One of the perks of writing headphone reviews is the chance we get to introduce readers to companies that make great audio gear they might otherwise never encounter. Glasgow-based RHA is one of those companies — already a favorite in the audiophile community, but small enough that you’re not likely to see their stuff being used by your fellow commuters on a crowded train. Today we make the introduction with one of RHA’s most interesting products — the Dacamp L1. Though it may strain the definition of “portable,” it’s one of the most versatile and feature-packed portable DAC/amps we’ve yet seen.
At 233 grams and about the size of a bar of soap, the Dacamp L1 is a hefty piece of hardware. A shell of gray aluminum protects most of the L1’s ports and large gain, bass, and treble adjustment knobs — it’s a high-tech taco that looks interesting from every angle. The Bottom of the L1 includes an input selector and ports for analog Line-In/Line-Out, USB-A for iOS devices, microUSB for PC/Mac input and charging and, rare for portable devices, an optical input. The top of the L1 features a large knurled aluminum rotary volume control, a 3.5mm single-ended output, a four-pin balanced mini-XLR output. Inside is a 4000 mAh battery, which is about 50 percent bigger than that of the iPhone 8 Plus. We think the L1’s exposed fasteners, sharp angles, and large controls give it a high-quality, raw industrial feel. Though the L1’s size and weight make it difficult to squeeze into both pockets, RHA’s choice of high-quality materials, large battery, and extremely generous offering of inputs and outputs more than make up for the L1’s husky stature. Perhaps the L1 could have been made smaller if its tone controls were omitted, but it would surely be at the expense of its personality.
In the L1’s box we find most of the accessories we’d expect with a portable DAC/amp. Included are a micro USB charging cable, micro USB OTG cable for Android devices, two silicone bands for attaching the L1 to your phone, and a microfiber patch for preventing scratches. No Lightning cable is included, however, which we think is odd when we consider that RHA went through the trouble (and, likely, expense) of getting MFi certification for the L1. Also irksome is that RHA does not include or sell an adapter for its balanced analog output and we weren’t able to find one for sale anywhere. RHA apparently included this jack for use with its own CL1 IEMs; though we were able to build our own adapter for this review, most users may end up not getting any use out of the L1’s balanced output.
Put simply, the L1 is a pleasure to use. It worked flawlessly with the iPhone, optical input, and both our Mac and Windows 10 PC without drivers. The L1 can also be used as a battery to recharge a mobile device, though not while music is playing. The L1’s smooth and linear 192-step volume control can be either augmented or reigned in by the three-step gain control, depending on the headphones being used. With a peak output of 300 mW into 16 ohms, we found the L1 to be competent at driving many of the full-size headphones in our collection, except for our 300-ohm Sennheiser HD800 and Audeze LCD3, both of which are just too power-hungry for this device. We tested the L1 with a variety of headphones on its different gain settings, and got around the 10 hours of battery life advertised by RHA.
Prospective buyers should note that the L1 has a relatively high output impedance — 2.2 ohm single-ended, 4.4 ohm balanced — which means that it’s not ideal for some very low-impedance IEMs. As expected, when we tried the extremely-sensitive Noble Sage with the L1, we found that even on low gain, volume ramped up way too fast for the Sage. The audiophile rule of thumb is that your headphone’s impedance should be at least eight times the output impedance of your amplifier — this would mean that 16-ohm headphones, which are very common, are not ideal for use with the L1. We wouldn’t call this a negative, but it may limit the usefulness of the L1 for some users; whether the L1 is for you depends on the headphones you intend to use with it. It’s worth noting, however, that if you have headphones with an impedance of 16 ohms or less, you may not need an amplifier at all.
The Dacamp L1 sounds excellent. Its ESS Sabre DAC can handle a wide range of high-resolution formats, and its fully-balanced Class AB amplifier was transparent to our ears. The L1’s tone controls allow the user to add salt and pepper to taste: they allow for adjustment of bass and treble from +9db to -3dB each. We usually shy away from equalizers, preferring instead to listen to each headphone or speaker’s tuning as the manufacturer intended. However, we found ourselves very much enjoying the L1’s bass and treble controls, tweaking the sound in small bits from track to track. For example, we sometimes find our MrSpeakers Ether C (to be featured in an upcoming review) a bit harsh-sounding; the L1 was not only able to drive them on high gain, but also let us calm the treble and boost the bass slightly for a smoother sound. We didn’t notice a major difference in sound from the balanced output, but we will reserve judgment on that jack until we hear it with the headphones that RHA built it for.
It’s worth considering the L1 in comparison to some other portable DAC/amps on the market. The Dragonfly Black we tested a few months ago sounds good and is far smaller, but is not MFi-certified (we had to buy the $40 USB3 Camera Connection Kit to use it with iOS) and is limited in power. In our upcoming review of the Oppo HA-2SE, we’ll see that it can charge an iPhone while playing music, has a more IEM-friendly 0.5ohm output impedance, and is much more pocket-friendly at about half the thickness of the L1. However, it has fewer inputs, a 25% smaller battery, and can’t drive demanding headphones as well as the L1. Ultimately, we think this is not a zero-sum game; each has its own its strengths, weaknesses, and unique features depending on intended use.
Portable DAC/amps are a great way to make great sound portable and augment the abilities of a mobile device. The RHA Dacamp L1 is not the most portable device on the market but, in most cases, increasing power and battery life requires an increase in size. Some headphones require that extra power to achieve their full potential, and the L1 delivers. L1 might be best suited for those with a little extra room in their bag, but its power, versatility, and build quality make it a device that we think every audiophile should be aware of. We enjoyed our time with the Dacamp L1, and give it our strong recommendation.
Company and Price
Model: Dacamp L1