Headphones

Sounding good: Emotiva Big Ego USB desktop digital converter

The Audiophiliac takes the Emotiva converter out for a spin.

Do you have a big ego? Sorry, I couldn't resist, but I'm talking about Emotiva's terrific new desktop digital converter, the Big Ego.

One thing was clear from the get-go, Big Ego is a wee bit bigger than thumbdrive-sized USB digital converters like the AudioQuest DragonFly, Audioengine D3 or the Meridian Explorer 2, the Big Ego's all-metal chassis measures 5.3 x 2 by .625 inches, so it's not really all that big. The converter handles PCM files up to 384 kHz/32 bits, and I know of no other similarly priced converter that plays those ultra-high resolution PCM files, but Big Ego doesn't work with DSD files. That's not much of a liability, DSD hasn't yet seen much use outside the audiophile market, I doubt it ever will. The Big Ego is currently on sale on the Emotiva Web site for $179 with free shipping within the contiguous 48 states.

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The Emotiva Big Ego converter.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Big Ego is a USB powered device, with connectivity options that include an optical digital output, 3.5mm analog output and a 3.5mm headphone jack that can alternatively be used to run desktop powered speakers. The analog output jack bypasses the headphone amp and has a fixed output level so it can be hooked up to your main audio system. The Big Ego is designed to work primarily with computers and tablets, not CD or Blu-ray players, though some smartphones might be doable. Big Ego's top panel has a row of blue LEDs that indicate the sample rate of the file in play, from 44.1- to 384-kHz.

Big Ego sports user selectable digital filters, but I didn't hear much difference in sound quality when I switched between them. There's also a Headphone Blend mode that's supposed to make headphones sound more like speakers, but the effect is very subtle. You'll use your computer's volume control to adjust the level on your headphones or speakers. I'd prefer an actual control knob on the converter, but computer control works well enough. Big Ego is made in the US.

I started listening to Big Ego with my full-size Audeze EL-8 headphones with Radiohead's "Kid A" album. The music's dreamy atmospheric haze drifted ever so gently around my head. The Big Ego's sound was exceedingly clear and clean, which is a good thing when you're listening to well recorded music like "Kid A." However over-compressed recordings sounded nasty, harsh and grating. The Big Ego-EL-8 combination revealed the good, bad and ugly sounds without holding anything back.

My Apogee Groove USB converter headphone amp presented a softer, more forgiving sound balance. It was still pretty clear, but less immediate and vivid with my EL-8 headphones. That combination sounded awfully nice overall, bettering the Big Ego-EL-8 pairing because the Groove-EL-8 combination was listenable with harsh tunes, and still transparent enough with my best sounding recordings.

I next donned my mellower full-size Sony MDR-1R headphones while comparing the Groove and Big Ego again. Big Ego livened up the sound, so dynamics jumped more, and since the MDR-1R is so richly balanced I could listen to less than stellar recordings without cringing. The Big Ego-MDR-1R combination was excellent.

Next, I plugged in my Hifiman RE600S in-ear headphones to Big Ego, and the sound was clear, full and spacious. Returning to the Groove the bass came up a little, the overall balance was fuller, but less exciting and dynamic. In the end, I preferred the Big Ego over the Groove with the RE600S.

So as always, picking the right component isn't really a question of going for the "best" one, it's more about picking the one that best matches your other components and taste. The only way to do that is to listen for yourself, and since Emotiva sells Big Ego direct from its website with a 30-day return policy, why not give it a try?