Yes, youíre reading it correctly - this is a review of FULLA Schiit Audio product! You gotta have a lot of confidence and one heck of a sense of humor to name your company "Schiit Audio". Anybody who is frequent to Head-fi will recognize this name and probably be familiar with Jason Stoddard (one of the SA co-founders) who indeed has a great sense of humor. I can't speak from a personal experience about all of their products, though well aware about their main focus being on desktop DACs and AMPs. Plus, Iíve read a number of positive reviews and impressions with everybody raving about their build quality, minimalistic looks, and excellent audio performance at a very reasonable price. Since my selection of audio hardware is focused around portable use, I typically don't have a need for desktop equipment. The only exception is when I use my laptop with headphones connected to HO (headphone output) port, something I always regret because of a poor sound quality of integrated audio chip. I do have some portable DAC/amps and DAPs that can function as USB DACs, but I'm not a big fan of "jack of all trades" and prefer a "master of one" which is what FULLA supposed to be. Here is what I found.
There are many unique things about FULLA, including a ďboxĒ it arrived in. This was definitely not a traditional packaging, made out of a carton sleeve and a folded cardboard piece with a cutout for DAC/amp and included accessories - very original! This packaging is certainly not intended for continuous storage use, and it wasn't the easiest thing to slide out (since I didn't want to cut it open), but I certainly do appreciate the recyclable nature of it. Beside FULLA itself, accessories included a short 4" usb to mini-usb cable, a small draw string velvet storage pouch, and a quick start manual.
Unboxing and accessories.
I gotta be honest that it wasn't a love at first sight. I do appreciate a small footprint (ridiculously compact 2.5" x 1.2" x 0.5") and a super light weight (3 oz) of FULLA - you can't take that away from a wow factor when you first take FULLA out and hold it in your hand. But after a quick brush of my fingers across the surface, I discovered rather sharp edges of the aluminum sheet metal wrapped around a steel enclosure box. It's not a show stopper since you can easily remove this aluminum piece (2 philips screws holding it together) and file the edges, but I was expecting to see a product with a more friendly to the touch finish.
Another thing that bothered me was a small volume knob, not easy to grab and a bit slippery. I do have to give Schiit Audio a credit for using an actual analog pot, just wish it would be bigger and with a more noticeable position marker. Also, I found a decision to use outdated mini-usb connector instead of a more common micro-usb connector to be a bit odd. Connector selection is not a showstopper either since you donít need to charge FULLA thus canít take advantage of common smartphone charger. All you need is a short usb patch cable to connect it to your laptop/PC, but still, a mini-usb connector is a thing of the past plus I bit of a challenge for OTG solution if you want to pair it up with a smartphone. Also, there were no other controls (gain switch or bass boost) or ports (line out, etc.) beside a volume knob and data connection port.
I already mentioned that aluminum sheet metal shell is easy to take off if you need to file the sharp edges or just curious to look inside. All it takes is a careful removal of two Philips screws, and you can easily slide if off - just watch out for those edges! At the same time such metal lightweight enclosure makes a perfect protection cage, and also great for heat dissipation.
When it comes to setup and operation of FULLA, itís literally plugíníplay Ė no need to install or configure anything. Itís that simple and robust, just connect it to your usb port, plug in your headphones and you're done! On my Windows 7 the system did remember the last volume adjustment from laptop, and every time I connected FULLA it was setting system volume to that level. If you are using the same set of headphones, this makes it very convenient to set the volume knob on FULLA and laptop volume to a desired combination, and use it as is. But if you often switch from IEMs to full size headphones with different impedance and sensitivity level, perhaps make it a habit to turn down the volume pot before hitting Play to avoid "blowing your ears" surprise.
Iím sure some of you are probably thinking this review started on a high note and went downhill a bit. Well, you are in for a big surprise because once I plugged FULLA into my laptop and connected my currently favorite ATH-MSR7 cans Ė I ended up having one of those ďSusan BoyleĒ moments with a very pleasant surprise!
When you visit Schiit website, you can get a lot of info about their selection of high quality C-Media USB receiver, a supposedly top notch AKM DAC, and a high current TI amplifier. These are all great devices, but to me itís all a black box where I only care about sound quality. The first impression when you start listening is a relatively wide soundstage with an open/airy sound. The imaging and positioning was really good and felt on 3D level. This also contributes to a great separation and layering of sounds.
I found an overall sound signature to be very clean, balanced, with a high level of transparency, and maybe just a slight boost in low end. The high power output made sound more dynamic, bass texture came alive with more rumble, mids are clear and detailed, and treble is crisp and extended (no added sibilance). Also, I didnít sense too much hissing with some of my sensitive IEMs, and overall found FULLA to have black background Ė a good indication of proper isolation and filtering of power supply from laptop connection.
Obviously, when it comes to DAC/amp sound quality, the best way to appreciate it is by comparing to other similar devices, where I find FiiO E10k to be a very appropriate comparison. In terms of features, E10k has an edge with LO/Coax, L/H gain, bass boost, micro-usb, and clearly marked analog pot with led power light. But that's all on outside. When you do a direct a/b comparison of a sound, E10k is less dynamic, soundstage is narrower, sound is more congested, and imaging/position and separation are definitely inferior. Next to FULLA, youíll find E18 to be warmer, more colored, not as wide, and a bit more congested. Also, A200p can't match the open/airy soundstage of FULLA.
Next to E10k
I was also hopping to get it to work with my Galaxy Note 4, but that didn't happen. I'm well aware that FULLA is power hungry and OTG USB connection won't provide enough current to support it. So I used a combination of OTG USB adapter and USB y-splitter cable with mini-usb and a separate leg connected to external battery. Not sure if I was missing another piece of that puzzle, but it made me think that it makes no sense to have a bulk of an external DAC/amp, a separate external battery, and different adapters and cables just to get an improved sound out of your phone. Besides, there are other dedicated solutions with OTG USB dac/amp. At this point, I was happy for FULLA to be a master of one trade.
Overall, I found FULLA to be a great piece of audio equipment based on its one main functionality of being USB DAC/amp dongle. It's definitely not perfect in terms of some "rough edges" and limitation of being a master of only one trade, but it does that one task with flying colors!!! I know there are other dedicated USB dac/amp dongles which I havenít had a chance to test yet, but based on what I heard so far Ė this has the best sound quality and the most compact design! You just have to figure out your priorities and to decide if FULLA is right for you. If you are constantly switching between different headphones, or use external amp, or like to tweak a volume knob, E10k has more flexibility. But if you want to squeeze out the best audio performance Ė FULLA is the way to go! As a matter of fact, it will be my exclusive audio interface for laptop, and I will use it as a reference in my upcoming reviews and comparisons to other similar devices. So in summary, these guys are NOT FULLA SCHIIT, but rather know exactly what they are doing!!! Just canít wait for the next product name if they decide to make a fully portable USB OTG dac/amp, perhaps DINGLEBERRY?