miniwatt n4 USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

For today’s equipment review, I’d like to tell you about a portable DAC and headphone amp made by miniwatt. If you’re not familiar with the terminology, DAC stands for Digital-to-Analog Converter, which is a device that translates all those ones and zeros in you digital audio stream to analog signal that drives your speakers and headphones. Every CD and MP3 player has a DAC inside, and so does your computer (it’s called a “sound card”). So why would you want to invest in another DAC? Well, chances are, whatever computer or laptop that you own, comes with a pretty cheap on-board DAC (like $5 cheap). And since analog sound starts at the conversion from its digital counterpart, every audiophile would tell you invest in a better DAC.

“CAS (Computer As Source) is the global trend, and we designed miniwatt n4 for serious audiophiles who listen to music on their laptop while traveling or use digital music source at home with serious audiophile equipment. We believe in minimalist design, and we believe that HiFi equipment should sound great and look good as well.” -Derek Shek, miniwatt

miniwatt is a Hong Kong manufacturer designing state of the art components to be the “heart of your system“. First of all, it’s small enough to fit in your pocket, elegant enough to display on your desktop (many people at work commented at its minimalistic design), and most importantly powerful enough to drive your high impedance headphones while still only being powered by USB! The output features a standard 3.5mm (1/8” inch) stereo headphone jack, plus a pair of XLR line outputs (for your external sound system). I mostly auditioned the miniwatt n4 through a pair of headphones, and am happy to report that I was very impressed. I already mentioned the sleekness of this 115mm x 74mm x 20mm unit, but seriously, its silver powder-coated aluminum body casing wrapped in stitched leather, with stainless-steel screws and laser etching is incredibly sexy. Don’t you think?

So what about the sound? First, let’s take a look at its compatibility and support on the digital side. The miniwatt n4 supports Windows, Mac and even Linux OS (pay attention to this, Ubuntu and Fedora fans). The data is up-converted to 32-bit / 192kHz (123dB dynamic range) and is able to take in the highest resolution files that you have! The connection to your computer is via asynchronous USB 2.0 (audio class high-speed mode), but it will also take in external digital data via S/PDIF! On the analog output side, the miniwatt n4 will deliver balanced volume over independent left and right output circuits, which is digitally controlled over the two volume buttons (when I press these, they actually move the volume slider on my computer as well, so it’s a fixed-level output). The headphone output impedance is 32Ohm with 100mW, and those are just the technical bits.

Unlike my earlier review of the tube headphone amp, I can’t claim that the miniwatt n4 had that “analog warmth”, but then again, I would never bring my tube amp on the road. This is where the miniwatt n4 already excels [by the way, the company did offer mini tube amps in their S1 and N3 series]. Its ability to drive any pair of headphones that I own off of USB already paints a picture of endless portable sonic bliss. And then, of course, it’s a much better DAC! The sound of the miniwatt produced intricate details with just enough delicacy to make me forget I was playing digital files. The tone is rich with the frequency range well balanced. I can’t complain about the bass, as found it to be fast and punchy. It’s also essentially silent, and boasts an electrical noise immunity via its USB link. Check out the miniwatt’s performance summary for charts on frequency response, dynamic range, intermodulation distortion and all your other favorite geeky stats.

Bottom line, I couldn’t be happier with the miniwatt n4! At 32-bit / 192kHz, it’s one of the best compact and portable high-res DACs on the market [take a look, most USB-powered DACs are only 24-bit]. The sound is thick and smooth, with a pretty wide soundstage, and the unit quickly became the core of my desktop setup as well! I wouldn’t proclaim the miniwatt n4 as a budget component, and at manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $348 USD it certainly is an investment, but it is the true definition of an “investment” that I’m attracted to here, as the miniwatt n4 will continue to offer high quality aural return for the many hours to come.

MSRP – $348 USD