On my desk right now there are two headphone amps with built-in digital-to-analog converters.

The first is a Quad PA-One. It costs close to $2,000, more than the computer feeding it. It weighs 16 pounds and employs five large vacuum tubes. It's also heating the room, which is nice this time of the year. The second is a USB stick from Audioengine D3. It's the size of a thumb drive and cost me about $50 as a refurb ($100 new).

I've spent the day listening to both amp/DACs with a pair of planar magnetic HiFi Man HE 400s and a pair of dynamic Beyerdynamic DT880s.

Which one sounds better? Well, I'm not going to bullshit you, the Quad sounds fucking amazing. The sound is so rich and black, with lots of detail and incredible texture. This is one of the finest headphone amps out there—it should sound amazing. I'm listening to Aja and loving life.

But what might surprise you, the casual listener and audiophile alike, is just how well the modest little Audioengine D3 stands up to this beast. On the full spectrum of audio experience, the quality coming out of Audioengine's tiny gadget is much closer to the Quad than it is to the native DAC in your computer, even if you have a Mac or a PC with a name-brand sound card.

This little guy will make your Steely Dan records sound much, much better. (Audioengine)
This little guy will make your Steely Dan records sound much, much better. (Audioengine)

If you're a person who spent more than $100 on your headphones, you owe it to yourself to check out the D3, which is the simplest and easiest way of upgrading your headphone setup. Just plug it into one of your USB slots, click a few buttons to tell your computer that this is its new soundcard, and cue up some high-res music.

Who knows, down the line maybe you'll end up being someone who parks a $2,000 headphone amp the size of a Smartcar on your desk. And if you are, you'll be savoring it as I am right now (this is a demo model that I had the pleasure of testing for Gary Alpern of True Audiophile—my salary, ahem, can not quite, uh, accommodate a $2,000 headphone amp).

But if you're a regular person looking to make those new Sennheisers sing, or a serious audiophile looking to not be totally miserable at work, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with the D3. I won't name any names, but if you buy one of those cheapo tube amps instead of this, you're a fool.

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