Digital to Analog Converters are currently experiencing a rebirth due to the tremendous growth of computer audio. New brands, models and modifications are popping up like weeds everywhere. Pre owned models are selling quickly, at higher than expected prices on sites like eBay and Audiogon. I'm waiting for a witty manufacturer to name a new model the Phoenix, as the whole D/A Converter category was all but dead just a couple of years ago.
Many years ago, I owned a Soundstream D/A Converter. It was a nice unit, and improved the performance of the Harman/Kardon CD player I owned at he time. When the Harman/Kardon died and parts were no longer available from the manufacturer, I used it, with a Sony ES series CD player as a transport. The results were not good. I ended up selling both the Sony and the Soundstream, and went back to single box CD players. Knowing what I know now, I regret selling the Soundstream. At the time however, the big deal in PCs was Windows 98: no one could foresee that 10 years later, many audiophiles would embrace the PC or Mac as their digital front end of choice.
My digital front end went 100 percent PC based last year. Of KECES new models, I had originally asked to review the lower cost DA-151 USB model. (My thinking at the time was that I could shelve my Trends UD-10.1 DAC (used solely as a USB to SPDIF converter feeding my Entec Number Cruncher 205.2 DAC.) I am a believer that the fewer boxes and parts in a system, the better off one generally is. By going to a USB DAC, it also allowed me to eliminate the JPS Labs cable connecting the Trends to the Entec. As good as that cable is, no cable at all is still better.
Along with DA-151 ($250 plus shipping) I was also sent a sample of their upscale model, the DA-131 ($320 plus shipping.) Both models can be purchased instantly on eBay. Sending me the upscale model proved to be fortuitous- read on.
Similarities and Differences
Around back there is a rocker type power switch and IEC power socket. The inputs are different between the two models: the DA-151 is USB only; the DA-131 has both optical and coaxial inputs, but no USB option. Although the DA-131 will automatically detect and differentiate between the two inputs, a selector switch is provided for those who obsess over such things. Both units use the same high quality RCA outputs. Balanced outputs are not offered, nor should they be expected at this price point.
Inside, the both units appear similar, but they are quite different: the more upscale DA-131 will decode high-resolution signals, all the way to 24-bit/192kHz. The more basic model decodes a maximum signal of 24-bit/48kHz, still higher that the standard CDs resolution of 16-bit/44kHz. The DA-151 is compatible with higher resolution signals, but will down sample them.
Because the Dell is USB only as far as output, I did press the Trends into service to feed the DA-131. This did limit me to a maximum resolution of 24 bits /48 kHz. A more ideal setup (and my plan once the MacBook is in my grubby paws) is to go straight out of the MacBook to the DAC, as no conversion is necessary. This can be easily accomplished, although the cabling will be non-standard due to the output jack size on the Mac.
Of course, the DA-131 can also be used to give an aging CD player a performance boost as well.
The Sound of... Silence?
First up was the DA-151, as that was the unit that I had originally requested. After making all of the necessary connections between the Dell and my system, I fired it up, and found it quite noisy. I tried different power conditioners, as well as no power conditioner at all, and it made no difference. Eventually, I imported my library into the MacBook and gave that a shot- and was greeted with a wonderful silence. Examining the Dell once again, I discovered that noise was only present when the Dell was plugged into AC power. On its internal battery, it too was silent. The source of power made no difference with the MacBook. I am not sure if the DA-131 is at fault at all, or if it is an issue with the Dell AC power supply. I do know that I have no such issues with the Trends unit; either powered by the AC powered Dell via USB, or with an external battery pack feeding juice to the Trends. The DA-131 was totally and completely silent from the get-go. Because, as I stated earlier, the MacBook isn't always available, what started as a review of the DA-151 actually turned into a review of the DA-131.
The only place where the DA-131 reveals its solid-state circuitry is in the area of bass control and dare I say it- slam. If you have read enough of my reviews, you know I have great respect for Les Paul, the man and his accomplishments, as well as his undisputed talent. While I usually start with an artist that I like and collect everything I can by that artist, it never happened that way with Les Paul- I was content with the CD boxed set, a few "Greatest Hits" CDs and a bunch of clean old vinyl. Recently, I bought his 2005 release Les Paul and Friends, and am blown away. Accompanied by a slew of his "who's who" friends, this disc is a stone cold killer. One of Les' first sides for Capitol in 1948 was "Caravan." On Friends, he brings it into the 21st century. It has a funk grove, backed accompanied by a driving bass guitar. The attack and decay of the notes are spot on. The bass on this track is an accompaniment, rather than the driving force behind the music. The man of many notes says more by saying less.
Usually what happens to me music wise is that I discover something I like, and move backwards to see where it came from. Rock and Roll led to the Blues, Jethro Tull, although they started as a blues band, led to Classical music (via "Bouree) and no one can deny the classical influence on Songs From the Wood, a favorite Tull album. So is is with Les Paul. I recently watched a wonderful documentary on Les Paul, Chasing Sound. Given a mention in the movie was Django Rhinehart, one of his contemporaries. A Belgian gypsy who also played a beautiful arch top guitar, his fingering hand was badly injured in a fire, allowing him to do only the most rudimentary chord work with his ring and pinky finger. A guitar player with basically two usable fingers sounds impossible- but he was amazing. Unfortunately, the recordings that remain are transfers from old 78's. Listening to Best of Django Rheinhart through the DA-131, the surface noise of the old shellac becomes much less noticeable than the same recordings through the Entec, or on the iPod Touch (still ALAC files) in my car. It is still there, obviously, but much less obtrusive.
The KECES DA-131 does all of the expected "hi-fi" stuff. It doesn't seem to accentuate any frequency band and is very smooth. When I listened to Steely Dan's classic Aja, I originally thought it came across las lively, but as the album progressed, I realized it was "life like", not a subtle difference. Imaging and sound staging were excellent. One telling thing about the KECES DA-131 is that my vinyl rig has sat unused for the vast majority of the time once it arrived. Did the digital front end sound as good as my turntable setup? No, and it is not really a fair comparison at $4000 versus $700 or so (DA-131, Trends UD-10.1 and associated cables.) Vinyl still rules, but I have purchased more CDs in the months I that have lived with the KECES than I have in the past two years.
No piece of audio gear is perfect: more money usually will bring more (insert what you find important here.) That said, I felt as if I was missing nothing with the KECES DA-131 residing in my system. Most of the time, I forgot about the gear totally and just enjoyed the hell out of the music. I wouldn't change a thing.
When reviewing the Blue Note score tally, please keep in mind the low price of the KECES DA-131. 5 Stars is reserved for the best of the best, cost no object designs. The performance of the DA-131 is stellar considering the price.
October 2008 Update
After listening and deliberating for a while, I decided to keep the KECES DA-131. Not only is it an excellent performer, and with the proper Toslink to Mini Toslink cable, it would integrate nicely with my plans to switch from PC to Mac for my digital front end. My switch has been completed, and the MacBook and KECES 131 make beautiful music together.
More importantly, it has come to my attention that the DA-131 ($320) has been upgraded to 131.1 status. There are two differences between the original and new models: the DA-131.1 ($330) includes the addition of a modular power board, allowing voltage selection from the rear panel. The 131 must be opened to switch voltage. More important is a change in output ICs from the OPA604 to the LME49710. The change in ICs results in a 1dB improvement in all specifications Additionally, the manufacturer claims that changing output ICs results in a less laid back presentation.
There is good news for owners of the original DA-131. The end user can inexpensively and quickly upgrade the audio circuit. I bought a pair of LME47910 ICs for $7.50 including shipping from Digikey.) It took me less than 20 minutes to change the ICs, effectively upgrading my DA-131 to a DA-131.1.
Before we proceed, I need to make it clear that neither I nor anyone associated with Enjoy The Music will be responsible for any equipment damage or any personal injury or death in association with performing this upgrade. Potentially lethal voltages reside within audio gear. My best advice to you is if you do not know what you are doing or are unsure of your skills, take the unit to a qualified hobbyist or repair technician.
The upgrade is simple. Unplug the DA-131 from AC power. Use an Allen wrench to remove the top cover. Locate the output ICs at the rear right of the chassis. There are two output ICs, one for each channel. Remove the OPA604, and substitute the LME47910 in their place. Make sure to may attention to the orientation of the IC- there is a dimple on one corner of the IC- make sure to install the new IC with the dimple in the same location as the original. The rearmost IC is partially obscured by the wires that connect to one of output RCA jacks. Carefully move it aside to gain access to the rearmost IC. Once both ICs are changed, replace the top cover and reconnect to your system.
The difference after the upgrade is not subtle. There is an improvement in low-level detail retrieval, and the entire spectrum sounds more natural, with an added sense of liveliness. Most noticeable is the increase in "air" around instruments as well as voices, and a greater sense of the original recording space. The manufacturer has stated that they have not had anyone request a change back to the OPA604, and I understand totally. The LME49710 ICs are in for good in my (now) DA-131.1.
Supports both TOSLINK optical input and Coaxial RCA input via CS8416 with internal signal select feature
Audiophile Grade Burr Brown PCM1793 DAC IC and two BurrBrown OPA604 as output filter OP
No signal coupling capacitors within the signal path, audiophile/military grade resistors and capacitors elsewhere
Price: $320 plus shipping.
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