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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 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).

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