A USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter) is a great tool for making the most of your computer-based digital-music collection. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of high-performance USB DACs at every price point, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
Emotiva’s Big Ego USB DAC ($220) is an affordable yet high-quality compact DAC that runs off USB power and is explicitly designed for use with computers. It features a built-in headphone amp as well as a separate analog line out and a digital-optical output.
These days, there’s an endless selection of interesting headphones on the market, and quite a few—especially on-ear and over-ear models—benefit from better amplification than what you find in a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. My primary interest in reviewing the Big Ego was its utility as a high-quality headphone amp, but it turns out it’s equally adept at serving as a DAC for a standalone stereo system as well as for self-powered monitor speakers.
The Big Ego has a little brother—the Little Ego—that only offers a headphone output, but it costs less ($170) and is a bit smaller and lighter. This review is about the Big Ego, but much of it also applies to the Little Ego since the DACs and the headphone outputs of the two devices share the same hardware, design, and specs.
The Big Ego isn’t all that large—it fits in your pocket with ease. It measures 5.32″ x 2″ x 0.625″ and weighs 4.5 ounces. The solid metal case is tough as nails, and it looks and feels very well made.
This DAC decodes PCM audio at resolutions up to 32-bit/384 kHz. If you use it with a Mac, the Big Ego supports all data rates—up to and including 32-bit/384 kHz—as a plug-and-play device. On a PC, you’ll need to install a dedicated driver to get beyond 24-bit/96 kHz resolution.
If you want to use the Big Ego with a PC that lacks the dedicated driver, you can activate a “driverless” mode by holding down the Filter Select button while connecting to the computer’s USB port.
The front face of the device has a row of recessed LEDs that indicate the data rate of the input signal as well as which oversampling algorithm is in use and whether the Headphone Blend feature is active. On the bottom of the device, flanking the 3.5mm headphone jack, you’ll find two buttons: One lets you choose the output, and the other cycles through the three selectable oversampling filters. On the top of the device there’s a 3.5mm stereo line-out jack, a mini-USB port, and an optical digital output.
One of the Big Ego’s audio quality-centric features is a digitally controlled analog volume control, which lets you use your computer’s master-volume control to attenuate the Big Ego’s output—the computer controls the Big Ego directly. The advantage is that you don’t lose any audio fidelity at low levels, unlike digital volume controls that compromise resolution due to lost bits.
The Big Ego boasts some impressive analog-audio specs. THD is rated under 0.006% for the headphone output, and under 0.004% for the line output. The signal-to-noise ratio is greater than 106 dB (A-weighted) for the headphone output and above 113 dB for the line output. Frequency response is rated from 8 Hz to 20 kHz (+0/-0.3 dB) at 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz sample rates, 8 Hz to 40 kHz (+0/-1.5 dB) at 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz sample rates, and 8 Hz to 60 kHz (+0/-3 dB) at 176 kHz and 192 kHz sample rates. The maximum output of the device is 1.8 volts for headphones, and 2.1 volts for the line out.
The only setup I had to perform was installing the dedicated Windows 10 driver on my laptop. The Big Ego was instantly recognized, and I experienced no issues with connectivity in all the time I’ve been using it.
For headphone listening, I used various models, including Blue Mo-Fi, Bowers & Wilkins P5, Klipsch Reference On-Ear, Pioneer SE-A1000, and Sony MDR-1R.
In order to test the Big Ego’s utility as a DAC for stereo systems, I used it to feed analog audio to a Classé Sigma SSP pre/pro that’s connected to a 350 watt-per-channel Rotel RB-1590 stereo amplifier. A pair of PSB Imagine X2T speakers along with dual PSB SubSeries 200 subwoofers turned all that electricity into sublime sound waves. I also used a pair of Monster Clarity HD self-powered speakers with the Big Ego.
I can summarize the performance of the Big Ego USB DAC in one word: impeccable. Feed it some properly produced audio material, and it reproduces it with fidelity that’s suitable for critical listening on high-quality gear.
The Big Ego’s headphone amp drove my various headphones to the loudest level that I feel comfortable using for prolonged listening. Furthermore, there was no doubt I got better performance with the dedicated DAC versus the direct output from my two Windows 10 laptops (Sony VAIO and Yoga 3 Pro) and a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 tablet.
With the Emotiva in charge, percussion was tangibly tighter, the bass I heard was deeper, and I could tell there was simply more clean power on tap when I used the Big Ego. If I wanted to crank a tune, I could easily go beyond what the built-in amps in my portable computing gear could provide.
My Blue Mo-Fi headphones are particularly adept at playing low bass notes clearly—they can handle pure sine waves down to 16 Hz without generating significant harmonic distortion. The Big Ego’s clean and abundant power output came in handy when I played my staple bass-judging album, Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy. “Solar Sailer” poured on layer upon layer of extra-deep and plush bass, while the London Symphony’s strings and horns create an almost celestial ambiance.
“Disc Wars” from Tron: Legacy is probably one of the toughest tracks for a system to belt out at true concert levels, and in many cases when I audition it, I hear congestion and the effects of dynamic compression. Then again, when that track is rendered and reproduced properly, I automatically get goose bumps. With the Big Ego’s help, all of my headphones found something special in the mix, and I managed to trigger those goose bumps with the Mo-Fi when I turned the volume (way) up.
Brian Eno’s album The Drop contains plenty of challenging tracks that rapidly reveal a system’s flaws. The ambient pioneer’s style, with its stark minimalism and tonal purity, leaves little room for distortion to hide. It wasn’t too tough to max out the headphone amps in my two laptops and my phone—the deep percussive blasts and deep drones of tracks like “Coasters” and “Hazard” felt more tangible when I used the Big Ego instead of the headphone output of my laptops.
I didn’t find much use for the Headphone Blend function; I prefer a soundstage that goes from ear to ear. That said, this feature does what it’s supposed to do—it uses crossfeed, which sends a bit of the left-ear signal to the right ear and vice versa, to move the soundfield forward a bit and narrow it, thus emulating the effect of listening to speakers in a room (minus the reverb).
Once I connected the Big Ego to the Classé Sigma SSP using the analog line out and had a listen, I realized it was more than just a portable USB headphone DAC; it’s a very serious USB DAC—period. The Emotiva’s output was transparent, dynamic, and neutral. The same thing held true when I used the optical output to feed PCM data to the Sigma SSP—the sound quality was excellent.
I also enjoyed surprising success connecting the Big Ego’s headphone output directly to the RB-1590 amp, which then powered the PSB Imagine X2Ts full range. The fidelity was pretty amazing for a system that was as simple as it gets: laptop to DAC to amp to speakers—and only the amp was plugged into the wall! The results were very impressive, especially considering such fidelity comes from something that fits easily in your pocket.
When I’m on the road visiting a manufacturer or attending an audio show, I prefer to use my own music collection for auditioning headphones, as I did on two recent trips. When I was in Indianapolis visiting Klipsch headquarters a few weeks ago, I used the Big Ego to compare the company’s newest X Series in-ear headphones to each other. What I heard correlated quite precisely with the company’s measurements; the effect of each model’s response curve was clearly audible. By the way, the X20i in-ear ($550) is to die for—when paired with the Big Ego, the sound was as profound as anything I’ve heard lately at any price.
When I was at the TAVES 2015 Consumer Electronics Show last month, I used the Big Ego to audition Oppo’s PM-1 and PM-3 planar-magnetic headphones. The PM-3 and Big Ego combo offered some of the best sound I’ve heard from over-ear closed-back headphones, and the combo costs just $620.
A DAC’s job is to be as transparent as possible—it should take digital data and spit out analog audio that’s as close to the input as possible. I’ve read much debate about whether or not various DACs sound substantially different from one another, and in theory they should not—at least, if they all have the same specs and use the same oversampling filter. In practice, however, not all DACS measure the same, and therefore they don’t all sound the same—the entire analog signal chain is a factor. The Big Ego’s low noise, low distortion, and flat response all contribute to its clarity and neutrality. I think it would be tough for most people to tell the Big Ego apart from pricier DACs in a blind test.
If you need an excellent-sounding yet portable USB DAC, you will find the fidelity you seek in the Big Ego. It provides audiophile-quality conversion of PCM data into accurate analog audio with zero fuss. It’s made in the USA, it easily fits in a pocket, and its specs are in high-end DAC territory. It’s clearly a clever product that aims to offer maximum fidelity at an affordable price.
Blue Mo-Fi closed-back over-ear headphones
Bowers and Wilkins P5 closed-back on-ear headphones
Klipsch Reference On-Ear closed-back headphones
Pioneer SE-A1000 open-back over-ear headphones
Sony MDR-1R closed-back over-ear headphones