Neko Audio DAC 100 MK II

by admin on May 16, 2010 · 13 comments

in Digital

by 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.

Listening Results

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.

Associated Equipment

CD Player: Audionote CD 2
Preamp: ACL Innovation Bent TVC passive
Amplifiers: VTL Deluxe 120
Speaker: Magnepan 1.6, Quad 57
Interconnect: Cryoset Vampire copper wire with Cardas gold connectors
Speaker Cable: Ear to Ear
AC Cords: Soundstring, Ear to Ear, Clarity Audio, Distech,
Power Conditioning: PS Audio Noise Harvesters,PS Audio Juice Bar, Chang, Iso 6400, Nirvana Audio isolation transformer, IDOS, Bob Young line filter, Alan Maher Designs Circuit Breaker Filter
Anti Resonant Devices: Room Tunes, Corner Tunes, egg crate mattresses, Sound Fusion Sound Boosters, cocobolo wood blocks, Enacom Filters, Millenium weight, lead weight

The Neko Audio DAC 100 MK II

Manufactured by Neko Audio LLC
P.O. Box 23405
San Jose, CA 95153-3405

408-476-3276

website
email

Price: US$1395

Source: Manufacturer loan

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

admin 05.16.10 at 1:34 pm

First, another fine review, Roy. Many thanks. Much appreciated!

Quick question. Would you mind elaborating on this sentence? ‘The word “saxophone” sounded like “saxofone”’. Unsure what you mean in the ’sound’ sense, considering the phonetics. Cheers, a

roy harris 05.16.10 at 6:33 pm

the omission of the “ph” sound and the substitution of the “f” as perceived during the listening session, was viewed as a softness and veiling.

admin 05.16.10 at 6:44 pm

Maybe try this. Get a mirror. Look into it. Speaking phonetically, try and see any difference in the shape of the mouth, placement of teeth, and, most importantly hear any difference in the sound between ‘phone’ and ‘fone’. How that translates into ’softness and veiling’ as a difference between the two is beyond me, I’m afraid.

Cheers, a

roy harris 05.16.10 at 7:42 pm

regarding the “pho” and “fo” sound, i believe they are not homonyms. perhaps this is the areaof disagreement. “pho” and “fo” sound different to me.

admin 05.16.10 at 8:05 pm

LOL

Nice try, Roy, but no sale, bud. :)

Maybe, with a Bronx accent. This craziness is nearly as good as Jonathan Scull’s eye glasses reflecting sounds and his infamous comment re combing the knap of the carpet to help the sound of the YBA CD player.

roy harris 05.17.10 at 11:00 am

in the review, i commented on the veiling prior to my commemt about the “ph” sound, vs the “fo” sound. thus there are two issues. the veiling of the chorus and the phonetics. our disagreement about the phonetics does not invalidate my initial observation.

admin 05.17.10 at 12:14 pm

Of course. I’m not questioning what you heard, just your inaccurate description of the sound.

:)

Cheers, a

marvin fox 05.17.10 at 6:36 pm

Roy harris has a pair of excellent ears which I value from his opinion very much as I learned quite a bit from him through the years as an audiophile.

admin 05.17.10 at 6:43 pm

But not as a phonetician, I would imagine.

Wesley Miaw 05.18.10 at 8:50 pm

Thanks for this great review, Roy!

charles rollo 05.31.10 at 9:48 am

Fair review Roy. Glad I lent it to you during my tour evaluation. My final thought is more time will change the performance. The output trannies IMO require over 500 hours to perform at there best. Very similar to our passive preamps break-in. Especially the bass. Hang in there it will get even better.

charles

nunhgrader 07.05.10 at 12:34 pm

Nice review - I think the admin is correct - let it ride - easy

ivan 07.21.10 at 4:22 am

Thanks for the review- I’ve been curious about this DAC for a while.

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