As more music streaming services introduce lossless or high-definition audio into their offerings, interest in DACs (digital-to-analog converters, or “headphone amplifiers”) has increased – so much so that we created this guide. What was once the preserve of audiophiles is slowly becoming a gadget for those who want more than their phone and AirPods can offer. But they are not without caveats. For one, they’re often expensive, and sometimes not much smaller than the phone you’re connecting them to. enter the DAC tea by Khadas.
Khadas started out making media-capable single-board computers (SBC – think… media-specific Raspberry Pi type stuff) before moving on to desktop DACs. Tea is the company’s first mobile DAC and appears to be primarily aimed at iPhone users – although it is also Android compatible. The reason I suggest it is better suited for Apple phones is that it is MagSafe compatible. Combine that with the iPhone-style thin all-metal design and it solves one of the main problems with mobile DACs: having something heavy hanging from the back of the phone.
With the Tea, it sticks to the back of the phone and the low profile makes it just a little more noticeable than Apple’s own MagSafe wallets. You can, of course, find MagSafe compatible cases for Android, but your phone and budget will be a factor.
Aside from the elegant format, Tea doesn’t skimp on its codec support. Via USB/Lightning, Tea can handle audio up to 32bit/384kHz. Given that most mainstream music services don’t offer anything above 192kHz, streamers will be more than covered. Likewise, Tea can decode MQA (Tidal) along with DSD, AAC, FLAC, APE, OGG and all standard formats (WAV/MP3 etc.). If you prefer to go wireless, Tea also supports LDAC and AptX HD via Bluetooth.
Here I should mention that despite all the ease of the iPhone, Apple does not support LDAC or AptX HD on its flagship phones. You can still use the Bluetooth functionality in Tea, but you will not be able to enjoy the higher quality formats. Though that at least means you can charge your phone while still using the DAC, or you can go for a walk with the smaller Tea plugged into your headphones instead of your cell phone. There are many Android phones that Does supports LDAC/AptX HD, but you’ll need to check the manufacturer’s website to confirm (most Pixels, Samsung flagships and OnePlus phones offer LDAC/AptX HD decoding).
There are a few things you won’t find here, but most of them fall into the higher end of audio. For example, there’s only a regular 3.5mm headphone jack – no option for balanced 2.5mm or 4.4mm cans at this point (although rumor has it that a “Pro” version with this could be on the way) . There’s also limited feedback on what codec/audio quality you’re currently getting, with just a simple color-changing LED indicating the format, which you can’t see unless your phone is facing down. The inputs are limited to USB-C, so it will work with your phone and PC, but no line-in.
This puts Tea in an interesting category. It’s perfectly capable for people who want the most out of their streaming service and should even appeal to audiophiles looking for a low-key option that covers most bases. But at $199 it’s a reasonable expense. Perhaps its most obvious competitor is Fiio’s BTR5. This is also a portable DAC with high resolution Bluetooth support, along with a similar selection of wired formats (also up to 32-bit/384kHz with MQA support). Oh, and the Fiio also offers a balanced (2.5mm) headphone jack option. When you take into account that the BTR5 also often retails for $159, you really need that slim design and MagSafe.
That’s not for selling it though. I tested the BTR5 and Tea side by side, and the Tea’s convenience was obvious. With Fiio, your phone feels tethered, almost overloaded by the DAC. With Tea, it’s similar to using one of those battery-powered iPhone cases — a little thicker, but you can still operate the phone as you normally would.
The Tea also has a much larger battery capacity – 1,160 mAh compared to the Fiio’s 550 mAh. This isn’t an audio benefit of course, but it soon becomes one if you plan on listening for long periods of time or staying away from a charging option for more than a few hours. Which, given the mobile nature of these devices, seems like a reasonable possibility.
However, I’m not a big fan of the UI. Tea has three buttons: One on the left and two on the right. The single button works as a switch or to call your virtual assistant. The two buttons on the other side will control volume or skip tracks. You switch between volume and skip mode by double pressing the power button and the top button on the other side. It works… well, but it’s not very elegant. Also, if you leave it in track skip mode and adjust the volume, you’ll be on the next track before you know it. A minor but frustrating thing.
In wired mode, Tea pumps out robust, loud and clear audio. Maybe not as loud as some other DACs. Even the diminutive Firefly gives Tea a run for its money there. But, the sound you get is clean and full of gain, and that’s the point here: Take a good signal and let it be heard without colorization.
In addition to its main function as an ACD, it also does not interfere with answering calls. A pair of microphones at the base of the Tea allow you to speak without having to resort to the phone’s microphone. Plus, the Tea’s mics are several leagues better than the iPhone’s, especially when talking to him while he’s on the table. You can also set Tea to charge from your phone if you’re low on charge, or disable this feature so you don’t overcharge your phone’s battery, if you prefer.
In short, tea is a welcome addition to a growing category. At $199, it’s not the cheapest for the feature set, but its thoughtful design and aesthetic also make it quite convenient and understated. Unfortunately, if this all seems up your alley, you’ll have to wait a little longer. While Khadas is clearly production-ready, the company is opting to Indiegogo route, with the campaign scheduled to launch in the coming weeks.
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