Exy audio excellence: Denon’s DA-300 USB headphone amp reviewed

If you love sound as much as we do, chances are your headphones never sound quite as good as you want them to, but a new product from Denon aims to correct this, you’ll just need a decent amount of cash if you want to play.

What is it?

There are those of us who really love our sound. I’m talking obsessive about it, as in we’re fully aware that Apple’s earbuds aren’t just mediocre, but that they’re also terrible, and we’d never put them near our ears even if you paid us to do so.

For many people, these freebies just won’t suffice, and there are much better options out there to make your music sing.

The best options, though, aren’t made to be used with your smartphone or tablet. They’re made, instead, to be used with a HiFi amp, powered by that device and allowing the headphones to pick up on the little nuances that only a heavy amp with high-end audio processing and signal decoders can provide.

But as sound starts to become more digital and we rely more on our computers for sound rather than just the standard compact disc (CD) player, Super Audio CD player (SACD), DVDs, Blu-rays, and even the traditional vinyl record player, the HiFi amp needs to shrink, too, working better with our computers, which are more supportive of modern high resolution audio standards and easily upgradeable with more storage.

Enter Denon’s DA-300USB, a desktop-based headphone amplifier that plugs both into the wall and into a spare USB port to provide a USB sound card capable of delivering up to 192kHz and 24-bit playback, with noise isolation circuits, and the same AL32 processor Denon uses in its SACD players.

Inputs are provided through both the computer-connected USB port, as well as one coaxial input and two optical input ports, while the output can be sent to either a pair of speakers using the rear red and white composite ports, or alternatively the 6.25mm headphone port up front.

The DA-300USB is built in plastic and can be setup either horizontally or vertically with the help of a desk stand. There are three physical controls on the small amplifier, with a power button, an input selection button, and the volume knob next to the headphone jack up front.

A small OLED screen on the front provides information about what device you’re pulling input from, as well as the volume you’re set at, although this is reported in decibels.

Performance

Anyone who loves their sound will know that a good pair of headphones requires a good headphone amp. Unfortunately, you can’t just plug a pair of quality HiFi headphones into a computer and hope for the best, as they need a little bit more oomph to make them shine.

Whether that’s a new sound card or an external amp, it’s something, and is likely going to provide a better output experience than the 3.5mm headphone jack your computer normally carries.

That’s where Denon’s DA-300 comes into play, making the amplifier into a sound card for your PC or Mac.

In the flesh, it’s a good looking little box that feels more substantial than it looks. While the DA-300 carries a $799 price point, the silver casing is plastic when it should probably be metal. That said, there’s a good solid heft to the box, so while we wouldn’t suggest carrying it with you from point A to point B, leaving it on your desk and plugging it in when you need it should be fine.

It’s a stay-at-home sound device.

Configuring the Denon amplifier can be a little trying depending on your skill level. From a hardware point of view, it’s relatively easy: you plug it both into the wall using the power adaptor and into the computer using a USB cable. That’s easy.

But then there’s the software side of things.

Over on Mac, you’ll need to do a search for “Audio MIDI Setup” and change the driver there, picking the format you want to playback the audio in.

With Windows, there’s a separate driver required, and interestingly, it’s not in the box. But hey, you have a web browser, so just head to the Denon site and grab it there, unzipping the file and installing the driver for either your 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows.

Once in the driver, you’ll want to head to the settings of the playback driver and change the format for your audio.

Regardless of whether you’re on Mac or Windows, this is where you change the DA-300’s setting for 192kHz, making it support the high resolution standard, which is ideal if you have audio recorded or mastered at this level.

We only have one record that runs at that level, with the Miles Davis classic “Kind of Blue” from the 2013 re-release that delivers the 1959 jazz album in the highest level yet.

Testing it on the Denon, it’s a brilliant listen, and highlights the quality available with a 24-bit audio stream, of which more albums are available in variable resolutions in formats such as FLAC, WAV, and AIFF.

One person in the office described the sound as being something “you can get lost in,” while another said “it’s the sort of thing you just want to sit back, close your eyes, and imagine you’re there.”

All of these descriptions are valid, with what has to be the most balanced and descriptive audio experience heard yet. Instruments are insanely clear, with such a clear and distinct separation made for audio that demands perfection. It’s like listening to a pair of excellent stereo speakers, except you have them all to yourself.

And once installed, the Denon is easy to work with, allowing your other HiFi components to play through it, as well as your computer, potentially increasing the sound quality provided you have the headphones to back it up.

But if you’re spending $799 on a USB amp, you probably won’t bat an eyelid at the sort of money you need for the right headphones to drive this thing.

In fact, we tested it with specific pairs: the KEF M500, Aedle’s VK1 (which we’re reviewing now), and Denon’s Music Maniac DH-7100.

They’re all very different headphones with very different prices, with the KEF coming in at $399, Aedle’s titanium diaphragm headphones with nearly twice the price at $599, and Denon’s DH7100’s dominating all of them with a $1499 price tag.

If your jaw didn’t just drop to the floor with that last one, it’s likely that this package is for you.

Interestingly, even though they’re all technically expensive headphones, there’s a massive difference between the way each is being driven, with the KEF sounding fine, the Aedle sounding better, and Denon’s DH7100 making it sound like you’re in the same room as the musicians.

It’s a staggering difference, and one that we had to test multiple times to make sure we weren’t just imagining it.

Basically, if you haven’t spent at least a thousand dollars, forget about plugging them into Denon’s DA300, because they won’t sound as good as you’ll believe.

The better equation is that you can probably expect to use headphones worth at least twice what you pay for the Denon headphone amp, because a pair sitting under this mark, just doesn’t seem to cut it.

Conclusion

For those that love listening to high-resolution favourite tracks, it’s a lovely addition, but beware the cost of ownership, because it’s very high, as is the level of headphone you need to make this thing shine.

 

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