Our postman always comes at 1pm, but by 12pm I felt like playing a few tunes. Two songs in and I noticed a delivery note on the doormat. “Rats” I said while peering out of the window and seeing Mr. Postman heading back out of the cul-de-sac. It had to be John Kenny’s DACs making its way out of my grasp and I did not want to miss out on a weekend of listening. Upstairs I dashed to get the door key, let myself out and run up the road to intercept the leaving postman. That was lucky.
The box contained John Kenny’s (see http://www.johnkenny.biz) JKDAC and JKDAC32 digital-to-analogue converters with a charger. Both DACs are quite unique in that they run from a pair of internal rechargeable LiFePO4 batteries. Only one hour is required to fully charge them.
These DACs are simplicity in themselves. One digital input (asynchronous USB derived its battery powered internal modified Hi-Face), a pair of RCA outputs and a charger socket.
The major difference between the JKDAC and JKDAC32 is that the JKDAC has the ESS Sabre ES9023 converter chip, while the JKDAC32 has a 32bit/192kHz Burr-Brown PCM5102 converter chip. In John Kenny’s own words, the JKDAC32 “uses a minimum phase, low latency digital interpolation IIR filter which eliminates pre-echo of the signal endemic to other digital filters. The result of this is a realistic sound closer to NOS DACs. By avoiding pre-echo a more detailed, dynamic & natural sound is produced.” Intriguing – as I love NOS DACs. Doubly intriguing – as I’ve found ESS Sabre DACs, such as Audiolab’s M-DAC and Twisted Pear Audio’s Buffalo DAC, to be closest in musicality-terms to a NOS. Part of my mental image of the world was about to be turned on its head…
System-wise, I hosted the DACs in my home system – Audio Note AZ-Three loudspeakers and an interstage triode amplifier with double choke regulation, a plate choke on the gain stage and no coupling capacitors. Tunes are provided from FLAC files into Foobar2000 (with the Kernel Streaming plugin) on a Windows laptop. I had to hand my Audio Note 2.1 Signature DAC kit, price wise it is not a fair comparison at about 4x the cost and that is with DIY discount, but we will see how John’s DACs fare.
First up was the Sabre-based JKDAC, which was immediately impressive. This DAC gave particularly outstanding body and weight to the sound – rarely does a digital component allow loudspeakers to be steeped in such a level of complex tones, but this one does just that. Conversely, many other “high-end” components think it is clever to produce sounds akin to a limp piece of lettuce…
There were many outstanding aspects to the sound, including bass delivery and extension. The only slight area of criticism being some graininess, probably undetectable to anyone not used to a valve DAC – but then I am comparing against my Audio Note DAC 2.1 kit, which is many multiples more expensive.
Next was the JKDAC32 and the improvement was immediate. All the body of the previous JKDAC was there, but with a bigger and more open presence to each musician, more tunefulness, even more bass power in the the lower registers and much less grain. It gave a highly involving and dramatic sound that demanded the listener’s attention without being too fatiguing. Excellent timing too. Considering the 25% price difference (€100) between John’s two DACs, the JKDAC32 is a no-brainer. The performance jump is far greater than the price difference implies.
This DAC has a passive output stage and I believe this is a big reason why its treble has an agile and holographic quality – sounds were clearly defined as they zipped around the sound stage. Quieter sounds in the mix were more evident than even my Audio Note DAC.
Where my Audio Note comes into its own is in terms of mid-range openness (particularly noticeable with vocals) that reveals a dispersive “halo” around voices revealing how the sound is confined within its recording environment, bringing a closeness that somehow further highlights the emotional intent of the performer. The JKDAC32 does something similar to the bass by providing a deep, articulate and underpinning complexity to the tone resulting in a responsive forward-back displacement of air – but this level of magic does not quite reach the mid-band in the same way as the Audio Note. Non-the-less, the JKDAC32′s mid is precise, rich and rock-steady, while that extra magic does make a return in the treble.
At this price the mid-range has exceptional tonal harmonics, better than the Young DAC (which also seemed to impose a ceiling on crescendos and vocal climaxes) and way better than the Musical Fidelity M1 asynchronous DAC.
The JKDAC32′s nearest challenger has to be the Audiolab M-DAC. I now do not have the Audiolab (which is happily residing at my brother-in-law’s place). What I do recall is that the JK32DAC produces the bigger sound and has the musicians located closer to the listener than the M-DAC. The M-DAC has its own strengths, giving a more intimate presentation that exudes quiet confidence while still enthralling the listener.
In conclusion, the JKDAC32 is really special – even more so when considering its price-point and balance of strengths that approach my Audio Note DAC. It really was a “Special Delivery” and John Kenny is onto something good here. If you are looking for a sub-£1000 DAC then take John Kenny’s home-trial offer and compare the JKDAC32 against the M-DAC to see which presentation you prefer.