Blue Circle Audio USB Thingee
A Thingee by any other name would
sound as sweet
Its not often that an audio reviewer gets to
paraphrase Shakespeare, but in this case it seems appropriate. In name and appearance, the
Blue Circle Audio USB Thingee is inelegant. Its utilitarian. Ah heck, its just
plain ugly. But as someone once said, its whats inside that counts, and inside
the Thingee is something special.
But first lets deal with the outside. Full points if
youve figured out that the Thingee lives inside a plastic pipe. According to Blue
Circles Gilbert Yeung, PVC pipe was chosen to house the Thingee because its
light, its tough as nails, and, most important, its cheap. "We knew we
could build an outstanding product for under $200," says Yeung, "but only if we
put our budget into the electronics instead of the cosmetics."
The same rule obviously applied to the enclosures
endcaps, which appear to be fashioned from sculpted silicone. The ends arent pretty
but are highly effective; not once during my evaluation did the Thingees insides
fall out. In fact, Id bet that it would take quite a knock to damage a Thingee,
because it feels as sturdy as a brick; so much the better for users who want to take their
Thingees on the road.
Have you ever had the sort of out-of-body experience in
which you feel like a third-party observer to the nonsense coming out of your own mouth?
As I said, "Gilbert, describe your Thingee to me," that third party snorted beer
through his nose. So much for being the suave reviewer.
Blue Circle makes a practice of keeping its innovations
close to the corporate vest, so I didnt expect to get a lot of detail on the
Thingees inner workings. Prudent precaution aside, Gilbert Yeung did offer some
tidbits to satisfy (or kindle) my curiosity. But before getting to those, Ill
describe the Thingee.
The USB Thingee ($169 USD) is really three components in
one: Its a USB-to-S/PDIF digital converter, a USB DAC with analog outputs, and a USB
DAC headphone amplifier. In addition to the base version, which comes with a standard RCA
digital output, Blue Circle offers two $179 Thingees, with the base output plus a TosLink
optical output (to connect to a home-theater receiver), or base plus AES/EBU output -- and
a $189 version offering AES/EBU, TosLink, and the base digital output.
In all iterations, the USB Thingee operates from a USB port
(PC or Mac), which provides it with both power and an audio signal. Just whats
involved in the USB-to-S/PDIF conversion isnt revealed, but Yeung did tell me
something about the Thingee by explaining how he dealt with two inherent limitations of
the USB bus: its dearth of electrical current and its noisy power supply.
The USB bus was never intended to provide significant
amounts of power to outboard accessories, and this is why joysticks and external hard
drives, for example, have their own separate power supplies. But a dedicated power supply
for the Thingee was a nonstarter because it would mean a significant price increase. So if
the Thingee was going to depend on the USB bus supply, Yeung had to design a very
efficient circuit to get the most out of the small amount of electric current available.
An efficient design alone wouldnt address the noisy
power generated by the computers power supply. When I first spoke to Yeung about the
Thingee, I told him that I was struck by its ability to render an absolutely
"black" background. The effect, I said, was very much like that of a good mains
filter. "Good observation," he said, "because theres a filter built
into the Thingee."
So there you have it: the USB Thingee is efficient and it
has a built-in power filter. To learn more about its inner workings, youll need a
Like other USB converters Ive tried, the USB Thingee
does not require software drivers. When I plugged it into a laptop, Windows Vista had no
trouble recognizing it as a "USB Audio Device." To finish the setup, I selected
the Thingee as the audio output device from within my playback software, and voilą,
music flowed forth.
For this review it was decided to focus on the USB Thingee
as a digital interface between my laptop and an Audio Note Kits DAC 2.1. All the music
files on the Sony laptop were ripped using Exact Audio Copy in the lossless FLAC format
and played back through J Rivers Media Jukebox 12 player software. EAC (with FLAC
encoding built in) and Media Jukebox are free and available for download. Speakers were
Exodus Audio Keplers or B&W CM1s; the integrated amplifier was either a Simaudio i-5.3
or a DIY Paradise Charlize 2.
About the Thingees ability to provide a black
background, the cats already out of the bag. As would be expected, this silence made
it considerably easier to discern subtle details, echoes from recording spaces, and crowd
noises. Although its already a very revealing recording, the spatial cues in Jazz
at the Pawnshop [CD, Proprius 7778] were more alive than ever, but not so prominent as
to be too distracting. The clinking of glasses and the background conversation of Pawnshop
patrons, for example, blended beautifully with the music, resulting in an all-enveloping
live musical experience.
Wynton and Ellis Marsaliss Joe Cools Blues
[CD, Columbia CK 668801] is a recent addition to my collection and a new favorite. The
first track, Vince Guaraldis timeless "Linus and Lucy," offers four and a
half minutes of merry music, with Eric Reeds rendition of Guaraldis classic
piano riff being both playful and punchy. Although the piano, Wyntons trumpet, and
Wycliffe Gordons trombone dominate the piece, the Thingee conveyed the performance
space so well that it was easy to follow the supporting players, each tucked into his
place in space.
Among the many stunning recordings on This is K2 HD
Sound! [CD, FIM 14.2 HD 078] is War Dancer, from the suite from Respighis
The Queen of Sheba. This piece of music features huge dynamic swings and percussion
that, through the USB Thingee, turned out to be more explosive than Id previously
realized. Actually, forget explosive: the timpani were downright devastating. War dance
indeed! On the much subtler side, the same discs recording of Nah Youn Suns Heart
of Glass was rendered in an equally moving fashion, though in this instance it was
because the Thingee was acting as digital truth serum, laying bare the intense emotion
that underpins Suns magnificent vocal performance. Nothing added, nothing taken
The venerable HagUSB ($129), one of the first USB-to-S/PDIF
converters available to the audio community, has provided sterling service for the past
few years. Its been with me so long, and done such a great job of selling PC-based
audio to many an audiophile, that it feels almost disloyal to compare it to the far newer
Thingee. But such is life. Though it pains me to say so, the venerable HagUSB was
outclassed by the Thingee in every way. Whether it was newer-technology chips, the circuit
design, the integral filter, or maybe even the pipe (!), the Thingee is the new standard
bearer among USB-to-S/PDIF converters.
The Thingee was also remarkably good as a standalone DAC.
After listening to the Thingees analog output for a few days, I switched over to the
DIY Paradise Enhanced USB Monica ($360 in built form, with power supply) and listened for
differences. The best adjective I can think of to describe the Monica vs. the Thingee is
that the former sounded dry. Whereas the Thingee was full-bodied, robust, and
projected a wide and deep soundstage, the Monica was leaner, and had slightly muted bass
response and a moderately veiled upper treble. The Enhanced USB Monica is a great device,
but at half the price, the USB Thingee is definitely the better value.
It didnt take the Blue Circle USB Thingee to convince
me that computer-based music systems are the next big thing in audio -- I jumped on that
bandwagon years ago. But the USB Thingee is proof positive that, with a computer and an
inexpensive converter, its possible to assemble a digital source that easily keeps
up with +$2000 standalone players. Yes, other very good USB converters and USB DACs are
available, but in my experience, none offers the USB Thingees winning combination of
high-level performance and superb value. It might not be pretty to look at, but Blue
Circle Audios USB Thingee is indeed a rose.
Price of equipment reviewed