There is an old adage about style: wait long enough and what was once out of style will, at some point, be the next "big thing." And so it is with Digital to Analog Converters. With the explosion of computer audio systems, DACs are hot. There seems to be something for everyone, at nearly every price range, from $100 or so all the way to five figures. Price aside, they fall into a couple of different categories — non upsampling and upsampling units, using either solid state or vacuum tube output stages. There are some variations- Audio Note uses transformers between the tube section and the output jacks. At the end of the day, though, they all do the same thing- they convert zeros and ones from compact discs, or in my case, hard drive to an analog signal, which is sent on its merry way to the amplifier.
Reading reviews or ad copy of DACs can be tough — they all say "it sounds great" or "lush" or "warm" — you get the idea. They really give a lot of useful information. No ad copy is going to say "it works- what do you expect at this price?" The choices are endless, but useful information is scarce. What is a DAC buyer to do?
When I became aware of the Neko Audio D100 DAC ($1295 factory direct), I nearly missed it. Housed in an understated yet well constructed heavy gauge steel black box slightly larger than a thick paperback, there is not much to catch one's attention. Because I was unfamiliar with Neko Audio (Neko is "cat" in Japanese) I explored a bit more. In a sea of "me too" products, the D100 is truly different, as it has no active circuitry beyond the digital to analog conversion section. Instead, there two Jensen output transformers, acting as buffers between the conversion stage and the output section. There are no tubes or transistors- the output section is completely passive. Working backwards, digital conversion is handled by a Wolfson WM8804 chip at the input feeding a pair or Burr Brown PCM1794A DAC chips, one for each channel. The Wolfson chip was purposely chosen for its excellent jitter rejection properties. The D100 is powered by a substantial power supply utilizing a toroidal transformer (in a shielded compartment) big enough to easily be at home in a high end preamplifier. Parts wise, no corners have been cut, and the manufacturer's published specifications are outstanding. The D100 is offered with a 30 day in home trial.
Because the Neko Audio D100 only has balanced outputs on its rear panel, Wesley Miaw also supplied a pair of very well constructed XLR to RCA cables ($52 per 6 foot pair) allowing the D100 to send its signal to the Juicy Music Peach. When the Jungson Integrated arrived, the North American Distributor, Grant Fidelity, had included a few different cables, their PC-1 Power Cord ($149) along with a pair if MXLR-1 XLR Cables ($450) which I used to send the signal from the D100 to the Jungson solid state amp, which has one pair of balanced inputs. My digital front end is a MacBook running iTunes 8.1.1, which sends the signal to the DAC via its built in optical output.
Due to the extreme transparency of the D100, all of the listening for this review was done with the Jungson integrated amplifier. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, I felt I was hearing too much of the "tube sound" of the Bella Extreme/Juicy Music combo, which I felt was preventing me from hearing the "true sound" of the D100. Additionally, not long after the arrival of the D100, the Bella Extreme 3205 power amplifier developed a problem with one of the output tube's bias potentiometer, resulting in my sending the unit to Bella Extreme for repair. Ultimately, the amplifier is receiving a complete "freshen up" to Mark II status, and will be back in service by the time you read this.
If I had to pick two words to describe the sound of the D100, I would have to say "clean and natural." I have been listening to a lot of bluegrass lately, and one of my favorite recent acquisitions is Tone Poems with David Grisman playing a collection of equally rare and vintage mandolins accompanied by Tony Rice playing a collection of vintage acoustic guitars. The first track features Tony Rice playing an 1896 (!) Martin acoustic. The notes emerged from a super black background, putting a highlight on the notes. As the disc progresses, the instruments get "newer" up into the 1940s (mere youngsters!) The resolution of the D100 allows one to hear the differences in the instruments easily.
Male vocals are represented very well with the D100. To Beatles fans (which I most certainly am) September 9, 2009 is an important date- that is when all of the remastered Beatles CDs hit the stores. When the announcement was made, I went online to read the press release and see what I could find out. And that is when I discovered Dr. Ebbetts. The good "doctor" is a music pirate. (Do a search on eBay.) While pirating music is wrong — I can live with this one (OK, I am rationalizing here.) What Dr. Ebbetts specializes in are "needle drops" — 24-bit/44kHz transfers of out of print Beatles vinyl LPs, in this case the Mobile Fidelity Beatles Collection from the early 1980s. And damn good transfers they are- they best the current Parlophone CDs by a big margin. The biggest differences being in the bass frequencies (not a surprise considering the source — MoFi are famous for boosted bass on their LPs — mastering engineer Stan Ricker's signature sound) and greater dynamics as well as delicacy.
There is zero surface noise, with not a click or pop or any analog hash to be heard. The only thing I know is the transfers were done on a Thorens TD150 table, from obviously pristine LPs. I have the whole set, something that I could not afford when it was originally released, and something I am not willing to pay the going rate for now. My favorite of the set has to be The Beatles (a.k.a. "The White Album.") I've heard this LP literally thousands of times in my lifetime, in fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is my older brothers bringing The Beatles home from the record store. "Blackbird" sounded with the D100 as good as I've heard it. I could close my eyes and "see" Paul McCartney in front of the microphone at Abbey Road recording the track. I had an equally wonderful time listening to John's "Julia" as well as Paul's "I Will." The D100 does acoustic music very well indeed.
Female vocals were equally beautiful with the D100. Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" from her classic 1974 release Court And Spark was very involving. The acoustic guitar had just the right amount of sparkle, and Mitchell's vocals were spot on. The D100 sounded convincing. It seemed to add little, if any of its own flavor to the music-it seemed to stay out of the way and let the music flow.
Things got much more interesting when the MHDT Labs Havana was substituted for the low cost KECES. First, both units sounded much closer to my SOTA Star Series III/ Modified Rega RB250/ Dynavector DV-20XH analog rig, a good thing. While both units are excellent performers, they treated the music differently. Revisiting Tone Poems with the D100, it put the emphasis on the fundamental notes, where the Havana paid equal attention to not only the fundamental notes, but the harmonics as well. This happened with most every recording auditioned. One of two things are in play here: either the D100 is correct and the active tube output stage in the Havana is adding coloration to the music, or the D100 is shortchanging the harmonics. After comparing the two units constantly (with levels matched, see below) I still cannot tell which unit is closer to the musical truth. In any event, the differences were only apparent on direct comparison. When I spent longer periods of time with the D100, I did not notice any issues with harmonics (or lack thereof) nor did I notice any obvious coloration when running the Havana. The two units do not sound as different from each other as one might expect.
What I did notice with the D100 when playing rock music was a slight reduction in rhythmic drive, probably due to its passive output section. In comparison to either of the other units, the D100 seemed a bit polite, especially with electric bass and drums. This, of course, will not be an issue for those who listen to primarily acoustic music, light jazz, or chamber music. For those listeners, I can recommend the D100 without reservation.
The Final Assessment