LH Labs Geek Out 1000 DAC/Headphone Amplifier

Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter/Headphone Amp
Input: Async USB 2.0
Output: 1x 3.5mm line-out (output impedance: 47 Ohm), 1x 3.5mm headphone out (output impedance: 0.47 Ohm)
Max Output Power (headphone, 16 Ohm): 1000 mW Dimensions (W x H x D): 1 3/8" x 1/2" x 2 5/8"
Weight: not very much
Availability: Online and through Authorized Dealers
Price: $299.00
Website: geek.lhlabs.com/geekout/

Get Your Geek On
The LH Labs Geek Out caused quit a stir when its Kickstarter campaign raised over 300,000 clams. While early adopters were able to get their Geek Out for as low as $99, the current selling price begins at $199 and goes to $299 for the unit under review which is the Geek Out 1000. The 1000 refers to the output power in milliwatts and there's also a 450 mW version "for < 100 ohm impedance headphones" ($199), and a 720 mW version "for 100-300 impedance headphones" (+$50). The 1000 is "for > 300 ohm impedance headphones" all according to LH Labs. The aircraft-grade aluminum wrapped Geek comes in five colors all of which can handle PCM rates up to 32/384, DXD, as well as single and double rate DSD. LH Labs is a relatively new division of parent company Light Harmonic, makers of the pricey and pretty Da Vinci Dual DAC (see review).

All that in a package that'll fit in your 501's pocket watch watch pocket albeit peaking out a bit over the top. There's on-board volume controls and little LEDs that indicate what sample rate you're currently playing and two 3.5mm analog outputs, 47 Ohm for the line out and higher impedance headphones and 0.47 Ohms for lower impedance headphones. The Geek Out comes with the Slacker, a 6" USB cable, and it also includes a user-defeatable crossfeed circuit, which LH Labs refers to as a "3D Awesomifier".

Inside the Geek resides an ESS SABRE32 Reference 9018M DAC which includes a 32-bit on chip volume control that LH Labs has opted to employ. The little Geek Out inherits some tech from its bigger sibling the Da Vinci Dual DAC including "Da Vinci’s patent-pending three layer buffer, 384kHz/32 bit and DSD 2 decoding engines, with 64 bit volume control. In the analog domain, Geek Out uses Da Vinci’s quiet power technology, class A high current output and less than 1Ohm output impedance." I will note up front that being class A the little Geek Out runs hot to the touch so you won't want to keep it in your 501's pocket watch watch pocket after all.

Volume is controlled by two tiny buttons, one outie (+) and one innie (-), that live on the unit's side while the front houses the Slacker USB cable which connects to your computer. On the other end reside the two 3.5mm outputs. Up top are seven LEDs that indicate the incoming sample rate of the music being played and there's a handy chart on the Geek's bottom (see pic). The review sample came in brilliant blue (my wording) and you can also get your Geek Out in red, silver, black, or green. Overall I found the Geek to be very well made and I appreciate the sublte design touches including the recessed Geek logo.

The Sound of Geek
I've said it before but its worth repeating—we are living in a golden age of music availability and reproduction. There's tons of free and legal music available online, tons more for sale, and any number of small, relatively affordable DACs that can deliver musical enjoyment through your headphones and hi-fi while costing a few hundred bucks. Good fortune has smiled on music lovers and we can add another Greatest Bits-winning option to the field with the LH Labs Geek Out 1000.

I mainly listened to the Geek Out 1000 in my hi-fi, since that's our focus here at AudioStream so I'll leave the heavy headphone listening to our sister site InnerFidelity. That means it was mainly tethered to both my MacBook Pro and Pass Labs INT-30A integrated amp with the Geek's volume maxed, driving my DeVore Fidelity The Nines. I will also talk about the Geek's sound with my Audio Technica ATH-W1000s.

When I first began listening to the Geek, I would have described its sound as falling on the dry side. Overall, music was presented in a concise, tight, and nearly foreshortened sounding fashion. A bit lean. Over time, this leanness filled out to form a more full-bodied sound picture, transforming from a young Kate Moss into a mature Scarlett Johanson over the course of a few weeks (if you'll forgive a visual analogy).

After it settled in, the Geek 1000 DAC sounded rich and full while retaining a very nice sense of detail and resolution. With Fennesz's stunning new album Bécs (see review), you can hear into every nook and cranny of the complex sound picture while the little Geek never turned unnaturally harsh or overly etched even through the harshest sounds of this recording. The Geek also handled acoustic music in a natural and even-handed manner imparting a nice sense of the distinct voices of different instruments. The Geek Out also always retained a sense of clean, sharp resolution that was clearly and crisply defined.

Bass response was fit and full, the midrange presentation was weighty but not overly warm, and the upper end was nicely lit up but not overly bright. In a word the Geek Out is a pleasure to listen to. DSD recordings like any of the truly wonderful sounding selections from Channel Classics were a joy to listen to. For a silly and unfair comparison, the much more expensive Auralic Vega (see review) delivers a rounder, richer, fuller, and more dimensional quality to DSD recordings making the distinction between PCM and DSD even more obvious. The few DXD recordings I have from 2L also sounded just lovely through the Geek Out and if I had to pick a sweet spot for the Geek in terms of resolution, it would be DXD.

"Comparison is the death of joy"~ Mark Twain
We can only listen to one DAC at a time. I know that seems absurdly obvious but comparative listening has become the de facto gauge of hi-fi equipment and I'm not sure I'm happy about that. Of course we, us audio reviewers, are largely to blame and I'm going to support this nasty habit by offering a small bevy of comparisons to similarly shaped, priced, and functioning DAC/headphone amps.

Compared to the AudioQuest Dragonfly (see review), which remains a favorite of mine in this category, the Geek Out sounds at once more concise, and much more distinct in terms of how it presents the overall sound picture. It's as if the Dragonfly presents things as a darker, more solid and unified picture, conveying more of a sense of weight and presence as opposed to the Geek's cleaner and comparatively leaner sound. Of course the Dragonfly only supports playback of up to 24/96 so the Geek obviously offers support for more of your music files up to and including double rate DSD.

The Meridian Explorer (see review) always stikes me as one smooth and well balanced customer and this silky sound quality differentiates it from the Geek which sounds a bit more lit up in comparison. The Explorer also sounds a bit softer overall. This character makes the Explorer kinder to more recordings, even less than stellar-sounding CD-quality shriekers whereas the Geek shines a brighter light on things warts and all. The Meridian ups the sample rate ante to 24/192 but does not go as high as the Geek's 32/384 and DXD/DSD heights.

The most apt comparison, in terms of overall functionality and file support, is the iFi nano iDSD DAC ($189) which will be getting its own review in the near future. In brief, I'd give the iFi iDSD DAC the upper hand when it comes to an overall sweetness and warmth to the sound picture which strikes me as being more inviting over time. The iFi DAC also presented DSD with more of the dimensional quality I've come to associate with DSD when it's at its best. That said, I can imagine some listener's preferring the Geek's more incisive sound while others will favor the iFi's sweeter and what strikes me as a more welcoming sound over longer listening sessions. The iFi iDSD DAC is also considerably larger than the other DACs which may make it less appealing for portable use.

What About Those 'Phones?
In order to properly suss any headphone amp, you'd ideally have a bunch of 'phones of varying flavors and loads. I don't and I also don't spend any real time listening through headphones since I don't really enjoy the experience. Part of the issue is a practical one—we have two dogs and when I'm home with them alone, which is most of the time, I need to hear their requests or suffer the consequences.

All that aside, I did spend some time with the Geek strapped to my Audio Technica ATH-W1000s which as I've mentioned before strike me as falling on the bright side themselves and found the combo very pleasant if a touch too lean for my longer term listening pleasure. Upper registers of violins, for example, were a bit too thin sounding for my tastes. I don't think anyone would accuse the Geek Out of being overly lush but for my tastes and headphones, that's along the lines of what I look for in a perfect mate. The AudioQuest Dragonfly's meatier and darker sound strikes me as preferable partner in this regard. I should also note that the 40-ohm impedance Audio Technica's could have easily lived with the Geek Out 450 saving $100. I absolutely preferred the "3D Awesomifier" engaged (press both volume controls simultaneously and a blue LED will light up on the Geek's top) as it opened up the sound and made it more....3D.

Geek: A Lot of DAC In A Little Package
If you had told me two years ago I'd be reviewing a $299 DAC from Light Harmonic that can play up to DXD, 32/384, and double rate DSD while doubling as a headphone amp I'd have asked you what color the sky is your world. But here we have it, the Geek Out 1000 and it delivers a healthy helping of great sound. While I've heard sweeter sounding and airier DACs, most of them cost more than the Geek, a lot more, and its strengths far outweigh any sonic slights I've picked on. If you're looking for a portable DAC/Headphone amp that can make your entire music collection sing, give the LH Labs Geek Out a good look and listen.



Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the LH Labs Geek review: iFi nano iDSD DAC, AudioQuest Dragonfly DAC, Meridian Explorer

COMMENTS
tubefan9's picture

Thanks for the review. I think I'll be sticking with my meridian explorer for now.. at least until we get the pulse review!

CarterB's picture

Appreciate your thoughts. I have a 450 and like it so far but as this is my first DAC am finding I don't like the hassle of computer software since I don't have a dedicated computer.

Regardless, I have not been able to fine a guide to what is the boundary between lower and higher impedence for the two headphone jacks. Do you or other commenters have a rough estimate. I tried my headphones in both and heard little sonic differences.

BradleyP's picture

What a helpful review! After the headphone market segment, the related mini-DAC segment is arguably the hottest in hi fi. Multiple comparisons like these between the Geek Out, Meridian, Dragonfly and iFi are so very helpful in keeping track of where things stand at this very moment. I'm blown away that a thumb-size USB DAC can drive a *pair* of 600-ohm headphones with no power apart from the USB port. Now, I feel even worse about dissing your Download of the Week. ;-)

ball3901's picture

Thanks for the great review. I find your comparison with the iFi iDSD nano very interesting. And to me, not very surprising.

What follows is the best understanding I have of the ESS chip and how it handles DSD. I am sure folks don't want to hear it, and my flamesuit is on. But I rest assured that my source has intimate knowledge of these things.

The ESS chipset does several things to the audio data. Some of these things we know, others we infer, and some things we have no idea, other than our best educated guesses. ESS keeps a lot of stuff very close to the vest.

The things we know. When inputting DSD data into the ESS, there is no bypass mode whatsoever. DSD must go though the same signal path as PCM. This signal path includes a 32 bit digital volume control, oversampling filter, and ASRC. DSD also has an additional selectable digital filter.

Here is the real kicker. If we turn these things off, NO MORE DSD. There is no direct mode with the ESS chip. Furthermore, digital filtering, volume control, oversampling, and ASRC, these things CANNOT be done to a Delta Sigma signal.

Again, there is no bypass mode. You turn all these things off, and boom, DSD ceases to function at all. They are not optional. Again, no bypass mode, so the signal must be passed through the 64 level Delta Sigma modulator. You can't send delta sigma into a delta sigma modulator. You can only send something that isn't delta sigma.

The only way to do all these things with on chip digital processing is to convert to PCM.

Yes, folks, considering all the above, the only logical conclusion we can come to is the ESS chipset converts DSD to PCM before reconverting back to Delta Sigma.

That said, I am sure it sounds very, very good. After all, if you convert to high sample rate PCM, a good portion of the delta sigma ultrasonic noise is maintained in the signal chain. Which will in the end lead to a signal that still sounds very much like true delta sigma.

But it isn't the same as native, which is what you get with the iDSD. The Burr Brown DSD1793 bypasses all digital filtering and modulation. Any filtering and volume control are in the analog domain.

Which is all a long way of saying, the difference you hear between the Geek and the iDSD, well, imo is the difference between real DSD and PCM converted DSD.

firedog55's picture

I directly asked the people at Mytek (uses ESS chips) and they said the DSD is not converted to PCM and that the volume control in the Mytek 192 DSD DAC is applied only at the analog output stage and not before.

junker's picture

This sounds like a summary of what Thorsten of ifi (a competitor) said here on Audiostream a few weeks ago. While that was a very nice article which covered a wide spectrum of topics with all due respect he doesn't know what ESS is doing, and if he did he would have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Just as with the Sonoma mastering station my best guess it that 1-bit is treated as 6-bit for volume control, etc. 1,6,16, or 24 bit are treated similarly in a delta-sigma. As Thorseten said there is no pure multi-bit pcm or dad is a DSD but whatever they are doing is pretty good. I'm sure ESS has a lot a great EE's CE's. CS's, and mathematicians with a lot of experience designing very good DACs. The Auralic uses a very similar piece of silicon and is generally very favorable reviewed.

labjr's picture

This is what Thorsten said in the Audiostream article. Does this means iDSD doesn't use the Wolfson chip or have a "Direct DSD mode"?Maybe that's not really what makes the difference in the two?

I'd like to hear a DAC with "Direct DSD mode" Maybe someone can squeeze FGPA chips into a USB thumb drive sized DAC for a pure DSD DAC?


"One part from Wolfson Micro offers such an option to bypass the DSD > PCM conversion, digital filter and digital volume and to convert DSD directly, however in this case a completely different analogue stage is needed that is optimised for DSD and incorporates the required steep 50kHz low pass filter. Up to today I am unaware of any DSD DAC that implements this DAC chip in “Direct DSD” mode."

mytek's picture

In response to post: dsd new
Submitted by ball3901 on May 7, 2014 - 11:34am

Hello Ball3901

I wanted to comment on your highly detailed technical post on Sabre DAC. I believe that you don't need a flame suit but rather a more accurate understanding how this chip works. Most of inner details are not in the data sheet, and it looks like whatever you write was largely misinterpreted bit and pieces of information. Essentially what you wrote is entirely incorrect.

Sabre DAC works in purely DSD mode, the signal path n this mode is 1 bit input >32 bit fader> DSD filter performed in DSD domain > 6 bit DSD (DS PWM) DAC > analog

The fact that the DAC is 6 bit DOES NOT mean it's not DSD. Basic DSD is 1 bit but it can be any number of bits, in the case 6 if it helps the performance.

Number 1 is a subset of 6 - a 6 bit DSD offers better D/A performance than 1 bit , that's why it's there. It's still DSD though.

Sabre in DSD mode DOES NOT use interpolation filters or any other PCM processing as you imply.

In fact Sabre DAC sounds better in DSD mode because signal path is simpler.

Best Regards, Michal at Mytek New York, creators of the first DSD DAC using Sabre chip.

Larry Ho's picture

I want to double confirm that Michael at Mytek write here. He is right!

Also, I want to point out one thing while designing Geek Out.
In the first prototype, we use PCM1795 which has very similar architecture like DSD1793 you mentioned. TI (BB) called it ADVANCED SEGMENT architecture, which allows you to bypass the
digital filter in the front. But definitely NOT the internal modulation like you mentioned.

And DSD1793 has an important design issue which limit its performance that even worst then PCM1795. Not only shown TI's own data sheet, and you could easily hear it. DSD1793 is the direct voltage output DAC IC. Ask around the DAC designer, they will tell you what the problem is.

Personally, I do understand what Michael Lavorgna appreciated about the little 'darker' sound from other DACs. These are the sound character from BB/TI chips. For some type of music and proper design, I like that too.... ;-)

So Geek Out is one of the best sample to witness the journey from TI vs ESS. We start with TI then settle in ESS. We use the SAME architecture, SAME amplifier and SAME USB processor and do the direct comparison, just different DAC IC.

After few carefully listening tests (and with our beta tester), ESS's Sound stage is wider and deeper. Highs are silky and open. Mid range side, TI has its own flavor, ESS has another kind. Both Bass is good. we decide to move away from PCM1795 and move to ESS9018 IC which overall sounds better.

Enjoy!

Larry

junker's picture

The Green was only for Kickstarter orders as a limited-edition and is no longer available. Currently, pre-orders come in 3 colors: silver for the 450; black for the 720; and red for the 1000. Pretty sure your pretty blue isn't available either anymore.

The suggested headphone port is to use the 0.47ohm with low-impedance headphones, and the 47ohm with high-impedance headphones and for line-out:

http://geek.lhlabs.com/downloads/Geek_Out_User_Manual_Version_2014_04_08...

"There are two 3.5mm analog output jacks found on the bottom of your Geek Out with an output impedance of .47ohm and 47ohm. You will want to use the .47ohm that is indicated with a headphone symbol for lower impedance headphones. The 47ohms is a line out for bigger impedance headphones. This is also used for other equipment such as external amplifiers and stereo equipment."

Thanks for your impressions. I've also had mine for about 2-3 weeks and my impressions are a little different than yours on my PASS INT-30A (same amp). I find that the defining characteristics are a silky, detailed presentation that is not dry but not lush either, but more notably, the vast soundstage and imaging are what grabs my attention...better than 3-4 previous DAC's I've had and much more than I expect from such a tiny, USB powered device.

Per chance did you have the opportunity to test it with you iUSBPower?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I corrected the text regarding the high/low impedance. I've sent an email to LH Labs to verify the color choices since they did a fact check on this review prior to publishing and did not correct that one ;-)

I did not test with the iUSBPower.

junker's picture

Yeah, I grabbed the color info from the pre-order page. From LHLabs those were the only options I had at this time when going through the purchase process. Thanks!

gavn8r's picture

Junker is right. During the Kickstarter campaign, we offered all three version of Geek Out in five different colors: green, blue, black, silver, and red. Now that the campaign is over, we've listened to our distribution partners and have decided to offer Geek Out 1000 in red, Geek Out 720 in black, and Geek Out 450 in silver.

Sorry about that, Michael. We were given the opportunity to fact check and I let one slip through. :)

lithium's picture

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the insightful review. You have compared all of these popular small form factor DACs and I was wondering about their redbook performance. The majority of my collection (and I am pretty sure of 99% people)is redbook so it is vital for me. Is their any particular DAC whose redbook performance stands out?

Thanks in advance.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
While they all handle redbook well, they do differ in how they sound. My feeling is personal preference will determine which is "best". That said, one does stand out for me but I have not reviewed it yet ;-)
junker's picture

As per the white paper from Gordon Rankin did you warm these units up for 24 hours? I always leave my Geek so I'm not sure what effect that might have.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I rotated the DACs between my main system and desktop system so they were all warmed up and ready to roll.
ulogin's picture

Interesting that the reviewer made sure readers know that his headphones are 40 ohm. Noise floor is high (vs. Meridian Explorer, for example) with my Shure SE846 and AKG K3003, and becomes unbearable when the "3D Awesomifier" is activated as also reported by many users.

12V Trigger's picture

I noted your disclaimer ie, dogs, kids & comfort that headphones aren't a preferred listening method. At the same time with Meridian Explorer, DF, Ifi iDSD, and GeekOut all in your possession. It may be worth it as a professional reviewer to have a reference pair of cans at the ready. The "industry" seems to be making an effort increase offerings that at least have a headphone option if not totally tailored to head-fi listening.

Taking a look at other reviewers, even the staunch hi-fi only sect, I think you may be the last hold out. You may even find that some of your objections to them are over-turned with something more up to date.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Here's what I said:
I mainly listened to the Geek Out 1000 in my hi-fi, since that's our focus here at AudioStream so I'll leave the heavy headphone listening to our sister site InnerFidelity.

And...

In order to properly suss any headphone amp, you'd ideally have a bunch of 'phones of varying flavors and loads. I don't and I also don't spend any real time listening through headphones since I don't really enjoy the experience.

My objections, as they were, were based on listening through my hi-fi, not through headphones. But yea, I'd like to get a new pair of cans ;-)
brandtlj's picture

Hi Michael,

I was curious about how the geek out would work with separate amplification into speakers rather than headphones. I know the signal is once amplified inside the GO...but sending that signal into another amp and then to speakers seems less than ideal. Is the geek out's amp 'disableable'?

gallardo's picture

I'v been using the GeekOut 1000 for a month, and I can say this little red Geek sound more than I have dreamt. In a comparison whit the very stable and friendly DragonFly 1.0 there's just points counting in favor of the GeekOut 1000. The size of the soundstage is bigger, the bass are fuller and deeper, the mid's richer and the trebles a lot more silky than the DragonFly, and also is the Awesomifier effect that's really awesome for the price. I also compare the GeekOut with my Musical Fidelity V-DAC 192, and the only difference I found was a more relaxed presentation in a DAC costing near 850 bucks with the V- PSU and V-LINK 192 , but there's no 32/384 or DSD. So for me this little red thing is just a great pleasure.

mink70's picture

Hi Michael, and thanks for another lovely review. I've been playing with my Geek Out 720 for the better part of a week, and I have to say that while it has many pluses and a few minuses (ground loops making the 3D function noisy, etc.), it's provided my first taste of DSD. In short, for me DSD is some of the finest playback of any kind I've heard—I was, honestly, a bit unprepared for how different it sounds. No, this not the difference between different masterings. I hear a categorically distinct sound—so much more engaging, dimensional, organic, tonally rich, present and musical than any flavor of PCM that there's no comparison. This is the first time I've been genuinely excited about digital. Not "okay, it's convenient, and my record player is on the fritz" excited, but "this is crazy awesome good" excited. And all thanks to a widget I got for $139 on Kickstarter. If, as you say, DSD sounds even better on other devices, I can't wait to hear them. Keep spreading the word. Regards, Alex.

howardk's picture

Hi Michael,

I'm surprised you didn't include the Schiit Loki in the comparison, at least for DSD-only. Can you comment on how it compares to the Geek Out?

Thanks -- HIK

Michael Lavorgna's picture
So a direct comparison was not possible.
maricius's picture

How would the Geek Out DAC compare? I know it's been almost a year and you probably no longer have it with you but based from memory, what would be the better performer? Audiostream is becoming my main resource for DACs (more of a headphone listener).

Regards,

Marc

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I've never heard it so I cannot offer even a dusty memory ;-) Obviously if DXD and DSD are of interest, the Geek Out wins on that score.
agb's picture

I gave my 1000 to my wife. She would have preferred pink or lavender. She says the black 1000 I gave her is dark sounding. Perhaps the silver wouldn't have offended her with its silvery sound. She likes jewelry anyway.

SebieDreamtime's picture

Does anyone know if/when these are actually being shipped? I've gone to the website and it says I can "pre-order." I asked the manufacturer twice in the last week using their website but have gotten no response, which makes me nervous.

SebieDreamtime's picture

Per my comment above, I never did get a response from the manufacturer but I found the Geek Out 1000 on Amazon and ordered one. Sounds great!

dalethorn's picture

I read through the article and comments, regarding the issue that this device "runs hot". You may have had the model 1000 sample only, but I wonder if the low-power version runs cooler.

wendell's picture

Lary Ho is a brilliant,
I have the geek out 450 and it proforms. i say wow big bang for my bucks. Although i did not like the fact i had to wait 8 months before i recieved my geek out 450 dac. Crowd funding for the birds and its been over yeare waiting for my Pulse dac to arrive at my door.

Frans's picture

Meanwhile LH has released a new 1.5 firmware (Sept '14) that improves sound quality (details: http://lhlabs.com/support/geek-out-v1-5-firmware-changelog.html). Has this been taken into consideration?

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