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Published May 15, 2008


Blue Circle Audio USB Thingee Digital Converter


A Thingee by any other name would sound as sweet

It’s not often that an audio reviewer gets to paraphrase Shakespeare, but in this case it seems appropriate. In name and appearance, the Blue Circle Audio USB Thingee is inelegant. It’s utilitarian. Ah heck, it’s just plain ugly. But as someone once said, it’s what’s inside that counts, and inside the Thingee is something special.

But first let’s deal with the outside. Full points if you’ve figured out that the Thingee lives inside a plastic pipe. According to Blue Circle’s Gilbert Yeung, PVC pipe was chosen to house the Thingee because it’s light, it’s tough as nails, and, most important, it’s cheap. "We knew we could build an outstanding product for under $200," says Yeung, "but only if we put our budget into the electronics instead of the cosmetics."

The same rule obviously applied to the enclosure’s endcaps, which appear to be fashioned from sculpted silicone. The ends aren’t pretty but are highly effective; not once during my evaluation did the Thingee’s insides fall out. In fact, I’d bet that it would take quite a knock to damage a Thingee, because it feels as sturdy as a brick; so much the better for users who want to take their Thingees on the road.


Have you ever had the sort of out-of-body experience in which you feel like a third-party observer to the nonsense coming out of your own mouth? As I said, "Gilbert, describe your Thingee to me," that third party snorted beer through his nose. So much for being the suave reviewer.

Blue Circle makes a practice of keeping its innovations close to the corporate vest, so I didn’t expect to get a lot of detail on the Thingee’s inner workings. Prudent precaution aside, Gilbert Yeung did offer some tidbits to satisfy (or kindle) my curiosity. But before getting to those, I’ll describe the Thingee.

The USB Thingee ($169 USD) is really three components in one: It’s a USB-to-S/PDIF digital converter, a USB DAC with analog outputs, and a USB DAC headphone amplifier. In addition to the base version, which comes with a standard RCA digital output, Blue Circle offers two $179 Thingees, with the base output plus a TosLink optical output (to connect to a home-theater receiver), or base plus AES/EBU output -- and a $189 version offering AES/EBU, TosLink, and the base digital output.

In all iterations, the USB Thingee operates from a USB port (PC or Mac), which provides it with both power and an audio signal. Just what’s involved in the USB-to-S/PDIF conversion isn’t revealed, but Yeung did tell me something about the Thingee by explaining how he dealt with two inherent limitations of the USB bus: its dearth of electrical current and its noisy power supply.

The USB bus was never intended to provide significant amounts of power to outboard accessories, and this is why joysticks and external hard drives, for example, have their own separate power supplies. But a dedicated power supply for the Thingee was a nonstarter because it would mean a significant price increase. So if the Thingee was going to depend on the USB bus supply, Yeung had to design a very efficient circuit to get the most out of the small amount of electric current available.

An efficient design alone wouldn’t address the noisy power generated by the computer’s power supply. When I first spoke to Yeung about the Thingee, I told him that I was struck by its ability to render an absolutely "black" background. The effect, I said, was very much like that of a good mains filter. "Good observation," he said, "because there’s a filter built into the Thingee."

So there you have it: the USB Thingee is efficient and it has a built-in power filter. To learn more about its inner workings, you’ll need a pipe cutter.


Like other USB converters I’ve tried, the USB Thingee does not require software drivers. When I plugged it into a laptop, Windows Vista had no trouble recognizing it as a "USB Audio Device." To finish the setup, I selected the Thingee as the audio output device from within my playback software, and voilą, music flowed forth.

For this review it was decided to focus on the USB Thingee as a digital interface between my laptop and an Audio Note Kits DAC 2.1. All the music files on the Sony laptop were ripped using Exact Audio Copy in the lossless FLAC format and played back through J River’s Media Jukebox 12 player software. EAC (with FLAC encoding built in) and Media Jukebox are free and available for download. Speakers were Exodus Audio Keplers or B&W CM1s; the integrated amplifier was either a Simaudio i-5.3 or a DIY Paradise Charlize 2.


About the Thingee’s ability to provide a black background, the cat’s already out of the bag. As would be expected, this silence made it considerably easier to discern subtle details, echoes from recording spaces, and crowd noises. Although it’s already a very revealing recording, the spatial cues in Jazz at the Pawnshop [CD, Proprius 7778] were more alive than ever, but not so prominent as to be too distracting. The clinking of glasses and the background conversation of Pawnshop patrons, for example, blended beautifully with the music, resulting in an all-enveloping live musical experience.

Wynton and Ellis Marsalis’s Joe Cool’s Blues [CD, Columbia CK 668801] is a recent addition to my collection and a new favorite. The first track, Vince Guaraldi’s timeless "Linus and Lucy," offers four and a half minutes of merry music, with Eric Reed’s rendition of Guaraldi’s classic piano riff being both playful and punchy. Although the piano, Wynton’s trumpet, and Wycliffe Gordon’s trombone dominate the piece, the Thingee conveyed the performance space so well that it was easy to follow the supporting players, each tucked into his place in space.

Among the many stunning recordings on This is K2 HD Sound! [CD, FIM 14.2 HD 078] is War Dancer, from the suite from Respighi’s The Queen of Sheba. This piece of music features huge dynamic swings and percussion that, through the USB Thingee, turned out to be more explosive than I’d previously realized. Actually, forget explosive: the timpani were downright devastating. War dance indeed! On the much subtler side, the same disc’s recording of Nah Youn Sun’s Heart of Glass was rendered in an equally moving fashion, though in this instance it was because the Thingee was acting as digital truth serum, laying bare the intense emotion that underpins Sun’s magnificent vocal performance. Nothing added, nothing taken away.


The venerable HagUSB ($129), one of the first USB-to-S/PDIF converters available to the audio community, has provided sterling service for the past few years. It’s been with me so long, and done such a great job of selling PC-based audio to many an audiophile, that it feels almost disloyal to compare it to the far newer Thingee. But such is life. Though it pains me to say so, the venerable HagUSB was outclassed by the Thingee in every way. Whether it was newer-technology chips, the circuit design, the integral filter, or maybe even the pipe (!), the Thingee is the new standard bearer among USB-to-S/PDIF converters.

The Thingee was also remarkably good as a standalone DAC. After listening to the Thingee’s analog output for a few days, I switched over to the DIY Paradise Enhanced USB Monica ($360 in built form, with power supply) and listened for differences. The best adjective I can think of to describe the Monica vs. the Thingee is that the former sounded dry. Whereas the Thingee was full-bodied, robust, and projected a wide and deep soundstage, the Monica was leaner, and had slightly muted bass response and a moderately veiled upper treble. The Enhanced USB Monica is a great device, but at half the price, the USB Thingee is definitely the better value.


It didn’t take the Blue Circle USB Thingee to convince me that computer-based music systems are the next big thing in audio -- I jumped on that bandwagon years ago. But the USB Thingee is proof positive that, with a computer and an inexpensive converter, it’s possible to assemble a digital source that easily keeps up with +$2000 standalone players. Yes, other very good USB converters and USB DACs are available, but in my experience, none offers the USB Thingee’s winning combination of high-level performance and superb value. It might not be pretty to look at, but Blue Circle Audio’s USB Thingee is indeed a rose.

...Colin Smith

Price of equipment reviewed

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