Khadas Tone2: Like a Konigsegg, only smaller
Inordinately non-intuitive volume knob functionality (I’m a dolt)
Not much else, it’s quite good
Khadas Tone2: ($199): Like a Konigsegg, only smaller
Intro: Afforded the opportunity to review the Tone2, I jumped and politely said yes. Intrigued by the multitude of abilities of this little DAC, I noted the good reviews of the critter and waited my turn. The unit belongs to @Wiljen, and I am grateful for the loan. I have numerous DAC’s with which to compare the Tone2 and hope to provide some insight into its functions and capabilities. I have never heard the original Tone product, so I was looking forward to this. Upon completion, the unit will be sent back to Will.
Khadas Technology Co., Ltd. is the company that owns the brand “Khadas”, it was founded on 2020-07-01. We mainly focus on developing, manufacturing and marketing Amlogic and Rockchip single board computers (SBCs) for the open source community and streaming media player industry. Lately we’ve also added audio products like the Tone2 Pro Hi-Fi DAC and Khadas balanced RCA connectors to our line-up.
Our parent company, Shenzhen Wesion Technology Co., Ltd. founded on 2014-11-05, handles OEM/ODM product design, software and hardware development, as well as final product manufacturing and delivery to the point of use or sale. If the client wishes, they can carry out industrial design for both the internal PCBA support structure, as well as the external product enclosure.
The Tone 1 was a DIY DAC, which received much acclaim. Several audio compatriots have the Tone 1 and claim it to be amongst the best sounding budget DAC’s they own. I do not doubt them one bit. Khadas took a more polished approach with the Tone 2, building all together from the ground up in a svelte Northern-European style to me. The curves whisper Swedish efficiency to me just like a Koenigsegg. As primarily a tuner at first, Koenigsegg has grown into one of the very best ultra-super cars out there. While the Tone 2 might not fit that bill, going inhouse with the build assures quality control and the ability to tailor some of the finer points from within. Plus, it continues to show that Khadas is serious about their price to performance/feature point, which keeps them competitive in the market. I am impressed.
I will also state that I had a dickens of a time figuring out how to change filters, settings etc. based upon the diagram. While the diagram does show how to do so, the orientation had me pushing and pulling on the knob 90-degrees off from whence it needed to be done…Once I watched the video below though, all was good. Well, as good as it could be, and I do find it less than intuitive in usage. Feature-wise it is good. Finagling away is cumbersome to me.
Features video (watch them for proper operation):
Tone2 Pro is our second generation Tone Board from Khadas that incorporates a variety of user feedback from our first-gen product, the Tone1. ESS ES9038Q2M DAC has been paired with four powerful OPA1612 operational amplifiers, and three buffer amplifiers. This 3-stage amplification pathway enables Tone2 Pro to drive a wide-range of demanding audiophile-grade headphones with impedances of up to 150 ohms.
The latest addition to file format support is MQA decoding. The onboard XMOS XU216 processor enables bit-perfect, hardware-native, USB class II, asynchronous “unfolding” of MQA data for both web streaming and local high fidelity audio playback, enabling future-proof “original master quality” audio reproduction just as the artist intended, but at reasonable file sizes and streaming bandwidth requirements.
DAC + Headphone Amplifier – Tone2 Pro combines the ESS ES9038Q2M with x4 OPA1612 operational amplifiers that deliver superior audio quality.
High Performance – Up to 32bit 384KHz sample rate, bit-perfect DSD512, and -118dB THD+N (line-out).
Hardware MQA Decoding – XMOS XU216 processor for full MQA decoding, enabling next-gen “original master quality” web streaming and audio playback.
Balanced RCA – Next-generation “balanced RCA line-out” with 3-pin output, sets a new interface standard for the Hi-Fi industry.
Linear Power Supply – Tone2 Pro has a second USB-C (I2S) port that supports 5V linear power supplies for ultra clean signal-to-noise ratios.
Interesting info: Tone2 Pro is our second-generation Tone Board from Khadas that incorporates a variety of user feedback from our first-gen product, the Tone1. ESS ES9038Q2M DAC has been paired with four powerful OPA1612 operational amplifiers, and three buffer amplifiers. This 3-stage amplification pathway enables Tone2 Pro to drive a wide-range of demanding audiophile-grade headphones with impedances of up to 150 ohms.
In the box:
- x1 Tone2 Pro
- x1 USB-C Cable (Type-C to C)
- x1 Instruction Manual
- x1 Warranty Card
*Used for comparative purposes in their own right:
Moondrop Blessing 2
FiR Audio 5×5
Empire Ears Hero
ApeSonics Purple Rain
Whizzer Kylin HE01
Verum Audio Verum1
Final Audio Sonorous 3
Joey Alexander-Warna album and others
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado
twenty one pilots album, Trench
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World
Mark Knopfler-Down The Road Wherever
Elton John-yep, still good, still cool
Big Head Todd & The Monsters
Coming in a square short white rectangular box, you could easily mistake this for a Hallmark box of cards due to the build of the box alone. The box is superbly built and thick. The back should have given me a good impression of what was to come due to the color coordinated features and instructions, but I missed that. It is well laid out and each feature is well placed and written. The front has a picture of the Tone 2…in life size. To say this is diminutive would be like saying a Red Hot is a small candy. It is, and so is the Tone 2.
Inside is another thick paperboard “sleeve,” which holds the manuals and I would highly recommend learning the differences. I still refer to it while changing features. I will add that this sleeve pays homage to the original but having a color print of the motherboard. A nice touch to their history. Keep that manual handy, for you will need it based upon all of the technical features involved. Below that is the unit itself and a narrow rectangular case, which houses the USB type-C to type-C cable of good length. I have the exquisite DDHiFi C-to-C cables on hand, so I used those instead.
The Tone 2 Pro implements ESS9038Q2M DAC chip paired with a USB decoder and 3 stage integrated amplifier, along with four OPA1612 OPAMPs. Each of the two headphone outputs (3.5se, 4.4bal) having separate amplifier circuits. The CMOS XU216 USB chip lies inside the Tone 2 Pro, which supports full MQA decoding. Even though Khadas has instituted a thermal pad to dissipate heat through the device’s metal shell to keep the chip cool, I found the device to run quite warm. So that means the heat transfer did work. Mind you this isn’t tube-hot, but a bit different, nonetheless.
Bluetooth will use the Qualcomm aptX, when implemented.
Speaking of the manual, it does provide several key illustrations, which are useful in using the Tone 2 properly. Keep it handy.
The anodized red looks stunning, like a perfect complement to your laptop/desktop. Angular with swooping edges and angular geometric patterns, the Tone 2 has taken geometry to an artistic audio level. I’m not exactly sure what all the shapes could mean, like the horizontal slot running just above the ½-way line ending short of the “control knob.” Regardless, the shape has that modern touch, and even though I am left-handed, using it was fairly easy. This is designed for a right-handed person though…
Keeping up with the excellent build, all connections are tight and professional looking/feeling, adding to the premium feel. Add in the rubber bottom and you have a unit, which is functional and efficient of build. Placement of each functional unit such as connectivity or headphone jack is logically laid out.
The rotating/toggling knob on the top is the control center, much like you would find in most of the latest cars. This controls all, and it would be worth your time to spend an evening or two just acquainting yourself with how it works, and the different sounds wrought from the device. For my use, I had the Tone 2 Pro hooked to my MBP or the small XDuoo MT-602, to gauge the DAC only. While the T2P does provide its own amp, that is not the true highlight to me. The best aspect of the T2P is the DAC itself, which continues the tradition of sound/price for Khadas. The T2P is double the price, but with the included amp section and other features you realize why.
I won’t go through all of the functions but included the diagrams below for a guide on what is capable in this wee device. I did spend an evening or two and even in my depressed state of paucity understood the functions to a certain degree. It did take me watching the video to fully comprehend the features, and thus cancel out my random push/pulls/gasps/yells simply in returning to the volume setting.
Double pushing the round knob allows the user to move between functions. On some devices you must make a concerted, exaggerated effort to get the item to switch when instituted like this. Not here. Easy to push, and quick to change functions, I appreciated the solidity and quality of the knob. Plus, once you realize that it does not take much force (hardly any), you alleviate the fear of ripping the knob off…something in which I admit I thought might happen. Once “inside” each sub-menu, you then either rotate the knob clockwise, or counterclockwise. A nice feature to have this is, going both ways so you can quickly go between say low and high gain.
On something such as filter options, this gives the user the ability to quickly A/B two filters and see what they like for each song. Again, using the color menu allows you to see the name of the effected filter change. I will admit that ears more versed than mine would be able to discern differences better. For me, I switched to a filter, which sounded good and left it there. The RBG ring is hard to see in light conditions, but more easily seen in low light or evening/night settings. So, while this gives a good indication, I’m not sure what the benefit is, and would have liked something such as what Chord does with the Hugo/Mojo. Plus, that looks cool.
I will also note that low & high gain worked well, and with a larger increase in volume than I thought would occur. I currently have the Moondrop duo of the Blessing2 & S8 in house, and both to me are amongst the harder to drive IEM’s of late. Switching to high gain on the T2P worked well (not that low gain was a slouch), giving me that extra punch on Tidal’s MQA of Alex Fox’s live version of Guitar’s On Fire. Excellent sound and one that needs the extra kick of volume just because.
Summary (new to me…but why not…):
As stated above, I used the T2P as a dedicated DAC on my MBP and in concert with the MT-602. First used as a DAC, then while writing the 602 review, the T2P came across as mostly neutral with excellent detail and clarity for the price. This will not (and shouldn’t) function on the same level as my iFi Pro iDSD. But for its purposes, the detail, which was wrought from the music emanating came across as clean and detailed. Not overly crisp, but not soggy, I would call this distinct. A fine DAC, which when paired with a quality amp such as the venerable EarMen TR-AMP would make some much higher priced duos recoil with slight fear.
Bass comes across as fairly taut and defining with more than I thought, and not as much overlord into the mids. Not quite the grunt power of the iFi products (not much does), I liken this to the refreshing taut push down below of the Questyle CMA twelve master, but not costing that price. No, it does not function at that “punch way above its price,” but rather provides me with the same sort of surprised feeling of a tight, clean and crisp response down below. I always want more bass, but if you have heard the CMA 12M, you understand that sometimes the quality of that low sound (and across the spectrum) is worth well more than adding a muddied sound for the sake of punch. Call this ever-so-slightly warm, but more a detail response, which does not cloud the mids.
The mids sound a bit subdued, but not veiled. I find defining these sound characteristics hard, but still try to relate it to what I can and do know. Slightly behind the rest, the vocals are still clean and represent what is engineered if a bit thin, lacking that fullness of a higher-end DAC. I do not mind for this is still a very fine rendition of the sound. Instruments, which present itself here come across as clean and nearly full, lacking a bit in the edge department. A bit more bite to the sound here would have rendered the sound as full-fronted and vibrant. I do not mind this at all, and that distinct sound of which I spoke in the summary above still comes across, but not quite like others. Call this nitpicking, for this really is a wonderfully sounding device.
Finishing up top with the treble tendencies, the filter choice can play into the hands of what you want out of the sound. On Marieta by Ibrahim Ferrer, that distinctness of sound comes across as clarity-driven and clean; just not like those multi-hundred dollar DAC’s that everyone wants/slaves over/lusts after/promotes. This is good sound up top, and does not offend me like some of another company that shall remain nameless. Suffice to say, I appreciate that this is not a grating, cringe-worthy sound up top, and applaud the treatment while listeing to Chan Chan from the Buena Vista Social Club. Sensuous and delivering a sound, which matches that sensuous nature with emotion, the T2P gives me just what I desire here; passion.
The sound also comes across as wider of soundstage than I had though, but depth suffers a bit. I am nitpicking again, and instrumentation is perfectly placed and discernible from the music pouring forth regardless. The trumpet solo on Chan Chan is wonderfully light and (again) distinct. Followed by the guitar solo, you clearly hear the artist sitting stage left playing the guitar on his knee. Layering as a result is good as well. This is a very good rendition of the music for the price, and one could easily live with this for both portable use (commuting) and desktop use at work.
This section will be short. As mentioned, driving the Moondrop duo was best done on high gain, and I could easily tax my ears with music too loud, but for harder to drive units, another amp would not be your worst choice. Using the T2P as a dedicated DAC to me is getting the best use out of it.
Khadas Tone 2 Pro ($199) v EarMen Sparrow ($199):
When I first received the Sparrow, I note its small size, realizing this was the way of the future when dealing with DAC dongles. Running almost twice the price of others of the same ilk, the Sparrow had better perform. And it did. And it does. With fewer “controls” (as in none), the Sparrow automatically changes when bitrate is sampled. Having only a 3.5se and a (much more) powerful 2.5bal headphone jack, you are at the mercy of your volume control and the engineers from EarMen. And that’s all right, for they do know what they are doing.
The Sparrow promotes more in the mid-section to me, and with a bit more warmth. I would also add that the bass response makes its presence felt a bit more in the mids as well. Treble is pushed forward, too; giving the listener a thoroughly engaging sound and one which begs to be turned up. While you are at the mercy of what source you are using for controllability and amp features, if you want a simple, straightforward, excellent sound DAC, then to me there is not a finer offering than the Sparrow for the price. The Tone 2 Pro offers much more flexibility and many more features with which to play, but sound wise, the Sparrow tops it in terms of detail, but only slightly.
This comes down to whether you want the flexibility of the T2P, or the simplicity of plug-n-play and forget sound of the Sparrow. Both are really god for what they provide the listener.
Khadas Tone 2 Pro ($199) v iFi xDSD ($399):
Not really a fair comparison here, as the iFi truly is a monster in terms of DAC’s and with an amp, which could very well put some dedicated portable “amps” to shame as well. Showing its age, the iFi does give the user the ability to hook up much like the T2P, though. Add in XBass and 3D+ features and you get the toys, which the T2P does not have. You can also BT at the current time, which means you can use it with your smartphone for an increased listening pleasure (one hopes…).
Sound though is of a warmer and richer variety, especially when you throw the switches so to speak. I would not call one better but merely different. You want features, which are easier to use, and POWER, then the iFi is the choice. If you want excellent sound and a DAC, which is really good; get the T2P and add a competent amp.
I have not heard the original Tone but trust the judgement of those who have. They state that for the price it was (and is) one of the best budget DAC’s out there and many still use it. A kind of cult following ensued, which I do hope carries over with the Tone 2 Pro. We often are charged with defining “the best” or “sounds the greatest,” but to me that misses the point; especially here. Another reviewer, Ryan states in his excellent review how the T2P isn’t meant to be the best across all levels, and it cannot be. But to rather compete at its level giving the user a taste of excellent sound for the price (https://everydaylistening.net/2021/03/23/khadas-tone-2-pro-review/). I agree.
The Tone 2 Pro is not meant to be the best, nor sound the greatest. It is meant to provide a versatile, innovative update to one of their timely products; which happens to sound great for the price as well. And when taken in that niche, the Tone 2 succeeds. It does sound really quite good and packed with features makes this a certain success, while putting other manufacturers on notice about a possible direction that could take place in the portable DAC market.
I thank the anonymous donor for the loan of the Tone 2 Pro, and begrudgingly send it back to them dreaming of the sound pleasures, which filtered from all which were hooked to it. The Tone 2 Pro is a very good device.