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Kao Audio: former Asus engineers break off to form a company dedicated to high end gear (first...

post #1 of 29
Thread Starter 

With all the excitement surrounding the Asus Xonar One DAC, another "Asus-related" DAC seems to have slipped onto the market unnoticed. The company is Kao Audio, formed in 2009 by a group of former Asus engineers and dedicated to high quality audio. Almost all employees came from the Asus R&D department - mainly from the motherboard and notebook divisions. My contact, Ting-Kuo Kao, says he was personally in touch with the project manager and engineers in the Xonar division. They would sometimes approach him for advise regarding the Xonar audio products, though he felt that they were too limited in terms of budget to really implement his ideas. The group of engineers at Kao are all passionate about music, and wanted to form this new company to focus on that pursuit without limitations.

 

The first offering from Kao is the UD2C-HP - a compact DAC with integrated headphone amp, in a very unique chassis, which sells for just shy of $1,000. Kao employs industrial engineers and it really shows in the design of this unit. Pictures simply don't do it justice. For reference, it is larger than something like a NuForce uDac, but smaller than the Violectric V800 or almost any other serious DAC I've encountered. The finish has a unique texture which they call "sandblasted aluminum". It's a sort of smoke color, with a non-smooth finish. Unfortunately it appears to show smudges and dust in the pictures very easily, but in person it looks stunning. 

 

Internally, the device uses a mix of high-tech design and old-school audiophile wisdom: An advanced switch-mode power supply, extremely short signal paths, separate DACs for the line outs and headphone section, no opamps, no upsampling... it even comes with an "audiophile grade" power cable. It's quite and interesting design philosophy. I'll go into more detail when I have my complete review finished soon.

 

This post is long overdue. I've had the Kao Audio UD2C-HP in house for a few months, and I have to say I really enjoy it. It isn't perfect, but some of the things it does can only be matched by my reference units. But more about that in due time. For now, enjoy some eye candy.

 

 

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UPDATE: Full review completed (finally!)

 

http://www.head-fi.org/products/kao-audio-ud2c-hp/reviews/6315

 

 

 


Edited by project86 - 2/17/12 at 11:46am
post #2 of 29
Thread Starter 

BTW, this unit (along with much of my other gear) will be at the Bay Area meet on Feb. 11th. There are plenty of good reasons to check out the meet..... this Kao Audio device is just one of them.

 

http://www.head-fi.org/t/584924/official-2012-bay-area-meet-thread-california-february-11th-saturday

 

post #3 of 29

I love the design! Too bad it's a $1000. :( Looking forward to your review!

post #4 of 29

Wow! very nice piece of gear I must say. Probably one of the faults for people looking in $1000 range would be the lack of connectivity(balanced outs) but otherwise its looking great. Looking forward to reading the review.

post #5 of 29
Thread Starter 

Yep, this isn't really designed as a budget DAC, nor as a feature packed unit. I don't even think there is much room to fit anything else in there. But the sound..... the sound is just intoxicatingly good. I'm listening to it right now, with the Rachel Z. 24/96 album "Grace", through the prototype Sennheiser HD700, and it is really nailing it. 

post #6 of 29
Thread Starter 

Update: I finally completed the review, which took me way longer than expected for various reasons. 

 

http://www.head-fi.org/products/kao-audio-ud2c-hp/reviews/6315

 

This DAC is the real deal - excellent performance in a really small package. In some ways it is just "where it should be" for a DAC in the $1k price range - such as soundstage and bass reproduction. It sounds great, but doesn't stand out in the same way as the best I've heard.

 

Yet the Kao DAC has such great tonal accuracy and timbre - in that respect, it is among some of the best I've heard (at any price!). I guess it is the super short signal paths, optimal PCB layout, precision power delivery, lack of unnecessary circuitry, etc that gives such a clear window into the sound. 

 

This DAC is killer for vocal performances, jazz, classical, instrumental work, etc. Using the built in headphone amp with the Sennheiser HD700 prototype, I listened for hours at a time without any fatigue. Adding a high end tube amp took things to yet another level.

 

I'm really impressed with this DAC and look forward to spending more time with it. 

post #7 of 29
Just a beautiful DAC/amp. I really regret not spending more time with it at the meet.
post #8 of 29
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by rroseperry View Post

Just a beautiful DAC/amp. I really regret not spending more time with it at the meet.


 

Agreed! Though I can see how it could be overlooked with such an abundance of extremely high end gear everywhere you turned.... That meet was something else.

 

I did mean to thank you again for making the drive out here. CEE TEE is heading over today to give everything back, and I really appreciate the both of you for your effort. Thanks!

post #9 of 29
It was no trouble at all.
post #10 of 29

Looks so bauhaus, I'm surprised its not from Germany. Nice.

post #11 of 29
I'm surprised this unit hasn't received more attention. It looks like a great piece from a team with very experienced engineers (and music lovers). The form factor is very compact (a bonus in my book) and it looks very well made. I compared my Asus Xonar STX ($180) with my Nuforce HDP ($450) and the STX was noticably better on my Audeze LCD-2's. Maybe that's why I'm curious about what Asus engineers could really accomplish without such tight budgets? These people worked in a field (hardware design and manufacturing) where every penny (literally) of manufacturing costs is carefully scutinized, so they know how to spend those nickels and dimes in a cost-effective manner. And they sell direct, so there's no distributor taking their 30%, while the dealer takes another 30% (*cough* DP1 *cough*). You look at the type of design and manufacturing experience these people have, and you combine it with their highly efficient business model, and you end up with an extremely very high-value proposition. Project86 says this has some of the best timbre and tonality he's heard (regardless of price) and the silence is deafening. I don't quite get it.

I appreciate project86's honesty here. He makes no bones that you can achieve better sound than this, and I would certainly hope so given the cost of the gear he has personally owned and reviewed (and compared the Kao to). I think the REAL question should be: Is there a better DAC/amp combo on the market for $1000 or less? It may depend on the headphones you're trying to power to some extent, but I suspect you'd have an extremely difficult time. For my LCD-2's, I suspect this is among the best for the money.

Haven't pulled the trigger since I'm also curious about the $500-more-expensive Anedio D2 that's shipping very soon. But this is on my short list and deserves strong consideration for the bargain shoppers out there. It's got everything the modern space-and-money-conscious buyer would want.

I guess time will tell whether I'm right or wrong.
post #12 of 29
Quote:
Originally Posted by mamba315 View Post

Haven't pulled the trigger since I'm also curious about the $500-more-expensive Anedio D2 that's shipping very soon.


Just wait for D1 owners to start dumping theirs FS for the D2, lol.

 

post #13 of 29
Thread Starter 

Mamba315: I appreciate the comment. It's hard because there aren't a lot of people who have the chance to hear this unit, so the hype doesn't build up like it does with other gear. But right now I do in fact consider this one of the best buys in the $1k region. The Yulong D18 is excellent as well, but as I covered in the review, very different. Of course there are tons of good DACs out there so by no means am I claiming this is the best period. Just high on the list based on my fairly extensive experience. 

 

EDIT - I forgot to mention. CEE TEE helped transport my gear home from the Bay Area meet a few weeks ago, since I couldn't make it. He spent some time with the KAO unit and was really impressed. In fact, he preferred it to the Violectric V800 DAC/V200 amp combination, which is more than double the price of the KAO, when used with his HD800. I'm not sure if I agree 100% but there it is.


Edited by project86 - 2/21/12 at 10:19pm
post #14 of 29

Wow, the implementation must really be very masterful then. Especially like the fact that they had 2 different DACs for each section. I think barring connectivity for pro audio use, the UD2C-HP is very very bargain for the money.After all, Its technically 2 DACs for the price of 1! Too bad for me, stuck with college fi.

post #15 of 29

It kind of looks like a mini grand piano!

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