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REVIEW: Headstage USB DAC Also Reviewed Meier HEADSIX, iBasso D1 and Headstage Lyrix

post #1 of 82
Thread Starter 
I had the opportunity to spend the day testing the Headstage USB DAC. It took 7 days total by mail to arrive from Germany. I paid $39 + S&H, right before the price drop to $29 this week!

I'd guess it might be able to bill itself as "smallest on the market", at less than 2" x 3/4" x 1/2" and line powered. It is so small it fits inside of a heat-shrink tube in the middle of a USB to 3.5mm cable. It comes in two lengths, mine is the 85cm version. The little black pod in the middle of the USB cable is the DAC!



The statement from the Headstage.com web-page says,

"This unique cable transfers digital audio files on your computer into quality analog audio. It is the ideal accessory to convert your headphone amp in[to] an external sound card! How does it work? Just connect the USB port of your computer with the input jack of your headphone amp and the DAC cable automatically does all the digital-to-analog conversation! The result is a much better sound then most standard audio cards would provide! The cable uses TI's 16-bit killer DAC chip PCM2704 that accepts 32, 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling rates."



This is reported to be a good DAC chip, from searching the forums, and several kit and production DAC's discussed here use it. There are better chips out there, but that kinda defeats the purpose of an inexpensive upgrade to the computers OEM sound output. If you're looking for the end-all DAC for your computer, buy a new sound card or PC card sound card, or a stand alone DAC.

PROCEDURE: THIS FIRST PART IS A TEST OF THE DACs, NOT THE AMPS - to see how they allow the SQ of a good amp to improve even more when listening to the computer. Since the opamps in the iBasso D1 had been rolled previously (OPA2111/AD8397 buffers/AD8656 in the DAC), including the one in the DAC, ALL STOCK OPAMPS WERE RETURNED TO THE D1 FOR THIS TEST OF THE IBASSO's DAC VS HEADSIX DAC.

THE MEIER HEADSIX WAS THE PRIMARY TEST AMP, since it's analog input is SUPERIOR to the STOCK D1 analog input and my Tomahawk was not available at this time. I wanted an amp other than Headstage, to rule out an unfair synergy between an external Headstage DAC and Headstage amp. But, the Headstage amp's built-in DAC was also a control to compare against the standalone USB DAC, in case the standalone should sound worse than the amp's built-in DAC. Since the D1 has only a fair analog input when stock, I didn't use it with the external USB DAC.


SOURCE: I used my Macbook 2ghz Core 2 Duo with OSX 10.4.9 and a homebuilt PC with Windows XP SP2 and built-in sound in the motherboard, labeled SoundMAX in the sound device manager.

DRIVERS: The Mac installs it automatically (instantly) as USB audio DAC. Windows plug and play detects USB DAC, USB audio and HID Human Interface Device and installed them, taking a couple of minutes on a 2ghz celeron. I did not have to select drivers.



I've previously publicly complained about lousy sound via Macbook headphone out - but I solved the problem. I had installed an iTunes extension, SRS iWOW, on the Macbook a few weeks ago, and forgot it was on. It was automatically selecting profiles based on Genre, making the macbook speakers sound better, but via headphones the sound was SHeeT. I learned how to disable this software, Ahhhh much better.

JUKEBOX SOFTWARE: iTunes Mac 7.4.2, iTunes PC 7.4.1.2

MUSIC CODECS: Apple Loss-less CODEC

MUSIC SELECTION: Arne Domnerus "Jazz at the Pawnshop", Al Di Meola "Kiss My Ax", Dave Mathews "Live at Red Rocks", Pat Metheney "Selected Recordings ECM"

AMPS: iBasso D1 ($252 shipped, 400+ hours burn-in, stock opamps), Meier Headsix on default gain setting ($165 shipped, 24 hours), Headstage Lyrix USB Pro Total (24 hours, stock opamps). The Lyrix is maxed out on options and sells for $219 with every option available. I won mine on eBay and paid about $170 with socketed opamps, finegold caps, 4 channel operation, AC power supply, several cables and shipping.

DACs: iBasso USB DAC (12 hours via USB, 100+ hours optical), Headstage USB DAC ($39, 18 hours), the Lyrix was tested with the DAC cable vs built-in DAC to see if difference could be detected - it was not tested to see if it has a DAC pass-through output (don't believe it does).

HEADPHONES: Sennheiser HD600, with cryoparts.com treated Moon Audio Black Dragon 4ft cable with 3.5mm plug.

RESULTS:

Step One - Mac Analog out: I first started listening to the Macbook audio out to the Meier Headsix because I was already enjoying the new amp with my iPod, and I was getting used to the sound signature. I used a $20 custom made 3.5mm - 3.5mm interconnect cable. Sound quality was pleasant.

The Meier Headsix has a nice warm sound, with forward mids and wide sound stage. It brings the mids like saxophone up closer, as if I was up on stage right next to it, while the string bass and drums are a few feet away. So, the HEADSIX sound stage is still very open. Without changing the gain settings it will play the HD600 at a comfortable and adequate listening volume with the knob at 100% and Mac volume at 100%. I did not take it apart to change to high gain. It's volume output was similar to the stock D1 amp's output, which has no gain switch.

Step Two - Mac with Headstage DAC: Plugging the Headstage DAC into USB, the Mac sound control panel shows a new source, "USB audio DAC". Selecting the source in the Macbook control panel allows instant switching between headphone out and DAC.

With the Mac, the Headstage DAC improved the sound, and the Mac's improvement was repeatable, and welcome but not dramatic. The difference in sound between analog audio out and USB audio DAC was subtle, and took time (3 hours) to be convinced that the differences were repeatable, and this was tested with all my music selections. The air around the instruments was more open between notes, and notes did not take prolonged time to decay. There was a subtle expansion of the ambience and sound-stage of the venue, vs analog which was very slightly more compressed. The attack of bass notes was slightly increased. Bass, mid and treble amplitude/volume did not seem affected.

Step Three - Mac with iBasso D1 DAC: As I've noted before, the Macbook OPTICAL OUT sound quality via iBasso D1 is superior to the analog out. The improvements listening via D1 USB are just as easily noted when compared to analog. So, the iBasso D1 DAC was used to feed the Headsix next, as a direct comparison between the Headstage budget DAC and the iBasso D1 DAC. I did not have time to compare D1 USB vs D1 Optical, but if memory serves me, I think optical is still better. The D1 connected via USB shows up in the Mac sound control panel differently, as USB audio CODEC" instead of "USB audio DAC".

The iBasso D1 USB DAC surpassed the Headstage USB DAC fairly easily. At $229 vs $29, that's no no surprise. Hypothetically speaking, if the headstage DAC was a nice worthy 25% improvement over the Macbook analog when driving the Headsix, the D1 USB DAC was a 75% improvement over analog. With the iBasso D1 DAC into the Headsix, I could close my eyes and MORE easily imagine being there with the musicians. The walls around me were pushed out of reach and the space opened up seemingly to the size of the venue of the recording.

Step Four - Mac to Headstage USB DAC cable vs built-in USB DAC of Lyrix amp - asking if the quality the same?: Both external and internal Headstage USB basically sound the same, and were both a slight but equally welcome upgrade to the Macbook's built-in headphone out.

Step Five - PC integrated sound card out vs USB DAC: The PC sound card was terrible - with heavy mushy overbearing bass, and poor detail everywhere. Yep, analog out of the PC turned my HD600/Headsix into a Bose IE on an iPod shuffle.

Interestingly, while the USB DAC cleaned up the sound, the PC still put out more bass than desirable. I double checked, and there was no EQ on the PC, but I am not a PC expert and may have missed something. Adding some EQ did help remove the extra bass, but it still didn't sound as good as the Mac. Switching to the ER6i I found the extra bass to be a bonus, but I have no idea why the sound balance via the same USB DAC device should be different on the PC USB port vs the Macbook USB port, unless it's the Windows XP drivers, some other software issue, or

The improvement to the PC sound quality by changing from analog out to USB DAC out was greater than the improvement of the Macbook sound, because the starting point was so much worse. The Macbook is the clear winner, whether analog out of USB DAC out. But, for those using the built-in sound card in a PC motherboard, the DAC USB cable is still a winner for $29. I will update the review tomorrow after I get to try the D1 on the PC (crying too hard after world series game 1 to do it).

CONCLUSION: While the iBasso D1 DAC is better than the Headstage DAC cable, the Headstage DAC cable is still better than analog out of both PC > Mac analog out.

The Headstage USB DAC is a worthwhile upgrade if you listen to music on your computer with a headphone amp, especially (a) on a laptop where you can't swap out sound cards or (b) on a desktop PC when you are on a budget or (c) the PC belongs to your job and you can't "mod" it.



Final Random Thoughts and Tidbits: I can't categorize this, and some may be off topic, but here are things I observed when doing this test.

The Headstage amp with USB DAC cable (or built-in DAC) and the Headsix amp fed by the USB DAC cable may get their own review later, but not here. I will say that BOTH sound very good with analog input, and BOTH improved with USB DAC beyond analog, and both sound better than a stock iBasso D1 amp. This is despite the fact that neither of the new amps has been burned in more than 24 hours!

By the end of my first 10-15 minutes I could pick out which amp is which. The main difference is in imaging, and all do it very well, just differently. (1) The HEADSIX is a little more forward and brings the mids like saxophone up closer, as if I was up on stage right NEXT to it, while the string bass and drums are a few feet away and spread apart - so the HEADSIX sound stage is still very open. (2) The Headstage Lyrix USB Pro Total is a just a little more distant, so everything seems on stage and a few feet away, but it still puts you the listener on the FIRST row with a wide sound stage. (3) However, the stock D1 amp puts you back in the 10th row, sounding a little distant. At first that gave the illusion of a bigger sound stage, because you could get farther away from the instruments, but now except for music recorded in a stadium concert, that is too far away for me.

Once I got a good ALO Jumbo Cryo X iMod dock line out, my Tomahawk started to sound better than the stock D1 too - wake up call. So, I'm also going to order a high quality (read expensive) 3.5mm-3.5mm interconnect as well, AND I am going to roll the good opamps back into the D1 as soon as possible. The D1's DAC has consistently improved the sound of every amp I have connected it to, but the cable is the weak link right now. This should allow any amp connected to the D1 DAC to sound even better, including the built-in amp!

It also seems the synergy the Stock D1 has with the Shure SE500's is not there with the HD600's. What sounds just right with the SE500's sounds a little too shrill with the stock opamps when using HD600's with Black Dragon cables (stock Senn cables sounded better with stock D1). The OPA2111 as LR amp synergizes with AD8397 as buffers better than the stock AD816 and the NE5222. I still have LT4562 and LME49720 to try as buffers, and an AD746, AD6234 and 6241-HV to try as LR opamps, blah blah blah...

Overall, I believe I prefer the warmer more forward sound of the Headsix the most out of all my amps, with the Headstage and Tomahawk a very close second - but with the different opamps I believe the D1 amps sounds as good as any of them.


After reader's requests - Here is my Review of the Headstage Lyrix vs the Meier Headsix and iBasso D1, using USB DAC as input from a Macbook.
post #2 of 82
Good read. Thank you very much.
post #3 of 82
Thanks for the review. I am looking forward to getting mine. It and the Caffiene amp shipped and I should have them in a few days. I listen to my notebook at work w/ ER4P's and the hiss is annoying. That was the primary reason for the DAC.

I thought the Caffiene would be a good short-term purchase while waiting for iBasso to figure out the new D1 configuration. After reading your review here, I may not be in a hurry.
post #4 of 82
Very interesting read, and another confirmation that using a usb receiver chip's internal dac alone is inferior to a separate receiver and dac typology.

Interesting that after the whole headphonia debacle, penguin returns as headstage using the same old-fashioned Hammond housing. The specs and boards look good, and I think the pricing is reasonable, but it's disappointing that he's followed meier again by sticking with the 2704.

Headstage's new inline dac, limited though HeadphoneAddict has shown it to be, is still a grand contribution to the field IMO. Its tiny size will be useful to many, and its low price creates a dac option at a level previously unavailable. Only stuff like the TBAAM was that cheap.
post #5 of 82
As usual, a very fine review Larry. Thank you for the effort.
post #6 of 82
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by facelvega View Post
Very interesting read, and another confirmation that using a usb receiver chip's internal dac alone is inferior to a separate receiver and dac typology.

Interesting that after the whole headphonia debacle, penguin returns as headstage using the same old-fashioned Hammond housing. The specs and boards look good, and I think the pricing is reasonable, but it's disappointing that he's followed meier again by sticking with the 2704.

Headstage's new inline dac, limited though HeadphoneAddict has shown it to be, is still a grand contribution to the field IMO. Its tiny size will be useful to many, and its low price creates a dac option at a level previously unavailable. Only stuff like the TBAAM was that cheap.
I think he is thinking more like a European, and not like us Yanks. He's put it all behind him. The English and French and Germans and Italians all get along now, and yet we won't let go of what the Brittish did to us 230 years ago

He's not totally insensitive to the situation though. He's made sure his circuits are easily seen, and recognized to be his own. It took him half a year to recover from the previous troubles, and I'm sure the financial hurt didn't make it easier to go with extruded aluminum cases and such. After listening to the Penguin Royal that I bought on Ebay in August, I contacted Robert and exchanged a few emails. I almost wonder if I am the one who convinced him to accelerate his efforts to package his Penguins in a real case - hence the hammond plastic case again (he had to have had these laying around unused). I know he did have plans for an aluminum case when we first chatted.

And, I wouldn't say he followed Meier with the 2704, as I thought that chip was ubiquitous and used everywhere, including the $35 Alien kits that still need aseembly.
post #7 of 82
Quote:
Originally Posted by HeadphoneAddict View Post
I think he is thinking more like a European, and not like us Yanks. He's put it all behind him. The English and French and Germans and Italians all get along now, and yet we won't let go of what the Brittish did to us 230 years ago

He's not totally insensitive to the situation though. He's made sure his circuits are easily seen, and recognized to be his own. It took him half a year to recover from the previous troubles, and I'm sure the financial hurt didn't make it easier to go with extruded aluminum cases and such. After listening to the Penguin Royal that I bought on Ebay in August, I contacted Robert and exchanged a few emails. I almost wonder if I am the one who convinced him to accelerate his efforts to package his Penguins in a real case - hence the hammond plastic case again (he had to have had these laying around unused). I know he did have plans for an aluminum case when we first chatted.

And, I wouldn't say he followed Meier with the 2704, as I thought that chip was ubiquitous and used everywhere, including the $35 Alien kits that still need aseembly.
Well, I'm only kind of a yank, and I wasn't holding that old thing against Robert--far coarser intellectual property issues arise in the headphone realm in China any day of the week, and Robert had plenty cred of his own from his Pengamp days. What I was getting at was just that the Hammond housing is bound to hurt sales in the new fancy-housing climate that has arisen since the release of the old Headphonia. A builder is pretty much obliged to do something eye-catching these days, and the old case makes his amps look retrograde, something they certainly are not.

What I'd like to see now is a portable with a top-grade amp section, a full-fledged dac section, good battery life with a recharge circuit and a jack for an external power supply, in an aluminum case no bigger than the move's, and with a weight under 200 grams. Nobody has done it yet. Only a few are within striking distance of it, and I'd definitely include Headstage in that group: he's got the amp section down, size under control, and the case shouldn't present a problem. It's that pesky dac section that continues to elude. Ibasso did one, but in a relatively huge and heavy box, Hippohifi did one but exclusively on USB power and input, which makes it a different beast. Meier, Headroom, and now Headstage cheaped out on the dacs. Now, it's anybody's game.
post #8 of 82
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by facelvega View Post
Well, I'm only kind of a yank, and I wasn't holding that old thing against Robert--far coarser intellectual property issues arise in the headphone realm in China any day of the week, and Robert had plenty cred of his own from his Pengamp days. What I was getting at was just that the Hammond housing is bound to hurt sales in the new fancy-housing climate that has arisen since the release of the old Headphonia. A builder is pretty much obliged to do something eye-catching these days, and the old case makes his amps look retrograde, something they certainly are not.

What I'd like to see now is a portable with a top-grade amp section, a full-fledged dac section, good battery life with a recharge circuit and a jack for an external power supply, in an aluminum case no bigger than the move's, and with a weight under 200 grams. Nobody has done it yet. Only a few are within striking distance of it, and I'd definitely include Headstage in that group: he's got the amp section down, size under control, and the case shouldn't present a problem. It's that pesky dac section that continues to elude. Ibasso did one, but in a relatively huge and heavy box, Hippohifi did one but exclusively on USB power and input, which makes it a different beast. Meier, Headroom, and now Headstage cheaped out on the dacs. Now, it's anybody's game.
Well, I suspect the RSA Predator and HeadAmp PICO are going to fill that category. And, I am sure Robert will be working on an upgraded DAC in the future.

I agree Robert's amp section is wonderful - it is now my second favorite amp, above the Tomahawk and only just slightly behind the Meier Headsix. It seems that I fancy the slightly more forward imaging of the Headsix a little bit more than I thought I would.

I think I have enough portable amps for now, and will probably be directing my focus towards a nice desktop headphone amp with DAC someday. That is up for another discussion elsewhere.
post #9 of 82
Quote:
Originally Posted by HeadphoneAddict View Post
Well, I suspect the RSA Predator and HeadAmp PICO are going to fill that category.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention one key qualification: $250 or less. Ideally $200 on the dot. It's the magic figure that sold out the ibasso d1 and move so quickly after they were released. The pico's $499 means its operating in a relatively tiny and rarefied market, a reconnaisance and not yet a revolution when it comes to a wider clientele. The Predator looks like it has a proper dac section from the one photo of the dac board released so far, assuming the usb receiver chip is on the reverse side of the board, but it'll have the same pricing issue.

My hopes are much more with Robert, Jan, and even Tyll, who aim at the larger market and try not to cut any corners in doing it. A $500 option doing everything we've learned to do in a portable is a grand thing, and paves the way for a $250 option with similar sound quality.
post #10 of 82
I knew my feeling was right!
Headsix got closer feeling & warmer than my modded D1, but both serve good in their own department. Also, D1 advertised as "Portable DAC" with built-in-amp, instead of "Portable Amp" with built-in-DAC. It's still amaze me how D1 perform in the portable amp industry.
post #11 of 82
Quote:
The Headstage Lyrix USB Pro Total is a just a little more distant, so everything seems on stage and a few feet away, but it still puts you the listener on the FIRST row with a wide sound stage
I can attest to this. Actually, it's my ONLY issue with the Lyrix. Sometimes it works great for some recordings, but other intimate recordings such as Alicia Keys' live, I wished it had the upfront soundstaging. It's really a bargain for its price right now.
post #12 of 82
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by only500made View Post
I can attest to this. Actually, it's my ONLY issue with the Lyrix. Sometimes it works great for some recordings, but other intimate recordings such as Alicia Keys' live, I wished it had the upfront soundstaging. It's really a bargain for its price right now.
I got the Total version of the Lyrix Pro with socketed opamps, so I may try other opamps for the imaging - as opamps clearly make a big difference in the iBasso D1 (and from what I hear the Xin as well).

The D1 stock is just too distant (now that I know better), but with the OPA2111/AD8397 as buffers is kinda between the Headsix and the Lyrix, so it is proof the Lyrix can be changed if desired.

But, The Lyrix is so close to being exactly right that I am not sure I need to roll opamps. It's actually kinda nice to be able to pick one amp for intimate setting for some music, and one amp for a just slightly larger venue or different seating position.

If I had never heard the Headsix or modded D1, I'd be foaming at the mouth about the wonderful soundstage of the Lyrix because it walks all over the Stock D1 and pretty much ties the Tomahawk at half the cost.

When I first heard the stock D1, I posted that I liked the [distant] imaging better than the Tomahawk, but the more I listened I realised everything doesn't need to sound that big. It kinda reminded me of what my Polk SDA CRS speakers do to create a wall of sound, where you can pinpoint voices and instruments but can't get close to any of them.
post #13 of 82
nice. that's actually quite a statement. Do you think the toma and the headstage are tied? btw, I missed the part when you said "total". I just have the regular pro version.

Reason for asking is, i might upgrade to either a tomahawk or Hornet M down the road. I actually wanna ask for a loaner Hornet M around my area to compare. Maybe I'll find out when I get the chance to listen to them myself.
post #14 of 82
Thread Starter 
The "Total" adds 4-channel circuitry (ala Xin) and larger finegold caps (ala non-m Hornet), and socketed opamps (ala D1). I suspect/expect it will sound a little better from the regular Lyrix, but it represents the best that Headstage has to offer and that's why I ordered all the options. It sounds hi-end too.

The "Pro" adds bass boost, crossfeed, and gain, and can be had with or without the "Total" option. "USB" adds the DAC, and can also be had seperately from the Pro and Total options, or added as an external DAC later. Hence, I have a "Headstage Lyrix USB Total Pro" - pick any order to list the three options.

Since there seems to be enough demand, after I am done burning in the new amps I'll likely do a more in depth comparo with the Tomahawk and Headsix. I have about 120 hours on both the Headsix and Lyrix so far, running them continuously since the 23rd. The Tomahawk has about 750+ hours on it.

In testing, I'll likely pick one source, either macbook with DAC cable, or iPod with ALO Jumbo Cryo X Silver LOD, with Apple Lossless CODEC. But, they're all so good you could pick them based on form factor (shape, size, weight, color, build) or features (gain, boost, xfeed, AC or charging, DAC, dip-sockets, etc), and not be unhappy with the sound of whatever you pick.
post #15 of 82
One question: how did you go about contacting Robert to upgrade your Headstage Lyrix Pro USB to the "total" version? Was there any issue doing this after winning an eBay auction for the non-"total" version?
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