AMPING PERFORMANCE: 9/10
THE PLUS: Clear and highly musical sound, Dynamic and lively, Powerful balanced output and good single-ended output, smallest DAC-AMP with capable amping, DUAL ESS9281C PRO DAC, Customize firmware for low impedance high sensitivity IEM, Accessories
THE SO-SO: Can become hot, energy-hungry, not competitively priced
HILIDAC (Hifi Improved Lossless Incredible DAC) is a Chinese company specializing in DSD DAC implementation. For 5 years they mostly concentrate on ultra-portable DAC-AMP for the phone. Their AUDIRECT BEAM mini DAC-AMP has gained great success, and lately their more affordable HiliDAC ATOM PRO DAC-AMP Dongle was very well received too.
I do review the BEAM in the past and while I find it’s sound more than decent and really enjoy its portability and volume control-play-pause multi-button, I was less impressed by its slightly hissy noise floor and low amping power output.
This explains why I was extremely surprised to see the specs of its successor the BEAM2. It’s not just a promise of improvement in both sound and power, the difference are just too big in audio hardware to put those two in the same league. The BEAM2 has 2 output, a balanced and single-ended, and both deliver more than 3 times of power than the first BEAM. As well, the BEAM2 uses Two ESS9281C PRO DAC and Two independent OPamp while the BEAM only use one ESS9118 DAC.
On paper, the BEAM2 looks too good to be true. Let’s see in this review if we do have both power and clarity in ultra-small package with this audacious product.
You can buy the Audirect BEAM2 for 139.99$ from SHENZHENAUDIO STORE HERE.
Single-ended output power:
≥ 110mW (at 32 ohms),
≥ 6.6mW (at 600 ohms)
Balanced output power:
≥ 240mW (at 32 ohms),
≥ 26.6mW (at 600 ohms)
THD + N: 0.0003%
supporting full decoding of original MQA files
USB-C to USB-C short cable
USB-C short data cable
Hilidac cares about its product presentation and tries to offer a distinctive package that has its own recognizable singularity. When you open the white box, your welcome by a HELLO and the little DAC-AMP stock in the middle. Under the cardboard cover, you have all the cable needed for versatile connectivity and they feel of good quality enough. I really appreciate having all lighting to usb-c, usb-c to usb-c and usb-c to usb cable, especially when the quality is there too. So, nothing to complain about lack of accessories here.
Simplicity is the master word to describe BEAM2 construction, it’s even more simple than BEAM1 because it’s an all-metal body without any button or switch for volume control etc. It has 2 connection output at its side, and usb-c port at its bottom and that’s about this. Simple built can mean good durability, and indeed i’m not afraid to drop this DAC-AMP on the floor. Its size is only 4.9cm of length, 1.5cm large and 0.7cm thick, making the BEAM2 among smallest DAC-AMP available right now (if we take amping power in the account, it’s sure the smallest).
The fact you have no control buttons is sure a drawback, but it’s quite common in the ultra-portable DAC-AMP world. As well, the output at the side of the body isn’t the best design choice and I would suggest you to use a cable with L shape jack so it will take less space in your pocket.
This is a plug and play device that get fastly recognize by my LG G6 phone, Surface Pro ”laptop” and Tempotec V1 digital player. But, it must be noted that it drowns phone battery rather fast when using Balanced output. The BEAM2 has no battery like the BEAM and it’s way more powerful and these 2 DACS and 2 OPamp are intensely working in there. All this work they do create some heat, so the BEAM2 can become quite hot too, never to the point you get burn, but it’s sure slightly worrisome for hardware durability.
When I plug it to my phone or Digital player, everything is simple and you just need to use stock volume control, but when I use it with my Window-based Laptop, things became a little more unpredictable. In fact, volume control issue happen once I update the BEAM2 to last firmware (0629 version). Before the update, I use my laptop button for volume control and it even has an interesting feature that makes it recognize by Tidal and bypass separate volume control. This annoying issue does not happen with an android based phone like my LG G6.
About firmware update, stock one seems to have higher gain so it play louder in balanced mode, this can be an issue for very sensible IEM which explain why last firmware update state ”Reduced the noise floor of low impedance high sensitivity headphones when using 2.5mm balanced port.” Indeed, the sound is slightly cleaner and smoother than the stock firmware. Until now, there 3 firmware, choose 0411 Hilidac for standard power if you want louder volume and don’t use ultra-sensitive IEM and 0411 LP or 0629 if you plan using BEAM2 only for low impedance-high sensitivity IEM.
If you want to take full advantage of BEAM2, I suggest you to use a music APP that has its own USB audio driver and can play Bit-perfect (no resampling) like the excellent UAPP (USB AUDIO PLAYER PRO) app. The sound improvement is quite intense and drastically open soundstage and dynamic. As well, volume control can be customized to more step. With music app like VLC or Earstudio player, you have to deal with 2 volume control.
As said, the BEAM2 drain phone battery quite fast, my LG G6 have a 3700mah battery and is known for long battery life, so this isn’t an issue. Still, with a phone like the G6 I can’t expect more than 5H of use. If your phone has bad battery life, perhaps you’ll be better with a battery-powered DAC-AMP like the FIIO BTR5.
Firmware used for this review: 0411 Hilidac Standard version (more dynamic, detailed and spacious sound IMO)
Paired with SurfacePro 3, LG G6 and Tempotec V1.
IEM used: Hisenior T2 (dual BA), BQEYZ Spring2, Dunu Luna, Final Audio A8000, Final Audio E5000, Hifiman DEVA, Hifiman Sundara, Tin Hifi P1, Hidizs Mermaid, FIIO FH7, Takstar PRO82
The BEAM2 is a big step up from BEAM(1) in terms of sound quality and amping power, like going from a sub-200$DAP to a 500$ DAP. As well, unlike other sabre DAC I try, the sound is more balanced, natural and refined, it has a hefty dynamic with smooth timbre, great transparency, and effortless sense of details. It sounds like a softer ES9018 DAC with higher musicality that tends to highlight macro-resolution over micro-resolution. I’m not sure we can say it’s completely flat, as I head a slight W shape approach to tonality as if bass, vocal and mid-treble have extra dynamic to it.
SOUNDSTAGE is very impressive both in wideness and deepness, the presentation is holographic. The BEAM2 tends to improve the soundstage wideness of every IEM I use with, the only exception being TinHifi P1.
IMAGING is good enough due to transparent layering, but it isn’t very sharp in instrument separation definition. Low and Mid-range separation is better than higher treble, BEAM2 have a way to extract vocals and front stage instrument while letting micro details farther in the back. In this regard, ES9018 dac has sharper instrument separation but to the cost of sounding more clinical and cold.
TONALITY is lush, transparent, nuanced, weighty and never edgy.
TIMBRE is natural, thicker in bass and mids, full-bodied from lows to highs.
BASS has good weight and is warm in resolution and thick in timbre. It has a tight impact with rounded sub and mid-bass that embrace each other instead of having a crisp separation. Sub-bass extension isn’t the most natural, it’s more chunky and thumpy than resonant. If low end is boosted, it’s really subtle and perhaps 2db boost, this avoid having overly lean and dry bass presentation so the sound is fuller in dynamic and more lively in musicality.
MIDS are very natural, again, slightly forwarded in presence in a very tasty way, the BEAM2 have a magical way of extracting vocal even in the busiest track, it tends to put it under the spotlight without overshadowing background instrument in same range. It’s like if it add bit of lower mids to instrument too so they sound fuller, piano and vocal being the most addictive in musicality and presence.
TREBLE is the leaner part of the sound, it’s full without any important boost. Highs have natural timbre without extra brilliance or sparkle. It feels like the Hilidac team have taken the critic seriously about the first BEAM which was brighter and decide to offer a more nuanced and laid back treble response. This tend to tame the upper harshness or imbalance of trebly IEM without stealing macro-resolution. To my ears, this improves musicality as well as the immersion because of how well-layered is the macro-resolution.
With AUDIOSENSE T800:
These are capricious IEM that can have a tonal imbalance or even distortion if no driven properly, the T800 will do better with Low Impedance output source. With the first BEAM, T800 was having bass distortion and unbalanced highs, so I was worry that more powerful BEAM2 will be a disastrous pairing and I’m happy to confirm it’s quite the Opposite! In fact, the T800 sounds more balanced than ever!
SOUNDSTAGE being already quite wide, here it gains in deepest. IMAGING is even more precise as I can dig both spatial space and layers depth.
BASS is where healing happens, it has less mid-sub-bass emphasis and more high bass kick, the control is better and less boomy making the T800 less U shape, this would be only a deception for the basshead.
MID RANGE seems better articulate and flatter, slightly brighter too while TREBLE is smoother and more natural. This makes the whole presentation less ”shouty” and exchange some fun for more accuracy.
This pairing shows me another aspect of T800 and confirms how they can act like a chameleon that takes the color of your audio source, and the BEAM2 pairing is sure maturely and naturally colorful pairing.
With HIFIMAN SUNDARA:
Wait, is it possible that a DAC-AMP this small can drive properly these power-hungry Planar headphones?
Well, the answer is YES. If using balanced output, it will drive them at more than 95% of their full potential, which even the Radsone ES100 and FIIO BTR5 struggle to deliver.
SOUNDSTAGE is open enough, with great deepness. IMAGING is crisp but slightly more intimate than with a powerful desktop amp of 1000mW@32ohm.
BASS is impressively weighty and punchy, which is exceptional for a 240mW amping, in fact, the bass performance is tighter and less loose and warm than with more powerful DAC-AMP pairing like the Xduoo XD-05plus.
MIDS seems clearer and more forwards, less wide and transparent but well separated, as well, it has extra liveliness to it.
TREBLE is full, less brilliant and sharp, more balanced with the rest of the spectrum.
The overall sound is less cold and analytical, with more punchy dynamic and excellent articulation. It’s just unreal that the BEAM2 can drive this well the Sundara.
With FINAL AUDIO E5000:
Again, this IEM is known for being hard to drive due to it’s low sensitivity and the BEAM2 have no trouble pushing it at full potential.
SOUNDSTAGE is wide and out of your head as it should be when properly amped, IMAGING is slightly improved but it never been the highlight of E5000, still, mids are better separated and you even have extra micro-details.
BASS is full, round and impactful, it has a tighter presentation with plenty of weight. The MIDS are improved in clarity and vocal miraculously pushed a little more forward which is a blessing as sometime E5000 can sound overly U shape and bassy, here the BEAM2 seem to clean transparency and improve overall layering. TREBLE is a little more delicate with some extra sparkle in upper highs.
Wow, again…. I’m bluffed by the versatility of BEAM2 pairing which seems to pair well with anything from bright to warm IEM or Headphones.
VS AUDIRECT BEAM (100$)
Spoiler Alert: the BEAM2 put to shame the first BEAM.
SOUNDSTAGE is more intimate and compressed, IMAGING is less transparent and layered. Overall Tonality is brighter, grainier and badly analytical.
BASS is rolled off, dryer and more textured but not in a natural way. MIDS are more recessed and congested, lacking separation, body and clarity. TREBLE is forwards and more aggressive, unbalanced and pushing micro-details in your face which is distracting.
BEAM2 is from another league in every aspect, because the BEAM isn’t powerful at all with its 49mW@32ohm compared to 110mW single-ended and 240mW balanced of BEAM2. I applause Hilidac to have evolved THAT much!
VS TEMPOTEC HD PRO (40$)
Well, at less than a third of BEAM2 price, one would think it can compete against each other…but this isn’t the case at all and this battle is a hard one.
Where the BEAM2 win easily, it’s in amping power as both single-ended and balanced are more powerful than 60mW@32ohm output of HD PRO.
Now, in term of sound, while they are very different in tonality, it would be more a matter of taste than quality of audio here. Well, HD PRO can’t play MQA so it’s a drawback. Still, SOUNDSTAGE is slightly bigger and notably deeper with HD PRO, IMAGING seem more transparent but less informative than BEAM2. BASS is smoother, thinner and more organic sounding. MIDS are slightly more recessed and again liquid in presentation, not as full bodied as BEAM2. TREBLE dig more micro-details, is more airy and brilliant, but not as full and nuaced in timbre as BEAM2. Background noise floor is cleaner with the HD PRO.
Yep, you read it right, the Tempotec HD PRO isn’t put to shame at all here and if you have sensible IEM i would not see wy you would pay 3 times it’s price to get less crisp sound, but as said, the Cirrus CS4381 dac use have a unique flavor that isn’t as versatile as BEAM2.
FIIO BTR5 (140$)
Now, this is the real battle we were waiting for because both these DAC-AMP are super powerful and have 2 output including a balanced one. Were the BTR5 sure win is in term of the diversity of connection because it can be used as a Bluetoot receiver, a very competent one. In terms of size, the BTR5 is about 3 times the size of BEAM2 so when hooked up on the phone you do feel it’s weighty presence.
Using dual ESS9218P, the BTR5 tonality is quite different, more analytical and crisp than BEAM2. We can say it’s more neutral as well, but not as musical and cohesive as BEAM2.
SOUNDSTAGE isn’t as wide and out of your head as the BEAM2, but is slightly deeper. IMAGING is more precise, but not as well layered. BASS is where the difference is evident, the BEAM2 is better extended and have fuller, weightier bass while the BTR5 have a better separation between the sub and kick. MIDS are lusher and more upfront with BEAM2, while the BTR5 has crisper instrument separation and leaner presentation. TREBLE this time is leaner with the BEAM2 and do not extract as much upper treble micro-details as the more analytical BTR5. Both aren’t cold sounding DAC-AMP, but the BEAM2 have a more natural tonality. This time, I think the BEAM2 have a cleaner background noise floor.
All in all, these 2 sound pretty similar, which is expected using both dual ESS DAC. In term of value, I would say the BTR5 offer more features and the fact it’s battery-powered make it less prompt to drain phone battery. Still, Holiday are more concerned by firmware update than FIIO, and BTR5 can act strangely with connection sometimes, which never happen with BEAM2.
I have tested a lot of different DAC-AMP, and the first BEAM was far from being one of my favorite both in terrm of sound and power output. To say the BEAM2 impress me in these regards is an understatement. The evolution from the first model is so big we can’t put these two in same league. The BEAM2 is not only the smallest powerful DAC-AMP on the market but among the best-sounding one too due to nicely implemented dual sabre DAC and dual OPamp. Taking full advantage of this device by playing MQA is another big plus. As well, the fact you can use different firmware for high or low sensitivity IEM is proof of Hilidac dedication to their great product.
Sure, 140$ might seem a little pricey for such a small device, but if you look at ultra portable DAC-AMP market, another option in this price range is the Radsone HUD100 which sound less dynamic, natural and musical, cannot play MQA and isn’t as small as BEAM2.
If you plan to transform your phone into a powerful high-end audio player, I highly recommended you to give a try to the BEAM2.