Saturday, 25 April 2020

MEASUREMENTS: Soditer "Fourth Generation" USB Type-C Headphone Adaptor (Realtek ALC4042).



These days, many recent smartphones no longer include analogue headphone jacks. Implicitly, the idea is to favor wireless Bluetooth headphones instead. As a result, if you want to hook up your wired headphones, one would need to buy a headphone adaptor which may come with your phone (for example, Apple at the beginning included their Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Adaptor and these days may include some Lightning EarPods).

Recently, I upgraded my phone to the Huawei P30 Pro which does not have headphone output, so I was in the market to get one of these for the phone's USB Type-C digital connector.

Many of these headphone out / DACs are inexpensive, and the adaptor I have here today - the Soditer USB Type-C Headphone Adaptor - ~US$25, is advertised as supporting hi-res playback (even up to 32/384), and is claimed to provide up to 35mW into 32Ω headphones. Let's have a look...

Opening the box, here are the contents:


There's a plastic-metal case, the adaptor itself is small, the form factor is that of a short cable approximately 5" in length from tip of the USB-C connector to the headphone plug. It should support standard microphone passthrough when connected to a TRRS headphone plug. The deep bluish metal ends and plastic cable construction feel quite good and should be reasonably robust in daily use.

And here's what it looks like connected to my phone (playing Pet Shop Boys' PopArt compilation), headphones are the 1MORE Quad Drivers.


Based on the Soditer ad, they say the DAC inside is the Realtek ALC4042 chip. I'm not able to find the datasheet on this part so I'm not sure what to expect qualitatively. All the more reason to check it out on the test bench!

What I can say is that subjectively, it sounded quite good out of the package with that set-up above connected to my phone and those 1MORE headphones. The sound was adequately loud, punchy, decent resolution. Certainly adequate for mobile listening using Android USB Audio Player PRO.

I. Oscilloscope Waveforms, Impulse Response, Digital Filter

Okay, let's start with the usual 1kHz 0dBFS sine wave and the 1kHz -3dBFS square wave (bandwidth limited) with a digital oscilloscope.


Looks good so far. 1Vrms output into the high impedance (1MΩ) oscilloscope. The channel balance is excellent. The square wave symmetry suggests we're looking at a linear phase filter.


Yes, indeed we are looking at a linear phase filter being employed. It looks like a reasonably steep filter. Let's see how the Digital Filter Composite (16/44.1) graphs look:


There's evidence of intersample overloading with the 0dBFS wideband noise. Notice the extra "hump" up at 26-27kHz which is unusual and suboptimal performance.

I found that the output impedance is rather high at 20Ω (derived off voltage drop measured across a 51Ω resistor, 1kHz signal). Based on the "1/8 Rule", frequency response may be siboptimal for headphones of <160Ω impedance.

Another finding is that paired with my Huawei P30 Pro, with a 30Ω load, I'm measuring only around 10mW peak output which is significantly less than the advertised 35mW into 32Ω. At peak volume into 30Ω, the waveform still looked clean at least without clipping. Not sure if peak output power would vary between different phones; might be worth checking.

II. RightMark Results

When I plug in the DAC to my cell phone, it identifies the device as "TX 384kb Hifi Type_C Audio" and Onkyo HF Audio Player tells me the supported frequencies are 44.1/48/96/192/384kHz. Sadly, no support for 88.2kHz which is a natural one for conversion from DSD64 to PCM. Over the years, I've come across other devices like this including the Google Chromecast Audio.

Since I typically don't care much about hi-res music on my mobile devices, let's make sure 16/44.1 performance is good:



Yup. Not bad at all. 16/44.1 performance is not a high bar to jump over these days of course. The noise level is good, relatively low harmonic and intermodulation distortions - notice how the AudioQuest Cobalt performs rather poorly compared to the others.

24/96 (downsampled to 24/48 on Android phone, and using Windows 10 laptop):
As we move into the realm of "hi-res" audio reproduction, I ran into a couple of major issues with measuring the Soditer DAC/adaptor.

Fist, I noticed that the latest update to my phone prevented both Onkyo HF Player and USB Audio Player from playing native sample rates beyond 48kHz! As a result, through the phone, at best I could get was a resampled signal. Here's what I got for the 24/96 test signal sampled down to 24/48:


Note that I've added the Oppo UDP-205 (RCA out) to the results for comparison with a high quality reference DAC, notice the low level 60Hz A/C mains hum.
While unable to show the frequency response >24kHz, the test at least gives us a peek at 24-bit playback ability suggesting that the Soditer DAC (Realtek ALC4042) can benefit to a small extent when fed with the extra bit depth. Obviously there's nothing much to get excited here about - the dynamic range improved by another 3dB and 6dB on the noise floor measurement.

Historically, I have noticed that measuring inexpensive DACs can be a bit of a pain with RightMark - I suspect they sometimes drop samples or have poor clock accuracy throwing off test signal time markers. If too much of the signal gets clipped off, the measurement ends up being invalid. Sadly, this issue cropped up when connecting this little DAC to my Windows 10 laptop (WASAPI driver) which was the second problem I ran into. Even though I can see that indeed it can handle 96kHz and can put out a signal with ultrasonic content >24kHz, the measurements just never looked right and I could not get good readings.

Nonetheless, I can show that the frequency response is reasonably flat at 24/96kHz using a white noise signal captured over 20 seconds. The -3dB point is around 45kHz. Increasing to 192kHz does extend the frequency response up to about -3dB at 88kHz. Not bad! (I didn't bother trying 384kHz.)


As for distortions, I can still examine the 24/96 THD+N the old fashioned way at a few frequencies - 500Hz, 1kHz, 10kHz, 20kHz using REW's realtime analyzer (24/96, -3dBFS test signal). THD sits around -90dB through the audible range. 1kHz THD+N is -86dB (0.005%) - not bad as well.


Notice that in the graphs above, I took out the usual 20kHz lowpass filter that results in increased noise for THD+N with the 10kHz and 20kHz measurement. THD remains low with these higher frequencies.

I had a look at 24/192 THD(+N) as well, and results were similar to the above.

III. Jitter


Clearly not the cleanest looking J-Test results. There's a combination of a couple obvious sideband pairs in the 16-bit test along with various low-level noise. Remember that since the device does not support any other samplerates in the 44.1kHz family, I suspect that internally, the data is being resampled to 48kHz which would add to the low-level anomalies we're seeing here. The 24-bit J-Test result (which is fed at 48kHz, and thus likely not resampled) is much cleaner.

Despite these findings, I still would not be worried about jitter being audible.

IV. Subjective

I spent a few nights listening to this little adaptor using various headphones I have here - the 1MORE Quad Driver (rated 32Ω impedance), AKG Q701 (discontinued but similar to the AKG K702, rated 62Ω impedance), and my reference Sennheiser HD800 (300Ω impedance).

While this little DAC/headphone out is not the best headphone experience I've had, music remains enjoyable :-)! While the output power into low impedance loads is lower than advertised in my testing, the Quad Driver (sensitivity 99dB/mW) was loud enough to be uncomfortable at maximum volume still. However, the low sensitivity of the AKG Q701 (around 93dB/mW) presented more of a challenge especially with a dynamic recording such as the Telarc O Magnum Mysterium (DR13) listened to over Easter weekend. The stereo separation is good and dynamics such as the percussion off Zhao Cong's Dance In The Moon sounded excellent. The Sennheiser HD800, while higher impedance, was able to play a little louder than the Q701 and sounded good. Of course, it's a bit ridiculous pairing such headphones with an inexpensive, low-power headphone amp such as this and one would not be walking around town with such headphones on!

Remember, while as "perfectionist" audiophiles we often enjoy listening to pristine, natural sounding, high dynamic range music in our homes with low ambient noise, when you're in a car or walking around with headphones on, low dynamic range, "louder" music is often preferred as it rises above the chatter and street noises. With low power, inexpensive, DAC/headphone output devices like this, a typical DR9 album such as Childish Gambino's Awaken, My Love! sounds great when out and about. This is likely another big part of the tendency towards low-DR mastering over the years (beyond just "loudness war", louder = better rationale) as more of us listen to music on-the-go.

V. Conclusion

As you can see, for around US$25, the Soditer "Fourth Gen" USB-C headphone adaptor works but clearly isn't the fantastic hi-res DAC based on ad hype. I trust that this is no surprise since specs are exaggerated all the time. One should not be expecting performance comparable to good quality hi-res DACs at this price point, right?!

Hi-res playback using Android phones like the Huawei P30 Pro can be frustrating and I've found that the capability fluctuates depending on firmware updates; for example, the current EMUI 10.0.0 phone update recently seems to have messed this up with USB Audio Player. Nonetheless, using Windows 10 connected to my laptop, I can demonstrate that this DAC is capable of extended ultrasonic frequency response and can benefit marginally from 24-bit data. Despite the resolution limitations and high output impedance, let's remember that we are in the era of wireless Bluetooth headphones and these results are objectively better than lossy compressed technology (for some context, remember the measured results from lowest common denominator Bluetooth protocol, SBC).

USB-C to headphone adaptors are cheap these days and you can easily get both Apple and Google-branded devices that perform well based on the tests here even if they might not advertise stuff like 24/96+ samplerates like this unit. Also back in 2018, I tested the Apple Lightning to 3.5mm adaptor which performed reasonably well for 16/48 playback.

Bottom line... The Soditer USB-C to headphone adaptor works well enough for listening around town as a replacement headphone output for USB-C smartphones. It's small, light, easy to tuck away on trips, and you probably won't lose it inside the carry pouch. The adaptor appears to be well built and should be sturdy enough for prolonged daily use. I don't have an easy way to measure the power draw but I anticipate it to be very low (it gets very mildly warm after prolonged use BTW). From the perspective of high fidelity sound, yeah, one could say that it can take advantage of hi-res files, but the benefits are certainly not by a large margin.

I see that there are other versions of this kind of Realtek ALC4042-based adaptor such as this HIDIZS and this KRIPT model; likely similar performance and potentially better prices if you shop around.

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One final footnote I want to add. A number of weeks back, I mentioned that sometimes one can form subjective impressions while doing objective testing. While objectively I can show you what this DAC can do, and it certainly doesn't sound bad subjectively, it was a bit unpleasant to measure ;-). This tends to happen with lower quality "commodity" DACs such as when measuring the output quality of motherboards (like this, or this). In general, over the years, I've found Realtek DAC/CODECs more difficult to characterise and subjectively "painful" when trying to capture the data due to various unexpected behaviours such as software glitches and difficulty getting clean measurements. In recent memory, I also felt that the AudioQuest Cobalt was a bit of a pain to measure.

Having said this, going forward, I think it's worth considering that it is in fact more interesting to measure and listen to these "cheap" DACs to see how well the "low end" advances over the years! Imagine if in 5 years we might see inexpensive devices like these performing at 20-bits resolution - now that would be fantastic advancement in high fidelity!

Generally we don't see devices like the Soditer reviewed or measured in the mainstream audiophile media as this is not where advertising dollars are derived. At this point in history, those flagship ESS ES90X8 and AKM AK4X9X DACs are already performing at levels of fidelity well beyond the limits of human perception. Other than new features added or a company messing up a design based on those DACs such that reviewers might want to steer consumers away, I suspect there's little new or interesting to be added by measuring yet another technically "perfect" converter!

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Final week of the "Is high Harmonic Distortion in music audible?" blind test ladies and gents. Get yer results in and let's consider whether even relatively high amounts added to the music signal can be identified blindly!

Remember, about a year ago, I was able to show that in a blind test, you (audiophiles of the Internet) were able to differentiate to a statistically significant degree that a computer motherboard output sounded poor compared to other audio devices playing back standard resolution audio. Can you show me this time that using well-recorded music, as a group of audiophiles/music lovers, you're able to show preference against (or even for) samples with high harmonic distortion added - amounts that would be considered very poor for modern DACs, streamers, and amplifiers?

Get involved, send me your impressions, and we'll see in a couple weeks or so. A big thank you to those who have already submitted results! :-)

Stay safe everyone... Hope you're enjoying the music.

8 comments:

  1. I find the dirt cheap apple usb-c adapter to be great value :-)

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  2. I think that in this digital age we have become spoiled as audio quality is so good now and will only get better. I remember in the early 1950's playing 78's for my sick father on an RCA flip top record player with a swell 8" duo cone speaker and the mahogany cabinet was better than the sound, but it was still a miracle to us. Now as good as it is I wonder if a better cable or power cord or filtered outlet is my next step.

    This $25 adaptor may be better than the cans some people use. I am listening to Qobuz and find the sound pretty remarkable for $15 a month (especially the high rex material) and I was so thrilled as a kid with a mono transistor radio listening to WLS out of Chicago thinking how cool it all was. AM radio cool? I guess it was back then. Those under 40 have no idea how far audio has come.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jim,
      You're right, it is amazing how far the technology has come. We are so blessed these days not just with playback but also audio capturing as consumers...

      Hi-res capable playback for consumers started around 2000 with the first generation SACD and DVD-A devices but still >$1000. I would say that by 2005, we saw this playback quality achieved for <$1000 with good devices. After 2010, with the rise of the Chinese "Chi-Fi" DACs, we easily achieved high quality for <$500 especially after asynchronous USB became widely available around 2012-2013. And these days, for ~$500 we can get reference quality balanced output DACs and with a simple adaptor like this, we can enter the hi-res arena for <$50 using our phones (although room to improve of course!). The "golden age" of "ultra high-fidelity" as we witness better-than-human-hearing technology ubiquitous for all!

      Notice also the improvement in size. From full-sized hi-res components in 2000 with the Sony SCD-1 and Panasonic DVD-A10 disk spinners to these miniature devices played off solid-state storage. Great stuff and undeniable progress.

      Likewise the improvement in ADC technology for consumers followed basically a few years behind the playback resolution. By around 2008 we had devices like my first hi-res capable USB ADC - the Creative E-MU 0404USB which was a real bargain for what it does - and since then things have just become even more reliable and even more accurate on the hardware side.

      Yeah, things have come a long way since AM radio was cool. However, having witness all that has transpired, I think it is unfortunate some of the changes in the recording quality over the years. I think it is rather tragic/humorous that the Loudness Wars became so common by 2000 just when hi-res playback became available!

      Also, these days, which is cooler among audiophiles - streaming lossless hi-res or vinyl??? :-)

      Stay safe, Jim!

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  3. Now that I am using Qobuz I did a test with a Bob James Double Vison file vs my LP copy played many times. The Qobuz stream at redbook sounded good to me, and I am eager to see what improvement the Ifi filter 3 adds with the new AQ A to B cable. MY main TT rig consists of a refurbished Dual 502 (I love the high torque AC motor), but the tone arm held that table back. So I pull the old arm off and all the linkage, put an in-line switch for the AC cord, and installed a Rega/Moth RB 202 arm on the table. The metal plinth was harder to deal with in getting the spindle to pivot distance right, but I measured 3 times and drilled once. lol I have a Shure M97HE cart and have used from an ART phono stage to a Monlithic Sound unit and the lp was slightly better. In defense of the Qobuz file, the distance it had to travel was much greater. I am especially impressed by the higher rez Qobuz files and for $15 a month I will never complain of their quality. A crazy bargain of musical enjoyment. More fun to come next week when the AQ and Ifi arrive.

    Since I play the piano (poorly lol) and compose, I often wonder if the likes of Beethoven and Mozart had access to my Yamaha P-515 $2K digital piano what more genius could they have brought? With midi notation software, they would play and out pops the score. That is crazy to even think about. Hard to complain these days, but we will find a way.

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  4. Since I re-read your post about the loudness wars, I was reminded of some free plug-ins I received with my lastest upgrade to Sony Sound Forge recording software. Some mastering plugins with presets are there and sound awful and I would never use them, but have heard similar on some recordings as I now "know that sound"...louder and it is not better.

    When I record I used only touch of compression on vocals and nowhere else. My master tracks are all 2496 or 24192 and then mixed, when needed to 16/44.1 . Live concerts I record I don't do any processing. I wonder at times if folks know what real music sound like? I go to concerts at Emory here in Atlanta often before covid-19 just to keep reminding myself what real, acoustic music sounds like. I constatly look at my FFT of my recordings to look for noises and strange EQ changes in the music. Real is my goal.

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