Part DAC, part streamer, and part preamp, the Mini-i 4 aims to do it all.
- Clear, uncolored sound
- Balanced and SE outputs
- Many inputs – preamp functionality
- Intuitive and fully featured phone app
- Tons of features
- Large local music collections are slow to navigate
- No wireless connections – no Bluetooth, no WiFi
- No hardware remote included
- Small screen
- No digital output means no external DAC support
Try as I might to fight it, playing offline music is inexorably becoming a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong, I am unabashedly a vinyl addict, but streaming services are starting to supplant my giant digital music collection.
I find myself valuing fancy DACs as much for their connection options (Bluetooth, AirPlay, etc.) as for their ability to decode locally stored network files.
It’s quickly becoming the age of combo digital streamers/DACs.
I’ve tried to build this sort of device to varying levels of success. Pi streamers, both with screen and headless, have always provided a good, but not quite perfect, experience. Setup challenges, clunky interfaces, and limited support seem to be a universal Achilles heel.
I just want a single device that does it all. Effortlessly. And to sound amazing. Is that too much to ask?
Sure, if money is no object, the Naim Unity Atom HE exists and is a wonderful device. Full stop. But can I have it all without mortgaging my house?
Enter the Matrix Audio mini-i 4. On paper, it seems to be almost exactly what I’m looking for. Reasonably priced, great app, color screen, gigabit ethernet, USB storage player, TIDAL and Spotify support, Roon ready, and AirPlay capable.
But wait, no Bluetooth or WIFI?
Is the mini-i 4 exactly what I’m looking for, or is it simply a new compromise?
Unboxing and First Impression
Matrix Electronic Technology Co., LTD was founded in 2006 in Xi’an, China, when 3 classmates graduated from university and built their first (in their words) “decent quality” DAC. Using their technical knowledge, they evolved from DAC designs to network streaming devices in 2018.
- Form: Desktop, DAC, streamer
- DAC Chipset: ES9039Q2M
- Processor: Cortex-A55 2.0GHz quad-core
- Digital Inputs: Coax, Optical, HDMI ARC, USB-b, USB-c
- Analog Inputs: RCA (2.1VRMS Max)
- Analog Outputs: XLR (4.4VRMS), RCA (2.2 VRMS)
- Network: LAN (10/100/1000 Mbps)
- Weight (g): 1.3kg
- Size (mm): 224mm x 186mm x 53mm (WxDxH)
The mini-i 4 comes in a plain outer cardboard box containing the product box and a power cord. I assume this is so they can easily change what power cord is included depending on the location of the sale and local requirements.
In the box
- Matrix Audio mini-i 4
- Power cable
- Quick start guide
- Warranty card
The mini-i 4 is smaller than I expected. That’s because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the SONCOZ SGA1 headphone amplifier that sits on my writing desk. Clearly, they share DNA from an OEM enclosure manufacturer.
However, the mini-i 4 doesn’t use the same chassis as the SGA1. It’s much smaller in all dimensions and has black plastic sides rather than aluminum. However, the bright and colorful 3.5” LCD touchscreen in the center is a far improvement over the SGA1’s monochrome digital display.
Flanking the screen are invisible capacitive buttons to control volume output (right side) and changing inputs (left side). A single physical button is on the top near the front left corner for muting and sleep/wake, although this positioning does limit stacking anything on top of the unit. The other corner has an illuminated MA logo.
The back panel is well endowed with digital inputs: gigabit ethernet port, USB-c for external storage drives, USB-b, coax, optical, and (somewhat unusually) HDMI ARC. Adding some pre-amp versatility is the inclusion of a single analog RCA input. Analog outputs are both RCA and XLR.
Somewhat surprising is the lack of Bluetooth or WIFI support.
There is also no digital output to support an external DAC.
MA Remote app
Unless you want to purchase the physical remote separately, it is all but necessary to use the MA Remote app. Fortunately, the app is pretty great.
There is no remote control included in the box.
If a firmware update is available, it will be the first thing you see when opening the app. A couple of minutes and a few button presses later, you will have the latest software version installed on the mini-i 4.
The remote app is intelligently and cleanly laid out and quite intuitive to use. While the featureless front panel of the device is notably lacking in controls, the app is stuffed full of options.
The app easily differentiates locally stored files from streaming choices and keeps sources (Library, Streaming, Internet Radio, My favorites, and Discovery), options, and features logically organized.
It would be easy to get lost in all the functionality of this sort of device if the user interface wasn’t highly refined, and I’m happy to report that I have no major issues navigating within the app.
All is not entirely perfect, however. The top menu in Library contains Pictures and Videos headings, but selecting either option gets the error message that only audio files are supported for playback.
My very large local music collection takes an unacceptably long time to display, making navigation a chore. Using Plex to navigate on my phone and playing back via AirPlay to the mini-i4 is a FAR superior experience than the built-in music player.
Connecting the internet with an ethernet cable means that the mini-i 4 is seamlessly seen by streaming platforms, and Spotify works flawlessly.
mini-i 4 Sound
It’s tough to describe the sound of a source device when it does what it should.
The mini-i 4 sounds neutral and transparent. It doesn’t unduly color the sound, and it offers exceptional sonic performance, befitting its price point and my expectations. Nothing appears lacking, so I have little concrete to tell you without waxing obscurely poetic.
The ESS Sabre ES9039Q2M chipset has a reputation for clear and crisp playback, but much of its performance depends on implementation in the circuit design. Not all devices sharing the same DAC chip sound sonically identical, so not all ESS chips sound bright and clinical – as tends to be popular opinion.
I can find no fault in detail delivery or clarity, and I rate the overall sound of the mini-i 4 as excellent. I pick up no harshness or fatiguing brightness.
Going back and forth, there seems to be, perhaps, some slight differences in the sound between streaming (either Spotify or Apple Music via AirPlay) vs playback of the same song locally using the internal DAC. However, I can’t tell if this is due to the source file, connection method, or internal processing.
Regardless, any way I play a file on the mini-i 4, it sounds terrific.
Where to Buy
The Matrix Audio mini-i 4 is a great device. Sure, the lack of Bluetooth or WIFI will be a dealbreaker for some users, depending on the unique realities of their own setup. But for those whose setups better match its functionality, such as my own, the mini-i 4 is an excellent do-it-all device.
My biggest gripe is its difficulty coping with a large local music collection. Updating takes far too long, and navigation is a painful chore. But using AirPlay and apps like Plex or the Roon support skirts this problem, and it’s easy to ignore the built-in music player.
The lack of an included physical remote is forgivable, as such a fully featured device is really dependent on a well-realized user interface – one that is delivered in the MA app.
I love having a DAC, streamer, and display all integrated into a single device. I have enough piles of separates to appreciate a cleaner, simpler setup. For those headphone enthusiasts who want to take this one step further, the Pro headphone amp version has to be a tempting upgrade.
The mini-i 4 is poised to be the cornerstone of your home audio setup. Connect it to a speaker amp or powered speakers, as well as a headphone amp. Plug in a turntable, game console, or CD player, and grab your phone. For minimal desk space, you get a lot of terrific-sounding functionality.