ever since audioquest released their miniscule dragonfly dac and headphone amp combination, i’ve been fascinated by miniature combo components. Ideal for headphone listeners who want to use their computers as a source for music playback, the DAC/headphone amp combo provides superior (far superior) sound to the typically weak headphone amps in home computers. In addition to driving headphones, DAC/headphone combo amps can also drive line-level inputs on an amp if you use an appropriate cable. But before we proceed with this review, we need a catchy term for this genre of gear; Calling them combo dac/headphone amps doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (or keyboard). I prefer a term that I have seen in various places on the internet: dongle-dac. That reflects the fact that most combo dac/headphone amps plug into a computer’s usb port via a short usb cable. Some of them can plug directly into the USB connector, but that can put a lot of pressure on the connector, especially if the headphone cable is stiff. so dongle-dac is, at least in this review. By the way, Audioquest started the dongle concept when they released a dongle cable they called Dragontail for use with their Dragonfly. Since then, most dongle-dac manufacturers include a dongle cable with their dacs.
light harmonic began its journey as a manufacturer of very high-end dacs. his da vinci was stunning in sound quality and style, and equally stunning in price: $20,000. When DSD recordings became available, Light Harmonic’s Da Vinci Dual DAC was one of the first to play that format. Instead of producing a dac that did both pcm and dsd, he built a dual-layer dac that stacked a dsd-only dac and a pcm-only dac. the price was befitting this uncompromising approach: $31,000. And if that seems high, Light Harmonic has announced a model called the Sire with a projected price of $120,000.
Reading: Geek out 450 usb dac and headphone amplifier
when light harmonic wanted to enter the dongle-dac competition, it created a division called lh labs and used a crowdfunding approach to finance the design. To generate excitement, LH Labs needed something that would appeal to the younger crowd the funding campaign was targeting, so they called the device “geek out.” apparently the name was a stroke of genius. Since the amounts raised far exceeded the target, LH Labs decided to offer three versions of the Geek Out, with amplifiers of different output power. The $199 Geek Out 450 reviewed here has an output capacity of 450mW, while the $299 Geek Out 1000 puts out a full 1000mW (that’s a full watt, huge for headphones). There’s also a $289 Geek Out IEM 100, which puts out 100mW and is optimized for very sensitive in-ear monitors that could be destroyed by overly powerful amps. all versions of geek out come with a dongle cable called a slacker and a cloth carrying case. The slacker, which is just a usb extension cable, is only 6″ long, and if used with a desktop (at least mine) leaves the geek hanging in the air. however, you can order a second slacker ($19) and daisy chain them together.
geeks don’t have a separate power supply; They’re powered by the computer’s USB connection, which is also their only audio input. they have two output connections: one with a very low output impedance (0.47 ohms) and the other with a 100 times higher (but still low) impedance of 47 ohms. the former output should drive any headphones, including lower impedance models, while the latter output should drive line level inputs and high impedance headphones. both outputs can be used simultaneously.
it measures 3″ by a pinch over 1¼”, the geek out is bigger than the original dragonfly, but smaller than other dongle-dacs I’ve seen. Connectivity is via a USB Type-A connector at the input end and two stereo output connectors at the output end. headphones plug directly into one of the geek out’s output jacks; if your headphones have a ¼” plug, you’ll need an adapter, but your headphones probably come with one. To connect a geek to an amp, you’ll need a patch cable with a stereo plug on one end, split into two separate cables terminated in RCA connectors. Fortunately, given the popularity of headphones and associated electronics, these cables are now commonplace. my geek out 450 has a silver case, while the geek out 100 case is black and the geek out 1000 case is red.
When you first play a geek out that’s been running for a while, you could probably tell by its hot casing that the geek out’s headphone amp works in class a. the user guide warns that the geek out can reach temperatures of 158° fahrenheit. ouch!
sometimes a dongle-dac leaves out some features you’d find on a full-size dac, but not the geek; uses an ess 9018k2m chip to reproduce 44.1khz, 48khz, 88.2khz, 96khz, 176.4khz, 192khz, 352.8khz and 384khz cfm sample rates at depths of 16, 24 and 32-bit, as well as dsd64 and dsd128 . That’s pretty much all that’s commercially available, although a few dsd256 recordings have been released. the lights at the bottom of the geek out indicate the sample rate and the type of input signal.
the geek out has two filters, time coherence mode and frequency response mode, which you can select by pressing one of the two buttons on the side of the unit. lh labs describes the filters as follows: “time coherence mode (tcm) uses lh labs minimum phase digital filter and time optimization algorithm, which removes all post-ring from the original signal and realigns the impulse response. this presents the listener with a more natural and well-defined soundstage. Frequency Response Mode (FRM) uses a slow-falling, linear-phase digital filter with our proprietary frequency-domain optimization algorithm. this mode gives you a smoother and clearer sound with even lower thd+n than our previous version.”
like most dacs, the geek out works with linux and macintosh operating systems without a driver, but the windows operating system requires a driver. lh labs updates driver and OS geek out, so check their website from time to time to see if new versions are available.
configuring and using the geek out for this review, i used my desktop computer, an old dell inspiron 530, running j. river media center version 20 as server software. i plugged the geek supplied looser usb cable into my computer and into the geek, and plugged my headphones into the 0.47 ohm output jack. i tried several headphones from my collection: hifiman he-400, akg k701, akg k712 and audeze lcd-x. only the k701s needed more power than the geek could provide. I was surprised that the low sensitivity he-400s worked with the geeks. but they not only worked; they sounded better than most other headphone amps I’ve used. go figure. the geek out had no problem with the very responsive lcd-xs, and since they’re the best headphones in my collection, they’re the ones i used to listen to impressions. It might seem silly to wear $1699 headphones with a $199 dongle-dac, but the geek wasn’t shy about the combination.
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Since I used a windows computer as my server, I had to download and install the windows driver. that process was simple and straightforward. There is a detailed instruction sheet online that tells you how to download the driver and install it on windows; however, there is nothing that tells you how to install it in your server program. Since lh offers four drivers: an asio driver, a wasapi driver, a streaming kernel driver, and a direct sound driver, some suggestions on which one is recommended for popular server programs like j. river music center and foobar2000 would have been helpful; this material is not intuitive. Based on past experience, I used the wasapi driver with j. river media center.
While it was easy to install the driver, it wasn’t easy to update the geek out’s firmware. the upgrade process is described in an instructional video on the lh labs website that seemed a bit rushed and mumbled. I tried three times to perform the update before the process worked. operator error? maybe, but I’m an experienced computer user. an attempt to get help from lh labs technical support was unsuccessful.
The driver installation also installed an icon in the windows desktop notification area, which provides a light harmonics control panel that gives access to some of the settings for the geeks, including volume. Unfortunately, the icon consists of several black dots, and since the taskbar at the bottom of my computer screen is also black, the icon was invisible. when I pointed to the apparently vacant space in the notification area, an explanatory message appeared, so I could see that something was actually installed in that space. There are 12 other icons from other programs in my notification area, all visible with different screen configurations, so it seems surprising that light harmonic couldn’t design an icon that is visible for all screen configurations.
the user guide has a stern warning to be careful to turn down the volume before listening. that’s very important, since the geek was running at full volume every time I turned on my computer. I’m not sure why the driver can’t remember the last used volume setting; no other controller i have used, and that would be a lot, has been turned on at full volume. Since the standard windows volume control had no effect on the geek out volume setting, you need to use the “invisible” icon for the light harmonics control panel to control the volume.
sound I have several other dongle-dacs and have tried others, but the geek surprised me with their sound quality. Playing the old favorite “folia rodrigo martinez” from jordi savall’s folia 1490-1701 (44.1/16 aiff, alia vox), I noticed for the first time that the deepest low notes were somewhat attenuated, losing a bit of impact.
the audeze lcd-x headphones are capable of producing amazingly deep bass, so the attenuation had to come from the geeks. elsewhere in the recording, I heard snappy, sharp transients penetrating the information-rich sound field. guitar and harp, playing similar figures in the same frequency range, were easy to tell apart, which is not always the case. Savall’s viola da gamba sounded unusually rich, full-bodied, although the tone of the strings was quite powerful when Savall slammed his bow down hard. percussion instruments were reproduced with good detail, though not the best I’ve heard. for headphones, the soundstage was fairly well laid out, with fairly well-placed instruments.
on rebecca pidgeon’s the raven (176.4/24 flac, cheeky), the audiophile favorite “spanish harlem” demonstrated its usual clean, undistorted sound. the double bass was broadly deep, the violins sounded particularly sweet, and the piano transients were well defined. I missed a small detail that I hear through the speakers, which creates an almost visual impression of seeing the pigeon pronounce each word.
the headphones don’t stand out for their sound capabilities; however, I searched for the track “miserere” from miserere & from allegri of the tallis scholars. missa papae marcelli de palestrina (96/24 flac, gimell). To my delight and surprise, the geek out produced a spacious soundstage with Audeze headphones: a large environment, with the placement of the singers fairly well defined. what is most surprising is that the sense of depth for the solo group of singers located behind the main group was quite vivid. while it didn’t quite match the sound performance of the speakers, it was noticeably better than what I normally hear with headphones.
of fresh reference recordings! label comes an interpretation of the symphony no. 8 by the pittsburgh symphony under the direction of manfred honeck (dsd64/dsf). through the geek out, the recording shone positively, with a forceful orchestral dynamic that made the performance very exciting. it’s wonderful to have the pittsburgh recording back.
To test the geek’s handling of solo instruments, I introduced the cut “shenandoah” from the special event of alex de grassi’s album 19 (dsd64/dff, blue coast records). the geek out reproduced de grassi’s unusual guitar with many details, both transients and harmonics. he could easily hear each note being released, spreading across the room and then fading into silence. especially realistic was the opening transient, as every string was played. the strange buzzing effect produced by de grassi’s guitar was clearly reproduced. both the sound of the strings and the sound of the body were magnificently rendered by the geek out: a very realistic and detailed recording of a guitar.
comparison conceptually similar to the geek out is ifi audio’s nano idsd dac/headphone amp, which retails for $189 and has a 130mw battery-powered headphone amp, considerably less that the geek out. The iFi Nano IDSD’s internal battery means the unit can work independently of a computer and be used with any device that has a USB output, such as a smartphone or iPod. battery life is said to be 10 hours. the nano idsd has several features that i really like: 1) a volume control knob, which works better than any digital volume control i’ve seen, 2) the volume control knob incorporates an on/off switch so that power off the unit to save battery power, 3) a 24″ long dongle cable, so the dongle-dac doesn’t hang in the air, 4) rca output jacks for the dac section, so you can use the dac section of the nano idsd with a hifi system without an adapter cable, and 5) a usb type b input, which should work with standard usb cables. The last two features make the Nano IDSD easier to use with an external amplifier than most other dongle-dacs. for what it’s worth, the nano idsd is one of the few dacs that can currently play dsd256 recordings. While not related to this review, ifi makes a few accessories for the nano idsd that can further enhance its sound, for a price of course.
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after replacing the geek out with the ifi nano idsd and changing the config in j. river media center to use the nano idsd asio driver, I proceeded to listen. on “folia rodrigo martinez”, the bass extended deeper, creating the impression that the recording space was larger. The sound of Savall’s viola da gamba emphasized the pitch of the strings over the body, without sounding so much like a real, full instrument. the percussion instruments had an impact, but receded a little further into the background. there was less distribution of instruments on the soundstage, more right/left distribution.
“spanish harlem” sounded clean, but just a bit mechanical, more like hi-fi playback than a person singing. the double bass was deeper, more resonant. the piano sound put relatively more emphasis on sustain and decay, rather than cutting edge transients.
On “miserere”, the soundstage was not as well defined, nor were the singers placed as precisely within the soundstage. the distant solo group had a sense of separation, but it didn’t sound as far back in the room as it did through the geek. the tenor soloist in the main group didn’t sound as realistic as he did during the geek out. these differences were small, but notable.
the symphony no. 8 sounded less harmonically rich, but still had plenty of dynamic impact. the lower power output of the nano idsd was not obvious; their dynamic was as exciting as that of the geek out.
alex de grassi’s guitar sound emphasized the strings more than the body. again, a small but noticeable difference.
my experience with the nano idsd dongle-dac showed me that its headphone amp is not up to the performance of its dac section. when i used the rca output jacks to feed the signal from the dac section to ifi’s separate deluxe micro ican headphone amp, the overall sound was noticeably improved. The $259 Micro iCan headphone amp is a Class A unit, sounding more detailed and refined than the amp in the Nano IDSD dongle-dac, at a price.
I enjoyed reviewing the ifi nano idsd dongle-dac, but was glad to go back to geeking when the review was complete. it was hard to do without the geek out’s refined rendering of harmonics and its almost speaker-like staging.
bottom line a fantastic combination of features, sound and price, the geek out 450 is one of those rare components that screams value! LH Labs’ ability to get this kind of performance out of such a small device for this little money attests to some incredible engineering skills. while I’ve noticed some minor operational glitches that make using geek more complicated than it should be, the issues I’ve mentioned aren’t serious, and once I figured out the solutions, using geek was great. the sound was never less than mesmerizing.
the geek out 450 is out of this world!
specifications & prices
input: one asynchronous usb 2.0 type aoutputs: two stereo jacksoutput impedance: 0.47 ohms and 47 ohmsoutput power: 450 mwbit depths: 16, 24 and 32 bitssample speeds: cfm: 44.1khz, 48khz, 88.2khz, 96khz, 176.4khz, 192khz, 352.8khz, and 384khz; dsd: dsd64 and dsd128price: $199
lh labs 920 reserve drive, suite 160 roseville, ca 95678 (888) 842-5988lhlabs.com
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