Reviews in the Press
If you like DACs then you now live in a time of plenty. I don't think there have ever been as many on the market as today, and the choice of options is incredible. The time that a DAC would just have SPDIF in and analogue out is gone. Most will still have coaxial SPDIF, but in addition there will be TOSLINK, AES, USB, network, hard-disk, airplay, Bluetooth and other options. There are now even DACS that don't have an SPDIF input at all. The JKDAC32 is one of them, offering only USB as input, and only RCA analogue output. It almost feels old-fashioned, but is actually rather modern in its approach. This DAC is solely for computer audio and nothing else. For many people that is just fine, and it allows for excellent value for money.
To get a better impression I took the JKDAC32 to a friend who uses a Rega DAC with his computer audio system. He wasn't completely happy with the Rega, so he is using it with a Musical Fidelity V-Link USB drive. The V-Link is basically similar to the product that John Kenny started his company with, but made by MF. It turns the Rega from a synchronous USB DAC into an asynchronous USB DAC and did indeed improve the sound in my friend's system. Compared to the two box solution with the V-Link and the Rega DAC the tiny JKDAC32 does look extremely elegant: just a single box connected to only the computer and the amp. Soundwise, the Rega was a bit warmer, with more bass, and tracks that needed that extra bottom end did benefit, but the JKDAC32 produced much better mids and high frequencies, with more refinement. The whole sound from the JKDAC32 was more consistent, less mechanical and easier on the ear. The Rega's soundstage was distinctly left-right, while the JKDAC32 was able to project central images that were solid and well placed, resulting in a much more convincing spatial reproduction. To my ears it was an easy win for the JKDAC32, as it is even cheaper than the Rega DAC.
Most importantly, the JKDAC32 doesn't seem to have obvious flaws. It is one thing to make a DAC that sounds dynamic and lively, or smooth and warm for that matter, but it is more difficult to create something that has no real weak points and still sounds good. To my ears, the JKDAC32 is about as neutral and even-handed as it gets at this price level, and still manages to avoid sounding boring or flat. Even including the cost of a computer, this represents good sonic value for money for a digital source.
Summing up, the JKDAC32 is a big step forward from most of the DACs in the same price-range that I have heard before. That I can't say that it sounds inferior to the Tabla/Mutu combination when it costs significantly less is a huge compliment . If you are looking to move up from an entry-level USB DAC, but don't want to spend 'thousands', I would say look no further than this little bargain. Functionally basic, as Maarten says, but far from basic when it comes to sound quality.
First we had CD players, then separate DAC's came along allowing us to use a DAC of our choice. In the same way the USB DAC is now available as a combined unit with the USB converter and DAC in one box, or we can buy a USB converter, and combine that with a standalone DAC. There haven't been too many USB converters but that appears to be changing, more so at the higher end of the market.
John Kenny has built up a good reputation with his products, first for his Sabre DAC (now JKDAC), and then with the JKDAC32. He also produces a USB converter called the SPDIF Mk3 (that you can use with your existing DAC). Like his DAC's, the Mk3 relies on battery power, more precisely a pair of LiFeP04 very low noise and low ripple batteries. The batteries require recharging of course, and that is done using a 5 volt power supply, or via a USB lead, but not the USB lead that supplies the signal from the computer. Instead, the charger lead (supplied with the Mk3) connects to a different USB port, and has a plug on the other end that connects to the Mk3.
Now things start to get a bit more complicated! John Kenny supplies an RF attenuator with the SPDIF Mk3 which can be inserted at the end of the SPDIF cable between the converter and DAC. Fitting the attenuator produced an audibly different sound, lighter, more airy is how I would describe that difference. With the attenuator fitted, I still slightly preferred the Tabla which still appeared to have a marginally firmer bottom end. The Tabla is over twice the price of the Mk3 though so perhaps we should expect it to come out on top. And the difference in sound between them is nowhere near 200%, more like 5%!
There are so many variables involved with reviewing any piece of computer audio equipment but I have drawn my conclusions having tried as many of them as I can. In conclusion, if you are looking for the best sounding USB converter you will have to pay over double the price of the SPDIF Mk3. I would suggest that you would only hear the miniscule difference in an AB comparison so I have no hesitation in very strongly recommending this USB converter at its significantly lower price. Also consider that the Mk3 will convert files up to 32 bit/338 hz (with the correct driver installed) compared to the 24 bit/192 hz of the Tabla! Conclusion - a very impressive piece of gear for the money, and highly recommended!
John Kenny JKDAC32 (M2Tech Hiface + PCM5102 + LiFePO4) See here
The achievement here is not just a theoretical one: that digital transport quality matters. John Kenny's DAC twins might come with the compromise of being USB-only but they deliver in spades. The jitter-broom of a Hiface means the tonal-bleaching and high-frequency tension is swept away BEFORE the DAC chip gets its mitts on the one and zeroes......
I don't intend to insult your intelligence (dear reader) with clichés of how the JKDAC32 "competes with units two or three times the price". Or that it is "recommended". Or that it is "superb". Despite superlatives meaning little in a comparative world it is all of these things.
USB DAC Shootout!
USB DAC shootout featuring JPLAY and the Rega DAC, Beresford TC-7520
(modified + Burson Buffer), Halide Design DAC HD, JKDAC , MK3 JKSPDIF
Bass is very impressive, the equal of the Halide DAC HD, so it's got a great bass dynamic, it goes deep, it's tight, textured, indeed it's really propulsive. Where the JKDAC32 wins extra points is that the upper-mid and treble are sweeter yet still very detailed. This is no treble cover-up job! The next thing that struck the auditioning panel was the separation between the instruments; this was a step ahead of the best of the other DACs being tested here. Imaging was found to be very three dimensional and we agreed there was an especially strong focus for the central image whilst the expansive nature of the soundstage was maintained.
The best DAC here? The panel was unanimously in favor of the JKDAC32. So much so that the owner of the Rega sold it the next day. He purchased a JKDAC32. So have I.
A ramble through digital audio transports See here
............How does the Audiophilleo compare to the JKSPDIF? I get asked this question a lot. I've tried them both with a wide array of budget DACs over many, many months. There really isn't that much to separate them sonically. I could happily live with either (in the long-term) but I distinctly preferred the JKSPDIF with the Metrum Octave - it seemed to bring out more elasticity and tame some of the glassiness.
........... we both agreed that the Audiophilleo seemed to overcook the upper-mids on a couple of decoding boxes. This anomaly was tamed with a digital attenuator. The JKSPDIF MK3 seems to be kinder/gentler overall. Perhaps it's the battery technology?
........... The Hiface's internal buffering means the JKSPDIF is not so great for YouTube or web video - the image and sound will run out of sync - but it offers better immunity to sonic glitches heard via the Audiophilleo during CPU spikes and music library (hard-drive) scans.
............ BUT...I don't use my Squeezebox because it sounds weak, thin and un-involving when compared directly to theJKSPDIF MK3. Sigh. As good as it is, cleaning up the SBT's jitter with an Audio-gd Digital Interface isn't quite as emotionally engaging as a MacMini pushing a JKSPDIF. There's not much in it, but John Kenny's solution has the edge.
Regardless of what cables I used with the MK3, the difference between stock hiFace and MK3 was so huge as to make it difficult hearing any similarities between the two. With the MK3 playback was bigger, bolder and more dramatic but also smoother, less aggressive and edgy. High strings had a sweeter more singing tone. Percussion had a bit more snap and impact. Textures were more fleshed out and vibrant. The sense of forward momentum and relaxed ease that had so impressed me with the Calyx was clearly evident too. The soundstage opened up in depth and width with a greater sense of space, focus and definition between vocal and instrumental images. Overall balance and flow was more analogue-like which in my experience suggests excellent jitter reduction/rejection...........
But as with all things audio, food, wine or any vice, once you have a taste of the good stuff, it’s difficult to settle for less. The JKSPDIF MK3 is most definitely the good/better stuff and an excellent option for anyone wanting to play music from a computer who is unwilling to replace an existing premium DAC for an USB-enabled converter. After spending several weeks with the JKSPDIF MK3, I frankly could care less if a DAC had USB or not. With this little gizmo it’s a non-issue. My advice? Buy the best DAC you can afford and if it doesn’t do USB, don’t fret. The JKSPDIF MK3 has your back.
Audio Ramblings - a Plethora of USB Converters from Blue Circle, Audiophilleo, Halide Designs, M2Tech, JKMods, Stello, with a bit on Cardas and Black Cat
by Dave Clark
Going the battery route clearly alters the sound in terms of becoming warmer and richer, with an overall more organic and 'substantial' sound while still retaining all the positives of the stock M2Tech. You still the 'tinkle' but with more decay and air… the 'tinkle-ness' now sits more 'among the group' as opposed to standing out from the crowd. The Upgraded M2Tech presents music with a greater sense of density and heft… reminds me of other battery-powered devices.........
Now what you have is actually an M2Tech HiFace with all the benefits (24/192), but the computer still needs the driver installed meaning that it works just like a stock HiFace, except it is now sitting in a box… a plastic box that now needs a male A to female A USB cable. You might be able to plug it directly to your computer if everything lines-up just right, in my case it doesn't. So a generic USB cable to the rescue. All things considered this is clearly a step-up over that from the stock M2Tech, which suggests that getting better power to the right circuits/parts is just as important as getting the bits from A to B. Yeah, nice indeed and not for a lot more money though it is a simply plastic box so no points for being glitzy and fancy. Big deal so it is not eye-candy, but it does address some of the perceived faults of the stock unit. It is less aggressive and in a way, more organic. Gee, who would have thought that power noise and whatnot would be such an issue? But yeah that is exactly what noise can sound like… a bit more aggressiveness, more perceived resolution via etch caused by there being more grain that is riding along with the music. Take that away and you actually hear more while hearing less: more music and less fatigue and whatever. Of course I am only speculating here that by going the battery route over 100% USB power is removing or mitigating to some degree noise or whatever that is mucking up the sound in terms of the stock unit having more this or that… or less whatever. Which is not to say that the stock M2Tech is not good, yeah, it is quite amazing for what it is and for what it does, but at $150 obviously trade-offs and compromises had to be made… so as good as it is, going with a $140 upgrade in terms of how the device receives power moves the M2Tech up quite a few meaningful notches on the musical scale. Highly recommended.
MK1 Boxed M2Tech hiFace Evo USB To S/PDIF Converter
Plus the Halide Design Bridge and John Kenny Mk1 boxed hiFace.
The review of the modified Hiface has arrived http://enjoythemusic.com/magazine/equipment/1110/m2tech_hiface_evo_dac.htm
It compares the M2tech Evo & the Halide Bridge to the JKHiface. Remember this is the MK1 version that is being reviewed so the battery comments don't apply & are somewhat incorrect for the MK1 anyway! Extract from conclusion:
John Kenny Mk1 boxed hiFacePros:
Best sound of the three provided inline RF attenuators are used to get the level down to standards.
Lowest initial cost.
JOHN KENNY MODIFIED HiFace
USB 24/192 COMPUTER INTERFACE
A review of the MK2 Hiface has just been published in StereoMojo. An extract from the conclusion "The Mk1 modded HiFace didn't just give good performance for PC based sound - it gave good performance, period. I was lucky enough for John to also loan me a Mk1 again with the Mk2 so I could directly compare one to the other. Well, when I tried the Mk1, I remembered quite well the original sound - clear highs, tight lows and a really good clarity. I listened like that for a few days. Then I swapped in the Mk2. Now I could see why John was excited about the new mods: yes, there is a definite improvement with the Mk2. So what changed? Well, the space and resolution around individual instruments and singers was improved, which led to a much better appreciation of the soundstage. Better depth, width and height were readily apparent. I could detect no downsides to this: there was no trace of any kind of glare or harshness, listening fatigue never set it."