Double Take Review: Rockin’ out with the Geek Out

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Geek Out 1000, First Take

by Michael Mercer

Light Harmonic hit the hi-fi scene like a bat outta hell a few years ago, earning a reputation for sonic integrity and forward-thinking design aesthetics. Upon the introduction of their Guggenheim Museum-looking Da Vinci DAC — known equally for its unique enclosure, sonic transparency, and sky-high price tag, the Da Vinci DAC established the company as an industry leader right out of the gate, and won numerous industry “best of” and “editors choice” awards, they probably could’ve continued their meteoric rise in the high-end, eventually offering a hundred-thousand dollar DAC! [editors note: the Sire DAC was announced at CES, and will retail for $120,000 on release, some time later this year]. However, they had other dreams: Light Harmonic wanted to reach the consumer-level masses with their products. They weren’t going to do that selling 30k DACs, especially now, with the financial crisis plaguing everyone. Time for 21st century thinking.

Light Harmonic decided to enter the affordable DAC and headphone amp/DAC segment via a brand new concept to high-end audio (and relatively new concept for consumerism in general): crowd-funding. They launched their first crowd-funding/social media campaign at Kickstarter late last summer to create the Geek Out series of USB dongle/memory stick-style headphone amp/DACs. Think Audioquest’s Dragonfly, HRT’s microStreamer, and Audioengine’s D3. As expected (given this is the team behind the Da Vinci DAC), Light Harmonic took this new market segment and turned it on its head.

The Geek Out 1000 has powerful musical presentation, dynamic range, and staggering dimensionality, and place it in a class all its own. Its only similarity to the other products in this segment is the fact that it plugs directly into the USB slot without the need for a cable. But the Geek Out doesn’t behave like a small, pocket-friendly USB amp/DAC. It’s got the power and resolving capabilities of a desktop unit! This lil’ thing is a beast!

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Characteristic of this small yet powerful USB bus-powered headphone amp/DAC is the slick design. It’s modern and clean. The scored lines are minimal and elegant, with tiny LED indicators for sample rates and its “awesomifier”, a “3D” imaging circuit, like a cross-feed function.  You get up/down buttons for gain, a splendid little feature that allows you to dial-in the volume with far more steps than you usually get with a product like this. I enjoy having something physical to interact with on my audio gear.  It enhances the user experience for me. The only gripe I have with the Geek Out 1000 is that whenever I changed the volume setting on my MacBook Pro (trying to find the sweet spot) it reset the Geek Out’s volume to 100% volume up! So IEM devotees take notice: There’s a reason Light Harmonic slipped a small card into the carrying case, reminding you that the Geek Out EM is a “powerful amplifier” and to make sure your headphones aren’t on your head while plugging the unit in. The Geek Out incorporates the Da Vinci’s three layer buffer (patent-pending), 32-bit/384kHz and DSD 2 decoding engines, Light Harmonic’s Quiet power technology, 64-bit volume control, and its Class A high current output stage.  They’re not kidding about that Class A bit, either.  The first time I grabbed the it while driving my Audeze LCD-3′s, I knew the thing was putting out more current than I thought possible in this form-factor: That lil’ amp was runnin’ hot!

It sounded terrific though, and that’s the most important thing.  All fodder aside (crowd funding campaigns, marketing, tongue-in-cheek phrases like “awesomifier”), if the product doesn’t live up to the hype, it’s all futile. I respect Light Harmonic for their willingness to throw caution to the wind and go for it. After all, they know how to build a great DAC for thirty-grand! What about a great DAC and headphone amplifier for a few hundred bucks? Now that’s a switch. It’s far more challenging to build a stellar USB DAC/headphone amplifier the size of an Evans Cadet lighter for three hundred bucks than it is to build a stereo component-sized DAC for thirty-grand! Light Harmonic proved they can handle both ends of the high fidelity pool with the Geek Out 1000.  It is a sincere pleasure to listen to music on this sleek little device attached to my MacBook Pro.  Whether I used Sonic Studio’s Amarra software with iTunes, MOG, or Spotify, the Geek Out delivered the sonic goods.  I knew I was gonna have some fun doing this review.  I found the performance so captivating, I ended up digging through music folders that I haven’t played in months – years in some cases!

That’s what it’s all about: The Sound of the Music. Everything else fades when the music plays.  At least that’s the idea.  With the Geek Out, it was easy to lose myself in everything from Eminem to Elbow, Aphex Twin to Justin Timberlake.  It might be worth it to mention that it’s more difficult than usual lately: Losing myself in the music.  Typically music can pick me up or drop my mood pretty fast, and I wholeheartedly love it for that.  Without getting into it: My wife’s still battling some health issues – so I’m easily distracted these days.  I may have approached a level of honesty bordering on stupidity here, but lately it takes my best components to entrance me.  This Geek is also brand new.  I’ve had signal running through it continuously for a couple days now, but that’s it.  This also means it could get a lot better as it breaks in! If there’s a significant change I’ll jot down a follow-up.

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I used the following headphones with the unit:

  • Audeze LCD-3, X, and XC
  • Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs
  • Grado SR325i
  • Sennheiser Momentums
  • Bang & Olufsen H6
  • Double Helix Cables and Moon Audio Silver Dragon cables for the Audeze’s
  • Cardas Clear for the LCD-3
  • Double Helix Cables for the Sennheiser Momentums

Sources:

  • MacBook Pro Retina SSD – Sonic Studio’s Amarra, MOG, and Spotify (MOG and Spotify are both music streaming services)

Listening to Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” with my Audeze LCD-X and Double Helix Cable was rapture. Light Harmonic has included their “awesomifier” circuit into the Geek Out. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but it’s their version of a “3D imaging” switch or cross-feed: where one channel is bled slightly into the other and vice versa – creating, for those who hear it, a sense of greater width and depth of field. Again I’m not sure if that’s what they’ve done here, but when I engaged the Awesomifier I experienced a widening and deepening of the soundfield. The gain and the low-end lessened with the Awesomifier at the same time, seemingly sacrificed in order to throw a larger image. But when I heard “Everything in it’s Right Place”, I felt like it was the perfect track to give the Awesomifier a shot. Thom Yorke’s vocals hover throughout the whole track, panning right to left, left to right. There are cascading keys, a heavy, simple chord progression that ripples out like the audible pond effect you get with a tactile stereo experience. The drums are merely there to keep the pace, they call little attention to themselves. It’s a brilliant wash of sound, and when I heard it for the first time it gave me the chills, as I’d never heard anything like it before.  If a system is revealing enough, I’ll think back on that time and get goose-bumps imagining that first-time experience.  Well, Light Harmonic scored high on the goose-bump factor!  I played that song over and over, and I never got sick of it.

I experienced the same sensation while bumping A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, thinking back to my high school days. Carefree times – no bills, no heavy responsibilities. Listening to music has the power to connect you to your past, present, and future. Rockin’ nostalgic tunes on the Geek Out gave me a soothing glimpse into those timeless memories. The brain on music is a wonderful thing.

The pounding of the low end on Carabou’s remix of Radiohead’s “Little By Little” on my Audeze LCD-XC’s was a trip. Alex Rosson, CEO of Audeze, picked this track for the demo of the LCD-XC prototype at last years Head-Fi Meet during the HeadMasters event at California Audio Fest. He walked into the Meet wearing the cans, and most of us started drooling.  He chose my friend Warren Chi’s system: a Woo Audio WA7 FireFlies tube amp/DAC, and I played him a few tracks. He picked Carabou’s remix to show off the prototype to eager ears in attendance. The bottom end in Carabou’s mix has this tremendous sway to it, but the headphones’ gotta have serious bass control to do it justice and your amps’ gotta have some juice. No problems here. It sounded like I was in a club. This track, thus far in my sonic journey with the Geek Out, is the track I’d pick to demonstrate the dynamic impact of the Geek. Geek’s got more power under that little hood than you think.

The Grado 325i’s made a terrific sonic pairing for acoustic and singer/songwriter stuff.  Ani DiFranco’s “Hearse” (off Which Side Are You On?) was airy and emotively charged.  It’s a brilliant little love song, and it’s become one of “our songs” (Alexandra and me).  Whenever its on, if the system’s cookin’, it’ll eventually get to Alex and she’ll get all sappy. Well, I asked her to check out the Geek, handed her the Grado 325i’s, and next thing you know we’ve got water works. I’d say she got weepy within a minute of the start of the tune. Nicely executed Light Harmonic! The Geek Out also sounded smooth and extended with my Sennheiser Momentums, Bang and Olufsen H6′s, and Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs.  That’s another mark of a solid amp/DAC: does it engage you through various headphones, or is it finicky? Daft Punk’s “Give Life Back to Music” (in 24-bit/88.2kHz – downloaded from HDTracks) was groovin’ through any set of headphones listed here – and a few others I neglected to list.  A killer demo track I’d recommend to any headphone manufacturer that’s going to use the Geek Out to power their cans: Nosaj Thing’s “Home” (off their Home LP).  The sound is liquid, it’s heavy, but not congested.  The synth’s transient attack and movement are sublimely executed.  Be warned: If your headphones aren’t up to it this track will show you right away!  No problem with the Geek Out 1000.

I’m having a blast with my Geek.  It blew away my already-high expectations.  I could recommend it to a nu jack audio hobbyist or even the most seasoned audiophile and I wouldn’t be worried about it.  It’s easy to use and sounds terrific.  It also looks cool.  How often do you get it all in one little box like this?

Highly recommended.  I’m psyched I bought one!

LH Labs Geek Out 1000 ($299) is available here.

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Geek Out 1000, Double Take

by Scot Hull

Despite fantasies to the contrary, I don’t think there’s going to be a time in my life where $299 is something I can just blow off. I mean, seriously — I’m not sure how many phone calls you need to log into the Lotto Fairy before you catch a hint, but I think I might be several thousand past that point. “Oh well,” he said, shaking his head with small, rueful and lopsided grin. But that said, it also does not mean that $299 is “a lot” — either to you, or to the world of high-end audio. That is, I can’t speak for you or your finances, but I can speak to “relative value” of products in that segment, and based on that experience, I can say unequivocally that the little Geek Out from LH Labs was money well spent. And for the record, yes, I did buy mine. And I’m a little freaked out by how well spent that money was.

Like several thousand of my peers, I was caught off guard last summer when the Light Harmonic team announced the Geek via a Kickstarter campaign. Back then, I wasn’t all that up on crowd-sourcing or how all that worked. So, when the program kicked off with the earliest-of-the-early bird specials, I ignored it. I figured I had time. I could jump in “at some point” and pick up one of the little USB dongle DAC/amp combos. Yeah. That worked out well. Within the first couple of days (hours?), all the $99 offers had been snapped up. $99 for a dual-output 450mw amp and a DAC that supported super-high-resolution audio file decoding of up to and including double-DSD. Yeah. I’m an idiot. I think there were 8 left at the $119 price, so I jumped in fast. And when they announced the Super Duper Geek, essentially the same product but with output rated at a full watt, I jumped on that, too. What can I say. I’m a joiner. I’m just a little slow.

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The Super Duper Geek, now called the Geek Out 1000, arrived last week. My video of that event was a little off the cuff, off the wall, and off several different (and apparently interacting) medications, but no matter. All is good. And the little Geek? Kicking ass.

First, the downsides. There are only a couple, so this’ll be quick. One, the weight is a bit much for a USB dongle. On my laptop, the height of the Geek is less than the distance to my desk, which means it’s unsupported, so it sags a bit. Not egregiously so, but when it’s inserted, it’s enough that it puts pressure on both the USB jack and on the dongle. Add a hefty headphone cable and I’ve got some long-term concerns. Obviously, you can prop it up (and I do), but it does also come with a six-inch USB cable extender (called “Slacker”, probably for that very reason) that you can just hang the Geek off of, and this totally eliminates any of these concerns, even if it does then introduce a dose of audiophile nervosa (will a “better” USB cable make the Geek Out sound more like a Stradivarius?!?), so I’m a bit ambivalent on this approach. Two, the Geek puts out some heat. It is a Class A amp, and just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s suddenly not doing what Class A amps do, which is heat up. I’ve had the Geek Out 1000 for a week or so now, playing music much of that time, and it gets very warm. Not enough to scald your hands, but enough to warm a cup of coffee (which is definitely not recommended, see point #1). And that’s it. Yep. One, be careful. Two, it’s warm.

Second, the upsides. I heard a prototype unit at RMAF this past year. Gavin Fish was looking like a new dad, all worn out and sleep deprived, but he had a laptop, a “naked” Geek board (sans cover) and a pair of Sennheiser HD800 headphones. That combo was startlingly clear and altogether impressive! But I was concerned — there was a rather significant bite to the treble. Part of this was the HD800, which is no amplifier’s friend, but I’m familiar with that headphone and its fatiguing proclivities. This was different. I didn’t hold this against the Geek, or Gavin, as this was a prototype, but I’m sure he got the feedback. Because the Geek Out 1000 I have here sounded nothing like that. In fact, it’s completely left anything like “bright” or “hot” or “bite” on the floor. This is a wonderfully natural-sounding amp/DAC combo, utterly non-fatiguing — and paired with my own set of HD800 cans, made for a sweet sounding rig. And by sweet, I mean it’s sexy time. Oh, mama!

Based on the way I’m wired, bass is the first thing I hear and look for in just about anything audio, so lemme start by saying that USB dongles and mini-DACs absolutely suck at frequency extremes. Every single USB device I’ve fiddled with tends to fall down here for the same, simple reason: lack of mojo. The Geek Out 1000 is the first in this class where this isn’t an issue, and you can hear it right away with big, powerful, hot throbbing bass love. Oh mama, indeed.

Overall, the sound of the Geek is “warm”. Pardon me while I reach into the cliché grab-bag, but I suppose that means it has a “tube-like character”. That said, it is also very quiet; nuance and detail emerge at level on par with much larger, more complicated and more heavily powered amps. In fact, this is the first of its kind that I’m actually tempted to use in my stereo rig — and I plan to fiddle about with this in a later post, and do some comparisons to similar products.

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A quick note about IEMs and the Geek Out 1000. I know there’s some prevailing wisdom about matching power to sensitivity, and that 1 watt seems like an awful lot of power to drive sensitive IEMs. I hear that. So, I grabbed my pair of 119dB sensitive JH Audio Roxannes, plugged them into the .47 ohm jack, and gave it a listen. I feel obligated to report that my eardrums did not explosively decompress, compress, or in any way distort. Just saying. On advice from forum junkies, I queued up the tunes before insertion, but care is the important thing here rather than procedure. In my setup, Audirvana was driving the volume, not iTunes or the MacBook Pro, so I had to dial that back before cueing anything. Set at midlevel, about -40dB, I had plenty of room to negotiate up or down. In Audirvana, the volume steps for this DAC seem to be 1dB, which is plenty granular, and while “cranking it up” typically meant not more than -30dB, I still felt I had some room before things would get out of hand and/or distort. Final note here: while I don’t really recommend ever over-driving your speakers, headphones or IEMs, it’s still usually better to err on that side than under-driving your transceivers. So, yes, 1 watt is a lot into something like the Roxannes. But that tends to mean that you have plenty to feed them should they require that kind of draw — which they don’t — but with your IEMs, that mileage will no doubt vary. Perhaps not obviously, not having that power available can lead to sags (depending on the transceiver and crossover design) and when that happens, that shit is audible and bad news. Anyway. That’s that. I’ll have a Geek Out 450 at some point in the future, and I’ll be able to do some more IEM head-to-head comparisons then.

For now, I’ll say that I’m loving my little Geek! They’re sold direct over at MustGeekOut whenever you’re ready to jump. Production is still ramping up, so expect a month or two delay before brand new orders get delivered, but I suspect that this will shorten radically as summer approaches. Till then, rock out with your Geek Out.

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21 comments

  • Hello Mike,

    Great and informative review!! I have the DACport LX and from the comments above the LX would be the more neutral DAC and the Geek Out a warmer DAC. Does this still apply to the Geek’s line-out? May I ask for a comparison between the technicalities between the two? Would you consider the Geek to be the more upscale DAC?

    Maybe a more difficult comparison but seeing how well the Geek performs would you rate this over the Cypher Labs CLAS -dB only for its USB DAC performance in single ended. Thank you.

    Regards,

    Marc

  • Happy headphones guys! I don’t own one. I’m totally interested in a line out to drive my integrated amp and Gallo Strada 2′s. How does this thing sound mated with a decent amp and monitors? How does the D/A compare to the Halide or Bitfrost? Do tell. Test with anything but headphones yet?

  • Hi, great review.
    Is the geek out 1000 able to drive LCD-2 as well as Alo Pan Am? Can you give us the comparison for them because from what I read you love both very much. Thank you.

    • Hey HZE!!

      So sorry for the delay in responding! Thanks for reading and for the kind words!
      The Geek Out 1000 is quite capable of driving the Audeze LCD-2s no question! I’ve done it since this review (where I used my LCD-3s, XCs, and Xs) and the sonic pairing was wonderfully musical. The sound was authoritative, engaging, and wonderfully fluid. I found the combo addictive!

      Now – comparing that experience to my LCD-2s and my ALO Pan Am, frankly, is truly like comparing apples to oranges unfortunately – which is why I don’t like to compare products like many reviewers. Most of the components other writers compare are different in so many ways: Design philosophy, execution, lay-out, goals and aspirations, musical tastes of the engineers and designer, etc…

      So – because of this, and because the ALO Pan Am is a tube unit (BTW – PLS check out my article for The High Fidelity Report about the new French NOS RTC tube upgrade available for the Pan Am – as it changes the musical performance entirely – in a grand way) – and the Geek Out 1000 is a USB DAC/class A SS amp – the comparison would be so subjective I’m not sure of what value it would be for YOU. And serving you, the reader, is what’s most important to me.

      I will, however, offer up a few thoughts. But, if you get this soon (my wife is going in for surgery this week – so I’ll be SLAMMED to say the least) please respond and tell me why you’re asking, as I’d like to know: Are you considering one of the two products for your LCD-2s? As your reason for the question is also important to me so I can give you the intel that might help guide you along…

      All that said: If you like tubes, as I do, and you need portability – the ALO Pan Am is IT, IMO. Plus: The Pan Am sounds so damn quiet with the Passport battery pack! I use the Passport with it at home! The sonic background is as black as I’ve heard in a tube amp. Plus – the unison of the Pan Am and LCD-2 or 3 is sublime. The sound is textural, dynamic, airy, and emotively powerful. I wholeheartedly love that combo! Even with all these new state-of-the-art desktop amp/DACs on my desk – I still goto the Pan Am often!

      As for the Geek Out 1000 and LCD-2. The sound is also very impressive: Lively, wide-open, and the soundstaging is mind-blowingly holographic in its presentation. It’s an absolute Giant-Killer! So, bottom-line, you can’t go wrong with either. However, my recommendation would have to be made based on further information from you HZE:

      Like what genres of music are your favorites?
      How loud do you listen?
      What’s your current favorite rig at home?

      If the info I’ve offered you doesn’t suffice – please drop me a comment in-return here, with the above questions answered, and I’ll do my very best to help you.

      Most Sincerely,

      Michael Mercer

      • Thank you for your reply, it is very informative, really appreciate it. I have the pan am already and I am wondering whether the geek out will be redundant if I have the pan am already (have the rtc as well, nice tube). I’d say I’m a soundstage freak, I love large 3d holographic soundstage. Mostly, I listen to female vocal and jazz, but I listen to other genres as well.
        I have no dedicated dac right now, so maybe that is the one that I will get first. Based on what I read there are lots of great dac that is available right now. Unfortunately, there is no place to audition here.

        To make it clearer, my setup right now is just from foobar>pan am>LCD-2 rev 2

        What do you recommend to improve my setup? My budget is around $2k, I have tried HD800, however I find it too boring (auditioned with beta22 amp & dacmini cx), while the soundstage is in other league. Maybe, the amp and dac pairing is the culprit.

        You stated that geek out’s soundstaging is mind-blowingly holographic. Does it mean it is much better than pan am with rtc tube?

        Thank you, sorry if I have too much question, Wish your wife can get well soon.

        Cheers,
        HZE

  • Hey Steve! Thanks so very much for the kind words! I’m currently working on two reviews with Scot – coming ASAP!!

    The DACport LX is basically the DACport without the headphone amp section, so as a DAC, its got a quieter/blacker sonic backdrop, so if all you need is a DAC ahead of the JDS – I highly recommend the DACport LX!

    I lent my LX to my friend and partner at Audio360.org Warren Chi and he LOVES it.
    It’s very revealing, and as simple as can be to use! Warren also has the JDS labs unit.

    and YES – to me, and my cousin Kenny (who owns a DACport, and heard the ALO Island at CanJam with me when I picked up my review sample – he works in music for Stevie Wonder) the Island is like a successor to the DACport. It has higher sample/bit-rate support, offers RSA balanced out as well as 3.5mm (a big advantage – as I hear greater dimensionality via the balanced output) and the overall gestalt of the music has greater impact with a larger variety of headphones, IMO, than the DACport. I love the DACport – but this is merely an example of things evolving over time. Plus, this may sound silly, but I love the over-sized volume knob on the Island! It’s better quality than the pot on the DACport, which tends to get a bit dirty-sounding after tons of use. Not so with the Island!

    The Island is a great piece of kit! As is the DACport LX!!

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  • Great review! I was wondering how the Geekout compares to the Dacport & the Alo Island. Which would you recommend for someone who listens primarily to classical. I have the Beyer DT 880 Pro. Thanks!

    • Hey Steve!

      Honestly – since the 880 are your main headphones – I’d recommend the Geek Out 1000 or the CEntrance DACport – because that’s one of the references that Michael Goodman (designer) at CEntrance uses! The DACport has what I would consider a more linear sound signature – and for classical w/ the 880 it would mate beautifully. The 1000 seems to have a warmer sound with the headphones I used here – and I personally prefer that type of presentation.

      • Hey Michael, thanks for the reply! That’s an interesting bit of information about Michael Goodman. About Centrance, I understand the Dacport LX is qualitative superior to the Dacport. I already have a JDS Labs cMoyBB: how would you respond to the LX with it? Instead of getting a standalone Dacport?

        Also, in your notes about the Alo Island, you’d mentioned that it may be the successor to the Dacport? Any comments about that?

        Didn’t mention earlier, but love your reviews. Do keep them coming. Cheers!

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  • Hello Michael!

    Did you try to drive any pre-amp or integrated amp in a line level input??

    • Hey Yiannis! You know I didn’t try that yet – as I was focused on the unit as a stand-alone headphone amp/USB DAC. But I’m sure it could be a nice bridge to a sound system from your computer. I can give it a shot and get back to you if you’d like!?!?

      • Yes, I am very curious about that… Thank you!

      • Hey Yiannis!
        Just been busy with other equipment reviews but I have the geek out all set up to feed my ALO Pan Am tube amp – will report back ASAP!!

  • Hey NickV! Thanks for reading and dropping your inquiry! Unfortunately I only had the over-ear Momentums (I actually prefer over-ear myself, but I needed to review an excellent pair of headphones in their price range so I opted for the on-ears). But they’re even easier to drive, plus my B&O H6′s are also easy to drive. The Geek Amp/DAC works beautifully with cans that require little juice. It’s got a black sonic background, and the detail and emotive engagement are splendid. I even tried my nephews Urban Ears on the unit to make sure! You’d be golden.

  • I too curious to know how does GO sound with sennheiser momentum and Shure se535 iem, also does it have enough grunt to easily drive LCD

    • Hey Nigel!
      Loved the Geek Out w/
      My Sennheiser Momentums!! It’s was lively, engaging, and airy. A wonderful pairing!! It also had plenty of juice to drive ALL my Audeze cans: LCD-3, X, and XC! I loved it with all of em!

  • I’m curious how the Sennheiser Momentum Over Ears sound with the Geek Out. How much difference does the DAC/Amp make with phones that don’t really need all that juice? Does the quality of the DAC shine through and make for a noticeable upgrade over a standard headphone jack output?

  • Thanks for reading. Vienna! Very cool. You should have a BLAST with your Audeze LCD-2 and the Geek Out 1000! My favorite pairings with the 1000 right now are my LCD-3 and LCD-X. As for the desktop Geeks: I’ll have to ask Scot if he bought the desktop version – they look slick, and I’m optimistic about their sonic integrity, given their products to date. Happy Listening!!

  • glad to read this about the geek. i am really keen on my geek now and really want to play the bandwith from classic to black metal with my audeze lcd-2, my beyerdynamic and the grado rs2i.

    after your mouthwatering article the pain of waiting grows. hope you’ll do a review on the indigogo geek (the desktop version) too.

    thanks!
    greetings from vienna, austria
    h.