The high-end audio world is too bound up by convention. OK, so denouncing the reactionary bourgeoisie is a bit too 1965 for my tastes (and let’s face it, that didn’t work out too well in the end), but there’s a still radical shake-up in all things audio related that’s not only needed, but also taking place right now. And it’s very much at the affordable end. The Henry Audio USB 128 mk II is one of those leading the charge.
You see, the Henry Audio USB 128 mk II began life as an open source project, built in the Philippines but with Børge Strand-Bergesen heading up the project from his home in Norway. The early iterations had Alpha Geek names like ‘The Audio Widget’ and ‘Quantization Noise Killed The Cat’ before settling on the more prosaic – but altogether more marketable – Henry Audio. Irrespective of name, the device has a solid following on the digital DIY forums and discussion groups, becauseits firmware is programmable and experimentation is encouraged (hence the ‘prog’ and ‘reset’ buttons on the rear panel).
The base specifications of the USB 128 mk II is simple: it’s based around the AKM4430 ‘all-in-one’ chip, with a Atmel AVR32 programmable microcontroller chip and ADP151 low drop out voltage regulators running at 3.3V, meaning the 5V USB limit is well preserved. The user manual informs you that the power supply is ripe for tangling with, and there are “lots of internal headers for experimenting”. Even the circuit design and pin-outs are provided in the manual for the hardcore user. Anyone with a good working knowledge of C and an understanding of digital audio works can play! Normally, we’d criticise a DAC that had exposed allen bolts front and rear for being a little bit roughedged, but as Henry Audio is going to go to a significant number of people who will open the casework in minutes, this is to be applauded. A single LED on the front panel represents the sole operational functionality. That all being said, the little brushed case is not bad; it sits on three little clear blobs so it doesn’t scratch your worksurface, and the logo on the plastic front panel sets the Henry apart from something knocked together in a shed.
If that last paragraph reads a bit too ‘DIY’ for you, the Henry’s basic DAC configuration is pretty good, too. It will run as an Asynchronous USB DAC in Class 1 or Class 2 USB Audio modes. As ever, it will support both Class 1 and 2 native in Mac OSX (and, given this is the programmer’s dream DAC, Linux), but you need to download an ASIO driver for Windows PCs. Fortunately, as an open source project, good, robust drivers are available from the site. Given its open source background, I thought the Henry might go into forced self-destruct mode if used with anything apart from Foobar 2000, but in fact it’s the perfect partner and I happily connected it to the evil empire of iTunes and not a single shot was fired in revolt.
It’s a really good DAC, too. If the ‘hax0r’ mood doesn’t take you, and you simply use the Henry as a USB converter, you are faced with a device that teases out the spirit and emotion of the music, rather than the detail. It’s an extremely refined sounding DAC; not just for the money, it’s extremely refined sounding regardless of price. It’s the kind of DAC you can happily slot into some extremely nice sounding valve amp system costing grillions, and it has that easy, unforced and slightlyback from the loudspeakers presentation, rather than the etched, up-front, in-your-face kind of detail-driven sound so many pass off as ‘high-end’. And that’s the big defining moment here. If you think of high-end as a sonic goal, one to try and reproduce the musical intent with the highest possible fidelity and produce a sound that you want to sit in front of for the longest time, the Henry is every millimetre a high-end DAC. It made a lot of sense of ‘Back Country Suite: Blues’ by Mose Allison [Back Country Suite, Prestige], which was famously covered by the Who at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. This is a track that is effectively ‘owned’ by that cover, but the Henry lets Allison win it back, thanks to the richness and sheer effortlessness of the presentation.
Putting this into context, the DAC’s unforced presentation is not that dissimilar from the performance from considerably more expensive designs, but where those more expensive designs justify their continued existence is in a greater sense of authority, image size, and detail. The Henry Audio DAC has the dynamic range and the tonal balance of the likes of the Nagra HD, but what it lacks is the dynamic shading and sheer detail that sets the top end players apart from the pack. At less vertiginous prices, what you tend to get is that detail (again), but at the expense of some or all of that expressive richness of tone.
The obvious direct comparisons with the Henry are between it and the AudioQuest DragonFly DAC – the form factor might be different, but there are more similarities than you might first think. The Henry is tonally very different; where DragonFly is ‘exciting’, the Henry is ‘mellow’. Ultimately, I marginally preferred the overall balance of the AudioQuest DAC, because it was more capable with the frantic pace of the backbeat on ‘Love Cry’ from Four Tet’s There Is Love In You album [Domino], but I also found much to like in the Henry’s sublime flow through the title track from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, by Godspeed You! Black Emperor [Constellation], and any devices that can play that awesome slice of dark ambient wonderfulness well wins bigin my book.
The downsides? Well, it’s pretty basic – just a mini USB input (rather than the USB-B connector preferred by audio cable makers) and one single lock light. People wanting to connect Ethernet devices or CD players running AES/EBU are left out in the cold. It’s also not going to deliver the highest of high‑resolution audio; if your computer’s hard drive is brimming over with DSD files, the Henry Audio is not your go-to DAC. Although, thanks to the open source nature of the DAC and the relatively open-ended design of that AK chip, the 192kHz limit could evolve in time; it may already have evolved, as someone’s written firmware for 32bit, 384kHz processing on one of the forums!
Perhaps the biggest downside though has nothing whatsoever to do with its basic design, and instead comes down to credibility with the credulous. It’s not in a box eight times larger and fifteen times heavier. It’s not got the word ‘Reference’ in its title, and the company name doesn’t sound like pig Latin.
It’s not powered from the wall, necessitating a cable that cost more than your first, second, and third cars combined. It doesn’t have balanced connections that you decided you would never use but like the concept of. It doesn’t come with the design intervention of someone who looks a little like Methuselah’s older brother. It doesn’t have a tube in the output stage, and it doesn’t have a big fluro display. Most importantly for a certain kind of DAC buyer, the Henry costs about one-twentieth as much as it should for a converter to be taken seriously. But as I said, audio is a world bound by its conventions, and for companies like Henry Audio to break those conventions mean that some people won’t be happy with the results. More fool them!
It’s hard to separate price from performance with the Henry Audio USB 128 mk II, but in a good way. Henry Audio joins a small – but growing – list of companies that make products that overturn the status quo in audio, making products that surprise you in making a sound that good for that little money. It proves there has never been a better time to be a music lover, because the tools that make that music sound great are both better, and often cheaper, than ever.
It’s a crying shame that so much of the audiophile’s gaze is directed upward at ever more aspirational products; while they are great, we need to periodically get back in touch with our roots, and the Henry Audio USB 128 mk II does just that. I never thought I’d use the B-word in audio, but this really is a bargain!
Type: open-source programmable
Input: mini USB, Asynchronous
Output: RCA stereo
Sampling rates supported: 44.1–192kHz
USB Types: Class 1 and Class 2
(Class 2 requires ASIO driver on
Fully user programmable
Dimensions (W×H×D): 11.4×3.3×12.8cm
Manufactured by Henry Audio
Tel: +47 9063 9918
UK specific URL: www.henryaudio.co.uk