Crowdsourcing Fidelity?

About 20 days ago I learned about a new Kickstarter campaign for something called “geek” initiated by Gavin Fish and Light Harmonic. The pitch describes “geek” as “a new awesomifier for headphones” and lays out the requisite product descriptions and a series of rewards that “backers” get based on their contribution to the effort. The remarkable thing about the “geek” is that it took off based solely on the marketing pitch put that Gavin put together. No one has seen or heard the “geek” but by the end of the first day, their goal of $28,000 was eclipsed three times over! And this morning that figure has risen to over $220,000.

The company’s flagship ultra high-end converter, the DaVinci DAC, is one of the finest digital to analog converters on the planet. It ought to be for $20K. Larry Ho, the brains behind the unit, believes “Without using digital filter, digital up-sampling will make the sound more natural and clear. The ultimate goal is making digital sound like analog master tape.” Apparently, they’re approach is to upsample a native digital file. Operating in the 384 kHz sample rate range allows the digital filters used to get rid of the high frequency artifacts encountered during a digital to analog conversion to be less steep and easier to design and implement. Whether this is an engineering advantage over leaving the sampling rate alone and building great filters is an open question. I still stand by my Benchmark DAC2 for sound that is “natural and clear”…and I save $18,000 in the process. Remember the magic is in the recording…

Don’t get me started on Larry’s line, “The ultimate goal is making digital sound like analog master tape.” Would you spend $20,000 or even $299 (the price of the GEEK) for a device that only measured up to analog tape, a format that can’t come close to the fidelity of a moderate digital system? This myth has got to go!

I’m amazed at the response for this little unit…especially when I started digging in a little to the entire pitch. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of advancing the cause of better audio but there are more than a few things wrong with this campaign when you look at the details.

The first is their opening statement that the “geek” is “an on-the-go, high-res DAC and headphone amp that plugs into your computer’s USB port. Your videos, music, & games will rule!” What part of carrying around your laptop computer is considered “on-the-go” in the era of Smart Phones and portable digital music players like Astell & Kern’s box? To be able to use a USB connected device like the one being promoted by Light Harmonic, you have to have a USB powered device to deliver the power AND the music to the “geek”. As I read this, it clearly isn’t possible to think of their little box as portable. That rules it out for most of the targeted demographic of headphone fans.

And what about that USB connection? The box as designed has the USB connector sticking out of the end. Are you really going to plug that directly into your Mac Book Pro? The chances of it getting broken off are better than it not happening…and you lose the adjacent ports on you computer because the unit is so wide. The brilliant solution that Light Harmonic came up with is to provide a 6″ USB non-locking extender cable called “Slacker”. This serious flaw should have been taken care of in the original design…now they throw a band-aid on it and brag about a half ass solution.

The catalyst for the “geek” is discussed a little further down their Kickstarter page. Gavin describes three “problems” that the unit is designed to solve:

1. If you’re a high resolution music lover, a majority of laptop audio systems can’t play any higher resolution than standard CD (16/44.1). That sucks! The unit is high definition. According to their pitch, “GEEK can play any current or anticipated audio format.”

If you look a little further down the page there are a whole lot of logos representing “some of the formats, services, and sample rate supported by GEEK”. This is where they slide off the rails, in my opinion. In between the FLAC and the ogg vorbis logo is the DVD-Audio logo. Are they saying that the GEEK will be able to decode and playback an MLP file (the required HD-Audio format for the DVD-Audio format)? It won’t. The same problem with putting the Blu-ray Disc and SA-CD logos there…the unit won’t play Dolby True HD or DTS HD Master Audio (Blu-ray formats) or be able to play an SACD disc because the drives in your laptop can’t read an SACD. Gavin’s flying a little loose with the facts in the logo section.


2. The second problem is the discussion the anemic headphone amplifiers that come on Android or iPhone Smart Phones. From what I could find out, the output power of a standard USB connection is 500 mA. That’s it. It may be that their headphone amplifier is “10 times more powerful than the headphone amplifier typically used in laptops.” But it’s not going to be much better than the output of your phone. The power has to come from somewhere…in this case the USB port. And that output is fixed by the specification. And remember louder isn’t necessarily better.

3. Their 3rd problem is about unnatural sound. “Headphones, and even desktop speakers, don’t sound natural. This is because the speakers are too close to your ears. In a traditional stereo, both ears hear both channels.” Headphones CAN sound very natural (that’s what Headphones[xi]® does)!

The GEEK is a “3D awesomifier. GEEK has 3D audio technology that emulates the way your ears hear.” They decided to put some digital signal processing in the output stage of the unit to simulate the sound of a big room as heard by your ears. I look forward to hearing their solution. The Headphones X technology from DTS didn’t work for me and I’m sure their approach is similar.

My hat is off to Gavin Fish and Light Harmonic. They’ve pulled off a major Kickstarter campaign by seriously misrepresenting their new GEEK product. They’ve gotten hundreds of people to “pre-order” them at discounted pricing and generated more than enough money to manufacture them by the thousands. And yet no one has heard one. When they do finally get their ears plugged into a GEEK, I think buyer’s remorse will set in.

Now if I were to put my product thinking cap on, I would come up with a truly portable, self-powered, audiophile player with a bona fide “personalization” capability for 3D processes and more. Maybe there’s a Kickstarter campaign in my future.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing Fidelity?

  • September 5, 2013 at 12:08 am

    Great analysis of the flaws of this project, not to mention misrepresentation. I wouldn’t put a dollar into a project that aspires to the mid-fi goal of sounding no better than analog tape.

    Aren’t you studio pros able to add the non-linear tails of analog tape dynamics to any digital recordings or instruments you like? There is no need to make it permanent as part of the DAC!

  • September 5, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Dear Mr. Waldrep,

    I’m writing to thank you for your article. It seems your major complaint is that our campaign is a misrepresentation of the facts. I stand by everything I said in the campaign and invite you to have a listen to our Geek when it becomes available. CES would be a good place to hear it. We’ll be in the iLounge Pavillion at the LVCC.

    While I disagree with almost everything you said, I specifically want to respond to something you said– “Apparently, there approach is to upsample a native digital file. Operating in the 384 kHz sample rate range allows the digital filters used to get rid of the high frequency artifacts encountered during a digital to analog conversion to be less steep and easier to design and implement.”

    Da Vinci does not up-sample or over-sample in any way. Nor is there a single digital filter in the entire unit.

    Who’s playing loose with the facts? Oh, and it’s “they’re,” not “there.”

    Geek Kickstarter Campaign

  • September 6, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Gavin, thanks for coming by the site and responding. I would love to get more details on the things you disagree with. Honestly, I believe that the DaVinci is one of the finest converters available at any price. But since there aren’t any music sources at 384 kHz, how can you claim that there’s no upsampling going on. What am I missing?

    I look forward to hearing your device and I’m very impressed that so many people have signed on as backers. Your talents in marketing are quite obvious.

    But can the GEEK play a DVD-Audio disc as the inclusion of the logo would seem to indicate?

    All I ever ask of a vendor or myself is to present the truth and facts (and spinning to your own advantage is appropriate…I do it too). But there are things on your Kickstarter page that go beyond the facts and spin. That’s what I object to.

    • September 10, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Dear Mark,

      Thank you for publishing my comment. You’re a gentleman.

      Da Vinci plays audio at the sample rate and bit depth it receives. It doesn’t up-sample to 384 kHz. It simply has the capability of playing PCM audio up to that resolution, plus DSD and DSD2 in the Dual DAC version. I agree with you that there is a very limited supply of native music files in 32/384, but we have some that we play at audio shows. Of course, 2L is a great source for 352.8 kHz files, which Da Vinci also plays without up-sampling or over-sampling.

      As long as you have the software on your computer to play DVD or Blu-ray audio, Geek will decode the digital signal. Personally, I have a Macbook Pro with a DVD reader. I also have an external Blu-ray drive from Plextor. I use software called Mac Blu-ray Player, among others, to play my audio discs. Geek decodes them in their native resolution, without up-sampling or over-sampling– we just don’t believe in doing that.

      I understand that you think my campaign was dishonest. I wholeheartedly disagree. The main goal with Geek is to invite people who are not audiophiles into the fold, while helping audiophiles to be comfortable with making the purchase. In my opinion, terms like “sample rates,” “bit depth,” “bit streaming,” “pulse code modulation,” “direct stream digital,” “cross feed technology,” “equivalent skin depth,” “harmonic distortion,” and the like mostly confuse and alienate people from our hobby– young people and women, mostly. So I decided to use terms like “awesomifier” and “sharulator.” I also said that Geek decodes any current or anticipated format, which it does. I’m sure there are some formats coming down the pike that we haven’t anticipated. There’s nothing I can do about those ones for now. 🙂

      My campaign is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I admit, but it seems to be working. The vast majority of backers are not audiophiles and about 15% of them are women! That makes me extremely happy.

      Again, thanks for your article and for posting my reply. We’ve been able to track several backers back to this page. That also makes me happy. 🙂



  • September 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Gavin, thanks for the clarification…still I think there are pieces of information that would help newbies understand what is and what isn’t within the scope of the GEEK unit. Simply having a DVD drive attached or built-in to your Mac Book Pro doesn’t mean a user will be able to play a DVD-Audio disc encoded with MLP nor will a Dolby TrueHD file coming from a Blu-ray movie or one of my products play on your device…without additional software or hardware.

    I think you’ve done an amazing job with your campaign and my hat is off to you. I’m just pushing for a little less marketing spin and a little more explanation of the situation. We all want customers that are happy with the products we make.

    I would be open to supplying some REAL HD-Audio samples to you…I think you’ll find our audio sounds as good as anything you’ve experience before.



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