Noise Floor and Power
When determining a source’s noise floor, my reference has always been the Empire Ears Phantom; a hiss hound on most of the gear I’ve tried it with. And, just like their PAW Gold Touch before it, the S1 passes the noise test with flying colours. Hiss is practically inaudible; only heard when the track literally isn’t playing. And, this is true on both its low and high gain settings. When plugged into my MacBook Pro, though, the Phantom does pick up a tiny bit of RF noise, which sounds like tiny ticks every now and again. Oddly, it’s never an issue when I pair the S1 with my iPhone 11 Pro. Regardless, the S1 is a dead-quiet dongle 99% of the time, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to any sensitive in-ear monitor on your rotation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Vision Ears’ electrostat-equipped, hybrid ELYSIUM. Renowned for its potential to scale with power, the S1 fares decently with it. It achieves that tactile quality to the treble, which indicates to me that the tweeters have been fed well. It doesn’t do so to the extent of the PAW Gold Touch, or some of the desktop amps I tested with it. But, it still puts up a good showing, and I think most ELYSIUM owners will find the S1 a suitable portable solution.
Volume-wise, on a modernly-mastered track, this S1 achieves what I’d consider a good listening volume on the ELYSIUM at 50 out of 100 steps. The Phantom, by contrast, requires no more than 20. Because of that, the S1, to me, has the best of both worlds. Whether the IEM’s sensitive or demanding, this S1 delivers a clean, quiet and dynamic signal every time.
Cozoy TAKT C ($115)
Comparing the S1 against Cozoy’s TAKT C, it’s clear that the former has quite a bit more precision up its sleeve. This S1 is cleaner-sounding with an audibly blacker background, tighter, more precise imaging and crisper, more tightly-separated layers. Then, the S1’s stereo spread is considerably wider too. These differences are all observable on a mix like DeAndre Brackensick’s Shoulda Known Better. This blacker backdrop and precise positioning heightens the space between the lead vocals and the percussion sparsely spread throughout the soundscape, which raises holography. Then, it also makes the little shakers feel substantial and tactile on their own. Add to that a wider space, and you’ll have that surround sound feel.
Tonally, the TAKT-C has a slightly more aggressive tonality, due to its low-treble lift. It’s got a brighter bite around 5-6kHz, while the S1 chooses to have a gentler touch. With inherently brighter in-ears like the ELYSIUM, the S1’s naturalness gifts the pairing a more linear or natural sound. Whereas, the opposite may be true on a naturally-warm IEM. The rest of their frequency ranges are largely similar. Though, the S1 does have a tad more sub-bass extension, which lends it the edge in low-end physicality, despite their similar quantities. But, otherwise, the differences between these two devices are mostly technical in nature. And, here, this S1’s price premium does paint an accurate picture; the stronger performer of the two.
The Lotoo PAW S1 is unquestionably the most well-built, feature-packed and versatile USB source I’ve seen yet. It bleeds the company’s precision and ingenuity, from its CNC’d, aluminium-alloy body, to its dual-output design. Then, comes the innovation of its OLED display and EQ functionality. And, topping it off is the balanced, bodied sound Lotoo have instilled with precise imaging and separation as well. Now, it probably won’t topple over those $1000 audio players anytime soon, especially when it comes to stage expansion or riveting, sweeping dynamics. And, it’s a tad pricier than the typical dongle too. Nevertheless, to me, there’s just no questioning how solid, versatile and near-future-proof this S1 is. It’s yet another win in Lotoo’s record books, and, as far as I (and quite a few others) are concerned, it’s absolutely the USB source to beat.