At CES2014, we stumbled upon a little booth that offered free t-shirts. Hey, free stuff is always good and it had a big “Geek” logo right on the front so all the better! It turned out the t-shirts required us to sign up for something so we didn’t get any, but we did get to speak with the man running the booth, Gavin, and figure out what it was he was promoting. We were so amazed, we interviewed him on the spot.
In case you haven’t seen the video, Gavin had the Geek Out; a USB audio interface that promised to give professional level sound from any computer. He put some headphones on me, queued up some music, and nearly made me cry. That’s all well and good in a preset environment from the person who is trying to promote it, but how does it perform in the day to day real world? Well, they sent me one to find out!
What Is It?
*Warning: We’re going to be covering a LOT of stuff here that audiophiles throw around like crazy and normal people know nothing about. Please bear with us.
The LH Labs Geek Out is, in simplest terms, a USB sound card. And amplifier. And surround sound spacializer. That last one may not be a word, but considering they sell it as “3D Awesomifier”, I think I’m ok.
In more accurate terms, the Geek Out seeks to replace your onboard sound card (which typically is NOT good) with an external DAC (that’s Digital-Analog Converter) with built in amplification and sound processing. It is capable of handling sample rates from 44100 kHz all the way up to 6.144 MHz and bit depths up to 32-bits. But what does all that mean?
- Sample Rates: Think of how often a song changes tone. If you’re humming “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” at the rate of 60 beat per minute (BPM) then you can do it at 1Hz, or one cycle per second. Put very simply, a sample cycle is how often a computer looks for change in tone. Since that song is very simple in melody, the computer could sample it once per second and not miss anything. In fact, there’d be a couple times when it’d go for two cycles and not see any change (half notes at “star”, “are”, “sky”, and “high”). Compare that to pretty much any other music ever created, and you can see how the more complex the sound, the more often you need to sample it. Most high end internal sound cards max out at 192 kHz. Geek Out can do 32 times that.
- Bit Depth: If you take the waveform in each sample (see above) and look at each peak and valley, each point of that would be considered a bit. If you are only capturing 1-bit per sample, then you only have a single point. 2-bit per sample and you have a line segment. Complex sounds, however, have MANY points in their waveform happening all the time. The lower the bit depth, the harder it is for computers (and, frankly, humans) to distinguish between the actual sound you want to hear and the background noise you don’t. This is called the Signal-To-Noise Ratio (or SNR) and is measured in decibels. As best I can tell, 24-bit depth is just about enough to match most people’s range of hearing. Geek Out’s 32-bit audio is gravy for those who can hear it (which isn’t uncommon).
- Asynchronous USB: I haven’t talked about this yet, but it’s on the feature page of their site so we might as well cover it and why it matters. USB is a software controlled interface that runs on its own clock cycle. Long story short, it means that whatever device is plugged into the USB is at the mercy of the computer. If your computer sucks, then so does your device. Sorry! We have seen this happen ourselves when using USB mics to record on slower computers; those of us with better computers are fine while the person with the slower computer comes to a halt. It is also the reason why older (4 years ago) video cameras only had FireWire interfaces and refused to use USB. By making the Geek Out run as an asynchronous device, it basically tells the computer to “shove off, I’ll tell you what I want from you, not the other way around”. This means the device is only handling what it needs to, when it needs it.
- Class-A Amplifier: This isn’t a grading scale, like Grade-A beef or anything. This type of amp is taking constant current, regardless of the amount of sound that’s coming through. Any current that isn’t used by an input signal is bled off in the form of heat. This may not sound like a good thing, but it really is. Years ago I had an amplifier for my home theater that was not a true Class-A. This meant that if there was a sudden shift from quiet to loud in a movie (say, important dialog interrupted by an explosion), there was a noticeable delay as the amp had to power up for the loud sounds. By being a Class-A amplifier, this essentially means that the device is always in a sort of “hot standby” and ready for whatever you’re about to throw at it.
- 3D Awesomifier: Normally it’s not a good sign if a company has to make up words to advertise a feature. It usually means they also had to make up the need for the feature in the first place. In this case, however, LH Labs created an algorithm to make it sound like things are happening “around” you and not “at” you. This sounds counter-intuitive at first, as you would think that you want all sounds aimed at your ears for the best experience. However, if you think about how you actually hear the world around you, this is almost never the case. Instead, your ears pick up on sounds all around you that may be aimed somewhere else entirely.
Frankly, just about all of it.
That makes for a bad review, though, so I’ll try and be more specific.
The model that was sent me is the Geek Out 450, so named because because it produces 450mW of power. It is also the least expensive of the line at $199 and is intended for the larger mainstream market. If you have some more specialized IEM’s (or In-Ear Monitors), you’d do well with the $289 Geek Out IEM100 model. If you have REALLY beefy headphones, then the $299 Geek Out 1000 is your ticket. If these prices seem larger than you expected, then welcome to the world of high end audio where $199 is actually very reasonable. Especially for what you get from it!
The package alone is very posh and you really get a feel that this is intended to be a high end device. The build material is aluminum with metal buttons that feel well crafted. The buttons themselves rattle around a bit, but there’s a reason that more padding wasn’t put into them that we will get into in a bit. Included with the Geek Out is a 6″ USB extension cable which they call “Slacker Cable”. It doesn’t seem like the biggest accessory every, but it’s a welcome one when you consider that this might take up more space than a normal USB accessory and there’s the very real possibility you might accidentally torque your USB port out if you yank on your headphones.
From the audio side of things, this thing really works! I don’t know what witchcraft they managed to cram into its tiny case, but the 3D Awesomifier actually works. Taking the highest quality recording of classical music I could find and turning it on put me right back into my orchestra days; music was happening around me and I was immersed without it being directed AT me. It’s an experience I can’t quite describe using words, but rest assured it’s real and it’s a downright religious moment.
Audio quality is a hard thing to put into a chart, since a lot of it comes right down to how good your own hearing is. I can say, however, that with the Geek Out as my primary audio output and Windows turned onto the highest sample rate, I could clearly hear the difference in every single example in those “128kbps vs 192kpbs” test you can find online. Considering that those tests are a 50/50 guessing game for most people and I could clearly hear the difference every time, it is quite remarkable. I’ve even started using the Geek Out when producing our podcast and doing so at a much higher sample rate and bit depth than I normally would. It takes longer (as the raw file sizes have grown) and the raw recordings haven’t changed at all, but I am able to better hear errors or imperfections when editing . . . right before mixing it all down to a 64kbps lossy mp3. Sorry about that.
In case your wondering about what headphones I’ve used to test this, that’s a valid concern. Your mileage may vary, depending on your choice of headphones. However, I tested the Geek Out with the following and noted a marked improvement with all of them:
- AKG K240 Professional Studio Headphones
- Sennheiser HD 201
- Sennheiser HD 25-1 II
- Audio Technica SonicFuel ATH-CKX5is
- Audio Technica SonicFuel ATH-AX5iS
- Apple Ear Buds
- Some $5 set from a gas station register
That’s a spread of headphones that range from $5 to $250 and it worked wonders on all of them. For the larger ones (such as the K240’s) there’s even a dedicated port that’s made for the larger, less efficient headphones!
First off, this thing gets hot. It’s not like it’s a secret, it says right on the instruction manual that it might get hot. It’s not kidding; you could potentially burn yourself if you aren’t careful. Remember how I said earlier that the metal buttons have some rattle room? There is a very good chance that is intentional to allow for thermal expansion and/or to eliminate any plastics that could possibly melt. This in itself isn’t a negative, I mean what else did you expect from an honest-to-goodness amplifier? However it is something that should be remembered when finding a place to put it . . . and maybe let it cool down before dropping it into your laptop case.
For most people, there is not much need for this device and there’s a very unfortunate reason why; most of your audio is too low quality to really make use of it. To be fair, the Geek Out will still amplify the signal and you’ll get a louder output than normal. But if you’re listening to a lossy 128kbps mp3, then nothing is going to change that.
The size of the Geek Out also adds itself to a bit of a dilemma; being larger than a normal USB drive it will take up space next to it, but it might be worth it to keep it up off the table or desk so it can dissipate heat better.
Finally, there isn’t a whole lot of documentation to help new users with all the features with the Geek Out and what they all mean. This may not be a huge knock against it, however, as it really seems to be marketed at people who would be familiar with this world already.
In the end, the LH Labs Geek Out truly does what it claims to do. I don’t know how, and they sure aren’t saying, but I suspect it involves some sort of sorcery shoved into a USB device. I can say that, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is NO snake oil in this product; it is an unbelievably powerful audio output and amplifier that gives professional level performance at a mere fraction of the cost. It is unlike anything I’ve ever used and has completely ruined me when it comes to audio on my computer. And to think, my laptop advertises JBL speakers and advanced audio as a top feature . . . I used to enjoy it before this!
The real question that the Geek Out faces, and the one that customers need to answer before deciding on if they want to purchase one or not is this: Is this an affordable, high-end audio device for audiophiles on the go? Or is this pricey USB entry for everyone else who is looking at getting into high-end audio? I can’t really answer that for everyone, but I can tell you that it’s a lot more portable and enjoyable than a full Hi-Fi setup! It gets my full recommendation.