August 10, 2018 14 min read 10 Comments
Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
The Holo Audio CYAN is a “modular” balanced DAC or DAC/amp, depending on how you choose to configure it, offering two different converter approaches, features discrete-resistor R-2R conversion and options for non-oversampling (NOS) and more conventional oversampling (OS) operation.
This review was made possible by the kind loan of the CYAN unit, and both PCM and DSD modules, from Kitsune HiFi, who are also “Holo Audio USA”.
The CYAN features balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) outputs, as well as balanced (4-pin XLR) and single-ended (1/4” TRS) headphone outputs with high/low impedance matching, support for DSD and PCM, and a full complement of digital inputs (XMOS-based asynchronous USB, SP/DIF via TOSLINK, coax and AES and a direct I2S connection), and full remote control.
The headphone amplifier, when active, has very granular digital volume control and delivers up to 1600 mw of power into 32 ohms (low impedance setting), and can be switched to optimally drive either low or high impedance headphones.
The majority of the music I use in my evaluations is in “Red Book” CD format (16 bit, 44.1 kHz), most of which comes from CD rips; an initial playlist for my audition listening can be found here. Where appropriate/referenced I utilize a number of high-quality, high-resolution, albums, needle-drops, and also some native DSD content.
When you buy one you get the chassis, which includes the case, internal linear PSU, the display, all input/output connections and a control dial - nominally used for volume control. You also specify which converter module you want:
Kitsune HiFi also offer an “Enthusiast Edition” of the CYAN, which is simply the main unit and BOTH PCM and DSD modules with a few included extras. Switching between modules requires opening the unit, removing one module and plugging in the other. It’s easy to do - but you should “invest” in basic anti-static precautions if you’re going to do it.
Price for the CYAN begins at $989 and goes up to $1,349 depending on which version and options you specify.
The CYAN is beautifully put together - following it’s bigger brother, the Holo Audio Spring DAC’s design - with a heavy, all-metal, black-aluminum case/chassis with solid copper side-cheeks. It is both extremely solid and very pretty. The aesthetics and fit/finish of the unit contribute to a generally luxurious feeling product.
Even the remote control is very nicely finished, with an all-metal build and the same copper-on-black aesthetic that the CYAN unit itself carries. In fact, this remote puts those on quite a few very-high-dollar units to shame.
The dial on the CYAN itself can be used to change volume, mute/un-mute, switch oversampling modes and select inputs and outputs etc. However, this is easier and quicker to do using the remote, so it is quite gratifying that it is executed at level commensurate with the rest of the package.
The PCM and DSD DAC modules are also solid and sturdy. Instead of bare circuit boards, they’re encased in a nicely-figured metal shell with a hard epoxy filler. All that is exposed are the two pairs of connectors on the underside. Swapping between them takes a couple of minutes.
For the electronically-sensitive (and ESD-aware) the module pictured is resting on an anti-static foam pad. Don’t go putting yours down directly on random surfaces!
There are three output modes on the CYAN, which are cycled through using the “output” button on the remote (or by pressing and holding in the main dial). These modes are “LINE” out which, as expected, sends the output to the RCA and XLR connections on the rear of the unit and “HP LO”/“HP HI” for low and high-impedances headphones respectively.
There is no issue with experimenting with the low and high impedance settings to find which you like with your headphones; you can expect a varying shift in frequency response/balance if you use the low setting with high-impedance cans, and vice versa. This may or not be desirable depending on what headphones you’re using and your signature preferences.
For example, selecting low-impedance output using the LCD-4 (200 ohm) results in a significant elevation of bass levels and a generally undesirable shift in overall tonal response. Using the, proper, high-impedance setting for these cans results in a much more natural (and very enjoyable) delivery and I would consider it to be the “correct” setting in this case.
It’s also worth noting that in low-impedance mode power output is 400mw into 32 ohms single-ended and 1600mw from the balanced output. In high-impedance mode you’ll see 180mw into 300 ohms single-ended and 720mw balanced.
The line output, exposed via RCA (single-ended) and XLR (balanced) connections, can be set for fixed or variable output level. Fixed level is used for feeding a pre-amp or external headphone amplifier. When in variable mode it shares its setting with the headphone volume level which means it can be used to drive a power-amplifier directly without the need for an additional pre-amp or volume control/attenuator.
The Holo Audio CYAN offers five digital inputs: S/PDIF via coax (RCA), TOSLINK, an AES EBU XLR input, USB 2.0 Async and a direct I2S input. These can be selected via the main dial, or from the remote control.
As with all my DAC (or DAC/amp) reviews, the first thing I tend to do, after warming the unit up, is try and discern which input sounds the best. And from there I will do all of my audition-listening via that input. I2S often winds up being the best input and that’s the case with the CYAN. However, it is minimally different to the USB input and I would not go out of my way to use it. If you already have something like the Singxer SU-1 that can drive the CYAN then I’d use it, but otherwise I’d run it from its USB connection.
I’d been curious about hearing the CYAN, especially in PCM configuration (and NOS mode) after having such a good experience with it’s “spiritual big-brother”, the Holo Audio Spring DAC (sufficiently positive that I wound up buying the L3/KTE edition immediately following my audition of it). I was also somewhat cautious about doing so, as the Spring DAC is a tough act to follow and I was concerned that the CYAN not having the same linear-compensation technology might result in a significantly less impressive performance.
My concerns were, as it happens, completely unfounded and misplaced … as the CYAN sounds great!
Note that my observations here are based on the CYAN with the PCM module, in NOS mode (unless otherwise noted), as that was, by far, my favorite way to use it.
The “pluck ’n’ twang” that pervades Keb’ Mo’s “Early Morning” is rendered beautifully, even addictively, by the CYAN. I’m not sure that Holo Audio are shooting for a “house sound”, but their discrete R-2R/NOS designs, so far, seem to have one … and that’s deliciously incisive with a little sweetness. And this track exhibits this aspect of the CYAN’s delivery perfectly.
Take this further, into a far sparser piece, such as Ottmar Liebert’s “Along this Road: Kono Michi” (One Guitar), and the individual notes become more vivid and obvious, against a background starkly noticeable only by it’s utter absence. Again, the sweetness in the tone is apparent, as is native instrumental reverberation and decay, but it is not unnatural or odd … just beguiling.
There’s an extra sense of emotion to Regina Spektor’s orations in “Samson” (Begin to Hope), and that is more present than with other DAC/amp solutions at this level. Though with this piece one is also aware of a slight fall-off in micro-dynamic prowess in the rendering of the warble of her lower tones compared to either the immediate competition or to the CYAN’s DSD module.
Switch to oversampling mode, or play these tracks via the DSD module, and a little of this magic is lost … but at the same time other technicalities come to the fore. The sweetness gives way to a purer tone and is accompanied by a slight decrease in stage width as well as a somewhat greater sense of air to the upper registers.
Firing up my favorite opera, and my “go to” (if unconventional) recorded version of it, Jessye Norman’s rendition of “Carmen” and we’re faced with a real challenge for any source, amp or headphone. The massive emotional range of this piece, combined with impassioned vocal performances and powerful music, make it an make-or-break piece for me. While the PCM module, in NOS mode, resulted in the most gut-wrenching rendering here (a good thing), the DSD module (transcoded from PCM and upsampled/filtered via HQPlayer) was pretty close behind - with the DSD rendering being more neutral and resolving and the PCM/NOS version being more enjoyable. Both were entirely emotive and believable.
In PCM/NOS mode there is some early roll-off evident, in addition to the sweetness of the overall delivery. In almost all cases I found this to be the most enjoyable way to listen to the CYAN. It’s not a strictly neutral way to do things, but it is enormous fun and … fun, or enjoyment, is why I listen to music.
OS mode trades that roll-off for full extension and a loss of the “sweetness” that I hear in PCM/NOS mode. And since this change is a button-push away, it’s easy to run it in whatever mode best suits your mood or the music that you’re enjoying at the time.
Whether used as a DAC or a DAC/amp, bass is rendered with good texture, drive and slam, with appropriate “boom” when needed - and remains tuneful down to the limit of my transducers. Tracks like Trentemøller’s “Chameleon” or OVERWERK’s “Rise” do a nice job of illustrating the units capabilities here … with ample sub-bass rumble through headphones like the Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC.
The mid-range into the lower treble maintains the “sweet” nature of the delivery while remaining suitably detailed and present. Vocal texture is well portrayed and even with torture-test female vocals, that will excite or exacerbate any added sibilance in a system, were clean and natural here. And upper treble, while a tad subdued in terms of air and space compared to OS mode, still conveys appropriate sparkle.
Major dynamic swings in music are convincing and result in the projection of appropriate energy and scale of a piece. It is only with micro-dynamics that I find things a little less resolving than I would like. This was true with the PCM module on both OS and NOS modes, though is not evident with the DSD module. This is a minor nit … it’s not a case of the CYAN having poor micro-dynamics, simply that they’re the only thing in its overall performance that lags at all and unless you’re specifically listening for it, as one might do for an audition/review, I doubt you’d be aware of it.
Complex mixes and large-scale orchestral performances are easy to follow with instruments readily discernible by timbre, tone and in spatiality, and separation remains excellent, with each component/section/instrument being vividly outlined without losing its place within the coherently presented whole. Stage has good width, without the slight exaggeration in scale that I got from the Spring DAC (depth is harder to assess as I no longer have the capacity to properly test DACs in my speaker rig).
Overall, while there are some differences in the nature of the delivery of the CYAN vs. its bigger, more advanced, stablemate, the Holo Audio Spring DAC, they’re more alike than different, especially in PCM NOS mode. If you took a Spring DAC and dialed its raw technical performance down to an eight, from a ten, then you’d be in about the right ball park. That’s pretty impressive for a unit costing 2/3rds the price AND including a capable headphone amplifier to boot.
An increasingly common practice, particularly in some specific audio communities, is to feed native-DSD capable DACs with an oversampled and pre-filtered DSD stream (either from a PCM or native DSD source) using a powerful computer and special software. In most cases I’ve not personally found there to be a distinct benefit to doing so - any audible differences are generally just that … “different” as opposed to clearly and obviously “better”.
The CYAN presents something of a departure from the norm in that regard …
For the Holo Audio CYAN with the DSD module I have read almost universal praise for the results of this practice. And the most commonly cited tool for doing this is a piece of software called “HQPlayer” so that’s what I used2. While many DACs do oversampling internally, and lots have selectable filters, these are generally not implemented in an ideal fashion due to the relatively limited processing capacity internal to such units. HQPlayer lets you do this processing on a powerful PC or Mac (with GPU compute support with compatible video cards), effectively removing those processing limits and allowing for more aggressive oversampling and closer-to-ideal filter implementations.
For the CYAN I chose to upsample to DSD512, which is the maximum supported input rate, and apply a very compute-intensive filter, specifically a “poly-sinc-xtr-mp” filter and experimenting with several of the high-order noise-shaping options. It’s worth nothing that these are compute intensive settings and will require a powerful, multi-core, machine to handle (or serious CUDA GPU compute capacity).
The net result of all this?
A reliably discernible, and across-the-board, improvement in the overall performance of the CYAN with the DSD module. This is a first for me. And while I still, personally, prefer the signature of the CYAN with the PCM module running in NOS mode, I can’t claim that it’s technically better. It isn’t. In every technical respect the combination of HQPlayer, advanced filtering, and the CYAN w/ DSD module is better than when either run directly or vs. the PCM module. There’s an overall smoothness to the sound when driven this way that is not present in other modes of operation. This does not come at the expense of transient response, slam, nor treble air and sparkle; these aspects, too, are incrementally improved. Macro and in particular micro-dynamics grab the next run on the performance ladder (in fact I’d say micro-dynamics gain an even bigger improvement), details become easier to pick out, and the layering and separation become more vivid and make the mix/arrangement easier to tease apart and focus on specific elements.
The difference here is sufficient that I think it’s something that’s well worth experimenting with. It’s a no-brainer if you already have a suitably powerful PC and HQPlayer, and definitely worth trying the unit with the trial version of HQPlayer if you don’t already have it.
The main dial is actually a digital encoder with tactile steps, rather than a conventional analog potentiometer, and rotates endlessly in either direction. As a volume control it operates a bit too slowly for me. While you can press the dial to mute/unmute the unit immediately, actually raising or lowering the volume is a linear affair; turning the dial faster does not result in the rate-of-change scaling.
The All-In-One DAC/amp comparisons are necessarily conducted using the CYAN with the PCM module, as using the DSD module will result in the headphone amplifier being disabled and the unit functioning purely as a DAC.
Compared to the RME ADI-2 DAC, while the DAC portion of the RME unit wins out slightly on technicalities (and primarily on neutrality) it’s really not by much. And while the features of the RME unit are quite compelling, it falls behind significantly as an all-in-one unit. In addition to the entirely seductive tone and wonderfully incisive delivery in PCM/NOS mode, the CYAN has much more convincing headphone output. Where the RME unit exhibits somewhat compressed dynamics via its headphone outputs, the Holo Audio device is fully expressive - driving even demanding cans with suitable authority.
As an all-in-one unit, with musical enjoyment rather than features as my primary concern? I would buy the CYAN with the PCM module over the ADI-2 DAC.
The dac1541 has a distinctly pristine and resolving presentation, to the degree that it is unmistakable in my opinion, but the overall delivery is a bit too analytical and lean for my preferences. The Soekris unit’s rendering leaves me rather “cold” vs. that of the CYAN PCM in NOS mode. It was simply not as engaging to listen to as the CYAN. And even in OS mode, the CYAN has a more-flesh-on-the-bones presentation that sits better with my personal preferences than the dac1541.
Despite having twice the claimed power rating, the Soekris unit did not do as much justice to my more demanding headphones (JPS Labs AB-1266 Abyss Phi w/ CC pads and Audeze LCD-4) as the CYAN unit did.
This one is an easier choice than vs. the RME box … the CYAN not only sounds better across the board, but does a better job driving headphones and costs less to boot.
As a pure DAC, with the DSD module, driven by HQPlayer with DSD256 or DSD512 oversampling and one of better filter and noise-shaping options, the CYAN either meets, or beats, the DAC sections of both the RME and Soekris units. The result is a completely neutral, accurate, highly resolving, and technically impressive performance.
The short version of all this is that, the Holo Audio CYAN is an excellent all-in-one, DAC/amp, and in PCM/NOS-mode is the most enjoyable listen, in its class, that I’ve come across so far . If I was looking for an all-in-one DAC/amp unit right now then I would personally pick up a CYAN configured with the PCM module, use its built-in headphone amplifier and call it good.
It's a nice compact unit, without being so small that it is challenging to use in a desktop capacity (shown here with a Hugo 2 for size comparison):
The CYAN drove every pair of headphones I threw at it, from easy to drive stuff, like the Fostex TR-X00, to power-hungry cans like the Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC and Audeze LCD-4 quite happily. You might want to consider an external amp to get the last few points of performance out of those latter pair of cans, but unless you listen at very high levels, or are prone to extreme bass-boosting EQ, even that is unlikely to be necessary.
Given the choice of either PCM or DSD modules … then using native content, my personal preference is still for the PCM module in NOS mode. That’s very much a “signature and preference” call (we listen to music for pleasure, after all), not one based on absolute-fidelity; for that you want either the PCM module in OS mode or the DSD module and an external amp.
If the Spring DAC, at any level, was something making you drool, but you couldn’t quite swing for it, the CYAN (PCM) is an extremely satisfying alternative - with very similar tone and familial cues … with the bonus that it’s half the size, and doesn’t need an amplifier!
If you’re willing to expend the resources for a suitably powerful PC, and to use HQPlayer as your player (or as an output filter via Roon), then the DSD module driven with upsampling to DSD512 with the “poly-sinc-xtr” filters is an even stronger performer - and a technically more accurate one.
The CYAN turned in a compelling and extremely enjoyable performance. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it in both configurations. I can’t think of a combination of units, or another all-in-one (DAC/amp) that I would choose over it at a similar price point.
I would definitely put this high on your audition list if you’re looking at DAC/amp or all-in-one units. And if you’re a DSD fan, or use HQPlayer, and are looking for a pure DAC then it’d rank even higher.
-Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
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