The Dongle DAC category has rather quickly reached the tipping point in 2022 with a seemingly endless list of new product introductions. Our coverage of Dongle DACs has introduced readers to over 30 new models this year alone and we are starting to wonder if consumers have become confused with so many options.
Astell&Kern’s award-winning DAPs continue to earn top marks for us, but we have been waiting to see if they would offer a higher quality Dongle DAC to match their growing list of earphones and DAPs. The rather stylish Astell&Kern HC3 has been unveiled and we’re not surprised by the $199 USD asking price based on the new DAC and features.
The HC3 is the third model in their best-selling HC series and this definitely feels like a replacement for the A&K PEE51. The latest iteration features a USB Type-C cable while using a similar housing to the A&K HC1; something that we feel is a huge improvement over the existing HC2 that has never really lived up to A&K’s level of industrial design which is the hallmark of its DAPs and earphones.
The Astell&Kern HC3 features an aluminum housing with the sleek raised elongated pyramid on the top surface; a design choice that matches the look of the Korean manufacturer’s UW100 IEMs, Zero1 IEMs, and Ultima series DAPs.
There was some consternation in the Head-Fi community over the HC2’s price increase because both the HC1 and HC2 utilize the same internal chipset; the $60 increase when going from a 3.5mm (HC1) to 4.4mm (HC2) headphone jack with very few other changes rubbed a lot of consumers the wrong way.
Up to this point, all of Astell&Kern’s Dongle DACs have utilized a pair of Cirrus Logic 43198 DACs; and while the 43198 remains rather competitive from a sound quality perspective, it does not match today’s newer chips when it comes to power management and requires several ancillary chips and components because it is not a SoC design.
So what’s new or unique about the Astell&Kern HC3 for $199 USD?
A&K has gone back to the 3.5mm headphone jack but broken new ground with a pair of ESS 9219MQ chips; these are SoCs with a quad-DAC, headphone amplifier, MQA decoder, volume control, and output switching built into a single device.
This new board was designed with a focus on power conservation; we will let you know if that is the case when we receive our review sample.
ESS has been working on the 9218 and 9218 chip models with the 9219MQ being the flagship of the current product lineup.
The ES9219MQ supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256, and full MQA rendering; an LED at the rear of the housing near the cable connection displays the file source using “white” for standby, “red” for PCM and “blue” for DSD.
Astell&Kern claims that the HC3 supports MQA but there does not appear to be an LED color to let users know when that is the case.
Another interesting feature of the HC3 is what A&K calls a “rear output design” but don’t go looking for jack at the back-end of the housing; this is about the signal path and reducing noise and improving clarity.
A&K’s documentation says the sound is superior to most other designs with a signal to noise ration of 118 dB and a THD+N of 0.0005% (both measured at 1kHz). The HC3 lists an output voltage of 2Vrms with a listed output impedance of 2 ohms.
If you plan on using the Astell&Kern HC3 with headphones that offer a microphone, there is a mic pass-through feature that will allow you to improve the sound quality of your gaming or video conference experience. Using a 4 pole connector will engage the microphone support.
The Astell&Kern HC3 ships with an adapter for use with iOS devices and is available at A&K retailers now for $199 USD.
Look for a review in January 2023.
For more information: www.astellnkern.com