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 plugin 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).