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The Henry Audio USB DAC 128 Mk 3, An Open-source DAC for DIY Audiophiles

By Eric Benoit | Testing Ground | January 8, 2020
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Here at Qobuz, we like simplicity and transparency. Want to know the exact bit depth and sample rate of the file you’re streaming? Eager to quickly check the liner notes, or switch between connected devices within the Qobuz app? It’s all available to you with no fuss, and every stream we offer is available in the ever-popular Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC).

This straightforward design aesthetic is shared by the Henry Audio USB DAC 128 Mk 3.

The name might be a mouthful, but the device is quite simple: an open-source, fully user-configurable/expandable*, and low cost USB DAC priced at $279.

Setup

The DAC ships running USB Audio Class 1, which is compatible with all computers (particularly Windows 7) without driver installation. To stream in full 24-bit/192kHz Hi-Res, however, the user must switch the mode to USB Audio Class 2 by following a few simple instructions included in the box.

When we questioned designer Borge Strand-Bergesen about this choice, he indicated, "As long as [Windows 7] has a significant market share I'd rather have the DAC work out of the box for everybody—and be easily reconfigurable for higher performance —than having it initially not work at all for some users." Fair enough!

The DAC does not include the required USB A to B (printer-style) cable, so prospective owners will need to provide a cable and a source such as a phone, laptop, or streamer to get up and running.

Unlike similar DACs at this price point, the 128 Mk 3 does not include a headphone amp and must be connected to a headphone amplifier or stereo preamplifier via RCA. Strand-Bergesen assured us, however, that he is "working on an upgraded version with a much easier connection to headphones, smartphones, and TVs".

The Sound

For our listening tests, we chose a selection of tracks from a variety of genres and compared the Henry Audio DAC to the similarly priced Audioquest Dragonfly Red ($199) and PreSonus Studio 1810c ($369, includes four microphone preamps and several ADCs in addition to acting as a DAC in our studio).

We listened through a speaker setup as well as a headphone setup. For our speakers, we used a 2018 Mac mini running the Qobuz desktop app as our source, with the Cyrus ONE HD integrated amplifier, Monitor Audio Silver 50 bookshelf speakers, and SVS SB-1000 subwoofer.

Our headphone setup utilized the Qobuz desktop app on a 2018 Macbook Pro, connected to the Manley Absolute Tube Amplifier driving Dan Clark Audio Ether 2 planar magnetic headphones.

Beginning with the recent 24-bit/192kHz reissue of Chet Baker’s The Legendary Riverside Albums, the DAC produced a forward sound, detailed but not overly clinical, with a slight lack of depth and decent separation in the soundstage. Its sound profile is quite similar to the Studio 1810c, and it has clearly been designed with studio tinkerers in mind. As a result, it prioritizes detail and flatness over depth and dynamics, and it just slightly outperforms the Studio 1810c in these aspects—the expected result from a standalone DAC as compared to an audio interface. By comparison, the Dragonfly Red produced a more relaxed and open sound, making it a better choice for Baker’s lush, dynamic recordings. The Dragonfly, however, maxes out at 24-bit/96kHz and cannot render the full 192kHz files.

The DAC performed much better when we moved on to Aphex Twin’s 2014 album Syro, a mostly beat-driven experimental electronic release mixed and mastered with stunning precision. It highlighted the microdynamics in the percussion and synth bass parts with satisfying accuracy. The deep ambient backgrounds, however, were rendered better by the Dragonfly.

Seeking to test a less exacting sound, we played some folk and rock tunes from the likes of Kevin Morby, Ry Cooder, and The Band. In these genres, the DAC excels in conveying vocals with appropriate closeness, and it reproduces guitars with a satisfying twang. If you mostly listen to classic rock, folk, and the like, whether or not you’ll enjoy this DAC in comparison to other choices depends mostly on your own preferences; it provides a relatively dry and upfront sound.

Finally, we tested out the DAC’s capabilities on classical music by listening to the Qobuzissime-awarded Beethoven: Violin Sonatas by violinist Lorenzo Gatto and pianist Julien Libeer. This was the only listening test where it outperformed the Dragonfly Red, handling Gatto’s sublime violin work with speed and accuracy. If you prize exquisitely recorded classical releases, especially solo, duet, or chamber orchestra releases, the DAC would be a very good choice for your setup. If you prefer full orchestral recordings or operas with more sonic complexity, however, its benefits will be limited in comparison to other options.

Conclusion

For those DIY audio enthusiasts unafraid to open up a chassis and tinker with the electronics inside, the Henry Audio USB DAC 128 Mk 3 is a must-buy. We applaud its open-source, transparent, and straightforward design.

For all other audiophiles, the DAC becomes less essential when stacked up against the competition at its price point, especially because it does not include a headphone amplifier or preamplifier option as of yet. Still, those who prefer a detailed, close-up sound and are willing to sacrifice some clarity in the soundstage will find it to be a worthwhile addition to their setup.

*When we say user-configurable, we really mean it. If you’re into electronic tinkering, the DAC ships with an info sheet including the full, open-source hardware schematics and audio driver code written in C.

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