A buddy in Melbourne and I have been discussing USB converters of late. (No, his name is not Barry). Mark seeks a solution that’ll bring him a noticeable uptick in tonal colour and acoustic mass. One might loosely refer to this as presence.
This writer’s direct experience with some of the more established players in the budget USB converter field – Audio-gd, Wyred4Sound, Resonessence Labs, Audiophilleo – suggests that any of these would be meet Mark’s needs. The trick for this customer buying sight unseen is knowing the degree of improvement. For him it’s a matter of reconciling money drop with performance lift. Like many listeners, he’s not only asking which USB converter will maximise bang for buck but which is best?
With our first ‘B’ word we hit a subjective descriptor wall. The Audiophilleo and Concero HD both rate equally highly in my book but for different reasons. The Audiophilleo is drier and perhaps has the edge on detail retrieval; the Concero HD is wetter and more fluid. Only during a brief two-week on/off dalliance with the Audiophilleo’s PurePower battery appendage did I feel that I was getting the best of both worlds. Only when moving up to the SonicWeld Diverter – another short-term loaner – did I best the AP2 + PP.
Now we hit our second ‘B’ word: batteries. One might presume that in bypassing the USB 5V power source that a lift in sonic performance is a given. Yes…and no.
Vinnie Rossi at Red Wine Audio has grown an entire product line from battery powered devices and this time last year I pointed him to one of the many portable battery packs used for charging mobile devices as possibility for slipstreaming 5V into the DAC’s USB port via an Elijah Audio cable.
Rossie replied: “Stay away from that! Why? In order for it to output 5V, they use a switching regulator because it is most efficient and barely makes any heat (so it’s happy in its plastic enclosure). But it totally defeats the purpose of using a clean battery solution, as it is very noisy.”
The lesson? Not all battery power is born equal. Battery packs introduce their own noise profile – one cannot assume that the deployment of battery power automatically equates to lower noise.
Going DIY necessitates a keener eye for what lies beneath the casework and had me looking back toward commercially marketed solutions. And initially it appeared as though Philip Gruebel, SOtM and (to a lesser extent) KingRex had the entry-level, battery-powered USB converter market to themselves.
A Google search for further options pointed my Chrome browser to Romania. Audiobyte’s HYRDA X+ (AU$1325/€699) applies Crystek clocking to data streams for output via AES/EBU, coaxial, BNC and I2S which means turkey talk with PS Audio and other DACs that opt for HDMI connectios. An ARM processor marshals the USB input whilst a Spartan-6 FPGA handles the output conversion and allows for DSD compatibility.
The point of difference for Audiobyte? Lithium Polymer (LiPo) battery power that the specifications sheet describes as “low noise battery technology”. Similar to Rossi’s Red Wine Solutions, the HYRDA X+’s battery charging is an automated process with mains juice sourced via a SMPS wall wart.
Pricewise, the HYRDA X+ pitches right into AP2 + PP territory – AU$1499 down under. That’s the reason its gets a news nudge here. Battery options like these often find favour among power purists and/or those seeking what the marketing rhetoric might refer to as ‘best in class’.
Confounding the issue is one of application: which DACs find themselves tickled by fancier USB conversion? Spending considerable listening time with PS Audio DirectStream DAC these past few weeks has exposed it as stubbornly resistant (mostly) to the Concero HD’s charms. Extracting deltas from a USB cable comparison proved similarly difficult. From a reviewer perspective this is problematic. From a listener’s perspective this is a dream realised.
Rowing downstream to the likes of the Schiit Biftost Uber sees differences laid out more plainly. The AURALiC Vega gives up the effects of diet changes whose magnitude sits somewhere between the Bifrost and the DirectStream but closer to the PS Audio.
Oversimplifying for the sake of argument it seems the more you spend on your D/A converter, the more likely it is to feature circuits that provide considerable immunity to jitter and electrical noise. That said, below the $3k marker, empiricism speaks more loudly of an ongoing need for good USB conversion; and Romania’s Audiobyte have stepped forth with another interesting option for our friend Melbourne Mark to consider.