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Dealbreakers of 2014: Pono promo, Calyx M and LH Labs GeekOut

  • Reviewing, by its very nature, is mostly a subjective process. However, there are more helpful questions than “Do I like this?”. Asking oneself “What does it sound like?”, “How does it compare to rivals?” and “Who will like this?” are ultimately what lead to proper insight.

    But sometimes, no matter how good a product sounds or how probably universal its appeal, a single feature or design misstep can spoil the party. What we’re talking about here is dealbreakers.

    “A deal breaker is ‘the catch’ that a particular individual cannot overlook and ultimately outweighs any redeeming quality the individual [product] may possess.”, says Urban Dictionary.

    Nothing is perfect. Not everything is for everyone. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

    Here are three products that presented all fine and dandy until I hit upon (what I thought to be) an Achilles heel.


    Calyx M player
    Seungmok Yi first showed an early prototype of his Calyx M digital audio player at CES 2013. Renaming the Calyx Facebook page after a single product in the brand’s range gave the impression that Yi was forsaking his well-received DACs and amplifiers that had preceded it. Calyx was now a single egg in a single basket.

    I first clapped ears on the Calyx M at May’s Fujiya-Avic headphone festival in Tokyo. The first thing that strikes you about the M is its size. It’s bigger and heavier than the Astell&Kern AK120 II.The M’s touch screen runs to almost 5 inches. On the other hand, at US$999 it’s also almost half the price. Early versions were plagued by glitch UI responsiveness – something I noticed when manhandling a pre-production unit in Tokyo. However, breaking the deal within a few minutes for this fella was the Calyx M’s volume slider. Apply light thumb pressure and it doesn’t budge. Apply more pressure and it jags higher. Sometimes much higher. The volume slider’s design makes it tricky to find more through evenly spaced increments when attenuating volume. Compared to the Astell&Kern rotary or Sony NWZ-ZX1 it felt downright agricultural. No deal.

    UPDATE 19th December. Seungmok Yi responded to this post with the following: “Have you tried M with the latest firmware 1.01? This firmware raised the bar a lot. including better DAC alogorithm, finer/clearer volume control, time domain minimum phase filter and so on…Now M can be said a next generation…”

    Further information: Calyx M


    LH Labs Geek Out
    This is no ordinary USB dongle DAC. It arrived with a crowdfunding bang at US$99 before seeing incidental raves from those who heard an early prototype at RMAF 2013. There’s no doubt the GeekOut’s one ballsy, heavily detailed sound. It shows plenty of attack and punch with a keen nose for the rhythmic clickety-clack of contemporary music. On SQ alone, it even earns its street price of US$299.

    Through either of its two 3.5mm headphone output sockets, rated at 0.47 Ohms and 47 Ohms each, the top-flight 1000 model can pump up to 1w into one’s headphones – crikey! It is therefore capable of driving a broader range of ‘phones than the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2. The AudioQuest counters with lower price point, a more professional-feeling/looking fit/finish and a sound that’s not quite so shiny and brilliant. The Geek Out’s sound can best be described as all summer tan and polished teeth – very California. Rather than turning over every stone it sees, the Dragonfly concentrates on music a whole more so than revealing – and separating out – the component detail (which is how I hear the LH Labs DAC). For the money, the Geek Out’s sound is utterly superb.

    One might ask why I decided not to formally review it. The answer is simple: heat. The output stage of the Geek Out runs in Class A which sees the metal case warm up pretty quickly – it gets hot. “How hot is hot?” you ask. Hot enough to find it annoying when using the side-mounted buttons when attenuating volume. Hot enough you wouldn’t want an inquisitive toddler to stumble upon it. Hot enough that if you left it connected to your computer’s USB port you’d probably leave the house carrying an (admittedly irrational) I-hope-the-house-doesn’t-burn-down feeling.

    I’m sure there are many people out there who can easily look beyond the heat issue but I live in one of the warmest countries on earth where any additional warmth just isn’t welcome. Many Sydney-siding audiophiles pack away their tube amplifiers for summer, opting for cool running solid state from December to March. Perhaps the Geek Out 100 is for audiophiles living in the more temperate Hobart? Or the south island of New Zealand? But for this fella, with his aversion to a hot chassis resting on a wooden desk, the Geek Out 1000 is more miss than hit.

    UPDATE 19th December. LH Labs’ Digital Marketing Manager Casey Hartwell responded with the following, “If the heat is the worst issue in your mind, I’d say we’re well ahead of the curve :-)”

    Further information: LH Labs


    No, not the player itself or its associated music download store but the marketing storm that ripped through the tech press throughout its mid-March launch and ensuing crowd-funding campaign. It’s terrific that Neil Young has used his star reach to start a conversation about sound quality and yes, that conversation matters, but to think that Pono was ever going to transform mainstream listening habits was quite the leap. As we say in Australia, “Tell ‘im he’s dreaming”. It’s all very well to have belief in your product and market it to the best of one’s abilities – that’s business – but Young’s aspirations went largely unchecked throughout the Kickstarter funding process which says as much about the media covering Pono as it does about Pono itself. Perhaps some commentators were too starstruck to really plug Young with some very valid questions:

    Had mainstream listeners not already converged on a single device – a smartphone a running their preferred streaming service? If not, would people be prepared to carry a second device around for the sole purpose of music playback? Would the mainstream listener embrace a device whose Toblerone form factor made it difficult to pocket? Would our mainstreamer own headphones or a two-channel setup that would resolve the benefits of either a) hi-res content or b) the Pono player’s DAC and output stage?

    At Kickstarter end, Young had clocked up over $6m in funding. Impressive in the context of the crowfunded sales model. Less so when you consider Apple sold 350 million iPods between 2001 launch and 2012. In 2012 alone Apple shifted 35 million units. In 2014, a mere 18000 folk sprung for a Pono player. 35 million vs. 18000. Which of those figures points to realizing an ambition of mainstream take up? I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the Pono player.

    Time has since driven a wedge between the hype and the hardware and the hype. I took delivery of my very own Pono player not two days ago and initial impressions are extremely favourable. It sounds very good indeed, even in the context of its own US$399 retail pricepoint *and* especially when you also consider the escalating cost of Astell&Kern rivals. More thorough Pono coverage will land on this site soon enough but, I’m curious, how many Pono player owners do you know? How many of those were already fully across the audiophile message: that good sound matters. I’m willing to wager not many. The mainstream as whole is not interested in Pono and to have pretended otherwise shows just how out of touch with the man in the street Neil Young and co. are.

    Why not bridge the gulf between audiophiles and non-audiophiles by first showing them how they can make their existing music collections sound better. That’s a nettle that the Sony NWZ-ZX1 fully grasps with its FULL cloud connectivity. Ditto Astell&Kern but to a lesser extent – connections to Tidal and Qobuz lossless streaming services has yet to arrive on their players. Once you get people listening realizing the full potential of CD-quality then they might consider dropping cash on a hi-res release. To expect folks to jump from $10/month for all-you-can-eat 320kbps MP3 to $25 per Pono music store download shows a lack of understanding of consumer behaviour. Pragmatism rules, idealism is for fools.

    Further information: Pono

    That’s not to say that any of these products are bad per se. As always, you should go find out for yourself. Not everything is for everyone.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Did you know that the volume slider on the Calyx M is magnetic and can be removed and that the volume slider can be disabled in the player’s touch screen settings in favor of an on screen volume control? I don’t know if it would make any difference to you but thought I would bring it up as it wasn’t mentioned in your article.

      • I didn’t know it was magnetic but I did know that it could be disabled in the OS. For me sliders are problematic.

    2. I live in Peru. Sony is spending a lot of money advertising hi-rez. Even in Peru!

      My guess is that big labels like Sony will pull out of spotify and the like and focus on hi-rez sales.

      The above might mean that Pono music eco system might live up to its original promises. Sony is heavily investing in planting the hi-rez idea in our brains.

    3. Interesting post John. I’ve also seen reports from some folks about many many issues with the initial firmware of the LH Geek Outs, including volume that would randomly jump to unity gain with the listener being none the wiser. Supposedly many of the problems have been dealt with in subsequent firmware updates. I’ve watched the LH crowd funding explosion without much interest, mainly because it seems like they have a new product every ten minutes. The full reboot of the Geek Wave campaign into a completely different product was also more than a little off putting.

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – mainstream music production in 2014 is garbage. CD quality, MP3, high-res, none of it matters, everything sounds like complete and utter crap. Why? The Loudness War ruins everything. I don’t care if your music in 320 MP3 or CD or 24/192 or 32/384 or DSD128, if it’s compressed to within an inch of its life, crushed under endless limiting and loaded with clipping distortion, the size of your HD format bucket is completely irrelevant.

      Just for one example, take Imagine Dragons’ incredibly popular song “Radioactive” from 2012. The song was smashed SO HARD by the engineers that the TT meter reports DR2. Several tracks on “Night Visions” were allowed to hit max volume and have audible clipping distortion. I challenge you to listen to that album all the way through. There’s no saving production like that. High-res won’t save it, DSD won’t save it. The only thing you should do with that CD is throw it straight in the trash.

      It would be one thing if that album was an outlier, but that’s how everyone operates, and has operated for the last 20 years. The industry DOES NOT CARE about sound quality one iota, so why should consumers? Before the war, mainstream mega selling albums like Thriller and Back In Black sounded great. Nobody was fighting to have the loudest album, and engineers cared about sound. That’s all over. Today everything is about being the loudest, staying ahead of the competition, and mastering to accommodate for the lowest quality speakers imaginable – mainly laptop speakers, clock radios, and the earbuds that come in the box with a new phone. Until that changes, HD music is completely pointless, and will be just another way to resell audiophiles “Kind of Blue” for the 500th time.

      The one exception at this point remains vinyl. Vinyl masters (generally) aren’t destroyed by loudness, and so people looking for sound quality should forget about HD downloads and go buy a turntable. If you look at companies like Rega that are selling tables as fast as they can make them and pressing plants that are running day and night and straining to keep up with demand, it seems like people already know.

    4. I did not buy the geekout precisely because of the heat issue. It just seemed illogical at the time. That little Dragonfly is quite the bargain. I have a few sensitive headphones and its got more power than they can handle. And so non-fatiguing.
      Just curious, considering you knew Pono was iffy, why did you buy the player?

      • I was seduced at the 11th hour by the see-through plastic case edition. And I was curious as to how it would stack up against other DAPs. My main issue with Pono isn’t/wasn’t the player but the message being hammered at launch. “We going after the mainstream”, said Young.

    5. I can relate to your issue with the LH Geek’s heat. The heat and humidity where I live (Singapore) is one of the main reasons why I’ve scaled back on my rig since moving here. No more tubes (aside from my cute little Carot One) or Class A circuitry here for me, sadly.

      From what I’ve read, the Pono’s output impedance seems way too week for the more demanding full-size headphones but way too strong for most balanced armature IEMs. Double whammy. That alone would be the biggest dealbreaker for me.

      I suspect the current mood isn’t as festive with the recent events in Sydney, but I’d still like to wish you and your family a Merry X’mas and a Happy New Years, John. Sincerest thanks for all the good things DAR has exposed us to. Bless!!

      • Thanks Gan. I’m in Melbourne this week but yes, strange times down under. I don’t find the Pono problematic with anything but the Ultimate Ears UE7 CIEM.

    6. Dear John

      interested in your response to geek out 1000

      the output of it is pretty amazing especially on .47ohms

      i totally agree the sound quality is pretty amazing but can sound treble tipped unless in a system with also prodigious bass capability to match

      this thing goes very low and bass is very lithe

      i must admit thinking exactly what you said about will the house burn down while i am out of the house

      i measured an internal temperature of 42.7, which means it will feel warm to the touch

      also its anodised aluminium means it will have a high heat transfer to your hand making it feel warmer

      however its temperature is quit stable running 24/7 in ambient temp of 21 degrees

      meaning its heat dissipation is constant and non accumulative

      i would suspect it would be about as stable as a smartphone in severe heat so much above45-55 c it would shutdown/melt/fail

      i have yet to test it in this environment ambient temperature and unsure if it will thermally shut down like an iPhone before damage is done

      also there is quite a change in its sound quality as it burns in over days

      • It’s funny isn’t it: we’re quite accustomed to full-size Class A or tube amps sitting on the floor and spilling out the heat but the moment the issue moves to the portable USB DAC space, I (at least) become uncomfortable. Like I said, not everything is for everyone. 🙂

    7. Blimey, Darko! I didn’t think you, bargepoles and Pono would come within a country mile of each other! Lookin’ forward to the review though…

    8. Interesting stuff, mate. Thnx.
      Which of the following two options sounds more like live music ?

      – Pono 192/24
      – CD + the finest DAC known to man

      [You choose the artist, electronics, etc ..]

      Much thanks for your time!


      • Chuck – as good as the PonoPlayer sounds, even at 24/192, it’s not gonna start beating the world’s best DAC + transports combos. And that’s *before* we get into the issue of mastering quality.

    9. I just received my Pono Player and was quite surprised at how good the balanced mode output is. Balanced mode was under the radar until the Pono Music store went up with official specs for the player. Balanced mode puts out more than twice the power of single-ended. The new balanced cables from Sony for the Z5 and Z7 work with the Pono. I had Moon Audio make me a 4-pin XLR female to Pono dual 3.5mm male balanced adapter. So far I have tried it with the Alpha Dogs, HD600 and HD700. The Pono doesn’t break a sweat with any of those. Next up is to try with the HD800 and DT880-600. Moon Audio also made me 2-pin and MMCX to Pono balanced cables for IEMs and the results have been quite good. Where else can you get a Hi-Res DAP with balanced output for $400. The HIFIMAN HM-700 is the only other inexpensive balanced player that I have seen and it only does 16/44 and can’t even handle all of those (it chokes on many FLAC rips made with EAC and HIFIMAN acknowledges the problem and won’t fix it).

      • I just put the PonoPlayer review live – just to reiterate, it’s the promo that encircled Pono that I objected to, not the player itself. I didn’t try the balanced output but I still find it to be a very nice sounding DAP. I might have to hit up someone to make me such an adaptor! Interesting that it drives the Alpha Dogs – impressive. I didn’t get much joy with my Ultimate Ears custom IEMs though.

    From Munich to Denver with AudioQuest Ethernet cables

    KIH #19 – DUI