My Video Review:
When an established audio manufacturer from China is releasing its newest flagship DAC, they are targeting not only its competition from the West, but more often they are aiming they own brethren from the East. Remember the waves Topping did with their D90 DAC? That happened mostly because it was the first unit to carry the flagship AKM4499 DAC chip of the Japanese Asahi Kasei Corp.
When you are releasing world first products, the biggest slice of the market-share goes directly into your pocket, but when you do that, your neighbor wolf pack will be surely sharpening their claws preparing for a counter attack. Take a look at SMSL, their M400 is directly targeting the D90 MQA as it has more or less the same feature set, mostly the same electronics and about the same price. The next move would come from Gustard with the release of A18 DAC that I will be testing today. A18 is not targeting the streaming generation as top SMSL and Topping units are doing, it dropped the MQA capability and instead chooses the safe route, offering top hardware at a lower price compared to its competition.
Instead of going the me too route as SMSL did, Gustard completely changed their tactics. They will be offering the same legendary build-quality of their bigger A22 DAC, but at a much more affordable price. A18 is going for $559.99 in USA and €549.99 in Europe and it is targeting directly the Topping D90 crowd. At the lower price you are still getting flagship electronics, a linear and regulated power supply, the best Bluetooth chipset, a nice remote control and the same decoding capabilities of to its competition, so what is there not to like?
A18 is currently the most affordable and feature packed device that is carrying the top-dog AK4499. The price seems to be right, the specs sheet is impressive, Gustard seems to be holding a recipe of success in their hands. Let me check if A18 delivers on all its promises.
Unboxing & Package Contents
A18 came double boxed as usual, it is slowly becoming common practice for all units coming from Asia and that is a good thing. The product box is moderately sized, but pretty heavy, already telling a story about the unit that I will be testing today. A18 DAC is wrapped with a big blanket of white foam for protection, the rest of the accessories are protected as well in their own foam pockets. A18 together with the A22 are coming probably with the nicest USB Type-C cable I’ve seen up to this point. It is gold plated at both ends and it is thicker compared to usual no-name USB cables, Power Sync made this one and I like it. You can also find a power cable in the package, a Gustard warranty card, a really nice remote control with rubberized buttons and……drum roll……a Mini-CD.
I need to mention what really bothers me about this package. The product box and the unit itself is printed with www.gustard.cn that goes to a dead URL. What is so cool about putting dead URLs on the packaging and who the hell still uses optical drives in their PCs in 2020? Seriously now, do you? All the latest computers, including desktop ones, don’t have optical drives anymore, newest laptops don’t have them for more than 5 years already. I can only presume that the user manual and its USB drivers are stored on that CD.
I would personally put them online and offer a simple download link on the box. Gustard still doesn’t have an official website, I get it, it is okay for now, but putting some files online is completely free. Check Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Sync.com and many other platforms that are offering free space in the cloud for free. Until they build an official website in English with a Downloads tab in there too, I will keep bothering them.
Design & Build Quality
I’ve had a very positive impression about their A22 DAC and A18 follows its footsteps. It is very much the same device, just smaller in size. I see a fully CNC-ed piece of aluminum, with just a thick front and back plate attached to it.
Again, there isn’t a single visible screw on this one, only on its back. It is painted in matte black and you can have it in matte silver as well. It looks really simple, but it’s build to very high standards. I’m glad to see the best aluminum feet in the business, the exact same ones I’ve seen on their A22 too. Gustard didn’t spare a dime building the case of A18, it simply screams high quality from any point of view. I like that it follows the same design language with the rest of Gustard audio components, their logo, that nice volume wheel on the right and the small OLED screen in the middle is so…Gustard. Surprisingly, it also has the same width with the Topping D90 and M400 from SMSL and it is about the same width with the Benchmark HPA4. These two are looking really nicely together, they worked as a team for about a week now and I feel that I’m ready to talk about its sound quality.
Its side plates are rounded and the front plate at the edge is rounded too, I’m swapping electronics on a daily basis be it amplifiers or DACs and sometimes they might touch each other. With rounded edges, I’m more confident that I’m not going to see scratches or dents anytime soon.
At about 2.5 kilos or 5.5 pounds, it is considerably heavier than its competition like the Topping D90 and SMSL M400. I have a bigger confidence in heavier devices and if we are talking about DACs, a heavy unit equals with a nice linear power supply and big capacitance for power storing and filtering.
Controls & Connectivity
A18 has a clean front panel with just a simple monochrome OLED screen in the middle and a nice volume wheel on the far right. If you want to use it in the DAC mode, select maximum volume of 0 dB and if you will be using it as a DAC and Preamp, you can choose the desired volume level via that remote control or via its volume wheel. In the middle of the volume wheel a button can be spotted, a short press on it will select the desired digital input and a long press will engage the user menu, where additional setting can be found. Gustard is not forcing you to use the remote control in case you’ll want to change setting like the digital filters of PCM or DSD material, you can do that single-handedly, unlike Topping that is forcing to use its remote for advanced settings.
On the back of A18 you can spot a wide variety of digital inputs as: USB, I2S, Coaxial and AES. Do note that only USB and I2S are the only inputs that will decode natively DSD material or PCM up to 32-bit 768 kHz. It is a fully-balanced DAC, so it offers XLR and RCA outputs, a 110V or 220V voltage switch, there is also a Bluetooth antenna socket, an AC inlet and a On/Off switch. The only thing that is missing from its bigger brother A22 is the Optical input, I’m not using it much, so it doesn’t bother me at all.
Since I can’t access the user manual for A18, I will be explaining all the settings in the user menu, so you could better understand every feature of it. You can access it by pressing the Menu button on the remote or by a long press on the front button of A18. Once you do that, a user menu like this will appear:
- PCM Filter: 6 positions. AKM has them on the hardware level of the AK4499 DAC chips, those filters will be altering the FR past 20 kHz. Subjectively speaking, I can’t spot a difference between them, since I don’t possess super-human hearing past 20 kHz. However, I’m choosing anything that has the words fast, sharp or short in it.
- DSD Filter: 2 positions. L-BW or H-BW. You will be altering the cut-off frequency of the DSD files. If you want a crispier sound, go for H and if you like a smoother top-end, go with L.
- BT Power: SELECTED or ALWAYS. Self-explanatory, leave it at Selected if you are not using the BT input that often.
- Phase Invert – 2 positions, DISABLE or ENABLE. Self-explanatory, leave it at disabled.
- Display – 2 positions, ALWAYS or AUTO OFF. If it bothers you that much, leave it at Auto Off. I’m leaving it at Always, so I can check the bitrate and the volume level at all times.
- Brightness: has 8 brightness positions, none of them is completely dimming the display. The lowest position (1) worked great at night though.
Under the hood of Gustard A18
I was a bit shocked of how much technology was moved from their flagship A22 DAC to the A18 DAC, yet slashing its price in half.
Take the DAC chip for example. It is exactly the same flagship AK4499 from AKM, the only thing that was changed is that A18 uses a single one instead of two on A22. Still, the more expensive Topping and SMSL units are also using a single unit.
The most important changes can be found at the current to voltage (I/V) conversion and in the low-pass filter. Instead of using a very expensive all-discrete circuitry with tens of transistors all working in Class-A, for A18 that discrete circuitry was exchanged with a dozen of LME49860 op-amps. Two of them at the LPF stage and four of them for the current to voltage conversion. A18 is a fully balanced DAC, since AK4499 is a quad-channel chip and LME49860 are dual op-amps.
The same Altera Max 2 FPGA is presented in both devices. This one is being used for PLL shaping, clock management and DOP modulation. The same super precise femto-second clocks from Accusilicon AS318-B can be found in here too.
The power supply and filtering are on a high level too, a linear and regulated toroidal transformer will be doing the cleaning service. Four voltage regulators will be taking that power, will be lowering the noise floor even more, offering the cleanest power to the critical analog and digital circuitry.
Gustard used the most advanced Bluetooth chipset on the market, the notorious CSR8675 that supports all the best Bluetooth codecs as LDAC, AptX, AptX-HD, AptX-LL, AAC and SBC. Add the latest version 5.0 and you can be sure that BT signal will be strong, covering a wider area. The Bluetooth antenna on the back is also working as a signal booster and I will be testing its range very soon.
It is a bit unusual seeing the voltage output so high on both the RCA and XLR outputs. A18 and its bigger brother A22 are offering 3V at full power on RCA and some serious 6V on XLR! Careful with the volume of your amp that follows, because A18 would sound louder compared to any other DAC. Pro Audio gear as Benchmark HPA4 is very happy about such hot signals, it actually works a bit better with higher voltages as it can accept up to 15V on both RCA and XLR inputs.
I used it in a headphone setup and in a speaker-based setup as well. In my office it was connected mostly to a Benchmark HPA4 or to a LittleDot MKIII SE, driving inefficient planar-magnetic headphones, but also sensitive IEMs. In a speaker-based setup I used the A18 as a DAC + Preamp, driving directly some power amplifiers like KECES S125 and Kinki Studio EX-M7, followed by Buchardt S400 loudspeakers. Enough with the talk, my ears are itching for some music, so let’s hit some ear-drums!
I. Preliminary Impressions & Tonality
When I was testing the top A22 DAC, it sounded nothing like the rest of the flagship AKM designs. Instead of going the safe route by offering a warm tone in the midrange and a bit of roll-off in the treble for long listening sessions, A22 was sounding a lot more courageous than that. It was considerably more linear sounding in the midrange and a lot more extended in the treble region. The transparency it was capable of, the speed and slam of that unit resembled the performance of my own $3000 Matrix Audio Element X, which is still my benchmark when it comes to oversampling delta-sigma DACs. I can’t go further without telling you how very close A18 and A22 are sounding. I’m again spotting that thunderous bass performance, a natural midrange, without going overboard to the warm and smooth camp. Treble is airy and very extended, but without any signs of digitus in its textures. All my past experiences with this chipset were quite different, Gustard proved again that they know the limitations of this chipset and decided to solve some of its flaws.
The discrete output stage that was replaced by LME op-amps of Texas Instruments are currently one of the most transparent and linear sounding op-amps on the market, the flagship AKM chipset on the other hand is strong when it comes to midrange density and it is weaker in the top-octave. The marriage between these two made the A18 both a musical creature, but also a transparent sounding unit even where others were struggling with.
Another impressive aspect is its effortless presentation comparing to cheaper alternatives. Last week I was testing that little Soncoz that impressed me quite a bit, especially taking in consideration its price point. A18 is sounding significantly easier and effortless compared to that one and it offers a bigger sound too. If the little Soncoz offered a glimpse of true Hi-Fi, with the A18 I am feeling all the magic a well-thought and well-engineered digital to analog converter should provide. The only thing that was missing from its bigger brother A22, was that ultimate transparency and detail retrieval.
II. Background Noise
I’m not sure why Gustard is not providing their measurements in terms of noise floor, because after engaging some sensitive IEMs, it was clear to me that I am dealing with an inaudible noise floor at any volume levels. Few microVolts of noise floor is still inaudible for the human hearing.
For this test I used the headphone setup, that is still more transparent and more sensitive to stuff like noise coming from the source. I was not surprised to hear a dead-silent performance even with the most sensitive IEMs like FiiO FA9 in the high-sensitivity mode (16 Ohms, 113 dB/1mW). All the newest digital-to-analog converters are simply breaking the boundaries of measurements, especially when it comes to fighting back mains noise. I still remember testing a multi-thousand DAC few years ago that was simply a mess at high volumes and it was simply unlistenable with sensitive IEMs or portable headphones. Technology is moving forward; listeners have bigger demands, our expectations are becoming higher even from such affordable devices like this one. That oversized transformer, plus those four voltage regulators left its last words exactly in here, because as much as I have stressed my hearing, I can’t spot nasty noises that would ruin my listening pleasure.
Even at much higher volumes, the noise floor and the THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) stays always in check in this setup. You know, when I’m listening to music, I always tend to stop rising the volume when I’m hearing distortion. However, when distortion is very low even at very high-volume levels, I tend to listed louder because of that. If my ears are ringing when I’m stopping the music – that is a clear sign of a very low THD and very high listening volumes. That actually happened when I switched from Soncoz LA-QXD1 to Gustard A18, proving that A18 is sounding clear as the blue-sky.
III. Transient Response
Generally speaking, oversampling delta-sigma DACs as this one are the absolute rulers when it comes to speed and impact. I’m yet to find a speedier sounding DAC like the Matrix Element X and Gustard A22. Transient Response can be split in two parts: the speed of all the notes and the slam that will follow. For a great slam – a powerful output stage will be needed and for a faster pace – a less complicated circuitry. On very rare occasions I can find an amazing speed and slam in the same device, but it’s mostly one or the other. Audio-GD R7 for example is still undefeated when it comes to slam, but its output stage resembles more that of a power amplifier than that of a DAC. With more than 12 output transistors and tens of fat capacitors to store all that power, it was a heavy weight hitter, but it was moving its feet like a grandma, decreasing the speed of the musical notes. Gustard A18 is mostly a speeder than a hard hitter. Yet, if you add some punchy sounding amplifiers afterwards, you can counterbalance the weaker slam. Benchmark HPA4 and Kinki Studio EX-M7 did wonders in both my setups.
When No Line in MIDI by Infected Mushroom (Tidal / Spotify) started playing, at about the 0:27 second mark, I simply felt the urge to lower the volume. The overall performance was both fast and hard slamming and A18 was able to keep up with a faster pace without losing a beat. These guys are mostly about hard slams in a Speedy Gonzales fashion and there isn’t a better way to test the capabilities of a DAC and of a Hi-Fi system. I was moved, I was petrified, I smiled and I carried on. The little Gustard might be not as heavy tonality wise, but when it comes to delivering a bass note in an instant, that is an easy job to do for the A18.
It can also sound relaxing and easy going too, but only when such kind of music starts playing. I’ve tried all sorts of Jazz and Blues, old and new and the general idea is that A18 can also be gentle and smooth sounding, but feed it higher dynamics and its true nature will be revealed.
IV. Soundstage & Depth
There is an unspoken rule that AKM-based DACs, especially those having flagship chips are sounding the widest and airiest of all oversampling delta-sigma DACs and ESS Sabre ones will be sounding faster, but a bit closed-in by comparison. I’ve certainly had the same experience with the most oversampling digital sources, but there are only few ones that are not following this rule. Take both Gustard units as good examples: they both are airy and wider sounding on all axes, but also faster sounding compared to the likes of Topping D90. Gustard understands the limitation put in place by those chips and somehow managed to solve some of them.
A18 is a true balanced design, meaning having a much lower crosstalk numbers between both channels on its XLR outputs. In a headphone-based setup, those numbers alone are increasing the left to right soundstage, simply because both channels are not interfering with each other, how they are doing on single ended RCA outputs. That is a bit less important in a speaker setup, yet the stage is also increasing its size in there too.
At about ~$140 cheaper to the Topping D90, Gustard A18 is exactly as open and wide sounding and the only limitations will be put by your recordings, by your amplifiers, speakers and headphones.
When I want to relax and be surrounded by music, B.B. King or Eric Clapton will do that trick for me, but when these two are playing in the same song, some sort of magic happens, putting me into a relaxed state. Riding With The King (Tidal / Spotify) is an album that was recorded in a much bigger room compared to usual cozy sounding jazz and blues and that was immediately felt on the small A18. All the notes would fly farther away and there would be a longer period of time before those notes would hit some acoustic absorbers. I could easier follow the trail of a note from inception to its decay, their voices sounded defined and less crowded too. I could simply focus on anything I wanted in this album and by that, I mean that Gustard A18 doesn’t have any issues with live records and it will be not limiting in any way the airiness and the transparency of your speakers or headphones.
V. Resolution & Transparency
I was quite surprised when the little Gustard shown such a high-level of transparency and detail from my tunes. In this regard it was sounding like a Topping 90/D90 MQA and just by a hair behind the $1170 Gustard A22 and the $3000 Matrix Element X, which came as a shock to me.
I still spotting the smallest nuances in my music, the mastering errors were heard loud and clear, I’ve heard the smallest details in the most unusual places in my tracks. Benchmark HPA4 still works as a big magnifying glass for any digital source and with it I feel like I can see through them and find all their weaknesses and strong points. A18 is a transparent and resolving sounding unit and it can be easily compared with more expensive devices.
I can still spot that grain on the Ships On the Ocean by Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band (Tidal / Spotify), the extreme left to right soundstage is completely intact, the drums and the harmonica are so spooky natural sounding that the hair on my hands started rising. The black background is still there, the gentle echo is still there, the bass is still going impressively deep and it’s controlled until the end. This track is so transparent, so detailed sounding, but still natural and life-like from start till end. The extreme left to right soundstage is amazing to experience not only in a speaker-based setup, but also in a headphone setup. On this track, A18 sounded more or less like my own reference DAC… I truly recommend trying this song for yourself, it’s a piece of art.
Hey Hey by Eric Clapton (Live MTV Unplugged version – Tidal / Spotify) is such a nice song when it comes to natural textures. The midrange is pushed forward a bit and all the spotlights are put mostly on those guitars instead of Eric’s voice. The amount of detail and naturalness is through the roof in this song and again, A18 delivered an immaculate performance keeping me at the edge of my seat. Unwillingly, I was searching for a drink and a cigar as the smoothness, the easiness and the midrange density in this song are true benchmarks in testing the capabilities of a Hi-Fi setup.
VI. Frequency Response (FR for short)
I already left few traces and small impressions about A18 in terms of FR. A18 is both an effortless sounding source, but also an extended sounding one in terms of FR. It is brutally honest sounding one and if you are not chasing for the truth in your recordings, you might want to search for other one.
Its bass performance is one of its best traits, I’m yet to hear an AK4499 design that is not amazing sounding in here. Be it FiiO M15, Topping D90 / D90 MQA, Gustard A22 or A18, they all performed admirably when it comes to bass. This is one of their stronger points for sure. Be it sub-bass or mid-bass, it was always strong, it was hitting hard, it was going to the lowest pits and would not linger too much after its finishing blow. Its both fast and hard hitting and that can be felt with absolutely anything that is connected to it. I’ve felt those 20 Hz to 25 Hz notes pretty easily, I didn’t need to use the 20 Hz sweep tones, what is very obvious from the start doesn’t really need to be checked again. No matter the bass note, be it from a musical instrument or a digital effect, it rendered them all clean, defined, fast and powerful.
There is a second unspoken rule saying that flagship AKM designs are champions when it comes to midrange density and warmth. This is where Gustard tinkered a bit and altered its voicing. Instead of going the smooth and warm route, A18 is mostly linear and straight as a line with just a hint of warmth and smoothness. It sounds natural too, but not a lot of soul can be felt in this one. A18 is an honest sounding source that will not “beatify” your songs, if you need more warmth or midrange presence you should probably look elsewhere, those R2R designs are probably your best bet. I want to clarify that A18 is not dry sounding or soulless by any means, it doesn’t have a V-shaped FR, just a straight line from sub-bass to upper treble region and this is how all digital sources should sound. There is still plenty of weight to it, plenty of substance in those voices can be found too, guitars and violins are still weeping and are awaking emotions, just less of them. While sounding guttural, voices will not grab your attention as much, A18 is not pushing the midrange forward how most of AKM-based DACs are doing.
Moving up to the treble region I’m basically having a Deja-Vu with the highest-tiered delta-sigma DACs. It is extremely textured in here, very extended too and it will show everything there is to hear in this region. A22 was even more honest sounding in here and revealed an additional layer of information, but that could be too much in some HiFi setups. A18 is less piercing than its bigger brother, it is a bit calmer on the ear too and it is less taxing in linear sounding setups. A18 will be much easier to integrate in any Hi-Fi setup, because there is simply less itching and brightness up-top. The snare drum crashes felt visceral, ringing for a microsecond longer than usual, cymbals were super-defined too but didn’t bother me long term.
VII. Wireless Performance
I have experienced the Qualcomm’s CSR8675 already multiple times, without a signal amplifying antenna in portable devices (as DAPs for example) and with a powerful antenna in multiple desktop DACs.
A18 is also using the newest BT version 5.0, which always offered a very strong signal even with few concrete walls between the sender and the receiver. My smartphone supports all the latest Bluetooth codecs and it is BT 5.0 enabled so I will be squeezing the best A18 is capable of via Bluetooth.
To establish a connection with your smart device, simply select the BT IN input, search for it and connect to the GUSTARD BT, it is that simple. My smartphone is showing a stable LDAC connection, so I will be testing the best it could offer, as LDAC is currently the best Bluetooth codec that supports even 24-bit files at up to 990 kb/sec.
Since I have a Tidal Hi-Fi subscription, I fired some lossless tunes and started moving through the apartment. No matter how much I’ve tried, the signal would always be strong and I would not lose a beat even with 2 or 3 concrete walls between the source and the A18. Only when I was at the balcony, the speakers started stuttering, however at about 15 meters away (~50 feet) and with 3 thick concrete walls that wasn’t a surprise for me, same thing happened multiple times with all BT enabled desktop DACs.
The best part is if I’m listening to a 16-bit PCM file (Lossless CD quality) the difference between playing this file wirelessly or via USB was almost indistinguishable. Only the upper treble was losing a tiny bit of resolution via BT, anything else was more or less the same sounding to me. It can’t be considered a full-fledged streamer, because it still loses bits of information, but at the same time remember its price point. There are full-featured Wi-Fi and Ethernet Streamers that are not doing anything else, but still costing four to six times the price of the unit I’m testing today.
Overall, I was pleased by its performance via Bluetooth and with less revealing headphones or speakers it could sound basically the same wired or wireless.
VIII. A Comparison
Gustard’s A18 was a result of the Topping D90 success, it directly targets that unit, so it was simply mandatory comparing the two. Here it goes!
Gustard A18 ($559) VS Topping D90 / D90 MQA ($699 / $799)
In terms of build quality, both are made from a single block of aluminum on a CNC machine. A18 is having slightly thicker side panels and about double the thickness on the front plate. Both are hiding the screws for a simple and elegant look. Both units are using monochrome OLED screens that I really like. A18 is slightly taller since it houses a bigger toroidal transformer inside its case. In terms of I/O both are identical with the exception that A18 doesn’t have an optical input. Feature wise both are more or less the same, they have nice remotes and plenty of menu options to play with.
In terms of specs, again both are more or less the same, with the exception that Topping used four OPA1612 op-amps in the I/V conversion, instead Gustard used four LME49680 op-amps at the critical current to voltage conversion. Both op-amps were designed for high-end audio and both will yield great results. For the low-pass filter both companies used Texas Instruments op-amps, Topping went with three LME49720 and Gustard with two LME49860. The latter ones are more or less the same, LME49860 can accept higher voltages though, hence using only two of them to achieve the same results.
Obviously, the biggest difference will play those op-amps at the I/V conversion, I know them very well, I am spotting these mostly in mid to top-end devices.
Since A18 is outputting a very strong 6V signal at full power and D90 only a 4V signal, I needed to volume match both units, otherwise the louder unit will appear as better sounding due to higher SPL and dynamics. For that a MiniDSP EARS system came to the rescue, plus the Benchmark HPA4 with two balanced XLR inputs that can be individually adjusted in 0.5 dB steps. MiniDSP EARS recorded a difference of about 3.4 dB between both units, I volume matched both units, I used the same interconnects and the same power cords and commenced my listening session. Audeze LCD-4 and Kennerton Wodan were my weapons of choice, due to their revealing nature and also because they can show small differences in terms of speed and slam.
The biggest difference sits in terms of tonality than anything else. Topping is having only by a hair a warmer midrange, it is a bit denser sounding in there, resulting in a more natural sounding unit, but only by a small margin. A18 has more of a linear midrange performance, it is not as elevated and pronounced. Gustard team went with a reference tuning that shoots for neutrality and wide frequency response. In terms of bass, both units are more or less the same. I’m hearing an immaculate bass performance on both units; they can render the deepest notes and provide them in a speedy and punchy way. Both are very engaging units to listen to, especially when it comes to modern music, I can’t stand still while listening to both of them.
Moving on to the treble response, D90 feels a little uneven in here. It starts very strong at the lower treble region with a lot texture in there, but it starts losing momentum past 12 kHz. A18 is by a hair more extended in the treble, I felt more micro-details in there, tambourines and cymbals sounded slightly more defined and clearer to me. D90 was barely rolling-off that upper-treble to offer an almost rounded performance that could work with a wider variety of music.
That is precisely why, I consider A18 as a more honest sounding source, it is by a hair more extended in the frequency response and D90 feels a bit warmer and smoother sounding up top. There is a fake impression that A18 is by a narrow margin more detailed sounding, especially in the treble, but reality is that D90 can show those notes as well, it simply doesn’t force you to hear them as much.
What is kind of impressive is that A18 is still by about $140 cheaper and yet is sounds exactly like a D90 with just minor difference in tonality. Both units are simply one the same level and I can’t pick a winner and a loser. In the end it will come down to system matching and music preferences. A18 will be slightly more exciting with modern music and D90 will be more interesting with older music with its smoother approach.
Year by year I’m seeing a trend of upping the ladder in terms of sound performance while lowering the price as much as possible. The sound performance of ~$2000 digital audio sources of the past, nowadays can be achieved with considerably less money. The same trend happens in the analog domain, with balanced amplifiers at $400 or less being sold like hot-dogs.
Gustard lowered its price by exactly 50% compared to its bigger brother A22, but the electronics inside it and the sound performance that followed, dropped only by a notch. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a mid-level setup, you will not differentiate one from the other.
In the end, Gustard A18 was built like a tank, it offered an extended frequency response, without dips or rises in a very clean and transparent way. Background noise was always in check and I didn’t spot it even with the most sensitive loads. Soundstage was still big and expanded in all directions, exactly as its bigger sibling sounded. A18 also performed admirably as a DAC + Preamp combo in a loudspeaker setup as I didn’t feel a separate Preamp would improve much. Considering it is more or less on the same level with the Topping D90, I’m pleased to recommend the Gustard A18 as a great performer with an outstanding value!
Gustard A18 can be purchased directly from Apos Audio by following this link (they offer free shipping in the USA, they will price match any price you can find online, they offer free 30-day returns in case you don’t like it and extra 1 year of warranty).
- Great build quality with minimalist looks
- Linear/neutral tonality that works with all musical genres
- Extended stage size in all directions, airy sounding too
- Great pin-point location of all the notes around the listener
- Extended frequency response at both ends, no dips or rises in here
- Transparent and detailed sounding too
- Good speed and a decent slam, could be improved with a punchy amplifier
- Background noise is nowhere to be found even with sensitive IEMs
- Wide selection of digital inputs and analog outputs
- Good Preamp section
- Performance wise, its on the same level with costlier competition
- One of the best values right now
- Wanted a bit more slam out of it
- If your name is Gustard, ditch the Mini-CD, put the drivers and the manuals in a cloud, make an official website in English with a Downloads tab. Don’t be sorry, be better.
- Sources: Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro, Corsair One i160
- DACs: Gustard A18, Topping D90 MQA, Audiobyte HydraVox + HydraZap, Matrix Audio Element X, Flux Lab Acoustics FCN-10, Burson Conductor 3X Performance
- DAPs: Shanling M6, FiiO M15
- Headphone Amps: Benchmark HPA4, SparkoS Labs Aries, Flux Lab Acoustics FCN-10, LittleDot MKIII SE, xDuoo TA-30
- Integrated Amps: KECES E40
- Power Amps: KECES S125, Kinki Studio EX-M7
- IEMs: FiiO FA9, FH7, Meze Rai Penta, Rai Solo & lots of other lower tiered ones
- Portable headphones: Sennheiser Momentum 2, Meze 99 Classics
- Wireless headphones: Sony WF-1000XM3, Sennheiser Momentum 3, Master&Dynamic MW65
- Full-sized headphones: Audeze LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos, Hifiman Arya, Quad ERA-1, Ollo S4X Reference, Kennerton Wodan, Magni & Gjallarhorn
- Loudspeakers: Buchardt S400
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Aune AL3
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600