The Holo Audio May KTE DAC entered my listening room in July 2023. I’d kept a close eye on the classified ads for a gently used Holo May for a year or more but noted with some dismay that the used prices on these things never seem to drop by more than 5-10% or so from the cost of a brand new unit. That tells me a lot about the quality and performance of the May KTE DAC, as most gear typically drops at least 25% of its value when it hits the used market for the first time. The Holo Audio May KTE retails for around $5,600 and I paid almost $5,000 for my used sample, graded as a conservative 8/10 by the previous owner.
Holo Audio May KTE Specification Highlights
The Holo Audio May DAC is the product of a three-year journey of research and development by Holo Audio in NOS (non-oversampling) technology, with design ideas and methods stemming from the original Spring DAC. The Holo Audio May KTE is an R2R DAC. R2R stands for “Resistor Ladder” or “Resistor-to-Resistor” DAC. It’s a type of digital-to-analog converter (DAC) technology that uses a ladder-like network of precise resistors to convert digital signals into analog audio. In an R2R DAC, each bit of the digital signal corresponds to a specific resistor, and the cumulative voltage across these resistors produces the analog output. This method is known for its potential to provide high-resolution and high-accuracy audio conversion, and it’s favored by some audiophiles for its perceived sound quality benefits, most notably an analog ‘warmth’ and accurate tone along with a sense of depth and body.
This is my third R2R DAC. The first was the Audio Mirror Tubadour MKIIISE, reviewed here. I liked the Audio Mirror Tubadour MKIIISE quite a bit, but it was displaced in my system by the original Denafrips Terminator DAC, which I preferred over the Tubadour.
One of the many unusual and innovative features of the May DAC’s design is the use of a second and discrete DAC chip for Oversampling operation, where you can simply push a button on the handy remote and switch away from the NOS R2R sound, to a quite different sonic presentation. I’ll cover the differences between NOS and OS later.
The May DAC comes in three model options with the KTE being the highest in spec and therefore the most expensive, at $5,600. All three models support DSD1024 native and PCM 1.536MHz output, with DSD2048 and PCM 3.072Mhz theoretically possible though untested by the manufacturer at the time of this review. In the KTE version, the OCC copper wire has been replaced with 1.5mm pure silver wire which is directly soldered to the PCBs using the highest-grade audio solder, and Silver Rhodium Faston connectors are employed at the IEC input.
The May KTE DAC features a dual mono configuration, with a dedicated DAC module for the left channel and another dedicated DAC module for the right channel. L/R channels are independently powered by their own dedicated transformer located in the separate PSU chassis.
The May DAC supports USB and I2S up to DSD1024 and PCM1.536MHz sample rate, and there are inputs for single-ended SPDIF (coaxial RCA) and balanced SPDIF via AES/EBU.
For more specs and more technical details and jargon, visit the manufacturer’s website here:
Holo Audio May KTE Hook-Up
It took a few minutes to get the DAC in position and connected to the rest of my system. This is a two-chassis design with the two boxes connected by an umbilical cord. Photos I’ve seen elsewhere show the two boxes stacked vertically, with the main unit atop the transformer chassis, so that’s the way I’ve used the DAC throughout. I isolated the two using NobSound spring footers between the two boxes and another set of the same footers with additional springs between the pair of boxes and my Adona Audio rack. [Nobsound spring footers can be loaded with varying numbers of springs to match the weight of the component being supported. Heavier component? just add more springs].
Initially, I used a Lumin U1 Mini as the streaming device but later switched to an Aurender N10. I used both versions of SPDIF from the Aurender (RCA and AES/EBU), and I also used the USB input. After a couple of weeks of use of the RCA SPDIF via an Audioquest Cinnamon cable, I switched in my Sonore UltraDigital converter, running USB from the Aurender to the Sonore, and I2S from the Sonore to the Holo Audio May KTE DAC. This worked fine for everything that wasn’t a DSD signal. On DSD, there’s obviously an incompatibility between the I2S settings on the UltraDigital and the May DAC, and while there’s a way to reconfigure the I2S I decided to just flip the switch on the remote and run the AES/EBU input for anything that’s native DSD. The cabling varied, but I settled on an Iconoclast 1×4 AES/EBU cable, which sounds great.
There’s a fairly lengthy warm-up routine for the May DAC – from a power-on cold-start it sounds a little thin and two-dimensional. Once warmed up, the sound really starts to flesh out. Hitting mute on the unit or on the remote places the unit on standby where circuits critical to sound are maintained with power. From mute to operation it takes only a few minutes for the unit to deliver 100%, assuming it hasn’t been powered off.
There are several sonic highlights that jump out from listening to this DAC that really set it aside from others I’ve heard in and around this price range.
1 – The May DAC sounds ‘real’, like pretty good analog. I know… you can hop around with arms flailing all you like. But let’s face it, since digital became prominent in the 80s via the CD format, it has always been compared to and measured against the sound of analog, vinyl in particular. And, analog sound has been the stick with which to beat upon digital whenever digital has sounded the least bit harsh or below par. While the Denafrips Terminator DAC really closed the gap between digital and analog in my system, I still gave analog the edge, by enough of a margin for it to matter. But now with the May DAC in my system, I feel less and less like expending the extra effort it takes to spin vinyl on the Nottingham Hyperspace/Manley Steelhead combo. In fact, I haven’t purchased a vinyl disc in the 2-3 months or so that I’ve had the May KTE DAC in the system.
Vinyl records are cherished for their warm, analog sound that’s often described as more “real”, more organic and soulful. The May DAC delivers that warmth and soul yet retains all of the detail and resolution that vinyl playback can sometimes mask, particularly when you feed the May DAC with a good DSD signal.
At my advanced age, I no longer need the ritual of handling vinyl, gently placing the needle, and flipping records every 20 minutes. It’s a pain in the arse that I can do without. #DigitalVsVinyl #KnockYourselfOut
2 – The May KTE DAC is very dimensional, just like good analog. On the right recordings, the Holo Audio May KTE can create space and separation almost as well as anything I’ve heard from vinyl in my system, and better than from any other DAC I’ve used. [*Since I’m making direct comparisons with vinyl here, you may want to acquaint yourself with the details of my vinyl rig. It isn’t super high-end, but it’s pretty respectable, and its recent iterations are listed at the end of this review].
When analyzing a recording with a wide, deep, tall, and layered soundstage (a feature not found in all recordings), individual instruments and vocalists are distinctly positioned within this soundscape. This spatial illusion provides a clear perception of the relative distances between performers and the extremities of the soundstage in all dimensions. In terms of sound reproduction, the May DAC excels in this regard. It consistently reproduces a soundstage with a larger physical scale than any other DAC I’ve used in my system, enhancing the precision of image rendering. If your primary focus revolves around sound-staging and imaging, the May DAC should be a top contender for your consideration.
3 – The May DAC is very resolving, more so in over-sampling (OS) mode. In non-oversampling (NOS) mode, the May DAC sounds warmer, and fleshier, and has more tone and body than in OS mode. Whether or not this additional warmth is responsible for making NOS mode slightly less detailed is beyond my hearing and my brain’s capacity to unravel. But I do hear ever so slightly more information coming through when I engage the over-sampling feature and feed the DAC the same signal. I experimented with this using first the Lumin U1 Mini, then later the Aurender N10, but also using an OPPO BDP 95 player as a transport. While the latter isn’t exactly high-end, it seemed to highlight the differences between NOS and OS more starkly.
The point here is that you can simply pick your own flavor via the convenience of the remote. With 80% of my music, my flavor preference was with NOS mode activated.
4 – The May DAC does very well at the frequency extremes, unlike the Denafrips Terminator. I always found the Terminator DAC a little rolled-off on the top end and ever so slightly bloated in the bass. Adding the Denafrips GAIA DDC helped a little with top-end extension and it pulled a little more detail from the signal, but the Holo Audio May DAC doesn’t need a $2500 add-on to perform well at the frequency extremes. You can also experiment with different sampling modes and each will slightly alter your perception of how the higher frequencies are rendered, but I tend to not want to meddle with these settings beyond a cursory glance for reviewing purposes. Once I’ve found a setup that works, I prefer to just stick with it and I try not to become distracted by the possibility that other settings might sound ever so slightly better.
So there you have it. There’s no point in making wild claims about the relative performance of the Holo May KTE as I don’t have a vast library of references to call upon, but in the context of what I’ve heard previously, and what I have available to me presently, the May DAC stands above all other DACs. And, it’s on par, almost, with my vinyl setup.
CAH September 2023
*Vinyl system: Nottingham Analogue Hyperspace/AceSpace 9″, Soundsmith Zephyr II, Musical Fidelity Speed Controller, Audioquest AQ7000fe, Manley Steelhead. Previously, and still clear in memory: Basis Audio Debut Vacuum, Graham Phantom B44.
Sources used: Aurender N10, Lumin U1 mini, OPPO BDP 95.
Other DACs used recently and still in clear memory: Denafrips Terminator with GAIA DDC, Lampizator 2A3, PS Audio DirectStream Jr, Audio Mirror Tubadour MKIII SE, Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, SimAudio Moon 380D.