MOONDROP DAWN Review: Refined Accuracy

THE PLUS:
-Excellent resolution, transparency and micro definition
-Fast attack timing and sustain-release
-not too edgy attack
-Accurate imaging
-clean powerfull amping
-neutral vivid (unboring) tonality
-Moondrop Link app
-doesn’t get hot nor drown battery too fast
-great sound value

THE MINUS:
-hint dry and thin timbre
-slight sub bass roll off
-not alot of sparkle and natural resonance after impact
-not very wide spatiality
-hint lean mid range
-mature tonality will not please everyone

TONALITY: 8.2/10
TECHNICALITIES: 9/10
CONSTRUCTION: 8.5/10
AMPING POWER-QUALITY: 8.8/10
SOUND VALUE: 9/10

MOONDROP doesn’t need introduction, they are well recognize and respected by audio community but mostly known for making IEM inspired by harman target sound balance.

Lately, they offer a first portable DAC-AMP (dongle) call Moonriver 2, it doesn’t make lot of noise among audio enthusiast, surely due that at 190$ it wasn’t very competitive in term of price value. While the Moonriver use 2 CS43138 flagship DAC, the Moondrop Dawn dongle I will review today use more common CS43131 DAC. Priced 70$, the Dawn have a 4.4mm balanced output and very promising specs that can be read bellow.

Let see in this review if it’s a dongle that can stand out from the overwhelming amount of chifi dongles offered on the today market.

To note: There 2 versions of this dongle, 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm single end for 5$ less (65$)….i really don’t see the point of buying the single ended version since you will have 2 times less power output (2vrms vs 4vrms) and poorer dynamic range and especially crosstalk wich inflict on imaging perception. Only plus of 3.5mm se is lower impedance output for ultra sensitive IEM, unfortunately, impedance specs aren’t available.

Product highlights

  • 132dB dynamic range
  • Ultra low 0.00017% THD+N
  • >117dB SNR
  • PCM 32-bit/768kHz
  • DSD256
  • 230mW output
  • 4.4mm fully balanced output
  • Dual crystal oscillator

Specs

  • Earphone jack: 4.4mm balanced
  • Frequency response range: 7Hz – 90kHz (-3dB)
  • Port: USB Type-C
  • Background noise: 1.3uV(AES17 20kHz)
  • THD+N: 0.00017% (AES17 20kHz, without load)
  • SNR: 132dB (AES17 20kHz, A-weighted)
  • Gain: high/low (software switching)
  • Line out: 4Vrms (high), 2Vrms (low)
  • Maximum output power: 230mW @32Ω, 54mW @300Ω 
  • Weight: 0.4oz (13.7g)
  • Size: 4.7″ x 0.64″ (120mm x 16.4mm)

CONSTRUCTION, CONTROL AND FEATURES

The Dawn come in a round metal box, with minimal packaging and accessories which include a usb c to USB adapter and that’s it.

Construction feel very good in hand, the dongle have light weight for it’s size and is made of avion grade alloy with mate white paint. The plug is gold plated, a sign of quality too. The usb c cable is attached to the body and seem to be a 4 cores silver plated cable. One thing that perhaps can be worrysome if I nitpick is this cable because it’s flat and perhaps the benting with time will affect it’s durability, this is one of the reason why i prefer detachable cable for dongle, if something happen with the cable you don’t have to get rid of your dongle.

As expected, using this dongle is plug and play, you don’t need to install driver on your laptop nor your phone. In stock form, the Dawn is on high gain, but you can download the Moondrop Link app to select gain as well as digital DAC filters. While it’s nothing like Radsone or Qudelix app in term of features and control, it’s very appreciate to have this type of extra control possibilities.

Battery consumption is quite low, which is a feature of CS43131 DAC. I easily get 6-8H of listen on my LG V30 phone, which is quite old and doesn’t have very good battery life.


SOUND IMPRESSIONS

This is a great sounding dongle no doubt about it. Due to my overwhelming love for Tempotec E44 using same dual DAC, I was expecting something of a sidegrade or downgrade….but in all honnesty it’s an upgrade in term of technicalities as well as power output. As a ”biased” Tempotec fan boi, i’m not happy to conclude this! But i need some psychoacoustic adjustement because the Dawn is brighter than E44, yes, but in a smooth crisp way….how come? Well, resolution is very high here, yet delicate in dynamic with a slight 1db W shape push, Moondrop way, which is all about a musical neutrality inspired by harman and VSDF target audio perception they learn about. Its strange to say, but if i can compare this dongle soundsignature to a Moondrop IEM it will be the Kato, but with Aria smoothed dryed timbre. OK thats very vague so let’s explore more the tonality and perfomance.

TONALITY favorize transparency of timbre, effortless resolution and treble sparkle and snap, it have a hint boosted mid bass, more in texture and grip section so the kick is super tight and energic yet not round and heavy, bass line are excellent in presence and texture while not very rumbly or thick, it’s all about articulation finess and well define soundscape here.

BASS is a hint dry and lean with extra punchyness, it doesn’t move lot of air nor make your IEM have a better rounded slam. It attack fast, but have short sustain and release. Definition, separation and resolution is excellent.

MIDS are clean, crisp and transparent. Its a bit more lean than bass and treble, you don’t have extra lushness and note weight are on light side. Presentation is realist, lively and better suited for violin and female vocal than piano or cello.

TREBLE is both vivid and delicate, with tremendous amount of nuance and micro details. You have good brilliance and snap and the balance is cohesive, not too boosted so both lazy and active listener will achieve wow effect in term of micro details finds.

DYNAMIC is vivid in presence sharpness, attack is very well controled yet not too boosted in impact where it’s more about loudness impact than weight impact, all in a well balanced and cohesive way within macro presentation. You have minimal but enough note weight, but it’s more of an edgy attack than one lead by lower harmonic heft. Lower bass, lower mids and mid treble seem a bit leaner than rest of spectrum, which create a sens of airyness and openess. You have the right mix of note sustain and decay here, since post impact is resonant and their no sens of compression. The very impressive 132db of dynamic range showed in the specs seem real, it’s vivid and lively yet very diversify in loudness variations.

RESOLUTION is excellent, extremely impressive for the price since it’s very clean and refined in it’s imaging. Texture is free of grain that would affect transparency, so a hint organic yet not overly smoothed since their plenty of micro details in there. It’s crisp and clean, with plenty of sound layers floating around. While not artificial sounding at all, the slight treble section focus that highlight clarity make tonality just a hint cold, let say it’s the ”anti-euphony” dongle here, yet musicality is alive and accurate.

TIMBRE is where the euphony can play a good role, or bass or lower mids can add some meat, which isn’t the case here, we have a rich but not very dense timbre, very transparent yet not lush or breathy.

OVERALL TECHNICALITIES are great, near mind blowing in fact due to how the Dawn can deal with fast and difficult tracks and keep it’s clean accurate presentation. Attack and sustain are on the fast side, this tight attack permit excellent timing between instrument as well as clearer separation in imaging. Transparency as said is excellent, underlining a low distortion. Background noise floor is very black. Sounds layers are well extracted and mixed with static sound without feeling sticken togheter. For 70$, I don’t think you can have better technical performance than this, just different tonality.

AMPING POWER

At 230mw@32ohm (4vrms) and with a rather low THD of only 0.00017%, the Dawn promise clean stable power output, which it deliver in plentyness. It’s not the type of amping that feel pushed in gain or boosted in loudness artifically. Its note grainy nor noisy in the background. Lean conductivity that doesnt affect tonal balance, a little bit like a THX amp but move lively.
Their no IEM that the Dawn can fully drive, which include legendary hard to drive Final E5000 as well as Tinhifi P1 or other planar. Don’t be afraid your low sensitivity or high impedance can’t be drive, still, don’t expect a little dongle to fully drive full size Planar Headphones like the Sundara, even if yes, it will play music nicely you will not achieve end game perfection. The Sennheiser HD820 too can be drive properly to achieve crisp open sound, yet in all honnesty nobody will conclude this dongle is the best match possible for an high end Headphones.

PAIRING MINI IMPRESSIONS

With Moondrop Snow
Oddly enough, I wouldn’t consider these a good match, since its a bit like mixing 2 time the same sound signature. Tonality is clean, dry and earn a bit of extra punchyness but no sub bass boost which is already a bit rolled off. No extra warmth here that could thicken timbre neither. Overall musicality lack naturalness here and doesn’t feel very open.

With Final A8000
This is a great match. Excellent clarity and resolution of A8000 is preserved without making treble spike go harsh, even vocal seem less prompt to sibilance. Transparency too is preserved permiting excellent imaging. Bass loose a hint of weight and roundness in slam but not to the point of making it feel rolled off since sub bass have good presence and rumble with A8000. Sure, again, extra warmth and density would have been great for mid timbre, so in that regard no romantic euphony but not compressed mid range either since female vocal and instrument sound very wide open, with well define layering. Excellently preserved attack accuracy, speed and control too.

With Final E5000

Driving those is pure hell, and tend to never match with any dongle, either sounding very compressed or having distortion at high volume. Unless you push the E5000 to ear destroyin volume level, you will not encounter problematic distortion even with heavy bass track….this is quite phenomenal and indeed a very good match since neutral bass light sound approach make the E5000 more clean and crisp. Bass keep heavy punch but have less bass resonance bleed, so mids are crisper and female vocal more upfront. Level of micro details is up too, making E5000 less dark. Very surprising pairing and a proof of stable and powerfull amping output.

DAC-AMPS COMPARISONS

VS VE MEGATRON (ES9018k2m DAC + ? OP amp-50$)

Firstly, the Dawn is a proper portable dongle while I don’t see myself briging the big brick Megatron. Megatron have more output choice (3.5mm se and 4.4mm-2.5mm BAL) while the Dawn have just a 4.4mm balanced output. Megatron have a Line out too, which Dawn lack.
When it come to power output, it’s quite similar when I try to drive the demanding Final E5000 I need to go in 75/100 volume step with both, the Megatron seem to have more gain yet it make distort the E5000 way more, and overall presentation is more compressed and messy than the Dawn.
Now, taking the Final A8000 to judge sound quality, distortion issue doesn’t occur with any of those 2, the Megatron offer a more bright and agressive sound presentation with more dynamic gain loudness, bass is more punchy yet not as transparent and nuanced making kick impact blur bass line definition, mids have more upper mids bite but more compressed presentation in the sens vocal doesn’t open as wide but feel more upfront in a centered way. In fast busy track, Snow show it’s superiority as shown in a track like ”Skink” from Elephant9 where you can more easily extract all instrument and sounds in super busy and fast passage, bass line and synth are more accurate and clean in presence while percussions energy is better balanced.
All in all, the Megatron is far from being bad but show it’s technical limitation against the more accurate, clean, neutral, transparent, detailed and articulated sounding Snow, which is smoother too and have a wider spatiality and more precise and crisp imaging.

VS TEMPOTEC E44 (Dual CS43131 DAC-80$)

Ok, these 2 sound quite similar since they both use dual CS43131 dac and it’s implemented amping chip, but Moondrop use dual crystal oscillator and state a superior power output of 230mw@32ohm against 175mw@32ohm.
Hum, so simply put, E44 is a hint warmer and thicker sounding, with a more natural timbre to my ears but slightly inferior transparency and resolution, it’s not as neutral and delicate sounding as the Dawn.
Bass is cleaner and tighter with the Dawn, we have more sens of immediacy in kick as well as perhaps slight boost where E44 have thicker warmer slam with more rumble vibrancy.
This inflict on vocal presentation, being denser with E44 while cleaner and better resolve with Dawn, mids dynamic is more vivid than leaner smoother E44, for ex female vocal jump at you faster with the Dawn yet make tone a bit boosted in presence gain (upper mids).
Treble is sharper with the Dawn and tend to create less harmonic distortion in busy or complex tracks, it’s more edgy in definition and percussions will attrack your attention more than more softed E44.
Soundstage is perceived wider and taller with the E44, notably deeper with the Dawn.
All in all, i would say technically the Dawn is superior, yet tonal balance not as organic and natural as E44, bit crisper dryer in musicality with delicate treble push that add airy feel to it.

VS FIIO KA3 (ES9038 DAC+independant OP amp-90$)

This time, it doesn’t sound similar, the KA3 is brighter and more excited in macro dynamic, so it feel more W shape in the sens bass, mids and highs are more upfront and less nuanced in dynamic gain.
KA3 sound shouty compared to Dawn, mid range especially are more prompt to sibilance and lack transparency. Bass is chunkier as well as overall timbre less thin than Dawn. Treble is dryer, less snappy, sparkly and brilliant than Dawn, whole spatiality is notably less clean in resolution too. Amping section of KA3 seem to have introduce harmonic distortion and hint of euphony to attack edge and sustain, which the Dawn is free off, feeling more refined and reference neutral in it’s sound presentation. In term of power output, we can say they offer same amount since both can play super loud and KA3 deliver 240mw vs 230mw for the Dawn.
All in all, KA3 is very similar to the Megatron here but with superior technicalities….which are inferior to Dawn crisper and more accurate performance.

CONCLUSION

I wasn’t expecting much from this dongle, but it really grown on me with the time and I confidently conclude it’s now one of the best technical performance you can get under 100$.

But that’s not all, the 230mw power output in such a tiny package is something to celebrate too.

Sure musicality is something very subjective, and the mature refined sound the Dawn deliver will perhaps appeal more serious audiophile than those searching for colored, warm or bassy tonality.

This is why one dongle isn’t enough I guess! Having one for technical performance and other for musical guilty pleasure might be the best choice and this is possible to find under 100$ now.

Still, the Moondrop Dawn musicality is dynamic, crisp and immersive more than enough and will show what your IEM are capable off in term of attack speed, imaging, resolution and wide range of micro details. It seem the use of dual crystal oscillator with balanced output do marvel here and permit to achieve one of the cleanest more accurate sound experience you can get for 70$.

Well done Moondrop! Recommended!

——–

PS: I want to thank Hifigo for sending me this review sample after my request. I’m not affiliated to this audio distributor and doesn’t try to please anybody with my honest critical sound impressions.

You can buy the Moondrop Dawn (balanced) for 70$ here: https://hifigo.com/products/moondrop-dawn?variant=43095050322159

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