No headphone jack? No problem. This awesome little DAC/amp has you covered.
Back in the middle of the last decade, big tech manufacturers started removing the tried and trusted headphone jack from their phones. Sure, it was old technology, using up space inside densely packed phones, and the world has been increasingly going wireless, but sadly wireless audio still has a long way to go. The fact remains, as every Headphonesty reader knows, the world’s best-sounding headphones, IEMs, and earbuds all use a physical connector, mostly the ubiquitous 3.5mm plug.
It’s rare to get both a headphone jack and a good quality DAC in a modern phone. Thankfully, if you want to take your favorite headphones when leaving the house, there are now many portable DAC/amp devices that take the digital signal from your phone and deliver both quality output and power. The Beam 2SE is a great example in an increasingly crowded market, delivering solid value for money.
- Tiny and unobtrusive design
- It comes with USB-A, USB-C, and Lightning connectors
- Clean sound with support for PCM, DSD and MQA
- Unit and connectors can get hot
- Increases drain on host device battery
Hilidac is a sub-brand of Shenzhen Audirect Technology Co., Ltd., that describes itself as “a professional audio company, specializing in HiVi and HiFi products.” They’ve been in the DAC business for over five years and have several compact designs to choose from, with the Beam 2SE being one of the newest models.
Hilidac stands for Hi-Fi Improved Lossless Incredible DAC….. Don’t you just love that?
- Price: USD $90
- Form: DAC/amp
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-40kHz
- Output Power: ≥115mW(16Ω), ≥120mW(32Ω), ≥6.8mW(600Ω)
- THD+N: 0.0003%
- PCM Decoding: 32Bit/384kHz
- DSD Decoding: DSD128
- MQA Decoding: Final Unfold
- Removable Cable: Yes
- Source Jack: USB-C
- Dimensions: 53x15x10mm
- Weight: 23g
In keeping with its diminutive size, the Beam 2SE comes in a small, sleek black box. Lifting the lid reveals the DAC/amp, and pulling a small red tab reveals the attractive, short braided cables underneath that connect to the unit’s USB-C port.
It’s good to see such tasteful packaging at this price, providing a pleasing unboxing experience. I like that the supplied connectors will cover almost all of today’s smartphones and computers, even iPhones, with the included Lightning connector. The only missing option is Micro-USB, though that’s easily remedied with an adapter if needed.
In the box
- The DAC/Amp
- USB-A, USB-C, and Lightning connectors
- Quick Reference card
The Beam 2SE is almost the exact same size as a AA battery, making it easy to carry along with your headphones and very pocketable with IEMs. There are two jacks: USB-C on one end and 3.5mm on the other. HiliDAC scores a point with its modular design. Many similar ‘pigtail’ DAC/amps have a fixed, attached cable on the source side, and this may require the use of an additional adapter or dongle to get the desired interface.
For controls, along one of the shiny metallic edges, there’s a small button that can be used to change volume gain between high, medium, and low, and a tiny LED alongside to show which you’ve selected. The front has the Audirect logo and another small LED indicating the audio format and bitrate.
The diminutive size of the Hilidac makes it the perfect companion for listening on the go.
Tucked inside the tiny Beam 2SE is an ESS9281C PRO chip with a Hyperstream II QUAD DAC providing independent operation for the left and right channels. The OP-AMP implementation ensures a comfortable level of power for driving headphones as high as 600 Ohms. Impressive!
Beam 2SE Sound
When it comes to assessing the sound quality of this mini DAC/amp, much will depend on the headphones chosen, and it’s perhaps more useful to compare the sound to other portable options. Audirect also sells a more powerful version, the Beam 2S, which offers balanced output for a higher price. This Beam 2SE is single-ended only.
I used a pair of Sennheiser HD650 headphones (300 Ohm) and Kinera BD005 Pro IEMs (16 Ohm) for my listening. The Beam 2SE was driven by an iPhone 6S, the last iPhone with a headphone jack, and I also tried it with Apple’s 3.5mm dongle. For the music source, I used QoBuz for Hi-Res audio and Tidal for trying MQA files.
Overall I found the sound signature of this DAC/amp to be bright and detailed. Apple puts good quality DACs in its hardware, but there was a noticeable improvement in separation and clarity when switching to the Hilidac. The Lightning connector does get quite warm in use, and there did also seem to be an effect on battery life for the iPhone, but I’d consider both of these a price worth paying.
The extra power available from this tiny powerhouse (almost 4x a typical iPhone headphone jack with a 32 Ohm load) is what really helps it impress, especially with my more power-hungry Sennheisers. I’d expect the upgrade to be a lot more noticeable across a broad range of portable devices, from laptops to Android phones, where money is often saved by using cheaper DACs and weaker amps.
Bright and revealing, this miniature marvel of a DAC provides exceptional sound for the asking price.
I started off with the Kinera IEMs and was immediately treated to excellent sub-bass extension and the familiar bass rumble that IEMs tend to have a knack for delivering. The Kineras are relatively easy to drive, but the Hilidac had no problem providing similar bass power to the Sennheisers (on the high gain setting). Listening to the luscious deep kick bass on the wonderful Tired Boy by Joey Pecoraro put a broad smile on my face.
Mids sounded very well balanced, and there was noticeable extra separation between instruments and vocals compared to the phone and laptop DACs. I found myself drawn into the music, forgetting I was supposed to be listening critically. That’s a sign there’s something right about any audio component and very impressive at this price. The timbre of female vocalist Lisa Ono’s voice was a joy to listen to on Falando de Amor.
Here I’ll sound a note of caution. The Beam 2SE has a brightness and crispness that could become fatiguing if listening on headphones or IEMs that also have their own bright sound signature. This wasn’t an issue with my warm-sounding Sennheisers, and with those, I was relishing the open, airy, and detailed reproduction of some of my favorite tracks.
With the Kinera IEMs, it was a different story. These already have a bright top end, and so whilst this made for an immediately impressive experience through the Hilidac, I did find the combination started wearing on me after a while. Not a criticism of either the DAC/amp or the Kineras, just something to note when pairing with your favorite headphones or IEMs.
Plug-and-play doesn’t get better at this price point!
Where to Buy
If you’re ready to up-level your on-the-go listening experience, the Hilidac Beam 2SE is an excellent place to start and excellent value for money. Its tiny size makes it easy to carry along with you.
It looks good, and most importantly, it sounds fantastic, providing plenty of power for all but the most demanding headgear. Just make sure to charge your smartphone battery before you leave the house!