LH Labs Geek Out 1000 DAC/Headphone Amplifier
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
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.
Also on hand and in use during the LH Labs Geek review: iFi nano iDSD DAC, AudioQuest Dragonfly DAC, Meridian Explorer