Light Harmonic Geek Out 450 DAC and Headphone Amplifier

Huge Performance in a Tiny Package

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs,
Light Harmonic Geek Out 450
Light Harmonic Geek Out 450 DAC and Headphone Amplifier

While it was easy to install the driver, it was not easy to update the Geek Out’s firmware. The update process is described on an instructional video on the LH Labs website that seemed a bit hurried and mumbly. I tried three times to perform the update before I got the process to work. Operator error? Maybe, but I’m an experienced computer user. An attempt to get help from LH Labs’ technical support was useless.

The driver installation also installed an icon in the notification area of the Windows desktop, which provides a Light Harmonic Control Panel that gives access to some of the settings for the Geek Out, including volume. Unfortunately, the icon consists of several black dots, and since the taskbar that runs along the bottom of my computer screen is also black, the icon was invisible. When I pointed to the apparently vacant space in the notification area, an explanatory message popped up, so I could tell something was actually installed in that space. There are 12 other icons from other programs in my notification area, all visible with different screen settings, so it seems surprising that Light Harmonic couldn’t design an icon that’s visible for all screen settings.

The user guide has a stern warning to be careful to turn the volume down before listening. That is very important, since the Geek Out turned-on at full volume every time I switched my computer on. I’m not sure why the driver can’t remember the last volume setting used; no other driver I’ve used, and that would be a lot, has turned on at maximum volume. Since the standard Windows volume control had no effect on the Geek Out’s volume setting, you must use the “invisible” icon for the Light Harmonic Control Panel to control loudness.

I own several other dongle-DACs and have tried others, but the Geek Out surprised me with the quality of its sound. Playing old fave “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” from Jordi Savall’s La Folia 1490-1701 (44.1/16 AIFF, Alia Vox), I first noticed that the deepest bass notes were somewhat attenuated, missing a tiny bit of impact.

The Audeze LCD-X headphones are capable of awesomely deep bass, so the attenuation had to come from the Geek Out. Elsewhere in the recording, I heard sharp, snappy transients that penetrated the information-rich soundfield. The guitar and harp, playing similar figures in the same frequency range, were easy to distinguish, which is not always the case. Savall’s viola da gamba sounded unusually rich, with lots of body, although the string tone was plenty powerful when Savall dug in hard with his bow. Percussion instruments were reproduced with good detail, though not the best I’ve heard. For headphones, the soundstage was pretty well spread out, with instruments fairly well localized.

On Rebecca Pidgeon’s The Raven, (176.4/24 FLAC, Chesky), the audiophile-favorite track “Spanish Harlem” demonstrated its usual squeaky-clean, distortion-free sonics. The upright bass was amply deep, the violins sounded particularly sweet, and piano transients were well defined. I missed a little detail that I hear from loudspeakers, which creates an almost visual impression of seeing Pigeon enunciate each word.

Headphones are not noted for their soundstaging capabilities; nevertheless, I cued up the track “Miserere” from the Tallis Scholars’ Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (96/24 FLAC, Gimell). To my delight and surprise, the Geek Out produced a spacious soundstage from the Audeze headphones: a large environment, with the singers’ placement fairly well defined. Most surprisingly, the sense of depth for the solo group of singers located behind the main group, was quite vivid. While not equaling the soundstaging performance of speakers, this was notably better soundstaging than I usually hear from headphones.

From Reference Recordings’ fresh! label comes a performance of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 by the Pittsburgh Symphony under its conductor Manfred Honeck (DSD64/DSF). Through the Geek Out, the recording positively glowed, with thumping orchestral dynamics that made the performance very exciting. It’s wonderful to have the Pittsburgh recording again.

To check out the Geek Out’s handling of solo instruments, I cued up the cut “Shenandoah” from Alex de Grassi’s album Special Event 19 (DSD64/DFF, Blue Coast Records). The Geek Out reproduced de Grassi’s unusual guitar with plenty of details, both transient and harmonic. I could easily hear how each note was launched, how it propagated into the room and then decayed into silence. Especially realistic was the initial transient, as each string was plucked. The odd drone effect produced by de Grassi’s guitar was clearly reproduced. Both string and body sound were superbly depicted by the Geek Out—a very realistic and detailed recording of a guitar.

Conceptually similar to the Geek Out is iFi Audio’s nano iDSD DAC/headphone amplifier, which sells for $189 and has a battery-operated headphone amp rated at 130mW, considerably less than the Geek Out. The iFi nano iDSD’s internal battery means the unit can operate independently from a computer and be used with any device that has a USB output, like a smartphone or iPod. Battery life is said to be 10 hours. The nano iDSD has several features I like a lot: 1) a volume control knob, which works better than any digital volume control I’ve seen, 2) the volume control knob incorporates an on/off switch so you can turn off the unit to save battery power, 3) a dongle cable that’s 24" long, so the dongle-DAC doesn’t dangle in mid-air, 4) RCA output jacks for the DAC section, so you can use the nano iDSD’s DAC section with a hifi system without an adaptor cable, and 5) a USB Type B input, which should work with standard USB cables. The last two features make the nano iDSD easier to use with an external amplifier than most other dongle-DACs. For what it’s worth, the nano iDSD is one of the few DACs that can presently play DSD256 recordings. Although it’s not germane to this review, iFi makes some accessories for the nano iDSD that can further improve its sound—at a price, of course.

After replacing the Geek Out with the iFi nano iDSD, and changing the settings in J. River Media Center to use the nano iDSD ASIO driver, I proceeded to listen. On “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” bass extended deeper, creating the impression that the recording space was larger. Savall’s viola da gamba sound emphasized the string tone over the body, not sounding so much like a whole, real instrument. Percussion instruments had impact, but receded into the background a little more. There was less spread of instruments across the soundstage, more right/left distribution.

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