Category Archives: Equipment Reviews

Equipment review : KCHKUI Fidget Cube

Ah yes, the fidget cube : the thinking man’s fidget spinner. Marketed towards desk-bound professionals and creative types rather than app-addled preteens , this desk toy promises stress relief and aided focus as you click, spin and flip.

Before I go any further, the product i’m reviewing appears to be a replica of the original device sold by Antsy Labs. Credit where credit is due, they came up with it first (it was originally a Kickstarter) and are the genuine article. The KCHKUI Fidget Cube is priced lower but at first glance appears identical.

KCHKUI Fidget Cube Box
KCHKUI Fidget Cube Box

The packaging is this zippered, faux carbon fiber carrying case with the cube’s functions printed on top.

KCHKUI Fidget Cube Box - Open
KCHKUI Fidget Cube Box – Open

Open it up and there you have it. I ordered mine in muted grey and black, but it comes in a variety of color combinations.

First impressions were a bit underwhelming. The first widget I went for was the steel roller ball, which felt stiff and grainy but loosened after a few minutes of use. Pressing on the roller ball yielded the most satisfying click of all the clicky options, a firm pop reminiscent of the button on a pickle jar lid. Next to it are plastic gears which did not ratchet like I expected but spun freely instead.

KCHKUI Fidget Cube - Roller ball and gears
KCHKUI Fidget Cube – Roller ball and gears

On the opposite face is a spinning wheel with a nub to aid in rotation, I found this awkward to spin as it has no “follow” of its own., you must continuously apply motion.

At the top of the cube you find a joystick, which doesn’t smoothly twist on its axis but instead is meant to be rotated at its pivot point like, well, a joystick. This is spring loaded and snaps back to its resting position when released, yielding a buzzy clack.

KCHKUI Fidget Cube - Wheel, joystick and lever
KCHKUI Fidget Cube – Wheel, joystick and lever

Directly beneath the joystick is a “worry stone”  feature : a concave indentation which is pleasant to rub your thumb around in for a while but soon becomes tiresome like the wheel.

For clicking options, you have a face with 5 buttons arranged in a die-like pattern. Two buttons are silent and offer slightly different resistance levels, and the remaining three click at different pitches. Across from that is the final clicker, a lever switch with substantial action and loud report.

I’ve played with this cube for the past 24 hours and I will say it’s pretty addictive. I find myself drawn to the steel ball the most, rolling it with my thumb while I check emails or crunch on a problem. I stayed away from the clicky options while at work, as I already have a Das Keyboard that drives my coworkers crazy.

My biggest criticism is there is no function that lets you spin with momentum, everything needs constant “input” to rotate. I was hoping the joystick would serve that role but it barely spins at all and probably isn’t even meant to. The gears would have been nicer if at least one of them clicked in steps rather than spinning loosely.

As far as comparing it with the Antsy Labs version, I haven’t used one yet so I have no frame of reference. Based on photos from their original Kickstarter, the biggest difference looks like the joystick. The original seems to have a thicker disc with a larger diameter and a more pronounced rim. The seams are also arranged differently.

Top: Antsy Labs

Bottom: KCHKUI

I plan to pick up the original cube to get a proper comparison going. For now, I would recommend picking up the KCHKUI version from Amazon for $9.99, just to see what the big deal is. 

Think i’m just a fidget noob and don’t know what i’m talking about? Then let me have it in the comments!

And yes, this isn’t a hi-fi audio device under any normal definition, but it clicks, and a click is a sound, so yeah.

Equipment Review : HIFIMAN EF2C Tube Headphone Amp + DAC



It’s been a long time since i’ve updated this blog; new city, new house, and new equipment to review! First on the list is the HIFIMAN EF2C Headphone amp & DAC , a brushed-aluminum box with a nice clicky power switch on the front and a stepped pot for the volume control. What drew me to this is the tube-driven output, I have been interested in giving tube sound a try ever since I started this hobby over a decade ago and figured the low price point and commitment of a headphone amp was a good starting point. The tubes are included in the box and fit somewhat awkwardly through holes in the transparent plastic top of the amp. Flick the power switch and you see that nice orange glow, the one that tube fans associate with an vague sense of sonic magic. The rear panel has line-level RCA inputs and a USB port for the DAC.

I’ve been using this amp with my iMac for the past 6 months so rather than review specific tracks, I can give a general overview of the sound experience with this amp. It took some time to get used to the sound of tubes, at first everything seemed “fast” and rushed. This is not what I expected from tubes, which always get the descriptions of “warmth” and “laid-back”. About a month in to usage, my trusty Sennheiser HD 280 Pros finally snapped in two after 12 years and 6 cities of service, so I replaced them with a pair of thinksound On2 . These paired with the HIFIMAN EF2C far better, gone was this sense of urgency that made every track seem like the artist was getting through their set as fast as possible so they could take a leak. There is a great sense of space and soundstage, plus a pleasing heartiness in the midrange. Bass is tight but not as punchy as some might like it.

I consistently use the analog RCA jacks fed from my iMac’s headphone output, since the DAC on this amp is extremely disappointing. No matter what input level I feed it from the Mac, I hear clipping during distorted guitars to the point where it becomes unlistenable. If you buy this amp, i suggest you do the same and not even bother trying the DAC, other users online have expressed this same problem.

The other downside is a faint ground hum that doesn’t go away even when using the USB + DAC connection. This could be the result of a number of weird electrical gremlins in my listening room that I don’t feel like tracking down, and its quiet enough to not be noticeable unless I listen for it.

Overall, I recommend this amp mostly due to its low $100 price point. The amp looks nicer than sub-$100 tube amps (although the plastic topcase is chintzy). I would like to try a solid state amp like the Audeze Deckard to hear how it stacks up to tubes but more to hear a quality DAC that can handle itself without clipping.

Tube Glow: A
Sound quality: B-
Build Quality: B
DAC Quality: F

Raspberry Pi – What the hell can I do with this thing?

I pre-ordered a Raspberry Pi a few months ago and it arrived last week. It still sits on my desk in it’s box waiting for a use. Basically, it’s a credit card sized, ARM-powered computer that can run Linux and costs about 35 dollars. All you need is an SD card for the OS and a USB power supply that provides the right voltage.

I’m thinking of using this as a video streaming device for my living room, since it has onboard HDMI that can output HD resolution. I would take my Linux video server that is currently connected directly to the TV and make it headless in a closet, then rig up the Pi behind the TV with a USB wifi adapter and a bluetooth adapter so I can connect a mouse and keyboard. It could get wired directly to my router since it has onboard LAN too. Once I get this all up and running I will post my impressions of it, but right now it remains a curiosity in an anti-static bag.



An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.

Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.

Pro-ject Debut III

Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III

This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).

Topaz AM10

Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10

The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.

Polk Audio TSi 200 - cherry finish

Speakers –

For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.


Turntable – $349

Amp – $349

Speakers- $180

Cables and other accessories – $50

Total: +- $928

I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.

Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.

My current system and how I got there

I first got into hi-fi in my senior year of high school. I had already been a bit of a video/home theater geek, so the extension came pretty naturally. My first setup was some hulking Aiwa minisystem and a Denon automatic turntable. I soon decided that the Aiwa’s onboard CD player was woefully inadequate so I hooked up some cheap Hitachi DVD player that had a 24/96 upsampling DAC (pardon my jargon so early in a beginner blog!) and used that to play discs. Overall, the sound probably wasn’t that bad, but in my mind it was still nowhere near hi-fi.

I eventually saved up enough to replace the weakest link in my system – the speakers. I went to the area hi-fi store and after laying out my budget and requirements, he left me alone in a listening room to A/B compare two candidates. I settled on the Energy C-1, a neat little pair of bookshelf speakers that I still use to this day. That summer after graduation, I managed to get my first full time job that I held for a few months before I started college. Instead of saving my money wisely, I went kinda nuts and put most of my earnings into building my system. The ugly, cheap minisystem I had used as an amp was replaced by a NAD C320BEE , the Denon was put away for a Pro-Ject Debut II, and the DVD was put back to DVD playing duties to be replaced by a Sony SACD changer.

Save for a few cable changes and vibration isolation tweaks, my system has remained mostly the same since then. And i’m pleased with the sound…mostly. There’s a lot more that can be done. My next big purchase will be speakers, which I feel are always the weakest link in any system. The Energys have served me well over the years, but it’s time to move up to floorstanders, mostly for the better overall frequency response, but also cause they look cooler! I’m thinking of the Polk Audio TSi400 , as it is nearest to my budget right now. When and if I get them, i’ll be sure to post a review.

It’s interesting to note that nearly every piece of equipment in my system is no longer manufactured. For example, the entry level NAD integrated amp is now the NAD C326BEE which is practically the same as mine performance-wise but has additional features like a line-in jack on the front for MP3 player hookup and a subwoofer connector.

Here’s a couple pics of how my system looks now (yes, my listening room is really bare right now, i’ll fix it, I promise!):

Full list of equipment used:

Amplifier – NAD C320BEE

Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut II

Phono Preamp – NAD PP-2

CD/SACD Player – Sony SCD-CE595

Speakers – Energy C-1

Vibration control – Vibrapods (under turntable), Vibrapod Cones (under SACD)