Does everybody have a Dongle DAC in 2021? I’m starting to think that manufacturers got bored during the pandemic and decided that the world couldn’t get back to normal unless there were about 30 Dongle DACs under $300 for people to select from.
Over the past 19 months, 10 of these devices have landed in my mailbox and while it’s nice to have a wide selection of portable DACs to listen to with a lot of different headphones and desktop systems — I’m starting to feel that most of them sound very similar. I was ready to move on to something else but then the Helm Audio Bolt showed up and ruined my summer plans.
I’m fortunate to have the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt, THX Onyx, and Clarus Coda on my desktop every single morning while I enjoy my post-run coffee at 6 a.m., but none of them blow up my skirt that much anymore.
There’s a part of me that wishes Schiit Audio would jump into the category, and offer something for $120 called the Thor. Stoddard and Moffat would own this market and we could all move back to something more interesting like 8 watt SET amplifiers.
But until that happens, the Helm Audio Bolt is definitely my favorite Dongle DAC available.
Not only is it very affordable, but it delivers more than enough power for a lot of entry-level audiophile headphones and it sounds very pleasing in most desktop and entry-level systems.
The Helm Bolt is a DAC for your high-res FLAC or WAV files, and it will improve audio quality while streaming Qobuz, Tidal, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, and others. This tiny DAC supports playback of PCM files with sampling rates up to 384kHz, or DSD files with sampling frequencies up to 5.6MHz.
Not only is it THX-certified, but it also supports MQA and is designed with a USB-C input and 3.5mm headphone output. iOs requires a Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.
I think what sets the Helm Audio Bolt apart from the rest of the Dongle DACs I’ve listened to so far is its inherently warmer tonal balance. It’s not a detail champ like the THX Onyx and nor does it posses its vice-like grip in the bass.
But where the Helm Audio Bolt wins the day is how it treats vocals and allows all of the texture and decay of notes to seduce one into believing you’re listening to the real thing through a pair of headphones or loudspeakers.
All of the other Dongle DACs thrust music into your face with sharply drawn lines and the more I listen to them — the more I realize that you need to make a lot of other compromises on the other end to achieve something that is enjoyable long-term.
I know from some conversations with those who have measured the Helm Audio Bolt, that it delivers rather solid results on the bench and that everything I’m hearing from it with multiple headphones and loudspeakers is accurate.
Horns never sound etched or blurred and while it may not deliver that last degree of bite that some would prefer, I’ve never felt the need to reduce the volume either with any jazz or rock recordings.
Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone come across with excellent clarity but also layers of texture and color that make you stop whatever you’re doing and focus on the superiority of their talent.
Switching gears to Billie Eilish and Hazel English, the Helm Audio Bolt can keep up with the pace of almost any album and make everything sound just less edgy; there is some definite roll-off in the treble which is fine with a lot of the music I’ve been streaming on Qobuz lately.
When you can get this kind of performance for $99.00 — it’s a no-brainer as a recommendation.
We’ve already established that you’re using a smartphone or laptop with the Helm Audio Bolt, so the only remaining source for this rather minimalist system is the loudspeakers.
So many choices. Only a few that I really love.
if your budget falls below $300, the Audioengine A2+ make a lot of sense if you are hard for space and don’t mind giving up some bass response.
We recently added these to a new M1-powered iMac and the Helm Audio Bolt had a discernible impact on the sound quality when streaming from either Tidal or Qobuz.
More presence in the midrange, smoother treble, and a better sense of flow.
If you can afford to spend a little bit more, the PSB Alpha AM3 at $399 USD are an excellent option. For this setup, I would recommend a pair of speakers stands from IsoAcoustics and you will need a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable to connect the Bolt to the AUX input on the rear panel of the speakers.
The PSB AM3 will deliver a lot more bass impact and is definitely a better option if you’re looking for a system for a smaller room or have a fairy large desk.
The treble of the AM3 benefits from the softer top end of the Helm Audio Bolt. The PSB Alpha M3 also includes an internal phono preamp if you’re looking to add a turntable to the system.
In either scenario, you’re spending around $400 to $550 for a complete system that will sound better than anything you’ve heard at the price point.
The Helm Audio Bolt is a very welcome addition to my home office system and my favorite Dongle DAC so far regardless of price.
For more information: Helm Audio Bolt DAC/Amp
Where to buy: $99 at Amazon