Good audio is an objective experience on paper, and a subjective experience in your ears.
Objectively, the Groove by Apogee Digital, a tremendously well-respected company in the equipment side of the recording industry, is a very powerful portable DAC/Amp combo with top-of-the-line components and the simplest functionality possible. You plug one end into your computer via USB, and your headphones into the other end, and the music you play will sound significantly better than if you’d just listened to it though the headphone jack. It’s a simple device: a machined metal enclosure about the size of those Trader Joe’s mint tins, with two ports, two buttons, and three LEDs. It feels solid and durable, like a portable gadget should. Nothing about it feels cheap (which is appropriate, since it isn’t cheap). The key data points that audiophiles like include working with up to 24 bit / 192kHz audio, and delivering clean, clear, accurate sound without any added noise or distortion.
Subjectively, it sounds amazingly good. As I’ve mentioned in other audio reviews, getting really good results from your audio gear is all about the chain of custody of the audio itself. First, if you don’t have high-quality audio files, you’re not going to hear great sound. At a minimum, you want the highest-quality AAC files you can get. However, whenever I’m ripping from CDs, I’ll use the Apple Lossless format (ALAC) to get the best original sound while not taking up all my hard drive space. On the other end of the chain are your headphones. I’m currently using the Monoprice Monolith M1060 planar magnetic headphones, which I’ve fallen in love with for their clarity and sound stage. In the middle of that chain is the place where your DAC/Amp goes.
A quick note about listening setting: While a DAC/Amp like the Groove is “portable,” that doesn’t necessarily mean you connect it to your iPhone and use it to drive your earbuds while you’re out for a jog. This type of portable DAC/Amp is aimed specifically for use with a laptop or desktop computer and decent headphones (it needs a proper USB port to plug into and draw power from). The idea is that you take it with you in your gear bag, so you can have great audio wherever you stop and set up to work. It is much more of a kind with the Creative Sound Blaster E5 I wrote about here than, for example, the Schiit stack I have at home, which wants to be plugged in to a wall-outlet to do its job.
So, when I review audio gear, I use a playlist of songs that I know are high quality, and have a variety and depth of sound to help me hear everything that gear can do. And when I started listening to the Groove, I had a number of those moments that you love when trying out new gear: you listen to an old familiar song, and some part of it that you hadn’t noticed before comes through clearly and richly, and you go “oh, wow, that’s nice!” One of the best things a really good DAC/Amp combo can do when it’s paired with good headphones is increase separation, meaning you can hear individual notes and instruments more clearly and distinctly. Poorer audio files (mp3), less accurate DACs, lower amplification, and cheap headphones make music muddier and less distinct. The Groove very handily fixes those two middle issues. Listening to some good Cinematic Orchestra, the definition of the separate percussion instruments is excellent, and the impact of a good classical score, like the end credits from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn is wonderful!
In the end, much of reviewing audio gear is an emotional experience. Did it help you experience your music in a way that better delivers the emotional impact that music can have on you? The Groove gave me some real warm-fuzzies when listening to my favorite tunes.
The Apogee Groove costs $295 on Amazon, which is not inexpensive to say the least. It’s about $100 more than the E5 I mentioned above, and the E5 has some features the Groove doesn’t. But the Groove is more portable, has simpler controls, and plays better with a wider range of headphones. As a pure audio device, it’s a cut above. And, subjectively speaking, I just love it more.
[Disclaimer: Apogee Digital provided a review unit. All opinions are my own.]