Friday, 18 September 2015 05:07

REVIEW: Apogee Groove - portable DAC / Headphone Amplifier

Written by Karl Erik and Ole-Petter

Apogee has launched a new USB DAC and headphone amplifier, and we've tested it. And this time we are two that have listened to the product. Both Ole - Petter and Karl Erik had this ultracompact and unconventional USB - DAC on the testbench, and below you may read our opionin.


Karl Erik about Apogee Groove

Apogee is especially well known for AD-conversion, with pro-devices related to MAC. This is an area located on the far side of my daily sphere, so for my part Apogee a completely new acquaintance.

Groove is an USB-DAC that has a very dedicated application. USB - in and out jack for headphones or powered speakers. There is no fixed port - only the variable headphone output with a single volume control.

The unit itself has a very simple design, as in the base edition does not offer any extravagance. But that does not mean it is not a good design. Pure functionalism, which is topped with comfortable finish thanks to some lightly rubberized surfaces. If this does not trigger your vanity, you can choose an anniversary edition in silver or gold. They cost more ...

Inside Apogee Groove we find the DAC-chip ESS Sabre32 32-bit Hyper Stream DAC, which has a jitter reducton system called Time Domain Jitter Eliminator

Before we get to use of the device must be installed driver. And here there are drivers for MAC or PC. I do not know what the situation is for Mac but on both the laptops I installed Apogee Groove, it was necessary to download the driver from the manufacturer`s website. And to access the dosnload, you must register the product. This might seem a bit excessive bureaucratic, especially for reviewers that do not own the product. But for the average user there is simultaneously a disciplining factor here, and you get automatic notification of updates.



The drivers will take you into a mini program, and here it becomes obvious that Apogee is accustomed to relate to customers with a professional touch. Here you can make choices that we ordinary sofa-audiophiles normally do not relate to. We talk about the choice of latency and buffer size. Of course it's always a good rule to stick to the default values ​​if you want to have the least risk of encountering problems. However, it is interesting to check what happens if you try the minimalistic values. I tried to put both latency and cache (which I actually thought was two sides of the same coin) to minimum values. As feared this gives less stability, with dense dropouts. A phenomenon that I recognize in connection with Linn`s excellent PC - streamer app "Songcast", where stability is related to which election ban allows for buffer size, but of course also depends on the speed and capacity of the network.

With the physical dimensions of Groove, one could of course wish that it had also compability for iOS. For this ultracompact USB DAC just begs to be connected to an iPhone. But this is not possible without simultaneous using third-party peripherals. And it has to do with power. For an iPhone is not able to supply enough power to drive the Apogee Groove via USB.

Mike Bruhl (left) in Sound Service and Karl Erik Sylthe (th) in

At this year's IFA in Berlin I had a long and interresting chat with the European representative for Apogee, Mike Bruhl in Sound Service. He shared my view that it would have been very nice with a variant that supports iPhone. and despite the fact that the manufacturer keeps cards close to his chest regarding future products, he could hint the possibility that this is something Apogee is looking at. But it is very unlikely this wil be a software upgrade. We're probably talking about a possible MkII.



At the other end there is only a min-jack with variable output. Here I could wish that Apogee upgraded software, with the possibility to configure it as an alternative fixed out with line level, to provide increased flexibility. For if you want to use this as a pure DAC into an input of the preamplifier, you must keep your tongue straight. At full output level this will distort big-time.

This makes Apogee a fairly narrow product. The product it perhaps could be most natural to compare to Groove is the Audioquest's Dragonfly. This is a somewhat simpler-, but also considerably less expensive product, and if possible even more compact than Apogee groove. Unfortunately I have not heard Dragonfly, so it's impossible for me to say how Dragonfly compares to Groove. Dragonfly otherwise lacks the physical volume control that Groove has.




Groove with Parrot Zik

Ok - now that we have mapped the physical capabilities and limitations, is the time to listen to Apogee Groove. Among my two headsets there are only one that is suitable to use with Groove. Stax headphone which is the set I primarily used for stationary HiFi-listening, can only be used together with Stax`s associated transformer with volume control, and therefore excludes a sensible use with Groove. Thus it is Parrot Zik who gets the pleasure of a test period with Apogee Groove. This is a headset that has both wireless and wired opportunity, and this is exactly where it also has its strengths. Ranked as a pure headphone there are better headphones available, also at this price.

On the another hand, I have not had a better sound experience with Parrot Zik than just with Apogee Groove. Comparing with audio through headphone jack on Lenovo laptop is givinag an adult lift in quality. The same applies compared to bluetooth - listening via iPhone with music from Tidal HiFi, although I here do not think the difference is as great as from the PC's headphone jack. And that despite the fact that it maybe should have been the other way around.

Tonal balance via Groove is perceived as neutral. What really speaks to Groove`s advantage I think is the musical expression, which is far better than with Groove via both PC headset and bluetooth from iPhone. It's a little more rhythmic drive while the soundstage is more transparent.



Apogee Groove meetings Audio Pro

I've also had Apogee Groove connected to a set powered speakers into my office computer speakers. With such a connection one must be extremely careful with volume control, since the maximum level of Groove is too high as an input to the active speakers.

It's about Audio Pro Addon Six, a stereo set that has a serious and almost incomprehensible tonal coloring. Very secluded in top, and a bombastic between bass. This tonal balance could of course not Apogee Groove do something. But still gives it a clearly positive contribution compared to the analog outputs.

If we compare, however with Henry Audio`s  exquisite and uniquely affordable USB DAC 128 mkII that we publish a review of in the immediate future, there will be tough competition. Henry Audio combines the best of both my two older references in USB - dacing from Abrahanmsen and HRT, in that it has Abrahamsen`s musicianship, combined with the transparency of HRT Music Streamer II + in a single box. Both DACs played via Audio Pro Addon Six, Groove manages to follow the musicianship of Henry Audio, but has been beaten at the finish line of Henry Audio`s great transparency.



And so it must in fairness be said that this comparison is a bit unbalanced. With Apogee Groove the volume control becomes a bit redundant in that also the active speakers have a built-in volume control is in operation. In contrast, when Groove used as a classic headphone amplifier, then it is Henry Audio which is on the minus side, in that it necessarily must have a preamplifier with volume control as well. Overall, it is therefore appropriate to consider Henry Audio and Apogee Groove as having equal performance for the price, although Groove is a bit more expensive.

And it must be acknowledged that neither Parrot Zik or Audio Pro Addon Six are partners providing Apogee Groove full justice. Therefore I sent the Groove on to the person at who has worked most with headphones lately. Ole-Petter is taking a second opinion with Apogee Groove below.




Ole-Petter on Apogee Groove.

Apogee is an esteemed manuifacturer of, among other professional DA / AD converters. Throughout history, they paved the way for a lot of digital conversion. It is only recently that products are available for the common man. "First," they came with DUET and now with an even more topical product in the form of DAC / headphone amplifier GROOVE. Apogee is no fad; one expects nothing but the best from this manufacturer.

In purely practical terms

Apooge DUET has been on the market for a while. Almost like manna from heaven for everyone - and there are many - who own a Mac and want to make their own recordings. Now Apogee gone a little

GROOVE is by no means revolutionary in terms of product group or user interface; USB in and analog out. Included is an elegant volume control. This last I must say however, has a somewhat confusing array of LEDs that I have not quite got into; a little white, blue and red (on a single diode ...) and in between a bit green. 

Sometimes I am thinking; if one should replace the ordinary headphone socket on a PC / MAC then it must be worth the effort. The headphone port on the MAC is "consistently" good. People do not care so much, it seems.

When Apogee now also offers GROOVE for PC users, things are getting even more meaningful; PCs usually offer an ordinary headphone outputs of highly variable quality. 

Believe me; I've heard a reasonably large selection of the kind of gadgets we are talking about. And they work - ie; they are bumping sound quality a few notches upward. But I've also heard the exact opposite; occasionally a DAC / headphone amplifier extra hanging in your PC just makes the sound worse. And then you have also an extra box to keep tabs on ....

And as I said; Mac has a consistently good quality. 

GROOVE is designed so that it sits comfortably in your hand. A little rubber here at the bottom, rounded edges and the right size for an ordinary hand. Unless LEDs completely shed a clarifying light up in my head, so there are two easily understandable rubber lugs that make things easier to use. One should basically not take too lightly on the user interface of gadgets. It can easily sound like pirk when you mention something as primary conspicuous rubber keys for control of increase and decrease of volume. You preserve concentration on what you are doing.

But beware of the following; GROOVE is playing beastly high. Take care of your hearing !!



Sound, not to mention; empathy!

I Dont think it's `comes as a surprise when I immediately tell you that GROOVE is more than a friendly gadget. The first one might notice is that GROOVE produce an upward adjustment of sound quality whenb connected to both MAC and PC. You almost can`t help noticing it!

If we are tgoping to descrivbe this product with our typical HiFi expressions, I think you will notice the tight bass. And in addition, sibilans are simply absent. If you ever perceive something resembling "sss" and "scccch, don`t put the blame on the GROOVE. When this coincides with a highly nuanced - well balanced and rare good midrange - which probably will appeal to everyone with a sense of vocal material, things begin to fall into place. Some would argue that the midrange leans to any direction, this must be at the dark side. And also, GROOVE strikes with very good dynamic qualities consistently.

Almost by a coincidence there is a cool, well-designed headphone amplifier by my side, and clearly this is one better for the most parameters we regard as important in terms of HiFi quality. But it costs about 20,000 NOK - so what else is there to be expected? But it is reasonable dead - or at least having a cold - when it comes to qualities that provides immersion in the music. This beast I didn`t bother listening to for more than a few hours. Or barely so. Anyway - with GROOVE inside the signal path I fall more into tranquility. More attention to music, various interpretations of classical music are highly meaningful and engaging.

Although STING`s voice is almost smeared out across the sound stage on the "The Last Schip" - most likely because the guy responsible for the mix has not been eating for a long time - I simply keep on listening.

All in all 

I have not much to fault on GROOVE. The sound itself is well above the average for competitors. Partly with respect to price. But the main thing - when it comes to music experience and involvement,  the cup is almost more than full!

GROOVE is providing music for both body and soul! 


Thanks to  Musik-Magazinet  for lending us Apogee Groove.

Retail price: NOK 3.399, -





Read 9433 times Last modified on Saturday, 24 December 2022 13:42