Review Date: 20 February 2022
DAC Chip: ESS Sabre ES9281AC
Dual Independent OPAMP
Balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn Headphone Output Port
Hi-Res PCM Decoding (Up to 32-Bit/768kHz)
DSD Decoding (Native DSD512)
Three-level Main Modes
Lightweight design with Anti-Glare glass panel
Output Power: 0.612 Vrms(Low gain), 2.48 Vrms(Medium gain), 4.1 Vrms(High gain)
Max Power: 88mW(16Ω), 190mW(32Ω), 27mW(600Ω)
Dimensions: 53 x 15 x 11 mm
- FOSTEX T40RP MK3 (Magnetic Planar, 50 Ohm, 91db Sensitivity)
- Beyerdynamic DT880 (Dynamic Drivers, 600 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Etymotic ER4SR (Single BA, 45 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- TRN VX Pro (8 BA + 1DD Hybrid, 22 Ohm, 106db Sensitivity)
- TIN HiFi T3+ (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 105db Sensitivity)
- Kinera Idun Golden (3BA + 1DD Hybrid, 32 Ohm, 112db Sensitivity)
- LG V50 ThinQ (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- Sony Xperia X Compact (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- HiBy Music Player App (USB Exclusive Mode)
LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING
Audirect BEAM 3S is the latest offering from hiliDAC using the very same ESS Sabre ES9281AC which were used on BEAM 2 series from yesteryears. I believe the fact that ES9281AC is something that they are already very familiar with, Audirect was banking on their experience with this particular DAC chip to continue to BEAM 3S roadmap. On top of that, ES9281AC is natively capable of MQA unfolding which is fast becoming a normal standard these days.
Build, Functions, Usability
BEAM 3S is a simple device. The build is very solid with aluminum chassis sandwiched between two matte glass faceplates, a great move to eliminate the dreaded fingerprints residue that can tarnish the look of anything shiny. The overall construction obviously aimed to instill sense of durability that can withstand daily usage.
BEAM 3S comes in three Gain mode – Low, Medium and High. A rarity these days to have all three provided in Dongle form factor, there’s a small but highly accessible button on the left side to toggle the gain mode during playback. I can attest that the gain levels are quite effective to match the load of paired partners.
There’s also a simple led indicator to exhibit the source feed resolution. MQA will be shown in the standard Purple. Green and Red for different PCM bandwidth.
BEAM 3S comes very spartan with single USB C connector wrapped in fabric sleeve. It is quite robust as it is practical.
BEAM 3S only has sole 4.4mm Pentaconn headphone port. Exactly similar to Audirect BEAM 2S. Which means it will only work in BAL mode specifically for 4.4mm jacks. I have checked with my Multimeter, the channel for Grounds are indeed discrete on this BEAM 3S, with L- and R+ being separate.
Endurance wise, BEAM 3S only managed to score 4 hours of continuous play in Low Gain mode driving TRN VX Pro on my Sony Xperia X Compact (Android 8, 2700 mAH Battery, UAPP Bitperfect, Airplane mode). A stark contrast against the likes of Cayin RU6, Lotoo PAW S1 or iBasso DC05 which all scored 6 hours under the same load and conditions.
Lastly, BEAM 3S also exhibited slight warmth after prolonged usage, especially when paired with highly demanding partners in High Gain mode. This is common as observed with many Dongles.
From the get go, I can clearly hear that BEAM 3S is another well tuned DAC/Amp which is truthful at being neutral and closer to organic sound than most ESS based tuning of the past. At this point of time, I have had the opportunity to listen to BEAM 2S, BEAM 2SE, BEAM 3 Plus and Atom 2 – all of which runs on ES9281AC. BEAM 2SE and Atom being the ones with typical ESS brightness, better neutrality observed with BEAM 2S and BEAM 3 Plus. In fact, BEAM 2S being the most organic (almost warm) in comparison. BEAM 3S is pretty much similarly tuned to BEAM 3 Plus.
What is evident, BEAM 3S exhibited great coherence level on dynamic transients. It is super clean and fluid. I did not observe any hint of peaky edges or distortions throughout the dynamic range. The sound is very mature with pleasing sense of neutral tonal balance. Perhaps if I am being critical, I would say that at times the density of note weight appeared slightly leaner especially when paired with an already bright sounding partners. In this case it was Etymotic ER4SR and Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm. Unlike another ES9281AC Dongle which I liked a lot, the Questyle M12, BEAM 3S appeared drier and flatter. By no means M12 is colored, it is just has better overall richness while staying neutral. But then this is only evident when compared directly side by side. For this very reasons, I concluded that the tuning for BEAM 3S is not something I would pair with anything neutral bright.
However, switching to “warmer” or natively organic partners like Kinera Idun Golden, TIN HiFi T3+, TRN VX Pro and even Fostex T40RP MK3 – the sound is pleasingly wholesome and textured with great resolution.
Back to dynamic range. BEAM 3S is a very competent DAC/Amp exhibiting deft handling of extensions on both end of the spectrum. I especially like the crisp and pronounced Treble texture and details even when paired with DT880 600 Ohm. The decays focus more on crispness rather than smooth dispersal. So it would appear to sound prompt and with equally crisp attack. I must commend BEAM 3S for staying realistic with Treble presentation. It does not appear unnaturally bright or sibilant.
Bass on the other hand, it is fast and tidy. Similar theme to Treble. The highlight being Mid-Bass which appear solid and polished without any hint of coloration or unnatural euphonic vibrancy. Sub-Bass less pronounced but still audible depending how receptive the paired partners are capable of. There’s enough details and texture to be had especially when synergy hits the mark.
Mids and Vocals, equally impressive for being faithfully neutral. It is not warm nor it is peaky bright. The upper Mids admirably free from any element of “Pinna Glare” which some ESS based DAC are known for. Even with the peaky sounding Alison Krauss, BEAM 3S was able to keep things in check avoiding the dreaded SSS sibilance. Sinne Eeg, Diana Krall, Morrissey and Nick Cave – female or male vocals appeared neutral sounding with no attempt to add any warmth. Which also means, for those preferring lush, polished presentation may find this slightly flatter in density. Instruments wise, BEAM 3S offers crisp attack and tonality. Be it acoustic, percussions or electronic – all sounded neutral as it is believable, especially when paired with natively neutral sources.
Technically, BEAM 3S is an excellent performer when it comes to imaging, resolution, details handling, transparency and speed. However I must admit I am frustrated with the size of soundstage. Despite all the power up to 4.1 Vrms, BEAM 3S exhibited narrow soundstage. It is tall, but I can hear how closely quartered the layering are to each others, with instruments being spaced tightly together. Now this is the interesting bit. This behavior is only apparent on single drivers be it BA or DD. When switched to multi drivers or hybrids, surprisingly the soundstage appeared normal with proper holographic spatial positioning. For example, Etymotic ER4SR, Beyerdynamic DT880 and TIN HiFi T3+ all exhibited this cramped in headstage, but it all sounded proper with Kinera Idun Golden and TRN VX Pro (both being multi drivers). It just baffles me. So to summarize, when with single drivers, the sound is somewhat akin to traditional stereo split of Left/Right bias and will only get holographic with multi drivers.
Last but not least, MQA unfolding when tested with Tidal Masters (USB Exclusive mode) exhibited some unsavory artifacts which I have observed on some ES9281AC based implementation. Consistently throughout playback, I can hear soft crackle or pops every 5 seconds or so in the background. Unfortunately I find BEAM 3S just not suitable for usage with native Tidal App. The good news is, with UAPP Tidal, all these issues are not present. It runs perfectly with direct MQA streaming, no cracking or popping sound observed. I can only conclude that BEAM 3S just will not work with Tidal own app on Android.
BEAM 3S has the power even to drive Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm or Fostex T40RP MK3. In comparison to my iFi ZEN stack of ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN Can, I would say that BEAM 3S scored approximately close to 70% of the dedicated desktop DAC/Amp performance, lacking only on overall headroom, dynamic density, texture and depth. On DT880 600 Ohm, proper listening loudness achievable at the mark of 15/32 of volume, very impressive I must say. The 4.1 Vrms High Gain on BEAM 3S really does work as intended, something that fell short with the earlier BEAM 2S.
The highlight of BEAM 3S, driving the utterly stubborn Fostex T40RP MK3. Now, this favorite Magnetic Planar of mine is natively warm and dark if the source is less than competent. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well they synergize to each other. Not only the loudness was more than sufficient, dynamics presentation was actually quite wholesome and rich. I can hear even micro details pronounced audibly. It is fluid as it is effortless sounding. Simply amazing.
Unfortunately, I was not able to test BEAM 3S with my Shure KSE1500. At the time of this review, I do not have proper 4.4mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable. Apparently BEAM 3S does not provision the 4.4mm Pentaconn port with 5th Ground like other Dongles (xDuoo Link2 BAL or TempoTec Sonata E44). Which means the GND for BEAM 3S is only available from L+ or R+. Forcing BEAM 3S to use my existing hybrid cable could spell disaster of burning something inside the Dongle.
Audirect BEAM 3S. When I reflect on this Dongle, it does exhibit the legacy of BEAM series tuning towards neutrality, maturity and power. It is very well tuned tonal wise. Faithfully neutral and close to being organic sounding. These are the strengths of BEAM 3S. Despite being very powerful at 4.1 Vrms, BEAM 3S remained super clean and silent, devoid of any floor noises.
The caveat at least for my own usage, BEAM 3S is marred with odd and clustered soundstage when paired with single drivers. Also I cannot ignore the fact that BEAM 3S has underwhelming battery endurance to the host. Not forgetting the fact that BEAM 3S will not work properly with native Tidal App (it is okay with UAPP Tidal). Otherwise, these Cons set aside, BEAM 3S would have been a truly amazing all rounder.
- Well balanced neutral and near organic timbre
- Great resolution, details and transparency
- Amazing power with loudness to match
- Works great with Magnetic Planars
- Robust build quality
- Three levels of Gain modes
- Underwhelming soundstage width and depth with single drivers
- Poor battery endurance to the host
- Slightly lean sounding with natively bright partners
- MQA exhibited artifacts with native Android Tidal App (Ok with UAPP Tidal)
Best Pairing: Prefers warmer pairing partners, works great with Magnetic Planars
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