In this Moondrop Moonriver 2 review, I’m looking at the brand’s new dongle DAC. The Moonriver 2 features dual CS43198 DAC chips. It has a very impressive dynamic range and extremely low distortion. The price is $189.
Disclaimer: This sample was provided by Shenzhen Audio for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
Moondrop Moonriver 2 Review
Its dynamics and pure black background make the Moondrop Moonriver 2 one of the top contenders in the dongle DAC niche.
For some reason, Moondrop decided to go with a more mature approach for Moonriver 2’s packaging. There’s just a small black and white waifu character on the back of the box along with the unit’s specifications. On the front of the box, there’s an illustration of the internal circuitry. Inside the box is the Moonriver 2, a USB-C to USB-C cable, a USB-C to USB-A adapter and a user manual.
Adopting an unusual steampunk design – a blend of modern and classic elements, the Moonriver 2 stands out visually from its peers. The top of the unit has a raised section where the headphone jacks reside and then a sloped, ridged cutaway tapering down to a thinner section.
On the back of the device is a diagram of the internal circuitry which makes the device look even more unique. I find it to be an unusual and utilitarian aesthetic but that’s just my subjective opinion.
One thing I don’t like about this dongle is its sharp corners; that doesn’t seem very practical for an object that’s likely to spend a significant amount of time in one’s pockets.
On one end of the unit are the 2 headphone jacks, one 3.5mm single-ended and one 4.4mm balanced. On the opposite and is the USB-C port for charging. Included with the dongle is a transparent flat USB-C to USB-C ribbon cable.
There are 2 volume buttons on the side of the Moonriver 2. These buttons have different lengths making it easy to determine which is which by touch – handy when the dongle is in your pocket. Unfortunately, the volume controls are not discrete and will change the volume on your source rather than the device itself.
Pushing both the volume – and + buttons at the same time switches between low and high gain modes. The small LED on the top of the unit glows red in low gain mode and green in high gain. Be advised that the unit defaults to high gain mode every time it’s plugged in so that’s something to be wary of.
One last thing to note is that the unit gets pretty warm when in use. This happens even in the low gain mode so there’s no way to avoid it unless something changes in a future firmware update. This isn’t unique to the Moonriver 2 but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Internals and Functionality
Internally, the Moondrop Moonriver 2 hosts dual CS43198 DAC chips. This is my first time hearing this DAC so I was curious about how it would sound but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Supporting up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD 256, the Moonriver 2 is geared to handle any format you throw at it unless it’s an MQA file (there’s no MQA support). In terms of output power, the unit can push up to 4Vrms in high gain from the 4.4mm balanced output and 2Vrms from the 3.5mm jack. That’s enough driving power for everything but the most demanding full-size headphones.
As far as power goes, the Moonriver 2 had ample drive to push everything I tested with it. There was even plenty of headroom left for the DT990 Pro in high gain mode and I rarely went over 50/100 volume on most tracks. All the other gear listed above was driven in low gain mode.
I’m a fan of the CS43131 and now I can say that I’m a fan of the CS43198 as well. There are similarities to the sonic character of the former DAC chip such as neutrality and end to end extension.
From the lows to the highs, Moonriver 2 sounds natural and earthy but super clean. There’s no audible noise floor even in high gain mode. It’s a balanced sound full of nuance and emotion coupled with the signature Cirrus Audio DAC smoothness.
Listening to the vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen in The Gentle Storm’s “New Horizons” with the DT990 Pro, I’m impressed by the natural note weight and precise placement. The bass is impactful and the spacing between the instruments is a joy to behold. Here the soundstage is wide and expansive but the vocals, strings and percussion maintain lifelike density and presence.
Continuing with “Upside Down (Live)” by Gazpacho, the expansiveness of the soundstage is apparent right from the start. The Moonriver 2 puts you right there at the concert and gives you a clear image of where every instrument is placed. The hi-hats sound tangible but airy and the kick drum has just the right mix of thump and slam. Throughout the song, the guitar notes are textured and crisp and the vocals shine with a lifelike timbre. I’m reminded of what a great recording it is.
xDuoo Link2 Bal ($149)
The xDuoo Link2 Bal (review here) has dual CS43131 DAC chips and shares a similar sound signature as the Moonriver 2. From my very brief research, it seems that the CS43131 and CS43198 are essentially the same except that the former has variable operational power consumption (6.25-40.2mW) versus the latter’s fixed rate (26mW).
So instead of pretending they sound vastly different, I’m going to focus on other factors in this comparison. First of all, the Link2 Bal has additional features; It has a play/pause button plus a switch to select either USB UAC1.0 or UAC2.0. It also has a switch to change between gain modes compared to the Moondrop where you need to press the volume + and – simultaneously.
Furthermore, the Link2 Bal has 2.5D glass covers on both sides whereas the Moonriver 2 has a futuristic steampunk aesthetic. I personally prefer the look and feel of the Link2 Bal but that’s purely subjective on my part.
In terms of output power, they’re close too, although I don’t know exactly how many mW the Moonriver 2’s 4Vrms converts to. But testing the 250Ω DT990 Pros nets close to the same resulting volume.
Lastly, the Link2 Bal stays cool during use while the Moonriver 2 gets warm. I’m not stating that as a con – just letting you know. At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either one. But if I were choosing, I’d go with the xDuoo based purely on the physical design and enhanced usability because I honestly don’t think I could tell them apart sonically in a blind test.
There’s no doubt that the Moonriver 2 is currently among the best sounding dongle DACs. Its self-assured assertiveness is tempered with a controlled composure and its neutral presentation means it stays true to the music. Whether or not the physical design appeals to you (or even matters at all) you can be sure that the audio quality is top-notch.