For many older audiophiles, their “conversion moment” when they discovered the world of high-quality sound began when they heard their first piece of affordable high-performance audio gear, such as the NAD 3020 integrated amplifier. But what about today’s audiophiles with computer-based systems? Is there a new piece of kit that’s likely to lure them into the fold? I think the Audioengine D1 might just do the trick.
For $169 (street and list price) the Audioengine delivers a level of fidelity that only a couple of years ago was unthinkable for anything near its price. Along with great sound, the Audioengine also serves up a tasty feature set, all contained in a box only slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes (you do remember what a pack of cigarettes looks like, right?).
• The Audioengine D1 uses an AKM AK4396 24-bit/192kHz digital-to-analog converter.
• Supported sample rates include USB: up to 96kHz, and optical digital: up to 192kHz at 24-bit depth.
• Built-in high-performance headphone amplifier (20 ohm to 300 ohm optimal headphone impedance).
• A built-in driver for USB connection.
• Powered by USB connection—no need for external power supply when connected to a USB source (using the optical input requires optional AC USB power adapter or connection to a computer's USB port).
• Double regulated USB power ensures that USB power variations, if any, do not affect audio output.
• Compact design for portability.
o 1 USB (Type B) input for connection to a PC.
o 1 optical digital (Toslink) audio input.
o 1 pair of high-quality RCA audio outputs.
o Mini-jack (3.5mm) headphone output.
o Illuminated front- panel on/off switch.
The Audioengine is essentially a plug-and-play device. With its built-in driver, both my Mac and PC recognized the D1 almost instantly and it could be selected from my control panel’s list of audio output devices. For most of the review the D1 was tethered to my Apple Mac Pro tower via its supplied USB cable. The D1 has a standard USB connector so I was able to use it with premium USB cables from AudioQuest, Wire World, Locus Designs and Synergistic Research without any issues.
ITunes, Pure Music, Amarra, Audirvana, AudioGate, and Audirvana Plus all worked with the D1 without any ergonomic or compatibility issues. Most critical listening was done through Pure Music for standard resolution and MP3 files while Audirvana Plus was employed for higher resolution files. Pure Music and Audirvana Plus were used because both have provisions for changing output devices that only require about fifteen seconds for the changeover, making them most convenient for matched-level A/B listening tests.
Fortunately for audiophiles who already own some premium analog single-ended RCA interconnect cables, the D1 not only accepts standard RCA connections, but has its connectors far enough apart that even interconnects with larger diameter barrels, such as Cardas Clear, fit without any problems.
The Audioengine’s rotary volume knob controls both the headphone and line-level outputs. When you attach a pair of earphones to the front mini-jack the line-level output is muted. While this option makes perfect sense for a standard set-up where most users would like to use either headphones or speakers, it does limit some possible uses, such as driving one set of speakers (or subwoofer) from the headphone jack while a second set gets a signal from the standard RCA outputs.
The volume control uses a standard audio taper, meaning that most of the volume gain will occur during the first ½ turn. After that point the volume increase will be minimal. One small oversight is that Audioengine did not include any marks on the volume control of the D1, making it difficult to match levels. I put a couple of magic marker dots on my review sample’s volume knob so I could repeatedly matched volume settings.
The headphone amplifier, based around a TI NE5532 low noise op-amp, should be able to drive most standard headphones. I had more than adequate volume with AKG K701s, Ultimate Ears In Ear Reference Monitors, and Grado RS-1 headphones, as well as Shure SE215 and HiFiMAN RE-272 in-ears.