The Headstage USB DAC Cable

headstage_usbcable_05

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.

Here is a size comparison: Headstage USB cable (plain housing with no USB logo marking) and a standard USB cable. Now why don’t people make this a standard solution that you can buy off the shelves?

 

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.

One of the best solution I’ve seen in a while. Plug in the USB end to your computer, the analog end to your amplifier and voila! (Pictured is the HeadRoom Portable Micro Amplifier).

 

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.

 

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  • Anonymous

    Dang it, Mike! I just bought a D-Zero and you say this sounds better! Tis the life of an audiophile. :P

    • Anonymous

      Hey man.. I’m only saying it’s clearer sounding than the D-Zero.

      Things like frequency response and soundstage width, I like the D-Zero better.
      ;)

      • Bampayr

        Hey Mike, where’d you get yours? I’ve been googling for the last 2 hours and didn’t find any link to where the heck I can get one. :smashes keyboard:

        • Anonymous

          Ah, sorry I missed that. Here it is:
          http://headphonia.com/Accessory/USB-DAC-Cable-with-35mm-Mini-Plug-75cm-30::10134.html?XTCsid=c2fa78d78d61978f4159b4fddb55e548

          • Sorensiim

            Isn’t that the old version?

            That being said – I’d love to get my hands on one of these as I just ordered a µHA-120, very much because of the excellent review here on Headfonia. The Headstage DAC cable would be the perfect addition to the µHA-120 for when you need to hook it up to your laptop. Be sure to let us know when the new model is available and ready to ship :)

          • k1n0n3

            I wonder how this would stack up against the Devilsound dac, especially at a 3rd (or less) of the price

            • Anonymous

              I am still waiting for the Devilsound DAC, but usually from the DAC reviews I’ve done, their performance tend to *somehow* fit into the price point that they belong to.
              i.e I’ve never heard a $100 DAC being better than a $300 DAC.

  • jendol

    good to know you enjoy this ittle dac. what amp can be paired with this dac to improve its soundstage?

    • Anonymous

      The ALO Rx or the ALO Continental both have monster soundstage!

  • Anonymous

    ‘Tis but a pricey cable.  I only have a HiFiMAN EF2A DAC/AMP right now, and the USB cable they just started including (in comparison to the original one) is far superior.  It’s quite nice…

    That being said, the cable is just digital to digital. Analog conversion is done inside the box.

    • Anonymous

      Quinn,
      This cable comes with a DAC built-in. The DAC is built in right there on the USB connector. No need for another DAC.

  • Dave

    Add in a 3.5mm female-female adapter, I wonder if this thing is capable of driving some sensitive earbuds or IEMs, without an amp?

    • Anonymous

      Now that’s something I didn’t think of, Dave.

      From experience normally a line level out is powerful enough to drive IEMs .

  • http://www.facebook.com/negakinu Erik Wijnands

    Looks like the most portable solution to hook up to an Android tablet’s USB host. Now all we need is Robert from Headstage to actually start replying to emails and shipping stuff out without having to wait for a year and we can all get one! :) I’ve been waiting for more than 12 months now (seriously) on my Arrow 1G trade-in. I still even have the temporary, unengraved Arrow 1G case he shipped during the first release. Hopeless. Check out my poor, naked Arrow here: http://cdn.head-fi.org/7/77/400x400px-77c2d0cd_rig2.jpg

    EDIT: sorry for the small rant, but I think people should know that ordering from Headstage is quite the ordeal.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, that’s what I’ve heard too.

  • Edgar

    This looks a very interesting solution for my crowded desktop that needs upgrade for the onboard sound system. Is there any link where I can order this item?

    • Edgar

      Ah nevermind, someone already asked about this and the answer is just at the end of the page :)

      • Anonymous

        Yep, I’ll edit the article and include the link so people know where to get it.

  • Chi Eng

    Hi Mike,
    How’s da sound quality compare to E10’s n E7?
    Cce

  • http://twitter.com/idunnosoSTFU Amirruddin Raimi

    Is this thing the only one of its kind? Because this is definitely the first time I’m seeing something like this.

    • Anonymous

      I think it is, for now.

    • Anonymous

      Halide Design sells a DAC almost the same size as the Headstage USB DAC, but it costs ~$500 and it doesn’t terminate in a 3.5mm jack, but in an RCA termination. Also, it supports 24/96.

      http://www.halidedesign.com/dachd/
      They also sell the Devilsound DAC, which is like an upgraded Headstage USB DAC, but with the same RCA termination, but only supports 16/48.

      • http://twitter.com/Lieven_V Lieven V

        You are right ofcourse, but in this pricerange it’s the only one as far as I/we know. I might be able to get a Halide bridge for a review

        • Anonymous

          Yes, it is. I don’t know why those Halide products are so expensive :P

      • Anonymous

        Yes, Halide Design.

        FYI just the RCA plugs that they use sells for about $70 if you buy it separately.

        • Anonymous

          Wow. Why is it so expensive? Besides being Cryo-treated (IIRC)

          • Anonymous

            Well, the RCA plug is commonly known as Bulletplugs, and they have this concept where using plastic as the plug housing, and having a single contact point for the ground line would result in better sound. So in that sense they are different than other RCA plugs that usually use metal housing and have a wide contact point area for the ground line.
            Now the $70 price, I don’t know why they set it at that. I guess when people have come up with a new design they are entitled to charge a certain premium over the average design offerings? They also make a version with silver contacts that sell for (I can’t remember exactly) perhaps $100-$140.
            So, yes. This is certainly not for the budget minded.

  • Andy

    It’d be pretty neat if there was an amp cable like this. Maybe a modded FiiO E1 with a female 3.5mm input?

  • http://jimramk.tumblr.com JRK

    How this is such an elegant solution! I’m tempted to get this. But I would need an amp to pair it with. Is there anything under $120 that should match up well with this? I listen to much music but most of it is darker sounding and soundstage isn’t too big of a concern.

  • http://twitter.com/Lieven_V Lieven V

    I just found this DAC cable as well:

    http://cutehifi.nl/2011/03/dac-cable-dacable/

    Doesn’t look as sexy though :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rūdolfs-Putniņš/100001284307683 Rūdolfs Putniņš

      But it’s bigger! MOAR capacitors n stuf!

      • Anonymous

        It uses the TDA1543 chip. Im very interested to hear how it sounds.

        Sorry for the spelling mistakes, not very good with typing from the Ipad’s screen.

        • http://twitter.com/Lieven_V Lieven V

          Added it to the “to review” list :)

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  • Peter Pain

    Not heard of the HiFimeDIY then for just $43. Sabre ES9023 and 24/96 support. http://hifimediy.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=62&product_id=83
    Until I can afford something like the JK DAC – https://sites.google.com/site/hifacemods/
    or a second hand/recon ish lampizator
    http://lampizator.eu/shop/viewcategory.php?groupid=9

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I actually have the Hifimediy! The designer sent it to me.

      • Peter Pain

        So I’ll patiently check back for a review then sometime. Or thoughts? Compared to UD100/audioquest thing?
        It’s a bargain starting point whilst you play around with foobar/xbmc etc.
        Really, gets better once run in. Mine took about 150 hours before it got much better! JK Dac looks the business though

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I actually have the Hifimediy! The designer sent it to me.

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