This DIY-lookin’ DAC from Neko Audio has been in the market for a few years now, staying mostly under the radar. I’ve always thought that the Neko is a special DAC but I really haven’t been able to get a unit for a review. This time I bought one unit from Neko and at the same time I also asked Neko if they would ship a sample to Dave for a double-review.
After many hours of listening, Dave told me that he can’t get to see what the Neko is all about. We both share the same general impression, that the Neko is a dark sounding DAC or I should even say an extremely dark sounding DAC. That’s where the similarity ends though. Dave thought that the darkness really makes it hard for him to “see” any detail in the music. On my end, however, I’ve always thought that the special thing about the Neko is that it manages to be superbly dark and yet very clear and clean sounding. The background among the blackest out there, even besting the Fostex HP-A8 and though not as resolving as the Fostex (though the Fostex has the advantage of having a built-in amp that lets me get a super-short signal path), the Neko is certainly more spacious, possessing a good amount of depth as well as width. Not only that, the dark tonality presents music with such rich musicality and full bodied bottom end that it really is hard to resist. Dark tonal, dark background, good depth, full bottom end, it seems that the Neko is tailor-made for me. Anyway this is the first double review on Headfonia where we have two totally conflicting opinions on the same product. I thought it’d be interesting to share both sides of the take.
Dave’s text in blue.
Mike’s text in black.
DAVE’S TAKE ON THE NEKO
There is a misconception that people always think the more expensive item is better; that the very fact of something’s high cost tells your brain that it will be better. You are expecting to hear better sound, so, as a result, you do hear better sound. This may be true for some people, but not me. Now first, I am not claiming to be some type of super human, who is immune to any any-and-all forms of expectation bias, but I will tell you what I am. I am a married father of two with very modest income. For me to have a HD 650, Dacport LX and Bottlehead Crack took quite a bit of saving, and several lucky coincidences coming together. So, when I see an expensive piece of equipment like the DAC being reviewed here, Neko Audio’s $1500 DAC, the D100 mk2, my thought isn’t, “OMG, this is going to be the most awesome thing ever!” I am thinking,” this better make gold come flowing out of my headphones if they expect me to pay this much money for a freaking DAC!” I am well aware that the law of diminishing returns applies heavily when the price starts to really climb, but I find that to be unacceptable. If I am paying $1500 for a DAC, I expect to hear $1500 worth of sound. My current DAC is the Dacport LX. It retails for $250, and I am going to say that it gives out $250 worth of sound. Does the D100 sound six times better?
Let’s start here. The first thing you notice about the D100 over the LX is the tonality. Boy is this a dark sounding DAC! The bass body isn’t full; it is practically obese. Fat, but with very good detail and punch. The bass leads into a nice, full midrange, and a present, but not very awake treble section. Make no mistake, the lower frequencies are the star of this DAC. It is dark like nothing I have heard before. Let it not be said, however, that this dark sound is also extremely smooth. At times, it almost sounds like audible silk. The second thing you notice is a larger sound stage. It is the added width that is most apparent, but it has a deeper sound to it as well. Being the huge fan of classical that I am, this is a most welcome upgrade. The separation and layering is also a bit better with the D100. When I was able to try the D100 with the Soloist SL and the LCD-3, the bump in micro detail was noticeable. (Just a note: although the micro detail is better on the Soloist, the Crack is the more transparent amp. While the tonality difference doesn’t sound THAT big on the Burson, it is practically screaming on the Bottlehead.) With classical, folk, mellow rock or pop, the D100 was frequently a very enjoyable DAC to be using.
If you enjoy your treble, this is not the DAC for you. The Dacport LX has a much more balanced sound. I miss that sparkle in the treble when using the D100. That sparkle, plus the thinner bass (not thin, but not D100 thick), makes the LX the better choice for faster paced music, as the D100 got bogged down in that fat bass when trying to keep up with something like Green Day, or System of a Down. It just doesn’t have that attack. Even with classical, while I love great bass body and impact, I don’t want it to the exclusion of the other frequencies. There are times where the bass body was just too much, and you find your music getting bogged down in it. It wasn’t boomy, just overpowering. I found myself often missing the balanced tonality of the LX. And maybe I am insane, but I feel like the actual impact ever so slightly better on the Dacport. Come to think of it, that might be because when the Dacport LX comes down for a low punch, it stands out more since the whole sound isn’t down there all the time.
There is also the issue of inputs. The D100 has no USB input. It is optical and coaxial only. Now, this is going to be a plus for some, but it is a minus for me. I don’t have much space and all of my music is storied on my hard drive. This makes the D100 impractical for me. Like I said, for some of you, this will be a good thing, as you have no need for a USB input, but for those like me, that would rule this DAC out.
So the Neko D100 takes the lead with a solid edge in technicalities, while the Dacport LX scores with a more balanced sound and much wider genre bandwidth. So, there are things that the Dacport does better? UNACCEPTABLE! I am not paying $1500 for a DAC to have it bested in ANYWAY by something less than 20% its cost. I can’t in good conscious recommend that to someone. I know some may call me unrealistic in my expectations, but then they are talking to the wrong guy. To expect a workin’ stiff to save up $1500 for a marginal upgrade, if that, is what I call unrealistic. Maybe if I had a tricked out WA5 and a pair of HD800s at home, I might feel differently. Or course, I would be a completely different critic, in that case. The build quality also gives me pause. It is pretty snazzy looking as you can see, but it doesn’t feel particularly tough. Comparing it to the products made by Schiit, it may look a little better, but Schiit’s gear feels much sturdier in construction. If I am paying a premium for something, I want tank-like build quality. Again, this doesn’t deliver.
It should be obvious by now that I am a value for dollar kind of guy, and this is not a value product. Even if you would be willing to save up for a killer DAC, the Neko D100 doesn’t nearly fulfil the awesome quota required by its price tag. At first I thought that I was a really odd choice for this review being just a budding audiophile bound by budget (and a desire to not have his wife leave him). As I worked on this review, I realised it was that exact reason Mike choice me for this; because I will have a completely different perspective. And that perspective? If money is no concern, you want an exceedingly dark sounding DAC, and you don’t need a USB input, this one might be worth a look. If, however, you are a blue-collar audiophile like me, with one eye always on the pocketbook, I hope you enjoyed the review, but there is nothing for people like us here
MIKE’S TAKE ON THE NEKO
It’s funny how despite having similar music preferences (me and Dave both listen to Classical heavily, and enjoy the same Dacport LX + Crack + HD650 combo), and despite Dave’s description of the Neko being virtually identical to my impression of the Neko, but we differ so big on how he feel that the Neko isn’t worth the money while I thought this is one of the best DACs out there and one that I’ve been dying to have on my set up for so long. While I do agree on the part that the build quality can be improved, but really the Neko could come in an even uglier box and I wouldn’t care as the sound is too good to resist.
The first time I’ve heard the Neko D100 was before Wesley introduced the Mk2 version (which offer a higher voltage line out level — 2Volts — than the original). It was a special sounding DAC with an uber-dark tonality, even when I was still into a more neutral and less dark sound signature (i.e HD800). I’ve heard the DAC on various occasion and though it was mostly sitting unnoticed in headphone meets, I’ve always thought that the sound is extremely special and that it deserves more recognition and I vowed that one day I would do a review on it. Years passed and still I haven’t had the opportunity to do the review but even as new DACs come and go, I still have my heart on the Neko. I’ve heard how the Neko was able to save electrostatic set ups (including the SR-009) from being bland and borderline bright transformed into a musical set up with good bottom end, flow and depth just by switching the DAC section into the Neko. Paired with a good old HD650 + Bottlehead Crack system, this DAC seems to be the right piece to bring the famed Crack + 650 to the next level. Not only that, while simultaneously working on a review of the new ALO Studio Six, the Neko ends up being my preferred DAC with the Six + LCD-3 amidst the sea of other DACs. I did try the Studio Six + LCD-3 set up with the Ayon Skylla which is leaps and bounds ahead of the Neko in terms of technicalities and also midrange bloom, but it sounded too mellow for my taste where the Neko is more decisive and also possessing a weightier bottom end.
Though being based in a simple dual mono PCM1794A from Burr-Brown, the Neko is the best implementation of the 1794 I’ve heard. While the PCM1794 is a pretty common DAC chip, the implementation of the PCM1794A in the Neko is vastly different and superior to the average PCM1794 based DACs I’ve heard. Black background, excellent depth, grain-free, great lows, these are all characters I don’t normally hear on a PCM1794 based DAC. I don’t know how Neko is able to make the PCM1794A into the sound that I’m hearing but this is certainly closer to the level of a typical PCM1704 DAC rather than PCM1794.
I was so curious about the design of the Neko I went to the website trying to discover what the secret ingredient is. Wolfson WM8804 S/PDIF doesn’t sound to be the one. The two-stage AC filter sounds good but I bet other DAC manufacturers also have a filtering mechanism of their own. Star Ground wiring is also good, but hardly revolutionary. The zero feedback passive analog stage may be the secret recipe here (underline the word zero-feedback). I’ve seen galvanise isolation being implemented on high end DACs so that may also be a factor. Tantalum capacitors, good. The Jensen output transformer is something you don’t scoff at and something I don’t see being used on DACs very often. There is an RFI Filter on between the AC plug and the Toroidal transformer. The innards doesn’t look particularly fancy with the plain steel casing, but I do find a clean and articulate layout and build that oozes a sense of craftsmanship. Whatever it is, it seems that the combination of ingredients being used on the Neko works together to produce this highly musical sound that’s so successfully seducing in sound.
I went and asked Wesley Miaw, the man behind the Neko about the use of those rarely seen components on his DACs and perhaps explain a little bit behind the rationale behind them. Here is the conversation with Wesley straight from my mailbox. Orange text is Wesley’s.
1. The use of the output transformer. Can you explain more on this? I don’t think I’ve seen a DAC with a transformer out.
It’s pretty rare, because compared to transistors using transformers is significantly more expensive ($100-$200 versus $1), raises the output impedance (making cables and matching a little more important), and is a trade-off on how you affect the signal. To my knowledge, the D100 is the first mass produced solid-state DAC using output transformers.
The problem with transistor implementations, particularly with op-amps which require a feedback loop, is the distortion and introduced noise when you play back music. Simple measurements like sine wave THD+N and frequency response don’t accurate capture this problem. That’s why something may measure very well on those sorts of tests but still sound harsh to the ear or muddy sounds together.
Conversely, the problem with transformers is an increase in distortion as the frequency goes down, and the reflective nature of the circuit causing the load to be seen by the DAC chip itself. Generally speaking, the larger the transformer the less the distortion at lower frequencies and the D100 Mk2 uses one of Jensen’s larger transformers. They don’t need to be as large as in power amplifiers because the signal is much lower than what you’d get pushed out of a tube amp. Also, a current-based DAC chip like the PCM1794A in the D100 prefers a zero load which is possible with transistors (although of course physics makes that non-zero in reality) but not with transformers.
However, between the two, my personal opinion and the conclusion reached by many others is that the D100’s transformer-based output provides a much more accurate sound. Which is not necessarily something people are used to, for the same reason people growing up listening to MP3’s sometimes prefer compressed music over the original. There is less overall distortion and certainly much less objectionable distortion, the noise floor is silent, and there is less smearing of notes together. I’m particularly proud with the time we compared the D100 Mk2 to a highly-regarded high-end $7000 CD player from a major manufacturer, and a passage that sounded like the musician was continuously playing notes together on the CD player was revealed to have gaps between notes on the D100 Mk2.
2. The filter module on the AC inlet. That’s also uncommon?
Yes, for consumer audio gear. It’s also a significant expense with limited benefit for the vast majority of end users who have pretty clean power. Unless you have fluorescent lights on the same circuit or are using a switching power supply (e.g. wall warts) the internal step-down transformer found in most gear will reject a bunch of noise. Plus, including one means you can’t sell power conditioners or filters at a big markup. Built-in filters are more common in pro audio equipment since studios and engineering setups are less “clean” and the D100 happens to be used in a few.
The 2-stage line filter will reject a bunch of power line noise. The toroidal transformer provides step-down voltage and additional noise rejection with low levels of introduced noise, and the internal steel shield helps block any stray noise that remains.
3. The magnets on the line out cables?
Those are actually ferrite rings to filter out high frequencies (~10MHz). Noise that is probably coming from the WM8804, PCM1794A, and 12MHz clock. The DAC works fine without them, but removing extra high-frequency noise can be beneficial downstream and UL compliance requires them.
I think the only obstacle in appreciating the sound of the Neko is going past its dark tonality. I don think that a good transparent amp and headphone is required as otherwise it’s hard to see through the dark tonality. It really is one of the clearest sounding DAC I’ve heard, and combined with that dark tonality makes for an extremely special and rare combination in the world of DACs.
It’s easy to overlook the Neko simply by pure appearance as there are a lot of other DACs in the market in the $1K range that offer more features while at the same time looking more professional and better built. To name a few familiar models like the Lavry DA11, Benchmark DAC 1, Grace M902, Violectric V800, etc. Aside from the Lavry DA11 which is a truly resolving professional DAC, I can easily say that the Neko is better than the other DACs I mentioned. As for the Lavry, both in DA10 and DA11 models, though its accurate and resolving sound would be a much better monitoring DAC, I felt that the sound is to dry and lacking flow to be a music listening DAC. Anyway the point here is not to bash monitoring DACs, but rather to point out that at $1495, it does look like you’re not getting much bells and whistles when compared to the other offering. Still I firmly believe that the Neko justifies the lack of features (even the lack of an USB input) simply by besting all the other $1K DACs in sound quality. Though there are tons of other DACs to choose from in the $1K++ bracket, the Neko really stood out as being my favorite DAC among all the thousand dollar DACs I’ve listened to. If you happen to live in the US, there is a 30 days trial program for the Neko D100 Mk2. If you are interested in trying out the Neko, I suggest you give it a try.