JKenny Ciúnas DAC
550 Euros or ~ $700
Another World's First Review
Until now, I’ve been participating in this audio hobby as a consumer; not a reviewer. By extension, while I’ve heard many different pieces of gear, I haven’t been exposed to endless examples of hardware at far flung ranges of the price scale. I fit well into the glorious category known to the world as S4CB, or Stereo for Cheap Bastards. For the uninitiated, that's Mojo language for high-end gear that retails for $1,000 or less. Even with my relatively modest exposure, however, I feel I’ve begun to become jaded. It’s not that some products don’t get me enthused, it’s that so many things lately sound “me too”, while those special finds are fewer and more far between than when I initially tasted the audiophile cool aid about 20 years ago. Mind you, these “me too’”products don’t sound bad; they sound fine – but not as in fine wine, as in just" fine". Said differently, I would have a hard time justifying the hobby and its costs to a non-audiophile based on the sound these “fine” products produce. Publisher's note ~ Don't we all...
This brings me to the newly released JKenny Ciúnas DAC. Ciúnas (pronounced Kew-nuss): means silence in Gaelic. This DAC is designed and sold by John Kenny who’s made a name for himself with his series of products based on a modified M2Tech HiFace USB/SPDIF converter which Stereomojo first reviewed several years ago. Those products, which included two DACs and a USB/SPDIF converter, were highly regarded, though I’ve heard none of them. The Ciúnas line of products are the next evolution of John’s design. The common theme among John’s designs - besides his proprietary modifications and claims of lowest possible jitter (who isn’t claiming lowest jitter these days; I think even my new sneakers claim low jitter) – is that they’re all battery powered.
According to John, “Each element, significant to achieving the best possible signal quality, has been addressed. Battery power provides extremely low PS noise - one of the most important factors in digital audio. The high current output battery used (120 Amps instantaneous current) is the most stable power supply available for digital circuitry. Using this isolated power supply avoids issues of common mode noise & ground loop noise, often associated with non-isolated power supplies. Whereas other USB devices use 'add ons' such as isolators, special power supplies (often battery PS), ground lift techniques, etc., there is no need or advantage to such devices with the Ciúnas range - these issues are already dealt with & designed in from the ground up. The self-powered Ciúnas mitigates the influence of the PC's noisy power supply. As the 5V USB feed is not used or connected in any of the Ciúnas devices there is no influence from this supply; this means special USB cables, which separate out the 5V Vbus, wire are not needed - a wider range of options are available when choosing a USB cable which are not limited by this consideration.”
Translation? The DAC is designed to run on battery power. Battery power is usually a tremendous benefit to audio equipment. Mind you, battery powered audio gear isn’t new. Stereomojo has reviewed many of them over the years; the Dodd Preamp and a lot of what Red Wine makes comes to mind. All things being equal, I’d expect to get the cleanest power if I had a dedicated power-plant immediately behind my house that supplied power only to my stereo. I might have even cleaner power if I have a dedicated power-plant for each individual component. If I can shorten those power lines feeding the component from feet to millimeters, would that make things better? You can see where I’m going with this: in “theory” a chemical-battery is a dedicated power-plant generating fresh power on demand within your component itself. Additionally, when looking at mega-buck hardware, it appears that much of the cost involves beefing up the power supply, which at face-value wouldn’t even seem to be able to perform as well as a battery – in theory.
So, is it possible to have a component with the quality of the beefy expensive power supply for relatively little money? Maybe. But in order to answer that question, I’d need to have an expensive AC-powered DAC available for direct comparison, ideally the same DAC design as the Ciúnas powered by an AC power-supply instead of battery- I don’t have either. But, when did lacking sufficient evidence stop anyone from defending their opinion?
Let me first spend a few words describing the Ciúnas in use. Let me see...uhh.....small.
The enclosure itself is not much larger than a box of matches, which I have artfully illustrated above. The chassis is aluminum, but the front and back faces are black plastic. There’s no branding or graphics anywhere on the device. Frankly, if you told someone you paid $9 for the device at RadioShack they’d have no reason not to believe you. Now if you told someone what you really paid for it, you’d have a lot of explaining to do. Some could say it's understated while others could understandably call it ugly, but at >$700 USD (depending on exchange rate), this is not something you would stick in your system to impress your friends with how it looks. It might be something that would impress your friends with how it sounds.
And this brings me to the next point: if the externals are nothing to look at, what about the internals? Well, I’d love to see exactly what is hiding in that small box, but John assures me that should I try to open it, I will certainly damage the unit and the warranty will be immediately voided. Here's where I should mentioned that I bought this DAC prior to reviewing it. Full retail, I might add.
My unit arrived with what I perceive as a malfunction. Specifically, the unit only charges when connected to a PC USB, but not when connected to a wall-wart that meets John’s exact specifications (no wall-wart is included with the DAC and one must be purchased separately per the stated specs). As you can see in the picture below, there is a jack to receive a wallwart type charger, but none is included with the unit. I bought two different power suplies to the unit's specs, but neither works. The unit dies while plugged into either charger. While it mentions in the manual that the one adorment on the front face, a blue light, doesn't not light up when the unit is charging, I think it would be helpful if it did light up to let you know whether the unit is charging or not. The manual states: "A USB charger cable is supplied with the DAC. This allows a spare USB port to be used for powering the battery charger. The DAC will be turned on automatically when both USB signal & USB charger cable are connected. Please read the notes about charging below.
Battery charging works by providing >5V power to 2.1mm DC socket on the DAC.
Recharging of depleted battery takes overnight
Fully charged battery will run for about 8 hours powering the device standalone.
The specification for an external PS is 5V to 12V DC PS with 500mA to 750mA current output, 2.1mm plug, center pin positive
The DAC will be turned on automatically when both USB signal & USB charger cable are connected. As a result the computer should not be turned off but put into sleep mode. This will ensure that the DAC is charging (once the USB ports are not powered off during sleep mode) - check using these instructions http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_7-performance/usb-power-in-sleep-mode/c8ab8475-03a1-41f4-868f-e59b3ec7b2c8
If you wish to turn off the computer or leave the converter unused then you should unplug the USB charger cable or USB signal cable to turn off the DAC.
When using an external PS (5V to 12V) the DAC is not automatically turned on - therefore the switch controls turning the converter on/off. Also note that only computers have power on their USB ports, other devices that have USB ports usually don’t.
When I contacted John about this and he did immediately agree to evaluate and fix the DAC at no cost to me. A word on the wall-wart: according to John it has no effect on sound and serves only to continuously charge the battery, which then solely powers the DAC. He went on to say, ""These walwarts often have 2.1 mm plugs which are off measurement. It would seem to be the case that the supplied USB cable fits snugly into the DAC DC socket but the walwart plug doesn't. If that's the case then it is not making good/any electrical contact. The solution is simple enough - the DAC DC socket has a split centre pin which can be splayed apart until the plug fits snugly".
Well, a simple search brought up a thread at Headfi about this very issue. So others seem to have experienced the same issue.
Okay. It just seems to me that if you provide a terminal for an external charger, you should include a proper charger for it. Now it's completely possible that both of the chargers I purchased were defective, plus you may never need a charger if it is plugged into an active USB port which, in most cases, means you leave your computer on all the time.
Moving on, there’s a single illuminated button on the front face and on the back face is a USB input, a pair of RCA outputs, and a DC power-input. There’s not much in the way of extra features: one way to input the digital signal (USB), one way to feed it to your amp/pre (RCAs), and that’s it. No volume knob, no headphone out, no SPDIF input, etc. Most noticeably missing, though, is a digital output. Apparently, the Ciúnas DAC contains all (or nearly all) the parts of the JKenny Ciúnas USB-to-SPDIF converter (the second item in the Ciúnas line of products, the DAC being the first). It seems to me, therefore, that adding a digital out would not add all that much (if anything) to the cost of the unit and would increase the value substantially. If you need any more features than those I’ve listed above, then this unit is not for you. If those features suffice, well you’ve made it this far, don’t stop reading now!
Finally, on to the main event: how does it sound? Revelatory.
In my experience, DACs/CDPs possessed a commonality in how they sounded; there was this grey-white sheen that it seemed all sound had to pass through before reaching my ears. Regardless of how bright or warm a particular DAC was ‘tuned,’ or how much ‘better’ or ‘worse’ it sounded, this sheen was ever-present. The first time I noticed its absence was when a buddy played Nora Jones’ “Come Away with Me” on both CD and vinyl back-to-back (the vinyl lacked the sheen). This is nothing new and a sentiment I’m sure many readers will share. I don’t remember the specifics of his system (it retailed easily for >$30K, FWIW), but I went home shocked and pissed. In full disclosure, I’m not a vinyl junkie, and I didn’t revamp my whole system to be analogue, so I’m in no position to comment on whether this DAC sounds analogue. What I will say, however, is that listening to this DAC is the first time I’ve ever heard the absence of that sheen from a digital player – and it was revelatory.
There’s more to this bird than just absence of sheen, however. Instruments have a weight about them that cannot simply be described as warmth, because it’s not a matter of warmth -actually, the DAC sounds rather neutral overall. It’s a matter of very rich timber coupled to a depth of tone all in the absence of that awful sheen (plus, I’m sure, some other descriptors that I’m not articulating). The result is a weighty organic quality that’s very pleasant and frankly makes instruments sound like what you probably thought they always should have sounded like. If you can imagine listening to an ensemble playing live without amplification then you’re getting an idea of what I’m attempting to describe.
Some examples, of course.
On “Eric Clapton Unplugged,” the track “Running On Faith,” Clapton uses a guitar slide and spends a lot of time throughout the song in the upper registers of his guitar. His soloing can very easily come across as thin and grating.But with the Ciúnas, there’s real depth to the sound of those strings taking that particular aspect from something that can be fatiguing to something entirely satisfying. Also within the same song, the female background vocals can sound thin and even synthetic, like they’re being played through a keyboard synthesizer. Through the Ciúnas, they sound like women’s’ voices, full and lifelike.
At the end of “Giant Steps” from “Lionel Hampton Presents Buddy Rich,” Rich goes into a seemingly simple, but richly melodic solo. The only way for any DAC to mess this up is for it to play back something else entirely; it’s just too good a performance. However, that’s not to say it can’t sound better on some equipment, and it does on the Ciúnas. The Ciúnas delivers so much layered information in each percussion strike, that you can almost Matrix-style pause time and analyze each one as it washes over you. Each strike is almost a performance in its own right and played together is, in the words of Al Pacino from “Scent of A Woman,” “HOOOAAAAH!” – a lot of fun!
I’d like to make clear that the Ciúnas DAC is perfect!! I jest – of course it isn’t. No component is, not because none has been designed/invented yet, but simply because no component can be all things to all people – it’s that simple. So we curate the components that most closely deliver the qualities that we’re after. In the case of the Ciúnas DAC, it’s sufficient, but not stellar in the areas of detail and dynamics. When listening to Billy Joel play She’s Always A Woman from “The Essential Billy Joel,” his piano strikes don’t sound as explosive as I’ve heard. In Diana Krall’s “All For You” album, on more detailed systems you can hear her sometimes open and close her mouth, not really meaningful information, but information that is on the tracks. With the Ciúnas some of that is lost. I don’t feel wanting for more detail, mind you, but there is some information that just isn’t coming through.
In addition, the Ciunas does not play back raw DSD or double DSD high resolution files. That's not a huge loss right now because there are not very many direct DSD files for sale on the planet, but there are some. Heck, it's hard enough to find find good music in 24/96 format, even less for 24/192, but for the moment direct DSD is the state of the art. DACs that will play them start around $2,500.
In summary, the Ciúnas frustrates and satisfies at the same time. Mainly it looks like a DIY toy, and not one of the nice ones. John has obviusly put most of the money where the sound is and not in jewelry. Nothing wrong with that as long as you're aware of it. The firmware is not user-upgradeable should it need to be updated, nor are there local dealers who can update software for you. On the other hand, its sound – if you value the qualities that I do – is glorious.
The latest from JKenny is very small. Most of the unit is probably dedicated to a rechargeable battery. We can't say because opening the little box may cause damage. Be aware that in addition, you must purchase a 5v to 12V (500mA to 750mA current output) power supply for charing the internal battery .charge that is not provided. There is no remote control.It does come with a USB cable capable of charging the unit as it plays.
Portable? Maybe. For me, the Ciúnas is remarkable mainly because it eliminates that annoying, electronic grey-white sheen that’s been bothering me with so many other DACs. Additionally, it reproduces instrumental tone/timbre in a way that is just richer, deeper, and more satisfying than I’ve heard before. If these are not qualities that you perceive as lacking in your current equipment, then the Ciúnas may not be bringing anything new to the table.
Additionally, if you’re chasing bass, dynamics, and/or detail, they’re not lacking by any means, but those aspects are not the Ciúnas DAC’s strongest suit and you may do better looking elsewhere. The Ciunas does produce a very low noise floor because of its "off the grid" battery operation. Lower noise usually means better detail and greater dynamics.
Finally, if you are considering the Ciúnas, you’ll have to overlook its lack of features and its DIY look and feel. If you can do that and you prioritize organic ease over some other qualities, then the Ciúnas may very well be your long term DAC; I intend for it to be mine.