In my recent review of the Audeze Deckard headphone amp/DAC [Tape Op #119], I emphasized the value of high-quality monitoring systems for laptops, iPhones, and other portable devices. An enhanced mobile listening experience really makes a difference, and its merits should not be ignored. What has become accepted as “listenable” by the mainstream music consumer is downright miserable, especially from “free” streaming accounts that deliver low-bitrate MP3s. I admit, high-resolution audio is starting to creep around the edges of the conversation and is being made available as an option directly from artists as well as from services like Bleep <www.bleep.com>. But that is only one side of the story. If you have a great high-resolution file, it’s sure to sound better than a 128 kbps MP3; but if your playback device is also mediocre, so will be your listening experience. Most computer DACs are “okay” at best, but they are nothing like we get to experience with a good converter/interface in our studio environments, even on the low end of the quality spectrum. It’s a shame, because the public really should have the pleasure of listening to music closer to its intended fidelity.
Problem is, most standalone DACs are out of the price range that the average listener is willing to spend. The aforementioned Deckard is around $700. Although worth it, in my opinion, it’s an unlikely purchase for those who are not heavily invested in hi-fi listening or who simply lack the paper to burn. The Spectra DAC from NextDrive may change that. At $149, the entry point for an elevated listening experience is within reach.
The Spectra is a small and lightweight (17 g) unit that’s not much bigger than a 1/4’’ headphone adapter. It’s available with a USB Type A or Micro USB connector, and soon USB Type C, but it’s compatible with a range of third-party USB-Lightning adapters so you can use it with late-model iOS devices. You simply plug one end into your computer, tablet, or phone; plug headphones into the other end; and choose the Spectra as the output from the appropriate sound settings panel of your computer or mobile device. From its 1/8’’ output jack, the Spectra was able to drive various earbuds, headphones, and even the Audeze LCD-3 and LCD-X planar-magnetics [Tape Op #113] in my collection without issue.
Handling the Spectra’s conversion and amplification is the ESS Sabre 9018Q2C chip, which is also found in many hi-fi units from the likes of Krell, Weiss Engineering, Accuphase, and McIntosh. It has a claimed frequency response of 20 Hz – 40 kHz, and it supports playback bitrates up to 32-bit, 384 kHz. Software installation is not required for macOS, but Windows users will need to download and install a driver for high-resolution playback.
The most dramatic differences between the headphone outputs of my MacBook Pro and the Spectra are an enhanced stereo image and a touch more dimension from the Spectra. There is slightly more clarity and robustness to the low end as well, and a sense of real space around the elements. Quick A/B’ing between the laptop and Spectra reveals improvements in the sound stage and overall clarity, but where I feel the most noticeable gain is in the length of time I can listen to digital files without fatigue.
I have noticed this effect when mixing on high-end DACs versus older or cheaper DACs — and the same holds true here. The difference is of course even more apparent when listening to full-resolution (FLAC, WAV) versus data-compressed files. For engineers that tend to be more tuned-in to the technical aspects of recordings, the Spectra makes the listening experience more pleasurable by cleaning up a bit of the flotsam and jetsam (jitter) that a lesser converter can suffer from. You know when your windshield seems clean and you think you can see through it just fine, but when you rub a cloth on the inside, you notice that a slight haze build-up is obscuring some of your view? Better conversion is like that. It was all fine until you wiped the haze away and realized, “Oh, the window was a little dirty.”
I can see the Spectra being a perfect solution for those recording on the road or in small home studios, where super high-end conversion is not an option due to concerns over price, convenience, or mobility. With that said, if you are already the user of a high-end DAC, the Spectra will probably not blow you out of the water in terms of what you are accustomed to. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a better, portable listening experience — where performance far exceeds the price point — the Spectra DAC from NextDrive is a great place to start.