HoloAudio Spring "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" Level 3 D/A processor Art Dudley July 2018

Art Dudley wrote about the HoloAudio Spring DAC in July 2018 (Vol.41 No.7):

Praise it all you want, but digital audio is still my second choice: In a life in which the enjoyment of art is infinite but the hours in which to do so are limited, and given the choice between listening to LPs and 78s on the one hand or files and CDs on the other, digital is a waste of my time: It doesn't connect me with the music as well as analog does, period. In my experience, digital audio isn't evil, merely banal.

But digital is getting better all the time, and part of my job description is to endure in meeting digital halfway, to give it a fresh chance every time out. But first I have to catalog and discard all of the defense mechanisms I've adopted without thinking—the wince before the blow, if you will—to make digital more palatable. In particular, because early digital sound was so damned bright, even when the glare isn't there, my ears still squint.

So it was that, during my first hour with the HoloAudio Spring "Kitsune Tuned Edition" Level 3 DAC,6 I thought: Is it my imagination, or is this thing a little . . . dark?

It turned out to be the former. The darkness was all in my head, a semisubconscious product of my expectations. I remember using my Sony SCD-777 SACD/CD player to listen to "Two Turns Home," from guitarist David Grier's Evocative (CD, Dreadnought 0901), then to an AIFF file made from that same disc, played through the HoloAudio DAC—and the latter sounded, undeniably, a lot richer. The electric bass was more rounded, the fiddle more substantive, the guitar more burnished in tone, and the recording as a whole was more listenable. I made a conscious effort to let down my guard, and found that nothing—and I mean nothing—in the music was hidden from me. The notes were no less apparent, the pitches no less distinct, the ensemble playing no less rhythmically accomplished than when listening to the CD. Subtleties of bassist Victor Wooten's technique and details of his fretless instrument's sound were front and center, and Grier's melodic variations rolled, colorfully and altogether beautifully, into aural view, one after the other. I was more than enchanted—I was involved.

I couldn't help but wonder: Was this uncommon musicality a consequence of HoloAudio's similarly uncommon approach to digital processing? As Herb Reichert noted in his review of it in the May 2018 Stereophile, the Spring DAC Kitsune Tuned Edition" Level 3 is unusual, though not entirely unique, in using a resistive ladder to passively convert the incoming bitstream to AC voltage. Allied with this is a second and arguably equally crucial distinction: Although the user can apply to the incoming signal one of three different switch-selectable oversampling filters, in its default mode, the HoloAudio Spring plays music with no oversampling.

Again, I wondered: Is it a coincidence that one or both of those distinctions have been found in some of my all-time-favorite digital source components, including D/A converters from Audio Note, 47 Laboratory, and Wavelength . . . ?

As Herb also pointed out, conversion via a resistive ladder can be accomplished by means of an integrated circuit—the Philips TDA-1540 family of chips, which flourished in the 1990s, being a prime example—or by discrete resistors. The latter route is extremely labor-intensive, requiring the tedious measuring and hand-selecting of every resistor used. Building a discrete-resistor ladder DAC is expensive for that reason, and because hand selection usually means discarding a certain number of out-of-spec parts. And if the builder wants to use boutique resistors . . . well, as the monkey said as he peed into the till, That's running into money.

I've had the pleasure of listening to a Stereophile-recommended, Class A+ discrete-resistor ladder DAC: the TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2, which I heard at Michael Lavorgna's music barn in the forests of New Jersey. It was sublime. It also cost €9100—in dollars, a five-figure price tag. So when Herb told us that HoloAudio's discrete-resistor ladder DACs sell for as little as $1499, and that the subject of his review—the company's all-out, silver-wired, Mundorf-capped "Kitsune Tuned Edition" Level 3—costs only $2499, the Holo became the rare digital source that I begged to hear.

* * *

So here I was, doing just that, feeding the Spring DAC with files from my Roon-equipped MacBook Air computer, connected via USB—in which case the Spring can handle PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD up to DSD512. I moved from acoustic guitar at 16/44.1 to solo piano at 24/96: Chopin's Ballade in g, from Daniel Barenboim's On My New Piano (AIFF file, Deutsche Grammophon 289 479 6724). And here I could point to how the Holo put across the considerable size of Barenboim's unique, straight-strung instrument, conceived by him and built by Chris Maene, in particular the texture and purr of its lowest strings, and how the sound of the recording space was realistically and, I dare say, naturally intertwined with the sound of the instrument, as opposed to sounding like tacked-on generic reverb. But the two things that most impressed me were the fact that the Spring DAC communicated how much Barenboim was enjoying playing the piece—you can just tell!—and how, at about 7:17 in, when he goes up an octave for a high B-flat, that note just hung in the air, as solid and as meaty as I'd expect a good LP to let it sound. I remember how Naim Audio's founder, the late Julian Vereker, used to say that if a CD player could make just one disc sound good, then there was hope for digital. I'd settle for one note—and there it was.

All right, make it three things that most impressed me: What is that scary sound at 5:30 in the Chopin, and again at 5:33? Is Barenboim slamming his left foot down on the stage as he plays those chords, or is it a structural sound resulting from his having struck the keys so hard? I have no idea, but it was cool, and I'd certainly never before heard it from this file.

It was time to throw at the Spring a few bad, or at least so-so, recordings. It sailed through them all, not only by making the best of badly recorded sound without throwing a blanket over it, but by playing the music so well and so convincingly that I was too charmed and entertained and delighted to devote my attention to audiophile froufrou. "Long Ago and Far Away," from the dB's' Falling Off the Sky (AIFF from CD, Bar/None BRN-CD-202102), elements of which are recorded so close-up that it's a little too in-my-face and borderline edgy through most DACs, was unbelievably good: sonically sparkly but not at all wince-inducing. And, for gosh sakes, Will Rigby's drumsticks on his cymbals, recessed in the mix, sounded just like drumsticks on cymbals: You can't teach a DAC that's merely rolled-off on top to do that.

The listening described above was done without oversampling. For this Follow-Up I also relied on PCM rather than native DSD; the latter, according to distributor KitsuneHiFi, is heard at its best via the Spring's I2S input, which would require a digital-to-digital USB-to-I2S converter (Kitsune sells such things, starting at $399) and an I2S-over-HDMI cable. My primary goal was to hear what a modern, zero-oversampling DAC sounds like, and in that context I was not only impressed, I was overcome with the sort of unexpected delight that discourages further acts of daring. (I'm one of those people who, on trying a new restaurant and finding a dish I like, never orders anything else.) But access to the Spring's oversampling filters can be had with the press of a button, so I tried them, too.

Relative to the believable color and life of the Spring's music-making, all three of its oversampling filters added different amounts and flavors of death and dullness, blunting the sense of human force behind note attacks, sanding off all the randomness, and replacing the charged air around notes with something that sounded like it was molded from plastic. One example of the above came while listening to Tony Rice Plays and Sings Bluegrass (AIFF from CD, Rounder Select ROUCD 253). Near the end of "I've Waited as Long as I Can," Rice begins his solo with a D produced by bending his guitar's B-string to that pitch before his pick attack: in non-oversampling mode, the tension involved in doing so was apparent; with each of the oversampling filters—especially the third, which oversamples all incoming digital signals, regardless of provenance, to DSD—the tension was nowhere to be heard.

The above points to the only complaint I have about the HoloAudio DAC, though it's less a complaint than a suggestion: Why not make a version of the Spring that dispenses altogether with the oversampling chip, and with the controls required to activate those filters? Maybe such a thing could sell for even less than $2499.

Never mind that. I'm just happy that so relatively affordable a product has proven me wrong in the most agreeable way: The HoloAudio Spring "Kitsune Tuned Edition" Level 3 DAC is a revelation in every sense. As Herb said: Highly recommended.— Art Dudley

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

It's nearly 2020 now and I remember saying "only just begun" since the 1950s with an LP recording of a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto ( in Mono ) after living with 78s.

Sheffield Labs brought another "only just begun" , LINN LP-12 brought another, Electrocomaniet brought another, Brisson MIT speaker cable brought another, Koetsu brought another, Gordon Rankin another, Ken Smith of PS Audio brought another.

We've lived thru a lifetime of "only just beguns" , haven't we ?

I'm ready for more of em, they're exciting.

Of course R2R isn't new or respected by Audio Professionals ( for the most part ). Still, I anticipate R2R architecture will be in the mother boards of many smart phones, the Phone people have "only just begun" !

An Audiophile grade R2R DAC for well under MSB price points is both wonderful that it exists and scary that it's coming from the Uttr side of the Voild. for gods sake

Tony in Michigan

ps. can someone ( without Orange hair ) take me back to 1910's Isolationist practices?

spacehound's picture

If I didn't already have a considerably more expensive (but not necessarily better), DAC I would buy one.

I purchased my last 'regular chip' DAC a long time ago and no longer use it. It's R2R, dCS (discrete components) or Chord (FPGA) for me, they are so much better.

brw's picture

This is the best DAC review I have ever read. Especially the comparisons with Yggdrasil (which I’ve long been tempted to buy). Thoughtful impressions, differences discerned with specific tracks, tongue-in-cheek humor (“LSD vs. DSD”). Super-helpful observations that will undoubtedly influence, if not motivate my next purchase. This is why I read Stereophile. Well done, Herb.

Herb Reichert's picture

this review was the most difficult review I've written so far. To effectively characterize the Holo Spring while putting its low price and original engineering into the proper historical perspective was a real challenge . . . . thanks again - I am glad you enjoyed it

Greg121986's picture

What digital input on the Spring did you use? Sorry if I may have missed this detail from the article. I've owned the Spring KTE L3 for awhile, and it is customary to use its I2S input with a digital-digital converter. This method yields substantially better sound than the USB input alone. Unfortunately the USB input on the Spring is not as much of a high quality piece as the rest of the DAC. I have heard of users being satisfied with the AES/EBU balanced input as well but I have no personal experience with this. For I2S I use the Singxer SU-1 DDC which is pretty much the go-to piece of equipment for the Spring. The improvement to the Spring when using its I2S input is corroborated many times over by other owners as well.

Herb Reichert's picture

the I2S + Singxer and the USB with an AudioQuest Cinnamon cable. I cut the DDC out of this story because the Singxer is a seperate product not yet reviewed in Steriophile.

ednazarko's picture

Seems to me from reviews that R2R has a lot of real advantages over the most widespread approach to DACs today.

So why did R2R phase out? Does it not hold up as well as a fully chip system? Is it trickier to get right?

Curious to hear this bit of audiophile history...

DriverTube's picture

I enjoyed your review of the Holo Spring DAC (and your column in general)! I have been happily using the Holo Spring (Level 1) for about 7 months and it really has had an impact in terms of my ability to enjoy listening to digital music. I have had significantly more expensive DACs and while they always sounded very impressive in many ways, there was a strange disconnect between their sonic abilities and their ability to let me enjoy my music. Not so with the Holo Spring. One thing that you might try, early versions (pre 2018?) of the Holo Spring used a U208 XMOS USB module while later versions switched to the newer, improved UX208 XMOS USB module. Jeff at Kitsune can supply the newer USB board which is a 2-bolt, drop-in replacement swap. At first, I thought the UX208 provided a VERY slight increase in transparency and perceived detail. However, as I have become more familiar with it, I think it is a real if subtle improvement. Maybe a good option for anyone wanting a simple USB connection without extra boxes/I2S converters? Looking forward to hearing from you in the future about more fun stuff!

georgehifi's picture

Because it didn't do DSD and the main reason it was so expensive to manufacture, because of the laser trimming of all the R2R resistors. Up to 50 x the cost of Delta Sigma dac chips.

The only ones left are not made for the audio industry but military, that the Schiit Yaggy uses.

So what's happening to the manufacturers that still believe R2R multibit is still the better way, is their "doing their own discrete (not chip) version of it", and that's very hard to do in discrete components with all the matching of those resistors. Here are a list that are now doing R2R Multibit, and it's growing.

Up to $3k: Border Patrol, Monarchy, Denafrips, Audio-gd, MHDT, Holo, Soeskris, Metrum, Schiit

$5-$15K: Audio Note, MSB, Metrum, Computer Audio Design, Aqua, LessLoss, Totaldac, Lampizator

$15K+: CH Precision, Aries Cerat, Light Harmonic, Audio Note, MSB, Totaldac, Lampizator

**Special mention to MSB, Monarchy and Audio Note, who never gave up R2R. Even after the takeover of delta-sigma.

Cheers George

dce22's picture

Or you can bypass that junk and get the best R2R DAC

LavryGold DA924

The R2R DAC that is used in mastering studios to transfer the music from the PC to Analog compressors and EQ's then to PC again with LavryGold AD122-96 that is R2R based ADC

This Lavry DAC to ADC chain is probably on people's favorite recording without they even know it

Cheers

SNI's picture

That would probably be one of the reasons for R2R DAC chips deminish, but there are a few more reasons.
The most important is, that it is possible to obtain somewhat better performance with sigma delta DACs, and in many cases the implementation is also simpler.
Of the six OEM (Now five) about half of them early chose the sigma delta technology over the R2R principle.
Philips was probably the company, that drove the devellopment fastest and furthest of all. They later sold their patents to Crystal Semi, which now is Cirrus Logic.
Anyways R2R DACs are always I out DACs which needs an ekstra step for I/V convertion. This step is pretty critical, and complicates the implementation of the R2R chips.
Sigma Delta DACs with Switced Capacitor Outputstages and filtering dosn´t need I/V conversion, hence the implementation is both simpler and cheaper. This also can lead to better sound quality in the end.
Especially Cirrus Logic and AKM have adopted this principle, and today their DAC chips are absolutely top notch.

vsrwiz's picture

The combination of Holo Spring Wild edtion DAC, UIP, SU1 with Xsymphony USB cable created a magic to ears. The music had a relaxed, natural sound that was never stressful to listen to, it was like more and more analogue and lacked any trace of the digital grit which i have heard from other company DACs. Listening to music over long stretches of time was comfortable and inviting.

My favorite “Girl from Ipanema" (DSD) and Spanish Harlem(24-bit/96kHz Flac) sounded very realistic, with well-fleshed-out harmonic structural reproduction of the instruments (or reproductions thereof).
The combination of Spring Wild Modded, UIP, SU1 threw a wide, dense sound stage with instruments distributed across the space between the speakers. The deep bass on this recording descends to between 20 and 30Hz, and was reproduced with deep extension and powerful impact on tight bass. I was really impressed by the the combination handling of both micro and macro dynamics, which provided a sense of liveliness and energy.

While listening to the Jorge Bolet "Liszt Piano Works", I could always distinguish the percussion instruments clattering in the background (through some other instruments, they merge into a background mush). Leading-edge lows, mids & highs was really well defined: not peaky or edgy, just sharp and clear.

By Connectiing Xsymphony AES Cable, the combination of Spring Wild Modded, UIP and SU1 was more better, it was really very musical and good, even before the burn-in time and reproduced with great realism and sharp transients -- not at all peaky, just natural and the bass was so deep and powerful.

Stings's picture

Has anyone listened to both the Holo Spring and the ifi Pro IDSD dac? I am debating whether to buy the Holo Spring or ifi Pro iDSD. I like the fact that the ifi pro iDSD has a Ethernet and upsamples to dsd1024 but it doesnt have a i2s connector.
Which DAC is better realistic imagery?

Thanks
Stings

Herb Reichert's picture

Reviewed both and found them both to play like a $20K DAC. The sound character of each is very different though. To my subjective view, the Holo Spring is the most natural and least (digitally) affected but the iDSD delivers a force of 'energy' and transparency very much like the Mytek Manhattan II DAC. I could live happily with either.

Thanks for reading my prattles.

herb

highdesertdog's picture

Herb,

Thank you for a thoughtful and useful comparison review. Have you heard another R2R DAC, the Mojo Audio Mystique v3?

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Herb, you guys are the best, truly!

Thoroughly enjoyed the read, and the observations by both you and Art. I trust your ears. Thank you. I am perhaps less experienced with DSD than some other things as well... Yet this Holo Audio Spring Kitsuné Tuned Edition Level 3 sounds like a real digital sweetheart. It may just prove to be my entry to home streaming.

By the way, you and I sat next to one another a year ago at RMAF while listening to Joyce DiDonato performing La Vestale, act.2 Se Fino Al Cielo Ascendere on Raidho loudspeakers. I shared the meta data with you off the Shazam app on my iPhone.

Thank again, Rob [|;^)>

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