 
  • + Impressive Sound Performance
  • + Great detail retrieval from the Top to the End
  • + Output Power (110mW @ 600 Ohm)
  • + Very Small Footprint
  • + Solid Build Quality
  • + Lots of Output Options & Indented Power Supply Port

 

  • – No built-in battery means drain of your source (if you use it with Smartphones, Tablets, etc.)
  • – White Noise over the 4.4mm output, noticeable with sensitive IEM’s (ARA & Solaris 2020)
  • – Warms up a bit If you use it with power demanding headphones (maybe not a real con)

 

Thank you for the Read!

 

 

 

 

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