Dominic Marsh takes a listen to Roksan’s £1250 K3 Digital to Analogue Converter.
The more I do this reviewing job, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as the “perfect” hifi component. It cannot be, because everyone has different hearing acuity and personal preferences for the sound that pleases them, so if any hifi manufacturer lays claim to producing that “perfect” component, we should be wary of accepting that notion. So where do we go from that starting point then? We end up with the current sets of “different flavours” of sound, wrapped in a set of compromises which will please some or many but not others, which I see remaining for the foreseeable future and I have no personal issues with that. That is why I believe reviewers are a necessity, to give you the consumer an indicator of what particular “flavour” of sound any component is imbued with when set before us to evaluate, then you the consumer has a foretaste of what to expect sonically from any given component.
When you have listened to as many DACs as I have over the years then you may have come to the realisation that there isn’t in truth a massive amount of sound differences between them all until you reach stratospheric price tags and some of those have been hard to listen to, because relentless details and dynamics to me are so wearisome and often fatiguing. The cheap ones in particular powered by puny wall wart power supplies are very disappointing with their anaemic bass and shrill treble. Between those two extremes the sound differences to me are in the low percentages rather than any quantum leaps. What I do tend to get excited over then is any DAC that possesses that magical “X Factor” ingredient that sets it apart from the herd.
“What is Dominic softening us up for?” I hear you ask. The key word to this review will be “compromises” which can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on what your point of view is.
Enter then the Roksan K3 Digital to Analogue Convertor as the subject of this review and it is good example of how a set of compromises ends up as a positive entity bigger than the sum of its components. Intrigued? Read on.
No surprise here that the K3 DACs case visually matches it’s other K3 series stable mates in a choice of Anthracite, Charcoal and Opium colour finishes. You might think otherwise of course, but I don’t personally think that these colours clash too much in the rack if the rest of your system is finished in the traditional black or alloy because tonally the Roksan K3 colours range from light to dark, so adding any K3 component to a non-Roksan system shouldn’t cause much concern on the aesthetics front either.
There isn’t much to keep the knob twiddlers amused with this component, with just two bright silver coloured push buttons on the front panel to increment up or down the source selection. To the left hand side of the front panel there is a USB socket and that’s just about it. Around the back however, we find no less than two pairs of single ended RCA outputs, a pair of balanced XLR output connections, then an XLR AES/EBU connector, an RCA socketed SPDIF digital input, a TOSLINK digital input and yet another USB input for good measure. But, where be the on/off power switch? Not on the front panel, not on the rear panel either (one of my pet hates) but concealed from view underneath the chassis behind the front panel on the left hand side. It is mounted east/west too so when the K3 is sat on a flat surface a finger easily slips under the edge of the front panel to locate the switch, but if you stack your components and the item beneath has a front panel that that extends higher than it’s lid even by a few millimetres the switch becomes less accessible. I would much prefer a north/south orientation of the switch parallel with the chassis side. Gripe aside, it makes it much harder for curious little fingers to go venturing into how much noise your hifi components can go while adults are absent.
The K3 DAC also has a wireless transmission system to connect to your home computer in addition to Bluetooth connection. Supplied with the DAC is a USB dongle and some software that has to be downloaded from the Roksan website. I download the software, plugged the dongle into a USB socket on my PC and pairing is achieved by pressing and holding one of the input selector buttons and pressing a button located on the dongle. I spent a comfortable 20 minutes scooting back and forth from rack to computer and “pairing” wasn’t what was happening between the two devices. I tried pressing dongle first, DAC first, it was having none of it, so thinking there was too much delay between button presses I asked my wife to press the dongle button while I held the input selector button and between much hand waving and some bellowed commands pairing was finally achieved. Despite that, it was a joy to finally have a good solid wireless connection betwixt DAC and PC without too much fussing, given that some other wireless systems I have experienced require passwords, IP addresses and other complex technical procedures entered into to get them functional.
There was no area of the Roksan K3 DACs sonic characteristics that offended or annoyed, indeed I could listen for hour after hour and not become fatigued or left wanting which I do become vigilant towards when I initially find something just a bit too smooth and relaxing. The entire sound palette was defined and refined, be that bass, treble or midrange, it just produced effortless music with no grating or grinding and some of my listening sessions went way past my normal bed time let me add, because the music was so pleasurable to listen to. I fed it some complex tortuous music to try and wrong foot it, but it just shrugged it all off and was left unfazed. Treble was always precise and crisp, not competing with the best DACs out there in terms of resolution and details of course and for its asking price I wouldn’t expect it to anyway, but it was in perfect equilibrium with bass and midrange, likewise with bass that was fulsome and rich, yet fleet footed, lithe and engaging at the same time. Sat between those two ends of the spectrum the midrange was very clean and free of congestion, female voice in particular being rendered naturally. The noise floor was commendably low too, never intruding even when very quiet passages of music were being played and especially so in allowing full width, depth and height to the soundstage to be portrayed. Imaging and instrument placement were rock solid and real, again attributable to a highly controlled noise floor. But yet, none of those attributes reached the extremes, each being just that little small soupcon off top notch performance.
Of course I played my reference recording of Fink’s “Wheels Beneath My Feet” live album during my extensive listening sessions to see if it could meet my benchmark sound quality expectations. The drummer’s cymbal strikes in the intro to “Biscuits” was satisfying and without complaint rather than exceptional, which in reality is commendable. Bass kick drum was propulsive and solid, the timing being spot on. The acid test for me is listening out for the drummer’s rim shots on the snare drum. Very difficult to put into words that you dear readers can relate to easily, so the closest I can get is to say that they have to sound “real” as if you are sat next to the actual instrument being played. The strikes must not sound at all thin, you can note the different energy put into each strike and you should be able to hear the shell of the drum for sure and if you cannot, then something is amiss. Given these are live recordings the venue’s ambience should also capture these snare drum rim shots. Most hifi components struggle with recreating the sounds an audience makes during a performance and it usually gets conveyed sounding like frying pan cooking bacon, with sizzling and sloshing sounds that really annoys me. The Roksan K3 DAC allowed me to hear the clapping, whistling and cat-calling very clearly as if I was sat in amongst the audience. The resolution wasn’t fine enough to hear the annoying idiot behind me crunching on his popcorn though (This is a jokette as it’s not in the recording, but you get the picture I’m sure), but I have heard other more expensive DACs claw more details from the audience in this particular album.
Still with me? Hope so, because the Roksan K3 DAC passed all the standard benchmark tests for me.
There seems to have been a sort of revolution going on at Roksan, because evidently much more attention is being paid to how a product actually SOUNDS before it leaves the factory and the new products I’ve reviewed lately for Hifi Pig have shown that there is someone with a very critical ear paying close attention to the final sound being produced and that is no bad thing.
I began this review by saying nothing is perfect in the world of hifi and the K3 DAC is far removed from that, so let me make that clear. But, and this is the big but, it has a superb balance of ‘imperfections’ that complement each other and the final blended result left me speechless with its beguiling addictive sound. Within a very short period of time I had completely erased from my mind where the shortcomings were and settled back to enjoy what I was hearing, unable to pinpoint where I could level any serious criticism at and that both surprised and pleased me. The evidence for that is not wanting to switch the system off and go to bed at a sensible hour, but glancing at the clock soon brought me back to reality and if this DAC didn’t possess that “X Factor” those situations simply don’t occur. The burning question then is would I buy one for my own use? Yes I would, because at the price I don’t think another DAC could get me to be so entirely immersed and absorbed into the music as much as the Roksan K3 DAC did and I will admit I sorely missed it when it was returned to Roksan, so it would be rather churlish then not to give it my unreserved recommendation.
Build Quality: Perfect match for other K3 series components and the Roksan colour choices would clash too much with the standard silver or black in a rack. I wish though Roksan would move the ON/OFF switch to the side of the chassis instead of the front where it is currently located.
Sound Quality: Not ‘perfect’ but it has a well thought out set of compromises, providing a detailed refined sound that you can listen to for hours and yet still be fully engaged with the music.
Value For Money: Offers a balanced sound to pound ratio that few rivals can match.
Solid build quality, very good sound quality and value.
If my only real gripe is the power switch.