As an authorized RHA dealer I was very excited when I heard that they were coming out with a portable Dac Amp a few years back, and they did not disappoint. This particular unit was my personal amp. While it is a spectacular piece, I just did not really get a chance to use it as much as I would have liked. I drive into work and I don't get to travel much. The Dacamp comes in the original box with all the accessories. Missing is the outer sleeve of the original packaging and the owners manual. The build quality is top notch on this ambitious effort that RHA made on the development of this piece. See the extensive review below
The Dacamp L1 was released at the same time as the CL1 and CL750 and represents part of the second generation of audiophile products launched by RHA towards the end of 2017/start of 2017.
It is the first DAC/amp also from RHA and to celebrate they called it just that, the Dacamp. Not exactly a title that could lead to any sort of confusion as to what the L1 might be.
Priced at $549.95 it is also firmly encamped in the mid-fi bracket and nipping at the fiscal toes of the Chord Mojo and well above the pricing point of lower mid-tier products such as the Oppo HA-2SE and the Peachtree Shift.
Given the popularity of the Mojo the L1 is up against some stiff competition, however, if you happen to have the CL1 then the L1’s unique output jacks may well make it the perfect pairing in terms of amplification.
What Is The Pitch?
The second-gen RHA products have been very ambitious and also topical in terms of who will like them and who will not. The Dacamp L1 could arguably be their most ambitious project to date simply because there has never been an amp or DAC legacy in RHA before, it has been all IEMs.
This is virgin territory for them in many ways but in the context of the two co-launched IEMs, the CL750, and CL1, the L1 is actually an integral part of a wider product solution and not just something thrown out to ‘see what happens’. The pitch here is that the L1 is tuned to be the best possible match with both the CL750 and CL1. Of course, subjective preferences in tonal matching means this is a topic of debate, otherwise, this review would be pointless.
Outside of the CL1 and CL750 pairings, the L1 will also appeal to audiophile smartphone users looking for a powerful DAC and amp that is OTG and iOS compliant as well as those desktop users who want a DAC out solution for their laptop and IEM or headphone pairing. The use of dual ES9018K2M should give the L1 plenty of processing capability for pretty much any codec you throw at it right up to DSD256.
The L1 is perhaps one of the sturdiest looking portable DAC/Amps I have tested to date. It’s built like a tank and ironically looks a bit like one also with a caterpillar track type aesthetic to its gain and EQ “wheels” on one side.
The form factor is semi-slim and rectangular in dimension making it a good stacking partner for most DAPs and smartphones. At 118 x 73 x 20mm it is roughly double the height of the Oppo HA-2SE but around 20mm shorter. If you are using a Mojo for stacking purposes then the L1 will be quite familiar in height at only 2mm less than the Mojo. Compared to the Mojo the balance of the L1 for stacking is superior though neither have that slim aesthetic the HA-2SE has for smartphone stacking.
The L1 is machined from an aluminum extrusion process so you only actually have one folded metal case that extends from one side right around to the other side. The rest of the panels are made from a stiffened silicone or rubber type material. The all-metal outer also doubles as an electromagnetic shield, protecting against signal interference when stacking with devices such as smartphones. The curved metal chassis also produces a soft rounded left side for easy grip and holding with gain and EQ dials all housed on the right side.
What impresses me about the L1 build is how every switch and dial is well protected from everyday bumps and knocks. The volume dial at the front is inset yet accessible. The gain and EQ dials on the right side are protected by a long metal plate and the switch at the back is a low-profile design with smooth edges making it hard to get caught accidentally. The L1 could take a proverbial beating and still power up intact.
The L1 packs a fairly meaty 4000mAh lithium-ion battery which on paper will provide up to 10 hours battery life whether in balanced or unbalanced mode. RHA does not distinguish between DAC and pure amp usage (line-level input) but the numbers do differ slightly between both in real-world terms with the amp and DAC full-on experience dropping the playtime a bit more than ‘amp-only’ usage which is to be expected.
Like quite a lot of modern DAC/amps, these days the L1 doubles up as a power bank function so you can use the hefty battery to charge your mobile devices via the USB connection. RHA has provided a specific dial option below its low gain setting to activate the power bank option with your device of choice. Note you cannot use the L1 for audio whilst in power bank mode.
Inputs & Outputs
All I/O’s of the L1 are houses at the front and back with some adjustable dials on the right panel. On the front, you have a single-ended gold plated 3.5mm socket to the left of the inset volume wheel and to the right you have a gold plated mini-XLR female balanced socket.
The mini-XLR balanced is an unusual offering, eschewing the near-universal adoption of a TRRS 2.5mm balanced input for a ‘nailed-on’ pairing with the CL1 IEM and its balanced cable which is terminated with a mini-XLR also.
It looks cool but it is almost proprietary given mini-XLR terminated cables are few and far between. That being said it does ram home the initial pitch that the L1 is optimized for the CL1. There is simply no other DAP or portable amp/DAC out there at the moment that has this type of connection.
The inset non-stepped attenuator (volume control) doubles up as the power on/off and is resistance based. It has a fairly aggressive voltage control with the markers going up to just 5 from zero but there is a little bit of distance between each marker so it is not hard to mark out which points work with what IEM or headphone.
Gain & EQ Dials
The L1 has 3 heavy-duty dials on the right side behind a protective metal bar. These are fairly sturdy and grippy hard plastic dials with solid resistance based movement in either direction. Each dial has a specific function; gain control is the furthest from the top followed by two hardware EQ tweaking treble and bass dials.
The L1 has 3 gain settings and a charge setting just below the lowest gain setting for power bank control. Gain levels are labeled low, medium and high. The base gain db setting increases by an additional 1.8x and 2.5x on medium and high gain compared to low gain.
The treble and bass controls will boost either by around a 12dB swing from -3db to 9db with “-” representing zero or no bass or treble boosting added.
To the rear you have two 3.5mm jack ports; one for an analog line out, when the L1 is being used as a USB DAC and the second, is a line in for receiving a source analog signal say from a DAP or another DAC. The Line-in 3.5mm jack port also doubles as a digital SPDIF connection and can receive an optical mini-TOSLINK jack from another source/DAC.
iOS and Android
iOS and Android USB ports are housed in-between both of the 3.5mm jacks with a full USB A host for iOS devices and a micro-USB for Android OTG as well as doubling up for charging and power bank duties. Directly underneath you have a small 3-point switch control that allows the user to determine which port or jack is active, be it Android/charging, iOS or analog in and out.
The L1 uses a dual ESS SABRE32 ES9018K2M DAC chip configuration which should, if running in differential mode with one DAC per channel, cut down on the potential for noise and offer a bit more in terms of headroom.
The ES9018K2M is the mobile version of the ES9018S so you get most of the benefits of the full desktop chip such as great decoding capability up to DSD256 and PCM 32BIT/384kHz but with much less power consumption making it ideal for portable DAC configurations.
Pros & Cons
It is, however, an oldish chip in 2017 with the ES9028C2M just launched late last year superseding the ES9018 and it’s many variants. The cost benefits of using the ES901K2M are still quite good though in my opinion given its excellent decoding capability.
My only concern is the level of engineering required for the ES9018 in terms of filtering and fine-tuning and the sometimes harsh sound quality a poorly engineered ES9018 implementation can produce. The usual tonal profile of Sabre chips errs more to the analytical, neutral or bright side. It is a detail freak and will satisfy those looking for excellent precision and control but for the mass market, it can be less forgiving to work with on lossy material.
RHA are hesitant to release the technical specifications of their amping inside the L1 other than to say its running dual Class A/B in a fully balanced circuit configuration. What we do know from the performance specs is that it is fairly low noise and distortion-free amplification component with decent but not huge power specs, at least on paper.
The L1 will give you 300mW into 16 ohms and 28mW into 300 ohms. It should be able to handle the most efficient and slightly harder to drive headphones, at least in terms of voltage. The balanced output should also be pitch-perfect for the 150-ohm 89dB rating of the CL1 and if you happen to re-terminate the CL750 with a mini-XLR it should benefit from similar levels of performance in balanced mode.
I would like to have seen slightly higher SNR numbers in the amp’s performance and also a lower output impedance rating than 2.2 ohms. For efficient IEMs something less than 1 ohm would have been ideal. The SNR of 111dB is not too bad but compared to slightly cheaper amps such as the FiiO A5 which sits at 115dB and the iBasso PB3 at 120dB it falls a little short. The Mojo sits much closer in the price range and has a rated spec of 125dB.
On the flip side, the THD+N numbers are good at >0.0018% which is on par with the similarly priced iBasso P5 Falcon, a mid-fi portable amp I really admire. It does not say on the spec sheet though if this rating was acquired under load but I suspect it was at 32 ohms or thereabout.
Accessories & Packaging
A great deal of thought has gone into the second-gen product launch and one of them is the harmonization of RHA’s packaging for the CL750, CL1, and the L1. Side by side you can automatically tell they are all from the same company.
Inside you have similar levels of presentation as the two IEMs with a nice color booklet, manual and warranty in a specifically designed enclosure on the top lid, and the rest of the accessories tucked away underneath the cushioned L1 layer. The accessories themselves come in similarly styled packaging cardboard as the IEMs. Personally, I am not a huge unboxing fan but this latest line of RHA product unboxings has been very interesting and impressive, to say the least.
The accessory lineup is fairly extensive and good value. Inside you will receive the following:
- 1 x Manual and warranty card
- 2 x Rubber stacking bands
- Cleaning cloth
- USB A to micro-USB cable
- USB micro-USB to micro-USB cable
Perhaps the only thing missing is some sort of lightning cable to function automatically with iOS devices and a carry case. For that, you will have to acquire them yourself. I would recommend some blister pads for the bottom of the amp to protect from scratches. You can also use the rubber bands to the same effect. Everything else is good to go for stacking, OTG, charging and power bank features.
Tonality & Presentation
Tonally the Dacamp L1 is relatively neutral, quick, and precise in its presentation. The ES9018K2M DAC chip really shines through with excellent detail right across the range but what pleases me the most is the way this has been engineered with the amp stage of the L1. It never comes across as sterile or thin sounding and more importantly, it shows no harsh or brittle treble traits. The top-end extension and articulation is there but nothing overly forced. This is a nicely tuned SS amp for treble.
Bass on the L1 is more linear than boosted but it remains impactful with a slight hint of warmth and an ever so slightly slower decay. It extends fairly well but it is more tactile and well defined in its response than omnipresent throughout. I tend to find these presentations to be more natural sounding and accurate than bass-heavy or darker amps such as Kojo Km-01 brass amp or the budget FiiO A5.
Spacious & Clean
It is also a very spacious sounding amp with excellent width and good depth to its soundstage. There is the slightest bit of roll-off at both ends but nothing terribly noticeable. Imaging and instrumental separation are accurate and with a clean attack and good body. The noise control is excellent also with a black background which really benefits more sensitive headgear and makes it an ideal amp for large-scale orchestral works or ambient genres.
Of course, you have options to tweak the sound using the L1’s treble and bass options. How much or how little you want to use them will ultimately depend on your tonal preference, the source and head gear you are using. Generally speaking about +2 or negative 2 on other dials was enough before it sounded too brittle in its treble or overly bloated on the low end.
For instance, using the USB-DAC and its WASAPI drivers with the CL1 I found little need for the treble and bass tweaks. Dipping the treble dial to say -1 or -2 took a little something away from the vocal presence. It simply did not sound as open when the dial is set to zero. Anything about +2 though is too sharp and peaky and leaves the CL1 relatively unbalanced.
Dialing down to about -2 on the bass took a little bit of body out of the CL1’s warm and boosted bass response so for those who like a flatter response this could be an ideal presentation. I would hesitate though going over +2 on the bass dial as it tended to get a bit overpowering and overly warm.
Similarly, on headphones such as the AKG K872 and K501 as well as the HD700 I only had to make minor adjustments using the bass and treble dials to get a good balance or counteract the weaknesses of the pairings for better synergy. Beyond +/- 2 or 3 and things started to sound very uneven.
You can only really use balanced with the CL1 out of the box unless you start getting into DIY projects with cables on other IEMs. However, it is a great pairing, the best of all the matches with the CL1 and a step up from the unbalanced output of the Dacamp L1.
I really get a feeling that the CL1 is getting some decent power and running at optimal levels. This means a smoother attack, a shorter decay and a more natural lower treble performance than the unbalanced output. With the right track playlist, I could actually listen to this pairing all night. Line up some Cocteau Twins, Straits, Pink Floyd, and Fiona Joy and I am right at home.
It’s still an elevated and forward IEM so do not expect syrupy good times with the L1 but it does feel more coherent without the additional hardware EQ required and generally lends itself a bit more to a wider selection of genres.
The L1 can receive either a line-level input or a digital input directly from a smartphone or USB DAC output from a PC. If you want the most efficient and best way to control noise and have a smooth volume control with plenty of wiggle room for efficient IEMs then I recommend going via the digital route and using the L1’s own decoding prowess over the analog amp-only setup.
With the digital control on OTG, for instance, you can set the volume on both the phone and the L1 amp giving you plenty of micro-control over the L1 voltage levels. Using RHA’s own CL1 in combination with the ZTE Axon 7, for instance, allowed me complete control of steps 1 to 5 in low gain by simply adjusting the output level via USB on my smartphone.
With super-efficient IEM’s such as the CA Andromeda, I can drop the USB digital control on my smartphone right down to negligible levels freeing up steps 1-3 on the RHA pot which is decent enough levels of volume control for such a sensitive IEM.
The L1 is supremely confident operating as a USB-DAC out from a laptop or PC. Technically software such as Foobar can be used as a pre-amp to the L1 so you can really fine-tune the L1 volume for whatever headphone or IEM you are using. You will, of course, need to download drivers for Windows to recognize the L1 but it is a straight forward process. For MAC users it is plug and play.
Unfortunately, the L1 is not as flexible with IEMs in terms of voltage control using a fixed line-level output from DAPs and other devices. The L1 low gain base db setting is a bit too high to get any series wiggle room on the attenuator before 1-2 steps. For example, if you stay one-stop below 2 on the pot with the 12.8-ohm Campfire Audio Andromeda it sounds great, but move it one notch to 2 the voltage level overpowers the Andromeda and similar IEMs such as the 8-ohm SE846 and CA’s 14-ohm Orion.
For dynamic IEMs the results were largely similar. The relatively inefficient budget M4 by Advanced which is a 16 ohm 92dB driver I could not actually get any audible signal until 1 step below 2 then suddenly it is too loud at the next step. Even for power-friendly IEMs such as CA’s dynamic driver 17.5 ohm Vega, the gain jump at around level 2 is too steep for micro-control.
RHA CL1 & CL750
With RHA’s own IEMs, the CL750 and CL1 the scenario is different and much more manageable. With the CL1, which is 150 ohm and 89dB I am hitting optimal voltage levels around one stop below 3. Also, the volume curve from 2-3 is smoother and not as abrupt as with other IEMs tested so you will not get a short sharp shock if you go a little higher than intended. Definitely, the L1’s IEM performance on a line-level input is better optimized for RHA’s own IEM’s in terms of power handling and efficiency.
Analog fixed line-level input is, however, excellent for a wide range of headphone pairings. The L1 has no problems driving efficient planars headphones such as the Hifiman Edition X V2 and the Oppo PM series. Both of these sit almost at the same volume level as the CL1 which is somewhere between 2 and the final step before 3 on the L1 pot. Tonally the Edition V2 pairing is vivid, musical and energetic and one of my favorite out of all the headphones tested.
Higher rated or less efficient dynamic headphones such as the AKG K872, HD700, and my old K501 also drove easily out of the L1 though tonally the HD700 pairing didn’t excite me as much as the Edition X V2 with an edgier top end that strayed into sibilance and peakiness a little too much with the L1. I found toning down the treble via the EQ dial to around -2 on the HD700 to produce a much smoother pairing.
The AKG K501 was a little thin also for my liking but it does like a lot of power over gain to really get the low end moving so that is not surprising. For the K501 I preferred treble at -3 and bass at +2 on the EQ dials. With this setting, I got a bit more body and mid-bass impact and a smoother treble response.
The K872 was excellent with the L1 with bass set at +2 and treble at -1. The K872 for me has a natural-sounding presentation for a closed headphone with excellent detail and it is fairly easy to drive. You do not get a huge amount of control at line level with the K872 given its sensitivity rating but its noise-free, impactful and energetic with the L1 pairing. Volume control is even better if you pair using OTG and tone down the volume on the source side.
The L1 is an excellent performer for noise using both the analog line-level input and the digital inputs for IEMs and headphones. With zero background hiss on all IEMs tested it is perhaps one of the best in the market today at this price point outside of the Mojo.
Even the notoriously noise aware Andromeda projected a perfectly black background with what volume I could use safely. Normally Campfire Audio’s all-BA designs show up noise right away, even on DAP’s but not in the case of the L1.
The Dacamp L1 is an impressive first effort from RHA. Tonally it hits all the right notes and for an ESS chip, it is very well-tuned delivering an impactful yet linear and clean presentation that makes it flexible to pair with most IEMs and headphones. Most impressively noise control is top-notch with next to no background hiss on anything tested from the most efficient IEM to regular headphones. It is also built like a tank, doubles up as a useful power bank for portable devices and has plenty of connectivity options for modern lifestyles.
There are some caveats though with the L1. Voltage control is too aggressive for efficient IEMs and headphones with fixed-line levels leaving little room for volume control for efficient headgear. You cannot use the balanced output either when using its line-in which is a shame as it rules out using the CL1 in balanced mode with regular line-level analog inputs. OTG and USB-DAC connectivity will give you more control on the source side and it does seem this is where the L1 is at its most confident.
The L1 is optimized for the CL1, this is very clear in terms of tonality, voltage control and the purposed use of the mini-XLR socket for balanced connections. Much like the CL1 in terms of appeal, the L1 is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but pair them together and they do sound very good indeed.
Dacamp L1 Technical Specifications
|Output power (16Ω)||300mW|
|Output power (300Ω)||28mW|
|Output impedance||2.2 ohms|
|PCM sampling frequencies||44.1 – 384kHz, 16 / 24 / 32-bit|
|DSD sampling frequencies||2.8224MHz (DSD64),
|Input connections||3.5mm line-in, USB A, USB micro-B, mini-TOSLINK Optical|
|Output connections||3.5mm line out, 3.5mm headphone out, 4-pin Mini XLR (balanced)|