nextDrive Spectra 32-Bit/384Khz DAC Headphone Amplifier
Tiny DAC – Huge Sound … you won’t believe your ears …
by Dendy Jarrett
I’m not an ”audio guy.” I understand the basic principles, but only to the extent a drummer needs to get good sound from a drum kit. So, when nextDrive asked me to review their Spectra, I turned to Craig Anderton to explain why it sounds so good compared to the “native,” wimipy sound from my Mac Book and iPad Pro.
The Way, the Truth, and the DAC
There are some very good reasons for using an outboard DAC (digital to analog converter) with laptops and mobile devices. The audio running around inside your device is digital, so it has to be converted to analog using a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), and then go through a small amplifier with sufficient power to drive headphones or earbuds so you can hear the audio. The DAC and amp will not be audiophile quality; due to cost reasons the converters are not precision devices, and the amplifier will likely not only have some noise and distortion, but it also lives in a “dirty” electrical environment where it may pick up a variety of digital noise.
An outboard DAC offers several advantages. First, it’s fed digital data directly from a port (e.g., USB or Apple Lightning connector). From there, it can feed a high-quality DAC as well as an audiophile-quality amp. Second, the amp is not located within the computer, so it can operate in a much cleaner electrical environment. Also, it will likely be more powerful than whatever is in the host device. This isn’t so you can blow your ears off, but rather, to ensure sufficient headroom to handle transients and thus minimize clipping distortion.
The result is that the outboard DAC will offer significantly better sound quality than the host’s onboard audio. Eliminating the onboard DAC and amp is one reason why Apple went to a digital audio output with their Lightning connector, but the audio quality still depends on the DAC and amp fed by the digital data emanating from that connector.
The nextDrive Spectra is a sleek little device. I am a minimalist in principle and this unit fits the bill—there are no moving parts, buttons, or switches. The housing is anodized black aluminum, and about the thickness of a writing pen. The cord is a short, black, cloth-looking (bendable nylon) sheath with a vintage vibe. One end has a USB connector (the usual fat head, not USB-C), and the other an 1/8” stereo minijack. To use Spectra with my iPad pro, I needed a Lightning-to-USB adapter but otherwise, there are no drivers to install for a Mac or iOS—you just plug and play. Easy peasy.
Where this little tiny device departs from its sleek, small package is in the huge sound it delivers. The increase in volume was certainly noticeable on my MacBook but it was almost double the volume with my iPad Pro. Certainly, needing an adapter for the iPad was inconvenient, but the increase in volume and perceived clarity was well worth it. (Here’s hoping they make a Lightning plug to headphone jack version soon.)
For this test, I used my favorite “go to” headphones, KRK’s KNS 8400. These headphones gave me a much better read on the Spectra’s true performance over the typical earbuds. Despite its size, Spectra decodes DSD up to 11.2MHz and 32-bit audio up to 384kHz. What does that mean? It’s can take your volume to Eleven!
The nextDrive Spectra confirms the old saying that big things can come in small packages. nextDrive even touts Spectra as the “world’s smallest 32-bit / 384 kHz portable DAC.” Now that I realize how much audio quality I was missing with my devices’ existing audio, I need Spectra with me…at all times. It’s a clear winner in my book, and is now a must-have when listening to my music. -HC-
Dendy Jarrett is the Publisher and Executive Director of Harmony Central. He has been heavily involved at the executive level in many aspects of the drum and percussion industry for over 25 years and has been a professional player since he was 16. His articles and product reviews have been featured in InTune Monthly, Gig Magazine, DRUM! and Modern Drummer Magazines.