- Written by Rick Schmidt
- Published on 17 June 2010
My initial impression from the Neko was that the sound was natural and not fatiguing. This is high praise from a vinyl nut like me. Perhaps a measure of how not-fatiguing it is occurred when after listening to Bjork's Voltaic I switched to the balanced connection and listened to the same record all the way through again. The difference with the balanced connection was a slightly lower noise floor and slightly higher volume at the same level. Both of these are expected with a balanced connection and I think it is because the Neko's outputs are passive that the difference is less than I normally hear. Part of it could be that the noise floor is pretty low to begin with.
My favorite record of late is Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom. I of course bought the vinyl edition on this one but it did not come with a coupon for download of a digital version so I made a recording through my Benchmark ADC1. I recorded at 88.2kHz/16b. Why a 16 bit word depth and not 24? Because the free digital recording software Audacity is worth every penny. That's why. The setting for the word depth is buried in a menu that you might remember to check only after you've recorded six sides of vinyl. Anyway… I used that same software to downsample to 44.1 and then burned some CD's with windows built-in CD burner. In spite of the troublesome journey the CD's sound great. The Neko did not impose any sort of digital character on top of my minimally processed recording. The playback sounded like the vinyl. Not as good as the vinyl, which by comparison has a little bit more of everything, bass, high end (just a little), extended decay for notes from whatever instrument, separation between instruments. But still. the little bits of each of those that were lost when playing back through the Neko seem benign in nature. No digititus.
Amy Winehouse's Frank on the other hand is not minimally processed. By most standards it's not overly processed either. But it is by my standards. I generally like this CD but it's tough to switch to after listening to CD's I've recorded myself. However, it's a great way to see if a component has the guts on the bass end and the Neko passed the test. At the same time it presented the rest of the mix with a good sense of air and a natural sound for that unique voice and well recorded piano. And most important the Neko made me reluctant to stop the music for any reason. The Neko does present the entire mix of a recording rather than emphasize any part. For instance with this CD there is a heartbreaking tinge of gravel or emotion that comes through that voice on some of these songs and I've felt the heartbreak a little more with some other components. The Neko is just slightly on the relaxed side of the sound spectrum. My definition of 'neutral' is at least in part based on my Nottingham turntable and PS Audio phono stage, your mileage may vary. My SimAudio amplification stages are also on the relaxed side as compared to Edge amps for example. It would be interesting to hook up the Neko to such an amp.
Since I had the new Naim DAC here at the same time I had to do a lot of comparisons. The Emotiva keeps both the RCA and Toslink outputs going so it was easy to A-B in a slightly unfair way since both the Naim and Neko preferred an optical connection. Since the Neko was less picky I fed it with the RCA. In this configuration it was hard to tell the two apart. From an engineering standpoint this is rather comforting since the DAC chips in the two pieces are similar and the design philosophy is as well (power supply regulation or filtering at multiple points). It's less comforting (or maybe more comforting) from a consumer standpoint since the Neko costs less than half as much as the $3500 Naim (the Naim does have a bunch more inputs including USB and Ipod to be fair). When I fed the Neko with its favored optical connection I preferred it to the Naim. A better balanced and more luscious presentation. The Naim still kept the instruments a little more separate but the highs seem emphasized. The Naim has the ability to take it to another level entirely though when coupled with one of Naim's external power supplies. I'll cover that in the review for the Naim.
Speaking of 30 day home trials from internet-only companies, how does the Neko compare to that old fashioned way of listening to CD's – straight from the (Emotiva) CD player? The Emotiva really does something right with the overall mix and keeping the instruments separate. The presentation is brighter overall and any particular instrument or voice that you concentrate on sounds really good but there is a tinge of fatiguing digital quality when compared to the Neko or the Naim. I attribute this to the DAC chips used in these respective solutions. The Emotiva uses a thoroughly modern and math intensive solution while these standalone DACs use old fashioned solutions which are at least partially R2R resistor ladders (and partially delta-sigma). Keep in mind that manufactures will list delta-sigma as something to be proud of because of its ability to shift some of the noise out of the audio band but noise isn't the problem. Fatigue is the problem and the more simple solutions, while more expensive to produce, are better in this regard.
I also tried some high res files. I converted a USB output from my laptop to S/PDIF using the Trends Audio USB10.1 converter. The Neko indeed handled 88.1kHz as promised. Even with only 16bits per word the 88kHz sample of the Joanna Newsome album was a clearly better listening experience than the 44.1kHz version. Piano especially seemed to sound much more real with better attack and sustain and just sounding like a real piano with all its complexity. The overall sonic characteristics of this DAC (and the Naim) remained the same at high res but they just seem to matter less. Kind of like good turntables, they might sound different but who cares? They sound great and don't fatigue, that's all you need. An 88kHz, 24 bit recording I have of Cat Power's Dark End of the Street proved that 24 is more than 16. Way more. Listening through the Neko took me very close to the original Vinyl experience. Not as close as I'd like to be, especially when the record is sitting right there and I could just put it on but clearly, high res digital solves a lot of the problems that CD's have.
Since the Neko has a passive output stage (the transformers) I also wanted to try it with a different amp. Wesley Miaw told me that the preamp input impedance should be at least 10 kohm. I still had the Primaluna Dialogue Two on hand. This doesn't really fit the bill as a difficult load for the Neko since the input impedance on the Primaluna is specified at 100kOhm. Oh well, I had to try. It was well worth it. It seemed like nothing was lost in switching to this amp and in the case of some CD's, something was gained, call it tube magic. Feeding the Primaluna with the Neko (digital out from old Cambridge Azur DVD player fed through Arcam AV8) and driving my Aperion 5 series two way speakers made some CD's sound better than in my two channel system.
Aimee Mann's Lost in Space for instance. This music was recorded in the sound engineer's living room, a testament to what is possible these days (or those days, since this CD was released in 2002). But, the recording is limited, a mild case of digititus. No matter with the Neko and Primaluna, I didn't want to stop, the instruments were held separate (no smearing) and there was a depth and intrigue to the music. Proving once again that you don't have to spend megabucks to enjoy your music. Or your hometheater for that matter. I've been in two channel mode in my home theater for months now and I never really think about it except when I notice how good the sound is. Putting your money into two really good channels like those provided by the Neko and the Primaluna might be better than spreading you capital over five channels.