Like most web workers out there, I enjoy the companion of good earphones or headphones while working. Each year I always try to allocate a small amount of budget to satisfy this hobby/work requirement. Today I am trying to level up by adding a USB DAC to connect to my 13″ Macbook Air (2012) in hope of getting a little bit of better audio quality.
First of all, this is not an audiophile’s review. My ears are not that well trained to be able to recognize the “sound colors” using different setups. I can only share a subjective conclusion and a little bit story of how they are set.
Here is my setup:
- Laptop: Apple Macbook Air 13″ (Mid 2012)
- DAC: FiiO E10K Olympus 2
- Headphones: Philips Fidelio X1
- Cable: 3.5cm Custom Connector Cable – Canare Aluminum Foil Shield (L-2B2AT) + Rean NYS231BG
- Music Player: VOX
What is a DAC?
DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter, or a component that converts digital data into analog signal so you can hear the audio through your speakers or headphones. Basically it is a sound card or sound chip that is integrated into almost all computer motherboards to produce audio output. However not every on-board DAC has the same quality, caused by many factors which I am not going to discuss here.
In fact, Macbook Air already has a very good built-in DAC according to this article. So why do I need to buy an external DAC you say? Well to be very fair, the main reason is because I am a geek and need a reason to spend money to make my computer looks cooler. But behind that, I am also hoping I can get a different experience when listening to music from my laptop.
In case you never heard of FiiO, it is a Chinese brand that has been making a reputation for making very good audio products with reasonable pricing. Their product ranges include portable players, portable amps, DACs and cables. The E10K (Olympus 2) is one of their latest products released this year, an update of their popular E10. It is a USB DAC, so you need to plug it into your computer’s USB connector for it to receive the ‘digital data’.
I have to say, gone are the days when Chinese brands create so-so products in not-so-exciting packaging. This was my first FiiO product and I was quite impressed in how they try to give a wonderful customer experience when unpacking their product. Fiio E10K comes in a very well designed box. Inside you will find the unit, USB cable to connect your computer, and a set of rubber feet which I decided not to use.
The unit itself is a lot smaller than I imagined. The build quality is good, the volume knob has some resistant which makes it feel like turning on a bigger device. In overall, nothing about it is cheap. If this is sold by a bigger brand, they can easily double the price tag and still get lots of customers buying.
Connecting to the Macbook’s USB slot, the device was immediately detected and can be checked under Mac OS X’s System Preferences > Sound. Although surprisingly it was shown as FiiO USB DAC-E10 instead of E10K. I do not think that would be an issue though. If you want to use it as the main output for all system sounds, you can select it instead of the Internal Speakers. In my case, I do not want this which I will explain further down.
Setting the volume at 6 (out of 8), you can already get louder sounds from the built-in output. So if you do not find your Macbook’s sound through the earphone jack is loud enough, that is more than enough reason to buy an external DAC or amp. I set the Bass to on and it delivers the extra punch in the lower frequencies that meets my taste.
Philips Fidelio X1
When talking about good headphones, the first names that comes to mind are probably Sennheiser, AKG, Sony, and so on. Philips had been making headphones and earphones for a long time but had never been considered as a serious player. That was until they introduce the Fidelio line with X1 as their flagship product.
Great sound, uber design, nice build quality, all packed with a reasonable price, what else could you ask for? I am going to hand the in-depth reviews to be masters and other references which in majority agree that these are good pair of cans in their price range:
- Head-Fi – Philips Fidelio X1 | Review & Comparison
- Headfonia – The Fidelio X1 by Philips
- Pocket-lint – Philips Fidelio X1 headphones review
I have been using my X1 for almost 6 months now and really enjoying them even by connecting directly to my Macbook without the FiiO E10K. I got a very sweet deal on Amazon when they put them as Today’s Deal for only $150. With Amazon offering global shipping on select products, even with International delivery and customs, the amount of money I had to pay was still less than its suggested retail price of $300.
Quick facts regarding the X1:
- They are open-back headphones, which means the music you are hearing is leaking out but gives a bigger staging feel. I personally love open-back cans. They are obviously not the choice for commuting.
- X1 comes with detachable connector cable and the most popular suggestion from many owners of the set is to replace the one that comes with the box to get better sound quality.
VOX Music Player
iTunes had been the only music/media player I needed for over a decade, until I discover VOX by Coppertino. Is it just another music player for Mac OSX? I have to say no. Here are few reasons to love it:
- It is a seriously developed app with pleasant interface. Kudos for the awesome guys at Coppertino.
- Supports additional music formats including FLAC.
- I can split my music libraries in case I do not want to sync to my iOS devices, or want to listen to a new album without permanently adding it to my iTunes library.
- You can choose the Output Device under the preferences which works really well in my setup and only use FiiO DAC to output the music for VOX. Other system sounds will go through the internal speakers or phones if plugged in to the laptop.
- More EQ presets.
- Last.fm and SoundCloud intergration.
VOX is available as free download from Mac App Store or direct download on Coppertino website.
I am happy with my music setup? Yes, very much. I can honestly say that I am truly enjoying it. The idea that I can have two completely separate setups on my Macbook Air is very exciting. Now I can use my good headphones to enjoy good music, while preserving the built-in mic/output for my headset for Skype. No longer I need to switch the phones and adjusting the volume every time I get incoming call.