When I tried the HM-101 in my desktop system I could hear a slight amount of low-level noise when no music was playing and the volume control was set at a normal listening level. The HM-101’s output was not as quiet as that of most of the DAC/Preamps I’ve used recently. And while the sound through the HM-101 was still relatively clean and well defined, it doesn’t have the three-dimensionality or image solidity of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus ($649) for instance. I suspect that some of the HM-101’s dimensionality loss was due to low-level noise obscuring some detail and dimensional cues. However the HM-101 sounded better than the analog output from my MacPro desktop. For most people the HM-101’s best application will be for portable and headphone use rather than in a desktop or room-based system.
Given the dearth of competition in $40 portable DACs, finding another DAC to compare to the HM-101 proved an exercise in futility. Sure, there were a couple of DACs and soundcards available on EBAY for $60, but for $40 I only found kits and kit parts. By moving up the price-point food chain prospective buyers will discover super-performers such as the Calyx Kong ($149) and the AudioEngine D1 ($169). Both sound more dynamically robust, support a wider variety of headphone options, and support higher resolution music files than the HM-101. But both the Kong and the D1 require pricier and higher-resolving headphones (or desktop systems) than the HiFiMAN HE-300 ($299) to deliver their full potential.
If high value is your primary criteria for an audio acquisition, you can stop reading and head straight for the “purchase now” button on HiFiMAN’s website, because the HM-101 is the best portable audio value you’re going to find in stand alone soundcard DACs.
On their most recent concert the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra performed Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello featuring soloists from the Takacs Quartet. My recording of the concert turned out splendidly. Through the HM-101 most of dynamic weight and the feeling of live-ness was preserved. Sure, I heard some loss of low-level detail compared to my reference DAC/headphone amps, and imaging wasn’t nearly as precise, but most of the macro and some of the micro dynamics were preserved.
It seems that no matter how many times I listen to the Beatles Abbey Road album [Capitol] from 44.1/24 FLAC files, I hear new parts and details that I missed before. Through the HM-101 I heard the floating and almost subliminal mellotron lines in the background of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Also the metallic edge of the hammer strikes had the right jump factor, guaranteed to get anyone’s full attention.
If you require an inexpensive, easily portable DAC, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more attractive combination of ergonomics and sound quality than the HM-101. For less than the cost of a premium USB cable you can dramatically upgrade the sound quality of your computer’s audio with this miniscule external USB soundcard. If you travel and want to maximize your musical road-trip enjoyment, I suggest you don’t leave home without a HiFiMAN HM-101.
Consider this DAC if:
• You must have a very compact, lightweight, and travel-friendly USB DAC.
• You require a DAC with software-controlled volume.
• You want a DAC that mates well with the HiFiMAN HE-300 headphones.
Look further if:
• You need a DAC that has multiple inputs.
• You require a DAC that supports higher bit-rates than 48 kHz.
• You want a DAC with its own physical volume control.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced DACs):
• Design & Features: 9
• Tonal Balance: 8
• Timbral Purity: 8
• Detail & Resolution: 8
• Imaging/Soundstaging: 8
• Dynamics: 8
• Value: 9.5
If you want to improve the sound of your computer’s audio the HiFiMAN HM-101 makes an ideal first step. Priced under $40, the HM-101 will make any pair of headphones sound better than through your computer’s built-in audio outputs. Combine the HM-101 with HiFIMAN’s entry-level HE-300 headphones and you will have a musically satisfying personal music system for under $340.
HiFiMAN Express HM-101 Portable USB Sound Card
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz
S/N: 96 dB
Stereo Crosstalk: 78 dB
Headphone Amplifier Output: 62 mw at 36 Ohm, 26 mw at 150 Ohm
Dimensions (H x W x D): .54” x 1.42” x 2.38”
Weight: Not specified.
Warranty: 30 days refund: shipping cost is not refundable. 90 day replacement: