Review: Holo May (L2) DAC and the Musetec Audio (LKS Audio) MH-DA005 DAC Compaired




Musetec Audio (LKS Audio) MH-DA005 DAC and the Holo May (L2) DAC Compared

A comparison of these two DACs is something I wanted to do for months given the numerous stellar reviews of the May and the widely unknown, but highly praised, 005. Those of us who own the 005 believe it is an undiscovered gem. I bought the 005 initially because it was cheaper (approximately 3K) and because of the wonderful experience I had with it’s predecessor, the 004. After hearing and greatly enjoying the 005, I found it hard to believe any DAC could be significantly better. Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I had to find out. There were no comparative reviews. After selling some equipment that I wasn’t using for a few thousand dollars, I coughed up the 5K to buy it, thinking I could always sell it if I didn’t love it more than the 005.

After about approximately 500 hours of break in, as recommended by the manufacturer, the May was ready to compare with the 005.

First, before I begin, the reader should know my perspective and preferences. I started out in my teens and early 20s, during the 60s and early 70s, as mostly a rock and roll fan with some rhythm and blues and folk music thrown in. Around 1971 I found a lack of good new rock music (the Beatles broke up, the Stones became inactive, and Dylan had a motorcycle accident). So I tried some classical. At first I found it boring but very gradually over the years I became addicted. When I moved to Manhattan, I went to classical music concerts frequently and eventually subscribed to the New York Philharmonic. I continued my subscription for over 20 years. In addition to orchestral music I attended chamber concerts and some opera.

My perspective favors live natural acoustic music, though I still love classic rock and oldies. To me the preferred audio sound is one that feels like a real event, a live, in the room, palpable presence. Natural resolution and detail is essential. (In physics lingo, my goal is to hear all the overtones, on top of the fundamental sine wave, which define the timbre of a real world instrument or voice.) I seek a sound that is accurate and clear, but slightly warm, conveying rich but realistic lower mid-range and upper bass much like what you would hear in Carnegie Hall or Symphony Hall in Boston.

Many music lovers are not into classical so the music referred to below may be unfamiliar. Nevertheless, the conclusions I’ve made as to sound should have relevance to all genres.

Preliminaries

I fed both dacs via computers (an Asus mini and an Asus laptop) because I had two. Thus I could do quick comparisons by preamp input switching. I recently bought an Ifi Zen Stream network bridge/streamer which, after some frustration, I hooked up via ethernet cable. Since I only had one I could not use it to do quick comparisons between the two DACs.

For the record, the 005 fed by the Zen Stream via usb did improve the sound by lifting a slight veil of haze, which you might not know was present until it was removed. With the May a slight improvement might have also occurred, but the effect was less clear to me, because I didn’t have time to do much listening with and without the network bridge.

Both DACs were played through a Hegel P30 preamp to a McIntosh MC402 amp, then to Kef Reference 1 speakers and two SVS sb-3000 subwoofers crossed over at 46hz.

Method

I began with critical listening focused on sound quality using a/b switching. Generally, I would listen for about a minute or less to one then switch to the other to hear the same passage.

I will report in the future on longer term impressions after living with these DACs for a few weeks.

I started with the following music tracks. I chose them to facilitate focusing on certain sonic elements listed in parenthesis below:

1. Solo piano: Beethoven Appassionata (transient attack and decay, timbre/overtones, micro detail, clarity)
2. Violin Sonata: No 1 Prokofiev (timbre/overtones)
3. Piano trio: Beethoven “Ghost” (imaging)
4. An aria from an Oratorio by Handel entitled Theodora (imaging, female voice, hall ambiance)
5. Large orchestra, soloists, chorus, and massed strings. Mahler Symphony no. 2, final movement. (congestion, hall ambience and depth, width, and imaging)
6. Light My Fire, Doors (energy, rhythm, male voice)
7. Sunshine of My Love, The Cream (drums, energy, rhythm, male voice)

Round 1
The Solo piano test. I choose Beethoven’s Appassionata played by Arthur Rubinstein. I think a solo piano reveals transient speed, attack (leading edge of the note), and decay like no other instrument.

It was almost a tie in these sonic qualities. Both were excellent. The 005 to my ear had slightly better definition and decay. The May had a slightly richer bass tone and was solid and very pleasing. The 005 was leaner but had more sparkle, capturing all the natural overtones on higher notes.

Round 2
Violin Sonata: No 1 Prokofiev performed by Vicktoria Mullova.

The results were similar to the piano test. The 005 clearly had better reproduction of the natural overtones of the violin. The May was bassier, with the music emerging from a blacker background.

Round 3
Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio for piano violin and cello performed by Istomin, Stern, and Rose.

Imaging was about equal with each instrument appearing in space laterally where it should. The 005 placed the instruments more forward as if your were seated closer to the stage. The blacker background of the May made the separation of the instruments clearer, but the warmth made the musicians seem more recessed, as if your seat was well behind the 005 “seat”. The May sounded slightly soft but was solid, beautiful, and addictive, if not completely convincing on vivid violin timbre.

Round 4

Next, I played an aria from Handel’s Theodora, sung by the late and brilliant mezzo soprano Loraine Hunt Lieberson. It consists of the vocalist supported by a cello and harpsichord (basso continuo). I chose this because the recording contains only two instruments and a singer. It thus presents a good opportunity to clearly hear imaging and hall ambiance in addition to providing a well defined lower midrange and bass line, and a beautiful female voice.

Both the May and the 005 sounded completely convincing and beautiful, especially in realistic tonal balance, including rich bass and a clear cello, harpsichord, and voice. The sound field width had the same realism in both. Loraine’s voice image was more natural in space, clearer, with a touch more air on the 005. The May had a bit less clarity, as it sounded further away, but was a tad smoother in texture.

Round 5
Mahler Symphony no. 2, final movement. Bruno Walter, the New York Philharmonic. A large orchestra and chorus with soloists is a good test of dynamics, detail, sound stage/ability to retrieve hall ambiance, clarity, and imaging.

The two DACs were equal in dynamics but the 005 was superior in every other way. The 005 picked up more air in the hall, exhibited no congestion between instruments, produced a deeper more natural sound stage, not by virtue of more bass, but more air or hall ambiance. In this case better hall ambiance produced more vivid imaging. The 005 was vivid and conveyed more emotion. Chorus voices were not as distinct in the May. Vocal soloists were clearer in the Musetec.

Round 6
Light My Fire, Doors (energy, rhythm, male voice)
Very close in all aspects. The 005 seemed to articulate higher frequencies better and thus had appropriate edginess.

Round 7
Sunshine of My love, The Cream (Drums, energy, rhythm, male voice)
Again, very close in all aspects. I can’t tell the difference.

Conclusion
First and foremost these DACs were both excellent in every category. At times during the A/B listening I could not tell them apart. To be sure, they are different, but if a listener familiar with the sound of both walked into a room without knowing which DAC was playing, it would not be surprising if he or she guessed wrong. The take-away is, in my opinion, they are both in the same class. The point of this exercise though is primarily to determine their differences.

As I said earlier, the live realistic character of the sound wave comes, in large part, from capturing all the overtones. This gives accurate timbre and detail. The 005 has more than the May. Another component of realism, in my opinion, is solidity of texture and prominence of the sound emerging from the background (black or zero background noise). The May has more of this.

In fact, the May’s blacker background is like nothing I’ve ever heard. It has an uncanny realism, solidity, and ease. It sounds like the very best vinyl. Smooth always listenable and engaging. Overall it is sweeter and softer than the Musetec. Probably even more so than actual live music. I call this natural texture, for lack of a better term.

In sum: sound texture May wins; Realistic space, detail, micro dynamics, and high frequency energy, the 005 wins. Clearly the Musetec works best if listening to a large orchestra where details, hall ambience, and clarity (lack of congestion) are priorities.

If the price were the same then take your pick, they are in the same class. Choose the May if you like two teaspoons of sugar and a little extra cream in your half caf coffee, the 005 if you like your coffee “regular”, as New Yorkers say. But for a $2K difference in price the 005 wins. Even if you lean toward the analog sound of the May you can take the $2,000 saved to tweak the 005 to sound more like the May by adding a nice tube preamp or warmer/smoother sounding cables. If you outright prefer the 005, you have an extra $2,000 in your pocket.
dbb

@stuartk Your welcome.  It was a fun project and gratifying to get so many positive responses. I don't think I'm likely to do another soon given the expense involved in acquiring equipment for review. 

@dbb 

Understood.

nevertheless, there's a possibility your approach may serve as an example/template for others.