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Sunday, April 4, 2010

[Short Review] HeadStage USB DAC cable

I have always wanted a small good quality USB DAC. Since most of my music collection has been digitized and I do own a pretty good small desktop amp (FireStone Little Country II), an USB DAC makes most sense. 

In case you have no idea what an DAC or Digital-to-Analog Converter means, it is a device that convert digital data into analog signal that can be amplified. Sometime DAC also refer to the actual chip that do the conversion. Quite often, the typical computer sound card is nothing more than a DAC coupled with an amp section (more advanced sound card might also comes with a decoder chip). A pure DAC should output only line-level signal for amping, but some DAC do comes with its own built in amp section. In any case, an amp is needed because line-level signal is too loud to be connected to anything else. You might wonder why we need to amp the signal since it is already loud enough - well, just because it is loud enough doesn't meant it can drive a speaker or headphone well. An amp not only amplifies signal depends on the gain setting, it also (should) have enough current reserve to feed the voltage swing on the transducer. Simply said, an amp provides the control of power so the headphone / speaker can performance at their best.


HeadStage USB DAC cable has been in the market for a while now, but recently it got a full hardware update from the previous simple Texus Instruments' PCM270x* solution to the better Wolfson WM8740 with PCM270x solution. If you have read my FiiO E7 impression, you will notice both E7 and HeadStage use the same WM8740. So what is special about the WM8740 chip? Well, it is one of Wolfson best DAC for portable usage, and simply a better sounding chip than a PCM270x chip.
*PCM270x is a series of USB DAC chip includes PCM2706, PCM2707, etc.

Build Quality
While it is well made, but I can't say I am impressed with what I got for US$69. First of, the cable itself comes with nothing more than bubble padded envelop that it was shipped in. I am not expecting anything fancy, but given the design of the cable I think a little reinforcement won't hurt. Second, as you can see in the picture, the circuit is sealed in what seems to be heat shrink tubing. While the actual USB cable are thick and fairly durable the circuit area is a real weak spot. There seems to be some metal clip / frame holding the cable and the circuit together, but you can probably break it in half with hands. I would think a small hard plastic enclosure would be much safer. Given the quality components used in this DAC cable, the build quality does seem a bit too DIY-ish.

Sound Qaulity
For SQ, I compared it to the built in DAC section on both Meier Audio's Corda 3MOVE (PCM270x solution) and FiiO E7 (WM8740 solution) by simply switching between the built in DAC and feeding the HeadStage to the analog input of 3MOVE and E7.

I think it is needless to say that HeadStage sounds quite a lot better than the internal DAC of 3MOVE. I have other PCM270x based DAC but none sounds quite as good as the one in 3MOVE. While it is probably one of the best sounding PCM270x solution around, it does come short compared to WM8740. Being also the USB controller chip, there is a limitation on how well  PCM270x can be in multitasking. The compression of the overall sound and the lost of fine detail are very obvious in the ears.

The real interesting comparison is between E7 and HeadStage. They both uses PCM270x to handle USB data and WM8740 for decoding, but they have different opamp for buffer (to line-level) and output capacitors. By feeding HeadStage into E7 line-in, I have to say HeadStage does sound better than the internal DAC by a very small margin. The main differences are that Headstage has a more expensive soundstage and a slightly crispier treble.

Conclusion
For almost US$70, I can't say it a cheap gear to have especially since you will need an amp to use it. I certainly won't recommend any of you out there to pick one up if you only have a $25 FiiO E5 or even a $60 CMOY. However, if you already have a decent amp, this might be a simple yet worthy upgrade that let you listen to high quality music from your PC. If you haven't had an amp however, the upcoming FiiO E7 will probably be the smarter choice. Yes, the E7 DAC is a little under (though not by much) compared to HeadStage USB DAC cable - but for $80, you also get a fairly decent amp with E7 instead of the pure DAC from HeadStage. It is a simple consideration of practicality and bang-for-the-bucks factor.

Amazon's Deal

Disclaimer: All trademarks and logos in the website belong to their respective owners. Beside getting free review samples, I don't work for or get paid by anyone to write anything on this website, or anywhere else in that matter. Also, free review samples are never sold for any financial gain. I do buy gears and review them, but for simplicity you (the reader) should always assume what I review is free sample in nature (and thus comes with all the bias). The website does have Google Ads and Amazon Associates enabled (which I have no direct control over their content) - though I don't write review for a living, nor does the ads generates enough money to cover my breakfast (in fact, not even one breakfast per week). Listening to music and playing with audio gears are purely hobby for me. In short, I am just an audiophiles who happens to have his own blog. Not a journalist who happens to be an audiophile. Oh, and excuse my writing as I am not a native English speaker and can't afford a proofreader. Also, just because I don't write in a negative tone doesn't mean I don't write down the negative aspect of a gear. Please read them carefully.

Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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