Astell&Kern USB-C Dual DAC Cable review: A plug-n-play audio upgrade

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More and more manufacturers are following Apple’s lead and dropping 3.5mm analog headphone jacks from their small electronic devices. Computer manufacturers, meanwhile, typically treat audio as an afterthought. Sure, you’ll find a headphone jack on your laptop or desktop machine, but the audio circuitry feeding it is invariably one of the cheapest components on that product’s bill of materials.

With its USB-C Dual DAC Cable, Astell&Kern aims to quench music lovers’ and gamers’ thirst for high-quality audio. But you don’t need to be an audiophile to appreciate high-quality audio, and you can get it from compatible devices without giving up an arm and a leg: A&K has priced this ultra-compact gadget at just $149.

Form meets function

The USB-C Dual DAC Cable reveals its Astell&Kern heritage at first glance, sporting company’s characteristically asymetric industrial design. While there’s nothing spectacular about the matte-gray metal used to fabricate its enclosure, there’s all kinds of good stuff inside it.

The wiring tethering the DAC to its USB-C interface is a custom-made, 4-core cable designed by Astell&Kern and reinforced with aramid fiber to withstand up to 200n of tensile force.

The cable used in the USB DAC is a custom-made, 4-core cable designed by Astell&Kern. The cable is r Theo Nicolakis / IDG

The cable used in the USB DAC is a custom-made, 4-core cable designed by Astell&Kern.

If your device doesn’t have a USB-C port, you’ll need to purchase a USB-C female to USB-A male adapter. The heart of A&K’s USB-C Dual DAC Cable is a pair of Cirrus Logic CS43198 MasterHiFi DACs. One is dedicated to processing the left audio channel, and the second is dedicated to the right channel. This provides design maximum separation and cross-talk elimination.

The Cirrus Logic DAC supports up to 32-bit/348kHz playback, plus native DSD256 decoding. It features an astonishing 130dB of dynamic range, low power draw, headphone detection, and Popguard to eliminate output transients when the unit is powered on or turned off. The DACs are paired with an analog amplifier that A&K says can pump out 2Vrms.

The A&K USB-C Dual DAC has no battery, so it never needs to be charged. It draws power directly from the connected playback device, so you don’t need to worry about it running out of juice at the least opportune moment.

The A&K is powered through its USB-C connector. No charging required. Theo Nicolakis / IDG

The A&K is powered through its USB-C connector; no charging required.

The downside to this design is that it’s not compatible with iOS devices. You can plug the USB-C Dual DAC Cable into a Windows PC, a Mac, or an Android-powered smartphone or tablet, but you can’t use it with an iPhone. A&K’s user manual points this out, but doesn’t explain why.

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