The ancient Greek amphitheater at Epidaurus is widely thought about the acoustic marvel of the ancient world. I would argue that the worthy (though often Sisyphean) mission for acoustic excellence is an essential part of the human spirit. Unfortunately, even with all the developments of modern-day innovation, audio quality on our most typically utilized gadgets– our mobile phones and tablets– in some way takes a rear seats.
Processing chips inside these gadgets that transform the digital signal to analog for earphones are either mediocre or totally awful. Additionally, they normally aren’t efficient in providing the power high-performance earphones require.
Including an outboard DAC or earphone amplifier to get that efficiency generally suggested compromising mobility. Thanks to Helm Audio, that tradeoff is a distant memory. Helm Audio’s Bolt DAC/AMP is a superb-sounding, ultra-portable DAC and amplifier that deciphers the complete series of today’s premier high-res audio formats for a simple $99. Continue reading why I fell for Helm Audio’s Bolt and called it an TechHive Editors’ Option.
Outstanding fit and surface
When unpacking the Helm Bolt, the very first thing you’ll see is that the bundle is Spartan. It consists of the Bolt DAC/AMP, a USB-C woman to USB-A adapter, and a top quality, self-closing bring pouch. That’s it.
Holding the Helm Bolt in my hands, it seemed like a premium item with superior products. The rectangle-shaped earphone input was sealed with a matte black surface and checkered quadrant that let me get a strong grip on the Bolt for plugging and disconnecting earphone jacks. Even with damp or sweaty hands, I had a positive grip. It’s a good attention to information you’ll value with extended usage. I can not comment if this impressive surface will use in time.
High efficiency in an ultra-compact type element
The heart of the Helm Bolt is the ESS Sabre 9281A Pro, a 32-bit, two-channel DAC and headphone amplifier in one. Among the crucial selling points is that the ESS Sabre DAC sports a hardware MQA renderer for MQA playback. This remains in addition to DSD, WAV, and every significant lossless codec. The Helm Bolt will support PCM sample rates as much as 384kHz. The Helm Bolt’s signal-to-noise ratio is 115dB.
I have actually checked numerous outboard DAC/AMP options throughout the years. While they have actually smitten me with their efficiency, bulk has actually been their most significant critic. Helm Bolt’s ultra-portable, versatile type element is a significant differentiator.
The Bolt DAC/AMP’s takes a hint from Apple’ Lightning-to-headphone adapter: On one end of the Bolt DAC/AMP you’ll discover a USB-C adapter and on the other a 3.5 mm input that likewise houses the Bolt’s high tech electronic devices. A braided nylon cable television links the 2 parts. Completion outcome is a simple 3.75-inches long.
I discovered the Bolt’s little, ultra-flexible type element to be the most useful and practical of any outboard DAC I have actually utilized with a mobile phone (or a computer system for that matter). It was simple to slip into any pocket, coat, or knapsack. At about 1.2 ounces, it didn’t weigh me down. The versatile style never ever provided me significant doubts of tucking it away. And the truth that the Bolt didn’t need charging or got super-hot sealed the offer.
The Bolt DAC/AMP does not require a motorist. It includes a USB-C input that works with MacOS, iOS, Windows 10, and Android. For iOS gadgets (like my iPhone 12 Pro) and computer systems without a USB-C port, Helm Audio consists of a USB-C-to-USB-A converter in package. Link the converter and voila! You can utilize the Bolt DAC/AMP throughout a huge variety of gadgets.
While Apple’s newest iPads include a USB-C adapter, you might be questioning how you bridge the space with iPhones or Lightning connector-based iPads. The response is easy, simply get either the Apple Lightning-to-USB Video Camera Adapter or the Apple Lightning-to-USB-3 Video Camera Adapter. I bought both adapters for this evaluation. Both include a Lightning-to USB-A connection and carried out identically.
Some small missteps
I will keep in mind 2 small missteps I experienced throughout my evaluation duration: I utilized the Helm Bolt by means of its USB-C adapter on a Mac, a Windows 10 PC, and a USB-C based iPad. Whatever worked splendidly well with the exception of an odd abnormality on the Mac that I limited to the Qobuz desktop app when utilized in combination with the Helm Bolt.
When very first plugging in the Helm Bolt, the Mac sets the Bolt’s Master volume in the Audio MIDI app (situated in the Utilities folder on the Mac) to 1.0 (one hundred percent). Tidal provided me an alert that the volume was too loud and immediately changed it. Apple Music Apps managed it with dignity within the app’s volume control. Not Qobuz.
The volume was so loud it almost blasted out my ears and anything over 5 percent volume within the Quobuz app was unbelievably too loud. The only method I discovered to repair the issue was to enter into the Audio MIDI app and lower the master volume to half or less. I have actually experienced some quirks with the Qobuz desktop app previously, and if you utilize the Helm Bolt with Qobuz on a Mac, you ought to beware about this volume anomaly I experienced.
The 2nd abnormality I experienced begun when I linked the USB-C-to-USB-A adapter for usage on my iPhone 12 Pro. Despite the fact that the Bolt’s power/idle light indication would illumine blue, the Bolt DAC/AMP would not deal with my iPhone 12– or any USB-A computer system port for that matter. Audio would come just from my iPhone speakers and the Bolt would never ever appear as a speaker output alternative. Helm Audio sent me out a replacement USB-C-to-USB-A adapter and bingo! Whatever worked perfectly. In the not likely occasion you encounter a comparable concern, the USB adapter is the most likely issue.
The Bolt DAC/AMP is THX Qualified, which is a huge offer. THX accreditation is the gold-standard in the A/V world for quality and efficiency. The THX Accreditation procedure requires putting an item through more than 400 tests. The item needs to likewise fulfill accurate production requirements. And the item is re-tested once again for compliance after production. Helm Audio states the Bolt DAC/AMP’s THX Accreditation is for ultra-low harmonic, crosstalk, and crossover distortion.
Helm Audio keeps in mind that its style is an intrinsic part of this low distortion. The Helm Bolt physically separates the DAC from the USB adapter. The Helm Bolt likewise utilizes a three-oscillator style to lock onto the frequency. The business declares these 2 style functions considerably enhance the Bolt’s efficiency.
Automatic impedance and signal noticing
The Bolt DAC/AMP immediately finds your earphone’s impedance and sets the output level appropriately (1V for impedances less than 150 ohms, and 2V for impedances of 150 ohms or greater).
The Bolt DAC/AMP provides you a visual indication of the existing sample-rate playback. Blue suggests that the Bolt DAC/AMP has power (idle state) or a signal less than or equivalent to 48kHz. Red suggests a high-res signal higher than 48kHz. Magenta represents MQA material no matter the tasting rate. The LED indication is really reliable and my only positive remark is that the Helm Audio group needs to think about altering the idle state color to another color (green maybe), so that customers can debug any possible anomalous circumstance. I likewise kept in mind that when playing MQA material, the magenta LED appeared to be a mix of a different blue and traffic signal. For that reason, when seen off angle, the light would appear dominantly blue or dominantly red.
A revelatory listening experience
I checked the Helm Audio Bolt DAC/AMP on an iPhone 12 Pro, iPad Pro, and Macbook Pro. For screening on the iPhone 12 Pro, I utilized the formerly discussed Apple Lightning-to-USB adapters. Tidal provided all source product. I put a focus on spinning up tracks categorized as Tidal Masters, which are encoded with MQA.
I utilized a range of earphones throughout my test duration consisting of the Oppo PM2 planar magnetic earphones, B&W PX, and Beyerdynamic Amiron House; however my remarks below will show my experience with the Focal Clear and B&W P9 Signature earphones.
The very first and most natural concern that concerned my mind (and I presume yours) is how does the Helm Bolt compare to the integrated earphone output on a computer system or the Lightning- to-headphone adapters Apple offers.
Well, it didn’t take long to end up that contrast.
Beginning, I pitted the Helm Bolt to Apple’s Lightning-to-headphone adapter. The Helm Bolt’s influence on the music was absolutely nothing except astounding. Listening to the Helm Bolt’s musical discussion resembled entering into that hallowed back space in every high-end audio shop. The musical soundstage snapped into an instantly noticeable, three-dimensional layer. Instruments and vocals tightened up, standing in a firm area and time. Instruments in specific displayed more improvement, texture, and air.
Listening on my iPhone 12 Pro through the Apple Lightning adapter was a downer by contrast. Music was flat, originating from a 2 dimensional sound phase. The critical midrange was muddier. I routinely kept in mind bass bloat. And the leading end? It was dull. It did not have the special, air, shimmer, and enjoyment that the Helm Bolt provided.
Listening to the something as easy as the Tidal Master of Sting’s “Fragile (Live)” from the album My Tunes laid bare the distinctions in the 2 adapters.
The Helm Bolt enjoyed bringing “Rise” by Dominique Fils-Aimé to life. Percussive notes snapped with authority, weight, accuracy, and ruthless attack. This is how genuine bass needs to be experienced. The exact same notes were relatively dull, robbed of characteristics, and flat on the Apple earphone adapter. Listening to the exact same tune through the 2 various adapters is a totally various psychological experience.
If you like bottom end authority, then you’ll enjoy what how the Helm Bolt will render bass notes. Bass drums on the Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” by the Minnesota Orchestra carried out by Eiji Oue rumbled with gravitas and anvil-like authority. Yet all the while, bass notes were tight, articulate, and delicately textured. If you combine the Helm Bolt AMP/DAC with high-performance earphones, you’ll have the ability to see deep into the music and peel back nuanced instrument layers as you would through any high efficiency earphone DAC/AMP.
Listening to Lisa Gerrard’s “Elegy” from Never-ceasing Memor y was a case in point. Listening with the Focal Clear, the Apple adapter had a fondness for smearing Ms. Gerrard’s vocals. In truth, returning to the Apple adapter had a fatiguing result on me in basic. With “Elegy” in specific, the listening experience made me physically distressed. When I changed and listened to “Elegy” through the Helm Audio Bolt with the Focal Clear, my body physically responded and unwinded. I was right away drawn into the tune’s haunting notes with Ms. Gerrard’s etherial vocals and idioglossic lyrics.
The experience was the exact same no matter the category or artist: Classical, rock, jazz, you call it. The Helm Bolt freed Linda Ronstadt’s crystalline vocals on “(I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons” from the album For Emotional Factors The Bolt DAC/AMP rendered Ms. Ronstadt’s vocals with extraordinary pureness, information, and air– realistic. What Apple’s earphone adapter did by contrast was downright criminal. Piano notes did not have information and air, and Ms. Ronstadt’s vocals were rendered flat– and attempt I state uninvolving. Backward and forward I went, shaking my head in shock each time at the distinction. And when the sax lines on “Sentimental Reasons” started through the Helm Bolt with an incredibly smooth, tidy, leading end I was offered.
An audiophile no-brainer
Helm Audio’s Bolt DAC/AMP is among those items whose rate, efficiency, develop quality, and type element make it a genuine no-brainer. For a simple $99, the Bolt DAC/AMP visibly enhanced the audio quality, characteristics, and psychological engagement of every tune I checked with it on every gadget and with every earphone. Helm Audio’s Bolt is a hands-down winner and I anticipate will quickly be an audiophile beloved.
If you’re trying to find a ultra-slim type element DAC and amp that will decipher every significant high-res format– consisting of MQA– in an ultra-compact type element, then get yourself aBolt DAC/AMP I understand for my part, I intend on buying my evaluation sample and offering it a long-term house in my portable audio collection. Extremely suggested.