So, let’s start with the amp. As said before, it can do both balanced and unbalanced. The overall feel of the amp is neutral, maybe ever so slightly v shaped. It is easiest to start with the treble. It is well extended and it sparkles real nice like. This, of course, can be a mine field for people who are allergic to treble. I never found it to be piercing or unpleasant, so, unless you hate treble outright, you should really like it here. The air around the top is terrific.
The bass has the prerequisite weight to it, and balances out the treble nicely. It punches well, and is as tight as the music (or source or headphones) will allow.
The midrange is the part of the frequency that is between the bass and the treble. It is clean. It isn’t overwhelmed by the bass or treble. It also isn’t special in any particular way. You could view this as either a good or bad thing. It all works for me, as the S3 sounds very coherent to my ears, and the mids sound musical. If you are looking for a lush midrange, or even a more extreme V, this wouldn’t be your amp. The voices are of a part with the rest of the mids. They are clear, and well presented, but aren’t of the seductive, romantic variety. Well, that isn’t necessarily true; they will sound how the recording wants them to. So a romantic recording will sound as such.
Over all, that is how I would describe the sound, accurate. I was going to use the word analytical, but that tends to come with negative implications. Comparing it to my old standby, the Violectric V100, it is a study in contrasts. For the sake of this review, we will say the bass is roughly equivalent between the two. The biggest difference comes in the midrange and treble. The midrange of the v100 has more body to it, and is more forward than that of the S3. It also has a smoother, more slightly more laidback treble section. This gives the V100 a bit of a warm edge, and can make it more forgiving of bad recordings (although I would still classify the V100 as neutral, just on the smoother side). The thinner (not thin, but thinner) sound of the S3 amp does give it a more analytical edge, but it also supplies some great benefits: it can make micro details more readily apparent, and it helps provide a terrific sense of space. I think that last one is the greatest strength of the S3 as an amplifier; it really feels like it opens up the sound of my music. I absolutely love that for classical.
Oh yeah, it also does balanced! Using the Hifiman HE-560, or the Sennheiser HD650 with a balanced connection adds even more width to the soundstage and perhaps even a touch more detail, but it doesn’t make any huge changes to the sound. It is just as described above, just with a little something extra in the soundstage.
This is a darn good amp in its own right, but as a built-in amp, it is really impressive. It holds its own with the excellent, but very different sounding, V100. Musically accurate… that’s how I will describe it! The one area where the S3 does have to give up the ghost to the V100 is in unbalanced output, it doesn’t have quite the same power. It would struggle with the HE-6 for example. Now, on to the DAC section!
Using the Sabre 9028Pro, it has the sound one might have come to expect from a Sabre DAC: clean and neutral, but musical. The resolution and micro detail are excellent. It gives the sound enough body throughout the range to never let the sound feel thin. The sound stage is both wide and deep. I actually think it offers performance comparable to that of the X-Sabre Pro. Comparing the two, through the S3 amp section, the S3 DAC has the more laidback treble and therefore a more laidback sound in general, while the Pro is a little more upfront, yet not really any harsher. The Pro might throw a slightly bigger sound stage, but I find them to be pretty even in overall performance, with the more forward treble being the only major difference. They sound like they are cut from the same cloth which is a very good thing.
What might be most important is that they sound great when used together as a unit. Everything works together to create a clean, accurate and musical sound. The detail offered by the combo is great, as are the dynamics (it would have really punched with the Elear). The soundstage is wide and deep, and well layered. It never errs too far on the side of analytical. You know, how, on certain winter days, you step outside and, instead of finding it cold, you feel a crispness in the air that is enlivening, and it gives you a sudden burst of energy? That is the Keces S3. It isn’t cold; it’s crisp.
The other DAC/amp I have in my collection is JDS Labs the Element, and while excellent for the price, the S3 is noticeably more refined, and can do balanced. The Matrix Quattro II is a closer comparison. I am going off memory here, but I find the DAC performance to be roughly similar, with the edge in detail going to the S3, but the S3 carries a much more robust and fully featured amp section. The big test for me was comparing it to my X-Sabre Pro and V100 stack. The S3 went toe-to-toe with my stack easily. The V100 made the stack a little smoother, but the S3 offered a more spacious sound. Both offered terrific detail from my mid-fi/high-fi headphones (HD650, HE560. Aeon Open and Closed). Both were completely musical.
If there is some aspect to the sound, or some question I have left unanswered, please ask it in the comments. I am feeling oddly tongue tied in this review.
To be honest, the Keces S3 is probably going to be my go to unit for music listening for the near future. It sounds great, compares extremely well to my reference units, has all the features I could use and it does this all in one unit. I can be a slob, and my desk tends to become cluttered really fast. That I can cut down on the cables and components without sacrificing sound quality in the least, is really exciting for me. I know that $1299 is a lot of money to spend on something, especially from a company that you might not have heard of before, but the Keces S3 balanced DAC/amp is the real deal. However, till Monday, November 27th, you have the chance to get the S3 for even less. It is currently on Massdrop for the price of $1099, and, if up to 4 people join the drop, the price gets reduced to $999. That is $300 off. For all that the S3 can do, and do so well, that is a pretty good deal. So, if the thought of a high end all-in-one, do-all-and-end-all is appealing to you, here it is. You’re welcome.
Link to the Massdrop page : https://www.massdrop.com/buy/keces-s-3-balanced-dac-amp
Link to the product page: http://keces-audio-usa.com/products/S-3