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John Kenny Ciunas USB DAC Review Print E-mail
Monday, 14 October 2013
Article Index
John Kenny Ciunas USB DAC Review
Set Up and Listening

John Kenny Interview

1) Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you got into the business of designing and selling USB DACs?

John Kenny: My professional background doesn't involve audio - Degree in Biochemistry & Maths, working life spent in IT owning & running an IT company. My audio hobby for 20+ years branched into DIY 10 years ago. The launch of the Musiland & Hiface USB audio devices defined a new value benchmark & spurred me into investigating computer audio. I guess from then on I have been married to researching what improvements are possible in computer/digital audio & incorporating what I can into my devices. After making substantial improvements to the Musiland device, I tried the Hiface which, out of the box, sounded nearly as good as my modified Musiland. I modified the Hiface & documented it on a DIY site. Others followed suit & reported very good results. Many requests to do these modifications for others led me to providing it as a service. At the time I also introduced the DIY community to the first DAC in the ESS family of Sabre DAC chips which sounded very good & around which I had built my first USB DAC. Always in search of better sound, I have since moved to using a different USB receiver board & a TI/BB DAC chip which sounds even better than the Sabre DAC. The sound I'm attuned to is an organic, full-bodied sound with all the detail intact which conveys a great sound stage & excellent instrument timbre. In other words sounding as much like real instruments, voices, as possible.

2) What are some of the most critical aspects of setting up a computer audio system to get it to perform as a state of the art front end?

John Kenny: Source is a more apt term as it is the most critical element to get right in the audio chain. Any damage to the signal occurring at this point cannot be undone further downstream. Inaccurate source signal can result in a skewing of the rest of the system in order to compensate for the shortcomings. For instance, if the source has a tendency towards stridency or brightness downstream elements are often chosen to try to reduce or compensate for this. I wonder if that term "synergy", often heard with regard to matching devices/components, is not actually this compensation in action. I aim to try to work from as accurate & neutral a source as possible & select the rest of the system accordingly.

I still find very good turntable sources as quite a high reference point against which to judge digital sources. Recently I have been finding my CA sources to outstrip the high-end Turn Table sources, I have heard. This is not just in the bass area but across both frequency & timing. Now the sound stage, instrument timbre & realism of digital is surpassing what great analog can produce. This is only achieved through the application of & attention to power sources in the computer, OS, playback software & USB DAC. The separate experiments of a half dozen local people interested in CA have led us to the use of batteries as the best choice for power sources to individual elements of the PC.

One of the reasons why my audio devices use battery power is for these same reasons of avoiding issues that using mains connected power can cause. Ground loops and common mode noise being two of the biggest problem areas. Elimination of these influences results in cleaner reference signals, which greatly enhance the reduction in background noise & noise modulation. The ability to hear more subtle sounds & the stability of the resultant audio image has the psycho-acoustic effect of portraying additional realism, sound stage depth & realistic timbre.       

3) Lastly, Looking down the road ten or twenty years, where do you see computer audio/digital music systems going?

John Kenny: 10 years in computer audio is a lifetime considering the speed it has been advancing over the last 5 years. In the near future, I expect that there will be a move away from general purpose computers as audio sources & a shift towards a focus on specific, purpose built, cut-down devices with minimal multi-tasking & better appreciation of the source of & types of noise within digital audio handling devices.  

I really don't know what will be the state of digital audio ten years or twenty years from now. I hope current advances in computer/digital audio will inform our existing psycho-acoustic knowledge & advance it somewhat. I would like also to see a set of measurements that better correlates to what we hear.


John Kenny Ciunas DAC: approx $750
(depending on exchange rate)
Available in black or silver.

Review System 1

CD Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
Server: Squeezebox Touch w/ CIA VDC-SB power supply
via Ethernet to MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate
external drives.
DAC: Bryston BDA-1
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box II
Headphones: Grado SR60
Preamp: Audio Research SP16
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, Bob Carver Black Magic, Rogue ST 100
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables:  Complete Furutech Flux cable system, Stager Silver Solids, Darwin Ascension (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC), Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC) Element Cable Red Storm (Digital AC), DH Labs TosLink, DH Labs AES/EBU, Audioquest, Forest, WireWorld Ultraviolet, DH Labs USB(USB) DH Labs (USB)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner,Salamander rack

Review System 2

CD Player: Onkyo C7000R
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch via Ethernet to
MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate external drives.
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, Burson Conductor
Integrated Amplifier: McIntosh  MA6600,
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, KEF LS50
Cables: Darwin Cables Silver IC, Kimber Hero HB,  DH Labs White Lightning (IC),QED Transparent MusicWave (Speaker),PS Audio (AC), Mojo Audio (AC), DH Labs TosLink, Audioquest Forest USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB
Accessories:Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Sound Anchors Stands, Wiremold, KECES XPS

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