The world of high-end audio is full of dubious claims, the deliberately baffling use of science-y terms, sky-high prices and products that resonate with ego. The HiFiMAN HM-101 isn't like that. One of HiFiMAN's "consumer grade products with Hi-Fi elements" and part of its new HiFiMAN Express range, it's a dirt cheap USB soundcard that's small, light and tremendously simple. And while it's easy to make the assumption a £30 box couldn't really improve sound quality, it'd be a false one.
Matchbox-sized, button-free and 26g in weight, the HiFiMAN HM-101 doesn't shout about what it's for. It has no flaps, no batteries and no display. It's a lot simpler than the rival Fiio E17 - and simpler even than the sub-£20 Fiio E6.
On its top edge is a miniUSB port. Plug this into a computer and the HM-101 will start acting as the computer's soundcard, piping signal through the two 3.5mm jack ports on its bottom. These are line level and headphone outputs, letting you plug in speakers and headphones at the same time. From a quick look, the only way to know if it's working or not is to look at the little power icon on its front, which glows blue when the HM-101 is drawing power from its USB connection.
For a device that doesn't really need to be all that portable - it's for plugging into computers rather than MP3 players - this thing is tiny. But it is also reasonably sturdy. A single band of metal forms its sides, and the front and rear are panels of glossy black plastic. It's too light to feel super-strong like some of Fiio's metal-bodied headphone amplifiers, but it can easily withstand being trodden into carpet - a likely occurrence.
Next to the retro HM-601 media player, the HM-101 looks positively sleek and modern. But what does it actually do?
The HiFiMAN HM-101's main aim is to replace the DAC, the digital-to-analogue converter, of your computer. Because, in all likelihood, it's probably not a very good one. This little box won't work with iPads or Android tablets - while they may have a USB interface of sorts, it doesn't have the requisite flexibility.
HiFiMAN claims the HM-101 provides 96dB signal-to-noise ratio, 20Hz to 20KHz frequency response and 26mW power output at 150Ohm. It should therefore be able to power over-ear headphones as well as teeny little in-ear buds. The numbers don't really tell you what the HM-101's really like to use, though…