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Heed Dactilus, a Comparative Review Vs the HeadAmp Pico

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 

Good day all. I recently discovered that one of our local Sydney Head-Fi’ers has opened his own e-store (Nelson, at i-Enjoy.com.au), stocking both headphone and speaker hi-fi gear. Nelson PM’ed me asking if I’d be at all interested in reviewing the Heed Dactilus, as reviews of this DAC seem to be fairly scarce so far. Naturally I accepted.
Nelson dropped by my place shortly afterwards with a full-blown Heed system – the Dactilus, Q-Psu, and CanAmp.

All three came well-packed in boxes with fitted styrofoam inserts, and a little instructional manual detailing the product specifications, installation, precautions, and warranty information. Heed warrants their products for 3 years, which I find impressive. It speaks of a manufacturer having confidence in the workmanship of their product.

The cover of the Dactilus manual provides a brief introduction to the product and Heed’s mission statement:

“In designing the Heed DACTILUS, our aim was to create a DAC which makes any digital component – CD and DVD players, computer servers (Squeezebox, Airport), DAB tuners, etc – more enjoyable to listen to: less analytical and less processed, conveying music in a fluid, natural and rhythmically engaging fashion. The DACTILUS embodies our belief that while digital sources needn’t sound digital, they can sound musical!”

My review unit came with the optional Q-Psu dedicated power supply, which sells for $435.00 seperarely. Apparently the Dactilus does have its own bundled power supply which can be used if the Q-Psu isn't purchased, but Heed feel that the performance gain to be had from using the Q-Psu is worth the additional cost. Personally, I would have liked to see multiple outputs on the Q-Psu, such as the Headroom DPS features, so that those interested in using a complete Heed system with the Dactilus and CanAmp could run them both from the one Q-Psu. But alas, not only does the Q-Psu have only one output, the CanAmp cannot be powered by it anyway - it just has an IEC socket for power.

Which makes purchasing the Q-Psu a difficult proposition. Suddenly, you're not buying a $550 DAC, you're buying a $985 DAC, and the Dactilus now has to compete against DACs in the $1k territory. The option to use it to power the CanAmp would have made this additional expenditure more palatable.

Review Setup and Testing Methodology

Since receiving the Heed system, I’ve burned in all the components for over 100hrs, and have let them warm up for at least an hour prior to any critical listening. For this review, I’m comparing the Dactilus against my familiar benchmark, the HeadAmp Pico DAC-Only, which I’ve owned for over a year. Both DACs are being run through the CanAmp and from there into my Sennheiser HD600’s.

The Dactilus, as it only has coaxial and optical inputs (no USB), will be fed from a USB to optical/spdif converter, while the Pico is being fed USB input directly. All playback is from a laptop running Vista with Foobar configured for WASAPI bit-perfect output.

To compare the two, I’ll be listening to various genres of music from albums which I know to be well-recorded. My testing method involves listening to each song four times. Once on the Dactilus, then once on the Pico, then again on the Dactilus, then again on the Pico.

Comparative Listening

Track #1
Artist: Infected Mushroom
Album: Legend of the Black Shawarma
Title: Killing Time

The lead vocal in this track is amazingly well-recorded, and that’s showcased well on the Dactilus. As soon as the intro begins, the vocals come through in a very present, involving way. The static crackling sound effects dance along the sides of the soundstage as the vocals dominate the centre field, showcasing good separation on the part of the Dactilus. As the track progresses into the chorus though, the Dactilus starts to struggle with the amount of images it’s having to deal with at once, and some bleeding of one imagine into the other starts to occur. Nonetheless, during the quieter passages vocals are rendered gloriously, with Perry Ferrell seemingly singing just beside your ears.

The Pico demonstrates a similar ease with the separation necessary during the intro, rendering the vocals convincingly mid-field while electronic sound effects play along the sides. However the vocal seems to be just a shade harsher than it was on the Dactilus. There’s a hint of digititis that wasn’t present on the Dactilus. Yet as the track progresses into the chorus, the Pico reaches its stride and deals with the conflux of sound images more convincingly than the Dactilus did, with less of a “wall of sound” effect. Throughout the remainder of the track this impression continues – vocals are rendered with the same conviction as the Dactilus, yet ever so slightly harsher or more “digital”, while separation and imaging remain slightly improved.

Track #2
Artist: Porcupine Tree
Album: In Absentia
Title: Heartattack in a Layby

This is a very ambient track, and an atmosphere is established almost immediately on the Dactilus. The soft introduction melody reverberates around the soundfield, while something that sounds vaguely like trains passing overhead is heard in the background. The lead vocalist soon raises his voice to a higher register, which leads straight into some amazing guitar sounds to the upper left and right of the soundstage, very clear and vivid. The very gentle cymbal in the bottom middle of the soundfield likewise remains very discrete and isolated as an image from the guitars to either side and the vocals mid-field. The whole presentation is unified and cohesive, and yet imaging remains precise throughout the track.

The slightly more forward nature of the Pico’s sound makes the “trains passing overhead” effect in the intro less convincing. Some 3-dimensionality is lost here, as the effect seems to occupy the same space as the introductory melody, whereas on the Dactilus the melody was more present with the ‘train overhead’ effect further removed and distant. Guitar sounds every bit as clear and vivid as it did on the Dactilus, and the cymbal is likewise very clear and precise an image in the soundstage. But on a whole, the Pico falls short of the Dactilus in rendering the ambience and feel of this song, largely due to a slightly less 3-dimensional soundstage and a tad too much forwardness.

Track #3
Artist: Enigma
Album: The Screen Behind The Mirror
Title: Gravity of Love

The beginning intro of this track in particular is something I’ve used to test audio equipment for ages. It has a very deep, reverberating bass that makes you feel as if you’re in some sort of subterranean cavern, and unfortunately the Dactilus didn’t quite capture this. Deep bass is rendered fairly weakly, diminishing the atmosphere of the track. The female vocal sounds more distant and flat than she should, which only contributes to the weakness of the Dactilus’ rendering of this track. It seems there are limits to the 3-dimensionality of the soundstage of this DAC – it extends forward in front of the listener and to the sides as well, but doesn’t have much height or depth, which is what this track craves. The deep rumbling bass and echoing female vocal are thus both constrained, limiting the magic of this track severely.

The deep subterranean rumble is back to the intensity it belongs, and the lead female vocal shivers up into the sky above. The Pico renders the height and depth of the soundstage convincingly, and portrays this track significantly better than the Dactilus.

Track #4
Artist: Michael Jackson
Album: Number Ones
Title: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

And now for some lively and upbeat pop from the great MJ. This track starts out at 11 and never really slows down, with very sharp images all over the soundfield, which makes it a great test of dynamics and imaging. The Dactilus keeps up well, maintaining separation between the instruments and Michael’s voice throughout the track, without much noticeable blurring or “bleeding” of one image into the other. A good energy level is kept up as well, with the Dactilus showing off its PRaT to good effect.

As good as the Dactilus was for this song, the Pico is even better. Immediately the step up in energy, punch and dynamics becomes apparent. While listening to the Dactilus, my head was bobbing and my foot tapping. In contrast, the Pico makes me want to get up and dance. Attacks that were sharp before have acquired a razor-keenness, perhaps at some cost to listener fatigue, but who cares with this sort of track?

Track #5
Artist: Diana Krall
Album: The Girl in the Other Room
Title: The Girl in the Other Room (title track)

Diana’s vocal comes through clear and silky on the Dactilus, as she croons into your ear. The echo of her voice in the intro is very palpable, the soundstage extending out in front of the listener. The instruments used in this track are presented in a soft and atmospheric way, not drawing any undue attention to themselves as Diana takes the centre stage. The whole picture almost seems as if it’s being seen through a tinted lens, very warm and mellow. Excellent chillout music with a scotch or red wine.

Diana’s voice becomes more forward on the Pico than it was on the Dactilus, and perhaps slightly clearer as a result, but also less soothing. The echo of Diana’s voice during the intro is just as palpable, but there is less sense of space – it echoes within closer confines than were accorded to the Dactilus. The Pico’s slight emphasis on attack over decay makes the instruments used in this track become slightly more poignant as well, making more of a statement of themselves than they did on the Dactilus. Overall, a little less relaxing and more engaging, but still well-presented.


It seems both the Dactilus and Pico have their own strengths. The Dactilus has the edge when it comes to extension of the soundstage out in front of the listener, while the Pico has better depth and height. The Pico is a fairly smooth-sounding DAC, being an upsampling DAC using a Wolfson chip, but the Dactilus is even smoother and more analogue-sounding, for want of a better term.

This additional smoothness can be both an asset and a detriment. In Killing Time, the Dactilus’ greater smoothness helped bring out the full enjoyment of Perry Ferrell’s voice, while in Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, the presentation was too smooth and mellow, detracting from the vivaciousness of the song.

The Pico currently costs $349.00 USD from Justin at HeadAmp (which works out to be about $395.00 AUD), compared to the $550.00 AUD of the Dactilus (and the additional $435.00 AUD of the Q-Psu I reviewed it with). In that light, the Pico is still the reigning champion of value for money. However, it must be said that as far as my ears can tell, Heed definitely accomplished their design goals with the Dactilus. It is indeed very fluid, natural, and not at all analytical – for those of you craving as analogue a DAC as possible under $1k, this may very well be your ticket. The Pico is already a very smooth and listenable DAC, but the Dactilus takes it further and even makes the Pico occasionally sound “digital” in direct comparison.
post #2 of 9
Thread Starter 
No posts in a review thread makes this reviewer a sad panda
post #3 of 9
I read your review! It's interesting to see how well the little Pico preforms more than the Dactilus.
post #4 of 9
Good review Jason.
Would the Dacmagic make a viable counterpoint to the two dacs under discussion, being more energetic?
Would you like to try a 3 way review?
post #5 of 9
I, for one, love a good three-way......review, that is.

Seriously though, nice review.
post #6 of 9
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by wink View Post
Good review Jason.
Would the Dacmagic make a viable counterpoint to the two dacs under discussion, being more energetic?
Would you like to try a 3 way review?
The DacMagic is definitely in the same ballpark as the Dactilus and Pico, simply with different strengths.

Based on what I remember of when I compared the DacMagic against the Pico, I'd say it's the fastest and most resolving of the three, but also the least "analogue" sounding. It lacks a bit of body.

That was using the DacMagic through it's USB input however, which I was later informed apparently isn't well implemented. Maybe it would have performed better via coax or optical. I can't do a 3-way review anymore though as I've returned the Heed gear to their owner.
post #7 of 9
That was a great review! Thanks for giving attention to a little-known piece gear.
post #8 of 9
That was a stellar review, anyone deciding on purchasing any of these products has now a comprehensive impression as to their particular sonic traits. Thanks Jason for such a huge effort, bringing these fine products into a well deserved light.
post #9 of 9
As always, a very thorough review that makes for a very informed read. It makes me want to go out and start my collection. I love the way you compare the different artists, and I'm getting quite an education on the different terms you use. Please write more reviews, I need to add to my notes.

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