My Holo Audio Spring (known hereafter as the Holo) arrived today. Purchase was from Wildism Audio HK, with Jensen Caps and Pure Silver transformer upgrades, in keeping with the Level 3 "Kitsune-tuned" version, though with only 1 year warranty whereas Kitsune have chosen to extend it to 3 years.
I'm not one for writing reviews but I'll try to write one as I know first-hand info is thin on the ground on this unit...and interest is proportionally high.
Please note - this is a headphone specific review.
Bit of background -
I haven't owned CD's for over 10 years, nor DVD's or Blurays, I've always been firmly in the Computer Audio camp and I have to concede this might have made it harder to achieve true satisfaction in my HiFi systems. Not that I don't believe PC audio can't be superior - I do - just that it hasn't been for a long time. I think its changing now though.
I have ~750GB of flac files, about 350 of those are High Res. I tend to avoid vinyl rips and try where possible to get digital masters, HD-Tracks releases and so on. I also have a stack of SACD isos and some stuff from NativeDSD.com, so DSD was a big factor for me in choosing my *cough* end-game DAC. I don't claim to know DSD is superior or otherwise but I want all the options on the table.
I've recently built my desktop rig from the ground up. I purchased a fanless, NUC based mini-PC from Aleutia, a UK company. It's machined out of aluminium and brass, a gorgeous little machine (if such things turn you on anyway). It runs an M.2 SSD, so no moving parts whatsoever. I've added a linear PSU to it. It runs Roon on Win 10. I have run through a bunch of optimisations for the underlying OS based on Audiophile Optimizer. The machine itself runs headless, so no video card driver, no peripherals, WiFi disabled, Bluetooth disabled etc. Its just the Roon core/player.
It's connected to the Holo, currently by a Blue Jeans Cable USB 3 cable. Soon it will also have a M2Tech HiFace Evo which I was lucky enough to snaffle on the forums here today . Then I will have SPDIF and I guess I2S if I want to do my own head in further with more variables.
From there the DAC is connected to my Violectric V281 using Blue Jeans Balanced XLR cables. Then it's onto the LCD-3s using Balanced, or on rare occasions the HD800s unbalanced.
A word on cables - I have both moderately expensive cables from the likes of Audioquest, QED, Prism etc and reasonably priced ones from Blue Jeans which I tend to prefer.
Also, word from the manufacturer is that this unit needs 300-400hrs to burn in. Also it should not be turned off, rather placed in standby, or if turned off needs to be on for an hour or so before any serious playback is done. I have always been sceptical on burn-in (cables particularly ) but I will admit that since my old Marantz PM84 Quarter A amplifier I genuinely understand certain components need to warm up. Sure enough, as soon as I connected the Holo and hurriedly put a track on for the first time I had to take the headphones off, it was terrible. I left it running for an hour or so and it had completely cleaned up.
Anyway, I unboxed the Holo earlier. The first thing I noticed was the weight - its laughably heavy, like an amplifier. It's also way bigger than I thought, I bought this for my head-fi/desktop setup and it's a bit silly on my desk.
Installation was a breeze. I downloaded the latest driver which was released on the 7th October. Installed and connected and it was detected without any issue. I now have a new ASIO driver specific to the Holo, whereas I was using ASIO4ALL previously with the Audiolab M-DAC. There is a small Holo configuration utility that resides in the Systray and allows access to some settings for USB buffers and default formats etc.
I tweaked my settings in Roon to ensure Native DSD playback, all extremely smooth sailing. I also configured Foobar because I don't know if I will pay for Roon much longer. In all cases DSD was picked up, as was the appropriate PCM sample rate. No clicking or popping of any kind between tracks.
Onto the sound. It is obviously very early to tell (edit: it was early when I started this but its now 4.5hours later!!!) but I can tell you this - the Audiolab M-DAC is over on the chair behind me and the next place its going is into the classifieds. I was only using the DAC stage not the headphone amp (I did try it but it didn't come close to the V281). I immediately noticed massive changes in the overall presentation of the music with the Holo.
For me the biggest difference between the Holo and the M-51, the M-DAC as well as the MusicStreamer II I was using prior, is that it has changed the soundstage and added a kind of balance that was missing before. I have found Head-Fi a new experience - it's hard to get past the fact the headphones really are on the left and right side of the head, the separation is hard to get past. I haven't myself experiencing moments where I am transported to the performance. I have had moments where my skin has crawled and shiver down the spine at the sheer intimacy of them but never felt like I was 'there'.
However, this is the biggest change - I suddenly feel like the sound has somehow shifted forward of me and in doing so a balance achieved.
I have read about DAC/Headphone amps that have a Cross-Phase function to try to minimise the separation between left and right and while I have never tried one, that is exactly what has happened with this DAC. The sound is so much more credible and as a result the headphones disappear. Even these heavy, bulky LCD-3s!
I've listened to the easy stuff - the big tracks from Clapton, Norah Jones, Dire Straits...this stuff always sounds good but I do think that it is good music to reveal subtle nuances. Its not like a stress test for a system but a way for me to discern what are often extremely minor differences between equipment. Also listened to Ray La Montagne; Pantera; Sabbath, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Coldplay, Slayer. Nothing has been anything less than an absolute treat.
Background is black as black but it already was with my existing setup. The V281 made the most difference in achieving this.
Instrument separation is as good as I have heard. Well, it's better.
For example, the distinction between the main vocalists from backup singers is amazing, I have to concede that's been something I've been more aware of since getting into head-fi in general but it is more acute now.
I haven't taken the headphones off since I got this setup at ~6pm and I'm spewing I have to go to bed.
Anyway, sorry for the long-winded rant but I've seen a lot of people asking for info so hopefully at least some of this is useful for you. I'll post an update once its fully 'burned in'