Palab M1-mini is a portable and very powerful DAC/AMP based on ESS9038Q2M with full MQA decoding. The recommended price of the device is $449.
Palab is a relatively young startup based in New York. Currently, they have only two products in their portfolio, but I can’t wait to see more of their equipment.
According to their website, “PA” in the name stands for Pure Audio and Power Advance. It’s their design philosophy, and I have to admit, they don’t lie. Tiny M1-mini has a lot of power, so I can’t imagine how powerful their desktop DAC/Amp is.
Even though more and more devices of this kind hits the market, it’s still fascinating to see some new faces, especially if they have an impressing product as their debut.
Palab comes in a small, but good-looking package. On top of the cardboard is placed the company’s motto “Striving for perfection” and as such a young company, they are definitely doing this. Inside the box, you’ll find a basic USB-C to USB-A cable, USB-OTG adapter, Toslink jack, and manual book. The cable and USB adapter could be more premium-looking, but the quality of the accessories is fair enough.
It’s fun to see how the design of the box is heavily influenced by the device itself. Palab took a very industrial yet minimalistic approach not only regarding the M1-mini, but the packaging as well. Great first impression.
Build quality and design
Build quality stays on a very high level. Maybe it’s not the most beautiful DAC/AMP available on the market, but it looks like a device you want to have with you when the apocalypse comes. Considering that there is no battery inside, the device is quite big.
The design of the DAC is simple, in the front, there are four buttons (volume up/down, mute, switch source) and a very basic display, where you can find info about volume level, sample rate, which source is used, and if MQA or DSD is being decoded. On the bottom, you can find two USB-C sockets (one for power, second for audio) and a coaxial/optical 3.5mm jack. On the top, there are two jack sockets, 3.5mm for single-ended, 4.4mm pentaconn for balanced output, and a small blue light indicating when the high gain is on.
Yet again I’d like to mention the industrial design. As for the company based in New York, it is clear that they took an inspiration from the city itself, focusing on a somewhat rough yet polished look.
The battery in my Samsung Galaxy S10e is not considered to be long-lasting, but M1-mini made the phone’s battery drain almost twice as fast as usual. I would really appreciate it if the device had a built-in battery, it would be bigger, but carrying Palab in a pocket attached to a phone would be much more comfortable than stacking it with a phone and a power bank.
As I wrote above, Palab supports DSD and MQA decoding. Via USB it’s native DSD up to 11.28MHz (DSD256) and full native MQA audio decoding. What’s really interesting and uncommon in this category of audio equipment, the device supports also MQA and MQA-CD playback via coax or optical input. So during the day, you can plug in your headphones and take them with you to the office (or during lockdown at least to the toilet, but be careful, M1-mini isn’t waterproof). Whereas in the evening you can plug it between your MQA-CD drive and stereo amplifier, and use all possibilities of ESS9038Q2M – currently the best mobile Sabre DAC.
M1-mini offers a warm-ish, natural sound signature, it’s smooth and calm. If you’re looking for an engaging or technical sound, keep searching, but it’s perfect for work, when you need to focus on something else than music.
The biggest pro of Palab M1-mini is its power. By the power, I mean that the AMP is a pocket-size nuclear power plant. It easily drives very power-demanding headphones, such as DT880pro (250 ohms). On the other hand with that power comes also quite a noisy background. With low gain the hiss is just audible while the music is very quiet, it’s not great, not terrible, but with high gain, the hum is getting louder, so you can hear it even when the music is quite loud. That’s why I wouldn’t recommend this device to use with low impedance IEMs.
The soundstage is very wide, I would say that it’s the widest one in the sub $500 price range, but unfortunately, depth leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a line from left to right where all sound sources are located. The separation and imaging of sound sources are pretty good. While listening to These Bones by The Fairfield Four, I can easily tell, where each of the vocalists is standing – one just in front of me, two guys on the left, and the last one on the right, if they wouldn’t stand in one row, the soundstage would be perfect, but because of its depth, in my opinion, the soundstage is “only” decent.
The bass is warm and calm. It doesn’t fit every music genre. If you’re looking for a device that will let you hear each kick drum hit in fast metal music, keep searching, this one isn’t the fastest. Lars Urlich’s double bass drumming in Dyers Eve sounds more like my single-cylinder lawnmower. BUT if you’re looking for thicc and smooth bass, with Beyerdynamic DT150, the synergy is really pleasant. Just perfect for listening to old-school hip hop. Big Poppa by Notorious B.I.G. sounds great played with the M1-mini, the beat flows. This setup can make you feel like driving in your Cadillac through Brooklyn in the late ’90s. To be honest, I’m not a fan of this kind of signature, I prefer when the low frequencies are punchy and crispy, but there are some cases when I would pick Palab over my other stuff.
If I had to describe the midrange in one word, the word would be “smoothness”. Even songs with midrange coarse as sandpaper, like The Sad Skinhead by Faust, sound smooth as silk. The best part of the midrange is its closeness, I really like it, when the vocalists are close to me, you can feel like sitting just behind the microphone, while listening to Agnes Obel’s Riverside I feel like she sings right into my ears. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the body is not as full, as it should be at this price range, vocals sound a bit dry and free from emotions. I also think that the midrange is a bit too smooth, I would really appreciate some texture and emotions.
The treble is slightly recessed. It could be more detailed because I like to catch nuances in live recordings – whispers of the audience or taking a breath by musicians. Unfortunately, M1-mini doesn’t help discover this kind of detail, but it’s good enough in most cases. Listening to each Buddy Rich’s plate hit is more than pleasant, and on the other hand, Palab’s device doesn’t interrupt you when the quality of the recording isn’t perfect. Even terribly mixed and mastered music, played on Audio-Technica M50x, which are known to be very ruthless for poor recordings, sounds acceptably fine. My ears didn’t bleed with this setup while listening to RHCP Californication remastered in 2014, which means that M1-mini is very forgiving.
VS Fiio q5s + am3d
Fiio has a brighter sound signature than Palab, it provides more airy and detailed trebles. The vocals with Fiio are a little withdrawn, but the body is fuller, more emotional. Q5s provides more sub-bass than M1-mini. Thanks for this low range sound deeper and has a stronger punch. Fiio provides a soundstage with better depth, but the width of the image made by M1-mini is hard to beat.
Palab M1-mini is a tiny, but very powerful DAC/Amp. Its sound signature is warm and smooth with a tiny lack of details and texture. The build quality is very good. Maybe it’s not the best device on the market, but certainly it’s worth taking a glimpse of it. If you’re looking for raw power with analog smoothness, you should consider this tiny device.
Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:
- Headphones – AKG K712, Audio-Technica m50x, Beyerdynamic DT880pro, Beyerdynamic DT150, Craft Ears Four, Focal Elegia, Focal Stellia, Fiio FH3, Kinera BD005pro
- Sources– EarMen Sparrow, Fiio BTR3K, Fiio M11 pro, Fiio q5s with am3d module, SMSL SU-9 + SP200