I love music and inexpensive high-performance audio products. While I love music more, occasionally I get a product I adore almost as much as the music itself. Consider that a hint as to my feelings about one of the three products I’m about to review. But all three offer an elegant path from a computer’s USB to analog music for less than $300.
“Don’t Fight the Funk!” could be the corporate motto for Blue Circle Audio. Founded in 1988 by Gilbert Yeung, and based in Innerkip, Ontario, Canada, Blue Circle produces a complete line of products including preamps, power amplifiers, cables, and what must be among the strangest audio products ever devised, the Music Purse and Music Pump (available at classicpumps.com/mpumps.htm). These last products are a preamp in a purse and a pair of monoblock power amps encased in a pair of women’s high-heeled pumps. Fortunately for those of us who aren’t fashionistas, most Blue Circle products are housed in more conventional packages.
The USB Thingee’s aesthetics sit at a halfway point between your standard black audio box and the Music Purse. The entire Thingee resides inside a dark gray PVC tube 3½" by 2¼" in diameter. All its innards are potted in translucent silicone, which Blue Circle uses because “the silicone helps to avoid external vibration and, with the PVC pipe, makes the USB Thingee very strong.” It also gives the USB Thingee a decidedly homemade look.
The Thingee functions as both a digital-to-digital converter and a DAC. It is available in four versions. The basic $169 USB Thingee has a USB input and an S/PDIF RCA digital output as well as an analog 1/8" stereo output and a pair of RCA analog outputs. For $179 you can have an additional AES/EBU digital output or a TosLink digital output. For another $10 up-charge you can get a USB Thingee with both of the additional digital outputs. That’s the unit I was sent for review.
The USB Thingee supports both 44.1/16 and 48/16 digital outputs from USB. It will not support higher bit rates. I used it successfully as a digital converter with a variety of stand-alone DACs including the Bel Canto DAC3, April Music Stello DA 100, and the Meridian 518/561 combination. In every case the Thingee successfully interfaced and transmitted a digital music stream with no compatibility issues whatsoever. If you have a high-end DAC that lacks a USB input, the Thingee serves as an excellent bridge device to bring computer-based music files into your DAC.
I compared the Thingee with the built-in digital TosLink outputs from my Mac Pro Dual-core Intel Xeon computer. In direct matched-level A/B comparisons I couldn’t hear any sonic differences. So with the Mac Pro the USB Thingee’s primary appeal won’t be sonic but ergonomic—it delivers the option to connect with DACs that don’t have TosLink inputs (which many high-end DACs have dumped). The only connection that did yield a subtle but noticeable sonic improvement was when I hooked up the USB Thingee’s AES/EBU output to the Meridian 518/561 combo. This connection had slightly better depth and image specificity. With other computers you may well hear more differences between their internal digital converters and the Thingee since some computers, especially portables, have converters inferior to those in the Mac Pro.
Although the USB Thingee worked nicely as a bridge device between my Mac and a wide array of standalone DACs, it was less sonically successful as a one-piece DAC. It puts out only 0.775V RMS, which may be insufficient for many passive preamp systems. Through the Reference Line Preeminence One preamp (which is a passive unit) it produced adequate volume but the sound was flat with a one-dimensional, mechanical character. Compared to other DACs the Thingee’s sound lacked midrange bloom and musicality. Every other DAC I had in house, including even the $89 High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer USB DAC, sounded far more natural and appealing through the Reference Line preamp. When I hooked up the USB Thingee via its analog output to the Meridian 561 (which uses the Meridian’s internal A/D to re-digitize the signal) the sound was less astringent but still less dimensional and less harmonically full-bodied than the direct digital feed from the USB Thingee’s digital outputs to the Meridian. Finally I hooked the USB Thingee up to a Dell D620 portable. The Thingee’s analog output sounded slightly better than the Dell’s own internal soundcard.
While I would unequivocally recommend the USB Thingee if you need to transform a digital musical stream from USB to coaxial S/PDIF, TosLink, or AES/EBU, if you want to use it as a D/A device for going from digital to analog you would be sonically better served by other options, including the High Definition Technologies Music Streamer.