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Keces USB Interface D/A Converter DA-151 Mk2

An Internet sensation of sorts, the Keces is a buzz on eBay and certain audio forums. Beginning my trek here, I quickly found the Keces to be rewarding and better than it deserved to be for $250 - an excellent deal. The Keces comes with a Burr-Brown PCM2702 DAC chip with National Semiconductor LME49710 op amps. Its clear blue acrylic top plate reveals all the glowing fun inside while a sparse piano black façade is joined round back by a power on/off switch, USB input, two RCA outs and a power IEC inlet. 

Lately I’ve enjoyed guitarists Chico Pinheiro and Anthony Wilson’s Nova [Goat Hill Recordings], a Brazilian inflected recording complete with duo, trio and orchestral performances. I also used a small collection of other tracks to evaluate the DACs including folk singer Amy Corriera’s "California", trip hop diva Andrea McCluskey’s "It’s Been Done", Brazilian chanteuse Bebel Gilberto’s "Sem Centencau", Buena Vista Social Club’s "Chan Chan", David Gray’s "Babylon", Radiohead’s "Everything In Its Right Place" and assorted tracks from The Beatles' recent remastered collection. But the Pinheiro/ Wilson disc was the best recorded of the bunch and offered the standard to judge by.

Off the bat the inexpensive Keces did most things pretty well. For $250 the Keces gives much more than you’d expect. It captured the super low-end electric bass of the Pinherio/Wilson disc along with the recording’s expansive soundstage. Most importantly, it got the flow of the notes right, the musical cues that turn sterile 1s and 0s into flesh and blood music. Sure it lacked the wide soundstage of the more expensive DACs, its top end was sometimes a little tart for my liking and it didn’t offer the last word in transparency but overall the Keces worked wonders when the disc was well recorded. Clear as a bell, it made following individual instrumental lines as easy as pie. Listening to Amy Corriera’s simple acoustic production, the Keces sounded tactile and touchy with good weight, the track’s piano very alive and nicely dynamic.

With McCluskey’s symphonic trip hop, the Keces sounded a little hot and constrained in the treble i.e. a mite forward but I soon discovered this was the disc and not the converter's failing. Slipping into something more comfortable with Bebel Gilberto’s electronic Brazilian, the oily fat bass suddenly appeared as did a larger soundstage. The Keces revealed all the nuance and romance of the Buena Vista track—a tremendous recording by the way—its live concert hall production and copious sense of space. The David Gray track, a home recording gone global, was shrill and forward but again that information is part of the recording.

The Keces impressed me with its high quality and low entrance fee. Full-bodied with the right material, it got to the heart of the music track after track. Only when listened to very critically did I notice a tendency toward forwardness or a slightly compressed soundstage and then mostly in comparison to the other DACs on test.

Styleaudio Carat-Topaz USB DAC/headphone amp
Now we were starting to cook! The tiny barely-bigger-than-a-wallet Carat-Topaz imported from Korea by Locus Design was the big surprise of this test. For $449 you get a very warm rich and dynamic little DAC via a Burr Brown PCM1792 chip equipped with a volume knob, two cute toggle switches for power/USB/optical input selection and a headphone jack. Round back you'll find RCA outs, USB and optical ins and a pin connector for the 6V wall wart.

No matter what I threw at this mighty mite, it sang. I had a blast with its coherent presentation, lush style and dynamic mien. The soaring strings of the McCluskey track which were mostly compressed on the Keces stood at attention now as did the extended top end of Bebel Gilberto’s tune. Long decay trails were now in evidence and a warmer more organic, tighter bass in Gilberto’s buzzing electronic samba. Everything sounded fuller, warmer, richer and better resolved. The Radiohead track revealed extra detail and back-to-front layering, its Rhodes piano swelling warmly like a swarm of buzzing bees.

Most reviewers proclaimed The Beatles reissues magical but I hear a tendency toward midrange stress. I imagine it’s the ancient sonics of The Beatles original tapes now scrubbed clean with the highest adherence to resolution and transparency that was ultimately important to the engineers yet I detect forwardness in the midrange.

Even so, the Beatles CDs through the Carat-Topaz sounded rich and non-fatiguing. My notes for George Harrison’s "I Need You" included  "rich, lush, clean, the guitar bites and glistens, vocals are well defined but occasionally dry." If anything, the Carat-Topaz’s tendency to warm things up made The Beatles discs the perfect fit against my earlier criticisms. An easy reco for $449, the Carat-Topaz is a great starter USB DAC and deserves to be at the top of any affordable USC DAC audition list.