Published on April 26th, 2013 | by Greg
Audioengine D1: Expansive Sound, Small Package
If you’ve spent a couple of hundred dollars or more on decent headphones, you may have noticed something when plugging them into your average laptop, netbook, or even desktop computer. They can sound vastly different depending on the source, even if the audio file itself, the song, is the same. This can happen because of differences in how computers process and handle digital files, and the best way to get top-notch results is by using a good DAC, or digital-to-audio converter.
The Audioengine D1 DAC is a premium 24-bit device, a lovely piece of kit that allows you to bypass your computer’s soundcard or headphone output. Just plug the tiny, pack of cards-sized device in using the included USB cable (or via optical connectivity), and then plug in your desired speakers or headphones. We largely used this as a convenient and fairly portable headphone amp, though small speakers can easily be driven as well- like a pair of our favorites from the company, the Audioengine A2s, bookshelf models that we reviewed previously and love. We burned the D1 in for a dozen or more hours, and then listened over the course of a month to a wide range of sources, files, and genres.
You can connect a TV, Apple TV, DVD/BluRay player or CD player via the optical input, but it’s a bit of a hassle. And those devices often drive larger A/V equipment and 5.1 setups. But most computers lack sufficient power and dedicated, separate circuitry, which leads to noise as well as jitter. Better electronics mean better audio, and when we connected a few of our favorite headphones like the Bowers and Wilkins P3s and P5s, or the Grado SR80is, we could immediately discern a difference when using the D1 versus when plugged in directly to the computer. We also tried using bookshelf speakers, and were also impressed- for cheaper models, you probably won’t hear much, but if you’ve got a decent set then you’ll certainly notice a few key things.
The primary differences are not the overall construction- those are mostly dependent on the drivers. It won’t change your bass levels much, or make your low-bitrate files sound better than they are. Instead, it’s the details- the finish if you will- that a DAC can tweak and improve. Highs sound less squeaky or shrill, instruments are more defined and distinct, and everything sounds bigger and broader. It’s an instant upgrade to your sound performance, a big boost in soundstaging, opening up what might have been a bit flat or featureless. You won’t notice the effect- or at least we didn’t- with audiobooks or even some television shows where dialogue is heavy. But anywhere where there are orchestral swells or lots of percussion, trills, or a wide range will be tonally better. Put on a track like Psyche or Like Scope from fairly obscure band Family of the Year (it’s on Spotify), and on cheaper systems it can sound muddy and a bit harsh. But through the Audioengine D1, it was mellow, smoother, and an altogether richer experience.
We’ve tried quite a few DACs, and this one stacks up nicely against a growingly-crowded field. It’s nearly as portable as a few battery-powered models that we’ve tried like the Graham Slee Voyager, though it doesn’t scale to the reference-level pairing from CENtrance (though at $2000, it’s in a totally separate category). But the D1 outperformed the more restrained and pricier DACport in our tests, and looks nicer and offers more pizazz than the Dayton DTA-100a. With sleek looks and a polished form factor, it sits nicely on a desk and offers enough oomph to drive even power-hungry headphones. And at $170, it’s a hard-to-beat value, easily worth recommending. The D1 is available now.