Review: Tanchjim Space Lite Dongle DAC/Amp

Sound Summary

Note: I used Spotify (High-quality streaming) for the entirety of this review.

In theory, every DAC/Amp should faithfully recreate an analogue sound signal with zero colouration or exaggerations in aspects of the entire frequency band. In reality, this rarely happens and small aberrations, both good and bad, are commonplace amongst most DACs and amplifiers.

To my amazement, the Space Lite presents an ultra-clean source of amplification with minuscule alterations to the transducers it powers downstream at the end-to-end signal path. Save for a faint mid-bass climb and a bump in the middle-frequency band, there are no seemingly little-to-no deviations in the foundational tone and timbre of the IEMs and headphones it drives.

Additionally, the Space Lite’s reasonable 96mW of driving power into a 32-ohm load naturally surpasses the default 3.5mm unbalanced outputs of laptops and smartphones. Microdynamic details on a granular level are presented well, with subtle plucks of string instruments clear enough for easy identification, juxtaposed by a strong showcase of macrodynamic excitement between percussive instruments.

However, complex tracks with a backdrop overabundant in tonally-distinct instruments and diverse vocal ranges start to push the upper limits of the Space Lite. In these circumstances, the Space Lite’s technical performance in terms of raw analytics starts to fall behind, with subtle gradations buried underneath a wall of cavernous instrumentation.

Synergy

Low-Impedance: Truthears Hexa (Unbalanced)

The Truthears Hexa is my go-to $100 daily driver for the daily commute. As such, I have a thorough grasp of its tonal quirks and end-to-end sound profile. The Hexa has readily equipped with three balanced armatures and one liquid crystal polymer (LCP) dynamic driver on each channel, with a rated mechanical impedance of 20.5 ohms. Unsurprisingly, the Space Lite has enough driving power to attain comfortable listening levels on the Hexa — far from maxing out my source device’s volume.

The Hexa’s harman-response-inspired sonic profile and unadulterated mid-range proficiency are on full display on this pairing, with the Space Lite’s slight emphasis on mid-bass compensating for the discernible gaps in macrodynamic bass slam. The tiny ascension in the upper mids sweetens the Hexa’s midrange performance, adding a tinge of airiness and perceived detail recovery.

Overall, the Space Lite does its job well as anticipated of an everyday-carry dongle.

High-Impedance: Hifiman HE-R9 (Unbalanced)

The Hifiman HE-R9 is a giant-of-a-headphone (and I don’t use the word “giant” here loosely), with a rated mechanical impedance of 50ohms and an overall sensitivity of 100dB. The RE-9’s oversized frame is a tell-tale sign that it was designed exclusively for sit-at-home listening situations, where a dedicated desktop AMP/DAC setup is 100% necessary for total sonic performance.

Needless to say, this is a not-an-ideal pairing. The Hifiman RE-9 is a demanding headphone that craves power. The more power an amplifier feeds into the RE-9, the higher the damping factor: the measure of authoritative control an amplifier exercises on each transducer. A tighter diaphragm on each channel results in a tauter and snappier driver that can respond to microdynamic and macrodynamic swings with virtuoso-like discipline.

The Space Lite does have adequate power to drive the RE-9, but the RE-9’s performance is sub-optimal, and its sonic potential is not fully realised. The RE-9’s pulsating sub-bass rumble and vivacious mid-bass adopt a woollier and flabbier presentation, which starts to veil the realistic tone and timbre of the RE-9. Microdynamic details in the midrange start to trial behind its already massive bass shelf.

Consequently, the RE-9’s congested performance narrows its out-of-head soundstage, with middling imaging performance and sluggish transients.

But let me make myself clear. This was an extreme test, and the Space Lite is not designed for outdoor portable use, not a serious desktop listening rig. The Space Lite’s performance in this stage of the reviewing process should still be commended.

Comparisons

Note: Because of Space Lite’s lack of a balanced output, I will only compare the Space Lite with dongles with a similar feature set

Venture Electronics Odyssey HD

Credit: Venture Electronics (VE)

Venture Electronics is a portable-audio company based in Liaoning, China. Founded by the shambolic Wild Lee, an intelligent audio engineer with a feverish following, Venture Electronics’ claim to fame was with its unprecedented release of a $5 earbud, the VE Monks. The VE Monks’ mastery of the midrange and shockingly low price tag set the mise en scene for what was the fledgling chi-fi space.

In today’s comparison, we’re taking a look at the Venture Electronics Odyssey HD, a $10 USB-C to 3.5mm unbalanced output: the exact same feature set as the Space Lite. The Odyssey HD has a power output of 45mW into a 16ohm load, with a THD of 0.01% and the capacity to natively decode 32bit/384 kHz PCM audio signals.

In terms of SQ, the Odyssey HD sounds more similar than dissimilar to the Space Lite, which makes this a fairly tough comparison in terms of perceptible sonic differences. It has a similar emphasis on neutrality, with tonal quirks in the upper-midrange and mid-bass frequency bands. What we are left with is a resolving and clarity-focused pairing.

But where the Space Lite has the upper hand, is its technical mastery in presenting finer details and accurate timbre. Because the Space Lite has a peak output of 105mW into a 16-ohm load, the Space Lite has double the thrust vis-a-vis the Odyssey HD. In rapid and spontaneous shifts in volume, the Odyssey HD falls short of highlighting these microdynamic peaks and troughs. The macrodynamic contrast between the treble and bass regions on the Space Lite makes for a sonic presentation that is realistic as it is vivid.

Don’t forget the obvious practical benefits that come with more amplification. With nearly twice the driving power, the Space Lite is a more versatile dongle aptly suited to more power-hungry IEMs and modestly-resistant headphones.

Conclusive Remarks

The Space Lite is the ultimate grab-and-go dongle DAC/Amp for the minimalist audiophile. The Space Lite’s audible performance is commendable for its petite size, boasting a clear-and-almost-uncoloured sonic presentation bound to satisfy clarity-chasers.

While I do miss the balanced-equipped and device compatibility of its older sibling, the Space Lite is an exemplar of what can be achieved in a sub-$50 dongle DAC/amp. The Space Lite does the basics well. Brilliantly well.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Kevin Goh

Kevin Goh

Raised in Southeast Asia’s largest portable-audio market, Kevin’s interest in high-end audio has grown alongside it as the industry flourishes. His pursuit of “perfect sound” began in the heydays of Jaben in Singapore at the age of just 10 years old. Kevin believes that we live in a golden age of readily accessible, quality audio.

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