As we looked at what appeared on our radar for possible holiday gift options this year, the Cyrus Soundkey stood out. Originally marketed as a hi-fi solution for mobile devices, it’s also available in a “gamer’s edition”. We took a closer look at a tiny package with some big sound as we explored Cyrus’ DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) and amplifier in a PC setting.
Looking somewhat like a USB memory stick and roughly the same size as well, the Soundkey by Cyrus is easy to overlook. It was designed as such as well, since its main purpose is to boost the sound quality of mobile devices on the go. Most of the existing reviews out there focus on this aspect as well, highlighting how well (and easy) it works on Android devices but that it’s a bit harder to connect on an Apple device – which requires extra cabling, making the whole experience a lot less portable.
The Soundkey can also be used with desktop and laptop PCs though, and contrary to what many reviews state it’s compatible with pretty much any Windows-based PC out there. While most will point out Windows 10 as a minimum requirement, this mainly applies to phones running the OS – any operating system that supports the OTG format can work with the Soundkey, and the minimum requirement is actually Windows Vista. I’m fairly convinced Windows XP would also work though, as long as you install OTG drivers for the operating system – it’s just no longer a supported version of Windows.
OTG stands for On The Go, but it’s not exclusive to smart phones. What it does in the case of the Soundkey is bypass the standard audio components (in your smartphone or computer) and reroute the audio through Cyrus’ little DAC, which has a headphone socket on one end and a micro USB socket on the other. Whether on a phone or computer, you’re not using your regular audio socket but plugging your headphones into the DAC instead.
Unless OTG is not immediately supported on your version of Windows, you don’t need to install any drivers to work with the Soundkey – it’s literally plug and play, and makes a big difference depending on what you started out with, which is a crucial part in whether or not it’s worth the purchase for you.
Basically, the Cyrus Soundkey contains hi-fi grade quality components to turn digital audio into a signal that your headphone (or speaker system, or sound system) can work with. Your phone does this, your desktop does this, and your laptop does this as well. The difference is that with many of these options, you’re only using whatever generic components they shipped with, as great audio isn’t typically a priority and on-board audio in particular is often looked at as a way to keep the costs of a mainboard down somewhat. You’re sacrificing quality for cost, but to many users that’s a fine compromise as they’re not audiophiles and everything works “well enough” anyway.
If you’re a music lover, however, then you know what I’m talking about. Your favorite songs sound flat when played through a computer, and even the best pair of headphones that you can find can only take you so far. Sure, spend 100 dollars/euros or more on a pair of headphones and you’ll notice a clear difference, but you’re still feeding it with sub-optimal audio. Plug in the Cyrus Soundkey in between the computer and your headphones, and you’ll suddenly notice a boost in clarity, separation and richness.
This applies to the bulk of PCs out there, but there is another way of achieving this. Our top testing rig has a Sound Blaster ZxR soundcard, which even after five years is still a great piece of hardware that delivers superior sound on a PC-based system. It is, however, twice as expensive as the Soundkey and doesn’t offer anything in terms of portability.
Every other system we have runs with on-board audio, and there the difference was huge – and not just in music. The soundkey can also be used in gaming, where added clarity translates to better audio cues that aid the in-game experience. Competitive gamers will immediately think of positional audio and knowing where a shot or enemy is coming from, but there’s also an added bonus in games where audio is an integral part of the experience. Resident Evil 7, for example, definitely gets creepier where every little creaky board feels accurate rather than hollow.
Much of this can be achieved with a regular Cyrus Soundkey as well, so what’s up with the gamer edition? The answer to that is headsets, as multiplayer gamers especially will prefer a headset over a pair of headphones – and this creates the challenge of microphone-based input. That’s what this edition is for, as it includes an extra cable you plug into the DAC which offers another socket for your headset and a bypass cable with a jack that connects to your regular audio socket. In other words – this is for combined audio/mic cables. If your headset has separate cables for audio and mic, then you don’t need the bypass cable (or the gamer edition).
The Cyrus Soundkey works for any PC or laptop that doesn’t yet have decent grade audio components in it. However, USB-based soundcard provide a similar service for the target audio, and often do so at a cheaper price point – sometimes also offering surround speaker support in the process. Those solutions come with a few downsides though – they require driver installation/maintenance and they’re not compatible with anything but a PC setup. Forget about using it while traveling with your smartphone. Most importantly, however, the audio quality of the Cyrus solution easily outperforms any USB sound card solution we’ve tried so far – elevating this to a product worthy of an audiophile’s attention and fitting with Cyrus’ strong reputation in the hi-fi industry. Highly recommended for audio lovers due to its quality and versatility – a tiny package that packs a punch.