HoloAudio Spring "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" Level 3 D/A processor Page 2

I began with CDs, decoded with the DAC set to NOS. The first to capture my attention was disc 2 of Memphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers (4 CDs, JSP 7745). These remasterings by John R.T. Davies of recordings from the early days of electrical recording and RCA ribbon mikes seemed less antique and more just right tonally than I remember ever hearing them. More open. More relaxed. The Spring let me feel rhythm changes with my head and rocking shoulders. The sounds of cheap guitars, clay jugs, washtub bass, and washboards played with spoons weren't just unusually vivid and realistically toned: they displayed a kind of stoned plucking and strumming life energy that characterized Memphis's Beale Street in the days before the Great Depression. "I Can Beat You Plenty" was strangely and radically lacking in digital oversheen. The guitar in "Stingy Woman Blues" seemed more authentically wooden than ever. Blown jugs took on the import of a great jazz solo on saxophone. And, like a tiny trumpet played by Miles Davis, Ben Ramey's kazoo was right there, 6' in front of me, sounding home-sewn real.

Michael Lavorgna, who reviewed the Spring for our sister site AudioStream.com in March 2017, said that it removed what he heard as a "glass wall" between listener and musicians. I noticed that too—it was obvious, and precisely what I mean when I say that the Spring in NOS mode lacked digital oversheen. I've played these discs countless times, and can say for certain that the Spring removed something that had previously kept me at sonic and psychic distances from these early recordings' primal verity.


Spring vs Yggdrasil
Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil has anchored my main (non–computer-sourced) system since 2016, when I reviewed it for the February 2017 issue. Since then, I've found it to be even more vibrant and musically satisfying than I then declared.

Now, after weeks of listening to the HoloAudio Spring in NOS mode, I begin to realize that the Yggy's unglaring palpability, unmolested continuity, and concise temporality might be the results not only of its substantial power supply and proprietary digital filter, but also its non–sigma-delta-ness.

The Yggdrasil and Spring delivered music with similar all-natural beauties: no glare bursts, no high-frequency mishegas, no electronic digitalism. Both sounds were strong and vivid, but never, ever in my face. Both had weighty bottom octaves, colorful midranges, and irreproachable top octaves.

I removed the Spring and returned to the Yggdrasil midway through Claudio Arrau's titanic 1976 recording of Liszt's Piano Sonata in b (CD, Music & Arts 1205), and right away heard obvious differences. The Schiit can be explosively dynamic when fed an impassioned signal like this live AAD recording of a performance at Long Island's C.W. Post College. I could immediately feel the muscle of the Schiit's power supply. The Schiit's flesh-and-blood vivo matched the 73-year-old Arrau's dynamic playing in the most riveting way, but strangely, the Yggdrasil focused my attention on the pianist's forceful keystrokes and the vibrations of his instrument's soundboard, while the Spring directed my attention almost completely toward such subtleties as the sounds of hammers hitting strings. The Yggy generated big, fierce rhythms; the Spring caused every note to seem unique and artful.

Thrilled by the Yggdrasil's Lisztian Sturm und Drang, I nonetheless missed the Spring's subtle textural and dynamic intricacies, the literalness of its transparency.


Spring vs Mytek
Comparing the HoloAudio Spring to Mytek HiFi's Manhattan II ($5995) and Brooklyn ($2195) DACs was a tricky business—the Manhattan II offers seven choices of PCM filter plus the default MQA filter, the Brooklyn three. All of the following observations were made using my preferred minimum-phase, slow-rolloff filters.

When I switched from the Spring to the more-than-twice-as-expensive Manhattan II, the first thing I noticed was that the HoloAudio sounded even more tactile and glass-is-gone transparent than the Mytek—which excels at just those traits. On the other hand, the Manhattan II had considerably more bass punch and midrange drive—it reproduced piano in a more exciting, more full-bodied way. But to my surprise, the Manhattan failed to display all those low-level rhythmic, atmospheric, and textural details the Spring had just revealed to me.

I was also surprised to hear how differently the Manhattan II and Spring reproduced silence and empty spaces. The Manhattan's version of emptiness sounded as if I'd muted the volume; the Spring's felt like a tangible aspect of a real recording space.

Imagine longhaired maestro David Chesky—jazz, classical, and hip-hop composer and performer, producer of recordings and films—playing a 9' Yamaha concert grand in a deconsecrated Brooklyn church, as you sit right behind the Brüel & Kjaer binaural microphone. I'm talking about Chesky's The New York Rags (24/192 AIFF, Chesky JD359/HDtracks). Each Rag is a swinging-stride, atonal, boogie-woogie fugal masterpiece. The piano sound is relaxed but vigorous, and luminous in tone. I play this recording often, and so far no DAC has exposed my friend David's staunch idealism and dreamy humanity—or made his piano sound as weighty or as true of tone—as the HoloAudio Spring.


The Schiit, Mytek, and HoloAudio are all elite, music-friendly DACs. I enjoy each in its own way, but my comparisons suggest that staunch audio objectivists—those who already favor DACs with newfangled sigma-delta chips (like the ESS ES9028Pro will undoubtedly prefer the Mytek products. Meanwhile, old-school audio reactionaries—those who favor the purity of single-ended triode amps and the musicality of all those discontinued R-2R DACs—will find the chipless Spring a refreshingly clear and unusually natural-sounding alternative to both sigma-delta and all those discontinued and "obsolete" DAC chips.

What most separated the HoloAudio from the Schiit and Mytek DACs was the Spring's astonishing transparency, which seemed to reach deeper into the digital quiet—especially with DSD recordings.

As you may have guessed, I've done more LSD than DSD, but when I do do DSD, I do the purest shit I can find, the Owsley acid of DSD: a download of Puente Celeste's Nama, recorded by producer and engineer Todd Garfinkle at 5.6MHz using a Korg MR-2000 master recorder (DSDx2, M•A Recordings M084A). Nama is untouched by PCM.

Through the HoloAudio Spring in NOS mode, with the DSD data sourced from my Mac mini via USB, Nama had me grinning like Pigpen at Woodstock. The Spring showed me DSD playback that was not only hyperpure and almost grainless, as it is through the Manhattan II, but distinctly more touchy-feely barefoot and Dionysian nondigital than through the more cerebral-sounding Mytek. Nama is one of the most immediate and raw-sounding digital recordings I know (footnote 2); through the Spring, it was more colorfully whimsical and texturally intense than through the Manhattan II.

Nama's final track, "No Hay Después," begins with plaintive solo piano, followed by Marcelo Moguilevsky's soft singing and whistling, then Luciano Dyzenchauz's bowed double bass emphasizing the dark mood of this meditation on death and the hereafter. It was, unquestionably, the most deeply pleasurable digital experience I have ever had.

Speaking of darkness, all three of the Spring's oversampling modes thickened, blurred, or distorted whatever musical program I applied them to. Each tried its Mephistophelian best to negate the HoloAudio's divine subtlety, transparency, and realness. So I banished them.

To me, a DAC is just a DAC—until it wipes away digital glare and opens the listening door all the way, letting me enter the plain-truth wonderments of the recordings I collect. And the HoloAudio Spring DAC "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" (Green Label "99.99% Silver" O-Type transformer) aka Level3 did exactly that. Its sense of undamaged, I-am-there truthfulness let me relax and enjoy my CDs, and DSD and other hi-rez files, with renewed faith in digital sound.

While I'm reluctant to give too much credit to the Spring's R-2R architecture, I do suspect that the chief benefit of ladder DACs is that they don't require the aggressive noise-shaping and filtering of a delta-sigma DAC—which, in a general way, reminds me of those prescription drugs whose side effects are worse than the disease they're supposed to cure.

The Spring also reminded me how many audiophiles have pursued the latest tricks in hi-rez digital playback in the belief that there somewhere exists some form of recording-studio "master" that, could we get hold of it and our audio gear reproduce it, would allow us to experience what the artists and recording engineers and producers intended. Despite my above-mentioned LSD-DSD experience, I believe this view to be naãve.

According to legendary musician and record producer Don Was, now president of Blue Note Records, "what record producers and artists intend for the audience to hear is the first commercially released issue—not some hypothetical master tape or enhanced later version. By that sensible measure, every remastering, reissue, or change in format—whether from 78 to 331?3rpm, mono to stereo, LP to CD, CD to hi-rez, or hi-rez to MQA—is simply a lower-fidelity interpretation of the original. That's why I've never felt comfortable with remasterings. Now I wonder if the same might be said of delta-sigma's heavy processing. Such are the questions the HoloAudio Spring's unadorned naturalness reawoke in me.

The unaffected insightfulness of the HoloAudio Spring exposed more of what I imagine was originally aesthetically intended and encoded on my silver discs and invisible files. Consequently, it made me feel that my journey into digital audio may have only just begun.

Highly recommended.

Footnote 2: Read my review of Nama in the February 2017 edition of "Records to Die For."

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


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.

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?


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.


highdesertdog's picture


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 [|;^)>