There is no denying the world is moving in a more mobile direction. Phones have quickly overtaken most devices and most people stick to a tablet or laptop for travel. As a result, a lot of new markets and concepts are appearing for one reason or another. Perhaps one of the most interesting was created by Apple when they removed the headphone jack from their phones. The change resulted in external devices adding this feature, which in turn created a market to further improve it. HELM Audio created the Bolt DAC/AMP in an effort to simplify the process. With a simple roughly 4” long dongle, it boasts Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) functionality to improve audio and enhance sound. Given the need for a lot of people, is it worth the investment or is it a bit much for what it is?
At first glance, Bolt DAC/AMP stands out next to simpler dongles. Instead of having a small box that gives practically no information, HELM Audio gives simple images and clear explanations of what you’re getting. This includes basic information, like support for MQA, along with THX certification, sample rates up to 384 kHz, DSD rates that can reach 5.6 MHz, and the ability to connect to Android, Apple, Linux, and Windows devices without any effort.
Inside is a foam insert with the HELM Audio logo, complete with a die-cut hole just big enough to fit a pouch containing the Bolt DAC/AMP and all the accessories. This pouch is a smaller version of the leather clasp bag found in HELM’s other products, with the contents including the Bolt DAC/AMP and a USB-C to USB-A adapter.
As for the actual Bolt DAC/AMP, it’s surprisingly well constructed. The roughly 4” long cable has a braided cable connection and the actual part connecting to your headphones is plastic covered in metal, with both HELM Audio and MQA branded on it with a small indicator light to tell what exactly it’s doing. It feels like the type of item that will last a while and not wear out from extended use or travel.
Connecting is as simple as HELM Audio suggests. Simply connect it to a valid (so no PlayStation 5) USB-C connection will result in the light turning on. Anything that supports MQA audio, such as Tidal, will mention you’re using it and offer to switch over or at least make it clear how to do so. This makes the process extremely simple for anyone to start seeing the benefits of Bolt DAC/AMP.
Since MQA essentially unwraps files that go through it to achieve its full quality (you can find a full explanation here), there are certainly a lot of benefits to anyone using it on the go. Especially with the prominence of streaming services like Tidal to make the most of your headphones on the go.
Having used Bolt DAC/AMP rather extensively, the experience varied. Older songs where master quality was available offered a little more oomph to the setup, but not exactly game-changing. Newer songs tended to have wider sound stages or bring out some of the finer points, both depending on the situation. In a lot of cases, it was a fuller sound that brought out most of the headphones I tried. Though, the biggest benefit is really the same as HELM Audio’s DB12 AAAMP, which is portability.
Regardless of a DAP offering a better sound experience than most phones, or far more complicated in-home systems bringing out a little more sound range, they make for a compelling mobile combo. With a simple connection, an okay product can be brought up a couple of levels without adding much more to carry. The simplicity of the setup makes it especially attractive to someone looking for better audio, without really changing their core set up and in these ways Bolt DAC/AMP stands out.
HELM Audio Bolt DAC/AMP Review – Verdict
Companies made the choice of something like Bolt DAC/AMP rather simple. Just getting the most basic USB-C or lightning to headphone dongle will cost you about $10, whereas you can currently get this for $90 with coupon code BOLTSALE10. Between better sound quality through MQA, improved look, and increased durability it’s certainly something worth considering. And, when paired with the DB12 AAAMP, it makes for surprisingly high quality and portable system
[Editor’s Note: HELM Audio Bolt DAC/AMP was provided to us for review purposes.]