Review Work (Headphone Amplifier)

Stoner Acoustics UD130 : Budget With Perfection

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I didn’t flown a bit when Stoner Acoustics offered me to review their new product, the now much improved and upgraded entry level super capable DAC + headphone amplifier in a box (super long monicker), the UD130, has caught my attention since the announcement, but I didn’t request a review unit until they emailed me, as my daily schedule is insanely packed recently and felt guilty when there is still few items that I have not published the review, but when the opportunity strike it is silly for me if I didn’t take it, in short, finally we are able to hands on and give a listen to the small mighty, UD130.

UD125 or in fact, all of the Stoner Acoustics products since the now ancient UD100, are all quite competitive, they often strike a superb level of price to performance ratio, especially on the UD series, of course the competition is quite intense nowadays and competitors never just sit still, I usually found the Stoner Acoustics products generally lacking a bit in term of the feature, but they reward back you with honestly, a true Hi-Fi level of sound quality, if you judged them by ears, they will not fail you. The UD125 have received much used even after I done the review, and you can see me always make them my reference unit for my review, I have even know some friends that love the Stoner Acoustics products with every beat of their heart, this keep me wonder what Stoner Acoustics can improve upon the already very good UD125, for 80USD? Bear with me in this review.

 

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Audio Quality

If talking about sound quality, UD130 won’t scare a bit. The UD120 is already quite good, for the price there is nothing much we can complain, the sound is ‘correct’ from Hi-Fi perspective, but in my honest opinion, the UD130 push it to another level, the UD130 is at least, to my opinion, a level higher than what UD120 had incredibly achieved.

First of all, I will start with the one thing I like the best on the UD130, it is the TONALITY that differentiate UD130 from some others entry level DAC/Amp. The tonality, if let me describe, I will say it is really Hi-Fi-ish, the tonality is really gentle and no harsh, it is not a mellow tone, but everything that came out from it just sounded rounded in a really good way. It didn’t sacrifice any details as well, listen to some Tidal Master album and the detail and information laid in the music are revealed unforcefully, the tonality just seems correct, transparency is really good in the price range although still not spectacular in any mean, threw in some nice Classical album, such as Tidal Master Schumann: G Minor Sonata by Mitsuko Uchida, is nice and this is the tone that you can listen all night long without fatigue. If you think the UD130 might lack on speed and timing precision, it didn’t, played some fast paced music track, like the Bon Jovi, it showed good pace and the speed is quite speedy, sound is fast and has good energy too.

It is really wonderful when I found out that we can actually get Hi-Fi grade of sound quality easily nowadays, at least for the money, when paired the Venture Electronic Monk Lite (which I bought for 13 USD posted, I believe you can find cheaper outside), the sound quality is simply satisfying, you get a airy sound, excellent imaging, good soundstage and superb tone at such an affordable price. Even when you played something like Twin Dangers by Twin Dangers, the ambient of the music is well potrayed (Some low end authority will ensure a better balance however, but this is mostly due to Monk Lite don’t have much mid and sub bass power), the seducing vocal of the lead is really nice too, with good detail and the sound is quite liquid in my opinion, not an easy thing you can get at this price range, the entire midrange, not only vocal is very well presented, while everything still stay very truthful. If talking about entry level audiophile setup, you can’t go far from this, the combination is really good.

The bass section mostly stay truthful to the spectrum, if you are aftering some really bassy sound, you shouldn’t consider the UD130, of course if you paired something very bassy with the UD130 you will still get the bassy sound, but in my opinion if you really want those super boosted bass, you should really look else where, this little mighty only will gain your real attention when you appreciate audiophile kind of sound quality, which myself found really liking. I played Album Seduction by Boney James, the bass has good body and depth, but I will appreciate more if the impact and detail is better, nothing too complain though if you consider the price point, the bass is still entertaining and stay truthful so I have 0 complain here, it is just not standing out amazing as the midrange production. The low end production still has enough detail and nuance to reproduce Cello and Piano sound by Yo-yoma cello sonata.

I love the treble quality here, it never getting disturbing sharp or anything that is harsh, the treble just stay airy and have enough detail, the treble also really quite sweet in my opinion, nice sound tuning definitely has been done here, the refinement of sound quality is really getting over the UD120, playing album Quintetto Bislacco, the violin sound is simply amazing, the perception of space is well potrayed too, instrument separation deserve another appraisal here, not only you can easily how good the treble, mid and low here but also you can easily see how the UD130 able to potray some nuance and detail, also the soundstage/imaging here, amazingly at this price point and I dare to say if you really want Hi-Fi sound quality but don’t want to spend a fortune in audio equipment, this is one DAC/Amp that you should really pay attention at. The cello played with great authority and I like it. Sound quality is something that UD130 is really excel at.

 

 

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Design/Feature/Usability

If you have followed Stoner Acoustics extensively, you might notice that they usually have a different taste towards the volume knob selection, while we can understand that sometimes it is hard to have a physical knob for a digital volume controller (which is important for the sound quality), but consumers will never try to understand your difficulty, in daily use this is really a quirk to work by, LUCKILY this time Stoner Acoustics realize (and I believe they listen to customers and reviewers’ feedback on their products, which is always a good thing), they employ a physical turning volume knob on the UD130! Thanks God, I will personally upgrade to UD130 even sans the audio quality improvement, if you work on various headphones, it is always delightful for you to know what volume level are you currently on, which for me, this is the biggest improvement and eliminate all the worries I have when I switch to different headphone (For sudden music loudness), especially every time when I start to use the device, this improvement alone, at least for me, is the biggest usability difference separate it from the previous model. You thought that it is now just an analog/cheapo volume knob on board? NOP! Even though it is a physical turning knob from the outside for your ease, but from the inside, it is still the Digital volume controller which precisely provide you with 255 steps of volume control in 0.5dB, with Stoner Acoustics claimed a perfectly balanced left and Right output from 0% to 100 %, which I am certain they are right, I have wrote a long paragraph for the volume controller alone because it is really such an intuitive and thoughtful design/improvement from a dedicated audio company, for a 80USD DAC+Amp combo in a box device, Kudos!

Instead of just 24 Bit/96 kHz of the UD125, the UD130 now up the game to the industry level of high resolution playback, 32Bit/384kHz and DSD-256, it is always nice to have support, even if you didn’t have much of the real high resolution material on your computer (they are insanely big in size), but this is definitely a trend for current audiophile industry, this is a sensational upgrade over the UD125, I rarely listen to anything beyond 24 Bit/96kHz but knowing that UD130 is able to support the higher resolution of audio files, is indeed peace of mind.

Another thing that I like about the UD130 is it can be used with your Android smart phone, this is also another trend of the audiophiles world which is also great to have, I have not test this extensively just to be frank, I am not a ‘on-the’go’ guys and if I really want to nourish by music, I will go to my desktop solution, not that I didn’t try this smart phone audiophile solution, but having to play with the mobile phone with cables connected to the DAC/Amp (and often will lost connection occasionally, which really disturbing and cumbersome, or maybe it is just me), but I love how easily a desktop solution able to bring you high level of audio quality. Now, if you want you can use the UD130 with your smart phone, having such crap headphone output from most of the smart phone (of course something like LG Hifi smartphone and some other good SQ device are out of discussion here), it is always good for you to have nice audio quality on the go.

If you just want a simple setup without install driver, you can easily flick the rear toggle to UAC 1 (which work with old device and computer without needing to install driver, plug and play solution, up to 24 Bit/96kHz only), or to UAC 2, which a driver needed but higher resolution of DSD 256 files are supported. You can select high and low gain (Stoner Acoustics recommended low gain) for the output, and you can line out the DAC means just use UD130 purely as a DAC only.

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Area of improvement

It is actually already quite impressive for what Stoner Acoustics able to pack into the UD130, a balanced and neutral sound quality (with superb mid and treble, allowed me to say, sweet), nice usability and control and high resolution audio files format supported. Nothing much I can r eally complain to be honest.

However there is some area I wish that it can be improved or add on:

  • A bass boost, or different audio tonality, with a simple switch for you to choose, it is against the audiophiles practise, but if a soft bass boost is available upon your selection, is nice to have.
  • The volume knob while very good to use, lack some refinement especially on the minimum turn to maximum turn, not a problem at all but it is the tiny detail that will let you ask why?
  • Personally think the previous UD125 top panel looks nicer than the UD130, UD130 seems overly plain in term of the overall design, am I asking too much?
  • A coax in perhaps? For something like Chromecast Audio to work with? Or better if Stoner Acoustics able to market a DAC/Amp device that can do online music streaming, this is really asking too much

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Final thought

I really like Stoner Acoustics products, I really do, especially on the audio quality section, even better, Stoner Acoustics able to improve the already good audio quality, they often capable to up the game in this ever challenging market. The market is already so crowded that lead me to believe it is quite difficult for the vast consumers to notice Stoner Acoustics’ products, not that the UD130 is unable to compete, dare I say it is really difficult to surpass UD130 in term of audio quality, but the consumers are just quite picky to choose maybe a nicer superficiality product, needless to mention Stoner Acoustics product is sometimes sadly flew under both reviewers and potential customers’ radar, while I don’t know what is the exact sales figure of their products, but in my honest opinion, they are up there to compete with the top dog in the same price bracket if not surpassing them, just that they don’t have the shiny brand name.

Enough for the marketing insight, from product point of view, UD130 is a very successful product and provide a lot of bang for your bucks, the truly Hi-Fi level of sound quality will let you enjoy every bit of your music, the nuance and seeing how naturally and coherent the UD130 managed to manifest in audio quality, if you really wish to listen to a true Hi-Fi audio quality (not the usual bluff bass just to impressed at the first listen), I assure you will grow interest on the enjoyment of true Hi-Fi sound quality, and you will appreciate it more from day to day use, because an inflated sound tuning might seems appealing at the first few listen, but only real Hi-Fi tuning kind of sound proven in a long run, you will appreciate how good music should sound like, and enjoy the passage of music and notice the detail out from them naturally, these all, in my honest opinion, is what the UD130 capable to offer, in a 80USD only, little box of DAC + Amp combo. If you love the music, you will love the UD130, in my opinion.

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