Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Portable Amps Dacs Daps

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Portable Amps, DACs, & DAPs)

Introduction
Over-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Headphones
Wireless Headphones
Gaming Headphones
Exercise Headphones
Cables & Accessories
Desktop Amps & DACs
Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
Ultra-High-End Headphones (Summit-Fi)
Desktop & Portable Speakers
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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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LH Labs Geek Out 1000 8c50654e_blast_updated_red.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

LH Labs had been around long before they did their first crowdfunding campaign (mostly known by "LH Labs" then), but I think it's safe to say that it was their "Geek Out" campaign on Kickstarter that brought more attention to them then they'd ever had before it. As a consumer, I've had mixed success with participating as a funder, having been burned before by a couple of unfulfilled crowdfunded projects. Thankfully, though, the Geek Out campaign was not one of them, and it resulted in a very good USB bus-powered portable DAC/amp combo for me!

 

The Geek Out is available in a few different versions, differentiated by their maximum output power (100mW, 450mW, and 1000mW). I opted for the most powerful version (the Geek Out 1000), so that's the version this gift guide entry is specifically about--however, other than output power, I believe the feature sets are exactly the same on all three versions.

 

The Geek Out 1000 has some pretty crazy specifications for a device its size: it can decode up two 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and also DSD (I believe the Geek Out's DAC chip is the ESS9018). Its analog output is Class-A (so the Geek Out runs quite toasty). Its 3.5mm stereo line-out's output impedance is 47Ω, and its 3.5mm stereo headphone output's output impedance is a very low 0.47Ω, which I think a lot of diehard portable audiophiles will be thrilled to know. Both analog outputs are level-adjustable, using a 64-bit digital volume control. Again, the version I have has a maximum output of one watt (1000mW), which is impressively powerful, given the fact that the Geek Out is as small as it is, and entirely USB bus-powered.

 

Even though its quite powerful, the Geek Out 1000 still sounds excellent with my IEMs (in-ear monitors), though my more sensitive IEMs do touch its noise floor. I've since picked up the Geek Out IEM 100, which you'll find a separate Gift Guide entry for below.

 

Where the Geek Out 1000 sets itself apart is when you start using it to feed headphones that you'd normally reserve for your desktop rigs. Sennheiser HD 800? No problem. HiFiMAN HE-6? In a pinch, sure, why not? My favorite headphones with the Geek Out 1000 so far? Audeze LCD-X, the new HiFiMAN HE-560--and, surprisingly, the Abyss AB-1266, which the Geek Out 1000 pushes around with surprising authority (though with the big Abyss you're likely going to go higher on the Geek's volume settings than you're probably used to).

 

The Geek's sound signature, to my ears, is of the more detailed, borderline-analytical variety. Though not particularly forgiving, it's also not harsh. Probably owing to its robust power output, the Geek Out 1000 has a good, strong sense of drive. Relative to other small form factor USB bus-powered DAC/amp combos I've used, the Geek Out 1000, to my ears, is capable of the most, in terms of resolution and drive versatility. In this class of products, it is the one most able to serve as an all-in-one desktop rig alternative, and you'll find some people in the Head-Fi community using it as their main setup.

 

Since the previous Gift Guide update, LH Labs, via a firmware update, changed the purpose of the buttons on the side of the Geek Out. While I'm sure some may miss the volume controls they once represented, I am certainly not one of them. I never used the buttons for volume control, as explosive volume level jumps were common for me when using them. They've since changed what were the volume buttons into buttons that let you switch between a couple of digital filter settings. Given how much I couldn't stand the hardware volume implementation, I accept these button reassignments with joy. One unfortunate thing is that the firmware update did away with the "3D Awesomifier" function, which was LH Labs' version of crossfeed. I liked having this option, and will miss it.


Before I had the chance to hear the Geek Out 1000, I was worried that perhaps LH Labs's Kickstarter campaign (in terms of what kind of product they were promising) was a bit too ambitious, and perhaps too optimistic--I mean, they really pumped up what it was going to be capable of. I have to say, though, that I think it has in fact lived up to the campaign's promises, and the LH Labs Geek Out 1000 is one of the easiest $300 Head-Fi DAC/amp recommendations I can think of right now, in terms of sound quality, format versatility, and its ability to drive anything from some of my in-ears to the big Abyss.
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $299 
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URL: www.lhlabs.com
LH Labs Geek Out IEM100  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Portable USB DAC/headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $289
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URL: www.lhlabs.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

As much as I'm a fan and user of the LH Labs Geek Out 1000, I am also an avid user of in-ear monitors, with several super-sensitive IEMs in my arsenal. Some of my moderately sensitive IEMs work quite well out of the Geek Out 1000, but some of the sensitive ones can dive headlong into the Geek Out 1000's noise floor.

 

I've been wishing for a more IEM-specific Geek Out, and was thrilled to pick up the LH Labs Geek Out IEM 100. With only 1/10 the nominal output of the Geek Out 1000, the Geek Out IEM 100 is far more suited for use with my super-sensitive in-ears, and it is significantly quieter (in terms of background noise) with these types of headphones.

 

Still, with 100mW of output, the Geek Out IEM 100 can power moderately sensitive over-ears, too, so opting for this model needn't be too limiting.

 

As for its sound signature, form factor, decoding ability, and functionality, read my Gift Guide entry for the LH Labs Geek Out 1000 (above), and all but the output power differences essentially apply to this new IEM-specific model of the Geek Out, too.

Aurender FLOW  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

At the 2014 CanJam @ RMAF, an audio industry friend and I were chatting about gear we've been enjoying, and I mentioned the Chord Hugo. "Have you checked out Aurender's Hugo competitor?" he asked? When I answered I hadn't, he insisted I should. As chance would have it, I later ran into ComputerAudiophile.com founder Chris Connaker, and he also asked if I'd heard the new Aurender portable DAC/amp. That was two people I knew and respected asking me about the same product, so I asked Chris if he could introduce me to Aurender. Ten minutes later, I was meeting with Harry Lee and other Aurender team members, listening to the Aurender Flow for the very first time.

 

Okay, to be clear, the Aurender Flow was already in development before the Hugo was even announced, so it wasn't created in response to Chord's mega-successful portable DAC/amp combo. Once you put them both on a table, though, there's no avoiding the comparison. The Aurender Flow is a high-end, high-res portable DAC/amp combo; it is clad in a robust silver aluminum chassis, and it's more or less similar in size to the Hugo.

 

In terms of styling, though, they are certainly very different. The Flow is sharp corners and smooth flowing lines, with a beautiful (and huge) volume knob dominating its topside, and a digital display smack dab in the middle of that volume knob (which I'll get to shortly). The Hugo sounds absolutely amazing, but it is a strange creature to behold, with its domed hey-check-out-my-FPGA viewing window to the PCB, unusual recessed volume control ball thingie (that glows different colors to indicate volume levels), recessed jacks galore, a host of LED's of varying colors that a colorblind guy like me has a hard time making heads or tails of, and strange little chassis design flourishes that seem almost random. The Flow looks decidedly more straightforward and business-like in comparison.

 

In terms of specs, the comparisons certainly have more in common than their chassis styling. Both are 32/384-capable via USB. Both are 24/192-capable via optical. Both will play DSD files up to DSD128. (The Hugo also has a coaxial digital input, which the Flow does not.) Rated output power comparisons show the Hugo a bit more powerful into 32 ohms (600mW for the Hugo versus 570mW for the Flow); and the Flow is a bit more powerful into 300 ohms (87mW for the Flow versus 70mW for the Hugo). Both have vanishingly low output impedance specs, with the Hugo at 0.075Ω and the Flow at 0.06Ω. Battery life for the Hugo is rated at around 12 hours (which might be a bit optimistic) and the Flow at 7+ hours (which is probably mildly conservative). The Hugo's DAC is based on a custom-coded FPGA DAC, and the Flow's DAC section uses the Sabre ES9018K2M.

 

Due to the display in the middle of its wide volume knob, and the media control buttons on the side, the Flow is regularly mistaken for a standalone media player, which it is not. The display shows a visual volume indicator, various functional modes, battery status, current sample rate, and other bits and bobs. The buttons are for playback control (of your computer), and can control iTunes and some other media player software (play, pause, track backward, track forward).

 

Another reason people seem to assume the Aurender Flow is a portable media player is because it has an mSATA slot into which can be installed an SSD drive up to 1TB. Again, to be clear, the Aurender Flow is not a portable media player like an Astell&Kern players. It is a DAC/amp combo, and installing an SSD drive turns it into a USB 3.0 media storage device. I've installed a Samsung 1TB SSD in mine, and the read/write times are fast. If you're still unclear why one would want an SSD drive in his DAC/amp, here's my personal answer: My laptops of choice is a MacBook Air that has only two USB slots. With the Aurender Flow, both my media storage and DAC/amp functionality are served with a single USB slot. It's less to carry, and it keeps my other USB slot free for other things (like my photo storage drive or other peripherals).

 

As for how its performance compares to the Chord Hugo, I'd say the Aurender Flow is so far the strongest competitor to the Chord Hugo I've listened to. If your primary headphone is a sensitive IEM, you might actually prefer the Aurender Flow, as, in terms of self-noise with an ultra-sensitive in-ear, it is dead quiet, whereas my most sensitive IEMs can touch and reveal the Hugo's noise floor. When it comes to sensitive IEMs, I also like how the Aurender Flow always jumps back to -90dB volume level (-110dB is its lowest setting) when you unplug the headphone from it, which is nice for added hearing safety.

 

The Aurender Flow is a very resolving DAC, to my ears approaching (but not quite reaching) the Hugo in terms of inner detail and accurately conveying imaging and soundstaging (using albums I was present for the recordings of as my references). With most of my over-ear headphones, and with my loudspeaker setups, I still have to give the edge to the Hugo, though, for its ability to present a sense of solidity--a corporeality--that I typically associate with good tube gear. The Flow is good in this regard, but that edge is the Hugo's. This is not faint praise--the Hugo is far more expensive, and is one of my favorite DACs ever, regardless of form factor. With two portable products like these at the top of their games, there'll be some who prefer one over the other, and I think the Aurender Flow will win the battle with some of you.

 

This has been a very heavy travel year for me, and the Aurender Flow has edged out the Hugo as my carryon-only travel companion, due to its ability to be both my DAC/amp and my media drive all-in-one. When I travel extra-light, my best in-ears always win the role of primary headphones, and the Flow's advantage with my most sensitive in-ears also contributes to its status as my current #1 travel DAC/amp combo.

 

If you don't need the SSD drive, the Aurender Flow comes in at just over half the price of the Chord Hugo. Even with a 1TB drive, it's priced at just under $1800, which is still $700 less than Chord's portable marvel.

TYPE: Portable USB DAC and headphone amplifier (also storage-capable) 
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PRICE: $1295 (SSD drive not included) 
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URL: www.aurender.com
Chord Electronics HUGO
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $2,495.00 
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URL: www.chordelectronics.co.uk

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Going into CES 2014, I had never heard of the Chord Hugo, and I had no specific plans--in a very packed CES schedule--to stop by the Chord Electronics exhibit. However, David Chesky (of Chesky Records and HDtracks.com) texted me to ask me to check out something called the Chord Hugo, and to let him know if I thought it was worth getting. (David was stuck at his own HDtracks.com CES exhibit, where people who stopped by would certainly want to see and meet him.) Time had passed, and I still hadn't seen or heard the Hugo (and still didn't know what it was). Another message from David popped up, again asking me to check it out for him. So I finally went--still having no idea what this Hugo thing actually was--and was greeted by Chord Electronics' founder John Franks, who had been waiting for someone from Head-Fi to stop by.

 

I'd seen Mr. Franks at audio shows before, and he always seemed to me like a man normally possessing of confidence and brio. That day at CES, though, he was positively brimming with it. He walked me over to a little component that looked rather like Chord's machined aluminum full-size components, only this one in miniature--including their signature circular glass porthole through which some of its circuity was visible (a detail Chord is well known for).

 

I should say at this point that Chord Electronics has long been known for its expertise in digital component design, and their gear is typically designed for--and priced for--the higher end of the audio market. So when John Franks said that not only was the $2500 Hugo a portable DAC/amp combo, but it was also their current flagship DAC, and the most advanced DAC they'd yet designed, and just happened to be portable--there was that brio, in full effect. I also saw that they had a Sennheiser HD 800 plugged into it; and seeing that, my first thought was that these guys might be way too plucky for their own good--when the marvelous HD 800 is used to demo a portable amp (or portable DAC/amp), the results are, more often than not, less than ideal, the HD 800 being a remarkably picky German genius. Then I listened to this HD 800-driving setup, and understood right away why Mr. Franks looked like the Cheshire Cat the moment I introduced myself. It sounded awesome.

 

In the 13 years since Head-Fi's founding, few products I can recall have taken the audio world by storm the way Chord Electronics' Hugo has this year. As someone who now himself has a Hugo, I can say the hype is understandable, and in every way deserved, because when it comes to its sonic performance, to my ears, the Hugo just doesn't set a foot wrong.

 

However, before I get to its sound, let me first get out of the way those things about the Hugo that I find a bit silly, almost all to do with its somewhat wacky layout and physical design. First of all, nothing--and I mean nothing--on the Hugo is labeled. Just memorize which button does what--oh, and memorize the nine sample rate colors, the three crossfeed indicator colors, the five input source colors, and the four battery life colors. Even the volume control glows in six different colors to indicate volume level.

 

Also, all of the Hugo's audio jacks, except one (the 1/4" headphone jack), are recessed, limiting cable and plug choices. The volume control and all those colored LED indicators are on the Hugo's top surface. This means that if you want to pair it with a digital audio player (virtually all of which have front-facing screens), then the Hugo has to be placed underneath, upside down, so you can use the Hugo's volume knob and see all the pretty indicator lights. This also means that when you set your portable stack down, you have to set the Hugo down face-first and lift it up every time you want to change volume or see what its seemingly endless variety of LED colors are indicating.

 

However, once you've figured out the Hugo enough to get some music out of it, its sound will make you forget all of the aforementioned quirks and silliness. The Hugo’s sound places it--to my ears, beyond any doubt--in the top tier of DACs I've had here, ever, period. That it's portable (on the larger side of portable, but still portable), and that it's priced at less than $2500…well, let me just say that the Chord Electronics Hugo is to DACs what the KEF LS50 is to loudspeakers--one of the best audio values I've ever come across.

 

Like other DACs by Chord Electronics (all of which, until the Hugo, had been plug-in-the-wall full-size components), the Hugo uses a field programmable gate array (FPGA) DAC, as opposed to off-the-shelf DAC chips. In the case of the Hugo, specifically, it's a custom-coded DAC (with a 26,000-tap-length filter) programmed by designer Rob Watts on a Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA. The DAC in the Hugo supports PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz (so that would also include DXD), and also supports DSD (both 64 and 128), and so I think it's fair to say that the Hugo is virtually future-proof.

 

The Hugo's digital inputs include Toslink optical (24-bit/192kHz-capable), coaxial digital (24-bit/384kHz-capable), and USB. There are actually two USB inputs, a lower power one for mobile phones and tablets that tops out at 16-bit/48kHz, and one HD USB input that opens up the Hugo's full range of format support. The Hugo also can receive audio via A2DP aptX Bluetooth, so you can pair it with your smartphone, tablet, or a Bluetooth-enabled music player.

 

The Hugo's internal rechargeable batteries will power it for up to 14 hours on a full charge, and its built-in charging circuit will get the Hugo fully charged quickly (around two hours). These robust batteries send much of their power to the Hugo's brawny analog outputs, with a maximum output of 720mW into an 8-Ohm load (and a still hearty 600mW into a more headphone-typical 32-Ohm load). What's also nice is that even with all that power to drive challenging full-size headphones, it is still flexible and quiet enough to be just as competent with very sensitive in-ear monitors. Oh, Hugo, you spoil me!

 

Despite the Hugo's unorthodox physical design, there's no arguing that it's built like a tank, with its hard-anodized machined aircraft-grade aluminum chassis. My portable gear typically takes a lot of abuse, and so far the Hugo has held up very well, and still looks good as new.

 

Again, though, what has the Hugo flying off dealer shelves is primarily its sound, which has been greeted with plaudits by just about everyone I've known who's heard it. At once, it's outrageously resolving and relaxed sounding--a combination that's certainly not common, but almost universally desired. Not surprisingly, the Hugo is at its absolute best when I feed it hi-res PCM and DSD material that is well-mastered. I wouldn't characterize it as warm or forgiving, but it has a sense of organic ease that takes the edge off, without actually smoothing away any detail.

 

And it's not just hi-res material that benefits from the Hugo's touch--I also stream Beats Music and Spotify through it (both of which are at 320kbps at their best), and the Hugo actually makes streaming music sound better to my ears, too--so much so that, with the Hugo, I'm using streaming music services more than ever before. No, it doesn't make my music streaming services sound like the best hi-res you can get from HDtracks, but I will say that there are some DACs that I find less pleasing while playing CD-quality music than the Hugo is when playing some lower-than-CD-quality streams.

 

Long story short, the Chord Electronics Hugo is a strong candidate to compete to become your dream desktop DAC, and yet it can be thrown into your backpack to be both that dream DAC and headphone amp anywhere you want to take it. As far as portable DAC/amps go that I've used, the Hugo is currently unrivaled when it comes to sonic performance.

 

From day one, the Hugo has been an absolute joy and marvel to own and use, and has easily become my reference portable DAC/amp, and one of my reference desktop DAC/amps, too.

 

Thank you, David Chesky, for asking me to give the Hugo a listen at CES. And, yes, sir, it is most definitely worth getting.

 

"What I like about it is that it is that it excels in NOT sounding like a "hi-fi" DAC, but can be both ultra-detailed yet musical at the same time, without resorting to compromises to achieve that."

-Currawong
Head-Fi Adminstrator / Member / Reviewer

iFi Audio micro iDSD c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Over the last couple of years, iFi has been getting a lot of attention from the Head-Fi community, but perhaps never more than now, as the community helped iFi crowd-design one of their latest products. The resulting product--the iFi Micro iDSD--has been met with a lot of enthusiasm on the forums, and, in my opinion, it's well deserved.

 

 

I really like how iFi was able to capture most (maybe all?) of what the crowd-designing crowd wanted most, and with only one SKU. That is, instead of having to pick and choose different configurations or model numbers to get a specific feature set, there's only one iFi Micro iDSD model, and you customize it on-the-fly by flipping the appropriate switches. You prefer fixed RCA output to variable output? There's a switch for that. Sensitive in-ear? Flip a switch, and you get a dead silent background and great volume control range for your IEM. Brutal-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-6? Flip a switch and it's a 4-watt max output beast of an amp. Want to mess with different digital filter settings? Polarity? A little bass boost? 3D HolographicSound processing for headphone or speakers? Yep. Switches. For all of it.

 

 

As far as connectivity goes, the Micro iDSD has async USB 2.0 input, S/PDIF input/output via a combo coax RCA/optical jack, 3.5mm analog input, RCA stereo outputs, and, of course, a headphone output (6.3mm, better known as 1/4"). iOS device users will likely appreciate that its USB jack is designed to directly accommodate the Apple Camera Connection Kit without needing any adapters or additional cables--this is a huge plus for those whose portable rigs are fronted by an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad. The Micro iDSD even has a 5V/1.5A USB type "A" port that draws on the Micro iDSD's big 4800mAh lithium-polymer battery to charge your USB devices.

 

 

Able to play DSD up to DSD512, DXD, and PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz, the iFi Micro iDSD is, for all practical purposes, a future-proof DAC, covering every existing digital music format I know of, as well as file types I don't even think we'll see in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the iFi Micro iDSD is not only versatile, it is also an outstanding performer, with an excellent, neutral presentation that avoids being harsh or unnaturally edgy. As a DAC, the Micro iDSD is very revealing, with an ability to reach the inner detail of great recordings that I simply wouldn't expect for $500, and putting it at the top of my portable DAC recommendations at anywhere near this price.

 

 

As a portable amp, the Micro iDSD's flexibility is completely without peer, in my experience. With even my most sensitive in-ear monitors, the Micro iDSD's background is, to my ears, free of any self-noise--dead quiet. With the iEMatch switch in its "Ultra Sensitivity IEMs" position (and power set to "Eco"), the ability to turn the volume knob through a nice range--without the hair-trigger volume jumps that can occur with super-sensitive IEMs with most amps--is absolutely refreshing. Again, the Micro iDSD's controls allow its ample power to be controlled to feed anything from those super-sensitive IEMs to the power-devouring HiFiMAN HE-6, and anything in between.

 

While I haven't been using the bass boost or the 3D HolographicSound processing much, I do appreciate knowing they're there when I feel the need, and these features only add to the Micro iDSD's versatility.

 

Fortunately, the Micro iDSD leaves me with only a couple of minor gripes. First, for a portable, it is rather large, similar in size to the CEntrance HiFi-M8 (and a bit larger than the Chord Electronics Hugo). Also, for something so adept at driving ultra-sensitive IEMs, I wish the Micro iDSD had a 3.5mm headphone output in addition to it's 1/4" one. Personally, I would be willing to sacrifice the 3.5mm analog input on the front to have a 3.5mm output in its place.

 

Perhaps everything I've written describes a complex product, which is because the iFi Micro iDSD is indeed a very complex, sophisticated product. It is, however, exceedingly easy to use, so don't be intimidated by its feature set. Regardless of what price range you're shopping in, if you are looking for a portable solution that can also stand in as your primary headphone system, the iFi Micro iDSD has to be put on your list of candidates.

TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp 
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PRICE: $499 
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URL: www.ifi-audio.com
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299.00
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URL: www.meridian-audio.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

To say I was fired up when I found out Meridian would be entering our space would be an understatement. There are few names in digital audio that command the reverence that Meridian does. I still remember the old Meridian 508.24 CD player very fondly, and have been a fan of just about everything Meridian's made that I've heard.

 

Meridian's direct appeal for the attention (and the moola) of Head-Fi'ers comes in the form of the Meridian Explorer, a 24-bit/192kHz-capable USB DAC and headphone amp that's about the size of a BIC lighter. Entering a segment popularized by AudioQuest's Dragonfly, Meridian chose to add a few more bells and whistles to turn ears and eyes toward its entrant.

 

First of all, the Explorer goes a step further than the Dragonfly, in terms of supported sample rates, going to up 24-bit/192kHz, versus the Dragonfly's 24-bit/96kHz. The Explorer also provides more output versatility, with a dedicated analog line out that's combined with a mini-Toslink optical output, in addition to the Explorer's dedicated headphone output. (The Toslink output downsamples 192kHz and 176.4kHz to 96kHz and 88.2kHz, respectively.)

 

In terms of sound, I give a slight edge to the Explorer over the Dragonfly, with its smoother presentation, and its ability to support my highest resolution recordings (with a driver on Windows, and without the need for a driver on Mac). Headphone-driving versatility is very similar to the Dragonfly, with a relatively black background for even very sensitive IEMs, but yet with enough drive to power most of my over-ear headphones.

 

The Explorer has a beautifully finished extruded aluminum outer shell with molded plastic endcaps and a rubberized flat bottom surface; and it's assembled by hand at Meridian's UK headquarters. Its sample rate indicator is, in my opinion, more intuitive than the Dragonfly's color-coded one--one light means 44.1kHz/48kHz; two lights means 88.2kHz/96kHz; and all three being lit indicates an incoming sample rate of 176.4kHz/192kHz.

 

Because the Dragonfly is the smallest of the bunch, it's still the one I tend to tote around the most. That said, I have to give the Explorer the edge in versatility, and the slight edge in sound quality. It's also now the first DAC I turn to when I want 24-bit/192kHz support on the go.

 

The Explorer is a fantastic first foray by Meridian into the world of headphone audio. Welcome to the world of Head-Fi, Meridian! Please do stick around.

 

"The combination of price, performance and form factor is very attractive and as an audio upgrade for a travel laptop it's almost a no-brainer. In short, this little device rocks and I have no problems recommending it."

-TwoEars
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

JDS Labs C5 and C5D  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Though they're best known for manufacturing and selling products based on the O2 and ODAC designs by the enigmatic nwavguy, JDS Labs also manufactures products they've designed entirely in-house, now with their C5 portable headphone amp, and their C5D portable headphone amp and USB DAC combo.

 

From the outset, JDS Labs made clear that the C5 and C5D weren't intended as a response to the O2 and O2/ODAC, but, rather, as complimentary to the line. The C5 and C5D are for users who need a smaller amp with USB recharging, and who could benefit the most from super-fine volume control for sensitive headphones and IEMs. To achieve perfect channel matching with super-sensitive headphones, JDS Labs opted for a 64-step digital volume control.

 

The C5 amp section also features two gain levels (selectable by pushing the volume control in to toggle), and a three-position bass boost (off, medium, high). One thing that those DIY'ers among you might find useful is that the C5 runs on JDS Labs' fully open source Arduino firmware, so (if you use Arduino) you can change the behavior of the C5's volume control.

 

The C5D adds a low-jitter PCM5102A-based USB DAC that supports PCM up to 24/96, including 24/88--I only mention that last part, because the ODAC does not support 24/88. Whereas nwavguy thinks re-sampling my 24/88 files to 24/44 is trivial, it's just one more thing I'd rather not have to even think about--I just want to play them without the extra steps, so I like that the C5D does support 24/88. The USB implementation is async, and the C5D's DAC section also uses the Analog Devices ADuM3160 for galvanic isolation. By adding the DAC section, battery life on the C5D is (not surprsingly) shorter than the C5 (6 to 8 for the C5D versus 11-14 hours for the C5). I personally went with the C5D.

 

With my most sensitive in-ears, self-noise is nonexistent--that is, the C5D is dead silent, to my ears, and that's a big plus. For the most part, I do like the volume control on my C5D, and the channel matching sounds perfect down to the C5D's lowest volume setting--however, the very first step on the C5D's volume control is louder than I'd like it to be with my most sensitive IEMs. Is it a deal-killer? Far from it--it's still quiet, just not as quiet as I'd like that first step to be; and with headphones that aren't super-sensitive IEMs, it's perfectly fine. Is this a behavior I can remedy to my complete satisfaction by getting into the firmware with Arduino? I'm not sure, but I'll ask, and maybe one day try it, if the answer is yes.

 

In a word, I'd describe the C5D's sound signature as clean. If you favor warmth or bloom, look elsewhere, but with my Sennheiser MOMENTUMs, OPPO PM-1, and AKG K7XX (just to name a few examples of headphones that pair very well with the C5D), I really dig the C5D. The variable bass boost is also nice for a dose of energy down low for anemic, overly-lean recordings.

 

If you've been hoping for a more portable-friendly O2/ODAC, the C5D seems to me to be created to be in keeping with nwavguy's spirit--even though it's an entirely unique and independent design--and I can't think of a company better suited to successfully do that than JDS Labs.

TYPE: JDS Labs C5, portable headphone amplifier JDS Labs C5D, portable headphone amplifier and USB DAC 
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PRICE: $189 and 249, respectively
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URL: www.jdslabs.com
 

TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC
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PRICE: $399.99 
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URL: www.sony.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The biggest news in this category is that Sony recently entered the iDevice DAC field. Yes, you read that right--I said SONY. Their entry is called the Sony PHA-1 (around $600), and it's very clear Sony's not messin' around. The PHA-1 is one of the best built, and easily the best looking (to my eyes), portable amp or DAC I've ever seen.

 

And check this out: For the PHA-1, knowing people would need want to pair it with an iPod or iPhone, Sony built a rail into each side of the top panel to accept included silicone hooked bands (that hook into the rails). This eliminates the need to carry big rubber bands, or the need for Velcro strips. (And, in a nice touch, the top surface has two rubber strips running from front to back to help prevent scratches. Details, details!

 

The Sony PHA-1 is built to exacting standards, using (if I recall correctly) a six-layer 35μm-thick copper foil PCB, with tremendous attention paid to the layout of the analog and digital circuits, to minimize internal electrical noise interference. And much attention was paid to shielding to help minimize external interference. I mention all that only because, more than any other portable amp or amp/DAC, the PHA-1 seems impervious to noise, even when I'm using my radio-packed iPhone on top of it.

 

The Sony PHA-1 is also a 24/96-capable USB DAC! And it's amp? Two gain settings, and its black background, make it suitable even for my more sensitive IEMs. Its high-gain mode very nicely drives most of the headphones I bring with me.

 

Unfortunately, PHA-1's battery life is just 10 hours if you use its analog input, and only 5 hours in iDevice DAC mode. In USB DAC mode, it runs off USB bus power, and charges its battery. Also, the PHA-1 offers no digital pass-through.

With one of the best industrial designs in the segment, Sony quality, and wonderful sound, I strongly recommend you check out the Sony PHA-1.

 

"The Sony PHA-1 with its flexible number of uses, amazingly well thought out design, and good sound, fulfills a role as a strong contender as a mid tier idevice DAC/amp with a great price, or any DAC/amp for that matter, and I would absolutely recommend it."

-Cotnijoe
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Joining the Sony PHA-1 in March 2014 is the Sony PHA-2. The PHA-2 offers several improvements versus its older sibling, the new PHA-2's DAC supports up to 24-bit/192kHz (versus the PHA-1's 24/96). The PHA-2 also supports DSD 2.8/5.6MHz! (The PHA-1 doesn't support DSD.) The PHA-2's battery is rated for 17 hours using analog input, or 6.5 hours with the digital inputs (versus the PHA-1's 10 hours and five hours, respectively).

 

 

TYPE: Portable iDevice/Walkman/USB DAC and headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $599.99 
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URL: www.sony.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Fostex HP-P1 was released in 2011, and has been a constantly sold-out hit. What makes the HP-P1 so popular is the fact that it does iDevice DAC duty, and it has a built-in headphone amp. With three gain settings, the amp is quite versatile, and can very nicely drive most headphones that you'd want to use portably. The single-unit portable iDevice DAC/amp combination has made the HP-P1, paired with a 160GB iPod, a frequent companion of mine. (We discussed the Fostex HP-P1 in Episode 011 of Head-Fi TV.)

 

"I reckon the HP-P1 is a great piece of kit, if not an amazing one. I reckon it hits its price almost exactly in terms of features, capability and sound quality"

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable iDevice DAC
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PRICE: Around $600 
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: Around $200 
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URL: www.audioquest.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Is it possible that something the size of a USB thumb drive can be mentioned in the company of the other DAC/amps in this section? If it's the AudioQuest Dragonfly, then, yes, absolutely. That something so small checks off as many audiophile buzzwords as it does is pretty amazing. ESS Sabre DAC? Check. Supports up to 24/96? Check. Asynchronous USB transfer? By Gordon Rankin, no less--so check. 64-step analog stepped volume control? Check. And it's quiet enough (in terms of noise floor) to drive most of my in-ear monitors in relative silence, yet also has the oomph to drive many of my over-ears, too.

 

One thing that's not audiophile about the Dragonfly is its price. $249. This one's already shaken up the audiophile DAC scene since its release last year, catalyzing the development and release of several diminutive high-res DAC/amp competitors in the past year, though I believe the Dragonfly remains the smallest of this new breed.

 

Of course, because it's so small, expect some limitations (also faced by its newer competitors). Its only input is USB. Its only output is analog via a mini jack (3.5mm). And though I think it keeps good company with the full-size DACs in this section, it doesn't, to my ears, have the ultimate resolution that DACs like the DA11, HP-A8C, STEREO192-DSD or DAC-100 have--again, though, neither do the others I've used of its type.

 

Even in consideration of its new rivals, the Dragonfly remains the most pocketable, so it's the easiest to take along. Also, because it plugs right in like a USB thumb drive, no cables at all (other than for output) are needed to use it. Think of what this means when you're staring at that tiny tray table in coach class seating. It means you can use the Dragonfly even there, with the most minimal muss and fuss--and I do, so I speak from experience.

 

Though its competitors are starting to offer greater versatility and a couple more bells and whistles, the Dragonfly's form factor still keeps it at the top of my list for this class of product. Given how tiny it is, the Dragonfly's sonic performance is simply staggering.

 

"...it does the one important thing we all care about: Sound good. Using my Symphones Magnums, it provides a solid upgrade to the headphone out of my MacBook Pro with a very engaging and dynamic sound delivery. "

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator / Member / Reviewer

iQube V5  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Class D amp circuits are known for high efficiency, and are becoming increasingly popular for use in loudspeaker-driving amplifiers. They run much cooler, consume less energy, and so a powerful Class D speaker amp can be housed in a rather small chassis. How can those characteristics play favorably in the context of a portable headphone amp? The new iQube V5 portable DAC/amp combo answers the question.

 

From its rechargeable 2500mAh lithium-ion battery, the iQube V5 can play for over 30 hours when using its digital input, and over 70 hours when using its analog input. It is also very light, weighing 190 grams--less than half the weight of the Chord Hugo and Aurender Flow (two of my other reference portables). The iQube V5 is an ideal traveling DAC/amp combo.

 

In terms of its rated output power, the iQube V5's amp can output 160mW into 16Ω, and 80mW into 32Ω, and 12mW into 200Ω. While those numbers don't read as monstrous, I've found (as I have with some of my Class D speaker amps) that the iQube seems to have more oomph than those numbers suggest. I've been using the iQube V5 quite a lot recently to drive the Sennheiser HD 800, Sony MDR-Z7, HiFiMAN planars (but not the HE-6), and Audeze's headphones. In terms of self-noise, the iQube V5 is quiet enough to use with my most sensitive in-ears. And considering most of my ultra-sensitive IEMs are multi-armature designs, the iQube V5's low output impedance (<0.1Ω at 5kHz, and <1.5Ω at 20kHz) is ideal for them. This kind of flexibility is fantastic to have in a portable, especially when it comes in a device that can run as long as the iQube V5 can.

 

In terms of its sound quality as a portable DAC/amp combo, the iQube V5 has excellent resolving power, and a great sense of drive. On the one hand, it's actually very fun to listen to; on the other, I consider its level of performance reference-class for a portable DAC/amp at its price. Will I be adding this to my travel audio arsenal? Oh, you bet.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
TYPE: Portable headphone amp 
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PRICE: $699.00 
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URL: tinyurl.com/iqubev5
TYPE: Portable USB DAC, iDevice DAC, and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $479.00
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URL: www.adl-av.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Japanese manufacturer Furutech is a well-known name in the hi-fi world, makers of audio accessories and cabling. Furutech is perhaps most popular for their high-end audio connectors and power connectors, which can be found terminating the ends of many high-end cabling products, even by other manufacturers. And now they’ve entered the world of Head-Fi with their Alpha Design Labs (ADL) brand.

 

In addition their own new headphone (the H118, which we didn’t receive in time to make it into this edition of the guide), ADL recently released a very cool portable, all-in-one, USB DAC / iDevice DAC / headphone amp combo piece called the ADL X1.

 

Sporting the ESS ES9023 24-bit/192kHz DAC with an XMOS controller supporting asynchronous mode USB, the ADL is a compelling and versatile portable DAC/amp solution for computer audio. The X1 supports sample rates up to 192kHz, including 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz. On the X1’s top panel are six LEDs that clearly indicate the current sample rate. In USB DAC mode, the rear headphone output also serves as an analog line out, and an optical digital output (yes, there are two headphone outputs). The optical digital output will deliver the USB source signal up to 24-bit/192kHz. Flip a switch, and the ADL X1 can also serve as an iDevice DAC, which is very cool.

 

This brings me to a couple of gripes I have with the X1. First of all, the optical output does not work when you’re using an iDevice as the digital source. I use the Fostex HP-P1’s optical output, for example, to pass iDevice digital audio to other external DACs that couldn’t otherwise support digital directly from iPhones, iPods and iPads, and would’ve been nice if the ADL X1 allowed for that, too. Also, the X1 headphone output’s noise floor is a bit too high for use with my most sensitive IEMs.

 

I’ve only had the ADL X1 for a short time, but, overall, my first impressions are good. The X1’s sound is on the smoother side, but with enough detail to encourage the pulling out of my high-res music from HDtracks.com. As a headphone driver, I’ve found the ADL X1 to be best matched with my over-ear headphones that benefit from amping, but that don’t require heaps of power--headphones like the Sennheiser HD 598, Sony MDR-7520, with headphones like the Audeze LCD-2 and HiFiMAN HE-400 also within its reach. The HiFiMAN HE-6 is well beyond the X1’s comfort zone, but can be driven quietly, if need be.

 

I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with the ADL X1, and hope to have more to say in the next update to the gift guide.

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In the preorder thread for this amp on Head-Fi, HeadAmp promotes the 18V (2x9V) Pico Power as the "recommended [portable] amp for the hardest to drive headphones." I'll confirm it'll drive the difficult stuff well, yes.

 

However, to me, one of the most impressive tests for an amp designed to drive some of the hardest-to-drive headphones on the market is to plug one of the most sensitive headphones I've got into it to see what happens. In its low-gain mode, with one of my most sensitive custom in-ears, the Pico Power is dead quiet. Turning the volume up as slowly as I can with this IEM plugged into the Pico Power reveals, to my ears, channel matching even at the lowest possible volume setting. That makes for outstanding versatility, because it'll do that, yet driving the tough stuff is just a click away.

 

Like all HeadAmp amps I've used, the fit and finish of the custom-machined chassis on the Pico Power is meticulous.

 

This amp only arrived shortly before the time of this writing, but it has been a very impressive sounding amp so far, and I should have more to say about it down the road.

TYPE: Portable amplifier
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PRICE: $475.00 
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URL: www.headamp.com

 

 

TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299.95
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URL: www.centrance.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The DACport is an ultra-portable Class-A headphone amp and USB DAC, powered entirely by USB bus power. About the size of a partially smoked Double Toro cigar, the diminutive DACport yielded one of the lowest (if not the lowest) jitter measurement ever published in a Stereophile review (that I can recall anyway, and I've been reading Stereophile for a long time)--amazing.

 

I've heard the DACport on many occasions, and it's a wonderful piece, and is certainly unique in its form factor. And with the 2012 price drop to $299.95 (down from $399.95), my recommendation of the DACport only intensified.

ALO Audio Rx MK3-B, Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B and F-35 Lightning

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It seems there are infinite choices now, when it comes to portable headphone amplifiers. For driving even hard-to-drive full-sized headphone, we've seen over the last few years an increase in fully balanced headphone amplifiers. ALO Audio's Rx MK3-B ($649), www.aloaudio.com, is a fully-balanced, portable beast of an amp, and the first to challenge the Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B ($650), www.raysamuelsaudio.com, in terms of the ability to authoritatively drive any dynamic headphone, up to and including the HiFiMAN HE-6.

 

In addition to its revealing sound signature, and having a lot of driving power for a portable amp, the Rx MK3-B adds a very well implemented bass control. I don't know the exact specs of this bass control yet, but it is effective and refined (and great for giving thinner-sounding headphones more low-frequency body), and without an effect on precious midrange. Though the SR-71B doesn't provide any tone adjustments, it does seem to me to have more driving power, and a lower noise floor, than the Rx MK3-B.

 

Another new entry to the fully-balanced field is the Ray Samuels Audio F-35 Lightning. The Lightning is fully balanced, and only provides a balanced headphone output (but both single-ended and balanced inputs). This is a very purist approach, and is intended for those who know that having a full balanced headphone amp for portable use is exactly what they're looking for. The pricing for the F-35 Lightning hasn't yet been announced, but expect it to come in well under the SR-71B's pricing. While the F-35 lightning will have the same current output as the SR-71B, expect it to have about half of the insane 36.8V that the SR-71B can swing in balanced mode.

 

I already have the F-35 Lightning here, and it is enough to drive all of my dynamic and planar headphones. And while it can even drive the HiFiMAN HE-6 to moderate levels (certainly loud enough for me), you should strongly consider stepping up to the SR-71B if you're looking to be portably driving the HE-6 (or the Abyss AB-1266) most of the time.

 

I use and love all of these balanced portable amps, and find their performance comparable to a lot of very good desktop headphone amps.

 

"Still, this is one of the best, if not the best high-resolution portable amp out there for ALL your headphone needs. There are few portable amps that offer as much power as this Rx and yet are still able to control earphones just fine."

-shigzeo
Head-Fi Moderator/Member/Reviewer

 

"...for anyone needed, or just wanting, a very powerful portable amp, or if you are looking for a powerful balanced amp for both home and portable use, and either don’t want or cannot afford to have multiple different amps, the SR-71B is really an astounding product, and it’s hard to believe what it’s capable of doing. It certainly is in the very top echelon on portable amp performance, and in fact, in its shining application, actually redefines what portable amp performance means. Ray’s delivered the unthinkable."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Balanced portable headphone amps
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PRICE: $649.00 (Rx MK3-B), $650.00 (SR-71B), $549.00 (F-35)
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URL: www.aloaudio.com and www.raysamuelsaudio.com

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Comments (5)

RE: LH Labs Geek Out 1000
One unfortunate thing is that the firmware update did away with the "3D Awesomifier" function, which was LH Labs' version of crossed.
 
Shouldn't that be "crossfeed"?
@kurochin - You can revert back to the older firmware which allows use of the 3D Awesomifier.  
♪ Oh, Jude . . . ♪
 
I ken that the CEntrance DACmini didn't make Head-fi's Buying Guide this year. I also grok that CEntrance has flogged the AK4396 DAC chip (at least in the past), while LH Labs' Geek series abuses the ESS9018, which is newer.
 
Leaving aside the convenience of its form factor and USB-powered imp (with thick specs), does the Geek Out 1000 sound better to you than the hoary DACmini CX?
No vorzuge amps!!? they are one of the must have amp (in my mind) :) 
Gotta love the typo on the EO6 "Better sonud quality"
Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Portable Amps Dacs Daps