Clarus CODA Portable USB-DAC Review
CODA Portable USB-DAC
AUD $599 RRP
If you had asked me ten years ago, “which direction is portable audio going?” let me tell you, I certainly wouldn't have expected this. Back then, portable audio players were getting bigger, smartphones were getting more intelligent, and a figurative bridge quickly constructed between the two. Not long after, the iPod and its colleagues were left in the dust as smartphones took up the reins as the primary music source for portable listening.
Skip forward to only a few years ago, and now all leading smartphone manufacturers have dropped the headphone jack. The majority of listeners have eagerly ditched their cables for Bluetooth headphones. This, in turn, left us keen 'cabled' audio enthusiasts out in the cold, sadly holding our wires, feeling a bit left out.
Sure, we can plug our headphones straight into our laptops. Or we could take around our desktop DAC and amplification systems. But do we want to? The former is seldom a guarantee of quality. The latter is far too bulky to consider taking on the road. However, fear not, for the answer is here in the shape of the Clarus Coda. This tiny bulldog boasts a high-performance USB DAC and headphone amplifier built into a unit no bigger than a standard USB thumb drive.
The golden idea is that a small, functional USB device can take care of all your headphone requirements by completely bypassing the internal audio circuitry of your source device. With similarly priced offerings on the market (such as the AudioQuest Dragonfly range of products), is this newcomer from Clarus up to the task? Let's find out…
This is the first time that USA-born Clarus (known usually for its high-end cables and power conditioners) has dipped its toes into this market, and you can tell the company has done its research. Despite coming in at a slightly higher price, the Coda trumps its competitors on the spec sheet. Instead of 24-bit/96kHz PCM, the Coda natively handles 32-bit/384kHz and up to DoP128. It also packs an ESS Professional Series Sabre DAC with Hyperstream II modulation and Quad DAC technology. In contrast, most competitors make do with standard mobile ESS digital converters.
So the Coda is small, but its spec sheet measures up well against competitors of a similar size, and even rubs shoulders with some much bigger desktop units. Nothing to be sniffed at, considering this little fellow doesn't even require a power supply or batteries.
It's not just the numbers that are impressive here; its compatibility is the proverbial right hook of this one-two punch. Not only does the Clarus unfold MQA natively – if you're into that sort of thing – but it also has full compatibility with Apple products. It means that Clarus has forked out the licensing dough to make these magical things possible. These little add-ons, when summed together, make a big difference.
My current favoured USB DAC, the Aurender Flow, is considerably more expensive and requires all sorts of whacky adapters, cables, prayers, and sheer good luck to work with Apple products. But the Coda requires me to plug it in, and the music starts flowing. It even pauses when I unplug headphones from it, which is a neat touch.
Speaking of connectivity, this little Clarus packs a full-size USB type A plug on its lightweight brushed metal body, and comes with a sneaky adapter cable to convert it to USB C. This makes it easily compatible with laptops/desktop computers and (with the adapter) will have it happily singing from your iPads, Android devices and anything else compatible with USB C audio.
It has hardware audio adjustment buttons on the side of the device, too. These talk directly to your source device; the Coda doesn't have independent volume control. Part of me winces when I have to press the buttons for volume, and I wish it were a volume wheel or knob. But this could just be easily written off as personal preference; the buttons work just fine. It also comes with a nice little zip pouch, which fits neatly into the small compartments of a backpack, laptop bag or handbag. The pouch doesn't leave any extra room for your IEMs, so be mindful of this when shopping around.
I tested the CODA with my trusty iPad Pro, my Samsung Galaxy Fold 2, a Microsoft Surface Laptop, and a slew of different sized headphones. The Coda has three built-in filters to choose from, which are adjusted from the unit itself without needing any additional applications: Linear phase (fast roll-off), Minimum phase (slow roll-off) and Hybrid (fast roll-off). The filter setting is stored within the unit and is recalled upon restarting it.
Starting with small, sensitive low-impedance single driver in-ear monitors, Clarus played to its strengths immediately with a background as black as night. There wasn't a hint of unwanted noise during quiet passages in the music. I'll go as far as to proclaim: sensitive IEMs are a fantastic pairing with this. Volume-wise, DAC/amp combos can often suffer from “a small turn of the volume knob will rip your head off” syndrome, which isn't the case here. Instead, you'll find a controlled amount of headroom for finite adjustments, despite having to make them with buttons instead of a volume knob.
Listening to the Boiler Room recording of Zulu by Stephan Bodzin revealed a deep dynamic range. Paired with the Sennheiser IE900, this DAC/headphone amp demonstrated poise and precision, requiring the volume on my iPad to be at around one quarter for adequate listening levels.
The next headphone contender was the Audio-technica ATH1000z. As this has a full-size jack, it became a bit of a Frankenstein's monster to plug it into my iPad Pro (from full-size jack to headphone jack, into the CODA, then the included adapter to USB-C). While this may not pose any issues when listening at home, I wouldn't consider this kind of arrangement to be portable.
Thankfully, the sound pumped into these headphones was worth it. The delicate warmth, clarity and speed of these wooden beauties were driven with respect and authority. Even when playing a complex track such as The Spoils by Massive Attack, the Coda didn't get in the way. Rather, it just made the musical relationship between headphones and source more intimate - sheer and utter transparency, with adequate volume control and little bulk.
“Alright, alright, enough with the cute stuff”, I hear you say! So let's see how it pairs with a real pair of headphones. Taking a deep breath, I plugged in the HD800S and winced as I turned up the volume. After all, how could a small, thumb drive sized, USB powered DAC drive these flagship almighty headphones?
Well, my scepticism was short-lived. With the volume set to nearly two thirds, I found that I had more than enough headroom to drive these headphones to seriously satisfying volume levels. Even with the unusual, delicate stylings of Still D.R.E by Sly5thAve, bass was plentiful, the highs airy, and all of the things I loved about the HD800S were retained and respected by the Coda. It may not have the same poise and slam that I get from a full-size desktop rig, but is far more than is expected from my laptop headphone jack. It's also good enough to keep up with mid-to-high end portable DAPs that I've used over the past couple of years, which is really saying something.
I'm not telling you to go out and sell your desktop amplification setups. But what I can tell you with confidence is that the Clarus Coda will be a clear step-up from your built-in laptop or smartphone audio outputs. It does a respectable job with a wide range of headphones, looks the part, and comes with enough accessories to make itself useful.
If you're looking to upgrade the sound from your laptop, your iPad, your smartphone or pretty much anything that has a USB port but also need something portable, you've found a good contender here. If volume buttons and its premium price don't scare you off, then I recommend you try this unit out. As it transpires, this tiny bulldog has plenty of bite to back up that particularly bold bark.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.