Portable headphone DACs are no joke here at AskAudio. Most of us work from a variety of places, from home studios to planes, trains, and automobiles. In the fast-paced world of music technology we’re always ‘on call’ and often testing and writing just outside of the halls of trade shows and audio manufacturer demos. That’s why when NextDrive offered to let us check out the Spectra, the "world’s smallest 32-Bit/384kHz portable DAC," I had to beat off the other authors with a stick just to get my hands on it. I spent a few weeks listening to music on this little DAC with a big sound and here’s what I found.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Spectra is its extremely low profile. It’s slim, sleek, and there is not a button or knob to be found on it. There’s a beautiful purity in that, the Spectra doesn’t try to be anything other than a significantly higher quality way to listen to music from any device.
On the Mac or iOS side, there are no drivers to install. You plug in the Spectra, plug in your headphones, and start listening. It’s just that simple. Windows users can utilize a driver, but that’s the only extra step in the process. All of the volume adjusting is handled on the system side, eliminating any extra steps or questions in the gain-staging process.
With a good set of headphones, the difference from the Spectra is pretty unbelievable. I tested out the Spectra with my Avantone mixing headphones, my AKG Q701 reference-class headphones, and my Blue MoFi headphones - all using my iPhone. In all three cases, I heard a clarity and depth to my sounds that I typically only reserve for the highest quality monitoring chain. It was noticeable enough that it made me want to snag a few uncompressed WAV mixes of music I was working on and bring that with me. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this kind of sound quality from a portable device.
For me, the dynamic range of the Spectra is where it truly delivered the most noticeable benefit. At my normal listening level, I definitely felt that my most pristine, uncompressed sound sources really ‘sang’. Listening to some classic jazz recordings, fusion recordings, and more modern recordings from producers I trust to not ‘squash the hell’ out of their music was a real treat using the Spectra.
I gave the Spectra a shot as an audio interface as well, and it performed admirably. I had no trouble at all loading up extremely large MainStage concerts at a buffer size of 128 and even 64. Samples loaded up without a hiccup, and my patches sounded truly fantastic. The Spectra is a high quality experience, and everything from Logic to Live sounded just great. The integrated headphone amp in the Spectra has plenty of power, and I was never struggling to hear my source material, even for a minute.
The Spectra is my current affordable ‘DAC to beat’. NextDrive has given us an offering that is elegantly designed, wonderfully portable and extremely pleasing to the ear. I found myself wishing they made models specifically for iOS and 1/4” headphones - I did feel a little silly with a camera connection kit dongle paired up with a 1/4” to 1/8” adapter plugged into the Spectra, but that’s just being a little picky. This DAC is a pleasing experience from top to bottom for sure.
Price: £119 GBP / US$149
Pros: Elegant design, subtle and small, spectacular dynamic range, excellent volume, no drivers required for iOS or mac.
Cons: Camera kit required for iOS use, but that’s more of a drawback of iOS than it is this device specifically.