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REVIEW: Neko D100 dac

This is an up date of a post that I made on the computer assylum.

I have finished a 30 day home trial of the Neko D100 Dac. I learned of this Dac from ads run on AA. I was very impressed and will keep it. While there are, of course, many Dacs I have not heard I will guess this one will come to be considered a contender for top tier honors against its competition due to a state of the art signal to noise ratio. The deal maker or breaker will be the appeal of its voice, not its clarity.

Neko means cat in Japanese, apparently a play on words based on designer/manufacturer Wesley Miaw’s last name. His company is a recent start-up which at present only has this product. He has invested in advertising on AA. His ads are ubiquitous here.

The Dac goes as high as 24/192 and features an interesting purist design that uses a passive output stage. Initially, the output voltage in the unit provided was only 1v, which is, according to its designer down 6dB from typical RCA and -12dB from typical XLR. If you don’t use a pre-amp, it seems possible that some amplifiers may not play at sufficient volume. I did not have a problem with getting more than enough volume from most files going direct from the balanced outs of the Dac to the unbalanced ins of my McIntosh MC402 amp, some of my files of vinyl recording played at insufficient volume.

About half way through my trial Wesley emailed me to inform me that he was changing the model of the Jensen transformers to provide a 6db increase in output. He said that the sound quality would not be effected. As explained below, this proved to be correct except to my hearing the dynamics were also improved and the bass punch increased. The bottom line is that a direct connection to the amp provides sufficient volume in all cases including those reduced volume files that represent vinyl records that I recorded using a low out put Grado cartridge.

According to the web site:
“Digital audio is processed by a Wolfson WM8804 which provides excellent jitter rejection. The signal is then fed to a pair of Burr-Brown PCM1794A chips operating in mono mode for the greatest dynamic range, highest signal-to-noise ratio, and complete channel separation. The majority of high-end audio Dacs utilize an active analog output stage comprised of op-amps, feedback circuitry, and additional filters. In contrast the D100 output stage is entirely passive and consists of 0.1% resistors with Jensen JT-11-EMCF transformers—the output is a pure audio signal.”

I couldn’t hear jitter, which I interpret as a subtle fatiguing sharpness, even though I used a SPDIF coax connection. According to Wesley the Wolfson receiver chip succeeds in virtually making jitter a non-issue with SPDIF. Their technical paper can be found at:
http://www.wolfsonmicro.com/uploads/documents/en/A%20high%20performance%20SPDIF%20receiver_Oct%202006.pdf Wesley feels that this chip makes an I2S connection unnecessary.

According to its specs, it promises to have a state of the art absence of noise. The published S/N ratio specs on my Lynx L22 sound card is 117. According to Wesley Miaw, the D100 S/N ratio is unmeasured because of limitations in his test equipment but better than 130. This seems completely plausible since a 132 S/N ratio is claimed in the Burr-Brown PCM1794A spec sheet for mono operation.

Frame of Reference

I have used a Lynx L22 pro sound card via analog outs for about 2 and ½ years and have been very happy with it. It beat my Sony SCD777es and costs only about $700. It has been described here as very much like the Benchmark Dac 1. I have compared the Lynx to the Bel Canto Dac 3 in my system and thought the Lynx was superior in balance and detail. The D100 has been compared in sound as similar to the Havana Dac in a review. The Havana has been described in this forum as sounding similar to the Wavelength Cosecant v3. I feel this hearsay information is useful, but of course every system is different.

Sound

Comparing the D100 to the Lynx was an exercise in discerning clear but not absolute jaw dropping differences. The L22 is a huge bargain considering the Neko itself, according to other reviews competes well with some $10,000 dacs. (Also of course you can't record with the Neko) I would describe the Neko as neutral but voiced slightly to the warm side and the L22 as neutral but voiced slightly to the lean side. The D100 has a musical character like the sound of Carnegie Hall, which is what I am looking for. It is clear and detailed, but warm and rounded. It is musical. I especially like the area of around 70 hrtz and below: cello and double bass range. I'm hearing bass lines more clearly. I do hear a blacker background between notes than with the L22. There is a rounder feel to music with an elegance. It is more delicate than the Lynx. Massed strings have ever so slightly less blur or congestion. The sound stage in ASIO is excellent depending on the recording. Generally the Lynx is highly revealing of detail and sound stage but not quite at the level of the D100. With some material the L22 is occasionally sharp sounding in my system but the D100 never is. I would say that the D100 is a step closer to analog. The latest Jensen transformers gave it decent bass punch and good dynamics. An excellent preamp would probably add more (and noise), but the Dac worked very well passively in my set-up.

As noted, the most telling attribute of the D100 is its superb signal to noise ratio. This feature pulls out what seems to be the last drop of hall ambiance in the recording . I often use a DSP program, which operates via “direct sound”, which, with careful adjustment, brings out the natural hall ambiance in most recordings. I found that often the D100 captures the “air” in the hall so well that I use the DSP less frequently. This allows me to listen in ASIO mode and achieve maximum clarity and detail. I listened last night to a familiar recording of Kindertotenlieder with Janet Baker and conductor Sir John Barbiroli. Never has the feeling of Dame Janet being in the room with me been so palpable. I felt I could almost feel a gentle breeze on my cheek wafting through the hall.

In sum the D100 was an improvement over the Lynx L22. The L22 is no slouch and an incredible bargain at $700. Over time though, the D100 gave me more of what I am looking for: a solid warm non-fatiguing sound with excellent resolution and a vanishingly low noise floor. I would say it is voiced more like a McIntosh product. Musical, highly detailed, but smooth. Perhaps this is an effect of the transformers. If your taste is more to speed and forwardness, it may not be for you. If you like clear and musical it may be for you.



Edits: 08/11/09

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Topic - REVIEW: Neko D100 dac - DBB 09:57:33 08/07/09 (7)

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