It’s nearly impossible to find a good phone with a headphone jack these days as the whole industry is moving towards the world of wireless audio. While Bluetooth audio improves more than ever, it still pales in comparison to a set of high-quality headphones and something designed to power them, provided you have the correct source files.
This is where products like the HELM Audio Bolt come into play. We all know what a headphone dongle is – it’s that wire that plugs into your phone’s charging port so you can use the old headphones you had before you spent the money on a new pair. Bluetooth headphones.
Believe it or not, some of us have never made the switch and really like this little yarn, as long as it’s good.
HELM Audio Bolt: price and availability
You can purchase the HELM Audio Bolt directly from the maker or from Amazon. Either way, the price is $99 at the time of this writing. For that price, you’ll receive the DAC/AMP dongle, a USB Type-A adapter in case you’re not using a USB-C equipped device, and a carrying pouch.
HELM Audio Bolt: What’s Good
Simply put, if you’re someone who wants to enjoy high-quality music from your phone, you’ll love the sound, features, and price.
The Bolt automatically detects your headphone impedance and outputs 1 volt for headphones 150 ohms or less and 2 volts for headphones over 150 ohms. The Bolt won’t drive some headphones very well, but for the vast majority of high-end in-ear, over-ear and over-ear headphones, it’s like Baby Bear’s mush – just right.
I found the sweet spot for my liking at 250 ohms using a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros. I could turn up the volume high enough to enjoy the open-back experience without disturbing anyone, and everything was clean and even.
Part of what makes the Bolt sound so good is its THX-AAA and MQA certification.
THX-AAA certification means that the device uses a design that decreases harmonic, crosstalk and crossover distortions and emphasizes crisp, clear amplification that is free from any audio modification of the source file. THX has very strict and rigorous certification requirements.
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) is similar but promises even better audio quality provided the source files, the application playing them, and the playback hardware are all certified. Its operation is complicated, but it looks like any other audio compression. The difference, and what makes it work so well, is that everything in the chain – including the hardware – works to decode it.
An example of how it works using the Bolt app and the Tidal app makes it easier to understand. To get started, you’ll need to subscribe to Tidal’s Hi-Res audio service, install the PRO USB audio player app and purchase the MQA master decoder plugin. Yes, anything designed for the audiophile is expensive but worth it for some people.
With the software and hardware in place, the music is streamed to the Tidal app, which then “decodes” the audio at 96KHz. The Bolt DAC then “decodes” the audio a second time up to the maximum 384KHz supported by the chipset.
Simply put, this means that the audio will sound so good that a human ear will be unable to detect artifacts from the encoding/decoding/compression process. It also means music will sound better through the Bolt and a good pair of headphones than you ever thought a phone could offer.
Speaking of DAC chipset, HELM does not specify what is used inside the Bolt. Some research online says it’s the ESS Saber, which is a great product. Either way, the sound speaks for itself.
Finally, I can’t talk about what’s good without mentioning the price – $99. Yes, you can buy a cheap USB-C headphone dongle on Amazon for around $10, but when you’re looking for a quality USB-C DAC/AMP that supports MQA and is THX-AAA certified, you’re going to spend a lot more. .
Bonus Round: there’s even an LED that indicates the audio quality being sent through the unit. Blue means it’s on and working, red means the audio is above 48kHz, and purple means the audio is using the MQA design. All without you touching any buttons or switches. It works.
HELM Audio Bolt: What’s Wrong
As happy as I am with the sound the Bolt delivers, there are a few things I wish were different.
The first is out of the hands of HELM Audio and is the fact that this is a dongle that I will probably lose one day. It comes with a carrying pouch, and there are plenty of ways to “lock” it to my headphone cord, but that’s one more thing to keep track of. It’s 100% a consequence of phone makers deciding that no one needs a headphone jack on their flagship phone and budget phones that To do come with a really mediocre onboard DAC paired with an inferior amp.
The industry will never go back to building phones with high-quality DAC chipsets and gold-plated 3.5mm headphone jacks, so I can’t stand on this soapbox and point fingers.
My other complaint relates to the cable used the full length of the dongle itself. I understand that it needs to be strong, well protected and of the specified length for everything to work as expected. I also know that storing the Bolt in its pouch means the cable isn’t stored straight and hard cables have memory. That’s why it’s shaped like a banana and will stay banana-shaped while you use it.
It’s also hardwired, which means you can’t buy a replacement if it breaks. Because it’s stiff and tough, it shouldn’t break under normal use, but I always like to see user serviceable parts anywhere they could be used.
I wouldn’t let any of these negatives stop me from buying the Bolt, as its list of positives outweighs them. Sounds so good for $99.
HELM Audio Bolt: The Competition
Forget those $10 USB C headset dongles from Amazon, because they’re not a competing product here. Audio quality comes at a price, and it’s usually high.
FiiO manufactures comparable products that also offer THX-AAA certification. I’ve used several and was happy with them overall, although they weren’t as compact as the Bolt.
You will also find products like the EarStudio ES100 which offers Hi-Res Bluetooth audio once you plug your wired headphones into it. This is a good option if you have a way to transmit audio using the aptX HD or LDAC codec and don’t mind keeping it loaded.
Finally, you might really like the sound of your Bluetooth headphones themselves. Many people like it Galaxy Buds livefor example, and if your current configuration works, there is no need to modify it.
HELM Audio Bolt: Should You Buy It?
You should buy it if…
- You want better sound than Bluetooth can deliver
- You have hi-res music files or use a subscription service like Tidal or Amazon Music that offers them
- You have a pair of wired headphones that you like to use
You shouldn’t buy this if…
- You’re just not into anything audiophile
- You are satisfied with your current configuration
- You think spending $99 on a headphone dongle is crazy
There’s no getting around it – an “audiophile” grade USB-C headphone dongle is a niche product. Most people are happy to use a pair of best wireless headphones listening to their music without knowing why anyone would care, and that’s fine. As long as you’re happy, you shouldn’t care what other people think.
But if you’re part of that (guilty) niche audience and want to experience music in some way, the HELM Audio Bolt is one hell of a way to do it. I’ve paired it with a handful of headphones ranging from my trusty (and cheap) Sony MDR7506 to headphones I’ve spent way too much money on and it sounds great across the board.
I’m very impressed with it and think it’s one of the best products I’ve tried in this price range. I would totally recommend it to anyone looking for a way to improve their phone’s audio quality, without having to buy a phone with a headphone jack.