Zorloo Ztella MQA DAC Dongle Review
Jay Garrett takes this curiously-named MQA USB-C dongle out for a test-drive…
Ztella MQA DAC Dongle
Head-fi fans have a variety of paths to tread when looking to eke out the best possible performance from their portable gadgets. The most obvious route is an external DAC to plug into a smartphone or tablet. However, even once that decision has been made, the myriad options soon cloud the way ahead.
Not everyone wants to carry around more boxes of tech with them, which rules out anything from the svelte and capable iFi xDSD to the compact but tank-like Chord Mojo. What we are then left with is a docket of dongles from renowned brands such as Cyrus and AudioQuest – plus offerings from some not-so-well-known names…
Meet Zorloo, a relatively new startup out of Hong Kong, and its $99 Ztella which is available direct from the company's website after its successful Kickstarter campaign in December 2019. Compared to AudioQuest's £215 DragonFly, the Ztella looks decent value. Even the Cyrus soundKEY costs £85 for the USB DAC and USB-C cable adapter.
However, the pricing doesn't go entirely the Ztella's way if you're wanting all it offers and are running an Android phone. Where iPhone users have to buy an additional Lightning adapter for ten bucks, 'Droid fans can plug the Ztella straight in. That said, we also need some extra software. iPhones have a bit-perfect USB output that allows the MQA Core signal to be passed correctly and recognised by the rendering device. By comparison, an Android device's USB output signal is not inherently bit-perfect. The upshot here is that I had to download a premium app called USB Audio Player Pro, which costs £6.50. There's an in-app purchase for Tidal, too.
After you’ve weaved your way through that, the USB-C dongle promises to unpack MQA files and render hi-res audio files up to 384kHz PCM and DSD 5.6, thanks to its ESS Sabre DAC. The Zorloo Ztella looks to be an excellently unobtrusive way to up your phone's sound quality. Measuring just 110mm in length and weighing a mere 5g, it’s hardly distinguishable from a standard USB-C headphone dongle – aside from the MQA logo and a little indicator light.
The Ztella incorporates a headphone amp that’s not only claimed to be twice as powerful as most smartphones but also analyses and optimises its output to match whatever you plug into it. Additionally, Zorloo has ensured that your headphone's in-line controls and mic are still active when plugged into the DAC.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Zorloo Ztella, as this diminutive DAC really digs out the detail from your virtual music collection. Whether paired with Campfire's Polaris IEM, Erzetich Thalia or Oppo's PM-3, the Ztella has a clarity I wasn't expecting from something so compact.
Thanks to its slightly brighter presentation, it comes over a little edgier than the AudioQuest DragonFly – but is still well able to deal with lower registers. Its sparkier treble isn’t fatiguing but did get me thinking what the sound would be like with brighter cans such as those from Focal, for instance. That said, my new USB Audio Player app also has EQ settings to play with, should they be required.
The Ztella is a little terrier in how it goes about tackling tracks. It really doesn't feel constrained by its size, instead producing music with significant presence and weight thanks to a talented midband and generous low-end – all of which is balanced by that incisive treble. These facets were admirably demonstrated by the time I had worked through A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip and Living In A Ghost Town, the latest offerings from The Sparks and The Rolling Stones, respectively. The variety of the Sparks album, in particular, not only highlighted the Ztella's clarity but also its grip and speed.
The Zorloo Ztella gets a thumbs-up for its keen value, fine sound and great packaging – it’s a great alternative to the USB stick-style interfaces and much more portable than the weightier DAC/amps available. This might not be the last word in tonal balance or soundstaging, but what it lacks in these respects is made up for with discretion, sure-footedness and overall ability.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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