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Neko Audio's D100 Digital to Analogue Converter
Little Cat Feet

 

 Oct 2009

 


Little Cat Feet

The Neko Audio D100 is a 16-bit and 24-bit, 44.1kHz – 192kHz, dual PCM1794A chip, passive transformer-based digital to analogue converter employing tantalum capacitors, 0.1% output resistors and balanced XLR outputs. Unless you're as electronically oblivious as I am; in which case it’s a small black box with two blue lights and a picture of a cat.

Not just any cat either- she's a cat with a story. “The cat I used to create the logo is named Nami. She's a calico I picked up from one of those adoption shelter type places. Nami is actually the most vocal of the cats I have (I have five--love cats) and is always talking,” explains Wesley Miaw, arbiter and originator of the little black box under scrutiny here. He adds “she's also the fattest and has the hardest time jumping around and climbing things.”

You see, Neko translates to 'cat' in Japanese (along with about 11 other things, some of which are unprintable) and that's how Nami's visage ended up lending an aristocratic air of cuteness to the D100.
Why in this product introduction, do I seem far more interested in Wesley’s fat and highly vocal cat Nami than in the Tantalum capacitors or the passive output stage he employs purportedly to purify the signal path and deliver The Absolute Sound™ to you, dear reader, in unadulterated, un-f’d with fashion?!

Because like you, I've heard it all before and enough times to know that fancy parts planted along a simplified electron path don’t necessarily add up to something I wanna hear my music through. What’s more, even if I love the product in question, there’s never a guarantee what I’m hearing is directly attributable to the product’s supposedly unique selling points. To wit, if I love Nordost cables, does that mean I prefer them as a direct result of their famous supposed “transmission at near the speed of light” or their proprietary geometry? Not necessarily. It well may be their particular tonal qualities just happen to synergize nicely with my other particular components. Maybe another cable without those exact technologies would sound like just the ticket in an alternate system. No ‘maybe’ about it— definitely.

The Cat is Out of the Bag
I’ll admit the wonderful review the Neko DAC got in Tone Audio was the driving force behind my cat-like curiosity about this little feline-fueled DAC. I’m forever looking for a replacement for that aging hall-of-famer of a front-end heading up my ‘Grand Royale Golden Exalted Reference System’ (GRGERS), the Lector Audio CDP 0.6T Mk. II. This is the Silverback- the big boy on the block other guys gotta snort at and knock off the sand pile if they wanna be the ones spinning MY silver when the dust settles.

While there have been others I’ve admired; Naim’s CDX2/XPS2 and CD 3.5/Flatcap, the Resolution Audio Opus 21, the Audio Note DAC 2.1x sig with matching transport and the Raysonic CD128 etc., none of these assorted boxes has managed to stay in my rig longer than the CDP 0.6T. It’s just a balanced performer that’s all-around musical and to date, unembarrassed by any manner of company it has kept, no matter how highbrow.

I even preferred it to its big brother; the Harry-Pearson-approved CDP 7T. While the multi-box 7T impressed with boffo depth, width and tonal color (voices were just glorious!), little brother ultimately won me over with what I thought was a bit more pace and excitement and a sunnier tonal balance.  Right out of the box though, joining hands with my Lector player via a strand of the wonderful Skywire Audio 1200 digital cable, the D100 put me on notice a new contender had stepped onto the sand pile; and this was no chest-thumping primate- it was a cute lil’ feline.

With minimal if any break-in, the D100 dazzled me with its utter lack of distracting dazzle. Hilary Hahn’s positively gorgeous recording of Bach’s solo Partitas [Sony] was sparkling and inviting. Wired up alternately with either Skywire audio 1200 or Audio Art SE Cables, and with the signal passing from the Lector as transport through the little cat DAC, Hahn’s tone glowed, her harmonics glinted and the rosin flew. This was wonderful!

The AAM’s in-every-way-beautiful performance of Handel’s concerti grossi [Harmonia Mundi] was just radiant through the Neko. The D100 rendered up the fact this was an original instrument recording to a greater degree than my Lector, and not in a painful way; in a rewarding one. This was one among myriad musical cues I started to receive that perhaps the Neko was permitting me to hear a touch more detail in my favorite recordings than the Lector, all the while skirting the issue of an excessively sunlit or clinical sound. Days and weeks of blissful engagement later (okay—I took a break to eat and stuff) and on to some larger scale fare, I was officially and certifiably impressed and still I persisted in playing recording after recording trying to catch the little cat out. I could not.

With recordings such as the potent Gergiev-conducted Tchaikovsky 5th [Philips] and Beethoven’s late quartets, as played by the tone-meisters Guarneri [RCA Victor], it became apparent that the Lector was adding a dollop of weight to the midbass and a pinch of sugar to the strings.  As compared with the Neko sound, such tonal additions and subtractions could seem somewhat musically subtractive. The Lector’s augmented midbass for example, made me marginally less able to discern the bass piano tones from the surrounding orchestration in works such as the Brahms piano concerto no. 1 [BBC Music], in which the piano’s lower registers are frequently sounded among the thrum of a thicket of basses and cellos.

Now, I long knew the Lector formula to be an intoxicating blend of dime-a-dozen tubey virtues (tone, texture, weight), carefully sifted through and refined such as to permit entry into the mix of only trace amounts of tube vice (ponderousness, darkness, additive coloration). And yet, I somehow didn’t come to know this intimately and biblically until Nami’s Neko, perched cat-like atop the Lector, began to show me the finer points of the shortcomings of my stereo’s long-time CEO and front man.

Don’t just take my word for it. A fellow Long Islander/audio dealer who contacted me in order to request pilgrimage to my condom-minium in order that he might be granted a hearing of the Daedalus Audio speakers (permission granted after suitable offering/prayer to Barry White and the audio gods), immediately preferred the things through the Neko DAC. Specifically he felt it to be the more tonally balanced and detailed performer, and it didn’t take him months of careful A/B’ing either! More like minutes. Obviously not a reviewer.

Planted deeply into my recliner, he introspectively spun his mix of what I guessed was alternative rock and umm, alternative rock-jazz, and requested I leave ‘er in the chain for the six or so hours we listened (and starved!). Request granted! Subsequent listening via both my GRGERS and my headphone system (no acronym as yet), consisting of the redoubtable Sennheiser HD600 phones and a battery-powered iCute headphone amp, provided some further insight into the wiles of the Lector/cat DAC standoff.

Via the D100, symphonic masterpieces I’m fond of hearing not only went Jenny Craig on me; shedding a few unwanted pounds in the midbass, string tone brightened a tad and the midrange seemed a bit more in line with the upper and lower registers. Such tonal nip/tucks convinced me by turns that here was among the most balanced- if not THE most balanced- digital front-ends I’ve yet to hear. Moreover, there was no diminution of soundstage depth or width and absolutely no loss of pace n’ rhythm. Regarding the latter, the Neko was no better in this regard than my Lector- just no worse. In my experience, that’s no mean feat, as the Lector, though no Naim, can certainly get up and dance.


Felicitous Feline
In audio, when I hear passive anything, I get scared. Scared that dynamics will be bloodily sacrificed at the altar of the Gods of Clarity (say- great first novel name, eh?). Scared that the absence of said dynamism will render my system a lifeless industrial sculpture rather than a living, breathing musical conveyance. As much as one can be said to strain to hear any lack of dynamism the D100’s partially passive guts might impose, I did. In fact, I A/B’d the Neko at long length with my Lector via both my main system and my headphone system and I came up with- nothing. No diminution of dynamism that is, and no cause for concern.  To the contrary, the Neko’s superb retrieval of detail- subtly but handily outstripping my Lector player and many other players I have heard, caused me to muse more than once that perhaps Wesley Miaw is on to something with this passive output topology after all. Then, as mentioned in my intro, I realized I couldn’t conclude this one particular aspect of the DAC’s circuitry was wholly responsible for the Neko’s clarity. To wit, I have heard other front-ends possessed of similar clarity that were not graced with passive output stages. Though, given the relative rarity with which they show themselves, I am willing to concede that this passive topology likely has at least a furry paw in things.

 

This passive output stage was definitely responsible though for the low voltage output of the unit, which caused me to notch the volume up a bit every time I transitioned from the Lector to the Neko. No big deal for an active preamp, but I imagine this might give some passive preamps trouble.  The subsequent iteration of this DAC, the D100 Mk. II, apparently differs from the unit under review only in that it has more juice in the output stage, mitigating this potential issue. (The retail price of the Neko Mk. I is $1295.00, that of higher output voltage Neko mk. II , $1395.00).

Other than this relatively low output voltage, which was in any case a non-issue in my particular set up, I suppose I should point out the fact that the D100 outputs signal via balanced connections only. Mr. Miaw supplied me with what he feels are excellent XLR to RCA cables he himself constructs. More over, if you pick up some of these cables from Wesley, you can rest assured no mistakes were made in their assembly as he informs me his cat Niea generally watches him exceedingly closely during this precision task, ready to strike (or at least meow) at a moment’s notice should anything go awry.

I suppose a very thorough (and better paid) reviewer would have at least had the common decency to listen to the D100 via a few different brightly colored and very pricey interconnects. Alas, no such XLR-equipped slinky jewelry was at hand. In my defense, had I not found the Neko to speak as eloquently as it did through its own Niea-approved snakes, I certainly would have begged, borrowed or stolen a suitably bling-bling pair of cables to try and up the ante.
Still, you’re right; a snazzy set of high-end wires might have improved matters further. But when a thing is this right as it stands, why mess with it?
Oh yeah - that’s our ENTIRE FRIGGIN’ HOBBY!

Cat Fancy
In sum, I feel it is prudent and at least mildly interesting to point out that while the Neko DAC exceeded my Lector player in the categories of recovery of fine detail and tonal balance, and equaled it in soundstage breadth, depth and PRaT, I still felt the Lector to be its equal in the making of music. Perhaps it’s the tiniest tinge of golden glow it bathes a venue in? Nostalgia? Ahhhh… a man and his player.
No matter. I went back and forth between the two units hundreds of times during the review process and there were times I distinctly preferred the Neko, and times I distinctly favored the Lector. This preference did not depend on the type of recording or upon musical genre. It seemed more whim or momentary fancy really. If what I was listening to at the moment sounded intoxicating and alive, then that was the unit I swore to myself I would keep.

Having just bought the Red Wine Audio Isabella preamp while my checkbook was still smoking from the Daedalus DA-RMa speaker purchase though, alas, I ultimately decided to pass for now on adding yet another wonderful piece to my life; winsome white cat silhouette or no. Believe me, I would if I could!
The Neko is almost certainly the most tonally balanced digital piece I’ve heard, pretty much regardless of price and very certainly makes music on par with anything I’ve previously passed a signal through.  Such poised performance allied to rock-solid construction, available for the Nami-approved price of 1395.00 (in Mk.II guise) leads me to conclude the Neko D100 DAC very likely represents the cat’s whiskers in terms of digital value in the here and now. My warm-and-furriest recommendation!

[N.B. No cats were harmed in the making of this review]
I bid you peace.


 

Specifications
Inputs optical and coaxial S/PDIF
Outputs balanced XLR (single-ended RCA via interconnects)
Frequency Response 20Hz - 20kHz (+0 -0.10dB); 3Hz - 22kHz (-3dB) @ 44.1kHz 20Hz - 20kHz (+0 -0.05dB); 3Hz - 31kHz (-3dB) @ 96kHz
THD+N <0.005% @ 44.1kHz -0dBFS <0.012% @ 96kHz -0dBFS
Dimensions 10.5" (W) x 2.5" (H) x 6.5" (D)
Weight 5 lbs. 10 oz.
Power 120 or 240 Volts AC

Features

* 16-bit and 24-bit, 44.1kHz - 192kHz audio (176.4kHz not supported).
* Optical and transformer isolated coaxial inputs.
* Dual PCM1794A chips in mono configuration.
* Passive transformer-based analog output stage.
* Tantalum capacitors, 0.1% output resistors.
* Balanced XLR outputs.
* RCA connections supported by XLR to RCA interconnects, available separately.
* Gold plated input and output connectors.
* High quality steel enclosure.
* Toroidal power transformer in separate shielded compartment.



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

Website: www.nekoaudio.com
Email: sales@nekoaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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