Digital to Analogue Conversion is like solving a connect-the-dots puzzle. Your hand’s horizontal movement drawing a line between the dots is analogous to the DAC’s clock precision. Clock noise (dubbed jitter) is comparable to a left-right shake of your hand as you draw. Vertical movement is comparable to the DAC chip’s quantization levels and output precision. A poor DAC chip will add something comparable to up-down shake of your hand. A good picture (actually, sound quality) will only emerge when both kinds of shake are minimized.
The Henry Audio USB DAC 128 mkII tries to minimize both errors by using a good DAC chip and good clocking solution. Both the DAC chip and reference clock chips have abundant power reserves placed right next to them. All of this is situated on a printed circuit board which has been designed and analysed in minute detail.
The Henry Audio USB DAC 128 mkII uses asynchronous USB Audio. This is a technology with a direct influence on audio quality. That is because the clock signal used to convert the audio is not coupled to the often noisy clock signals inside a computer and on the USB cable itself, but rather generated by precision clock chips right next to the DAC chip. These clocks are made by UK company Golledge.
“Harsh” and “digital” sound signatures often stem from improper clocking and timing noise. Jitter is comparable to wow and flutter in its nature, but operates at much, much higher frequencies.
The USB DAC 128 MkII builds on the very well received USB DAC 128 (aka. QNKTC AB-1.2). The new model uses the same DAC and clock chips but with much improved decoupling capacitors and power filters. This has an audible effect such as more bass punch (due to larger energy reserves), better resolution (due to cleaner power) and a more natural sounding character (due to energy reserves being available quicker on the circuit board).
The Henry Audio 128 MkII comes with a single Micro USB input (Asyncronous) with a plug and play implementation with Mac OSX and Linux although, as usual, Windows will require a separate driver, available on the Henry Audio website. Output is via pair of analogue RCA sockets.
Although simple in its configuration and limited inputs, Borge Strand-Bergesen told me during his recent visit to the UK when he dropped off a DAC to me that he is looking at addressing this in a future model, a very beneficial option increasing the DAC’s flexibility hugely, although this will require a separate power cable as the current and former models are both powered directly from the USB. All of this aside and concentrating on the current model the Mac locates the DAC instantly and is ready to play in mere seconds.
When comparing the former MkI version of the DAC formally known as the QNKTC DAC and then revised later to the Henry Audio brand, one can aurally understand where the improvements in sound quality are and appreciate its MkII guise.
The rendering of leading edges in upper frequencies is more refined and a little more opulent, culminating in a less ‘digital’ type sound than its predecessor. The DAC borders towards a more natural flavour and its presentation oozes value for money.
During the beginning of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’ the sparkling that begins the track had good air and separation allowing for each separate ring to float across the soundstage, leading into the bassline which is slightly richer, tauter and larger than the older MkI version. More bumpety bump rather than bump bump, a bouncier rendition of the bottom end.
I found myself particularly more impressed with the bass of this new version over the old as my listening tests progressed, noting a strong representation of many genres of music. A double bass had more fullness and was rounder in presentation whilst listening to Damien Rice and Dance music was fast and tight expressing the slap of a kick drum more competently. Extension and decay of lower registers was very good and really delved into the lower octaves with power and finesse.
Whilst exploring some of my favourite vocalists, male and female my impressions were instantly convinced that the artist had a slightly more solitude position in the soundstage, an air of space and a finer degree of depth presenting their vocal. Never secluded from the performance and band yet singled out enough to demand their own presence within the performance, allowing for the artist to shine a little more.
Male artists had a throatines and rich tone and female vocalists projected incredibly well considering the price point of the 128 Mk II DAC from Henry Audio. I’ve heard a fair few dAC’s costing a little more in comparison and a fair few of them can leave the upper end of a female vocalist too exposed and a little splashy, yet with the new found refinement in the MkII, although still a touch forward there is a suitable amount of refinement which holds the whole performance together and exudes a more natural and explorative midrange.
Although the new Henry Audio DAC looks physically the same the improvements are apparent, not incredibly so but cleverly subtle in some areas. Top end information is more refined and open, the midband portrays better texture and depth and the bass commands a great deal more respect from the listener, expressing a weightier, bolder and muscular sound.
A coax or optical connection would be great and Borge and I did talk about its continued application of portability and the possibility of a new version still being powered through the USB socket. So on the road another device could be accommodated whilst a laptop or portable USB based battery could provide power duties.
At this price level it’s so difficult to fault this strong achiever, the former model was excitingly good value for money and the 128 MkII takes this up a level with its more sophisticated take on the sound without losing the excitement of the earlier model.
Build Quality – 7.5
Sound Quality – 8.2
Value For Money – 8.7
Overall – 8.13
Price at time of review – £210
Recommended for – portability, good sound quality with finesse, strong bottom end and ability to explore many genres very well.