Headphone Amp/DAC Reviews

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Mark Fleischmann  |  Sep 09, 2018  |  0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $399

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Dual mono DACs
DSD and MQA support
Can function as a preamp
Minus
Limited portability

THE VERDICT
Pro-Ject’s compact amp/DAC pairs especially well with modestly priced headphones, and it can also serve as a stereo preamp.

More people are listening to more diverse high-resolution audio formats through higher-quality headphones than ever before. But ideas about how to feed those headphones vary. The headphone amplifier/digital-to-analog converter, a popular hybrid product, is among the most tireless shape-shifters on the audio scene. I’ve reviewed Amp/DACs as compact as a USB stick and as big as a full-size rack component. At about 4 x 1.5 x 4 inches (WxHxD), Pro-Ject’s Pre Box S2 Digital falls somewhere in between. You wouldn’t carry it in a pocket, but it doesn’t take up much space on a busy desk.

Mark Fleischmann  |  Mar 22, 2018  |  1 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $199

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Handles PCM, DSD, and MQA natively
Second iEMatch output for IEMs
USB or battery powered
Minus
No analog line input

THE VERDICT
This full-featured budget amp/DAC can get the best out of most headphones, especially in the all-important presence region.

If you’re looking for a USB amp/DAC to juice your headphones, you might assume that a couple hundred bucks would buy nothing more than a stick amp, one of those compact dongles that extends straight out from your computer’s USB port. We live in the golden age of the stick amp, and I’m sure not knocking ’em. But what if the same money can buy something with a little more real estate for circuitry and the always vital power supply, offering better than 96-kilohertz/24-bit resolution, DSD, MQA, and two headphone outputs with different gains, one for demanding ’phones and one for more efficient ones (including in-ear monitors, aka IEMs)? Of course, you must read on.

Al Griffin  |  Mar 20, 2018  |  2 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $1,000

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Clear, crisp sound
Cool, retro design
Can drive efficient speakers to reasonably loud levels
Minus
Hi-res Bluetooth requires LDAC source
Pricey

THE VERDICT
TEAC’s stylish, computer-friendly integrated amp is a great option for both desktop and living-room listening.

Integrated amplifiers designed for use both on the desktop and in the listening room are a niche category that we’ve looked at before, most recently in reviews of Elac’s $699 Element EA101EQ-G and Cary Audio’s AiOS. But of all the hi-fi manufacturers working this space, TEAC is the one that embraces it most enthusiastically.

Michael Trei  |  Dec 14, 2017  |  0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $500

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Transfer analog sources to high-resolution digital including DSD
Phono preamp with variable EQ settings
Built-in headphone amplifier
Minus
No input for low-output moving-coil cartridges
No software-based vinyl noise reduction

THE VERDICT
The Korg DS-DAC-10R lets you move your music from LP records into state-of-the-art high-resolution PCM or DSD files, all while retaining their essential vinyl character.

Ten years ago, who would have figured that almost every major new music release would also get issued on vinyl? Every day more and more people are learning to appreciate the appeal of vinyl records, but sadly the lack of portability means that for most of us it’s a stay-at-home listening experience. That can be frustrating in a world where we’ve become so accustomed to digesting our music on the go, so lots of new vinyl records come bundled with a lossy-compressed Digital Copy as a free download. Of course, at that point you’re no longer getting the vinyl experience at all, so really, what’s the point? But, what if you could capture some of that analog goodness in a portable hi-res audio version that you can take with you, instead of those crappy MP3 files we’ve endured for so long? That’s the idea behind the DS-DAC-10R, a handy little box developed by the pro-audio mavens at Korg and distributed by Essence.

Mark Fleischmann  |  Dec 15, 2016  |  0 comments

RED
Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value

BLACK
Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $199 (Red), $99 (Black)

AT A GLANCE (RED)
Plus
Step-up USB amp/DAC
For computers and smartphones
Digital volume control on chip
Minus
No bit rates above 96 kHz
No DSD

AT A GLANCE (BLACK)
Plus
Affordable USB amp/DAC
For computers and smartphones
Analog volume control
Minus
No bit rates above 96 kHz
No DSD

THE VERDICT
Among AudioQuest’s latest round of compact USB amplifier/DACs for headphones, the Red has more fine-grained premium sound, while the Black is a superb under-$100 hi-res entry point.

Having made tons of money as one of the pioneers of the premium cable industry, AudioQuest has little left to prove. So it came as a surprise four years ago when the company turned its attention to signal sources and developed the compact DragonFly USB headphone amplifier/DAC with respected audio designer Gordon Rankin. But the move made sense for AudioQuest, whose very existence rides on the proposition that sweating the details can make an audible difference.

Mark Fleischmann  |  May 03, 2016  |  1 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $1,500

AT A GLANCE
Plus
384/32 and DSD256
Eight-stage power supply
Doubles as stereo preamp
Minus
Black, boxy styling
Tricky sampling-rate LEDs

THE VERDICT
The Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD is a state-of-the-art headphone amplifier/DAC that has a healthy, and sometimes transformative, effect on whatever headphones you plug into it.

Like the rest of us, headphones have dreams and aspirations. They know they have to start out small with whatever phone, computer, or AVR comes to hand. But they dream of something better—of an amp and DAC tailored just for their needs. In short, they long for their dream home. If you’ve invested in a good pair of headphones, wouldn’t it be cruel to make your cans sleep on a sofabed in a basement when they deserve more headroom, more purity, the freedom to be the best they can be? The Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD just might be the dream home they’re hoping for.

Daniel Kumin  |  Jul 10, 2015  |  0 comments

PS Audio Sprout
Performance
Features
Value

Teac AI-301DA
Performance
Features
Value
PRICE PS Audio: $799/TEAC: $549

AT A GLANCE: PS Audio
Plus
Phono input
Line input and output
Warm, engaging sound
Minus
No remote control
No direct DSD decoding

AT A GLANCE: Teac
Plus
Six source inputs
Dedicated sub output
Remote control
Dynamic and transparent
Minus
No stereo line out

THE VERDICT
These compact, versatile, and affordable combos will drive good bookshelf speakers or headphones to audiophile heights, each with its own sense of style.

It’s certainly a thing. It may be a trend. Or possibly even a wave—a new-wave, high-res groundswell sweeping over the nation’s small but growing (we hope!) cadre of youthful audio fans.

I’m talking about ultra-compact integrated-amplifier/digital-to-analog converters: “ampDACs,” I’m calling them. The newly evolved species combines a two-channel integrated amplifier (usually of modest power), a headphone output (usually), and high-resolution audio digital-to-analog conversion, all engineered to meet audiophile expectations of quality, and all packaged into a single, paperback-sized unit conceived for versatility. (Most models, including the two under review here, add today’s ubiquitous Bluetooth wireless capability.)

Mark Fleischmann  |  Mar 18, 2015  |  0 comments

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $699

AT A GLANCE
Plus
PC-worthy USB DAC
iOS-worthy rear USB input
Coaxial, optical inputs
Minus
No headphone amp

THE VERDICT
About the size of a thick paperback, the Arcam irDAC is a USB DAC that will make your audio files—from lossless to lossy—sound great.

The USB DAC is the missing piece in many of today’s audio systems. Most AV receivers have iOS-friendly USB inputs, but few have the PC-friendly kind. If you want to connect a computer’s USB output to your system, you probably need something like the Arcam irDAC to mediate between computer and system.

Mark Fleischmann  |  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  |  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  |  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.

Mark Fleischmann  |  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.

Geoffrey Morrison  |  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  |  Jun 20, 2014  |  2 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  |  Jun 12, 2014  |  7 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.

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