In the realm of portable headphone amplification, there are not nearly as many options as the rest of the stereophonic world. With the rise of the portable DAC and headphone amplifier, those who want to progress up the component ladder ever higher have only been subjected to a decent selection in the most recent years. Cypher Labs was one of the first companies to integrate separate components for portable use with introduction of the AlgoRhythm Solo DAC. Now on its second generation CL has introduced two new products, the Solo –R and the Solo –dB. Both units still allow digital decoding of Apple products plugged directly into the mini USB port (not an analog pass though).
The AlgoRythm Solo –R contains a battery refresh but in all other ways is similar the previous generation. The new –dB ($700) is where things really start to get interesting. Not only does the new version allow for an asynchronous USB connection to a computer (up to 24/192), it also includes a balanced output for those so inclined. While the –dB is designed and stylized to complement the ALO Rx Mk-3, it can also be paired with Ray Samuel’s SR-71B or Intruder. Wrap any of these fine components together a pair of silicone straps and you have yourself quite the portable audiophile sandwich for your lunch break.
Build is obviously a big element of portable devices. While Audio-Head isn’t in a place were we can perform drop tests for our readers, the AlgoRhythm Solo –dB is one of the most solid feeling components I have ever held in my hand. A bit weighty for its size, the outside casing is superb and the gloss is just right. The front switch clicks with authority up and down and the multi-function LED glows blue when in use (my personal preference). The front panel sports both the digital coaxial output and the mini USB input for either your iDevice or computer. The –dB also ships with both a USB cable for your computer and a mini USB to 30 pin Apple cable. The unit charges through the supplied wall wart. Computer USB will not charge the battery however, the Algorhythm Solo will now charge your Apple device as you listen to it. According to the Cypher Labs the battery should give your around 14 hours of playback and charge in 3.5 hours. I did not have any issues with the battery life in my interaction with the unit. The –dB strapped to another headphone amplifier isn’t exactly something your could stuff in your suit pants pocket, but you could bust it out on a plane, train or car ride without any issues. The USB input did not work with my Samsung Galaxy III phone.
The Algorhythm Solo –dB is an IEM users DAC. The single-ended connection pushes out at 1.69v rms. This is slightly quieter than many of the other DACs currently on the market. Paired with either the Intruder or the Rx MkIII-b this is going to reduce unwanted background noise and help deliver a nice black background for IEMs and low impedance headphones. On the flipside, may want to pair the –dB with a powerful headphone amp if you plan on listening though an extremely inefficient full-sized headphone via single ended connections. I couldn’t quite get to loud listening levels with the Apex Glacier to the LCD-3; the Glacier’s internal USB DAC section proved to be louder (I didn’t have any volume issues with the Intruder or the ALO Pan Am). Balanced connections though the Solo appeared to have plenty of volume to spare.
Right away I noticed a sizable improvement over the handy AudioQuest Dragonfly when connected to my MacBook Air via USB. The sound from the –dB made the Dragonfly seem muddy by contrast. This was at least a little expected on my end, being almost 3x the cost. The standout performance that separated the –dB from even similarly-priced portable components was it’s rendering of the upper frequencies. The Solo displayed excellent top-end energy and clarity. The crisp, tight highs made cymbals feel a little more three-dimensional and a little less like scattered white noise. Vocals seemed a little smoother than the Dragonfly and snare drum sounds had a little more snap to them. You may want to consider the Solo –dB if you are a fan of faster music. I found rock music to pair quite well with the improved immediacy and energy of the DAC. Performance through my iPod Nano wasn’t as spectacular as the sound I was able to get from my computer running Audirvana Plus. When I ran the Solo balanced through the RSA Intruder into a pair of balanced Audeze LCD-3 I felt the experience overall had a wider soundstage. Drum fills seemed to gracefully sweep from left to right in a larger arc via the balanced connections. The feeling of sound coming from points away from your head while listening to headphones is a very subjective observation, so take that with a grain of salt if you will. One thing was certain however, the balanced connection though the Intruder did have more power than its single-ended cohort and it did sound different (though a pair of LCD-3s). I also tested the coaxial output into the mighty Oppo BDP-105 and found the same jitter-free polished results as the USB connection.
The CypherLabs Algorythm Solo –dB continues to build on the sterling reputation the original Solo paved. It is one of the few Apple-ready balanced DACs available and the top notch sound quality is just one of the extremely useful and unique solutions it brings to the table for portable listening. The welcome addition of computer connectivity puts this versatile DAC in a category all its own. I highly recommend headphone users looking for the absolute best in portable to check it out.