Beyerdynamic Impacto headphone DAC / amp

The Impacto is a very unique offering in the world of headphone audio. It is a USB DAC and headphone amp that is designed specifically to connect to beyerdynamic’s own headphones. To do this, the Impacto has a USB socket on one end and a pair of wires designed to connect to the cups of your T1, T5p, Amirons, etc. on the other. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and am excited to dissect the concept and see just how well it works…

Overview

Portable DAC / amps are nothing new. I’ve reviewed the original DragonFly, DragonFly Red, Cozoy Aegis, Tralucent DACAmp One, Meridian Explorer, Cozoy Astrapi, iFi Micro iDAC, and iFi Nano iDSD. Get the idea? This is a well-trodden path so how can the Impacto hope to carve its own space? By doing something completely different. You see, all of the aforementioned DAC / amp combos are designed to work with any headphones you choose. The Impacto on the other hand is designed purely for beyerdynamic headphones with removable, dual entry cables like the recently reviewed Amiron Home headphones. At around $400-500 here in Australia, the price is high for a DAC / amp that will ONLY work with your beyers, but sometimes a device like this tuned specifically for the intended drivers is worth every cent.

Specifications

  • Sample rates:  up to 384 kHz / 32 bits, DSD 5.6 MHz
  • Frequency response:  4 – 52,000 Hz
  • Signal-to-noise ratio:  121 dB
  • Output impedance: 4.7 ohms
  • USB connections:  micro USB to USB A, micro USB or USB C
  • Controls:  play / pause, skip tracks, adjust volume

So, the Impacto is a fully-DSD capable DAC and headphone amp for your Android, PC, Mac or iPhone / iPad (previously there were different versions available for Android vs Apple, but this is being rectified with the Impacto Universal). The big question is whether or not the beyerdynamic custom design makes the Impacto a better option than the many universal options on the market.

Design

The Impacto is an interesting design. I can totally understand why beyerdynamic made the design choices they did, but it’s not a sexy or particularly enjoyable device to interact with. It’s not bad as such, just very utilitarian – it does what it needs to do. The Impacto is a small, fairly flat plate of metal coated in a soft, rubbery plastic that feels both durable and high quality. It includes a DAC and amplifier (an all-in-one chip), control buttons for play / pause, volume and track skip as well as a hi-res indicator light. On one end is a micro-USB socket while the other end sprouts a pair of cables designed to connect to beyerdynamic’s high-end headphones. The Impacto will connect to any of beyerdynamic’s headphones that have 3.5mm twin-entry cable sockets.

At the heart of the Impacto is an ESS SABRE9018Q2C DAC chip handling decoding and amplification duties. The 9018 chip has been around for a while now, but is a great, well-proven DAC chip used in desktop DACs like the excellent Matrix X-Sabre. Having it available in a fully portable solution is a great idea, but it demands more power than its sibling, the 9016 chip used in something like the DragonFly Red.

One other point to note is that the Impacto can work with a dedicated, detachable battery. The idea of this is to provide power if the source device is unable to do so or to reduce the power consumption by not demanding power from your source device (e.g. a smartphone). The battery is a neat design that attaches magnetically and roughly triples the thickness of the Impacto, but still maintains a pretty small form factor which is important when it’s hanging from your headphones. I am testing the Impacto Essential that comes without the battery (because it’s designed for computer and Android usage where power can be fully provided by the source device) so I can’t comment at length on the battery – I only saw it briefly at the Melbourne International HiFi Show. Suffice to say, if power is a concern, beyerdynamic have a solution for you at the expense of a little more size, weight and presumably cost.

Compatibility

I found the Impacto to have outstanding compatibility. It worked flawlessly with my Android phones (using USB Audio Player Pro to get the most from the DAC) and was fully plug-and-play compatible with my PC running Windows 10. As much as I don’t mind dedicated drivers for DACs, it was a really nice surprise to be able to plug in the Impacto and just start listening.

The DSD functionality is also flawless with both Android and Windows devices with no glitches or hang-ups when activating DSD playback. That’s a big improvement compared to some other DACs I’ve tried (including desktop ones) where DSD implementation was clumsy and prone to failures. The Impacto is about as simple and perfect as you could hope for when using a DSD-capable DAC so beyerdynamic deserve massive praise for their firmware / software implementation.

As for the physical connections, the Impacto comes packaged with USB-A. USB-C and micro USB connections for your devices. Once again, beyerdynamic deserve massive credit for catering to all three common socket types. Some companies would say “micro USB is a thing of the past” and leave it out or “there’s not enough USB-C devices yet” and leave it out. I am glad the beyerdynamic did neither and are providing an incredibly compatible and versatile range of connections. Of course, if you’re an iPhone / iPad user, make sure you to check out the upcoming Impacto Universal.

Sound Quality

Overall Sound

Obviously with a device like the Impacto, my ability to review its sound is restricted to listening via beyerdynamic’s own headphones only – in this case using the Amiron Home headphones. Via the Amirons, the Impacto presents a very enjoyable sound – clean, detailed, spacious and engaging. I think it brings a little bit of extra musicality (and warmth perhaps?) to the mix because I find myself enjoying the relatively neutral Amirons a little bit more when listening via the Impacto. Rather than trying to dissect the sound of the Impacto (an all-in-one device) vs a complex source chain of DACs, USB cables (or coaxial cables), interconnects and amplifiers, I will approach this as a comparison versus various alternatives to the Impacto – the DragonFly Red, Meridian Explorer 2 and iFi Micro iDSD. All have different pros and cons, but ultimately offer a portable (or somewhat portable) option for high quality audio and the power to drive the more power-hungry headphones in the beyerdynamic range.

Before I compare these specific devices, let’s quickly test the Impacto’s capabilities on DSD vs PCM audio files…

DSD vs PCM

There’s some great content around the internet discussing the pros and cons of DSD vs PCM encoding and decoding of audio. Some DACs sound great with DSD while other fare better with PCM. I thought it’d be good to see where the Impacto sits in that realm.

Running the Impacto bit-perfect from Roon using DSD via PCM, the difference between DSD tracks from Steely Dan’s Aja and the same tracks in PCM format from the Remastered Best of Steely Dan showed some subtle differences. Now, keep in mind that I can’t guarantee that these were identical masters before encoding, but the DSD sound was noticeably better – smoother in the top end and generally more enjoyable to listen to. Overall, all of the DSD tracks I listened to sounded great and I would actually be tempted to upsample all audio to DSD when using the Impacto with my PC. That’s not to say that PCM is bad, but it does seem like the Impacto’s DAC is at its best when working in a Delta-Sigma (DSD) mode.

Impacto vs DragonFly Red

Before we talk about sound, let’s clarify a few key differences or pros and cons between these two devices. Key differences with DragonFly:

  • Is significantly cheaper
  • Works with any headphones / earphones
  • Is limited to a maximum sample rate of 96kHz (no 192kHz or DSD decoding)
  • Slightly more power efficient (will save you a couple of percent per hour battery life)
  • Can decode MQA on some setups

In terms of sound, the DragonFly presents a noticeably thicker sound and a slightly more focussed mid-range, but it comes at the expense of the sense of clarity. Both sound great in their own way so it would come down to a question of preference. Personally, I prefer the DragonFly’s sound in addition to the versatility of using it with other headphones and my IEMs, but those who crave clarity and neutrality may feel like the DragonFly is too “analog”. To me its warmth brings the music to life, but you might find that it prevents you from deconstructing the recording because it is less open-sounding and the leading edges of notes are not as sharp.

Impacto vs Meridian Explorer 2

OK, let’s quickly acknowledge the key differences between the Impacto and Explorer 2:

  • Explorer 2 is a little bit cheaper
  • Works with any headphones / earphones and has a dedicated line-out
  • Is limited to a maximum sample rate of 192kHz (no DSD decoding)
  • Not designed for mobile devices
  • Fully MQA capable

The Explorer is noticeably less “thick” sounding coming from the DragonFly Red, but is still a slightly smoother presentation than the very clean-sounding Impacto. I’m resisting calling the Impacto analytical because I think that’s strong, but the Explorer is the more musical presentation of the two. The bass from the Explorer has a bit more weight and the treble from the Impacto has a crisper edge. By comparison, I start to find the Impacto slightly fatiguing on certain tracks before the Explorer. Once again, I feel like the Explorer presents a more coherent and focussed image / soundstage while the Impacto breaks the music apart a bit more. This is entirely a personal preference choice as to which is better. Once again I would lean towards the versatility of the Explorer compared to the Impacto, but it’s a closer call on sound quality alone because the definition of sound from the Impacto has its own value while the Explorer’s sound is not as significantly different as the DragonFly Red.

Impacto vs iFi Micro iDSD

The Micro iDSD presents a match for the Impacto in terms of decoding capability, but there are some very glaring differences to consider:

  • The iDSD is much bigger and not really portable
  • Can drive any headphones and most earphones
  • Offers dedicated fixed or variable line-out
  • Can act as amp only via analog input
  • Bass boost and 3D circuit
  • Extremely versatile range of filtering, power control, etc.
  • The updated “black” version is much more expensive than the Impacto and the silver version I am using is discontinued

Sound-wise, these two are quite similar once again, probably more so than either of the previous comparisons. Bass weight is a key differentiator with the Impacto being lighter on the bass by a small amount. The presentation is also different once again with the Impacto still having the slightly more separated sounds with a bit more left-right emphasis in the soundstage at the expense of some central focus. As someone who enjoys warmth and musicality, the extra note weight from the iDSD has won me over again towards the alternative to the Impacto, but it would never leave the house (or office) the way the Impacto might. The size and weight of the iDSD really makes it a desktop device that just happens to not require a separate power supply. For this comparison, if you had a pair of beyerdynamic headphones and didn’t specifically need to drive other ‘phones I would probably just go for the Impacto – it’s smaller, cheaper, fully portable and sounds almost as good (or maybe better depending on personal taste).

Conclusion

The Impacto is a pretty unique offering from one of the top brands in audio. Personally, I’m not convinced it’s the best option when compared to cheaper, more versatile offerings like the DragonFly Red, but if you’re into DSD, you’re not looking to drive other brand headphones / earphones and you enjoy a clean, detailed sound (without harshness) then the Impacto is absolutely worth a look. I do love the ability to control the music straight from the headphone cable and I have totally loved being able to take the headphones and laptop to the dining table or lounge, plug in a single USB plug and enjoy outstanding quality sound with no extra dongles or cables – the value of this simplicity can’t be overstated as I believe that’s where the true appeal of the Impacto lies.

If you are looking for a simple, super-high quality solution that can connect to your phone, tablet or computer and provide you with volume control and playback control, the Impacto really is worth a long hard look – just think about whether you prioritise this wonderful simplicity higher than the versatility to use other headphones / earphones in the future without having to buy additional devices.

If you are sold on the Impacto, and looking to buy online, please consider using the following Amazon link – it won’t cost you anything, but will help to provide some modest income to help fund new reviews and articles here on Passion for Sound.

Lachlan Fennen Written by:

Facilitator, training design consultant, blogger / writer and amateur photographer

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