The AudioQuest JitterBug is a curious little device that plugs into your PC or Mac USB socket and instantly improves your sound… no, really!
The amazing team at AudioQuest have provided me with a sample of each of their USB cables for a complete comparison review (coming soon) that I’m very excited to complete. As part of the bundle, AudioQuest included 2 of their JitterBug USB filters. I was happy to give them a try, but honestly wasn’t sure how much impact it would have on my already great-sounding system. Before I describe my experiences using the JitterBug, let me provide some basic details about what it is and what it’s meant to do.
The JitterBug is the size of an slightly chunky USB flash drive. It costs about $80 (AUD) here in Australia and is designed to:
- Reduce the noise and ringing that plague both the data and power lines of USB ports
- Measurably reduce jitter and packet errors
- Improve dynamic contrast, warmth and resolution
Sounds pretty good, no? I was certainly intrigued, but also not completely convinced. It’s not that I thought it would do nothing so much as that I thought the impact would be so minimal as to be insignificant – especially when using a great DAC and good quality cables.
Quick disclaimer: I have no affiliation with AudioQuest or its distributors. I am a fan of their NightHawk headphones which is where all this began and they are a very open and upfront company who understand the value of honest and transparent reviews. The products loaned to me for this review will be returned to AudioQuest following the review and therefore hold no sway over my opinion of the products or the company. AudioQuest’s people and my dealings with them, however, have generated nothing but respect. Once again, that won’t influence the review of each product on its merits, but absolutely builds my faith in what they are aiming to achieve whether or not they succeed on that mission.
There are two ways to use the JitterBug (or three, sort of). You can just plug a JitterBug into your computer’s USB socket and then plug the USB cable into the JitterBug – that’s option one. Alternatively, you can connect two JitterBugs – not one into the other, but one in each of two USB sockets so you’ll have two separate JitterBugs sticking out of your computer. AudioQuest claim that this provides additional filtering. You can still use the second JitterBug (the one not connected to your DAC) for other devices and this should help to reduce noise introduced by those other devices (that’s option three). AudioQuest say to limit your bugging to only two per USB bus. I had assumed that they place too much load on the system if more than two are used, but AudioQuest came back to me to clarify that using more than two JitterBugs can result in an overly damped sound.
On my laptop, the JitterBugs are just a fraction too wide to plug in side by side and they make the middle of my three USB sockets almost unusable once I plug in two Jitterbugs so space and socket requirements are worth considering before deciding to double-bug.
So, what does it actually do and is it worth using two? Let’s find out…
Option 1 – A Single JitterBug
When I first hooked everything up for this test I wasn’t exactly sceptical, but I also wasn’t expecting dramatic changes. I use the Matrix X-Sabre DAC and while it’s not truly top end, it’s at a very high level such that I’ve never had any issues with it in terms of sound quality or noise. In fact I’ve found it to be very resistant to the noise from PCs I have known to be noisy so I proceeded with interest, but honestly didn’t expect much.
I used the Chord Company SilverPlus USB cable, X-Sabre DAC, Bottlehead Mainline amp, and AudioQuest NightHawk headphones for this test – already a very clean and resolving setup. Not analytical in any sense, but highly resolving.
For the first few seconds of listening, part of my brain said “See, it’s no different!” and then I realised it was…
The most obvious change was the ease of the sound. Everything seemed more effortless. Sounds were still tight and perfectly resolved, but it all came so easily. There is a sense of warmth to the sound, but only in as much as there is no “glare” to the sound once the JitterBug does its magic. I normally test gear with complex and challenging music, but I was slightly surprised to notice the biggest difference from the JitterBug when listening to a solo piano etude. Perhaps because of the simplicity of the recording, the JitterBug clearly produced a greater sense of space and depth in the sound because it helped produce silence where there was meant to be silence.
I’m actually having trouble describing the effects of the JitterBug because they are at once so definite, but also so hard to pin-point because it doesn’t change the characteristics of your existing setup so much as polish it all slightly.
Option 2 – Dual JitterBugs
As I explained earlier, double-bugging on my laptop is a bit challenging, especially because I use a USB docking station in my office so I decided to try double-bugging while connecting my dock via the second JitterBug. The results were just as surprising as the single JitterBug.
Despite having been suitably impressed by the solo JitterBug, my subtle scepticism crept back in when it came time for the double-bug test – same sorts of thoughts: “OK, so one did make a difference, but I’m not going to notice any improvements made by the second one – they’ll be too subtle, if they’re even there at all”.
I should know better than to doubt these sorts of products for two reasons. Firstly, companies generally won’t release a product like this if they don’t genuinely believe it works and is of value. Others may question that value, but there is always (in my experience) a positive intent behind them. Secondly, I have been consistently impressed by many of these types of products and audio tweaks. With all that said though, I am glad I came in sceptical because it confirms for me that what I heard was not expectation bias. I was expecting one thing and I heard the opposite. The only way that can happen is if something is really going on.
OK, so what did I hear? More of the same is the simple answer. Everything got another step cleaner and more resolved. As I said above, the inherent characteristics of my system remained unchanged – no added warmth or brightness, no change to overall dynamics, but a subtle polishing of everything. The sound has a greater sense of depth and space – not soundstage width or depth, but space for each sound and 3-dimensionality. There is an immediacy and clarity to the sound that just makes it all better.
Conclusion – 1 Bug or 2?
So it should be clear by now that I believe the JitterBugs are the real deal. For the price, these things are a brilliant upgrade to your existing system with no risk of altering the sound characteristics you have in place (unless you like “digital glare” because that will be gone).
As for the question of 1 bug or 2, that’s a question of personal preference, physical limitations, and budget. Can you fit 2 bugs in your available USB sockets? Do you want to spend that much? Are you happy having 2 dongles plugged into your computer all the time? If you’re comfortable with all of those questions then absolutely go for the double-bug experience. If you’re not so sure, start with a single JitterBug and see what you think. You can always buy and add the second one later. The one thing I can guarantee is that 1 JitterBug will improve the sound quality from your USB audio setup and 2 JitterBugs will improve it further still. The changes are subtle, but definite and they’re so cheap and simple when you compare them to active filters and various other filtering and adapter options.
By the way, if you’re interested in USB audio, stay tuned (or subscribe here or via Twitter) because you won’t want to miss the upcoming USB comparison review where I look at the differences (in sound quality) between basic printer USB cables, the Chord Company SilverPlus USB, iFi’s Mercury USB and every USB option in the AudioQuest range (right up to the $800+ Diamond USB)
If you’re interested in the JitterBug, but you’re worried your system is “too low-end”, check out this update I posted about the JitterBug: http://passionforsound.lachlanfennen.com/audioquest-jitterbug-update/