XDUOO LINK2 BAL: The (musical) beauty and the (amping) beast

THE PLUS:
-Densely rich, musical and open sound
-Very powerfull amping power for it’s size
-Gain switch, play-pause and volume control buton
-Sturdy high quality all metal+glass construction
-Stable current output that doesn’t distort even at max volume
-lush timbre that isn’t typical of this DAC model implementation
-Care free plug and play
-Price value

THE MINUS:
-Add warmth to bass that affect definition
-Not cleanest noise floor for sensitive IEM
-Can loose precision in imaging with busy tracks
-Not class leading in resolution and technicalities

TONALITY: 8.5/10
TECHNICALITIES: 8/10
AMPING POWER PORTABILITY: 9/10
CONSTRUCTION-DESIGN: 9/10
SOUND VALUE: 8.5/10

Xduoo is well know for their DAP like the Xduoo X3II or X20 and their DAC-AMP like the XD-05+, but they aren’t new to dongle world with their Link HD and Link2 ultra portable DAC-AMP latest offering.
Today I will review their newest dongle, the Link2 BAL which use dual cirrus CS43131 dac chip amped by independant texas instrument OPamp LM27762. This dongle promise very high amping power, delivering up to 270mw@32ohm with it’s 4.4mm balanced output.
Let’s see in this review if the Link2 BAL is just about power or if it can be seen as a cheaper and better alternative to entry level and mid tier DAP.



CONSTRUCTION-DESIGN

Firstly, the packaging while minimal in presentation have everything you need for full android and IOS compatibility, it include both USB-C to USB-C and lightning cable as well as USB-C to USB adaptor, which is very welcome. Cables seem of very decent quality as well.

I’m very impress by the crafmanship of LINK2, it have a mix of industrial and elegant look with it’s CNC metal body stick in between 2 double sided glass. It feel very sturdy and durable. Their no plastic part, the buton and switch being metal too and well construct. It have a bit of reassuring weight to it too. The body isn’t easy to scratch since mine fall on the ground multiple time without scar at they end. Why did it fall? Because while this double-sided glass is very durable it is very slippy too, and tend to move by it’s own on a table or a book which yes can be annoying.


Another good thing about is thick sturdy body is that it doesn’t get hot even after hour of use.

In term of phone battery consumption, if you use Balanced at high volume it will sure inflict more on phone battery otherwise it’s similar to Audirect BEAM2 and Tempotec E44.

SOUND IMPRESSIONS

SPATIAL PRESENTATION:
I would summarize the spatiality as tall and wide with a rounded deepness that isn’t crisp and airy in it’s accuracy. The LINK2 tend to make music and instrument bigger than nature, with a grand sound projection that resonate a bit like horn woofer pluged to an high end vintage amp, if you can portrait this in your mind.

IMAGING:
Precision and accuracy are a bit lacking in proper clean definition and crisp separation, but euphonic timbre that blur sound image contour a bit still have enough transparency to deliver an organic sens of layering, where sounds layers mix their contrast togheter instead of being static, clinical and highly well define in their presence. This make you more immerse in a macroscopic richness, instead of keeping you distant with a clean view. When big bass occur, it will inflict on positioning clarity too.

TONALITY:
This isn’t a 100% neutral DAC-AMP since the independant amping section did add a bit of warmth and analogish euphony (romantic harmonic distortion in mid bass&lower mids section). Bass feel slightly boosted and tend to be part of mid range instead of well separated, whatever the IEM I use with LINK2, it add this mid bass ”sirup” that thickhen timbre of the CS43131 DAC which is know for being lean when used with it’s internal amplifier chip. When I say warm, it doesn’t mean the LINK2 is lacking in details or texture, in fact, it’s very nuanced in both but everything seem to have a ”presence gain” that favorize relief and density of sound over the picturing of every single ”sound pixel” it can have.

DYNAMIC RANGE & AMPING POWER:
This is where the amping power and well implemented mix of balanced dual DAC with powerfull high output texas instrument OPamp LM27762 show it’s DAC-AMP cocktail magic, not only by delivering a tremendous amout of power up to 4vrms or 270mw@32ohm balanced way, but by adding dynamic weight and openess amplitude too. This sure is part of ”bigger than nature” holographic sound presentation it offer, as well as hint of extra timbre density.
In the other hand, it did inflict on accuracy with complex busy track, especially at high gain, since the energic expression of isntrument will tend to mix more their sustain resonance. That’s something to add, attack is more about lead weight that snap and impact brilliance and long resonance, not that an acoustic guitar will sound off at all, not just very delicate and airy, excited in expressive presence.

About the amping power, balanced is about 2 times more powerfull (4vrms vs 2vrms) and have a hint less black noise floor. As said, the OPamp used is very impressive and stable in power output, so I was surpise to be able to drive properly my Hifiman Sundara and get a full bodied sound with plenty of dynamic heft, without any distortion due to amping struggle. This is the very first ultra portable DAC-AMP to achieve this since my Audirect BEAM2 can’t be push at max volume without distortion issue.
Simply put, while amping isn’t THX clean, it doesn’t hiss or go muddy and can drive anything with high or low sensitivity up to 300ohm without issue.

About high sensivity low impendance IEM, again, the LINK2 surprise use with a rather smooth and open sound free of extreme hiss or distortion, my Audiosense T800 tend to have bass distortion with amping that have too high impedance, this isn’t the case with this one and at low gain you can only hear minimal background noise and hiss, but still, this confirm it isn’t perfectly clean sounding DAC-AMP, a little like the Xduoo XD05+ in that regard.

OTHER TECHNICAL ASPECT:
Attack sustain and release isn’t the type that creat fast snap and long natural decay, decay is tight and bit fuzzy. Attack lead is all about weight more than perfectly well define impact. Transparency is a hint blurry, yet like a transparent fog, which add a sens of timbre lushness. Attack timing is good but show it’s limit in very complex and fast busy track where you will struggle to extract every percussions individually even with an high end IEM like Final A8000. Bass have notable harmonic distortion that can be pleasant since it add warmth. Upper treble seem to roll off a bit, affecting brilliance and sparkle as well as micro-details retreival.

SUBJECTIVE ENJOYMENT:
This dongle is very musical and easy to love, the fact it tend to thicken timbre and smooth peaky edge of IEM is a big plus that make it’s tonality highly versatile. Since day one i’m charm by the tonality of Link2 and doesn’t get tired of it even after more than one month of daily use. In fact, i would love to have a DAP that sound as rich, open and weighty in dynamic. This isn’t your typical CS43131 DAC sound, it isn’t thin and light in bass at all, sure the warmth might not be for everyone since it affect a bit limitation of critical listening, but the fact this isn’t an analytical sounding dongle is a plus in term of laid back musicality that you can get lost for hours and hours. As well, it’s not a dark sounding dongle, you have plenty of sound layers to dig in even if overall tonality is more homogeneous and thick than highly diversify in dynamic amplitudes. Cohesion is natural, nothing seem forced and you never feel out of the music, your a part of it, physically and emotionally.


PAIRING

While I would not suggest this DAC-AMP for extremely sensitive IEM, it sure is a good matching with near everything I throw at it due to it’s pleasant versatile tonality and generous power output.

It tend to add meat to timbre, heft and warmth to bass slam and lushness to the mids, while softing the upper treble a bit and brilliance-sparkly-spike of IEM and Headphones I use. So, to me it doesn’t magnify resolution but dynamism of attack and tonal balance as well as adding relief to vocal and isntrument presence.

With my FINAL A8000, it rounded the bass as a whole, multipling sensation of weight and slam, as well it seem vocal are softer and more natural and treble less crisp and analytical. I love this mix alot even if it affect some technical parameter of the A8K like it’s pristine transparency and attack snap and speed.

With Audiosense T800, it’s like mixing to similar tonality, since timbre is a bit dense and fuzzy with T800 it stole air and crispness, affecting negatively clarity of imaging and bass separation, since T800 is already boosted in mid bass boom. Here, i prefer the old Tempotec HD PRO that use a single CS43131.

With Hisenior T2U, this is another superb pairing that ”heal” BA timbre by softening its ”metallic vibrancy” and adding density. Mid bass here gain in weight and roundness, which is very welcome. T2U become sweeter and fuller bodied as a whole.

With an earbud like NiceHCK EB2S, the result is again very charming. Thicker timbre, bit of extra bass punch and extra spatial wideness-tallness, but not deepness.

COMPARISONS

VS TEMPOTEC E44 (90$)

E44
DAC=Dual cirrus CS43131
Power output= 175mw@32ohm 4.4bal
SNR=130db

LINK2 BAL
DAC=Dual CS43131
AMP CHIP=LM27762
Power output=275mw@32ohm 4.4Bal 125mw Se
SNR=127db

These are a bit similar in tonal balance, not timbre nor spatiality presentation since BAL is more open, wide and tall. The independant amp section did inflict greatly to overall sound ,adding hint of warmth and density to individual instrument without affecting negatively the resolution.

Still, E44 feel more cold-clean, with an edge in definition that is more evident in busy messy music passage where BAL will have more harmonic distortion and blurry micro details. E44 hacve deeper spatiality and more precise instrument placement in a more restrain spatiality. Silence feel cleaner as well as background noise lower.

Something surprising too, is how the bass differ with those 2, BAL being notably weightier warmer and more beefy in slam due to extra sub bass presence. Sub bass have more density, rumble and mid bass is a bit less vivid in tight punch, less well separated from mids tooa nd more prompt to mix and thicken tonality.

To go back about timbre, which is biggest difference between those 2 after power output, E44 is thinner with greater transparency, a bit more polished less textured-grainy than BAL, vocal are a bit more lush, euphonic and appealing with BAL but not as well cleanly extracted in presence.

It’s evident to me that LINK2 BAL is more about amping power upgrade than proper sound quality upgrade, since its really more about timbre and slightly warmer more analogish tonality which can be usefull for brighter IEM or power hungry ones like the Final A8000 I use, but still, if you plan to only use balanced output on it, im not sure you need this extra 100mw the extra amping section deliver. Why? Because it had hint of harmonic distortion, which will inflict technical performance in term of attack sustain, snap and overall resolution. We are in tonality subjectivity for this case. Some will swear that BAL is better when in fact they find musicality more charming, thats all. Oh, and i check the SNR after this comparison….interesting isn’t it that E44 is better in that regard?

VS TRI TK2 (dual ES9038q2m+A-B dual amping)

TK2 having different dual DAC and amping architecture, it will surely sound different. But biggest difference here is in term of size and amping power which is near five times higher at 1250mw@32ohm with TK2, as well, it is battery powered.

The TK2 deliver as much output single ended than BAL, so let’s just say it kick out of water the Xduoo in that regard, as well, amping section seem cleaner and to have perhaps lower impedance. Still, unlike the Xduoo, it doesn’t have proper gain switch but A+B amping mode being unlock apss certain volume level, which is a limitation. In that regard as well as portability, the Xduoo have the upper hands here.

Now for the sound, tonal balance is perhaps a bit similar in the sens TK2 have a slight extra bass heft too in mid bass section, but it doesn’t warm as much the mids and have better separation and cleaner definition making the bass more transparent yet textured too. Resolution and imaging go to TK2 as well as transparency as stated, timbre is more organic and just a hint less dense, especially in vocal section and mids which feel leaner in dynamic. Biggest difference is in treble presentation and extension, the TK2 have more snap and natural resonance-decay and higher level of micro details. Xduoo is lusher, warmer, thicker as a whole in tonality too, less refined and revealing, less liquid and smooth too.

VS TEMPOTEC HD V (60$)

Both compared with SE output.

SE output of HD V=95mw@32ohm
SE of LINK 2 BAL=125mw@32ohm
(using the Final A8000 for reference IEM that can dig all details and imperfection of any audio source)

These aren’t similar at all, the XDUOO sound more open, warmish, holographic with more sub bass presence (surely due to extra power and/or independant amp not sure). This bass is a bit warmer yet cleaner-organic and less saturated thicken with texture or THD.

Don’t be fool though, HD V is no slouch and deliver higher level of details and sound info, the dynamic seem move varied in amplitude too, bass is tigher more punchy, overall resolution less analogish.

Wider spatial presentation of LINK2 make it more immersive, less intimate vision if we can say. But for rock and stuffs that need more bite, extra energy and texture of HD V is more appropriate.

Timbre wise, the LINK2 is smoother-lusher especially in mid range, vocal having a less energic yet more appealing presence.

Technically, and this will perhaps be polemical, but the HD V seem superior, with complex fucked up track, amount of sounds layers are better separated and define, details doesnt get mix up or prompt to harmonic distortion and sub bass doesnt mix up neither, attack is sharper-snappier yet less resonant and spacious.

I’m surprise to come to this conclusion myself in fact. Will perhaps change my mind once i test balanced output of LINK2.

Anyway, here, with HD V we have another big winner in term of supreme sound value, while sound benefit is not as high with LINK2 BAL, it’s sure there for superior versatility both in musicality and power output. As well, construction fo both is very good, but LINK2 BAL have control button, another big plus, and seem even more sturdy in the sens it will not get side scratch like the HD V will surely do due to its mirror finish side.

Both are Keeper for me. But you’ll see, TEMPOTEC HD V will grow in hype and praise, perhaps as high as their best seller HD PRO in the past.

VS FIIO KA3 (80$-ES9038q2m DAC+dual RT6863D amps)

Here we have near opposite tonality, the KA3 being notably brighter, crisper and more analytical, whith thinner dryer timbre and lighter bass with sub bass roll off. While amping power is suppose to be near the same with 240mw@32ohm for the KA3, it doesn’t translate in same sound openess and loudness, as well, with the Sundara KA3 will make distortion at max volume which isn’t the case for the Link2.
Technically, imaging is crisper and more accurate with KA3, so i will use this one for music production and mastering instead of less accurate Link2.
For music listening and enjoyment, their not a single doubt Link2 is more appealing and natural, spatiality is less compressed, way more open and tall, though a bit less clean and deep than KA3.

CONCLUSION

The Xduoo LINK2 BAL is an excellent dongle DAC-AMP that could put to shame lot of DAP in 300$ price range. It happen to me often that my mind wish it to be a DAP, since the musicality is so appealing and amping power perfect for versatile portable use. The sound presentation is bigger than life, with an appealing densely open holographic sound with a hint of analog warmth to it. This is a dongle made to magnify musicality instead of sharp technicalities and resolution without never feeling it lack in sound info or dynamic nuances.
If your an audiophile that favorise musicality and emotionality of a sound device and aren’t obsess about last word in higher resolution and accuracy, the Xduoo Link2 Bal is sure a DAC-AMP that doesn’t sound clinical, overly lean or analytical and to me, this is how we should enjoy music: by being immerse in it’s rich cohesive musicality that embrace us and make us part of it’s universe, not distant and forced to critic every cold details it may hide.
The Xduoo Link2 BAL is a keeper. Highly recommended!

———-

PS: I wanna thanks Hifigo for this review sample after I manifest my high interest to try it. I’m not affiliated with this audio distributor and will never do compromise in my sound impressions to please them.
You can buy the Xduoo Link2 BAL for 134$ here:
https://hifigo.com/products/link2-bal

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