Cypher Labs Algorhythm Solo -dB
So what’s the weakest link? I’m not talking about BBC quiz show tedium here, but something that every headphone enthusiast has probably asked at some point. If upgrading your system, whether it be portable or home-based, there is likely still something which is holding it back. Spending a grand on some sumptuous headphones is all very well, but they may be a waste of money if you are then plugging them straight into an iPod. Sound quality is limited in part to what the iPod can put out, and expensive headphones will simply reveal with greater resolution the flaws and limitations of the standard iPod DAC and amp.
For those who accept no compromise, there are bits of specialised kit which can take digital information from the iPod (from the 30-pin, or new lightning connections on the 5th gen. iPod) and process that into a much better quality analogue signal. This would need to be fed into an amplifier as the Algorhythm Solo -dB puts out a line-level signal only.
So what’s the dB for? This is a newer version of the original Algorhythm Solo which would work exclusively with Apple devices. Cypher Labs has upped the stakes and provided greater functionality by making these units compatible with the USB ports of Apple computers and PCs alike. Once drivers are installed, the computer will be able to use the unit as an external DAC, beating all pre-installed motherboard DACs to a pulp, and most aftermarket DACs as well.
I decided to check for myself what these things can do, so I put the Solo -dB against my M-Audio Audiophile 24bit/96kHz PCI sound card. If not already, this card is nearly ten years old; and although I have investigated upgrading there really is no need. It’s excellent, so the Solo -dB’s work is cut out.
And so was mine; there was likely a weak link in my chain elsewhere which made properly appreciating this level of quality a challenge. Perhaps with the cables/connections or the amps I was trying it with, the Fiio E12 or my old Behringer 802A mixing desk – neither of which are aimed at truly high-end ears. Looks like that’s my next upgrade.
However I did manage to perceive some difference through my HiFiMAN He-400s before fatigue set in, but not by listening to what was there; I listened to what there wasn’t. On The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster Blitz’ I found it a real challenge to favour one or the other version (both PCI card and Algorhythm Solo going through the mixing desk at the same volume level) but on trying to analyse the space in between the instruments, I found that the glam snare drumroll parts definitely had a more 3D feel coming from the Algorhythm Solo; I could detect space all around them. From the M-Audio PCI card, the same parts had a flatter presentation.
Although the differences may be subtle, I am comparing a PCI card with all its requirements (like a desktop ball and chain) with a self-contained unit which can go in a pocket (albeit not a small one).
So if you are looking at upgrading your sound with some pricey headphones or a similar high-end gadget, just spare a thought for the entire chain. And if you can’t tell the difference between the iPod’s DAC and the Algorhythm Solo, perhaps you’re the weakest link!