Want the best performance from your headphones? Unlikely that the 3.5mm socket found on the average smartphone, PC or Mac will cut it. Third party DAC/headphone amplifiers, like Mytek Digital’s Clef, are where sound quality starts to come on song.
However, Mytek’s latest product announcement is also story of two codecs: MQA and AAC. (Side note for readers unaccustomed to news items that go deeper than the press release: this is not a review).
Portable USB DAC/amps are a dime a dozen. Those that support PCM to up 24bit/192kHz or DSD128 are less common. MQA? Only the Meridian Explorer 2 ticks every box. Until now…
Mytek Digital’s Clef offers a driverless USB Audio Class 2.0 connection to your home computer in a palm-sized package for US$299. Inside its handy hardshell (4” x 2.5”x 0.5″) an ESS Sabre 9018 chipset feeds “a powerful high fidelity headphone amplifier…easily driving quality headphones at twice the volume of typical smartphones”.
The Clef will play a broad range of hi-res audio formats including the deeply controversial MQA. Mytek Digital’s half-width but feature-packed Brooklyn DAC was used this commentator to audition Bob Stuart and Peter Craven’ time-domain correcting, hi-res folding, end-to-end authenticating audio format last year.
The Clef’s USB power feed waves buh-bye to the mains supply and, assuming we have the corresponding content, allows us to take MQA playback to the office and back. As of right now, only a few hundred downloadable MQA-encoded titles exist in the wild but with CES 2017 kicking off tomorrow, we might see Tidal finally dropping the lever on MQA streaming.
We live in a streaming-dominant world and if MQA remains solely the preserve of downloadable (to own) music, it’s sure to become just another audiophile (read: niche) plaything.
However, let us not be distracted by the Clef’s MQA support as this portable packs an even stronger punch: it will decode and amplify incoming Bluetooth audio from any paired device for up to 8 hours between re/charges.
Those who rubbish Bluetooth audio should understand that not all Bluetooth audio connections are born equal. Sound quality depends on the audio codec in play.
For example, the higher quality aptX codec built into the Clef only fires into action when also present in the transmitting device. If we’re talking smartphones, that means a handful of Android and Windows devices but not the Apple iPhone.
Here Mytek have been more thoughtful than the majority of manufacturers. Rather than let iPhone users fall back to the default and largely unsatisfactory-sounding SBC, the Polish-American company have also baked AAC into the Clef’s Bluetooth receiver. AAC is supported by iPhones and iPads and, in my experience, delivers tonal avidity and micro-dynamic flicker on par with aptX. In other words, neither codec sound as lifeless as SBC-fuelled Bluetooth. This gives the Clef a sharp advantage over the SBC/aptX-only Astell&Kern XB10 and Noble Audio BTS.
If that’s not enough for you to take a closer look/listen, the Clef’s internal microphone allows us to make phone calls even if our headphones do not.
In short, the Mytek Clef adds Bluetooth audio to ANY smartphone but with none of the usual compromises.
Not bad for US$299. Not bad at all.
Patience though: the Clef doesn’t begin shipping until Q2 2017.
Further information: Mytek Digital