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Published on November 3rd, 2011 | by Greg


Audio Week: HiFiMan Express HM-101 USB DAC

Many of you prob­a­bly can re­late to this sce­nario: you’ve got a good set of head­phones or in-ear mon­i­tors, and you have a lap­top or desk­top and want to lis­ten to mu­sic. The com­put­er could be the one at home, or work, or maybe at a friend’s house- but there are au­dio files that you want to lis­ten to. Per­haps it’s a Mac­book Air- they have rel­a­tive­ly noisy au­dio cir­cuit­ry but are fan­tas­tic for trav­el­ing Garage Band artists. Or maybe it’s a net­book, ul­tra-lightweight but with an in­ter­nal sound­card that is prac­ti­cal­ly use­less.

In any of these sit­u­a­tions, you need a dif­fer­ent sound­card so­lu­tion. Some avail­able are in­ter­nal, but most are ex­ter­nal, and plug in through USB. They are typ­i­cal­ly small, portable, and of­fer su­pe­ri­or per­for­mance to most on­board cards. This type of prod­uct is called a DAC- dig­i­tal au­dio con­vert­er- and we’ve played with many. To­day, we’ve got the least ex­pen­sive op­tion yet, the Hi­Fi­Man Ex­press HM-101 Portable USB Sound­card. You can pass this one by if you al­ready have a great com­put­er sound­card- Beats Au­dio of­fered in some HP lap­tops is good, Cre­ative of­fers a bunch of desk­top so­lu­tions, and even com­pa­nies like Asus with their Xonar line and Auzen­tech with the X-Fi Forte are all su­pe­ri­or.

But, as­sum­ing that you don’t, and are try­ing to drive ear­phones that are bet­ter than your av­er­age ear­buds, then this is an ex­cel­lent prod­uct that won’t break your bud­get. Au­dio gear types know that a good set of cans may cost a pile of mon­ey, and this one isn’t meant to drive $400+ head­phones at their max­i­mum pow­er. We put on our handy Gra­dos though, and com­pared against the stock sound from our Mac­book Air, Pro, and two desk­top mod­els and were im­pressed. In­stal­la­tion is sim­ple- plug in­to USB, no bat­ter­ies or oth­er pow­er need­ed- and plug your head­phones in­to the unit. The HM-101 is maybe half the size of a deck of cards and fea­tures styling that looks a lit­tle iPhone 4-in­spired (sleek black with metal­lic ac­cents and a slight bezel), but it does feel pret­ty cheap. Small enough to fit in­to a pock­et, we found our­selves be­ing a lit­tle more cau­tious with it, as the cas­ing is a bit frag­ile.

On most tracks, we found the out­put to be warmer and fuller- not clin­i­cal or sharp, there was a mel­low un­der­tone and a bit less harsh­ness on per­cus­sion and raw­er vo­cals. De­tails were good, and the sound was broad­er if a bit less full at the high up­per and low­er ranges than we like to hear. Bass wasn’t over­whelm­ing, and the over­all ef­fect was a lush­er sound for all but acous­tic mu­sic, re­port­ed by all writ­ers who tried out a blind lis­ten­ing test. It made cheap­er head­phones sound bet­ter, and is per­haps the cheap­est im­prove­ment most folks could make to their sound- af­ter all, the jump be­tween $200 and $400 head­phones is not that large in terms of over­all qual­i­ty com­pared to this $40 DAC.

Yes, $40. For that price, it met and ex­ceed­ed our ex­pec­ta­tions, and of­fered a strong val­ue propo­si­tion against oth­er DACs. For in­stance, the build qual­i­ty and con­struc­tion suf­fers against the Nu­Force uDAC2, which al­so of­fers ad­di­tion­al out­put op­tions and, in our opin­ion, slight­ly bet­ter sound for most mu­sic types- but that one costs about $100 more. The Gra­ham Slee Voy­ager is $200 more, less portable, but did a far su­pe­ri­or job on warmer mu­sic (votes were even on elec­tron­ic and pop­pi­er songs). An­oth­er com­pa­ra­ble DAC we’ve put through the paces is the HRT Mu­sic Stream­er 2, which of­fers RCA jacks in­stead of the mi­ni-jack out­put pro­vid­ed on the HM-101- bet­ter for some folks, the HRT unit is larg­er but more sol­id, about four times the price, and again was de­clared su­pe­ri­or in lis­ten­ing tests about three-quar­ters of the time. If you’re in need of a sim­ple, portable, no-frills au­dio so­lu­tion to great­ly im­prove the qual­i­ty of your dig­i­tal mu­sic- look no fur­ther. If you want more, we do high­ly rec­om­mend the EF5, their tube amp, which con­tin­ues to re­ceive top votes in our tests (and looks sexy as well).

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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