Emotiva Big Ego Review
December 30, 2015 Luckbad 3
If I talk about a USA audio company that does creates excellent bang-for-the-buck products, are you thinking about Emotiva? You should be. Emotiva has long been well-regarded in the home theater scene, even producing speakers to a quality level that big wigs at the other USA-based audio company you were probably thinking of (rhymes with $%#&) that makes great bang-for-the-buck products use them.
Emotiva Big Ego Features
- Awesome sound quality – The Big Ego’s cutting edge design and tight manufacturing tolerances ensure that it will make all of your digital audio content sound its absolute best.
- Makes anything your computer can play sound better – Since your computer thinks of the Big Ego as a sound card, any file or streaming audio that you can play on your computer will work just fine on it.
- Supports all current sample rates – The Big Ego supports all of the sample rates used by today’s modern digital PCM audio files – from 16/44k CD rips to cutting edge 32/384k super quality downloads.
- User selectable digital filters – The digital filters a DAC uses have a subtle effect on how it sounds. The Big Ego offers you a choice of three different filters, so you can choose the sonic signature that’s just right for you.
- Headphone blend mode – The Big Ego’s sophisticated headphone blend mode helps make your headphones sound less like headphones – and more like regular speakers.
- Excellent specifications – Specifications aren’t everything, especially when it comes to DACs, but the Big Ego has performance specs and sound quality that are both equal to or better than most desktop systems and outboard DACs, even those costing many times its price.
- Precision lossless volume control – Even at low listening levels the Big Ego’s digitally controlled analog volume control tracks precisely and doesn’t degrade your sound quality.
- Separate headphone, line level, and digital outputs – Separate headphone and line level analog outputs let you keep your Big Ego connected to your stereo and your headphones at the same time. You can use the Toslink digital output to connect the Big Ego to a digital input on your stereo or another DAC, and you can switch between the analog and digital outputs at the push of a button.
- Supports both USB Audio Class 1 and USB Audio Class 2 – The Big Ego supports sample rates up to 32/384k on Apple computers without installing any drivers. On Windows computers, you’ll have to install our free UAC2 drivers to play files up to 32/384k; however, if installing drivers is inconvenient, the Big Ego can play files up to 24/96k using our special UAC1 driverless mode.
- USB powered – The Big Ego runs on the power provided by your computer’s USB port, so there’s no need for external power supplies and power supply cables.
- Solid metal case – The Big Ego’s solid metal case keeps the delicate circuitry inside safe, and provides excellent shielding against electrical noise.
- Easy to read LED indicator lights – Bright, easy to read, LED indicators tell you the sample rate of the music Big Ego is currently playing, which UAC mode you’re using, and whether the digital or analog outputs are selected. When you press the button to select a digital filter, the sample rate indicator LEDs temporarily change function to show you which filter is currently selected.
Emotiva Big Ego Impressions
With their exemplary Emotiva Stealth DC-1 garnering buckets of praise for its value as a balanced DAC, Emotiva has sojourned farther down the road of headphone audio and released a series of smaller offerings. Namely, the Emotiva Big Ego and Little Ego.
Both offer 32-bit/384kHz digital-to-analogue conversion at excellent accuracy (within 0.3dB up to 20kHz). Both give you digital filter options to decide how you want the conversion to be done as well as crossfeed. Both can work as headphone amps in addition to dacs. What’s the difference? Primarily, the Big Ego gives you Line Out and the Little Ego does not. That makes it the more versatile offering, as it can be used as the dac for a fancier amplifier.
Let’s get into some detail…
The Big Ego uses a TI / Burr Brown PCM5142 DAC chip
The Little Ego uses a TI / Burr Brown PCM5141 DAC chip
The headphone amp on both is the TPA6130A2 DirectPath Stereo Headphone Amplifier integrated circuit, and all of the audio op-amps are LME49860MA.
I’ll talk about my favorite (and largely unique) thing about this dac: the digital filters. The Big Ego has three digital interpolation filters as well as a headphone blend filter (aka crossfeed). There is a Symmetrical filter (F1), which has equal amounts of pre-and-post-ringing (this is what the vast majority of dacs use). In addition to that, you can use an Asymmetrical Low Filter (F2) that has almost no pre-ringing, but has multiple cycles of post-ringing. Finally, you can also use an Asymmetrical High Filter that has very little pre-ringing or post-ringing (F3). I find F1 to be the most neutral, F2 be the most pleasant, and F3 to be slightly soft. As such, I use F2 pretty much all the time. More detail about the filters (and almost everything else discussed in the review) can be found in the Emotiva Big Ego Manual.
The headphone blend mode (F4) basically passes each channel through a high-pass filter, and some delay, and then mixes it into the other channel. This is all handled by a DSP, and shouldn’t introduce significant distortion on its own, but whenever you use filtering and delay it’s always possible. The one drawback of the crossfeed implementation is that it adds a few of gain to make it sound just as loud as the other filter options, which can indeed introduce distortion unless you lower the volume of the source. I found that reducing source volume by 5-10dB avoids any chance for distortion if I want to use the headphone blend filter.
How does it sound? Very good. The PCM5142 follows suit along with all the other Burr Brown chips I’ve heard and keeps things nice and smooth without much brightness. Nice punch and an overall sense of warmth. At the price, I’ve heard nothing this good, and I’ve heard quite a few comparable products from the likes of Meridian, CEntrance, Fiio and AudioQuest.
Negatives? As mentioned, the crossfeed introduces some distortion if you don’t lower your source volume a touch. The 3.5mm headphone out can also be finicky with 1/8″ -> 1/4″ adapters because there’s a bevel on either side (2/4 of my adapters don’t fit because they are too wide around the base). Finally, while volume control is analog controlled via digital (this is a very good thing), there are no volume buttons nor a knob on the Big Ego–you have to do it at the source. I’d like to see a volume control in v2.
It can also be very slightly grainy on some recordings. I went about trying to solve the (admittedly minor) grain issue. Is the grain the fault of the dac? Could I fix it? Let’s see…
First, I bought a cheap internal PCIe USB card. The asynchronous USB implementation of the Big Ego is good, but it is powered by the USB bus and is beholden to the quality of the signal you pass into it. I use the Big Ego at work, and my USB there sucks (bad enough that I couldn’t reliably use a Schiit Wyrd to clean up the signal because I’d get dropouts and distortion). Okay, the internal card certainly improved things. I still would get occasional momentary glitches and dropouts, but the signal became largely grain-free.
Now what? People keep talking about the UpTone Audio Regen. So, I went ahead and bought one and waited for a few weeks. It finally arrived, and I hooked it up. Immediately I gained a subjective feeling of less grain and much more overall smoothness. But maybe that’s placebo. Could I objectively measure improvements? Absolutely. I get zero dropouts or random stutters during playback despite my work computer’s weaksauce USB.
Okay, problem solved. No audible issues, no objective problems, a beautifully smooth dac that can play basically anything I throw at it. But did I ruin the value? At $179 during Emotiva’s holiday sale, the Big Ego is a ridiculous steal. Adding a $175 Regen basically doubles the price. At $350… well, yeah, this is still better than anything I’ve ever heard at that price. Even if your USB sucks and you need to fix it with a Regen or similar solution, the Emotiva Big Ego is a great value.
Would I recommend the Big Ego even if you have mediocre USB? Absolutely. It’s still better than anything of a similar price without the Regen. I’m just a spoiled audiophile who can’t handle any sense of grain or dropouts, however occasional they may be. It’s still better than anything under $300 I’ve ever heard, and it’s MADE IN THE USA. Did I type that right? Damn right I did.
That the Emotiva DC-1, Big Ego, and Little Ego don’t have Head-Fi losing their collective minds for how good a value they are (okay, the DC-1 kinda does) is a tragedy. Get onboard, people!
Emotiva Big Ego Specifications
- USB Interface (input): Asynchronous, USB Audio Class 1 and 2
- Outputs: Headphone (analog; variable); Line (analog; fixed); Toslink (digital)
- Format: PCM digital audio
- Direct coupled audio path
- Audio File Formats Supported: Big Ego supports any file or stream format your computer can play
- Digital Filter Options: Symmetrical ; Asymmetrical Low; Asymmetrical High
- Headphone Blend Mode: Switchable
- Maximum Output Level: 1.8 VRMS (headphone); 2.1 VRMS (line)
- Sample Rates Supported:
Apple computers: 44.1k, 48k, 88k, 96k, 176k, 192k, 352k, 384k (no drivers required)
Windows computers: 44.1k, 48k, 88k, 96k, 176k, 192k, 352k, 384k (with free drivers)
Windows computers: 44.1k, 48k, 88k, 96k (driverless)
- Bit Depths Supported: 16 bits, 24 bits, 32 bits
- Frequency Response:
8 Hz to 20 kHz (+0 / -0.3 dB); 44.1k and 48k sample rates
8 Hz to 40 kHz (+0 / -1.5 dB); 88.2k and 96k sample rates
8 Hz to 60 kHz (+0 / -3 dB); 176k and 192k sample rates
- Signal to Noise Ratio:
> 106 dB (A-weighted; headphone output)
> 113 dB (A-weighted; line output)
- Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise:
< 0.006% (headphone output)
< 0.004% (line output)
- Dimensions: 5.32″ x 2″ x .625″
- Weight: 4.6oz
Emotiva Big Ego$219
- Selectable digital filters
- Supports tons of sample rates
- Can be used as a dac, amp, or both
- Great value
- Compact form factor
- Crossover adds ~10dB and can distort
- Headphone out has intrusive bevels
- Can get grainy with some material
- No internal battery for portable use