COMPUTER AUDIO REVIEWS

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 02, 2014 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $699

AT A GLANCE
Plus
HDMI input for high-res music on Blu-ray
Adjustable ’phone impedance and sampling rate
Sounds good with different ’phones
Minus
None to speak of...

THE VERDICT
Essence’s HDACC bridges the gap between Blu-ray music content and legacy audio systems with an extremely adjustable and great-sounding DAC.

The most unusual product in this roundup is the HDACC HD Audio Center from Essence Electrostatic, a company that also markets flat-diaphragm loudspeakers. Like the NAD, it qualifies as a headphone amp, DAC, and stereo preamp with TosLink, coax, and analog inputs. But its greater claim to fame is a pair of HDMI jacks, input and output, on the back panel.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 02, 2014 0 comments
Headphones aren’t just about mobile audio. They’re also a cost-effective way to get good sound into your ears even when you’re not on the go. If you have $400 to spend on a set of speakers, your options are of limited fidelity, but the same money will buy you the Sennheiser HD600, one of the most popular high-end headphone models of all time. Try getting a comparably great-sounding set of surround speakers for that price.
Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 02, 2014 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $499

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Well-balanced sound
Space-saving footprint
XLR and RCA outputs
Minus
No data rate conversion
Incomplete sampling indicators

THE VERDICT
NAD’s D 1050 is a well-rounded DAC and headphone amp with outputs to feed a stereo preamp or receiver.

NAD’s D 1050 USB DAC, to use its official name, is one of a trio of products introduced at the same time. Like the D 7050 Direct Digital Network Amplifier ($999) and D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier ($499), it includes a headphone amp and USB DAC. Unlike those two products, it doesn’t directly drive a pair of speakers—only your humble cans and the analog inputs of an audio system. However, its shape and design are similar to that of the other two products, building their digital-to-analog and preamp guts into a smaller package.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 02, 2014 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $189

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Compact
Inexpensive
Lively sound
Minus
Converts 192-kHz files to 96 kHz

THE VERDICT
The Audioengine D3 is a fine- sounding entry-level headphone amp as well as the best USB-stick DAC I’ve heard so far.

If you find the whole concept of a headphone amp scary, Audioengine’s D3 might be comforting. It takes the form of a USB stick with a USB plug at one end and a 1/8-inch minijack at the other. Mediating discreetly between your computer and headphones, it gets far better sound out of your computer than you’d get from the computer’s potentially messy analog output.

Geoffrey Morrison Posted: Jul 01, 2014 32 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $5,635

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Quietest PC I’ve ever used
Impeccable build quality
High-end A/V gear gorgeous looks
Minus
Incredibly expensive
Still a PC, which scares some people

THE VERDICT
A stunningly silent, built-like-a-tank, ultimate HTPC.

I am a vocal supporter of the home theater PC, a computer that lives in your home theater or media room. While not for everyone, HTPCs offer an incredible access to content for your enjoyment. This includes games, of course, but also media streaming, Web pages, and personal video/audio libraries. Sure, you can get most of that through other devices, but often not as easily or well.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 20, 2014 3 comments

Performance
Build Quality
Value
PRICE $249/pair

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Inviting, carefully tailored sonics
USB computer input
Easy setup
Minus
Controls in back
Unprotected drivers

THE VERDICT
Our audio editor’s favorite budget desktop (and TV) speakers have gotten more convenient thanks to the addition of a PC-friendly USB input, making them an even better value.

We may love good sound, but we can’t completely banish bad sound from our lives. We can’t listen to vinyl and high-rez audio all the time. We’ve all got some lousy MP3 files in our music libraries, love streaming services, and endure blaring SUV ads on TV. What’s the best way to make this substandard content palatable? Audioengine has offered compelling answers for years with its powered speakers, the chunky Audioengine 5 and smaller Audioengine 2. Now they’re available in variations that can accept USB input from a computer, including the Audioengine 2+ reviewed here.
Kris Deering Posted: Jun 12, 2014 3 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $2,995

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Handpicked parts and proprietary audiophile touches
Nearly plug and play
Supports all high-resolution formats
Reference level audio and video quality
Minus
Needs a tablet for easiest interface
Still only as good as what you plug it into

THE VERDICT
A no brainer if you seek audiophile performance from a media server without a lot of homework and trial and error. Customer support is exceptional and takes the IT guesswork out of the equation.

We have recently come to an enormous crossroad in entertainment. Physical media as a whole is withering on the vine and everything is moving to either streaming playback or file downloads. While I’m all about the convenience that this offers I hate the idea (and reality) of the compromise this situation can create in the quality of the content. We’ve already seen the music industry destroy the quality of music recordings to appease the iPod generation, and regardless of the convenience provided by Netflix and a host of other video streaming services, they cannot match the quality of Blu-ray video playback. So what do you do if you want to enjoy instantaneous access to your media but don’t want to compromise the quality of the material? Baetis Audio may have a few answers for you.
John Sciacca Posted: May 14, 2014 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $799

AT A GLANCE
Plus
High-performance Wolfson Audio WM8671 DAC handles signals up to 192 kHz/24-bit
AccuBASS designed to restore depth to compressed audio sources
Automatic input switching

Minus
Runs hot
Lack of front-panel controls may be problematic for some installs

THE VERDICT
This terrific amplifier and DAC solution improves sonics in a small package.

The quest for audio simplicity has come far closer to becoming a reality with the introduction of music streamers from the likes of Sonos and Apple. Now just connect one of these devices to an audio system, and you’ve got an entire world of music literally at your fingertips. However, these components aren’t exactly revered for their terrific audio qualities, and many dress up the sonics by running them through an outboard DAC before connecting to a quality amplifier. But in space-challenged places like an office, kitchen, or bedroom, this can be easier said than done.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Apr 25, 2014 2 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $999

AT A GLANCE
Plus
500-GB hard drive
DSD capable
Serious fun to use
Minus
No live streaming from network devices
Lightweight amp

THE VERDICT
This handsome DSD-capable audio player with built-in storage takes the pesky computer out of computer audio—and it’s way more fun to use.

Sony made waves when they announced their intention to market three high-resolution audio (HRA) products built around the company’s DSD file format. True, there was a nascent HRA movement before Sony made the move, with loads of network audio players and USB DACs flooding the market. But somehow the Sony announcement provided the extra momentum that finally made HRA seem not just promising but inevitable. That the Consumer Electronics Association has also launched an HRA initiative is icing on the cake.

Al Griffin Posted: Feb 14, 2014 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $249

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Impressive sound quality for Bluetooth
Audiophile-friendly look
Pain-free setup
Minus
Pricey

THE VERDICT
It might not be high-rez or high end, but Mass Fidelity’s Bluetooth receiver is a great option for casual listening.

Bluetooth gets a bad rap in the hi-fi world, and for good reason: In contrast to other wireless audio technologies that let you stream uncompressed CD-quality audio from a PC or portable device, Bluetooth subjects the signal to lossy compression. If you’re an audiophile with a reputation to uphold, the story pretty much ends there.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 06, 2014 5 comments
Audio Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $199

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Inexpensive
Compact
192-kHz capable
Minus
Potential dynamic limits
Runs warm

THE VERDICT
Though not ideal for more demanding headphones with challenging music, this is a highly affordable way to improve computer audio.

Bits are helpless prisoners trapped on the hard drive of your computer. If you plug your headphones (or desktop audio system) into the computer’s analog output, you can faintly hear their cries for help, but not the true timbre of their colorful voices. It takes a USB DAC (digital-to-analog convertor) to truly liberate them. And the good news is that USB DACs—especially those suitable for headphones—have gotten so small and unintrusive that you hardly notice their presence. A product like Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic XS is no bigger than a USB thumb drive. But the difference it can make to your computer audio listening life is very big indeed.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 25, 2013 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $699

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Enhances computer audio
Sleek design
High-end build quality
Minus
No headphone jack
Ambiguous indicators

THE VERDICT
The Director is the best USB DAC we’ve heard yet.

I will never forget the moment when I first heard digital audio in 1985. It was a profound disappointment. I had just bought my first CD player and played my first Compact Disc. The sound was harsh and alienating. How could that be? CDs offered perfect sound forever. There must be something wrong with my ears, I thought. It took years to trust my senses and rethink my digital signal source.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 15, 2013 0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $699

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Supports lossless formats
Great-sounding headphone out
May be used as standalone DAC with a PC
Minus
Rudimentary touchscreen DAC use limited to 96-kHz or lesser files.

THE VERDICT
The AK100 successfully ventures beyond the iTunes universe to open a world of high-resolution portable playback.

Is Apple the biggest obstacle to progress in portable audio? The iPod has been around a full dozen years, and the iPhone for half that, yet even today the Apple ecosystem fails to support 24-bit audio file formats. All Apple-supported file formats—even the best of them, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV—are limited in iOS to 16 bits. That’s not high rez, that’s mid rez. Forget about playing your growing library of 24-bit FLACs. Leaving the Apple ecosystem can be painful because the company’s touchscreen and clickwheel devices are so ingratiating. But leave you must if you want better sound in your pocket, and the Astell & Kern AK100 may be on your list of destinations.

Daniel Kumin Posted: Oct 08, 2013 3 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $499

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Fine performance and sound
Elegant looks
Clear value
Minus
No mute control
Limited detail in volume readout

THE VERDICT
As an integrated amplifier/DAC combo for serious listeners, the D 3020’s audio quality and value are unmistakable.

Audio types old enough to have viewed Chevy Chase’s pratfalls live rather than on demand may remember an unprepossessing integrated amplifier from an unfamiliar brand. The NAD 3020, despite a power rating laughably modest even in 1978 (20 watts per channel) and next to no features, gained notice because, as the lore went, “it sounded great.” And it did—thanks to intelligent amplifier design, a conservative power rating, and the value—widely underappreciated, then and now—of dynamic headroom.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 10, 2013 5 comments
Audio Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
Price: $299 At a Glance: Computer-friendly USB DAC • Headphone amp • Clean and precise sound

Do you have a pack of cigarettes on your desk? If so, try this. Connect a USB cable between the pack and your computer. Then connect a line-level cable between the pack and your desktop-powered speakers or amplifier. Finally, replace the cigarette pack with a Meridian Explorer USB DAC. There: Your life just got a whole lot happier and healthier. And your music is smokin’.

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