Roy Harris -- While there are many reasons for reviewing a product, the thought of possibly purchasing that product is often a salient motivation, and in fact, was a consideration in my decision to review this DAC. At a retail price of $1349, it won’t bust your wallet.
The subject of this review is an unusual DAC designed by Wesly Miaw. I had the good fortune of a brief audition of the DAC in a stereo system containing Thiel speakers and a BAT solid state amp. I have auditioned this system several times, as its owner is a co-member of an audio club to which I belong. Ordinarily, when listening to CDs, the sound was somewhat bright. When the Neko DAC was inserted into the system, the brightness abated.
The uniqueness of design comprises the absence of op amps and capacitors in the signal path. This is a solid state DAC. In lieu of op amps and capacitors, Jensen transformers are used. Its design could be described using a phrase reserved for preamps, namely, “a straight wire with gain”.
The DAC is diminuitive in size, namely, 10 3/8 x 6 3/8 x 2 ¼ inches. It includes an IEC facilitating the selection of ones favorite after-market power cord. The DAC accepts both coax and fiber optic inputs. I selected coax. The DAC had 244 hours of playing time prior to critical evaluation.
When evaluating audio components, my prime directive is “do no harm”, i.e., I wish to be able to enjoy music without wanting to turn off the stereo system.
A good test of the aforementioned adage is Holly Coles’s recording, DON’T SMOKE IN BED , track 1, Alert Z2 81020. This CD provides an opportunity to hear a close-miked female voice. Listeners vary in their tolerance to imbalances in the upper mids and lower treble. Too much sibilance can be unpleasant. While a significant deemphasis may be palatable, it may lead to uninvolvement with the performance. Thus, there is a range which renders the enjoyment of music possible for all listeners. Fortunately, neither situation occurred. Sibilance was observed, was unobjectionable and did not detract from enjoying the music. Since the recording is an unknown variable, it is not possible to determine whether what is perceived represents what exists on the recording. I would surmise that what I heard would confirm the absence of a peak in the upper midrange and lower treble regions.
The acoustic bass evinced a balance between the articulation of the strings and the body of the instrument. However, I have heard greater bass extension using other digital hardware. Perhaps there is a slight dip in the bass region.
Another attribute of this DAC is instrumental separation. This trait can be corroborated when listening to the CD NATTY STICK , track 2, Hip Pocket HD105. A woodblock is positioned deep in the background, behind the left speaker and significantly separated from any all other instruments. The degree of separation is greater than experienced using any digital components I have auditioned in the past. This is the first time I have experienced such an extreme position of one instrument
relative to others. In addition, the decay time of a bell struck at the beginning of the track seemed longer than I had experienced with other players or DAC/transport combinations.
Separation is one aspect of the term dimensionality which includes, stage width stage depth and separation. Although many audiophiles value dimensionality highly as part of the musical experience, and evaluating stereo systems, primarily because the visual sense is not used when listening to recordings, it is unrelated to music. Music refers to pitch, timbre, tempo, harmonics, and dynamics. Thus dimensionality is not a musical attribute. I think non-musical factors are an impetus to the analytical mode of listening, whereas, the components of music are more likely experienced non-intellectually.
I am implying a hypothesis that different sides of the brain are involved in the experience of non-musical aspects in comparison to the elements of music.
What about depth?
In my collection of “reference” recordings, is a percussion ensemble performing the music of Bizet, Pachelbel and Beethoven. It is an apt test of depth and a well recorded CD on the VOX label, featuring the All Star Percusssion Ensemble, conducted by Harold Faberman, self-titled. I selected the first track. It is currently out-of-print. Its designation is MCD 10007.
As I listened, I observed depth. Instruments were emanating from the foreground and background and I noticed percussion instruments emerging from a position deep in the background. The sound pressure level increased as the instruments moved to the front of the stage.
I have listened to this disc many times, both for pleasure and to assess depth as I replaced a component in my stereo system. I would say that the degree of depth exhibited by the Neko DAC was not significantly different from what I have heard when using other digital components.
My favorite test of timbre is the tenor sax solo from “Deacon Blues”, the third track on
Steely Dan’s recording of AJA. Some veiling was noted from the vocal ensemble located behind Donald Fagan. The word “saxophone” sounded like “saxofone”. The tenor sax did not exhibit any imbalance in frequency response. This is no small feat, considering that it is believed that the sound quality of this recording is less than ideal. On other stereo systems, the tenor sounded more like an alto sax, but not so in this instance.
Another aspect of the performance of this DAC is palpability. I selected a recording by Andre Previn, LIKE PREVIN, track 6, Contemporary OJC CD 1702. Shortly after the track begins, there is a brief tambourine solo. The instrument sounded very life-like, vivid and palpable and thus timbrally accurate. I could hear the rings, skin and the wood rim, while the instrument was vibrating. One can also notice in detail Andre Previn’s gentle touch, as if his finger’s are barely touching the keyboard.
Summary and Further Thoughts
The Neko DAC paired with the PS Audio transport demonstrated wide staging, average depth, excellent separation, minimally inaccurate timbre, and a slight softening of transients, as its salient characteristics. In addition, there seemed to be slight dip in the bass region. At times the perspective reminded one of nearfield listening—as if the listener was brought close to the musicians, or was sitting in row five of a concert hall.
All components are imperfect. In comparison to other CD players or DAC/transport combinations, it seems to exhibit fewer errors than most digital equipment, in comparison to digital hardware I have auditioned. The DAC’s subtractive colorations did not interfere with its listenability. That is, one’s ears were never assaulted by peaks within the audible frequency range. I truly believe that this DAC was consistent with the dictum “do no harm”. Of course, such a conclusion, depends upon one’s stereo system, perceptions, and idiosyncratic preferences.
Further information: Neko Audio