There’s much to be said for portable headphone amplifiers that incorporate built-in DAC, especially if you use a laptop PC or MAC as your source component of choice from time to time. It also helps to know that some units are USB-powered (for example, the CEntrance DACport I recently reviewed in Playback), since this means you no longer need to lug a wall-wart type power supply/battery charger around with you when you travel.
But if you’re at all like me, you might want to do some listening through a laptop, but also to use an iPod or iPhone at other times. This would seem to point toward a need for high-quality portable headphone amp/DACs that meets the following core requirements:
· USB data interface for those times when you listen to music files from your laptop.
· USB power connections, just because they’re really convenient (at least as compared to a wall-wart type charger/power supply).
· A high-quality onboard DAC with a low-jitter USB interface.
· Battery power to handle those situations where you cannot, or do not want to, connect the amp to a USB power/data source.
· An analog input for those times when you listen to music stored on an iPod/iPhone.
· A high-quality (and preferable high-efficiency) amp to power your headphones—and ideally to power just about any type of headphone you might care to bring on the road with you.
At CanJam 2010 I spotted a headphone amp/DAC that met all of these requirements and then some, and knew immediate that I wanted to review it for Playback. The amp/DAC in question is the iQube V2 ($699) from the Dutch firm Qables.
The amp arrives in an adorable little rectangular tin (the kind you might expect to contain exotic European candies or cookies), and when first crack it’s container you’ll very likely be wowed by the iQube’s looks. It exhibits a certain precision and fineness of fit and finish that immediately reminded me of an old-school Leica camera from Germany. Our sample was done up in a tasteful two-tone matte silver and matte black finish, though I’m told there’s also a silver and white version available. The controls are simplicity itself to use.
On the iQube V2’s front panel you’ll find switches for amplifier gain (high or low), amplifier on/off, a control knob for the very high quality Alps volume control, and two pilot lights (one for power on, one to show when the unit is hooked up to a USB power source for charging. On the rear panel, you’ll find two mini-jacks (one for analog input signals, the other for the headphone outputs), and a mini-USB port (which, as mentioned above, serve not only to feed the DAC with digital data, but also acts as a “power cord” for charging the iQube V2’s batteries). That’s all there is to it: simple.
Of course things are quite so simple on the inside, where iQube has taken special pains to incorporate high-quality parts in all the right places. Highlights include:
· Medical graded double layer epoxy circuit board using HOFC (High Oxygen Free Copper)
· Optimized board design enhances signal quality
· Alps potentiometer
· Vishay series 036 decoupling capacitors throughout
· Panasonic stack film capacitors
· Carbon signal resistors
· Lumberg I/O connectors
· Fully RoHS compliant design.
· CNC machined aluminum casing, with rubber touch/feel painted covers