Headroom Micro DAC: Updated - Full Review
Jul 24, 2009 at 12:50 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 5


Headphoneus Supremus
May 5, 2002
Hey all,

Just thought I'd post a quick review / update on my Headroom situation. First off, I'd like to thank Headroom for their helpfulness - I had received a couple of DACs with bad power supplies - and everything was straightened out within moments. I live about 3 miles from their shop, so I have a very different perspective from most people that buy from them, but it's still great service at the door.

The setup I'm listening to is my Sager notebook ---> USB cable --> Headroom Micro DAC ---> Kimber 1/8" to RCA ---> Headroom Maxed Out Home/Reference upgrade ---> Sennheiser HD 800

I am definitely an omnivore taste-wise, listening to all kinds of music in formats ranging from 192k mp3 to FLAC. I have some great recordings of classical music, rock, a bit of jazz, and electronic stuff. Not all of it is audiophile-grade.

Everyone here is pretty familiar with the HD800s - I hear the same things that everyone else does on them, so it's "old news" to review them, but I'll sum up my 800 experience and move on to the way this DAC compares to my M-Audio firewire. The HD800s have by far the fastest and best bass extension of any headphone, the best transient response I've ever heard from a chunk of audio equipment, uncolored midrange, and clear high end. YES, I DO hear slightly pronounced lower high ends - but only on pop recordings, on reference-class recordings there's nothing wrong with the high end. Just thought I'd throw in that yeah, I'm on the same page as most people with the 800s. Awesome phone for general high end listening.

The DAC is the real story though. It's a monster for being $300.00, but it's absolutely necessary to have one of these (as if I'd have to tell anyone that) to enjoy great listening with a computer. I'll be comparing it to my M-Audio firewire audiophile external sound card.

BUILD: All three S's: Small, simple, sturdy. Easy to use, very portable. It's dwarfed by the size of the rest of my setup. It's got a neat postmodern feel to the design, which is elegant, but might turn off people that like perfectly square corners. The large fat rubber bands that wrap around the outside are a great idea - no annoying rubber legs that peel off of your source after a couple of years of heavy use. Not much else to say here.

SOUND QUALITY: In a nutshell, this product is one of the best sources I've heard (with my limited experience listening to good sources...)

Channel balance:

One of my pet peeves is that the firewire M-Audio card ain't balanced very well. It's a problem with a lot of (surprisingly expensive) sources too. The Micro DAC has pretty nice balance - left and right channels coming in at the same volume level.

High end-

fixing the only real problem that you'd come to expect from the HD800s - slightly "hot" treble - yes, Skylab, I do hear it too!, but it's only "hot treble" on my really bad recordings (which are mostly pop, sub-256k mp3, and the like), and it's the correct tonal balance on most of my reference material (eg Mahler 1, Mahler 5, all of the FLAC'd unaccompanied violin stuff I have). The HD800s are BRUTALLY UNFORGIVING... it makes a pair of 650s sound like Beyer DT250-80s by comparison, if you know what I mean! So it's kind of nice hearing the Micro DAC toning down the treble a bit without sacrificing detail.

The highs compared to my M-Audio Audiophile Firewire are just a little bit more in line with the mids and less grainy. Both cards have the same amount of detail. The "s" syllable is smoother with the Headroom DAC. There is just less grain with the headroom source as well. I don't get a break on most of my collection in the high end though - I have a LOT of garbage mp3s.


I get a well-detailed midrange on both sources, but less color with the Micro DAC, and a much bigger midrange. It's an omnivorous, flavor-neutral midrange that reflects what you feed it, more akin to what you'd expect from a pricey CD player source - aah, a french horn.... now a violin.... now Carlos's guitar... now some harsh sounding garbage from an 80's Italo disco song, rendered just like the crap it is... oh, hey I can hear the viola and 2nd violin's musical counter-melody to the Cellos in Brahms No. 3 in F, mvt 3... not just the texture, but the actual melody... you get what I'm saying. Detailed neutral revealing mids. You get quite a bit of the natural bloom you hear in a good concert hall too with the headroom DAC. The upper mids are recessed a bit on the Firewire, which explains why the 6khz "S" hotness some complain about on the 800s isn't a problem with this headroom source.


I actually get less bass on the headroom DAC than the firewire USB, but it's just more neutral. Also a bit more controlled... the HD800 has a bass response that flattens your skull as opposed to giving you a good idea of what the music's supposed to sound like if you don't run it through the right gear, and that starts at the source.


Pinpoint imaging on the DAC, the Firewire card gives you hazy location... you don't get an accurate picture - the orchestra should be like an orchestra, with the instruments in the right place... not a paint smear of sound with instrument families in completely wrong places.


Both sources do fine with the soundstage, but you get a more "bloomy/glowy" wealth of midrange to the reverb, and detail rendering of early reflections (as a function of midrange resolution) with the headroom source. The M-Audio Firewire renders the sound to be airier than is natural, but it's still pretty nice.

Transient response-

I thought that they both performed on par - i.e., both sounded incredibly fast. Keeps me turning the volume down, which is a good thing! The improvement from HD650 to HD800 in transient response is much greater than the difference between the two sources. It's really just too close.

Ease of use-

The Headroom DAC is easy to use, you plug it in and select it as the source after the add/remove hardware wizard does its thing in XP. The Firewire is a royal pain to set up and configure. There's no contest here.

Noise floor-

This will vary a bit, but there's noticeable background noise coming through if you max the volume of a really big amp plugged into the headroom DAC while listening to dead silence. I have a really REALLY noisy computer. The noise floor is actually lower on the M-Audio device though... but it's not within the realm of noticeability or relevance in normal listening, and therefore is a pretty irrelevant detail.


If you're like me and splurge on headphones, then run out of money to upgrade the rest of your setup, you should definitely squeeze the wallet and buy a neutral-sounding, versatile DAC - I had great results with this product in accomplishing my goal! Headroom was really accommodating with me, too. I had a bad product initially, and they promptly replaced it, no hassle. If you have the money to burn on a good source though you should buy a beefier DAC than this one. I am definitely not realizing the full potential of my associated equipment. Having said that, this is a huge step up from using the outgoing source in "combo" external soundcard/DAC products.

Hope you all enjoyed this short review! Look forward to hearing feedback from people.

Jul 24, 2009 at 1:35 AM Post #3 of 5
I really wish it had RCA outputs, though. That's the only thing really turning me off from it, the huge emphasis on portability.
Jul 24, 2009 at 1:36 AM Post #4 of 5
Thanks for a nice review! I agree that the Micro DAC is a great piece of kit. A while back I was given the chance to try a Pico through a loaner program. I briefly compared the dac in the Pico to my Micro DAC and to my Stello DA100. I was not surprised that I heard clear differences between the Pico and the DA100 but was pretty surprised that the Micro DAC held its own against the DA100. But I wasn't trying to compare them directly so I didn't really spend that much time listening closely. I just noted what I heard and went on. But recently I had some time on my hands & spent some time comparing the DA100 with the Micro DAC and I could not distinguish between the two of them. I was running them both into an M^3 with a dual input switch so I was able to switch between them without having much of a time delay. I also tried listening to each source for several songs then switching. I just could not tell them apart. The great build quality and small footprint make this a great buy.
Jul 24, 2009 at 5:40 AM Post #5 of 5

I agree, it's a great little source... if you've got the cash to burn there are definitely more monstrous DACs out there, but it's great value for the money, especially just as a first-step past a non-dedicated computer source.


I agree, that's a minor hassle, I didn't talk much about it because I had a nice kimber 1/8" to RCA cable lying around which keeps the signal clean enroute to my amp. I'd love to try out some bigger non-portable DACs - in the $500 to $2000 range - since that's the direction I'm headed. I can see why it's an issue.


Glad to hear that - I don't have enough experience with other DACs, other than the firewire one - still a great source, but not necessarily appropriate for the amp/phones I have. I'd be up for listening to some other sources... but I'm pretty partial to Headroom due to my close 3 mile proximity to their factory. Tends to color my reviews a bit... I'm not working for them, just a die hard fan.

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