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MonoRice 1X USB DAC – grand theft audio?

  • “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville


    The MonoRice 1X USB DAC (US$59) and headphone amplifier looks more like a USB thumb drive than the majority of its similarly form-factored rivals. Plug the 1X into a Mac or PC’s USB to soup-up its sound quality when listening via headphones (or hi-fi).

    Listen to a nice recording – preferably one that’s been losslessly compressed – and compare it to the output of your average laptop and you’ll hear more clarity on Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, better dynamics from Redshape’s Square and, most notably, more resolution from the bouncy art-pop of Django Django’s “Default”.

    Next to the MonoRice 1X, the 3.5mm headphone output on a 2014 Apple MacBook Air (11”) sounds plain muddy.

    Comparing the MonoRice 1X with the twice costly but now discontinued AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2 (US$149), the former can’t quite match the latter’s more relaxed repose and spacious headstage. I paired both with the great arbiters of IEM audio truth, Campfire Audio’s Andromeda, to conclude that the DragonFly v1.2 sounds considerably smoother and W I D E R on headstaging than the Monny-Come-Lately.

    In-hand, the AudioQuest v1.2’s rubberised skin and overall build quality feels much nicer than hard plastic of the 1X. Its illuminated DragonFly logo looks more elegant than the 1X’s twin LEDs.

    No mind. The MonoRice offering sells for almost one third of the price of the DragonFly v1.2 and just over half that of its successor, the DragonFly Black (review here), with which it fails to compete on almost every level.

    However, despite its audible shortcomings, it’s safe to conclude that the 1X offers price commensurate performance.

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    So who’s complaining? AudioQuest is who.

    Like any DragonFly, the MonoRice 1X demands no additional software drivers in order to decode PCM streams up to 24bit/96kHz. Neither does it handle DSD.

    Pop the hood on the 1X though and the similarities become more questionable. MonoRice specify a Texas Instruments’ TAS1020B for USB reception and an ESS Labs Sabre 9023 for D/A conversion. Just like the DragonFly v1.2.

    How do we know this? A MonoRice customer took his 1X apart and posted the results to IMGUR with the title “Teardown of MonoRice 1X USB DAC Headphone Amp, exactly same hardware as the Audioquest DragonFly 1.2 for half the price!”

    These claimed similarities were confirmed when the AudioQuest press team put those teardown snaps next to their own shots of the DragonFly v1.2’s internal board layout.

    df-cf-side-by-side

    No doubt feeling somewhat aggrieved, the Californian tech- (née cable-) company subsequently issued a press release warning customers of the FakeFly’s existence.

    “Will the real DragonFly® please stand up?” its title rhetorically asked.

    “It has recently come to light that a counterfeit version of the guts of DragonFly v1.2 is inside multiple brands of Made In China small USB DACs.”

    “It is important to note the authentic versions of all DragonFlys, as with all of the new AudioQuest “Digital Critters,” are manufactured in Ohio, USA.”

    For Statesiders wanting to make their country great again, the choice is easy: buying the DragonFly is a vote for American jobs. The MonoRice 1X is Made in China.

    I bought a MonoRice 1X to ensure DAR coverage went beyond the press release. You’ve already read my findings on its audible performance and outward aesthetics.

    “Not only are the internals of these other DACs illegal copies, they are not exact copies…”, continued AudioQuest’s press release.

    ‘Illegal’ is a curious word choice when discussing components available to any hardware manufacturer. This IP copycatting can be suggested…but not 100% proven.

    Time to further shore up the case against these would be copycat/s.

    Regular readers will know that 21st century D/A conversion isn’t just a matter of hardware but also software. For their DragonFly series, AudioQuest are a fully paid-up licensee of Gordon Rankin’s Streamlength code.

    Rankin’s work is considered by many as instrumental in moving USB audio from adaptive to asynchronous – where the DAC, not the upstream computer, controls the audio data clock. “The tail no longer wags the dog!”, quips Rankin’s USBdacs.com.

    Other Streamlength licensees include Berkley Audio, Ayre Acoustics, Grace Audio Design and Halide. Note the absence of MonoRice.

    When licensed, Rankin’s Streamlength code sits on the DAC’s USB receiver chip; in the case of the v1.2 DragonFly, that’s a TAS1020B for which, recalling an exchange between Rankin and myself at CES 2016, the Streamlength code is encrypted.

    No way that MonoRice would copy that, even if they wanted to, right?

    monorice-x1-5

    On the surface it appears that both the DragonFly v1.2 and MonoRice 1X introduce themselves to OS X as distinctly separate entities: ‘AudioQuest DragonFly’ and ‘MonoRice 1X USB DAC’ are the descriptors appearing in the sound preferences panel of an 11” MacBook Air.

    It’s in the system information panel that our plot takes a sketchier turn: the DragonFly v1.2 announces its vendor ID – allocated by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) to AudioQuest – as ‘0x21b4’.

    Quoting from the USB IF FAQ:

    “Vendor IDs (VIDs) are owned by the vendor company and are assigned and maintained by the USB-IF only.”

    In the same sys-info panel, the v1.2’s product ID is shown as ‘0x0081’.

    monorice-x1-6

    Back to the USB-IF’s FAQ: “Product IDs (PIDs) are assigned by each vendor as they see fit; the USB-IF recommends each vendor set up a coordinated allocation scheme for PIDs so different teams don’t inadvertently choose the same PID for different products. Duplicate numbers may cause driver error.”

    Plug in the MonoRice 1X and we would expect its product and/or vendor IDs to be different. And yet they are not.

    Viewed from OS X’s sys-info panel, both the 1X’s vendor ID and product ID are identical to AudioQuest’s. And despite showing a distinct manufacturer name and serial number, the MonoRice 1X’s version field reads ‘v1.20’. If that doesn’t cast serious doubt as to the originality of MonoRice’s own USB code, I’ll eat my DAC.

    monorice-x1-7

    The evidence strongly suggests that MonoRice have not only gone some way to ape the DragonFly’s hardware configuration but that they have also (somehow) cracked the Texas Instruments’ on-chip encryption to lift Rankin’s Streamlength code lock, stock and two smoking barrels. DAC design done, no R&D required.  

    A Streamlength credit has since been removed from the 1X’s product listing.

    Not every American will be moved by the argument of ‘Made in the USA’. I get that. For overseas buyers, it’s probably irrelevant.

    However, do we not have a responsibility to resist the lower pricing of copycat manufacturers – no doubt a direct result of skipping out on software licensing costs – and who, one might argue, offer zero innovation of their own and are almost certainly profiting from the sale of stolen intellectual property?

    Further information: Nope

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    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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