Most people know Miniwatt from their extremely well-received budget N3 loudspeaker tube amplifier. Sadly, the $500 entry-level wonder has been discontinued and MW is focusing its efforts on the new emerging market of portable digital. The MiniWatt N4 ($350) bears no resemblance to its predecessor whatsoever, other than they both could likely fit on a desktop together.
The N4 is roughly the size of a deck of cards and wrapped loving in black stitched leather. The front and rear faceplates bear a standard machined aluminum feel to them and the front-facing side features only a small headphone jack with two buttons for digital volume adjustment. While the back serves up a little more excitement for a portable unit (analog and coaxial digital outs) the overall feel here is pretty simple. The extra outputs allow the N4 to act as a USB to SPDIF converter and I always appreciate the additional line level connections, bonus points for the full-size RCAs.
Stepping back and looking at the product from a strictly technical “what-you-get” vantage point shapes up pretty well for the price. A head amp (with >10 ohms of output resistance), USB converter, standalone DAC all look good on paper. But you are probably aware if you are reading this review, there are a lot of competitive products out there filling the field with similar offerings. Still, not all (or even many) of the close competition flush out the full package you get with the portability of the N4. Even more direct-from-the-USB-port stick options are entering the market, most of which offer only a single mini-jack connectivity option so the flexibility is most welcome. The only thing missing here that is featured on some of the close competitors is a analog input to utilize the unit as a standalone headphone amplifier.
Headphone output has a somewhat gradual arc to it, but ends up at a fairly decent point for the size. Volume levels didn’t reach as far as some of the big guys from ALO or Ray Samuels, but Audeze and low impedance phones were easily driven. The 300 ohm Sennheiser HD650 nearly pushed the amplifier’s capabilities to limit, but I was still able to get slightly-above-normal listening levels out of its maximum.
I’m not a massive fan of digital domain volume control. While the analog pedometers aren’t without their unique drawbacks, their digital counterparts have a tendency to lean on the quality of the output on far too many occasions. Not a major issue here, but still not a preference of mine. In some [situations] it can’t be avoided, but given the size and design of the external casing, a few more possibilities are open to the N4. When paired with Audirvana Plus the front facing plus and minus buttons was able to pull the volume up or down on the player, so the N4 does provide you with a few additional options for control with the your computer.
Miniwatt decided to go with the [TI PCM1795 chip] for the digital end of business. The chip is capable of 32/192 kHz but currently doesn’t handle the portable-elusive DSD file type. Compatibility didn’t prove to be an issue with any software I paired it with although a somewhat-unconventional two device labels of both “Speaker” and “SPDIF” appear in Audirvana’s output options to the device. Connecting a headphone to the front jack mutes the output to the analog outs in the rear. By isolating the DAC section via these analog outputs to a separate headphone amplifier I noticed what I hear quite often with portable DAC sections, the headphone amplifier frequently outperforms the DAC when space is a premium. Portable amplification seems to be a bit easier to hit the mark on than D/A conversion in restricted spaces. Still, the unit sounds good as a whole considering the price. The DAC on the N4 offered good punch in the lows with respectable rendering in the mids and highs. Compared to the more premium-priced ALO International, the DAC section appeared to have just a bit more bass emphasis, but only slightly so. This additional bass didn’t creep up into the midbass in an uncomfortable way, so I found it quite pleasing to listen to.
Much of this DAC responsiveness crept into the final results of the N4 as a whole package. The tiny package features and ever-so-slight bass increase with respectable fidelity and good top end extension. Compared to the standard headphone output on my Macbook Air, I noticed a much fuller sound, especially from the mids and lows that rightfully complemented the overall realism and articulation of the output. Listening to Jimmy Webb’s P.F. Sloan through the N4 produced a reaction that reached higher and filled in the dynamic vocals in a big way over the internal amplification of the Macbook. Although the laptop can push the LCD-3s to respectable listening levels, the N4 offered up more control, detail and presence, especially throughout the bass through mid frequencies. From Miniwatt: “We’re using premium audiophile grade components (Philips long-life aluminum caps and Japanese SMT components, etc.) and digital volume control (The N4 features balance output on both L & R channels if compared with traditional resistive volume control) to deliver audiophile grade-sound quality. The N4 is also firmware upgradable.”
The N4 is a full collection of audiophile ins and outs in a very tidy package. It makes a great fit for someone looking for oodles of connections for high-resolution playback while on the go or even in a home stereo. Competing in a very dense forest of portable DAC/Amps makes it hard to find your way through the trees, but if you have your sights set on something with plenty of digital versatility under $400 bucks and analog volume control isn’t a must-have then the N4 might just be your huckleberry. The portable, leather-bound deck of cards can boost your listening on the go while the USB conversion flexibility makes a great tiny DAC for your computer-sourced stereo at home, should you choose to go that route.
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00F3420X8/