Kukama, not Cucumber

Henry Lamb's first bout with audio ca. 12 years ago? He was service tech for Sound Hounds and Recycled Audio speciality audio boutiques in the Denver domain. He also performed component upgrades, especially the Hafler mods popular at the time. He eventually returned to his RF and microwave roots to launch "Western Test Systems", a company now based out of Cheyenne/WY that offers specialized test gear to the industry.

His present return to our mad world of High-End audio -- as the designer of the Audio Magic Stealth Kukama DAC -- was prompted by his friendship with the firm's chief wizard. In his ongoing pursuit of the elusive digitized Holy Grail, Jerry Ramsey had bought and sold his way through a plethora of state-of-the-art DACs. From Altis, Dodson and Gill to Audiomeca, Kora, Levinson and the one-box BAT player with BatPac and proprietary Audio Magic upgrades, Ramsey had shuffled to the been-there-done-that dance. Now his feet ached. He was worn out.

In frustration, he finally turned to old friend Henry. He shipped out a spare backup EAD DAC and handed over his sorcerer's wand with the explicit instructions to do your magic.

What Henry Lamb soon returned embedded inside this 10-year old DAC? A proprietary diode-coupled store-charge steering circuit originally developed for a still-pending power amp. This current-to-voltage stage optimizes the saturation/cut-off current exchange between the N/P-channel transistors of his output stage. It additionally benefits from a unique "subtractive current modulator circuit".

Upon receipt, Jerry grew hairs on his chest and went ape. He sold off his remaining designer DACs but retained the monolithic C.E.C. transport from which to feed his latest acquisition. Sitting out possible change-of-mind side effects, he eventually pronounced this beast the cat's meow. He now turned to the lamb with a wolfish grin and proposal. Should they go into business together? Produce this thing from-the-ground-up, market it under the established Audio Magic umbrella?

With zero interest in splintering his spurs from audio retail, Henry Lamb agreed - but only if he got to stay out of the picture entirely. He'd produce the devices but otherwise remain untouched by any sales & marketing responsibilites. Jerry pounced on the prospect. The result is the Stealth Kukama DAC. It's named both for Audio Magic's popular Power Purifier as well as the African Oryx gazelle called Gemsbuk in Africaans (and Kukama in the indigenous Tswana tongue) that Lamb has a particular affinity for. Queried about his design brief, Henry tersely hinted at his unrepentant analogue soul (SOTA Sapphire 3 with Shure V15-Type 5 to be specific). How his older Accuphase had gathered moss. How none of the DVD-A and SACD demos he attended had moved him: Wads of detail, but accompanied by remaining grit he didn't fancy in the least...

No, if he were to be bothered designing a new DAC, it would have to be unapologetically analogue-like. Henry investigated various Crystal and Analog Devices 24/192 chips but concluded that despite superior published and measured specology, their inbuilt sonic signature proved prohibitive to achieving the sound he was after: A huge unfettered soundstage coupled to freedom from grunge, two things that he gets from even affordable vinyl but not expensive digital.

Lamb eventually settled on two top-line Burr-Brown PCM 1704 24/96 chips and went to the bench tweaking his own circuit around it.

The outcome? Two digital inputs (one coaxial, one Toslink), fancy WBT-terminated coaxial analog output, IEC power inlet and 175mA/250V fuse holder. Up front, two left-handed two-pole toggles (power and input select), with a bright blue power LED and paler green signal-lock the only other accoutrements. A boldly etched Audio Magic logo and DAC nomenclature that bite into the white aluminum facia deep enough to display as natural silver.

Sides, top and bottom of the aluminum enclosure? Painted a very attractive granite fleck while the rear duplicates the white of the front. Dimensions? Standard component width, twin rackspace height. That makes the Kukama's footprint a departure from Audio Magic's half-width Stealth units. And that's it for secondary descriptions.

$2.495. Factory-direct from Audio Magic. How 'bout sound, regardless of money?

The sound of one antelope leaping

For comparison's sake, the Bel Canto Design DAC-2 was pulled into duty, transported like the Kukama by the Jolida JD-100's Philips CDM 12 drive and tethered together via a 3ft length of Chris Sommovigo's i2digital X-60. To assess performance gains vis-a-vis digit crunching in a single box? My resident 24/192 Cairn Fog would fit the bill to a bit - er, byte.

Cairn vs. Kukama. The Cairn had a minor edge or bite that contrasted with the Kukama's ultra-smoothness. Let's get visual. Think black Java versus cappucchino. A crisp blend with just a hint of astringent bitterness but expertly balanced against great body. In the other cup, the rounder, more airy and mellifluous silkiness of the milk-foam infusion.

Let's expand this simile. Think twin poles. Alacrity and harmoniousness. Rhythmic tension and voluptuos relaxation. Incisive brashness and easeful presence. While clear characterizations, such writerly enthusasism for bold contrasts of course turns mole hills into mountains. Subtleties become skull-bashing fence posts.

Now that we've hit upon the gist, we must tone it down. Make these differences into appreciable gradations of otherwise identical base tints. We're not talking primary opposing colors. Accordingly, the Cairn's "edge" wasn't harsh, strident or objectionable. It was merely youthful and vigorous. The Kukama's velvet wasn't fuzzy but elegant.

The Cairn's traits pointed at Naim's tactile timing, the Kukama's expansiveness at Audio Aero's tubed Capitole. The Frenchman's keener outlines created the more acute focus but less billowy spaciouness.

The Kukama did layers. Boy did it do layers. You're an onion lover?

This box from Cheyenne portrayed extreme depth and layering. It also created a sense of broader width though objectively of course, either player/DAC extended its spread to the very edges of the speakers already. How the heck could the Kukama possibly sound wider? I'm not sure. Perception, and understanding how it works, are two very different subjects altogether. I'm merely reporting on repeatable impressions.

Cleary Lamb's DAC enhanced distances between performers -- and between performers and listener -- to sound subjectively bigger and more organic. It also sounded less driven or incisive than the Cairn. Some bench test freaks may point at such gargantuan depth as a distortion artefact. Perhaps so. But when you hear it, would you care? Probably not. Especially if you loved Classical music.

To be frank, I was at first concerned that this smoothness would veer too far into serene placidity. You know, languidly gorgeous but energetically bland? Take the principle of tensegrity. It's a complex framework of mutually supportive tensions that uphold a structure. Undermine said tension and you get collapse. Utter relaxation, yes, but your beloved structure went bye-bye. In musical terms, shaving off too much spunk or tension equates to a certain listlessness. Restfull passivity, not enough muscle tone. Things can sound slower. And they did, ever so slightly. Not in a Swiss metronome precision fashion. 'twas more of a subliminal intuition thang. The upside? More relaxation, less pushiness. The downside? Less excitement, slightly subdued vivaciousness.

Preferences vary. For my taste, the Kukama's very minor subtractions on the side of timing snap were more than offset by its major additions in this realm of "analogue" space and sweetness: Organic cream without too much fat. More pleasure listening than the absolutely last word in high-octane adrenaline sports. But, a mean and highly attractive balance nonetheless.

The soundstage and its inhabitants via the Cairn were as lit from the outside, certain transient highlights reflecting off voices and strings for a clearly defined, very precise and locked-in ensemble. The Kukama made things glow from the inside out, what in tube terms is often called bloom but then also suggests timbral ripeness.

Here it seemed more a function of - well, not specifically harmonic content but an acutely heightened spaciousness. Whatever technical circuit exactly was responsible for that. I'm not sure Henry Lamb knows - except that, in combination with all the other parts, it blatantly does the trick. Now, I'm not an analogue guy. That's for no religious but purely practical reasons. The music I listen to never has, nor ever will, exist on vinyl. Neither could I be bothered with all the pops and clicks. However, based on the analogue demos I've heard, Henry's claims -- of "mujo space, nada grunge" -- not only are clearly the overriding attributes of his Kukama DAC but seem fairly close to the analogue gospel. Of course the guy to really sign off on this would be Michael Fremer. But he's neither here nor does he like my site. So you'll have to take my word for it.

How about the DAC-2 that has the Editor of SoundStage! routinely demote his mighty Mark Levinson No. 39 to transport duties? While the Cairn still remains a lesser known quantity, the Bel Canto piece, in its two present incarnations, is a perfectly visible benchmark for an affordable SOTA DAC and practically a tie with the Birdland Audio Ag (when the latter is used stand-alone rather than as integral DAC/preamp).