Sometime in mid-2012, a head-fi buddy of mine, Che15, bought a new DAC – John Kenny’s homemade JKDAC32. While Kenny’s HiFace modifications had gotten some attention on Head-fi, I had read precious little about his DACs. Che told me he had read about it somewhere, and the price tag of 500 Euros was just right.
I raised an eyebrow, and waited to hear what he thought about his new petite toy DAC.
While Che was burning in his new gear, I was reading up on the DAC. I learned that it ran off LiFePo4 batteries. “Hmm,” I thought, “That’s probably a good thing.” While my only experience with LiFePo4 batteries had been in USB to S/PDIF converters, the difference those batteries made was, in a word, revelatory.
So, after a few days of burning in the JKDAC32, Che called me up, ready to declare this budget DAC one of the best sources he’d ever heard.
I was flabbergasted.
You see, Che15 is an experienced audiophile, one who has heard DACs and CD players which cost upwards of $10,000. He has listened extensively to Meridian, Mark Levinson, and Esoteric gear. And here he was, proclaiming what an astonishing source the JKDAC32 was.
Well, naturally, it was only a matter of time before I scraped together the roughly $680 (after conversion) for my very own John Kenny DAC.
I must admit, after the DAC arrived I was a bit disappointed as I held in my hands the small, nondescript aluminum case with black plastic ends. I suppose I have grown accustom to high-end gear “looking the part”, and Kenny’s DAC is more a “form follows function” piece.
But, upon plugging in and listening, I knew I would be able to forgive the casework. I also knew Che was right. This little DAC had a secret ingredient that put it in a special echelon of DACs – the lowest noise floor I had heard up to that point.
It took only a few days before I called Che15 up, stammering and exclaiming to him on the phone, “What the heck? How has John Kenny pulled this off?” Amidst much laughter he said simply, “I told you so.”
And so, in the months hence, Che and I have both enjoyed our John Kenny DACs very much. Still gob-smacked each time we hear music pouring through our headphones from this marvelous DAC. Still in wonder at how such a small and affordable source could produce such an extravagant and nuanced sound.
Naturally, any time you experience a piece of gear that so obviously punches above its weight class, you really want to know how the thing works… Moreover, I wanted to know how Kenny pulled off something for under $1,000 that I had not heard $2,000 DACs achieve.
The short answer? It’s the batteries.
The long answer? It’s the batteries, the circuit design, the I2S chip, the short signal paths, and so on and so forth.
But the short answer? Again, it’s the batteries.
You see, the LiFePo4 battery is a stable and reliable DC power source, which is ideal for use in sensitive electronics like the clocks in a DAC. Wall AC current? Not so much. Every DAC that derives its DC power from AC will likely suffer to one degree or another from ripple, as well as noise. You want to hear a plug-in-the-wall DAC that has ultra-low noise and ripple, get ready to pay for it. You see, the power supply is where most of the smarter DAC manufacturers spend huge chunks of their budget. And rightfully so. But with the LiFePo4 battery, you have a less expensive source of DC current sans the hassle.
This explains why battery DACs cost less. Furthermore, for an obsessive audiophool this means no more worrying about the power cord or power conditioner. Nice.
Well, after many wondrous nights of being serenaded by the JKDAC32, and dreams redolent with LiFePo4 batteries, Che and I started hearing about another DAC with this new “secret advantage”. This DAC was the Muto by Human Audio.
I believe we first read about Human Audio in a comparison between their Tabla USB converter, and John Kenny’s modificed hiface USB converter. We later began hearing familiar proclamations swirling around this Muto DAC: “Black background”, “smooth sound”, “analog-like”. Hmmm. This was familiar.
So, fast forward to January of 2013, and Che and I had pretty much talked it to death. “Could this DAC be as good as the John Kenny? Could it possibly be even better?” It was time for one of us to bite the bullet and try the Human Audio DAC.
And, after only a short while with the Muto, I was thrilled to experience sound in the same vein as the JKDAC32. That is, smooth, analog-like, deep, and highly resolving sound that emerges from a background as inky-black as all infinity.
I searched head-fi for any discussion of this new DAC. All I found was a single, brief thread started by Lee Perry, giving some impressions after hearing the Muto. It seems his impressions were positive. He compared the $1200 Muto to his $3000 Eximus, and was left feeling that each had its merits.
So, I felt the need to share my experience here. To spur the discussion about this new technology.
Is this a revolution in DAC design? I believe so, but I honestly have no idea. I simply don’t know enough about electronics.
What I do know is that I have now heard four source-related devices that run off LiFePo4 batteries – the M2Tech EVO, the Audiophilleo2 with PurePower, the JKDAC32, and the Muto – and each of them has been heads and shoulders above anything else I have heard.
So, who else has heard one of these battery-powered DACs?
What other companies are out there forging into this new territory? King Rex. M2Tech. ALO Audio. Others?
What are everyone’s thoughts on this new technology and how to get the best quality sources built from it?
When will other manufacturers view the LiFePo4 as a superior power source, as something greater than just a battery for a portable device, as something a high-end piece of equipment can be built from? The sooner they do, the sooner the good folks like you and I can hear luxurious sound, heretofore unobtainable because of price.
Just imagine being able to hear the quality of a dCS DAC for only $2,000. Sound like a dream? Nah. I call it a challenge…