Musical Paradise MP-302 Amplifier
I have been looking for a decent and inexpensive desktop-sized DAC and amplifier for a long time, and I was very surprised to find out that there's a company in Edmonton called Musical Paradise that makes exactly that.
A few months ago I replaced my computer's 2.1 speaker system with a pair of bookshelf speakers and a cheap and ugly amplifier that I got off Amazon. It got the job done, but it was ugly and I had to manually unplug the amp and mess with cables whenever I wanted to switch to headphones. Thus began my search for a reasonably priced upgrade that also included its own headphone jack, plus a USB DAC so I could have the added benefit of bypassing my computer's internal soundcard entirely.
Finding a small USB DAC is easy, but finding one that will also power a small set of bookshelf speakers is surprisingly difficult. Fiio sells quite a few DAC options and quite a few amplifier options, but unless I wanted to combine two devices and still spend under $100, I was out of luck.
Completely by accident, I stumbled across Musical Paradise, a company that sells exactly what I want, and for only $70 (reduced from $120). I was even more amazed when I found out that the company is local. Musical Paradise is run by just one guy, Garry Huang; he designs all of the products himself and gets them assembled in China, which probably explains their affordability. I placed my order for an MP-302 and picked it up the very same day.
The MP-302 looks and feels beefy, made entirely out of aluminum. The switches on the front are the the oldschool "toggle" type which give it a unique appearance similar to vintage equipment. After hooking it all up, I attached the USB cable to my computer and I immediately saw the message "USB device could not be recognized". So I tried it on two different computers, but got the same result.
The two toggle switches also appeared to be reversed. You would normally assume a power switch should have two settings, on and off, however the power switch on my MP-302 had three physical options. The "down" setting turned the unit on, while the middle and top setting switched it off. The switch on the right, which controlled inputs, had three options: "aux", "mute" and "USB". Despite this, it only allowed for two physical settings, skipping over the middle "mute" option entirely. The switches must have been accidentally swapped during assembly.
So I had messed up switches and a DOA DAC. I emailed Garry and arranged to get a replacement unit.
The DAC worked perfectly the second time. Windows had no problem recognizing it and after I selected it as my primary output device, I could hear music once again. The input switch allowed me to select all three options this time, including "mute", but the power switch still had three settings. Not sure if it was by design at this point or another quality control issue. I didn't bother getting a replacement since it didn't really affect performance.
The headphone jack is the 1/4 inch type, so I tested the headphone functionality next. I immediately noticed an audible hiss that remained despite adjusting the volume. The hiss was louder than any noise I hear when plugging my headphones directly into my soundcard, which is inside my computer surrounded by interference. It was inaudible when listening to music, but just knowing it was there at all still bothered me. Kind of disappointing.
I asked Garry about it and his response was that the hiss came from "ground noise from your computer coupled from the USB cord". I was incredulous of this claim at first, but after googling it, I found out that it's a common issue with USB DACs. It is related to the grounding of the USB ports on your computer and not the device itself. A suggested fix was to try USB ports on the front of your PC instead, but that didn't work for me. I unplugged the USB cable entirely and noticed that the hiss remained no matter which input option I selected, and despite the unit having nothing feeding it an audio signal of any kind. This pretty much confirmed that the problem was with the MP-302 and not ground noise.
You get what you pay for
At this point I am not sure where to turn next in regards to eliminating the hiss. Despite the quality control issues, I'm still using the MP-302 because it's more convenient than my previous set up. I ended up sticking with my soundcard's DAC (Asus Xonar DS), and running a set of RCA cables into the aux input of the MP-302 instead of using a USB cable. As far as sound quality goes, I could not hear any significant difference between this set up vs. using the MP-302's own DAC. The MP-302 might have been the tiniest bit more flat, but I could have been imaginging it.
Perhaps I'll save up for a pair of Audioengine 5's and a D1 next time I have an extra $570 burning a hole in my pocket.