LH Labs Geek Out Review: From humble Kickstarter beginnings, LH Labs poured £30k Da Vinci technology into the smallest of form factors, but don’t let the size fool you… this device packs heat! Whilst there are a number of design oversights the audio quality is, however, unrivalled. Geek Out is a bargain!
It all began with an honest idea; to produce a limitless digital to analogue converter that would satisfy the most discerning ear, but it was in 2010, after years of pouring heart and soul into its design, that American audiophile, Larry Ho, debuted the Da Vinci DAC to a group of golden eared friends. With only modest expectations, it was to Ho’s delight that the group spoke of nothing but praise for the discreet box sat in front of them, and shortly Light Harmonic became a brand with a single worldwide flagship DAC as the beating heart.
From extensive research ploughed into the making of the Da Vinci DAC the brand felt confident that they could use their knowledge to bring audiophile quality audio, in a discreet package, to the ‘masses’. From this the LH Labs sub-brand was created and the Geek Out DAC/Amp placed on the popular crowdfunding platform ‘KickStarter’. With immediate notoriety, and a target that had been smashed ten times over, Geek became an instant hit and was later shipped in April 2014 with all initial order completions being fulfilled in June. Since this moment Geek has caused a storm, so now onto what makes Geek sound so great…
Versions Available and Accessories:
Please note that this review is based upon the Geek Out 1000. Other versions are available, including: ‘Geek Out 450’ which sports a total of 450mW of power for headphones with impedance's under 100Ω ($199.00), ‘Geek Out IEM 100’ for IEM and CIEM listening ($289.00), and finally the ‘Geek Out 1000’ for user pairing with headphones up to, and probably beyond, 600Ω ($299.00). In order to use Geek Out you must have an available USB 2.0 port (or higher). If you are running Mac OS X or Linux Geek Out does not require a driver to operate, however use with a Windows PC does require a driver download from LH Labs website.
As standard the Geek Out comes complete with a 6” USB Type A to Type B extension cable named the ‘Slacker’. However, other accessories are available including an extra ‘Slacker’ cable ($19.00), a ‘Slacker Mini’ ($19.00) which is a short
Unboxing, Features, and Build Quality:
Thankfully LH Labs has opted to ship the Geek Out with as little packaging as possible - this is a DAC/Amp that doesn’t need to validate its performance with a fancy colourful box! However the removal of the sleeve reveals that Geek Out is exceptionally well protected with just a simple Geek branded rigid cardboard presentation case and an 1cm thick neoprene foam lining. During unboxing I could absolutely see that there is no way in which the Geek Out could be damaged during shipping.
Alongside the Geek Out is the previously mentioned ‘Slacker’ cable and a simple black soft carry pouch. Quite honestly I feel that the inclusion of the carry pouch is almost pointless considering that it does not protect Geek Out in any way except for, perhaps, the anodised finish from scratching in your pocket. It would have been much better if LH Labs included an rigid soft-case that could protect the protruding USB socket, but alas it is nowhere to be seen - even at an additional cost on their website! Noting this the Internet is full of soft-cases and a Google search yields millions of stylish results at the desired dimensions and protection.
Coming on to the actual Geek Out body now it has a tiny footprint of just 6.5cm x 3.5cm x 1cm not including the protruding Type A male USB port. You may wonder why LH Labs have not included a cap to make the package more aesthetically pleasing and the obvious answer to this is that it would be too easy to loose at the dimensions and too cumbersome to have teathered to the chassis. Moving away from this point, the Geek Out has a very nice 2mm thick solid machined aluminium case that, under no circumstance, can buckle under pressure and features an anodised bushed aluminium surface. This does mean that the pigment itself is not impregnated into the aluminium, this is a much more expensive production process, and can scratch if not not treated well.
On top of Geek Out is a chevron and Geek logo etched into the case, but below this are dual banks of white LED indicators which indicate two operational states. The first bank of three LED’s simply indicates the playing sample rate, although it can only indicate 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and DSD (32/384kHz) playback and the second bank of four LED’s signify the application of the ‘3D Awesomeifier’. This is essentially a crossfeed filter and is something that we shall come on to shortly. On the rear of the Geek Out is a sticker to indicate what each of these LED’s means to the user, however when Geek Out is operational the chances of reading this label is slim. It really is a shame that LH Labs could not think of an easier way to indicate this next, or near to, the LED’s on the top of the device.
On the side of Geek Out there are two concave buttons which can perform two operations depending on how they are pressed. Again their function is not listed on, or near, the buttons and if you are using a laptop with USB ports either side you can get their + or - around the wrong way. Considering how powerful the Geek Out 1000 is this could be an issue if you quickly want to turn down the volume. Anyhow, with a quick press you can increase of decrease Geek Outs internal output level by 0.5dB and pressing both buttons simultaneously engages and disengages the ‘3D Awesomifier’.
Moving on to the rear of all Geek Out’s you will find two 3.5mm outputs; one is an 0.47Ω headphone output and one is the 47Ω line output (or an output for high impedance headphones - typically 100Ω+). Simply the benefit of both outputs is to maximise efficiency by pairing headphones with the power that they require; thus increasing accuracy. Typically the closer to a 0Ω output the better for the reason that it minimises the chances of overloading the internal amplifier and impacting the transparency of audio due to waveform distortion (with higher sensitivity headphones_. If you compare this output sensitivity, on paper, to the competition, Geek Out wins as the AudioQuest Dragonfly has a 12Ω output and the Meridian Explorer has a 5Ω output. Having both output impedance's will allow you to be able to experiment between them to hear what is better for your headphones. In terms of design I do have to say that there is a significant issue here. Firstly if you are using Geek Out with a tower computer it is likely that you will not be able to find a USB port with this amount of space around it. The second issue is that if you are using a laptop computer it is possible that because the weight of the device, in combination with the headphone cable weight leavening at the far end, could damage the Geek Out or your computer and/or prohibit use from other close proximity ports. USB ports were designed to take a beating, but their housings are soldered onto the logic board and can stress the joint easily. The length of the Geek Out is double the length, and triple the weight of an average USB pen drive so, with this in mind, please take care when using this device - always use the included ‘Slacker’ cable!
Geek Out is a USB 2.0 device that draws all its power from your computers USB (5v power rail), does not use batteries, and does not need any additional power input, but Geek Out is a very impressive micro-machine that has an asynchronous DAC/Amp design. Simply put, Geek Out has its own super accurate clock source separate to the inaccurate one embedded within the host computers USB controller. By having its own clock source Geek Out is able to to be much more stable with less jitter and thus can sample the audio with a greater degree of accuracy. This brings big changes in dynamic range and frequency response, but Geek Out also uses the well respected ESS Sable 9018K2M digital to analogue converter in combination with a Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 (Class A) IC amplifier to deliver breathtaking analogous clarity to your headphones. It should be acknowledged that due to the internal amplifier being of a class A design, Geek Out can get very hot and, at times, can be too hot to touch. LH Labs have designed Geek Out’s aluminium case so that it acts as a crude heat sink to disperse the heat, but the small surface area of Geek Out and a lack of typical fins comes at the cost of excess heat output which can potentially reduce the lifespan of the product, considering it can get up to 70°c (158° f) - 60°c (140° f) is considered too hot to touch! Saying this it comes as no surprise why it gets so how when you consider how much power Geek Out harbours; Geek Out 450 can deliver 450mW of power into a 16Ω output and Geek Out 1000 can deliver one full what of power into a 16Ω output. Clearly Geek Outs capabilities are unprecedented. For most users the 450 will suit their needs, but for users demanding a higher power, for use with higher impedance headphones, the Geek Out 1000 will more than suffice. Saying that there is no way that you could possibly run out of power, even with tricky planar-magnetic headphones such as the HiFi-Man HE6, and during testing I couldn’t go anywhere near to running out. With this noted the massive amount of power on offer with the Geek Out 1000 needs to be handled with care because there is a real potential risk of ruining your headphones or hearing.
Finally, just as a side note, I would like to mention that there does appear to be some form of protection device within Geek Out to stop a surge of power, at any volume output level, from occurring when accidentally disconnected or connected to the USB. Although the Geek Out categorically does not contain a relay switch, it does appear that it has some form of device acting in its place.
MacBook Air 2013, Sonic Studio Amarra, Lossless WAV’s, Beyerdynamic T90’s, Fostex TH900’s, Fostex TH600’s, Heir Audio 8.0 IEM’s, and Grado SR325e’s.
Having discussed a collective of trivial design issues, I do have to say that the ears appreciation of Geek Out more than makes up for these physical concerns. With Geek Out, LH Labs has created a convenient portable device thats sonic capabilities take on leading desktop DAC/Amp solutions under £500 with laughable ease. Geek Out has been designed to harbour an transparent natural audiophiliac sonic signature in the mid to high frequencies with a slight extra touch of weight occurring around the bass frequencies to bring an element of fun into the mix. I have discovered that to get the best out of Geek Out you do need to have it operational for half an hour before listening. Obviously Geek Out still sounds great before this, but you will be holding on to a more sterile performance in comparison to its relaxed state. Another consideration is that I have found Geek Out to not cope with lossy files, such as MP3, very well. The poor resolution attracts a prickly response that is otherwise absent with lossless file types.
Overall the frequency response feels consistent and feels full across the spectrum. The higher frequencies are presented extremely well and sound as if the ultra-highs are tapered off to eliminate sibilance, but otherwise they feel transparent. The midrange is also executed perfectly by matching an ultra smooth presentation and is far from sterile due to an ever so slight warm edge to bring out bouncy rhythmic instruments and smooth vocal performances. In the lower midrange I can detect some frequency bunching at a very low level and it appears that around the 240Hz Q-Point the Geek Out cuts this range ever so slightly to reduce the possibility of mud impacting the transparency of a recording. Moving on to the low end now, the Geek Out does an excellent job of adding weight and presence to recordings. Bass guitars and low rhythmic instruments cut well between each other so there are clear definitions between the two and the Geek Out brings silk to the entire range. Noting this aforementioned silky quality I have discovered that there are some mild transient response issues when it comes to sharp snappy attack/decay rhythmic instruments. When soloed the Geek Outs timing is trying ever so hard to keep up, but it can result in a pumpiness that misses, or cuts, the top of the attack. In all other circumstances the transient response is more than adequate. Thankfully it is not so sharp at the higher frequencies meaning that they are presented without sibilance and the midrange response is smooth and guides the rhythm well.
As mentioned before, Geek Out has its own built in Crossfeed Filter that LH Labs have chosen to name as the ‘3D Awesomeifier’ and… it’s surprisingly good! However, you can’t expect to reap the full rewards of this digital signal process with most music. Granted it does notably extend the soundstage with most genres, but the full benefits can be heard from recordings with wide soundstages or dramatic hard panned instrumentation ie. Old recordings (Ie. Beatles - Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, thinner soundstage music, and airy classical recordings). When engaged recordings seem to take on a much more personal lease of life. It feels as if the recording is coming from more around your head and not from just a static two dimensional perspective. This is clearly why they have named it the ‘3D Awesomifier’, it totally makes sense because its disengagement makes the recording flat and regimented once again. This is an option which is purely subjective, but its engagement yields extra vertical and horizontal depth to the recording. One minor issue is that at the cost of extra air the resolution of transient detailing is moderately reduced. However, when the ‘3D Awesomifier’ is off the Geek Out has a very natural soundstage that does not feel tight and constructed, likewise instrumentation does not appear to be thrown too far. On the whole Geek Out has an amazing sonic performance.
Geek Out has a remarkable sound quality and can easily take on desktop DAC/Amps at double the price, however Geek Out is let down by a number of design errors. Whilst I am very impressed on one side, I feel let down on the other by so many oversights. It is for this reason LH Labs Geek Out is awarded with a four star rating. Bring on Geek Out MK2!