Lotoo PAW S1: The Swiss Army – A USB DAC/Amp Review

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Sound Impressions

Lotoo’s PAW S1 sports a balanced, natural sound with no glaring colourations. It limits itself to mild bends every now and again, which include a light taper in the upper registers and a more open, transparent midrange. But, that aside, the S1’s tonality remains relatively linear, which gives it great versatility and easy matching. Structurally, the notes it outputs have good size and weight to them; full-sounding and substantial at all times. Yet, again, that is achieved without elevating the mid-bass or low-mids, so you won’t get any excess warmth permeating – mucking up – the stage. What this size adds is a more involving sense of presence and musicality, especially with band arrangements like The W.I.M. Trio’s Volume 1 LP. It also contributes an alluring intimacy with vocalists like Diana Krall, while, again, keeping it all organised across the board.

Spatially, the S1 lies certainly on the more intimate side. The image it puts out isn’t the most out-of-head, neither is it the most holographic. On Empire Ears’ ODIN, I find the stage to have the slightest bit more depth than width, but it’s a pretty small difference, so you’re not gonna get audio that feels mono or anything like that. Aiding that intimate stage, however, is excellent precision and control when it comes to the device’s imaging. Instruments, despite their added midrange heft, sport clean edges with channels of air running between. And, they’re positioned with a palpable spread as well. So, even with the limited real estate, Lotoo have proven themselves capable of finesse in any form. Finally, we have the S1’s black background. It isn’t necessarily as crisp as some of the portable DAPs I’ve heard, so don’t expect those levels of dynamics out of the S1. But, at this price tier and form factor, it’s clearly among the best I’ve heard, especially down in the low-end.

Down low, the S1 comes across linear, transparent and clear; neither boisterously boosted nor overly tight. It limits itself to operating within the centre of the space, which is part of the reason for the crisp, clean backdrop. But, it still imparts a decent amount of oomph and gusto too. That’s probably less ideal if you’re searching for a big, bountiful bottom-end. So, those after a cleaner, airier, more technical bottom will find more to love in the S1. Technically, it’s a quick, well-extended bass that never gets in the way of the mids. Bassheads may find it polite when it comes to skull-rattling bass lines. But, at the same time, it imparts just enough wetness to have character, especially on the kick drum. The rapid, single-pedal hits on Larnell Lewis’s Change Your Mind (RTM), for example, still have superb body, so this lick doesn’t end up anaemic or flat.

Towards its midrange, the S1 has the tiniest lift towards 2-3kHz, which inches vocals forward and imbues them with a tad more presence than strictly neutral. Though, it never pushes quite enough to become strictly vocal-focused, which I think benefits the S1’s versatility. You won’t get buttery vocals on one track, then have to sit through boxy, saturated drums on the next. It simply adds that touch of oomph, which, again, is a great showcase of this device’s finesse. As mentioned, the S1 sports nicely-structured notes that have richness and heft without having to elevate the lows or low-mids. Separation, as a result, is clean, and the S1 layers precisely as well. Those reeds on Snarky Puppy’s Shofukan, for example, though not distantly spaced out, are distinctly identifiable. The same goes for the strings on The Curtain. Again, it simply lacks a touch of dynamics to me. Leads don’t jump out and arrest you quite like they do on higher-end DAPs or amps. But, once again, for the form factor and price, you’d be hard-pressed to find mids that balance weight and finesse like this S1 easily does.

And, up top, the S1 showcases lots of air and extension, but without overdoing quantity. It’s a slightly softer, more subtle-sounding treble, which hands a less aggressive touch to cymbals and rides. If your in-ear or track has a tendency of tizz-y hi-hats, for example, the dongle will curb them nicely. But, again, it does so without becoming rolled-off or muffled. Air is plenty on this S1, and it avoids bottlenecking e-stat-equipped IEMs like Vision Ears’ hybrid ELYSIUM. Cymbals, though not as bright or forwardly as they can be on more clarity-oriented sources, are still resolved down to the tail and surrounded by its crisp, stable backdrop. Timbre-wise, the S1’s low-treble notes resemble those of Lotoo’s PAW Gold Touch; light and tight, such that glares and tizzes never linger. Then, higher up, again, the S1 sports crisp, open, yet reserved air in spades.

Balanced vs. Single-Ended

Between the S1’s single-ended and balanced outputs, Lotoo – like on their PAW Gold Touch – manages to maintain fairly consistent tonalities. To my ears, its balanced output is about 3-5 steps louder on the Vision Ears ELYSIUM. Then, it dons a few technical advantages over the single-ended socket too. Stereo spread feels a bit wider to me. Hard-panned sounds like the ride bell or stack cymbal on Larnell Lewis’s Change Your Mind (RTM) have a tad more tactility, solidity and attack to them. Then, the centre-image feels a touch deeper as well, though I’m not sure whether or not that’s a by-product of this balanced output’s stronger extremes. In any case, whichever one you use, you’ll be guaranteed the same, refined sound.

Tone Shaping

The S1, again, incorporates Lotoo’s slew of EQ and DSP. The 16 filters featured on this device spans from timbre-shaping to image manipulation, and you can get do a fair amount to the in-ear or headphone you’ve got. I enjoy the Sweet setting with Empire Ears’ ODIN, for example. Though, it should be noted that these settings aren’t exactly subtle changes. These are fairly strong filters; perhaps, a bit too strong if what you’re looking for is a little nudge here or there. But, it’s an extra feature nonetheless, and one that Lotoo can further expand on with firmware updates. Speaking of firmware, Lotoo just added MQA decoding to the S1 through its latest update; so you can now listen to hi-res material from, say, TIDAL too.

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About Author

Church-boy by day and audio-obsessee by night, Daniel Lesmana’s world revolves around the rhythms and melodies we lovingly call: Music. When he’s not behind a console mixing live for a congregation of thousands, engineering records in a studio environment, or making noise behind a drum set, you’ll find him on his laptop analysing audio gear with fervor and glee. Now a specialist in custom IEMs, cables and full-sized headphones, he’s looking to bring his unique sensibilities - as both an enthusiast and a professional - into the reviewer’s space; a place where no man has gone before.

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