Until recently Denon's catalog centered on devices almost exclusively dedicated to usage in stereo and home cinema systems - amplifiers, players, streamers and micro-systems. The offering was supplemented with accessories and a wide range of headphones, very interesting headphones, we have to say. However the increasing trend pushing many sectors towards mobile devices caused also a change in the catalogue of this Japanese company, causing an avalanche of propositions with different purpose. So last year we saw a few novelties, like the CEOL series of systems, the Envaya speaker looking like a lady's purse, the elegantly sleek soundbar DHT-T110 or the HEOS wireless speakers. But Denon seems not to be stopping there, as they recently presented their first DAC/headphone amplifier. This device is not only small, but also looks splendidly placed on a desktop.
The DA-10 can also work on the move, as it has a built-in battery, and this will for sure be of interest to all cell-phone owners, who like to listen to music also outside of their homes. The price of the DA-10 is on the level of a decent digital-to-analog converter, but we do also get a headphone amplifier inside the chassis, so we need to assess the Japanese novelty for both functions. Let's see if in this case functionality is accompanied by good sound.
Design and functionality
The Denon headphone amplifier came to our office in a small box. After unpacking we saw a centrally placed device, and below it a set of accessories - a disc with the manual, cables and a very nice pouch, which allows us to safely take our Denon on a trip, and put a phone in there too. Talking about cables - the device comes with four - two USB cables to connect to Apple (one with Lightning, the other with the older type plug), one micro-USB and a typical analog cable with 3.5mm mini-jack plugs on both ends. The only thing missing is a wall-wart charger, but everyone can load the battery plugging it into a computer.
When you take the DA-10 in your hand, you will immediately notice the high manufacturing quality. The chassis is made from high quality plastic and brushed aluminum. On the silver panels there are a few dots of soft rubber. This allows to place the device on the desk without worrying about scratching the aluminum plates, or to put a phone on the back of it, which can be very handy for many people. After plugging-in the USB cable, Denon will start accumulating energy, allowing for a few hours of operation in the field. This is enabled by the built-in battery with 3200mAh capacity. According to the manufacturer, the DA-10 should work for up to 7 hours when connected to an Apple device and up to 24 hours with a device plugged-in via the analog input on the front.
Similar to other devices of this type, the Denon is equipped with a large amount of sockets and knobs. In the front there is a quite large volume knob, protected with plastic caps, that prevent it from turning when you have it in your pocket. The potentiometer is also the power switch - in the beginning of the scale there is a clear click. To the left we have a 3.5mm headphone socket, which can also be used in our home stereo, and two control lights. One of them signals power-on state, the other the battery charge level. When it is green, then the battery is fully charged, orange means it is half-empty and red indicates discharge. It is also worth mentioning, that using the USB type A socket of the unit we can charge devices attached to the DA-10. The USB-DAC socket, on the other hand, allows to connect it to the computer. The DAC can decode PCM files as well as DSD ones. To be able to use this feature, we need to download and install dedicated drivers and configure our set. On the back plate we have also an AUX socket destined for devices not being smartphones, compuers or anything that would have an USB port. To make the front panel cleaner, the buttons were placed on the side of the cabinet. We have here a button for input selection, enabling or disabling the charging functionality, mode selector for the analog output (regulated or fixed) and a gain selector, allowing to adjust the output power to our headphones. Ingenious, easy and nice.
Another nice thing is the casing with Velcro strips. On one side it has a pocket for our DAC, on the other the Velcro strip and a window for our phone. The iPhone 5 fits ideally, and the quite thick plastic window does not impair the handling of the phone. As a whole, this becomes quite hefty, but as a reward we get an audiophile sound from our files, or streamed music, so this may outweigh the issues. Today, the DA-10 may seem big, but please remember, that not so long ago we had our portable cassette player with us on the go, and a hexagonal, appropriately thick pencil. For sure you know, what this pencil was used for!
The DA-10 does not leave any doubts as to the fact, that regardless how it will be used, and what will be its sound source, we will always get at least good results. Already in the beginning, we noticed, that it fares well with headphones with different parameters. With the increase of impedance of the headsets, the sound became more expressive, stronger and deeper. What is really interesting, the biggest differences in sound were in the group of headphones dedicated to mobile devices, with an impedance between 32 and 64 Ohm. There were really big differences in terms of dynamics and the frequency range extremes. It might seem, that Denon would treat all those headphones the same way, but in reality, the DA-10 brilliantly showed all their characteristics, and will clearly show their strengths and weaknesses. Now as we used mostly good headphones in this test, we had a lot of fun already at this stage of playing around with the little brick.
When we started to use headset with higher impedance, the Denon really showed his potential. It was as if it completely forgot to show differences between the individual headphones, but concentrated on extracting all the best from their sound. It was difficult to believe, that such a small device can reproduce such power of the sound. The dynamics was brilliant, as was the control of the lowest frequencies. The DA-10 really can punch and deliver a nice workout to the membranes of the headphones. At the same time the bass was sufficiently colorful and differentiated. For sure it was not a monotone buzz, because even in very dense pieces, we could follow the bass line without special effort. We also liked the combination of a natural midrange and a quite soft treble. The vocals sounded very convincing, what in combination with a slightly tamed turn of those two subranges results in a very nice character of the sound, ideal for prolonged listening. On the other hand, the upmost frequencies are typical for the Denon school of sound - slight brightening with a certain pearly touch and nobleness of sound. However I do not think, that such small inequalities of the frequency range negatively impacted the overall neutrality of the sound. The DA-10 has its own character, but I would not say, it is far from the musical realism. Fortunately, its constructors kept enough common sense, to allow one thing negatively influence other.
During testing of budget DACs, two main objections are often quoted - dullness or cheap claptrap. In the first case we get a sound, that may seem correct, but does not touch us at all. In the second case, the music has a distinct character, but it is occupied by many negatives, like general roughness, unpleasant timbre or aggressive treble. In this price range, it is really hard to achieve a really nice and transparent sound without side effects, but I have the idea, that Denon managed to do that. The DA-10 sounds in a calm and confident way. We do not the impression, that this sound jigsaw would fall apart in a moment. The pleasant feeling of solidness of the sound comes probably from a combination of resolution and dynamics. Similar to stereo amplifiers, it is good to have some extra power at hand, so also here we can feel, that the DA-10 has some reserves, even in the most demanding moments. A good prognostic is also the fact, that our impressions were similar, when we paired the Denon with the iPhone and with a computer. This allows to think, that the DA-10 will not be very picky with regard to the sound source. And when we talk about headphones, you can experiment even with models commonly regarded as hi-end. Maybe only very demanding planar headphones could be too much of a challenge for this modest device, but with dynamic headphones, even those hard to drive, we got very good results.
Build quality and technical parameters
The Denon DA-10 is a headphone amplifier with a built-in DAC, or the other way round, whatever you like. The device is splendidly built, and the aluminum panels give it an elegant, or even luxury look. The way how the knobs and buttons work, gives an impression of dealing with a solid product, designed for years of trouble free usage. This was confirmed, when we tried to look inside the chassis. Unscrewing eight tiny bolts allowed only to remove one of the aluminum panels, under which there was another plastic panel protected with a foam tape. Removing further four bolts did not really change anything - the unit remained stiff and monolithic. Probably we could get inside by bending some plates or removing elements by force, but we did not want to risk damaging the device. Obviously the manufacturer does not foresee the DA-10 to break down, so we need to rely on available materials regarding the parameters and internal construction. The DAC is based on the PCM1795 from Burr-Brown (32 bit/192 kHz), what makes the unit handle PCM signals up to 24 bit/192 kHz and DSD 2.8 and 5.6 MHz. The designers used two clocks with a frequency of 22.6 and 24.6 MHz. Both are placed near the DAC chip and optimize the functioning of the device by different sampling frequencies. The USB section has an asynchronous input for best sound quality. The DA-10 is also equipped with proprietary Denon device named Advanced AL32 Processing. This system converts standard digital audio from 16 to 32 bits, improving lower registers and details in high frequencies. The headphone amplifier is supported by a Discrete Current Buffer. Talking about parameters, the manufacturer reveals only the frequency response (2 Hz - 50 kHz), SNR (108 dB), distortion (0.003%) and headphone output power. At 32 Ohms we get 40 mW per channel, and at 600 Ohms - 18 mW.
We made the listening tests using the following headphones - Beyerdynamic DT770 in the 32 Ohm version, DT990PRO in 250 Ohm version, Focal Spirit Classic, B&W P5 S2, AKG K701, Yamaha HPH-PRO500 and Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear. The first sound source was a laptop with the Foobar2000 and WiMP HiFi players, the second - iPhone 5S. To connect the sources to the Denon we used the cables supplied with the amplifier.
Regardless of the sound source, the Denon DA-10 made a very good impression on us. In our opinion, this pocket amplifier fares better with more difficult to drive headphones. Maybe not with those from the top shelf, but for sure with ones, that are regarded as audiophile, like AKG K701 or Focal Spirit Classic. The Denon offers a very interesting sound, very musical, involving and pleasant. This sound really resembles that, what is offered by big stereo systems, but is packed into a small, very functional and nicely designed device. The Japanese say, that good things must cost a lot. Of course this has its reasons, and is true in many cases, but the DA-10 seems to be an exception to the rule. For sure it is good, but its price should not scare anybody off.
DAC: 32 bit
Frequency response: 2 Hz - 50 kHz
SNR: 108 dB
Maximum output voltage: 2V
Battery capacity: 3200 mAh
Nominal output power: 2 x 40 mW/32 Ω, 2 x 18 mW/600 Ω