This MagSafe DAC is very logical

As more music streaming services offer high-resolution or lossless audio to their offerings, interest in DACs (digital-to-analog converters, or “headphone amplifiers”) has grown – so much so that we’ve created this guide. What was once a reserve for audiophiles is slowly becoming a go-to for those who want more than what their phones and AirPods can offer. But they are not without caveats. First, they are often expensive, and sometimes not much smaller than the phone you plugged them in. Enter Tea DAC by Khadas.

Khadas started making media-friendly single-board computers (SBC – think… Raspberry Pi stuff for media) before moving on to desktop DACs. Tea is the company’s first portable DAC and appears to be aimed primarily at iPhone users – although it’s also compatible with Android. The reason I would suggest that it is more suitable for Apple phones is that it is compatible with MagSafe. Combine that with the iPhone’s slim, metallic design and it solves one of the major problems with portable DACs: having something heavy hanging on the back of your phone.

With tea, it sticks to the back of your phone, and the low profile makes it a little more noticeable than Apple’s MagSafe wallets. You can of course find MagSafe compatible cases for Android, but your phone and budget will be a factor.

Far from its sleek form factor, Tea doesn’t skimp on supporting its coding. Via USB/Lightning, Tea can handle audio up to 32bit/384kHz. Since most mainstream music services don’t offer anything above 192kHz, streaming devices are more than covered. Likewise, Tea can decode MQA (tidal) along with DSD, AAC, FLAC, APE, OGG and all standard formats (WAV/MP3 etc.). If you prefer wireless connectivity, Tea also supports LDAC and AptX HD via Bluetooth.

James True / Engadget

I should mention here that despite the iPhone’s ease of handling, Apple does not offer LDAC or AptX HD support in its flagship phones. You can still use the Bluetooth function in Tea, but you won’t be able to enjoy the higher quality formats. Although at least this means that you can charge your phone while using the DAC or you can walk around with the smaller tea connected to the headphones instead of your mobile phone. There are a lot of Android phones that Act LDAC/AptX HD support, but you’ll need to check the manufacturer’s website for confirmation (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 are on the higher end of the volume. For example, there’s only a regular 3.5mm headphone jack – no choice of balanced 2.5 or 4.4mm cans at this point (although rumors suggest that a “Pro” version may be on the way however). There’s also limited feedback on the quality of the codec/audio you’re currently receiving, with a simple color-changing LED indicating the format, which you can’t see unless the phone is facing down. Inputs are limited to USB-C, so it will work with your phone and computer, but without a line.

This puts tea in an interesting category. It’s fully capable of people who want the most out of their streaming service and should even appeal to audiophiles looking for a conservative option that covers most bases. But at $199, that’s a reasonable spend. Perhaps its most obvious competitor is Fiio’s BTR5. It’s also a portable DAC with Bluetooth HD support along with a similar set of cable formats (also up to 32bit/384kHz with MQA support). Oh, and Fiio offers a balanced headphone option as well (2.5mm). When you consider that the BTR5 usually retails for $159, you really have to want the MagSafe’s slim build.

This is not for sale for less though. I tested BTR5 and tea side by side, and the absolute comfort of the tea was evident. With Fiio, your phone almost feels restricted and burdened by a DAC. With Tea, it’s like using an iPhone case that holds a battery – a little thicker, but you can still operate the phone as you normally would.

The Tea also has a much larger battery capacity – 1160mAh compared to 550mAh from Fiio. Obviously this isn’t an audio feature, but it quickly becomes an advantage if you plan on listening for long periods or stay away from the charging option for more than a few hours. Which, given the mobile nature of these devices, appears to be a reasonable possibility.

The portable DAC for tea is connected to the iPhone.

James True / Engadget

However, I’m not a huge fan of the user interface. The tea has three buttons: one on the left and two on the right. The single button acts as a power switch or to summon your virtual assistant. The two buttons on the other side will control the volume or skip tracks. You can switch between volume and skip mode with a double press of the power button and the top button on the other side. It works… well, but it’s not very elegant. Also, if you leave it in track skip mode and go to adjust the volume, you’ll be on the next track before you know it. A minor but frustrating thing.

In wired mode, the tea pumps out a powerful, loud and clear sound. It’s probably not quite as loud as some of the other DACs. Even a diminutive firefly gives tea a chance to get its money there. But the sound you get is clean and rich, and that’s the point here: take a good signal and let it be heard without coloration.

In addition to its primary function as a DAC, it will not stand in the way of receiving calls. A pair of microphones on the tea stand allows you to speak without having to turn to the microphone on your phone. What’s more, the mics on the Tea are several teams better than those on the iPhone, especially when talking to her while she’s resting at the desk. You can also set tea to charge through your phone if you’re running out of juice, or disable this feature to not tax your phone if you prefer.

All in all, tea is a welcome addition to a growing category. At $199, it’s not the cheapest for its feature set, but its well-thought-out design and beauty make it extremely convenient and discreet. Unfortunately, if all of this sounds down your alley, you’ll have to wait a little longer. While Khadas are clearly ready for production, the company is choosing to go the Indiegogo route, with the campaign set to kick off in the coming weeks.

All products recommended by Engadget are handpicked by our editorial team, independently of the parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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