THX is a brand synonymous with sound, best known for its eardrum-tickle deep note trailer played before movies in theaters. During years, THX has partnered with hardware manufacturers, lending its sound expertise to enhance the audio capabilities of everything from smartphones for laptops, and now the company is finally releasing his own Consumer Product – A little amp that promises to make headphones sound better if you’re willing to forgo the convenience of wireless.
Before we dive in, I’ll admit that I’m by no means an audiophile. I am happy to listen to music through a couple of lightweight wireless headphones with the audio compressed multiple times (while streaming and then further compressed so that it can move into the limited wireless bandwidth of the Bluetooth protocol) before it reaches my ears. But I’ve also spent a lot of time behind a mixer with professional studio headphones streaming live music into my ears and I can easily hear the difference between the two. Most of the time I’m happy to prioritize convenience over quality, and I have little interest in financing and obsessing over a home stereo setup that costs tens of thousands of dollars, but when I work at home and listen to music I always look for a pair of headphones. supraaural instead of yolks.
THX’s first consumer product may seem like it is aimed solely at audiophiles, but after trying the $ 200 Onyx for a few weeks, I think it is definitely an improvement that Anyone looking to improve their listening experience with headphones should consider it. But to really take advantage of what it offers, you’ll also want to consider a serious headphone upgrade, and I mean spending well beyond Apple’s $ 550. AirPods Max.
The THX Onyx is a combination amplifier and DAC (digital to audio converter) that is designed to make the audio coming out of a pair of headphones sound as good as possible. The headphone jack on your (older) laptop or smartphone already works As an amplifier and DAC, when converting digital audio files or streams into analog signals and then passing them to the controllers in a pair of headphones, and for most consumer audio equipment, they do an adequate job.
But your average laptop and smartphone also use average performance amplification and DAC components to keep prices low, which can compromise sound quality and audio fidelity when converting digital files, as well as introducing unwanted noise. . It can even result in a large pair of headphones that just aren’t loud enough because a device’s built-in amplifier just doesn’t send enough power through the headphone jack.
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Onyx may not be the first headphone amp available (audiophiles have relied on these types of devices for years), but THX has created what might now be the most stylish and user-friendly amp / DAC available to consumers. Squeezed inside the slim dongle is a THX achromatic audio amplifier (which promises higher sound levels with minimal noise and distortion) along with a ESS ES9281PRO DAC which includes a “built in hardware MQA renderer”. It all sounds very technical and most consumers don’t really need to know what all that means, but MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated, is a new standard that promises better than CD-quality sound through digital files that still remain. they are small enough. to stream or download, and it’s a rapidly being adopted standard across all streaming services that promise high fidelity Audio.
In layman’s terms, the THX Onyx is an easy-to-use USB-C dongle (includes an old-school USB port adapter) that provides an alternate place to plug in headphones for better sound. It gets all the power it needs from a computer or mobile device and does everything it takes to deliver better sound to a pair of hearing aids automatically. There are no buttons to press, no dials to turn, and nothing to set. It just works.
As easy as the Onyx is to use, it comes with a huge compromise – you’ll have to embrace cables again. The sound quality improvements it promises are not available through wireless headphones. It gets even worse if the smartphone you’re using is an iPhone with an outdated Lightning port (there’s a reason Apple doesn’t use Lightning in their laptops) instead of USB-C. According to THX, you will need to pair Onyx with Apple $ 29 Lightning to USB Camera Adapter to make it work with iPhones, adding one more dongle to the mix.
Coming back to life from headphone cables and dongles isn’t easy, but if you regularly listen to music through a pair of on-ear or on-ear headphones, you will immediately notice a difference when using Onyx. I tested the amp / DAC with a couple of Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM4 headphones (with an audio cable plugged in) and I immediately noticed how much louder and fuller the sound is. When plugged directly into the headphone jack on my MacBook Pro, I can turn the volume all the way up on the Sonys for most songs without the sound levels being uncomfortable, although near the higher levels it starts to sound like the signal is clipping. Through the THX Onyx, I can only turn the volume up a little past half before the Sony headphones sound too loud for my years, but even at those levels there are no compromises on how good the music sounds, and it doesn’t. . as if the amplification is reaching its limits, only my ears are.
However, it’s not just about being louder. A stronger signal helps the headphones produce a more nuanced and fuller sound, with a greater dynamic range that helps ensure that what you are listening to is closer to what the sound engineers behind a track wanted you to hear.
If you really want to experience all the benefits of the $ 200 THX Onyx, you’ll want to spend a little (or a lot) of money. Streaming services like Amazon Music HD and apps like Audirvana provide access to and playback of higher bit rate audio files, as do video services such as Disney +, Hulu, and Netflix. Apple Music does not currently offer a higher quality streaming option, and only Spotify recently announced a hi-fi optionso while testing the THX Onyx I relied on Tidal HiFi ($ 20 / month subscription with one month free preview) which offers many tracks in a ‘Master’ promising level studio quality audio.
Onyx itself will let you know the quality of the track you are listening to with its set of three LEDs that change color. Blue is CD quality or slightly better, yellow is high resolution, red is Direct Stream Digital (what Sony and Philips used for Super Audio CDs), and magenta is for highest quality MQA certified tracks. I was skeptical that I would hear a big difference when switching the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones between the headphone jack on my MacBook Pro and the THX Onyx while listening to ‘Master’ quality tracks through Tidal, but my ears had no trouble discerning. which was which. . Music coming through the MBP’s headphone jack was noticeably flatter with less dynamic range than when connected to the Onyx. I’m not sure if the difference is big enough to justify spending $ 20 / month on Tidal HiFi if you use $ 350 headphones, but it could be if you upgrade.
The other obvious way to take advantage of a device like the THX Onyx is with a better pair of headphones, so in addition to the Sony ones, I also tried the Onyx with a pair of $ 1 billionTesla high-end eyerdynamic T5 headphones. Norththat my ears have tasted the best life, they will never be happy with wireless headphones again. Imagine taking a spin in a high-performance sports car after filling your tank with Zippo lighter fluid and then refilling it with jet fuel. The beyerdynamics still provides a better listening experience than the $ 350 Sonys when connected directly to my MacBook Pro, but when connected to the THX Onyx, T5s get everything a $ 1,000 pair of headphones needs to make a helloAmazing fi audio track sound.
Audio compression often removes frequencies our ears are least sensitive to to reduce file sizes, but with high-fidelity digital transmission, the Onyx, and $ 1,000 headphones, you hear it all. Blasting the original Star Wars The theme through Tidal made me feel like I was sitting on stage with the London Symphony Orchestra, and now I understand the stereotype of the rich old man sitting in a luxurious leather chair with a giant expensive pair of headphones. I did not want to take the Beyerdynamics out either.
Like many of you I often roll my eyes at audiophiles who look down on anyone who hasn’t spent tens of thousands of dollars on audio equipment, but the reality is that even if you’re on a much smaller budget, you can still vastly improve your ability to listen. listens. experience. TThe THX Onyx is a good first step in that direction. Just keep in mind that it’s a $ 200 upgrade that could potentially put you on a slippery slope to spend a lot more money. You have been warned.