What if somebody told you that you could massively boost the quality of your desktop speakers or headphones connected to your computer with a little magic box that was both gorgeously designed as well as dead simple to use? And what if this spike in fidelity also came with revved up volume and a tremendously larger “soundstage” for your music? If this magic box was not much bigger than a pink eraser from elementary school, weighed about an ounce and had no buttons or dials, you’d probably be willing to pay quite a bit to enjoy your music more, right? Me too. But you don’t have to. You can score this amazing “magic box” in the form of the HiFiMAN HM-101 for a mere $39.
I was stunned when I listened to the HiFiMAN HM-101 for the first time. I plugged a variety of devices (including previously reviewed Altec Lansing speakers, Logitech Ultimate Ears earphones and Phiaton noise-cancelling headphones) into the HiFiMAN and in every case the sound was not only improved, it was improved by an exponential degree. The HiFiMAN HM-101 is an external, USB powered, digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and amplifier that will absolutely put a smile on your face. Read on to learn more about this fantastic gadget. [And to learn how to win this for yourself!]
[HiFiMAN Express HM-101 is compact, sleek, buttonless and ready to rock your world]
What exactly is this? It is a portable, external DAC that is USB powered and connected. Whether you know it or not, anytime you plug your headphones or desktop speakers into the headphone jack of your computer, you are using a DAC that converts your digitally stored or streamed tunes into the analog output that you hear when you play them. Of course, this type of DAC is simply referred to as your internal sound card. DACs, like speakers or headphones, range from entry level devices like this, all the way to tens of thousands of dollars. By using this DAC, you will plug your audio device into it and it will bypass your internal sound card. This DAC is lightweight (about an ounce), portable and sleek. Its solid and stylish design is complemented by a single, seamless band of metal forming the sides that would make Cupertino proud.
Use Simply plug the HiFiMAN MH-101 into an available USB port on your computer and then connect your headphones or speakers into one of the two available mini-stereo connections. One output is primarily designed for headphones while the other for speakers. However, you can decide which gives you the volume you need and sounds better. That is it! No drivers to install, no configuration, no buttons, no dials – nothing that could possibly be confusing. True “plug and play”. The only indicator (other than brilliant music streaming from your headphones) on the device is a blue LED light that illuminates when properly connected. Obviously, without any buttons or dials, you will have to control the output volume from your software or device.
[I used a small piece of Velcro so I’d always have my HiFiMAN HM-101 with me when I travel]
Sound First off, for testing I used three separate computers: A Dell business-class laptop, a Mac Book Pro and an HP desktop. I listened to a variety of speakers including Bose Companion 3, Altec-Lansing desktop speakers, Ultimate Ears earphones, cheap $10 earbuds and Phiaton Headphones. In each and every case, the sound was markedly improved both in quality as well as volume.
What was great in every case: Music was much better defined with clarity to notes & tones previously not heard. The low-end bass particularly became much tighter and less muddy. Mid-range was also improved noticeably. Everything from vocals, to guitar notes, to the smash of cymbals were more clear and crisp. Overall, soundstage and depth were remarkable. Listening to a handful of live recordings, the benefit of the HiFiMAN really shined giving me a much better feeling for the room acoustics where recorded. Additionally, increased volume was most welcome and noticeable on some of my devices lacking much oomph on their own.
What was not so great: There is a very slight hiss that is completely indistinguishable from the music during playback but noticeable during silent passages or very quiet moments. While this was not noticeable at all with the desktop speakers or cheaper headphones, it was noticeable with my Phiaton headphones and Ultimate Ears earphones.
Also, be aware that you can’t play 24-bit files as only 16-bit is supported. However, if you are listening to 24-bit files, you likely have zero use for a $39 DAC anyway and probably already have a DAC costing hundreds or even thousands. While this DAC certainly can’t stack up the audio quality you can get with one of its more expensive cousins, it does an extraordinary job for the money.
[Despite being very light, HiFiMAN has a sturdy build. USB port on one end with two output jacks on other.]
Overall Listening If you’ve ever made a quantum leap in the quality of headphones or speakers and had the urge to revisit, rediscover and enjoy some of your favorite albums all over again, you will likely experience the same process with the HiFiMAN HM-101. Regardless if your music is streaming through MOG, Spotify, Subsonic, Songza or any other streaming service or stored on your computer, you will get more punch, hear more detail, and enjoy your music more. The vibrancy and all-encompassing sound doesn’t come with any additional hassles. There are no batteries and no settings. Plug your headphones or desktop speakers in once, and simply enjoy the music with no fuss.
Some audio products are only measured in nuances or shades of difference. Many more have benefits that are highly debatable or barely discernible to an average user. But make no mistake about it- there is nothing debatable or nuanced here. Fully 100 out of 100 people will instantly hear the difference. Given the well balanced, natural and wide-open sound, it is easy & enjoyable listening for long stretches of time.
Couple of other things to know:
- This device will not work with your tablet even if it has a USB port.
- In addition to this “express” line of audio equipment, HiFiMAN has a full line of high performance equipment including headphones and earphones that have won extraordinarily high praise and awards across all their products. Definitely a company to keep a close eye on.
- The unit does come with a standard USB to Mini-USB cable but it is only about 12″ or so. This should suffice for most mobile users, but you may need to get a longer cord to make it more convenient.
Final Thoughts If you want to dramatically increase the sound quality of your headphones or desktop speakers for short money, you can’t go wrong with the HiFiMAN HM-101. This DAC is extremely portable, great looking, easy to use and a complete joy to listen with. Unfortunately, once you start bypassing your internal sound card and enjoying the increased quality of this external DAC, you’ll never want to listen to music without one again.
Given that the major guts of this DAC is the well-known and legendary Burr-Brown PCM 2702 audio chip, and it can seemingly be profitably made for short change, it begs a question: why don’t more laptop and desktop manufacturers utilize this or a similar high-quality chip? Even with expensive laptops and computers costing in the thousands, audio is all too often relegated to a thin, lean, cold, digital sound. If you use your computer for even a modest amount of music listening, much less if it is your primary source of listening, my second question is: Why are you still reading this column? Run, don’t walk, to get this fantastic device.
I wholeheartedly recommend the HiFIMAN HM-101 and know that you will be as thrilled as I am. Stay tuned for next week’s column where we’ll be looking at another stellar device for likely the amount of coinage that you have in your car’s change well.
HiFiMAN Express HM-101 on Amazon $39 (Free shipping with Prime too!)
Contest If you haven’t already run off and ordered a HiFiMAN HM-101, we have one for one of our Hidden Track readers. Simply either “Like” this review on Facebook or Tweet a link to this review. You MUST also leave a comment here that you’ve entered. We will select one winner, randomly from all comments next Monday. We will confirm Tweet or Facebook Like after selecting winner. Deadline for entry is Monday, October 8th at 9:00 PM ET. Good luck!
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