The Spectra X DAC from Nextdrive is a very interesting product which solves a number of portable audio problems which have cropped up since Apple decided to change the world by removing the headphone Jack from their phones.
Of course just a few short years later other companies have followed suite and we are left with a few options. You can carry a second device dedicated to audio, you can use a dongle via USB-C or Lightning connector or of course you can go wireless. The DAP option will give you great sound quality but is the most intrusive bulky solution. A dongle can be unreliable, easy to lose and it doesn’t help in any way with sound quality (You are still dependent on the internal components of your smartphone). Finally with wireless you are looking at a loss of fidelity and the need to always have your earphones charged.
LG seem to be the only ones offering a solution to users who value sound quality by including a high grade DAC in their flagship phones. The sad thing is their recent phones kind of suck in comparison with other flagships from Huawei, Samsung and Google.
There is one other solution to giving you the option of using your wired headphones with your smartphone. An external DAC and and Amp. Specifically we are talking about a few companies offering an external DAC solution that works as an inline module. It is powered from the device and is usually small and unobtrusive. The Spectra X, I think, is the best implementation of the concept to date. It’s really, really good. Read the rest of the review to find out why.
What is the Spectra X DAC?
The Spectra X is essentially a DAC and amplifier unit that you plug into your phones USB-C, Micro-USB or Lightning port (The Spectra X is available in all three configurations). It essentially bypasses your phones internal audio components (The DAC and Amplifier) which are usually inferior because in your phone the priority is not on enhancing sound quality but saving space.
It offers people the chance to get better sound quality without having to carry around a second device and given its size and shape it is only slightly more cumbersome than plugging a cable straight into your earphones.
It supports almost all the formats that an on the go audiophile would want even DSD and PCM with up to 32bit resolution.
Packaging and Accessories
The packaging for the Spectra X is excellent. Its a very typical consumer styled box but its high quality and gives you plenty of information about the product that awaits you inside.
Its a presentation box style that you slip open the top and are greeted with the Spectra DAC neatly laid out for you in some supporting foam. The exterior of the box being nice and hard and the foam insert combine to make this a safe shipping option.
Underneath the DAC is a storage slot for the manuals and carry case. The Specrta X has just one lonely accessory in the box and its a nice felt soft case for keeping it safe when not in use.
Build Quality & Styling
Build Quality is extremely good and even though it is a small and simple unit it feels like every bit the premium product that it is. It follows the form of a connector (Micro-USC, USB-C, Lightning), into a cable, small strain relief and then a metal barrel that houses the DAC and Amp section. At the opposite end you find the 3.5mm gold plated jack point set into the main body of the device.
The barrel of the device is all metal so it will hold up well over time. I have been using the unit for a couple of weeks now and it still looks brand new. The strain relief is short but quite firm. The cable is the only point I am not a fan of in the design. It’s very stiff and doesn’t take shapes well. I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of a softer more supple cable in order to better conform to my pockets.
Still the fact that this has a cable at all is the reason I recommend this over something like the Dragonfly Red. You don’t have to use a dongle or adapter with the Dragonfly and the Spectra just streamlines the whole process.
Really, there is absolutely nothing to review in this section as I found the Spectra X to be plug and play with my phone. I would just pop it in and proceed to press play (after and annoying popup that gets triggered by my USB Audio player app (nothing to do with Nextdrive it just seems to automatically pop up when a USB-c DAC is inserted into my phone). All my devices opened worked with the Specrta and those tested were (Huawei P30 Pro, Google Pixel 3 XL, Xiaomi Mi 9, Samsung Galaxy 10).
Sound quality was a marked improvement over my phones internal components and the difference is noticeable right from the get go.
Everything become’s free, clear and more detailed even when playing back music in lower quality formats. I found that the performance was near identical to that of my Audioquest Dragonfly red and far superior to my original Dragonfly v1.0.
Bass extension is excellent and actually seems to outweigh that of the Dragonfly which also uses a Sabre Dac unit.
Bass is punchy and articulate and it has a lot more depth than just using a headphone dongle. The soundstage is far wider and deeper which makes for a more grand listening experience and this is brought about via a clarity in the top end.
Most of all though it was the level of detail retrieval that made the Spectra stand out. It is able to resolve far more detail than my phone or laptop and the clarity in the way it delivers that was also noted.
Jumping from 24 bit to 32 bit tracks I did not detect any audible improvement (it was already at a very high level) but where it did shine was in making poor resolution files shine. Even playing with regular Spotify streaming or low res Tidal everything just sounds better with the Spectra attached.
So we talked about how the Spectra X will work with most smartphones and computers but what about from the headphones. The good news is this will drive just about anything you want to listen to when on the go. By that I mean that some hard to drive full size HiFi headphones might struggle with power but you absolutely would not be using them with a device like this in the first place (If you are, your and idiot :P). So for everything else like IEM’s and portable headphones this has was more gain than you would ever need and will drive your earphones to full potential in regards to power.
I used the Spectra X with the Campfire Audio Solaris, JH Audio Roxanne and Fearless Audio S8 Pro for the purpose of this review and never once did I question its capability to drive them.
Spectra X vs Dragonfly
The Comparison to make for one of these small DAC units to use with your mobile of course has to be the Audioquest Dragonfly Red. This is a small USB DAC in the style of a thumb drive and the sound is equal to that of the Spectra X. The 2 units are very similar but the Dragonfly doesn’t support 32 bit playback and some of the Nextdrive’s file formats.
The price is virtually identical and but for me the main reason to choose the Spectra X is the fact the cable is built in. On the dragonfly you will need to buy a second adapter and that gives and other point of failure and another thing that I can loose when out and about. Besides that, I prefer like the barrel design of the X as it feels like an extension of your headphone cable as opposed to a second device getting in the way.
As I mentioned at the start of this review there are a number of different ways you can listen to music on a phone without a headphone jack. These alternatives are for those who still want to use wired headphones with their phones.
Standard Dongle - This is the cheapest option and simply converts the USB-C port into a 3.5mm jack point.
Stand Alone External DAC - Excellent sound quality but bulky and requires charging. You may as well buy a stand alone DAP (Digital Audio Player)
Hidzis USB Dac - Smaller than a Spectra X but has inferior sound quality. A better option than using a standard dongle and very inexpensive.
Nextdrive Spectra - There is non X version of the spectra that is also very good but has less refinement. Still a great buy at less than 75% the price of the X model.
To date the Spectra X is the best solution for an external DAC and amplifier to use with my smartphone.
There are a lot of smart choices in its design that I think gives it the edge over the Audioquest Dragonfly red.
The shape is better, the inline cable more convenient, the bitrate better and the price cheaper.
Build quality and sound are on a par and both will drive portable headphones and earphones to their potential.
Its a great little DAC and whilst not cheap it goes a long way to turning your phone into an excellent sounding audiophile DAP.
Highly recommended and something we will continue to feature in future reviews and recommend to our readers that don’t want to carry a second device to their smartphone but are still looking for excellent sound quality and file support.
You can read more about the Spectra X by Nextdrive on the companies website www.nextdrive-spectra.io