Xduoo Link2 Bal Review: A Strong Link Makes For a Strong Chain

Pros:
  • Priced competitively
  • Reference sounding
  • Powerful output
  • Hardware switches for gain and USB audio class (UAC) setting
  • Volume and play/pause hardware buttons
  • Includes USB C to lightning cable out of the box

Cons:
  • Volume buttons control software volume only
  • Dual tempered glass panel prone to smudges and scratches and needs extra care
  • Xduoo did not include or release a dedicated case

Introduction:
Xduoo is a company from China that specializes in the production of digital audio players, DACs, amplifiers both the solid state and tube variants of them, portable and desktop setups alike. In the recent boom of popularity of dongle DACs, they release the Link that was followed up shortly by the Link2, with both of them equipped with just a single ended 3.5 mm output. Now, Xduoo another improvement with the Link2 Bal, supplied with a 4.4 mm balanced output. The Link2 Bal currently retails for 149 USD, and was provided to me at a discounted price by KeepHiFi in exchange for this review.

Specifications taken from Xduoo's website:
Sources:
Poco X3, Poco M3, Redmi Note 7 Pro, Redmi Note 10 Pro, Lenovo IdeaPad 110

Gears paired with the Link2 Bal:
Headphones:
Koss Porta Pro
Koss KSC75X
thinksound ov21
SIVGA Phoenix
KLH Ultimate One

In-Ear Monitors:
Audiosense DT600
Audiosense DT300
Hisenior FE3U
Kinera Freya
NF Audio NM2
BQEYZ Autumn

Earbuds:
VE Monk+
VE Monk Lite 120
VE Monk SM
Vido
Astrotec Lyra Mini
HZSound Bell Rhyme
DQSM Z&W Panda

Test tracks:
Africano - Earth Wind and Fire
Dark Necessities - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Gurenge - Lisa
The Chain - Fleetwood Mac
Monsters - All Time Low
Ours - Taylor Swift
Stay - Mayday Parade
Snuff - Slipknot
Yesterday Once More - Carpenters
So Slow - Freestyle
Aurora Sunrise - Franco
Attention - Pentatonix
Blue Bird - Ikimono-gakari
You're Still The One - Shania Twain
Anyone Who Knows What Love Is(Will Understand) - Irma Thomas
Salamin - Slapshock
AOV - Slipknot
Hey Jude - The Beatles
The Way You Make Me Feel - Michael Jackson
...and a lot more.

Unboxing and Accessories:
The Link2 Bal comes in a compact rectangular sleeved box. Opening up will reveal the Link2 Bal nested in a piece of dense white foam. Underneath, there is the instruction manual and the warranty card, and finally at the bottom there is a USB C to C cable, USB C to A adapter and a USB C to lightning cable which is a nice inclusion by Xduoo since most companies don't include one out of the box.
Build:
The frame including the buttons and switches of the Link2 Bal are made of metal, sandwiched by a layer of 2.5D glass. The glass adds to the overall elegance of the design but it also adds fragility compared to other dongles with an all metal build. At the lower front portion, there is the Xduoo logo, and at the upper portion, there is an LED that lights up red if the sampling rate of the file being played is 44.1 - 48 kHz, blue if it's 88.2 - 384 kHz, and green if it's DSD. At the bottom there is the 3.5 mm jack for single ended output, and 4.4 mm jack for balanced output.
The cable is a twisted 4-core of what looks like silver plated copper. It is soft and very flexible, although it would have looked a bit better if the strands were slightly thicker. The housing of the connectors are made of the same metal as the frame of the dongle.
Buttons and Switches:
At the right side of the dongle, there are volume up and down buttons, and the red circle is a play/pause button. Unlike the Cayin RU6, which also has volume buttons but independent from the volume of the source, the buttons here in the Link2 Bal controls the source itself. If you use the exclusive USB audio access mode in Hiby, you will not be able to control the volume if the screen is off, because the app needs to be in the foreground to adjust the volume. Moving on to the other side, there is a switch for USB Audio Class (1.0 and 2.0), allowing the Link2 Bal to support the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation and other devices that use UAC 1.0. The other switch controls the gain mode (Normal and Turbo), which is basically just low and high gain respectively.
 
Now let's get to the sound.

Lows:
The lows are excellently reproduced. The attack speed and texture of each bass note are equally impressive. There is a very slight emphasis in the subbass, rendering the vibrations to have a perceptible increase in density, but at the same time dissolve into the background quite steadily. The notes become flatter as they shift to the midbass and the lower mids.

Mids:
The mids deliver slightly above average clarity and sense of air. Vocals and instruments are positioned right in the middle supported with an average thickness in every note and a generally uncolored overall tonality. Drum hits and piano strikes are conveyed pleasantly and with remarkable definition. The headroom in this section is also substantially spacious.

Highs:
The highs provide very good levels of energy in every track. Lower and upper portions of the treble are both full-bodied, and the extension is just on the average side. Sparkle and tiny details doesn't stand out that much here, but still presented clear enough to be appreciated in most tracks.

Soundstage and Imaging:
The Link2 Bal provides average space in the soundstage, with the height and width being equal in expansion. The accuracy in the imaging, as well as the clarity are both very good. Instruments are conveyed with great definition and layered well with the vocals.

Comparisons:
Xduoo Link2 Bal (CS43131, 149 USD) vs. Cayin RU6 in NOS Mode (Discrete R-2R, 250 USD)
The RU6 provides slightly deeper reach in the lows. Like I said earlier, the Link2 Bal has a very slight emphasis in the subbass but the RU6 exceeds that. Subbass has a bit more body and extends longer in the RU6. There is a hint of warmth in the mids of the RU6 but the Link2 Bal has generally more balanced and more well rounded reproduction. That being said, the mids of the RU6 still stands out in terms of holographic feel and transparency. Treble decay of the RU6 extends more, but they are just equal in the reach and in the thickness of the notes. Soundstage is very, very close but the RU6 has a bit more room in the height. Imaging is slightly better on the RU6 as well.

Conclusion:
Dongles are getting more and more powerful, sleeker, and versatile at a very rapid pace right before our very eyes. Cost is steadily growing as well, but it should be the price to pay for all the improvements we are seeing. Xduoo gave the Link2 Bal more than enough muscle to drive plenty of head gears in the market, but at the same time gave it a clean, almost uncolored sound output that synergizes very well to varying sound signatures. All of these while staying portable and relatively affordable for most audiophiles out there.

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