Double Take Review: Rockin’ out with the Geek Out
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!
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.