Headstage adds their solution to the crowded entry level USB DAC solutions with the Headstage USB DAC cable. The design stands out in the sea of Zippo-sised entry level USB DACs out there, where the entire DAC circuitry is embedded in the USB connector housing. Pretty amazing, considering they were able to stuff in a PCM2706/7 USB receiver, a Wolfson WM8740 D/A chip, and an AD8656 buffer along with all the required supporting components inside that small housing that’s just barely larger than a standard USB connector. And what’s more, you actually get a good sound out of the combination.
Operation is as simple as it gets. You plug the USB end to your computer. You plug the 3.5mm analog end to a separate amplifier. Using the USB cable is not much different than using a standard USB cable, except now you have the added DAC capability built into the cable, and if you’ve been using a standard portable amp out of your laptop’s built in amplifier, the USB DAC cable is a very easy way to upgrade the quality of the source. It doesn’t do 24/96 (shame on you, PCM2706/7!), but I don’t think that’s a very big deal even though I love playing songs at 24/96.
Testing the quality of the sound, the Headstage cable makes the Ibasso D-Zero sounds muddy in comparison. The impression of the clearer sound is not a result of treble tricks, rather from a blacker background and a better instrument separation from the Headstage cable. Good stuff, guys. The sound is a mild top-down emphasis, though the treble is just sweet and lovely, with zero harshness, sometimes I do miss having a bottom-up emphasis which I normally find to be more musical. No worries, though, it’s all a matter of system matching and component synergy. One thing that I wish the Headstage could’ve improved on is the soundstage width, which I would say is pretty narrow, compared to the Fiio E10, D-Zero Ibasso, or even the sub-par PCM1793 DAC on the HeadRoom Portable Micro Amp.
This is definitely the cleanest sounding sub $100 DAC I’ve ever heard in a while, and though the absence of an amplifier may be a minus to some, I can see it being a perfect pairing to Headstage’s own Arrow amplifier, or other portable amplifier you already have on hand. The ingenuity and the simplicity of the design, combined with the solid sonic performance, should make this cable a very popular solution in the months to come. I’ve been very happy using the pairing with just about any amps I happen to have around. Especially amps that have 3.5mm input connectors.
Perhaps in the future Robert can add in a version with an RCA connector as an optional version. Neverthless, Awesome job, Robert.
Gears used for review
HeadRoom Micro Amp, HeadRoom Portable Micro Amp, Ibasso D-Zero, Audinst HUD-MX1, Sennheiser HD800, Beyerdynamic T1, Alessandro MS-Pro, Sony MDR-7506, Superlux HD661, JH5 Pro, MacPro, Macbook Air.