Headphone Amplifier/DAC Reviews

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Michael Lavorgna  |  Oct 08, 2013
The Little Asus That Could
I was impressed with the Asus Xonar Essence One MUSES Edition that I reviewed back in November of last year (see review) finding it fun and engaging to listen to. The new Essence STU due to be released later this month is the Essence One's little brother offering much of the same functionality of its bigger brother minus the latter's XLR outputs. Inside the STU we've got the Texas Instruments (TI) PCM1792A DAC, the 32-bit/192kHz-capable Cmedia CM 6631A asynchronous USB receiver, the TI PCM9211 S/PDIF receiver, and the TI TPA6120A headphone amp. The STU wraps all of this tech into a slender iPad-sized dark gray chassis with an analog volume control for the RCA outs and a separate volume control for the heapdhone out. Add in a two-position Headphone Gain switch and you've got yourself one fulsome package for a hair under four hundred bucks. Nice!
Michael Lavorgna  |  Sep 03, 2015
(Rick) Deckard
The main character in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner from Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is named Rick Deckard. Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies so I could not disassociate typing or saying "Deckard" from thinking of the film. Phew. I got that off my mind. Audeze is, for anyone not living on planet headphone, a maker of some very well regarded 'phones. I have a pair of their LCD-X here for use with their Deckard Headphone Amplifier/DAC and I've been living with this combo, on my desktop, for a few months. My first thought when listening through the Deckard was—they should have charged more.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Aug 24, 2012
DragonFly Guts
What's a cable company like AudioQuest doing making a DAC? The easy answer is—because its here (Computer Audio audio that is). AudioQuest makes an extensive line of audio and video cables and in addition to the usual suspects there's a line of Ethernet cables which I'll be reviewing shortly. AudioQuest also has had a "Computer Audio" section on their website for some time now that includes two informative "How To" type PDFs, and they've been hosting Computer Audio seminars at most of the major Hi-Fi Shows. So I would say its safe to say that AudioQuest has embraced file-based playback with both arms and legs. The subject of today's musical travels is their new DragonFly USB DAC which adds a pair of wings to their computer audio-centric offerings.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Nov 27, 2013
A Dragonfly Killer?
AudioQuest's original Dragonfly DAC (see review) seems to have inspired a number of similar products while igniting the whole 'micro-DAC' market. And for good reason. The original Dragonfly was small, portable, easy to use with hi-fi or headphones, and it sounded good. Putting it on AudioStream's Greatest Bits list was a no-brainer. Kicking it off of that list is also a no-brainer because AudioQuest have gone and done it. They've come out with a Dragonfly killer.
Steven Plaskin  |  Dec 30, 2015
The Ayre Acoustics Codex is the newest DAC to be released from this well known high end manufacturer located in Boulder, Colorado. Some might initially conclude that the Codex is a stripped-down version of the more expensive Ayre QB-9 DSD DAC, but they would be wrong. The Codex was derived from the design of the audio circuitry for the PonoPlayer that utilized Ayre’s best technology that would fit into a battery-operated device. But the Codex goes far beyond just being a DAC; it provides a first-class headphone amplifier that Ayre claims can drive most any headphone on the market. Also present is a front-panel volume control that operates in the digital domain and retains a full 24 bits of resolution (144 dB of dynamic range all the way down to an attenuation level of -60db).
Michael Lavorgna  |  Nov 14, 2013
The Conductor
The Burson Audio Conductor packs a bunch of full features into a very solid 6mm thick precision machined aluminum chassis. There's a full function preamp with two line level RCA inputs, a host of 24/192-capable digital inputs, and a headphone amp. A threefer.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Jan 28, 2014
The Conductor Gets A New DAC
When Burson read my sonic impressions of their Conductor DAC (see review), one of their reactions was to suggest I try the 1793 DAC PCB option which sports a Burr Brown PCM1793 DAC, taking the place of the ESS Sabre32 Reference DAC that comes in the standard version. This 1793 DAC PCB option also lowers the price from $1,850 to $1,700 while delivering a different sonic palette. But which is better?
Michael Lavorgna  |  May 07, 2015
Built Burson Tough!
The Conductor Virtuoso's 6mm Resonance Free Aluminum (RFA) enclosure, constructed from precision-machined panels, is not used for looks alone. From Burson, "We took great care to ensure the thickness of each wall varied from the others to increase the mechanical damping factor. The RFA enclosures display superior mechanical noise rejection (internal and external) compared to conventionally folded-steel enclosures used by many audio manufacturers."
Michael Lavorgna  |  Apr 17, 2014
Another Micro DAC
I don't know about you, but I think choice is good. The micro DAC market has seen a rabbit-like infestation of products including the AudioQuest Dragonfly, Meridian Explorer, HRT MicroStreamer, Audioengine D3, Arcam rPAC, LH Labs Geek family, iFi's nano line, and more. Two things that the Cambridge DAC Magic XS offers that not all the others do is the ability to play back up to 24/192 files and on-device push button analog volume controls.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Feb 13, 2014
Wherever You Go...
Hugo. No, wherever Hu-go...Oh never mind. The Chord Hugo is a portable DAC/Headphone amp capable of passing up to 32/384 PCM, DXD, and DSD 128 data through its FPGA-based DAC to your headphones or hi-fi. There's a digitally controlled volume knob which you can bypass when running Hugo in DAC-mode, multiple crossfeed filter settings for enhanced headphone listening, micro USB, Coax and Toslink S/PDIF inputs, as well as A2DP aptX Bluetooth input so you can stream to the Hugo across the airwaves from iOS and Android devices. Everything is wrapped up in sparkly silver hard-anodised precision milled aircraft-grade aluminum with colored lights and level indicators shining through.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Apr 18, 2013
DSD via DoP and SDHC
Before going to press with this review, I figured I'd give it one last lap around the 'net to see if I could locate some information regarding when (or if) the Fostex HP-A8C would be able to play back DSD over PCM/USB. I stumbled on a post by 'AnakChan' on HeadFi that pointed to the Fostex Japan website and lo and behold there was firmware version 2.01B with DoP (you can get it here). Once I downloaded and updated, all I had to do was navigate to the USB over PCM menu option, enable it, and I was streaming DSD over USB in no time. Lovely. Why this firmware revision from November 2012 is not yet available on the Fostex International (English) website is anyone's guess. The latest version to be found there is 1.31 which does not include the DSD over USB option so you are stuck playing back only DSF formatted DSD files through the HP-A8C's SD (or SDHC) card reader. And that's kind of a drag.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Nov 06, 2014
DSD512? PCM768?
The battery-powered iFi Micro iDSD DAC/Heapdhone amp is chock full of functionality. With the ability to play back up to DSD512 as well as PCM files with sample rates to 768kHz and double rate DXD through its dual-core Burr Brown DACs, I'd say the little micro is fairly future proof. Throw in a 8V @ 4000mW output for the headphone jack, and you've got yourself one fulsome package. But that's not all.
Michael Lavorgna  |  May 15, 2014
The iFi nano iDSD DAC also doubles as a battery-powered 80mW headphone amp and can handle PCM resolutions up 32/384, DXD, single and double rate DSD and with a recent firmware upgrade even quad rate DSD. Unlike the recently reviewed Geek Out DAC (see review) and some of the other micro DACS, the iDSD is not a micro DAC per se coming in about the size of a pack of Camels. The cigarettes, not camels. Also like the Geek, there's a physical volume control but here its handled in the analog domain, USB in, and because of its bigger body its able to accommodate a pair of RCA outputs instead of the 3.5mm minijack found on the Geek Out. iFi also throws in a Coax output and two filter choices; minimum phase recommended for listening and "standard" recommended for measurement.
Michael Lavorgna  |  May 07, 2014
Get Your Geek On
The LH Labs Geek Out caused quit a stir when its Kickstarter campaign raised over 300,000 clams. While early adopters were able to get their Geek Out for as low as $99, the current selling price begins at $199 and goes to $299 for the unit under review which is the Geek Out 1000. The 1000 refers to the output power in milliwatts and there's also a 450 mW version "for < 100 ohm impedance headphones" ($199), and a 720 mW version "for 100-300 impedance headphones" (+$50). The 1000 is "for > 300 ohm impedance headphones" all according to LH Labs. The aircraft-grade aluminum wrapped Geek comes in five colors all of which can handle PCM rates up to 32/384, DXD, as well as single and double rate DSD. LH Labs is a relatively new division of parent company Light Harmonic, makers of the pricey and pretty Da Vinci Dual DAC (see review).
Michael Lavorgna  |  Jul 23, 2015
Crowds & Power
More than any other audio company, much-much-more, LH Labs has been exceedingly successful in utilizing crowdfunding for product development and sales. This model obviously shirks the traditional hi-fi approach in many ways but most importantly lots of people are buying audio gear without anyone having heard it. Reviews necessarily come after the initial wave of crowdfunding and crowd-designing enthusiasm has ebbed so at best we can create a second wave or tell people what they already know. I find LH Labs overall approach refreshing if a tad fresh.