Neko Audio D100 MK2

Aug 23rd, 2010 | By Daryl Hoffman | Category: Review

I have spent the past several weeks watching the world cup and reviewing the Neko Audio D100.  While there are not too many comparisons that can be drawn between high-end audio and professional sports, one thing that I do enjoy on both ends, is seeing an unfancied team outplaying the competition.  There’s few things more enjoyable than seeing the classic underdog story come to life, where an under-resourced, under-privileged side can match up to the proven juggernauts pound-for pound, tit-for-tat, and so forth.  While Wesley Miaw, the brainchild behind Neko Audio is no slouch when it comes to the technical side of things, his startup is less than a year old, and he is single handedly taking on the research, production, marketing and customer service role for his company, while directly competing against the more illustrious Benchmark and Bel Canto overlords.  Having been in search of the perfect DAC for his own setup, Wesley was apparently unhappy with the markets current offerings (including the big one mentioned above) and set out to create a DAC all on his own.  Backed by a wealth of experience in the electronics field, Wesley persevered at crafting his own DAC with the aim of achieving a bit-perfect, neutral sound.  The result of his continued research has resulted in what is currently the Neko Audio D100 and more recently D100 MK2 (higher gain version).

The D100 can be ordered directly from Neko Audio’s website. It is a manufacture-direct operation, which means you are ultimately saving money and getting the best value possible. Upon ordering, you have the option of ordering the D100 or the D100MK2 which is the higher gain version using newer Jensen Transformers. There is also the added option of ordering RCA jacks for $50 more. I was sent the MK2 version which took 3 days to arrive, not bad given the short distance from San Jose to Portland. Opening the box, I was greeted by the DAC itself which was well packaged, accompanied by a power cable and an owners manual. As I removed the D100 from it’s box I was struck by it’s rather lackluster appearance. The DAC is housed in a generic black box with a single input selector knob, a light indicating power on/off, as well as the Neko Audio logo printed softly on the left side. On the backside we are met with the standard IEC power port as well as a single set of RCA jacks. The build quality did not seem tremendous, there was not much effort put into making things visually stimulating, but when you consider Wesley’s background and understand what he is trying to accomplish, it becomes evident that his efforts are focused around trying to achieve the most bit-perfect, neutral sound possible and not on visual flair, or marketing. In this sense, his approach must be respected, as he is a true artisan at his craft.

I got my first taste of how the D100 sounded, when hooking it up to the Blue Circle Audio SBH, and feeding it lossless files through the Macbook. I put on the Ultrasone 900’s recabled by Apuresound and proceeded to skip through various FLAC files. The first thing I noticed was the amount of detail present in the recording. Detail retrieval is very good and what you would expect from a $1400 DAC. Listening to Miles Davis – “All of you”, a song that needs no introduction, the touch of the drummers brush against the hi-hat revealed lots of interesting textures and definition that I had never noticed, at least not this clearly. Similarly, on the track ‘Blues by Five’ the opening, which contains a lot of muffled background noise, was rendered so clearly that the background chatter could clearly be heard and understood. It’s amazing to discover new details in recordings I thought I knew so well, a testament to the D100’s awesome transparency and detail retrieval. Skipping through some more tracks, I next noticed and what turned out to be the D100’s most defining characteristic, and that is neutral tonality. There is no coloration here. At all.. One of Wesley’s main ambitions when designing the D100 was to employ a passive output stage to keep the signal as clean as possible, and this is certainly audible. Wesley was aiming for bit-perfect, neutral sound and hearing the D100 first hand proves that this is not all marketing lingo, as these characteristics were apparent upon first listening. It seemed to come at some price though, as music did not sound as dynamic to my ears, and at times sounded a bit too polite. It’s an interesting trade off that should be considered when system matching components.

Soundstaging was also excellent. Listening to Royksopp’s ‘Eple’, the myriad of synths swirled around my head with more depth and discernible location than I was used to. It should be noted that the soundstage seemed to shrink a little bit when using the Toslink with Macbook. As you would predict, Coax sounded a bit fuller and had a slightly larger soundstage. This seems to be the case more often than not with most components though. I also noticed a slight bump in the lower midrange, nothing extreme, but I found it worked better in certain setups. For example, I ended up preferring the Neko Audio hooked up to the Sheer Audio HA-006++ ($450) rather than the awesome Blue Circle SBH at three times the price, which has a slight midrange bump of it’s own. All in all, I have no complaints at all with the Neko Audio D100, it sounds absolutely outstanding and the “soft dynamics” that I mentioned is not so much a flaw as it is a characteristic that you either prefer or you don’t. In my experience, it never once detracted from enjoying the music and the D100’s other characteristics were much to enjoyable for me to have any complaints.

There was a time in this hobby where it made sense to go through the big names. Specifically, the Benchmark’s and Bel Canto’s, who are respected and have an illustrious history. However, there has been a large influx of independent designers bringing their hunger, drive and most importantly, new ideas to the table. While I’m not saying one is better than the other, I will say that Neko Audios D100 is a perfect example of how spread out the market has become. I personally found the D100 to be preferable to the Benchmark DAC1, due to it’s dead neutral sound, which to me is the highlight of this DAC. There are pro’s and cons though. The D100 is guilty of being to polite at times and with a seemingly softer dynamic range, which may turn some people away. However after testing the D100 in a variety of setups, I ended up preferring it over the Benchmark DAC-1 which has to be considered an enormous achievement. For those in the market for a $1000 DAC, it should be a no brainer to at least audition the D100, as Neko Audio does offers a 30 day free trial. Even if you decide to go another route, keep an eye out for Neko Audio, as Wesley has proven himself to be an exciting designer and has already stated that he intends to develop other components under the Neko Audio name.

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