Given the dearth of competition in $40 portable DACs, finding another DAC to compare to the HM-101 proved an exercise in futility. Sure, there were a couple of DACs and soundcards available on EBAY for $60, but for $40 I only found kits and kit parts. By moving up the price-point food chain prospective buyers will discover super-performers such as the Calyx Kong ($149) and the AudioEngine D1 ($169). Both sound more dynamically robust, support a wider variety of headphone options, and support higher resolution music files than the HM-101. But both the Kong and the D1 require pricier and higher-resolving headphones (or desktop systems) than the HiFiMAN HE-300 ($299) to deliver their full potential.
If high value is your primary criteria for an audio acquisition, you can stop reading and head straight for the “purchase now” button on HiFiMAN’s website, because the HM-101 is the best portable audio value you’re going to find in stand alone sound card DACs.
On their most recent concert the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra performed Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello featuring soloists from the Takacs Quartet. My recording of the concert turned out splendidly. Through the HM-101 most of dynamic weight and the feeling of live-ness was preserved. Sure, I heard some loss of low-level detail compared to my reference DAC/headphone amps, and imaging wasn’t nearly as precise, but most of the macro and some of the micro dynamics were preserved.
It seems that no matter how many times I listen to the Beatles Abbey Road album [Capitol] from 44.1/24 FLAC files, I hear new parts and details that I missed before. Through the HM-101 I heard the floating and almost subliminal mellotron lines in the background of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Also the metallic edge of the hammer strikes had the right jump factor, guaranteed to get anyone’s full attention.