Geek Out 450 USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

General Information

Geek Out is an on-the-go, high-res DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and headphone amp that plugs into your computer's USB port. It decodes and amplifies your digital audio so your rad headphones can really sing. High performance isn't just for audiophiles anymore. Know what it's not? Mumbo jumbo. Nor is it hocus pocus. Geek speaks audiophilese so you don't have to. It's simply the best sounding awesomifier you'll ever own. "Man, that thing was so airy, tight, and downright exciting to listen to. I don't think I've heard a USB dongle-type head-amp/DAC with the overall authority and SLAM of the Light Harmonic GEEK yet. That's why all I can say is WoW!!" Michael Mercer Reviewer, "The best gear for listening to high resolution audio." Michael Hsu The Wall Street Journal "What is Geek? In this case it's an ingenious USB DAC (digital to audio converter) that uses the power from your computer to drive even the beefiest headphones and give you true Hi-Fi sound. It truly defies description just how good audio sounded through this system. Simply put, it made me cry with joy. I'm not kidding." Zuke Arakaki Stolendroids

Latest reviews

Pros: amazing sound quality, 3D soundstage, different versions according to power rating, works with Android (Lollipop)
Cons: runs hot, inconsistent led display
Before I start my review, I would like to Thank LH Labs for providing me with a review sample of GeekOut in exchange for my honest opinion.
I thought I was done with my round of portable USB DAC reviews until I got contacted by LH Labs to check out their GeekOut series of portable hi-res DACs.  Formed back in 2010 (under Light Harmonics name), LH Labs is well known and highly respected in audiophile world, and I was excited to release my inner-Geek Out-to-play with this new toy!  After my recent series of reviews where I looked at half a dozen of different USB DAC models, I came to a conclusion that most of them have a lot of similarities in sound quality, and the biggest difference was mostly in extra features and exterior design details.  Don’t get me wrong, they don’t sound exactly the same, but none of them made me go “Wow!” like I experienced it the first time I plugged my headphones into GeekOut 450.
Even so GeekOut was crowdfunded (a very successful campaign), Light Harmonics Lab team is not novice and has a lot of other popular audio products behind their belt.  From their famous Da Vinci USB DAC which pushed boundaries of 32bit 384kHz audio resolution to a number of other successful crowdsourcing campaigns with Pulse series DAC/headphone amp and the upcoming GeekWave DAP – they try to appeal to serious audiophile listeners who understand the meaning of high quality audio.  The challenge with GeekOut was to encapsulate this high-res performance inside of a small portable USB DAC you can plug into your laptop or desktop and use as an external soundcard on the go.  As a result you still have access to a very powerful ESS9018K2M DAC supporting 32b/384kHz sample rate and DSD playback which you can take anywhere with you in a pocket.  But the most impressive result – they made this technology portable and affordable to get everyone’s attention, not just hardcore audiophiles.  Due to design similarities between different GeekOut flavors, I will go into more details about GO450 and GO100 differences in sound analysis section, while the rest of the review will refer to them as GeekOut (or GO).  So, let’s take a closer look at what I have found.
Arrived in a rather small packaging, you know right away you’re dealing with a portable powerhouse while looking at the box suited to fit a pair of sunglasses.  It looks like the GO450 packaging had universal intention since there was a picture of GO100, GO450, and GO1000, including corresponding max power specs.  GO100 packaging also had GO720 included in the list, quite understandable considering variety of GeekOut versions and logistics to use a common packaging, though each unit comes in a distinctive color where I received GO450 in silver and GO100 in black.
Unboxing GO450/100
You are not going to find a large variety of accessories included with this product, only a short usb extension cable and a small storage draw string bag.  Since GeekOut plugs directly into usb port of your computer, to prevent interference with other adjacent devices, usb extension cable is very convenient.  But after my extensive testing, I actually found it to take an edge off the sound quality making audio a shade darker and a bit narrower in soundstage.  I don’t think it’s just a quality of the cable since I also tested and found the same consistent results with GO and DragonTail extension cable.  I’m used to dealing with headphone replacement cables for analog audio signal, but when it comes to high res audio and sampling of digital high bit-rate signal, degradation of the digital waveform will have a negative effect on sound quality as well.  For the best audio performance results, I would strongly recommend connecting and using GeekOut directly from your computer.
Accessories GO450/100
For a device with an impressive power spec, GeekOut actually has a very small footprint with dimensions of approximately 65mm x 35mm x 12mm (smaller than a deck of cards), and weight of about 35g.  The first thing you notice is all aluminum enclosure with aircraft quality T6061 hardening alloy.  The build is solid and it looks slick, but the main intent of the aluminum alloy enclosure is for heat dissipation since you can expect its DAC and Class A amplifier to run hot.  The rectangular footprint of GO has full size usb connector on one end and dual 3.5mm output on the other end.  You can connect headphones to both of these ports and control output volume simultaneously right from your computer.  The difference between these ports is one having 0.47 ohm output impedance and the other one with 47 ohm output impedance, mentioned as Line Out in some references though it doesn’t function like a traditional LO set to a fixed max volume.  Personally, I had no issues using either of these headphone ports, but expect different output loudness level due to impedance difference.  As a matter of fact, for a better volume resolution 47 ohm output works great with higher sensitivity headphones so they don’t get too loud at low volume level.
There are also 7 LEDs on the top of the unit, partitioned in two groups of 4 LEDs (3D, 2x, 4x, 8x) and 3 LEDs (44.1k, 48k, DSD) corresponding to sample rates.  Furthermore, there are 2 buttons on the side – a bit loose with not much of tactile response, but still usable.  To be honest, I found these LEDs and button control to be a bit confusing, especially reading some old posts from people referencing early firmware functionality where buttons were used for volume control and later where buttons were suppose to change between Time Comprehension Mode (TCM) and Frequency Response Mode (FRM) digital filter modes.  There is also mentioning of 3D “Awesomifier” mode which I assume 3D led refers to, though it didn’t lit up for me.  The bottom line, 3 LEDs indicating a playback sample rate are straight forward and quite informative.  Regarding other 4 LEDs – I wouldn’t even care and just leave it as is.  Upon power up the sound is already 3D and sounds “awesomified” to me!
Design details GO450/100
Connection and pair up with a laptop was straight forward, though the first time it’s not a typical plug’n’play and you do need to manually download and install drivers from LH Labs website.  The same goes for additional drivers required for Foobar2k setup to play high resolution lossless files.  I don’t have too many DSD files in my collection and only use a few with my portable DAPs for testing.  Even so I got all the necessary drivers for Foobar2k setup, I still had no luck playing DSD (issue related to my laptop setup), but no issues otherwise with high-res FLACs.
After the initial driver install and setup, GeekOut was recognized instantaneously every time I plugged it in.  Also, as expected, unit got rather hot even after a short period of operation.  The aluminum case worked great as a heatsink, but you do have to be aware not to touch the case.  This also brings me to another very important point regarding usb-cable extension.  When GeekOut is plugged into your laptop or computer USB directly, it’s fixed with surface being “air-cooled”.  Once you connect it through usb cable, it dangles down and comes in a contact with a surface while being hot.  This just reinforces my previous point about trying to use GeekOut connected directly to your computer.
Laptop/PC connection GO450/100
When it comes to Smartphone connection, not too many vendors are willing to list it as a supported feature.  It will be challenging to guarantee compatibility of every combination with different hardware setups and OS versions.  Another factor to keep in mind, GeekOut USB DAC is very power hungry, drawing close to 0.7A from USB port, and a lot of smartphones won’t be able to support that.  With USB OTG connection you bypass internal DAC and go straight with a digital audio over USB.  Some less powerful USB DACs support it directly with OTG cable, while others require USB OTG hub with an additional power input to bring in external portable battery.  With my Note 4, Verizon pushed Lollipop (Android 5.01) update to my phone the day before I received GeekOut.  Even so I was skeptical, I still decided to plug in GeekOut to my phone through a cheap USB OTG adapter, and discovered that IT WORKS!!!  There was no need to use any external battery or USB hub, and I was able to play audio from any app.  Although I do realize it puts a toll on my phone’s battery while draining it at higher rate, a mere fact that I plugged it into my Note 4 was a miracle to me!!!
Smartphone connection GO450/100
At this point, I covered enough about design and hardware build and pair up with your computer and even smartphone.  Plenty of other USB DACs I have reviewed are capable to do this, but NONE can sound as good as GeekOut.  Period!  It is not a matter of sounding just a little bit better; we are talking about a noticeable difference!  I started my sound test with GeekOut 450 since I figured 450mW is plenty of power to cover all of my full size and IEM headphone needs.  Turned out it was actually a bit too much power from 0.47 ohm output, so I switched to 47 ohm output which due to higher output impedance has lower output power.
The first thing you notice once you start playing music is soundstage expansion (width/depth) full of airiness and very impressive layering/separation of instruments and vocals with nearly 3D placement.  I was impressed with how natural this 3D soundstage felt.  I heard some 3D effects in the past and they always felt artificial to my ears, but not in case of GeekOut.  A sound was very dynamic, musical, and exciting, with a great extension at both low end and top end of the spectrum.  Also, output had quite an impressive black background.  Of course, you need a quality pair of headphones to appreciate what GeekOut has to offer, and in my case I'm still rocking a high-res ATH-MSR7 which paired up really well with GO.  I didn't even realize MSR7 was capable of such an impressive bass clarity and articulation, with organic full body mids having plenty of revealing details, and extended treble with sparkle of analytical quality without being sibilant or grainy.  None of my other audio hardware sources were able to bring out all that in MSR7 before.  It was quite an impressive non-fatigue listening experience that was equally engaging from either my ThinkPad laptop or Galaxy Note 4 smartphone.
I know that smartphone support is still "unofficial", but that was the most pleasant surprise to me since in my previous experience with other USB DACs supporting USB OTG the improvement was very marginal.  When it comes to my laptop, any "usb stick" sound card will improve the sound.  With Galaxy Note 4, Samsung done a pretty good job with a sound quality and in most of my previous reviews I mentioned that improvement was very marginal.  Using GeekOut - soundstage improvement really jumped out with my Note 4, and the sound became more dynamic and more exciting.  3D soundstage expansion was especially great since I enjoy watching Netflix on my phone.
All these sound improvements are applicable to GeekOut 100 as well, but GO100 version has another secret weapon under its hood.  Beside the obvious reduction in output power down to 100mW (which is still plenty for a lot of headphones), it's actually designed for a more sensitive headphones.  So in addition to expanding a dynamic range of volume control where you don't have to blow your ears with volume setting at 5 clicks, you also get a significant background hiss reduction.  For example, I'm usually careful with my pair of ATH-IM50 due to higher sensitivity and consequent background hissing.  With GO100 I wouldn't say that background hissing was completely gone, but it was noticeable reduced!
I did mention that I found GeekOut sound quality to be better than other USB DACs I reviewed in the past.  Of course, such statement is based on a relative comparison, and my own preference, and my specific headphones.  YMMV, but without a single doubt in my mind the improvement is definitely there.
FULLA, GO450, GO100, DragonFly, Astrapi, dSp, E10k
I will not go into a detailed comparison of each and every USB DAC, but do want to mention the improvement was consistent with GO sound being more resolving, with a better retrieval of details, being a touch brighter (might not be everyone’s cup of tea if you prefer other DACs like DragonFly or E10k with a warmer/smoother sound sig), definitely more airiness in the sound with a better layering and separation of instruments (FULLA is no slouch in that department, but still can’t reach GO level), and 3D soundstage that stands out above its competition (even Astrapi couldn’t reach the same level of depth).  I do have to admit, GO runs hotter than competition and cost more, but improved performance justifies the cost.  Also, there are other DACs that integrate with Smartphones (dSp and Astrapi) through USB OTG and will be more appropriate to rubber-band to your phone for a portable use.  GO works flawlessly with a smartphone, but I wouldn’t attach it to my phone/case due to overheating.  But for a desktop use, turning your Smartphone into a quality DAP capable of playing and streaming high res audio – it works quite well.  Just remember to keep your phone battery in check since a drain going to be higher than other “lightweight” USB DACs.  Perhaps, usb hub with a separate power input would make sense in this case.
Overall, let me start my Conclusion with: If GeekOut can transform my laptop and smartphone into such high quality audio source - I can’t wait to see and to hear how GeekWave is going to sound!!!  Based purely on a sound quality, I found GeekOut to be superior to other USB DACs I’ve tested so far.  Also, the flexibility of being able to use it with your laptop/PC/MAC and Smartphone (through USB OTG adapter and with Lollipop update) is priceless.  You can pick and choose the exact flavor of GeekOut USB DAC you need based on your power requirements, though in my opinion 450 hits a sweet spot in the middle for most of the full size and IEM headphones designed around “portable use” impedance.  If background hissing drives you crazy with your sensitive headphones, GeekOut 100 will be a cure for that headache.  Would I say it’s a “must have” product for everybody?  Not really, since there are other alternatives that run cooler and have smaller footprint.  But if you demand the best sound quality from your portable USB DAC, I can’t think of any other portable USB DAC (relative to what I have tested) that can match its sonic performance.
@Head1 :
N6 (vs GO450) - very similar in sound, though GO staging is a bit wider and mids are slightly more detailed.
AK120ii (vs GO450) - sound is a little warmer/smoother, not as airy, a bit less detailed, soundstage is more intimate (less depth).
That is a reason why I said, I can't wait to hear GeekWave to see how they can integrate a sound quality of GeekOut into a standalone touch screen DAP :wink:
Awesome review twister like always, I have been looking into a desk top DAC but now I really am considering this one. It would be great for on the road trips for my laptop. 
Thanks for the review! Say, I have a 32ohm grado ps500e set. Do you think the go100 would work with these or would you go for the 450s. Thx!


There are no comments to display.