World Premiere Review!
Clarus CODA USB DAC / HeadAmp Review
High-performance USB-DAC with headphone amplifier and MQA.
Fingering through pens, twistos, and a highlighters
To find the vintage die cast letter opener,
Veteran of bills and invoices opened by my father and his father before him
And me after both of them. Some things last forever.
Old tools and such.
Most businesses, like most people, music and audio gear come and go.
Today this tarnished brass blade is used to carefully open
The tucked-in end flap of the point-of-sale box
Containing the new Clarus CODA.
A first batch sample of the hi-rez USB DAC with headphone amplifier
You don’t want to bugger up the flaps if you’re going to return the review sample.
Sometimes things don’t work out, you know, like you want them to.
Inside is another box, all white, like that Beatles album.
Fumble for the flap that gets me into the pyramid
Where the zippered, pocket-sized sarcophagus
With logo and ‘Clarus’ silk-screened in gold lies.
A nice touch of elegance that will serve to hold earbuds.
In it, the CODA, with silk-screened white lettering,
A hood concealing its USB jack,
A curved pigtail for connecting to mini-USB.
With a laptop bridged to a large monitor, wireless track-ball
And separate corded backlit keyboard,
The mike input empty with the headphones plugged into the CODA.
The only input left was the mini-USB, leaving the CODA dangling on the pigtail
Within easy reach for the two mini-buttons, one labeled plus, one labeled minus.
The voices of the women in the webinar continued coming from
The Mickey Mouse speakers in the laptop.
The full-size USB was just as dead.
Customer Service — we have a problem.
Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom —
Let it be.
Well, then let’s try this…and then that.
Plug ‘n Play?
Usually, but this was Dell, not HP, not Samsung,
Certainly not Apple, although the CODA will work with Apple,
For which there is a different protocol.
Just before Mary resorts to her Higher Power…Wait!
What’s this icon? Try it!
A switch to disengage the headphone jack?
And send the music to USB ports!
Bruce Springsteen is Dancing in the Dark!
Hey, you gotta stay humble—thank you Mary!
The YouTube concert ON!!!
Tougher Than the Rest
Streets of Philadelphia
Born in the U.S.A.
Johnny B. Goode (w/Chuck Berry)
You Never Can Tell
I’m On Fire
The River (The River Tour)
Born to Run
Waitin’ on A Sunny Day
Linda screams “Can’t you hear me?”
With volume set at 100%? No.
Click, click, click, click…does this volume control work?
Bar graph answers, but change is incremental.
I rip the Grados off my head…. it is faster that way.
Merry Christmas Baby (at a lower volume, now)
Letter to You
Pay Me My Money Down (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 2006)
I’m Goin’ Down (London, 2013)
Racing in the Street (Paramount Theater, 2009)
The River (w/BTS footage)
I’ll See You In My Dreams
Thunder Road (Barcelona)
Twist & Shout/La Bamba (1988: Human Rights Now!)
Save the Last Dance for Me (Albany, 2014)
The music starts with an edge as crisp as the CODA’s machined aluminum chassis
Warming slowly over the hours
Never letting go of the clarity of the lyrics —
Even on those songs I’ve never heard,
Or maybe heard but couldn’t make out the lyrics in the Pre-Computer Era
With whatever mid-fi I could afford.
Getting Wet In Tidal
I cue up Bruce Springsteen
Letter to You
Born to Run
I’m on Fire
The LED stays blue for idle and Standard Definition (48kHz or less)
It’ll go Green for High Def (greater than 48kHz)
or even Magenta for MQA when it smells its presence.
It’s sounding great with some John Lee Hooker.
Buddy Guy comes into my peripheral vision
I find a cut that’s on my Compilation CD.
Not as good as I get from my big rig with speakers,
But then I’m comparing music in my head to the music in my room.
Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues (1991)
I fetch a trio of Boston Audio Design mini TuneBlocks with Tungsten balls
Slid ’em under the Dell. Synergistic Research MiG domes, too.
Holy Christ! Merry Christmas! Thank you, Santa!
The sound quality just doubled.
Buddy Guy jumps out of Cathode Ray tube mode and hits the QLED.
Is this even better than my big rig?
I’m not wearing $6000 phones, either.
These are just my juke-joint Grado 80e workhorse cans
Ripped off my head, tossed on the rug thousands of times
When duty, wife, or dinner calls.
But when the music calls, they rock!
And with the CODA in the laptop playin’ Tidal they really rock.
Air, transparency, velvet decay, non-violent attack, real music.
But not to be confused with live — it’s still in your head — even the live recordings.
Mostly it felt like barreling down Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley
Listnin’ to Professor Blues on one NPR station after another ’round midnight
Headin’ to High Point for the International Home Furnishings Show.
I pop 2000 IU of vitamin D to keep Covid at bay,
Do a set of push-ups and go to bed,
Leavin’ Tidal on Auto-Pilot to break-in the CODA while I sleep.
Breakfast at noon, another 2000 IU of vitamin D and I slip on the headphones
To be greeted by Sister Twyla Sharpe followed by “Honeyboy” Edwards.
The AI of Tidal is morphin’ me into a Blues Brother…all night long.
I play with the three filters.
Holding down the Volume + button for five seconds starts the LED flashing,
Pushing the Volume — button activates three digital filters
Red, blue, green.
Not hearing much difference.
Where the MQA is the MQA?!!!
I try a bunch of titles with the orange MASTER label
But the LED stays blue — indicating CD quality.
The booklet that came with it was confusing, so I called Mark Aling @ Clarus
Who emailed the new, improved booklet to me.
Ah-Ha! Sort of.
I still couldn’t get Tidal to give me the MQA versions.
I call my friend Tom Lathrop, a man with Tidal experience.
The short story is
Nobody ever mentioned that you had to download a Tidal app.
In fact, the booklet I received said “There are no drivers to download and install.”
None of my turntables ever required an app!
Tom was gentle with me.
So I went online and tried to download the Tidal app.
Three times with no success.
I called Tom again and after walking me through it with no success,
We left it that I’d call Clarus in the morning.
Late that night, I get an email from Tom with a link to an article with
8 Tips to fix Microsoft Store and App Issues in Windows 10.
Friends like Tom are priceless.
He warned me not to go beyond the third suggestion.
And indeed, it took three suggestions to finally get the app to drop.
I’m not suggesting this is Tidal’s fault, or Clarus’.
More likely my computer or the app store.
So don’t give up.
The good news is I was finally able to view the additional buttons to activate MQA.
The bad news, it was 2:30 a.m. again.
I’m not a computer wizard, but I have other strengths.
Mark walked me through the protocol for activating MQA in the morning
And I was good to go.
Also learned about the Force Volume switch that was necessary
To connect the CODA to my big rig to play MQA music through my Kharma speakers.
Without using the app and the Force Volume switch, it sounds like crap.
Trust me, I found out the hard way, yesterday.
Later that morning I received an email from Mary with updated instructions and graphics
For all the steps Mark had just helped me with.
This is a hot new product, and they will be up to speed with it by the time you read this,
But my review sample was fresh out of the sausage machine
And we were all on a bit of a learning curve.
Using the CODA as plug ‘n play, without the app, without MQA was very nice.
It surpassed a first-generation AudioQuest Dragonfly I had on hand, easily,
Improving on resolution and transparency.
Great sound for both music and the many Zoom classes
At Osher Lifelong Learning Institute four days a week.
After all, it is using the latest ESS Pro Series SABRE DAC with Hyperstream II modulation — capable of 32-bit/384kHz PCM and up to DoP128, all with ultra-low power consumption (great for mobile use, courtesy of Class G amplification) and 124dB DNR and –112dB THD+N quietude.
It’s an updated version of the chip in my hot-rodded Calyx 24/192 DAC from 2012.
But used with the app, this CODA is something else! And why wouldn’t you?
The app’s free. And the CODA software is upgradeable via firmware updates from Clarus.
What’s not to like about that? Future proof!
My first exposure to MQA almost happened at the Montreal audio show when it was first introduced, circa 2014.
Meridian had formal demonstrations each hour,
But I don’t have time to stand in line at shows.
If you’ve ever walked into a room at a show and the music sounded like a million bucks,
Either A) The system cost something like a million bucks,
Or B) They were playing MQA rendered music.
Through my $100 Grado headphones and the CODA plugged into my laptop,
MQA encoded music on Tidal took a huge leap in quality.
Better resolution, improved transparency, and a sphere of sound
that dramatically eclipsed my skull.
It didn’t create a soundscape in the room the way speakers do,
But there was a greater sense of physical space.
Performers on the extreme right or left could be identified,
But those in the middle were not easily pinpointed.
Dynamics? If the music has punch and drive, the CODA will sock it to you even better due to the quieter background.
Put you right in the venue.
Tonal color? Lots of it, closer to Ektachrome than Kodachrome, though your choice of headphones will shade the music a bit.
Pace, rhythm, and timing? Not much different.
Emotional connection with the music? Did you forget all the Springsteen YouTubes I listened to even without going through the Tidal app? MQA made the experience far more engaging than that with MQA encoded music (but no video).
And those three digital filters? The one that rolled off the top end a bit worked best for me, but your ears are different. You’ll have to try them with your own cans.
Speaking of which, I tried the CODA with Tom’s Sennheiser HD 600’s equipped with Audio Sensibility Impact SE headphone cables and his Beyerdynamic T1 headphones.
Both are a more difficult drive than the Grado.
Both were nice, though I’d pick his Sennheiser with Audio Sensibility cable if I had to choose.
But if I was starting from zero, I’d sooner spend $400 for the Grado 80e plus the CODA than spend all that money (or more) on just some better headphones.
What does that tell you?
Gateway To Traditional High-End Audio
So yeah, a rave review for the CODA as a thumb drive DAC for your laptop, tablet, or smartphone,
But CODA is far more than that.
Once the “Force Volume” switch was activated to keep the Tidal volume maximized,
I took my Audio Sensibility Impact SE cable (3.5mm stereo to RCA, C$129, 0.7m, other lengths additional, also highly recommended) along with my laptop and trackball,
Into the dedicated listening room where I plugged the laptop into the dedicated line
And the CODA into my Coincident Statement Line Stage.
Again, not forgetting the Synergistic Research MiG footers under the laptop.
Cueing up Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer turned my rig into one of the Best Rooms at any show I’ve ever been to.
As did every other MQA tune I played for the next hour.
Air and bloom,
Gorgeous tonal color and micro-dynamics,
Not that the macro-dynamics were shabby — they were already very good with the AGD monoblocks driving the Kharma speakers.
Moreover, the CODA promoted the values that I’ve prioritized with the Coincident tube preamp driving the GaNFET Class D AGD power amps and the Synergistic Research power conditioner and full loom of Synergistic cables:
High resolution, excellent transparency, tons of tonal color, panoramic soundscaping just short of pinpoint with plenty of depth, and an invitation to tap my toe with every song.
Linda came into the room saying the music sounded really good.
I showed her the Tidal streaming service.
She turned around and looked at my wall of LP records and said “Gee, if you had Tidal we could get rid of all these records.”
The CODA with MQA is a revelation, and non-MQA isn’t bad either.
You can by-pass MQA if you’re some kind of Luddite, or LP monophile (possibly my next incarnation) by using the pass-through MQA switch in the menu on the app.
Either way, for $299, this DAC isn’t going back.
And if it’s good enough for my reference rig costing tens of thousands of US$,
It’s also a huge gateway for someone starting out on their very own high-end audio journey.
Got phone, tablet, or laptop — will travel.
Or start with a pair of active speakers and evolve as far and as loud as you want to rock.
Did I mention that CODA, Tidal, and MQA are really fun?
This is a keeper.
|Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)|
|Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)|
|Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)|
|High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)|
|Soundscape Width Front|
|Soundscape Width Rear|
|Soundscape Extension Into Room|
|Fit And Finish|
|Value For The Money|
Check out Enjoy the Music!
TyType: USB DAC with stereo headphone amplifier
Operating Systems: Windows 7-10, Apple MacOS, Android, and iOS
DAC: ESS Pro Series SABRE DAC
Amplifier: Class G Headphone Amplifier
Audio Formats: DoP, PCM, and MQA
Max Resolution: 32-bit (supports 16-bit, 24-bit)
Max Sample Rate: 384 kHz (supports 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.2,192, 352.4, Dop 64, Dop 128)
Max Output Voltage: 2 Vrms
Output Impedance: <1 Ohm
LED Indicators: Blue: 44.1 or 48kHz (Standard Definition)
Green: >48kHz (High Definition)
Three Filters: Linear Phase, Fast Roll-off
Minimum Phase, Slow Roll-off
Hybrid, Fast Roll-off
Volume Control: Supports HID volume control of source
Adapter Cable: Female USB-A to Male USB-C, 15cm length
Zipper Case: 4.3″ x 2.5″ x 1.5″ to hold CODA and earbuds (not included)
Weight: 24 grams (.8 oz.) with cap
Dimension: 2.5″ x 0.9″ x 0.4″ with cap (LxWxH)
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