Kick-ass Combo on a Budget.
PROS: Highly versatile, low noise, high power, small footprint, price.
CONS: Max power output lower with E30 than claimed.
We were just made aware about a statement Topping issued due to a few faulty L30 units with S/N starting 2011 or less which might experience a problem and should be replaced under warranty by contacting your seller. Everything has been addressed in units starting with S/N 2012.
I would like to thank Topping and Shenzhen Audio for providing me with the Topping E30 DAC and L30 amp in exchange for my honest opinion. No incentive was given for a favorable review.
For quite a long time now I have been meaning to get into desktop gear alongside portable audio and when talking to people about what would be a good setup, the name Topping kept coming up again and again. Topping is a Chinese company that was established in 2008 and specializes in desktop equipment such as headphone amplifiers, power amplifiers and DACs at very interesting price points. Moreover, Topping seems to have a talent for developing equipment that offers great value for money. So, when I saw the opportunity, I was very keen to review the budget E30 DAC and L30 headphone amplifier, which make up Topping’s ‘Hot Hatch’ desktop stack. The pricing is very attractive at around US$270 combined and I was curious to see what sort of performance you would get at that price point.
Big disclaimer here for the more technically savant and those fully into desktop gear. This review is very much from the perspective of someone new to desktop gear and not hugely into analyzing specs and measurements. I did my best to arrange for headphones and a higher-end DAC/amp to provide some perspective on the performance of the E30/L30 stack, but even after repeatedly delaying this review those still did not arrive in time. As a consequence of this, I had limited resources for proper comparisons and pair-ups and decided to turn this review around. Instead of comparing to gear at or above this price point, I decided to write it from the perspective of someone who might have a portable USB DAC/amp and wants to step up to a proper desktop solution. It might not be as glamorous as including comparisons to and pair ups with the high-end gear I had lined up (e.g. Violectric V380, Focal Elegia, Final D8000), but will hopefully be informative for people looking to move up and wanting good value for money instead of driving a dump truck full of cash to their local audio store.
I received the E30 and L30 along with a set of Fanmusic C003 RCA cables (US$29.99) to make for a complete stack. At this price I was not expecting a very elaborate unboxing experience and indeed it was all very straight forward and, importantly, sensibly packed. Just simple white boxes (grey for the Fanmusic cables) with lots of foam protection to ensure safe transport. It doesn’t make for the most appealing pictures, so let’s move on to the content itself, which looks a lot better.
The E30 comes with a DC cable that will require your own 5V plug if you do not intend on running it from the USB port of your computer (which might not be the cleanest power supply). I think most people will have multiple such plugs lying around anyway and should not be a problem. A USB cable is included for use with a USB source (for optical and coax you need your own cables) and a remote, which I think is pretty good at this price, but you also need it because there are only limited settings you can change directly on the DAC. Lastly a user’s manual and warranty card.
The L30 does come with its own 15V AC adapter that you will need to make sure is suitable for your country. I am not sure if there is a true UK plug option, but I saw a picture from someone in the UK who received an EU plug with UK adapter that was very poorly done, so for UK buyers it might be good to check on that beforehand. Aside from that the L30 is supplied only with a 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapter and the user’s manual and warranty card. Simple and effective.
The E30 and L30 are both a very attractive looking and feel well built. The ones I had for review were both in black, but there is also a silver version and I believe a red and blue version should be coming too. The body of both is made from aluminium and they are very small, only 10cm wide, 3.2cm high and 12.5cm deep for the E30 with the L30 sticking out a little more because of the volume dial. It makes for a very good looking stack that takes up little space on a desk.
The E30 has a clean look and the front is just a display with a touch area for on/off and switching to pure DAC mode (hold for 3 seconds). The back is where things get very interesting. The E30 is not a very expensive DAC and yet offers a lot of versatility with USB, coax and optical inputs, alongside the RCA left and right channel outputs. It also has a pre-amp mode that will work with active speakers and power amps where the remote will allow you to adjust the volume.
The L30 has more going on at the front and again I feel that a lot is offered here for the price point of the L30. On the left is a switch for on/off and when ‘on’ there is the selection for headphone amp (HPA) or pre-amp (PRE), next to that the gain switch with three settings of -9dB, 0dB or +9dB. At the back are the standard RCA left and right inputs and outputs.
Both the E30 and L30 offer quite a lot of versatility and combined as a stack they really offer a great basis for a wide range of uses.
Under the Hood.
The E30 is based on the AK4493 DAC chip and supports up to DSD512 and PCM 32bit/768kHz. For USB the E30 uses the XMOS XU208 chip, while for coax and optical it uses the AK4118 receiver, which is something that will be of note later on when I will discuss the different input connections. The E30 also offers the user to adjust the DAC filter settings with 6 filters for PCM and 2 for DSD decoding (I used setting “F-4”):
- F-1 Sharp roll off
- F-2 Slow roll off
- F-3 Short delay, sharp roll off (default)
- F-4 Short delay, slow roll off
- F-5 Super slow roll off
- F-6 Low dispersion, short delay
- DSD-1 39kHz (default)
- DSD-2 76kHz
Filter settings can be adjusted with the remote, which can also be used for adjusting the volume (not in pure DAC mode), switching between input sources, mute, auto power on/off and brightness level (low, mid, high). The user manual includes a set of measurements for those who are interested in that sort of thing.
The L30 borrows from its flagship sibling the A90, using the same Nested Feedback Composite Amplifier (NFCA) module. I won’t pretend that I know how an amp is built up, but claimed performance is really impressive. Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise (THD+N) is <0.00007%, the noise floor is <0.3uVrms, output impedance is 0.1 Ohm and the L30 produces 141dB of dynamic range while pushing out a maximum of 3,500mW per channel. That is impressive, but does come with a caveat: These figures are not accurate for the pairing with the E30. From what I understand the measurements were done with a higher voltage input than the 2Vrms the E30 puts out. That might be considered a somewhat misleading thing to do, but therefore I generally prefer to go by what I hear.
As I indicate already the versatility of this stack is great and it can be used with a multitude of sources. The USB in is of course the most versatile and will cover the most logical input sources such as a PC, laptop or a DAP as a transport. I mostly used the Lotoo PAW6000 DAP as a transport, which worked very well and allowed me to change the volume on the Lotoo as a type of pre-gain in order to give myself some extra room with the L30’s volume dial. I also used my MacBook Pro (mid-2012) to stream Idagio (a classical music streaming service).
The optical in is a great addition that finally gave me a way to connect a proper DAC/amp to my PS4 so I could use high-end IEMs to their full potential. The only other option I have for the PS4 is the Lotoo S1 and while a great option as such, it suffers from the poor power supply from the PS4’s USB. The S1 is also mainly suitable for IEMs or easy to drive headphone, whereas the E30/L30 stack has more power for full size headphones and can even be used as a preamp for active monitors. The downside is that outside of the preamp setting, there is no volume control other than that of the L30 and with sensitive IEMs, even on low gain you end up very low on the L30’s volume, meaning there is precious little room to play with before it gets loud. It did not really give any problems, but I can highly recommend making sure you have the volume dial all the way down when connecting and slowly increasing the volume.
The coax and optical in can be used for connecting to a variety of equipment such as a sound bar/TV. They can also be used with some DAPs, which I could do with the Cowon Plenue 2 via its optical 3.5mm out. This did not give me volume control on the DAP, like it did with the PAW6000 via USB. Here I also found that DSD formats were not supported because the AK4118 receiver tops out at 24bit/192kHz. Using the USB in does support DSD up to DSD512 Native/DSD256 DoP, so this limitation goes for the optical and coaxial in only.