We each use our computers for so much more than just plain text input. They provide us with the latest blockbusters in stunning picture quality, and also stream our favourite music and podcasts into our living rooms. Our computers are our video store, jukebox and radio in one.
Its a shame then that the sound aspect of things is often neglected. With the advent of high-resolution displays on our computers, PC manufacturers seem to be less concerned about sound quality. On-board sound cards have modest performance properties, they produce noises and convert our digital sounds into analogue format. Quite often these mini amplifiers capture all sorts of noise, be it a buzzing, a humming, a beeping … you name it.
And what use is a good headphone if its source does not cooperate optimally with it? Isn’t that just a little bit of a bad idea? Apogee, who have enjoyed an excellent reputation with sound engineers for decades, now entice with the “Groove”, a USB port solution that’s truly unparalleled.
An essential addition to your audio arsenal?
The small digital-to-analogue converter that is the Groove cannot make it any easier for us. It’s small, light and easy to use, with the bar connecting to Macs and PCs via USB 2.0 before taking charge. Mac users don’t have to install any drivers, but if Windows is your OS of choice, you need to download the corresponding drivers from the manufacturer website. Groove now feeds your headphones (or speakers) via an analogue mini jack, regardless of whether they have an impedance of 30 ohms or 600 ohms. Thanks to the in-house Constant Current Drive technology, the Groove dynamically compensates for all non-linear issues of your connected headphones – whether acoustic, mechanical or electrical, resulting in less distortion and a more linear frequency response. That alone is impressive for product size and price, but Apogee goes even further to win you over.
Inside is a USB chip from British company XMOS, which transfers data asynchronously. The clock generator, the so-called master clock, lies within the Groove and provides for cleaner data packet forwarding than the computer-internal audio controllers are capable of. The intermediate memory at the USB input is therefore always supplied with data in such a way that it does not run empty or full. This is exactly what a regular USB controller does, sending data packets every millisecond, regardless of whether they are full, half full or empty. Thanks to the Groove’s own master clock, fluctuations in the clock frequency (jitter) are eliminated, which can influence the sound.
When it comes to the actual conversion of digital into analogue signals, the Apogee utilises 32-bit Sabre converters from ESS, which can operate at up to 192 kHz at 24-bit word-depth. But before that there is another unique feature that Apogee has bestowed upon Groove. The innovative interface features a special DAC (“Quad Sum”) design that employs no less than four digital-to-analogue converters per channel to deliver the best dynamic range and distortion possible.
Put simply, sound delivers as long as you plug in some decent headphones! The difference to the normal analogue mini jack output of a laptop is evident, with the Groove – especially at higher sampling rates – sounding powerful, but always natural and with a vibrancy unheard of from simple converter systems.
Here, the bass range is reproduced with an impressive depth, which is fortunately not over-stressed and does not scatter into the mid-range. As a result, everything seems a touch more powerful and, thanks to its impulse response, the Groove makes acoustic instruments shine brightly. Even in the mid-range, many details can be pinpointed extremely precisely on the virtual stage, assuming the appropriate quality material is available. Blissful brightness rules even at the highest trebles, without any sharp exaggerations. The Groove opens the sound upwards, and it is precisely this clarity that ensures a pleasant tonal balance across the entire frequency spectrum. Be it hi-res audio material or compressed Spotify tracks, streamed films or software synthesizers; it’s all good with the Groove.
Operation and Applications
The Groove could not be easier to operate, which is a testament to its design and developers. In addition to the micro-USB and the analogue mini jack connector, there’s little more than three LEDs at the top, which show level and status. These are nestled between two round rubber buttons, which change the volume digitally. There’s nothing more to note, and that’s a good thing. If there’s anything to criticise, it’s the fact that the LEDs can’t be deactivated. Occasionally I find the flickering in front of me at my desk a bit annoying. Also, the aluminium box gets a bit warm when in continuous operation.
With dimensions of 95 x 30 x 16 millimetres and a weight of just under 60 grams, the Groove fits in any pocket. As such, it makes you wish it could also enrich our smartphones and tablets with pure sound and compact size. It can deliver this, even if Apogee doesn’t say so explicitly. Naturally, the Groove needs a lot of power, and not many smartphones provide it in sufficient quantity. But there’s only one trick that really helps in this regard. If the DAC doesn’t work on the mobile device, a power bank and a USB-Y cable are all you need. That’s not a very elegant solution, but it still works just as well. What’s more, those who have an iPad Pro with a USB C socket can use a micro USB to USB C cable to operate the converter without any problems and without an additional power source. Very nice!
With the Groove, Apogee offers a headphone amplifier which represents an excellent sound upgrade with a reasonable RRP of 219 euros. The upgrade in sound is clearly audible, unlike plenty of other mini amps. At the same time, its areas of application are varied: from stationary multimedia computers to mobile devices, the Groove can actually compete with any USB interface. If you are looking for an interface that is premium class in all areas, while also inconspicuously small, you can finally put a useful sound upgrade in your pocket with the Groove.
- Ear couplingUSB-Verstärker
- Frequency response (headphones)10 - 20.000 Hz
- Impedance30 - 600 ohms
- Sound pressure level (SPL)117 dB
- Weight without cable60 g
- Cable length25 cm
What's in the box
- USB cable
- Carrying pouch
- Also available as 30th Anniversary Edition in Gold or Silver
- Up to 24 Bit / 192 kHz
- ESS Sabre DA-Converter
- 4 DACs per channel for highest dynamic range
- Asynchronous Clocking
- Multi-Color LED for status and level display
- Dynamic range (A-weighted): 117 dB
- THD+N: -107 dB at 600 Ohm load, 16 dBu
- THD+N: -100 dB at 30 Ohm load, 10.5 dBu
- Max. output level: 225 mW at 30 Ohm, 40 mW at 600 Ohm
- USB bus powered
- System requirements: Mac OSX 10.8 or newer (no driver required), Windows 7 or newer (32 and 64 bit, driver download required)
- Dimensions (L x W x H): 95 x 30 x 16 mm
- Built in the USA