On paper this DAC looks too good to be true, nobody else makes a discrete ladder DAC with this sort of build quality for this price. Happily not only is it true but the DAC delivers sound quality above expectations as well. But before we look at performance it’s worth asking who Holo are, which is a small Chinese company headed by designer Jeff Zhu who partnered with KitsuneHiFi in the US and Magna Hifi in Europe who sell the products direct to end users, which is where some of the competitive pricing is achieved. Also number of Holo DACs share the casework seen on this model, the more ambitious examples being partnered with a second chassis presumably containing the power supply, this approach also helps to keep costs down.
The Spring 3 range of DACs are available in three levels with the Kitsune or KTE version representing the top of the tree, the Spring 3, Level 2 assessed here is the latest addition to the range. It is available in standard line out form or with a fully discrete preamp module as an optional extra, this is not merely a volume control but a relay based gain stage that can add up to 6dB to the signal it sends output from single ended RCAs or genuinely balanced XLRs. Inside the black and copper anodised case lurks the discrete R2R or ladder DAC, a converter that is built out of separate components rather than a chip, an approach that gives the designer far more flexibility to tune it to his or her preference.
Holo has managed to implement DSD conversion into the DAC with separate converters for PCM and DSD, another a rarity among DACs at this price where most convert DSD to PCM prior to making the change to analogue. It means that the Spring 3 is a native DSD converter. The other appealing thing about it is that it’s a non oversampling (NOS) DAC, a feature that is rare among chip based DACs but optional, it’s an approach that many feel has an inherent musical advantage over those that use extensive oversampling. It means that there are no menu options to find with the relevant buttons on case and remote but that’s no hardship.
The input array consists of AES, coax on both RCA and BNC, optical and USB with the addition of an HDMI socket for I2S connections. The problem with I2S, a theoretically appealing interface because it removes certain conversion processes, is that there is little standardisation between manufacturers so it’s difficult to partner sources and DACs from different brands. Holo get around this with configurable pin settings which looks like a smart move. As mentioned there are three versions of Spring DAC with prices to match, the Level 2 has upgraded capacitors in the power supply in place of the basic ones in the Level 1, and it’s supplied with a very nice CNC machined remote control in matching black and copper anodised finish. Magna sent the version of the Spring 2 with onboard preamplifier so the remote got plenty of use, its clicking relays and visual display making it clear that volume changes are happening in the unlikely event that the level does not appear to be changing.
I had been using an Aqua La Scala Mk II DAC prior to the Holo Spring which was a tough act to follow given that it’s more than double the price and has a tube output, but the newcomer’s crisp, clear presentation soon made it clear that this was a converter to be reckoned with. Initially I hooked it up with single ended Townshend Fractal interconnects and that produced a fast, clean sound but one that was a little bright for my tastes, it wasn’t until I switched to the balanced outputs and used a rather more mundane Van Damme cable that things started to gel. This cable has a smoother and ultimately less revealing character but it worked really well with the Holo Spring and Moor Amps Angel 6 power amplifier and revealed just how articulate this DAC is. The source was a Melco N10 via USB which is pretty damn good but you still need a decent converter to hear as much. And this is a decent converter, one that delivers superb vocals thanks to its open and precisely timed presentation.
It got better over time too, producing a more solid stereo image and adding greater warmth to the already impressive nimbleness. Carla Bley’s Life Goes On came through in powerfully realistic fashion with bass that suggested the speakers might be a little too close to the wall for this DAC. Bass is a strongpoint, there is no shortage of power but not at the expense of definition, a quality that’s just as important with bass light material as it is with heavier tunes. I put on a DSD of some Haydn Quartets that delivered a very strong sense of the recording space, something that doesn’t come through without clarity at low frequencies. Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner’s version of Edith and the Kingpin not only brings out another facet of that singer’s remarkable abilities but also reveals more about the quality of bass from this DAC. This time bass guitar and piano ooze sumptuously through the system with all of their harmonics intact, it’s a very polished production (River: The Joni Letters).
It doesn’t depend on great recordings but certainly lets you know when one is playing. That said Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do (Astral Weeks) is hardly slick and there’s an awful lot going on which the Spring 3 manages to deliver in a coherent manner without too much emphasis on the splashy percussion. It puts musical fluency before detail which is a key appeal of NOS converters and makes even scruffy recordings sound engaging, it does what all good audio hardware should and puts the music first. This is just as obvious with Haydn as it is with Halsall, Matthew Halsall the trumpet player who’s Harmony of Nature sounds as sweet as a nut, the instruments really popping into the room.
Generally speaking the volume controls found on DACs do not sound as good as a decent preamplifier, the one available as an option on the Spring 3 is the exception to that rule. It’s the first time I have found better sound with the Townshend Allegri Reference out of circuit rather than in it. This could be because the signal changed from balanced to single ended as it passed through this passive preamp (or that the power amp prefers a balanced input) but whatever the reason I got distinctly better timing by taking the balanced cable straight to the power amplifier. The Holo preamp option isn’t inexpensive but it is excellent value so long as you don’t have to cater for an analogue source.
The Holo Spring 3, Level 2 DAC offers excellent value. Its combination of high build quality, ladder DAC and NOS operation make it both highly engaging and very revealing, the sound quality being well ahead of the field at its price point. If you have a power amplifier with balanced inputs it becomes even more of a temptation, in that situation it’s very hard to think of a better DAC/pre at this price. Magna has resellers in Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Italy and Greece and more countries are coming so it should be possible to audition this fine converter before you buy. However, whether it will remain so competitively priced remains to be seen.