DACs Do Make a Difference for Digital Music Listening
Digital Music Showroom proves that simple add-ons can make a huge difference in your listening experience.
May 09, 2012 by Lisa Montgomery

Last week I visited The Little Guys, in Mokena, Ill., a 10,000-square-foot showroom of everything A/V, plus some control thrown in for good measure. There were the typical home theater vignettes, although this place has more setups than most A/V shops – five to be exact. There was also a private two-channel listening room for audiophiles and a switching station where customers can test out combinations of speakers and receivers. The coolest stop on my tour of the store, though, was the company’s new Digital Music Showroom.

This is where digital music gets a big kick in the butt, so to speak. Every piece of equipment—and there’s a lot of it—is fully operational. The objective, my gracious and patient tour guide explained to me, is to demonstrate to customers how much better their digital music can sound by adding DACs, receivers, quality speakers and other gear. Skeptical? I was. I like my digital music just fine the way it is, thank you. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding, and after a few minutes of listening to the systems in the demo room, I’m a true believer that the quality of the tunes I’ve been playing through my bargain iPod dock at home basically sucks.

The device that made the most dramatic impact in my listening experience was the DAC (digital to analog converter). I’ve listened to PR people pitch the merits of DACs, seen them sitting on shelves at trade shows, but this was the first time I was actually able to witness the pure, raw talents of the DAC. Turns out, this unassuming little black box is extremely versatile, too. The demos at The Little Guys include a DACs attached to a desktop computer, to wireless whole-house distribution system (Sonos), and to a two-channel, high-end setup. The most dramatic difference was the computer-to-DAC arrangement. Without the DAC—and playing through puny computer speakers—the music sounded okay. That same computer-stored tune played through a DAC, a home theater receiver and a pair of home theater-style bookshelf speaker—well, the experience was night and day.

By far the most fun I had at The Little Guys, though, was working my way through the headphone display. Here was my chance to test-drive about a dozen different models. I listened to each pair individually, relying again on the patient salesperson to one at a time connect the headphone to the Peachtree Audio iNova amp/DAC. For my test I selected probably not the type of music an audiophile would—Def Leppard—but hey, that’s what I like. I wanted this to be a blind test—neither brand name nor price was going to sway my decision. However, since all the “popular” kids are wearing Beats, I was kind of banking on it winning here.

Nope. My favorite was a lime green pair from AKG from the Quincy Jones line. For one, they were really comfortable. The music sounded well defined and crystal clear. The Klipsch Reference ONE was a close second. The Dr. Dre Beats (both the Pro and Studio line) were the last in the listening lineup. I like them, but too much bass. Remarkably, the AKG Q460 cost half as much as some of the higher-end, reference-grade headphones. As Evie Wexler of The Little Guys explained, higher-priced headphones are typically designed so that the music sounds extremely natural and accurate, which audiophiles like. The pair I liked produced music like I’m used to hearing it—with more equalization. Ok, that proves it: I’m no audiophile. However, I may be one step closer after hearing music played through a DAC.

Check out the slideshow for more of what I sampled at The Little Guys

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Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

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