Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity - Best Of Awards 2016
If you are a music lover, the Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC is a simple and affordable way to upgrade the sound of your laptop or tablet.

It’s portable, durable, supports all current sample and bitrates, can drive a variety of headphones, is USB powered and has a stereo and digital line out. If you are a road warrior and spend a lot of time on your laptop in various locations, the Big Ego is very light weight. Just plug in the USB cord and plug in your headphones and you are good to go. None of that would matter though if it didn’t sound very good, and by the way it does. Very good indeed.

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

Highlights

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

  • Makes a big improvement over your laptop’s stock sound.
  • USB powered so no wall wart required.
  • Solid build quality and made in the USA.
  • Played nice with a variety of headphones (3.5mm jack)
  • Will decode up to 32 bit 384K files (if you can find them!)
  • An excellent value.
Introduction

There has been a proliferation of new DACs on the market over the past couple of years and, with more and more people having vast libraries of music on their computers, having reliable and robust USB connectivity in a DAC has become a standard requirement for consideration. While most DAC units still have a traditional component form factor, a number of newer models are arriving to market in a much more portable size. This is enabling audiophiles to extract much better fidelity from their laptops through headphones and can also provide a convenient way of “plumbing” said laptops into their home stereo systems.

EMOTIVA DAC REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS
Design:

Portable Stereo DAC with Headphone Amp

DAC Chipset:

TI / Burr Brown PCM5142 DAC Chip

Headphone Amplifier Chipset:

TI TPA6130A2 chip

Codecs:

PCM up to 32/384
(Windows Computers Require use of Supplied Drivers for Bitrates beyond 24/96.)

Frequency Response:

8 Hz to 40 kHz (+0 / -1.5 dB); 88.2k and 96k Sample Rates

THD + N:

0.006% (Headphone Output)
0.004% (Line Output)

SNR:

106 dB (A-weighted; Feadphone Output)
113 dB (A-weighted; Line Output)

Digital Inputs:

1 x USB (Asynchronous)

Digital Outputs:

1 x Toslink Optical

Analog Outputs:

1 x 3.5mm Stereo Line Out, 1 x 3.5mm Headphone Jack

Dimensions:

5.32″ H x 2″ W x .625″ D

Weight:

4.6 Ounces

Accessories:

6” Long USB-to-Mini USB Connection Cable

MSRP:

$219 USD

Company:

Emotiva

SECRETS Tags:

Emotiva, DAC, Headphones, Portable

The Emotiva Big Ego is a pint size, flexible little unit that promises the ability to play some of the highest resolution files your digital collection can muster. It also has a good quality headphone section, selectable digital filtering and a few other tricks that will teach your computer’s dodgy sound quality some proper etiquette and breeding.

Design

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

The design of the Emotiva Big Ego DAC is very much reflective of Emotiva’s overall ethos; solid, straightforward and no nonsense. It’s essentially a black anodized metal billet that fits comfortably in hand, about the size of a modest remote control. It has a series of tiny blue LEDs running vertically on its face indicating various sample rates, filter selections and optical line out activity. The top end of the unit has the asynchronous USB input connection in the center. That is flanked by the Toslink optical digital output on the left and a stereo analog line output (3.5mm jack) to the right.

The bottom end of the Big Ego has the headphone jack in the middle (3.5mm as well) and a small button on either side of the jack proper. One button selects the output (either digital Toslink or headphone) while the other selects the digital filtering mode and headphone blend options. The analog line output remains constantly active.

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

A quick word on the filters. The Big Ego provides users a choice of three different digital interpolation or oversampling filters that can have a subtle effect on the final sound. They are labelled F1, F2, and F3 and can be selected and changed on the fly by pushing the Filter Select button. The included manual describes the filter choices as being: F1, a Symmetrical filter, F2, an Asymmetrical Low filter and, F3, an Asymmetrical High filter. The filters themselves work by adjusting the amount of pre and post ringing in the converted signal. Pressing the Filter Select button an additional time will engage the Headphone Blend mode. This feature aims to create more of a “listening to speakers in a room” experience when using headphones. An additional button push will turn this mode off when undesired.

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

When using the Big Ego on an Apple computer, it is strictly a plug and play affair with no additional drivers required for full 32 bit / 384 kHz operation. On a Windows platform (which is what I have) plug and play will get you up to 24 bit / 96 kHz playback. To get any higher bitrates requires a custom ASIO driver that is downloaded from Emotiva’s website. With that installed, up to 32 bit / 384 kHz files can be played back using software such as J. River Media Center, Foobar and the like. The driver installs a control panel that is accessible by double clicking on the icon in the bottom right corner of the taskbar. Through it you can adjust volume, buffer settings, output format, etc. For those who are interested, the Emotiva has incorporated a digitally tracked, analog volume control in the Big Ego to avoid any loss of digital bits at lower listening levels.

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

Finally, the Big Ego comes with a 6” USB connection cable for use in connecting it to your computer. The cable length should be fine for most users but I would have appreciated a couple of extra inches as my Surface Pro 3 tablet’s USB port was in an awkward location. This left the Big Ego not laying perfectly flat on the counter when attached to my tablet. I’m pretty sure my situation is probably not the norm for most eventual users, but I just thought it was worth noting.

Setup

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

For the majority of my testing, I used the Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC tethered to my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet when on the go and, at home, I also used it connected to my main workstation. Both computers run Windows 10 Pro 64-bit operating system and use J. River Media Center 21 as the main playback software. I used a variety of headphones when listening to the Big Ego. These included, the HiFiMAN Edition X (review coming soon), the HifiMANN HE-400S, the OPPO PM-3 and the Nuforce Primo 8 IEMs.

In Use

Installation of the Emotiva Big Ego went without a hitch on my Surface tablet. The driver install was also a snap, after I downloaded it from Emotiva’s website. The included manual was small, but informative and well written, answering a number of basic questions on the functions and theory of the Big Ego. Driver installation on my home workstation was a bit more interesting, as I discovered that my computer’s antivirus software regarded Emotiva’s driver install package as a potential Trojan Horse virus and promptly kept quarantining and deleting the installer. Temporarily suspending the antivirus software’s “auto-protect” features allowed the driver installation to proceed normally and, once installed, my antivirus software and Emotiva’s drivers co-existed peacefully ever after.

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Once installed and configured in J. River Media Center, the Big Ego basically played the digital PCM stream of everything the media software threw at it, mp3, aiff, flac, wav, dsf, dff, the whole lot, and without a single hiccup. I played music files with various bit depths and sampling rates from 16/44 to 32/352 without any audible or functional issues. I didn’t have any files that would make the 32/384 light come on though. Functionally, the Emotiva Big Ego was one of the easiest and least stress-inducing products that I’ve ever reviewed. It just works and very well at that.

Overall, the subjective sound quality of the Emotiva Big Ego was extremely impressive for something so small. The improvement in sound quality while listening to music on my Surface tablet, via headphones, was noticeable and dramatic when using the Big Ego. It made those times when I was working on the go far more enjoyable when I strapped on some headphones. Clarity, definition and detail were far more improved through the Big Ego while background noise was completely absent. Now, I didn’t have any really difficult to drive headphones on hand to task the Big Ego’s amplifier section with, but it did drive my 250 ohm Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pros plenty clean and loud with the volume at 85-90 percent up. The Nuforce Primo 8 in ear monitors have occasionally picked up power supply noise when paired with certain headphone amps I’ve had around here. No such situation occurred with Big Ego powering them. Silent passages in the music were just that, silent. No extraneous noises were noticed or detected, ever. The Emotiva Big Ego reproduces digital music very cleanly without becoming flat, sterile or thin sounding. In fact, it really amazes me how much high fidelity can be squeezed out of such a small, unassuming device!

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I played around with the different digital filter settings during my time with the Big Ego, experimenting with them on various types of musical material. And while I did detect some sonic differences between the 3 available filter settings, the changes were, effectively, very subtle. I don’t think I could reliably pick one that I found preferable to the others. The same sort of thing can be said about the Headphone Blend mode. It was definitely fun to experiment with and its success, to my ears, largely depended on the type of music and model of headphone I had on at a given moment. I felt that live music gave me the best sense of what the Headphone Blend circuit could do, as it seemed to lock instruments and performers into tighter focus much of the time. But these extra features available on the Big Ego are akin to side dishes and condiments to a really good meal. You can listen to your music straight and enjoy it with all its natural flavors or you can use the DAC’filters and Blend circuit and, season to taste.

The following encapsulate some of my more standout listening experiences with the Big Ego:

Don Ross

Don Ross “Bearing Straight”

Bearing Straight by Don Ross. A wonderful, predominantly solo, acoustic guitar CD gave the Emotiva Big Ego a chance to show off what it could do with subtle detail retrieval. In this aspect, it did an admirable job of capturing not just the dynamics and lovely harmonics of Don’s playing style but also the subtle nuances of the strings in some of more quiet passages. Tracks like “King Street Suite” and “Catherine” in particular, had plenty of gentle string plucks, low level harmonics and sounds of hands sliding up and down the fret board. The Big Ego had no trouble rendering these details with adequate warmth and precision on all counts.

Zepher

Zepher “Voices Unbound”

Zepher: Voices Unbound. Another excellent recording from AIX Records consisting of a dozen a cappella singers recorded both in 2-channel and surround mixes. Listening to the downloaded 5.1-channel 24/96 FLAC files through the Big Ego presented me with a palpable sense of dimension even when down-mixed to 2-channel over headphones. I found these tracks benefitted the most by the use of the Headphone Blend circuit. When on, Headphone Blend expanded the soundstage out past the confines of the headphones in a pleasing manner.

The various singers seeming to come from all around me. Each of the singers’ voices though were presented with enough detail to remain distinct and yet the warmness of the recording still came across. Listening to the track “Now is The Month of Maying” provides an especially enveloping experience, but again, all the performers voices remained distinct without turning to mush like when I listened to the same track through my tablet’s headphone output alone.

Kent Poon

Kent Poon “Audiophile Jazz Prologue 3”

Kent Poon Presents: Audiophile Jazz Prologue 3. A very rich sounding jazz compilation that may not be the very last word in detail but all the performances have atmosphere and presence to spare. The female vocal on the track “Lush Life” comes across as natural and dynamic with the Big Ego keeping her voice well resolved from the lowest whisper to the full volume of her range.

Everything sounded sweet without a hint of harshness and with enough of the room’s natural ambience to complete the picture. On the track “Freddie” we hear a great sax and trumpet led group with a bopping rhythm section. The horns themselves have a nice natural sound without any obvious glare or harshness to them, a nice step up in quality from the stock headphone jack which made the horns sound noticeably flatter by comparison.

David Elias

David Elias “Poor Polly”

Poor Polly from the Slipperworld DSD Sessions by David Elias. A DSF file downloaded from the artist’s webstore gives a fair impression of what I would imagine Pink Floyd performing folk music would sound like. Nicely recorded with great ambience and some sublime electric guitar work. The Big Ego decodes this file as 32/352 PCM without a hitch.

Electric guitar notes rang cleanly, cymbals were crisp and detailed, and the rhythm acoustic guitar was suitably detailed sounding. There’s a lot of great musicianship in this track that can be far better appreciated through Emotiva’s little black ingot. Listening through the stock Surface headphone jack just doesn’t do justice to all the subtleties in the music.

On a side note, if you have any DSF or DFF music files in your library and you frequently switch back and forth between them and other types of files, the Big EGO will not generate the unnaturally loud “pop” sound that some DACS can when they switch to and from DSD based tracks. At the most, you will get a very soft “tick” sound at the track change and that’s it.

Conclusions

Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC

The Big Ego is an Excellent Value and Almost a No-brainer for a Regular Headphone Listener on Their Portable Computer.

Likes
  • Clean, natural sound.
  • Small and solid package.
  • Will play pretty much any music file.
  • Headphone Blend and filter circuits are a nice touch.
Would Like To See
  • Perhaps an integrated volume control on the unit itself.
  • Slightly longer USB cable.

The Emotiva Big Ego USB DAC strikes me a sane and easy way for a music lover to get solid, component level sound quality out of their mobile computer, or even desktop if one is so inclined. For just over $200 bucks you get excellent build quality, easy operation and great sound in a very small package that can be easily taken with you. The headphone jack will provide enough go juice for most, easy to moderately tasking, headphone loads. The line out jack will allow connection to a home stereo or powered speakers and the optical digital output provides connection to a HT receiver as well. The Big Ego’s sound quality is leagues better than what is standard fare for a laptop with nice little added touches like the selectable filtering and Headphone Blend circuit to help round out the package. At its current asking price, I believe the Big Ego is an excellent value and almost a no-brainer for a regular headphone listener on their portable computer. As a matter of fact, I could easily see Emotiva fitting an Apple lightning connector on a line of Big Egos for folks to use with their iPods or iPads. The styling might need adjusting for that market but the form factor and tech is right on the money. Food for thought, hmmmm?

  • Nice review Carlo. I received one of these for Christmas and honestly haven’t had much time to use it to the fullest extent yet either in terms of different headphones or connected to my hi fi system from my Mac. Your review helps me to understand what I have been blessed with! I should have brought this with me on my latest business/vacation trip! I assume it might do a nice job feeding a portable external speaker from the Mac as well. Your readers here might find this FAQ’s from Emotiva useful… http://emotiva.com/resources/EGO_FAQ_2015-08-25.pdf.
    I must acquire a good set of balanced capable headphones. Any suggestions?

  • Carlo Lo Raso

    Hi John. Thanks for your compliments and the link to the FAQ. The Big Ego will do a fine job feeding a powered speaker from your Mac using the line output. In terms of a balanced capable headphone that would work well with the Big Ego, I sampled the Beyerdynamic T5 P at CES and felt that it had a lot of promise and, being a closed back design, would be a good choice for on the go. I’m currently wrapping up a review on the HiFiMAN Edition X and I felt they meshed really well with the Big Ego too. Although they are open backed so maybe not the best choice for outside the home.