Halide Design's tiny black boxes improve your computer's sound

Halide Design makes awesome-sounding USB digital-to-analog converters in California. They're downright tiny and supereasy to use.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

If you think a lot of audio has become far too complex, check out the Halide Design digital-to analog converters (DACs). They're plain black boxes, without even a single LED, display, control, button, or connector jack (the DACs come with permanently attached USB and RCA cables).

The elegant simplicity of the Halide Design DACs is a brilliant alternative to most of today's overly complex gear. They have just one function--zeros and ones go in at one end--and analog signals come out the other end. The little Halide black boxes are the best-sounding DACs I've heard on my desktop system.

The Halide Design DAC HD Halide Design

I recently spoke with Halide's Jonathan Driscoll, a guitar-playing biophysicist who also designs medical devices. Driscoll has always been fascinated by the intersection of physics, biology, and music, and how they relate to recording and reproducing sound.

Driscoll sent two Halide Design DACs, the ds DAC ($295), which uses a "non-oversampled" digital-to-analog converter stage and eliminates the harsh digital filters used in most commercially available audio devices, and his high-resolution DAC HD ($550), which features completely reworked electronics and upgraded silver cabling. The DAC HD also uses "asynchronous USB technology" for ultra-low-jitter playback of audio files.

The two DACs' electronics are housed within custom CNC-machined 0.6-inch-by-1.25-inch-by-2.5-inch enclosures. Both DACs feature special circuits that regenerate clean power from your computer's USB port, so they don't run off batteries or external power supplies. Hookup is simply a matter of connecting the Halide DAC between your computer's USB port and an amp or powered speakers, such as my Emotiva airmotiv 4s.

The DACs are manufactured in California, and they're both sold with a 60-day money-back guarantee and a one-year warranty. That's impressive; you get 60 days to see if you think a Halide DAC makes a big enough difference to justify the expense. I strongly recommend the Halide DACs, but only if you already have a really good amplifier, speakers, or headphones.

I started listening first to the DAC HD and was knocked out by the resolution of detail, which was better than what I heard from Schitt Audio's superb Bifrost USB DAC ($449). The Bifrost had a cooler balance, but the DAC HD had a bigger and deeper soundstage over my desktop speakers and headphones (with a Schiit Audio Lyr headphone amp). I like both DACs, but I'd give the nod to the Halide.

The Halide Design ds DAC Halide Design

The DAC HD's treble clarity is astonishing; each instrument on the Punch Brothers' new album, "Who's Feeling Young Now?" stood out in bold relief. It's acoustic music with beautiful harmonies, and the DAC HD breathed life into the sound. The reverberation and space laid over DJ Krush's "Jaku" acid-jazz beats were more apparent than they were over the Halide ds DAC, which was slightly less resolved and clear. So unless you're a really obsessive audiophile, save some money and go for the less expensive ds DAC.

My DAC HD test sample was fitted with optional 5-meter RCA cables, so I hooked them up to my hi-fi on the other side of the room. Running long cables makes more sense to me than using a wireless DAC, and it was a good excuse to play my computer music files over my 6-foot-tall Magnepan 3.7 speakers. The DAC's effortless dynamic punch and uber clarity made me a believer; the little Halide delivers a full-size sound.