The Entry Level #39 Page 2

By comparison, the older model offered a brighter, edgier overall sound. Individual voices and instruments were slightly less well defined and not as precisely located on the soundstage. And, most significant, rhythm, pacing, and overall control suffered: Snare-drum strokes now evaporated too quickly, ride cymbals splashed where they shouldn't, and the drums seemed altogether a bit ahead of the music. It was as if the band were just a little anxious to get off the stage, whereas before they were content to groove and sway. The new DragonFly added the color, texture, body, and soul that the older model missed. And when a drumhead was struck or a guitar string plucked, I got the sense that the v1.2 held on to the event just a little longer, offering just a bit more traction and grip, before moving on to the next moment of music. Cool stuff.

In the world of high-end audio, we usually have to spend more to get more—more resolution, more beauty, more music. But in the case of AudioQuest's DragonFly, improvements have come for $100 less. How is this possible?

Joe Harley, AQ's SVP of marketing and product development, explained: "Many of the biggest costs associated with getting DragonFly off the ground were initial onetime costs such as tooling and the like. Once DragonFly truly took off, we were able to amortize these costs to a great extent. We could have kept the price the same, but we decided to take a calculated risk and find out if still lower pricing resulted in greater sales. Early indications are that it does."

Since AQ's launch of the original DragonFly, many other manufacturers have introduced their own portable USB DAC–headphone amplifiers: the Meridian Explorer ($299), the iFi iDAC ($299), the Audioengine D3 ($189), the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS ($189). LH Labs plans to release the Geek Out ($199; pre-order), and more are on the way. I'm writing these words just days before the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, which is where the Geek Out, and possibly a dozen other similar designs, will be formally introduced.

What's up with all these new USB DAC–headphone amps? High-end audio manufacturers believe they can sell them. They've discovered a market. More people are listening to their music through headphones and laptops, and those people, just like longtime audiophiles, want their music to sound as good as possible. They may not be concerned with absolute fidelity—they don't yet know the difference between an MP3 and a WAV file, and they haven't yet heard of DSD—but they nevertheless want a high-quality listening experience. They're spending a couple hundred dollars on their headphones, and if it makes their music-listening lives better, they'll be open to the idea of spending another couple hundred on a decent DAC–headphone amp. And just as those people are buying more than a single set of headphones, they may very well buy more than just one DAC–headphone amp.

Why not have a DragonFly and an Explorer? These little DACs are a lot of fun, and their friendly prices make possible a bit of variety.

AudioQuest realizes this. Although the DragonFly v1.2 is still relatively new, the company is already deep into the development of their next generation of DACs. Will those models be even more affordable? Or more powerful? I'm betting on both.

PSB SubSeries 100 subwoofer
Last July, in my review of PSB's first powered desktop speaker, the Alpha PS1 ($299.99/pair), I praised its small size, great looks, and clean, engaging sound. I bought the review samples. They've occupied special positions on our desk ever since, playing music from my laptop and Ms. Little's iPhone via an AudioQuest Evergreen RCA-to-minijack cable, and often aided by an AudioQuest DragonFly.

In October, at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, PSB introduced the SubSeries 100 miniature subwoofer ($249.99), designed to complement the Alpha PS1s. It measures just 6 3/8" wide by 6 3/8" high by 7 7/8" deep, and has the same high-gloss black finish as the Alpha PS1. It should blend in easily with almost any décor, and fit on or near most desktops. The sealed-box sub includes a 50W class-D amplifier and a 5¼" drive-unit designed to maximize bass extension while minimizing distortion. Volume, Crossover, and Phase controls, along with a single pair of RCA inputs, are provided on the SubSeries 100's tidy rear panel. Included are two power cables—one for use in the US, the other for use in Europe—but no subwoofer cable. I checked, like, five times. It would be nice if PSB included an inexpensive sub cable, just to get users quickly up and running. And while PSB does conveniently provide recommended settings for the Volume, Crossover, and Phase controls, it says nothing about how to connect the 100 to the PS1s. The connection, which will be fairly obvious to most audiophiles, will be frustratingly vague to most other customers—especially because PSB hasn't supplied the appropriate cable. (I schlepped to RadioShack, where I bought a cheap one.)

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I used the SubSeries 100 only with the Alpha PS1s. Setup was supremely simple. I began by listening with the controls set to PSB's recommended levels—Phase at 0°, Volume and Crossover at their midpoints—and quickly found that these were indeed the best overall settings. Switching the Phase from 0° to 180° brought the bass pleasantly forward, but also made it looser, sloppier, and more diffuse. While it could be fun to experiment with the Volume and Crossover controls, altering the level and range of the sub's bass output, it was generally more fun to set and forget them.

And never has it been so easy to set and forget a sub. With its controls at PSB's recommended settings, the SubSeries 100 partnered seamlessly with the Alpha PS1s, showing no evidence whatsoever of discontinuities between the high and low frequencies. I initially placed the SubSeries 100 on a shelf within our desk, about a foot below and 7" in front of the left-channel Alpha PS1. In our home and desk, this is where the SubSeries 100 wants to be. Sonically, I got the best results—greater stage height, tighter bass, better center fill—with the sub sitting on the floor under the desk, centered between the Alpha PS1s. Ultimately, however, I preferred keeping the sub on the shelf, safely away from the cats.

But wherever I placed the SubSeries 100, the result was pure fun. It had no discernible effect on the tonal qualities of the high or midrange frequencies, but seemed to make all aspects of the music bigger and more alive. Which I liked. A lot. I also heard improved senses of timing and touch, better image focus, deeper silences, and more dramatic climaxes. Spurred by the greatness of the PS1–SubSeries 100 combo, I went on a marathon listening session, devouring, in succession, the Knife's Shaking the Habitual, Wild Beasts' Present Tense, The Stranger's Watching Dead Empires in Decay, Kanye West's Yeezus, and Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music. The SubSeries 100's effect on my listening experience was always an improvement: more resolution, more beauty, more music.

While the SubSeries 100's price of $249.99 makes it a good value, PSB now also packages the Alpha PS1 desktop speakers with the SubSeries 100 and a subwoofer cable as the Alpha 1-100 system, for $499.99—which saves you $50. This would be a smart buy for the space-challenged, budget-minded music lover who wants a fun, easy way to enter the rapidly expanding world of desktop hi-fi. Add a set of headphones and a USB DAC, sit back, relax, and prepare your brain for a music delivery.

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COMMENTS
Long-time listener's picture

"Sense" is a generalized, non-countable term. So it should be used in the singular even when referring to plural items: "That sense of pace and rhythm" (not "those senses of pace and rhythm"), or "that sense of movement." I've never seen it used any other way, except here. Cheers

John Atkinson's picture

From our long-term copy editor:

"Either way is okay, which means that neither is incorrect. Assuming that there is a sense of pace distinct from a sense of rhythm, then I count two senses. However, if you’re talking about a combined sense/feel of pace-and-rhythm, then treat it as singular. But the reader is incorrect: in this sense, sense is indeed countable."

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JIGF's picture

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7sryvUHEoM

All I can hear is a snare 

Stephen Mejias's picture

Such scrutiny today! (Honestly, I welcome it. Thanks for reading.)

I know it's subtle, but, approximately 52.5 seconds into the song, there's a single hi-hat hit, and that's what I was listening to; but my comment applies to other hi-hat hits in other songs, as well.

Utopianemo's picture

The ten cent zen incense

intended to send intense scents in tents.

Instead, it tensed senses and insensed attendants.

Consensus says the scent sentence 

Ended zen-tent attendance.

 

Great article. Stephen.  Looks like I'll have to upgrade to the new Dragonfly!

mauidj's picture

Stephen.

You might like to check out a short story called "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forrester. Amazingly, it was written in 1909 and accurately predicts computers, the internet, Facebook/Skype and the frightening consequenses of this new "delivery" paradigm that is rapidly becoming a part of our lives.

Enjoy!

jones ethan's picture

I am confused between Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic.I came across this article while doing some research( http://www.sonicsense.com/blog/headphone-shootouts/premium-open-back-hea... ). What do you guyzz think, which one should I go for?

Orso's picture

Perfect compliment to any headphones, this thing gas been insanely specd since its conception. http://igg.me/at/geek-wave/x/5825990

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